Sports Desk: Going down memory lane with the old Newsday gang

I was a little late in getting the news, but no less delighted, to learn that a sports journalist is among the eight inductees in the Suffolk County Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2012.

The one and only Gregg Sarra will be honored along with the other new inductees on May 3 in Patchogue. Gregg, an alumnus of Newfield High School and Dowling College, is the MSG Varsity Long Island field producer and Newsday high school sports editor. As he describes it, it’s a hybrid job, with MSG Varsity being his top priority.

Gregg has been a fixture at Newsday for 24 years and has worked for MSG Varsity for a little over two more. I came across Gregg during the early stages of his 26-year career, not to mention my own.

The legend of Gregg Sarra became known to me well before I had even seen him. John Valenti, a former Newsday sports reporter who now covers breaking news for the paper, and I had worked together at a soccer newspaper. John used to tell me about this guy Gregg Sarra and what a character he was.

It was with John’s urging that I applied for a part-time sports job at Newsday (Bob Herzog, who was Newsday’s Sunday sports editor at the time and is currently writing sports for the paper, hired me). My first day on the job was in August of 1984. I was 21 years old when I first walked into the large, colorful room occupied by the Newsday Sports Department in Melville and thinking that this must be among the greatest places to be.

I was soon referred to the back of the room where the high school sports editors and reporters worked. I met my new boss, Charles H. Clark.

Now this, I thought to myself, is a real newspaperman.

To us part-timers, he was Charlie. Charlie was Newsday’s high school sports coordinator. To the paper’s readers he was better known as Newsday’s auto racing writer (he covered Riverhead Raceway for many years).

Charlie was an old-timer and he was a gruff sort, especially before deadline. When I met him, Charlie was about 66 years old. Charlie could have come out of central casting to fill the role of newspaper editor. He looked exactly like one would imagine a newspaperman to look like, except that he didn’t wear a fedora, at least not in the office.

Although he had a friendly face when he smiled, Charlie could be edgy when things didn’t go well. He was absolutely meticulous in his organization. It was great for a young journalist to see the way Charlie operated and the system he had in place. I learned a lot.

I was among a small army of reporters whose primary responsibilities were answering phones, taking down information on high school games and writing highlights. Occasionally, usually around playoff time, I was sent out to cover a game live.

Every game scheduled for a particular day was assigned a specific story slug. The stories were printed out and marked in a color-coded system, indicating which edition the highlight was to appear in: Nassau County, Suffolk County or both.

Us ambitious part-timers were always eager to please Charlie. Actually, a better way to put it would be that we were eager not to displease Charlie. If you accidentally misslugged a story, Charlie would cry out, “Ahh!”, as if he had just been stabbed in the back, and you would feel like going outside and hanging yourself.

One time Charlie inquired about a story he couldn’t find, and a reporter told him it was a new game called, “Guess That Slug”. Charlie immediately shot back, “We’re going to play, where’s your paycheck?”

After deadline sometimes, a few of us would gather around Charlie’s desk for small talk while waiting for the paper to close. I just wanted to hear anything he had to say, hoping that some of Charlie’s journalistic wisdom might rub off on me.

Newsday was a wondrous place for me. I liked to walk into the composing room at night and watch as the next day’s stories and photos were cut, pasted and laid down onto the flats (a practice that seems primitive now with pagination). Before long, someone would kick me out.

We had a talented crew back then. In addition to Gregg, a larger than life figure with a great sense of humor, there were others who went on to do quite well for themselves. Mark Herrmann became a full-time sports reporter for Newsday. A. J. Benza later wrote celebrity news for The New York Daily News. Tim Leonard and J. P. Pelzman, who both wrote for me at Soccer Week, went on to cover pro sports for daily newspapers in New Jersey. And there were so many others, too.

Although I was a part-timer at Newsday, I often worked full-time or close to full-time hours. At the same time, I was the editor of Soccer Week. I was busy, but I was doing what I loved.

After a couple of years in Melville, the prospect of more writing opportunities prompted me to volunteer to be reassigned to New York Newsday, where I worked out of Rego Park, Queens, covering high school sports in the city.

One day in 1987 we received the sad news that Charlie had died. He was 69.

It was two years later when I left Newsday to pursue another opportunity, and I bid farewell to a happy stage of my life.

In 1993, Charlie was rightfully inducted into the Suffolk County Sports Hall of Fame. Now Gregg and Charlie will be sharing the same hall of fame. That seems appropriate.

Charlie Clark must be smiling somewhere.

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