From our man Pete, republished with her permission, this story originally appeared in Playboy back in 1988.
By Pete Dexter
Back in the early Sixties, when Floyd Patterson was still heavyweight champion of the world, an intelligent and high-spirited boxing writer named Jack McKinney was passing an afternoon in Darien, Connecticut, with Cus D’Amato, talking, among other things, about Patterson’s upcoming fight with Sonny Liston. D’Amato, of course, was Patterson’s manager. P
In its way, it was a melancholy conversation. The question was not if Liston would win but if Patterson—a limited fighter—would be maimed. D’Amato cared more for the fighter than the title.P
“Cus had vision,” McKinney said, “but he didn’t need it to see what was about to happen to Patterson.”P
And then, after they talked about Patterson and Liston, and the way things were and the way they ought to be, D’Amato leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling and began to talk about a different kind of fighter. P
He told McKinney that if he could find the right athlete—someone with intelligence, concentration, hand speed, coordination and courage, who had never boxed a minute—he could turn that athlete into a world champion.P
The guess is that my friend McKinney—who had once disappeared from his job at thePhiladelphia Daily News for most of a week, only to surface in Sandusky, Ohio, knocking out a professional middleweight fighter in a four-round preliminary—began to think this might be his own shot at the title. But no.P
“He wanted someone fresh, who hadn’t been around boxing,” McKinney said. “Usually, by the time you were good enough to be noticed by Cus, you had acquired habits that couldn’t be changed. Things had been set in motion.”P
D’Amato eventually got such an athlete into the ring, but nothing came of it. At least, not right away.P
Six or seven years after that conversation in Connecticut, a child was born in an unhealthy part of Brooklyn called Bedford-Stuyvesant to a woman named Lorna Tyson. He was the youngest of her three children and the most like her—timid, soft-spoken, shy. He played mostly with his sister. On the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, he was sometimes called “little fairy boy,” and no place outside his apartment was safe for him. When the boy was ten, his mother moved from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Brownsville, which is also in Brooklyn. The neighborhoods are different in that in Brownsville, the weak and the timid are not teased, they are eaten. The boy was beaten up again and again; his shoes were stolen; the little money he had belonged to whoever saw him first. P
He kept pigeons on the roof and called them his “babies.” I am thinking now of his square, dimpled hands stroking and feeding his babies; I am thinking of the revelation that must have come when he finally used them as weapons. The story, of course, has been told. Ten-year-old Michael Tyson, who would turn over his shoes or his coat or his money, drew the line at his pigeons. P
An older boy tried to take one of them away, and Michael began to swing. The revelation was not so much that he won the fight but how much he enjoyed it.P
“I was beating the shit out of this guy,” he said, “and I was so happy. To this day, it makes me happy. The fight itself, when all the talk is over and there is nothing left to say, nothing else to do but fight. That’s the best part, in the ring. The rest of it, being the champion, I don’t get so much pleasure from that as you might think.”P
So young Michael kicked the shit out of the kid who had tried to steal his pigeon; then he kicked the shit out of some of the kids who had stolen his clothes and money; and then he kicked the shit out of a bunch of people who just seemed to need the shit kicked out of them.P
Noticing this, members of the Brownsville community began to include him in their activities. “They held the guns,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1986.”I just put everything in a bag. I was 11.” P
The stealing bothered Michael’s mother, and it bothered the cashiers in the stores that were being held up, and eventually it bothered the police. And so, just when he’d finally adjusted to Brooklyn, Michael found himself moving to the Tyron School for Boys in Upstate New York, which is sort of a prep school for youngsters trying to get into Attica.P
And it was there, at the age of 13, that he met Bobby Stewart, who taught him the fundamentals of boxing. Five years before, Stewart had been the 178-pound national Golden Gloves champion, which is to say he could fight. Within a few months, however, Tyson was giving him all he could handle.P
Stewart took the boy to his friend Cus D’Amato, who watched him spar three rounds, talked with him a few minutes and saw the fighter he had been waiting for all his life.P
D’Amato had become reclusive in the last years, at least as distrustful of the Don Kings and Bob Arums as he had been of guys like Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo back when they owned and operated the sport. He lived in a large farmhouse outside Catskill, New York, overlooking the Hudson River, and trained his fighters in the gym on the third floor of Citizens Hose Company, in town.P
He educated the boy in his house and in his gym; and if you were looking for the difference between Mike Tyson and the other fighters D’Amato had taught, it probably lay in the depth of Tyson’s understanding of the things D’Amato was teaching him.P
It is one thing to know what words mean and accept them, it is another thing to believe them. You may understand intellectually that courage is not a constant in anyone and that discipline is—or can be. Discipline will get you through the times when your courage fades. But for discipline to help when everything inside you is suddenly calling in sick, you have to believe it. It has to be true, or it’s useless. P
So what I mean by teaching is not that D’Amato put anything inside Tyson but that he showed him where it was and how to use it. At any rate, Tyson stayed with D’Amato in the house overlooking the Hudson until the old man died on November 4, 1985. He was 77 years old. Tyson was 19, a professional fighter for only eight months. His mother was dead. He had fought 13 times and knocked 13 people out. Nine in the first round.P
The funeral for Cus D’Amato was held at a Catholic church in Catskill, and among the pallbearers were two men who would guide Mike Tyson the rest of the way to the championship, Kevin Rooney and Jimmy Jacobs. Rooney had been one of D’Amato’s fighters, too—a tenacious welterweight who had fought successfully without exceptional tools—and would take over as Tyson’s trainer.P
Jacobs was one of Tyson’s co-managers and was as devoted to the old man in his way as the kid was. He is the owner—along with Tyson’s other manager, Bill Cayton—of the greatest collection of fight films in existence. The number is close to 26,000. He and D’Amato used to show up in Philadelphia from time to time and show them at benefits for retired fighters. He was also arguably the greatest handball player who ever lived, and perhaps because of his own success as an athlete, he could appreciate boxing and its players the way D’Amato appreciated it—in a pure way, for the sport itself. Jacobs did not need to see himself in its reflection—not now, not back in the Sixties, when D’Amato had talked with him, just as he had talked with McKinney, about taking an athlete who had never fought a round and turning him into a world champion. The difference being that the athlete D’Amato had sought was Jacobs himself.P
A year and two weeks after D’Amato’s funeral, Jacobs and Rooney had Mike Tyson in a boxing ring at the Las Vegas Hilton with a heavyweight fighter named Trevor Berbick, whom you would call undistinguished, except that he happened to be the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion of the world.P
Berbick had once survived 15 rounds with Larry Holmes—the first man to do that after Holmes became champion—but he hadn’t tried to win, only to last; and in the end, the distinction of staying 15 rounds was forfeit to his lack of ambition.P
At any rate, it was the wrong night for Berbick to try to make things right. The wrong night and the wrong ring and the wrong opponent. You never know what gets into somebody else’s head, but Berbick went right at Tyson—a man with twice his ability—tried to back him up, and in two rounds he was gone.P
And Mike Tyson, 20 years old, was the youngest heavyweight champion in the history of the sport. That night, he said he felt Cus watching.P
I don’t know.P
I’ve never been much of a believer in being watched by the dead, but I do know that Michael Spinks, the man who had taken Larry Holmes’s International Boxing Federation title, was watching at ringside and shortly afterward backed out of the contract he had signed with Home Box Office to fight the winner of a heavyweight-champion elimination match between Tyson and the World Boxing Association champion.P
On one hand, you cannot fault Spinks. One minute, you’re fighting Tyson, the next, you’re up there with Cus, watching the doctors work over your body. P
On the other hand, what Spinks did seemed to drop him into the same category as the other heavyweight “champions” of recent years—guys like Berbick and Pinklon Thomas and Greg Page and Tim Witherspoon and Bonecrusher Smith and Michael Dokes—who had cheapened what was once the most prestigious title in sports until it had no meaning.P
You cannot talk about cheapening the heavyweight title, of course, without mentioning the three ruling bodies of boxing—the W.B.C., the W.B.A. and the I.B.F., each of which has the integrity of a Cleveland pimp. In the long years since boxing was divided into ruling bodies, you sometimes forgot that being heavyweight champion of the world was once a serious job.P
And part of what Tyson holds out is a return to that. It is part of his appeal, a return to a time when the heavyweight champion of the world could fight.P
The night I decided to write a piece on Mike Tyson, I was sitting on the couch watching theDick Cavett Show with my dog McGuire. I have been trying to teach the animal the rudiments or house watching for a long time, without results.P
The scarier somebody looks, the friendlier he gets. A Hell’s Angel once gave him a hamburger at a Burger King and he never forgot it.P
So you start at the other end, with a twerp.”You see that guy in the suit’” I said to him when Cavett came on. “Anybody like that comes near the house, you fuck him up, all right? Him and his suit.” P
McGuire studied the set a long time, memorizing Dick Cavett. I had the sudden thought that l might get him on David Letterman’s show, which features a segment called “Stupid Pet Tricks.”P
“Well, Dave, McGuire here fucks up Dick Cavett…” and they bring Cavett in, and the dog breaks his legs. Then I take him to Burger King as a reward.P
And so, not wanting to distract the dog from Dick Cavett, I left the television on and went into the kitchen for some Oreo cookies, which McGuire loves. If a Hell’s Angel had given him an Oreo cookie, he’d be riding around on the back of a Harley right now.P
Anyway, by the time I got back to the couch, Cavett was talking with Mike Tyson, dazzling him with that precious twerp wit. And then Cavett, in as memorable an attack of little man’s disease as I have ever seen, stood up, in front of a television audience that must have run into the thousands, and induced Tyson to try to hold on to his (Cavett’s) wrists.P
Tyson moaned. You could see he did not want to grab Dick Cavett’s wrists; you could see he was embarrassed by what was happening.P
Tyson took his wrists.P
“Now hold on,” Cavett said.P
Tyson held on.P
Cavett made an oblique reference to his 80-some-year-old martial-arts instructor and then moved his arm against the place where Tyson’s thumb met his fingers and pulled free. This, obviously, is invaluable stuff to anyone grabbed by the wrists on television and, just as obviously, means that hidden underneath the wonderful suit and all that wit is a very dangerous guy who can probably handle himself with the ladies, too.P
And I wondered, sitting there as McGuire finished the Oreos, what a 20-year-old kid made of rich little white guys who wanted him to hold on to their wrists, and decided to ask.P
I caught up with Mike Tyson a month or two later in Catskill, New York. It was two months before the fight with Bonecrusher Smith, his first day in the gym since taking the title from Berbick.P
The gym had once been an auditorium, and Tyson was undressing in a room off to one side of the stage. Jeans, a sweat shirt, tennis shoes. I think there was an American flag in the corner. One of the truly horrifying things about Tyson is that in loose clothes, he looks pudgy, like somebody you might pick on in a bar. Alright, that is not exactly all of it.P
What is horrifying is the similarity to the movie Alien, in which Sigourney Weaver and a bunch of ordinary guys are sitting around having lunch in space when all of a sudden, one of them goes into convulsions and this awful thing eats its way out of his chest and leaves him lying there in his plate. I mean, you’re just naturally terrified to find out somebody you might know has something like that inside. P
And there is something like that inside Tyson, and he isn’t the one who gets eaten.P
Anyway, thoughts of pudginess disappear as he takes off his shirt. He is not the most muscular heavyweight I have seen, but there has never been another, at least to my knowledge, who carried as much muscle and could fight as long without seeming to tire. A lot of that is conditioning, of course, but a lot of it is simply a gift, like speed or natural power.P
Tyson covers his chest and arms in grease and then slips into a black leotard. “I like this,” he said. “It feels good.”P
I ask him then, while he’s tying his boots, what it’s like to grow up in the streets, get saved by Cus D’Amato and turned into a professional fighter, fight all the way to the top and knock out Trevor Berbick in two rounds for the title and then have Dick Cavett get up on national television and ask you to hold his wrists. P
“That didn’t bother me much,” he said in that familiar soft voice. “I think they must pay him to act like that; I don’t know why. There’s always somebody wanting to tell you something about a fight they had—might go back to sixth grade. I don’t pay too much attention. Or they tell you how bad they were, but their mother made them stop boxing. I don’t know what to say to somebody like that. I don’t even know for sure what they want.P
“I’m a serious person, but I don’t take this for more than it is. I like the fights themselves; I love that moment before it starts when you’re scared and excited and you know it’s time. The talk doesn’t mean much. I’m not going to tell anybody how bad I am; I’ll do that in the ring.P
“And when I’m through in the ring, that’s it. I’ll find something else. You’ve got such a short time. You can’t go around being the legendary champion because that’s what people expect you to be.” P
That is one of the things that bother Tyson about his celebrity—the obligations to people he does not know. “Society puts these things on you,” he said. “Some of them are saying you are insensitive to be part of this brutality; they don’t know the first thing about who you are. At the same time, here are all these articulate people they look up to, sitting in the best seats at the fight. What about that?P
“I do not see that I’ve got to be the focus of a bunch of bullshit. I do what I do. You’ll never hear anybody leaving this camp thinking anything bad about me. I don’t try to hurt anybody in the gym; I leave the 16-ounce gloves on, even if somebody else is wearing 12s. I will always put myself at the disadvantage; that’s when you learn. P
“I have my fights, and people say things about them. About me. But you can’t confuse that with what I am and what I do. Fighting is all I do, but I’m something else besides the fighter.”P
And somehow, that is at the core of things. Think of the heavyweights over the past 30 years. Patterson, who hid behind beards and sunglasses after Liston beat him, and never really quit hiding. Liston, dead from an overdose, probably murdered. Muhammad Ali, the best and the brightest, fogged in and showing up from time to time with Evil Knievel. Joe Frazier, who never learned to live with his losses to Ali, sending his own kids into the ring with Larry Holmes and then with Tyson, when the kid had no chance. Holmes, who has never learned to live on the same planet as Ali, and, assuming his comeback fight with Tyson comes off, never learned from him, either. Leon Spinks.P
All of them out of place in the world, because after the ring they had no place.P
A few minutes later, Tyson is in the ring. The fighter with him is a new sparring partner, who has come in with his trainer. I do not know exactly what the fighter and his trainer have in mind for the afternoon, but as soon as they see that Tyson spars without headgear, the sparring partner removes his.P
He begins the round moving to his left, away from Tyson’s hook, throwing jabs. There is some feeling that Tyson is vulnerable to a fighter who moves and can jab, and the sparring partner is clearly here to take some rounds from the champion. P
Fifteen seconds into the round, however, Tyson throws a jab of his own—it is not a slow punch, but it carries all his weight—and staggers the sparring partner. The sparring partner is shocked; I am shocked. Tyson isn’t supposed to have a jab.P
The first fighter who took Tyson the distance, in fact, was a man named Quick Tillis, and Tyson went 10 rounds that night without throwing any jabs that I remember. If he had thrown jabs, Tillis would not have been there at the end.P
The hand is gone from the sparring partner’s face less than half a second when it returns from the side—a hook, and then a right hand. A minute and a half into the round, the new sparring partner is holding his head, defenseless, and Tyson, not wanting to embarrass him, pulls his punches and holds, giving him time to recover; but the new sparring partner has lost interest, and Tyson stops altogether.P
For the ten or 15 seconds it takes the sparring partner to get through the ropes, Tyson ignores him. It is exactly as if he wasn’t there.P
Another sparring partner comes into the ring, a good-natured journeyman heavyweight named Irish Mike Jameson, who goes the rest of that round and two more. Jameson is not quick enough, but he takes a punch well and is not afraid to mix it up.P
He is the kind of fighter who makes Tyson look unbeatable, which right now he may be. No one in the division boxes well enough to keep him off—witness Tyrell Biggs—no one with enough power and speed to stand in one spot and trade.P
Three times in Tyson’s career—against Quick Tillis, Mitch Green and Bonecrusher Smith—he has been taken to a decision, but each of those opponents gave up on winning early (if any considered winning) and held on to Tyson for the entire fight.P
You cannot win like that, of course, but you get to live.P
At least for now. It would seem to be only a matter of time before Tyson reacts better to holding, giving up some of the powerful arc punches for shorter, straighter jabs and rights. It is a harder proposition to hold on to someone who is three feet away, on the other side of the fist, than it is to hold someone who is standing under your chin, trying to reach your head with off-angle hooks. But I’m going to leave that end of things to Tyson and Rooney.P
What I am more interested in is what happens after that.P
Tyson is still a kid.P
He seems to know things that 21-year-old kids shouldn’t know, and some of that—most of it—comes from Cus D’Amato.P
In the end, though, you drive your own wagon. When the training and the fighting are over, when things are not clean-cut, the way they are in the ring, and the old man’s words are not so fresh, it will be easier to talk about who Tyson is. I know this much about it—there will be something to talk about.P
Tyson is smart; he feels things; he has standards.P
D’Amato did not teach that; he helped him find it.P
The old man was a visionary, and it did not begin or end with boxing. When he saw Tyson, I think he saw the rarest kind of heavyweight there is:P
Here’s a powerful story from my pal Paul Solotaroff. It originally appeared in the Village Voice (1990) and it is presented here with the author’s permission.
“The Power and the Gory”
By Paul Solotaroff
Half the world was in mortal terror of him. He had a sixty-inch chest, twenty-three-inch arms, and when the Anadrol and Bolasterone backed up in his bloodstream, his eyes went as red as the laser scope on an Uzi. He threw people through windows, and chased them madly down Hempstead Turnpike when they had the temerity to cut him off. And in the gym he owned in Farmingdale, the notorious Mr. America’s, if he caught you looking at him while he trained, you generally woke up, bleeding, on the pavement outside. Half out of his mind on androgens and horse steroids, he had this idea that being looked at robbed him of energy, energy that he needed to leg-press two thousand pounds. Nonetheless, one day a kid walked up to him between sets and said, “I want to be just like you, Steve Michalik. I want to be Mr. America and Mr. Universe.”
“Yeah?” said Michalik in thick contempt. “How bad do you think you want it?”
“Worse than anything in the world,” said the kid, a scrawny seven-teen-year-old with more balls than biceps. “I can honestly say that I would die for a body like yours.”
“Well, then you probably will,” snorted Michalik. “Meet me down at the beach tomorrow at six A.M. sharp. And if you’re like even half a minute late …”
The kid was there at six A.M. pronto, freezing his ass off in a raggedy hood and sweats. “What do we do first?” he asked.
“Swim,” grunted Michalik, dragging him into the ocean. Twenty yards out, Michalik suddenly seized the kid by his scalp and pushed him under a wave. The kid flailed punily, wriggling like a speared eel. A half minute, maybe forty-five seconds, passed before Michalik let the kid up, sobbing out sea water. He gave the kid a breath, then shoved him down again, holding him under this time until the air bubbles stopped, whereupon he dragged him out by the hood and threw him, gasping, on the beach.
“When you want the title as bad as you wanted that last fucking breath,” sneered Michalik, “then and only then can you come talk to me.”
For himself, Michalik only wanted two things anymore. He wanted to walk on stage at the Beacon Theater on November 15, 1986, professional bodybuilding’s Night of Champions, and just turn the joint out with his 260 pounds of ripped, stripped, and shrink-wrapped muscle. And then, God help him, he wanted to die. Right there, in front of everybody, with all the flashbulbs popping, be wanted to drop dead huge and hard at the age of thirty-nine, and leave a spectacular corpse behind.
The pain, you see, had become just unendurable. Ten years of shot-gunning steroids had turned his joints into fish jelly and spiked his blood pressure so high he had to pack his nose to stop the bleeding. He’d been pissing blood for months, and what was coming out of him now was brown, pure protoplasm that his engorged liver hadn’t the wherewithal to break down. And when he came home from the gym at night, his whole body was in spasm. His eight-year-old boy, Steve Junior, had to pack his skull in ice, trying to take the top 10 percent off his perpetual migraine.
“I knew it was all over for me,” Michalik says. “Every system in my body was shot, my testicles had shrunk to the size of cocktail peanuts. It was only a question of which organ was going to explode on me first.
“See, we’d all of us [professional bodybuilders] been way over the line for years, and it was like, suddenly, all the bills were coming in. Victor Faizowitz took so much shit that his brain exploded. The Aldactazone [a diuretic] sent his body temperature up to one hundred twelve degrees, and he literally melted to death. Another guy, an Egyptian bodybuilder training for the Mr. Universe contest, went the same way, a massive hemorrhage from head to toe—died bleeding out of every orifice. And Tommy Sansone, a former Mr. America who’d been my very first mentor in the gym, blew out his immune system on Anadrol and D-ball [Dianabol], and died of tumors all over his body.
“As for me, I couldn’t wait to join ‘em. I had so much evil in me from all the drugs I was taking that I’d go home at night and ask God why be hadn’t killed me yet. And then, in the next breath, I’d say, ‘Please, I know I’ve done a lot of terrible things—sold steroids to kids, beaten the shit out of strangers—but please don’t let me go out like a sucker, God. Please let me die hitting that last pose at the Beacon, with the crowd on its feet for a second standing O.’”
Michalik’s prayers might better have been addressed to a liver specialist. Two weeks before the show, he woke up the house at four in the morning with an excruciating pain beneath his rib cage. His wife, Thomasina, long since practiced at such emergencies, ran off to fetch some ice.
“Fuck the ice,” he groaned. “Call Dr. Ludwig.”
Dr. Arthur Ludwig, a prominent endocrinologist who had been treating Michalik on and off for a number of years, was saddened but unsurprised by the call. “Frankly,” he told Michalik, “I’ve been expecting it now for ages. Your friends have been telling me lately how bad you’ve been abusing the stuff, especially for the last five years.”
That he certainly had. Instead of cycling on and off of steroids, giving his body here and there a couple months’ recuperation, Michalik had been juicing pretty much constantly since 1976, shooting himself with fourteen different drugs and swallowing copious amounts of six or seven others. Then there was all the speed he was gulping—bennies, black beauties—to get through his seven-hour workouts, and the handful of downs at night to catch four hours of tortuous sleep.
There, at any rate, Michalik was, doubled over in bed at four in the morning, his right side screaming like a bomb had gone off in it.
“You’d better get him to New York Hospital as fast as you can,” Ludwig told Michalik’s wife over the phone. “They’ve got the best liver specialist on the East Coast there. I’ll meet you in his office in an hour.”
At the hospital, they pumped Michalik full of morphine and took a hasty sonogram upstairs. The liver specialist, a brusque Puritan who’d been apprised of Michalik’s steroid usage, called him into his office.
“See this?” he pointed to the sonogram, scarcely concealing a sneer. “This is what’s left of your liver, Mr. Michalik. And these”—indicating the four lumps grouped inside it, one of them the size of a ripe grapefruit—”these are hepatic tumors. You have advanced liver cancer, sir.”
“I do?” grinned Michalik, practically hugging himself for joy. “How long you think I’ve got?”
“Mr. Michalik, do you understand what I’m telling you?” snapped the doctor, apparently miffed that his news hadn’t elicited operatic grief. “You have cancer, and will be dead within weeks or days if I don’t operate immediately. And frankly, your chances of surviving surgery are—”
“Surgery!” blurted Michalik, looking at the man as if he were bonkers. “You’re not coming near me with a knife. That would leave a scar.” The doctor was with perfect justice about to order Michalik out of his office when Ludwig walked in. He took a long look at the sonogram and announced that surgery was out of the question. Michalik’s liver was so compromised, he would undoubtedly die on the table. Besides, Ludwig adjudged, those weren’t tumors at all. They were something rarer by far but no less deadly: steroid-induced cysts, or thick sacs of blood and muscle, that were full to bursting—and growing.
He ordered Michalik strapped down—the least movement now could perforate the cysts—and wheeled upstairs to intensive care. The next twenty-four hours, he declared, would tell the tale. If, deprived of steroids, the cysts stopped growing, there was a small chance that Michalik might come out of this. If, on the other hand, they fed on whatever junk he’d injected the last couple of days—well, he’d get his wish, at any rate, to die huge.
Michalik knew it was the liver, of course. He might have been heedless, but he was hardly uninformed. In fact, he knew so much about steroids that he’d written a manual on their use, and gone on the Today show to debate doctors about their efficacy. Like the steroid gurus of southern California, Michalik was a self-taught sorcerer whose laboratory was his body. From the age of eleven, he’d read voraciously in biochemistry, obsessed about finding out what made people big. He walked the streets of Brooklyn as a teenager, knocking on physicians’ doors, begging to be made enlightened about protein synthesis. And years later he scoured the Physicians’ Desk Reference from cover to cover, searching not for steroids but for other classes of drugs whose secondary function was to grow muscle.
Steroids, Michalik knew, were a kind of God’s play, a way of rewriting his own DNA. He’d grown up skinny and hating himself to his very cell level. According to Michalik, his father, a despotic drunk with enormous forearms, beat him with whatever was close to hand, and smashed his face, for fun, into a plate of mashed potatoes.
“I was small and weak, and my brother Anthony was big and graceful, and my old man made no bones about loving him and hating me,” Michalik recalls. “The minute I walked in from school, it was, ‘You worthless little shit, what are you doing home so early?’ His favorite way to torture me was to tell me he was going to put me in a home. We’d be driving along in Brooklyn somewhere, and we’d pass a building with iron bars on the windows, and he’d stop the car and say to me, ‘Get out. This is the home we’re putting you in.’ I’d be standing there, sobbing on the curb—I was maybe eight or nine at the time—and after a while he’d let me get back into the car and drive off laughing at his little joke.”
Fearful and friendless throughout childhood—even his brother was leery of being seen with him—Michalik hid out in comic books and Steve Reeves movies, burning to become huge and invulnerable. At thirteen, he scrubbed toilets in a Vic Tanny spa just to be in the presence of that first generation of iron giants—Eddie Juliani and Leroy Colbert, among others. At twenty, stationed at an Air Force base in Southeast Asia, he ignored sniper fire and the 120-degree heat to bench-press a cinder-block barbell in an open clearing, telling the corps psychiatrist that he couldn’t be killed because it was his destiny to become Mr. America. And at thirty-four, years after he’d forgotten where be put all his trophies, he was still crawling out of bed at two in the morning to eat his eighth meal of the day because he still wasn’t big enough. As always, there was that fugitive inch or two missing, that final heft without which he wouldn’t even take his shirt off on the beach—for fear that everyone would laugh.
And so, of course, there were steroids. They’d been around since at least the mid-1930s, when Hitler had them administered to his SS thugs to spike their bloodlust. By the fifties, the eastern bloc nations were feeding them to school kids, creating a generation of bioengineered athletes. And in the late sixties, anabolics hit the beaches of California, as U.S. drug companies discovered that there was a vast new market out there of kids who’d swallow anything to double their pecs and their pleasure.
The dynamics of anabolic steroids have been pretty well understood for years. Synthetic variations of the male hormone testosterone, they enter the bloodstream as chemical messengers and attach themselves to muscle cells. Once attached to these cells, they deliver their twofold message: grow, and increase endurance.
Steroids accomplish the first task by increasing the synthesis of protein. In sufficient quantities, they turn the body into a kind of fusion engine, converting everything, including fat, into mass and energy. A chemical bodybuilder can put on fifty pounds of muscle in six months because most of the 6,000 to 10,000 calories he eats a day are incorporated, not excreted.
The second task—increasing endurance—is achieved by stimulating the synthesis of a molecule called creatine phosphate, or CP. CP is essentially hydraulic fluid for muscles, allowing them to do more than just a few seconds’ work. The more CP you have in your tank, the more power you generate. Olympic weightlifters and defensive linemen have huge stockpiles of CP, some portion of which is undoubtedly genetic. The better part of it, though, probably comes out of a bottle of Anadrol, a popular oral steroid that makes you big, strong, and savage—and not necessarily in that order.
Over the course of eleven years, Michalik had taken ungodly amounts of Anadrol. If his buddies were taking two 50 mg tablets a day, he took four. Six weeks later, when he started to plateau, he jacked the ante to eight. So, too, with Dianabol, another brutal oral steroid. Where once a single 5 mg pill sufficed, inevitably he was gulping ten or twelve of them a day, in conjunction with the Anadrol.
The obstacle here was his immune system, which was stubbornly going on about its business, neutralizing these poisons with antibodies and shutting down receptor sites on the muscle cells. No matter. Michalik, upping the dosage, simply overwhelmed his immune system, and further addled it by flooding his bloodstream with other drugs.
All the while, of course, he was cognizant of the damage done. He knew, for instance, that Anadrol, like all oral steroids, was utter hell on the liver. An alkylated molecule with a short carbon chain, it had to be hydralized, or broken down, within twenty-four hours. This put enormous stress on his liver, which had thousands of other chemical transactions to carry out every day, not the least of which was processing the waste from his fifty pounds of new muscle. The Physicians’ Desk Reference cautions that the smallest amounts of Anadrol may be toxic to the liver, even in patients taking it for only a couple of months for anemia:
WARNING: MAY CAUSE PELIOSIS HEPATIS, A CONDITION IN WHICH LIVER TISSUE IS REPLACED WITH BLOOD-FILLED CYSTS, OFTEN CAUSING LIVER FAILURE. . . . OFTEN NOT RECOGNIZED UNTIL LIFE-THREATENING LIVER FAILURE OR INTRA-ABDOMINAL HEMORRHAGE OCCURS. . . . FATAL MALIGNANT LIVER TUMORS ARE ALSO REPORTED.
As lethal as it was, however, Anadrol was like a baby food compared to some of the other stuff Michalik was taking. On the bodybuilding black market, where extraordinary things are still available, Michalik and some of his buddies bought the skulls of dead monkeys. Cracking them open with their bare hands, they drank the hormone-rich fluid that poured out of the hypothalamus gland. They filled enormous syringes with a French supplement called Triacana and, aiming for the elusive thyroid gland, shot it right into their necks. They took so much Ritalin before workouts to psych themselves up that one of Michalik’s training partners, a former Mr. Eastern USA, ran out of the gym convinced that he could stop a car with his bare hands. He stood in the passing lane of the Hempstead Turnpike, his feet spread shoulder-width apart, bracing for the moment of impact—and got run over like a dog by a Buick Skylark, both his legs and arms badly broken.
Why, knowing what he knew about these poisons, did Michalik continue taking them? Because he, as well as his buddies and so many thousands of other bodybuilders and football players, were fiercely and progressively addicted to steroids. The American medical community is currently divided about whether or not the stuff is addictive. These are the same people who declared, after years of thorough study, that steroids do not grow muscle. Bodybuilders are still splitting their sides over that howler. Michalik, however, is unamused.
“First, those morons at the AMA say that steroids don’t work, which anyone who’s ever been inside a gym knows is bullshit,” he snorts. “Then, ten years later, they tell us they’re deadly. Oh, now they’re deadly? Shit, that was like the FDA seal of approval for steroids. C’mon, everybody, they must be good for you—the AMA says they’ll kill you!
“Somehow, I don’t know how, I escaped getting addicted to them the first time, when I was training for the Mr. America in 1972. Maybe it was because I was on them for such a short stretch, and went relatively light on the stuff. Mostly, all it amounted to was a shot in the ass once a week from a doctor in Roslyn. I never found out what was in that shot, but Jesus, did it make me crazy. Here I was, a churchgoing, gentle Catholic, and suddenly I was pulling people out of restaurant booths and threatening to kill them just because there were no other tables open. I picked up a three-hundred-pound railroad tie and caved in the side of some guy’s truck with it because I thought he’d insulted my wife. I was a nut, a psycho, constantly out of control—and then, thank God, the contest came, and I won it and got off the juice, and suddenly became human again. I retired, and devoted myself entirely to my wife for all the hell I’d put her through, and swore I’d never go near that shit again!”
A couple of years later, however, something happened that sent him back to the juice, and this time there was no getting off it. “I’d bought Thomasina a big house in Farmingdale, and filled it with beautiful things , and was happier than I’d ever been in my life. And then one day I found out she’d been having an affair. I was worse than wiped out, my soul was ripped open. It had taken me all those years to finally feel like I was a man, to get over all the things my father had done to me … and she cut my fucking heart out.”
Michalik went back to the gym, where he’d always solved all his problems, and started seeing someone we’ll call Dr. X. A physician and insider in the subculture, for two decades Dr. X had been supplying bodybuilders with all manner of steroids in exchange for sexual favors. Michalik hit him up for a stack of prescriptions, but made it clear that he couldn’t accommodate the doctor sexually, to the latter’s keen disappointment. The two, however, worked out a satisfactory compromise. Michalik, the champion bodybuilder who was constantly being consulted by young wannabes, directed some of them posthaste to the tender governance of Dr. X.
“They had to find out sooner or later that the road to the title went through Dr. X’s office,” Michalik shrugs. “Nobody on this coast was gonna get to be competition size unless they put out for him—that, or they had a daddy in the pharmaceutical business. The night Dr. X first tried to seduce me, he showed me pictures of five different champions that he said he’d had sex with. I checked it out later and found out it was all true. Nice business, isn’t it, professional bodybuilding? More pimps and whores than Hollywood.”
Michalik didn’t care about any of that, however. Nor did he care if he went crazy or got addicted to steroids. “I didn’t care if I fucking died from ‘em. All I cared about was getting my body back. I was down to one hundred fifty pounds, which was my natural body weight, and no one in the gym even knew who I was. Big guys were screaming at me, ‘Get off that bench, you little punk, I wanna use it!’ Three months later, I’m two hundred pounds and bench-pressing four hundred, and the same guys are coming over to me, going, ‘Hey, aren’t you Steve Michalik? When did you get here?’ And I’d tell ‘em, ‘I’ve been here for the last three months, motherfucker. I’m the guy you pushed offa that bench over there, remember?’”
By that third month, he recalls, he was hopelessly hooked on steroids, unable to leave the house without “gulping three of something, and taking a shot of something else. I’d get out of bed in the morning feeling weak and sick, and stagger around, going, ‘Where’s my shit?’ I was a junkie and I knew it and I hated myself for it. But what I hated much, much more was not getting to Dr. X’s office. He had the real hot shit—Primobolan, Parabolin—that you couldn’t get anywhere else. They were so powerful you felt them immediately in your muscles, and tasted them for hours on your lips. My heart would start pounding, and the blood would come pouring out of my nose, but he’d just pack it with cotton and send me on my way.
“Suddenly, all I was doing was living and dying for those shots. I was totally obsessed about seeing him, I’d have terrible panic attacks on the subway, my brain would be racing—was I going to make it up to his office before I fell down? I was throwing people out of my way, shoving ‘em into poles, practically knocking the door down before we pulled into the station.
“Understand, there was no justification for the things I did; not my wife’s affair, not what had happened to me as a kid—nothing. I was an adult, I knew what I was doing, at least at the beginning, and when you add it all up, I deserve to have died from it.
“But I want you to understand what it’s like to just completely lose yourself. To get buried in something so deep that you think the only way out is to die. Those ten years, it was like I was trapped inside a robot body, watching myself do horrible things, and yelling, ‘Stop! Stop!’ but I couldn’t even slow down. It was always more drugs, and more side effects, and more drugs for the side effects. For ten years, I was just an animal on stimulus-response.”
He flew to London in the fall of 1975 for the Mr. Universe show, already so sick from the steroids and the eight meals a day that he could scarcely make it up the stairs to the stage. “I had a cholesterol level of over 400, my blood pressure was 240 over 110—but, Jesus Christ, I was a great-looking corpse. No one had ever seen anything like me on stage before, I had absolutely perfect symmetry: nineteen-inch arms, nineteen-inch calves, and a fifty-four-inch chest that was exactly twice the size of my thighs. The crowd went bazongo, the judges all loved me—and none of it, not even the title, meant shit to me. Joy, pride, any sense of satisfaction—the drugs wiped all of that out of me. The only feeling I was capable of anymore was deep, deep hatred.”
Michalik went home, threw his trophy into a closet, and began training maniacally for the Mr. Olympia show, bodybuilding’s most prestigious event. He’d invented a training regimen called “Intensity/Insanity,” which called for seventy sets per body part instead of the customary ten. This entailed a seven-hour workout and excruciating pain, but the steroids, he found, turned that pain into pleasure, “a huge release of all the pressure built up inside me, the rage and the energy.”
And with whatever rage and energy he had left, he ran his wife’s panicked lover out of town, and completed his revenge by impregnating her “so that there’d be two Steve Michalik’s in the world to oppress her.” Spotlessly faithful to her for the first ten years of their marriage, he began nailing everyone he could get his hands on now, thanks in no small part to his daily dosage of Halotestin, a steroid whose chief side effect was a constant—and conspicuous—erection. He was also throwing down great heaps of Clomid and HCG, two fertility drugs for women that, in men, stimulate the production of testosterone.
“Bottom line, I was insatiable, and acting it out all over the place. I had girlfriends in five different towns in Long Island, and one day I was so hormone-crazed I fucked ‘em all, one right after the other. Suddenly, I saw why there was so much rampant sex in this business, why the elite bodybuilders always had two or three girls in their hotel room, or were making thousands of dollars a weekend at private gay parties. In fact, one of my friends in the business, a former Mr. America, used to get so horny on tour that he’d fuck the Coke machine in his hotel. Swear to God, he’d stick his dick right in the change slot and bang it for all he was worth. I’m telling you, my wife saw him do this, she can vouch for it. He fucked those machines from coast to coast, and even had ratings for them. I seem to remember the Chicago Hyatt’s being pretty high up there on the list.”
Hot, in any event, off his win in the Mr. Universe, and absolutely galactic now at 250 pounds, he was the consensus pick among his peers to put an end to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reign as Mr. Olympia and begin a five- or six-year run of his own. He had even prepped himself to follow Ahnuld into show business, taking two years of acting lessons and a year of speech at Weiss-Baron Studios in Manhattan. One of the networks approached him about hosting a science show. George Butler and Charles Gaines filmed him extensively for Pumping Iron, the definitive bodybuilding flick that put Schwarzenegger on the map in Hollywood.
And then, driving himself to the airport for the Mr. Olympia show that November, Michalik suddenly ran into something bigger than steroids. A tractor-trailer driver, neglecting to check his mirror, veered into Michalik’s lane on Route 109 and ran right over the hood of his Mustang. Michalik was dragged twenty yards into an embankment; the Mustang crumpled up around him. When they finally sawed him out of it two hours later, he had four cracked discs and a torn sciatic nerve, and was completely paralyzed from the waist down.
The bad news, said the surgeon after a battery of X-rays, was that Michalik would never walk again. The good news was that with a couple of operations, the pain could be substantially mitigated. Michalik told him to get the fuck out of his room. For months he lay in traction, refusing medication, and with his free arm went on injecting himself with testosterone, which had with him in a black bag at the time of the accident, and which the hospital had so thoughtfully put on his bedside table.
“It was hilarious. The idiot doctors kept coming in and going. ‘Gee, your blood pressure seems awfully high, Mr. Michalik,’ and I’d just lay there with a straight face and go, ‘Well, I have been very tense, you know, since the accident’
“Meanwhile, for the one and only time in my life, the steroids were actually helping me. They speeded up the healing, which is actually their medical purpose, and kept enough size on me so that the nurses used to fight over who was supposed to wash me every day. I started getting a little sensation back in my right leg, enough so that when the doctor told me he’d send me home if I could stand up, I managed to fake it by standing on one leg.”
There, however, the progress halted, and Michalik, unspeakably depressed, lay in bed for a year, bloating on steroids and chocolate chip cookies. He got a call from the TV people, telling him that they’d hired Leonard Nimoy to replace him on the science show. He got another one from the producers of Pumping Iron, informing him that he’d been all but cut out of the film. Worst of all, his friends and training partners jumped ship on him, neither calling nor coming by to see him.
“So typical of bodybuilders,” he sneers. “‘Hey, Michalik’s crippled, I gotta go see him—nah, it’s Tuesday, chest-and-back day. Fuck him.’ But the real reason, I think, was they couldn’t stand to see one of their own hurt. In order to keep on doing what they’re doing—the drugs, the binge eating, the sex-for-money—they’ve gotta keep lying to themselves, saying, ‘I can’t be hurt, I can’t get sick. I’m Superman. Cancer is afraid to live in my body.’”
About the only person who didn’t abandon him was his kid brother, Paulie, an adopted eight-year-old who utterly worshipped Michalik. “He used to come into my room every day and massage my legs, going, ‘You feel anything yet? You feel it?’ He’s stubborn like me. He just refused to give up, he kept saying, ‘You’re a champion, Steve, you’re my hero, you’re gonna be back.’
“And then one day we’re watching TV, and a pro bodybuilding show comes on. This was 1978, and the networks had started up a Grand Prix tour to cash in on the fad after Pumping Iron. I’m watching all the guys and just going crazy, wishing I could just get up on stage against ‘em one more time, and Paulie goes, ‘You can do it, Steve. You can come back and whip those guys. I’ll help you in the gym.’”
Aroused, Michalik called an old friend, Julie Levine, and begged him for the keys to his new gym in Amityville. The next night, he got out of bed at 2 A.M. and scuttled to the window, where Paulie assisted him over the sash. Crawling across the lawn to his wife’s car, Michalik got in the driver’s seat and pushed his dead legs back, making room for his little brother beneath the steering wheel. As he steered, Paulie worked the gas and brake pedals with his hands, and in this manner they accomplished the ten miles to Amityville.
In the gym, Paulie dragged him from machine to machine, helping him push the weight stacks up. Michalik’s upper body responded quickly—muscle had remarkable memory—but his legs, particularly the left one, lay there limp as old celery. After several months, however, the pain started up in them. Sharp and searing, it was as if someone had stuck a fork in his sciatic nerve. Michalik, a self-made master of pain couldn’t have been happier if he’d hit the lottery.
“The doctors all told me it would be ten years, if ever, for the nerve to come back, and here it was howling like a monster. I kicked up the dosages of all the stuff I was taking, and started attacking the weights instead of just lifting ‘em. Six months later, the pain was so bad I still could barely straighten up—but I was leg-pressing seven hundred and eight hundred pounds, and my thighs were as big as a bear’s.”
And a year after that, he walked on stage in Florida, an unadvertised guest poser at the end of a Grand Prix show. The crowd, recognizing a miracle when it saw one, went berserk as Michalik modeled those thirty-four-inch thighs, each of which was considerably wider than his twenty-seven-inch waist. Schwarzenegger, in the broadcast booth doing color for ABC, was overwhelmed. “I don’t believe what I am seeing,” he gasped. “It’s Steve Michalik, the phantom bodybuilder!”
There Michalik should have left it. He was alive, and ambulatory, and his cult status was set. Thanks to Arnie, he would be forever known as the Phantom Bodybuilder, a tag he could have turned into a merchandising gold mine, and retired.
But like a lot of other steroid casualties, Michalik couldn’t stop pushing his luck. He had to keep going, had to keep growing, testing the limits of his skeleton and the lining of his liver. If he’d gotten galactic, he figured, on last year’s drugs, there was no telling how big he could get on this year’s crop. A new line of killer juice was coming out of southern California—Hexalone, Bolasterone, Dehydralone—preposterously toxic compounds that sent the liver into warp drive but which grew hard, mature muscle right before your very eyes. Sexier still, there was that new darling of the pro circuit, human growth hormone, and who knew where the ceiling even began on that stuff?
Instead of pulling over, then, Michalik put the hammer down. He joined the Grand Prix tour immediately after the show in Florida and began the brutal grind of doing twelve shows annually. Before the tour, top bodybuilders did five shows a year, tops—the Mr. Olympia, the Night of Champions, and two or three others in Europe—which gave them several months to recuperate from the drugs and heavy training. Now, thanks to TV, they had to do a show a month. The pace was quite literally murderous.
“Not only did guys have to peak every month, they had to keep getting better as the year went on. No downtime, no rest from the binging and fasting—you could see guys turning green from all the shit in their systems. As you might expect, some of them were falling by the wayside, one guy from arrhythmia, another guy from heart attacks.
“As for me, all I knew was that I was spending every dime I had on drugs. It cost me $25,000 that first year just to keep up, and that was without human growth hormone, which I couldn’t even afford. The sport had become like an arms race now. If you heard that some guy was using Finajet, then you had to have it, no matter what it cost or where you had to go to get it. It actually paid to fly back and forth to France every couple of months, where you could buy the crap off the shelves of some country pharmacy and save yourself thousands of bucks.
“Needless to say, those five years on the tour were the most whacked-out of my life. My cognitive mind went on like a permanent stroll, and I became an enormous, lethal caveman. The only reason I didn’t spend most of that time in jail was because two thirds of the cops in town were customers of mine. They belonged to my gym, and bought their steroids from me, and when I got into a little beef, which was practically every other day, they took care of it on the QT for me.
“Once I was on Hempstead Turnpike, on my way to the gym, when some guy in a pickup gave me the finger. That’s it, lights out. I chased him doing ninety in my new Corvette, and did a three-sixty in heavy traffic right in front of him. I jumped out, ripped the door off his truck, and caved in his face with one punch. The other guy in the cab, who had done nothing to me, jumps out and starts running down the divider to get away from me. I chased him on foot and was pounding the shit out of him on the side of the road when the cops pulled up in two cruisers. ‘Michalik, get outta here, ya crazy fuck,’ they go, ‘this is the last goddamn time we’re lettin’ you slide.’”
Word quickly got around town that Michalik was to be avoided at all costs. That went double for the wild-style gym he opened, which did everything but hang a sign out saying, STEROIDS FOR SALE HERE. There were plaques on the walls that proclaimed, UP THE DOSAGE! and pictures not of stars but of twenty-gauge syringes.
As for the clientele, it ran heavily toward the highly crazed. There was the seven-foot juice freak who stomped around muttering, “I’ll kill you all. I’ll rip your guts out and eat them right here.” There was the mob hit man who drove up in a limo every day and checked his automatic weapons at the door. There was the herpetologist who came in with a python wrapped around him, trailing a huge sea turtle, for good measure, on a leash. There was the former Mr. America who was so distraught when his dog died that he had it stuffed, and dragged it around the gym from station to station.
“I had every freak and psycho within a 300-mile radius,” Michalik recalls. “At night, there’d be all these animals hanging around outside my gym, slurping protein shakes and twirling biker chains—and every single one of ‘em was afraid of me. That was the only way I kept ‘em in line. As crazy as they all were, they knew I was crazier, and that I’d just as soon kill ‘em as re-enroll ‘em.”
If that sounds like dubious business practice, consider that a year after opening, Michalik was so successful that he had to move to a location twice the size. But for all the money he was making, and for all the scams he was running—selling “Banana Packs,” a worthless mixture of rotten bananas and egg powder, as his “secret muscle formula” for $25 a pop; passing himself off as a veterinarian to get cases of human growth hormone at wholesale for his “clinical experiments”—he was still being bankrupted by his skyrocketing drug bills.
The federal heat had begun to come down on the steroid racket, closing out the pill-mill pharmacies where Michalik was filling his ’scrips. The national demand, moreover, for the high-octane stuff—Hexalone, Bolasterone, etc.—was going through the roof, which meant that Michalik, like everybody else, had to get on line, and pay astronomical prices for his monthly package from Los Angeles.
Constantly broke, and going nowhere fast on the Grand Prix tour—”where in the beginning I’d been finishing third or fourth in the shows, by 1983 I was coming in like eleventh or twelfth”—Michalik began caving in emotionally and physically. He’d come home from the gym at night, dead-limbed and nauseous, and suddenly burst into tears without warning. Cut off from everyone, even the stouthearted Thomasina, who had finally thrown up her hands and stopped caring what he did to himself, he sat alone in a dark room, hearing his joints howl, and dreamed about killing himself.
“I was just lost, gone, in a constant state of male PMS—the hormones flying around inside, my mood going yoyo. I just wanted an end to it; an end to all the pain I was in, and to the pain I was causing others.
“I mean, of course I had tried to get off the drugs, and always it just got worse. The depression got deeper, the craving was incredible, and those last couple of years, I was worse than any crackhead. As crazed as I was, l’d have killed to keep on going, to get my hands on that next shipment of Deca or Maxibolin.”
As for his body, it was finally capitulating to all the accumulated toxins. By 1983, he was bleeding from everywhere: his gums, kidneys, colon, and sinuses. The headaches started up, so piercing and obdurate that he developed separate addictions to Percodan and Demerol. And worst of all (by Michalik’s lights), his muscles suddenly went soft on him. No matter how he worked them or what he shot into them, they lost their gleaming, osmotic hardness, and began to pooch out like $20 whitewalls.
His last two years on the tour were a run-on nightmare. He almost dropped dead at a show in Toronto, collapsing on stage in head-to-toe convulsions; the promoters, disgraced, hauled him off by the ankles. There was a desperate attempt in 1985, after his cholesterol hit 500, to wean himself from steroids once and for all. His testosterone level plummeted, however, his sperm count went to zero, and all the estrogen in his body, which had been accruing for years, turned his pecs into soft, doughy breasts. Such friends as he still had pointed out that his ass was plumping like a woman’s, and tweaked him for his sexy new hip-swishing walk.
He ran to one endocrinologist after another, begging them for something to reverse the condition. To a man, each pointed to Michalik’s liver reading and showed him out of his office. Leaving, he had the distinct feeling that they were laughing at him.
And so, after weighing his options—a bleak, emasculated life off steroids or a slam-bang, macho death on them—Michalik emphatically chose the latter. He packed a bag, grabbed his weight belt, and caught a plane for L.A., winding up for nine months in the valley, where all the chemical studs were training.
Just up the freeway, a cartel of former med students were minting drugs so new they scarcely had names for them yet. The stuff ran $250, $300 a bottle, but pumped you up like an air hose and kept you that way. It also made you violently sick to your stomach, but Michalik didn’t have time to worry about that. He simply ran to the bathroom to heave up his guts, then came back and ripped off another thirty sets.
His hair fell out in heavy clumps; a dry cough emanated from his liver, wracking him. Every joint was inflamed; it was excruciating even to walk now. But at night, in bed and in too much pain to sleep, it cheered him to think that he would finally be dead soon, and that it would take eight men to carry his casket.
He came back to New York in the fall of 1986, on his last legs but enormous and golden brown. All along, he’d targeted the Night of Champions, to be held that November at the Beacon Theater, as his swan song. It was the Academy Awards show of bodybuilding. Everyone would be there, all the stars and cognoscenti, and it would consolidate his legend to show up one last time, coming out of a coffin to the tune of Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend.” Of course, it would really help matters if he could drop dead on stage, but that seemed too much to hope for. All that mattered, finally, was that he go out with twenty-five hundred people thundering their approval, drowning out, once and for all, his old man’s malediction that he’d never amount to shit.
And then, two weeks before the show, he woke up at four in the morning with his liver on fire, and that was the end of all that.
Happily afloat on morphine and Nembutol, Michalik drifted for seventy-two hours, dreaming that he was dead. In the course of those three days, however, his extraordinary luck held up. The huge cysts in his liver stabilized and began to shrink, though they’d so eviscerated the organ already that there was practically nothing left of it. Short of a transplant, it would be months before he could so much as sit up and take nourishment. His bodybuilding career, in any case, was finished.
When Michalik awoke in intensive care, he was inconsolable. Not only was he still unaccountably alive, his beautiful body was dissolving and going away from him. His muscles, bereft of steroids and the five pounds of chicken he ate a day, decomposed and flowed into his bloodstream as waste. In three weeks, he lost more than 100 pounds, literally pissing himself down to 147 from a steady weight of 255.
Predictably, his kidneys began to fail, functioning at 60 percent, then 40, then 20. His black hair turned gray, and the skin hung off him in folds. His father came in and told him, with all his customary tact, that he looked like an eighty-five-year-old man.
In the few hours a day that he was lucid, Michalik wept uncontrollably. Out of the unlikeliest materials—bad genes, a small bone structure, and a thoroughly degraded ego—he had assembled this utterly remarkable thing, a body that no less than Arnold Schwarzenegger once venerated as the very best in the world. Now he was too weak to lift his head off the pillow. He lay there inert for months and months, the very image, it seemed to him, of his old man’s foretelling.
“I was just like Lyle Alzado, who I went to high school in Brooklyn with: weak and broken-down, leaning on my wife to keep me alive. She came and fed me every day through a straw, and swiped the huge bunch of pills I was saving to kill myself. To thank her for still being there after everything, I sold the gym and gave her all the money from it. I didn’t want any of it, I didn’t want anything. I just wanted to lie in bed and be miserable by myself. I was so depressed I could hardly move my jaws to speak.”
Finally, by the spring of 1988, he’d recovered sufficiently to get out of bed for short stretches. Possessed by the sudden urge to atone for his sins, Michalik called every promoter he knew, begging them to let him go on stage in his condition and dramatize the wages of steroids. Surprisingly, several of them agreed to the idea. They brought Michalik out, a bag of bones in a black shirt, and let him turn the place into a graveyard for ten minutes.
“All these twenty-year-olds would be staring up at me with their jaws hanging open, and I’d get on the mike and say, ‘You think this can’t happen to you, tough guy? You think you know more about steroids than I do? Well, I wrote the book on ‘em, buddy, and they still ate me up. I’m forty years old and I’m finished. Dead.”
The former proselytizer for steroids got some grim satisfaction out of spreading the gospel against them. He dragged himself out to high schools and hard-core juice gyms, using himself as a walking cautionary tale. But whatever his good works were doing for his soul, they weren’t doing a damn thing for his body. He still woke up sick in every cell, poisoned by the residue of all the drugs. The liver cysts, shrunk to the size of golf balls but no further, sapped his strength and forced him to eat like a sparrow, subsisting on farina and chicken soup. His hormones were wildly scrambled—a blood test revealed he had the testosterone level of a twelve-year-old girl—and it had been two years since he’d had even a twinge of an erection. Indeed, his moods were so erratic that he had his wife commit him to a stretch in a Long Island nut bin.
“I wasn’t crazy, but I didn’t know what else to do. All day long I just sat there, consumed with self-hatred: ‘Why did you do this? Why did you do that?’ I mean, even when I was huge, I never had what you would call the greatest relationship with myself, but now it was, ‘You’re weak! You’re tiny! You’re stupid! You’re worthless!’—and what the hell was I going to say to shut it up? The only thing I’d ever valued about myself was my body, and I’d totally, systematically fucked it up. My life, as you can probably guess, was intolerable.”
It was here, however, that fate stepped in and cut Michalik a whopping break. Halfway across the world, an Australian rugby player named Joe Reesh somehow heard about Michalik’s plight and called to tell him about a powerful new detox program. It was a brutally arduous deal—an hour of running, then five hours straight in a 180-degree sauna, for a minimum of twenty-one days—but infallibly, it leeched the poisons out of your fat cells, where they’d otherwise sit, crystallized, for the rest of your life.
Utterly desperate, Michalik gave it a shot. He could scarcely jog around the block that first day, but in the sauna, it all started coming out of him: a viscous, green paste that oozed out of his eyes and nostrils. By the end of the first week, he reports, he was running two miles; by the end of the second, his ex-wife verifies, his gray hair had turned black again. And when he stepped out of the sauna after the twenty-third and final day, his skin was as pink and snug as a teenager’s. Liver and kidney tests confirmed the wildly improbable: he was perfectly healthy again.
“Everything came back to me: my sense of humor, my lust for life—hell, my lust, period. Don’t forget, it’d been almost three years since l’d gotten it up—I had some serious business to take care of. But the greatest thing by far was what wasn’t there anymore. All the biochemical hatred I’d been walking around with for twelve years, it was like that all bled out of me with the green stuff, and I had this overpowering need to be with people again, especially my son, Stevie. I had tons of making up to do with him, and I’ve loved every minute of it. It kills me that I could’ve let myself get so sick that I was ready to die and leave him.”
Michalik went to his wife and told her he was going back to bodybuilding. It was his life, his art, he couldn’t leave it alone—only this time, he swore on heaven, he was going to do it clean. She understood, or at least tried to, but said she couldn’t go through with it again: the 2 A.M. feedings, the $500-a-week grocery bills. They parted amicably, and Michalik returned to the gym, as zealous and single-minded as a monk. In the last two years he’s put on 60 pounds, and looks dense and
powerful at 225, though he’s sober about the realities.
“There are nineteen-year-olds clocking in now at two sixty-five,” he says, shaking his head. “The synthetic HGH [human growth hormone] has evolved a new species in five years. By the end of the decade, the standard will be three-hundred-pounders, with twenty-three-inch necks that are almost as big as their waists.
“But all around the country, kids’ll be dropping dead from the stuff, and getting diabetes because it burns out their pancreas. I don’t care what those assholes in California say, there’s no such thing in the world as a ‘good’ drug. There’s only bad drugs and sick bastards who want to sell them to you.”
Someone ought to post those words in every high school in the country. The latest estimate from a USA Today report is that there are half a million teenagers on juice these days, almost half of whom, according to a University of Kentucky study, are so naive they think that steroids without exercise will build muscle. In this second stone age, the America of Schwarzkopf and Schwarzenegger, someone needs to tell them that bigger isn’t necessarily better. Sometimes, bigger is deader.
Today gives John Schulian’s column from the Sept. 24, 1983, Sun-Times.
“Summer’s End Recalls Memory of a Faded Dream”
By John Schulian
Up ahead, you could see a full moon sandwiched by thick, wet clouds. Beneath them glowed the lights of Chicago, turning the soggy heavens red-orange and proving that this ribbon of highway actually led somewhere.
Another country radio station faded into oblivion inside the car, so you pressed a button and came across the White Sox, summer’s golden children at play on a night made for antifreeze.
Their presence should have been a comfort at 70 miles an hour, just as it had been since they used June as their launching pad to glory. But now the Sox were bidding adieu to their regular season at home. They weren’t going to return to Comiskey Park until October’s playoffs, and the thought left you feeling as empty as a farewell at a train station. Summer was over.
All you could do about it was punch another button on the car’s radio, punch another button and hope you would hear the Police singing “Every Breath You Take.” For that was the song that provided the background music for the last three months, lingering in your mind whether you were mowing the lawn or trying to describe the cosmic significance of the infield fly rule. The melody haunted you, the lyrics left you wondering about the residue of your own tilling and threshing. And, like a lot of other things this summer, that hadn’t happened for a while.
Maybe you have to go back as far as the days before baseball finally defeated you, days of keg parties and a curveball pitcher who lay down next to a stereo speaker filled with the Rolling Stones’ voices and begged his kid brother to turn the music louder. The season was over by then and the unraked diamonds had started turning hard under the fading sun. Every morning, the chill sunk a little deeper and lasted a little longer, and you began to realize how impossible it is to hang on to summer and all the things it represents.
No team you played on would ever be the same, no chance for a professional contract ever as good, no friendships ever so unencumbered. And that was what mattered to a catcher with a strong arm and a weak bat, a kid who hid inside a game and thought it would always sustain him.
Even on the night he graduated from high school, he tried to flee what scared him most for the safety that the Salt Lake Bees provided. But before he got to his $1.50 seat, before he even got out of the auditorium where he had received his diploma, there was lipstick on his cheek and a pretty girl saying, “Now you can go.”
Funny how long a kiss can last. Ask the man who got it now and he will tell you that summers should have such staying power. For he would think about it from time to time, smile and wonder about the girl who didn’t dance off into that happy night before she had made sure he was remembered. And when it came time for the 20th reunion this summer, when he flew back to the place that used to be home, he wondered if she would remember her own kindness. He looked for her and found only a mutual friend with bad news: “She’s very sick. I understand it’s terminal.”
What do you do then? Do you write a letter, or do you pray? Do you retreat into the silence that has become your comfortable enemy, or do you hope that the next knock on your door brings a smiling face and laughter that tinkles like chimes in an ocean breeze? Do you see your own life reduced to what the poet Yeats called “day’s vanity and night’s remorse,” or do you borrow from Tom T. Hall, the hillbilly songwriter, and tell someone dear, “You love everybody but you”?
The questions pile up, but there are never enough answers to clear them all away. Ten years ago, you couldn’t have imagined such a predicament. You knew everything then—knew it and said you knew it and expected the world to know you knew it. Perhaps it is only age that brings stupidity.
Summer certainly suggested as much. Whether you were gazing out at Lake Michigan or laboring over your prose, your mind kept drifting away from the business at hand. For too many hours, neither the splendor of Floyd Bannister’s left arm nor the foot in Dallas Green’s mouth held the appeal of life’s complexities. It was time to consider what you had let get away from you, and how, and why. The process was as unsettling as the gray taking over your beard and the lines growing deeper around your eyes.
“I don’t know,” you kept saying. “I just don’t know.” It was an all-purpose reply for a summer that raised new questions almost daily. It could also, however, be tiresome. “This is the place for you,” a friend said, passing a senior citizens’ center. And you couldn’t keep from laughing. You feigned anger, too. But down deep, you thanked God there was someone who cared enough to remind you that the sun always comes up in the morning.
It shows its face later and later now, though. You can’t ignore that. The leaves on the trees have already started to turn, and even if the White Sox go on to win the World Series, there won’t be many more trips to Comiskey Park. The days are growing short, and more and more you cling to the brightness that Ron Kittle, the rookie free spirit, brings to them. “Here’s my bat,” he said to a team trainer after two hitless nights. “Take its temperature.” What a pleasure to find someone who knows where to get answers.
But when they aren’t to your questions, the answers are only for enjoyment, not enlightenment. They serve the same function summer did this year as you spun your wheels for week after week, searching for something you hesitate to define and eventually heading back to the garage empty-handed. The answers made you forget the storm front, but by the time you got home it was starting to rain again.
Excerpted from From Black Sox to Three-Peats: A Century of Chicago’s Best Sports Writing (University of Chicago Press), edited by Ron Rapoport and featuring stories fromthe Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Daily News, and the Chicago Defender, among other papers. It’s an excellent collection, and this week we’ll be selecting a story every day to give you a taste. First up: Westbrook Pegler’s “The Called Shot Heard Round the World,” from the Chicago Tribune, Oct. 2, 1932.
There, in the third ball game of the World Series, at the Cubs’ ball yard on the north side yesterday, the people who had the luck to be present saw the supreme performance of the greatest artist the profession of sport has ever produced. Babe Ruth hit two home runs.
Now, Lou Gehrig also hit two home runs, and Jimmy Foxx of the Athletics or any other master mechanic of the business might have hit three or four home runs and you would have gone away with the same impression that a factory tourist receives from an hour of watching a big machine lick labels and stick them on bottles of mouthwash or pop. The machine might awe you, but would you love it?
The people who saw Babe Ruth play that ball game and hit those two home runs against the Cubs came away from the baseball plant with a spiritual memento of the most gorgeous display of humor, athletic art and championship class any performer in any of the games has ever presented.
The Babe is 38 years old, and if you don’t know that he is unable to hike as far for fly balls or stoop as nimbly as he used to for rollers coming to him through the grass, that must be just your own fault, because he would not deceive you. As an outfielder he is pretty close to his past tense, which may mean that one more year from now he will be only a pinch-hitter. He has been breaking this news all year to himself and the customers.
Why, when Bill Jurges, the human clay pigeon, hit a short fly to him there in left field and he mauled it about, trying for a shoestring catch, he came up off the turf admitting all as Jurges pulled up at second.
The old Babe stood up, straightened his cap and gesticulated vigorously toward Earl Combs in center. “Hey!” the old Babe waved, “my dogs ain’t what they used to be. Don’t hit them out to me. Hit to the young guy out there.”
The customers behind him in the bleachers were booing him when the ball game began, but they would have voted him president when it was over, and he might not be a half-bad compromise, at that. Somebody in the crowd tossed out a lemon which hit him on the leg. Now there are sensitive ball players who might have been petulant at that and some stiff-necked ones who could only ignore it, boiling inwardly. But the Babe topped the jest. With graphic gestures, old Mr. Ruth called on them for fair play. If they must hit him with missiles, would they please not hit him on the legs? The legs weren’t too good anyway. Would they just as lief hit him on the head? The head was solid and could stand it.
I am telling you that before the ball game began the Babe knew he was going to hit one or more home runs. He had smacked half a dozen balls into the right-field bleachers during his hitting practice and he knew he had the feel of the trick for the day. When his hitting practice was over he waddled over toward the Cubs’ dugout, his large abdomen jiggling in spite of his rubber corsets, and yelled at the Cubs sulking down there in the den, “Hey, muggs! You muggs are not going to see the Yankee Stadium any more this year. This World Series is going to be over Sunday afternoon. Four straight.”
He turned, rippling with the fun of it and, addressing the Chicago customers behind third base, yelled, “Did you hear what I told them over there? I told them they ain’t going back to New York. We lick ‘em here, today and tomorrow.”
The Babe had been humiliating the Cubs publicly throughout the series. They were a lot of Lord Jims to him. They had had a chance to be big fellows when they did the voting on the division of the World Series pool. But for a few dollars’ gain they had completely ignored Rogers Hornsby, their manager for most of the year, who is through with baseball now apparently without much to show for his long career, and had held Mark Koenig, their part-time shortstop, to a half share. The Yankees, on the contrary, had been generous, even to ex-Yankees who were traded away months ago, to their deformed bat boy who was run over and hurt by a car early in the season, and to his substitute.
There never was such contempt shown by one antagonist for another as the Babe displayed for the Cubs, and ridicule was his medium.
In the first inning, with Earle Combs and Joe Sewell on base, he sailed his first home run into the bleachers. He hit Charlie Root’s earnest pitching with the same easy, playful swing that he had been using a few minutes before against the soft, casual service of a guinea-pig pitcher. The ball would have fallen into the street beyond the bleachers under ordinary conditions, but dropped among the patrons in the temporary seats.
The old Babe came around third base and past the Cubs’ dugout yelling comments which were unintelligible to the patrons but plainly discourteous and, pursing his lips, blew them a salute known as the Bronx cheer.
He missed a second home run in the third inning when the ball came down a few feet short of the wire screen, but the masterpiece was only deferred. He hit it in the fifth, a ball that sailed incredibly to the extreme depth of center field and dropped like a perfect mashie shot behind the barrier, long enough to clear it, but with no waste of distance.
Guy Bush, the Cubs’ pitcher, was up on the top step of the dugout, jawing back at him as he took his turn at bat this time. Bush pushed back his big ears, funneled his hands to his mouth, and yelled raspingly at the great man to upset him. The Babe laughed derisively and gestured at him. “Wait, mugg, I’m going to hit one out of the yard.” Root threw a strike past him and he held up a finger to Bush, whose ears flapped excitedly as he renewed his insults. Another strike passed him and Bush crawled almost out of the hole to extend his remarks.
The Babe held up two fingers this time. Root wasted two balls and the Babe put up two fingers on his other hand. Then, with a warning gesture of his hand to Bush, he sent him the signal for the customers to see.
“Now,” it said, “this is the one. Look!” And that one went riding in the longest home run ever hit in the park.
He licked the Chicago ball club, but he left the people laughing when he said good-bye, and it was a privilege to be present because it is not likely that the scene will ever be repeated in all its elements. Many a hitter may make two home runs, or possibly three in World Series play in years to come, but not the way Babe Ruth made these two. Nor will you ever see an artist call his shot before hitting one of the longest drives ever made on the grounds, in a World Series game, laughing and mocking the enemy with two strikes gone.
Westbrook Pegler (1884-1969) was one of America’s most widely read sportswriters during the Golden Age of Sports in the 1920s. He then turned to political reporting, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize for articles on union racketeering, and wrote columns that were reviled in many quarters for their mixture of personal invective and right-wing politics.
Originally published in the May 17, 1987, edition of The Washington Post Magazine. Republished here with the author’s permission. His postscript follows. For more on Hagler-Leonard, check out Grantland’s oral history.
I’d never been to Las Vegas. Politicans, civil rights leaders, and thinkers, the people I usually write about, don’t often stop there. But it is the perfect place for a big fight, a town that reeks of dominance—rich over poor, white over black, male over female. White men with money come to Las Vegas to show that they have the power and the wealth that make losing a few grand over the weekend “no big deal.” They can buy the prettiest woman, the thickest steak and the biggest diamond ring. They can also buy two men to fight on a stage for their evening’s entertainment. Tonight it will be Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard.
When I was a little boy, the one event I dreamed of seeing in person was a big prizefight. Other sports were on television or available to a kid who wanted to sell Cokes. The big fights were in exotic places like Zaire, the Philippines and Las Vegas. They were held in different time zones and came over the late-night radio as wire service reports at the end of each round. The late hour, the distant locale, the million-dollar prizes and my desire to be seen as sexually powerful—a man able to dominate another man as a cocky, proud prizefighter does in the ring—combined to transport me to a mythic place in my mind. Only prize-fighting could do that for me.
And only prize-fighting salved my most basic fear—the fear of being beaten bloody. A prizefighter confronts this fear like no one else. It’s him alone, trapped in an elevated place, above the crowd and under hot lights. It’s him against another man who seeks to demolish him, and the judgment is absolute. Who is the better man? Fight fans. and fighters use that phrase repeatedly: “The better man.” As in: “Leonard will try to outsmart Hagler but he won’t try to show he’s the better man.” The better man is the fighter who is the aggressor, who menaces his opponent and finally and conclusively batters him. Dominates him. Knocks him out. He can leave him unconscious, legs quivering, eyes rolling back. He can kill him. That is the better man.
If I saw boxing for what it really is—just a business—I wouldn’t be interested. The passion is what captures me; the passion coupled with the risk of defeat and failure as two men fight for all they are worth. Marvin Hagler of Newark and Sugar Ray Leonard of Palmer Park know the importance of looking tough, of appearing dominant and keeping that reputation. To Hagler and Leonard it matters that they be known as “the better man.”
For me, a skinny boy growing up in a violent. poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. to be “the better man” had real meaning. You had to fight. More than that, you had to be ready to fight. Walking down the street, in the schoolyard, on the basketball court, going to the store with your mother’s money—you had to be ready. I have a spot in my eye from a punch thrown by a big ninth-grader when I was in the seventh grade. On the handball court he told me to go get his ball and I wouldn’t. I never saw the punch. He didn’t knock me out or down, but I couldn’t see. I did manage to pick up the ball and windmill my arm as if I were throwing it back at him. When he ducked, I kicked him in the face and ran. I remember being a second-grader walking past a bunch of shrieking kids surrounding two third-graders who were fighting. The terror on the fighters’ faces heightened the fear in me. I didn’t want to be caught in that circle of howling, stupid people who wanted to see blood, to see one person reduced to tears or unconsciousness.
At night when my mother made me take the garbage down the hallway to the trash room, I worried about someone attacking me. The trash room was next to the stairwell, where high school guys hung out, smoked and did drugs. Often the light bulb would be out—broken by someone who had been waiting to mug somebody. I was always scared and ready to fight. I didn’t want to fight. I made friends with Chuck, a fat but strong boy who was a feared street-fighter. Since Chuck and I were friends. I had an insurance policy, a personal bodyguard. My best friend, James, didn’t like to fight either. When he did fight, he usually lost. But because he would fight—and never backed down from a fight—he had a reputation as a tough guy and had fewer fights. I learned from his example.
The prospect of fighting for me is still an emotional risk, though I’m middle-class now and have a family and a job, and getting beat up does not hold the threat of defining me as an absolute loser. But fighting still has a hold on my primitive self and my emotions. If I have to fight, will I be the “better man,” and if I lose, what does that mean? Am I the lesser man? Do other people see me as shamed by submission, by the loss of face? Will women know? Would they want a lesser man? These doubts attack my pride and unsettle my confidence, my sense of who l am—”the better man.” A professional fight stirs these feelings in me.
Do you remember Tommy Hearns after his fight with Marvin Hagler? A beaten man, he could get back to his feet only by hanging onto his trainers and his friends. He was dazed, his long arms hanging like spaghetti, his neck so limp that his head dangled. His eyes did not dilate. Finally, one of his friends picked him up and carried him like a father carries a baby. That was defeat—total physical wreckage. Worse, it was emotional wreckage. Hagler ran around the ring celebrating, thrusting his hands up, grabbing his crotch, smiling. His emotions were pumped. After fights, I’ve seen some winning fighters stand on the ropes, making themselves taller, and scream—a throaty, visceral roar. They are alive. They are dominant. They are emotionally whole. The loser has no voice. This is a refinement over the street fight. Then when a man is down, while he’s out, the winner could kill him, sexually abuse him, take his woman, his possessions. That is emotional rape. Who will rape and who will be raped—emotionally—is the risk of fighting.
My father trained fighters, men named Kid Chocolate and Finnegan who were the lightweight champions of South America. My father never fought professionally, but he was a fighter, too. He is a very handsome man with dazzling black eyes and a thick, long scar that cuts across his chest. The scar came from a knife. He was fighting a guy on the street and stepped back, away from a looping right hand. The punch missed. But my father felt a stinging sensation across his chest. The other guy had a knife in his fist with the blade sticking out. My father had other fights. He fought for money and food on board Navy ships that would pass through the Panama Canal. When he was in his forties he married my mother and began working as an accountant during the day for steady income. What defined him, however, was that he trained fighters. His picture would be on the sports pages of the papers as a fight trainer. His words were quoted. He rarely came home, but when he did, it was often with his fighters so they could eat my mother’s cooking.
In one of the earliest pictures of me, I am standing in diapers, no shirt on, fists cocked. Across the way is my father in a fighting stance, crouched, on his toes, showing me the right way to get off a punch. He’s wearing baggy pants and two-tone brown-and-white shoes. My mother tells me he would take me, at age 2, on training runs with his fighters. His favorite game with me when I was a baby was shadow-boxing. I was just 3 when my mother took me, my sister and my brother to Brooklyn. She worked in a sweatshop in the garment district in Manhattan, sewing dresses, while my father would send money to help out. My boxing lessons didn’t resume until he came to Brooklyn when I was about 10. He was never home much, but sometimes he’d show me combinations: how to slide and jab, how to get out of a corner. As I remember, we would do this in the mornings, and he wouldn’t have shaved yet. His beard would rake my face in the clinches. I would swoon when he butted me. And even with my guard up, the force of his punches would make them slide off my hands and land against my face. I hated getting hit in the face. I stopped asking him to show me moves. The lessons ended.
Still, my love of boxing grew stronger. Muhammad Ali’s aura, his style, his poetry, his political activism drew me to him and the sport. The taunting of Frazier, the mugging with Howard Cosell (grabbing his toupee)—Ali was the greatest. When I was in college, I’d go into Philadelphia once in a while to watch Monday night fights at the Spectrum. I’d go alone. Those bouts were savage experiences, club fights pitting black against white, Cuban against Mexican, Boston against Philadelphia—inexpert boxers, many who had taken too many punches going at it for $100. They exchanged roundhouse rights until one man fell. I had to get what I could from the papers about more skillful fighters. I tried to catch the good Saturday afternoon bouts on television, but there weren’t many good ones. Then Sugar Ray Leonard became popular. I’d go out to the Capital Centre to watch his fights on the big screen. Once a guy took a swing at me when he heard me say Duran was winning the fight in Montreal. My friend Vernon decked him. I was getting closer but close wasn’t enough. I wanted to see the real thing up close—a true prizefight.
Inside the Bally Grand Hotel in Las Vegas is a huge mirrored wall. Plastered on the mirror are 20-foot-high profiles of Leonard and Hagler, their heads and chests almost touching. These profiles have no eyes, no expression, and the men are face to face as if ready to explode into combat. Hanging above the clatter and bells of the vast casino floor are big purple gloves with the fighters’ names written in fancy script. On the wide-screen television sets in the bar, they’re showing reruns of previous fights. The big-time fight hoopla doesn’t go past the bar. It does not intrude on the green felt of the gambling tables. There’s no talk of boxing here. The fight is kept out of the restaurant, too. People are absent-mindedly eating while circling 15 numbers on a sheet of paper to play a game called keno. They hand the paper with the 15 numbers to women who walk around in miniskirts and high heels. Then they gaze at the wall to see which 15 numbers appear; they’re looking for a winner.
The scene at Bally’s is muted compared with the neighboring bazaar—Caesars Palace. Here the dominance is as unrestrained as a fight between a pit bull and a toy poodle.
Several hundred people wait by the main entrance to Caesars. They stand in tribute, day and night, to America’s winners—any arriving celebrity. Climbing out of the Mercedes-Benzes, limousines, Jaguars and Porsches (which are all parked in ostentatious glory near the entrance), the celebrities take only a moment to acknowledge the riffraff. The crowd parts quickly at the ominous sight of Wilt Chamberlain. People push forward for a glance at the bejeweled Joan Collins. Inside the hotel, body builders, oiled and pumped, carry a beautiful Egyptian queen in costume on their shoulders while other women wave palms to cool her. Really.
At Caesars Palace, the gamblers are white men over 40. In Caesars Palace they are Caesar’s court. Some dress in country-club pastels, others in tuxedos, and ever so casually flash $700 fight tickets stamped “compliments of the casino.” One man told me he was sent the tickets because he has a standing $50,000 line of credit with Caesars. He had just come away from the baccarat table where $10,000 to $20,000 passes in a flash. He had to walk past two steely-eyed guards who nodded at him and the other white men but remained grim to every other passerby, openly antagonistic to blacks and women. This is the place for the fight—a place of power and dominance.
The fight will be held in an open-air stadium set up in the Caesars Palace parking lot. Past the casino, and past the pool that no one swims in, are three or four chain-link gates—entrances to an arena that holds 15,000 people. There’s a boxing ring in the middle surrounded by a few rows of press tables. Then a dozen rows of plastic bucket seats. Behind those seats, on all sides, rise grandstands with flat blue plastic planks set on metal girders. The scene is surprisingly Spartan, dominated by the wire fences, the criss-crossed bare metal poles that support the grandstands and the plain plastic seats.
Past the small stadium is a one-story, plain metal building housing a section of bleachers and a bare, wooden stage. This is where the fighters’ weigh-in will be held, a theater where the champion traditionally enters last to signify his superiority. He is weighed last and remains on the stage after the challenger leaves. The champion is dominant. But it is a place for both fighters to strut and preen. The fighters know this is play-acting, but they also know it is really the fight’s opening round. They don’t want to lose in any arena to a man they will soon have to fight; they want to keep the psychological advantage.
Leonard appears first. He wears a white T -shirt, slacks and black leather boots. He appears as royalty amid many courtiers. His aides, his trainers, his bodyguards, his son and home-town television types like Glenn Brenner and Frank Herzog chatter, point and wave as they form a moving colony around him. In their midst is this little brown man, not very muscular, but regal. His bearing is formal. He keeps his eyes forward, never turning to talk or to acknowledge anyone. He doesn’t react when the cheering for his appearance is overwhelmed by booing from the packed bleachers. Only Leonard and his trainers are allowed past the security guards and onto the stage. A bald, husky-voiced old guy, waving a cigar, has warned a moment before that he “don’t mean to offend anyone, but no hangers-on” will be allowed on the stage, “no aunts, no uncles, no best friends, no nobody…”
Now on the stage, Leonard begins to untie his leather boots. He does it slowly, then slides each foot out, deliberately and neatly taking off each sock. An aide rushes to take away the shoes the instant he is done. Then he stands and pulls down his pants, finally sitting to slip the legs over his feet. He has on black bikini underwear. With his T-shirt still on he walks over to the scales and mounts them, erect and expressionless. Several functionaries in three-piece suits rush over, bending to look at the numbers on the scale. Then they go away. Leonard remains, glorying in the reverence of his audience.
Suddenly there is a roar. Hagler’s troops have emerged from behind the grandstand. In place of Leonard’s black bodyguards in sunglasses, Hagler has old white men in white sweaters next to him—his trainers. He walks quickly. And he looks like a bad dude: shaved head, scars on his face, dark sunglasses. He bounds up the steps to the stage. His shoes are white high-topped sneakers with Velcro wraps around the ankles. He pulls off his sneakers roughly, stands and strips off his pants, then pulls the zipper on his sweat jacket and throws it off.
Now the psychological game is in bloom. I’ve seen it on the streets, in bars, in office politics. Dominance can be established by the man who struts and commands all attention for himself. He takes his power from the obeisance of sycophants. He takes power from staring at his opponent until the opponent looks away. He takes power at a bar by simply pushing his whiskey glass toward the other man, claiming turf at the other man’s expense. This, then, is really the opening round of the Leonard-Hagler fight.
Leonard, who had taken his seat while Hagler marched onstage, now remounts the scale and his weight is formally announced. Standing on the scale, he radiates calm and confidence. He raises his bands in victory. The cheers float over him. Hagler silences them. He steps in front of Leonard and flexes. His stomach and chest muscles move in a majestic symphony, his stomach muscles, especially, protruding in waves of defiant strength. Hagler—muscular, nude but for his bikini underwear—contrasts sharply with Leonard: flat, firm with few obvious muscles, his shirt on.
The brazen intimidation intended by Hagler’s posturing brings raucous remarks from the crowd. Leonard gets off the scale. Hagler rushes to get on. In his hurt he forgets that he has left his socks on. An official asks him to take them off. It slows the bull’s charge. Hagler rips the socks off, flinging them away. On the scale Hagler looks over at Leonard and gives a thumbs-down signal. Leonard is dressing as Hagler lingers, on the scale. Hagler turns to him and stares. Leonard is by then bent down to pull his shoes on. Hagler continues staring, even pointing at Leonard as he walks away from the scale. Leonard stares back, but there still is no expression to his face.
Round one to Hagler. He is the crowd’s favorite and has dominated the weigh-in ceremony. If this were the street, he would be “fronting,” sticking out his chest, swaggering and talking trash, insulting Leonard’s mother. But enough of the street. This is Las Vegas. This is Sugar Ray and Marvelous Marvin. We’re talking about tens of millions of dollars here, a boxing ring, a referee, judges and viewers worldwide. These men are professionals doing a job.
No—these are two men out to dominate. One will dominate and one will be dominated.
When Hagler was deciding whether to retire or fight Leonard, he said his wife told him, “Why don’t you go ahead and get that little skinny bastard out of the way.” Leonard has had his passionate words, too. While Hagler walked around Las Vegas in a black hat with the word “War” on it, Leonard told reporters he was not going to war to beat Hagler. “I see it as a battle of will and wit,” said Leonard with a smile that made it clear that Hagler is a dummy. “He gets mad …,” Leonard explained to reporters. “Little things make him fed up …. He gets frustrated.” A dumb animal to be contained.
After Hagler disappears from the weigh-in, a black man from Los Angeles wearing a gold-and-white sweat suit with red-and-white Fila athletic shoes and thick gold chains walks over to me. “Yeah, bro, it’s over,” he says. “You’ve seen my man’s body—he’s going to kill that little Leonard. Sure enough going to detach that eye, maybe pop the whole thing out.” He says he knows people in Hagler’s camp, and they are joking about letting Leonard have a bigger ring (20 feet instead of 18) and letting Leonard set the bout at a 12-round limit. “There won’t be no 12th round,” he says. “Ray will be lucky if there’s a second round.”
The conversation stirs me. There is heat in his words. I have the desire to have intense moments like these fighters will have tonight, moments that inspire heat in other men’s words. Tonight the fighters’ world will be totally focused. Their minds and energies will be limited to that ring, to dominating the other man, to controlling their emotions. their fears. angers and desires, until the job is done. Today will be spent in pure anticipation of that moment. Today the fighters do nothing but wait; they have gone without sex for weeks. They go without sex today. They lie in bed, watch TV, talk to no one. Hagler will eat two meals—first meatballs and spaghetti and then, in the afternoon, fish and salad. Leonard will eat one meal—chicken, corn bread and greens. Food doesn’t matter. Sex doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. They are waiting for their moment. One moment. The fight.
This fight means more to the fighters than mere money. If Hagler wins he can claim to be the greatest middleweight. He has not been beaten in 37 fights over 11 years. If Leonard wins, he will go down in history as a fighter like no other, a welterweight and junior middleweight champion who came back after a three-year hiatus and beat the most ferocious middleweight of his day. The loser will still be able to say he was good, but the winner of this fight becomes a legend. In the language of the streets, he will become, for all time, a bad mother.
In the restaurants. shapely women model tight sweater-skirt outfits, walking from table to table. Like automatons they repeat the name of the clothing, designer, the fabric and the colors available at a nearby shop. In the bars near-naked women serve drinks to tables crowded with men. Even outside, the streets are littered with ads for call-girls, pictures of practically nude women who for $150 will come to your hotel room.
The casinos seem a blur. The dizzy spinning roulette wheel; the rich men signaling for a light on thick cigars; the gilded baubles on display at Gucci (which is conveniently located a few feet from the casino); the paintings in the coffee shop of black slaves serving overripe fruit. There are no politics in Las Vegas, just people luxuriating in acceptance of a world where the rich are the righteous, celebrity is a must, women are sex objects, and blacks are the gladiators. Those who are not beautiful or strong enough serve drinks, deal cards, tote luggage and eventually get out of town.
All Monday, Las Vegas is frenzied. On the automatic walkway leading to Caesars Palace, a blonde Texan wearing red toenail polish under plastic high heels drops her highball and vomits. Baseball fans begin pushing and shoving as they stand in line for Willie Mays’ autograph. Bo Derek, Tony Danza, John Thompson, Telly Savalas, Timothy Hutton, Mark Gastineau, Gene Hackman—the sight of them sets off a rash of flashing bulbs outside the arena in the hour before the fight. Inside, a seating section to the right of the ring is reserved for celebrities only. The crowd is thick. The aisles of this small stadium cannot hold them. People are crushed together, moving a step at a time. The women are dressed for a White House dinner. They wear evening gowns and designer leather and big, shiny jewels. There are even some furs on this 50-degree night. But you’ve got to be dressed tonight. This is it. A big-time fight. I can’t believe I’m really here. I feel the terror, the butterflies, the urge to hit, the sexual, primitive response to threat.
Leonard comes out first. He is wearing a white satin jacket, with vents, an elastic band holding it snug to his waist. He dances around. He waits. Three minutes. Then the song “War” comes over the loudspeakers. Marvelous Mavin Hagler in black robe, hood up, marches through the arena and into the ring. High atop Caesars Palace an American flag begins to explode in a fireworks display. The flag starts coming apart. The exploding, crumbling flag, with its threat of starting a fire, is an excess on top of the excesses of Las Vegas, and it fascinates the crowd. Necks crane toward the flag. Meanwhile. Leonard dances over toward Hagler’s comer. It looks like a taunt. He is purposely riling Hagler. It is part of his fight plan. He comes back to Hagler’s comer once again and this time does a lightning-fast spin. Hagler watches. A jaguar watching a deer, waiting for him to come too close. The anthem is sung. The Pointer Sisters get out of the ring. The fight begins. Finally.
Hagler smacks his red gloves against his bald head and stomps into the middle of the ring. For the first minute he stays there, Leonard circling him, throwing a few quick combinations. Hagler doesn’t throw a punch. Finally he punches at Leonard, who is immediately off at a run, pursued by Hagler. This exchange sets the style of the fight: Leonard running, Hagler pursuing, and occasionally catching Leonard on the ropes for a few quick seconds (to the delight of the crowd) before Leonard again slides off the ropes and resumes his run. As the round ends, Leonard, on the ropes, throws a flurry of punches at Hagler. This too becomes a pattern Leonard will follow throughout the fight. At every round’s end, he throws punches, flashy quick punches to Hagler’s head. My father once told me that in boxing it’s important to always get in the last punch. Your opponent will remember it, and the judges will have it in their minds as they score the round.
Leonard looks incredibly sharp for a man who was knocked down in his last fight three years ago by a mediocre fighter named Kevin Howard. Leonard is spinning off the ropes, his legs look good and his combinations are crisp. And because Hagler is chasing him. Leonard is dictating the pace of the fight.
The most important thing going on in these early rounds follows the rule from every bar-room fight—control your fear. Leonard is controlling his fear by controlling his opponent. He sets up Hagler. Hagler never sets up Leonard. Leonard can predict where Hagler will be—right in front of him. Hagler never knows where Leonard will be. Leonard’s fear, his uncertainty—all the talk he has heard about being out of the ring too long—is burning itself out. If he can control the other guy, there is no need to be scared; there is no reason to have fear.
Even while Leonard is fighting his fear, Hagler is fighting his anxiety. He wants to fight, slug it out, man-to-man with Leonard. But he knows Leonard’s reputation as a cunning opponent who sets traps for bigger, stronger, meaner fighters. Hagler does not want to fall into one of Leonard’s traps. So he waits in the center of the ring in the early minutes of the fight. He fights his impulse to bombard the slimmer Leonard. He doesn’t want to get tired before Leonard does. Leonard is gaining confidence by the moment. He sticks his chin out at Hagler. At the end of the fourth round he hits Hagler on the top of his bald head, leaving the judges with the memory of a flurry of punches.
Leonard’s control of the early rounds infuriates Hagler. Talking trash is part of street-fighting. So it is in the ring. Anger your opponent, and he begins to flail, stops thinking. Leonard calls Hagler a sissy. He pushes Leonard into the ropes. He’s shouting, come on and fight me. This is Hagler’s game—anger, rage, fury.
But even when Hagler backs him into the ropes, Leonard is in control, setting up Hagler. He continues to land his punches before Hagler can get going. Coming off the ropes. he’ll clamp Hagler’s right fist under his left arm and then walk into Hagler. Referee Richard Steele is slow to break them. Hagler isn’t complaining and he isn’t pushing Leonard off; he’s stupidly pleased to have Leonard in one place, finally standing still, and now he’s trying to hit him. But the short shots have no leverage, and since Leonard is pushing him backward, there’s all the less power in the punches.
In the streets, there is no benefit to dancing around your opponent unless you can hit him often enough to make him give up, quit. In the ring, the judges award points for dancing, for blows to the head, chest, stomach and kidneys. It really doesn’t matter how hard the punches are, just that they connect. No one can really tell how hard a punch is unless the fighter who gets hit reacts—that is, gets knocked down or gets knocked out. In the first four rounds Leonard simply out-points Hagler. He isn’t trying to knock him out, just to hit him, keep a glove in his face, frustrate him, while showing the judges that he can hit Hagler.
My father once told me that fighting a bigger boy is like playing with fire. Fire, he said, can cook your dinner, light your home, warm you at night. It can also burn your house down and kill you. The key to controlling the fire is understanding its nature and working within that nature to achieve what you want to achieve. Leonard is handling Hagler like fire—being very careful not to get burned while using Hagler’s heat, his aggressive nature and bull-ahead charging tactics to defeat him. Can he do it for 12 rounds?
Hagler’s anxiety is growing. He wants to knock Leonard around, but he doesn’t want to fall into a trap. His indecision has cost him the first four rounds of the fight. In the fifth Hagler drops all pretense of strategy and begins an aggressive assault. Now Leonard is on the defensive. Hagler is crowding him, firing good body shots. Some miss, some hit, but more hit than ever before. At the round’s end Sugar Ray’s flurry isn’t there. Instead he is against the ropes trading punches with Hagler. A jab, then an uppercut catch Leonard. The crowd roars. Leonard counters, softly, and doesn’t move off the ropes. The bell rings. Leonard stumbles across the ring to get back to his comer. Hagler’s fire has been turned up and Leonard looks singed. The roar of the crowd says it smells knockout. “That’s it, next round he’s gone.” the man in front of me is screaming.
Pain is a distraction. It clouds the mind. It invites confusion and, worse—it invites fear. Leonard has had his fear under control. Now, for the first time, Leonard’s handlers look concerned. Leonard’s eyes are far away as he sits on his stool. If he forgets his plan—if he’s hurt and unable to move, if he decides he has to prove himself by slugging it out with Hagler—this will be a short night. Angelo Dundee, Leonard’s trainer, is in his face, spittle flying, shouting through the haze. Stick and run, keep him punching at the angles, this is your night Ray, you’re winning Ray, you’re winning. Leonard is up before the bell and across the ring waiting for Hagler.
In Round 6, Hagler’s aggression returns. And so does Leonard’s fear. It never overwhelms him, though. At the round’s end Hagler has Leonard on the ropes, but he and Leonard are trading body shots. Leonard isn’t connecting with any power, though, and is busy fighting to stay on top of Hagler’s aggression. Some of Leonard’s movements look herky-jerky. But he still has his growing fear under control. The punch to the top of Hagler’s head at the end of the round is evidence that Leonard is in charge.
Leonard’s behavior reminds me of the words of comedian Billy Crystal on “Saturday Night Live.” It’s not how you feel—it’s how you look. And Ray looks marvelous. Inside his head, he is fighting increasing fear and pain. But neither Hagler nor the judges see it. Leonard’s theatrical ability and will to win are keeping him alive. What a boxer!
By the ninth round, Hagler senses this fight has gone on too long. His corner looks panicky. They want him to take Leonard out—go to him and get him now. Hagler catches him against the ropes early on and looks to connect with the jab—the set-up for the bomb. He’s hitting Leonard but Leonard is keeping himself moving, twisting his body, moving his head and counter-punching. Hagler keeps coming. Against the ropes again, Leonard is hit with a good Hagler combination to the body. But he responds with a flurry of punches and, surprisingly, dances away. The crowd is roaring. This is the fight they came to see.
Leonard’s face reveals a new thought as he sits in his comer at the end of the ninth. This fight has only three rounds to go. Leonard’s will is amazing. He’s tired. Hagler’s fire is coming on stronger. But from his heart, Leonard is working, continuing to fire combinations that have no power but nonetheless land, scoring punches. Leonard continues to keep his body at angles, thwarting the power of Hagler’s punches.
Then, in a show of bravado that brings us back to “it’s not how how you feel, it’s how you look,” Leonard turns and postures with a bolo punch, taunting Hagler. Leonard is winning the fight of images. Even as the strength is draining from his body he is concealing his fear and exhaustion. Most important, Hagler, who clearly looks stronger and less fatigued, doesn’t sense Leonard’s fear and that increases his feeling of frustration at not having nailed him. Now Hagler begins to throw wild punches. Leonard catches him with a combination to the body.
In the final round, Leonard continues to showboat. He comes off his stool with his hands raised in victory. He beckons for Hagler to come to the middle of the ring. He waves to the crowd, asking them to cheer him on. They do. He is controlling Hagler and the crowd. At the end he hits Hagler on the head. This round is Leonard’s, for mental and emotional strength.
My score card shows Leonard a winner, seven rounds to five, He found a strategy to beat Hagler, he found the skill to execute it and the mental strength to keep to it. If a man makes his world, then Leonard made this fight follow his script, and he put on a classic boxing show. That brilliance was also in a sense the fight’s flaw. By the law of the streets a fight should scream violence—two men throwing their bodies at each other and the stronger, meaner man winning. In the street Leonard would not have been able to rely on a 12-round limit or the judge’s scoring. He would do better to talk his way out of a disagreement with Mr. Hagler. By that standard this fight was polite, bloodless, a delight for the cognoscenti. It was evidence that brains and strategy can defeat brawn.
As the final bell rings, Leonard raises his arms and walks around the ring. He understands that the fight is not over until he exults, shows he feels he has won. Then he falls to his knees in collapse. He is that tired. Hagler remains in his comer, his face cold and expressionless.
I am standing with two other reporters. One has the fight dead even—a draw. The other has it as a win for Leonard. I do, too. A fan, a guy from San Antonio, walks over to me, asks me how I scored the fight. He says Leonard has not beaten Hagler badly enough to take away the title. All Leonard did was survive, hold and run and survive, he says. I agree. But I say my score card shows Leonard the winner of seven rounds of a 12-round fight.
The ring announcer comes to the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “we have a split decision. Judge Dave Moretti scores it 115-113 Hagler. Judge Lou Filippo scores it 115-113 Leonard. And Judge Jo-Jo Guerra scores it 118-110. The new …”
At the sound of the word “new,” the arena explodes. Leonard jumps around the ring, waving his arms, shaking his fists.
But the fight isn’t over yet. In my neighborhood the fight itself was not as important as what people Had to say afterward. If the crowd believed the cops showed up too early, or somebody got a knife from one of his boys, then the decision could go either way. If the loser was robbed, he might as well be the winner.
There is no doubt tonight. The talk is of Leonard’s “great performance” and “his strategy.” In the press room. Prentice Bird, who handles fighters, including Tommy Hearns, for the Kronk gym in Detroit, says Hagler is too old, his legs are “gone.” Jesse Jackson comes over to me and compares Leonard to Ali.
Suddenly Leonard appears. He stands by the microphone, a sly grin on his face, and holds up a piece of paper. He reads off the names of sportswriters, all of whom had picked Hagler to win, then drops the paper; Hagler called him names, Leonard says, shaking his head as a father does when disappointed with a child, but he knew Hagler was in trouble because Hagler gave away the first five rounds and would have had to get a knockout to win it. With the wave of an aristocrat, a man who has proven himself in some real, unquestionable way, he says, “No more questions … I have no more to say, gentlemen,” turns and leaves. His wife, Juanita, comes forward. She is wearing the green leather championship belt like a sash, slung over her shoulder, across her chest, the gold buckle lying between her breasts. She seems in a daze. She stands there as if she is the trophy. There she is—the winner’s woman.
Half an hour later, Hagler unexpectedly walks out and sits in a chair on the stage. Usually, the losers disappear in emotional disrepair. Hagler hardly looks upset—he looks angry. “They took it away from me and gave it to Sugar Ray of all people,” he says. Boxing is politics and the people who run boxing don’t want him to retire as he had planned to do. The boxing money-men wanted Sugar Ray to win and it left him with a “bitter taste” in his mouth. He was the aggressor the whole fight—”You saw it”—and the bell saved Leonard three or four times. “He fought like a girl in there,” he says, waving his hand and insisting Leonard never hurt him. Pointing to the reporters, he says Leonard “told me himself—he said, ‘You beat me.’”
Still Hagler keeps talking. He says he can’t believe he lost. He says when he wakes up in the morning, he’ll have to check to make sure this really happened. Hagler wants to talk more, but Bob Arum, the promoter, ends the press conference.
I find one of Leonard’s entourage and ask if what Hagler said was true. He laughs. Leonard told Hagler, he says, that Hagler was still the middleweight champion. Ray doesn’t want to be the middleweight champion. He doesn’t want the belt, he says. “Hagler can be the champion—Ray is the superstar.”
I feel sorry for Marvelous Marvin. He didn’t understand. Leonard made a passing comment and in his embarrassment Hagler has seized on it, even repeated it to the press, without understanding it. Leonard humiliated him. In the terms of a Brooklyn schoolyard fight, Leonard had “busted that mother.” Now the fight was really over. And it wasn’t even close.
I’m a fight fan and I suggested doing the story for the Washington Post‘s Sunday magazine. It was a pleasure to write because I didn’t have to report the news, there was no hard deadline. I could take my time and explore my personal history with fighting. My father trained boxers. There’s a strange picture of me when I was young on the balcony in Panama. I’m in white shoes, my fists cocked. That’s an odd thing for a father to do to a toddler but I think he was imparting what he knew to me. It’s not that he expected me to be a boxer.
When I was four, my mother took my two siblings and me from Colon, Panama, to New York and my father didn’t join us until I was 10. A few years later I went away to prep school so there were large gaps in my childhood when he wasn’t present. My brother and sister were 8 and 10 years older. We lived in the Ebbets Field Houses in Brooklyn—section 8 housing. I was the little guy, left behind, sitting alone on the stoop. I didn’t have neighborhood protection until later when I proved that I was good at basketball.
Where I grew up fighting was a survival thing. I wasn’t a fighter by nature. Fear was the driving instinct, and fighting was about learning how to manage the fear. I just didn’t want to be crushed but I didn’t have the desire to dominate someone else. Getting hit when you practice had no appeal for me. Getting hit in the face even when head gear protects your skin from being torn is still getting hit in the face. It’s an unpleasant experience. As I wrote in this piece my father told me that fighting a bigger boy is like playing with fire. The crucial part is to control the fire and learn how to use it to your advantage.
Which is partly why I identified with Leonard. Also, he was from the D.C. area, that’s where I was working, so he was a hometown guy. The central point of that fight, the heart and soul of the fight, was that Leonard had an effective strategy for fighting Hagler and Hagler had no strategy other than to knock Leonard out. He was the raging bull. It was the lion vs. an antelope.
The perception of the fight may have changed over time but not in my mind. I don’t recall anyone saying at the time that Hagler got robbed. I can only see that being the case because Hagler was the aggressor and some people may feel that the one who was hitting harder should have won. But if you appreciate the beauty of the sport—who controls the fight—there is no question, at the end particularly, that Leonard was in control of the ring and of the fight.
Juan Williams was a longtime reporter and columnist at The Washington Post. He is now a political analyst for Fox News.
Another gem. Originally published in the June 1989 issue of Esquire. Republished here with the permission of the late author’s son, Mark Kram Jr., a wonderful storyteller in his own right. His postscript follows. For a contemporary, but very different, glimpse of Ali, check out Davis Miller’s story about his day with the champ.
Great Men Die Twice
By Mark Kram
There is the feel of a cold offshore mist to the hospital room, a life-is-a-bitch feel, made sharp by the hostile ganglia of medical technology, plasma bags dripping, vile tubing snaking in and out of the body, blinking monitors leveling illusion, muffling existence down to a sort of digital bingo. The Champ, Muhammad Ali, lies there now, propped up slightly, a skim of sweat on his lips and forehead, eyes closed, an almost imperceptible tremor to his arms and head. For all his claims to the contrary, his surface romance with immortality, Ali had a spooky bead on his future; he never saw it sweeping grandly toward him but bellying quietly along the jungle floor. “We just flies in a room,” he liked to say, moving quickly across the ruins of daily life, plane crashes, train wrecks, matricide, infanticide; then after swatting half of humanity, he’d lower his voice and whisper, as if imparting a secret, “We just flies, that’s all. Got nowhere to fly, do we?”
Images and echoes fill the room, diffuse and speeding, shot through with ineluctable light and the mythopoeic for so long, the glass darkened to a degree no one thought possible; his immense talent, his ring wisdom, his antipathy for chemicals, argued against destructibility; all he would ever do is grow old. For twenty years, while he turned the porno shop of sports into international theater, attention was paid in a way it never was before or has been since. The crowds were a wonder to behold. Kids scaled the wings of jets to get a glimpse of him; thousands, young and old, tailed him in masses during his roadwork. World leaders marveled at the spell he cast over the crowds. “If you were a Filipino,” joked Ferdinand Marcos, “I’d have to shoot you.” The pope asked for his autograph; Sure, he said, pointing to a picture, but why ain’t Jesus black? A young Libyan student in London sat on his bed, kept him up half the night with dithyrambic visions of Muslim revolution. “Watch, one day you will see,” said Muammar Qaddafi. Half asleep, Ali said: “Sheeeet, you crazy.” Leonid Brezhnev once dispatched a note to an official at Izvestia: “I would like to see more on Muhammad Ali. Who is this man?”
The Ali Watch: how absurd that it would one day drop down here on a little hospital on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. The nurse dabs his face dry. What is he thinking? Never has his favorite phrase sounded so dismally precise: My, my, ain’t the world strange. If he could root back through the maze of moment and incident, would he find premonitory signs sticking out like dire figurations of chicken entrails? Does he remember King Levinsky, one of the many heavy bags for Joe Louis, in the corridor after the Miami Beach weigh-in? Boldly colored ties draped Levinsky’s neck (he sold them on the street), his synapses now like two eggs over-light, in permanent sizzle, as he tried to move into stride with a young Cassius Clay. Over and over, like a one-man Greek chorus, Levinsky croaked, eyes spinning, spittle bubbling from his lips: “He’s gonna take you, kid. Liston’s gonna take you, make you a guy sellin’ ties… Partners with me kid, ya kin be partners with me.” Does he remember a shadowed evening in his hotel room a day or so after the third Joe Frazier fight, moving to the window, his body still on fire from the assault? He stood there watching the bloodred sun drop into Manila Bay, then took a visitor’s hand and guided it over his forehead, each bump sending a vague dread through the fingers. “Why I do this?” he said softly. Does he remember the Bahamian cowbell tinkling the end of his final, pathetic fight, a derisive goodbye sound stark with omen? What is he thinking?
Ali poses a question, his eyes closed, his lips parting as if he were sliding open manhole covers. “You die here…. they take you home?” he asks. The nurses roll their eyes and smile, struck by his innocence; it has nothing to do, they know, with morbidity. He is not joking either. The practical aftermath of death seems to stimulate his curiosity these days; nothing urgent, mind you, just something that begins to get into your mind when you’re watching blood move in and out of your body for half the day. Though he is very much a mystic, there is a part of Ali that has always found security and a skewed understanding of life in the quantifiable: amounts, calibrated outcomes, the creaking, reassuring machinery of living. The night before in the hotel lounge, with his wife, Lonnie, beside him, bemusedly aghast, he grilled a pleasant waitress until he knew how many tips she got each week, how many children she had, the frequency of men hitting on her, and the general contour of her reality. “She have a sad life,” he said later. The nurse now cracks with a deadpan expression: “You die, we take you home, Muhammad.
Still, a certain chiaroscuro grimness attaches to their surreal exchange and cries out for some brainless, comic intervention. He himself had long been a specialist in such relief when he would instantly brighten faces during his favorite tours of prisons, orphanages, and nursing homes. When down himself (very seldom), he could count on a pratfall from his hysterical shaman, Drew “Bundini” Brown, on the latest bizarre news from his scheming court, maybe a straight line from some reporter that he would turn into a ricocheting soliloquy on, say, the disgusting aesthetics of dining on pig. No laughs today, though.
“Don’t make him laugh,” a nurse insisted when leading a writer and a photographer into the room. “Laughing shakes the tubing loose.” The photographer is Howard Bingham, Ali’s closest friend; he’s been with the Champ from the start, in the face of much abuse from the Black Muslims. Ali calls him ”the enemy” or “the nonbeliever.” His natural instinct is to make Ali laugh; today he has to settle for biting his lower lip and gazing warily back and forth between Ali and his nurses. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands. Ali had requested that he leave his cameras outside; just one shot of this scene, of Ali on his back, the forbidding purge in progress, of fame and mystique splayed raw, would bring Bingham a minor fortune. “He doesn’t want the world to see him like this,” says Howard. “I wouldn’t take the picture for a million dollars.”
The process is called plasmapheresis. It lasts five hours and is being conducted by Dr. Rajko Medenica. The procedure, popular in Europe, is a cleansing of the blood. Ali is hooked up to an electrocardiograph and a blood-pressure monitor; there is always some risk when blood is not making its customary passage. But the procedure is not dangerous and he is in no pain, we are told. Two things, though, that he surely can’t abide about the treatment: the injection of those big needles and the ceaseless tedium. When he was a young fighter, a doctor had to chase him around a desk to give him a shot, and chaotic mobility to him is at least as important as breathing. Bingham can’t take his eyes off Ali; the still life of his friend, tethered so completely, seems as incomprehensible to him as it would to others who followed the radiated glow of Ali’s invulnerability. The nurses cast an eye at his blood pressure and look at each other. His pressure once jumped twelve points while he watched a TV report on Mike Tyson’s street fight with Mitch Green in Harlem. It’s rising a bit now, and the nurses think he has to urinate. He can’t bear relieving himself in the presence of women; he resists, and his anxiety climbs.
“Ali,” one of them calls. His eyes remain closed, his breathing is hardly audible. The nurse calls to him again; no response. “Come on now, Ali,” she complains, knowing that he likes to feign death. “Now, stop it, Ali.” He doesn’t move, then suddenly his head gives a small jerk forward and his eyes buck wide open, the way they used to when he’d make some incoherent claim to lineage to the gods. The nurses flinch, or are they in on the joke, too? Eyes still wide, with a growing smile, he says to the writer, weakly: “You thought I dead, tell the truth. You the only one ever here to see this and I die for ya. You git some scoop, big news round the whole world, won’t it be?” He leans his head back on the pillow, saying: “Got no funny people round me anymore. Have to make myself laugh.” The nurse wants to know if he has to urinate. “No,” he says with a trace of irritation. “Yes, you do,” the nurse says. “Your pressure…” Ali looks over at Lonnie with mischievous eyes. “I just thinkin’ ’bout a pretty woman.” The nurse asks him what he’d like for lunch. “Give him some pork,” cracks Bingham. Ali censures the heretic with a playful stare. Ali requests chicken and some cherry pie with “two scoops of ice cream.” He turns to the writer again: “Abraham Lincoln went on a three-day drunk, and you know what he say when he wake up?” He waits for a beat, then says: “I freed whooooooo?” His body starts to shake with laughter. The nurse yells: “Stop it, Muhammad! You’ll drive the needles through your veins.” His calms down, rasps, “I’ll never grow up, will I? I’ll be fifty in three years. Old age just make you ugly, that’s all.”
Not all, exactly; getting old is the last display for the bread-and-circuses culture. Legends must suffer for all the gifts and luck and privilege given to them. Great men, it’s been noted, die twice—once as great, and once as men. With grace, preferably, which adds an uplifting, stirring, Homeric touch. If the fall is too messy, the national psyche will rush toward it, then recoil; there is no suspense, no example in the mundane. The captivating, aspiring sociopath Sonny Liston had a primitive hold on the equation of greatness. “Clay (he never called him Ali) beeeg now,” Sonny once said while gnawing on some ribs. “He flyin’ high now. Like an eagle. So high. Where he gonna land, how he gonna land? He gonna have any wings? I wanna see.” Sonny, of course, never made it for the final show. Soon after, he checked out in Vegas, the suspicion of murder hovering over the coroner’s report.
Who wanted to ask the question back then, or even be allowed to examine in depth its many possibilities? It was too serious for the carnival, immediately at odds with the cartoon bombast that swirled around Ali, the unassailable appeal of the phenomenon, the breathtaking climb of the arc. Before him, the ring, if not moribund, had been a dark, somber corner of sports, best described by the passing sight of then-middleweight-king Dick Tiger, leaving his beat-up hotel wearing a roomy black homburg and a long pawnshop overcoat, a black satchel in his hand, heading for the subway and a title fight at the Garden. But the heavyweight champions—as they always will—illuminated the image sent out to the public. There was the stoic, mute Joe Louis, with his cruising menace; street fighter Rocky Marciano, with his trade-unionist obedience; the arresting and dogged Floyd Patterson, who would bare his soul to a telephone pole at the sight of a pencil; all unfrivolous men who left no doubt as to the nature of their work.
With the emergence of Muhammad Ali, no one would ever see the ring the same way again, not even the fighters themselves; a TV go, a purse, and sheared lip would never be enough; and a title was just a belt unless you did something with it. A fighter had to be; a product, an event, transcendental. Ali and the new age met stern, early resistance. He was the demon loose at a holy rite. With his preening narcissism, braggart mouth, and stylistic quirks, he was viewed as a vandal of ring tenets and etiquette. Besides, they said, he couldn’t punch, did not like to get hit, and seemed to lack a sufficient amount of killer adrenaline. True, on the latter two counts. “I git no pleasure from hurtin’ another human bein’,” he used to say. “I do what I gotta do, nothin’ more, nothin’ less.” As far as eating punches, he said, “Only a fool wanna be hit. Boxin’ just today, my face is forever.” Others saw much more. The ballet master Balanchine, for one, showed up at a workout and gazed in wonder. “My God,” he said, “he fights with his legs, he actually fights with his legs. What an astonishing creature.” Ali’s jab (more like a straight left of jolting electricity) came in triplets, each a thousandth of a second in execution. He’d double up cruelly with a left hook (rarely seen) and razor in a right—and then he’d be gone. Even so, it took many years for Ali to ascend to a preeminent light in the national consciousness. In the Sixties, as a converted Black Muslim, he vilified white people as blond, blue-eyed devils. His position on Vietnam—”I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong, anyway. They never called me nigger”—was innocent at first, but then taken up as if he were the provocateur of a national crisis. The politicians, promoters, and sweeping sentiment converged to conspire against his constitutional right to work; states barred him from fighting. He resisted the draft and drifted into exile. Three years later he returned, heavier, slower, but with a new kind of fire in his belly. Though he had defeated heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and defended his title nine times, Ali had never had a dramatic constituency before. Now a huge one awaited him, liberals looking for expression, eager literati to put it into scripture, worn-out hippies, anyone who wanted to see right done for once. The rest is history: the two symphonic conflicts with Joe Frazier; the tingling walk with him into the darkness of George Foreman. Then, the Hegelian “bad infinite” of repeating diminishing cycles: retiring, unretiring, the torture of losing weight, the oiling of mushy reflexes. The margins of dominance compressed perilously, and the head shots (negligible before exile) mounted.
Greatness trickled from the corpus of his image, his career now like a gutshot that was going to take its time before killing. His signing to fight Larry Holmes, after retiring a second time, provoked worried comment. After watching some of Ali’s films, a London neurologist said that he was convinced Ali had brain damage. Diagnosis by long distance, the promoters scoffed. Yet among those in his camp, the few who cared, there was an edginess. They approached Holmes, saying, “Don’t hurt him, Larry.” Moved, Holmes replied: “No way. I love Ali.” With compassion, he then took Ali apart with the studied carefulness of a diamond cutter; still, not enough to mask the winces at ringside. Ali failed to go the route for the first time in his career. Incredibly, fourteen months later, in 1981, his ego goaded him to the Bahamas and another fight, the fat jellied on his middle, his hand-speed sighing and wheezing like a busted old fan; tropic rot on the trade winds. Trevor Berbick, an earnest pug, outpointed him easily. Afterward, Angelo Dundee, who had trained Ali from the start and had to be talked into showing up for this one, watched him slumped in the dressing room, then turned away and rubbed his eyes as certain people tried to convince Ali that he had been robbed and that a fourth title was still possible.
The public prefers, indeed seems to insist on, the precedent set by Rocky Marciano, who quit undefeated, kept self-delusion at bay. Ali knew the importance of a clean farewell, not only as a health measure but as good commercial sense. His ring classicism had always argued so persuasively against excessive physical harm, his pride was beyond anything but a regal exit. But his prolonged decline had been nasty, unseemly. Who or what pressured him to continue on? Some blamed his manager, Herbert Muhammad, who had made millions with Ali. Herbert said that his influence wasn’t that strong.
Two years after that last fight, Ali seemed as mystified as everyone else as to why he hadn’t ended his career earlier. His was living with his third wife, the ice goddess Veronica, in an L.A. mansion, surrounded by the gifts of a lifetime—a six-foot hand carved tiger given to him by Teng Hsiao-ping, a robe given to him by Elvis Presley. Fatigued, his hands tremoring badly, he sat in front of the fire and could only say: “Everybody git lost in life. I just git lost, that’s all.”
Now, five years later, the question why still lingers, along with the warning of the old aphorism that “we live beyond what we enact.” The resuscitation of Ali’s image has been a sporadic exercise for a long time now, some of it coming from friends who have experienced heartfelt pain over his illness. Others seem to be trying to assuage a guilt known only to themselves, and a few are out to keep Ali a player, a lure to those who might want to use his name in business; though the marketplace turns away from billboards in decline. Not long ago, a piece in The New York Times Magazine pronounced him the Ali of old, just about terminally perky. Then, Ali surfaced in a front-page telephone interview in The Washington Post. He appeared to have a hard grasp on politics, current states’ rights issues, and federal judgeships being contested—a scenario that had seemed as likely as the fusillade of laser fire Ali said Muslim spaceships would one day loose on the white devils.
Noses began to twitch. What and who was behind the new Ali, the wily Washington lobbyist who had the ear of everyone from Strom Thurmond to Orrin Hatch? The wife of Senator Arlen Specter even baked Ali a double-chocolate-mousse pie. For a good while, most of these senators, and others, knew only the voice of Ali on the phone. Dave Kindred, a columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who has known Ali since his Louisville days, concluded that it was most likely Ali’s attorney, Richard Hirschfeld, widely regarded as a brilliant impersonator of Ali, who had made the calls. (Hirschfeld has refused to comment on whether or not he did so.) Hirschfeld and Ali had cut up a lot of money over the years on numerous enterprises (funded by other people), from hotels to cars, most of them failing. Ali’s lobbying seemed to center on a federal judgeship for a Hirschfeld friend, and a federal lawsuit in which Ali sought $50 million in damages from his “wrongful conviction in the 1967 draft evasion case.” He lost the suit but succeeded in getting Senator Hatch and others to explore a loophole that might remedy the verdict. Ali eventually had to materialize (with Hirschfeld hard by his side), and many on Capitol Hill were unable to match the man with the voice. One of Sam Nunn’s aides, noting Ali’s listlessness and Hirschfeld’s aggressive quizzing, wondered: “Is Ali being carted around like a puppet?” Certainly a serpentine tale; but had Ali been a collaborator all along?
At his farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan, Ali sits at the end of a table in the living room. The 247 pounds of weight have made him a bit short of breath. He’s battled his appetite (two, three desserts, meals back to back) and sedentary lapses for years. Several months before, he had been almost sleek, thanks to fourteen-mile walks and his wife’s efforts to police him at the table. But what is disturbing is the general profile of his condition.
For a long time now, he had appeared indifferent to the ravages of his problem. But he dispels that notion when asked how seriously he considered a dangerous brain operation in Mexico before his family talked him out of it. “Scale of ten,” he says, “a six.” The answer reflects the terrible frustration that must exist within him, the daily, fierce struggle with a body and mind that will not capitulate to his bidding. He sits there, his hands shaking, his movements robotic, the look on his face similar to what the Marines call a thousand-yard stare.
Why is it, do you think, that after all these years, the dominant sound around Ali is silence? Look at the cataract of noise caught by TV sound men, look at the verbosity that snared some novelists into thinking he was a primitive intelligence capable of Ciceronian insight. Part of the fever of the times; if the Black Panther Huey Newton, posing with a rifle and spear, could be written up as a theoretical genius, and his partner, Bobby Seale, interpreted as a tactical wizard, then how much a symbol was Ali, the first to tap and manifest glinting black pride, to dispute with vigor erosive self-laceration.
The fact was that he was not cerebral; he was a reflex of confusing emotions and instant passions. He did have street cunning, most of it aimed at keeping himself a mystery. “People like mystery,” he used to say. “Who is he? What’s he all about? Who’s he gonna be tomorrow?” To that end, he tossed the media rabble dripping hunks of redundant, rote monologue; his loudness provided a great show and diverted probing questions. By nature, he was gentle, sensitive man, and even in the throes of angry threats against whites it was hard to hide a smile, for he loved what the blacks call “selling wolf tickets,” tricking people into fear. The Black Panthers used that gambit well, and the TV crews followed their presence. Thinking of all of this, how could someone so alien to ideas, and thought, who communicated privately, in scraps and remote silences, be capable of fooling Washington politicians? Absurd, of course, but then the question emerges: Did he allow himself to be used?
“How about all those phone calls,” he is asked.
“What calls?” he responds, vacantly.
“To politicians, this past summer.”
“You can’t believe that,” he says. “Man wrote that, he’s cracker from way back in Louisville. Always hated blacks.”
“I’m signin’ my autographs now,” he says. “This is the only important thing in my life. Keepin’ in touch with the people.”
“Were you used?”
“Spend a hundred dollars on stamps every week. Give ‘em all my autograph that write me.”
“Were you used?”
“To influence your lawsuit.”
“I ain’t worried about money,” he says.
“Maybe you just want to be big again. Remember what you told Elvis. ‘Elvis, you have to keep singin’ or die to stay big. I’m gonna be big forever.’”
He smiles thinly: “I say anything shock the world.”
“You like politics now?”
“Politics put me to sleep.”
“You were at the Republican National Convention.”
“You borin’ me, putting me to sleep.”
“Reagan, Hatch, Quayle, they would’ve clapped you in jail in the old days.”
His eyes widen slightly: “That right?” He adds: “I’m tired. You better than a sleepin’ pill.”
But don’t let the exchange mislead. Ali is not up to repartee these days, never was, really, unless he was in the mood, and then he’d fade you with one of his standard lines (“You not as dumb as you look”). He speaks very, very slowly, and you have to lean in to hear him. It takes nearly as hour to negotiate the course of a conversation. Typically, he hadn’t been enlightening on the Capitol Hill scam. Over the years, he has been easily led, told by any number of rogues what his best interests were. If the advisors were friends who appealed to his instinct to help them move up a rung, he was even more of a setup. Later, Bingham says: “Ali was pissed about that impersonation stuff. He had no idea.” Why didn’t he just say that he didn’t make the calls? “You know him,” he says. “He’ll never betray who he thinks has tried to help him. The idea that people will think less of him now bothers him a lot.”
If there was ever any doubt about the staying power of Ali, it is swept aside when you travel with him. His favorite place in the world—next to his worktable at his farm—is an airport. So he should be in high spirits now; he’ll be in three airports before the day’s over. But he’s a bit petulant with Lonnie, who aims to see that he keeps his date at Hilton Head Island. He can’t stand hospitals. They get in the way of life. He found it hard to ever visit his old sidekick Bundini when he was dying. Paralyzed from the next down, Bundini could only move his eyes. Ali bent down close to his ear and whispered: “You in pain?” The eyes signaled “yes.” Ali turned his head away, then came back to those eyes, saying: “We had some good times, didn’t we?” Bundini’s eyes went up and down. Ali talks about this in the Chicago airport. He’s calmed down now, sits off by himself, ramrod-straight and waiting. He wears a pinstripe suit, red tie, and next to him is his black magician’s bag; he never lets it out of his sight. The bag is filled with religious tracts already autographed; which is the first thing he does every day at 6:00 a.m., when he gets up. All he has to do is fill in the person’s name.
His autograph ritual and travel are his consuming interests. He’ll go anywhere at the ring of a phone, and he spends much time on the road. Perhaps the travel buoys him; he certainly gets an energy charge from people. Soon they begin to drop like birds to his side. “You see,” he says, “all I gotta do is sit here. Somethin’, ain’t it? Why they like me?” He is not trying to be humble, he is genuinely perplexed by the chemistry that exists between himself and other people. “Maybe they just like celebrities,” he says. Maybe, he’s told, he’s much more than a celebrity. He ponders that for a moment, and says: “That right?” By now, a hundred people have lined up in front of him, and a security guard begins to keep them in line. Ali asks them his name, writes, then gives them his autographed tracts. Some ask him to pose for pictures, others kid him about unretiring. “Kong (Mike Tyson), I’m comin’ after you.” Near the end, he does a magic trick for a lady, using a fake thumb. “Where you going, Muhammad?” she asks. He thinks, and then leans over to the writer and asks: “Where we going?” The lady’s eyes fill, she hugs him and says: “We love you so much.” What is it that so movingly draws so many people—his innocent, childlike way, the stony visual he projects, set off against his highly visible symptoms?
That night over dinner, Ali’s eyes open and close between courses. He fades in and out of the conversation, has a hint of trouble lifting the fork to his mouth. His days includes periods like this, he’s in and out like a faraway signal. Sometimes he’s full of play. He likes to swing his long arm near a person’s ear, then create a friction with thumb and forefinger to produce a cricket effect in the ear. Then the play is gone, and so is he. “One day,” Lonnie is saying, “I want someone to catch his soul, to show what a fine human being he is.” Ali says, head down: “Nobody know me. I fool ‘em all.” Lonnie is Ali’s fourth wife. She was a little girl who lived across from Ali’s old Louisville home when he was at the top. She is a woman of wit and intelligence, with a master’s degree in business administration. She plans his trips, is the tough cop with him and his medicine, and generally seems to brighten his life. Ice cream dribbles down Ali’s chin. “Now, Muhammad,” she says, wiping it away. “You’re a big baby.” He orders another dessert, then says: “Where are we?” A blade of silence cuts across the table.
Bingham says: “Hilton Head Island.”
Ali says: “Ya ever wake up and don’t know where you are?” Sure, he is told, steady travel can make a person feel like that for an instant; yet it is obvious that short term-memory for him is like a labyrinth.
Ali’s day at the hospital is nearly over. He will soon be counting down the minutes. Right now, he’s in high spirits. A nurse has secretly slipped him some strips of paper. He has a complete piece of paper in his hands. He crumples the paper, pretends to put it in his mouth, then billows his cheeks until he regurgitates tiny pieces all over his chest. “Ain’t magic a happy thing,” he says, trying to contain his giggling. When Dr. Medenica comes, Ali jokes with him. The doctor goes about examining the day’s results. He looks at the bags of plasma: 15,000 cc’s have been moved through Ali. Floyd Patterson has expressed dismay over the current treatment. “No brain damage?” Floyd has said. “Next you’ll be hearing he was bit by a cockroach. He’s gonna kill Clay…. He’ll drop dead in a year.” Medenica bridles at the comment. “He’s rather ignorant. I’m going to have to call that man.” Ali wants to know what Patterson said. Nobody wants to tell him. “Tell me,” says Ali. Everyone looks at each other, and someone finally says: “Floyd says you’ll drop dead in a year.” Ali shrugs it off: “Floyd mean well.”
It is Medenica’s contention that Ali suffers from pesticide poisoning. Though his work has met with some skepticism in the medical community, Medenica is respected in South Carolina. His desk is rimmed with pictures of prominent people—a senator, a Saudi prince, an ambassador—patients for whom he has retarded death by cancer. He is supposed to have done wonders for Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia. Tito was so grateful, he arranged funding for Medenica’s clinic in Switzerland. When he died, the funds were cut off and Medenica was left with bills and criminal indictment by the Yugoslavians and the Swiss. “Don’t ask how Ali got the pesticides,” Medenica says.
Plasmapheresis is a solid treatment for pesticide poisoning, which occurs more than ever these days. The blood cleaning removes the immune complex, which in turns removes toxins. But how can Medenica be so sure that Ali’s problem is not brain damage? Dr. Dennis Cope, of UCLA, has said that Ali is a victim of “Parkinson’s syndrome secondary to pugilistic brain syndrome.” In short, he took too many head shots. Medenica, though, is a confident man.
He predicts Ali will be completely recovered. “I find absolutely no brain damage. The magnetic resonator tests show no damage. Before I took him as a patient, I watched many of his fight films. He did not take many head blows.”
Is he kidding?
“No, I do not see any head blows. When he came this summer, he was in bad shape. Poor gait. Difficult speech. Vocal cord syndrome, extended and inflamed. He is much better. His problem is he misses taking his medicine, and he travels too much. He should be here once a month.”
Finally, Ali is helped out of his medical harness. He dresses slowly. Then, ready to go out, he puts that famous upper-teeth clamp on his bottom lip to show determination and circles the doctor with a cocked right fist. His next stop is for an interferon shot. It is used to stimulate the white blood cells. Afterward, he is weak, and there is a certain sadness in his eyes. On the way to the car, he is asked if the treatment helps. He says: “Sheeeet, nothin’ help.”
The Lincoln Town Car moves through the night. Bingham, who is driving, fumbles with the tape player. Earlier in the day, he had searched anxiously for a tape of Whitney Houston doing “The Greatest Love of All,” a song written especially for Ali years ago. He had sensed that Ali would be quite low when the day was over, and he wanted something to pick him up. The words, beautiful and haunting, fill the car.
Everybody’s searching for a hero,
People need someone
To look up to,
I never found anyone who
Fulfilled that need;
A lonely place to be,
So learned to depend on me.
I decided long ago
Never to walk in anyone’s shadow;
If I fail, if I succeed
At least I lived as I believe,
And no matter what
They take from me,
They can’t take away my dignity;
Because the greatest love of all
Is happening to me
I found the greatest love of all
Inside of me.
The greatest love of all is easy
Learning to love yourself
It is the greatest love of all.
“You hear that,” Bingham says, his voice cracking. “Everything’s gonna be just fine, Ali.”
The dark trees spin by. There is no answer. What is he thinking?
This 1989 Esquire piece by father on Ali in decline is one of my personal favorites. I am not exactly sure what he thought of it; he was the last person to go to for an opinion on any of his work. But I like it immensely. It blends his characteristic impressionistic style with exquisite reporting, grim humor and an undercurrent of compassion born of their long years together. Although my father took some swipes at Ali in his 2001 book, Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, I think he comes at his subject in this piece with his lance sheathed. He had always told me he had been of fond Ali personally and I think that comes across here. It is a tender glimpse at a once extraordinary athlete who has been thrust by age and illness into a state of sad fragility.
Mark Kram covered much of Ali’s career for Sports Illustrated, including all three of his bouts with Joe Frazier. He began his 40 year writing career as sports columnist as The Baltimore Sun in 1959. He spent 13 years at SI (1964-1977), during which he became one of the signature voices of the magazine. He later contributed pieces to Playboy, Esquire, and GQ. Ghosts of Manila, his book on the Ali-Frazier rivalry, was published by HarperCollins in 2001. He died in 2002.
Sit down here a while, kid, and I’ll give you the dope on this guy. You say you didn’t see him do nothin’ wonderful? But you only seen him in one serious. Wait till you been in the league more’n a week or two before you go judgin’ ball players. He may of been sick when you played agin him. Even when he’s sick, though, he’s got everybody I ever seen skun, and I’ve saw all the best of ‘em.P
Say, he ain’t worth nothin’ to that club; no, nothin’! I don’t know what pay he’s gettin’, but whatever it is, it ain’t enough. If they’d split the receipts ﬁfty-ﬁfty with that bird, they wouldn’t be gettin’ none the worst of it. That bunch could get along just as well without him as a train could without no engine.P
He’s twicet the ball player now that he was when he come up. He didn’t seem to have no sense when he broke in; he run bases like a fool and was a mark for a good pitcher or catcher. They used to just lay for him when he got on. Sully used to tell the pitchers to do nothin’ but waste balls when he was on ﬁrst or second base. It was pretty near always good dope, too, because they’d generally nail him off one base or the other, or catch him tryin’ to go to the next one. But Sully had to make perfect pegs to get him even when he knowed beforehand that he was goin’. Sully was the boy that could make them perfect pegs, too. Don’t forget that.P
Cobb seemed to think they was only one rule in the book, and that was a rule providin’ that nobody could stay on one base more’n one second. They tell me that before he got into the South Atlantic League he was with a club down there in Georgia called the Royston Rompers. Maybe he thought he had to keep on rompin’ up here.P
Another thing was that he couldn’t hit a left-hander very good. Doc W’ite used to make him look like a sucker. Doc was a fox to begin with, and he always give you just what you wasn’t lookin’ for. And then, his curve ball was somethin’ Ty hadn’t never saw before and it certainly did fool him. He’d hand Cobb a couple o’ curves and the baby’d miss ‘em a foot. Then, when he was expectin’ another one, Doc’d shoot his fast one right past his chin and make a monkey out of him.P
That was when he ﬁrst come up here. But Ty ain’t the guy that’s goin’ to stay fooled all the time. When he wises up that somebody’s got somethin’ on him, he don’t sleep nor do nothin’ till he ﬁgures out a way to get even. It’s a good thing Doc had his chancet to laugh when he did, because Cobb did most o’ the laughin’ after a couple o’ seasons of it. He seen he couldn’t hit the curve when it was breakin’, so he stood way back in the box and waited till it’d broke. Then he nailed it. When Ty’d learned that trick, Doc got so’s he was well pleased when the balls this guy hit off’n him stayed in the park.P
It was the same way with every pitcher that had his number when he ﬁrst busted in. He got to ‘em in short order and, before long, nobody was foolin’ him so’s you could notice it. Right now he’s as good agin left-handers as he is agin regular fellas. And if they’s any pitcher in baseball that’s got him fooled, he’s keepin’ the fact well concealed.P
I was tellin’ you what a wild base-runner he was at ﬁrst. Well, he’s still takin’ chances that nobody else takes, but he’s usin’ judgment with it. He don’t run no more just for the sake o’ runnin’. They was a time when the guy on the base ahead of him was afraid all the time that he’d get spiked in the heels. But no more o’ that. They’s no more danger of him causin’ a rear end collision, providin’ the guy ahead don’t blockade the right o’ way too long.P
You may not believe it, but I’ll bet most o’ these here catchers would rather have somebody on second base when Ty’s on ﬁrst base than to have him on ﬁrst base alone. They know he ain’t goin’ to pull no John Anderson and they feel pretty safe when he can’t steal without bumpin’ into one of his own teammates. But when the track’s all clear, look out!P
All my life I been hearin’ about the slow, easy-goin’ Southerner. Well, Ty’s easy-goin’ all right—like a million-dollar tourin’ car. But if Southerners is slow, he must be kiddin’ us when he says he was born down South. He must of came from up there where Doc Cook pretty near got to.P
You say you’ve heard ball players talk about how lucky he was. Yes, he is lucky. But it’s because he makes his own luck. If he’s got horseshoes, he’s his own blacksmith. You got to have the ability ﬁrst, and the luck’ll string along with you. Look at Connie Mack and John D. and some o’ them fellas.P
You know I ain’t played no ball for the last few years, but I seen a lot of it played. And I don’t overlook no chancet to watch this here Tyrus. I’ve saw him agin every club in the American League and I’ve saw him pull more stuff than any other guy ever dreamed of. Lots o’ times, after seein’ him get away with somethin’, I’ve said to myself: “Gosh, he’s a lucky stiff !” But right afterward, I’ve thought: “Yes, and why don’t nobody else have that luck? Because they don’t go out and get it.”P
I remember one time in Chi, a year or two ago. The Sox was two to the bad and it was the ninth innin’. They was two men down. Bodie was on second base and somebody hits a single to center ﬁeld. Bodie tries to score. It wasn’t good baseball to take the chancet, because that run wasn’t goin’ to do no good without another one to put with it. Cobb pegs to the plate and the umps calls Bodie out, though it looked to everybody like he was safe. Well, it was a bad play of Bodie’s, wasn’t it? Yes. Well then, it was a bad play o’ Cobb’s to make the throw. If Detroit hadn’t of got the best o’ that decision, the peg home would of let the man that hit the ball go to second and be planted there in position to score the tyin’ run on another base hit. Where if Ty had of played it safe, like almost anybody would, the batter’d of been held on ﬁrst base where it would take two base hits or a good long wallop to score him. It was lucky for Ty that the umps happened to guess wrong. But say, I think that guy’s pretty near smart enough to know when a umpire’s goin’ to make a rotten decision.P
O’ course you know that Ty gets to ﬁrst base more’n anybody in the world. In the ﬁrst place, he always manages to hit better’n anybody. And when he don’t hit safe, but just bounds one to some inﬁelder, the bettin’s 2 to 1 that the ball will be booted or throwed wild. That’s his luck, is it? No, sir. It’s no such a thing. It’s his speed. The inﬁelder knows he ain’t got no time to spare. He’s got to make the play faster’n he would for anybody else, and the result is that he balls it all up. He tries to throw to ﬁrst base before he’s got the pill to throw, or else he hurries the throw so much that he don’t have no time to aim. Some o’ the ball players round the league says that the scorers favor Ty and give him a base hit on almost anything. Well, I think they ought to. I don’t believe in handin’ a error to a fella when he’s hurried and worried to death. If you tried to make the play like you do for other guys, Ty’d beat the ball to ﬁrst base and then you’d get a hot call from the bench for loaﬁn’.P
If you’d saw him play as much baseball as I have, you wouldn’t be claimin’ he was overrated. I ain’t goin to come right out and say he’s the best ever, because they was some old-timers I never seen. (Comiskey, though, who’s saw ‘em all, slips it to him.) I just want to tell you some o’ the things he’s did, and if you can show me his equal, lead me to him and I’ll take off my hat.P
Detroit was playin’ the Ath-a-letics oncet. You know they ain’t no club that the Tigers looks better agin than the Atha-letics, and Cobb’s more of a devil in Philly than anywheres else. Well, this was when he was battin’ fourth and Jim Delahanty was followin’ him. Ty singles and Del slips him the hit and run sign on the ﬁrst ball. The ball was pitched a little outside, and Del cuts it down past Harry Davis for a single to right ﬁeld. Do you know what Cobb done? He scored; that’s all. And they wasn’t no boot made, neither. Danny Murphy picked the ball up clean and pegged it to Davis and Davis relays it straight home to Ira Thomas. Ty was there ahead of it. If I hadn’t o’ been watchin’ close, I’d o’ thought he forgot to touch two or three bases. But, no, sir. He didn’t miss none of ‘em. They may be other guys that could do that if they tried, but the diff ‘rence between them and Cobb is that he done it and they didn’t. Oh, I guess other fellas has scored from ﬁrst base on a long single in the hit and run, but not when the ball was handled perfectly clean like this one.P
Well, here’s another one: I forget the exact details, except that the game was between the White Sox and Detroit and that Tannehill was playin’ third base at the time, and that the score was tied when Cobb pulled it. It was the eighth innin’. He was on ﬁrst base. The next guy hits a single to left ﬁeld. Ty, o’ course, rounds second and starts for third. The left ﬁelder makes a rotten peg and the pill comes rollin’ in. Ty has the play beat a mile and they ain’t no occasion for him to slide. But he slid, and do you know what he done? He took a healthy kick at that rollin’ ball and sent it clear over to the grand stand. Then he jumped to his feet and kept on goin’. He was acrost the plate with the winnin’ run before nobody’d realized what he’d did. It’s agin the rules, o’ course, to kick the ball a-purpose, but how could the umps prove that this wasn’t a accident? Ty could of told him that he thought the play was goin’ to be close and he’d better slide. I might o’ thought it was a accident, too, if that had of been the only time I seen him do it. I can’t tell you how many times he’s pulled it, but it’s grew to be a habit with him. When it comes to scorin’ on kicks, he’s got this here What’s-His-Name—Brickley—tied.P
I’ve saw him score from second base on a ﬂ y ball, too; a ﬂy ball that was catched. Others has did it, but not as regular as this guy. He come awful near gettin’ away with it agin a little while ago, in Chi. They was also somebody on third when the ball was hit. The guy on third started home the minute Bodie catched the ball and Ping seen they was no chancet to get him. So he pegs toward Weaver, who’s down near third base. Cobb’s at third before the ball gets to the inﬁeld. He don’t never hesitate. He keeps right on goin’ for the plate. Now, if Weaver’d of been able to of intercepted the ball, Ty’d of been out thirty feet. But the throw goes clear through to the third baseman. Then it’s relayed home. The gang sittin’ with me all thought Ty was safe. I don’t know about it, but anyway, he was called out. It just goes to show you what this guy’s liable to do. You can’t take no afternoon nap when he’s around. They’s lots of other fast guys, but while they’re thinkin’ about what they’re goin’ to do, he’s did it. He’s ﬁgurin’ two or three bases ahead all the while. So, as I say, you don’t get no sleep with him in the game.P
Fielder Jones used to tell us: “When that bird’s runnin’, throw the ball somewheres just’s soon as you get a-hold of it. I don’t care where you throw it, but throw it somewheres. Don’t hold onto it.”P
I seen where the papers says the other day that you outguessed him. I wasn’t out to that game. I guess you got away with somethin’ all right, but don’t feel too good about it. You’re worse off now than you was before you done it because he won’t never rest till he shows you up. You stopped him oncet, and just for that he’ll make you look like a rummy next time he plays agin you. And after he’s did it oncet and got even, he’ll do it agin. And then he’ll do it agin. They’s a lot o’ fellas round this league that’s put over a smart play on Tyrus and most of ‘em has since wished they hadn’t. It’s just like as if I’d go out and lick a policeman. I’d live to regret it.P
We had a young fella oncet, a catcher, that nailed him ﬂatfooted off ‘n ﬁrst base one day. It was in the ﬁrst game of a serious. Ty didn’t get on no more that day, but he walked the ﬁrst time up the followin’ afternoon. They was two out. He takes a big lead and the young fella pegs for him agin. But Tyrus was off like a streak when the ball was throwed, and about the time the ﬁrst baseman was catchin’ it, he was slidin’ into second. Then he gets a big lead off ‘n second and the young catcher takes a shot for him there. But he throws clear to center ﬁeld and Ty scores. The next guy whiffs, so they wouldn’t of been no run if the young guy hadn’t of got so chesty over the precedin’ day’s work. I’m tellin’ you this so’s you won’t feel too good.P
They’s times when a guy does try to pull something on this Cobb, and is made to look like a sucker without deservin’ it. I guess that’s because the Lord is for them that helps themselves and don’t like to see nobody try to show ‘em up.P
I was sittin’ up in the stand in Cleveland one day. Ty was on second base when somebody hits a ﬂy ball, way out, to Birmingham. At that time, Joe had the best throwin’ arm you ever see. He could shoot like a riﬂe. Cobb knowed that, o’ course, and didn’t feel like takin’ no chancet, even though Joe was pretty far out there. Ty waits till the ball’s catched and then makes a bluff to go to third, thinkin’ Birmy’d throw and that the ball might get away. Well, Joe knows that Cobb knows what kind of arm he’s got and ﬁ gures that the start from second is just a bluff ; that he ain’t really got no intention o’ goin’. So, instead o’ peggin’ to third, he takes a quick shot for second, hopin’ to nail Cobb before he can get back. The throw’s perfect and Cobb sees where he’s trapped. So he hikes for third. And the second sacker—I don’t think the big Frenchman was playin’ that day—drops the ball. If he’d of held it, he’d of had plenty of time to relay to third and nail Ty by a block. But no. He drops the ball. See? Birmy’d outguessed Ty, but all it done for him was to make him look bad and make Ty look good.P
Another time, a long while ago, Detroit needed a run to win from the Sox. Ty gets to ﬁ rst base with one out. Sully was catchin’. Sully signs for a pitch-out and then snaps the ball to ﬁrst base. Ty wasn’t lookin’ for it and he was caught clean. He couldn’t get back to ﬁ rst base, so he goes for second. Big Anderson was playin’ ﬁrst base and he makes a bum peg. The ball hits Cobb on the shoulder and bounds so far out in left center that he didn’t even have to run to get home. You see, Sully’d outguessed Ty and had pulled a play that ought to of saved the game. Instead o’ that, it give the game to Detroit. That’s what hurts and discourages a fella from tryin’ to pull anything on him.P
Sometimes I pretty near think they’s nothin’ he couldn’t do if he really set out to do it. Before you joined the club, some o’ the boys was kiddin’ him over to Detroit. Callahan was tellin’ me about it. Cobb hadn’t started hittin’. One o’ the players clipped the averages out o’ the paper and took ‘em to the park. He showed the clippin’ to Ty.P
“You’re some battin’ champ, Ty,” he says. “Goin’ at a .225 clip, eh?”P
Tyrus just laughed at him. “I been playin’ I was one o’ you White Sox,” he says. “But wait till a week from to-day. It’ll be .325 then.”P
Well, it wasn’t. No, sir! It was .326.P
One time, in 1912 I think it was, I happened to be goin’ East, lookin’ for a job of umpirin’, and I rode on the train with the Tigers. I and Cobb et breakfast together. I had a Sunday paper with me and was givin’ the averages the oncet over.P
“Read ‘em to me,” says Ty.P
“You don’t want ‘em all, do you?” I says.P
“No, no. Just the ﬁrst three of us,” he says. “I know about where I’m at, but not exactly.”P
So I read it to him:P
“Jackson’s ﬁrst with .412. Speaker’s second with .400. You’re third with .386.”P
“Well,” says Ty, “I reckon the old boy’d better get busy. Watch me this trip!”P
I watched him, through the papers. In the next twenty-one times at bat, he gets exactly seventeen hits, and when the next averages was printed, he was out in front. He stayed there, too.P
So I don’t know, but I believe that if Jackson and Speaker and Collins and Lajoie and Crawford was to go crazy and hit .999, this Cobb would come out on top with 1,000 even.P
He’s got a pretty good opinion of himself, but he ain’t no guy to really brag. He’s just full o’ the old conﬁdence. He thinks Cobb’s a good ball player, and a guy’s got to think that way about himself if he wants to get anywheres. I know a lot o’ ball players that gets throwed out o’ the league because they think the league’s too fast for ‘em. It’s diff ‘rent with Tyrus. If they was a league just three times as fast as the one he’s in and if he was sold up there, he’d go believin’ he could lead it in battin’. And he’d lead it too!P
Yes, sir, he’s full o’ that old stuff , and the result is that lots o’ people that don’t know him think he’s a swell-head, and don’t like him. But I’m tellin’ you that he’s a pretty good guy now, and the rest o’ the Tigers is strong for him, which is more’n they used to be. He busted in with a chip on his shoulder, and he soon become just as popular as the itch. Everybody played him for a busher and started takin’ liberties with him. He was a busher, too, but he was one o’ the kind that can’t take a joke. You know how they’s young fellas that won’t stand for nothin’. Then they’s them that stands for too much. Then they’s the kind that’s just about half way. You can go a little ways with ‘em, but not too far. That’s the kind that’s popular.P
Cobb wouldn’t stand for nothin’. If somebody poured ketchup in his coffee, he was liable to pick up the cup and throw it at the guy nearest to him. If you’d stepped on his shine, he’d of probably took the other foot and aimed it at you like he does now at the ball when it’s lyin’ loose on the ground. If you’d called him some name on the ﬁeld, he’d of walloped you with a bat, even if you was his pal. So they was all stuck on him, was they not?P
He got trimmed a couple o’ times, right on his own club, too. But when they seen what kind of a ball player he was goin’ to be, they decided they’d better not kill him. It’s just as well for ‘em they didn’t. I’d like to know where their club would of ﬁnished—in 1907 and 1908, for instance—if it hadn’t of been for him. It was nobody but him that beat us out in 1908. I’ll tell you about it later on.P
I says to him one day not long ago, I says:P
“You wasn’t very strong with the boys when you ﬁrst come up. What was the trouble?”P
“Well,” he says, “I didn’t understand what was comin’ off . I guess they meant it all right, but nobody’d tipped me that a busher’s supposed to be picked on. They were hazin’ me; that’s what they were doin’, hazin’ me. I argued with ‘em because I didn’t know better.”P
“You learned, though, didn’t you?” I says.P
“Oh, yes,” says Ty, “I learned all right.”P
“Maybe you paid for your lessons, too,” I says.P
“Maybe I did,” he says.P
“Well,” I says, “would you act just the same way if you had it to do over again?”P
“I reckon so,” he says.P
And he would, too, because if he was a diff ‘rent kind o’ guy, he wouldn’t be the ball player he is.P
Say, maybe you think I didn’t hate him when I was playin’ ball. I didn’t know him very well, see? But I hated him on general principles. And I never hated him more’n I did in 1908. That was the year they beat us out o’ the big dough the last day o’ the season, and it come at a time when I needed that old dough, because I knowed darn well that I wasn’t goin’ to last no ten years more or nothin’ like that.P
You look over the records now, and you’ll see that the Detroit club and us just about broke even on the year’s serious agin each other. I don’t know now if it was exactly even or not, or, if it wasn’t, which club had the best of it. But I do know one thing, and that is that they beat us ﬁve games that we’d ought to of copped from ‘em easy and they beat us them games for no other reason than that they had this here Georgia Peach.P
The records don’t show no stuff like that, but I can remember most o’ them games as if they was played yesterday; that is, Cobb’s part in ‘em. In them days, they had Crawford hittin’ third and Cobb fourth and Rossman ﬁ fth. Well, one day we had ‘em licked by three runs in the seventh innin’. Old Nick was pitchin’ for us and Sully was catchin’. Tannehill was at third base and Hahn was switched from right to left ﬁeld because they was somethin’ the matter with Dougherty. Well, this seventh innin’ come, as I was sayin’, and we was three runs to the good. Crawford gets on someway and Cobb singles. Jones thought Nick was slippin’, so he hollered for Smitty. Smitty comes in and pitches to big Rossman and the big guy hits one back at him. Smitty had the easiest kind of a double play starin’ him in the face—a force play on Crawford at third and then the rest of it on Rossman, who wasn’t no speed marvel. But he makes a bad peg to Tannie and the ball gets by him. It didn’t look like as if Crawford could score, and I guess he was goin’ to stop at third.P
But Tyrus didn’t pay no attention to Crawford. He’d saw the wild peg and he was bound to keep right on comin’. So Crawford’s got to start home to keep from gettin’ run over. Hahn had come in to get the ball and when he seen Crawford startin’ home, he cut loose a wild peg that went clear to the bench. Crawford and Cobb both scored, o’ course, and what does Ty do but yell at Rossman to follow ‘em in, though it looked like sure death. Sully has the ball by that time, but it’s just our luck that he has to peg wild too. The ball sailed over Smitty, who’d came up to cover the plate. The score’s tied and for no reason but that Tyrus had made everybody run. The next three was easy outs, but they went on and licked us in extra innin’s.P
Well, they was another game, in that same serious I think it was, when Big Ed had ‘em stopped dead to rights. They hadn’t no more business scorin’ off ‘n him than a rabbit. I don’t think they hit two balls hard all day. We wasn’t the best hittin’ club in the world, but we managed to get one run for the Big Moose in the ﬁ rst innin’ and that had ought to of been a-plenty.P
Up comes Cobb in the fourth and hits one that goes in two bounds to Davis or whoever was playin’ short. If he could of took his time, they’d of been nothin’ to it. But he has to hurry the play because it’s Cobb runnin’, and he pegs low. Izzy gets the ball off ‘n the ground all right, but juggles it, and then Ty’s safe.P
They was nobody out, so Rossman bunts. He’s throwed out a mile at ﬁ rst base, but Ty goes all the way to third. Then the next guy hits a ﬂy ball to Hahn that wouldn’t of been worth a nickel if Cobb’d of went only to second on the sacriﬁce, like a human bein’. He’s on third, though, and he scores on the ﬂy ball. The next guy takes three swings and the side’s out, but we’re tied up.P
Then we go along to the ninth innin’ and it don’t look like they’d score agin on Big Ed if they played till Easter. But Cobb’s up in the ninth with one out. He gets the one real healthy hit that they’d made all day. He singled to right ﬁeld. I say he singled, because a single’s what anybody else would of been satisﬁed with on the ball he hit. But Ty didn’t stop at ﬁrst base. He lights out for second and whoever was in right ﬁeld made a good peg. The ball’s there waitin’ for Ty, but he slides away from it. Jake thought he had him, but the umps called him safe. Well, Jake gets mad and starts to kick. They ain’t no time called or nothin’. The umps turns away and Jake slams the ball on the ground and before anybody could get to it, Cobb’s on third. We all hollered murder, but it done us no good. Rossman then hit a ﬂy ball and the game’s over.P
I remember another two to one game that he win from us. I don’t recall who was pitchin’—one o’ the left-handers, I guess. Whoever it was had big Rossman on his staff that day. He whiffed him twicet and made him pop out another time. They was one out in the eighth when Cobb beats out a bunt. We was leadin’ by one run at the time, so naturally we wanted to keep him on ﬁrst base. Well, whoever it was pitchin’ wasted three balls tryin’ to outguess Tyrus, and he still stood there on ﬁrst base, laughin’ at us. Rossman takes one strike and the pitcher put the next one right over and took a chancet, instead o’ runnin’ the risk o’ walkin’ him. Rossman has a toe-hold and he meets the ball square and knocks it clear out o’ the park. We’re shut out in the ninth and they’ve trimmed us. You’ll say, maybe, it was Rossman that beat us. It was his wallop all right, but our pitcher wouldn’t of wasted all them balls and got himself in the hole if anybody but Cobb’d of been on ﬁrst base.P
One day we’re tied in the ninth, four to four, or somethin’ like that. Cobb doubled and Rossman walked after two was out. Jones pulled Smitty out o’ the game and put in Big Ed. Now, nobody was lookin’ for Ty to steal third with two out. It’s a rotten play when anybody else does it. This ain’t no double steal, because Rossman never moved off ‘n ﬁrst base. Cobb stole third all right and then, on the next pitch, Rossman starts to steal second. Our catcher oughtn’t to of paid no attention to him because Walsh probably could of got the batter and retired the side. It wasn’t Sully catchin’ or you can bet no play’d of been made. But this catcher couldn’t see nobody run without peggin’, so he cut loose. Rossman stopped and started back for ﬁrst base. The shortstop ﬁred the ball back home, but he was just too late. Cobb was acrost already and it was over. Now in that case, our catcher’d ought to of been killed, but if Tyrus hadn’t did that fool stunt o’ stealin’ third with two out, they’d of been no chancet for the catcher to pull the boner.P
How many did I say he beat us out of? Five? Oh, yes, I remember another one. I can make it short because they wasn’t much to it. It was another one o’ them tied up affairs, and both pitchers was goin’ good. It was Smitty for us and, I think, Donovan for them. Cobb gets on with two down in the tenth or ‘leventh and steals second while Smitty stands there with the ball in his hand. Then Rossman hits a harmless lookin’ ground ball to the shortstop. Cobb runs down the line and stops right in front o’ where the ball was comin’, so’s to bother him. But Ty pretends that he’s afraid the ball’s goin’ to hit him. It worked all right. The shortstop got worried and juggled the ball till it was too late to make a play for Rossman. But Cobb’s been monkeyin’ so long that he ain’t nowheres near third base and when the shortstop ﬁ nally picks up the ball and pegs there, Cobb turns back. Well, they’d got him between ‘em and they’re tryin’ to drive him back toward second. Somebody butts in with a muff and he goes to third base. And when Smitty starts to pitch agin, he steals home just as clean as a whistle.P
The last game o’ the season settled the race, you know. I can’t say that Tyrus won that one for ‘em. They all was due to hit and they sure did hit. Cobb and Crawford both murdered the ball in the ﬁ rst innin’ and won the game right there, because Donovan was so good we didn’t have no chancet. But if he hadn’t of stole them other games off ‘n us, this last one wouldn’t of did ‘em no good. We could of let our young fellas play that one while we rested up for the world’s serious.P
I don’t say our club had a license to be champions that year. We was weak in spots. But we’d of got the big dough if it hadn’t of been for Tyrus. You can bet your life on that.P
You can easy see why I didn’t have no love for him in them days. And I’ll bet the fellas that was on the Ath-a-letics in 1907 felt the same toward him, because he was what kept ‘em from coppin’ that year. I ain’t takin’ nothin’ away from Jennin’s and Crawford and Donovan and Bush and Mullin and McIntire and Rossman and the rest of ‘em. I ain’t tryin’ to tell you that them fellas ain’t all had somethin’ to do with Detroit’s winnin’ in diff ‘rent years. Jennin’s has kept ‘em ﬁ ghtin’ right along, and they’s few guys more valuable to their club than Crawford. He busted up a lot o’ games for ‘em in their big years and he’s doin’ it yet. And I consider Bush one o’ the best inﬁ elders I ever see. The others was all right, too. They all helped. But this guy I’m tellin’ you about knocked us out o’ the money by them stunts of his that nobody else can get by with.P
It’s all foolishness to hate a fella because he’s a good ball player, though. I realize that now that I’m out of it. I can go and watch Tyrus and enjoy watchin’ him, but in them days it was just like pullin’ teeth whenever he come up to the plate or got on the bases. He was reachin’ right down in my pocket and takin’ my money. So it’s no wonder I was sore on him.P
If I’d of been on the same club with him, though, I wouldn’t never of got sore at him no matter how fresh he was. I’d of been afraid that he might get so sore at me that he’d quit the club. He could of called me anything he wanted to and got away with it or he could have took me acrost his knee and spanked me eighty times a day, just so’s he kept on puttin’ money in my kick instead o’ beatin’ me out of it.P
As I was sayin’, I enjoy seein’ him play now. If the game’s rotten or not, it don’t make no diff’rence, and it don’t make a whole lot even if he’s havin’ a bad day. They’s somethin’ fascinatin’ in just lookin’ at the baby.P
I ain’t alone in thinkin’ that, neither. I don’t know how many people he draws to the ball parks in a year, but it’s enough to start a big manufacturin’ town and a few suburbs. You heard about the crowd that was out to the Sox park the Sunday they was two rival attractions in town? It was in the spring, before you come. Well, it was some crowd. Now, o’ course, the Sox draw good at home on any decent Sunday, but I’m tellin’ you they was a few thousands out there that’d of been somewheres else if Cobb had of stayed in Georgia.P
I was in Boston two or three years ago this summer and the Tigers come along there for a serious o’ ﬁ ve games, includin’ a double-header. The Detroit club wasn’t in the race and neither was the Red Sox. Well, sir, I seen every game and I bet they was seventy thousand others that seen ‘em, or better’n ﬁfteen thousand a day for four days. They was some that was there because they liked baseball. They was others that was stuck on the Red Sox. They was still others that was strong for the Detroit club. And they was about twenty-ﬁve or thirty thousand that didn’t have no reason for comin’ except this guy I’m tellin’ you about. You can’t blame him for holdin’ out oncet in awhile for a little more money. You can’t blame the club for slippin’ it to him, neither.P
They’s a funny thing I’ve noticed about him and the crowds. The fans in the diff’rent towns hates him because he’s beat their own team out o’ so many games. They hiss him when he pulls off somethin’ that looks like dirty ball to ‘em. Sometimes they get so mad at him that you think they’re goin’ to tear him to pieces. They holler like a bunch of Indians when some pitcher’s good enough or lucky enough to strike him out. And at the same time, right down in their hearts, they’re disappointed because he did strike out.P
How do I know that? Well, kid, I’ve felt it myself, even when I was pullin’ agin Detroit. I’ve talked to other people and they’ve told me they felt the same way. When they come out to see him, they expect to see him do somethin’. They’re glad if he does and glad if he don’t. They’re sore at him if he don’t beat their team and they’re sore if he does. It’s a funny thing and I ain’t goin’ to sit here all night tryin’ to explain it.P
But, say, I wisht I was the ball player he is. They could throw pop bottles and these here bumbs at me, and I wouldn’t kick. They could call me names from the stand, but I wouldn’t care. If the whole population o’ the United States hated me like they think they hate him, I wouldn’t mind, so long’s I could just get back in that old game and play the ball he plays. But if I could, kid, I wouldn’t have no time to be talkin’ to you.P
The other day, I says to Callahan:P
“What do you think of him?”P
“Think of him!” says Cal. “What could anybody think of him? I think enough of him to wish he’d go and break a leg. And I’m not sore on him personally at that.”P
“Don’t you like to see him play ball?” I says.P
“I’d love to watch him,” says Cal, “if I could just watch him when he was playin’ Philadelphia or Washington or any club but mine.”P
“I guess you’d like to have him, wouldn’t you?” I says.P
“Me?” says Cal. “All I’d give for him is my right eye.”P
“But,” I says, “he must keep a manager worried some, in one way and another; you’d always be afraid he was goin’ to break his own neck or cut somebody else’s legs off or jump to the Fed’rals or somethin’.”P
“I’d take my chances,” says Cal. “I believe I could even stand the worry for a few days.”P
I seen in the papers where McGraw says Eddie Collins is the greatest ball player in the world. I ain’t goin’ to argue with him about it, because I got nothin’ but admiration for Collins. He’s a bear. But, kid, I wisht McGraw had to play twenty-two games a year agin this Royston Romper. No, I don’t, neither. McGraw never done nothin’ to me.
John Lardner’s introduction to a 1959 edition of Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al, a fictional series of letters from professional ballplayer Jack Keefe to his friend Al. Those stories are included in the Library of America’s new collection. (There was also a comic strip based on the same characters, with continuity written by Ring.) John was Ring Lardner’s eldest son and a fine journalist in his own right.
The You Know Me Al letters have an unusual history, in terms of reputation. The impact of their original publication, forty-five years ago, was such that their fame has endured to a large extent by word of mouth, like that of New York’s blizzard of 1888. Mere memories of the prodigy have been handed down from one generation to another. It’s not necessary—as years of involuntary research have shown me—for someone to have read You Know Me Al to want to talk about it. I think that reading is better, because the letters are equal to their reputation and are equally timeless. But the fact of their continuing strength-through-hearsay remains, as a kind of literary curiosity. So does the fact that among people who have read them, they have been relished and judged from radically different points of view. I’ve known readers who associated them—delightedly—with the “funny-spelling” works of the Bill Nye school, which came earlier, and of Ed Streeter (“Dere Mable”), who came a little later. I’ve known readers who valued the language of the letters more highly than that, but who enjoyed them primarily as the most comical and engrossing baseball writing of all time. I’ve seen critical estimates that rated You Know Me Al as an all-around classic, or as a compact treasure-house of popular American English exactly observed and transcribed. On the whole, these cults have lived in perfect congeniality. As far as I know, no reader’s viewpoint has ever interfered with the pleasure of another reader.
It’s true that only a few of the readers or the knowing nonreaders of You Know Me Al have thought of it as a work of art. There’s a certain rough justice in that situation. The busher letters were not written with artistic prestige in mind. They were written because there was an urgent need around the home of the two hundred dollars that each of the first installments brought from The Saturday Evening Post. (Later, according to Donald Elder’s biography, Ring Lardner, which has more reliable information about those times than I have, Jack Keefe letters fetched up to twelve hundred and fifty dollars per installment. The cheaper installments—the ones that were incorporated in the book You Know Me Al—were the best.) Almost as soon as the Post began to publish them, the letters made their author as famous as the President of the United States. (They were to keep him famous in the same degree throughout the next two or three administrations.) This turn of events startled my father, but it totally failed to cause him to think of what he had written as literature.
At that stage, thanks to the atmosphere in which he worked and to his own ingrained shyness, he couldn’t think of anything he wrote in that way–although it may come to the same thing as conscious artistry that he struggled constantly to make his stuff as good and as true as it could be. A few years afterward, when H.L. Mencken, Gilbert Seldes, Franklin P. Adams, and others began to praise his work as art, he was deeply pleased—although, again, startled. He was critic enough himself, and his standards were severe enough, so that he sometimes pointed out, privately, what he thought were inaccuracies or inanities in some of the things that were written in his praise. In other words, he could react like a literary man when he was stimulated to do so. He had known when he wrote it that the language of You Know Me Al was right. He was bound to know—he had the world’s best ear. But it was impossible for him then, and hard at any time, to connect this sort of rightness, or rightness of character-drawing, in his own case, with the idea of artistic creation.
Some strong tributes have been paid to the literary importance of You Know Me Al. Probably the most striking is one that was written in England, in 1925, by Virginia Woolf, who didn’t know an infielder from a fungo bat and who approached all contemporary American writing in the spirit of an explorer of unknown territory. Earlier in the essay in question, she had said that Sinclair Lewis’s work had confused her by what she considered its self-consciousness—that Lewis seemed to be exhibiting and explaining American types in the style of an educated tourist guide, with his mind on British or European audiences.
“But Mr. Lardner,” she wrote, “is not merely unaware that we differ; he is unaware that we (the British) exist. When a crack player is in the middle of an exciting game of baseball he does not stop to wonder whether the audience likes the color of his hair. (Mr. Elder has noted that Mrs. Woolf may have guessed wrong in this detail.) All his mind is on the game. So Mr. Lardner does not waste a moment when he writes in thinking whether he is using American slang or Shakespeare’s English—whether he is proud of being American or ashamed of not being Japanese; all his mind is on the story. Hence, incidentally, he writes the best prose that has come our way. Hence we feel at last freely admitted to the society of our fellows.
”That this should be true of You Know Me Al, a story about baseball, a game which is not played in England, a story written often in a language which is not English, gives us pause. To what does he owe his success? Besides his unconsciousness … Mr. Lardner has talents of a remarkable order. With extraordinary ease and aptitude, with the quickest strokes, the surest touch, the sharpest insight, he lets Jack Keefe the baseball player cut out his own outline, fill in his own depths, until the figure of the foolish, boastful, innocent athlete lives before us. As he babbles out his mind on paper there rise up friends, sweethearts, the scenery, town, and country—all surround him and make him up in his completeness.”
Mrs. Woolf then raised a point that first struck me when it was made in reverse to indicate a weakness, rather than a strength—by F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Ring,” an obituary essay that appeared in The New Republic. “Ring” was a fine piece, eloquent, loving, and brilliantly written. I suspect, however, that some of its author’s reasoning was based on delayed intuitions summoned up for the occasion and shaped by his proselytizing instinct. I’ll quote briefly from a passage in which I think the spirit of do-it-my-way interfered with Fitzgerald’s sense of proportion.
He had been saying that Ring Lardner’s “achievement” fell short of what he was capable of, and speculating about my father’s unwillingness or inability to tackle presumably larger subjects than the ones he had handled in You Know Me Al and The Big Town and in his short stories.
“During those (sports-writing) years,” Fitzgerald wrote, “when most men of promise achieve an adult education, if only in the school of war, Ring moved in the company of a few dozen illiterates playing a boy’s game. A boy’s game, with no more possibilities in it than a boy could master, a game bounded by walls which kept out novelty or danger, change or adventure. This material, the observation of it under such circumstances, was the text of Ring’s schooling during the most formative period of the mind. A writer can spin on about his adventures after thirty, after forty, after fifty, but the criteria by which these adventures are weighed and valued are irrevocably settled at the age of twenty-five. However deeply Ring might cut into it, his cake had exactly the diameter of Frank Chance’s diamond.
“Here was his artistic problem, and it promised future trouble. So long as he wrote within that enclosure the result was magnificent: within it he heard and recorded the voice of a continent. But when, inevitably, he outgrew his interest in it, what was Ring left with?”
This appraisal overlooks the fact that very little of what my father wrote during the last fourteen years—almost one-third—of his life had to do with baseball. It fails to consider that one man’s period of creativity may be shorter—especially if his work has been cleaner and more painstaking—than another’s. Also, it seems to me, it tends to belittle what had been done, the depth of the cut in the cake. I don’t know, frankly, just how genius works in the matter of dimensions—whether it can probe a wide body as deeply as it can a narrow one. I have an idea that it was the compactness of the material, and the intensity, the concentration, that it produced, that made my father’s stories as good as they were. This would apply to The Big Town, and to Broadway stories like “Some Like Them Cold” and “A Day with Conrad Green,” and to the old people’s story, ”The Golden Honeymoon” (which has a lot in common with You Know Me Al), as well as to baseball stories. It’s my feeling, an entirely respectful one, that Scott Fitzgerald was at his best when he wrote in tight focus, about neat, intricate, carefully coded systems of life in which he knew all the moves.
Mrs. Woolf has said: “It is no coincidence that the best of Mr. Lardner’s stories are about games, for one may guess that Mr. Lardner’s interest in games has solved one of the most difficult problems of the American writer; it has given him a clue, a centre, a meeting place for the divers activities of people whom a vast continent isolates, whom no tradition controls. Games give him what society gives his English brother.”
I’m not sure that the problems that Mrs. Woolf spoke of were purely American even at the time she wrote. There was a good deal of writing in Europe in those days that was loose and garrulous, that teemed with unframed types and symbols. In the last ten or fifteen years—perhaps because the Second World War accelerated the decline of many traditions—there have been quantities of that kind of writing in nearly every country that publishes books. At any rate, I think it was lucky both for my father and for his readers that the things that interested him were snugly organized. His subjects suited his special abilities. He carried a sharp knife; with one stroke of it, in You Know Me Al, he laid bare all the vital parts of a man who, because he was a human being, was more meaningful than any type could be.
In other words, the author of You Know Me Al was able to do more than reproduce “the voice of a continent.” Still, what he accomplished in that direction was astonishing. As Mencken said in The American Language (1919), everything that had been observed about American English by the shrewdest scholars, and much that had not, was compressed into a single piece of fiction by a newspaper man—a writer who, obviously, had not read the findings of these scholars and who worked by ear and self-respect alone. As I’ve said, my father was exhilarated by Mencken’s learned notice. Also, whenever Mencken dissented, in phrases like “my own observation is” or “my own belief is,” my father swiftly—though privately—overrode the objections and alternatives, again by ear and from a sense of fitness. (He dissented strongly, for instance, from Mencken’s dissents in the matter of the participles “throwed” and “gave.” He thought that Mencken and other critics sometimes failed to allow for the differences between spoken American and written American.) I doubt if my father would ever have ruled publicly on questions like these if Mencken had not encouraged him to it by recognizing his gift. Still, when he did permit himself to criticize another writer’s “American” in print, which was rarely, he showed a scientific, and almost a proprietary, interest in the matter, along with an uneasy need to depreciate himself in the role of scholar. A review he wrote of John V. A. Weaver’s book of verse, In American, was both precise and apologetic.
The language in the book, he said, was “pure American, nearly. The few impurities are a lifesaver for the critic. We can’t hope to land a K.O. on the writer’s jaw, but we can fret him a little with a few pokes to the ear. For the most part, this organ has served Mr. Weaver well. But I think that on occasion it consciously or unconsciously plays him false. It has told him, for example, that we say everythin’ and anythin’. We don’t. We say somethin’ and nothin’, but we say anything and everything. There appears to be somethin’ about the y near the middle of both these words that impels us to acknowledge the g on the end of them. Mr. Weaver’s ear has also give or gave (not gi’n) him a bum hunch on thing itself. It has told him to make it thin’! But it’s a real effort to drop the g off this little word and, as a rule, our language is not looking for trouble.”
It was a long and not very relevant step to this kind of analysis from the entertainer’s mood in which the busher letters were written. There’s a long distance, too, between the views of Mencken and Mrs. Woolf and the untrained, reflexive pleasure of the public’s reaction to You Know Me Al. Mrs. Woolf has shown why ignorance of baseball need not prevent a reader from appreciating the book as a classic. But there is a great deal in it that she was bound to miss. For the knowledgeable, the baseball details are pure delight; the thirsty fan drinks them down like cold water. Many names and conditions that were topical in 1914—Cobb, Mathewson, the “Federals,” McGraw, the gracefully ruthless Comiskey, Walsh, the spitball, Cicotte, Buck Weaver—are historical now; but history, for the baseball-lover, is full of romance. And the baseball technique and dramatics of You Know Me Al are as timeless as the literary values.
Gilbert Seldes, in discussing what he felt was the iconoclastic effect of Al, wrote that “baseball has never recovered” from what my father did to its heroes. I think it’s true that there was an element of shock in the author’s treatment of Keefe and one or two other non-historical characters. I believe that Mr. Elder stated the point a little more reasonably when he said that baseball fandom was “far more ingenuous” before the First World War than it is now, and that You Know Me Al reduced the “baseball hero” (my father, however, did not make Keefe a type, or even necessarily a fans’ hero) to human dimensions. Baseball did not have to recover from You Know Me Al, because its hard assets had not been disturbed. The book did make an important change in a state of mind which Mr. Seldes, writing in the early 1920s, could recall vividly. Since then, there have been other changes in player attitudes and in fan habits with which the Keefe letters had nothing to do. It’s noteworthy that Al has survived change as easily as it has created it. Everything that is inherently sound in our national diversion, and everything that is characteristically silly, are fixed for all time in this story.
Superficially, ball players are not quite the same kind of people today as they were in Keefe’s day. Present times have developed a distinct athlete class, to which most professional players belong—a group of men at least semi-educated in classrooms as well as lavishly trained since early youth in sports. In former times, professional baseball was the chancy lot of a handful of average workingmen. Only a thin margin of luck and physical aptitude separated the ball player from the clerk, the cab-driver, the farmer, and the coalminer. The difference between old-time and present-day players is reflected partly in the jargon of the modern game. Keefe used a certain amount of shop-talk; but the new athlete class has greatly refined and expanded baseball culture, and its wordiness has infected fans and baseball writers and sportscasters (who to some extent have re-infected the players). The vocabulary of the game has become swollen with expertise, with “changeups” and “breaking stuff” and “hitting the ball where it is pitched” and “getting good wood on it” and “shading him a little toward left” and “three speeds of curve” and the whole prolix cult of the “slider.” “Inside ball,” which was a glamorous mystery in the heyday of McGraw and Mack, is now public property, and there is, ostensibly, a hell of a lot more of it than there used to be.
But all the essential truth about ball-playing can be found in You Know Me Al. Its broader values to one side, there has never been a sounder baseball book. The story flows along with unpretentious smoothness. But if you stop to pick over the accounts of ball games, you see that each detail is correct in relation to place, weather, time of year, and the hitting, pitching, or fielding idiosyncrasies of each of a hundred players. Baseball strategy is set down as accurately as the speech and characters of Keefe, his friends, his girls, and his in-laws. I have never read a piece of baseball fiction, besides this one, in which there was no technical mistake. (Thirty-odd years ago, my father and mother worried and conferred when I was caught reading a novel about flaming youth called The Plastic Age. But my father was even more worried when he caught me reading a baseball novel called Won in the Ninth. He didn’t take it away from me, but he warned me not to let my mind be soiled by corrupt observation of baseball procedures.)
There is one more salient point about You Know Me Al. It is funny. The fact has gone unmentioned, or been taken for granted, by Mrs. Woolf, Mencken, Fitzgerald, and others as they studied the literary or scientific aspects of the book. But Al knocked the country head over heels in the first place because people laughed at it, so intensely that the echoes have been accepted at face value ever since. My feeling about nonreaders and tradition-carriers is that they also serve. But reading, as I said before, is better.
He was a writer of manners, and the manners he described were those of a society markedly different from that in the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James. He wrote about the manners of the bleachers and the clubhouse, the mezzanine and the dressing room, the barbershop and the beauty parlor, the Pullman car and the touring car, the kitchen and the diner, the bridge table and the bowling alley. He wanted us to get rich, and he showed us how foolish we often looked as we threw our new money after idle and inane pleasures and possessions; he had been truly bitter or misanthropic or hateful, he never would have succeeded in making us laugh at ourselves so heartily.
He wrote so perceptively and accurately about what he saw because he was a great journalist. This, in the end is the singular accomplishment of his life. Ring came into the profession when it was held in far too much disdain even to be considered a “profession”; it was a line of work pursued by coarse people who had a coarse talent for putting words together in a speedy way. He was one of the very first people to bring creativity and felicity of style to the press. He set an example that was eagerly followed by younger writers. His aristocratic manner and confident bearing gave the lie to the argument that journalists were by their very nature guttersnipes. The quality of his writing and the doggedness with which he kept it so high proved that good prose and journalism were not mutually exclusive. So, too, he showed that in newspapers one could do serious work and be respected for it. P
And yet Lardner, who was widely admired by the likes of Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, and his friend and neighbor, Scott Fitzgerald, was chided by the critical establishment for not writing a novel. Maxwell Perkins, the famous editor, once wrote:P
Ring was not, strictly speaking, a great writer. The truth is he never regarded himself seriously as a writer. Healways though of himself as a newspaperman, anyhow. He had a sort of provincial scorn of literary people. If he had written much more, he would have been a great writer perhaps, but whatever it was that prevented him from writing more was the thing that prevented him from being a great writer. But he was a great man, and one of immense latent talent which got itself partly expressed. P
Yardley has a thoughtful take on the matter:P
Ring was scare of the mere idea of writing a novel; he had the journalist’s fear of taking on something so long and complex and structurally unclear. Beyond that, so many people had by now asked him so many times when he was going to write a “real” book that he must have felt that expectations had been raised past any point he could possibly hope to match.
…It is a mystery why he never simply said: Look, no one does what I do better than I do, so why not accept me for what I am? He could also have said, with utter legitimacy, that his mind functioned best over short, intense distances and that he did not think he was capable of writing a good novel—which in fact he probably was not.
Americans equate bigness with greatness, and all around him people were saying that he had to do something big if he wanted to be great. In truth, he probably did not care all that much about being great, but neither did he want to disappoint. He was a miniaturist to whom the world seemed to be shouting “Inflate! Inflate!” and he could not handle it. P
We’ve had Elmore Leonard on the brain, a writer famous for his ear and his ability to write dialogue. Ring Lardner built his reputation as a writer who appreciated how Americans talk. That’s no small achievement. He was also, as Yardley points out, funny. We’re grateful to theLibrary of America for celebrating an American original.
Here’s another gem by Ross Wetzsteon. Originally published in the March 14, 1988, issue of New York magazine. Reprinted here with permission of the author’s widow, Laura Ross. Illustration by Sam Woolley.
Flying. He’d wanted to fly since he was 16. Sitting at his desk in high school in Greenwood, Mississippi, he fantasized that it was a P-51 Mustang, F-86 Sabre jet. He didn’t want to be a pilot, he wanted to be a flier. A pilot just drives—the flyer flies.
And now, five years later, Morgan Freeman is sitting in the cockpit of a jet fighter at last, the Plexiglass bubble secure, the nose falling away in front, the wings swept back, the joystick between his legs. Taxi to the head of the runway, get his clearance from the control tower, let loose the engine, sore into the sky!
Okay, it’s just a T-33 jet trainer parked beside a hanger and he’s only an airman-second-class radar mechanic who’s gotten permission to sit in the cockpit for a few minutes, but this is what he’s dreamed of since he enlisted in the Air Force. Hand on the throttle, eyes scanning the sky, he lets his mind fall into a rapturous reverie—chasing the clouds, dipping his wings from side to side, nosing into a steep dive and pulling out in a swooping arc.
But something’s wrong. After a couple of minutes, he realizes he can’t find the thrill he anticipated. It isn’t there. Instead of fantasizing, he starts thinking. Maybe this isn’t what he wants after all. Maybe he only wanted it because of the movies he’d seen. For one thing, anything he shoots will stay shot. Ten minutes pass. Fifteen. The dream is fading. No, this isn’t what he wants it all. After 20 minutes, he unstraps himself, pushes back the bubble, gets out of the cockpit, leaps to the ground, and walks away—not just from the plane but from the whole idea, from war, military life, jet fighters, all of it. He’s made a decision. If it’s all about movies, he’ll become an actor instead.
Thirty years later, in her New Yorker review of Street Smart, Pauline Kael asks, “Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?” and it’s clear from her rave that it’s a rhetorical question. At Christmas time, he wins awards from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York and Los Angeles film critics as Best Supporting Actor for his performance as a pimp in Street Smart. In February, he’s nominated for an Oscar—against all odds, since only an electric performance could survive such a forgettable film. A street-smart pimp? The same Morgan Freeman who just finished a nearly yearlong run as an elderly, unlettered southern chauffeur in the Off-Broadway hit Driving Miss Daisy (a performance that won him his third Obie in eight years)? The same Morgan Freeman who’s a surefire Tony nominee for his performance as a charismatic Pentecostal preacher in The Gospel at Colonus, the long-awaited Lee Breuer-Bob Telson musical that had cheering, ecstatic audiences standing on their seats at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Next Wave Festival in 1983, then in Houston, Washington, Philadelphia, Paris, Atlanta, Barcelona, and opens on Broadway March 24?
And this is only one year. Morgan Freeman has played a wise old wino in The Mighty Gents on Broadway, an idealistic upper-middle-class architect on the soap Another World, a death-row prisoner in the film Brubaker. He’s danced with Michael Kidd at the 1964 World’s Fair, sung with Pearl Bailey in the all-black Hello, Dolly! He could be seen romping on The Electric Company, then as a stately Coriolanus at the Delacorte.
“When professionals talk range,” says a director, “the names you hear most often are Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and Morgan Freeman. It’s that indefinable quality only the greatest actors have to completely submerge themselves in radically different roles, to make you think in each one of them, ‘He was born to play that.’ A lot of actors have that authority in one or two or even three roles, but Morgan has it in everything he does.” It’s the kind of talent that often wins accolades within the profession long before it wins public recognition, and only this year has the world finally realized what Freeman has known for 30 years—that he made the right decision when he walked away from that cockpit.
Oscars, Obies, Tonys—Morgan Freeman is grateful for the recognition, but it also makes him uneasy. “It’s like some sorta Miss America contest,” he says in a half-exasperated, half-baffled tone. “‘Most this,’ ‘Best that’—all this schmagoo about winners.” He’s rubbing the clown white out of his hair with a towel after one of this final performances in Driving Miss Daisy. “If Jack Nicholson, Nick Nolte, and Bill Hurt are all up for the same award—with absolutely different characterizations—you’re going to tell me one of them is the best?”
At the Obie ceremonies last May, Freeman told a story. “Years ago, I was nominated for a Tony award for The Mighty Gents. Oh, ah, gee whiz—I was so executed! So I got my tuxedo and I went to the ceremony, and of course I didn’t win. Now, to be big about it, you know, you say ”kay.’ But I was crushed. I didn’t like feeling crushed, so I would prefer not to have been involved in it at all. If you’re going to give me an award, fine—just give it to me. But don’tnominate me for it. Because what they’re telling you is ‘You’ve been nominated, but you didn’t win.’ Terrific. Who wants to hear that?”
But wouldn’t an Oscar make a big difference in his career?
Freeman runs a comb through his hair, pats the left side of his head, then the right—he has facial bones that even Katharine Hepburn would envy, but not a trace of narcissism. “In a way, I’m kind of contradicting what I said, because sure I’m interested in getting the nomination, but frankly I don’t care if I win or not.” For one thing, getting the nomination will help him land the film of Miss Daisy. “I would commit crimes for that. But otherwise, I don’t want to get involved. It’s just that the whole system is carrying me along,” he says, spreading his hands, palms upraised, in a gesture of helplessness. “If your luck holds, it might lead to more work. But conversely, if it doesn’t, you might not even be in the business. Believe me, I know something about that.”
He’s bundled up now, heading out for dinner. He eats only one meal a day since he turned 50 (last June) and “my metabolism suddenly came to a screeching halt.” If awards don’t make much sense to him, bring up “range” and he immediately says, “That’s what I’m here for. I never quite made it as a ‘matinee idol’ or ‘leading man’”—the irony in his voice is more self-deprecating than sarcastic—”but I’ve always wanted to play the most interesting roles, and they’re not necessarily the leading roles. I prefer character roles. I want to get as far away from myself as possible. That’s the whole point of acting for me.”
Walking along 42nd Street, Morgan Freeman talks about the performances he most admires—not the Orson Welles of Citizen Kane but the Orson Welles of Touch of Evil; not the Laurence Olivier of Hamlet but the Laurence Olivier of Khartoum. He stops on the sidewalk, raises his right hand to his forehead in a snappy salute. “Now, that’s the level of performance you strive for.”
Like Freeman’s performance in Street Smart. Vicious yet charming, scary yet seductive, menacing yet amiable, the kind of guy who can hold a gun to your throat, then slowly smile, pat you on the cheek, and say, “Come on. I’ll buy you a cuppa coffee.” Freeman’s Fast Black has all the oxymorons you’d expect in a routinely first-rate portrayal of a pimp. But he takes them to a level deeper, playing a man so tautly in control he could snap into psychosis at any second, a man, most of all, who knows that a large part of being a successful pimp is being a gifted actor.
In one of the most chilling scenes in movie history, he grabs the prostitute played by Kathy Baker, slams her against a wall, and lays a broken scissor blade on her cheek, half an inch from her eyes. “I’m gonna take one eye. Just one,” he tells her. “You have to tell me which one—left or right?” Back and forth flash the scissors. Left? Right? Left? Right? Choose. And when he finally terrorized her into choosing, he slowly withdraws the scissors, turns them upside down, and peers through the handles as if they were eyeglasses, with a sly, get-my-point grin. Laurence Olivier himself could raise his right hand to his forehead in a snappy salute.
“What is a pimp?” Freeman asks, gesturing randomly at the passersby on 42nd Street. “Can you walk along here and pick one out? The way they usually play ‘em in movies, you can. That’s just a caricature. No one I’ve ever seen in movies has done a person I know.”
He’s a regular at the restaurant; all the waiters greet him with first-name smiles. The owner rushes over, puts his arm around Freeman’s shoulder, guides him to the best table. There’s friendship in the greetings, not effusiveness, yet there’s a slightly wary reserve in his response. He speaks warmly with a hint of a drawl in his voice, but at the same time his eyes are sharply observant, some part of him remains distant, withdrawn, private. It’s as if he enjoys being known, liked, respected, but senses it could all change in a second—and if it does, he’ll be ready.
How does he “research” a part like Fast Black? He said something about people he’s known?
He’s silent for 20 seconds, 30, as if he hasn’t heard the question—it’s a trait his friends know well, the long, deadpan pause is always followed by that warm, slightly quizzical smile. “Nothing like that. All that happened was the costume designer called and said she wanted to go shopping with me. Fine. Whatever you say. I figure we’ll be going to 42nd Street, see. But then she says, ‘I want to take you to Saks Fifth Avenue,’ and as soon as she said that, my mind was galvanized! So we went shopping at Saks. The Giorgio Armani stuff was too sedate, but we were sure at the right store! ‘Cause being a pimp, it’s all about looking’ good.
“I’m not much for talking about acting,” he continues. “I’ve been called an intuitive actor, and I guess that’s right. I go with what I feel. It doesn’t do me any good to intellectualize it. Take Fast Black. He’s a real frightening guy: he’s made it into an art form—intimidating people, then slacking off—but talking about it that way didn’t help me. It was just getting into his clothes—that’s when I started putting the character in place.
“Sure technique has something to do with it, knowing when to underplay, when to overplay. When you first see Fast Black, for instance, he’s just a guy in a car having a conversation. Don’t get all animated, don’t ‘act.’ Then that scene on the basketball court, that the time to go over the top.” He looked at home driving the lane. Did he ever play basketball? Freeman draws back, puts on an “I can’t believe what I just heard” expression, raises both hands in a gesture of mock astonishment, and says in a playfully stern void, “Now, what the hell kinda question’s that to ask a man who’s tall and black?”
What about the scissors scene, though—the scene that could win him an Oscar? It seemed very thought out. “But the whole scene is Kathy’s,” Freeman says. “I’m getting all this noise becauseshe made that scene.” The reason for his modesty, of course, is that he’s judging the scene only as a matter of onscreen technique. What he can’t judge is the off-screen character that made it possible.
“Don’t underestimate trust,” says Street Smart‘s director, Jerry Schatzberg. “Actors can go out of control—I’ve seen it happen, especially in a role like that. One of the actors we auditioned got so deeply into the part that he accidentally sliced off part of his finger. So when we were finally shooting the scene with Morgan, it was frightening just to be there.”
“The people who were watching us were so frightened, they were standing flat against the walls,” says Kathy Baker. “But I trusted Morgan so much, I could give myself over to it completely. Kathy Baker wasn’t afraid, so I was free to let the character be totally scared out of her mind. Another thing about Morgan: Originally, we were shooting that scene on his face, but after a couple of takes he said, ‘No, no, this isn’t my scene, this is Kathy’s scene,’ and he reached out and put his hand over my face—‘This is where it’s happening’—and that’s the way it is in the film. How many actors would do that?”
“Well, sure,” Freeman says with a dismissive wave of the hand. “I work best when I feel I can have ideas and express ‘em. Sometimes I get in trouble when I open my big mouth, but it can be a very creative part of the process when people are receptive. It was like . . . like . . . dancing’.”
He danced in Miss Daisy, too, the story of the initial unease and growing affection between an elderly Jewish widow and her black chauffeur. “Dana Ivey and me, we’re both from the South. We know things,” Morgan Freeman says wryly. “That dance they do down there, that dance between blacks and whites, that southern charm.” Gentleness, faith, patience—they come as naturally to the chauffeur as raging cynicism, and finger-poppin’ swagger came to the pimp.
“I went to see a play at Playwrights Horizons,” Freeman says, “and I started reading the notices on the bulletin board. One of ‘em was a synopsis of this play called Driving Miss Daisy that sounded real interesting. I ‘member thinking, ‘Damn, who do I gotta see to do a play ’round here?’ A couple of months later, I got a call. Would I be interested in doing a play at Playwright Horizons? Turns out it’s the same play. Damn right I’m interested! But when I get the script, I go, ‘This is great,’ ‘Gee whiz,’ and all that. ‘But this play calls for an older man.’ But they tell me, ‘We’re going for quality rather than age,’ and my head, it explodes four or five times its normal size.
“So then I want to know who’s playing Daisy,” he continues. “I don’t want to be onstage with an actress twenty years older than me; that won’t work at all. But when I hear it’s Dana Ivey—well, man, oh, man, I think, ‘This is gonna be two actors up there.’”
What was up there, in fact, was an acting feast. And a rapport that, like most of Freeman’s working relationships, extends beyond the stage. “Of course, everyone knows he’s one of our very greatest talents,” says Ivey, as if in a hurry to get the obvious out of the way, “but what only his friends know is what a beautiful, sweet giving person he is. Morgan’s a mahatma, a Great Soul, with a capital G and a capital S.”
Great Soul—it could be a capsule review of his performance in The Gospel at Colonus. “When I stepped onstage at my first run-through in Minneapolis back in ’83,” says Freeman, “and I spoke the first words” (his voice drops an octave: it could resonate to the rafters, a voice rivaled only by James Earl Jones’s), “‘Think no longer that your are in command here,’ when I said that first line and heard the members of the choir going, ‘Amen!’ behind me, I said to myself, ‘Oh, shit, Morgan, this is gonna knock ‘em dead!’ And then that joyous music broke out, and all that incredible singing’, and all kinds of Jesus noises goin’ on, it just wrung me. . . . ” He’s so moved by the memory he can’t finish the sentence. “I’ve been in a lotta shows in my life,” he says finally, “and I’ve thought a lot of ‘em were pretty good, but this is a masterpiece.”
Gospel at Colonus, the tale of Oedipus’s final days as a Pentecostal church service, links Hellenic myth and black gospel music, Sophoclean tragedy and call-and-response exaltation, Greek catharsis and biblical ecstasy. As the minister who orchestrates the passions of the churchgoers with the intonations, cadences, and modulations of the great gospel preachers—now plunging into despair, now seized by rapture—Morgan Freeman has a serene dignity that defines, once and for all, the concept of stage presence. And in a stunning coup de theatre, he takes center stage after the show-stopping “Lift Him Up,” sung by Carolyn Johnson-White of Brooklyn’s Institutional Radio Choir with beatific frenzy—what actor would dare follow such a performance?—and not only holds the audience with his concluding sermon but lifts them yet another plateau higher. Hallelujah!
“I’d been outta work for two years,” says Freeman, “when I get this call from Lee Breuer. I’d never heard of Lee Breuer, but we sit in my kitchen for a couple of hours while he explains his ideas. He wants to do a Greek tragedy, but not with the classical European approach. We have our own classics here in America—gospel music, for instance.” Freeman is in the dialect mode he often affects with a slightly ironic edge, portraying himself as the country cousin in the city.
“So Lee is sittin’ there, rattlin’ away,” he goes on, “and he is one highly ‘lectual dude. I don’t know what hell he’s talking’ ’bout. Who is this guy? But he’s piqued my interest, ‘specially that bit ’bout European classicism. Then I find out Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama are going to play Oedipus—are you kiddin’! And these fabulous old gospel singers, they’re going to be in it, too. ‘Wow, golly, gee whiz.’ I’m goin’, ‘What’s this guy doin’? Then he tells me, ‘I need a star to glue it all together,’ and I say, ‘I’m no star,’ and he says, ‘Well, I’m going to make you a star.’”
Morgan Freeman pauses, does a bug-eyed double take. “Me? A star? I got two words for you: ‘Hah. Hah.’”
But a few weeks later, he heard Bob Telson’s music and “suddenly felt goose bumps, chills, little bits a hair standing’ up all over my body.” He pauses, drops the dialect, says solemnly, “Then, that first run-through in Minneapolis. I wanted to call everyone, right then. I wanted to get on the phone and tell everyone I know, ‘Man, this is what theater is all about.’”
Once more, Freeman is modest about his own contribution. His preaching style, for instance: “I was raised as a Methodist, but I event to Pentecostal services sometimes, and there’s no way I can do that as well as they can. Drivin’ the congregation into a frenzy? Quotin’ the Bible?”
This is not false modesty, though, because Morgan Freeman will make claims when he thinks it’s his due. “Lee’s fabulous conceptually,” he says, “but he’s also very receptive to creative input. He took a lot of my suggestions.” One major example: “I told him he shouldn’t allow too many places where the audience applauds every time they want to, we’re talking’ ’bout swollen hands—and by intermission.”
“I consider Morgan my assistant director,” says Breuer. “If I have the ability to conceptualize, he has the ability to know what the moment demands. He added professionalism without adding slickness. He provided a plumb line to direct and vital contact with the audience, which is another way of saying he helped me get rid of some of my artsy-fartsy instincts.”
Breuer pauses for a moment. “We had a little conversation early on. It was the best piece of directing I ever gave him. ‘You’re no longer a character actor,’ I told him. ‘You’ve got it all to become a star. And to do this right, you have to think of yourself as a star. You have to feel that no one else onstage is worth looking at.’ I think he thought of himself as a star for the first time. He should—everybody else does.”
Freeman is still uneasy about the notion—he’s still a “play’s the thing” actor. “People don’t usually go to the theater expecting spiritual uplift or redemption,” Freeman says, shifting the focus from himself to Gospel, ”but this show gives them something they’ve been missing that they didn’t even know they’ve been missing, the experience of soul.”
It’s long past midnight now, but it’s early evening for Morgan Freeman. He likes to stay up until four, five in the morning—he cherishes that pre-dawn privacy. When he reaches his large Upper West Side apartment, his second wife, costume designer Myrna Colley-Lee, is already asleep, as is the grandchild who’s living with them. (How old is she? “‘Bout 30,” he said, “all wrapped in a 6-year old package.”) A couple of bikes lean against the wall in the hallway, a couple of dozen hats hang from a rack, the walls are covered with pictures of sailboats—not a sound in the apartment except his cat Ebony, purring in his lap.
Freeman boots up his computer (“He’s a Gemini, part show-off and part loner,” his wife says). Now it’s time for the solitude of writing. He has ideas for stories, novels, movies, but mostly he writes commentaries on current events, a series of dialect dialogues featuring Sol and C.C.—Solomon and Concerned Citizen. (“Ever’body gon’ need he’p from ever’body if we specks to survive on dis planet,” Sol says in one. “Quicker we all see dat, de better off we’s all gon’ be.”)
Tonight, though, he’s working on a piece about a recent trip down South, when he visited an elderly black man who knew his great-grandmother and grandmother at the beginning of this century. “These people, these ancients, were mine,” he types. “My people. They had meaning and substance. They endured. They continue to endure.” Morgan Freeman is proud to call himself a self-made man, but not too proud to understand that even a self-made man has roots.
Morgan Freeman had an unsettled childhood, born in Memphis in 1937, living in Charleston, Mississippi, with his grandmother until she died when he was six, off to Chicago with his mother, back to Greenwood, Mississippi, a brief period in Nashville—all the while the man he coldly refers to as his “biological father” . . . Morgan Freeman enters another of his minute-long pauses. “You really want to know all this? To tell the truth, I don’t like to talk about it.” It doesn’t seem to be a question of race so much as a difficult family situation. Freeman will probably write about it sometime, between him and his PC.
His first exposure to acting was at the age of eight—Fast Black got his start as Little Boy Blue—but he didn’t get hooked until the seventh grade, when he was literally flung onstage. “It all started with a girl named Barbara,” he says, “the class princess, as nice as you please. I wanted to get her attention, so one day I pulled a chair out from under her. Sure enough, I got attention. The teacher grabbed me by the nape of the neck, lifted me onto my toes, and marched me down the hall. I thought for sure I was gonna be ‘xpelled.
“But he opens the door and flings me into this room, and there’s this English teacher and he asks me, ‘You ever done any actin’?’ Well, under the circumstances, I’m quick to say yes. Turns out there’s these dramatic tournaments—every school does a play—and the winner goes to the state finals. Well, we do this play ’bout a family with a wounded son just home from the war—I play his kid brother. We win the district championship, we win the state championship, and dadgummit, I’m chosen as best actor. All ’cause I pull this chair out from under Barbara.”
His head-in-the-clouds phase interrupted the budding actor’s career, but ever since he walked away from that cockpit, he’s wanted his feet on the boards. The ex-airman went to Los Angeles, looked up Paramount in the phone book, and took a bus to the studio to ask for a job, only to discover, among the first questions on the application, something about familiarity with office machinery. It wasn’t his last rude awakening—he’d had one almost every year since.
“It’s all been back and forth between trying to get a part and having to get a j-o-b.” He worked as a clerk at L.A. City College, then enrolled in its theater department—”I was walking’ in tall cotton!” But when he left school and drove to New York, the only work he could find was a telegrapher. Back to the West Coast, this time to San Francisco, living on day-old doughnuts, ending up in a musical-repertory company, losing that job when he refused to play an Indian inLittle Mary Sunshine who waves an American flag—”You gonna tell me an Indian is gonna tothat?” Back to New York, knocking around, an extra in The Pawnbroker, another j-o-b, this time in the garment district. Maybe he’d have better luck as a dancer. And he did at first, successfully auditioning for the Aquacade at the 1965 World’s Fair—”the World Something or Other Extravaganza.” Where could he go but up? A $49-a-week counterman at Nedick’s in Penn Station, that’s where.
But he hung in, entered his Hello, Dolly!-Electric Company-Mights Gents phase, and, in 1978, won the Clarence Derwent Award for promising newcomers. “‘Newcomer,’” he says with a resigned laugh, “after twenty years.” And then that Tony nomination—”‘Ho, boy, welcome to success at last. I’m going to kick tail all over the place. Now the phone is never gonna stop ringing’!’ But the door slammed shut, just like that. All this attention and then I didn’t work for two full years. I’d taken success for granted and then—kablooey. I’ll never make that mistake again.”
Morgan Freeman gives himself some of the blame. “I kinda let my mouth run off. I felt compelled to tell people what was wrong with their ideas. I guess word got around that I was a troublemaker. One movie I was up for, “Any other black people in this movie?’ I asked them. They all looked at one another. ‘We don’t believe so,’ they said, ‘We never thought of it in racial terms.’ Well, that was a lie right there—I mean, they were casting me as an orderly—and the whole thing turned to shit on the spot.
“Another movie, I was getting a little tense about this, ya know, and when they asked me what I thought of the script, I said, ‘Yeah, well, there are twelve characters in this movie, nine white scientists and three blacks—a cook, a mechanic, and something else, I forget. What do youthink I think?’ Needless to say, I didn’t get the part.”
Troublemaker, maybe. Militant, no. “I’m so tired of hearing about the under class, about slavery. Racism isn’t new. It’s not something this country invented. ‘Aw, they won’t let us eat in this restaurant,’ but they’re no lining us up against the wall and mowing us down, either. What they’re doing in South Africa—now that’s racism. Give me a choice, and I’ll take this racism right here.”
Doesn’t this attitude get him in trouble with some of his black friends? “Naw, they’re all tired of hearing it, too. We just want to get on with the business of doing something about it. And remember our past, too. There’s a whole other kind of wonderful history of black people in this country, every kind of hero you can imagine, and the fact that nobody knows anything about it is the greatest pity of all.”
That’s one of the things he’s going to write about someday. And he’s considering a movie script about black cowboys. “I know who this country belongs to,” he says, with more determination than anger. “You can’t disenfranchise me. You’ve just gotta know how to fight.”
He’ll fight when he has to—he’ll fight to do the movie of Miss Daisy, to play Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew—but he still has that serene vision of soaring, though in a boat, not in a plane.
“When I see sailboats,” Freeman says, “it’s like seeing a bird—those white wings.” He has his own sloop, a 30-footer named Lenora II, after his grandmother. He has sailed from the Keys to Nova Scotia, and now he has his eye on a Gale Force 9, a blue-water cruiser—$150,000 “with all the hoohaw on it”—and if Gospel‘s a smash. . . .
“You ever been on the ocean?” he asks in a kind of reverie. “The birds out there, big fat gulls called shearwaters, they have these pressure-sensitive wing tips, they fly right on the water, they touch the waves—it’s the ultimate turn-on.” More than acting? “Acting’s very fulfilling, but sailing satisfies another need, a need of the soul. People need peace in their lives—grace—and that’s where it is for me.” His voice is rapturous now. “Once I hoist sail and the wind blows, I take flight. That’s how I fly now—on my own wings.”
Ross Wetzsteon was a journalist, critic, and editor in New York City for 35 years. From 1966 until his death in 1998, he worked at the The Village Voice as a contributor and editor, and for several years as its editor-in-chief. During his tenure at the Voice, Wetzsteon oversaw coverage of everything from politics to sports, but his abiding interest was the theater. For 28 years, he was the chairman of the Village Voice Obie Committee, responsible for bestowing awards for excellence on Off- and Off-Off Broadway artists and writers. Wetzsteon also contributed articles to New York Magazine, Men’s Journal, Playboy, The New York Times, Inside Sports,Conde Nast Traveler, Mademoiselle, and many other publications. He edited several anthologies, including The Obie Winners in 1980 and The Best of Off Broadway in 1984. He also wrote the preface to a collection of playwright Sam Shepard’s works,Fool for Love and Other Plays, and he was the author of Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960. He died in 1998.
New York sportswriting legend Dick Young was a lot of different things. Among them, for reasons laid out in this classic Ross Wetzsteon profile, he was a man one could easily imagine having a great time filing his column from the depths of Hell. Warren Leight and Charlie Rubin ran with the conceit in this parody, which originally appeared in The Village Voice on Jan. 17, 1989. It appears here with the authors’ permission.
NEWS ITEM:Young dies in September ’87
When I first arrived here, I took one look at the place and I felt. . . well, let down.
I figured Heaven should be a playground filled with stickball-playing kids and ringo-levio shouts and all the cold ones you could drink, served up by Pete Sheehy, the great Yankee clubhouse guy. Gofer.
I looked around.
OK, maybe I wasn’t expecting a marching band, but at least St. Peter, or an angel. . . a telegram. Something. I mean, I paid my dues, I made my deadlines, I never pretended I wasHemingway. Not to sound greedy but I was due a final reward.
Then I saw this place—the so-called “Heaven.” Ha! This is Heaven? I said to myself. This is this man’s pie-in-the-sky? In the first place, the sports page doesn’t have any West Coast scores. Ever. Instead we get the Broadway Show League scores. Updated inning by inning. Day and night. And the food is worse than half the clubhouse spreads I spent a lifetime loading up on.
Great, I think to myself, they ruined Brooklyn, they killed the Bronx, and they even let Heaven go to hell. Figures. It’s all over, I said to my pal Toots Shor—”Heaven ain’t what it used to be.”
I had to shout this, to get it over the goddamn disco music, but when he hears me he lifts his Bud Light (which is the only beer you can get here) and he says, “Dick, this ain’t Heaven. . . It’s Hell.”
Then Toots tells the bartender—who looks a lot like Roy Cohn, by the way—what I said, about Heaven not being what it used to be. And my line makes the rounds all the way to the back.
Everyone’s laughing so much I order another Bud Light and Roy says, “Sorry pal, it’s a two-beer-a-night limit.”
That’s when it hit me. It wasn’t the case of Heaven going to seed. It wasn’t like the bureaucracy and the bleeding hearts and the milquetoasts had ruined a good thing. It wasn’t that way at all.
Someone up in the sky had goofed, and I was in the Other Place.
NEWS ITEM:Young gets shaft
That night I wandered the streets—which all smell like the tunnel that connects the 1 Train to Port Authority—and I saw the place with new eyes. Maybe I even shed a tear.
The place was filled with tons of my old pals, sure, but cigarettes cost a deuce, and women wear pants and running shoes.
This wasn’t Heaven all right.
This was Hell.
Hell. Me, Dick Young, in Hell. Well, I knew it was a mistake, of course, and I knew I’d get out so I didn’t indulge myself in whiny self-pity a la Tom Seaver, but I will say this:
I’m not impressed.
This is Hell? This rundown gyp joint is hell? Like Hell it is.
I’ve seen Hell.
I’ve seen it in Washington Heights as a little boy sleeping on a fire escape at night in the days when poor people had too much dignity to demand air-conditioned housing projects.
This, this is like some great ultimate civil service honky-tonk on a sweaty summer night. But Hell?
Tell that to some reporter who walked his beat and earned an honest buck and only switched papers toward the end which anyone would’ve done if they had a chance.
The Hell with all the guff he took for it.
The only people who called this Hell are crybaby ballplayers pulling seven figures to play a little boys’ game half as well as real men played it in ’40s—baseball when the halvah was green.
NEWS ITEM:Young not bitter
No, I’m not. Mainly because I’m pretty convinced I’m going to be Called Up any day now.
Bitter? Why, I bet the more time I spend Heaven, the more I’ll actually look back fondly on this miscarriage of justice. That’s right.
Remember, My Generation was never opposed to getting a bit of seasoning in the minors. We were willing to lose the war in Africa in order to win the one in Spain. I mean in Europe. When I reminded myself of that, the rest came easy. Hell? Think of it as the Mexican League with better whores and better pitching.
And if Ted Williams could play three seasons in Triple A, I could make it through a couple of months with the head of a lizard.
Well, around the first of the year, what they do down here if you’re not going Up is they come around and tell you who’s going to win the Super Bowl, pennant races, Series, heavyweight bouts—they just spoil everything for you.
Evil One, I’ve got to hand it to you: it’s sportswriters’ Hell all right.
Which is what happened to me last year, in ’88.
First thought: get the scoop to all my loyal ex-readers on Earth. That way, they’d be as bored with sports as I was.
But then I realized I was being Tested.
Sure. If I took my disappointments out on my loyal ex-readers, if I gave away the winners to innocent people, then I belong in Hell.
So far, my strategy’s paid off. It’s mid-January, and I haven’t heard a peep. Fans, I think I’m Going Up to the place where you never have to change a ribbon.
NEWS ITEM:Some bitterness is justifiable
Yeah, I’ve got a beef.
Turns out the way you get into Heaven is a lot like the way you make it to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. There’s a ballot, your name has to appear on 75% of the total ballots cast, and the whole deal is politics. A bunch of jocks vote you In, and a lot of them never even saw me write.
Guess the Scooter knows the feeling. He’s been cheated out of Cooperstown for too long. Another tough break, Phil, is I’ve heard talk that there might be another “Election” in your future. I’m not saying what I’ve heard—it’s all gossip, Phil—but don’t let the phrase “abominations of perdition” scare you. It sounds a whole lot worse than it is.
Besides, Scooter, you’ll play yourself out of the Minors. Just like I did . . . Wait a minute, knock at the door. . . .
Brewers and Padres in the Series, 49ers in the Bowl, Tyson KO over Bruno, Montana Genius in the derby, Cleveland in baskets, Calgary in hockey, and I hate everybody.
When Bill Buckner dies, word is they’re going to toss him the key to the Pearly Gates. All he has to do is catch it, and he’s in. Tell me that’s not sick. . . . Remember when 54,633 Shea fans stood and cheered Keith Hernandez the day he returned from admitting drug addiction in Pittsburgh court? Four years later, not a single one of those fans is dead. This is fair? . . . You keep seeing things in Heaven that just shouldn’t be. Distasteful things. If I tell you that Paradise is filled with detox clinics and OTB offices, am I breaking your heart? . . . Plus, Casey Stengelwalks around Heaven buck naked. Can’t wait to see LeRoy Nieman paint that. . . . Like to see how any of these NBA druggies would stack up against City College’s starting five back in the days when Jews took set shots. . . . Never, never expected the Brooklyn Dodgers would play all their home games in Hell.
Bumped into Thurman, who told me the true story of how Ellie Howard died. Ellie had run up some questionable expenses while doing an out-of-town speaking engagement for the Yanks. He’d brought his wife along for the night in a Kentucky motel and then they phoned their kids and stayed on about 10 minutes. Boss George wanted to dock Ellie’s paycheck the extra $16.60, they had a row, but when Ellie collapsed, George knew the incident had gone far enough. Next day, he cut the motel bill and the phone bill into little pieces and sprinkled them over the future Hall-of-Famer’s open coffin. Even in death, fans, you hear stories of generous things Steinbrenner does quietly for so many people.
Memo to Bobby O.: your fingertip is in Heaven.
How many kids will drink themselves to death because Ring Lardner did it and he ended up with Wings?. . . Sad, sad, sad. . . . Make sense of this: seems all those sick kids Babe visited in the hospital and promised to swat a HR for? Well, apparently they all died on the operating table and went straight to Hell. . . . Mark Jackson and Rod Strickland are good players, but they’re no Bob Cousy. . . . Crybabies are upset that Syracuse didn’t cancel their ballgame the night Flight 103 went down. Hey, I didn’t see any pro teams take the night off when I died, and they all knew me a helluva lot better than anyone knew those spoiled kids. In my America, when a 19-year-old kid went to Europe, it was to shoot Nazis, not snapshots. . . . Don’t know what this means, but you get better reception on Sportschannel in Hell then you did in Manhattan. And another funny thing about hell—it takes less time to get cable guys here than it did in Midtown.
Regards to Frank Bruno from Benny “Kid” Paret. Frank, Benny says no reason to rush the fight.
Well, I finally met Hitler. I told him, “Adolph, let’s drop the formalities. You’re racist scum. But in a pickup basketball game, you’re not a bad ‘sixth man’ coming off the bench.” Sort of likeJohn Havlicek, Celts fans. I once asked Hondo for an interview and he said, “Soon’s I come back from the john.” He never came back. So what happens? 20 years later he winds up in the same sentence with Hitler. Stuck-up jocks, take note.
Can’t stomach reason source gave me why Israeli athletes murdered at ’72 Olympics aren’t in Heaven. Apparently, “they don’t believe in it.”. . . Just so no one gets the wrong idea, Hitler’s favorite sports writer is Red Smith. . . . Nothing against Reggie Otero, fine Cuban coach with Cincy Reds in ’60s, but he died October 21 and just reported to Heaven the other day. Claimed he had “visa problems.” Typical. After all these years, can’t Latins think up a better hustle to excuse chronic ethnic lateness? Another one I love is, “Oh, the death squads were torturing my mother.”. . . I always think, “At least in your country, government pays attentionto the elderly.”. . . Some Guys Never Get A Break Dept.: Wally Pipp is in Purgatory.
Memo to Joey D.: Marilyn is sick of your weekly roses. Give it a rest.
Somebody want to tell me how a guy like Gastineau had the guts to do the right thing and stand up to his union stooges but then he turned around and folds like an accordion when some skirt cracks the whip?. . . Unimpeachable source swears to me that Steinbrenner sold his soul last year, before the season began. And the Yankees still finished fifth. Thurman, I mean the source, says that’s all the shipbuilder’s soul would fetch. . . . Walter O’Malley on difference between fans in Heaven and Hell: “The hellsters are your real fans. Beautiful example. The drowning of Yankee pitcher John Candelaria’s son. In Heaven the first thing they say is ‘Terrible tragedy.’ But in Hell you hear, ‘Gee, what was Candy’s record last season?’” Too true. . . . Another source tells me that part of Steinbrenner’s problem is that he already sold his soul once before to get Dave Collins. . . . If the swelling in Carl Lewis’s head has gone down, he may be interested to know that lots of “brothers” down here can outrun him. And that’s with a color TV on their shoulder.
Remember a few years ago when some jerk threw a snowball at the 49ers placekicker, indisputably depriving Niners of sure win over Browns? I met the culprit yesterday. Long, greasy hair. Pale. Advertising slogan on his T-shirt—natch. And checking into Heaven. I said, “Wow, kid. Didn’t you have something to answer for?” He laughed. “You mean that snowball thing? I pleaded that down to a P.I. [public intoxication] and did 60 hours in Purgatory. Cake, man. Piece of.” . . . All I can say is, the tragedy of America’s limp-wristed court system that punishes innocents but lets crooks off scott free, seems to extend a lot further than I thought.
Movement growing to hold cancelled 1980 Olympics in Hell. Catch is, all those kid jocks have to die first. A lot of blank spaces in the record books would be wiped out, but tell that to a bunch of selfish kids who could do the right thing and commit suicide—but that would mean thinking about something bigger than themselves, wouldn’t it?
The Hindenburg is a fixture at football games in Hell.
Don’t ask me how, America, but not only did Jackie Robinson make it to Heaven—he still won’t talk to me. Still hates the press, that guy, maybe because I told him once, “Why don’t you be the first Negro to own up to your own words and not scream you were misquoted?” Ah, wait’ll Pee Wee Reese dies. You could bet he won’t capitulate to this Heaven/Hell business. He’ll stick out his hand in plain view of everyone and say, “Dick, I don’t judge a man by the color of his flames. It’s great to see you.”. . . Wonder how Pee Wee’s feeling?
Howcum Dept.: Yesterday I see 200 Iranians walk right through the Pearly Gates, but Ty Cobb’s still non grata going on 30 years just because he never quit the Klan. . . . What are you supposed to do—hold a man’s whole life against him?. . . ’92 Olympic preview: Florence Griffith Joyner may walk off with three or four gold medals in track and field. She may win some, too. . . . Remember great line in It’s a Wonderful Life: “Every time a bell rings it means an angel got his wings”? Well, in Hell, every time “La Bamba” plays, Johnny Weismuller is forced to swim a monkey across the River Styx on his back. . . . Only nice point about Heaven was first told me by Nellie Fox. He said, “There’s Mexican food everywhere, and it doesn’t go right through you.”. . . You hear that a lot.
Mike Tyson’s a great fighter but he’s no Marciano. . . Here’s a guy who thinks an actress likes him for who he is, and then when he wakes up and smells the horsespit, he picks Don King to straighten out his finances. With judgment like that someday the Powers That Be will put him in charge of deciding who gets into Heaven, and who goes south. But I’m not bitter.
Memo to Wade Boggs: It’s always better to pay for it on a one-shot basis than to run up a tab.
Could go either way: Milk-shake drinker Steve Garvey should be a sure shot for Heaven, except for old scandal where his wife was walking around naked and it didn’t sex him up. . . . OK, this bugs me, and I’m not the only one: every Sunday, all the guys in Heaven line up on their clouds and spit down on us cheap-seaters in Hell. It just rains down what we used to call, in the Depression, flamoozy. Can’t believe that Our Almighty turns His back on this behavior. Look. God, I didn’t pound out 4000 words a week to end up treated like some jerk who wears a Cards cap to Shea. . . . I’ll tell you the kind of place Heaven is. Horses can talk, but they’ve got nothing to say. . . . Worst offender has to be Man O’ War, who actually told me, “The race is to the swift.” Then quickly added, “I don’t need no press. I don’t need no negativity.”
Big Daddy Lipscomb (heroin OD, 1963) was being fitted for a size 74 pair of wings the other day. Had the gall to tell me, “Geez, I love bein’ in Heaven.” Yeah, you should’ve seen it when itworked. . . . Old timers here tell me that when Lily Tomlin had her team in the Broadway Show League, the players thought that every time they got to third base, they scored. . . . I don’t get that.
Daily sight of Vince Lombardi currying favor with St. Peter tarnishes great coach’s image. Yesterday I heard him saying, “You know that expression of mine, ‘Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing?’ Well, there’s not a lot of logic in it, is there? If winning’s everything, then there’s nothing else it can be, right, so it has to be the only thing. Jeez, St. Pete, I bet a lot of young men were led astray by me. Can I come in now?” Terrific. The greatest coach in the history of football fumbling words like a Carter Administration puppet. . . . Blind item: What overrated sportswriter named Angell may not be?
Danny Kaye: Name one dive Greg Louganis can’t do.
Babe: The Muff Dive.
The guys down here crack me up. . . . Mick’s gonna love it.
I’m going to miss Willie Randolph—a class Yankee in the quiet-but-proud Roy Whitetradition (although he was no Bobby Richardson). . . . Memo to Dick Nixon: try to catch as many games as you possibly can this year. Especially early in the season. . . . Memo to Billy Martin: see previous memo. . . . I asked a guy who’d know if there was any clue you could use to determine in advance if a guy’s going to the Good Place or the Not Really All That Bad a Place. His answer: if a guy’s got H-E-Double Hockey Sticks in his name, that’s a big hint. So fuck you, Howie cosELL. Same goes for you too, micHaEL Lupica. Jeez, it’s great being dead.
THE POSTMAN DOESN’T KNOCK AS OFTEN AS HE USED TO
Dear Mr. Young,
The broad asks if she can visit, I figure I can get lucky, I get shot, Malamud writes the novel, my career is never the same, Malamud’s takes off. I send Malamud a letter saying I’m entitled to a little cash off the top, he sends it back with my spelling corrected.
OK. Now I’m mad but I wait till ’64. Malamud’s teaching creative writing at Bennington, beatnik students tell me how to find his office. I storm in. William Styron is there. I say I obviously have the wrong office. Styron says, “How?” I say, I was going to kill Bernard Malamud but I chose the wrong door.
Styron gets a novel out of it.
Did these kinds of things just happen to me?
(ex-Cubs, Phils, O’s
The Mets are great!
I want to die!
The Giants will rebound!
I want to die!
The Yanks are ready to hit the throttle.
I got the lid off the bottle.
The liberals were too rough on Meese,
I know where daddy keeps his piece.
I’m going to blow my brains to Paris.
Next Stop: Hell, and Roger Maris!
Pace, age 6
I don’t usually publish poetry, but the kid’s got spunk.
I am a big fan of yours. I almost had a career in professional basketball. I always wanted to meet you. About a month ago I tried to look you up. That’s one of the nice things about Heaven, is the chance to meet all the heroes I looked up to growing up as a child.
I was very shocked when they told me where you were.
How could this be?
Could it be that no matter how hard a basketball player tried to get his act together you kept calling him a druggie? Or even after another one had lost his life n a tragic accident that wasn’t his fault because some white Celtics fans slipped him five grams anyway? Swear to G – d.
Anyway, that’s all water under the syringe.
I was sad that I couldn’t meet you, but then I figured I can still read you. They have a great library system up here. Except when I asked for some of your back columns, they told me none were “available.” Not one word you wrote, in 50 years, was immortalized here. Can you believe it? That hurt when I heard that, man. That really hurt.
Here’s a treat from Ross Wetzsteon. Originally published in the Aug. 1, 1985, issue of Sport magazine, it is reprinted here with permission of the author’s widow, Laura Ross.
Idols grow old like everybody else. Dick Young was once the patron saint, the most respected sportswriter in America, the one who changed all the rules, the guy who brought street smarts into the sports pages. He’s still the dean of American sportswriters, the most widely read and highly paid sports columnist in the country—and yet it’s not easy to find a colleague who has a good word to say about him.
When you finish reading one of his columns in the New York Post, they say, you have to take out your handkerchief and wipe the spittle off your face. “Young Ideas,” the title of his column, is “the greatest misnomer since Charley Winner.” As a baseball and football writer “he used to hang out with the players, but now all he does is suck up to the millionaire owners.” As a boxing writer “he would have no problem picking out Larry Holmes at a DAR convention.” “His values are sick and corrupt,” says a former NewYork Times sportswriter. And yet after saying all this—and adding that his “My America” tirades would embarrass Jerry Falwell, that his cranky obsessions are ruining his column into a one-man vigilante gang—even his sternest critics are unanimous in conceding that “the son of a bitch was still the best day-to-day writer who ever lived.” “The younger writers all loathe him,” says a veteran who’s worked with him more than 40 years, “but the thing they still have to learn from us old-timers is that you can only hate Dick Young 90 percent of the time.”
It’s partly a matter of generational style. Sitting in the front row of the press box at the World Series, the Super Bowl, the championship fight, bobbing his head up and down like a belligerent bantam, rapidly clawing out notes in his lefthanded scrawl, Dick Young, even at 67, looks like he should be in a Thirties B movie—the only thing missing is a snap-brim fedora with his press card jauntily stuck in the band. Dick Young belongs to the days when sportswriters banged out their stories on carriage-snapping typewriters, a cigarette dangling from their lips, a shot glass of bourbon at their side.
But it is his confrontational style that’s made him so many enemies. You’re drawn in by his lean, breezy, rat-tat-tat, three-dot prose, and then you realize what he’s saying (a litany of Genghis Khan causes, from anti-unionism to Red-baiting to good ol’ capital punishment), and even more clearly the tone in which he’s saying it (not just caustic but downright churlish; not just opinionated but out-and-out ranting). Is it any wonder that colleagues who began their careers by imitating his street-smart stance, his wiseass skepticism, now regard him as a doddering fossil?
People who’ve been reading Dick Young for only 10 years or so remember little more than his vicious vendettas (almost single-handedly driving Tom Seaver out of New York), or his ethnic insensitivities (advising his Spanish-speaking readers to leave their spray cans at home when visiting the reopened Yankee Stadium), or his hit-and-run blind items (“I’ve heard a rumor why the Johnny Benches split up,” he once wrote, “and I’ll never believe it”—end of item), or his mad-dog savaging of “druggies” (he could understand an athlete wanting a little on the side, he commented on the Edwin Moses prostitute/drug bust, but using those controlled substances was unforgivable). Dick Young is not a writer Hallmark would hire.
And yet if you go back more than 10 years, there’s another side to Dick Young. In the evolution of sportswriting from adolescent mythologizing to tell-it-like-it-is honesty, Dick Young was arguably the single most important transitional figure. There’s a better way to describe the arc of Dick Young’s career than to say he was a street-smart kid who rose to patron saint who degenerated into crotchety old man. And that’s to say that while his politics may be as reactionary as Louis XIV’s, his professional role has been as radical as Robespierre’s. What his detractors fail to understand is that there are many battles they don’t have to fight because Dick Young has already fought them—and won.
“What good can you say about a writer,” snips a columnist for a national newsweekly, “who thinks his greatest contribution to the English language is the word ‘horsespit’?” Well, one thing you can say is that when Dick Young began covering the Brooklyn Dodgers in the mid-Forties, baseball writing was characterized by a different kind of horsespit. One New York daily would lead off its story, “The mighty bats and nimble gloves of the visitors from St. Louis yesterday vanquished. . . .” But Dick Young was writing, “This story belongs on page three with the other axe murders.” When he’d begin his stories with fabled leads like “It was so cold out there today even the brass monkey stayed home,” he singlehandedly replaced the pompous poetry of the press box with the cynical poetry of the streets. “It may not seem that innovative today,” says Vic Ziegel, executive sports editor of New York’s Daily News, “but at the time we felt like people must have felt in the Twenties when they first heard Louis Armstrong.”
“How you going to deal with a guy whose enemies list makes Nixon look like Gandhi,” asks another young sportswriter. Well, one way you can deal with him is to remember that when Dick Young first began covering baseball, sportswriters were shameless shills for their teams, keeping the players at a heroic distance, settling for phonily alliterative nicknames like Joltin’ Joe or the Splendid Splinter. So when Young brought his cut ‘n’ slash opinions into his coverage, writing “it was a typical 400-foot Gene Hermanski drive, 200 feet up and 200 feet down,” readers were shocked. Mythic figures, bullspit; Dick Young drank in the same bars as these guys. If we take the warts-and-all closeups of today for granted, we’re neglecting to give him credit.
Dick Young, they say, has broken so many stories because he’s a mouthpiece of management. Come again? When Dick Young first began covering baseball, writers routinely showed up in the press box five minutes before the game and only visited the lockerroom if the press box toilet was broken. “I had to stop by the clubhouse at 11:00 one morning,” says a colleague from those day, “and Dick Young was already there, sitting on his haunches beside the trainer and a ballplayer, taking notes. That was the first time I ever saw a writer in the lockerroom at anytime, so don’t tell me he got handouts from the front office.”
Then they say Dick Young is contemptuous of his colleagues, a competitive son of a bitch who’ll knee you in the gut for a beat. But his critics don’t know this story—it’s never been printed until now. Joe Trimble, Dick Young’s colleague at the Daily News, is sitting at his typewriter in the press box at Yankee Stadium, staring at a blank piece of paper. An hour ago Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the World Series and now the press room downtown is freaking out—where’s Joe Trimble’s story? “I’m blank,” Joe Trimble says to Dick Young in a cold-sweat panic. “I can’t write a word.” Dick Young calmly rolls a piece of paper in his own typewriter, types out a sentence, takes out the paper and hands it to Joe Trimble. “The imperfect man pitched a perfect game.” Forty-five minutes later, Joe Trimble’s story is finished, it’s the best story of his career, he wins awards for that story—and Dick Young never says a word.
Brash, vulgar, pushy—that’s yet another count in the indictment. But hey, the man is a reporter, not a hired gun. Dick Young walks into the press conference where it will be announced that Doug Flutie has signed with the USFL. He sees a row of chairs occupied by TV people, celebrities, Donald Trump favorites and flunkies, sees the newspapermen standing three and four deep at the back. So he walks up the steps to the stage, sits down on a wall in front of the podium and takes out his notepad. Donald Trump’s security goons politely ask him to move. Choosing his words with the care if not the vocabulary of Flaubert, he informs them that this is a press conference, that he’s press and goddamned if he’s going to budge. They find him a chair near the podium. Christie Brinkley may be there to get her picture in the paper, but Dick Young is there to get his story.
“Gimme a beer,” says Dick Young. “Whadda ya wanna know?”
Some of your younger colleagues think. . .
“Shit, those young guys. They don’t work hard enough, they don’t work the phones, they don’t have any respect for themselves as professionals. I remember when the New York Times started giving days off in spring training! They’re in Florida, for Christ’s sake, and they want a day off! Me? I only write five columns a week these days. Piece of cake.”
Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News says. . .
“Mike Lupica? He’s a newspaper version of a spoiled-brat ballplayer,” Dick Young snaps. “He writes bullshit based on his lack of experience.”
Dick Young’s not an off-the-record guy. Skipping all over the place, talking just like his Friday column, “Clubhouse Confidential,” a sentence, three dots, on to something else, three dots, on to something else. Next question?
Murray Chass of the New York Times? ”He’d sell his soul for access.” Maury Allen of the New York Post? “Careless with facts and quotes.” Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times? “Just a gagster.” Dick Young is the same with nearly all his colleagues. Not angry, not even sarcastic, just matter-of-fact rat-tat-tat. Next question.
Howard Cosell? “Howie the Shill? A fraud. An ass. A pompous ass. Those are the good things I can say about him. Now what about the other side?” Dick Young leans back in his chair and grins from sideburn to sideburn. He’s feeling almost benevolent. Lucky you didn’t catch him in a bad mood. “Cosell gets more and more obnoxious over the years, but people who say I go after him too much don’t realize that I’ve never written a whole column about him. He’s not worth it. Just a little shot here and there.”
(For his part, Howard Cosell declined to comment, but he once told an interviewer, “He’s a sick, troubled person. He’s a hate merchant, crazed, who’s been writing trash and abuses the First Amendment.”)
You were saying how you used to steal papers when you. . .
“Not steal, borrow,” says Dick Young sharply. “We used to borrow paper from the candy store, check out the box scores, then put them back.” A law-and-order kid. “I had a wonderful childhood. Sure, my parents were divorced when I was three, but it pisses me off when I hear about some guy who sobs his way to the electric chair because he came from ‘a broken home.’ Icame from a broken home, and I always felt I was one of the luckiest guys alive.”
Dick Young’s mother was an American Jew of German descent, his father a Russian Jew. From age 6 to 12, he was boarded out with an Italian Catholic family. Talking about growing up in Washington Heights (a lower-middle-class neighborhood in upper Manhattan), about getting an 87.5 average in high school (“and a better education than lots of colleges give you these days”), about playing stickball in the streets (“I was one of the best around”), about going to the old Madison Square Garden or the Polo Grounds (“I was always a Giants fan”), he’ll sometimes go three sentences in a row without bursting into an angry denunciation of the hoods and druggies who’ve desecrated his idyllic past. The Depression Thirties? Idyllic? There’s no nostalgia quite as proud as that of a man who survived hard times.
After graduating from high school, Dick Young went to California to stay with his father, a cameraman in Hollywood. Didn’t work out. Los Angeles Junior College; kicked out when he couldn’t afford the non-resident fee. Joined the CCC; shipped to upstate New York, helped build a state park, still proud of that. Heard the Daily News was hiring, $15 a week. Hitchhiked to New York, turned out they wanted college graduates. Said he’d go to college at night. Took classes at NYU, worked his way up at the News. Finally, after five years, covered his first game, at the Polo Grounds, then given his first beat, the ’46 Dodgers, and before long another big promotion, this time to patron saint.
“I didn’t even want to be a sportswriter,” he says. “I wanted to be a hot-shot newspaperman like Walter Winchell. I wanted to be a stop-the-presses guy, competing with the other paper for the scoop and for the girl. I didn’t go for that fancy writing—still don’t. Some guys think they can fool sports fans with, quote, good writing, unquote, but the fan knows when he’s being bullshitted by a cute line. If you’ve got the story you report it, if you don’t you write it. A newspaper isn’t like a book, for Christ’s sake. When you’re through with it you throw it out and buy a new one.”
Dick Young writes over 4,000 words a week—which adds up to nearly 10 million words in his career, 100 books or so, give or take a War and Peace. For nearly four decades Dick Young wasthe Daily News, the most popular feature in the country’s largest-selling newspaper—a survey once showed that he was singlehandedly responsible for over 50,000 sales a day. But then, in 1981, rumors began to circulate that the Daily News might fold, and suddenly there’s Dick Young, the man who chastised Tom Seaver (“Be a man and honor your contract”) breaking hiscontract and jumping to the New York Post. Hypocrisy was the kindest word they used. Loyalty. Horsespit.
“People think they see an analogy, right?” Dick Young uses the word scornfully, like an epithet. Suddenly his anger seems less genial. “Just for openers,” he says, “there’s a helluva difference between a guy who works 45 years for an organization and a guy who works five years. And as for the money, the difference wasn’t that great. I only got a raise from $115,000, to $125,000 [he makes $155,000 now]. My dream situation was to work for 50 years at the News and then have a goodbye party when I reached 69. But there I was, 63½ years old, they’re talking about closing down the world’s greatest newspaper and how many places will give a job to a guy 63½ years old?”
A lot of people feel Dick Young has lost his pop in the Post, that the Goetz-for-President tabloid has encouraged his pugnacity at the expense of his populism, turning him into a knee-jerk Neanderthal. Drugs, for instance.
“Nothing is as bad as drugs,” Dick Young says furiously. “Nothing. I get so angry when I see our country threatened by drugs. Ballclubs used to punish a guy for the slightest moral deficiency, but nowadays they welcome him back with open arms. I’ll get out of this business before I’ll beg a druggie to talk to me.”
Where does this rage come from, a bad experience? “Me? I only take one aspirin, for Christ’s sake.” The Dick Young segue—even in his fury he retains his humor. “I even gave up Camels—that was the closest thing to heroin in my time.”
Race? That’s a bit more complicated. Dick Young was one of Jackie Robinson’s earliest champions, but according to one of his colleagues on the Dodgers beat he once confided, “I can never forget he’s black” (to which Robinson responded, “I never want him to”), and was always closer to the nonmilitant Roy Campanella.
“I was all for Jackie,” says Dick Young, “but he thought everything that happened to him was because of his color. Racism was sometimes a crutch for Jackie. I can understand it, but that doesn’t make it right. And don’t give me any crap, racism is a two-edged sword. Blacks are as racist as anyone these days‚ maybe more so.”
This isn’t the kind of speech that’s going to win Dick Young any Brotherhood of Man awards. But while this kind of insensitivity appalls his white colleagues, his “I won’t bullshit you” stance has won him the grudging respect of many black athletes. Take Ali, for example.
“I was down on Ali at first,” Dick Young admits. “I felt he was exploited by the Muslims. He was a commercial racist, he didn’t hate white people, he just pretended he did in order to sell tickets. Anyway, one day Bundini Brown came over to me and said, ‘You guys should talk,’ and I said, ‘I’d be glad to.’ We had long discussions after that—politics, religion, everything. I still disagree with him, but we respect each other now. In his dressing room after his last fight, down in the Bahamas, we even kissed each other on the lips.”
Okay, that answers the question: Does Dick Young ever change his mind about anything? Still, one wonders if Ali really belongs in Dick Young’s America. “My America,” he calls it, President Young addressing his constituency, a land of afternoon ballgames, hardworking newspapermen, respect for Mom—and electric chairs.
“I know it bugs people. That’s why I do it. I use ‘My America’ almost facetiously now, just to needle people. But look, I was brought up in the greatest country in the world. To me, patriotism isn’t a matter of flag-waving but of the work ethic and respect for authority—those are the values I was brought up on.”
In Dick Young’s America, drugs are evil, unions are ruining sports and black athletes use racism as a “crutch.” But it’s revealing that he’d even suggest he’s only kidding. Dick Young’s politics are in the grand old tradition of American populism, of the little guy, of the boys in the bar, of the blue-collar, of the hardhat—of democratic bigotry.
“To me, there’s no such thing as a liberal or a conservative. It’s only this case, this case, this case—whose side deserves to be attacked at a particular time.” In Dick Young’s defense, it has to be pointed out that he’s led the fight for access to lockerrooms for women sportswriters. “They’re just doing their jobs,” he says, “they deserve to be treated like professionals. Why do the so-called liberals always lay claim to what’s right?”
Wiseass, sarcastic, swaggering—with a gutter wit, a toe-to-toe combativeness and most of all a tabloid cynicism that’s been elevated to the status of a political philosophy—never forget, Dick Young comes from the Thirties of The Front Page, not Norman Rockwell; he grew up in the Depression of Our Gang, not Eleanor Roosevelt. At times he seems less interested in changing your mind than in getting your goat.
“Today’s writers don’t have enough guts,” he says. “They let themselves be pushed around. The players give them all that crap and they accept it”—it’s hard to tell who ticks him off the most, the players or the press. “They even have ropes around the batting cage in spring training! Jesus Christ, how’m I supposed to do my job?” Three dots later and he’s off on druggies again, then three dots and he’s after the goddamned unions, then three dots and he’s dumping on a lazy colleague or a spoiled-brat player or even his own paper. “‘Today is Friday, the Post learned exclusively’—what the hell’s happened to our profession?”
When you read this stuff in his column you’re reminded of the obstinate dogmatism of the self-educated, but when you hear it it almost has a certain. . . charm. Even in his most vitriolic tirades there is a spark of wit, a flash of style. Dick Young may be the most opinionated, abusive, foul-mouthed bastard in an opinionated, abusive, foul-mouthed business, but still. . .
At the press conference after the first Ali-Frazier fight, Ali went into one of his harangues, berating the judges’ decision and announcing that be was going to organize a nationwide vote to let the people decide who won the fight. Everyone’s furiously scribbling notes when Dick Young’s voice suddenly pipes up. “You’ll lose,” he tells Ali. “Most of the brothers are in the slam and are ineligible to vote.” The reporters are aghast. Ali is speechless. But then suddenly he leans back and roars with laughter, the reporters join in and the harangue is history.
So what if he sometimes dresses like a cross between a senile hippy and a linoleum salesman—plaid pants, Day-Glo jackets, even, for a time in the Seventies, a medallion on his chest with a Miami Beach sport shirt open to his waist. What really keeps him young is the sharp one-sentence comeback, the snappy put-down. Dick Young, an embittered old man? No way. He’s still a brash, cocksure, pugnacious, candy-store kid who happens to be 67 years old.
In the meantime, the beat goes on—”in the sweatshop conditions of his Florida spring training camp,” Dick Young will write on a typical day, “where he works two-to-three hours a day and spends the rest of the time around the pool or on the golf course, Kent Tekulve has warned the plantation owners of baseball that the players are running out of patience. They aren’t going to put up with their terrible lives much longer. ‘We don’t want a strike, but if our backs are to the wall we’ll do it’ . . . a wall that most people wouldn’t mind being backed up against . . . . The players want to strike? Let ‘em.”
“A repugnant person,” says a writer who used to be on Dick Young’s staff at the Daily News.“He’d always try to graft his sensibility onto your work. At the Montreal Olympics, for instance, he’d even change my leads, adding phrases like ‘the dreaded Russians and their Red sisters. . .’ He somehow managed to be both corny and vile at the same time!”
Dick Young’s going to retire a year from January—at 69—50 years on the beat, the last of the great tabloid newspapermen. “Me and my wife, we own a piece of sand in Arizona. I like to cook, raise flowers. I think l’ll even try a novel.” A novel? “Sure, I’ll keep writing my crap as long as someone is willing to pay for it. The same stuff, only I’ll fictionalize it!’ Dick Young breaks into a malicious smile. “All those bastards, they’ll have a helluva time trying to figure out who the hell I’m talking about! Hah, I’d love to see their faces!”
Ross Wetzsteon was a journalist, critic, and editor in New York City for 35 years. From 1966 until his death in 1998, he worked at the the Village Voice as a contributor and editor, and for several years as its editor-in-chief. During his tenure at the Voice, Wetzsteon oversaw coverage of everything from politics to sports, but his abiding interest was the theater. For 28 years, he was the chairman of the Village Voice Obie Committee, responsible for bestowing awards for excellence on Off- and Off-Off Broadway artists and writers. Wetzsteon also contributed articles to New York Magazine, Men’s Journal, Playboy, The New York Times,Inside Sports, Conde Nast Traveler, Mademoiselle, and many other publications. He edited several anthologies, including The Obie Winners in 1980 and The Best of Off Broadway in 1984. He also wrote the preface to a collection of playwright Sam Shepard’s works,Fool for Love and Other Plays, and he was the author of Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960. He died in 1998.
Here’s a keeper from Gay Talese. Originally published in the March 1964 issue of Esquire.Reprinted here with the author’s permission.
At the foot of a mountain in upstate New York, about 60 miles from Manhattan, there is an abandoned country clubhouse with a dusty dance floor, upturned barstools and an untuned piano; and the only sounds heard around the place at night come from the big white house behind it—the clanging sounds of garbage cans being toppled by raccoons, skunks and stray cats making their nocturnal raids down from the mountain.
The white house seems deserted, too; but occasionally, when the animals become too clamorous, a light will flash on, a window will open, and a Coke bottle will come flying through the darkness and smash against the cans. But mostly the animals are undisturbed until daybreak, when the rear door of the white house swings open and a broad-shouldered Negro appears in gray sweat clothes with a white towel around his neck.
He runs down the steps, quickly passes the garbage cans and proceeds at a trot down the dirt road beyond the country club toward the highway. Sometimes he stops along the road and throws a flurry of punches at imaginary foes, each jab punctuated by hard gasps of his breathing—“hegh-hegh-hegh”—and then, reaching the highway, he turns and soon disappears up the mountain.
At this time of morning, farm trucks are on the road, and the drivers wave at the runner. And later in the morning, other motorists see him, and a few stop suddenly at the curb and ask:
“Say, aren’t you Floyd Patterson?”
“No,” says Floyd Patterson, “I’m his brother, Raymond.”
The motorists move on, but recently a man on foot, a disheveled man who seemed to have spent the night outdoors, staggered behind the runner along the road and yelled, “Hey, Floyd Patterson!”
“No, I’m his brother, Raymond.”
“Don’t tell me you’re not Floyd Patterson. I know what Floyd Patterson looks like.”
“Okay,” Patterson said, shrugging, “if you want me to be Floyd Patterson, I’ll be Floyd Patterson.”
“So let me have your autograph,” said the man, handing him a rumpled piece of paper and a pencil.
He signed it—”Raymond Patterson.”
One hour later Floyd Patterson was jogging his way back down the dirt path toward the white house, the towel over his head absorbing the sweat from his brow. He lives alone in a two-room apartment in the rear of the house, and has remained there in almost complete seclusion since getting knocked out a second time by Sonny Liston.
In the smaller room is a large bed he makes up himself, several record albums he rarely plays, a telephone that seldom rings. The larger room has a kitchen on one side and, on the other, adjacent to a sofa, is a fireplace from which are hung boxing trunks and T-shirts to dry, and a photograph of him when he was the champion, and also a television set. The set is usually on except when Patterson is sleeping, or when he is sparring across the road inside the clubhouse (the ring is rigged over what was once the dance floor), or when, in a rare moment of painful honesty, he reveals to a visitor what it is like to be the loser.
“Oh, I would give up anything to just be able to work with Liston, to box with him somewhere where nobody would see us, and to see if I could get past three minutes with him,” Patterson was saying, wiping his face with the towel, pacing slowly around the room near the sofa. “Iknow I can do better. . . . Oh, I’m not talking about a rematch. Who would pay a nickel for another Patterson-Liston fight? I know I wouldn’t. . . . But all I want to do is get past the first round.”
Then he said, “You have no idea how it is in the first round. You’re out there with all those people around you, and those cameras, and the whole world looking in, and all that movement, that excitement, and ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and the whole nation hoping you’ll win, including the President. And do you know what all this does? It blinds you, just blinds you. And then the bell rings, and you go at Liston and he’s coming at you, and you’re not even aware that there’s a referee in the ring with you.
“. . . Then you can’t remember much of the rest, because you don’t want to. . . . All you recall is, all of a sudden you’re getting up, and the referee is saying, ‘You all right?’ and you say, ‘Ofcourse I’m all right,’ and he says, ‘What’s your name?’ and you say, ‘Patterson.’
“And then, suddenly, with all this screaming around you, you’re down again, and you know you have to get up, but you’re extremely groggy, and the referee is pushing you back, and your trainer is in there with a towel, and people are all standing up, and your eyes focus directly at no one person—you’re sort of floating.
“It is not a bad feeling when you’re knocked out,” he said. “It’s a good feeling, actually. It’s not painful, just a sharp grogginess. You don’t see angels or start; you’re on a pleasant cloud. After Liston hit me in Nevada, I felt, for about four or five seconds, that everybody in the arena was actually in the ring with me, circled around me like a family, and you feel warmth toward all the people in the arena after you’re knocked out. You feel lovable to all the people. And you want to reach out and kiss everybody—men and women—and after the Liston fight, somebody told me I actually blew a kiss to the crowd from the ring. I don’t remember that. But I guess it’s true because that’s the way you feel during the four or five seconds after a knockout. . . .
“But then,” Patterson went on, still pacing, “this good feeling leaves you. You realize where you are, and what you’re doing there, and what has just happened to you. And what follows is a hurt, a confused hurt—not a physical hurt—it’s a hurt combined with anger; it’s a what-will-people-think hurt; it’s an ashamed-of-my-own-ability hurt. . . . And all you want then is a hatch door in the middle of the ring—a hatch door that will open and let you fall through and land in your dressing room instead of having to get out of the ring and face those people. The worst thing about losing is having to walk out of the ring and face those people. . . .”
Then Patterson walked over to the stove and put on the kettle for tea. He remained silent for a few moments. Through the walls could be heard the footsteps and voices of the sparring partners and the trainer who live in the front of the house. Soon they would be in the clubhouse getting things ready should Patterson wish to spar. In two days he was scheduled to fly to Stockholm and fight an Italian named Amonti, Patterson’s first appearance in the ring since the last Liston fight.
Next he hoped to get a fight in London against Henry Cooper. Then, if his confidence was restored, his reflexes reacting, Patterson hoped to start back up the ladder in this country, fighting all the leading contenders, fighting often, and not waiting so long between each fight as he had done when he was a champion in the 90-percent tax bracket.
His wife, whom he finds little time to see, and most of his friends think he should quit. They point out that he does not need the money. Even he admits that, from investments alone on his $8,000,000 gross earning, he should have an annual income of about $35,000 for the next 25 years. But Patterson, who is only 29 years old and barely scratched, cannot believe that he is finished. He cannot help but think that it was something more than Liston that destroyed him—a strange, psychological force was also involved, and unless he can fully understand what it was, and learn to deal with it in the boxing ring, he may never be able to live peacefully anywhere but under this mountain. Nor will he ever be able to discard the false whiskers and moustache that, ever since Johansson beat him in 1959, he has carried with him in a small attache case into each fight so he can slip out of the stadium unrecognized should he lose.
“I often wonder what other fighters feel, and what goes through their minds when they lose,” Patterson said, placing the cups of tea on the table. “I’ve wanted so much to talk to another fighter about all this, to compare thoughts, to see if he feels some of the same things I’ve felt. But who can you talk to? Most fighters don’t talk much anyway. And I can’t even look another fighter in the eye at a weigh-in, for some reason.
“At the Liston weigh-in, the sports writers noticed this, and said it showed I was afraid. But that’s not it. I can never look any fighter in the eye because . . . well, because we’re going to fight, which isn’t a nice thing, and because . . . well, once I actually did look a fighter in the eye. It was a long, long time ago. I must have been in the amateurs then. And when I looked at this fighter, I saw he had such a nice face . . . and then he looked at me . . . and smiled at me . . . and I smiled back! It was strange, very strange. When a guy can look at another guy and smile like that, I don’t think they have any business fighting.
“I don’t remember what happened in that fight, and I don’t remember what the guy’s name was. I only remember that, ever since, I have never looked another fighter in the eye.”
The telephone rang in the bedroom. Patterson got up to answer it. It was his wife, Sandra. So he excused himself, shutting the bedroom door behind him.
Sandra Patterson and their four children live in a $100,000 home in an upper-middle-class white neighborhood in Scarsdale, New York. Floyd Patterson feels uncomfortable in this home surrounded by a manicured lawn and stuffed with furniture, and, since losing his title to Liston, he has preferred living full time at his camp, which his children have come to know as “Daddy’s house.” The children, the eldest of whom is a daughter named Jeannie now seven years old, do not know exactly what their father does for a living. But Jeannie, who watched the last Liston-Patterson fight on closed-circuit television, accepted the explanation that her father performs in a kind of game where the men take turns pushing one another down; he had his turn pushing them down, and now it is their turn.
The bedroom door opened again, and Floyd Patterson shaking his head, was very angry and nervous.
“I’m not going to work out today,” he said. “I’m going to fly down to Scarsdale. These boys are picking on Jeannie again. She’s the only Negro in this school, and the older kids give her a rough time, and some of the older boys tease her and lift up her dress all the time. Yesterday she went home crying, and so today I’m going down there and plan to wait outside the school for those boys to come out, and . . .”
“How old are they?” he was asked.
“Teen-agers,” he said. “Old enough for a left hook.”
Patterson telephoned his pilot friend, Ted Hanson, who stays at the camp and does public-relations work for him, and has helped teach Patterson to fly. Five minutes later Hanson, a lean white man with a crew cut and glasses, was knocking on the door; and 10 minutes later both were in the car that Patterson was driving almost recklessly over the narrow, winding country roads toward the airport, about six miles from the camp.
“Sandra is afraid I’ll cause trouble; she’s worried about what I’ll do to those boys, she doesn’t want trouble!” Patterson snapped, swerving around a hill and giving his car more gas. “She’s just not firm enough! She’s afraid . . . she was afraid to tell me about that groceryman who’s been making passes at her. It took her a long time before she told me about that dishwasher repairman who comes over and calls her ‘baby.’ They all know I’m away so much. And that dishwasher repairman has been to my home about four five times this month already. That machine breaks down every week. I guess he fixes it so it breaks down every week. Last time, I laid a trap. I waited forty-five minutes for him to come, but then he didn’t show up. I was going to grab him and say, ‘How would you like it If I called your wife baby? You’d feel like punching me in the nose, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s what I’m going to do—if you ever call her babyagain. You call her Mrs. Patterson; or Sandra, if you know her. But you don’t know her, so call her Mrs. Patterson.’ And then I told Sandra that these men, this type of white man, he just wants to have some fun with colored women. He’ll never marry a colored woman, just wants to have some fun. . . .”
Now he was driving into the airport’s parking lot. Directly ahead, roped to the grass airstrip, was the single-engine green Cessna that Patterson bought and learned to fly before the second Liston fight. Flying was a thing Patterson had always feared—a fear shared, maybe inherited from, his manager, Cus D’Amato, who still will not fly.
D’Amato, who took over training Patterson when the fighter was 17 or 18 years old and exerted a tremendous influence over his psyche, is a strange but fascinating man of 56 who is addicted to Spartanism and self-denial and is possessed by suspicion and fear; he avoids subways because he fears someone might push him onto the tracks; never has married; never reveals his home address.
“I must keep my enemies confused,” D’Amato once explained. “When they are confused, then I can do a job for my fighters. What I do not want in life, however, is a sense of security; the moment a person knows security, his senses are dulled—and he begins to die. I also do not want many pleasures in life; I believe the more pleasure you get out of living, the more fear you have of dying.”
Until a few years ago, D’Amato did most of Patterson’s talking, and ran things like an Italianpadrone. But later Patterson, the maturing son, rebelled against the Father Image. After losing to Sonny Liston the first time—a fight D’Amato had urged Patterson to resist—Patterson took flying lessons. And before the second Liston fight, Patterson had conquered his fear of height, was master at the controls, was filled with renewed confidence—and knew, too, that, even if he lost, he at least possessed a vehicle that could get him out of town fast.
But it didn’t. After the fight, the little Cessna, weighed down by too much luggage, became overheated 90 miles outside of Las Vegas. Patterson and his pilot companion, having no choice but to turn back, radioed the airfield and arranged for the rental of a larger plane. When they landed, the Vegas air terminal was filled with people leaving town after the fight. Patterson hid in the shadow behind a hangar. His beard was packed in the trunk. But nobody saw him.
Later the pilot flew Patterson’s Cessna back to New York alone. And Patterson flew in the larger, rented plane. He was accompanied on this flight by Hanson, a friendly, 42-year-old, thrice divorced Nevadan who once was a crop duster, a bartender and a cabaret hoofer; later he became a pilot instructor in Las Vegas, and it was there that he met Patterson. The two became good friends. And when Patterson asked Hanson to help fly the rented plane back to New York, Hanson did not hesitate, even though he had a slight hangover that night—partly due to being depressed by Liston’s victory, partly due to being slugged in a bar by a drunk after objecting to some unflattering things the drunk had said about the fight.
Once in the airplane, however, Ted Hanson became very alert; He had to, because, after the plane had cruised a while at 10,000 feet, Floyd Patterson’s mind seemed to wander back to the ring, and the plane would drift off course, and Hanson would say, “Floyd, Floyd, how’s about getting back on course?” and then Patterson’s head would snap up and his eyes would flash toward the dials. And everything would be all right for a while. But then he was back in the arena, reliving the fight, hardly believing that it had really happened. . . .
“… And I kept thinking, as I flew out of Vegas that night, of all those months of training before the fight, all the roadwork, all the sparring, all the months away from Sandra. . . . thinking of the time in camp when I wanted to stay up until eleven-fifteen P.M. to watch a certain movie on “The Late Show.” But I didn’t because I had roadwork the next morning. . . .
“… And I was thinking about how good I’d felt before the fight, as I lay on the table in the dressing room. I remember thinking, ‘You’re in excellent physical condition, you’re in good mental condition—but are you vicious?’ But you tell yourself, ‘Viciousness is not important now, don’t think about it now; a championship fight’s at stake, and that’s important enough and, who knows? maybe you’ll get vicious once the bell rings.’
“… And so you lay there trying to get a little sleep . . . but you’re only in a twilight zone, half asleep, and you’re interrupted every once in a while by voices out in the hall, some guy’s yelling ‘Hey, Jack,’ or ‘Hey, Al,’ or ‘Hey, get those four-rounders into the ring.’ And when you hear that, you think, They’re not ready for you yet. So you lay there . . . and wonder, Where will I be tomorrow? Where will I be three hours from now? Oh, you think all kinds of thoughts, some thoughts completely unrelated to the fight . . . you wonder whether you ever paid your mother-in-law back for all those stamps she bought a year ago . . . and you remember that time at two A.M. when Sandra tripped on the steps while bringing a bottle up to the baby . . . and then you get mad and ask: What am I thinking about these things for? . . . and you try to sleep . . . but then the door opens and somebody says to somebody else, ‘Hey, is somebody gonna go to Liston’s dressing room to watch ‘em bandage up?’
“… And so then you know it’s about time to get ready. . . . You open your eyes. You get off the table. You glove up, you loosen up. Then Liston’s trainer walks in. He looks at you, he smiles. He feels the bandages and later he says, ‘Good luck, Floyd,’ and you think, He didn’t have to say that, he must be a nice guy.
“. . . And then you go out, and it’s the long walk, always a long walk, and you think, What am I gonna be when I come back this way? Then you climb into the ring. You notice Billy Eckstine at ringside leaning over to talk to somebody, and you see the reporters—some you like, some you don’t like—and then it’s ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and the cameras are rolling, and the bell rings. . . .
“… How could the same thing happen twice? How? That’s all I kept thinking after the knockout. . . . Was I fooling these people all these years? . . . Was I ever the champion? . . . And then they lead you out of the ring . . . and up the aisle you go, past those people, and all you want is to get to your dressing room, fast . . . but the trouble was in Las Vegas they made a wrong turn along the aisle, and when we got to the end, there was no dressing room there . . . and we had to walk all the way back down the aisle, past the same people, and they must have been thinking, Patterson’s not only knocked out, but he can’t even find his dressing room. . . .
“… In the dressing room I had a headache. Liston didn’t hurt me physically—a few days later I only felt a twitching nerve in my teeth—it was nothing like some fights I’ve had: like that Dick Wagner fight in ’53 when he beat my body so bad I was urinating blood for days. After the Liston fight, I just went into the bathroom, shut the door behind me and looked at myself in the mirror. I just looked at myself, and asked, What happened? and then they started pounding on the door, and saying ‘Com’on out, Floyd, Com’on out; the press is here, Gus is here, com’on out, Floyd. . . .”
“… And so I went out, and they asked questions, but what can you say? What you’re thinking about is all those months of training, all the conditioning, all the depriving; and you think, I didn’t have to run that extra mile, didn’t have to spar that day, I could have stayed up that night in camp and watched ‘The Late Show’. . . . I could have fought this fight tonight in no condition. . . .”
“Floyd, Floyd,” Hanson had said, “let’s get back on course. . . .”
Again Patterson would snap out of his reverie, and refocus on the omniscope, and get his flying under control. After landing in New Mexico, and then in Ohio, Floyd Patterson and Ted Hanson brought the little plane into the New York airstrip near the fight camp. The green Cessna that had been flown back by the other pilot was already there, roped to the grass at precisely the same spot it was on this day five months later when Floyd Patterson was planning to fly it toward perhaps another fight—this time a fight with some schoolboys in Scarsdale who had been lifting up his little daughter’s dress.
Patterson and Ted Hanson untied the plane, and Patterson got a rag and wiped from the windshield the splotches of insects. Then he walked around behind the plane, inspected the tail, checked under the fuselage, then peered down between the wing and the flaps to make sure all the screws were tight. He seemed suspicious of something. D’Amato would have been pleased.
“If a guy wants to get rid of you,” Patterson explained, “all he has to do is remove these little screws here. Then, when you try to come in for a landing, the flaps fall off, and you crash.”
Then Patterson got into the cockpit and started the engine. A few moments later, with Hanson beside him, Patterson was racing the little plane over the grassy field, then soaring over the weeds, then flying high above the gentle hills and trees. It was a nice takeoff.
Since it was only a 40-minute flight to the Westchester airport, where Sandra Patterson would be waiting with a car, Floyd Patterson did all the flying. The trip was uneventful until, suddenly behind a cloud, he flew into heavy smoke that hovered above a forest fire. His visibility gone, he was forced to the instruments. And at this precise moment, a fly that had been buzzing in the back of the cockpit flew up front and landed on the instrument panel in front of Patterson. He glared at the fly, watched it crawl slowly up the windshield, then shot a quick smash with his palm against the glass. He missed. The fly buzzed safely past Patterson’s ear, bounced off the back of the cockpit, circled around.
He flew easily for a few moments. Then the fly buzzed to the front again, zigzagging before Patterson’s face, landed on the panel and proceeded to crawl across it. Patterson watched it, squinted. Then he slammed down at it with a quick right hand. Missed.
Ten minutes later, his nerves still on edge, Patterson began the descent. He picked up the radio microphone—”Westchester tower . . . Cessna 2729 uniform . . . three miles northwest . . . land in one-six on final . . .” —and then, after an easy landing, he climbed quickly out of the cockpit and strode toward his wife’s station wagon outside the terminal.
But along the way a small man smoking a cigar turned toward Patterson, waved at him and said, “Say, excuse me, but aren’t you . . . aren’t you . . . Sonny Liston?”
Patterson stopped. He glared at the man, bewildered. He wasn’t sure whether it was a joke or an insult, and he really did not know what to do.
“Aren’t you Sonny Liston?” the man repeated, quite serious.
“No,” Patterson said, quickly passing by the man. “I’m his brother.”
When he reached Mrs. Patterson’s car, he asked, “How much time till school lets out?”
“About fifteen minutes,” she said, starting up the engine. Then she said, “Oh, Floyd, I just should have told Sister, I shouldn’t have. . .”
“You tell Sister; I’ll tell the boys. . . .”
Mrs. Patterson drove as quickly as she could into Scarsdale, with Patterson shaking his head and telling Ted Hanson in the back, “Really can’t understand these school kids. This is a religious school, and they want $20,000 for a glass window—and yet, some of them carry these racial prejudices, and it’s mostly the Jews who are shoulder to shoulder with us, and . . .”
“Oh, Floyd,” cried his wife, “Floyd, I have to get along here . . . you’re not here, you don’t live here, I . . .”
She arrived at the school just as the bell began to ring. It was a modern building at the top of a hill, and on the lawn was the statue of a saint and, behind it, a large white cross. “There’s Jeannie,” said Mrs. Patterson.
“Hurry, call her over here,” Patterson said.
“Jeannie! Come over here, honey.”
The little girl, wearing a blue school uniform and cap, and clasping books in front of her, came running down the path toward the station wagon.
“Jeannie,” Floyd Patterson said, rolling down his window, “point out the boys who lifted your dress.”
Jeannie turned and watched as several students came down the path; then she pointed to a tall, thin, curly-haired boy walking with four other boys, all about 12 to 14 years of age.
“Hey,” Patterson called to him, “can I see you for a minute?”
All five boys came to the side of the car. They looked Patterson directly in the eye. They seemed not at all intimidated by him.
“You the one that’s been lifting up my daughter’s dress?” Patterson asked the boy who had been singled out.
“Nope,” the boy said, casually.
“Nope?” Patterson said, caught off guard by the reply.
“Wasn’t him, Mister,” said another boy. “Probably was his little brother.”
Patterson looked at Jeannie. But she was speechless, uncertain. The five boys remained there, waiting for Patterson to do something.
“Well, er, where’s your little brother?” Patterson asked.
“Hey, kid!” one of the boys yelled. “Come over here.”
A boy walked toward them. He resembled his older brother; he had freckles on his small, upturned nose, had blue eyes, dark curly hair and, as he approached the station wagon, he seemed equally unintimidated by Patterson.
“You been lifting up my daughter’s dress?”
“Nope,” the boy said.
“Nope!” Patterson repeated, frustrated.
“Nope, I wasn’t lifting it. I was just touching it a little . . .”
The other boys stood around the car looking down at Patterson, and other students crowded behind them, and nearby Patterson saw several white parents standing next to their parked cars; he became self-conscious, began to tap nervously with his fingers against the dashboard. He could not raise his voice without creating an unpleasant scene, yet he could not retreat gracefully; so his voice went soft, and he said, finally:
“Look, boy, I want you to stop it. I won’t tell your mother—that might get you in trouble—but don’t do it again, okay?”
The boys calmly turned and walked, in a group, up the street. Sandra Patterson said nothing. Jeannie opened the door, sat in the front seat next to her father, and took out a small blue piece of paper that a nun had given her and handed it across to Mrs. Patterson. But Floyd Patterson snatched it. He read it. Then he paused, put the paper down, and quietly announced, dragging out the words, “She didn’t do her religion. . . .”
Patterson now wanted to get out of Scarsdale. He wanted to return to camp. After stopping at the Patterson home in Scarsdale and picking up Floyd Patterson, Jr., who is three, Mrs. Patterson drove them all back to the airport. Jeannie and Floyd, Jr., were seated in the back of the plane, and then Mrs. Patterson drove the station wagon alone up to camp, planning to return to Scarsdale that evening with the children.
It was 4 P.M. when Floyd Patterson got back to the camp, and the shadows were falling on the clubhouse, and on the tennis court routed by weeds, and on the big white house in front of which not a single automobile was parked. All was deserted and quiet; it was a loser’s camp.
The children ran to play inside the clubhouse; Patterson walked slowly toward his apartment to dress for the workout.
“What could I do with those schoolboys?” he asked. “What can you do to kids of that age?”
It still seemed to bother him—the effrontery of the boys, the realization that he had somehow failed, the probability that, had those same boys heckled someone in Liston’s family, the schoolyard would have been littered with limbs.
While Patterson and Liston both are products of the slum, and while both began as thieves, Patterson had been tamed in a special school with help from a gentle Negro spinster; later he became a Catholic convert, and learned not to hate. Still later he bought a dictionary, adding to his vocabulary such words as “vicissitude” and “enigma.” And when he regained his championship from Johansson, he became the Great Black Hope of the Urban League.
He proved that it is not only possible to rise out of a Negro slum and succeed as a sportsman, but also to develop into an intelligent, sensitive, law-abiding citizen. In proving this, however, and in taking pride in it, Patterson seemed to lose part of himself. He lost part of his hunger, his anger—and as he walked up the steps into his apartment, he was saying, “I became the good guy. . . . After Liston won the title, I kept hoping that he would change into a good guy, too. That would have relieved me of the responsibility, and maybe I could have been more of the bad guy. But he didn’t. . . . It’s okay to be the good guy when you’re winning. But when you’re losing, it is no good being the good guy.”
Patterson took off his shirt and trousers and, moving some books on the bureau to one side, put down his watch, his cuff links and a clip of bills.
“Do you do much reading?” he was asked.
“No,” he said. “In fact, you know I’ve never finished reading a book in my whole life? I don’t know why. I just feel that no writer today has anything for me; I mean, none of them has felt any more deeply than I have, and I have nothing to learn from them. Although Baldwin to me seems different from the rest. What’s Baldwin doing these days?”
“He’s writing a play. Anthony Quinn is supposed to have a part in it.”
“Quinn?” Patterson asked.
“Quinn doesn’t like me.”
“I read or heard it somewhere; Quinn had been quoted as saying that my fight was disgraceful against Liston, and Quinn said something to the effect that he could have done better. People often say that—they could have done better! Well, I think that if they had to fight, they couldn’t even go through the experience of waiting for the fight to begin. They’d be up the whole night before, and would be drinking, or taking drugs. They’d probably get a heart attack. I’m sure that if I was in the ring with Anthony Quinn, I could wear him out without even touching him. I would do nothing but pressure him, I’d stalk him, I’d stand close to him. I wouldn’t touch him, but I’d wear him out and he’d collapse. But Anthony Quinn’s an old man, isn’t he?”
“In his forties.”
“Well, anyway,” Patterson said, “getting back to Baldwin, he seems like a wonderful guy. I’ve seen him on television, and, before the Liston fight in Chicago, he came by my camp. You meet Baldwin on the street and you say, ‘Who’s this poor slob?’—he seems just like another guy; and this is the same impression I give people when they don’t know me. But I think Baldwin and me, we have much in common, and someday I’d just like to sit somewhere for a long time and talk to him. . . .”
Patterson, his trunks and sweat pants on, bent over to tie his shoelaces, and then, from a bureau drawer, took out a T-shirt across which was printed “Deauville.” He has several T-shirts bearing the same name. He takes good care of them. They are souvenirs from the high point of his life. They are from the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach, which is where he trained for the third Ingemar Johansson match in March of 1961.
Never was Floyd Patterson more popular, more admired than during that winter. He had visited President Kennedy; he had been given a $35,000 jeweled crown by his manager; his greatness was conceded by sports writers—and nobody had any idea that Patterson, secretly, was in possession of a false moustache and dark glasses that he intended to wear out of Miami Beach should he lose the third fight to Johansson.
It was after being knocked out by Johansson in their first fight that Patterson, deep in depression, hiding in humiliation for months in a remote Connecticut lodge, decided he could not face the public again if he lost. So he bought false whiskers and a moustache, and planned to wear them out of his dressing room after a defeat. He had also planned, in leaving his dressing room, to linger momentarily within the crowd and perhaps complain out loud about the fight. Then he would slip undiscovered through the night and into a waiting automobile.
Although there proved to be no need for bringing disguise into the second or third Johansson fights, or into a subsequent bout in Toronto against an obscure heavyweight named Tom McNeeley, Patterson brought it anyway; and, after the first Liston fight, he not only wore it during his 30-hour automobile ride from Chicago to New York, but he also wore it while in an airliner bound for Spain.
“As I got onto this plane, you’d never have recognized me,” he said. “I had on this beard, moustache, glasses and hat—and I also limped, to make myself look older. I was alone. I didn’t care what plane I boarded; I just looked up and saw this sign at the terminal reading ‘Madrid,’ and so I got on that flight after buying a ticket.
“When I got to Madrid I registered at a hotel under the name ‘Aaron Watson.’ I stayed in Madrid about four or five days. In the daytime I wandered around to the poorer sections of the city, limping, looking at the people, and the people stared back at me and must have thought I was crazy because I was moving so slow and looked the way I did. I ate food in my hotel room. Although once I went to a restaurant and ordered soup. I hate soup. But I thought it was what old people would order. So I ate it. And after a week of this, I began to actually think I was somebody else. I began to believe it. And it is nice, every once in a while, being somebody else.”
Patterson would not elaborate on how he managed to register under a name that did not correspond to his passport; he merely explained, “With money, you can do anything.”
Now, walking slowly around the room, his black silk robe over his sweat clothes, Patterson said, “You must wonder what makes a man do things like this. Well, I wonder, too. And the answer is, I don’t know . . . but I think that within me, within every human being, there is a certain weakness. It is a weakness that exposes itself more when you’re alone. And I have figured out that part of the reason I do the things I do, and cannot seem to conquer that one word—myself—is because . . . I am a coward. . . .”
He stopped. He stood very still in the middle of the room, thinking about what he had just said, probably wondering whether he should have said it.
“I am a coward,” he then repeated, softly. “My fighting has little to do with that fact, though. I mean you can be a fighter—and a winning fighter—and still be a coward. I was probably a coward on the night I won the championship back from Ingemar. And I remember another night, long ago, back when I was in the amateurs, fighting this big, tremendous man named Julius Griffin. I was only a hundred fifty-three pounds. I was petrified. It was all I could do to cross the ring. And then he came at me, and moved close to me . . . and from then on I don’t know anything. I have no idea what happened. Only thing I know is, I saw him on the floor. And later somebody said, ‘Man, I never saw anything like it. You just jumped up in the air, and threw thirty different punches. . . .’”
“When did you first think you were a coward?” he was asked.
“It was after the first Ingemar fight.”
“How does one see this cowardice you speak of?”
“You see it when a fighter loses. Ingemar, for instance, is not a coward. ‘When he lost the third fight in Miami, he was at a party later at the Fontainebleau. Had I lost, I couldn’t have gone to that party. And I don’t see how he did. . . .”
“Could Liston be a coward?”
“That remains to be seen,” Patterson said. “We’ll find out what he’s like after somebody beats him, how he takes it. It’s easy to do anything in victory. It’s in defeat that a man reveals himself. In defeat I can’t face people. I haven’t the strength to say to people, ‘I did my best, I’m sorry, and what not.’”
“Have you no hate left?”
“I have hated only one fighter,” Patterson said. “And that was Ingemar in the second fight. I had been hating him for a whole year before that—not because he beat me in the first fight, but because of what he did after. It was all that boasting in public, and his showing off his right-hand punch on television, his thundering right, his ‘toonder and lightning.’ And I’d be home watching him on television, and hating him. It is a miserable feeling, hate. When a man hates, he can’t have any peace of mind. And for one solid year I hated him because, after he took everything away from me, deprived me of everything I was, he rubbed it in. On the night of the second fight, in the dressing room, I couldn’t wait until I got into the ring. When he was a little late getting into the ring, I thought, He’s holding me up; he’s trying to unsettle me—well, I’ll get him!”
“Why couldn’t you hate Liston in the second match?”
Patterson thought for a moment, then said, “Look, if Sonny Liston walked into this room now and slapped me in the face, then you’d see a fight. You’d see the fight of our life because, then, a principle would be involved. I’d forget he was a human being. I’d forget I was a human being. And I’d fight accordingly.”
“Could it be, Floyd, that you made a mistake in becoming a prizefighter?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you say you’re a coward; you say you have little capacity for hate; and you seemed to lose your nerve against those schoolboys in Scarsdale this afternoon. Don’t you think you might have been better suited for some other kind of work? Perhaps a social worker, or . . .”
“Are you asking why I continue to fight?”
“Well,” he said, not irritated by the question, “first of all, I love boxing. Boxing has been good to me. And I might just as well ask you the question: ‘Why do you write?’ Or, ‘Do you retire from writing every time you write a bad story?’ And as to whether I should have become a fighter in the first place, well, let’s see how I can explain it. . . . Look, let’s say you’re a man who has been in an empty room for days and days without food . . . and then they take you out of that room and put you into another room where there’s food hanging all over the place . . . and the first thing you reach for, you eat. When you’re hungry, you’re not choosy, and so I chose the thing that was closest to me. That was boxing. One day I just wandered into a gymnasium and boxed a boy. And I beat him. Then I boxed another boy. I beat him, too. Then I kept boxing. And winning. And I said, ‘Here, finally, is something I can do!’
“Now I wasn’t a sadist,” he quickly added. “But I liked beating people because it was the only thing I could do. And whether boxing was a sport or not, I wanted to make it a sport because it was a thing I could succeed at. And what were the requirements? Sacrifice. That’s all. To anybody who comes from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, sacrifice comes easy. And so I kept fighting, and one day I became heavyweight champion, and I got to know people like you. And you wonder how I can sacrifice, how I can deprive myself so much? You just don’t realize where I’ve come from. You don’t understand where I was when it began for me.
“In those days, when I was about eight years old, everything I got—I stole. I stole to survive, and I did survive, but I seemed to hate myself. My mother told me I used to point to a photograph of myself hanging in the bedroom and say, ‘I don’t like that boy!’ One day my mother found three large X’s scratched with a nail or something over that photograph of me. I don’t remember doing it. But I do remember feeling like a parasite at home. I remember how awful I used to feel at night when my father, a longshoreman, would come home so tired that, as my mother fixed food before him, he would fall asleep at the table because he was that tired. I would always take his shoes off and clean his feet. That was my job. And I felt so bad because here I was, not going to school, doing nothing, just watching my father come home; and on Friday nights it was even worse. He would come home with his pay, and he’d put every nickel of It on the table so my mother could buy food for all the children. I never wanted to be around to see that. I’d run and hide. And then I decided to leave home and start stealing—and I did. And I would never come home unless I brought something that I had stolen. Once I remember I broke into a dress store and stole a whole mound of dresses, at two A.M., and here I was, this little kid, carrying all those dresses over the wall, thinking they were all the same size, my mother’s size, and thinking the cops would never notice me walking down the street with all those dresses piled over my head. They did, of course. . . . I went to the Youth House. . . .”
Floyd Patterson’s children, who had been playing outside all this time around the country club, now became restless and began to call him, and Jeannie started to pound on his door. So Patterson picked up his leather bag, which contained his gloves, his mouthpiece and adhesive tape, and walked with the children across the path toward the clubhouse.
He flicked on the light switches behind the stage near the piano. Beams of amber streaked through the dimly lit room and flashed onto the ring. He took off his robe, shuffled his feet in the rosin, skipped rope, and then began to shadowbox in front of the spit-stained mirror, throwing out quick combinations of lefts, rights, lefts, rights, each jab followed by a “hegh-hegh-hegh-hegh.” Then, his gloves on, he moved to the punching bag in the far corner, and soon the room reverberated to his rhythmic beat against the bobbling bag—rat-tat-tat-tetteta, rat-tat-tat-tetteta-rat-tat-tat-tetteta-rat-tat-tetteta!
The children, sitting on pink leather chairs, moved from the bar to the fringe of the ring, watched him in awe, sometimes flinching at the force of his pounding against the leather bag.
And this is how they would probably remember him years from now: a dark, solitary, glistening figure punching in the corner of a forlorn spot at the bottom of a mountain where people once came to have fun—until the clubhouse because unfashionable, the paint began to peel, and Negroes were allowed in.
As Floyd Patterson continued to bang away with lefts and rights, his gloves a brown blur against the bag, his daughter slipped quietly off her chair and wandered past the ring into the other room. There, on the other side of the bar and beyond a dozen round tables, was the stage. She climbed onto the stage and stood behind a microphone, long dead, and cried out, imitating a ring announcer, “Ladieeees and gentlemen . . . tonight we present . . .”
She looked around, puzzled. Then, seeing that her little brother had followed her, she waved him up to the stage and began again: “Ladiees and gentlemen . . . tonight we present . . .Floydie Patterson. . . .”
Suddenly, the pounding against the bag in the other room stopped. There was silence for a moment. Then Jeannie, still behind the microphone and looking down at her brother, said, “Floydie, come up here!”
“No,” he said.
“Oh, come up here!”
“No,” he cried.
Then Floyd Patterson’s voice, from the other room, called: “Cut it out . . . I’ll take you both for a walk in a minute.”
He resumed punching—rat-tat-tat-tetteta—and they returned to his side. But Jeannie interrupted, asking, “Daddy, how come you sweating?”
“Water fell on me,” he said, still pounding.
“Daddy,” asked Floyd, Jr., “how come you spit water on the floor before?”
“To get it out of my mouth.”
He was about to move over to the heavier punching bag when the sound of Mrs. Patterson’s station wagon could be heard moving up the road.
Soon she was in Patterson’s apartment cleaning up a bit, patting the pillows, washing the teacups that had been left in the sink. One hour later the family was having dinner together. They were together for two mere hours; then, at 10 P.M., Mrs. Patterson washed and dried all of the dishes, and put the garbage out in the can—where it would remain until the raccoons and skunks got to it.
And then, after helping the children with their coats and walking out to the station wagon and kissing her husband good-bye, Mrs. Patterson began the drive down the dirt road toward the highway. Patterson waved once, and stood for a moment watching the taillights go, and then he turned and walked slowly back toward the house.
Or: “How Hollywood Ruined Our Best Football Novel”
By John Schulian
Long before he established himself as the Ring Lardner of the Pepsi generation, Dan Jenkins wrote about sports for the blighted Fort Worth Press. He had to rise at 4 every morning to put out the paper’s first edition, and the indignity of that, he claims with typical reckless abandon, made his hair hurt.
Twenty years later, Jenkins has yet to describe the pain of seeing what Hollywood did to Semi-Tough, his best-selling bellylaugh about professional football. He tried to say something not long ago in Sports Illustrated, the magazine where his typing skills came to light, but the most emotion he could muster was mild bemusement. The possibility exits, however, that he didn’t do any better because he was in shock.
You will know the feeling if you read the book and see the movie, which will descend on Chicago this Christmas season like a curse from King Herod. Billy Clyde Puckett, the halfback hero of Semi-Tough, would probably want to know where Herod played his college ball, but there are more important questions to be asked about the cinematic mutation Michael Ritchie, a certified hot-shot director, has given us. The biggest one is: Why did he bother saying he was making a movie of Jenkins’ novel?
Just about the only thing left from it are the title, the diary Billy Clyde is keeping during Super Bowl week, and the fact that he is forever being interrupted by his podnuh, Marvin (Shake) Tiller, the mystic wide receiver, and their mutual playmate, Barbara Jane Bookman. Out of a book that ran better than 200 pages in hardback, that is not what anybody in his right mind would call a whole lot.
Ritchie’s explanation is that he was intrigued by the conclusion of the book, which found Shake doing a fly pattern all the way to India, where he could commune with his guru and ride elephants. Because of that, Ritchie would up putting Burt (Billy Clyde) Reynolds and Kris (Shake) Kristofferson in a movie about the consciousness movement. If you aren’t familiar with the consciousness movement, the premise on which it is built is that nobody’s hemorrhoids are more important than yours.
Such thinking is very big in California, which leads the universe in sun-baked brains. Everywhere else, people who become that bewitched, bothered and bewildered are called “tutti-fruttis.” Indeed, that is how Ritchie depicts them despite his West Coast ties. The irreverence is not unusual, for he has thrown darts at politics in The Candidate, at beauty contests in Smile, and at Little League baseball in The Bad News Bears. But he is so obsessed with puncturing the inherent silliness of the me-firsters that he has forgotten that Semi-Tough is supposed to be about the NFL’s inherent silliness.
In the process, some of Jenkins’ finest ideas ended up on the floor of Ritchie’s birdcage. There is no mention of how Pete Rozelle used the commissionership as a springboard to the U.S. Senate. T.J. Lambert, the flatulent defensive end, is never shown making a sandwich of six Dallas policemen. “The Giants and the Cowboys got together and kept our arrest quiet,” said Billy Clyde, who watched the proceedings in amazement. “We got to play in the game. I think the Giants had to give up a high draft choice to the Cowboys when it was over.”
Nor did Ritchie try to stage the outlandish halftime show Jenkins imagined, the one in which “several hundred trained birds—painted red, white and blue—would fly over the coliseum in formation of an American flag” while Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck sang “God Bless America.”
Even when the director relied on the author, he managed to foul things up. One wonderful scene has the drunken Lambert dangling a 20th Century fox over a terrace railing by the heels because she looked askance at his idea of how well they should get to know each other. In the book, Barbara Jane Bookman talks Lambert out of mayhem; she can’t do the same in the movie because it would rob Shake Tiller of a chance to display his new-found calm. Apparently Ritchie isn’t so iconoclastic that he would try to level the consciousness movement and machismo with the same swing.
If Jenkins should take offense to anything, however, it is what Ritchie did to his rating system for feminine pulchritude. Originally, the system went from 10—which was, you should pardon the expression, “a Healing Scab”—to 1, and of course there never was a 1. For the pure Hollywood hell of it, Ritchie completely reversed the ratings. If he had left them the way they were, Jill Clayburgh, who plays Barbara Jane, would have been a lot closer to the truth when she insists, “I’m a 10.”
She is, however, just one of Ritchie’s casting mistakes. Kristofferson wanders through his role as Shake in such a daze that he must have been handed a fistful of Valium instead of the usual NFL Sunday afternoon supply of greenies. As Barbara Jane’s father, a pinko-hating oil baron, Robert Preston appears to be a Communist plot himself. Only Reynolds, as Billy Clyde, is palatable, if you don’t mind watching him portray Burt Reynolds. And just in case you don’t, remember that he had a stand-in for most of his rib-cracking football scenes. No premiums are paid for acting with pain.
As it turns out, the audience does all the suffering, which is no small achievement for a movie that Ritchie calls “a racy comedy.” His choice of words may be the funniest thing about Semi-Tough. When it was a book, it was enjoyably bawdy, almost “Tom Jones with a Jockstrap.” Ritchie’s adaptation, however, is merely smarmy, filled with the kind of double entendres that aren’t even good enough for TV.
Naturally, that won’t stop TV from buying this worthless hunk of celluloid. If you are smart, you will wait until then instead of wasting your money on it in a theater. When it comes to passing judgement on Semi-Tough, you see, there is no semi about it. It is totally terrible.
John Schulian is a former syndicated sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. His work has appeared in GQ, Sports Illustrated, Inside Sports, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. He also wrote for the TV shows Miami Vice, L.A. Law, and co-created Xena: Princess Warrior. He is the author of Twilight of the Long-ball GodsandSometimes They Even Shook Your Hand, and co-editor of At The Fights.
Not that Mark Sanchez dancing with Alana (a former “bottle service girl” at the San Diego club Voyeur) and Janna (a “socialite,”) wasn’t the best sports-video clip of a really slow day last week, although I was disappointed at the glaring absence of Katie, Jessika, Jenna, Nikki, Emi, Danielle, Krista, Gina, Ashley and the rest of the Jets Flight Crew 2013 swimsuit wall calendar gang. What brought me down was the flashback.
Last time I spoke to EK was when we were passing each other in the hallway at school in June 2008. She was a ninth-grader. I was her brother’s English teacher. She said, “Hi, Mr. Richmond,” and I said, “Hi.” That was the usual exchange between us. Nice kid. Good student. A few days later, she graduated from our private middle school and went on to high school, and I resigned after deciding that my day gig should no longer involve having to call out ninth-grade girls for violating the dress code by wearing Uggs in my classroom.
The next time I saw the girl was on the web in February of 2011. This was a few days after her cell-phone photographs of Mark Sanchez’ bedroom had hit the web after Deadspin broke the tale. I recognized the girl immediately, despite the noticeable increase in layers in makeup, because she didn’t look much older than she had three years earlier in ninth grade. At least to me, she didn’t. Apparently, though, glimpsed through the giddily romantic New Year’s Eve atmospherics of Lavo (“an Ultralounge!” raved New York), she was only seventeen.
At that point, according to the girl’s account, Sanchez was gentlemanly enough to respond that he couldn’t see her until she was 18. Mark clearly had the schoolgirl’s best interests at heart — at least, until she corrected him: in New York, she told him, to be seventeen years of age was to be (Yes! The initial ruling at the table is overturned!) of legal age. This news apparently cleared the way for the girl’s subsequent photographs of Sanchez’ bedroom in his place on a Jersey golf course.
The last time I saw a picture of the girl was in a paparazzi-tabloid shot taken in her Connecticut hometown a week after it all broke, wherein, caught outdoors in her village, in a parka, her expression vibed panic, on the verge of teenaged tears. This was the ninth-grader I used to see at the salad bar.
That summer, six months after his quarterback’s alleged tryst, alleged New York Jet coach Rex Ryan, alleged star of one of the great foot-fetish role-playing videos of all time (wherein he allegedly plays the cop drawn to the woman’s bare feet sticking out a car door; his alleged wife allegedly plays the woman), named Mark Sanchez his captain.
Talk of Sanchez’ schoolgirl dalliance quickly and mysteriously muted, and then mutated: In a GQ profile that allegedly appeared in September of 2011, allegedly eight months after the alleged liaison, the alleged affair is referred to thusly in a brief aside near the end of the piece: “A 17-year-old high-school student…told a gossipy sports site…they went on a date.” Indeed they allegedly did; the writer of the story identified an object in Sanchez’ bedroom that the girl had photographed with her phone.
(In a highlight in the annals of profile hilarity, the piece led with an anecdote in which then-linebacker Bart Scott chides Vladimir Ducasse about leaving a party the night before, despite their being so many “hos” at poolside. Ducasse complains that they were too old. Scott asks Sanchez, “Were those ho’s too old?”
(“Define old,” says Mark.)
As a lover of freakazoid behavior in the National Football Lockstep, a league sport that thinks it’s a branch of the Pentagon, I’m all for aberrance, as long as it stops short of a 24-year-old quarterback texting a high-school girl at 2 a.m. asking if she wants to go out that night, and she has to answer from her bedroom in her parents’ suburban Connecticut home, “I have school tomorrow,” and his head coach names him captain. Doesn’t a captain of a football team have to exhibit something approximating leadership qualities?
If teaching larval teenaged girls for three years taught me anything about larval teenaged girls, it’s that lots of them like to dress up and make-up to look more mature than they are, but have less idea of what they actually look like to older men as goldfish who want to look good to other goldfish in the tank in the dentist’s office know what they look like to people awaiting root canals.
I have no doubt that the girl wanted to look alluring at the ultralounge. I also have no doubt that to any rational adult in that club that night, which Mark Sanchez allegedly was, she looked exactly like what she was: someone beneath accepted legal age.
In 2011, the Jets went 8-8. They were 8-5 before losing their last three by a combined scored of 93-50. Mark completed 56 percent of his passes and threw only 18 interceptions.
In March of 2012, the Jets extended Mark’s contract, which guaranteed him $20 million. “It gives the team,” Mark said, “just a reminder that I’m the leader of this team.”
By that fall, Mark had put aside such childish things as the teenager I’d known. By the start of training camp, he was going out with Eva Longoria, the thespian known for, among other things, playing a detective in the wildly underrated Senorita Justice. Eva was 12 ½ years his senior. She’d already had an ugly breakup with Tony Parker. I figured her worldliness and experience would help the Jets’ leader grow up.
But one month into the season, she broke up with him. According to TMZ, in a break-up message, she called him “moody” and “inconsistent.” She did not elaborate on the latter adjective. She did say, “We’ll always have the season opener in Buffalo.” He’d completed 19 of 27, with three TD passes, in a rout, before the Jets lost ten of their next 15 games and finished 6-10. The team, perhaps sensing by now that Jesus was weeping, hired Tim Tebow.
Today, of course, the most viral video of Mark Sanchez remains the game last year when, scrambling, he runs into the butt of one of his lineman, and fumbles. But I am reassured that he is finally dancing on videos with age-appropriate women.
And since he might still possess football talent, I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt: that when he escapes the skeeviness of his current employee (see Favre, masseuses hired as rewards for good games; Ryan Footwear) and gets the start in whatever city the Jaguars are in two years from now, he might win more games than he loses. Being an NFL quarterback is a whole lot more difficult than being a bottle girl.
So how to compute Sanchez’ true Skeeve Quotient? Maybe, emotionally and developmentally, Sanchez is a 17-year-old himself. As Los Angeles’ (“City of Illusion”) former star Trojan, maybe no one ever asked him to grow up. If he’s psychologically stunted, then in his own head he did no wrong, right? When Sanchez allegedly called the girl I knew on an alleged Sunday night after allegedly losing to the Steelers in Pittsburgh in the playoffs, and she allegedly declined to meet him that night, wouldn’t that like, so indicate the melding of two teen minds? The girl saying, “I can’t! I didn’t do any homework all weekend!”
And the guy saying, “So what? Come on! I’m rich!”
Completely understandable adolescent behavior.
But for the sake of any other former ninth-graders I might know who might cross his ultrapath in the future, I would ask Mark to heed the wisdom Joe Namath offered him in the GQ piece. When the writer asks if Joe has any dating advice for his successor in the Lavo limelight, Joe answers: “To really do his homework.”
For a taste of Lenny Shecter’s no-bullshit, take-no-prisoners style, check out this excerpt from “The Flower of America” chapter of his 1969 book of essays, The Jocks.
By Leonard Shecter
There are famous Yankee players whose public images bear little relation to the kind of men they actually are—Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle, to name three.
Suave, sure, husband of Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio holds a unique place in Americana. He is super-hero. Sixteen years after he completed his remarkable feat of hitting in 56 straight games he was immortalized (if a god can obtain new immortalization) by Simon and Garfunkel in “Mrs. Robinson.”
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
In fact, the nation has not turned its lonely eyes to Joe DiMaggio. As Gay Talese showed in a remarkable article in Esquire in 1966, DiMaggio is a vain, lonely man, who is a tyrant to the sycophants who surround him. Wrote Talese. “His friends [know] . . . that should they inadvertently betray a confidence . . . [he] will never speak to them again.” Talese then described a scene in a restaurant called Reno’s in San Francisco which DiMaggio would often drop into.
They may wait for hours sometimes, waiting and knowing he may wish to be alone; but it does not seem to matter, they are endlessly awed by him, moved by the mystique, he is a kind of male Garbo. They know he can be warm and loyal if they are sensitive to his wishes, but they must never be late for an appointment to meet him. One man, unable to find a parking space, arrived a half-hour late once and DiMaggio didn’t talk to him again for three months. They know, too, when dining at night with DiMaggio, that he generally prefers male companions and occasionally one or two young women, but never wives; wives gossip, wives are trouble, and men wishing to remain close to DiMaggio must keep their wives at home.
His friends fawn on him, call him “Clipper” (one must wonder why a grown man would tolerate that), introduce him to mindless young women and pick up his tabs. At her death he turned a marriage to Marilyn Monroe that didn’t work (she complained that all he wanted to do was watch television) into a maudlin lost love. He held a permanent grudge against Robert Kennedy because he once spent a lot of time at a party dancing with Marilyn. This was aftertheir marriage had disintegrated.
And in the end he took a coaching job—not a managing job, a coaching job—with Charles O. Finley, the erratic owner of the Oakland Athletics. It was the act of a lonely, probably bitter man. No one had offered him a job as manager. In the fall of 1968 Joe DiMaggio was in Japan to teach the batters there how to hit. One suspects he had no more difficulty communicating with them than he did with American batters.
Yogi Berra is a particularly glowing example of an image which has outstripped the man. Of course, it is not his fault. It is not his fault that he is not a lovable gnome bubbling over withbon mots. Nor is it his fault that he is a narrow, suspicious man, jealous of the man other people supposed him to be and which he knew he was not. He was supposed to be a humorist because he said things like “Bill Dickey learned me all his experiences,” and “I want to thank you for making this award necessary.” In fact, there is severe doubt that Yogi Berra ever said anything intentionally funny in his life. The late Tom Meany used to tell this possibly apocryphal story about Berra which, at the least, illustrates the breadth of his knowledge. Berra was introduced to Ernest Hemingway at a party in a restaurant. When he returned to his table, he was asked what he thought of him. Said Berra: “He’s quite a character. What does he do?”
Well, he’s a writer.
“Yeah? What paper?”
After a while Berra and his wife, Carmen, came to believe that he was indeed something of a man of the world, raconteur, sophisticate. After all, weren’t they rich? (Berra has had enormous financial luck. He sold his interests in a bowling emporium at a great profit shortly before the bottom dropped out of the bowling business. And he took a block of stock in return for endorsing a little-known chocolate ”drink”-which means no milk and very little chocolate: the stock sky-rocketed.
There was an autobiography called Yogi. It was a typical baseball autobiography, all shiny and bright for the kiddies, naturally written by somebody else, a man who could have done better. But by the time the world was ready for a book about Berra, the Bern1s were not interested in reality. They wanted the book to be about Berra as they would have liked him to be. So it turned out to be a terrible book, cheap and phony and transparent I reviewed it that way.
It was a lovely spring day in St. Petersburg. The palm trees waved shiny green against the high blue sky. Yogi Berra saw me as soon as I arrived.
“You son of a bitch,” Berra said. “You cocksucker.”
He never said that in Yogi.
But that is not what I remember about him most. I remember most that the other ball players always complained that Yogi Berra would stand naked at the clubhouse buffet and scratch his genitals over the cold cuts.
Mickey Mantle is a quite different man. He was never shoe-horned into a role which, like Berra, he was unprepared by nature and intellect to play. Mantle was a country boy, ill-educated, frightened, convinced at an early age by a series of deaths in his family that he was doomed to live only a short life.
He was simple, naive and, at the very first, trusting. It did not take him long to misplace his trust. He soon found that he was trusting the wrong people and, when this cost him money, it made him withdrawn and sullen, as well as poor. Fortified by Yankee tradition—watch out for outsiders-Mantle was soon responding only to his teammates and the glad-handers and celebrity fuckers who flocked around him. (Mantle is almost universally liked by his teammates because he goes out of his way to be outgoing and friendly with them. He vigorously denies that he decided to behave that way after he, as a rookie, was ignored by the aloof, morose DiMaggio, but a young ball player I trust swears Mantle told him this and I have no reason to disbelieve him.) Pretty soon, as his skills blossomed, it became Mantle and his hedonistic enclave against the world.
And obviously the world didn’t count. The world was made up of crowds of sweaty, smelly little kids who demanded autographs and smeared ice cream on your new stantung suit, middle-aged slobs who accosted you in restaurants in ·mid-forkful to simper about getting an autograph for their little kiddies at home, and cloddish newspaper and magazine people who never got anything right and only wanted to hurt you anyway. When he was playing poorly or when he was especially plagued by one of his numerous injuries, Mantle would become particularly withdrawn and sulky, turn his back even on well-wishers. A great deal of this was sheer self-protection. For Mantle always doubted himself and, most of all, his knowledge of the game.
He had reason to. Mantle was never much of a student of baseball. Born with marvelous skills, he played it intuitively, never having to pay much attention to what was going on. More than once I heard him ask a teammate about a rival pitcher, “What’s he throw?” This is not an unusual question around a ball club-except if the pitcher had been in the league five years and pitched against the Yankees maybe 30 times.
It is possible that Mantle was incapable of even the minimum amount of concentration the finer points of baseball require. Certainly he refused to work on his own physical conditioning during the off-season, a refusal which, if it not actually shorten his career, obviously did nothing to prevent the pulled muscles in legs and groin which plagued him during almost every season. Year after year Mantle was told to go home and lift weights with his legs. He was begged to keep in good enough physical condition so that he would at least not disarrange a hamstring, as he did so often, in the opening days of spring training. But Mantle’s idea of keeping fit was to have an active social life and play golf out of an electric cart which was outfitted with a bar. He had fun. He also had pulled muscles.
It has become a cliche to wonder how great Mantle would have been had he been physically healthy during his career. What I wonder is how great he might have been had he even tried to keep physically healthy.
In the early years of his career Mantle was booed by the fans because he refused to live up to his promise. Later on the boos turned to cheers as he became known as a man who made a gallant effort despite enormous physical pain. I’m not sure the fans weren’t right in the first place.
More from John Lardner. Originally published in 1949 in the New Yorker and reprinted here with permission of Susan Lardner.
“The Battling Siki”
By John Lardner
Hell’s Kitchen, the region west of Eighth Avenue around the Forties, won its name many years ago and continued to deserve it until about the time the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed. Things are different there now. So its residents will tell you, and so you can see for yourself if, having known the neighborhood a little during Prohibition, you visit it even briefly today. Once it was carpeted, for nearly all its length and breadth, with low, swarthy brick tenement houses containing a warren of flats, speak-easies, six-table cellar “cabarets,” hole-in-the-wall stores and restaurants, back-room stills, and “social clubs,” where a portion of the manhood of the district stored guns and ammunition and planned stick-ups and highjackings. Right along the equator of Hell’s Kitchen ran the Ninth Avenue “L” tracks, throwing a grim, significant shadow by day and night. Other parts of town had clip joints, or “buckets of blood,” scattered through them, but the Kitchen, as a detective friend of mine used to say, was one big bucket of blood. Nowadays the Kitchen is a bit more shiny and much more respectable. Neon lights and modern shops and garages have pushed their way into it. The McGraw-Hill Building has gouged out half of what was considered one of the hottest blocks in Hell’s Kitchen in the nineteen twenties—the block bounded by Eighth and Ninth Avenues and Forty-first and Forty-second streets. The Lincoln Tunnel approaches have formed an asphalt plaza west of Ninth Avenue. The sleek New Jersey buses and automobiles bound for and away from the West Side Highway plow across the old badlands in steady procession. The retail liquor traffic thereabouts has become negligible; the city’s center of gravity of crime has shifted elsewhere, perhaps to Brooklyn. Broadly speaking, Hell’s Kitchen is not a frontier community any more but a sort of vehicular gateway to the heart of Manhattan. However, if you want to conjure up the atmosphere of earlier times, you can still find islands of squat tenement houses here and there to help you, many of them boarded up and condemned, and the empty shells of many basement grogshops. In the unlikely event that you want to visit the scene of the murder, twenty-four years ago, of a man called Battling Siki, which is what I did one day recently for no useful reason, you will come across a few surviving landmarks. You can pace off distances in the same gutter and seamy street—Forty-first—down which Siki crawled forty feet west toward Ninth Avenue, with two bullets in his body, before he collapsed and died. He crawled in the direction of the “L,” the cave of shadows that no longer is there. His killer threw away the gun in front of a grimy old house that is now gone; the McGraw-Hill Building is there instead. These changes make the setting less sinister than it used to be, but even now there’s plenty to show that it was a drab and lonesome place to die.
Siki who held the light-heavyweight boxing championship of the world for six months in 1922 and 1923, was born in Senegal, in French West Africa, in 1897 and was killed in Hell’s Kitchen twenty-eight years later, in 1925. He was the Kitchen’s most turbulent citizen in the short time he lived there. He was thought by neighbors who knew him to have an honest heart and a generous soul, but when he drank the newly cooked liquor of the parish, as he often did, the cab drivers, cops, bartenders, and hoodlums whom he chose, with impeccable lack of judgment, to knock around, found it hard to take him philosophically. Rear-line observers, on the other hand were usually able to be philosophical about Siki. During the three years of his life in which he received international publicity—the last three—he was referred to repeatedly as a “child of nature,” a “natural man ” and a “jungle child,” and at least once as “the black Candide.” After his murder, the New York World said editorially, “What is all this [Siki's physical strength, his brawling and dissipation] but the sulks and tempers of Achilles, the prank of Siegfried and the boars, the strutting of Beowulf, the armours of Lemminkaïnen? We have had a walking image of our beginnings among us and did not know it. . . . He had, it is true, the mentality of a backward toad… But he had the soul of a god.”
It strikes me that tributes paid by civilized people to a “natural man,” especially one who has walked among us, are apt to sound either patronizing, like the World’s, or uneasy, like some delivered by American correspondents when Siki won his boxing championship in Paris in 1922 and was first interviewed. After praising Siki’s strength and simplicity, one reporter wrote apprehensively, “He is very black and very ugly.” Siki’s manager at the time, a M. Hellers, was quoted as saying that Siki was a fine lad but “just a little bit crazy.” I can discover no support among those who were acquainted with Siki in America later on for the idea that he was crazy, except when he drank, or the idea that he was mentally toadlike. He was illiterate, never having been to school, but he could make himself understood in several languages including English, French, Spanish, Dutch, and German. As far as Candide is concerned, Siki resembled Voltaire’s hero in that he had a sheltered boyhood, was thrown suddenly into the thick of the best of all possible worlds, and found society both violent and larcenous. At seventeen, he was involved in a civilized world war. At twenty-five, he was permitted to box a champion on the condition that he lose the match. Having ignored the condition and won the championship, he insured his loss of that title, in all innocence, by fighting an Irishman in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day. He entered American life in the heyday of the Volstead act. He could not master the strong waters or the social customs of the West Side of New York City. He was killed by gunfire, after surviving a stabbing earlier in the same year. It may seem, offhand, that Hell’s Kitchen was a curious place for the curtain to fall on a twenty-eight-year-old Mohammedan born in St. Louis de Senegal on the fringe of the Sahara Desert, but Voltaire has shown that when civilization gets its hands on one of these natural men, it pushes him about at random from curious place to curious place. Candide was lucky to wind up safely cultivating his garden. He came close to meeting his end in an auto-da-fé in Portugal and, another time, on a roasting spit in Paraguay. Siki’s story is perhaps more realistic. He failed to last out the course.
The newspaper writers of the 1920s were merely being wishful when they called Siki a jungle child. St. Louis, his African home, is a seaport ten miles above the mouth of the Senegal River, on a bare plain that marks the Sahara’s southwesternmost edge. It’s doubtful whether anyone in Europe or America today knows what Siki’s real name was. Legend has it that when he was ten or twelve years old, a French actress touring the colonies saw him in St. Louis, was impressed by his appearance, and took him into her personal service, giving him, for reasons based on classical Greek, the name of Louis Phal. Whatever its origin, this, Anglicized as Louis Fall, was his legal name when he was married, and when he was murdered, in America. He did not become known as Battling Siki until he began to box professionally, in 1913; apparently the word “Siki” was coined or borrowed by French fight promoters, to whom it had vague “native” or colonial connotations. The tale about the actress was told widely in Paris in the days of Siki’s first fame, when he knocked out the celebrated Georges Carpentier, but it was never, so far as I know, closely checked up on. It accounts, plausibly enough, for the abrupt shift of Siki from dusty African streets to the perils of Western civilization. The lady is said to have taken him to her villa on the French Riviera and dressed him in a page boy’s uniform of bottle green. Subsequently, he worked in one town and another as a bus boy. He was fifteen when he started boxing.
Siki had just time for a handful of fights, most of which he won, before the war of 1914-18 broke out and he was conscripted into the 8th Colonial Infantry Regiment of the French Army. His war record was distinguished; in fact, he is reported to have been the bravest soldier in his outfit which saw action on several fronts and gave a strong performance generally. For heroism under fire, Siki won not only the Croix de Guerre but the Médaille Militaire. After demobilization, he could have had his choice of a variety of ordinary civilian jobs; his record guaranteed him that. However, he went back to the prize ring, where the rewards were intermittent but came in good-sized pieces when they came. He barnstormed in France, North Africa, Spain, Belgium, and Holland. From a tour of Holland in 1921 he returned to Paris, where he lived with a Dutch girl who was thought to be his wife and by whom he later had a child. Siki did not work especially hard at his trade. He fought once or twice a month, which is not often for a “club,” or journeyman, fighter, and, while he usually won, he beat nobody of major importance. Between bouts he drank more absinthe than is normal in the profession. American critics were to speak of him three or four years later as a fighter of considerable natural ability who might have been much better than he was. Weighing about a hundred and seventy-five pounds, the maximum for light heavyweights, and standing five feet eleven inches tall, he was a well-muscled young man with a leaping, bounding, lunging style from which he got slapstick effects that amused the galleries, and himself as well. In the early months of 1922, he happened to defeat a couple of men of some slight reputation and thus came to the notice of François Descamps, then the most influential and artful character in French boxing. Descamps offered him a bout for the world’s light-heavyweight championship with Carpentier, whom Descamps managed.
The prizefight business in Continental Europe in those days was an odd blend of laissez faire and team play—laissez faire being understood to mean “Let Descamps do it his way,” and “team play” to mean that all hands share in the spoils. Descamps owned a large stable of fighters and also, it was commonly believed in Paris, a large stable of sports writers. Some of the latter were growing restive in 1922, possibly because of a failure in the team-play system as administered by Descamps. When the Carpentier-Siki match was announced, certain journalists expressed a distrust of it. They suggested that, in Siki, Descamps had laid hold of a small-time, happy-go-lucky trouper with no ambitions beyond getting all the absinthe he could consume, who would be glad to bolster Carpentier’s fortunes—Carpentier had not fought for really big money since his knockout by Jack Dempsey in New Jersey, fourteen months before—without making too much trouble for the champion in the ring. Their hints were undoubtedly read by the public. Carpentier was a war hero, the toast of the boulevards, a boxer still regarded, in spite of his defeat by Dempsey, as peerless in Europe, but though the crowd of 55,000 that came to the new Buffalo Velodrome in Paris on the afternoon of September 24, 1922, to see him fight Siki was the largest in European boxing history, it showed before the day was over that it was on the alert for signs of skulduggery. Its suspicions were inflamed during the preliminary bouts by the work of Harry Bernstein, a referee charged by sports writers with occupying a special compartment in the hip pocket of M. Descamps. In one preliminary, the opponent of a Descamps featherweight named Fritsch was disqualified by Bernstein for hitting too low; in another, the opponent of a Descamps heavyweight named Ledoux was disqualified by Bernstein for not fighting hard enough. Bernstein’s rulings brought a volley of coups de sifflet from the customers, particularly those in the seven-franc seats, who had mustered their sous at a sacrifice and wished for their money’s worth of equality and justice.
The main bout was scheduled for twenty rounds. Carpentier, pale and blond, weighed 173 1/2 pounds, Siki 174. In the first round, Siki fought cautiously and less acrobatically than usual; Carpentier jabbed at him with his left hand. Once, hit lightly, Siki dropped to one knee; Bernstein, who was refereeing this bout, too, did not bother to count. “Get up, Siki, you’re not hurt,” he said. After the round, ringside spectators saw Carpentier smile broadly and heard him say, “I’ll get him whenever I want to.” The champion, boxing easily, won the first two rounds. In the third, Carpentier sent a right-hand blow to Siki’s jaw, and Siki dropped to his knee again, this time taking a count of seven. When he got up, he rushed at Carpentier and hit him violently in the body with a left and a right. Carpentier, looking startled as well as hurt, went down for four seconds. The rest of the fight was all Siki’s. Siki battered Carpentier about the ring in the fourth round while Carpentier hung on to Siki’s arms whenever he could and tried to pinion them with his own. In the fifth, Carpentier fell against the ropes. Siki leaned over him (“I whispered to him to quit,” Siki said later), and Carpentier, pushing himself up, butted angrily at Siki’s belly. Carpentier could hardly stand when the sixth round began. Siki hit him at will. A right uppercut followed by a shower of right and left swings sent Carpentier to the floor unconscious one minute and ten seconds after the start of the round. As he fell, one of his feet became tangled between Siki’s, assisting the fall.
It was plain that Carpentier was completely knocked out, but at that point Bernstein ruled that Siki had lost the fight by tripping his opponent illegally. The third disqualification of the day was more than the crowd was prepared to stomach. It pushed its way to the ring from all quarters of the stadium and stormed around it, yelling furiously. Police were called up to protect Bernstein. Descamps, meanwhile, for whose blood the demonstrators were also shouting, slipped out of the arena behind a couple of gendarmes. Three judges—Victor Breyer, Jean Pujol, and an Englishman, Tom Bannison—who, before the fight, had been appointed by the French Boxing Federation to make a decision in case there was no knockout were now appealed to. After conferring briefly with Federation officials, they announced that they would give a final and formal verdict either supporting or overruling Bernstein’s. They deliberated for three quarters of an hour while Bernstein stood in one comer of the ring among his police guards and practically no one in the audience went home, or even stopped talking unkindly to the referee. The judges, willingly or not, at last did what the crowd wanted: they declared Siki the winner by a knockout and, in the name of the Federation, awarded him the light-heavyweight championship of the world, plus a subsidiary title of Carpentier’s—the heavyweight championship of Europe. Siki said to Hellers, his manager, “Tell America I am ready for Dempsey,” and repaired in triumph to his dressing room. The crowd disbanded. The police saw Bernstein safely to the door of his dressing room.
Siki never got a match with Dempsey, but some offers of lesser opportunities did come to him from America. He was lavishly feted in Pans during the first two days after his victory, and after public enthusiasm subsided, his own continued to run high, especially in the Montmartre neighborhood. “No more absinthe. I will train and fight hard as champion,” Siki had told a gathering outside the office of the newspaper Echo des Sports on the twenty-fifth, the day following the fight. Later that evening, he took a few glasses of champagne, and on touring Montmartre in a rented car with a chauffeur, he reverted to absinthe wholeheartedly at every stop he made. After another week or so he acquired, probably as gifts from fellow colonials, a monkey, which he carried everywhere on his shoulder, and a lion cub, which he led about on a leash. Carpentier was still lying in bed suffering from a sprained ankle, two broken hands, and an unsightly swelling of his nose and lips. Most of the Parisian sporting press was sympathetic toward him but nastily jubilant about Descamps, who, it was implied, had overreached himself and been double-crossed. Rumors to the same effect circulated through Paris for the next several weeks. In early December, the French Boxing Federation precipitated the publication of what was very likely the true story of the fight by suspending Siki—it was charged that while seconding another fighter in the ring, he had struck the manager of his man’s opponent. Siki, deprived of a chance to make a living in France, went for help to M. Diagne, the representative for Senegal in the French Chamber of Deputies. Diagne asserted before the Chamber that the Boxing Federation was discriminating against colonials in favor of Parisian city slickers who wanted Siki out of the way, and in support of this theory he gave the deputies the account of the Carpentier bout that Siki had given him. When the Chamber appeared unwilling to take any action, Diagne called a press conference and had Siki repeat his story to reporters. It ran as follows: A fix had been arranged fifteen days before the bout took place, with Descamps dictating procedure to Siki’s manager. As a sign of good faith, Siki was to take a short count in the first round and another count in the third. He was to get himself knocked out early in the fourth. Siki followed the scenario through the third-round knockdown—”I stayed down for seven the first time Carpentier hit me hard enough to give me an excuse,” he said—but as he knelt on the floor at that point, he decided not to go through with the frameup. It was his pride, he said, and his loyalty to the public that made him change his mind. When he got up, he began to fight in earnest. He ignored a sharp reminder from his manager, between the third and fourth rounds, that his end was expected momentarily. (This detail in Siki’s narrative gave Hellers a clean bill of health, in a left-handed way; Descamps had been so suspicious of treachery by Hellers that he quarreled with him in public after the bout.) Siki surprised Carpentier with his counterattack and soon demolished him.
When Siki’s story was done, M. Diagne explained to the press what it meant: A simple, uneducated man had defended himself and all underprivileged peoples against exploitation by a predatory society. Siki, who was always emotional, wept freely at these words. His tears and his deputy’s arguments got him nowhere. Neither did a court of inquiry appointed by the Boxing Federation to investigate Siki’s statement. The court, with a flashy display of ingenuity, hired two deaf-mutes to watch the motion pictures of the fight and see if they could lip-read certain remarks delivered excitedly by Descamps to Hellers in Siki’s corner during “a critical phase of the battle,” after Siki had begun to knock Carpentier around. The experiment (unique, I think, in boxing history) was later described by the court as “successful,” but Siki remained suspended. He never fought in France again until after he had lost his championships elsewhere. My own opinion is that being champion constituted Siki’s chief sin in the eyes of the Federation. Also, I believe his story of the Carpentier match was substantially correct. A “sign of good faith”—a preliminary fall, or lapse of some other kind, by the loser—is a standard device in the plotting of sports frameups. Eddie Cicotte, a Chicago baseball player, hit the first batter he faced with a pitched ball in the crooked World Series of 1919, as a signal to gamblers that the fix was in. Siki’s tale confirmed the rumors that were current before and after the fight; it was in keeping with the character of Descamps and of Continental boxing methods in 1922, and it is believed by every European and American I know who was familiar in any degree with the time, the place, and the actors.
As it turned out, the Carpentier bout was the only one of importance in Siki’s professional career, except for the next one. The next one was weak and anticlimactic as a show, but it did involve a world’s championship, and it demonstrated in a special way how complicated the civilization of the West can be for an unlettered Moslem with no grounding in our rituals and customs. A fairly good light heavyweight from County Clare in Ireland named Michael Francis McTigue happened to pass through Paris with his staff during Siki’s suspension. Finding Siki idle and nearly broke, the visitors proposed a match between him and McTigue for the title. (The world’s light-heavyweight championship was the one that interested them; the heavyweight championship of Europe had no value in the world market, and has been recognized only sporadically since the day Carpentier lost it.) They spoke of Dublin as a pleasant spot for the Siki-McTigue bout. They mentioned March 17, 1923, as an open date in their engagement book. Siki fell in with these suggestions and met McTigue in the ring in the Irish capital on Saint Patrick’s Day. The operation for the removal of his crown was painless. The decision went to McTigue on points. There was nothing particularly wrong with this verdict, I am told by a neutral eyewitness, except that McTigue did not make the efforts or take the risks that are commonly expected of a challenger for a world’s championship. There was no need to. In the circumstances, nothing less than a knockout could have beaten him, and he avoided that possibility by boxing at long range throughout.
One device by which a civilized man can avoid a predicament like Siki’s in Dublin was illustrated by McTigue himself later in the same year. He went to Columbus, Georgia, to fight a Georgian named Young Stribling before a crowd that was strongly and ostentatiously in favor of his opponent. There was almost no way McTigue could avoid losing within the Georgia state limits, so, to protect his planetary interests, he took along a referee from the North. The referee called the bout a draw. Then, yielding to the howls of protest, he announced that he would deputize the local promoter to give the decision. The promoter called Stribling the winner. The referee, on his way back North by train with McTigue and McTigue’s manager, signed an affidavit that his own true and considered verdict was for a draw. That is how the result has been listed in the record books ever since.
Siki had only two more European fights, both in Paris, after he lost his titles. The last two years of his life he spent in America, disintegrating with headlong speed on bootleg gin and whiskey but nearly always able to make money in the ring when he needed it. When he first arrived in New York, in September 1923, his name had a certain value here, based on curiosity, which it no longer had abroad. He signed on with the stable of a veteran New York manager, Robert (Pa) Levy (Hellers appears to have discarded Siki at the time of his suspension in France), and his first fight in this country was a serious one with a respectable opponent, Kid Norfolk, who beat him in fifteen rounds at Madison Square Garden. From then on, American fight fans were not disposed to think of Siki as a boxer of the top rank, but they liked to watch him. His style was eccentric and funny. He was strong and fast enough to knock out most of the palookas he met, when he felt like it. He was booked as far west as California and as far south as New Orleans, and he earned, according to a fairly reliable estimate I have heard, nearly a hundred thousand dollars between November 1923 and November 1925. He was one of the best spenders, in proportion to income, that the United States has ever seen. In restaurants and speakeasies he sometimes tipped five or ten times the amount of the check. Once, having made five thousand dollars from a fight in New York on a Friday, he was turned out of his rooming house the following Monday for nonpayment of rent. Another time he gave away all the money in his pockets to passengers on a Lackawanna Railroad ferryboat on which he was returning from a fight in New Jersey. Scolded for this by his manager, Siki wept. Most of his cash, however, continued to be spent on gifts, liquor, and clothes. In clothes, Siki’s taste was unusual but rich. In the first part of his New York residence, when he lived and roamed mainly in the Times Square area, he almost always wore full dress when he went out at night. By day, ordinarily, he appeared in a high hat, a frock coat, red ascot tie, striped trousers, spatted shoes, and a monocle, and he carried a gold-headed cane. From time to time he gave away all the stylish clothes he had on and went home by cab in his underwear. He was particularly open-handed with his high hats. One of these, Siki’s gift to the management, hung on a peg in a West Side saloon I used to visit until a few years ago, when the place closed up.
Siki’s New York life was divided into two roughly equal periods, the second of which he passed largely in Hell’s Kitchen. He had been married in the summer of 1924, at the Municipal Building, to a woman from Memphis named Lillian Werner. The event attracted just enough attention to stimulate newspaper inquiries in Paris, where neighbors of the Dutch girl with whom he had lived in the suburb of Lanves said she was still there and was still thought to be his wife. She herself was not interviewed or quoted to that effect then or afterward, so far as I know. Siki and his American bride moved into a flat at 361 West Forty-second Street early in 1925. Siki had begun to go downhill physically and professionally by then. His bookings for fights were fewer than they had been, and he did not fulfill all those he made. He got into trouble, almost simultaneously, with the United States Immigration Service and the boxing commissioners of New York State. Siki had come to America on a short-term permit. In July 1925 he was arrested for felonious assault after slashing at a policeman with a knife, at which the Government began deportation proceedings. In August the Boxing Commission, annoyed by a facetious exhibition Siki had given at a small New York Cityfight club, summoned him and Levy to its office, suspended Siki, and told Levy to make sure that the fighter was somewhere beyond the three-mile limit within thirty days. The order may seem to have been a usurpation of Federal powers, but it coincided with the Government’s view. At this point, France told the United States that it would refuse to receive Siki if he were deported. Siki, who had wept in the Boxing Commission office when he heard the order to his manager, now took advantage of the stalemate and, in November, filed application for his first citizenship papers. Government decision on his deportation case was still pending when he died.
Siki had the reputation in Hell’s Kitchen in 1925 of being dangerous when drunk, mild and affable when sober. As he drank more heavily and fought less in the ring, he fought more in the street, and his opponents were a rough and active group of men. He was known for his favorite joke of hailing a cab, taking a ride, and then challenging the driver to fight for the fare. Occasionally, too, he would invade the Times Square station of the I.R.T. in the early morning in search of amateur boxing engagements. It is characteristic of many boxers that as they lose their ability in the ring they swing their fists more frequently outside it, as a sort of blurred insistence on the claim that they are as good as ever. That, along with the drinks Siki bought or charged up in the bars of the West Side, may account for his pugnacity in his last months. The only instance of Siki’s using a knife that I have found was the time he was arrested for drawing one on a policeman. His wife went to night court to plead for him on that occasion. She made a good impression and got him off with a five-dollar fine. Though he was stabbed in the back himself in August, not long after he had smashed up a speak-easy in the West Forties and spent a few days in the French Hospital on West Thirtieth Street as a consequence, Siki went on using his fists—and now and then a piece of furniture—in nearly all his brawls. He was fined another five dollars on December 6 for slapping a patrolman at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street.
At about seven o’clock in the evening on Monday, December 14, Siki’s wife met him on the stairs to their flat on West Forty-second Street. The house they lived in still stands, a house of dingy brick with ten walk-up apartments, two on each of its five floors. Siki told Mrs. Siki he was going “out with the boys” and would be back in time to help her pack for a trip they were making next day to Washington, where Siki was to appear in a theater. Shortly after midnight on the morning of the fifteenth, Patrolman John J. Meehan, of the West Thirtieth Street station, walking his beat along Ninth Avenue, had a brief encounter with Siki, whom he knew by sight. Siki, wobbling a little as he turned under the “L” tracks from Forty-first Street, called to Meehan that he was on his way home. The patrolman told him to keep going that way. At 4:15 A.M., Meehan walked past the intersection of Forty-first Street and Ninth Avenue again and saw a body lying about a hundred feet east of the corner in the gutter in front of 350 West Forty-first. Approaching it, he recognized Siki. The body was taken to Meehan’s station house where a doctor pronounced the fighter recently dead from internal hemorrhage caused by two bullet wounds. Detectives examined the deserted block of Forty-first between Eighth and Ninth avenues. In front of No. 346, some forty feet east of where Siki had died, they found a pool of blood on the sidewalk. It seemed to them that Siki might have been trying to crawl home after he was shot. They could not tell just where the shooting had taken place. The gun, a vest-pocket .32-caliber pistol, was lying in front of No. 333, on the other side of the street. Only two bullets had been fired from it. An autopsy showed that these had entered Siki from behind, one penetrating his left lung and the other his kidneys. The autopsy showed something else which surprised Siki’s neighbors a good deal when they heard of it: he had suffered from an anemic condition.
At his wife’s request; Siki was given a Christian funeral service at the Harlem funeral parlors of Effie A. Miller. The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell delivered a eulogy. However, seven Mohammedan pallbearers in turbans carried his body to the hearse, chanting prayers as they did so, while a crowd of three thousand people looked on. The body was clothed in evening dress, as Siki would undoubtedly have wished. His estate, estimated at six hundred dollars, was awarded to his wife in Surrogate’s Court after Levy made out an affidavit in her favor. The words of the affidavit while perhaps not strictly accurate in point of fact told the broad truth about Siki’s place in the world better, I think, than the editorial that spoke of Achilles, Siegfried, and “natural man.” To the best of his knowledge, Levy said, Siki left surviving “no child or children, no father, mother, brother, or sister, or child or children of a deceased brother or sister.” He lived as a man without kin or country, roots or guides, and that, it seems to me, is a hard way to do it.
Siki’s murder was never solved. There was an abundance of suspects, but none of them suited the police at all until one day in March 1926 a young man of eighteen who lived a block or two from Siki’s house was arrested and booked on a homicide charge in connection with the killing. Detectives disguised as truck drivers had heard him making incriminating remarks, they said, over a telephone in a bootleggers’ hangout at Tenth Avenue and Fortieth Street. On being arrested, he allegedly signed two statements which gave two different accounts of the crime. One said that Siki had staggered into a coffee pot at Eighth Avenue and Fortieth Street in the early morning of December 15 and had thrown a chair at the eight men, including the deponent, who were gathered there. Deponent ran out of the place in alarm and heard shots fired in the restaurant behind him. The other statement, which fitted the physical facts of the killing a little better, said that a short while after the throwing of the chair, he, the young man under arrest, lured Siki to Eighth Avenue and Forty-first Street on the promise of buying him a drink. At the corner they were joined by two other men, one of whom, as the party walked west on Forty-first, shot Siki in the back. The young man was held in the Tombs for eight months, until the fall of 1926, and then was released by the court without trial, presumably because the state was not satisfied with its case. I might add that in May 1927 this same young man got five to ten years for second-degree robbery, committed in April in the vicinity of Ninth Avenue and Forty-second Street against a tourist from another state. That was clearly the wrong part of town for a tourist to go to.
When he went off to cover the war in the Pacific in January 1943, John Lardner was twenty-nine years old and, thanks to his weekly column in Newsweek, already a major figure in sportswriting. Nothing at Madison Square Garden or Yankee Stadium, however, could match the lure of what awaited him overseas. “The war was everything,” he said. “I was glad to be in it, speeding along with it.”
Lardner’s first stops were Australia and New Guinea, and what he wrote there became the backbone of the book you hold in your hands, Southwest Passage: The Yanks in the Pacific. Originally published seventy years ago, this was a buried treasure in Lardner’s considerable body of work as a reporter during World War II. It’s blessed with Lardner’s unmistakable humor, and it captures the immediacy of what was then, to Americans, a new theater of war.
“There was more to be seen, heard, and felt in this war, of course, than the fighting of it,” he wrote. “It took Americans to a strange world, with a strange flavor, and gave many of them a long time to look around between bullets.”
Lardner crisscrossed Australia for four months, piling up ten thousand miles as he filed dispatches for the North American Newspaper Alliance and Newsweek. A lesser writer may have sought to dramatize what he saw, but Lardner pared away the extraneous with impeccable reporting. In the opening chapter, Lardner writes, “I want to tell the story with as few profundities and earth-shaking conclusions as possible.” It’s this unpretentious approach to reportage that keeps Southwest Passage fresh for us today.
Shortly after he arrived, Lardner observed an American soldier opening diplomatic relations with an Australian in a bar in Sydney.
“Well, boy,” said the American, “you can relax now. We’re here to save you.”
“Ow is that? I thought you were a fugitive from Pearl Harbor.”
About the locals, he wrote: “There can hardly be people in the world more fiercely and fanatically independent than Australians. The notion that the Yanks had come to ‘save Australia’—well, some of us had it, sure enough, and there was no quicker way of tasting the quick mettle and genial scorn of the fellow we came to save.”
No wonder Orville Prescott of the New York Times called Southwest Passage “as personal, informal and chatty a book of war correspondence as has yet come along. Mr. Lardner has the happy faculty of taking the war seriously without taking himself seriously.”
Lardner’s equanimity came naturally. He was, after all, the son of Ring Lardner, who was America’s most famous sportswriter before he became its most famous literary wit. Like his father, the son was serious about writing. As he said in a letter home: “It seems pretty plain that the best thing to do during the war is to work hard at whatever work you have to do, wherever it may be. Working is the only way I’ve ever found of being happy in a bad time.”
Lardner had been witness to the pitfalls of being labeled a sportswriter. His father never fully escaped being typecast as just a sportswriter. But John wasn’t just a sportswriter; he was one of the best. His reputation was cemented when he began a True magazine piece about a hell-bent prizefighter with these words: “Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.” Lardner’s fellow sportswriting legend Red Smith called it the “greatest novel ever written in one sentence.”
Like his contemporaries W. C. Heinz and A.J. Liebling, Lardner was a war correspondent, and if he didn’t enjoy their longevity or the lasting renown of Smith or Jimmy Cannon, he was every bit their equal. Heinz, in fact, is on record as calling Lardner “the best.”
“Time has a way of dimming the memory and achievements of writers who wrote, essentially, for the moment, as writers writing for journals must do,” Ira Berkow, a longtime columnist of the New York Times, told me. “But the best shouldn’t be lost in the haze of history and John Lardner was a brilliant writer—which means, in my view, that he was insightful, irreverent, wry and a master of English prose.”
John was born in 1912, the first of Ring and Ellis Lardner’s four boys. Their father was a study in reserve, a poker-faced observer of human folly who ushered his sons into the family business, although not by design. When his third son, Ring Jr., sold his first magazine piece, the father said, “Good God, isn’t any one of you going to turn out to be anything but a writer?”
The Lardners moved to the East Coast from Chicago in the fall of 1919. Early on, they lived in Great Neck, Long Island, the model for the fictional West Egg in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (for a time, Fitzgerald was one of Ring’s closest friends). Another friend was Grantland Rice, who succeeded Lardner as the most celebrated sportswriter in the country. Whenever Ring took his sons to Yankee Stadium, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig always came by to pay their respects.
In his memoir, The Lardners: My Family Remembered, Ring Jr. wrote about the striking similarities he and his brothers shared with their father: “Intellectual curiosity with a distinctly verbal orientation, taciturnity, a lack of emotional display, an appreciation of the ridiculous. It was a matter of course that you mastered the fundamentals of reading and writing at the age of four, and by six reading books was practically a full-time occupation.”
John was all of ten when he broke into print with this ditty for the New York World:
Babe Ruth and old Jack Dempsey,
Both sultans of the swatOne hits where other people are,
The other where they’re not.
Ring Jr. claimed that John, more than any of his brothers, patterned his life on his father’s. John was bright and restless, and perhaps he pushed himself because he didn’t want to be known only as Ring’s son. He wasn’t given to talking about his motivations, but it is no stretch to assume that his father’s considerable talent gave him something to shoot for.
“John grew up in the shadow of a father who was a great writer,” Liebling wrote. “This is a handicap shared by only an infinitesimal portion of any given generation, but it did not intimidate him.”
As for himself, John wrote, “In the interests of learning to read and cipher, I made the rounds at a number of schools, my tour culminating in Phillips Academy, Andover, and Harvard University (one year), where I picked up the word ‘culminating.”‘
He went to Paris for another year to study at the Sorbonne, worked for a few months in Paris on the International Herald Tribune, then returned to New York in 1931 and landed a job with the New York Herald Tribune. He covered local news and quickly earned bylines—no small achievement at what was considered the city’s best-written paper. “We are all swollen up like my ankles,” his father boasted.
At twenty-one, John left the Herald Tribune to write a column for the North American Newspaper Alliance. It was the Depression, and he was pulling down an impressive $100 a week, but his father would not live long enough to see him cash any paychecks. Ring died in 1933 after suffering for years from tuberculosis and alcoholism. He was forty-eight.
In the late ’30s, John began his transition to magazine writing. He published a story for the Saturday Evening Post on the Black Sox scandal and launched the Newsweek sports column that would run for eighteen years and establish his reputation. And yet, for all of that, the rumblings of the coming war were impossible to ignore.
Finally, in 1940, he wrote a letter to John Wheeler, his boss at NANA:
A year or so ago you suggested—not at all in a definitive way, but simply as something to think about—that in case of real action abroad, perhaps involving this country, you might consider sending me to do some work there instead of, or in addition to, the people that usually do the stuff of that kind for you and the Times. The idea stuck in my mind, naturally, but I haven’t given it any serious thought until recently. I think I can do other work as well as or better than most newspaper men and writers, and that a time may be coming shortly when that work will be more important and valuable to both you and me. This sounds swellheaded—but if I didn’t feel the way I do about writing, I wouldn’t give a damn about being a writer.
John got his wish not long after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. During his voyage to Australia he wrote to his wife, Hazel: “I have now stated for the 143rd time that I don’t think Billy Conn can beat Joe Louis. This opinion is not censorable, and I will pass it along to you, too, for what it is worth, though you probably knew it all the time.”
Lardner traveled with four other American reporters during his twelve weeks in Australia. All proved more than happy to break up their considerable downtime by arguing about the following: “Food; Russia; women; the Louis-Schemling fights; the art of Michelangelo; the Civil War; religion; the Newspaper Guild; Cornelia Otis Skinner; tattooing; the best place to live in New England; William Randolph Hearst; war production; venereal disease; the Pyramids; walking-sticks; dining out as opposed to dining home; the private life of Hedy Lamarr; marriage; For Whom the Bell Tolls; prizefight managers; education for children; Enzo Fiermonte; Paris; this war and all others; Leopold and Loeb; San Francisco restaurants; Greek and Roman architecture; Seabiscuit; the comparative merits of Cleopatra and Mary Queen of Scots. And several hundred others.”
As consistently amusing as Lardner is in Southwest Passage, he strives for more than comic effect in his dispatches. Take his description of Darwin, the ghost town “at the topmost pole of the dusty road across Australia, brooding over its scars”; or his account of the nurses who survived brutal air raids in the Philippines with “their hard-bought shell of resistance.” Nothing showy, nothing fancy—just a world-class observer at work, as Lardner was when he encountered a swing band performing for a U.S. Army outfit near Darwin a few days after Easter. “The night, following a day without bombs, was moonlit, and the Southern Cross blazed above. The musicians brought their guns as well as their instruments.”
Lardner downplayed any personal jeopardy he faced, but as Liebling said, “John was naturally brave. When he saw blinding bomb flashes by night, he used to move toward them to see better.” Lardner himself might have chalked that up to poor eyesight, but his courage is evidenced by his trip through hostile waters to Port Moresby on a freighter dubbed the “Floating Firecracker,” whose cargo consisted of bombs and drums of gasoline. On another occasion, after successfully bombing their target off the north coast of New Guinea, the plane Lardner was aboard stopped to refuel at a barren little base. The men ate bread and marmalade in the mess shack while Lardner talked to one of the soldiers about the ice hockey playoffs for the Stanley Cup.
We got our last thrill of the day then, thrown in for good measure and absolutely unsolicited. Doggedly the Zeros [Japanese fighter planes] had trailed us south, and with them carne bombers. The alarm sounded, and the crews on the ground beelined for their planes, for there is nothing more humiliating, useless, and downright impractical than to be caught on the ground, in the open, with your aeronautical pants down.
There is nothing more scary, I should add, because something always goes a little wrong when you try to take off under the condition known as “or else.” One of the engines missed. Then the door failed to shut tight . . . but we did get off, after sitting there for what seemed like a couple of minutes longer than forever.
Given his natural reticence, there is little to be found in Lardner’s papers revealing his feelings about Southwest Passage. In letters home he didn’t much talk about himself or the content of his work, just the conditions under which he produced it. “As far as I know the stories I’ve been writing have not been done by others,” he wrote to his wife. “The main trouble with being frontward and one of the reasons I’ll have to spend more time here is communications and censorship. You can’t be sure how fast your stuff is getting to headquarters and clearing from there, and you have no way of knowing what’s being taken out of stories. It’s like writing in a void.”
Lardner came home to resume his sports column in the summer of 1942, but by the end of the year he was a war correspondent again. His first stops were North Africa and Italy, then it was back to the Pacific, where he went ashore at Iwo Jima only a few hours after the first wave of marines. By the time he covered the invasion of Okinawa, now also writing for the New Yorker, he was haunted by the deaths of two of his brothers: Jim was the last American volunteer to die in the Spanish Civil War, in 1938, and David was killed in 1944 by a landmine in France. You can practically feel the shadow of mortality on him in the letter he wrote to his wife after filing his dispatch from Okinawa: “That was the last one, baby. During the last few days I was there, I got one or two small and gentle hints, much more gentle than the one at Iwo Jima, that my luck was beginning to run out and I had better quit while I was still in one handsome, symmetrical piece. By the time I get home it will be practically three and a half years since I started covering the war which I guess will be enough.”
Like his father, John had considerable health problems for much of his adult life: TB, heart disease, and multiple sclerosis. Undeterred, he worked hard and steadily as he gave up his syndicated newspaper column to write long magazine pieces for True and Sport as well as the New Yorker. Along the way he published two collections of his columns, It Beats Working and Strong Cigars and Lovely Women, and a history of the golden age of boxing called White Hopes and Other Tigers.
A certain mystique rose up around Lardner. He was forever described as someone who could stay at the bar all evening, nursing a Scotch, smoking, and scarcely saying a word. “He was as easy to like as he was hard to know,” said Liebling. And yet he was far from morose. “I’d like to fend off at least a few tragic overtones in the account of John Lardner,” his daughter Susan once wrote. “Those of us who knew my father . . . remember him as a song-singing, piano-playing, butter pecan ice cream-eating cat rancher and driver of Buick convertibles, who drank more milk than whisky and who often and rightly referred to himself as Handsome Jack.”
John had always told friends he wouldn’t outlive his old man, and he was right. He died of a heart attack in 1960 six weeks before his forty-eighth birthday. That day, he was writing an obituary for an old family friend, Franklin P. Adams. “F.P.A. was always a poor poker player and often a bore,” he wrote before collapsing with chest pains. When the family doctor arrived, he took Lardner in his arms and said, “John, you can’t die. John, you’re a noble human being.” Lardner looked at him and said, “Oh Lou, that sounds like a quotation.”
In September of 1943, Lardner sat down in a stone house in southern Italy to compose his latest dispatch from the war. He had written in less commodious surroundings as he bounced from Australia to New Guinea to North Africa, but he neither complained about them nor reveled in this rare taste of comfort. Usually he was glad for mail call, too, even if it came in midsentence. But not this day.
Lardner was hoping for a letter from his wife and instead received a legal notice from the midwestern law firm of Duffy, Claffy, Igoe & McCorkindale. The letter concerned a column he had written about a former outfielder from St. Louis named Bohnsack, who seemed not to have been memorable except that he once threw an umpire off a moving train. Lardner, who knew something worth writing about when he saw it, happily included the incident in his column. Now Bohnsack’s lawyers were claiming the anecdote was “false and misleading,” and they urged Lardner to settle out of court. Then as now, there was nothing like a little moola to ease a fellow’s “grievous social and mental damage.”
Lardner seethed: “Bohnsack annoyed me because he showed me that his world, which had also been my world, had great vitality, and that it took considerably more than a global battle to kill its self-preoccupation,” he wrote. It wasn’t just that Bohnsack had told Lardner personally that he’d thrown the umpire off a train, or that the first piece of mail he had received in the battle zone was not from his wife. “It was most of all that now, in the midst of the great and bloody planetary adventure of war, these barristers chose callously to call me back to the world of petulant outfielders and remind me that I was a sports writer.”
In fact, Lardner wrote about a variety of topics: lexicography, jury service, and New York history; for the New Yorker he contributed occasional film, theater, and book reviews and in the last three and a half years of his life wrote a column for the magazine on TV and radio. “Sportswriter” was a label that he, like his father, would never escape. This slim volume of his war reportage proves that Lardner was a quick-witted and assured writer no matter the subject. As Stanley Walker, the Herald Tribune’s city editor, said, Lardner “came close to being the perfect all-around journalist.” Never were those skills put to a stiffer test than on the battlefields in Europe and the Pacific. In the thickest drama, the unflappable man remained unflappable, at his best writing what Red Smith called novels in a single sentence.
You should’ve seen my father’s arms. He didn’t lift weights or do push-ups or exercise them in any way, and yet they were packed tight with muscle. When I was a boy and he lifted his high-ball in the evening for a sip, a round knot the size of a softball came up under the skin and slowly flattened out when he lowered the glass back down. I loved his arms so much that I memorized every vein, sinew, and golden hair. I knew the wrinkles of his elbows.
In the summer, when he worked for the city’s recreation department, supervising the baseball program at the park, Daddy liked to come home for lunch and a nap. He had lemonade and a BLT, then he had me lie close to him on the sofa, and he draped an arm around me. “One … two … three … ” he’d count in a whisper, and then he was out, sleeping that easily.
I lay there wondering if I’d ever have arms like his. I needed both hands to travel the distance around his wrist, the tips of my thumbs and fingers barely touching. I felt the hardness of his forearm. I saw how his wedding band fit him like a strand of barbed wire on a tree whose bark had grown around it. He smelled of the grass and the sun, of green and gold days that started early and ended late.
“Were you a good player?” I asked him once as he was coming awake.
“Was I what?”
“A good player.”
“You want to know if I was a good player?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“I don’t know. Did they run your name in the paper a lot?”
He looked at me in a way that let me know he wanted my attention. “None of it matters, John Ed. Was I a good teammate? Did I do my best and give everything I had to help the team? These are the questions you need to be asking.”
I wondered how to answer them, these questions he found of such importance. Many years would have to pass before I was old enough to join a team. He pulled me close again, as if he’d just remembered something. “John Ed?”
“Always be humble.”
The rest of the year he worked as a civics teacher and coach at the high school in town. The town was Opelousas, on the road between Alexandria and Lafayette, and it was just small enough, at about twenty thousand, to be excluded from Louisiana state maps when TV weathermen gave their forecasts in the evening. In the morning, my father left home wearing coach’s slacks with sharp creases and a polo shirt with a Tiger emblem and the words OHS FOOTBALL printed in Halloween orange on the left breast, the lettering melted from too much time in the dryer. A whistle hung from a nylon cord around his neck. It was still hanging there when he returned at night and sat down to a cold supper—the same meal Mama had served her children hours earlier. “You don’t want me to warm it for you, Johnny?”
“No, baby. That’s okay.”
Sometimes in the afternoon, Mama drove me out to the school. She parked under the oak tree by the gymnasium, pointed to where she wanted me to go, and I walked out past a gate in a hurricane fence to the field where my father and the other coaches were holding practice. Four years old, I wore the same crew cut that my father wore. I stumbled through tall grass and out past the red clay track that encircled the field. At home, my father didn’t raise his voice, but here he seemed to shout with every breath. A team manager took me by the hand and led me to a long pine bench on the sideline. I sat among metal coolers, spare shoulder pads and toolboxes crammed with first aid supplies. I waited until the last drill had ended and the players came one after another to the coolers for water the same temperature as the day, drunk in single gulps from paper cups shaped like cones. The players took turns giving the top of my head a mussing. “You gonna play football when you grow up?”
“I don’t know.”
“You gonna be a coach like your daddy?”
“I want to.”
Already I was certain that no one mattered more than a coach. I would trade any day to come for a chance to be that boy again, understanding for the first time who his father was. Give me August and two-a-days and a group of teenagers who are now old men, their uniforms stained green from the grass and black with Louisiana loam. Give me my father’s voice as he shouts to them, pushing them harder than they believe they can go, willing them to be better. Give me my father when practice is over and he walks to where I’m sitting and reaches his arms out to hold me.
During the week, when he would be on the road somewhere, the days at home began with the muffled slapping of screen doors and the dull starting of cars and I could look through the living-room window and see the same thing happening up and down the block: the other men, wearing drab blue factory uniforms or plain gray suits, carrying lunch pails or briefcases, going off to shuffle somebody’s papers or stand in somebody’s production line, a stolid army of beaten men moving out under the orders of fate to absorb whatever the world had to dump on them today. And when I saw them return in the late afternoon, their lunch pails empty and their chalky faces more pinched than ever now, my throat would_tighten and I would think, in the manner of a 12-year- old boy: My old man is better. Because I could not imagine then, nor can I imagine now, how a kid could get excited about a father like one of those; a father who wasn’t visible, a father who merely functioned. And because I knew that during the same day, in that nine hours between the going out and the coming back of the other men of the neighborhood, my old man had been Out There—Ohio, Kansas, California? Outwitting the Interstate Commerce Commission? Saving a life on the highway? Overtaking a Greyhound?—a mechanized Don Quixote challenging the world, spitting into its face the juice of a Dutch Masters Belvedere cigar, giving it a choice of weapons and then beating it at its own game. And, too, because I was faintly aware that a snarling four-ton Dodge pulling a sleek aluminum trailer was, unlike the portfolio of the insurance agent or the samples of the salesman, something a kid could sink his teeth into.
Then, on a Friday afternoon, my mother would be standing at the kitchen sink and suddenly say, with a slight inward smile I did not yet know, “Your daddy ought to be home soon.” And I would go out into the front yard, and shortly a mud-spattered red behemoth would top the long hill above the house, a clattering silver warehouse dragging behind, air brakes sneezing and air horns blasting at the wide-eyed kids gamboling on the sidewalks and the stunned old ladies swinging on their porches, the excitement swelling in my bony young chest until finally there was one final burp on the horns—for me—before the belching engine gasped and the whole rig shuddered to rest at the curb beside the house. “How-dee, I’m just so proud to be hyar,” he would yelp, Minnie Pearl at the Opry, swinging down from the cab like a Tom Mix dismounting—sunburned face, grimy hands, squinty piercing pale blue eyes, greasy overalls and pirate boots, a half-chewed cigar jammed in the corner of the mouth—the leathery adventurer, King of the Road, home from the wars. Neighborhood kids crowding around, daring to touch the simmering tires, while my old man digs through dirty socks and Cleveland newspapers and kitchen matches to produce a novelty-shop key to the City of Akron for me. A kiss for Mama and a hug for Sis, cowering, at the age of eight, in his presence. An hour in the vacant lot across the street, hitting mile-high pop flies until dusk over complaints from his wife (“Thirty-seven years old, acting like a boy”). Over supper, the stories of bad wrecks and truck stops and icy roads and outrunning the law and pulling the Appalachians at night, a born liar refining his art: “That fog was so bad I had to get out and feel that sign,” and “They got watermelons in Texas grow so fast the bottoms wear off before they can pick ‘em,” and “She had a face so ugly it wore out two bodies.” And afterward, a session at the old black upright piano in the living room, a self-taught Hoagy Carmichael: “I’d o’ learned to play with the left hand, too, but before they could mail me my second lesson the Injuns shot the Pony Express.” And finally to bed. Five days on the road, Birmingham to Akron and back, and he had made it home again tonight. He was my first hero and, the way things have been going lately, quite possibly the last.
So why, I am asking myself now, of all the good times we had together, why should I remember a bad one? The details are fuzzy. I must have been 18 or so. He came in off the road, but something was wrong. There was shouting. He talked about taking off again right after supper. My mother found a pint of booze in his overnight bag and, with hell-fire finality, flushed the contents down the toilet. He left. She and my sister were hysterical. It’s the son’s place to go find him and talk to him. Bewildered, I got into the car and raced into town, to the lot cluttered with tires and rusty engines and oil pans. I could see him sitting all alone in a dark corner of the cab, swigging from a pint, and when I pulled up and parked in the gravel beside the truck we tried not to look at each other. Blue lights laid a scary blanket over the lot. There was the desperate choking putt-putt-putt of a refrigerated trailer somewhere, broken by the occasional wail of a far-off train whistle, and after an interminable pause I heard myself say, “They’re crying.”
A gurgle, a cough. “Thought I’d get started early.”
“How come you did it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Made ‘em cry.”
“What’d you come down here for?”
“Mama said. I don’t know.”
“She shouldn’t o’ done that.”
“Well, she told me.”
He tilted back his head and began draining the bottle, his Adam’s apple quivering and some of the whiskey dribbling off to the side of his face, and his eyes looked like deep swollen ponds. I looked down and toed the gravel with my shoe while he finished. He sniffed and cleared his throat and then spoke in a frightened, vulnerable voice, a voice I had never heard come out of hun before. I’m not running anywhere, son. There’s a lot a boy don’t know. I don’t mean to make your mother cry, but sometimes a man’s, a man’s—” His voice had broken and when I dared look up at his face, bleached white by the pale lights on the lot, I saw that my old man, too, was crying.
Growing up is, of course, in line with the prevailing notion, a terrifying experience. But contrary to that notion, it is not accomplished in one giant symbolic leap, to the accompaniment of a dozen violins turning up full volume and the sudden brilliant dawning of a new and better day. Boys are not miraculously transformed into men through the first brutal sweaty defloration of a writhing rose in the back seat of a car, nor through the quaffing of eight beers without throwing up, nor by the stunning conquest of the neighborhood bully in defense of thy mother’s good name—although all of those events play a part in the transformation, however exaggerated their importance later becomes. No, growing up isn’t that simple. It may begin with a single pivotal moment, yes, but that moment is more likely to be one of defeat than of victory. In short, we must first discover that we do not know a goddamned thing and then take it from there. This has been known to take years.
Philosophically, theoretically, there is no good reason why it should take so long. Maybe one day we will become so sophisticated that we will modernize the whole system of maturing, organize it into an orderly program whereby young boys are weaned away from their childhood fantasies and patiently taught the mechanics of coping and therefore gently delivered into manhood as the grooming of young baseball players for the major leagues is done these days; you know, daily classes on Growing Up, regular weekly seminars with the old man where he speaks with candor about the times he screwed up and how it could have been avoided, and, finally, that ceremonial day of graduation into manhood just like the African tribes in television documentaries.
Maybe there are some fathers already doing that, but I doubt it. Because it is the nature of fathers to protect the old image, to set themselves up as infallible, and the nature of sons to swallow every bit of it. So growing up must begin with the shattering discovery that one’s father is not perfect, a knowledge not easily extracted or believed; and then you have to learn why he is not perfect; and, finally, you are getting somewhere when you determine how he has managed to compensate for this pitiable shortcoming.
That night in the lot haunted me for a long time. It isn’t easy to look on and see your father brought to his knees by mysterious devils. There was, indeed, “a lot a boy don’t know.” To this day—since it was a moment that embarrassed us both, we have never discussed it—I don’t know who the devils were. That would have been around 1954, when he was 43: about the time the Teamsters were beginning to make it difficult for independent, free-wheeling “lease operators” of his breed to make it; about the time more money was needed for us than ever before, my having attained college age; about the time a woman’s natural instincts for “respectability” were causing my mother to hack away at such issues as church and example-setting and a nicer house in a subdivision and a more secure job like driving a bus.
But the larger point is that I had seen him running scared, and it brought me to the first vague stirrings that life was not going to be easy or even fun; that life could be a bitch not above kicking you in the groin if you so much as winked at her; that there would be some terrible scars before it was done; that one day there would be a young boy looking up at me, wanting answers, and about all I might be able to give him in the way of solid advice would be to suggest he go into a clinch when they started working on the head. Here we had been working on the theory that he was unbeaten and untied, the last of the indomitable heroes, and now I knew differently and he knew I knew differently. From there, we began.
He has always seemed to treat everything that happened before he went into trucking as a prologue, which could explain why I have never been able to get much more than fragments about his growing up. I do know that he was born in 1911 at a tiny community in upper East Tennessee called Robbins, a then-prosperous but isolated mining and lumbering town that sat on a branch of the Southern Railroad between the birthplace of Sgt. Alvin York and the inaugural dam on the Tennessee Valley Authority system. Left fatherless at the age of eight, he got on a tram seven years later with his ailing mother and a sister and they went to live with relatives in Birmingham, never to return to the hills. He lacked a semester of English to graduate from high school, but instead of returning to finish—he has said he was a good student and could have gene to college if the money had been there, borne out every time I see him arrogantly complete the Sunday crossword of The New York Times with a ballpoint pen—he cut out for the Midwest to work at hard labor on the Rock Island Line. After a year or two he went back to Birmingham and married Velma Nelson, one of a husky coal miner’s six children, whom he had met one night while hanging around the steps of a Baptist church.
The Depression had hit rock bottom by then, and it was a scramble to stay alive. For a while he and a Greek named Mike Manos set up a news-butch operation on the daily excursion train running between Birmingham and Chattanooga—splitting $50 a week from the proceeds of newspapers, soft drinks and snacks at a time when most men felt lucky to earn $15—and later on he established a back-breaking one-man coal-mining business. I have heard some of the stories: how he and my mother won a drawing that gave them a free wedding on the stage of the Ritz Theater and a night in the honeymoon suite of the Thomas Jefferson Hotel, how she would get up well before dawn to make sandwiches to be sold on the train, how he painted the doctor’s house to pay for my birthing in 1936. I am sure that much of what he is today was shaped by those times, which is true with the great bulk of Americans who went through the Depression, but he is served well by a faulty memory of the whole thing.
Then, on a March morning in 1941, I awoke to the sounds of fierce sawing and hammering in the backyard. He was building wooden sideboards for a borrowed trailer and converting his dump truck to pull it, and with a war coming on he was announcing plans to go into trucking. “There’s gonna be a lot of stuff needs haulin’,” he said, “and I’m gonna help ‘em.”
It was the beginning, in a true sense, of his real life. He was born to drive a truck on the open road—a hard worker, a gambler, a fast talker, an adventurer with the eagle eyes and razor instincts and idiotic courage of a moonshine runner—and over the next 20 years he was to become something of a legend in that grim outback underworld of truck stops and loading docks and ICC checkpoints and cut-rate gas stations. Having a mountaineer’s inbred distrust of big companies and organized labor, preferring to make or break on his own merits, he set himself up as a “lease operator.” This meant he was a hired gun, a freelance trucker not on salary but on commission. The company, thus free of responsibility, couldn’t care less if he was overloaded or otherwise illegal in the eyes of the ICC; if he got caught, that was his problem. Just deliver the stuff by Tuesday morning.
You can see, then, how quickly my old man learned the location of every weight station on the continent, not to mention the sleeping habits and personal financial conditions of the men who ran them. He would stand there at the dock and tell them to fill ‘er up until she was bulging—with steel, tires, explosives, helmets, uniforms, whatever—and take off in the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness, like a bootlegger off on another run, twice as heavy as some states allowed but also twice as hungry. He knew every road in America by heart, and where to find the good coffee and the cheap gas, and how to make a gentleman’s arrangement at a truck stop in regard to somewhat clandestine cargo; and it seemed to be about all a man had to know. By the time the war had blown over, he had paid cash for a three-bedroom house and a ’46 Dodge automobile (“The 78th Dodge bought in Birmingham after the war”), started taking us on summer vacations to Florida and hired a driver to run a second rig. Those were the days of unblinking idolatry: that glorious time of puberty when I tried to wear my cap like his, and affected his hillbilly twang, and wondered what it took to be able to smoke and chew a cigar at the same time, and marveled at his ability to back a heaving trailer into the tightest hole. On summer evenings, at dusk, there was the great excitement of stuffing fresh socks and underwear into a bag and waiting impatiently for him to announce it was time to be going. “Now, Paul, I don’t want him growing up to be a truck driver,” my mother would say. “It’s good enough for me,” he would snap, “and I notice you ain’t starving.”
And a large part of growing up would begin to take place as we hit the open road, father and son, discovering the world and discovering each other together. Sleeping all day in the simmering Southern heat and riding all night to the songs of the whistling tires and the all-night country radio stations (“Ol’ Ernest Tubb sings like a bulldog, don’t he?”). Seeing the big tankers parked at the Mobile docks, the traffic in Atlanta, the tarpaper shacks in Mississippi, the cattle in Texas and the mist along the Blue Ridge. The truck stops at 3 o’clock in the morning, with bug-eyed truckers so high on bennies they couldn’t feed the pinball machines fast enough. “Your boy there looks just like you, Paul,” and, in response, “Well, the kid can’t help it.” Donora, Pennsylvania, where Stan Musial was raised. Nashville, where the Opry was. Pittsburgh, where the Pirates played. Blowing past a Greyhound on a straightaway, walking around a curve to see if the scales were open, standing on the running board to relieve ourselves while crawling up the Smokies, the jouncing of the cab and the pinup overhead bringing a curious new sensation to the groin. The mysterious hand signals exchanged with passing truckers, the wrecks and near-wrecks, the Cardinals game from St. Louis broadcast by Harry Caray, the black laborers begging to help unload at the docks at New Orleans. “Naw, ain’t got but a partial load o’ tires on,” to the ICC inspector and, a quarter-mile down the road, grabbing another gear, “Them boys just don’t take their work serious enough.” We had that to hold us together, and baseball—more than once we stood through Sunday doubleheaders to watch the Birmingham Barons play, then rushed home to work on my fielding until dark—and it seemed like a dream that would never end.
The breaking away began, of course, with that confusing night when I found him with his defenses down. W e didn’thave the trips together or the baseball any more—l had been jolted awake to the fact that I would never make it to the major leagues when I lasted only five days m spring training with a pathetic Class D club—and now I was cutting the umbilical, going off to college. In the college atmosphere, lost in a crowd of people whose fathers were doctors and architects and owners of legitimate businesses, I began to develop the notion that my old man was somebody to be ashamed of. It struck me for the first time that there had never been a book around our house, that my old man’s English was atrocious and that his business associates tended to be unlettered itinerants spending their dim lives driving other people’s trucks from one warehouse to another. I painfully learned that he, being a man of instinct rather than intellect, had been incapable of instructing me in any of the social graces now facing me, including sex. It occurred to me that while my friends were being staked to automobiles and off-campus apartments and fraternity initiation fees, I was having to serve up chow in a series of dining halls and work at summer jobs simply to stay in school. This was, remember, the 1950s, when we of the Silent Generation were in college for girls, football, parties and secure positions with big companies. Now my old man was no longer a character or a folk hero or even a champion to me; he was, as we say, tacky.
Which is not to say I had not been reminded of this before. He had always been the maverick in that great sprawling body on my mother’s side referred to as The Family. One uncle sold insurance. Another was a career man with Internal Revenue. Another was a mechanic. The other uncle was, the best I could determine, a freelance inventor; but then, his wife hadn’t let him out in years. It was a huge family, one that had in the early years knelt at the feet of my maternal grandfather—an imposing white-haired patriarch who reminded me of John L. Lewis and was respectfully called “Daddy Nelson”—and my old man had set the ground rules very soon after his marriage into The Family by refusing to cater to “the old man,” as he doggedly called him. His irreverence on that score, and on dozens of others, had made him an outcast, a role he seemed to relish. He drank. He didn’t believe in church. He talked loud and told blue jokes. He stated that the inventor had more brains than anybody in the bunch, he implied that being a deacon in the church was as good a way as any to sell insurance policies, and he was unable to fulfill his duties as a pallbearer at one relative’s funeral when he warmed up to the task with a few snorts of bourbon on an empty stomach. He worked with his hands, often outside the law, and to a group bent on attaining respectability—garden clubs, Sunday school, college, newer cars and bigger houses—he was, more often than not, a pain in the ass.
Meantime, I had finished school, gotten married, begun to write sports and to understand that I hadn’t seen much of the world at all. I had hitchhiked around a lot in pursuit of baseball clubs needing second basemen and I had covered a lot of miles in a truck with my old man, but it had been like running in place. After spending a year in France with an Air National Guard unit during John Kennedy’s “Berlin Crisis,” a year of enforced leisure in which I introduced myself to literature and found that a lot had happened in the world in 1946 besides the Cardinals’ winning of the World Series, I returned knowing that I had to do two things: quit writing about games, and get the hell out of Birmingham. By 1965 I found myself a daily columnist on The Atlanta Journal, featured prominently on the second page and free to write about anything—politics, Vietnam, sports, strippers—a sort of Jimmy Breslin, Dixie branch. But the real issue then was, of course, civil rights, and I found I was poorly equipped to handle it. I didn’t have the education or experience or, most important of all, the personal association with black people.
I had been raised by a Negro maid named Louvenia, never thinking to ask why she took her lunch on the back porch, and had grown up throwing rocks and jeering at a lanky fellow known as Nigger Charles as he ran from school to the shantytown that sat on a pile of scarred red dirt beyond our shaded neighborhood in Birmingham. My old man had always said they were shiftless and smelled bad and were not to be associated with, but the only opportunity I had to investigate that was when I played semipro baseball in Kansas with a dusky little local outfielder named Hank Scott; he turned out to be energetic, bright, deodorized and, to my astonishment, more of a soul brother to me than some of the white teammates from places like Chicago and St. Louis.
No, Louvenia and Nigger Charles and Hank Scott represented the only connections I had in what they were beginning to call the black community, unless you want to throw in the swarthy laborers who had always met my old man at the docks to help unload, and I had some homework to do. Not that I was alone in the South. Maybe the kids who grew up on a farm where there was nobody else to play ball with except the sharecroppers sons had prior relationships with the Negro, but most of my friends had never faced anything like that. We had blindly accepted the proposition that Negroes were inferior and should therefore be kept in their place—the back of the bus, the balcony of the theater, the “nigger bleachers” at the ballpark, and in their own churches and schools and restaurants—and now we had to make a decision: fight desegregation or work for it.
I must say that my old man made it easy for me. During the time I was living under his roof he had seldom felt it necessary to comment on the balance of the races, but the sight of those uppity folks actually demanding service in white Southern restaurants during the early 1960s drove him into a frenzy. This wasn’t my old man. It was somebody else. An autographed 8 x 10 of George Wallace showed up on the family piano. He quit hiring blacks to help him unload—at his age rolling into his trailer tires that sometimes weighed 500 pounds. He applauded the Birmingham Barons’ decision to drop out of the Southern Association rather than play integrated baseball. He talked about reactivating his father’s old squirrel rifle, which hadn’t been fired in at least 40 years. He discussed moving out of the old neighborhood. Once, on a visit with me when I was temporarily separated from my wife, he raved on and on about Communists and niggers and Catholics and Jews without addressing himself to my anguish. A trip to visit the folks in Birmingham invariably developed into an incredible one-way conversation: “This old boy out in Texas was telling me all about Jackie and those Secret Service agents . . . That’s all right, I know old Rastus McGill won’t let y’all say anything when you get out of Atlanta, but everybody knows he’s getting paid by Moscow . . . You talkin’ ’bout Martin Luther Coon? . . . Now that Strom Thurmond, that’s a man for you . . .” Ralph McGill paid from Moscow? Jackie Kennedy pleasuring the Secret Service? I mean, there are times when it doesn’t take an expert to sort out the truth. I became a liberal, through the back door.
During the last of the 1960s, then, our relationship, what there was left of it, caved in from what should have been peripheral pressures. He became just as convinced I was a freaky Communist as I was certain he was the last of the great racists, and one thing I did that I regret was to say it in my column. Not because I consider it an especially cheap shot to talk about your father like that in print or because it might have disturbed him, but because it made him polarize even further. Funny things were happening in The Family. After being bombarded by Freedom Riders and Martin Luther King and church bombers and police dogs, it seemed as though everybody in Birmingham was preparing to give the world 24 hours to get out of town. There had been a time when my old man’s audacious verbosity made him tacky, but now The Family was rallying around him as though he were some kind of proletarian prophet. “Well, now, Paul was telling me he heard over in Louisiana the other day how the nigras are being paid, yes paid, to, ah, go looking for young white girls and, ah . . . ,” said with some authority because my old man was, after all, as everybody knew, the one in The Family who traveled a lot and talked to different people.
Birmingham became a nice place for me to stay away from, what with one cousin being promoted to an executive position with the John Birch Society and my sister’s husband building a house on an elevated cul-de-sac and actually saying, if I remember correctly, that he would be.better able to “get a bead on ‘em when they start coming. Jesus. How the hell do you talk with them, reason with them,when their nostrils are flaring and their mouths are clucking while we all sit around the color television watching Daley’s cops riot in Chicago at the convention?Communists, everyone of ‘em. Enraged: Hell, they’re just kids. Calmly, smugly: Prove they ain’t Communists, then maybe I’ll believe it. Somebody, help.
“. . . never even a book in our house when I was growing up, and Auburn was better known then for its football players .and engineers than for its writers and thinkers. So I feel, in a sense, the Nieman program was made for somebody like me. I feel I can come to a better understanding of the South and people like my father by spending a year away from it all, in the academic atmosphere of Harvard . . .”
Each year a dozen newspapermen from all over the country are selected as Nieman Fellows, to spend a school year doing whatever they want to do at Harvard: reading, attending lectures, sleeping, drinking. The year is intended to put a spit-shine on promising young journalists, and it can be a good year if you handle it right. I mean, you don’t have to lift a finger for a whole year. At the suggestion of Dan Wakefield, the writer, who had been a Nieman once, I started filling out applications in the spring of 1968. I had the vague notion that maybe a year away from the South and The Family would help me put some things into perspective—”Give ‘em some of that poor-Southern-boy stuff and you’re in,” I was advised—but mainly I was running from the writing of six 1,000-word columns a week. I mentioned the possibility of a year at Harvard to my old man once, and all I got was a knowing smile. Then a wire came, saying I had been one of those picked, and I called Birmingham with the great news. “Mama, I won that fellowship,” I yelled over the phone. ‘What school did you say that was?” she replied. “Harvard, Mama.” In the background I could hear my old man’s response, and it didn’t take much imagination to guess what he might be saying. Went ahead and joined the damned Party, didn’t he? As far as he knew, the Nieman Fellows was an organization of Communist fags.
The joke was, as it turned out, on both of us. The atmosphere at Harvard was so academic it was overwhelming, eventually sending me into a shell I was unable to come out of. Among my fellow Niemans were two Moscow correspondents, a former Pulitzer reporter and a fellow who had once run errands for Scotty Reston at The New York Times. While many of the others had been fighting in the trenches of the civil rights push five years earlier, I had been picking up ten bucks a game as official scorer for the Augusta Yankees of the Class AA Sally League. Talk about your cultural shock. I was pretty good at drinking beer at Cronin’s, but when they broke out the sherry at the Faculty Club and Galbraith started in on the industrial state I began getting a headache.
But there was more. It dawned on me, after too many boring cocktail parties with too many terribly proper New Englanders, that what I was really missing at Harvard was the sweaty passion for life I had always taken for granted while growing up in the South. There was a superficiality, a sterility, in Cambridge—even among most of the Southern kids I met, who were, after all, from a different South than I—which was neatly packaged for me by a lady at one of those parties who told me, straining to be sympathetic, that she had been to the South and found it to be not nearly as bad as everybody thought: she and her husband had spent the night in Atlanta on the way to Miami Beach, and found the South to be altogether delightful. So I was able to develop a handy catch-all theory about life: that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who live life and those who ponder it. And I learned that a good way to break the routine at the parties was to get off in a corner and regale them with highly embellished stories about my old man and Junior Johnson and Roy Acuff—How quaint. Tell us about Johnny Cash’s years in prison—and the time to go back home didn’t come soon enough. The year at Harvard was the most profitable year I ever spent, for the wrong reasons.
Going back, then, I had a new frame of reference within which to view my old man. I had taken some 15 years to finally accept him for what he was—to discover why he wasn’t perfect and then to determine how he made up for not being perfect. I knew, now, that I had to overlook his racial hangups—we would just have to ride that one out, It being too late for him to be changed—and search for the larger truths he had left me: an involvement with and a passion for life, a willingness to take on the world If necessary, the courage to endure. That’s the word—endure—a word not so fashionable as it once was. Instead of bending or running when the blows came pouring down on his head—his wife harping on security and respectability, his children acting ashamed of him, the unions killing his way of life—he stood and fought and, if forced to retreat, was still standing there, bloody, throwing rocks and cussing, when they found him. About all a man should be asked to do, when it comes to raising sons, is somehow to see that there is a slight improvement in the species. It’s a hell of a burden.
He is 62 now, and those riotous days and nights of scrambling on the open road are faint memories. In the mid-1950s he chose to make it on his own rather than join a union or go with a big company, and by 1961 the unions were so strong that it was all over for the independent. Today he does some driving and bidding and odd jobs—”nigger work,” he calls it—for a Syrian in Birmingham who owns a surplus tire company, lives in an $80,000 house and can’t begin to understand what makes my old man tick. He and, my mother live serenely in a comfortable brick house where there is an expensive organ for him to play, as well as a piano; they have plenty of friends their age, and they go to Florida several times a year to inspect the converted swampland they plan to retire to in two or three years. Not everything is right with him—his job is dull, and his wife makes more money working at the Social Security office than he ever made trucking—but he manages to keep up a facade.
Two weeks before the 30th anniversary of his entry into trucking, we took a trip together. A fellow in Louisville was selling out his tire business and my old man was going up to take the rest of the tires off his hands. On a Saturday afternoon we left in a pitiful faded red truck—no fuel gauge, leaky heater, bad brakes, no radio, dusty lopsided trailer behind—and for a while, chugging up the trough into Middle Tennessee, both of us were trying to pretend it was the same. “Call that Jew Overdrive,” he cracked, cutting the engine to coast down a hill. We stopped off to watch the Opry from backstage—”Sure wish that pretty Jean Shepard ['A Dear John Letter'] was here”—before plugging on toward Louisville. From eight in the morning until two. Sunday afternoon he loaded huge surplus aircraft tires into the trailer, in the rain, with the help of a couple of white boys and an aging Negro named Clem Miller (“Yessuh, yo’ Daddy can go almost as hard as I can”), and after some sleep at a cheap motel across the river in Indiana we got up around two o’clock in the morning and headed back.
It wasn’t really the same anymore. All I had to do was look at the truck he was driving, to observe the meaningless work he was doing, to see that. I noticed, when we stopped for breakfast at an obscure roadside diner, that he had trouble reading the menu. But we tried, passing a bottle of Scotch back and forth, laughing at the stories, creaking through Nashville as the streets jammed with Monday morning traffic: “Yeah, that time there was this fellow just handed me $150 cash up in Delaware and told me where to deliver these aircraft parts in Atlanta. Saved him some money, made me some . . . At least two and a half million miles without an accident chargeable to me . . . Hell, if you’re driving a Greyhound they can fire you just because some little old lady didn’t like your looks . . . I was representing all 82 of the drivers at Alabama Highway, see, and when I told this union organizer we didn’t want to join up, he just looked at me real cold and said, ‘Well, we can’t be responsible,’ and I said, ‘For what?’ and he said, ‘If you get a brick through your windshield somewhere.’” And about the time the ICC almost nailed him in California, where he had some unpaid fines hanging: “Didn’t want ‘em to know my name, so I told ‘em I didn’t even have a license, was just helping out my buddy there who had passed out in the truck after drinking all night. ‘Yeah, I’m from Tennessee, just came along to see California, can’t get back home fast enough,’ I told ‘em. Never bothered to look in the truck. Think he just got tired of hearin’ me talk.” And disgust for the new breed of trucker: “Some of ‘em been to college. Got credit cards now, company rigs, and if they break down they just call collect and have ‘em send somebody out to fix it.”
We got back into Birmingham in the afternoon, dropped off the load of old tires and went by the house. While we waited for my mother to come home from work, we sat alone in the cool, darkened living room that I have never known and he sipped a beer and entertained me at the organ. Mama’s taking lessons,” he said, “and I just watch and do what she does. Teacher says he’s gonna start chargin’ double. Then I said something about how it sure wasn’t like it used to be, his work and his life, not knowing how he would take it, and he quit playing and slowly turned around on the bench . . . “If something was to happen to your mother, I’d be back out on the road in a minute,” he said. “There’s days I’ll be sitting on the yard downtown, nothing to do but drink bourbon and chase it with a six-pack, and out on the expressway I’ll hear some old boy in a rig whistle and get another gear, and it gets to me. Hell, yes, I miss it. It’s the only thing I ever wanted to do. Tell your boy, David, he better hurry if he wants to ride with me.”
The late Paul Hemphill was often called the Jimmy Breslin of the South but that doesn’t do him justice. He wasn’t just a brilliant columnist. His first book, “The Nashville Sound” remains one of the great books ever written about country music. And his baseball novel, “Long Gone,”later made into a fun and now over-looked movie (it was shown on HBO the year before “Bull Durham” came out), is a treat. Do yourself a favor and read Hemphill’s classic piece,“Quitting the Paper,” and then pick up one of his collections. This story comes from “The Good Old Boys” and is reprinted here with permission from Hemphill’s wife, Susan Percy.
Ten years ago my cousin, known round these parts as edoubletrouble, gave me a thoughtful birthday gift: Dispatches from the Sporting Life, a collection of Mordecai Richler’s sports writing. It’s a terrific book and a fine introduction to Richler, born and raised in Montreal, who was one of Canada’s premier novelists, essayists, and satirists. His most famous books are The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Barney’s Version, both made into feature films, though this generation may know him more for the Jacob Two-Two series of children’s stories. Richler died on July 3, 2001.
This here piece we bring to you cause the Stanley Cup Finals begin tonight. Originally published in Inside Sports in January 1981.
What Hockey Needs is More Violence”
By Mordecai Richler
Nudging 50, I find it increasingly difficult to cope with a changing world. Raised to be a saver, for instance, I now find myself enjoined by the most knowledgeable economists to fork out faster than I can earn, borrowing whenever possible. But the rate they are encouraging me to borrow at from my friendly bank manager is what I once understood to be usury. In the kitchen of my boyhood my mother cooked on a wood fire, because we couldn’t afford better, but now that I’ve grown up to heat my country home with oil, I am scorned by modish neighbors, many of whom are rich enough to re-equip with antique stoves, burning wood again. A couple of years ago, after taking in a World Series game at Yankee Stadium with author Wilfrid Sheed, the two of us found ourselves in midtown Manhattan, looking for a friendly bar where we could round off an enjoyable evening. As we passed a celebrated boîte on Second Avenue, I said, “Why don’t we go in there?”
“You don’t understand,” Sheed admonished me, a visitor from Montreal. “If we go in there, two men together, they’ll put us in the roped-off section for gays.”
A year earlier a militant feminist press in Canada had published a hockey book titled She Shoots! She Scores! It turned out to be very topical stuff, because an irate Ontario father later sued a bantam hockey league for not allowing his daughter to play, thereby depriving her of the possibility of growing up to be taken into the boards, as it were, by Dave Schultz or Paul Holmgren. A mind-boggling thought. Since then, we’ve had Scoring, The Art of Hockey, by Hugh Hood, with images by Seymour Segal. It is the book serious students of the game have been waiting for, the one that dares to ask, “Which came first, the penis or the puck?” Scoring offers the definitive answer to why so many American fans can’t follow the puck on TV. It isn’t because they lack puck sense. Rather, the psychologically informed Hood writes, “this seems a clear instance of sublimated sexual anxiety. Where is the little fellow?” Furthermore, the reasonable author observes, “one wants to know where the puck is at all times,” and then he throws in the kicker, “especially if one is a goalie, who occupies the most womanly position in contact sport.”
Obviously, there’s a whole new world out there. Me, I’m not only dizzy, I’m also resentful, if only because in confusing times sports used to be a consolation. An unchanging vista, its values constant. From the time I saw my first baseball game until now, the distance from home plate to first base has measured 90 feet. Though most of us can no longer afford it, a championship boxing match is still scheduled for 15 rounds. To win a hockey game you still have to score more goals than the opposition, but, alas, just about everything else in the game has changed.
Major league hockey, the game I grew up with during its vintage years, used to be played in six cities: Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Boston and New York. The 50-game season began in November, and the playoffs, involving the top four teams, were done with in March, when there was still snow on the streets of Montreal. Violence was an intrinsic part of the game, and any player over 16 who still had his front teeth in place was adjudged a sissy. One night Dick Irvin, who took over as coach of the Montreal Canadiens in 1940, rejuvenating a team that had failed to win the Stanley Cup for nine years, looked down his bench and said, ” I know what’s wrong here. Your faces are unmarked. I don’t see any stitches. I don’t see any shiners.”
It was Conn Smythe, owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who made the immortal pronouncement, “If you can’t beat ‘em in the alley, you can’t beat ‘em in the rink.” Smythe, who died at the age of 85 in November, bought the Toronto St. Patricks in 1927, changing their name to the Maple Leafs, providing at once both a challenge to the Canadiens and philologists. Recalling the legendary owner, Dink Carroll of the Montreal Gazette observed, “You know that pro hockey was so rough back in the early ’20s that it kept Smythe away for years? Hockey was the very end back then. The players were considered just a cut above bank robbers. When they came down the street people would cross over to avoid them. But when Smythe finally got into it, he eliminated a lot of woodchopping and got them good sweaters and made them comb their hair.
“It makes me laugh when they talk about violence in hockey today. You may not believe me but guys like Newsy Lalonde and Mean Joe Hall and Sprague Cleghorn and Lionel Hitchman were out to kill each other. Ching Johnson of the Rangers had a smile on his face the whole game, smashing everybody he could get close to with his stick.
“When they weren’t on the ice, they were in court half the time, for breaking up bars and fighting. I guess you could say there was a pioneer spirit in hockey back then.”
In the ’40s, when I first warmed to the game, goalies had yet to be pronounced womanly. Even later, none of us dreamed of a date with Gump Worsley, however cuddly he appeared between the pipes. In those days goalies did not look like witch doctors and you could read their faces when they stood to counter a three-on-one. During the offseason the players nursed their cracked ribs and scarred faces while driving beer trucks, helping to bring in the wheat on the family farm or working in the mines. A players’ union? Doug Harvey, the greatest defenseman ever to wear a Canadien sweater, began to make dissident noises about a players’ union and was condemned to the NHL’s Gulag the following season. He wore a Ranger uniform in 1961. Harvey, who now sharpens skates in his brother’s Montreal sports shop on weekends, never had a salary of more than $21,500 a year as a Canadien.
Today so-called major league hockey is played in 21 cities, the 80-game season begins early in October, before the World Series starts, and the playoffs, involving 16 teams, end in May, long after the next baseball season has begun. Salaries are prodigious. Marcel Dionne has signed a new contract with Los Angeles for $600,000 a year. Wayne Gretzky’s escalating contract with oil-rich Edmonton calls for millions over the next 20 years. If you talk to the players they will, understandably, tell you the game is burgeoning. So will NHL officials. But among the fans complaints abound:
1) The season is too long.
2) Frenetic expansion has led to too many yawners. Obvious mismatches.
3) There’s too much violence in the game.
Happily, I can report that these complaints originate either with Canadian soreheads who feel that the vile Americans, to whom we have already yielded Paul Anka, snowmobiles and the RCAF exercise book, have now also pilfered our national game, vulgarizing it in the hope of appealing to yahoos everywhere. Or with sexually sublimated Americans who obviously suffer from puck-envy. A post-Freudian malaise rampant in expansion cities. The truth is that far from there being too much violence in hockey, there is not enough anymore. But to deal with these ill-informed complaints in order:
1) The familiar argument proffered by ignorant fans runs that it is somewhat silly to play a total of 840 games, which settle nothing, and then embark on a round of playoffs that call for 16 of 21 teams to fight it out for the Stanley Cup. At least one owner, Howard Baldwin of the Hartford Whalers, also suffers from a short attention span. “I think,” he said recently, “we should condense the season and start on November 1, ending on March 30 but still playing 80 games. The playoffs should end by May 1, no later, and only 12 teams, not 16, should qualify.”
What Baldwin and many fans fail to grasp is that the season, far from being too long, is now too short. The so-called regular season, properly looked at, is no more than an endless exhibition series, which brings something reminiscent of real hockey to such hitherto deprived outposts as Washington, St. Louis, Calgary and Denver. Over the long wintry haul, the bored and jet-weary players only go all out in short spurts, usually when they are hoping to renegotiate a contract they pronounced binding only the year before. Who cares, who even remembers, who won the Norris or Smythe Division titles in 1976? The real season, the one that counts, the battle for the Stanley Cup, begins in April. Starting this second season in the spring provides jaded players with the novel opportunity to fight it out in fog, as in Buffalo in 1975, or at least on such soft slushy ice as to reduce the flying Canadiens to slow slithering idiots. With further expansion, a game which owes something to lacrosse will inevitably acknowledge its debt to water polo.
2) It’s true that expansion to 21 teams has made for a number of uneven contests, but this has not gone undetected by those purists who unfailingly put the fan’s interest before the owner’s profit, namely the savants who comprise the NHL Board of Governors. These skilled observers have noted that when the Winnipeg Jets (one win in their first 28 games) play Montreal or the Islanders they seldom get to touch the puck, never mind slip it into the net, and so, if only to accommodate this disability, there will be a rule change next season. Remember, you read it here first. Next season in certain games between unevenly matched teams there will be no puck whatsoever put into play, allowing the sportsmen on both sides to have a go at each other without unnecessary distractions. This will enable Winnipeg right wing James Edward Mann, who scored all of three goals and five assists last season, but led the league in penalty minutes (287), to prove that behemoths belong.
3) Which brings us to the question of violence.
When we talk about violence in the NHL today, one team immediately springs to mind. The Philadelphia Flyers, a.k.a. the Broad Street Bullies, whose aggregation, even without the fabled talents of Dave Schultz, still hold the following records:
Most penalty minutes, one team, one game: 194, the Flyers, March 11, 1979, at Philadelphia against the Kings. The Flyers received seven minors, eight majors, six 10-minute misconducts and eight game misconducts.
Most penalties, one team, one period: 31, the Flyers, February 22, 1980, at Vancouver, third period. The Flyers received 12 minors, 10 majors, one 10-minute misconduct and eight game misconducts.
Most minor penalties, 1979-80: 499, the Flyers again.
But the Broad Street Bullies had the most points in the regular season last year. And when they won Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975, they led the league in penalty minutes each season.
Item: In the most thrilling hockey event most Canadians can remember, the series that pitched Team Canada against the Soviets in 1972, Bobby Clarke grasped that there was no legitimate way of stopping the superb Valery Kharlamov, and so he did the next best thing: He whacked him over the ankles with his stick, taking him out of the game. “I realized,” Clarke said, “I had to do anything to win.” Put plainly, violence pays, and in the case of Clarke, it also shows what a patriotic Canadian boy is made of. Or does it?
Because the question we must now ask ourselves is: Is it violence? Or sexual abandon? Or, God help us, even attempted rape? Which brings me back to the burning question posed by Hugh Hood: “Which comes first, the penis or the puck?”
Hood replies: “In a general way, mind you, without making a mystery of it, we guess that the penis came first, and continues to come first in the sense that it directs the occasions of fecundity. If it—or something like it—doesn’t go in, no goal, no baby. The race is continued by sperm and egg, not the conjunction of that black rubber disk and the space enclosed by the Art Ross Safety Net.”
The difficulty inherent in writing this piece for fans who haven’t read Scoring is akin to addressing a group of scientists who are as yet unaware that the atom has been split, its energy harnessed. After Scoring, nothing will ever be the same again. Hockey is no longer seen through a glass darkly. Instead, its very essence has been illuminated.
Consider, for instance, what the uninformed once took to be a rink, and no more. “Looking down at the ice surface from a height,” Hood writes, “what you see is a human body, admittedly without head or arms or legs. A torso. The space, 200 feet by 85, has about the same proportions as a human trunk, with nipples marked on it and a navel—the point where the action always begins. . . . The spectators form a body, and the players seem more like blood in a torso than anything else, eternally circulating as red or white corpuscles wearing contrasting jerseys. The body is the name of the game.”
Conversely, of course, our bodies are filled with jerseyed red and white draft choices, some of them dandy playmakers. Our chests, properly considered, boast two faceoff circles. Which is to say, within every one of us there is a hockey league, eternally circulating. Cut yourself, and the good corpuscles clear the bench and rush to defend the infected area. It thenfollows, logically, that violence is no more than a healthy body defending itself. Against infection here, Paul Holmgren there.
Hood is especially rewarding on the sexual nature of the game. “There may be people to whom sex is a metaphor for hockey, an outer appearance containing a real inner struggle. Making love, such people, usually male, imagine themselves faking to their left, circling the goal, persuading the goalie to go down, then slipping it in on their backhand.” Astutely, Hood points out what should have been obvious to us before. The Art Ross Safety Net, only adopted by the NHL in 1936, is an image of the female body.
Or, put another way, Gordie Howe, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer, was a satyr. Constantly thrusting at the opposition nets, Phil Esposito, Bobby Hull and Maurice Richard were also sex-crazed, though we didn’t understand it at the time. Furthermore, once we have accepted the image of the goalie as womanly, we can understand that certain defensemen, traditionally pronounced unnecessarily violent, are actually gallant defenders of their goalperson’s virtue. Standing tall at the blue line, swinging their sticks with abandon, all to defend Chico Resch or Rogie Vachon from assault by Guy Lafleur, Mike Bossy or Marcel Dionne. It also follows that some of the game’s low-scoring forwards, players we took to be inept, are actually well brought up kids, too nice to go the limit—that is to say, slip the puck into the net—with some 16,000 howling fans (or voyeurs) cheering them on.
Properly understood, what today’s game needs is less blatant sex or scoring, more manly fighting spirit. What’s called for is more forechecking, less foreplay.
Mind you, this is not to suggest that so-called hockey violence can only be defended on grounds of sexual propriety on ice. The new rule designed to cut down on bench-clearing brawls, the rule that calls for a game misconduct for the third man into a fight, is (a) bound to even further limit the possibility of an American network contract for hockey and (b) especially directed against one team, the Montreal Canadiens.
If Americans, new to the game, can’t follow the puck on TV, they can certainly follow and identify with flying fists. More bench-clearing brawls, on a medium already attuned to violence, could only lead to popularity for a grand game.
Of course, we will have to get rid of the spoilsport—the referees—who tend to wrestle players to the ice just as their punches are beginning to tell. An obvious refinement of the curved-stick blade would be one sharpened to come to a point. It also would be exhilarating if fights could be continued in the penalty box and players were allowed to pursue taunting fans into the stands, with rows one to 10 being declared a free fire zone.
Older fans will remember that a minor penalty once lasted two minutes, no matter how many goals the team with the manpower advantage scored. But in the 1950s, the Montreal power-play (Beliveau, Richard, Geoffrion. Olmstead, Moore) proved so overwhelming, sometimes scoring three times in two minutes. that the rule was revised in 1956 to allow the penalized player to return after only one goal had been scored. Similarly, it is now common knowledge that a Canadien rookie is fortunate indeed to get on ice for more than a shift a game. His only other opportunity to stretch his legs during a game is a bench-clearing fight. The new rule is obviously calculated to render him sedentary and therefore a diminishing threat in his sophomore year.
Finally, I’m surprised that sociologists have failed to notice the obvious correlation between violence on the ice and the safety of Canadian streets. While muggers proliferate on the streets of Detroit, New York and Boston, prowling the streets after dark, nobody feels threatened in Montreal, Toronto or Calgary, even if tempted to take a 1 a.m. stroll downtown. This is because we have cunningly put our potential muggers into team sweaters, shoving them out on the ice, paying then handsomely to spear, slash and high stick or whatever.
Even our judiciary is aware or the Canadian solution and reacts accordingly. When Wayne Maki of the St. Louis Blues was brought before an Ottawa judge in 1970, charged with assault causing bodily harm for using his stick to fracture the skull of Boston’s Ted Green during an exhibition game, he was acquitted. Judge M.J. Fitzpatrick later found Green not guilty as well. “When a player enters an arena,” he decreed, “he is consenting to a great number of what otherwise might be regarded as assaults. The game of hockey could not possibly be played unless those engaging in it were willing to accept these assaults.”