"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: 3: Interviews

Bronx Banter Interview: John Schulian

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Today marks the publication of the Library of America’s latest sports anthology—Football: Great Writing about the National Sport. It’s edited by our old chum John Schulian.

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The book is terrific and I recently had a chance to chat with John about football writing and how he approached putting this collection together.

Dig in.

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Alex Belth: When you read boxing or baseball anthologies, there’s usually a lot of material written before WWII. I noticed less material from the early decades of the last century here. What is it about the more old-timey football writing that makes it uninteresting?

John Schulian: I know how it must look: the old-timers don’t seem to get much love even though I’m an old-timer myself. What you have to realize is that football before World War II, and even for more than a decade after it, was hardly the cultural and economic behemoth it is today. Baseball, boxing, and horse racing ruled the sports pages and the nation’s imagination. Football had to be content with harbingers of a better tomorrow—Jim Thorpe and Bronko Nagurski running wild, Slingin’ Sammy Baugh uncorking touchdown passes, George Halas and his fellow dreamers laying the foundation for the National Football League. It was swell that Fitzgerald and Irwin Shaw found inspiration in the games that gave old alums in raccoon coats a reason to howl, but the truth was still the truth: Football had some serious catching-up to do.

Beyond that, the writing it inspired was generally pretty dreary unless you have a high tolerance for adjectives, mixed metaphors, and stories dashed off by scribes who nipped from their flasks for four quarters. You’ll notice, for instance, that I made a point of not including Grantland Rice’s oft-reprinted paean to the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. To do so would have meant wading in the sludge of old Granny’s hyperbole, and I wasn’t about to risk scaring off readers that way. Instead, I went with an excerpt from his memoir about how he came to write the piece and, ever since, I’ve wondered how different it would be if Rice had been able to avail himself of today’s press-box replays and the locker-room interviews that were so scarce when he walked the earth.

Football is hard to cover under the best of circumstances, and the old-timers clearly suffered because of the primitive conditions under which they worked. I like to think that’s why I came up empty when I looked for compelling pieces by Heywood Broun and Damon Runyon. Both were memorable writers and, yet, when I read what they had to say about the sport, it seemed strained, uninformed, almost naïve—in other words, it was a lot like everything I ever wrote about hockey. I thought I would do better with Stanley Woodward, an ex-college lineman whose greatest achievements were as the no-guff, no-pandering sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune. I even knew a line from the Woodward story I hoped to use. When an inconsequential gaffe made a University of Michigan lineman the villain of a major upset, Woodward wrote: “Attributing that catastrophe to such a cause was like blaming the Johnstown flood on a leaky toilet in Altoona, Pennsylvania.” Let’s just say the line may have seemed so memorable because everything Woodward wrote before and after it was so forgettable.

Now I stand before you grateful that I was able to find what I did from football’s Pleistocene era. Grateful for W.C. Heinz’s visit with Red Grange, the first of the great broken-field runners, and for Myron Cope’s hilarious yet compelling interview with the self-named Johnny Blood, a vagabond as both a player and a coach. Grateful for Shirley Povich’s generosity when covering a football slaughter, and for the hat President Truman lost after an Army-Navy game, as if he knew Red Smith was looking for a way into a column. And if someone were to step forward now with a sheaf of the kind of pieces I couldn’t find, I’d be grateful for that, too. But it wouldn’t have changed football’s status as a stepchild in those early days, and if it pains you to read that, just hold on. Things got better in a hurry.

AB: I loved the Myron Cope piece. I know he’s best remembered as a broadcaster in Pittsburgh, but he had serious chops as a writer. He’s my favorite of the Sport magazine freelancers from the ’60s.

Myron Cope And Terrible Towel 1979 

JS: Cope was an absolute joy to read whether it was in Sport or Sports Illustrated or even True, which in the Fifties and Sixties was always showcasing sports writing heavyweights like W.C. Heinz and John Lardner and stars in the making like Jimmy Breslin, Dave Anderson, and Jerry Izenberg. Cope fit right in thanks to his sly wit and affinity for exotic characters. One month he’d be writing about Bo Belinksy, Muhammad Ali, or a self-promoting football scout named Fido Murphy, and the next month he’d be telling the sad tale of the Steelers team that sobered up for a showdown with the Giants and got hammered in a non-alcoholic way. But mention his name in Pittsburgh these days and the Cope the locals remember wasn’t just the Steelers’ funny, passionate, idiosyncratic play-by-play man, he was the inventor of the Terrible Towel, which for hardcore fans puts him in the same category as Jonas Salk.

Myself, I’m a lot more impressed by a collection of his best magazine work called Broken Cigars, and I’ve never been able to understand why someone hasn’t reprinted it. But having said that, I’m here to tell you Cope’s greatest achievement was as an oral historian. Sports Illustrated sent him out to track down the seminal figures of pro football’s early days, and he came back in 1970 with the makings for The Game That Was, which did for the sport what Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times did for baseball. The Library of America didn’t want a lot of book excerpts in Football, but I never doubted for a minute that Cope’s interview with a free spirit—wild man, actually—named John McNally would make the cut. While he was migrating from one college to another, he and a teammate wanted to earn some pocket money by playing semipro on the side. They couldn’t use their real names, of course, so they searched and searched and finally found just what they needed on a poster for a swashbuckler movie called Blood and Sand. All the man who became Johnny Blood had to do after that was wait for Cope to show up.

AB: Beyond Red Smith and Shirley Povich, I awas taken with the column on Jim Brown by Jimmy Cannon. Those are not a pair I would have put together. I knew there’d be a Jim Brown story in this collection—how could there not be?—but I wouldn’t have expected one from Cannon. I know Cannon was a great columnist in his prime but his reputation has faded through the years. Were you looking for a Cannon piece specifically?

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JS: I’ve been campaigning to put together a collection of Cannon’s greatest hits for the past few years, and though I’ve yet to find a taker, I always bring up his Jim Brown column when I’m bending someone’s ear. This is Cannon at his absolute best, spending the afternoon watching Brown trample the Giants and then taking what he saw in a direction that never would have occurred to another writer. Who else would have made the leap from a game that big to a recollection of the day he first heard Enrique Caruso, the great opera singer? Who else would have used the occasion to wax nostalgic about “the old neighborhood” and a barbershop run by a guy named—stop it, you’re killing me—Joe? But somehow Cannon makes it work with the magic he had when the stars were aligned and the wind was at his back. He was always stretching, always straining to out-write everyone, and a lot of times you could hear him grunting and groaning from the effort. This time, however, his words take flight, and the greatness on display is his as much as it is Brown’s and Caruso’s.

If you’re surprised to find Cannon writing about Brown, don’t be. The year was 1963 and Brown, to the best of my knowledge, had yet to rough up his first lady friend. Later, of course, it would become a recurring theme in his life, one I suspect Cannon, imbued with dry-drunk gallantry, would have used as a reason to tee off on him, disdain him, or both. But in or out of trouble, no one ever denied that Brown is a fascinating and complex character—perhaps the greatest running back ever, a movie star of some significance, a mentor for kids swept up in L.A. thug life. His name echoes through any number of the pieces in the book, and if I’d had more pages to work with, there would likely be one or two others devoted solely to him. God knows they’re out there, splendid work by splendid writers. But when I could only choose one, Cannon made it easy for me.

AB: What stuff did you include from the ’60s?

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JS: Myron Cope would have been an obvious choice, but he was already in the book. The same with Bill Heinz, whose Run to Daylight! was the first great look at the brilliance and indomitability of Vince Lombardi. I had already committed to Heinz on Red Grange, though, and I never regretted it because St. Vincent inspired so much compelling writing. Leonard Shecter stirred things up with a profile of Vince Lombardi for Esquire that was so mean it made Mrs. Lombardi cry; I loved it in my Young Turk days, but when I gave it a second look all these years later, it seemed gratuitously cruel and, much as I admire Shecter, riddled with buncombe. Sorry, no sale. On the other hand, there was the Jerry Kramer-Dick Schaap collaboration, Instant Replay, the chronicle of the Packers’ 1967 season that ruled the bestseller lists and begat a stampede of as-told-to books. We’re talking about work done nearly half a century ago, and it holds up because of the authors’ commitment to the truth. Nor does it hurt that Lombardi endures as a subject to this day. David Maraniss, the superb Bill Clinton biographer, seized on the old boy’s staying power and delivered a state-of-the-art study of Lombardi. If I’d failed to include something from it, I’d be guilty of dereliction of duty.

I feel the same about the excerpt from Paper Lion, George Plimpton’s chronicle of his training-camp exploits as the Lions’ last-string quarterback. The grace and self-deprecating wit in Plimpton’s prose always reminds me of Cary Grant’s acting. But even without my confession that I’m a sucker for it, any literate football fan should see the Plimpton excerpt coming. I hope I’ve thrown readers a curve—pardon my mixed sports metaphors—by mixing in two looks back at the Sixties by writers from other precincts. First is Baltimore boy Frank Deford, the star in SI’s crown for so many years, lifting a glass to the city’s beloved Johnny Unitas. Then there’s Jennifer Allen recreating a New Year’s Eve with her father, George Allen, after he’d been fired as the Los Angeles Rams’ head coach on Christmas Eve. Happy holidays, huh? It felt good to include the excerpt from Jennifer’s book Fifth Quarter for a couple of reasons. One, she’s an incisive and fearless writer. Two, I was able to make amends in some small way for the many times I described George as the NFL’s answer to Richard Nixon. Yes, he could be pretty crazy, loving ice cream because he didn’t have to waste time chewing and writing me off as a Baltimore fan on first meeting simply because I’d worked on a newspaper there. But there was never any doubting his genius for defense or his love for the beat-up old pros who populated his roster. And here’s what should have convinced me that my opinion of George needed an overhaul long ago: Those old pros loved him back.

Jimmy Breslin, the ultimate New York columnist, loved old pros, too. I get the feeling from his piece on Y.A. Tittle’s last stand that he may have loved them most when they lost. They didn’t whine or bitch, they just picked themselves up and moved on because they knew they had done everything they could. It wasn’t enough, but it was all they had, and there was something noble about taking satisfaction in that, the way Tittle does when he can’t quarterback the Giants past the Browns.

Breslin, like Bill Heinz before him, knew the losers’ locker room was fertile ground for great stories. But every time he looked around before he began covering the city at large, he found more young scribes in there with him. It was all part of the seismic change that the Sixties brought to sports writing. The best of them threw off the shackles of clichés and rah-rah coverage and started serving up humor and social commentary. If they could work in a song lyric by the Grateful Dead or something Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, so much the better. On the East Coast, there was Larry Merchant, who had made irreverence and unblinking insight his stock in trade first as sports editor of the Philadelphia Daily News and, by the end of the decade, as a columnist at the New York Post. He knew something about football, too, having been a schoolboy star in New York and a self-described “last-string halfback” on Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma powerhouses in the Fifties. What Merchant knew even more about, however, was the cultural significance of Broadway Joe Namath. I think you’ll see what I mean in the excerpt I pulled from his book … And Every Day You Take Another Bite.

At the same time, on the other side of the country, Jim Murray was playing his Los Angeles Times sports column for laughs with a mix of joy and intelligence that hadn’t been seen since Ring Lardner and his son John were running amok. Murray looked at sports in a funhouse mirror, delivering lines that are still quoted in press boxes and around breakfast tables half a century later. And oh, did he have fun when the Jets upset the Colts in the Super Bowl: “The missionaries ate the cannibals.” You know that one’s in the book.

What you may have realized by now is that none of the writers representing the Sixties were hard-nosed, watch-every-practice, grill-every-source beat reporters. The guys who fit that description best were Paul Zimmerman, who made his bones at the pre-Murdoch New York Post and later moved to Sports Illustrated, and Will McDonough, the Boston Globe enforcer who punched out a Patriots defensive back. I suppose I should mention Tex Maule, too, because it was his story in SI about Unitas leading the Colts over the Giants in overtime that bore the headline “The Greatest Game Ever Played” even though he never used those words himself. Maule was a reformed trapeze artist and former public-relations man who became a tool of the NFL in its war with the ragtag but thoroughly enjoyable American Football League. (Enjoyable, that is, to those of us enthralled with 57-56 scores and old goats like George Blanda and Tobin Rote.) But Maule’s greatest sin in the context of this book was that he was a ham-fisted writer, which disqualified him from inclusion. Alas, Zimmerman and McDonough had similar artistic deficiencies, so their prose didn’t make the cut, either, and that’s unfortunate. Without the digging they did—Zim on the intricacies of the game, McDonough on front-office shenanigans—the stylists who followed them never would have had such a well-lit path to travel.

AB: Of course, a certain amount of the material in a book like this is going to be personality-driven. Were there any specific players or coaches you wanted to feature?

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JS: It would have been a fool’s mission to try to make room for all the players who’ve been anointed as superstars and all the coaches who’ve been praised as smarter than Einstein. And big games? The nation turns its lonely eyes to them every weekend, in every NFL division and college conference. Biggest game of the season, biggest of the century, no matter how many times we’ve heard it, we still love to fall for it. Everything is outsized—the players, the coaches’ egos, the alumni pressure, the TV money—and the book could easily have wound up looking like it was on steroids. But I didn’t want to scare off people by turning it into a doorstop.

The best solution I could come up with was to select pieces that were, for lack of a better word, emblematic. You want quarterbacks, you’ve got Deford on Unitas and the pluperfect Charlie Pierce on Peyton and Archie Manning, which I like to think covers a lot of territory historically. You want linebackers, you’ve got Arthur Kretchmer on Dick Butkus, and while Kretchmer was no sports writer, I admire the way he parked himself next to Butkus and hung on for dear life. on the sideline and zeroed in on the guts of the game. You want coaching legends, you’ve got the street-smart novelist Richard Price putting his Bronx accent up against Bear Bryant’s tobacco-cured mumble and Gary Cartwright, a Texas legend, deciphering what went on under that hat Tom Landry wore. We’re talking about big names here—icons, if you believe in that sort of thing—but each piece reveals its subject as a human being. With all the blather and blare surrounding football, we need to be reminded of that occasionally.

It would seem more difficult to provide that kind of perspective in a game story—twenty-two large gentlemen in the equivalent of one freeway pile-up after another—but the beauty of the best game stories is they tap into narratives as unique as snowflakes. Of course, I can’t give you every great one ever written, but you’ll certainly get the feel of them when you read Dan Jenkins merrily tweaking Notre Dame for playing for a tie against Michigan State, and Leigh Montville hanging onto his hat after Doug Flutie’s magic act against Miami. And don’t let me forget Pat Forde weaving together the many themes of Boise State’s otherworldly Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma—the trick play, the running back’s marriage proposal, the idea that a team from a state famous for potatoes could fly so high. It was one of those stories Americans love, the underdog triumphant, but in college football’s latest realignment, the power conferences have done their utmost to make sure you’ll never see anything quite like it again.

So if you don’t mind, I’m going to revel in my own favorite upset for a moment. There’s no story about it in the book, but there isn’t a red-blooded University of Utah graduate who doesn’t get all puffed up every time he thinks of it. I say this in full confidence because I happen to be one. Anyway, there the Utes were in the Sugar Bowl, the undefeated champions of the Mountain West Conference, whatever that was worth, and it certainly didn’t seem like much to mighty Alabama on January 1, 2009. The Crimson Tide strutted into the Superdome in New Orleans as if they were about to be served a tray of red velvet cupcakes, and the Utes bitch-slapped them with 14 fast, furious points. That’s right, Nick Saban: all those blue chippers of yours got bitch-slapped. They tried mightily to come back, and, brother, every Ute fan had seen that movie before. Start like your ass is on fire, go toes up before halftime. But not these Utes. Somebody else could roll over and play dead. They were going to knock the snot out of Alabama. Final score: 31–17. I’m not counting on a repeat performance any time soon now that the Utes are in the Pac-12 and praying they can break .500 someday. But I’ve still got my memories of that sweet, sweet Sugar Bowl. Damn, Nick Saban looked good with his tail between his legs.

AB: I like how you included profiles of icons like Butkus and Bryant that were written by non-football writers. The Price story, in particular, is such an odd pairing of writer and subject and yet the reader comes away with a vivid picture of Bryant. What is it about being an outsider that can make the writing and reporting so sharp?

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JS: First, you’ve got to imagine the plight of the harried soul on the football beat whether for a newspaper or website. He or she has a million things to worry about—trades, roster moves, rumors, next week’s big game, players’ injuries, coaches’ lies, news stories, features, sidebars, blogs, tweets—and I haven’t even mentioned the editors who are constantly crying out for more, faster. My head hurts just thinking about it. I know there are some hardy souls out there who thrive on such pressure, but sooner or later it’s got to diminish either the desire or the time and freedom it takes to write something that’s both stylish and insightful. They reach a point where the job is as much about survival as ir ia anything else. Their eyes glaze over, and when that happens, they just want to see the finish line.

Not so Richard Price and Arthur Kretchmer.  Price was a young literary lion when Playboy enlisted him to profile Bryant and Kretchmer was the magazine’s editorial director who may have used his clout to get the Butkus assignment. They could stroll in, hang out, and look around until they seized on things a weary beat writer, even in the days before the, might have taken for granted. These outsiders had landed on what might as well have been the moon, and thanks to their cushy magazine deadlines, they could revel in the newness and the strangeness of it all.

After reading what the two of them wrote, I gather that Kretchmer was less an outsider primarily—most likely solely—because of the friendship he seems to have struck up with Butkus. And if they weren’t friends, Butkus certainly didn’t mind his company. It wasn’t just that they had lunch together, it was that Butkus gave him the gift of blunt honesty, and got him on the sidelines for a Bears game, too. That way, Kretchmer could calculate the seismic force of each play, hear the cracks and the thuds and the grunts and the sound of a Packers defensive end telling the Bear across from him, “I’m going to kill you.”

Unfortunately, the Bears were dreadful in their patented way—a constipated offense and a defense that took solace for defeat in the number of bruises and broken bones they meted out. In the midst of such inferiority, there was Butkus with his unsurpassed genius for violence, playing on a knee that was essentially a garbage pail, trying to defy futility. Kretchmer was moved to ask him why he kept beating his head against the wall that way. It was a question the daily press corps had undoubtedly asked, too, but sometimes it’s the outsider, the guy who’s not part of the daily inquisition, who gets the best answer. So it was when Butkus told Kretchmer, “That’s like asking a guy why he fucks.”

Price never pried as pithy an answer out of Bryant during the week he spent in Tuscaloosa. Or if he did, he didn’t understand what the Bear was saying in that unfiltered-Chesterfield voice of his. But it all played perfectly into the pose Price adopted for the story. It was 1979, after he’d scored big with The Wanderers and before he scored bigger with Clockers and Freedomland. He went to Alabama as the ultimate fish out of water, a New York wisenheimer thrust into the land of Ku Klux Klansmen and Freedom Riders. He had an earring and the longest hair this side of Duane Allman, and he was intent on milking everything he could from the reverse of stereotypical urban paranoia.

Mercifully, the piece doesn’t come off as an attack on the South unless you’re sensitive to the mileage Price gets from his failure to understand a joke Bryant tells. “I guess that ain’t funny to you,” Bear says, scowling. No way Price can make himself confess that Bryant might as well have told the joke in Urdu. Price simply tacks his discomfort onto everything else he has felt during his visit to this strange land, and, wonder of wonders, he gets away with it. True, he doesn’t break any new ground on Bryant, but that’s not the point. He’s goofing on the Bear, albeit with a healthy dose of respect. But he’s also goofing on himself, and he obviously enjoys it, even revels in it. He might not have seemed very bright to Bryant, but he was smart enough to get out of Tuscaloosa in one piece.

AB: My favorite game story in the book is Tom Archdeacon’s column on Jackie Smith. The media crush that Smith faced after that game seemed relentless according to Archdeacon’s piece and yet he was probably the only one to notice and incorporate Smith’s son into his story. There were so many columns written about that game. What made Archdeacon’s stand out?

JS: It’s a masterful example of what a true craftsman could do in the days of p.m. newspapers if he kept his eyes and ears open. While the morning-paper scribes from the East Coast were racing to make, say, a 9 p.m. deadline, Archdeacon might not have had to file for the Miami News, may it rest in peace, until 4 or 5 a.m. If he was like a lot of us who had that luxury at some point in our careers, he used every minute of it. It’s obvious he stayed in the Cowboys’ locker room to the very end—it’s how he gets rich, novelistic details like a writer stepping on Jackie Smith’s towel and another one accidentally leaving a line of ink on Smith’s shoulder blade.

The most impressive move Archdeacon made, however, was to zero in on Smith’s teenaged son, who had come to see his father’s hour of glory in the Super Bowl and instead witnessed an admirable display of courage and grace in the wake of that dropped pass. Not every athlete handles a situation like this as well as Smith did, believe me. Some get nasty, some hide in the trainer’s room, some vamoose. But the good ones will stand there and face wave after wave of reporters, just the way they would if they were the hero instead of the goat. Smith was obviously one of the good ones. But a lot of writers were going to say that the next day. Archdeacon needed something that would separate him from their number, and young Darrell Smith, son of Jackie, was it. His presence provided a new dimension to the scene in the locker room and set the stage for his father as a sympathetic figure. I don’t recall if any other writer bothered to talk to the boy, but I covered that game and I know I didn’t. I caved in to my a.m. deadline and belabored the obvious by writing about Terry Bradshaw. When I read Archdeacon’s column the next day, I gave myself a 15-yard penalty for lack of imagination.

It wasn’t guilt or shame that moved me to include Archdeacon in the book, however. I was just seeking an ounce of justice. I’m not sure how many people read what he wrote when it ran—the Miami News’ circulation was pitiful—and here was a chance to give it a second life. Archdeacon was someone whose work I had admired instantly, and I always thought he deserved a wider audience. I can certainly think of a lot of magazines over the years that could have benefited from his prose. But he stayed with the News until it sank, and then moved to the Dayton Daily News, his hometown paper, where he’s still writing better than a lot of bigger names with bigger paychecks in bigger cities. In a way, I suppose, he’s like Jackie Smith, more of a nobleman than you ever expected to find in his calling.

AB: I also loved the John Ed Bradley piece because it talks about the game from the inside. I’m crazy about John Ed’s writing, though, so I’m biased. When you were putting together this book, did you know that you’d include one of his stories?

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JS: Not only did I know John Ed would have a piece in the book, I knew which piece it would be. He’s written a multitude of keepers in his career, but he soared highest when he dug into his self-imposed exile from the LSU football program he had graced as a player and that haunted him for years afterward. Once his soulful, painful reminiscence ran in Sports Illustrated, it was obvious that John Ed had much more to say, and he said it in his memoir It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium. It’s labeled as a book about football, naturally, but it’s really about a young man’s struggle to come to grips with who he is. It’s about the human condition, which is what the best sports writing is always about.

The fact of the matter is, I don’t think of John Ed as a sportswriter, and I haven’t since the first time I read him in, I’m guessing, the early ’80s. It was a piece he wrote when he was at the Washington Post, and it began with him and LSU’s starting quarterback sitting on a hill on campus, drinking a few beers and wondering what the future held. The Post’s sports staff was brimming with talent then, the way it usually is, so finding terrific stories and columns was hardly a surprise, but this was so far beyond the norm that I was gobsmacked. Here was a guy who should have been taking baby steps at a powerhouse newspaper and he was producing work that fairly shouted he had books in him, serious books. That hardly qualifies me as a literary talent scout. There were lots of other people saying the same thing. But I’m still proud to have been there at the beginning.

AB: Did you make a conscious effort to include football stories from all levels of competition—high school, college, the pros—or did you just select what you thought was the best writing?

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JS: A book like this is first of all about the writing, but it’s also about the voices of both writer and subject, and the players and coaches who are emblematic of something larger, an era, perhaps, or a signature style of play. Whether the writing came from newspapers, magazines, or books didn’t really concern me. Naturally, magazine pieces, crafted in relative leisure, are going to be more polished than newspaper pieces, which are often written in a race against deadline that leaves no time smooth out their rough edges. But sometimes those ragged edges give the newspaper pieces the immediacy and passion that makes them memorable, even collectible.

I knew from the outset that the pros and the colleges were going to dominate the book. After all, what’s football without domination even when we’re just talking about its literary side? But I wanted high school football in the mix, too, because it’s so deeply ingrained in popular culture. (It’s also deeply ingrained in me—I read everything I can find about my old school’s team.) The obvious book to turn to was Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, which is nothing less than a masterpiece. It not only reminds readers of the joy and pain of high school football—and of adolescence—it explores the otherworldly nuttiness that envelops the sport in Texas. So, mission accomplished, right?

Not so fast, buckaroo. The next thing I knew, I found “Friday Night Tykes,” a smart, insightful look at preteen tackle football in the age of concussions. Naturally, it was set in Texas, too. Bryan Curtis wrote it for Texas Monthly, which by now should have retired the trophy for the country’s best regional magazine, and he did it without getting up on a soap box or passing judgment or any of the other traps a lesser talent might have walked into. He just laid his story out there and let the reader make up his own mind. By the time I finished reading it, all I could do was borrow a figure of speech from the kids Curtis had written about: he was so beast.

AB: Football isn’t really considered a writer’s sport, at least not in the way baseball or boxing is. You edited a collection of great boxing writing for the Library of America. Did you worry that you wouldn’t enough great material to chose from?

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JS: I was too dumb to be scared that I might not find enough first-rate material to fill a book. I’ve been reading great football writing since I decided I wanted to make a living playing with words in press boxes, and I knew it was out there. But I wouldn’t be foolish enough to tell you that football is a writer’s sport the way baseball used to be and boxing will be until they throw the last shovel of dirt on its coffin. There’s always been secrecy and paranoia in football, but it’s gotten worse over time. The evidence is right there in Roy Blount Jr.’s elegy to the freedom he had when he wrote . . . About Three Bricks Shy of a Load. Everywhere Blount goes on a visit to the Steelers, the team whose illustrious predecessors were at the heart of his book, he’s stymied by rules and badgered by nattering PR honks who would have been used for crow bait back in the day. And that’s no way to find out anything about anybody.

Great players can drift through their careers today as relative strangers to the people who cheer for them, worship them, maybe even want to be them. The coaches have always been on the secretive side—not enough prunes in their diet, I think—but writers could work around that. They learned to roll with coaches’ bland pronouncements and shameless prevarication because there were always players and assistant coaches who would tell them the truth or at least nudge them toward it. But for me, the real satisfaction in writing about football didn’t come from dissecting injury reports, and I sure as hell never wanted to loot a head coach’s office in search of a game plan. I probably wouldn’t have understood it anyway.

My aim was to find out what made the players tick. If I sat down with them—the good ones anyway, the ones who responded to thoughtful questions—I knew the odds of succeeding were in my favor. A lot of the guys I interviewed were incredibly bright and articulate, or they were blessed with wit and the kind of go-to-hell attitude that made them savor the massive collisions that happen on every play. If a writer can get 20 minutes with someone who fits either of those descriptions, he has a fighting chance to turn out something worth reading, at least for purposes of a newspaper piece or its Internet equivalent. For something longer, of course, a writer needs even more access. How much? Well, read Al Silverman on Gale Sayers coming back from a brutal knee injury or Michael Lewis on the high-wire lives of placekickers. Those weren’t done in a day, my friend.

The problem now as I see it—and I admit that I’m looking at it from a great distance—is that writers don’t have the kind of access my generation did. It’s that way in big league baseball, too, but football is the mother of managed media access. You’ve got staged press conferences, and only the head coach and a limited number of players are trotted out for them. Worse yet, everybody seems to be sticking to a script. Working the locker room seems to be a lost art, if indeed writers are even allowed inside. The best, or at least the most colorful, way to fight that is to do what T.J. Simers, the erstwhile L.A. Times columnist, used to do, and walk in anyway. He’d tell anyone who tried to stop him that he had a job to do, and he wasn’t about to be stopped. I confess I was never a fan of T.J.’s work once he left the football beat, but his balls belong in the hall of fame.

Much as I admire writers who aren’t afraid to tilt with the NFL’s windmills, I’m just as impressed by those who refuse to be fazed by the climate of secrecy. They’re scattered around the country, looking at football from fresh angles, turning out pieces so smart and well-reported and beautifully written that geezers like me are forced to admit that sports writing didn’t begin and end with us. Bryan Curtis, whom I mentioned earlier, is right there with the best of them. Wright Thompson, whose ode to Southern football is one of the book’s highlights, looks like he can do anything he sets his mind to as long as he isn’t writing about Elaine’s, the old New York literary saloon. (Save your tears, buddy. It was a dump whose time had long passed before you walked through the door.) Some day there will be another book like mine, and it will be brimming with memorable pieces by Thompson and Curtis as well as the young Turks I couldn’t squeeze into my collection. The bylines I’ve embraced will fall by the wayside, and time will march on. That’s the way it usually works, isn’t it?

AB: Speaking of the NFL, you covered the league when you were a columnist in the late Seventies and early Eighties. What was it like writing about pro football compared with the other sports?

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JS: I was never a beat reporter, though that’s what the Washington Post hired me to be in 1975. I was supposed to back up the intrepid Leonard Shapiro, who I’m sure had years taken off his life by his constant battle to get to the truth about the Redskins. But I soon proved myself to be ill equipped for the job. Short attention span, easily bored, something like that. So I wound up doing mostly features, and most of the contact I had with the Redskins was when I wrote sidebars after big games, and of course every game they played was a big one in that town. Even their damn practices were big.

My first day at the Post—Labor Day, or close to it—the boss tells me I can meet the staff and find out where the men’s room is later. He needs me to cover the Redskins’ practice. I haul ass to Redskin Park, out by Dulles Airport, and start poking around for something to write about a team I may know less about than anyone in the District of Columbia and its surrounding suburbs. I look at the bright side, though. At least I’ll meet George Allen, the ’Skins’ coach. He’s been called the Richard Nixon of the NFL, and since the real Nixon is long gone—he lost one too many in ’73, I’m told—I might as well put myself on Allen’s radar.

I seize a moment after his press conference and introduce myself. He squints at me curiously, a John Wayne kind of thing.

“Where are you from?” he asks.

“Baltimore.”

I’m about to tell him I worked on a paper there for the past five years, but he cuts me short.

“A Colts fan, huh?” he says, turning on his heel and walking away.

From that day forward, I’m convinced he thought of me as a spy, if indeed he thought of me at all.

It was no easy thing being around the Redskins, even in a limited capacity, and I’m sure it skewed my view of the NFL. Not that I didn’t encounter good men running other teams—Jim Finks and Ernie Accorsi were class acts—but the league wanted to control everything, including the media. When I became a columnist in Chicago, I went out of my way to make sure the league knew there would be no controlling me. If George Halas deserved to be smacked around—and he did, that churlish old tightwad—I was pleased to do the smacking. Was I always fair to him? No. But I was fair to his players and his coaches, and they mattered more to me than Halas did, even when I was roughing them up in print. Everybody else got it with both barrels.

That must have stunned whoever was keeping track of the press at NFL headquarters. The league was clearly on the rise, and first-rate writers—men and women I respected as professionals and valued as friends—were writing for its sanctioned Game Day program or working on telecasts that were filling the NFL’s coffers. The logical thing would have been for me to jump on board, but I’ve rarely been called logical. So a rosy-cheeked NFL factotum pulled me aside in the press box one Sunday afternoon and told me very solemnly, “You know, you’re not a friend of the league.” There was no fooling him.

AB: Concussions have become a critical part of the discussion when it comes to pro sports, and in recent years there have been several good profiles on the subject. Was it difficult to select just one?

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JS: Granted, there’s only one piece born solely of the concussion epidemic that the NFL could no longer ignore, but pain—the physical kind, the kind that hits you like lightning—is a constant presence in story after story. The one that comes closest to predicting how concussions would become an issue is Mark Kram’s relentless “No Pain, No Gain.” I remember reading it when it first appeared in Esquire in 1992 and flinching at Ronnie Lott’s description of tackling someone so hard that snot sprayed out of his own nose. And then there were the after effects—the ringing ears, the brain that went blank, the breath he fought to take. We call it entertainment.

NFL players are our gladiators, and though we gasp at the collisions, cheer them, and cry out for more, I don’t think many of us realized what we were really watching until the New York Times and SI and all the rest of them started hammering away at the issue. The players accepted the likelihood that they would pay physically for offering up their bodies this way, but even they didn’t seem to grasp the extent of the wreckage inside their heads until it became an issue. Once upon a time, they could joke about the wear and tear the way Dan Hampton, a hall of fame defensive end for the Bears, did when he heard that a teammate was being forced to retire because of a horrific spinal injury. “That’s how I want to go out,” Hampton told me. “With a real showstopper.”

Then the showstopper became the brain damage that was ignored all those times some wobbly behemoth was told to shake it off and get back out there and kick ass. It was the football way. You had to be tougher than the other guy. You had to want it more, “it” being the victory that the team could cash in on, maybe even point to as a reason for raising ticket prices, while the poor son of a bitch with the addled brain just hoped he could hang on for another year or two. You know, so he could set something aside for a retirement that would make it all worthwhile.

Funny how it so rarely works out that way for old pro footballers. They figured they might not be able to play tennis or even walk up the stairs when they were 50; they didn’t think their heads would be so screwed up they’d want to kill themselves. But that’s life and death in the National Concussion League, and I suppose I could have included a half-dozen stories on it. I would have been wrong if I had, though, just as I would have been wrong if I hadn’t included any. So I went with the one that spoke loudest to me, Paul Solotaroff’s searing look at Dave Duerson’s suicide. I remembered Duerson when he was fresh out of Notre Dame and making his presence known in the Bears’ secondary, but I didn’t realize he had been so successful in business. He was one of the smart ones, a mover and shaker who was proud of his brain even when it was damaged and driving him out of his mind. That’s why he didn’t blow his head off when he pulled the trigger. He shot himself in the heart instead, so his brain would be intact for doctors to examine. I doubt the NFL will ever salute him as a hero, but that’s what he is.

 

AB: What I noticed about this collection is that so many of the pieces reveal a nice pairing of subject and writer. We talked about the outsiders like Price, and to my mind one of the most true and beautiful stories in this collection comes from another outsider, Jeanne Marie Laskas on the Ben-Gals cheerleaders. It is written with such empathy and humor and understanding. Even though it’s tangentially about football, it is about football culture. How did you first come to read the story?

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JS: I first heard about Jeanne Marie Laskas’ story from my old pal Bill Nack. It was the year he was guest editor of Best American Sports Writing, and he raved about it. No one I know has better taste or higher standards than Bill, so I tracked the piece down in GQ, read it, and immediately started adding my praise to his whenever I bumped into someone I thought might like it. Was it a slam dunk for my book? What do you think?

The thing about Jeanne Marie is that she isn’t a sportswriter or, from what I gather, even a sports fan. She’s a reformed advice columnist and practicing academic who has the gift of being able to tap into whatever world her freelance magazine assignments happen to take her to. She has written about coal miners and migrant workers and hit men, so the NFL wasn’t going to be a problem. She left the winners and losers, stats, and college draft to the true believers whose lives revolve around them, and then she focused on the league’s concussion-damaged warriors for a series of pieces for GQ. Just when it looked like she was going to deliver yet another withering dispatch, she changed pace and wrote about Cincinnati’s Ben-Gals in a way that humanized them, understood them, and actually respected them.

There isn’t a red-blooded male writer who could have come close to accomplishing what Jeanne Marie did. Allow me use myself as Exhibit A for the prosecution. When Debbie Does Dallas – a classic cheerleader move, I’m sure you’ll agree – opened in Chicago, I felt it was my duty to review it. It probably broke my colleague Roger Ebert’s heart to give up the assignment, but he recognized the connection between Debbie and the sports page and graciously stepped aside. I don’t recall how high I stacked the praise in my review, but it was enough to get DePaul University’s basketball team, famed famed for its appreciation of high-class cinema, out to see the movie en masse. The next time I stopped by DePaul, the kids delivered rave reviews and couldn’t thank me enough for broadening their cultural horizons.

The last thing the Ben-Gals needed was to have a dirty old man like me snooping around in their lives. What they needed—what they deserved—was Jeanne Marie serving as a big sister and a sympathetic ear as they unburdened themselves of problems far more serious that lost hair gel. The stories they told her will touch even the sleaziest horndog’s heart and leave you rooting for them to catch the breaks they need and bask in the glow of the spotlight that tells them they have found safe harbor. If there’s a piece in the book I love more than this one, I’ve yet to find it.

AB: These days sports writing is more about data and analysis than prose. Is there’s still good writing about football to be found?

JS: The key to great football writing—to great writing of any kind, really—is people. Say all you want about the Packer Sweep and the Bears’ 46 defense and whatever the Harbaugh brothers are up to, it still wouldn’t register with us if human beings weren’t bringing them to life. And these aren’t just any human beings, either. They’re at the peak of their physical powers but even the best of them had failings and frailties they have to get past. Some respond to a pat on the back, others to the lash. That’s where the drama that makes for great writing is found. There’s no drama in computer printouts unless your computer freezes or your printer craps out. The drama is out there on the field when an aging quarterback remembers his greatness long enough to drive his team 97 yards with a minute to go, or some rookie kamikaze on the kickoff team, s guy you’ve never heard of before, gets stretchered off to what may be a future as a paraplegic.

What makes the writer’s task more difficult than ever is that TV has seized on the human dimension, too. Its technical brilliance was never in question. All the cameras, all the angles—I don’t know why anyone wants to watch a game in person when they can see it so much better at home. Actually, I do. They go for the tailgating and the camaraderie, the cheerleaders and the chance to be on camera with their shirts off when the thermometer nosedives below freezing. Most of all, they go for the tribal passion that sent football rushing into America’s bloodstream in the first place.

When the sport’s popularity soared, TV coverage got smarter, and it keeps doing so, especially on cable, where the cameras take fans places they thought they’d never see. The leader in all this, of course, is NFL Films, which has always been so inventive and imaginative. In my case, I was hooked for life the first time I saw Gale Sayers’ velvet runs set to jazz. Nothing about this violent game has ever been more artistic, more perfect. Every time it crosses my mind, I think of Ed and Steve Sabol, the father-son team that created NFL Films and nurtured it to brilliance. Someone should put up statues of them even if they never took my suggestion to hire Tina Turner as their public voice when John Facenda died.

On top of TV’s brilliance, there are a shrinking number of outlets for writers who aspire to use football as a means of examining the human condition. The report I just read in the New York Times about the shadow of doom hanging over newspapers and magazines sent me into a tailspin. I’ve always assumed that the Internet would provide a safe harbor for writers—you know, places like Deadspin and Grantland and SB Nation—all of which champion narrative one way or another. But this thing about online analysis getting in the way of literacy baffles me. Analysis is easy. It’s knowing what you’re talking about that’s hard.

Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It wouldn’t be the first time. But I’m sure of this much: Writers will keep writing about football. They’re stubborn that way. It’s why they sit in lonely rooms or crowded coffee shops every day and hammer away at their computers, trying to capture in words what they’ve seen and whom they’ve talked to and what they’re feeling. They’re doing what the writers in the book I’ve put together did going back nearly a century. I like to think that a century from now, there will still be writers writing about whatever football has become and how it fits into the society that has emerged by then. Maybe someone will even stumble across a copy of this book of mine. I hope they think kindly of it, but if they give it the same short shrift I gave the old-timers, I’ll understand. What goes around comes around, right?

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[Photo Credit: Bronko (Pro football Hall of Fame0; Cope (AP); Jim Brown (Inside Sports); Plimpton, Butkus (SI); Richard Price (Sara Krulwich/N.Y. Times); Wright Thompson (Neiman Storyboard); George Allen (SI); Dave Duerson (Jonathan Daniel/Getty); Jeanne Marie Laskas (via her website); NFL Films]

Bronx Banter Interview: Erin Shambura

This ran over at Foodspin yesterday. Thought I’d share it with you guys.

A few years ago The Wife and I were introduced to L’Artusi, an Italian place down on West 10th street in the Village. We rarely have the chance to dine out, but we’ve been back to L’Artusi a dozen times since that introduction. We feel welcome there–it’s a place that makes us happy.  The environment is elegant but not stuffy, the staff well-informed and attentive, and, oh yeah, best of all: The food is wonderful.

Owned by Executive Chef Gabe Thompson, his wife Katherine, and partners Joe Campanale and August Cardona (all of Epicurean Management and nearby favorite dell’Anima), L’Artusi executes seemingly simple dishes with delicate nuance; both the food and the hospitality are remarkably consistent. Many of its best dishes are the ones that seem simple, even plain at first: We’d made several visits before I tried the spaghetti with garlic and chilies but it quickly became my favorite pasta on the menu. Not many restaurants can make my wife weak in the knees with a side of crispy potatoes. And the olive oil cake, which is easy to pass over at first, is a revelation.

In mid-2012, Thompson stepped back from the L’Artusi Kitchen to concentrate on the development and opening of the group’s new restaurant in the East Village, L’Apicio. Chef de Cuisine Erin Shambura, has run the kitchen ever since. L’Artusi features an open kitchen and Shambura is a pleasure to watch in action; her work is efficient, orderly, and punctuated with obvious joy. She exudes a sense of pleasure in her work, and that transmits to those who work under her direction.

I recently had the chance to sit down with her for a chat and a demonstration of her Braised Boneless Short Ribs over Polenta. Here’s the recipe, followed by our conversation.

Braised Boneless Short Ribs over Polenta

Serves 4

Ideally, this will be prepared a day ahead, as it tastes best after sitting, but it will be wonderfully delicious if cooked and eaten on the same day.

Braised short rib ingredients:
1¼ lbs. of boneless short ribs*
3–4 tablespoons of olive oil
1 cup yellow onion, chopped
1 cup red onion, chopped
1 cup of carrots, diced
1 cup of celery, diced
1 cup red wine**
2 35-oz. cans of puréed San Marzanno tomatoes
Chopped flat-leaf parsley for garnish
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper***

And a few optional choices:
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Three sprigs of thyme and oregano can be added along with a couple of bay leaves. These should be added with the tomato. They can be tied into a sachet with cheese cloth for easier removal.

Polenta:
1 box instant polenta (follow directions on the box)

*I found it difficult to get a 1¼-lb. piece of short rib from my local butcher, so I used 3 boneless short ribs weighing about 1¼ lbs.; this worked just fine.
**Any medium-bodied red wine will do. It doesn’t need to be expensive, just something that the cook would enjoy drinking.
***1 tablespoon of salt and 2 teaspoons of ground black pepper for the meat; 2 teaspoons of salt and ½ teaspoon of ground black pepper for the vegetables

Directions:
1. Preheat the oven to 350°.

2. Place a Dutch oven on the stove and turn the burner to medium-high for 1 minute. Add the olive oil and heat for another 2 minutes.

3. Sprinkle the meat with kosher salt and pepper. Add the meat to the Dutch oven and sear on all four sides. This should take about 5–8 minutes.

4. When caramelized on all 4 sides remove the meat to a plate.

5. Add the vegetables to the Dutch oven and season with salt and pepper. Cook for 5 minutes, on medium to high heat, until they begin to soften. If you are using garlic and/or hot pepper, add them during the final minute of this cooking time.

6. Return the meat to the pot and add the red wine. Reduce the heat to medium and allow the wine to reduce by half, about 3 or 4 minutes.

7. Add the tomatoes and, if using, the herbs, Bring to a simmer for 10 minutes, uncovered.

8. Cover and put in the oven for 2½ hours.

8. If the meat begins to tear when you lift it carefully from the braising liquid, it is done. This means the meat has been braised long enough. At this point, remove the entire pot from the oven and allow to cool. Remove the meat and hold separately until cool enough to remove any excess fat. This is when the meat can be portioned into individual pieces. The meat can then go back into the cooking liquid until ready to serve. You can cover the meat with foil, but just to tent it.

9. Skim the fat off the sauce. There is no need to strain the sauce, though you can put it through a fine mesh strainer if you want a touch more elegance. It’s likely more work than it’s worth but up to you. Be sure to remove the sachet of herbs.

10. Serve on top of polenta—any instant polenta will do—and garnish with some extra sauce and freshly chopped parsley.

Q: I’ve been thinking a lot about Italian cooking since Marcella Hazan passed away last year. Did her books have any kind of influence on you?

ES: Marcella’s books have been on my bookshelves for years, right beside Julia Child’s. The simplicity and clarity in her cooking has always appealed to me. She showed us sophisticated food doesn’t have to come from complicated cooking.

Q: She believed in simplicity but never let you forget that simplicity doesn’t mean easy.

ES: Executing simplicity takes discipline.

Q: In so many things, especially the arts and cooking, I’m fascinated by restraint.

ES: Sometimes less is a better. Focusing on a few flavors and making them come alive. I like the directness of Italian cooking. People understand it. They don’t know the process, but they get the flavors. As I said it takes skill to execute simplicity.

Q: When did you get into cooking?

ES: Midway through college. I cooked for my friends and it made them happy. Making them happy with something I cooked was really appealing and made me feel good, too.

Q: And did you know already that you wanted to go to culinary school?

ES: No. I intended to get a graduate degree and follow my parents into education. After a couple personal tragedies during my senior year, I did a major reevaluation of what was important and what I wanted to do with myself. Culinary school went from an idea I had toyed with to a serious option supported by friends and family. Everyone told me to go, so I went.

Q: And when did you get into Italian cooking?

ES: I entered the New York Restaurant School without a specific cuisine in mind. The curriculum was based on developing a foundation in French technique and when I graduated I naturally found myself in a French kitchen: Jean George’s The Mercer Kitchen. I stayed at Mercer for more than three years, and was promoted to Sous Chef before I left to take an entremetier position at Del Posto.

Q: And suddenly you’re at a four-star restaurant.

ES: Yes! It is an amazing kitchen to be a part of. My eyes were opened to proper Italian cooking. Up until that point my understanding of Italian food was limited. I learned so much about fine dining, and how to polish the rustic nature of Italian cuisine to its highest level.

Q: And after Del Posto?

ES: Lupa, where I fell in love with traditional Roman cooking. Lupa taught me the vital importance of quality ingredients in great Italian cooking—exceptional product is more fundamentally important than elaborate preparation. Del Posto and Lupa helped define my style and vision as a chef.

Q: Here at L’Artusi, you have success with a series of staple dishes on the menu. Where do you find your own voice in being able to introduce things that allow you to experiment?

ES: Every restaurant has staple menu items that provide a backbone, and L’Artusi is no exception. That being said, I rely heavily on seasonally available ingredients to craft the menu, and we innovate on a day-to-day basis. Specials or new menu items are never improvised, but tested and crafted in conjunction with my team of sous chefs and line cooks. A dish may start as a random thought while I’m out running, but pulling it together in the kitchen is a much bigger process and I value my team’s input.

Q: So you ask for their input?

ES: Absolutely. Sometimes you need a different perspective. Someone can taste a dish and say, “Oh, it needs a little acidity” and then we talk about what that should be—lemon or vinegar. I think it’s crucial to have a team dynamic. I want to create an atmosphere where the staff’s input is valued.

Q: That’s one thing I enjoy about your place, especially sitting near the kitchen and watching you work. But I’m always impressed by how efficient it all looks, and mostly, how there is no screaming or anyone bugging out.

ES: There isn’t screaming or yelling because that doesn’t get the end goal accomplished. Maintaining a balanced atmosphere is essential to a productive kitchen. We’re able to accomplish this because many of our cooks have been trained in multiple stations. This is a huge help during the busiest times because there is a second pair of hands to step in when needed. We have a really tight team right now and it makes my job easier.

Q: Do you ever run into attitude problems with younger cooks who are fresh out of culinary school who have a hard time with going through the ranks?

ES: I’ve seen some of that in the past, but not here. A lot of people go to culinary school and just expect to advance quickly from entry-level positions. Advancement isn’t just handed over, it has to be earned. In our industry you don’t have to go to culinary school to be a success story. I’m fortunate to work with several talented line cooks that started as dishwashers. Success in the restaurant business is based on the effort and time that you put into it. I believe that stems from promoting within. I like running a kitchen where the cooks know they can advance.

Q: Without knowing that, a positive energy does come across when we’re eating there. You know, I love the flexibility of Italian dishes. Especially because everyone is convinced that their version is the correct one. Take Bucatini all’Amatriciana. Marcella makes use of a neutral oil and butter; most recipes call for olive oil. If you use garlic, that’s fighting words in some quarters. Other people use it. Some recipes call for a little white wine for acidity.

ES: I don’t think that there are any real limitations to what can be done with Italian food. There are so many traditional dishes, but most chefs take liberties. We certainly do at L’Artusi. I never feel restricted by focusing on clarity and simplicity, it’s just how I prefer to cook. My focus is creating the best dining experience for our guests. Being adventurous with our selections hasn’t always worked in the past, but I continue to try new dishes. I want our food to be approachable and getting to know the tastes of our diners has led me to create dishes they want to eat. That’s why our patrons keep coming back. Their loyalty inspires me.

Bronx Banter Interview: Pete Dexter

Bronx Banter Interview

“The truest thing in the world was that you showed who you were writing a column. He said that at his lectures, and they always took that to mean politics or how you feel about the death penalty. Which had nothing to do with it. There were as many dick shrivelers that wanted to ban nuclear sites and love their brother as there were that wanted to bomb Russia. It was almost incidental, what you had for issues. But how you saw things, how physical things went into your eyes and what your brain took and what it threw back, that told who you were.”
—From Pete Dexter’s first novel, God’s Pocket (1983)

Our man Dexter was a legendary newspaper columnist in Philadelphia and then in Sacramento from the late 1970s through the mid-’80s, but unless you lived in those towns at the time or unless you hung out in the microfilm room of your local library, it was nearly impossible to track down his work. Dexter has written seven novels—the third one, Paris Trout, won the National Book Award—and they are all in print. But until Dexter’s old friend, Rob Fleder, a longtime magazine (Esquire, Playboy, Sports Illustrated) and book editor, had the notion to compile Dexter’s journalism, some of his greatest work remained unavailable to us.

First published in 2007, Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage gives us what we want—a sampling of Dexter’s work as a columnist. The good people at Ecco Press have now published a paperback edition, thus giving me an excuse to call up Pete and get him talking about his days in the newspaper business.

I got to know Pete when his last book, Spooner, was published, and I interviewed him then as part of a long-running Bronx Banter Interview series. (Last year, I interviewed Fleder for a collection he put together for Ecco, Damn Yankees. And here is an excerpt from an essay Pete wrote in that book about Chuck Knoblauch.)

What follows was put together from several recent phone conversations with Pete.

Enjoy.

Bronx Banter: What kind of reporter were you when you began?

Pete Dexter: I didn’t have a specialty or anything. I was kind of looked on as a guy who could write. I was a careful writer and a careless reporter. Reporting is a talent but it’s also just a matter of rolling up your sleeves. A guy like Bob Woodward didn’t get where he is by being charming or having a way with people I don’t think. He just did it by following all the rules and taking things as far as they could be humanly taken. That wasn’t what I wanted to do. I knew that early on. I didn’t get any satisfaction out of breaking a story. It just didn’t appeal to me.

BB: You started in the Watergate Era when Woodward and Bernstein made the whole idea of being a reporter something else, a star.

PD: Yeah, all of a sudden kids were going to journalism school so they could take down a president. It was a passing fad, I guess, but it lasted ten years anyway. You used to call them “serious young journalists.” You sign up for that, and…if you don’t have your heart in it, if that’s not compulsive in you, if you don’t feel like you have to do it, you’re probably not going to be much of a reporter. Early on I recognized that I was going to have to come from some other direction. On the other hand, I loved being part of the newspaper, I loved that feeling when big stories were breaking, though it wasn’t me that broke them.

BB: And you didn’t have a need to be that guy.

PD: No, I never wanted to be Hoag Levins, who worked for the Philadelphia Daily News. Hoag would put on black face and army fatigues and crawl up to Mayor Rizzo’s house and come away with how much the doorknobs cost and then try to figure how a guy who’d made a living as a police chief and mayor could afford an expensive house. He was wildly ambitious and he was a really good guy. But eventually he made a couple of mistakes and then something got him tripped up—I can’t even remember what it was now—some story he got wrong. They had to fire him. And that would not have been done easily cause you couldn’t help but like him and admire his energy.

BB: Was there a part of reporting, even before you had the column, the part where you’d just go out and talk to people, that you liked? Were you interested in people?

PD: Yeah, not so much for the newspaper. I used to drive around a lot in this old Jeep and I’d see somebody doing something interesting and I’d always pull off the road and go talk to them. That’s been something I’ve always done. And sometimes you hear some real strange stuff. Other times people just won’t talk to you, and that’s OK.

BB: So your natural curiosity helped you.

PD: It wasn’t a conscious thing. I’ve always loved stories. If you’re patient enough there are more people than you’d ever guess that have stories. It wasn’t deliberate but that’s what my stuff’s always been about: It’s about stories.

BB: Had you thought about wanting to have a column even before Gil Spencer arrived at the paper?

PD: That had been in my head. It was the only job outside of running the paper that I wanted. And they were not going to let me run the paper, that was pretty obvious.

BB: Did you get along with your editors?

PD: All the problems I’ve had with management, and they have been legion, were with people that feel the necessity to control you or put their two cents in. This started when I was a reporter. There’s that city editor, assistant city editor, sometimes the managing editor, that certain class of people, as part of their job they feel an obligation to change things just so that they have their own imprint on it somehow. And that’s where the rub comes because if you say, “That’s silly, that doesn’t make sense and here’s why…” you are no longer questioning their editing but you’ve confronted their power, their position. And once that starts, once you let them know you’re not just on their side, that’s where the problems always come from. At least with me. I never enjoyed the confrontations, certainly not as much as I’ve been given credit for, but that’s what it always was about. Power. My thought was you can be the nighttime assistant city editor for the rest of your life and I don’t care, you don’t have anything I want, just leave me alone.

BB: They weren’t about making the piece better necessarily.

PD: I never worked for anybody I looked up to as a writer but I worked for a lot of people that I looked up to as a newspaper guy, and if those people said something, I listened. But the ones who knew what they were doing knew enough to leave me alone in what I did, and if I stepped over a line in their world then not only was I glad for the criticism—if they’d caught some mistake that kept me from being embarrassed again—I was always grateful for that. I didn’t have a sense that if I wrote it it has to be right.

BB: Before you started a column, what columnists did you read, either in Philadelphia or around the country? Not so much that you wanted to emulate them necessarily but who got you interested in the form.

PD: This is hard to explain but when I came to Philly I was in my early thirties. I came out of Florida and had been in the newspaper business on-and-off for about two years and I didn’t know what a newspaper column was. I hadn’t read Breslin or Pete Hamill or Mike Royko. I didn’t know what they did. There were two columnists at the News when I got here, Tom Fox who wrote a column on Page Two, and Larry McMullen, who recently died. McMullen would go out in the street, hear these stories, and write them. He was from South Philadelphia and he was of that time and of that place and of that paper and I’ve never seen a better fit for a paper. When I saw that he was writing stories, that’s when I wanted to do it. He was writing five times a week and when I started I was doing that too—went to four and then to three.

BB: Did you get to know McMullen well?

PD: Oh, yeah, McMullen and I were old friends. I never felt any rivalry. The other guy, Tom Fox, was one of these little guys who walks around … someone called him the best columnist in the country—someone is always saying something like that about you—and he believed it. He’d write about some shooting and he was throwing in tough guy talk like, “He blew the faggot away.” I remember someone wrote a letter to the editor and said, “Who’s really the faggot?” And some criticism of Fox came in that letter. He was just outraged. That was pretty funny to see, at least to me. Those are two perfect examples for someone who wanted to be a columnist—I saw exactly the kind of columnist I wanted to be and the kind I didn’t want to be. It’s good to have one of each.

BB: Did Spencer give you the columnist job or did you have a test run, first?

PD: There was a little time there that I wrote one or two a week when I was still a reporter. That was a short period of time, I can’t tell you how long, a couple of months. But once he gave me a taste of it I was even harder to deal with on the city desk. There was this guy Zach Stalberg who later ran the paper and who is really a good guy, the kind of guy you’d want running your newspaper if you couldn’t have Spencer. Gil made Stalberg the city editor and a couple of months later he became the managing editor. But his present to Stalberg was giving me the column so I was no longer his responsibility. When I started the column if anyone had any problems with me they went straight to Spencer and that was good for everybody. Yeah, I think everybody was happy the way that worked out.

BB: Was it a big transition for you?

PD: It was an avalanche of sudden work. You go from the city desk where someone tells you, “Go interview the widow of this guy who just got shot,” and so you go to the movies and come back and say, “She wasn’t there,” to having to do a story every day. It was more than a small change. If you are a reporter and you’re not a good reporter there are places to hide. You can do all kinds of stuff to avoid producing. But if that column space is yours and you’ve got to fill it by definition you’ve got to fill it. That was good for everybody, too. First of all, it made me a better reporter.

BB: How so?

PD: You come to realize when you’re writing a column that the best columns—the very best ones come off your head—but if you are going to do it three times a week, some of those days you go talk to real people and by the time you get back the column writes itself. I’m thinking about that column in the book [Paper Trails] about the guy in Camden who found the head in the bag. You drive 10 minutes over to Camden, talk to this guy for half an hour, and yeah, I got lucky that day, but that was exactly what a newspaper column is supposed to be. And it was just handed to you. By that time I could write well enough the words were just there, the story was there. And that sort of thing, when it worked, was what a column was about. Most of my better columns were about that, going to actually talk to somebody.

BB: The great sport columnist Red Smith didn’t think of himself as a columnist but as a reporter.

PD: Yeah, that’s right.

BB: You said earlier that you’d drive around, stop the car, and talk to a guy. When you were doing the column, did you force yourself even more to do that because you thought, hey, I’ve got to have something to write about today?

PD: When you’re writing a column, your first question when you look at things are: Is this a column? But if I saw something interesting I’d still want to go ask about it. I’m still like that. I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve talked to who are on skateboards. Just ask them how they do what they’re doing and stuff like that. In a way, I kind of believe that thing of, there are no stupid questions, although God knows I get asked a lot of them. But to me, if you don’t know something and you’ve wondered about it, why not find out?

BB: Did you ever come across something that you found interesting but felt was too big to be a column?

PD: Yeah, but you could usually turn it into a three-part column or write about the same thing for three days. Sometimes that couldn’t be done and yeah it’d be a size you couldn’t handle.

BB: Did you talk to Spencer or anyone else about what you were going to write about beforehand?

PD: No. Good Christ. No.

BB: Did you ever junk one? Or just go with something you didn’t think was that good?

PD: You can write a letters column, you can find something else to do when it’s not going your way but that didn’t happen very often. What you really need is your voice being there three times a week.

BB: How long did it take to develop your voice or style?

PD: The voice was there from the get-go. That goes back to basic writing. If you’re thinking about developing your voice you’re thinking about the wrong things. That should just be—

BB: Like your speaking voice—

PD: You don’t want to be conscious of it. It just happens, at least that’s the way I think. Jeez, I’m looking at my dog outside and he’s taking like the third crap of the last two hours. … Probably shouldn’t have given him that pork chop. We have a rule against giving them pork. Shit.

BB: Kosher, huh?

PD: Yeah.

BB: What about subject matter? Did you ever think, Oh, I’ve written three heavy pieces so far this week; I want to change it up with something light?

PD: No. Whatever came. Once, early on in my column writing, I wrote a piece, I can’t remember what it was about exactly, a guy’d lost his cat and I talked to him for a little while. A guy from one of the neighborhoods. When you write a column you get your detractors. And I got a letter from someone who said that I ripped off a Hemingway short story, where that was a line, something “and the fact that cats that can take care of themselves was all he had.” And I had. Christ knows it wasn’t conscious. I went back and looked at the story. It absolutely looked intentional and it wasn’t. It wasn’t enough on the nose where anyone could say it was plagiarism or anything but the idea of it, I sure could see why the guy said what he said. That’s the only time something like that ever happened to me. And I don’t to this day know … I know that it wasn’t intentional. I really can’t say much more about it but it was there and the idea was behind a short story that Hemingway had written and one that I’d read in college.

BB: Did you write back to the guy?

PD: Probably talked to him. I called people, I didn’t write letters much. There wasn’t much to say, really. But he did have a point. So when years later I heard that Doris Kearns Goodwin was accused of plagiarism … I guess all I’m saying is that I’ve got some sympathy. When you’re writing enough, when you’re writing everyday something like that can creep into your stuff without knowing you’re really doing it. I know it was only once and nobody ever mentioned anything else. But it bothered me.

BB: Did you read the letters that were sent to you by readers?

PD: Read them? Sure.

BB: Did you enjoy them?

PD: Eh, when they were funny. Twenty a day was a big day, six letters a day was predictable. Some were funny. Sometimes they had stories and that could be valuable. But most of the time they were either agreeing with you and disagreeing with you and who cares?

BB: You ever wake up and say, “I got nothing?

PD: No. There’s always something. I took it fairly seriously but I was always doing enough stuff. If something funny wasn’t going on or something interesting wasn’t going on I could usually do something bad enough that I could write about it the next day.

BB: In your own life?

PD: Yeah. I ended up with an FBI guy at a bar one night and I bet him that I could throw a case of beer across Pine Street. The cops showed up. So you had the cops and the FBI guy and me and everyone from Dirty Frank’s out there in the street and it looked like a riot … and that makes a nice little column.

BB: You said earlier that other than running the paper writing a column was the only job you wanted. After two or three years of doing the column, did you feel like you’d found your calling, were you happy with it?

PD: Yeah, I was happy but I didn’t feel like that was it. I would have been probably a lot better off, if you call what I did a career—whatever this is—if I’d devoted myself entirely to that space in the Philly Daily News or gone to New York or stayed with newspapers. I would have definitely been a better newspaper columnist. And who knows, you have to do what makes you happy at the time. I don’t regret any of that. I don’t regret not being in newspapers but there are sure days when I miss it.

BB: The immediacy of it?

PD: I don’t know. I just liked being in the city room, I liked the people I worked with—some of them anyway. It was just nice. You’re—

BB: Part of something.

PD: And an important part of it and that makes a difference.

BB: Writing a column sounds a whole less solitary than writing novels.

PD: Oh, yeah. There’s no comparison.

BB: Did you write the column at home or go in to the paper?

PD: No, I went into the paper every day. If I didn’t have a column the next day, I went in anyway just to see what was going on.

BB: So it was a social thing, then.

PD: Oh, yeah. I couldn’t help it.

BB: Was it like a locker room?

PD: Yeah. I was always kind of working. I mean, I didn’t write a column every day but I always went in to see what’s going on and that’s work in a way. Yeah, I just liked being around those people, I liked to see what people were doing. Some of them I still think about to this day and wish I had contact with. There were a bunch of real good reporters.

BB: Do you keep in touch with any of them?

PD: There was a guy named Bob Fowler at the Inky [the Philadelphia Inquirer] that I still talk to once in a while and when I go back there I look up a guy named Gehringer, Dan Gehringer, he’s a real good writer, who I knew from back in Florida. But for the most part, no. No, I really don’t, that’s the truth.

BB: Did you hang out and have drinks with copy editors and reporters?

PD: Eh, not too much. Once in a while, a drink with somebody. For most of that time I wasn’t in the bars at all once that thing happened in South Philadelphia, that’s when I started writing novels and I didn’t have the time or inclination for the bars anymore.

BB: When you were doing the column did you then start to read other guys like Breslin or Hamill?

PD: I’d see Breslin’s stuff and Hamill’s stuff once in awhile. A guy like Breslin, he was a columnist. And that was in spite of the The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. That’s what he was. And he never was much good at anything else that I know of.

BB: You’ve said before that you never had ambition to write novels, but after the first three, you were still writing the column. Did writing fiction inform the nature of how you wrote the column?

PD: No, I don’t think so. I’d just sort of get up and do what was in front of me that day.

BB: Did you ever go to the office to work on a novel?

PD: No, I couldn’t do that there. That’s a separate deal. I was never conscious of anything going on intentionally. It’s a funny thing to say. Every place I ever went I stumbled into accidentally. Maybe one thing led to another but not intentionally.

BB: So you didn’t have a grand plan?

PD: At some point I decided I was done with newspapers but …

BB: Yeah, before that: What was it like leaving Philly and going to the Sacramento Bee?

PD: Oh, fuck, it was the worst thing I ever did professionally. I went there because the guy that ran the paper was an old friend of mine. I’d rather not get into that, but the whole place smacked of an office environment, a business environment. I wasn’t there that long, but when I left they asked me to continue to write up in Washington State where I lived but you can’t be a local columnist and not be local. And the truth is when you’re writing well, the only columnists are local columnists. National columnists are something different. There aren’t as many stories. It’s more reports and views. Where the best columns are just there, they’re just stories. For me, anyway.

BB: In order to be a good columnist to you need to have a basic sense of outrage about things?

PD: I think different guys do it different ways. It’d just wear me out to go in the office every day outraged. And you shouldn’t do that now that I think about it because that ruins the taste for when something real comes along. You can’t go at it like one of these television guys who every night has some breaking news about how bad Obama’s fucked up or something. When you’re always outraged, it’s like the boy that cried wolf and it’s too much. It can be entertaining for someone who is reading the paper for the first time but if all you get from that space is outrage pretty soon nobody believes it, I don’t think. And if it does it appeals to people who are outraged by nature and want to be outraged more.

BB: So everything changed for you as a columnist once you Philly.

PD: It was never the same. I mean, Philadelphia is probably the best place of them all to write a newspaper column. The place is so rich. I missed that. And the paper was so open to what I had to offer, way more than any other paper in the country would have been. And Spencer was such a good guy about it. I don’t think there was a better place to work than the Philadelphia Daily News. And I left it … for reasons that don’t make any sense to me now. I left it ’cause it was time to do something else, I guess. But if I was going to stay in newspapers I’d made a terrible mistake.

BB: You were a columnist for about a decade. Are there guys that get better after 15 years or do they create a persona and then there’s a cap for how far you can go?

PD: Oh, no, you can get better. If you have initiative, if your interest is in the paper and the stories themselves, if you’re a newspaperman in your heart, you continue to get better and love it. I think at the center of things, as much fun as it was for me, I wanted to do something else.

BB: Why does it sound like you have regret about it?

PD: I’m just sorry because it was so much fun. There’s good things and bad things about anywhere but there was an awful lot of good things about that place, Philadelphia. And in that way I’m sorry we left.

BB: When you go back, is it a different place?

PD: No. The paper’s not the same, I’ll tell you.

BB: It’s funny, you could have stayed at the paper and then you’d be going through all these cutbacks and changes.

PD: Oh, I’d be way more unhappy. I mean I get sad about it, I get melancholy about it, but don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t go back and change it.

BB: There are a few longer magazine piece in Paper Trails. You had a column at Esquire for a few years but also wrote takeout pieces for Inside Sports. Did you enjoy writing for magazines?

PD: Not really. That’s an awful lot of writing for—it was an awful lot of work and in the end all you have is a magazine story. As much as I like stopping along the road and talking to somebody I don’t like invading their lives, which is what you need to do. You have to spend a couple of weeks around Jim Brown to begin to get anything. I’ve been on the other side of it, having a guy hanging around me taking notes, and I don’t like it. And I don’t like doing it to someone else for that reason.

BB: How is newspaper reporting different?

PD: You can’t hang around them at all, really. I mean, Christ, I don’t know how many columns I wrote about Randall Cobb and his quest to be the champion of the world but Cobb and I would have been friends anyway. That was a sure-fire column at least once a month, sometimes more than that.

BB: There’s a funny Cobb story about a rental car in Paper Trails. The four columns you wrote on Cobb during the week he fought Larry Holmes in Houston for the heavyweight championship aren’t in the book but I really like them. They were so emotional.

PD: Yeah, it was a sad time.

BB: Because of the Holmes fight?

PD: Yeah, it’s hard to watch somebody realize the dream of his life is never going to happen and he’s doing everything he can and it’s … you know, you really have to set your mind to do something like that. In the first place, you have to lie to yourself all the time. And then to see it all spilled out in front of you like it was, that it wasn’t going to happen … it was sad. He really tried hard.

BB: Did you feel guilty at all?

PD: No. Why?

BB: Because he’d broken his arm in the bar fight you’d been in together the previous winter in South Philly.

PD: No, that went beyond … that wasn’t guilty. I felt bad about it but he and I’d been through so much other stuff, and it just, um, what was going on between me and Randall was a lot closer to—I don’t want to say brotherhood, exactly—but we’d been … no, I didn’t feel guilty about it. But I wasn’t one of the guys … I mean, there was 5,000 people in Philadelphia thinking they’re Randall Cobb’s best friend. Because he was nice to everybody and he would tell people stuff and they would go around thinking that he’d told them something real. But he and I were friends in a different way than that. I understood and he understood exactly what happened that night.

BB: What exactly was that?

PD: No, it’s too complicated. I can’t go into that anymore than I already have 2,000 times because there’s something at the bottom of it between Cobb and me, something that if I tried to go back and explain it, it all just washes over me again. He’s just so … like I said, those were such sad times in the way that I mentioned. What you’re asking about is going into a place that I don’t talk about with anybody. It’s private in some way between me and Cobb in a way that probably doesn’t lend itself very well to words.

BB: Shit, I’m sorry if I made you uneasy even asking about it.

PD: No, it’s alright. I’d gotten hit that night in the bar and I was unconscious. It’s just … that moment when I wake up and Cobb was the only guy there and I wanted to get him—something happened there between us that I’ve not, something I can’t revisit easily, let’s put it that way. But don’t feel bad about asking me, that’s what you’re supposed to do.

BB: Did you guys stay close after the Holmes fight?

PD: Yeah. I mean, he’d started moving away before he fought Holmes. About a month before he fought Holmes he disappeared for a while. I don’t know where he was training but I couldn’t get through to him. He got rid of his manager and his trainer and showed up with a different guy at the fight. And those people were … I mean, everybody was after Cobb as a meal ticket. Money was what they all wanted. He’d been carrying a hundred people around on his back forever, y’know, being everybody’s best friend. If he had $10 and somebody asked him for it, he gave it to them. Whatever he had they could have and he was always like that. And it finally, I think it got to be too much. Christ, he didn’t care what he signed, contracts and shit like that, he never paid any attention to that. He and I kind of lost touch for a while but you don’t give up what you feel about somebody like that.

BB: So when you and Rob Fleder went through the material for Paper Trails did you read tons of columns that you’d forgotten about?

PD: Oh sure. And I’m sure there were tons more than Fleder passed on I still haven’t seen or remember. You got to remember it’s more than a thousand columns, at least. It’s kind of like finding an old diary or something.

BB: Did you enjoy reading through them?

PD: Uh, sort of. Fleder did the work. Fleder’s the guy that read them all. He’s the reason the book is there. He’s absolutely as much a reason that book exists as I am. It’s a funny thing that makes you smile when you look at it. It was such a nice thing for him to do. It wasn’t like we were going to get rich or anything. God, it’s just the nicest thing you can do for somebody in a way. When I look back on the book, I think about Fleder and what a great thing that was to do for me.

BB: In Yiddish they call that a Mitzvah. A blessing.

PD: OK.

BB: A nice thing to do.

PD: And that’s what this is, I guess. A mitz-vah.

You can buy Paper Trails here or download it for to your phone or tablet here. Source photo by Marion Ettlinger, from the back cover of Dexter’s fourth novel, Brotherly Love. Background photo via Getty.

Bronx Banter Interview: Arnold Hano Part II

For Part One of this Interview, click here:

 

Bronx Banter:  A Day in the Bleachers. I just read this book for the first time, I want to say about six months ago. I think one of my favorite things about it – obviously I knew about the game, and I knew about The Catch and the other things that come to mind – but I think one of my favorite things was your description of the atmosphere of the game. Looking back fifty years ago, what was it like seeing a game in the Polo Grounds in the ’40s or ’50s?

Arnold Hano:  Well, what it was like seeing a game in the bleachers was the camaraderie. [Showing the covers of three different editions of the book.] When the book first came out, it was a book for fans, about fans. And then the next edition, it’s Willie Mays and fans. And then the next edition it’s just The Catch. But the cover of the first one is truer. This is truly what the book is about.

BB:  Right, right, definitely. It almost seemed like the book was about the fans, and, by the way, Willie Mays made a nice catch.

AH:  That catch, which I spent a lot of time on, took up nine pages in a hundred and sixty page book. And I don’t know if you know about the $700 edition of the book…

BB:  Yes, I read something about that. There was a limited print, and you had signed them all.

AH:  Four hundred copies.

BB:  The other thing, too, about this book is that now, that device that you used, using the game kind of as a prism through which to illuminate either a season or an era or a career, that’s a fairly common device now. But then, I don’t think so, is that right?

AH:  You’re telling me about devices. I wrote a book. I wrote a book about a day, and this is the day.

BB:  What I love about this book is that you’re writing the book and you’re telling what’s happening on the field, and Vic Wertz comes up to bat, and then suddenly you have a two-page segue on Vic Wertz.

AH:  Or on home runs hit by other people for long distances.

BB:  Exactly, exactly.

AH:  Well, I had to fill some space!

BB:  I think that now that’s pretty common. A lot of people use that.

AH:  Part of what E.L. Doctorow said yesterday on television is that writers don’t really realize what it is they’ve written. Critics tell them what they’ve written, but he said, “The result is I never read critics. They tell me things about the book…”

BB:  That perhaps aren’t there, or aren’t intended to be there.

AH:  So when you ask me about a device, I don’t know from the device in this case. I wrote a book about a day, and I filled it in with background stuff. I had to establish myself as writing a book with some reason, so I established myself as somebody who’d seen all these other things. And to that degree, I was an historian of this… thing. But that’s getting beyond where I wanted to go with it. I think of this as a nice little book. Other people think it was something else, but I think it was a nice little book.

BB:  Well, like I said, I don’t know if this was your intention as you wrote it – and it doesn’t sound like you had big intentions – but what I got from it is, I know about that catch, and I knew about that before I picked up the book. But your description of the fans in the bleachers, of what it was like on the field, in the stadium, that’s what I got out of it.

AH:  When I used to go to ballgames, of course, you don’t do this anymore, I used to go very early so I could watch fielding practice. And until a few years ago, I did not know they had suspended fielding practice. I bet the players’ union has done that because they don’t want somebody to break a finger.

BB:  Sometimes you hear people complain about that. You’ll be watching a game and someone will throw to the wrong base and someone will say, “Oh, well, they don’t have fielding practice anymore, and the only time they do that is in spring training…”

AH:  Although when you see a guy like Omar Vizquel pull a backdoor double play. Do you know about that at all? Kenny Lofton was at bat when he was with the Dodgers. Men on first and second and I think there was nobody out. They sent the runners and Lofton hit a one-bouncer to second base. Well, Lofton is about as fast going down from the plate to first base as almost anybody. So when Ray Durham fed Vizquel for the force play, Vizquel had Lofton in his sights, and he knew that he was not gonna throw out Lofton. So he whirled and he threw to third. The guy who had been on second base was playing his first game in the major leagues. He rounded third and goes two or three steps and there’s Pedro Felíz with the ball. The most embarrassed baserunner in the history of baseball – who was sent back to the minors that night! A backdoor double play! It was a 4-6-5 double play. I had never seen it before, and apparently he’s done it more than once. And apparently before that play, a few days before, he had reminded Felíz that this was something he might do. Television followed Vizquel off the field at the end of the half inning, and as he reached the first baseline he broke into laughter. He was so pleased and charmed with what he had just done. It was just a great moment. Now there’s somebody who didn’t need fielding practice.

(more…)

Trudy, A Message to You

 trudy2

Glenn Stout, a longtime favorite here at Bronx Banter, is most famous around these parts for his historical writing, particularly Yankee Century and Red Sox Century. Stout also serves as the series editor for The Best American Sports Writing; his oral history Nine Months at Ground Zero is one of the most fascinating and devastating things I’ve ever read about 9.11.

Stout has a website as well as a blog, and his latest book, Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World,  may be the most interesting project of his career. It is the story of Trudy Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel (read an excerpt here).

I had the chance to talk to Stout about the book. Here is our conversation. Enjoy.
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Bronx Banter: I know you are comfortable writing about history, especially in the first part of the 20th century.  What drew you to Ederle?

Glenn Stout: Her story is seminal, as central to the story of American sports in this century as that of Red Grange, Babe Ruth, Jack Johnson or Jackie Robinson, yet to most people Trudy, aka Gertrude Ederle, is unknown.  I wanted to change that. In many ways she was both the first modern female athlete and one of America’s first celebrities.  Had she not done what she had done, which is not only to become the first woman to swim the English Channel, but in the process to beat the existing men’s record by nearly two hours, the entire history of women’s sports would be radically different.  You can, I think, break down the history of women’s sports in this country into “Before Trudy” and “After Trudy.”   Before Trudy female athletes were anomalies, and their accomplishments, with just a few exceptions, primarily took place out of the public eye.  Many early female athletes, like Eleanora Sears, and Annette Kellerman, were sometimes seen as publicity hounds who performed stunts, and not serious athletes.  The question of whether or not women were either psychologically or physically capable of being athletes was still a topic of debate – at least by the men who ran sports.  Although there would still be some who would stubbornly cling to that belief, by swimming the English Channel and shattering the existing men’s record, Trudy answered that question quite definitively.

She was the answer.  One can argue that had it not been for her women would not have been allowed to compete in track and field and many other sports as early as they did – women competed in track events for the first time at the Olympics in 1928.  It may have been another generation – until after World War II – before there was any acceptance of female athletes.  I am old enough to remember when women could not play little league, or run marathons, and when school sports were pretty much limited to gymnastics and basketball.  Now of course, women can and do play everything.  Without Trudy that happens much later than it did.

Trudy also has a compelling personal story that I think resonates with any reader.  She grew up in New York, the daughter of German immigrants and overcame anti-German prejudice in the wake of World War I to become arguably the most famous woman in the world.  At the same time, she was partially deaf, and was able to overcome that challenge.  Swimming the English Channel, while perceived to be somewhat commonplace today, is still extremely difficult – it was the first “extreme” sport.  More people have climbed Mount Everest than have swum the Channel, and most of those who try to swim the Channel fail.  In most years more people will succeed in climbing Everest than in swimming the Channel.   When I first began to research the book, that really, really surprised me, and made Trudy’s story even more compelling.

 ederledoll

BB: Why isn’t Ederle remembered like Grange, Thorpe, Ruth and the other greats of the first great era of sports? For someone who had such a profound impact, why has her legacy faded?

GS:  Hopefully, my book will help rectify that, but there are several reasons.  Trudy herself soon discovered she just wasn’t cut out for the spotlight.  Within 48 hours of her return to the United States, where New York gave her an enormous ticker tape parade, she was in the fetal position in her bedroom, completely overwhelmed.  She was both slow and reluctant to “cash in” on her achievement.  Her attorney mis-managed her career, turning down easy money for a grueling vaudeville tour.  By the time that got going a male swimmer had broken her record, and a second female swam the Channel, which stole some of her thunder – the public began to think that swimming the Channel was far easier than it is, something that holds true today.  She also had increasing trouble with her hearing – she was partially deaf since a bout with the measles as a child, and that made her less comfortable in the public eye.  And few years after the swim she fell and was virtually bed-ridden for a time. And let’s face it, swimming simply isn’t a big spectator sport like football or baseball.

BB:  What is Ederle’s reputation in the world of women’s swimming? Is she properly recognized?

GS: Swimming historians certainly recognize her as one of the all-time greats, but in a sport like swimming, records have been broken so many times that it is difficult for any swimmer from her era to remain in the public eye.  Her only contemporary recognized b y the public today is Johnny Weissmuller, and that’s because of the Tarzan films.  But in the world of swimming, she has to rank as one of the top seven or eight swimmers of all-time.  No one else combined her success at shorter distances with open water success, and in the world of open water swimming, I think she’s right at the top.  Anyone who has ever swum the Channel, or thought about it, knows about her.

BB:  How did Ederle manage to beat the existing time of swimming the channel by such a great margin? That seems almost inconceivable.

GS:  There are a couple of reasons.  For one, she used a stroke known then as the “American Crawl” essentially what most people recognize as the “freestyle” today.  Her coach with the Women’s Swimming Association was one of the strokes pioneers and its greatest advocate. And although it had been used for about two decades, no one believed it could be used for long distance swimming – it was thought to be too demanding, physically.  Long distance swimmers usually used the breast stroke at the time, with occasional use of the side-stroke and trudgeon.  The crawl was much faster, and Handley recognized that women in general, and Trudy in particular, although not as strong as a man, had just as much stamina.  She was the first swimmer to use the stroke in the Channel, and proved the superiority of the stroke.  Secondly, her trainer for the Channel swim, William Burgess, was a real student of the Channel currents and tides, and he found a somewhat new route across that was something of a breakthrough.  Also, before Trudy most of the people who tried to swim the Channel simply were not great swimmers.  They had great stamina, and desire, but as swimmers were rather pedestrian.  Trudy was world class at every distance from fifty yards on up.  She was simply a far, far, far better swimmer than anyone else who had swam the Channel before.  For a swimmer of her ability to take on the Channel would be the equivalent of Michael Phelps to do so today – if he had her stamina.  And lastly, while Trudy was growing up she spent summers in Highlands, New Jersey, where she spent hours and hours swimming in the ocean.  She developed a very special relationship with the water, once saying “To me, the sea is like a person – like a child that I’ve known a long time. It sounds crazy, I know, but when I swim in the sea I talk to it. I never feel alone when I’m out there.”  When she was swimming, she was in her place, right where she wanted to be, and where others found only torture, she found joy, and when you love what you do, well, there are no limits.

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