Softball Wizard by
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(75 Stories)

Prompted By Sports

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[Being captain] required a steady stream of memos to be circulated around the firm (by uniformed messengers; these were pre-email days), and I did my best to lard them with incredibly stupid puns and many humorous riffs

(First, credit to Suzy for inspiring a title derived from a song title — though I admit that “Softball Wizard” is a pretty bastardized version of “Pinball Wizard.”)

The one thing I knew as I began my career as a lawyer in a big NY law firm was that I was going to play softball.  There was a large and very well organized league of law firms, plus the Manhattan US Attorneys and DA’s offices, and I had played in it as a summer associate after 2L.  As proof of this, the one thing that I gave myself as a law school graduation present was a new baseball glove. (It was a Jim Palmer model, for those baseball nostalgia fans out there trying to remember what the glove du jour was circa 1974.  Still have it, looking tiny but in good shape and exceedingly well oiled.)

I was a good, but not great, baseball player growing up, and early on knew that my career in the sport, if any, would be in broadcasting, not playing.  Indeed, when I was ten, I wrote to Mel Allen, the “Voice of the Yankees,” about such a career, and he sent me back the incredibly nice — and informative — letter that is attached.  It is hanging in my office.

As luck would have it, when I joined my law firm, the long-time captain had gone into alcohol rehab (coincidence, I’m sure), so there was a vacuum that nobody really wanted to fill. I jumped at it, sensing it was a good way not only to get involved with the team, but also to raise my profile a bit at the firm, something that could be tough for a first-year drone.  And, sure enough, one of the benefits of being captain was that you got to fill out the line-up card.  Astonishingly, I always ended up starting at second base and leading off.

But the real job of being captain was more in the order of being a social director. I had to stir up interest at the beginning of every summer, announce the upcoming games, cajole enough players to show up for each game and, perhaps most importantly, arrange our post-game parties and end-of-season awards banquet.  Happily, though my law firm was known for being a very aggressive, take-no-prisoners sweatshop, it never took the softball too seriously.  Or, perhaps more accurately, it valued the partying over the winning.  So the games were very laid back — we were one of the first firms to have women on them and have them play regularly and not to allow ringers  to play — and, to be sure, we partied heartily.  In fact, the prior captain’s rehab may not have been so coincidental after all.

In any event, all of this required a great deal of planning and logistics on my part.  I was given what seemed to be a nearly unlimited budget, which I rarely exceeded, and even got to design some very cool jerseys with a series of green stripes on them which mirrored the green stripes that ran through our firm’s hallways, ostensibly in homage to its Irish origins.  And this also required a steady stream of memos to be circulated around the firm (by uniformed messengers; these were pre-email days),  and I did my best to lard them with incredibly stupid puns and many humorous riffs.

I dare say that my reputation within the firm was more of the clever smart ass who wrote the softball memos than as a brilliant lawyer.  To this day — more than 35 years after I left the firm — if I meet some young lawyer at the firm, he/she is likely to ask me, “Weren’t you the guy who wrote those funny memos?”  There is apparently some sort of an archive of them still at the firm.  (I have kept copies of a few, but they are buried among a lot of my career memorabilia.) Whenever I find such a legacy mildly depressing, I remind myself of the brilliant partner who is still remembered there only as “the guy who lost the TWA hijacking case in the Supreme Court.”

Moreover, I recently met with a senior professor at Harvard Law about some possible projects we could do together.  As we shot the breeze, he confided that perhaps the most enjoyable part of his legal career had been — surprise, surprise — being captain of his old firm’s softball team in DC. So, if the way to get to Carnegie Hall is to practice, practice, perhaps the way to a rewarding legal career is to be the softball captain.

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin


Characterizations: been there, funny, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Sounds like a lot of fun, John. I’m sure it was a source of great camaraderie and team building within the firm. I particularly like the funny memos, for which you are still famous!

  2. Suzy says:

    Love this story, John. I can’t believe I never knew about your softball prowess. The image of the steady stream of memos being circulated by uniformed messengers is classic! And the jerseys that you designed! Why didn’t we get a picture of you in your jersey?

    I also adore your letter from Mel Allen, although I had to enlarge it quite a bit on my computer to be able to read it. He advised you to attend a college that teaches radio and television. Guess you blew that one!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Suzy. Believe me, I have looked for that jersey over the years, but I think it went the way of my baseball cards and model train sets. But I may have to check with some of my old pals at the firm to see if they are still using its design. I’d like to think that, like the Yankee pinstripe, it’s an unchanging classic.

      In fact, I dropped by WHRB freshman year to see about broadcasting games. But they made it clear that they already had more than enough sports geeks doing so — most of whom had been doing it while in high school. I sort of felt like a walk-on football player at Notre Dame.

      And, for everyone’s future reference, THE college to go to to become a sportscaster is Syracuse.

  3. John Zussman says:

    So many moments (and lines) to love in this story. I happily played adult softball in my years working at Oracle as well as when I was a graduate student in psychology at Stanford, where we had a legitimate ringer who, in addition to being a full professor and National Medal of Science winner, had somehow played semipro baseball and could hit the ball farther than I have seen before or since. I love the way you portray softball as a passion and necessary outlet for the stress of a legal career. Terrific story.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, John. By contrast, our basketball team was amazing. No ringers, but I couldn’t hope to crack the starting line-up. Our star was Ed Hummer, who was 6′ 8′ and had played at Princeton with his brother John. who was then in the ABA. Unfortunately, Ed worked in international finance, and was too frequently in Dubai when he should have been back in NY playing hoops for us.

  4. Kit says:

    John, I loved reading about your time as softball captain. And I’m sure your memos were hilarious. Paul’s law firm also had a softball team (is it a requirement in the legal world?). But it sounds to me like your firm took it far more seriously (team jerseys?). To my knowledge, Paul was never the captain, but he was the pitcher—I think mainly because he continued to play long enough to be the oldest one on the team.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks so much, Kit. And I am really impressed that Paul was the pitcher — usually the most coveted position on the team. In fact, it was well known at Paul Weiss, one of the other big NY firms, that Ted Sorenson was the pitcher — period — even as he got older and older. And, as urban myths went, one foolish summer associate thought he could pitch better than Ted could and that cost him a job offer.

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