"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

The Last Knight of the Freelance

Getting to know Pat Jordan has been one of the highlights of my brief time hanging around sports writers. First, Pat was candid and funny in an interview I did with him for Bronx Banter back in 2003, then he occasionally gave me writing tips as I worked on my first book, a biography of Curt Flood. After that book came out, I approached Pat about doing a compilation of his best stories. I was shocked that one didn’t already exist. It’s the kind of project he’d never offer up on his own but he was more than delighted to be involved. So I wrote a proposal, got the book sold, and then we had a wonderful time going through well over one hundred profiles and finally selecting 26 stories to appear in the collection The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan.

The book is now out and Pat, a self-diagnosed troglodyte who still uses a typewriter and refers to himself as “the last knight of the freelance,” might be just that–the last guy who still makes a living strictly as a freelance magazine writer. Which isn’t to suggest he’s completely resistant to change, as he’s been busy doing publicity all ’round the ‘Net ever since his Jose Canseco piece appeared at Deadspin at the end of March. Derek Goold caught up with Pat for a nice blog entry he did on Rick Ankiel, and here is a profile on Jordan from the Florida Sun-Sentinel. There are also interviews with Rich Lederer, Will Carroll, Bill Littlefield for Only a Game, and Deadspin.

I like the following bit about the craft of writing from a Q&A with Playboy:

JORDAN: I grew up with radio and as a result I’d go to bed at night listening to “The Shadow,” “The Lone Ranger,” “Batman and Robin,” “The Green Hornet” and with radio I had to use my imagination to figure out what they look like. What does The Shadow look like? And so it stimulated my imagination and it made me very conscious of the way things look. To this day I’m very detail oriented, but unlike Tom Wolfe, who lists 48 things that a guy is wearing to supposedly describe him, I say it is not the accumulation of detail, it is right details. If you get the right details, you allow the reader to create the scene himself. It is always about the reader, I want the reader to think he wrote the story and that I didn’t.

PLAYBOY: You mention this in the book’s forward…

JORDAN: You create the ideal story when at the end of it the reader can’t yellow out a paragraph on page three and point to where you told him what the story was about. The reader needs to think that they discovered something in the story that the author didn’t because the author didn’t spell it out. If the writer doesn’t hand it to him the reader to thinks that they are in the process of discovering more of the story than the writer intended to put in. I think of it as a collaborative deal.

PLAYBOY: So you’ve made a living by making people think that you aren’t as smart as you actually are?

JORDAN: Exactly. They don’t think that you are leading them and they don’t know you set it up bit by bit. As far as sentences go, I feel that you should never have a sentence so complex that the reader has to stop and go over it again to get the meaning. The same applies to images. If you use a metaphor you need the reader to not reread the metaphor over again and sit down and think, “What does he mean a cow is like a moon?” If the reader has to unravel a sentence or a metaphor, that’s bad. You want them to read it all through effortlessly so they would be reading the story as if they were looking over your shoulder when you were typing. Some stories come easily. The stories you think came easily you think are genius and it comes out later that they weren’t that good. And the one that was like pulling teeth, that you had to bang on your typewriter like hammering nails into wood, that you hated doing because it was so hard to get right, you find out that that was the good one. In the end you want it to appear that the story is flowing out of you and that it is effortless. These are all the things that you do that nobody knows about.

A screenwriter friend of mine recently wrote this about Pat in an e-mail:

Most writers seem to have either dry, detached, ‘objective’ prose, or subjective prose that tries to make you feel whatever the writer’s subjects are feeling. Think Tom Wolfe, where he tries to make you feel every heartbeat, every drop of sweat, every breath that his subjects feel. It’s a totally immersive experience. What’s weird about Jordan, however, is that he’s got very detached, objective prose, and yet by the sheer accretion of pinpoint details he arrives at the same place Wolfe does. He writes so plainly, with such unadorned sentneces, and yet the culmative effect of his prose is really powerful. It’s like walking into a body of water that’s the same temperature as the air outside and before you know it your head’s underwater. In film terms, I’d compare his style to, say, Renoir or Satyajit Ray–realists whose work is nevertheless suffused with considerable feeling.

And there is this Yankee-related exchange from Hank Waddles over at Broken Cowboy:

So what was your first game like?

I was about seven or eight. My brother was going to Georgetown Law in Washington, DC. It was in the early fifties. It was a Yankees-Senators game, and after the game they allowed the people to walk onto the field to try to get autographs. The Yankees were just running off the field, and I had a torn piece of paper or something, but I was too embarrassed to ask one of the Yankees. But my brother, who was a very big guy, he was like 6’5″, grabs Phil Rizzuto and sticks the paper under his nose and says, “Will you sign it for the kid, Phil?” Phil gave him a big smile and signed a piece of paper that I never saw again. That was my first remembrance. I was always a Yankee fan. In Connecticut, if you’re south of Hartford, you’re a Yankee fan. If you’re Hartford or east or north, you’re a Red Sox fan. So we were always Yankee fans. Plus, the Yankees had all Italians in the fifties. You had DiMaggio, Crosetti, Lazzeri, Raschi, Berra… As Italian immigrants – even my grandmother, who could barely speak English, knew the great DiMaggio. They were a sign that our immigrants were making it in an American game.

That reminds me of something that came up in Jonathan Eig’s recent book on Jackie Robinson. One thing that he mentioned that I wasn’t aware of growing up in my era, was the strong ethnic identities, like you mentioned, that different teams would have.

Oh, very big. The Red Sox were Irish, the Yankees were Italian, the Midwest teams were German and Polish, and then when Jackie came along the Dodgers were always identified with black fans because he was their first hero, you know. And after Jackie they weren’t reticent about signing Joe Black, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella… I’ll tell you a funny story about Campanella. When I was a kid, my parents and my uncles would watch the Yankees-Dodgers World Series. My two uncles were arguing about who was a better catcher, Campanella or Berra. And so my father intercepted and said, “What difference does it make, they’re both Italians!” But then when Campanella struck out, then he wasn’t Italian anymore, he was black. But when he hit a home run he was a paisan. So they got it both ways with Campanella. But that’s how ethnic it was when I grew up. Today Campanella is noted as one of the early black ballplayers, but in my family, no, no. He was Italian.

That’s funny. As far as that strong ethnic identity, you mentioned that you followed the Yankees in large part because they were Italian like you, not just because of where you lived. How much of that went on, where people said, “I’m Irish so I like the Red Sox.”?

Oh, that was very common. The Red Sox had Williams, McDermott… Boston was an Irish city ruled by Irish politicians. Italians, and people don’t know this, this is going back into a history that you wouldn’t be aware of. Italians were not prejudiced. My mother and father, when I was a kid, they never questioned any girls I brought home. It was always a Polish girl, a black girl, anything. Except – I could never bring home the hated Irish. The Italians and the Irish hated each other. It was all social because the Irish came first and the Italians came after them. And plus the Italians didn’t look American, number one, and number two, they didn’t speak the language. So they were wops – without papers. The ethnic resentment went back to the simple fact that during Prohibition my grandmother had a variety store and she sold bootleg wine out of the back room, and the Irish cop on the beat made her give him five dollars a week in tributes to keep the bootleg wine operation going. So that’s why they hated the Irish, because the Irish held ’em up for five bucks a week to sell their wine. But that was the only prejudice I ever grew up with in my Italian house. Our ancestry goes back to Italy, where the original name was DiMenna, which in English is diamond. My Uncle Ben was Benjamin Diamond, and there’s Jewish history in our family, and I’m sure black history. As my mother said, when Hannibal came over the Alps he dallied with the Italian girls. So I never grew up with any form of prejudice except the hated Irish. So when I married my second wife whose last name is Ryan, my mother – who’s about eighty – she calls up and says, “What kind of name is Ryan for an Italian wife?” And comes flying down to Florida to check my wife out! Those were interesting times. I was talking with a friend the other day about how ethnic my generation was. We always referred to each other by ethnic names: I was the guinea, Richie Belzer was the Jew, Richie O’Connor was the Mick. We used those terms. Today to be politically correct you can’t, but I still do.

Pat is a lot of things. Politcally correct ain’t one of them. For proof, check out the hilarious, three-part curse-a-thon with Pat and Scott Raab over at Joe Posnanski’s blog (one, two and three).

The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan is out now.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver