Saturday, November 29, 2008

Another newspaper veteran gone

Death of the 'wire room' chief
recalls era of the teletype

The passing last week of an old newspaper friend brought a rush of memories of the good old days – that distant time when news from across the planet arrived a keystroke at a time on clickety-clacking teletype machines through the low-tech graces of Western Union.

Ramon Baier was a clerk in the “wire room” of The Baltimore Sun newspapers, my first job when I arrived in 1967 for what proved to be a 40-year stay. Ray was one of the veteran guys manning that noisy communications hub who showed me the ropes, or at least the plugs and circuit boards, for two training shifts preceding my first afternoon working solo.

The Six Day War broke out a few hours before my arrival, and the chaos I encountered pointed to a couple of possible paths for my future – none of which involved the news business.

But I managed to get through the day, despite then-copy desk chief Sam Abt leaning over my shoulder hollering while I tried to communicate in pigeon-English with a German Telex operator about our not-arriving story whose relay from the Middle East was being awaited on deadline for the first edition. (Sam went on to greater glory at The New York Times as copy editor for its daring publication of “The Pentagon Papers” and later in Paris covering bicycle racing for the International Herald Tribune.)

The wire room was a long and narrow barrier that largely divided the huge fifth-floor newsroom into separate sides for the competing morning and evening newspapers. It had a window looking east from the back side of the building over Guilford Avenue and the five-story rag factory that took up the other side of the street. The windowsill served as a refrigerator part of the year – despite raids by a marauding seagull named Gertrude. (Her thievery ended after wire room clerk Eddie Nolan, a former photographer, planted a Tabasco sandwich there as bait.)

When major news was breaking, a bell on the teletype machine labeled as the “A Wire” would ding seven times as an alert. There’d be a holler out to the wire editor that news was imminent, then the clerk would rip each “take” of the story as it arrived, separate the original and two carbon copies, and plunk them into wire baskets earmarked for delivery by “copy boys” to various editors.

The job did not require a high school diploma. You just needed to be literate enough to recognize and sort the different types of stories – news, features, sports – for the right baskets, and remember when to switch circuits to get the Orioles’ baseball play-by-play from west coast games. It also helped to notice when the news clickety-clacking out of a particular machine sounded important, bell or no.

A little German would have helped, at least on that one evening, but my linguistic ineptitude never came up again.

There was another little deal to worry about in working the afternoon shift, a matter discussed only in whispers: The series of phone calls into the wire room between about 2:30 and 4, when a gruffy-deep voice would ask for such arcane matters as the place horse payout in the second at Santa Anita, the price on the winner in the sixth at Rockingham, or the betting handle at some other track. The call was coming directly from the nerve center of Baltimore’s illegal numbers game – the lottery that flourished across the city years before government got into and largely took over the gambling business – and the strange mix of figures based on horse races across the United States was used to calculate the day’s winning number.

On Fridays, a well-wrapped sub sandwich would be delivered to the newspaper building’s back door for the afternoon wire room clerk, with ham, salami, lettuce, tomato and a twenty-dollar bill.

On a $60-a-week salary, the 20 bucks was a tidy bonus. But it didn’t last long – just 10 weeks during the summer break between my junior and senior years at then-Towson State College preparing for a teaching career.

Going back to school, I lucked into a part-time weekend job as a clerk on the morning paper’s city desk. I had to tell Mr. Gruffy that a new guy had been hired for my old shift, and was asked what I knew about my replacement. All I knew was that he was black. And the voice at the other said, well, don’t worry about it. He’d get the information elsewhere.

It was going to be our last chat, the end of a beautiful relationship – his voice, my 20 bucks. So I suggested rather boldly that I had done such a wonderful job, and probably knew more than I should, and a bonus might help me forget things like the emergency phone number to use in the event of an error on the race wires.

That Friday’s sub came with a little extra lettuce.

For the next 15 months, I worked mostly overnight weekend shifts. The late wire room guy was usually a guy named Lou, and when the newsroom was otherwise deserted we’d play pinochle for a few hours within earshot of the phones and the teletypes. Then we’d finish up, Lou sorting the overnight wire stories and me calling every major police and fire outpost in Maryland to compile a memo for the dayside cops reporter.

Ray Baier, a gentleman who had a keen news sense and a matching sense of humor, mostly worked dayside. Over the years as I moved through jobs as a reporter and editor, I had later shifts. So it was a rare pleasure when we’d intersect for more than a few minutes in passing.

In 1973, the earliest days of the computer revolution, he was named chief of what became the “communications room,” and he oversaw its changing operations until retiring in 1999 after more than 45 years at the newspaper.

The obituary, written by Fred Rasmussen, noted Ray’s account of how low-tech was needed to keep high-tech humming. He stashed a $5 straw broom in a corner of his office, which he used to sweep snow off the newspaper’s rooftop satellite-dish receivers so they could still function in wintry weather.

He was part of an infrastructure unknown to the newspaper-reading public – including the likes of the copy boys, Linotype operators, printers and lithographers – that once made the business one of Baltimore’s largest employers. Many of the newspaper’s jobs have been eliminated, some outsourced; the newsroom itself keeps shrinking, and the paper seems only to grow thinner in content.

And gradually, the folks who remember the good old days are also leaving.

Ray was 72 when he died Nov. 18 of a heart attack.


MitchHellman said...

In the mid-Seventies, I ran a small book-and-card shop in downtown Baltimore. When the Maryland Lottery inaugurated daily games, our store was one of the first ones chosen to sell tickets. At a training session, I met the titular head of the operation, a failed gubernatorial candidate named George P. Mahoney. George was as whitebread as they come, and had run a racially-charged campaign on the slogan "Your Home is Your Castle."

That day, George was expounding on the subject of the illegal numbers game. He proclaimed that the new, legal, game would drive the illegal one out of business-- not knowing that there were some good reasons why this would not take place: 1) the illegal game could be played for less than the $0.50 it cost for a bet on the legal game, 2) you didn't have to wait in line to place a bet-- the runner would often come to you, and 3) in the illegal game, a regular player might be able to play on credit while waiting for his/her paycheck (or ship) to come in.

George is long gone, but the street game is still with us. I understand that at some point, the illegal game actually used the same number as the legal game, since it was spread far and wide and was therefore easy to check to see if you won.

D. said...

I remember Telex machines--the radio station (all right, carrier current college radio, but still) had one, with yellow rolls of paper we were forbidden to touch, located in an office away from the studio.

A very noisy, ungraphic, and limited Internet.