Two weeks ago, sports talk radio pioneer Art Rust, Jr. passed away at the ripe old age of eighty-two. Other than a few short obits in the New York Times and Daily News and a few other choice newspapers, hardly a word was said about Rust’s passing. Almost no mention on WFAN in New York, or on other sports radio talk shows in places like DC or other parts of the country. I guess for even knowledgeable reporters, columnists and talk show hosts on the sports side of the media, Rust’s passing was as remarkable as mine would be to the academic, nonprofit and writing worlds in which I inhabit. It’s much more than a shame. It’s all too typical that we as a people and media types especially forget about trailblazers in the field.
That Rust was Black only makes almost total blackout of news of his death all the more atrocious. I’m in no way suggesting that race is the reason why there was almost zero coverage of Rust. Most of this has to do with generational differences and timing. Rust because a vanguard of sports radio talk some two and a half decades before most forms of talk radio were the norm on AM or FM. He was sometimes a cutting-edge figure, other times an over-the-edge and controversial figure, as evidenced by his first book, Get That Nigger Off the Field (about the history of Blacks in baseball). Rust could be a bit over the top in his comments and corniness, constantly using the term “poppycock and balderdash” with generations of fans who had never seen nor heard the term before. But if it weren’t for Rust, whole generations of sports talk radio hosts — especially ones of color — wouldn’t have had the opportunity to make an impact on how we view and participate in sports Americana.
Rust was as much as personality as much as he was a voice imparting views and information about sports like baseball and boxing. His work in Harlem and the rest of New York in the years between ’54 and ’81 had given him the opportunity to know many an athlete, from Joe Di Maggio and Joe Louis to Muhammad Ali and Darryl Strawberry. If you wanted insight beyond a sports writer’s column or article about an athlete — especially a Black athlete — you had to listen to Rust. He either interviewed them, or knew the person well enough to play pop psychologist about them. It’s what made him a minor icon long before I was born and the folks who host now were aspiring to be beat reporters anywhere.
I started listening to Rust during his WABC-770 AM days, between ’81 and ’87, during the last of his good years on talk radio. He could talk about any sport, about the connections between race and sports, about any issue that came up, really, because he believed that he had lived long enough to have seen it all. One of the reasons I came to appreciate baseball so much in those days was because I had to listen to Rust wax poetic about the game time and time again, bringing a perspective and knowledge to it that didn’t exist on the airwaves otherwise. Long before I read books about Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson or the Homestead Grays and the Negro Leagues, I could at least listen to Rust talk about such things in airy remembrance or in interviews with former players. Heck, Rust might’ve been the reason I stopped liking baseball, as I came to understand the sport’s ugly history.
So too was I turned off to the Yankees and the fans who’d call in to Rust’s show. Besides the fact that the Mets would always be underdogs as long as they shared New York with the Yankees — no matter how many good things the Mets did — there was one simple fact. The most delusional sports fans in all of the world in the ’80s were Yankees fans. And Rust would patiently, then impatiently, set Yankees fans straight about the abilities of a team with Pags, Winfield and Mattingly but little else — as they traded away minor league talent year after year — to have a winning season, much less win the AL East. And, of course, there was the more than occasional caller who would call in with a racist comment or a racial epithet directed at Rust. But Rust would respond with dignity and courage and hyperbole and disdain, something that probably drove the drinking-caller-public nuts.
I didn’t get into his conversations about boxing as much. I could care less about Larry Holmes or Marvin Haggler or Sugar Ray Leonard or a host of others. It was already a dying sport, and Rust knew it. Rust spent a lot of time on his show going after Gerry Cooney and his promoters in the mid-80s. Too bad Cooney turned out to be one of the highlights in Michael Spinks’ career.
The end of Rust’s run came with the emergence of 24-hour sports radio talk in ’87, turning my beloved Mets station WHN (which also played country music, and really old country music at that) into WFAN. WABC let him go to WFAN. Unfortunately, with the mercurial idiot Howie Rose leading WFAN into this brave new world, Rust’s age and his lack of appeal to a younger audience made his short time on the station an unsuccessful one. I lost all respect for Rose, by the way, when he would critique Lionel Richie’s music as “boring.” For me, the end of my relating to Rust came in ’87 as well, with my move to Pittsburgh and college that summer.
So much reminds me of Rust in the radio world now. At least, anything that’s any good. The Tony Kornheiser Show and his moodiness and his friendly chats with his chummy guests. The constant interplay of music on The John Thompson Show. Interviews off the beaten path on the Tom Joyner Show. Of course, Rust wasn’t the only pioneer, but so much of what Rust did is now commonplace. So much so that it’s disheartening to know that so many have made nary a mention of the man and his work. Which is why I have today.