The Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Adventures of a lifetime
A legendary newsman recounts his career in a riveting memoir
By Burl Burlingame
You can take the ink-stained wretch out of the newsroom, but you can never quite squeeze all the ink out of him. Former Star-Bulletin columnist Jim Becker wrote his breezy memoir “Saints, Sinners & Shortstops“ on his old manual Smith-Corona typewriter, one that has banged out thousands of inches of copy for several decades now.
Meet author Jim Becker:
July 15: Noon, Borders Ward Centre; 2 p.m. Borders Express Kaneohe
July 16: 2 p.m., Barnes & Noble Kahala
July 21: Noon, Bestsellers Downtown
July 22: Noon, Borders Pearlridge; 2 p.m., Borders Express Mililani
July 23: 2 p.m., Barnes & Noble Ala Moana
The book only took a few months to write, and he even cut some juicy bits. That’s because he had the stories down cold already — “I’d tell a story, an anecdote about something I’d seen or experienced, and people would say, ‘You have GOT write a book!'” shrugged Becker. “So, I did.”
Wasn’t as easy as all that. Pushing 80, Becker has had one eye go blind on him and the other go dim, so he has a kind of tunnel vision while typing. But he’s also written stories while being shot at by the North Koreans, while being spat upon by Chinese delegates in Moscow, while being washed up on a tiny Mediterranean island during a fierce tempest — seems positively Shakespearean, that one — while trying to stay awake during the Winter Olympics and while convincing Marilyn Monroe to bug out of her honeymoon with Joe DiMaggio to entertain the troops (this last one was the most dangerous).
Actually, although calling Jim Becker a “former Star-Bulletin columnist” is technically true, the book makes clear that his Smith-Corona only made a decade-long pit stop here. (His daily musings on the extraordinary things in average lives of regular citizens had an enormous impact on many budding journalists in the islands, including this one.)
His newspaper career started when he was a teenager in the late Depression and wound up as a legendary globe-trotting foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, an insightful interviewer for television news and an internationally respected lecturer on classical music and opera. And this is the only time you’ll see the clichÃ© “globe-trotting foreign correspondent” meant absolutely literally.
In an era of gotcha-journalism and PR wranglers, it’s a treat to read about the days when getting the story wasn’t easy, and getting it to press was even harder. “Sometimes we had to fist-fight for cabs to get our stories back to civilization,” said Becker, exaggerating only slightly, or maybe he isn’t.
“Saints, Sinners & Shortstops” is Becker’s memoir, and it’s clear that he’s a witty and engaging fellow, but he’s enough of an old-school journalist to instinctively know that he’s not the story, his subjects are. His writing style, honed through years of pumping out wire copy on deadline, is deceptively simple and clean yet has great effect. He communicates, and does so seemingly effortlessly, and that ain’t easy.
“People have told me I write the way I talk, and I have to take that as a compliment,” said Becker.
And what subjects! The Dalai Lama, Lyndon Johnson, Princess Diana, Jim Brown, Gen. Fred Weyand, Casey Stengel, Margaret Thatcher, Jack Nicklaus, Bette Midler, Sami Camou … OK, maybe you haven’t heard of Sami, but after reading “Saints, Sinners & Shortstops,” you’ll never forget him. Or the Farrington Governors football team. (“I swore I’d never read that damn Farrington story again,” former Star-Bulletin editor Chuck Frankel told Becker. “And it made me cry all over again.”)
It’s a difficult book to put down.
Politician Mazie Hirono called to say she was sleepy because she spent all night reading the book, Becker said with a laugh, delighted as all writers are when they hear that.
One surprise, in going back over his records, was discovering a 25th-anniversary interview with Mitsuo Fuchida, leader of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Fuchida mentioned that his son, an architect, was going to New York to work on the “design team for the tallest building in the world.”
“So, the son of the man who bombed Pearl Harbor helped build the Twin Towers, which were destroyed on 9/11. Small world.”
Indeed. The backer for the book is a chap in England, 12 time zones away from Becker’s Honolulu apartment, and friends and extended family have been picking up multiple copies all across the nation, and journalism professors have been recommending it. It’s distributed by Bess Press.
Now it’s keeping the average reader up at night.
“It’s a bit embarrassing to say, ‘Please buy my book,'” said Becker. “Excuse me for being immodest, but people tell me how much they like it, so I’ll get over that. … A friend in London said he’d finance it if I write it, so then I pretty much had to.
“As it evolved into sections, I picked the stories that fit into them and left out the ones that didn’t. Will there be a sequel? Gosh, no!
“When you write a book, you figure, I’ll hand it to the agent, and that’s the end. The hell it’s the end! Proof sheets, graphics decisions, a whole string of book signings and public appearance and speeches and e-mailings to nearests and dearests on the mainland — no, this is just the beginning!”
Click the link to purchase: “Saints, Sinners & Shortstops“