John Zant will be inducted into the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table’s Hall of Fame on Sept. 18 for his special achievement as a journalist
The sports section is sometimes called “The Toy Department” of a newspaper.
That moniker of mockery even got some play in Santa Barbara back when it actually had a daily newspaper.
I heard the phrase as a boy while goofing with my older brother in Dad’s sports department at the Santa Barbara News-Press. Somebody on the news desk said it while gesturing toward our horseplay.
We had caught his attention by flicking rolled-up, sticky balls of rubber cement at the makeshift target we’d tacked onto a nearby bulletin board.
Greg and I would’ve been toying with big trouble if sports editor Phil Patton had not been downstairs in the composing room. We were biding our time while Pops made the final trims to his Sunday pages.
Our Glorious Glue-Pot Game of 1966 would also have been long forgotten if “The Toy Department” dig had not impacted my temporal lobe.
I considered it to be a Fourth Estate insult of the first order. The sports section takes a back page to nobody in the mind of a 12-year-old boy who spent every dime of his allowance on baseball cards.
Nearly 12,000 people had jammed into UC Santa Barbara’s brand-new stadium that very afternoon to watch a Gaucho football game.
The civic rivalries waged during City Council meetings were lucky to draw a crowd of 12.
It was all put into perspective a few thousand issues later when American author William Lyons Phelps was quoted in the final column of Dad’s cancer-shortened career:
“When I read a newspaper,” Phelps had said, “I turn first to the sports section where are recorded the accomplishments of man. The front page records only his failures.”
Former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren was credited with those very same words of wisdom a few years later. I’m guessing that’s why a very impressed Santa Barbara named the local showgrounds after the guy.
Ripping the Cover Off
But there is no more joy in the muddled Toy Departments of America journalism.
Media trends and shortsighted management have made the sports section the first and worst casualty in the decimation of newspapers.
We had nine writers and editors covering sports in Santa Barbara 20 years ago when I sat in Dad’s chair as News-Press sports editor.
When I quit that starving newspaper in 2021, witnessing firsthand the abject neglect of its owner, not one toymaker remained.
And so now I write for Noozhawk. The local online news outlet invested heavily in The Toy Department when it put former News-Press sports editor Barry Punzal in charge of its sports coverage in 2016. Diego Sandoval is now about to take over those reins.
Eight other former News-Press pros — Dan Shiells, the late Dave Loveton, Chic Perkins, Mike Traphagen, Dennis Moran, Dennis Bateman, Blake Dorfman and Jorge Mercado — have all covered sports for Noozhawk.
Two very recent events serve as reminders of the wreckage left in the wake of the News-Press’ mess.
The first was Thursday’s bankruptcy hearing for Ampersand Publishing, the newspaper’s parent company. A custody hearing to provide a more nurturing parent might have saved the News-Press a long time ago.
The second will be the Sept. 18 induction of John Zant, a former News-Press sports writer and editor, into the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table Hall of Fame.
He received plenty of awards and even a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his 10-part Coastal Walk series of 1988, when he walked the Santa Barbara County coastline from San Luis Obispo County to the Rincon.
Zant also got his walking papers from the newspaper in 2007 — a retaliatory move for having taken part in a protest of its alleged unfair labor practices.
The News-Press’ loss soon became the Santa Barbara Independent’s gain. His column continued at the local alternative weekly for the next 13 years.
A very different News-Press made a commitment to local sports journalism when it hired a young John Zant to a newly created position in 1968. Dad had asked management for an additional reporter to cover the recently opened Dos Pueblos High School.
The News-Press would send reporters or assign correspondents to every high school football game during those glory days of journalism. We kept the statistical records and results on every county team going back to the leather-helmet days, and Zant warehoused them all in his file cabinets.
But Zant was ordered to clear out his desk of all personal belongings and leave everything else behind when he was fired.
All those files, plus a portion of the department’s sports photographs, were brusquely thrown away by the company’s custodians.
Those of us who remained in The Toy Department were never asked about the wisdom of trashing all that Santa Barbara sports history.
Food for Thought
I was 16 when I met Zant in December 1970 — seven years before we became News-Press colleagues. Dad had invited him into our home for a holiday meal.
The first thing I asked him was a real softball question about Dos Pueblos basketball:
“What are the Chargers’ chances of going all the way?”
I expected a quick reply of something like, “Good.” Maybe he’d even expound on that by saying, “Really good.”
But instead he silently stroked his chin for the next 30 seconds.
I was dumbstruck, convinced that he was simply dismissing me as the boss’ annoying son.
But then he began a thoroughly thought-out analysis that predicted a long playoff run for a team that would indeed win the CIF-Southern Section’s 3A championship.
I needed 30 seconds of my own to even remember what I’d asked.
Zant’s love affair with sports writing became a true-blue commitment just six months into the job when he was assigned to cover an epic Rose Bowl.
He’d been a star running back for 1963 CIF champion St. Francis High School in La Cañada Flintridge. The showdown between No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 USC gave him the chance to interview a another good one in O.J. Simpson.
Simpson lost that game, but it took another quarter-century for his most egregious failures to transfer him onto the front page.
Zant sacrificed New Year’s Eve revelry by returning to Pasadena every New Year’s Day … until a pink slip in 2007 took the bloom off his Rose Bowl.
He was especially adept at finding the angle of a story that would best interest local readers.
It was an easy find in 1973 when former Santa Barbara High star Sam Cunningham scored four touchdowns to give the Trojans their Rose Bowl revenge over the Buckeyes.
He later explored the role that Cunningham, an articulate and team-oriented superstar, played in breaking the color barrier of Alabama football.
The way Sam Bam trampled the Crimson Tide in USC’s 1970 season opener in Birmingham convinced the despots of the Deep South to finally accept black athletes.
Zant showed that our Toy Department was no Mickey Mouse operation.
The Write Stuff
He was honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors Association in 1973 for a four-part series about gender inequity in sports. The CIF had yet to even sponsor sports competition for girls.
Zant’s advocacy earned even more tangible results when he began a five-year stint as News-Press sports editor in 1989. He insisted that we give local women’s teams the same coverage as the men.
He also became one of the first full-time, traveling beat writers for a collegiate women’s basketball team.
Zant’s literary skills were in top form during his coastal walk of 1988. He hiked the county’s entire 110 miles of coastline, from the mouth of the Santa Maria River to Rincon Point in Carpinteria, while describing the sights and sounds and people he encountered.
Several hundred readers became inspired enough to join him for the final leg from Carpinteria State Beach to the Rincon.
It was the first News-Press creation to get nominated for a Pulitzer Prize since the newspaper won the whole ball of glue-pot wax in 1962 with a series of editorials exposing the John Birch Society.
Publisher T.M. Storke released his news hounds when that far-right organization began attacking Earl Warren, an advocate of both civil rights and sports sections.
But it was in local sports where he truly thrived. He was especially adept at cultivating sources. His engagingly easy-going nature made him the friend of coaches, athletes, administrators and fans alike.
As sports editor, he taught us to accentuate the positive in our coverage of high school and youth sport athletes. They’re supposed to be having fun with this, he’d say … They can learn from their mistakes without being humiliated in print.
That paternal attitude was cultivated in our after-game gatherings. We’d all get together at a late-night restaurant after putting the sports section to bed and speak with mouthfuls of food about the games we’d just covered.
The kinship that it created made the entire sports community feel like our family.
A Good Sport
Zant often used a comic pratfall to relieve the tension of our deadlines.
His favorite routine was to talk with his head turned while walking intentionally into a trash can. The crash and tumble would draw laughs as well as the occasional smirk from the news desk.
“Damned Toy Department.”
Zant and I rarely sat together at sporting contests. Even when we both got credentialed for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, we had to split off to different venues.
The birth of email did help us communicate. The Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee had established a new electronic messaging system that connected all 50,000 members of the “Olympic Family” — athletes, coaches, administrators, volunteers and media alike.
My messages went something like, “You think the U.S. Water Polo team will go all the way?”
I had to wait way longer than his usual 30 seconds of contemplation for his extensive scouting report on how the Americans matched up with Yugoslavia.
Zant also watched a fairly crippled Kirk Gibson do a slow walk-off in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series after his pinch-hit home run for the Los Angeles Dodgers. One Los Angeles Times poll ranked it as the greatest moment in L.A. sports history.
We did take a trip to New York together with our wives last spring.
I had never seen the Big Apple, and two of John’s and Kathleen’s kids make it their home. They volunteered to show me and Theresa the Big City.
In a tip to my ethnic heritage, Zant even scheduled a pit stop at McSorley’s Old Ale House, a 169-year-old dive bar established by an Irish immigrant.
We also pulled off a rare baseball double-header: We watched the Mets play the Atlanta Braves in an afternoon game at Citi Field and then took the subway from Queens to the Bronx to catch a night game at Yankee Stadium.
We spent much of the time just talking about the good old days of sports that we’d experienced in Santa Barbara.
My questions, as usual, got the normal John Zant treatment.
The answers always were worth the wait.