Russell Baker was a giant in the newspaper business when the newspaper business still had a full supply of giants.
When he died earlier this bleak winter, at 93, The New York Times rightfully claimed him as their own. He won one of his Pulitzer Prizes there for his humor column, which ran for 36 years. But he won another Pulitzer for his memoir, “Growing Up,” about his high school years at Baltimore City College and his early reporting years at The Baltimore Sun.
His great run was a signal that journalism could transcend its usual fact-based borders and reach for something approaching literature.
And, unlike most ink-stained wretches, he didn’t need the events of the day to tell a story.
In an interview with Johns Hopkins University, his alma mater, he was asked, “Do you ever research your columns?”
“No,” Baker said with a laugh. “What would I do with a fact? If I need a fact, I’ll make one up.”
Such a remark draws an ironic response in our era when the president of the United States sneeringly refers to “fake news.” But Baker made his living off irony, and he’d have seen Donald Trump for what he is: a bully, a con man. And no doubt he’d have described it so deftly that this president, oblivious to all subtlety, never would have noticed the cuts until he started leaking blood.
Days after Baker’s death, HBO ran a documentary on Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, the old New York tabloid columnists. It’s easy to classify these two giants. They were street-corner guys at heart who wrote about the tribulations of ordinary working people, and they went after all bullies pulling rank on the defenseless.
Baker was a humorist, but he was tough to classify beyond that. As Nora Ephron once wrote, “As soon as you start to describe what he does, you do him an injustice. He did a column that began with the dictator Franco dying and going straight to the New York Department of Motor Vehicles. There’s hell for you. He tends to humor that is … cerebral, a bit surrealistic.”
I knew Baker a little. We shared a City College upbringing and spent a couple of afternoons wandering through the old school reminiscing. He came out of West Baltimore poverty and found himself among a bunch of smarty-pants City kids, and teachers who made him reach higher than he’d previously imagined.
“Oh, John Pentz,” he said as we passed his old classroom. Pentz headed the school’s English Department in Baker’s time, and in my own. “I can still hear him: ‘Take a zero, Baker.’ Seems I’d take two a day.”
As we passed by the City swimming pool, Baker remembered a coach — “one of the many who failed to teach me how to swim. They’d tell us, ‘Just go down to the shallow end and piddle around.’”
He graduated just in time for World War II. “And for some reason,” he said, “I decided to join the Navy. First day there, they take us out to this pool, and there’s a diving board that goes way up into the sky.
“This officer says, ‘Everybody up there.’ So I said, ‘Listen, I’m just gonna go down to the shallow end and piddle around, OK?’ Apparently, it wasn’t OK.”
He was still laughing at himself years later. But he was plenty serious about his newspaper work.
“It’s a hard business to grow old in gracefully,” he said. “But one of the comforts of journalism is that you don’t have to write ‘Moby Dick’ every time out. You come back the next day and try all over again.
“I often don’t know my own viewpoint about a subject until I write it. In order to write, you’ve got to think. So I have to think at least three times a week. There are people who go months without thinking.”
Baker made us think, and he made us laugh. The New York Times could claim him as one of their guys, but he was one of ours, too.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.