Radio Shack gave it up this week as a corporate entity and declared bankruptcy. A share of its stores will be rescued and operate in some form, but the way I see it, sportswriters who were traveling from the mid-‘80s to the arrival of the Internet age in the mid-‘90s have lost an old friend.
The fact that it’s an old friend – not a place visited regularly in the past 20 years – is a good reason that Radio Shack has gone into bankruptcy, of course.
My sportswriting acquaintances from the Minneapolis Morning Tribune and afternoon Star started carrying computers to file stories in 1975 or 1976, I’d say.
They were equipped with Teleram’s original product, the P-1800, a hulking machine with an electronic screen. Teleram issued its next portable computer, the Portabubble,in 1980, a more-reliable and slightly smaller machine. The Portabubble solicited tremendous loyalty from selected sportswriters, including my friend Jon Roe at the Star Tribune.
I was working in St. Paul as the portable computer era started. The comptroller at the Pioneer Press and Dispatch wasn’t of a mood to take on the expense of Telerams.
The first portable computer purchased for us in St. Paul was the Texas Instrument Silent Writer 700. It was the size of a typewriter, and required heat sensitive rolls of paper to be inserted to see what you were typing.
I was the first sportswriter at the St. Paul newspaper to take a Silent Writer on the road as the Twins’ beat writer in 1978. Don Riley, Mark Tierney, Hank (The Key) Kehborn and the other long-timers looked at me as if I was heading for an adventure in outer space.
The Silent Writer was an awful thing for a sportswriter on deadline, for several reasons:
One, there was a laborious correction process that required you to go to the empty space above a line of type, and go backwards to make a correction and then retype the entire line.
Two, there was a set of couplers, sort of a rubber brassiere, attached to the top of the machine. The connection between the couplers and the telephone was iffy, often causing repeated attempts to send copy to the main computer in the office.
Three, it needed electricity. There was always a scramble to secure an outlet in the press box. I was covering my first World Series in Yankee Stadium in 1981. Somehow, I managed to get my TI plugged into an outlet that had a connection with the scoreboard. When a new message was put up on the scoreboard, my computer would start spewing out letters aimlessly, and then I’d have to go through the correction process.
One other thing: The people from the larger newspapers, the Times, the Post, the Globe, the Star and Tribune, were a bit snooty carrying around their Portabubbles, and looking down at those of us stuck with the TIs.
And then the world changed in 1983, when the TRS-80 Model 100 portable was released for sale. TRS stood for Tandy Radio Shack … the developer and the outlets where you could buy one.
Everyone called it the “Trash 80.’’ They were so reasonably priced that we could buy them ourselves if the newspaper balked. They weighed 3.1 pounds and could run for hours with four AA batteries.
There was no longer a class structure in the press box. The Portabubbles were gone (except for a few holdouts such as Roe). The Silent Writers were sent crashing to a well-earned graveyard.
We all were carrying Trash 80s. The question among the former underclass in the press box went from, “Hey, do you have an extra roll of paper for this piece of bleep?’’ to “Hey, do you have any extra batteries for our little buddy here?’’
There were drawbacks. Only eight short lines of copy were visible. The screen wasn’t backlit; it had a liquid crystal display. If you wound up in a poorly lighted press box, say an auxiliary location at a big baseball game, it was hard even for young eyes to see the screen.
Also, in the first days, you had to carry couplers that would be plugged into the machine. The connection between those couplers and the telephone in sending copy was maybe 80 percent (which beat 50 percent with the TI Silent Writer).
And then a couple of years later, here came the TRS-80 Model 200. It weighed 4.25 pounds, but that extra pound was well worth it: a pop-up screen and display of 16 short lines of copy.
By then, we were using cables to transmit copy to the office computer, and it was a 95 percent success rate. I stuck with the Model 200 as long as possible, until the Internet was fully upon us and the bosses wanted us carrying laptops with more sophistication.
I had three or four Models 200s in my basement for a few years. Occasionally, when my laptop was balking, I would break one out and take it on a road trip.
The Tandy Radio Shack-80 Model 200 was the greatest machine in the history of the press box. I weep for all those Radio Shack outlets that were such friends to sportswriters, where you could get AA batteries in bulk at a good price and new cables when you accidentally left the last set in a press box in Atlanta.