December 25, 2008 Issue
Chestnut Hill Local
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Pulitzer Prize ‘like winning Super Bowl’
He’s from New York City originally and grew up a die-hard Yankees fan, but since his book Three Nights in August (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), he’s taken to the Cardinals. Yet, through his life and work, author and Chestnut Hill resident Buzz Bissinger is most linked to the city of Philadelphia. Bissinger and his wife Lisa have lived near the Morris Arboretum for the past three years, having moved from Mt. Airy. His twin boys, Jerry and Zachary, are in their 20s, and he has a teenage son named Caleb.
Now 54, Bissinger grew up on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. It was a time when newspapers abounded, and each member of his family had a preferred daily. Various newspapers were always strewn about the apartment. “I fell in love with the feel and touch of the paper.” Aside from an uncle who had been at Life magazine, journalism was not part of the family pedigree. Still, it was something he wanted to do from a very early age.
In 1972, he entered the University of Pennsylvania and eventually became sports editor for the Daily Pennsylvanian. He remembers happily spending most of his time within Penn’s campus and “didn’t know Philadelphia at all.” But Bissinger was destined to become intimately familiar with the city. After stints with the Ledger Star in Norfolk and The St. Louis Pioneer Press in St. Louis, he returned to Philadelphia in 1981 to work for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Under the leadership of editor Gene Roberts, the Inquirer was “considered one of the best writers’ newspapers in the country,” recalls Bissinger. He started out as the paper’s beat reporter for Atlantic City. He later won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism along with Daniel R. Biddle and Fredric Tulsky for “Disorder in the Court,” a six-part series on the Philadelphia Courts. Philadelphia judges are elected, and according to Bissinger, “our biggest revelation was the direct link between the amount of your campaign contribution and how you did in that judge’s courtroom.”
Bissinger and his cohorts worked for two years almost exclusively on this one story, interviewing hundreds of people and poring over thousands of court documents. This dedication to its writers, explains Bissinger, made the Inquirer “a very special place to work.”
Winning the Pulitzer “felt like winning the Super Bowl.” But it also “compelled you to do something more.” Bissinger turned to writing a book, and the result was Friday Night Lights (Da Capo Press, 1990), about the Texas town of Odessa and its love of high school football. Bissinger spent a year in Odessa, following the team, its coaches, players, parents and teachers, from the locker rooms to their homes. The book captured the essence of 1988 Odessa, where personal, educational, economic and racial problems were held captive to the potential glory of winning a state championship. A movie in 2004 and a TV series on NBC, both based on the book, have helped keep it in the spotlight. At the time of publication, Buzz expected the book to do well, “but I didn’t anticipate it would last for 20 years.”
Bissinger is perhaps most proud of his following book, A Prayer for the City (Random House, 1997). While at the Inquirer, Bissinger marveled at the conditions of Philadelphia. “One block in a neighborhood would be intact and working,” he says, “and the next block would be blown to bits.” Yet, even in those decimated blocks, he saw evidence of a once- cared for community. Bissinger wanted to answer the question, “Can one man make a difference?” In 1992, Bissinger asked if he could follow Mayor Ed Rendell around for his first term. Rendell quickly agreed, and a little red leather couch in the mayor’s office became Bissinger’s seat for the next four years.
Keeping his hair trim and his suits crisp, Bissinger groomed himself to look like a mayor’s aide. (If asked, though, he quickly indicated his identity.) As for the mayor, Rendell was “totally unfazed” by Bissinger’s presence. “He enjoyed it. He likes to talk and to have someone to talk to. I never had to ask one question.” The book also follows the storylines of ordinary citizens struggling to stay in the city, but he spent most of his time with the mayor. “He’s funny, alive, charming, has a temper — totally full of life in all directions.” He believes that Rendell really did make a difference, by his work and by generating hope — often through the force of his personality — in a city whose citizens often lacked it.
Bissinger is also known for his work in Vanity Fair magazine, including an article about Stephen Glass (a young New Republic reporter who fabricated stories), which became the movie Shattered Glass; and others about radio host Don Imus and Barbaro, the beloved horse who won the 2006 Kentucky Derby only to break his leg two weeks later in the Preakness. Buzz has dabbled in TV and is writing a screenplay about Sugar Ray Leonard. Mixing up the writing genres has helped him. “Being a writer can be lonely, isolating and scary, and bouncing around between different forms helps creativity.”
His most recent book, Three Nights In August, took him to the clubhouse of the St. Louis Cardinals for a season. While it draws on moments from throughout the season and from the careers of players and coaches, the book is structured around a close examination of a three-game series in August between the Cardinals and the Cubs. Leading up to the series, Bissinger was “very nervous.” The first game was a blow out, which added to his anxiety — examining one blowout is interesting, but three would not make very good copy. Luckily for the Chestnut Hill author, the last two games were down-to-the-last-pitch nail-biters.
During the games, he sat in the press box with a video camera aimed at Cardinals’ manager Tony La Russa’s face. After the season was over, he and La Russa watched the games pitch-by-pitch. Aided by the video of his own face, La Russa gave a detailed analysis of what he was thinking moment-by-moment.
Currently Bissinger is working on a book about being a father to his twin sons, Jerry and Zachary. They were born prematurely, and Zachary sustained brain damage while Jerry did not. Now they are 25 and leading very different lives; one has all the benefits and opportunities of a normal life while his twin will never be able to live independently. It is Bissinger’s first foray into personal narrative.This continued effort to explore new territory makes Bissinger’s work very engaging. Earlier on, he worked very hard to establish his authorial voice, but his newest book, with its very personal nature, will force him to reestablish that as well. A 20th anniversary edition of Friday Night Lights is due out in 2010. Buzz has kept in touch with a couple of the players, whom he still thinks of as kids, even though they’re nearing 40. But don’t expect Friday Night Lights 2 anytime soon. “I’m not big on sequels,” he says. “Once you’ve done something, you’ve done it.”