San Francisco Giants beat writer Henry Schulman on life, baseball and journalism

 

Henry Schulman was eating dinner in the pressroom at Chase Field in Arizona last July when he got the call. It was his doctor with news of Schulman’s test results: he had Stage II non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. As he walked through the concourse toward the parking garage late that night with fellow sportswriter and friend, Alex Pavlovic, Schulman said the words: “I have cancer.” Pavlovic, who writes for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, is one of a trio of sportswriters who have become close friends through Schulman’s career while traveling on the San Francisco Giants beat together. Schulman told the other two – Chris Haft of MLB.com and Andrew Baggarly of the Bay Area News Group – the next day in the tunnel outside the clubhouse door before interviewing players. It is fitting that Schulman experiences such moments in a place and with the people who have been such defining features of his career.

Henry Schulman (Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle)

Henry Schulman (Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle)

Schulman has covered major league baseball in the San Francisco Bay Area for almost three decades, and since 1998, he has been the Giants beat writer for the San Francisco Chronicle.

In San Diego, on the same trip during which Schulman got his diagnosis, outfielder Justin Maxwell hit a foul ball into the press box. The ball hit Schulman in the chest and knocked him from his chair. (He later got Maxwell to sign it.) And then the sportswriter did what he is accustomed to doing when life strikes him with a foul ball: he got back up. He nearly stopped covering the beat for the season after his diagnosis, but decided work would be a positive distraction. He missed the final two months on the road due to risk of infection and instead worked from home.

Schulman has come a long way since his first article with the Ceres Courier, a weekly in California’s Central Valley, with the headline “Broken Sprinkler Irks Neighbor.” Now 56, Schulman wanted to be a sports journalist from a young age. “It’s in his blood,” said younger sister Janie Schulman. On the streets outside their West Hollywood apartment, Schulman loved playing sports with neighbors. He also played the trombone, an instrument he used in the Super Bowl XI halftime show when he was 16 and which now sits in his closet. The two siblings went to baseball games with their father, with the budding sportswriter explaining most of the action. “Henry taught our dad about baseball and American sports, which gave them something to bond over. Our dad was mechanical and handy, but Henry, well, I love Henry but he just wasn’t. Sports was something they could connect over,” Janie Schulman said.

Their parents were Holocaust survivors – their father had lived in concentration camps and their mother in Russian refugee camps – and they met in Israel. Both originally from Poland, Ben Schulman came to the U.S. in 1949 and Ella Schulman joined him in 1959. Ben Schulman was a manager and owner of various car washes in the LA area. Ella Schulman worked as a cashier in the car washes. They both retired around 1991. Initially, they weren’t very supportive of him beginning a career in journalism, worried that it did not offer much of a paycheck. When they asked what he would fall back on, Schulman joked he could become a musician.

He came close to quitting baseball writing once. He would later call it a cornerstone moment in his life. The first two years of Schulman’s undergraduate studies were spent at California State University, Northridge, before he transferred to the University of California, Berkeley. He applied and was accepted to the journalism program, but just before he arrived, the program had been eliminated. Schulman switched to political science and wrote for the school newspaper, The Daily Californian, covering Berkeley City Hall. After graduation, he had no plans, a few dollars and considered moving home to LA. But in June 1981, days before he was to load his worldly possessions into his orange Datsun B-210 for the drive down I-5, he got a tip that the Chronicle needed a Berkeley stringer. He called an editor there and was hired over the phone. That part-time opportunity included a $200 monthly retainer and some extra money for each story he published. “Let me tell you,” Schulman wrote in a 2010 blog post, “when you get paid by the piece you become a real nudnik – ‘Hey editor, two garbage cans near Wheeler Hall went up in flames. You want 500 words?’ Good thing there was no caller ID back then or he’d have blackballed my number.” He subsisted on income from the Chronicle and his Daily Californian work for half a year.

Schulman’s time at the Chronicle gave him clips that led to a position in Sacramento, which led to a job at a weekly paper in the Central Valley — then the Oakland Tribune, the San Francisco Examiner, and finally, in 1998, the Chronicle.

It was not long before Schulman’s parents forgot their earlier doubts about their son’s career choice.

“Dad was very proud,” Janie Schulman said. “Henry would come out of the press box at a Giants game, and dad would say loudly, so people could hear, ‘This is my son Henry Schulman, the sportswriter.’” Most of the time, Ben Schulman – whose English was never very good – would call Henry a “sportsler”. At daily card games at Plummer Park in West Hollywood, Schulman’s father could be heard talking about his son, wearing the blue satin LA Dodgers jacket and the baseball watch that Henry had given him. Henry’s mother still keeps copies of his articles in a living room cupboard in her West Hollywood home.

When Schulman first started baseball writing in 1988, he was scared he would not be able to write a story on deadline. He still gets nervous today, but “it’s mostly the good kind of nervous,” he said. He also gets butterflies thinking about whether a feature article is going to be good or not.

“He’s been at the top of his game for so many years now,” said Glenn Schwarz, a retired sports editor at the Chronicle and Schulman’s former editor at the Examiner. Schulman identifies Schwarz as his biggest mentor. “I admire that Henry writes the story all the way through. He does not mail it in, ever. And you could put him on anything; he’s mastered the art.”

Rich Herrera, a host of MLB network radio who worked alongside Schulman when he first came on the Giants beat in 1997, said, “His craft is good enough that it stands the test of time. His voice has gotten more mature, he has a larger body of knowledge and he’s grown as a writer. He can go back and reference Barry Bonds and the World Series. It’s a natural reference for him. It doesn’t sound like a little kid doing it, because he was around it.”

Baseball has always been a reliable release for Schulman. It helped him through an especially difficult period from 2008 to 2010. First, his father passed away. Then, during a ceremony to commemorate him one year later, Janie Schulman told her brother she, too, had cancer. Schulman was battling depression, and then his mother-in-law got sick. He was going through a divorce. At the end of all that, the 2010 Giants won their first World Series and Schulman had to work 50 days in a row. Despite this, Schulman says, “It was always a release to write with the Giants.”

“He’s always engaging and fun to be around,” Schwarz said, “Henry from the start [of his cancer] was determined he was going to be OK. He was good-natured when he shaved his head.” Some of his hair has grown back – the same color, brown with some gray – after chemotherapy and he keeps it at a close crop now, with self-described “male pattern baldness.”

Another cornerstone moment for Schulman was the story that secured him a permanent job at the Examiner. For three years, he had been a copy editor at the Examiner, but in 1994, he had the opportunity to cover a Giants game and his editor loved this lead:

What a nightmare. For the last five days the Giants have been marooned in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ seeing what they might be like if a 15-year-old Matt Williams had said, ‘Mom, dad, I can either play pro baseball or become a French chef. Now, let’s start that crème brulee.

Soon after, Schulman was hired as a full-time sportswriter. It was around this time, Schulman says, that he finally reached the point where he could write humor, when he could put style and personality into a story. When asked to describe his writing, Janie Schulman said, “It’s just like him – snarky, sarcastic writing. The sense of humor you see in his writing is the sense of humor he has in real life.”

Schulman turned to humor when he dealt with cancer. While he was sick, his mother also was diagnosed with lung cancer and had surgery. She and Janie Schulman have both since recovered.

Schulman also leaned on Buddhism to deal with cancer and other life issues. He was raised Jewish and now identifies as agnostic, but says Buddhist teachings have had the greatest impact on him over the past year. Through his Buddhist readings, which include Thich Nhat Hanh, Ajahn Chah, and David Brazier’s “The Feeling Buddha,” Schulman said he is “better at appreciating. And I’ve gotten better at some practical things – how to meditate, how to calm yourself. It’s all helped me to fight on.”

As far as Schulman knows, he is cancer-free for now. He had a recent follow-up visit with an oncologist and was told he is healthy. Schulman said that “‘in the clear point’ is usually about five years for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” a cancer that has a higher survival rate than most. For now, he feels healthy and is focused on what he loves: baseball writing. This spring was his first return to spring training camp in Arizona since he got sick. He has stepped right back in to writing news updates, tweeting, shooting video and writing features.

Schulman’s harshest criticism is that he is a mouthpiece for the Giants. “Some people think I’m slacking on the job if I’m not knocking the Giants down,” Schulman said. “Or they’re upset when I do. I’ve always felt I have to get both sides of the story. People take it personally and think you’re out to get the player, but I’m just doing my job.”

“I waited until three in the morning to read Henry the other day,” said Herrera of the MLB radio network, who now lives in Florida, “because it brought me closer to the world of San Francisco.”

Schulman once had the goal of passing Bob Stevens – his predecessor as a Giants beat writer at the Chronicle and someone who offered encouragement in the early part of Schulman’s career – in his game coverage record of 21 seasons (from 1958-1978). By the end of 2016, Schulman will have accumulated 18 seasons. But Schulman said he would probably move on before he gets to 22 seasons.

When Schulman decides to leave baseball beat writing, he wants to “go out like an athlete.” He does not want to be taken off the beat because he is sick. He feels most proud when people tell him: “It’s not a baseball season without you.” He wants to be the most entertaining, informative writer that he can be. “I want to be remembered as a guy who made people laugh,” he said, “a go-to person for the Giants, the guy they felt they had to read.”

(Giants game homepage photo courtesy of HarshLight via Flickr, Creative Commons.)

CORRECTION – Editor’s Note (5/24/2016): In this story originally published May 23, 2016, Peninsula Press misidentified the location of the Ceres Courier. It is located in California’s Central Valley, not near Los Angeles. The above story is corrected. The story above also corrects the timeline of Schulman’s diagnosis and the events that followed.