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This Raconteur Was Simply the Best of the Best

FIRST PERSON

January 26, 1996|GEOFF BOUCHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I said goodbye Sunday to the greatest storyteller I ever met.

For most of his 79 years, Al Stump was a master of telling the tale. He knew the rhythm of a good yarn, how to hit the beats, draw you in and deliver the payoff at the end.

The late Huntington Beach resident practiced this delicate art in more than 2,000 magazine and newspaper articles, seven books and, most comfortably, across a table with cocktails.

I knew Stump for only a year. As I watched a procession of boats ferry his ashes out to sea under churning gray skies Sunday, I felt sorry for myself. How many stories did I miss? I knew about his tussle with Bogart and the drinks with Hemingway. I heard about his dangerous dance with Ty Cobb, his Manson trial coverage, the time he ran into Bugsy Siegel at the racetrack . . . but how many others were still waiting to be told?

It's fair to say Al Stump was everything I have always wanted to be. He was a superb journalist with an eye for detail and a sense of both humor and history, the two things you can't fake. I will always admire his craft and envy his era--my world of journalism is far more antiseptic and corporate than when Stump was a newspaperman at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. The characters he captured seem larger than the mere life-size variety I encounter. With the exception of Stump himself, of course.

Stump really had no desire to meet me when we sat down for an interview 13 months ago beside a fireplace at the Shark Island Yacht Club in Newport Beach. Stump's seventh book, "Cobb," had just been turned into a film of the same title that detailed his relationship with the ballplayer. But the crusty writer had no interest in hyping the movie or putting up with another reporter. He told me I had 20 minutes. Two hours later I ran to my car for another blank tape.

Despite a career that ranged into dozens of areas, "sportswriter" is how Stump described himself ("A helluva way to make a living for a grown man," he would add with a nod of his trademark hat). I prefer his daughter's appraisal of him as a "human writer," or Cobb director Ron Shelton's allusion to Stump during his eulogy as a "supreme storyteller."

"There are only a couple things I would want to learn from Ty Cobb," Shelton wrote. "How to hit a baseball or steal a base. But if you want to learn to seek the truth your whole life, if you want to be an artist and a man, look to Al Stump."

It says a lot about Stump that his greatest success may have come to him during his last two years, a time when many people would be staring into the twilight. His vast body of work--spread through the pages of the Saturday Evening Post, True, Sport and Sports Illustrated--seemed to prepare him for his most riveting and powerful story of all.

Cobb and Stump will always be linked by the year they spent in a spiteful orbit of one another and the magnificent book that came out of it 30 years later. The best storyteller's best stories were always about the Georgia Peach.

The first man inducted into the baseball hall of fame was a snake. Tyrus Raymond Cobb was a hard-drinking, gun-loving racist and woman beater who injected ferocity into a previously pastoral sport, a game he would lord over for two decades.

In 1959, he called on Stump to tell his story. Two years later, the collaboration yielded "My Life in Baseball," a sanitized whitewash that fit Cobb's skewed view of himself. Cobb, who deleted anything negative Stump wrote, was happy--but it stuck in Stump's craw that he had been party to a lie. Three decades later, Stump told the true tale in his 1994 book, "Cobb."

"I knew there was a story there, a great, great story," Stump told me. "It just took me awhile to tell it."

It was raining Monday night when I dug out a tape of my first interview with Stump. I listened again to his accounts of how shy Alan Ladd was, how classy Jackie Robinson stood in the face of venom and hate. Seamlessly, the story shifted to the one about tramping through Vietnam with Spiro Agnew and the time John Ford threw him off the MGM lot.

"I got smart with him," the lantern-jawed Stump recalled. "I had a smart mouth and after a few drinks I would pop off. That's the definition of a sportswriter. But be humble, you'll get better stories. . . ."

*

Stump's wife, Jo Mosher, also had a career in journalism, and served as president of the Los Angeles Press Club. She is a kind and caring woman who had the strength to live with a writer. She called me a few days after Stump died, and we talked through tears about grief and loss. She asked me to drop by to pick up some things Stump wanted me to have.

That night I sat in my living room and stared at Stump's huge wood desk and ran my fingertips along the dented and worn typewriter that's far older than my 26 years. The gesture overwhelmed and, in some ways, intimidated me.

Stump's daughter, Robyn Andersen, told me later that the family was thrilled to have the tools of the trade passed on to a new generation. She used such heartfelt words as "legacy" and "link to the future."

One thing is certain. I now have a great story to tell.

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