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.”
A treat from Mark Jacobson. Originally published in Esquire in 1984 and anthologized in Teenage Hipster in the Modern World, a stellar collection of Jacobson’s non-fiction. Reprinted here with the author’s permission.
Michael Jordan is certainly the greatest basketball player of all time, but Julius Erving, the incomparable Doctor J, is my all-time favorite. No one ever gave me as much pleasure watching any kind of game. Since his retirement, Julius has been the subject of a number of distressing headlines, exactly the sort of stuff he sought to avoid during his career. He acknowledged the tennis player Alexandria Stevenson to be his out-of-wedlock daughter. Later, his son Cory drove his car into a lake in Florida and drowned. These are unfortunate, sad events, but even more so when connected to someone like Julius, who was once so effortlessly perfect. I’ve written numerous articles on sports figures, most of them basketball players, but Julius remains my number one. The fact that he used to pick me up at the Philadelphia train station in his Maserati, nearly unthinkable for a current-day player, is still one of highlights of my career. From Esquire, 1984.
I went for a ride through downtown Philadelphia with Julius Erving in his Maserati the other day, and with each passing block it became more apparent: Julius cannot drive very well. It wasn’t a question of reckless speed or ignored signals. Rather, he seemed unsure, tentative. His huge, famous hands clutched the steering wheel a bit too tightly, his large head craned uncomfortably toward the slope of the windshield. He accelerated with a lurch; there was no smooth rush of power. Obvious openings in the flow of traffic went unseen or untried. All in all, it reflected a total absence of feel.
This struck me as amusing—Julius Erving, the fabulous Doctor of the court, driving a Maserati with an automatic transmission.
Just an hour before, I’d compared the act of seeing Julius play basketball to Saint Francis watching birds in flight. It was my Ultimate Compliment. When a reporter with pretensions meets an Official Legend, especially a Sports Legend, it is mandatory to concoct the Ultimate Compliment, something beyond a plebeian “gee whiz.” Something along the lines of the august Mailer’s referring to Ali as a Prince of Heaven, whose very gaze caused men to look down. Or, perhaps, Liebling’s mentioning that Sugar Ray Robinson had “slumberland in either hand.” Saint Francis was what I’d come up with.
Viewing Doctor J move to the hoop inspired what I imagined to be an awe similar to what Saint Francis felt sitting in a field with the sparrows buzzing overhead, I told Julius. It was as if a curtain had been parted, affording a peek into the Realm of the Extraordinary, a marvelous communication that ennobled both the watcher and the watched equally. What wonders there are in the Kingdom of God! How glorious they are to behold!
“What you do affirms the supremacy of all beings,” I told Julius as we sat in the offices of the Erving Group, a holding company designed to spread around the wads of capital Julius has accumulated during his career as Doctor J. Large gold-leaf plaques calling Julius things like TASTEE CAKE PLAYER OF THE YEAR dot the walls. “Seeing you play basketball has enriched my life,” I finished.
“Thanks, thanks a lot,” Julius said politely. Then again, Julius is always polite. It was obvious, my Ultimate Compliment clearly did not knock his socks off. It was as if he were saying, “Funny thing, you’re the third guy who’s told me that today.”
Every serious hoop fan remembers the first time he saw Julius Erving play basketball. My grandfather, a great New York Giants baseball fan, probably had the same feeling the first time he ever saw Willie Mays go back on a fly ball. There was Julius, mad-haired and scowl-faced, doing what everyone else did, rebounding, scoring, passing, but doing it with the accents shifted from the accepted but now totally humdrum position to a new, infinitely more thrilling somewhere else. Who was this man with two Jewish names who came from parts unknown with powers far greater than the mortal Trailblazer?
Flat out, there was nothing like him. No one had ever taken off from the foul line as if on a dare, cradled the ball above his head, and not come down until he crashed it through the hoop. Not like that, anyway. Julius acknowledges a debt to Elgin Baylor, whom he calls “the biggest gazelle, the first of the gliders,” but, to the stunned observer, the Doctor seemed to arrive from outside the boundaries of the game itself. His body, streamlined like none before him, festooned by arms longer and hands bigger, soared with an athletic ferocity matched only by the mystical, unprecedented catapult of Bob Beamon down the Mexico City runway, or by the screaming flight of Bruce Lee.
Has any other individual in team sports radically altered the idea of how his particular game should be played to the degree Julius has? Jackie Robinson? Babe Ruth? Jim Brown? A more instructive comparison would be someone like Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio was impeccable, the nonpareil. He was simply better. Yet there is something hermetic about Joe DiMaggio. He did what everyone else did, but with incomparable excellence. Joe’s exemplariness is to be admired, but it doesn’t offer a whole program of reform. His greatness is a dead end, specific to Joe and Joe alone. Julius, on the other hand, may not have invented the slam dunk, the finger roll, or the hanging rebound—the entire airborne game in general. But he certainly popularized it, and by doing so he announced that others could follow in his footsteps, even surpass him. Seeing Julius fly to the hoop spread the news: it can be done, so do it. Nine years ago Julius appeared alone in his ability to go pyrotechnic at any time. This past year, however, lined up against a gaggle of his poetic offspring, “human highlight film” youngbloods like Dominique Wilkins and Larry Nance, Julius was content to make his final attempt a running foul-line takeoff: the “classical” dunk, a bit of archaeology demonstrated by the father of the form.
Befitting the matter-of-factness of a legend discussing his craft, Julius is not falsely modest about his contributions to the game. In the clinical fashion he employs when delineating the x’sand o’s of his profession, he says, “I’d say I’ve had an effect in three main areas. First, I have taken a smaller man’s game, ball-handling, passing, and the like, and brought it to the front court. Second, I’ve taken the big man’s game, rebounding, shot-blocking, and been able to execute that even though I’m only six-foot-six. What I’ve tried to do is merge those two types of games, which were considered to be separate—for instance, Bill Russell does the rebounding, Cousy handles the ball—and combine them into the same player. This has more or less changed the definition of what’s called the small forward position, and it creates a lot more flexibility for the individual player, and, of course, creates a lot more opportunities for the whole team. The third thing I’ve tried to do, and this is the most important thing, is to make this kind of basketball a winning kind of basketball, taking into account a degree of showmanship that gets people excited. My overall goal is to give people the feeling they are being entertained by an artist—and to win.”
Then Julius laughs and says, “You know, the playground game … refined.”
In Roosevelt, New York, the lower-middle-class, largely black Long Island community where he grew up, there is a playground with a sign that says THIS IS WHERE JULIUS ERVING LEARNED THE GAME OF BASKETBALL. Herein lies Julius’s triumph. He successfully transmuted the black playground game and brought that cutthroat urban staple to its most sumptuous fruition. He, once and for all, no turning back, blackified pro basketball.
He did it by forcing the comparatively staid, grind-it-out, coach-dominated NBA to merge with the old ABA, a semi-outlaw league that played the run-till-you-drop “black” playground game with a garish red, white, and blue ball. Julius was in the ABA, and the older, more established NBA could not allow a phenomenon like Doctor J to exist outside its borders. Most observers feel the NBA absorbed the whole funky ABA, with its three-point shots and idiotic mascots, just to get Julius. Once they did, the entire product of pro basketball was refocused. Surprise! The ABA, comprising many performers from Podunk Junior College and some who never went to any college, had a lot more than Julius Erving. Many players long scorned by the NBA brass became stars, the incandescent “Ice,” George Gervin, and Moses Malone among them. And there was a lot more running. Before the merger there was only one consistent fast-break team in the NBA, the Celtics. Now, with the ABA people around, it seemed as if the whole league was running, playing the playground game, Julius’s game.
This is not to say Larry Bird isn’t great, no matter where the game is, on the back lawn of Buckingham Palace or up in Harlem, but blackification was inevitable. No one will really deny that the majority of black players jump higher and run faster than the majority of white players, and that’s what pro ball, as it’s currently constituted, is all about—running and jumping with finesse.
Many people have wondered if all this running is such a good thing. Since the merger and the takeover by the “black” game, the pro sport has suffered reversals. Attendance is uneven and TV ratings are down; rumors of widespread social evils among the players abound. It is difficult to have any in-depth conversation about the status of the league without coming up against the Problem. A league official says, “It’s race, pure and simple. No major sport comes up against it the way we do. It’s just difficult to get a lot of people to watch huge, intelligent, millionaire black people on television.”
When presented with the notion that by elevating his art he may have served to narrow its appeal, Julius says, “It’s unfortunate, but what can be done about what is?” Well, at least the onset of the playground game has exploded several pernicious myths. If there is one thing Julius and his followers (Magic Johnson comes to mind) have proved without a doubt, it’s that just because you play “flashy” doesn’t mean you’re not a team player. No longer is it assumed that the spectacular is really, at its root, just mindless showboating easily thwarted, in the crunch times, by the cunning of a small man chewing a cigar on the coaching lines. Julius’s teams have always won.
For the hoop fan, though, likely the most treasured item concerning Julius Erving remains in that first cataclysmic moment of discovery, that first peek into the Realm of the Extraordinary. This has to do with the nature of the fan, the hoop fan in particular. All team sports have their cognoscenti, gamblers poring over the injury lists, nine-year-old boys with batting averages memorized, but somehow the variety of fan attracted to pro basketball is in a slightly more obsessive class, sweatier, seedier perhaps, but absolutely committed. This type of hoop fan I’m talking about isn’t much different from the jazz buffs of the 1940s and 1950s, white people digging on an essentially black world.
How Julius, the Official Legend, comes into this is that he approached the beady consciousness as Rumor. He was a secret. He wasn’t a well-publicized high school star like Kareem; he went to the University of Massachusetts (a school with no basketball reputation) and then played two years at one of the ABA’s most remote outposts, the Virginia Squires. There was no hoopla surrounding him, no Brent Musburger hyping the size of his smile. The Doctor was something for the grapevine.
It cuts both ways. Probably, by somehow staying out of the limelight (that was easier in 1970) and by choosing not to go to a “big program” school where a crusty Adolph Rupp might have made it a principle to correct all that boy’s strange habits, Julius was left alone to create his wholly new thing. And by virtue of this anonymity, the hoop fan was able to come upon Julius as a wondrous found object.
Magic Johnson, Sugar Ray Leonard—no one is knocking their talents, but they arrived on the scene tied in a bow, sold to anyone within eyeshot of a TV. They will always carry that stigma. Julius, however, remains eternally cool. You had to work to see Julius, seek him out. There wasn’t any cable; maybe you could catch him on an independent station that had been hustled into picking up one of the numerous ABA All-Star games. Even after he came from the Squires to the Nets, then the ABA New York entry, the hoop fan had to ply the forlorn parkways to the Nassau Coliseum to sit with four thousand dour faces expressing regret that they weren’t viewing a hockey game. You had to go out of your way to see Julius. But it was worth it. When you saw that Rumor was Fact, and a far more remarkable Fact than imagined, then you felt like you had your little bond with Julius, that he was in your heart.
That Julius has maintained the quality of play this long is gravy. How do you measure the benefit one gets from seeing beautiful things happen? Sometimes I find myself idly replaying some of Julius’s more astounding moves inside my head. The one against the Lakers in the championship a few years back, the one where he goes behind the backboard and comes around for the reverse layup? Ones like that bring tears to my eyes. Really.
Of course, it can’t last. Last season Julius’s club, the Philadelphia 76ers, for whom he’s played since the league merger in 1976, were mangled by the bedraggled New Jersey Nets, transplanted to the Garden State from Uniondale, New York. It was an upset. The year before the Sixers won the title in a near walkover. Of the thirteen games they played in the championship rounds, they won twelve. The Sixers didn’t come close to repeating. Julius did not have a particularly good series. There were several reasons. For one, it had been a grueling season for the Doc. Numerous Sixer injuries forced him to play many more minutes than he might have wanted to at his age. He responded with perhaps his best year in the past three and had his backers for league MVP. By the playoffs, however, he was weary, worn out. In the last moments of the deciding game he made repeated turnovers and missed key shots. Had a b-ball cognoscenti arrived from Mars right then, dumb to the history of the past fifteen years, he could have watched Julius’s play and pronounced it “ordinary.”
So it goes. Athletes get old, and soon they’re too old to play. In the variety of pro basketball Julius helped create, it happens even quicker. There is no DH in the NBA, and right now Julius, at thirty-four, is among the fifteen oldest guys in the league. If he stays another couple of seasons, as he hints he might, he could be the oldest. His Afro, once wild as a Rorschach blot and seemingly a foot high, is now demurely trimmed and flecked with gray. So it goes: a million dudes with the hot hand down in the schoolyard waiting for the Doctor to roll over so they can get their shot. No tears over that. But it’s this driving that’s upsetting, the way Julius is driving this Maserati with the automatic transmission. It’s all so ordinary, how Julius is driving.
“Don’t ask me any questions or I’ll miss my turn,” Julius says, smiling, as if to comment on his competence.
Then he makes this flabby, too-wide turn off Broad Street. What a deal: soon enough Julius is going to retire from basketball, but likely he’ll be driving that Maserati with the automatic transmission for years to come.
“As it came it can go, as it came it most definitely will go,” he says cheerfully, unaffected by his companion’s gloom. “It won’t really be that big a change for me,” Julius says. “I’ve always thought of myself as a very ordinary guy.”
This is a little tough to swallow, the Doctor an ordinary guy. This is not to say Julius Erving is not a regular guy. Sports-page “class”—Julius is the embodiment of it. Probably no athlete still playing has signed more autographs. His marathon sessions are spoken of with awe. Talking about it, Julius gives a look that asks, “Weren’t you ever a kid?” and says, “Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Should I accommodate today, or go straight ahead?’ and I usually find myself accommodating.” There is a limit, however. Walking through the icebound streets of Milwaukee, a fat guy accosted Julius, screaming, “Doc! Doc! Where’s the other shoe?” Julius frowned. “I gave that guy one of my sneakers three years ago,” he says, “and now, every time we go there, he asks for the other one. Some people are never satisfied.”
As far as hoop reporters are concerned, Julius is the best. “There is no second place,” says a Philly writer. This means that when deadlines are approaching and sweat is popping out on foreheads, Julius can be counted on to produce the proper verbiage, a smooth rap that, without much time-consuming translation, can be plugged into hastily written stories as “game quotes.” It is something Julius works on, like any part of what he calls “my basketball function.” He knows what reporters need and tries to give it to them.
“A courtesy,” Julius says. Ask the right questions (nothing controversial, if you please!) and Julius will, in a voice that makes Frankie Crocker sound shrill, calmly assess the team’s mood for you. He’ll also say that Denver’s Calvin Natt is among the toughest for him to score against, and that it is difficult to play Dallas’s Mark Aguirre because “his butt is so big you can’t get close to him,” and that George Gervin is his favorite player, and that the Knicks’ Bernard King, considered by many the best forward in the league, “will never get up to the level of the real all-timers like, say, Kareem, or myself, because he looks like he’s working too hard. When you reach a level of greatness, there’s a certain added element that goes into making it look easy.”
Mainly, Julius keeps a low profile. He will often make inquiries about jazz—more out of educational desire than passion, for he prefers fusion. You could call him elegantly laid-back, stylish, though certainly you’d never confuse him with Walt Frazier. He is always the clean-living family man and, while sharp, displays little outward flash. He leaves the five-pound jewelry to the Darryl Dawkinses of the world, although he appears to cop no attitude toward the more flamboyant displays, sartorial or otherwise, of his fellows. He has, after all, been around, and not much raises the Doctor’s eyebrow.
In Milwaukee, however, one John Matuszak, late of the Oakland Raiders football team and the movie North Dallas Forty, came close. The Tooz, as he has been known to call himself, appeared unannounced in the Sixers’ locker room, and he was calling some attention to himself. Even in a world of large men, the Tooz stands out. He goes six-foot-eight, about three hundred pounds. In addition, he sports a mug that resembles the sort of hood ornament Screamin’ Jay Hawkins might have mounted on his ’55 DeSoto to ward off unfriendly spirits. This is not to mention his dress on this particular night, which included a black silk coat, tuxedo pants, patent leather shoes, and a white satin tie over a leopard skin print shirt. He was also affecting a manner that would put him right up there for the Bluto part, should a remake of Animal Housebe made anytime soon.
It was the Tooz’s sworn purpose to have both Julius and Moses Malone, the Sixers’ famously intimidating center, join him at one of Milwaukee’s more stylish wateringholes.
First he invited Moses. “Gonna win this year, Moses?” was Tooz’s opener. Moses, no midget himself, was sitting on a stool stark naked. “Yeah, we’re gonna win, ” said Moses, laying on his usual Sonny Liston-style bale.
Then, like a shot, the Tooz was down on one knee. He clasped his palms together and drove them like a hammer into Moses’ thigh. “Don’t say we’re gonna win. Say we gotta win, Moses!!” the Tooz shouted, startling the few stragglers in the locker room. “Come on, Moses,” the Tooz continued, “repeat after me: WE GOTTA WIN!” And, to the amazement of onlookers, Moses, who had not uttered a word in public since telling Philly reporters, “I’ll be making no further comment for the rest of the season,” repeated this after the Tooz. Moses, however, steadfastly refused to have a drink with the former lineman.
Thwarted, the Tooz went looking for Julius, who was in the midst of taking a shower. Unmindful of the water splashing everywhere, the Tooz confided to Julius how much he loved him. “I love you, Doctor!” the Tooz bellowed. Then he said, “Come on, Doctor. The Doctor and the Tooz must have a drink together. I got some friends, it’ll be a party!”
Julius, never rude, thanked the Tooz for his offer but expressed his regrets, citing a 5 a.m. wake-up call the next morning.
“If you’re worried about people hassling you, forget about it,” the Tooz said with understanding. “No one will mess with you if you’re with the Tooz!”
The football player had now stepped over the edge of the shower, his long hair dripping down over his drenched suit.
Backing into the stall, Julius, seemingly unrattled, said. “You’re getting wet, you know that?”
“A drink, that’s all I’m asking,” Tooz repeated, reaching out to wrap his arms around the Doctor. “People love you, man,” the Tooz said with sincerity, “people live to see you do your thing.” Then, clearly disappointed, the Tooz left.
Several moments of silence ensued, during which Julius began to dress and Moses picked tape off his leg. Then Moses looked at Julius sleepily and said, “See those shoes?”
“What about the tie?” Julius said back.
Later Julius smiled and said, sure, it seemed like the Tooz was something of a boor, but you really had to get to know him better before you could say that unequivocally. After all, The Doc is not what you would call judgmental.
Teammates speak of him with healthy degrees of awe and camaraderie. Marc Iavaroni, a marginal forward cut by a couple of lesser NBA clubs before catching on as a “role player” in the Sixers’ system, says, “Playing with the Doc? Don’t pinch me, please. He looks for me. On and off the court. Can you imagine that! Doctor J looking to pass off to Marc Iavaroni? Know how that makes me feel?”
Nearly everyone close enough to Julius to have personal dealings speaks of some small kindness, a birthday remembered, an appreciated pep talk, a good laugh. League officials, always aware of the “image problem” of the sport, tell you how many young players Julius has done right by, how his example is primarily responsible for the “rehabilitation” of Chicago’s troubled Quintin Dailey. Julius’s community awards appear endless. Last year he got the Father Flanagan Award for Service to Youth at Boys Town; previous recipients include Mother Teresa, Danny Thomas, and Spencer Tracy’s wife. The list of charities supported, youth groups spoken to (he read Peter and the Wolf at a special children’s show of the Youth Orchestra of Greater Philadelphia), and hospital wards visited goes on and on.
“All part of my ‘nice-guy image,”‘ Julius says with a wink. He is aware that all these good vibes add up under the economic heading of “Doctor J”: is proud that the Q ratings of his numerous commercial endorsements show him rating higher in “believability” than in “popularity.” “But really,” he says, “I just try to be decent. I try to do the decent thing in the circumstances. Right now I happen to be a well-known professional athlete, so I attempt to be decent within that context. Being nice is pretty normal, I think. If someone was drowning in the river, you’d assume most people would throw them a life preserver. You’d figure most people would do that, under those circumstances. That would be the normal thing to do. That’s what I like to believe I’d do, being a normal person.”
This led to Julius’s further insistence that, really, he was a very ordinary guy. An ordinary guy dealing with extraordinary circumstances, perhaps, but ordinary nevertheless.
“I’ve never felt particularly unique,” Julius says. “Even within the context of basketball, I honestly never imagined myself as anything special. I remember, back home, when I first started playing. At nine, ten, I had a two-hand shot. Then by twelve and a half, thirteen, I got a one-hand shot. Always went to the basket, that pattern was set by then. Actually, I don’t think I’ve changed much as a player since then. Back then, before I was physically able, I felt these different things within me, certain moves, ways to dunk. It sounds strange, being five feet tall, thinking about dunking in a clinical way, but that’s how I was. I realized all I had to do was be patient and they would come. So I wasn’t surprised when they did, they were part of me for so long. But I didn’t find anything particularly special about it. I assumed everyone could do these things if they tried.”
Julius claims the idea of being a professional basketball player didn’t occur to him until he was among the country’s leaders in both scoring and rebounding at UMass. He wanted to be a doctor. That’s the source of his unbeatable nickname. In grammar school when the kids got up to say what they wanted to be when they grew up, Julius said, “A doctor.” “Doctor!” the kids shouted, and it stuck. Later, when playing in the Rucker League, the deejay types “announcing” games were calling him the Claw, a moniker based on his large hands. Julius, always sharp to the distasteful, objected and, when asked for a substitute, said, “Oh, why don’t you just call me Doctor.” Doctors, after all, Julius felt, were white-haired men with soothing voices, who surrounded themselves with a great air of dignity. They also made a lot of money. These were Julius’s two main concerns at the time. His father had left his mother and brother early on and wound up being run down by a car when Julius was eleven.
“I never really had a father,” Julius says, “but then the possibility that I ever would was removed.”
After that, security, financial and otherwise, became obsessional with Julius. Even today, with a contract that pays him more than a million each year and other lucrative interests (he refers to basketball as “my main business application”), Julius is notoriously parsimonious. Do not expect him to pick up the check. It was this desire for himself and his family (there are four children now, three boys and a girl, living in a mansion on 2.8 acres on the Main Line) that made Julius think of playing ball for money.
“That’s when I started hearing all these people talking about how different I was supposed to be,” Julius recounts. “When a hundred people, then a thousand people tell you you’re different, you just say to yourself, ‘Okay, I’m different. … Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. I liked what it got me. I was a young player, I was doing what came easy to me, I was having a good time, so I accepted it as a fact of life.” It was only during the stresses caused by his leaving the Nets (in a protracted contract battle), the subsequent league merger, and his arrival in Philadelphia to less than knock-out notices when Julius began to ponder, “Why am I different? Why, with all these great players all around, guys who play as hard as I do, guys who want to win as badly as I do, why am I Doctor J?”
Quite a picture: the angst-ridden superstar, his piston legs rocketing from the pinewood floor into the glare of the houselights, his seemingly inexorable gaze transfixed on the orange ring, yet, in reality, his leap goes nowhere, for he is lost.
That’s the way Julius paints it. During his first years in Philly it became commonplace to downrate the Doc. In the ABA he’d scored 28.7 points a game and nabbed nearly a thousand rebounds each season; now he was getting 21, 22, and his ‘bounds were way down. Some nodded and said it was true what they said about the old league; it was a circus, after all. In 1978 an unnamed coach was quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying, “[Julius] has been on vacation for three years.”
For his part, Julius complained that his knees were killing him (he has had a tendinitis condition for some time) and that he’d purposely hidden away much of the spectacular side of the Doctor, so as to better mesh with then-teammate George McGinnis, another ABA scorer not noted for his passing skills. Yet, it wasn’t fun. None of it. He let it slip that more than likely he’d be retiring when his contract ran out in 1982. Now, though, Julius says his main problem was a spiritual, not a physical, one. “I felt totally hollow,” he says. “It was eating at me. I started off asking, ‘Who is Doctor J? How did I get to be him? What does being Doctor J mean?’ … then it came down to asking, ‘Who, really, am I?’ I became very frightened when I began to sense that I really had no idea.”
One can imagine the terror Julius felt. He seems a very methodical person, someone who likes everything in its place, not one to rush into things. Perhaps due to his longtime regimen as an athlete, where every day the practice is set for a certain amount of time and the bus leaves at such-and-such o’clock, he is given to compartmentalizing his life and talking of it in terms of small, constantly repeated activities. “I admit to liking the feel of things being in context,” Julius says, “the sense of the familiar waters.” This extends even to the court. Julius contends, “Out of one hundred moves I make in a game, I’ve made ninety-nine before, at one time or another. Sure, that one new one gives me a hit, but actually I get as much or more out of doing the other ninety-nine, because when I do something I’ve done before it means that I’ve compiled this information in my mind and selected the right action for the proper situation. That gives me a lot of pleasure.
“Back then, though,” Julius adds, “I felt completely alone at times. Often, after a game and a late dinner, in one of those cities, I’d be sitting up, three o’clock, four o’clock, after eating a big steak, just watching that TV, with all the phones turned off. I never felt like that before.
“It was finding my faith that pulled me through,” Julius says, leaning back from the desk in his Philadelphia office. In front of him is a rectangular paperweight you’d figure would be made of copper or brass and say, in embossed letters, something like JULIUS WINFIELD ERVING JR., PRESIDENT. But it is wooden and appears to have been made in a junior high school shop class. It says JESUS.
Julius’s conversion occurred during the summer of 1978, at a family get-together in South Carolina. The previous season had been his worst yet. Julius had played poorly, and he was suffering from numerous injuries. The flak was getting intense. “I was feeling a little sorry for myself,” Julius says, “but when I got down there and saw all those people, people I didn’t know, some of whom I didn’t even know existed, yet people who were connected to me in some way, it was really something. Because I was well known, everyone sort of used me as a lightning rod, a common denominator. They used me to get closer to each other. And I felt all that love passing through me. It was a very strange and wonderful feeling.”
At the meeting Julius encountered an uncle of his, Alfonso, a preacher. He told Julius about a blessing that had been laid on the family that, Alfonso said, was now being manifested through Julius. “After that,” Julius says, “things fell into place for me.”
When the subject of Julius-as-Christian comes up, a good portion of the cognoscenti express surprise (it is not well known) and then shake their heads. However, to the reporter with pretensions, it seemed a great boon, a fabulous opportunity. This isn’t to say Julius won’t go Jaycee on you at any moment; no doubt his “Dare to Be Great” speech ranks with the best. He is also given to saying things like “Did I want to open the doors to essential knowledge or did I want to remain on the merry-go-round of nondiscovery?” Primarily, though, here was an intelligent, observant man, who by the vehicle of a mysterious “blessing” had been thrust into the Realm of the Extraordinary. The hope was that he would have the presence of mind to keep his eyes and ears open while in this marvelous land, and that hope was rewarded. I mean, you could enter into a metaphysical dialogue with this man!
On a Milwaukee street we mulled over the notion of the Divine Call. On a bus in Detroit we beat around the dichotomy of true Needs and venal Wants. In a Madison Square Garden locker room we pierced the outskirts of the Spirit of Giving. But it wasn’t until our discussion in his office, during a laborious spiel of mine concerning the duty of the seeker to examine the varieties of religious experience, that Julius began to get pissed.
“I just can’t agree,” he said, “because even if you do manage to synthesize all these systems, what good is it going to do you? Even if you’re the smartest man on earth, even if you’re Albert Einstein, you’ll still only have a thimbleful of all the knowledge in the world. Where does that lead you? Digging and grinding on this unbelievable quest? Is there happiness in that? So it comes down to making concessions … down to knowing you’re not the wisest or the smartest, not the ultimate of anything, but knowing too that you have this powerful need to grasp something meaningful, something purposeful … you want a way, a way that makes sense for you, that you can embrace.”
It was clear what Julius was getting at. After all, he is a black guy in America, the son of a very religious church lady mother. He reached out to what was available to him, and it worked. He found himself capable of faith. But really, was there any other solution for the intelligent, humble man with the nice-guy image? Doctor J has not simply been a great player, he has been the epitome of a player, God’s own fantasy of a player. If Julius meant to “deal with logic, infused by faith,” as he says is his bent, was there any other conclusion but to accept the notion of the involved, controlling presence of a Higher Power? There seemed a profound sanity in Julius’s belief, and the reporter with pretension found it very satisfying.
Julius says he has no fear of life A.B. (After Basketball). “The thing that frightens me is what I heard about spiritual casualties. A spiritual casualty is someone … say a well-known athlete who takes a spiritual stand, and then the focus shifts from looking at that person as an athlete to something else. Suddenly there are all these people who want to put this athlete in the forefront because they assume he can be as significant spiritually as he was athletically. Then this famous athlete uses this forum to talk about what he feels about this new field he’s entered … and he doesn’t know what he’s talking about … like, say, someone might say, ‘Kareem, he’s a superstar ballplayer, so he should be a superstar Muslim.’ A spiritual casualty is someone who falls for that.”
Julius shivers at the mention of Eldridge Cleaver, who did much to make a mockery of himself in his post-Panther days, showing up on The Hour of Power one minute and modeling codpiece trousers the next. Julius is well aware of what went into the creation and maintenance of Doctor J, and he will do almost anything to keep that image from being defiled. “The last thing I want to be perceived as is a flake,” he says warily.
Some suggest that Julius might be a little less cautious. There have been intimations that by stressing his “Christian umbrella,” Julius has demonstrated a degree of naïveté concerning day-to-day life in lower-rent districts. This talk became increasingly intense after Julius’s no-profile stance in the recent Philly mayoral election, which pitted liberal black W. Wilson Goode against neo-Neanderthal Frank Rizzo. Hearing this, Julius gets as close as he does to bristling. “I’m very sensitive to this type of criticism,” he says, “but I’m not going to be pressured by it. My track record in the black community speaks for itself. You know, I’m not blind, I understand how things are. I remember what it was like growing up, and when we go to Boston and Chicago, there’s racism there. We hear what people shout, you know. I understand the danger of getting so far from a situation that you fool yourself and say it doesn’t exist, or get the illusion that because you’re a well-known ballplayer it doesn’t apply to me. I’m not living in a dream world, but I’ll tell you I’d be a fool not to use the advantages I’ve earned through playing in behalf of my family. But I’m not going to invite a potentially hostile situation into my life, into the lives of my wife and children, for just anyone’s idea of solidarity. If I can afford an extra layer of protection, I will exercise it.
“I’ve never been a political person. I’ve never backed a political candidate in my life. When I was with the Nets, a picture came out of me in the newspaper with a local candidate. It was just some function for the team, but this guy was there and he was running for some office, and then all these people were asking me why I was supporting the Republican candidate. I don’t want that to happen again. It would threaten my livelihood. If I backed the Democratic candidate, I’d run the risk of alienating half my public, and the other way around.
“But mostly it comes down to: I’ve played basketball for twenty-five years, almost every situation that can come up has come up. Therefore I’m qualified to sit here and talk to you about basketball. I don’t have those sort of memory cells concerning other areas.”
So, Julius says, he will enter the realm of the ordinary as a businessman. “An entrepreneur,” he says, professing to have always had “a deep yearning” to be such a person. Typically enough, most of his investments have reflected a stolid, blue-chippy side. He is a large stockholder in the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of New York. He makes earnest use of the products he endorses, which have included Coke, Converse, Spalding, and Chap Stick.
Don’t look for Julius dancing in the back row of a Bally’s Park Place Hotel Casino commercial, or any Doc’s Dunkshot Bar opening in the East Sixties. Julius does, however, keep some mad money around for what he calls “risk capital ventures.” One of these ventures was the now-defunct Doctor’s Shoe Salon, a chic fulfillment of one of Julius’s long-cherished fantasies. Throughout his life, especially since he got rich, Julius found it galling that he could not find high-fashion shoes to wrap around his size fifteens. The Doctor’s Shoe Salon assumed there were many others in the same boat and sought to fill that need by offering a wide selection for the hard-to-fit dog, mostly in the two-hundred-dollar range. The shop, poshly appointed and located on Philly’s South Second Street, was slated to be the prototype for a far-flung chain that would eventually take in all the NBA cities. It was not a success. “It caused me untold duress and aggravation,” Julius says sheepishly. “A lot of people expected, because my name was involved, that I’d be there all the time. When I wasn’t, they got mad. And when I was, I couldn’t concentrate on the business. I got bombarded with all kinds of questions, basketball stuff, A to Z. Plus we had a lot of trouble with kids who thought it was a sneaker store.” Kind of humorous—the great Doctor as the harried shoe salesman. But never let anyone say Doc doesn’t learn from experience. Currently his “risk” project is REACH, a camp for gifted and highly motivated children. Nowhere on the brochure will you find the name Julius Erving.
Basically, though, Julius says, his business goal is “to work four hours and rest twenty, as opposed to now, when I’ve got to work twenty hours to rest four.” Until he gets there he has other things to think about. The end of all those hotel rooms and 5 a.m. flights to the next city will mean a lot more time at home, a lot more time.
“One hundred and thirty to 140 more nights,” Julius relates, admitting some anxiety about this. Now, Julius, his wife Turquoise, and their four children (Cheo, Julius III, Jazmin, and Cory) are pretty much your all-American family, as was witnessed at last season’s dunk contest, during which the kids told Dad which shots to make. But 130, 140 nights. “A lot of nights,” Julius predicts, “they’re gonna be saying, ‘Him? Again?”‘ Then he laughs and says, “This is all first-generation problems for all of us, my wife and I, dealing with the circumstances we find ourselves in. There’s going to be a lot of trial and error, that’s for sure.” Then he says he’s thinking of calling up John Havlicek, Jerry West, “some old-timers, people on my level,” to get some pointers on the life ahead. Somehow, you figure, he’ll get over.
Mark Jacobson is a writer and journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. He is known for his explorations of the seamy side of urban life, both here and abroad, and for his offbeat and witty take on popular culture.His 2000 profile of Frank Lucas formed the basis for the Ridley Scott film American Gangster. He is the author of The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans; 12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time: A Semi-Dysfunctional Family Circumnavigates the Globe; and the novels Gojiro and Everyone and No One. He has been a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Esquire, and New York. You can find more at his website.
Adapted from the original, which was published in 1989 in the Louisville Courier-Journal Magazine. A postscript from Glenn Stout, editor of Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Sports Writing series, follows. The story is the basis for a new opera, Approaching Ali, which debuts this weekend at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.
I’d been waiting for years. When it finally happened, it wasn’t what I’d expected. But he’s been fooling many of us for most of our lives.
For six months, several of his friends had been trying to connect me with him at his farm in Michigan. When I finally got to see him, it wasn’t in Michigan and I didn’t have an appointment. I simply drove past his mother’s house in Louisville.
It was mid-afternoon on March 31, three days before Resurrection Day. A block-long white Winnebago with Virginia plates was parked out front.* Though he hadn’t often been in town lately, I knew it was his vehicle.
I was sure it was him because I know his patterns and his style. Since 1962, when he has traveled unhurried in this country, he has preferred buses or recreational vehicles. And he owns a second farm in Virginia. The connections were obvious. Some people study faults in the earth’s crust or the habits of storms or of galaxies, hoping to make sense of the world and of their own lives. Others meditate on the life and work of one social movement or one man. Since I was 11 years old, I have been a Muhammad Ali scholar.
I parked my car behind his Winnebago and grabbed a few old magazines and a special stack of papers I’d been storing under the front seat, waiting for the meeting with Ali I’d been certain would come. Like everyone else, I wondered in what shape I’d find The Champ. I’d heard all about his Parkinson’s syndrome and had watched him stumble through the ropes when introduced at recent big fights. But when I thought of Ali, I remembered him as I’d seen him years before, when he was luminous.
I was in my early 20s, hoping to become a world champion kickboxer. And I was fortunate enough to get to spar with him. I later wrote a couple of stories about the experience and had copies of those with me today, hoping he’d sign them.
Yes, in those days he had shone. There was an aura of light and confidence around him. He had told the world of his importance: “I am the center of the universe,” he had said, and we almost believed him. But recent reports had Ali sounding like a turtle spilled onto his back, limbs thrashing air.*
It was his brother Rahaman who opened the door. He saw the stack of papers and magazines under my arm, smiled an understanding smile, and said, “He’s out in the Winnebago. Just knock on the door. He’ll be happy to sign those for you.”
Rahaman looked pretty much the way I’d remembered him: tall as his brother, mahogany skin, and a mustache that made him look a little like a cross between footballer Jim Brown and a black, aging Errol Flynn. There was no indication in his voice or on his face that I would find his brother less than healthy.
I crossed the yard, climbed the couple of steps on the side of the Winnebago, and prepared to knock. Ali opened the door before I got the chance. I’d forgotten how huge he is. His presence filled the doorway. He had to lean under the frame to see me.
I felt no nervousness. Ali’s face, in many ways, is as familiar to me as my father’s. His skin remained unmarked, his countenance had nearly perfect symmetry. Yet something was different: Ali was no longer the world’s prettiest man. This was only partly related to his illness; it was also because he was heavier than he needed to be. He remained handsome, but in the way of a youngish granddad who tells stories about how he could have been a movie star, if he’d wanted. His pulchritude used to challenge us; now he looked a bit more like us, and less like an avatar sent by Allah.*
“Come on in,” he said and waved me past. His voice had a gurgle to it, as if he needed to clear his throat. He offered a massive hand. He did not so much shake hands as he placed his in mine. His touch was as gentle as a girl’s. His palm was cool and uncalloused, his fingers were the long, tapered digits of a hypnotist, his fingernails look professionally manicured. His knuckles were large and slightly swollen, as if he’d recently been punching the heavy bag.
He was dressed in white, all white: new leather tennis shoes, over-the-calf cotton socks, custom-tailored linen slacks, thick short-sleeved safari-style shirt crisp with starch. I told him I thought white was a better color for him than the black he often wore those days.
He motioned for me to sit, but didn’t speak. His mouth was tense at the corners; it looked like a kid’s who has been forced by a parent or teacher to keep it closed. He slowly lowered himself into a chair beside the window. I took a seat across from him and laid my magazines on the table between us. He immediately picked them up, produced a pen, and began signing. He asked, “What’s your name?” and I told him.
He continued to write without looking up. His eyes were not glazed as I’d read, but they looked tired. A wet cough rattled in his throat. His left hand trembled almost continuously. In the silence around us, I felt a need to tell him some of the things I’d been wanting to say for years.
“Champ, you changed my life,” I said.* It’s true. “When I was a kid, I was messed up, couldn’t even talk to people. No kind of life at all.”
He raised his eyes from an old healthy image of himself on a magazine cover. “You made me believe I could do anything,” I said.
He was watching me while I talked, not judging, just watching. I picked up a magazine from the stack in front of him. “This is a story I wrote for Sports Illustrated when I was in college,” I said. “It’s about the ways you’ve influenced my life.”
“What’s your name?” he asked again, this time looking right at me. I told him. He nodded. “I’ll finish signing these in a while,” he said. He put his pen on the table. “Read me your story.”
“You have a good face,” he said when I was through. “I like your face.”
He’d listened seriously as I’d read, laughing at funny lines and when I’d tried to imitate his voice. He had not looked bored. It was a lot more than I could have expected.
“You ever seen any magic?” he asked. “You like magic?”
“Not in years,” I said.
He stood and walked to the back of his RV, moving mechanically. It was my great-grandfather’s walk. He motioned for me to follow. There was a sad yet lovely, noble and intimate quality to his movements.
He did about 10 tricks. The one that interested me the most required no props. It was a very simple deception. “Watch my feet,” he said, standing maybe eight feet away, his back to me and his arms perpendicular to his sides. Then, although he’d just had real trouble walking, he seemed to levitate about three inches off of the floor. He turned to me and in his thick, slow voice said, “I’m a baadd niggah,” and gave me the old easy Ali smile.
I laughed and asked him to do it again; it was a good one. I thought I might like to try it myself, just as 15 years earlier I had stood in front of the mirror in my dad’s hallway for hours, pushing my worm of a left arm out at the reflection, wishing mightily that I could replicate Ali’s cobra jab. And I had found an old cotton laundry bag, filled it with socks and rags and hung it from a ceiling beam in the basement. I pulled on a pair of my dad’s old brown cotton work gloves and pushed my left hand into that 20-pound marshmallow 200, 300, 500 times a day: concentrating on speed: dazzling, crackling speed, in pursuit of godly speed, trying to whip out punches so fast they’d be invisible to opponents. I got to where I could shoot six to eight crisp shots a second—”Shoe shinin,” Ali called it—and I strove to make my fists move more quickly than thought (like Ali’s), as fast as ionized Minute Rice; and then I’d try to spring up on my toes, as I had watched Ali do: I would try to fly like Ali, bounding away from the bag and to my left.
After the levitation trick, Ali grabbed an empty plastic milk jug from beside a sink. He asked me to examine it. “What if I make this jug rise up from the sink this high and sit there? Will you believe?”
“I’m not much of a believer these days, Champ,” I said.
“Well, what if I make it rise, sit this high off the ground, then turn in a circle?”
“I’m a hard man to convince,” I said.
“Well, what if I make it rise, float over here to the other side of the room, then go back to the sink, and sit itself back down. Then will you become … one of my believers?”
I laughed and said, “Then I’ll believe.”
“Watch,” he said, pointing at the plastic container and taking four steps back. I was trying to see both the milk jug and Ali. He waved his hands a couple of times in front of his body, said, “Arise, ghost, arise,” in a foggy-sounding voice. The plastic container did not move from the counter.
“April Fools’,” said Ali. We both chuckled and he walked over and slipped his arm around my shoulders.
He autographed the stories and wrote a note on a page of my book-length manuscript I asked him to take a look at. “To Davis Miller, The Greatest Fan of All Times,” he wrote, “From Muhammad Ali, King of Boxing.”
I felt my stories were finally complete, now that he’d confirmed their existence. He handed me the magazines and asked me into his mother’s house. We left the Winnebago. I unlocked my car and leaned across the front seat, carefully placing the magazines and manuscript on the passenger’s side, not wanting to take a chance of damaging them or leaving them behind. Abruptly, there was a chirping, insect-sounding noise in my ear. I jumped back, swatted the air, turned around. It had been Ali’s hand. He was standing right behind me, still the practical joker.
“How’d you do that?” I wanted to know. It was a question I’d find myself asking several times that day.
He didn’t answer. He raised both fists to shoulder height and motioned me out into the yard. We walked about five paces, I put up my hands, and he tossed a slow jab at me. I blocked and countered with my own. Many fighters and ex-fighters throw punches at each other or at the air or at whatever happens to be around. It’s the way we play. Ali must still toss a hundred lefts a day. He and I had both thrown our shots a full half-foot away from the other, but my adrenal gland was pumping at high gear from being around Ali, and my jab had come out fast—it had made the air sing. He slid back a half-step and took a serious look at me. I figured I was going to get it now. A couple of kids were riding past on bicycles; they recognized Ali and stopped.
“He doesn’t understand I’m the greatest boxer of all times,” he yelled to the kids. He pulled his watch from his arm, stuck it in his pants pocket. I slipped mine off, too. He’d get down to business now. He got up on his skates, danced to his left a little, loosening his legs. A couple of minutes before, climbing down the steps of his RV, he’d moved so awkwardly he’d almost lost his balance. I’d wanted to give him a hand, but knew not to. I’d remembered seeing old Joe Louis being “escorted” in that fashion by lesser mortals, and I couldn’t do that to Muhammad Ali. But now that Ali was on his toes and boxing, he was moving fairly fluidly.
He flung another jab in my direction, a second, a third. He wasn’t one-fourth as fast as he had been in 1975, when I’d sparred with him, but his eyes were alert, shining like black electric marbles, and he saw everything and was real relaxed. That’s one reason old fighters keep making comebacks: We are more alive when boxing than at almost any other time. The grass around us was green and was getting high; it would soon need its first cutting. A blue-jay squawked from an oak to the left. Six robins roamed the yard. New leaves looked wet with the sun. I instinctively blocked and/or slid to the side of all three of Ali’s punches, then immediately felt guilty about it, like being 14 years old and knowing for the first time that you can beat your dad at ping-pong. I wished I could’ve stopped myself from slipping Ali’s jabs, but I couldn’t. Reflexive training runs faster and deeper than thought. I zipped a jab to his nose, one to his body, vaulted a straight right to his chin, and was dead certain all three would have scored—and scored clean. A couple of cars stopped in front of the house. His mom’s was on a corner lot. Three more were parked on the side.
“Check out the left,” a young-sounding voice said from somewhere. The owner of the voice was talking about my jab, not Ali’s.
“He’s in with the triple greatest of all times,” Ali was shouting. “Gowna let him tire himself out. He’ll get tired soon.”
I didn’t, but pretended to, anyway. “You’re right, Champ,” I told him, dropping my hands. “I’m 35. Can’t go like I used to.”
I held my right hand to my chest, acting out of breath. I looked at Ali; his hand was in the exact same position. We were both smiling, but he was sizing me up.
“He got scared,” Ali shouted, conclusively.
Onlookers laughed from their bicycles and car windows. Someone blew his horn and one yelled, “Hey, Champ.”
“Come on in the house,” Ali said softly in my ear.
We walked toward the door, Ali in the lead, moving woodenly through new grass, while all around us people rolled up car windows and started their engines.
“Gowna move back to Loovul, just part-time.”
The deep Southern melody rolled sleepily in Ali’s voice. His words came scarcely louder than whisper and were followed by a short fit of coughing.
Back to Loovul. Back to hazy orange sunsets and ancestors’ unmarked graves; back to old, slow-walking family (real and acquired), empty sidewalks, nearly equatorial humidity, peach cobblers made by heavy, round-breasted aunts wearing flowered dresses; back to short, thin uncles with their straw hats, white open-collar shirts, black shiny pants, and spit-shined black Florsheims—back to a life that hadn’t been Ali’s since he was 18 years old.
We were standing in the “family room,” a space so dark I could not imagine the drapes ever having been drawn, a room furnished with dented, gold-painted furniture, filled with smells of cooking meat, and infused with a light not dissimilar to that of a fireplace fire.
Ali had introduced me to his mother, Mrs. Odessa Clay, and to Rahaman, then suddenly he was gone.
Ali’s family easily accepted me. They were not surprised to have a visitor and handled me with ritualistic charm and grace. Rahaman told me to make myself at home, offered a root beer, went to get it.
I took a seat on the sofa beside Ali’s mother. Mrs. Clay was in her early 70s, yet her face had few wrinkles. Short, her hair nearly as orange as those Louisville sunsets, she was freckled, fragile-looking, and pretty. Ali’s face is shaped much like his mother’s. While he was fighting she was quite heavy, but she had lost what looked to be about 75 pounds over the past 10 years.
Mrs. Clay was watching Oprah Winfrey on an old wooden floor-model TV. I was wondering where Ali had gone. Rahaman brought the drink, a paper napkin, and a coaster. Mrs. Clay patted me on the hand. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Ali hasn’t left you. I’m sure he’s just gone upstairs to say his prayers.”
I hadn’t realized that my anxiety was showing. But Ali’s mother had watched him bring home puppies many times during his 46 years. “He’s always been a restless man, like his daddy,” she said. “Can’t ever sit still.”
Mrs. Clay spoke carefully, with a mother’s sweet sadness about her. The dignified clip to her voice must once have been affected, but after cometing all over the globe with Ali, it now sounded authentically British and old-money Virginian in its inflections.
“Have you met Lonnie, Ali’s new wife?” she asked. “He’s known her since she was a baby. I’m so happy for him. She’s my best friend’s daughter. We used to all travel to his fights together. She’s a smart girl, has a master’s degree in business. She’s so good to him, doesn’t use him. He told me, ‘Mom, Lonnie’s better to me than all the other three put together.’ She treats him so good. He needs somebody to take care of him.”
Just then, Ali came back to the room, carrying himself high and with stately dignity, though his footing was unsteady. He fell deep into a chair on the other side of the room.
“You tired, baby?” Mrs. Clay asked.
“Tired, I’m always tired,” he said, rubbing his face a couple of times and closing his eyes.
He must have felt me watching or was simply conscious of someone other than family being in the room. His eyes weren’t closed 10 seconds before he shook himself awake, balled his hands into fists, and started making typical Ali faces and noises at me—sticking his teeth out over his lower lip, looking fake-mean, growling, other playful cartoon kid stuff. After a few seconds he asked, “Y-y-you okay?” He was so difficult to understand that I didn’t so much hear him as I conjectured what he must have been saying. “Y-y-you need anything? They takin care of you?” I assured him that I was fine.
He made a loud clucking noise by pressing his tongue across the roof of his mouth and popping it forward. Rahaman came quickly from the kitchen. Ali motioned him close and whispered in his ear. Rahaman went back to the kitchen. Ali turned to me. “Come sit beside me,” he said, patting a bar stool to his right. He waited for me to take my place then said, “You had any dinner? Sit and eat with me.”
“Can I use the phone? I need to call home and let my wife know.”
“You got kids?” he asked. I told him I had two. He asked how old. I told him the ages.
“They know me?” he asked.
“Even the 3-year-old. He throws punches at the TV whenever I play your fights.”
He nodded, satisfied. “Bring ‘em over Sunday,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I’ll do my magic for ‘em. Here’s my mother’s number. Be sure to phone first.”
I called Lyn and told her where I was and what I was doing. She didn’t seem surprised. She asked me to pick up a gallon of milk on the way home. I knew she was excited for me but we had a lot of history, some of it rough, and she wouldn’t show emotion in her voice simply because I was hanging out with my childhood idol. In September 1977, when Lyn and I were in college, we skipped class, took all of the money out of our bank accounts, drove from North Carolina all the way to New York, and attended the Ali-Earnie Shavers bout at Madison Square Garden.
As we were arriving in Manhattan the morning of the bout, we ran into Ali on the street in front of the Waldorf-Astoria. Traffic stopped in all directions. Thousands of us followed him as he walked to Madison Square Garden for the weigh-in. Although several people near Ali were taller and weighed more than he, he looked bigger than anyone I had seen in my life. There was a silence around him. As if his very skin were listening. There was pushing and shoving near the outside of the circle of people around Ali. Lyn and I stood on a concrete wall above and away from the clamor and looked down on him. There was a softness, a quietude, near the center of the circle; those closest to Ali were gentle and respectful.
That night in the Garden was the first time I’d seen 20,000 people move as one organism. The air was alive with smells of pretzels and hot dogs, beer and marijuana. It was Ali’s last good fight. He was regularly hurt by Shavers and would later say that Shavers had hit him harder than anyone ever. So resounding were the blows with which Shavers tagged Ali that Lyn and I heard them, the sound arriving what seemed a full second after we saw the punches connect, as we sat a quarter of a mile from the ring up in the cheap-seat stratosphere. In the 15th round, we were all standing and not realizing that we had stood. I was trembling and Lyn was holding my hand and thousands of us were chanting, “Ahh-lee, Ahh-lee,” his name our mantra, as his gloves melded into vermilion lines of tracers and the leering jack-o’-lantern opponent finally bowed before him.
We had spent all but $40 of our money on fight tickets. We could barely buy enough gas to make it back to North Carolina. For the rest of the year we had to live off of what little money I was able to make modeling for art classes at the university. Every weekend, to pay our electric bills, we filled a laundry bag (the same one I’d used as a boxing bag) with returnable soda bottles we picked up beside highways. But, all these years later, I think we’d both do it the same way to see Ali in one of his last fights.
Now Rahaman brought two large bowls of chili and two enormous slices of white bread from the kitchen. Ali and I sat at our chairs, took spoons in our hands. He put his face down close to the bowl and the food was gone. Three minutes tops. As I continued to eat, he spoke easily to me. “I remember what it was like to meet Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano for the first time,” he said. “They were my idols. I’d seen their fights and faces so many times I felt I knew them. Want to treat you right, don’t want to disappoint you.
“Do you know how many people in the world would like to have the opportunity you’re getting, how many would like to come into my house and spend the day with me?” he said. “Haven’t fought in seven years and still get over 400 letters a week.”
I asked how people got his address.
He looked puzzled. “I don’t know,” he answered, shaking his head. “Sometimes they come addressed ‘Muhammad Ali, Los Angeles, California, USA.’ Don’t have a house in L.A. no more, but the letters still get to me.
“I want to get me a place, a coffee shop, where I can give away free coffee and doughnuts and people can just sit around and talk, people of all races, and I can go and talk to people. Have some of my old robes and trunks and gloves around, show old fight films, call it ‘Ali’s Place.’”
“I’d call it ‘Ali’s,’” I said, not believing there would or ever could be such a place but enjoying sharing his dream with him. “Just ‘Ali’s,’ that’s enough.”
“‘Ali’s'?” he repeated, and his eyes focused inward, visualizing the dream. “People would know what it was,” I said.
I asked if he had videotapes of his fights. He shook his head no.
“Well, look,” I said, “why don’t I go to a video place and see if I can rent some and we can watch them tonight. Would you like that? You want to ride with me?”
“I’ll drive,” he said.
There was a rubber monster mask in the Winnebago and I wore it on my hand on the way to the video store, pressing it against the window at stoplights. A couple of times people in cars saw the mask, then recognized Ali. Ali wears glasses when he reads and when he drives. When he saw someone looking at him, he carefully removed his glasses, placed them in his lap, made his hands into fists, and put them up beside his head.
Ali was the worst driver I’d ever ridden with—other than my alcoholic grandfather near the end of his life. Ali careened from lane to lane, sometimes riding down the middle of the highway, and he regularly switched lanes without looking or giving turn signals. I balled my fists in my lap and pretended to be relaxed. A group of teenage boys became infuriated when he pulled in front of their old, beat-up Firebird and cut them off. Three of them leaned out the windows, shooting him the finger. Ali shot it back.
At the movie store, we rented an old Godzilla movie Ali wanted to see and a tape of his fights and interviews called Ali: Skill, Brains and Guts that was written and directed by Jimmy Jacobs, the international handball champion and fight historian. Jacobs had recently died of a degenerative illness. Ali hadn’t known of Jacobs’s death until I told him.
“He was a good man,” Ali said. His voice had that same quality that an older person’s takes on who daily reads obituaries. “Did you know Bundini died?” he asked, speaking in the same tone he’d use with a friend of many years. I felt honored by his intimacy and told him that I’ve heard.
In the Winnebago on the way back to his mom’s, he said, “You’re sincere. After 30 years, I can tell. I feel it rumblin’ up from inside people.”
“I know a lot of people have tried to use you,” I said.
“They have used me. But it don’t matter. I don’t let it change me.”
I stopped by my car again on the way into Mrs. Clay’s house. There was one more picture I hoped Ali would sign, but earlier I’d felt I might be imposing on him. It was a classic head-shot in a beautiful out-of-print biography by Wilfrid Sheed that featured hundreds of wonderfully reproduced color plates.* I grabbed the book from the car and followed Ali into the house.
When we were seated, I handed him the book and he signed the picture on the title page. “To Davis Miller, From Muhammad Ali, King of Boxing,” he wrote, “3-31-88.”
I was about to ask if he’d mind autographing the photo I especially wanted, but he turned to Page 2, signed that picture, then the next page and the next. He continued to sign for probably 45 minutes, writing comments about opponents (“Get up Chump,” he wrote beside a classic photo of the fallen Sonny Liston), parents, Elijah Muhammad (“The man who named me”), Howard Cosell, spouses (“She gave me Hell,” he scrawled across his first wife’s picture), then passed the book to his mother and brother to autograph a family portrait. He even signed “Cassius Clay” on several photos from the early ’60s. He flipped twice through the book, autographing nearly every photo, pointing out annotations as he wrote.*
“Never done this before,” he said. “Usually sign one or two pictures.”
As he turned from page to page, he studied, then chose not to autograph, a youthful picture of himself with the Louisville Sponsoring Group, the collective of rich white businessmen who owned his contract (and reportedly those of several race horses) until he became Muslim. He also hesitated over a famous posed shot taken for Life magazine in 1963, in a bank vault. In this photo a wide-eyed and beaming Cassius Clay sits atop one million one-dollar bills. Ali turned to me and said, “Money don’t mean nothin,” and leafed to a picture with Malcolm X, which he signed, then posed his pen above the signature, as if prepared to make another annotation. Suddenly, though, he closed the book, looked at me dead level, and held it out at arms’ length with both hands. “I’m giving you somethin’ very valuable,” he said, handing me the biography as if deeding me the book of life.
I stared at the book in my open palms and felt I should say something, should thank him in some way. I carefully placed it on a table, shook my head slightly, and cleared my throat, but found no words.
I excused myself to the bathroom, locking the door behind me. A pair of Ali’s huge, shiny black dress shoes was beside the toilet. The toe of one had been crushed, the other shoe was lying on its side. When I unlocked the door to leave, it wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t even turn the handle. After trying several times, I tentatively knocked. There was laughter from the other room. I distinctly heard Mrs. Clay’s and Rahaman’s voices. I yanked fairly hard on the door a few times. Nothing. Just when I was beginning to think I was stuck in Odessa Clay’s bathroom for the millennium, the door easily opened. I caught a glimpse of Ali bounding into a side room to the right, laughing and high-stepping like some oversized, out-of-shape Nubian leprechaun.
I peeked around the corner. He was standing with his back flat against the wall. He saw me, jumped from the room, and tickled me, a guilty-little-kid smile splashed across his features. Next thing I knew, he had me on the floor, balled up in a fetal position, tears flowing down both sides of my face, laughing. Then he stopped tickling me and helped me to my feet. Everybody kept laughing. Mrs. Clay’s face was round and wide with laughter. She looked like the mom of a Celtic imp.
“What’d you think happened to the door?” Rahaman asked. I told him I’d figured it was Ali. “Then why you turnin red?” he wanted to know.
“It’s not every day,” I said, “that I go to Muhammad Ali’s, he locks me in the bathroom, then tickles me into submission.”
Everyone laughed again. “Ali, you crazy,” Rahaman said.
Suddenly I recognized the obvious, that I’d been acting like a teenage admirer again. And that Muhammad Ali had not lost perhaps his most significant talent—the ability to transport people past thoughts and words to a world of feeling and play. Being around Ali, or watching him perform on TV, has always made me feel genuinely childlike. I looked at his family: They were beaming: Ali still flipped their switches, too.
After helping me up, he trudged off to the bathroom. Rahaman crept over from his seat on the sofa and held the door, trying to keep Ali in. The brothers pushed and tugged on the door and, when Ali got out, laughed and wrestled around the room. Then Ali threw several feathery punches at Rahaman and a few at me.
We finally slipped the Ali tape into the VCR.* Rahaman brought everyone another root beer and we settled back to watch, he to my left, Ali beside me on the right, and Mrs. Clay beside Ali. The family’s reactions to the tape were not unlike those you or I would have looking at old home movies or high-school yearbooks. Everyone sighed and their mouths arced at tender angles. “Oh, look at Bundini,” Mrs. Clay said. “Hey, there’s Otis,” Rahaman offered.
When there was footage of Ali reciting verse, everyone recited with him. “Those were the days,” Rahaman said several times, to which Mrs. Clay responded, “Yes, yes, they were,” in a lamenting lilt.
After a half-hour or so, she left the room. Rahaman continued to watch the tape for a while, pointing out people and events, but then said he was going to bed. He brought a pen and piece of paper. “Give your name and number,” he said, smiling. “We’ll look you up.”
Then it was just Ali and me. On the TV, it was early 1964 and he was framed on the left by Jim Jacobs and on the right by Drew “Bundini” Brown. “They both dead now,” he said, an acute awareness of his own mortality in his tone.
For a time, he continued to stare at the old Ali on the screen, but eventually he lost interest in peering at distant mountains of his youth. “Did my mom go upstairs? Do you know?” he asked, his voice carrying no further than mine would if I had my hand over my mouth.
“Yeah, I think she’s probably asleep.”
He nodded, stood, and left the room, presumably to check on her. When he came back he was moving heavily. His shoulder hit the frame of the door to the kitchen. He went in and came out with two fistfuls of cookies, crumbs all over his mouth. He sat beside me on the sofa. Our knees were touching. Usually, when a man gets this close, I pull away. He offered a couple cookies, yawned a giant’s yawn, closed his eyes, and seemed to go dead asleep.
“Champ, you want me to leave?” I said. “Am I keeping you up?”
He slowly opened his eyes and was back to our side of The Great Mystery. The pores on his face looked huge, his features elongated, distorted, like someone’s in an El Greco. He rubbed his face the way I rub mine when I haven’t shaved in a week.
“No, stay,” he said. His tone was very gentle.
“You’d let me know if I was staying too late?”
He hesitated slightly before he answered. “I go to bed at 11,” he said.
With the volume turned this low on the TV, you could hear the videotape’s steady whir. “Can I ask a serious question?” I said. He nodded OK.
“You’re still a great man, Champ, I see that. But a lot of people think your mind is fried. Does that bother you?”
He didn’t hesitate before answering. “No, there are ignorant people everywhere,” he said. “Even educated people can be ignorant.”
“Does it bother you that you’re a great man not being allowed to be great?”
“Wh-wh-whatcha you mean, ‘not allowed to be great?’” he said, his voice hardly finding its way out of his body.
“I mean … let me think about what I mean … I mean the things you seem to care most about, the things you enjoy doing best, the things the rest of us think of as being Muhammad Ali, those are precisely the things that have been taken from you. It just doesn’t seem fair.”
“You don’t question God,” he said, his voice rattling in his throat.
“OK, I respect that, but … aw, man, I don’t have any business talking to you about this.”
“No, no, go on,” he said.
“It just bothers me,” I told him. I was thinking about the obvious ironies, thinking about Ali continuing to invent, and be invented by, his own mythology. About how he used to talk easier, maybe better, than anybody in the world (has anyone in history so enjoyed the sweet and spiky melodies of his own voice?); about how he sometimes still thought with speed and dazzle, but it took serious effort for him to communicate even with people close to him. About how he may have been the world’s best athlete—when walking, he used to move with the grace of a leopard turning a corner; now, at night, he stumbled around the house. About how it was his left hand, the same hand from which once slid that great Ali snake-lick of a jab—the most visible phenomenon of his boxing greatness—the very hand with which he won more than 150 sanctioned fights and countless sparring sessions, it’s his left hand, not his right, that shook almost continuously. And I was thinking how his major source of pride, his “prettiness,” remained more or less intact. If Ali lost 40 pounds, in the right kind of light he’d still look classically Greek. The seeming precision with which things have been excised from Ali’s life (as well as the gifts that have been left him) sort of spooked me.
“I know why this has happened,” Ali said. “God is showing me, and showing you“—he pointed his shaking index finger at me and widened his eyes—”that I’m just a man, just like everybody else.”
We sat a long, quiet time then, and watched his flickering image on the television screen. It was now 1971 and there was footage of him training for the first Frazier fight. Our Most Public Figure was then The World’s Most Beautiful Man and The Greatest Athlete of All Times, his copper skin glowing under the fluorescents, secret rhythms springing in loose firmness from his fingertips.
“Champ, I think it’s time for me to go,” I said again and made an effort to stand.
“No, stay. You my man,” he says, and pats my leg. He has always been this way, always wanted to be around people. I take his accolade as one of the greatest compliments of my life.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” he says, and leans close. “I’m gowna make a comeback.”
“What?” I say. I think he’s joking, hope he is, but something in his tone makes me uncertain. “You’re not serious?” I ask.
And suddenly there is power in his voice. “I’m gowna make a comeback,” he repeats louder, more firmly.
“Are you serious?”
“The timing is perfect. They’d think it was a miracle, wouldn’t they?” He’s speaking in a distinct, familiar tone; he’s easy to understand. It’s almost the voice I remember from when I met him in 1975, the one that seemed to come roiling up from down in his belly. In short, Ali sounds like Ali.
“Wouldn’t they?” he asks again.
“It would be a miracle,” I say.
“Nobody’ll take me serious at first. But then I’ll get my weight down to 215 and have an exhibition at Yankee Stadium or someplace, then they’ll believe. I’ll fight for the title. It’ll be bigger than the Resurrection.” He stands and walks to the center of the room.
“It’d be good to get your weight down,” I say.
“Watch this,” he says and dances to his left, studying himself in the mirror above the TV. His clean white shoes bound around the carpet; I marvel at how easily he moves. His white clothing accentuates his movements in the dark room; the white appears to make him glow. He starts throwing punches, not the kind he’d tossed at me earlier, but now really letting them go. I’d thought what he’d thrown in the yard was indicative of what he had left. But what he’d done was allow me to play; he’d wanted me to enjoy myself.
“Look at the TV. That’s 1971 and I’m just as fast now.” One second, two seconds, 12 punches flash in the night. This can’t be real. Yet it is. The old man can still do it: He can still make fire appear in the air. He looks faster standing in front of me than do the ghostlike Ali images on the screen. God, I wish I had a video camera to tape this. Nobody would believe me.
“And I’ll be even faster when I get my weight down,” he tells me.
“You know more now, too,” I find myself admitting. Jesus, what am I saying? And why am I saying this? This is a sick man.
“Do you believe?” he asks.
“Well …” I say. God, the Parkinson’s is affecting his sanity. Look at the gray shining in his hair. The guy can hardly walk, for Christ’s sake. Just because he was my boyhood idol doesn’t mean I’m blinded to what his life is now like.
And Ali throws another three dozen blows at the gods of mortality. He springs a triple hook off of a jab, each punch so quick it trails lines of light. He drops straight right leads faster than (most fighters’) jabs, erupts into a storm of uppercuts, and the air pops, and his fists and feet whir. This is his best work. His highest art. The very combinations no one has ever thrown quite like Muhammad Ali. When he was fighting, he typically held back some; this is the stuff he seldom had to use.
“Do you believe?” he asks, breathing hard.
“They wouldn’t let you, even if you could do it,” I say, thinking, There’s so much concern everywhere for your health. Everybody thinks they see old Mr. Thanatos waiting for you.
“Do you believe?” he asks again.
“I believe,” I hear myself say.
He stops dancing and points a magician’s finger at me. Then I get the look, the smile, the one that has closed 100,000 interviews.
“April Fools’,” he says, and sits down hard beside me again. His mouth is hanging open and his breath sounds raw. The smell of sweat comes from his skin.
We sit in silence for several minutes. I look at my watch. It’s 11:18. I hadn’t realized it was that late. I’d told Lyn I’d be in by 8.
“Champ, I better go home. I have a wife and kids waiting.”
“OK,” he says almost inaudibly, looking into the distance, not thinking about me anymore, yawning the kind of long uncovered yawn people usually do among family.
He’s bone-tired, I’m tired, too, but I want to leave by saying something that will mean something to him, something that will set me apart from the two billion other people he’s met, that will imprint me indelibly in his memory and make the kind of impact on his life he has made on mine. I want to say the words that will cure his Parkinson’s.
Instead I say, “See you Easter, Champ.”
He coughs and gives me his hand. “Be cool and look out for the ladies.” His words are so volumeless and full of fluid that I don’t realize what he’s said until I’m halfway out the door.
I don’t recall picking up the book he signed, but I must have: It’s beside my typewriter now. I can’t remember walking across his mom’s yard and don’t remember starting the Volvo. But I recall what was playing on the tape deck. It was “The Promise of Living” from the orchestral suite to Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land.
I don’t forget Lyn’s gallon of milk. Doors to the grocery store whoosh closed behind me. For this time of night, there are quite a few customers in the store. They seem to move more as floating shadows than as people.
An old feeling comes across me I almost immediately recognize. The sensation is much like going out into the day-to-day world after making love for the first time. It’s that same sense of having landed in a lesser reality. And of having a secret that the rest of the world can’t see. I’ll have to wake Lyn and share the memory of this feeling with her.
I reach to grab a milk jug and catch a reflection of myself in the chrome at the dairy counter. There’s a half-smile on my face and I hadn’t realized it
Glenn Stout, author, series editor for the Best American Sports Writing, and contributing editor at SB Nation Longform: I first read Davis Miller’s “My Dinner with Ali” in Sport magazine, where it was published in 1989. I loved everything about it; guy drives by Ali’s mother’s house in Louisville, sees Ali’s RV in front of his house, stops in … and is transformed. From the first word, it came off as a very genuine, uncontrived piece. A couple years later, when I was approached to put together a sampler for a proposed new Best American title featuring writing about sports, I immediately recalled Miller’s story, and it was one of 12 or 15 stories I submitted as examples of the kind of story I would be looking for. Nearly a decade later, when Houghton Mifflin decided to do a Best American Sports Writing of the Century, I again remembered Miller’s story, sent it forward to guest editor David Halberstam, and he liked it as much as I did. Halberstam was a huge Ali fan, thought the writing about him was particularly important, and chose the story as one of six in the volume that focused on Ali (the others were by Murray Kempton, Dick Schaap, Norman Mailer, Mark Kram, and Jim Murray—pretty good company. Miller’s story is the last in the entire collection). It was then, while securing rights, that I got to know Miller a bit. I learned that the story first appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal‘s Sunday magazine, and before landing at Sport it had also been re-printed in a number of other Sunday magazines. More remarkably, it was the author’s first published story. Miller, whose life was changed by his embrace of martial arts and boxing as a child, went on to write books about both Ali and Bruce Lee, deftly merging his personal stories with theirs. In our interactions he was as genuine and unassuming as the character who knocked on Ali’s door. Every year or two, I re-read it and still like it as much as the first time.
Davis Miller is the author of The Tao of Muhammad Ali, which has been developed into the opera Approaching Ali, premiering this weekend at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. Miller is at work on two books, a memoir titled High Old Love Way and a collection titled Approaching Ali: The Muhammad Ali Stories.
[Color photo via Getty Premium; picture on the couch byHoward Bingham]
Red Smith is the most respected sports columnist we’ve ever had. In his prime, Jimmy Cannon, Smith’s friendly rival, was certainly as well-known. Cannon, the Voice of New York, was an emotional, colloquial writer whose reputation, unfortunately, has faded. But Smith endures. What is it about his writing that ages so well?
“It’s the same reason Shakespeare ages well,” Dave Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist told me recently. “He wrote beautifully, it’s as simple as that.”
The Library of America presents Smith’s finest work in the new collection, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith. It is available now and a must-read for all sports fans, young and old (and an ideal gift for Father’s Day). This week, with permission from Smith’s family, we’ll reprint a Red Smith column every day to offer you a sample of what he was all about. Today’s column is ”The Moving Finger Writes, Etc.” which ran on October 19, 1977, the day after Reggie Jackson hit three home runs on three pitches in the deciding game of the World Series.
It had to happen this way. It had been predestined since November 29, 1976, when Reginald Martinez Jackson sat down on a gilded chair in New York’s Americana Hotel and wrote his name on a Yankee contract. That day he became an instant millionaire, the big honcho on the best team money could buy, the richest, least inhibited, most glamorous exhibit in Billy Martin’s pin-striped zoo. That day the plot was written for last night—the bizarre scenario Reggie Jackson played out by hitting three home runs, clubbing the Los Angeles Dodgers into submission, and carrying his supporting players with him to the baseball championship of North America. His was the most lurid performance in seventy-four World Series, for although Babe Ruth hit three home runs in a game in 1926 and again in 1928, not even that demigod smashed three in a row.
Reggie’s first broke a tie and put the Yankees in front, 4–3. His second fattened the advantage to 7–3. His third completed arrangements for a final score of 8–4, wrapping up the championship in six games.
Yet that was merely the final act of an implausible one-man show. Jackson had made a home run last Saturday in Los Angeles and another on his last time at bat in that earthly paradise on Sunday. On his first appearance at the plate last night he walked, getting no official time at bat, so in his last four official turns he hit four home runs.
In his last nine times at bat, this Hamlet in double-knits scored seven runs, made six hits and five home runs, and batted in six runs for a batting average of .667 compiled by day and by night on two sea-coasts three thousand miles and three time zones apart. Shakespeare wouldn’t attempt a curtain scene like that if he was plastered.
This was a drama that consumed seven months, for ever since the Yankees went to training camp last March, Jackson had lived in the eye of the hurricane. All summer long as the spike-shod capitalists bickered and quarreled, contending with their manager, defying their owner, Reggie was the most controversial, the most articulate, the most flamboyant.
Part philosopher, part preacher and part outfielder, he carried this rancorous company with his bat in the season’s last fifty games, leading them to the East championship in the American League and into the World Series. He knocked in the winning run in the twelve-inning first game, drove in a run and scored two in the third, furnished the winning margin in the fourth, and delivered the final run in the fifth.
Thus the stage was set when he went to the plate in last night’s second inning with the Dodgers leading, 2–0. Sedately, he led off with a walk. Serenely, he circled the bases on a home run by Chris Chambliss. The score was tied.
Los Angeles had moved out front, 3–2, when the man reappeared in the fourth inning with Thurman Munson on base. He hit the first pitch on a line into the seats beyond right field. Circling the bases for the second time, he went into his home-run glide—head high, chest out. The Yankees led, 4–3. In the dugout, Yankees fell upon him. Billy Martin, the manager, who tried to slug him last June, patted his cheek lovingly. The dugout phone rang and Reggie accepted the call graciously.
His first home run knocked the Dodgers’ starting pitcher, Burt Hooton, out of the game. His second disposed of Elias Sosa, Hooton’s successor. Before Sosa’s first pitch in the fifth inning, Reggie had strolled the length of the dugout to pluck a bat from the rack, even though three men would precede him to the plate. He was confident he would get his turn. When he did, there was a runner on base again, and again he hit the first pitch. Again it reached the seats in right.
When the last jubilant playmate had been peeled off his neck, Reggie took a seat near the first-base end of the bench. The crowd was still bawling for him and comrades urged him to take a curtain call but he replied with a gesture that said, “Aw, fellows, cut it out!” He did unbend enough to hold up two fingers for photographers in a V-for-victory sign.
Jackson was the leadoff batter in the eighth. By that time, Martin would have replaced him in an ordinary game, sending Paul Blair to right field to help protect the Yankees’ lead. But did they ever bench Edwin Booth in the last act?
For the third time, Reggie hit the first pitch but this one didn’t take the shortest distance between two points. Straight out from the plate the ball streaked, not toward the neighborly stands in right but on a soaring arc toward the unoccupied bleachers in dead center, where the seats are blacked out to give batters a background. Up the white speck climbed, dwindling, diminishing, until it settled at last halfway up those empty stands, probably four hundred fifty feet away.
This time he could not disappoint his public. He stepped out of the dugout and faced the multitude, two fists and one cap uplifted. Not only the customers applauded.
“I must admit,” said Steve Garvey, the Dodgers’ first baseman, “when Reggie Jackson hit his third home run and I was sure nobody was listening, I applauded into my glove.”
Red Smith is the most respected sports columnist we’ve ever had. In his prime, Jimmy Cannon, Smith’s friendly rival, was certainly as well-known. Cannon, the Voice of New York, was an emotional, colloquial writer whose reputation, unfortunately, has faded. But Smith endures. What is it about his writing that ages so well?
“It’s the same reason Shakespeare ages well,” Dave Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist told me recently. “He wrote beautifully, it’s as simple as that.”
The Library of America presents Smith’s finest work in the new collection, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith. It is available now and a must-read for all sports fans, young and old (and an ideal gift for Father’s Day). This week, with permission from Smith’s family, we’ll reprint a Red Smith column every day to offer you a sample of what he was all about. Today’s column is “A Little Greedy, and Exactly Right” which ran on June 11, 1973the day after Secretariat won the Triple Crown.
The thing to remember is that the horse that finished last had broken the Kentucky Derby record. If there were no colt named Secretariat, then Sham would have gone into the Belmont Stakes Saturday honored as the finest three-year-old in America, an eight-length winner of the Kentucky Derby where he went the mile and a quarter faster than any winner in ninety-eight years and an eight-length winner of the Preakness. There is, however, a colt named Secretariat. In the Derby he overtook Sham and beat him by two and a half lengths. In the Preakness he held Sham off by two and a half lengths. This time he and Sham dueled for the lead, and he beat Sham by more than a sixteenth of a mile. There is no better way to measure the class of the gorgeous red colt that owns the Triple Crown. Turning into the homestretch at Belmont Park, Ron Turcotte glanced back under an arm to find his pursuit. He saw nothing, and while he peeked, his mount took off.
Secretariat had already run a mile in one minute, 34 1/5 seconds. Up to three weeks ago, no horse in Belmont history had run a mile in less than 1:34 2/5. He had run a mile and a quarter in 1:59, two-fifths of a second faster than the Derby record he had set five weeks earlier. Now he went after the Belmont record of 2:26 3/5 for a mile and a half, which was also an American record when Gallant Man established it sixteen years ago. With no pursuit to urge him on, without a tap from Turcotte’s whip, he smashed the track record by two and three-fifth seconds, cracked the American record by two and a fifth, and if Turcotte had asked him he could have broken the world record. If he had been running against Gallant Man, the fastest Belmont winner in 104 years, he would have won by thirteen lengths. Unless the competition spurred him to greater speed.
“It seems a little greedy to win by thirty-one lengths,” said Mrs. John Tweedy, the owner, and then repeated the rider’s story of how he saw the fractional times blinking on the tote board, realized there was a record in the making, and went after it in the final sixteenth.
It is hard to imagine what a thirty-one-length margin looks like, because you never see one, but Secretariat lacked eight panels of fence—eighty feet—of beating Twice a Prince by a sixteenth of a mile. This was the classic case of “Eclipse first, the rest nowhere.”
The colt was entitled to his margin and his record. At the Derby he drew a record crowd that broke all Churchill Downs’ betting records and he set a track record. He set attendance and betting records at the Preakness and may have broken the stakes record, but if he did discrepancies in the clocking denied him that credit. Last Saturday belonged to him.
Indeed, Belmont was kinder to the Meadow Stable than Pimlico had been, in more ways than one. On Preakness day, while the Tweedy party lunched in the Pimlico Hotel near the track, a parking lot attendant smashed up their car. They walked to the clubhouse gate, found they hadn’t brought credentials, and paid their way in. While the horses were being saddled in the infield, somebody in the crowd accidentally pressed a lighted cigarette against Mrs. Tweedy’s arm. On his way back to his seat, John Tweedy had his pocket picked.
“Boy,” he said after that race, “we needed to win this one today, just to get even.”
At Belmont there were the few scattered boos that most odds-on favorites receive here, but the prevailing attitude was close to idolatry. Well, perhaps that isn’t the best word because it suggests a cathedral restraint. Idols are remotely chilly. This congregation was warm. Horseplayers passing the Tweedy box raised friendly voices:
“Mrs. Tweedy, good luck.”
The voices followed her to the paddock where her colt was cheered all around the walking ring. They followed as she returned to the clubhouse.
“Mrs. Tweedy, good luck.”
Secretariat was cheered in the post parade, cheered as he entered the gate, and when he caught and passed Sham on the backstretch the exultant thunders raised gooseflesh. At the finish the crowd surged toward the winner’s circle, fists brandished high. After twenty-five years, America’s racing fans had a sovereign to wear the Triple Crown.
Parallels are striking between this one and his predecessor, Citation. Both colts raced nine times as two-year-olds and finished first eight times. At three, each lost once en route to the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont. Both made each event in the Triple Crown easier than the last. After the Belmont, Citation won his next ten starts for a streak of sixteen straight. Secretariat’s stud duties won’t permit that. Love will rear its pretty, tousled head.
Red Smith is the most respected sports columnist we’ve ever had. In his prime, Jimmy Cannon, Smith’s friendly rival, was certainly as well-known. Cannon, the Voice of New York, was an emotional, colloquial writer whose reputation, unfortunately, has faded. But Smith endures. What is it about his writing that ages so well?
“It’s the same reason Shakespeare ages well,” Dave Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist told me recently. “He wrote beautifully, it’s as simple as that.”
The Library of America presents Smith’s finest work in the new collection, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith. It is available now and a must-read for all sports fans, young and old (and an ideal gift for Father’s Day). This week, with permission from Smith’s family, we’ll reprint a Red Smith column every day to offer you a sample of what he was all about. Today’s column is “Night for Joe Louis” which ran on October 19,1968 the day after Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and gave a Black Power salute at the summer Olympics.
The four-hundred-meter race was over and in the catacombs of Estadio Olimpico Doug Roby, president of the United States Olympic Committee, was telling newspapermen that he had warned America’s runners against making any demonstration if they should get to the victory stand. A fanfare of trumpets interrupted him.
In stiff single file, the three black Americans marched across the track. All of them—Lee Evans, the winner; Larry James, second, and Ron Freeman, third—had broken the recognized world record. Rain had fallen after the finish and, although it was abating now, the runners wore the official sweatsuits of the United States team, plus unofficial black berets which may or may not have been symbolic.
Each stopped to enable John J. Garland, an American member of the International Olympic Committee, to hang the medal about his neck. Then each straightened and waved a clenched fist aloft. It wasn’t quite the same gesture meaning, “We shall overcome,” which Tommie Smith and John Carlos had employed on the same stand after the two-hundred-meter final.
Lord David Burghley, the Marquis of Exeter who is president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, shook hands with each, and they removed the berets, standing at attention facing the flagpole as the colors ascended and the band played the Star-Spangled Banner. Smith and Carlos had refused to look at the flag, standing with heads bowed and black-gloved fists upraised.
Evans, James, and Freeman stepped down, and out from under every stuffed shirt in the Olympic organization whistled a mighty sigh of relief. The waxworks had been spared from compounding the boobery which had created the biggest, most avoidable flap in these quadrennial muscle dances since Eleanor Holm was flung off the 1936 swimming team for guzzling champagne aboard ship.
The four-hundred-meter race was run Friday, about forty-eight hours after Smith and Carlos put on their act and 1.2 hours after the United States officials lent significance to their performance by firing them from the team. The simple little demonstration by Smith and Carlos had been a protest of the sort every black man in the United States had a right to make. It was intended to call attention to the inequities the Negro suffers, and without the aid of the Olympic brass might have done this in a small way.
By throwing a fit over the incident, suspending the young men and ordering them out of Mexico, the badgers multiplied the impact of the protest a hundredfold. They added dignity to the protestants and made boobies of themselves.
“One of the basic principles of the Olympic games,” read the first flatulent communiqué from on high, “is that politics play no part whatsoever in them. . . . Yesterday United States athletes in a victory ceremony deliberately violated this universally accepted principle by using the occasion to advertise their domestic political views.”
Not content with this confession that they can’t distinguish between human rights and politics, the playground directors put their pointed heads together and came up with this gem:
“The discourtesy displayed violated the standards of sportsmanship and good manners. . . . We feel it was an isolated incident, but any further repetition of such incidents would be a willful disregard of Olympic principles and would be met with severest penalties.”
The action, Roby said, was demanded by the International Olympic Committee, including Avery Brundage, president, and by the Mexican Organizing Committee. They are, as Mark Antony observed on another occasion, all honorable men who consider children’s games more sacred than human decency.
Soon after the committee acted, a bedsheet was hung from a sixth-floor window of the apartment house in Olympic Village where Carlos has been living. On it were the letters: “Down with Brundage.”
There were, of course, mixed feelings on the United States team. Lee Evans was especially upset, but when asked whether he intended to run as scheduled, he would only reply, “Wait and see.”
“I had no intention of running this race,” he said over the air after taking the four-hundred, “but this morning Carlos asked me to run and win.”
Said Carlos: “The next man that puts a camera in my face, I’ll stomp him.”
Red Smith is the most respected sports columnist we’ve ever had. In his prime, Jimmy Cannon, Smith’s friendly rival, was certainly as well-known. Cannon, the Voice of New York, was an emotional, colloquial writer whose reputation, unfortunately, has faded. But Smith endures. What is it about his writing that ages so well?
“It’s the same reason Shakespeare ages well,” Dave Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist told me recently. “He wrote beautifully, it’s as simple as that.”
The Library of America presents Smith’s finest work in the new collection, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith. It is available now and a must-read for all sports fans, young and old (and an ideal gift for Father’s Day). This week, with permission from Smith’s family, we’ll reprint a Red Smith column every day to offer you a sample of what he was all about. Today’s column is “Night for Joe Louis” which ran on October 27, 1951, the day after 27-year old Rocky Marciano knocked out 37-year old Louis.
Joe Louis lay on his stomach on a rubbing table with his right ear pillowed on a folded towel, his left hand in a bucket of ice on the floor. A handler massaged his left ear with ice. Joe still wore his old dressing-gown of blue and red—for the first time, one was aware of how the colors had faded—and a raincoat had been spread on top of that.
This was an hour before midnight of October 26, 1951. It was the evening of a day that dawned July 4, 1934, when Joe Louis became a professional fist fighter and knocked out Jack Kracken in Chicago for a fifty-dollar purse. The night was a long time on the way, but it had to come.
Ordinarily, small space is reserved here for sentimentality about professional fighters. For seventeen years, three months, and twenty-two days Louis fought for money. He collected millions. Now the punch that was launched seventeen years ago had landed. A young man, Rocky Marciano, had knocked the old man out. The story was ended. That was all except—
Well, except that this time he was lying down in his dressing-room in the catacombs of Madison Square Garden. Memory retains scores of pictures of Joe in his dressing room, always sitting up, relaxed, answering questions in his slow, thoughtful way. This time only, he was down.
His face was squashed against the padding of the rubbing table, mulling his words. Newspapermen had to kneel on the floor like supplicants in a tight little semicircle and bring their heads close to his lips to hear him. They heard him say that Marciano was a good puncher, that the best man had won, that he wouldn’t know until Monday whether this had been his last fight.
He said he never lost consciousness when Marciano knocked him through the ropes and Ruby Goldstein, the referee, stopped the fight. He said that if he’d fallen in mid-ring he might have got up inside ten seconds, but he doubted that he could have got back through the ropes in time.
They asked whether Marciano punched harder than Max Schmeling did fifteen years ago, on the only other night when Louis was stopped.
“This kid,” Joe said, “knocked me out with what? Two punches. Schmeling knocked me out with—musta been a hunderd [sic] punches. But,” Joe said, “I was twenty-two years old. You can take more then than later on.”
“Did age count tonight, Joe?”
Joe’s eyes got sleepy. “Ugh,” he said, and bobbed his head.
The fight mob was filling the room. “How did you feel tonight?” Ezzard Charles was asked. Joe Louis was the hero of Charles’ boyhood. Ezzard never wanted to fight Joe, but finally he did and won. Then and thereafter Louis became just another opponent who sometimes disparaged Charles as a champion.
“Uh,” Charles said, hesitating. “Good fight.”
“You didn’t feel sorry, Ezzard?”
“No,” he said, with a kind of apologetic smile that explained this was just a prize fight in which one man knocked out an opponent.
“How did you feel?” Ray Arcel was asked. For years and years Arcel trained opponents for Joe and tried to help them whip him, and in a decade and a half he dug tons of inert meat out of the resin.
“I felt very bad,” Ray said.
It wasn’t necessary to ask how Marciano felt. He is young and strong and undefeated. He is rather clumsy and probably always will be, because he has had the finest of teachers, Charley Goldman, and Charley hasn’t been able to teach him skill. But he can punch. He can take a punch. It is difficult to see how he can be stopped this side of the heavyweight championship.
It is easy to say, and it will be said, that it wouldn’t have been like this with the Louis of ten years ago. It isn’t a surpassingly bright thing to say, though, because this isn’t ten years ago. The Joe Louis of October 26, 1951, couldn’t whip Rocky Marciano, and that’s the only Joe Louis there was in the Garden.
That one was going to lose on points in a dreary fight that would have left everything at loose ends. It would have been a clear victory for Marciano, but not conclusive. Joe might not have been convinced.
Then Rocky hit Joe a left hook and knocked him down. Then Rocky hit him another hook and knocked him out. A right to the neck followed that knocked him out of the ring. And out of the fight business. The last wasn’t necessary, but it was neat. It wrapped the package, neat and tidy.
An old man’s dream ended. A young man’s vision of the future opened wide. Young men have visions, old men have dreams. But the place for old men to dream is beside the fire.
Red Smith is the most respected sports columnist we’ve ever had. In his prime, Jimmy Cannon, Smith’s friendly rival, was certainly as well-known. Cannon, the Voice of New York, was an emotional, colloquial writer whose reputation, unfortunately, has faded. But Smith endures. What is it about his writing that ages so well?
“It’s the same reason Shakespeare ages well,” Dave Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist told me recently. “He wrote beautifully, it’s as simple as that.”
The Library of America presents Smith’s finest work in the new collection, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith. It is available now and a must-read for all sports fans, young and old (and an ideal gift for Father’s Day). This week, with permission from Smith’s family, we’ll reprint a Red Smith column every day to offer you a sample of what he was all about. Today’s column is “Miracle Of Coogan’s Bluff,” which ran on October 4, 1951, the day after Bobby Thomson sent the New York Giants to the World Series with his historic Shot Heard ‘Round the World.
Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.
Down on the green and white and earth-brown geometry of the playing field, a drunk tries to break through the ranks of ushers marshaled along the foul lines to keep profane feet off the diamond. The ushers thrust him back and he lunges at them, struggling in the clutch of two or three men. He breaks free, and four or five tackle him. He shakes them off, bursts through the line, runs head-on into a special park cop, who brings him down with a flying tackle.
Here comes a whole platoon of ushers. They lift the man and haul him, twisting and kicking, back across the first-base line. Again he shakes loose and crashes the line. He is through. He is away, weaving out toward center field, where cheering thousands are jammed beneath the windows of the Giants’ clubhouse.
At heart, our man is a Giant, too. He never gave up.
From center field comes burst upon burst of cheering. Pennants are waving, uplifted fists are brandished, hats are flying. Again and again the dark clubhouse windows blaze with the light of photographers’ flash bulbs. Here comes that same drunk out of the mob, back across the green turf to the infield. Coattails flying, he runs the bases, slides into third. Nobody bothers him now.
And the story remains to be told, the story of how the Giants won the 1951 pennant in the National League. The tale of their barreling run through August and September and into October. . . . Of the final day of the season, when they won the championship and started home with it from Boston, to hear on the train how the dead, defeated Dodgers had risen from the ashes in the Philadelphia twilight. . . . Of the three-game playoff in which they won, and lost, and were losing again with one out in the ninth inning yesterday when—Oh, why bother?
Maybe this is the way to tell it: Bobby Thomson, a young Scot from Staten Island, delivered a timely hit yesterday in the ninth inning of an enjoyable game of baseball before 34,320 witnesses in the Polo Grounds. . . . Or perhaps this is better:
“Well!” said Whitey Lockman, standing on second base in the second inning of yesterday’s playoff game between the Giants and Dodgers.
“Ah, there,” said Bobby Thomson, pulling into the same station after hitting a ball to left field. “How’ve you been?”
“Fancy,” Lockman said, “meeting you here!”
“Ooops!” Thomson said. “Sorry.”
And the Giants’ first chance for a big inning against Don Newcombe disappeared as they tagged Thomson out. Up in the press section, the voice of Willie Goodrich came over the amplifiers announcing a macabre statistic: “Thomson has now hit safely in fifteen consecutive games.” Just then the floodlights were turned on, enabling the Giants to see and count their runners on each base.
It wasn’t funny, though, because it seemed for so long that the Giants weren’t going to get another chance like the one Thomson squandered by trying to take second base with a playmate already there. They couldn’t hit Newcombe, and the Dodgers couldn’t do anything wrong. Sal Maglie’s most splendrous pitching would avail nothing unless New York could match the run Brooklyn had scored in the first inning.
The story was winding up, and it wasn’t the happy ending that such a tale demands. Poetic justice was a phrase without meaning.
Now it was the seventh inning and Thomson was up, with runners on first and third base, none out. Pitching a shutout in Philadelphia last Saturday night, pitching again in Philadelphia on Sunday, holding the Giants scoreless this far, Newcombe had now gone twenty-one innings without allowing a run.
He threw four strikes to Thomson. Two were fouled off out of play. Then he threw a fifth. Thomson’s fly scored Monte Irvin. The score was tied. It was a new ballgame.
Wait a moment, though. Here’s Pee Wee Reese hitting safely in the eighth. Here’s Duke Snider singling Reese to third. Here’s Maglie wild-pitching a run home. Here’s Andy Pafko slashing a hit through Thomson for another score. Here’s Billy Cox batting still another home. Where does his hit go? Where else? Through Thomson at third.
So it was the Dodgers’ ballgame, 4 to 1, and the Dodgers’ pennant. So all right. Better get started and beat the crowd home. That stuff in the ninth inning? That didn’t mean anything.
A single by Al Dark. A single by Don Mueller. Irvin’s pop-up, Lockman’s one-run double. Now the corniest possible sort of Hollywood schmaltz-stretcher-bearers plodding away with an injured Mueller between them, symbolic of the Giants themselves.
There went Newcombe and here came Ralph Branca. Who’s at bat? Thomson again? He beat Branca with a home run the other day. Would Charley Dressen order him walked, putting the winning run on base, to pitch to the dead-end kids at the bottom of the batting order? No, Branca’s first pitch was a called strike.
The second pitch—well, when Thomson reached first base he turned and looked toward the left-field stands. Then he started jumping straight in the air, again and again. Then he trotted around the bases, taking his time.
Ralph Branca turned and started for the clubhouse. The number on his uniform looked huge. Thirteen.
Over a three-year period in the early 1970s, Chicago newspaperman Jerome Holtzman interviewed 18 sportswriters. These were men from the previous couple of generations, and they’d devoted their lives to covering sports: Fred Lib, Dan Daniel, John Drebinger, Paul Gallico, Shirley Povich, Jimmy Cannon, and Red Smith, among others. Holtzman recorded and transcribed over 900,000 words, about 10 percent of which became his outstanding oral history, No Cheering in the Press Box.
No Cheering is on the short list of great sports books, the ideal companion in any home library to Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of their Times. Yet, inexcusably, No Cheering has somehow managed to fall out of print. Let’s hope that doesn’t remain the case for long (hello, University of Chicago Press; ahem, University of Nebraska Press). In the meantime, look out for it in a used bookstore or track it down online. You won’t be sorry.
Without further preamble from me, here’s Red Smith.
I never felt that I was a bug-eyed fan as such. I wasn’t one of those who dreamed of being a sportswriter and going around the country traveling with ball players and getting into the games free and, oh, dear diary, what a break. I’m not pretending that I haven’t enjoyed this hugely. I have. I’ve loved it. But I never had any soaring ambition to be a sportswriter, per se. I wanted to be a newspaperman, and came to realize I didn’t really care which side of the paper I worked on.
I’m too lazy to change over now, to start something new at this stage. I just got so comfortable in so many years in sports. But otherwise I still feel that way. I never cared. When I went to Philadelphia I didn’t know what side of the paper I’d be on. I had done three or four years of rewrite and general reporting in St. Louis when I accepted the offer in Philadelphia. I knew how many dollars a week I was going to get. That was the essential thing. I never asked what they wanted me to do.
The guy I admire most in the world is a good reporter. I respect a good reporter, and I’d like to be called that. I’d like to be considered good and honest and reasonably accurate. The reporter has one of the toughest jobs in the world—getting as near the truth as possible is a terribly tough job. I was a local side reporter in St. Louis and Milwaukee. I wasn’t as good as some. I wasn’t one of those who could go out and find the kidnapper and the child. But I got my facts straight and did a thorough job.
I like to report on the scene around me, on the little piece of the world as I see it, as it is in my time. And I like to do it in a way that gives the reader a little pleasure, a little entertainment. I’ve always had the notion that people go to spectator sports to have fun and then they grab the paper to read about it and have fun again.
I’ve always tried to remember—and this is an old line—that sports isn’t Armageddon. These are just little games that little boys can play, and it really isn’t important to the future of civilization whether the Athletics or the Browns win. If you can accept it as entertainment, and write it as entertainment, then I think that’s what spectator sports are meant to be.
I’ve been having fun doing this seminar at Yale, once a week. They call it Sports in American Society. I don’t know what that name means, but obviously it’s a big, broad topic and I have got guys up to help me. It’s a round-table discussion, eighteen students, but usually there are a couple missing so it’s about fifteen. We bat around everything from the reserve system to amateurism and professionalism, and yesterday they wanted to talk about sports journalism, a subject I have been avoiding because I wanted them to do the talking. As a rule, I fire out a subject and say, “What do you think about this?” and they kick it around. I like that better. I knew that if I was alone I’d do all the talking so I got Leonard Koppett of the Times up there to help. And Koppett said that generally speaking sportswriters aren’t the most brilliant people in the world because really smart people do something else besides traveling with a ball club for twenty-five years. I don’t know. Did you ever feel discontented, feel the need to do something that other people would say was more important?
During the war, World War II, I was of draft age. By that I mean I hadn’t yet gotten to be thirty-eight. I was registered for the draft, but I had a family and didn’t think I could afford to be a private in the army and I didn’t want to go looking for one of those phony public relations commissions. So I just kept traveling with the last-place Philadelphia Athletics and, oh boy, more than once I thought, “What the hell am I doing here?” But that was during the war. Outside of that I never felt any prodding need to solve the problems of the world. You can help a little by writing about games, especially if you’re writing a column.
Oh, I don’t know if I’ve ever helped, but I have tried to stay aware of the world outside, beyond the fences, outside the playing field, and to let that awareness creep into the column sometimes. Occasionally, I’ve thrown a line about a Spiro Agnew or a Richard Nixon into a piece. I wouldn’t imagine I had any effect, excepting to make an occasional reader write and say, “Stick to sports, you bum. What do you know about politics?”
Sure, I respect the Tom Wickers. He’s certainly more effective. But somehow I have felt that my time wasn’t altogether wasted. I haven’t been ashamed of what I’ve done. I seem to be making apologies for it. I don’t mean to, because I feel keeping the public informed in any area is a perfectly worthwhile way to spend your life. I think sports constitute a valid part of our culture, our civilization, and keeping the public informed and, if possible, a little entertained about sports is not an entirely useless thing.
I did get a kick out of covering an occasional political convention, but even then my approach to it was as a sportswriter viewing a very popular spectator sport, and I tried to have fun with it. I did the presidential conventions in ’56 and again in ’68. The 1956 Democratic convention in Chicago was a pretty good one. Happy Chandler was a candidate for the presidential nomination. They finally nominated Adlai Stevenson and almost nominated John Kennedy for Vice-President. Kennedy was in the Stockyard Inn writing his acceptance speech when they decided to go for Coonskin Cap—Kefauver. Anyway, there was Happy Chandler. He was a good, soft touch for one column. There was Governor Clements of Tennessee. He made one of the great cornball keynote addresses of our time, and he was good for another column. Let me see, what else? Oh, yes, Truman came on. He looked like the old champ, trying to make a comeback, like Dempsey. Truman wasn’t running for reelection, but he showed up at the convention and made for lively copy. On the whole I just felt loose and easy and free to write what I pleased, and it seemed to come off well.
Over the years people have said to me, “Isn’t it dull covering baseball every day?” My answer used to be “It becomes dull only to dull minds.” Today’s game is always different from yesterday’s game. If you have the perception and the interest to see it, and the wit to express it, your story is always different from yesterday’s story. I thoroughly enjoyed covering baseball daily.
I still think every game is different, not that some of them aren’t dull, but it’s a rare person who lives his life without encountering dull spots. It’s up to the writer to take a lively interest and see the difference. Of course most of my years I was with a club to which a pennant race was only a rumor—the Philadelphia Athletics. I did ten years with them. They were always last.
I don’t agree with him, but yesterday, at Yale, Leonard Koppett said one of the great untrue cliches in sports is that the legs go first. He said that’s not true. He insists that the enthusiasm, the desire go first. And he said this is generally true of the athlete and, of course, when the athlete gets above thirty-five or forty he just can’t go on.
He’s physically unable to. The writer can go on, he is able to physically, but Leonard believes writers lose their enthusiasm, too. He thinks very few writers of forty-five have had the enthusiasm of their youth for the job. He said he didn’t know how writers of sixty-five felt, and I said, “Neither do I, but I don’t think I’ve lost my enthusiasm.” If I did, I’d want to quit.
My enthusiasm is self-generating, self-renewing. My life, the way it’s been going now, I see very few baseball games in the summer. I’ll start with the opening of the season. I’ll see the games then, but things like the Kentucky Derby and Preakness get in the way, and lately we’ve had a home up in Martha’s Vineyard, where I like to spend as much of the summer as I can, working from there. By the time the World Series comes along I may feel that I’ve had very little baseball for the year. But I find that old enthusiasm renewing itself when I sit there at the playoffs.
I don’t enjoy the actual labor of writing. I love my job, but I find one of the disadvantages is the several hours at the typewriter each day. That’s how I pay for this nice job. And I pay pretty dearly. I sweat. I bleed. I’m a slow writer. Once, through necessity, I was a fast rewrite man, when I had to be. I had no choice.
But when I began doing a column, which is a much more personal thing, I found it wasn’t something that I could rip off the top of my head. I had to do it painstakingly. I’m always unhappy, very unhappy, at anything that takes less than two hours. I can do it in two hours, if I must. But my usual answer to the question “How long does it take to write a column?” is “How much time do I have?” If I have six hours, I take it. I wish I could say that the ones that take six hours turn out better. Not necessarily. But I will say this: I do think that, over three hundred days, effort pays off. If you do the best you can every day, taking as much time as necessary, or as much time as you have, then it’s going to be better than if you brushed it off.
It’s not very often that I feel gratified with a piece I’ve just written. Very often I feel, “Well, this one is okay.” Or “This one will get by.” The next day when I read it in print, clean and in two-column measure, it often looks better. But sometimes I’m disappointed. If I think I’ve written a clinker, I’m terribly depressed for twenty-four hours. But when you write a good one, you feel set up, the adrenalin is flowing.
Arthur Daley once told me that Paul Gallico asked him, “How many good columns do you strive for?”
Arthur said, “One every day.”
And Gallico said, “I’ll settle for two a week.”
In my later years I have sought to become simpler, straighter, and purer in my handling of the language. I’ve had many writing heroes, writers who have influenced me. Of the ones still alive, I can think of E. B. White. I certainly admire the pure, crystal stream of his prose. When I was very young as a sportswriter I knowingly and unashamedly imitated others. I had a series of heroes who would delight me for a while and I’d imitate them—Damon Runyon, Westbrook Pegler, Joe Williams. This may surprise you, but at the top of his game I thought Joe Williams was pretty good.
I think you pick up something from this guy and something from that. I know that I deliberately imitated those three guys, one by one, never together. I’d read one daily, faithfully, and be delighted by him and imitate him. Then someone else would catch my fancy. That’s a shameful admission. But slowly, by what process I have no idea, your own writing tends to crystallize, to take shape. Yet you have learned some moves from all these guys and they are somehow incorporated into your own style. Pretty soon you’re not imitating any longer.
I was a very shy, timid kid. Going to Notre Dame and living for four years with guys—no girls, of course, were around—was good for me. It gave me a feeling of comfort mixing with my peers, a sense of comfort I didn’t have in grade school or in high school. But my defense mechanism has been at work so long I still find myself talking too much at parties, things like that. I know this is a defense to cover shyness. I often hear myself babbling on and wish I’d shut up. I know it’s because I’m shy. It’s a defensive mechanism that has developed and operated over the years.
I’m not a psychologist, but I do know, for example, that a fellow like Howard Cosell is the braggart that he is because of a massive insecurity. He has to be told every couple minutes how great he is because he’s so insecure. And if you don’t tell him, he tells you. He can’t help this.
I was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin. My father, Walter P. Smith, was the third generation in a family business—wholesale produce and retail groceries. My mother was born and grew up in New York. Her name was Ida Richardson. On vacation one time, visiting a friend out in Green Bay, she met my father and they got married. She spent the rest of her life in Green Bay, virtually all of it. My great-grandfather had come out from New Jersey and cleared a cedar swamp and started truck gardens. They raised garden truck and bought from farmers around there and shipped to northern Wisconsin and the northern peninsula of Michigan. They supplied hotels, restaurants, and grocery stores and they ran a grocery store in Green Bay. They went broke during the Depression.
There were three kids. I was the second son. My brother, Art, is still alive. He lives in the Bronx, and I guess he is retired. My brother never went to college. He had fun in high school, dating the French teacher and that sort of thing, and didn’t bother reading any books. So eventually, well, my father said, “Look, for gosh sakes, either you do something or you go to work.” So Art went to work on the hometown newspaper. He was a newspaperman all of his life. He was essentially a rewrite man and worked all the papers—Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis, and New York. In New York he did rod and gun for the Daily News and for the Herald Tribune. That was his last newspaper job. He is a bit more than a year older than I am. We had a little sister, Catherine. She died of tuberculosis at about nineteen, while I was in college.
My parents read all the time. They weren’t scholars or anything, but they were literate and there were books in the house. I remember bookcases with the glass doors in front. I read everything in the house. Corny 1910 romances entitled The Long Straight Road, and When Knighthood Was in Flower. Everything that was there, I read.
I was a real dedicated small-boy baseball fan up to World War I. Let’s see, I was nine when World War I started and the Wisconsin-Illinois League folded about that time. For years I tried never to miss a game when the Green Bay team played at home. Casey Stengel won the batting championship that year. He played for Aurora, Illinois. I don’t remember Stengel, but I can still almost recite the lineup of the Green Bay team of 1912 or 1914, whatever year Casey won the championship. I remember George Mollwitz, the Green Bay first baseman. I met him many years later in Bradenton, Florida. Somehow, all old ball players go to Bradenton. Mollwitz had a cup of coffee with the Cincinnati Reds, so he’d be in the record books.
And, of course, I played all sports. Everybody did. We played football and baseball on our lawn and we tried to take a clothes pole and vault, the way all kids do. But I never had any proficiency in sports. I learned to swim and loved it. Pretty early in life I learned to enjoy fishing, which is still my dodge. If I’m a participant in any recreation, it’s fishing.
I was always out in the woods, just a kid playing along the creek. I remember meeting a young man who was fly-casting. I had never seen a fly rod before, or anyone casting flies. He was about five years older and turned out to be a very amiable guy. He taught me how to cut a willow branch and make a very poor fly rod out of it and cast for chubs and minnows in the stream. He became a hero of mine. His name was Vince Engel. He was going to Notre Dame, studying journalism, and therefore I felt it was necessary for me to do the same. That was great. I’d be like him. And of course, later I realized that sitting on my duff pounding a typewriter was a pretty easy way to make a living. It seemed very attractive, a lot better than lifting things.
I remember one day in high school I had a Notre Dame catalogue which I was studying, and a senior who was going to go to Notre Dame borrowed it from me. This was Jimmy Crowley, the left halfback on the Four Horsemen. He was a year ahead of me and a big football star, and I remember him borrowing it. He didn’t need a catalogue because some old Notre Damer was sending him to Rockne. But he was interested in looking at it.
I stayed out of school for one year—between high school and college—simply to get a few hundred bucks because we had no money. I was an order clerk, filled orders for the Morley-Murphy-Olfell Hardware Company in Green Bay, not a very responsible job. I scuffled my way through Notre Dame. I got a job waiting on tables in a restaurant in South Bend. I borrowed money from a cousin. I contrived this and that. I got involved in class politics and, by chance, belonged to the winning party which elected the class president, and so on. As a reward for my political activities I got elected editor of the Dome and that was worth five hundred bucks.
I took a general arts course with a major in journalism. The journalism school consisted of one man, a darling old guy, Dr. John Cooney. I hadn’t written very much. I did write an essay in high school, when I was a senior, that was published in the annual, some silly little thing. If I remember correctly, and I do, it was about the debating team. It was supposed to be a humorous sketch. God, I’d hate to read that today. Then I worked a little bit on what they called the Notre Dame Daily, which came out two or three times a week. I probably did fragments of news. But I didn’t work there very long, because it was a dull operation.
I knew Rockne, of course, but whether he knew me I don’t know. I tried to run on his track team. He was the track coach as well as the football coach. He coached pretty near everything when I was at Notre Dame.
In order to graduate we were supposed to have one credit in physical education, which really meant that once or twice a week you went to gym class and took calisthenics unless you did something else. And that something else could be participation in any sport. You were excused from gym class for the season of your sport, if you participated.
I loathed this gym class and didn’t like the instructor. He was a senior trackman who just said, “Up, down! Up, down! C’mon there, Smith, get the lead out!” and so I signed up for freshman track. I don’t think I had any misconceptions about my speed. I tried to run the mile because I knew I couldn’t run very fast. I thought maybe I could run long. But I was mistaken about that, too. For just a few weeks I trained with the track team. I remember the freshman-varsity handicap meet came along, starting the indoor season, and I finished last in the mile, that’s last among many. Paul Kennedy, who was an upperclassman and the star miler, went in 4:21, which sounds slow, but this was a dirt track, twelve laps to the mile, and 4:21 was a fast mile in that day, on that track. I was many laps behind. I never did any sportswriting at Notre Dame, not even in the annual where you sum up the football season and so on.
When I finished at Notre Dame I wrote about—now I say a hundred—but maybe it was only fifty letters to newspapers I got out of the Ayers Directory. I got my first job on the Milwaukee Sentinel. That was in the summer of ’27. I was a cub reporter, chasing fire engines. I didn’t do much. I was mostly being used to cover conventions, speeches, luncheons, and dinners. Every once in a while I’d be the ninth guy covering a murder investigation and it was pretty exciting. It was a morning paper and I’d be up all night. I didn’t get off until midnight. These were Prohibition times, and I’d go down into the Italian ward where they had speakeasies and nightclubs with three-piece combos and canaries. Those were the people I knew. And I thought it was the most exciting thing in the world.
I was being promised raises but still getting twenty-four dollars a week, and then I moved to St. Louis. A guy who had been on the Sentinel had gone to the St. Louis Star, and he wrote a letter back to the makeup editor at the Sentinel which said, “Come on down, they’re looking for people.” He was really looking for friends to join him. The makeup editor had a divorce case coming up and couldn’t leave the state, so he showed me the letter. And I wired the Star, faking it, advertising myself as an all-around newspaperman with complete experience—and got an offer of forty dollars a week on the copy desk. I was terrified but I took it.
That fall the managing editor, a man named Frank Taylor, fired two guys in the sports department, and he came over to me on the copy desk and he said, “Did you ever work in sports?”
And I said, “No.”
“Do you know anything about sports?”
And I said, “Just what the average fan knows.”
“They tell me you’re very good on football.”
“Well, if you say so.”
And he said, “Are you honest? If a fight promoter offered you ten dollars would you take it?”
I said, “Ten dollars is a lot of money.”
And he said, “Report to the sports editor Monday.”
I stayed in sports about four years. Then I moved back to the local side, doing rewrite and general reporting. This was an exciting time. A lot of things were happening in St. Louis. Roosevelt had been elected and in his first message to Congress he said, “Bring back beer” and they brought it back, in about June. For months I wrote nothing but beer. It was a running story.
Beer was one of the big industries in St. Louis. I was always interviewing Gus Busch and Alvin Griesedick. I lived in the breweries in those days, doing stories such as should the alcohol content of beer be 3.2 by volume or by weight? Anheuser-Busch is almost a city by itself down in South St. Louis. The night beer came back—you wouldn’t believe it. Several hundred guests were invited to the bottling plant which had a big bar, a rathskeller sort of place. Thousands of St. Louisans jammed the streets, dancing and singing and celebrating the end of Prohibition. At 12:01 the first bottle came down the conveyor and everybody got Gussie Busch to autograph the label.
I had been Walter W. Smith in the sports department, but I was anonymous ninety-nine percent of the time on the news side. Everybody was, except Harry T. Brundage, our star reporter. He was the crime chaser and glamor boy. If Frank Taylor, the managing editor, felt very indulgent he might give you an occasional by-line. I remember seeing a note he wrote to the city desk, advising that I be sent to interview George M. Cohan, and it said, “If he writes a good story give him a by-line.”
One time Taylor called me over and said, “I want you to go out in the sticks and get some old lady, some old doll who has never been to a city, who has never seen an electric light. Bring her to town as our guest. Get an old guy if you have to, but preferably get a woman.”
I had just read a story about a strike of tiffminers in a place called Old Mines, Missouri, in the foothills of the Ozarks. This was an area settled by the French at about the same time the fur traders were coming up from New Orleans and settling St. Louis. These tiffminers were completely isolated—only I had read a travel piece about how the hard road had just come into Old Mines.
My wife and I drove to Old Mines. It wasn’t more than seventy-five miles out of St. Louis. I went to strike headquarters there and told the guys what I wanted, and they said I should go see old Lady Tygert, in Callico Creek Hollow. Susan Tygert. I found this old lady smoking a corncob pipe and wearing a black sunbonnet and living in a one-room shack with her husband, John. She was seventy-nine or eighty, at the least, and had never been out of Callico Creek Hollow. She had never ridden in an automobile, never turned on an electric light, had never used the telephone.
I had a hell of a time getting her to come to St. Louis. She liked my wife, and besides, I promised she could ride on a Mississippi riverboat. She wasn’t in St. Louis more than four or five days, and every day I wrote a story about her. I took her to the zoo and to places like the Statler Roof, where there was dancing and a show. She was charming and colorful, smoking that corncob pipe and wearing that black sunbonnet. Everybody was daffy about her. The stories got a warm response.
But O. K. Bovard, who was the managing editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—the rival paper—read them and said, “It’s a movie scenario.” Bovard simply decided I was a faker, had faked the whole thing.
A little while after that Ed Wray, the sports editor of the Post-Dispatch, made me an offer. But first I had to go see Bovard and he wouldn’t see me. I could have gone to work there, anyway, but I decided even if I could beat down his resistance it would be unwise to be working for a managing editor who was convinced I was a faker.
I went to the Philadelphia Record instead and stayed there ten years, all in sports, covering the Phillies and Connie Mack’s A’s.
In those days New York dominated the newspaper business, far more than it does today. The big papers were all here, the headquarters of the syndicates, the magazines, the book publishers, everybody so far as paper and ink was concerned. I had to take my shot at it. It was the pure ham in me, I guess. It was like playing the Palace.
I got my shot on V-J Day. I had heard Stanley Woodward was after me—he was the sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune. Early in 1945, during the first few weeks of the baseball season, an old friend of mine, Garry Schumacher, a New York baseball writer, said to me, “Have you heard from Stanley Woodward?”
I said he had called the other day, but I was out and when I called back he was out. I thought he wanted to know how old Connie Mack was, or something, you know, for a story. And Garry said, “Well, get plenty. He’s coming after you.”
I waited all summer and I never heard a sound out of Stanley, and I was dying. Finally, the morning after V-J Day, he called. We dickered and then we made a deal. It wasn’t to write a column. He just hired me to work in the sports department, to take assignments, but he told me later he hoped I would wind up doing a column. I came over on September 24, 1945, one day before my fortieth birthday. Stanley lied to the Tribune about my age. He told them I was in my early thirties.
When I first knew Stanley as a casual press box acquaintance, I guess I resented him a little bit. He was an iconoclast. He was never one to accept the handout. He wanted to know himself. Also, during the war he was dead against sports. He felt games were nonessential and that we all should be fighting the war, that there shouldn’t be a sports page, no baseball or horse racing, not even football—and he loved football. Well, of course, there shouldn’t be necktie salesmen or florists or any of the nonessential industries, if you’re fighting an all-out, one hundred percent war. I disagreed with him. I felt there was some morale value to games.
He was perhaps the most thoroughly competent, all-around newspaperman I’ve known, a fine reporter, a great editor, a man who could do anything on the paper. He would have been a great managing editor. But he was impolitic and absolutely refused to compromise. He got fired for telling Mrs. Reid that she didn’t know anything about running a newspaper.
Soon after he hired me there was an economy wave on the paper and he was ordered to cut two people from his staff, two older men who were near retirement. He said, “Give me some time and I’ll arrange their retirement and we won’t fire anybody.”
But they said, “No, you’ve got to do it right now.”
He refused. He lost his temper and said, “All right then, fire Smith and Woodward.”
In those days they had all sorts of forms for the personnel department—added to payroll, substratcted [sic] from payroll, and so on. He got one of these payroll forms, for dismissal, listing reasons from one to ten and he wrote “Incompetence” and sent it through and that night, down in the office saloon, he told me, with great glee, what he had done.
The last straw was the silliest thing in the world. The New York Times, which in those days had an awful lot of space, had a banner on one of the inside pages on a women’s golf tournament in Westchester. It wasn’t of interest to anybody but the players, but some of Mrs. Reid’s Westchester friends were offended because the Tribune didn’t carry anything about the tournament, and she raised cain.
So Stanley investigated, found it was a weekly tournament and would require so much space to publish the results. He wrote a very snotty memo to this effect to Mrs. Reid and said if she insisted on him wasting space and effort on this tripe he wanted two additional columns of space for the sports section. He also told her he wouldn’t insult one of his staff members by sending him on such an assignment. He would send a copyboy. She lost her temper and had him fired.
Stanley was a great man, and a great newspaperman and was always trying to put out the best section possible. Once, after he had left the paper, I tried to explain this to Mrs. Reid. I told her, “Didn’t you understand, he was fighting with you to help improve your paper?”
But she simply fluttered. She just said something fluttery. I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about.
Unlike the normal pattern, I know I have grown more liberal as I’ve grown older. I have become more convinced that there is room for improvement in the world. I seem to be finding this a much less pretty world than it seemed when I was younger, and I feel things should be done about it and that sports are part of this world. Maybe I’m sounding too damn profound or maybe I’m taking bows when I shouldn’t. I truly don’t know. But I do know I am more liberal and probably one of the reasons is that I married not only Phyllis, who is younger and more of today than I was, but I married five stepchildren who are very much of the current generation. They are very good friends and very articulate, and I think that this association has helped me to have a younger and fresher view.
My sympathies almost always have been on the side of the underdog, or the guy I think is the underdog. There was a time when I was more inclined to go along with the establishment. It may be because I’m no longer traveling with a baseball club and no longer exposed to the establishment day in and day out. I supported the players this past season when they went on that historic thirteen-day strike. Now that I do a column, I can stand there, a little removed, and look at what the Charlie Finleys and Bowie Kuhns are doing.
When I first heard about Marvin Miller—the players’ man—I didn’t hear anything favorable. I heard complaints from owners and club executives about how these ball players were putting themselves into the hands of a bloody labor organizer, a steel mill guy. I remember hearing one player, Dick Groat, saying he was in Pittsburgh and how he saw some of the results of union operations and that he wasn’t in favor of it. He voted against employing Miller, as some other ball players did.
Then I began to hear that Miller is a pretty smart guy, seems like a very nice guy. The owners and the hierarchy, like the league presidents and such, were beginning to be very discreet in their remarks about Marvin. I had never met him until the winter baseball meetings in Mexico City, in 1968. I introduced myself. Since then, when there has been a newsworthy dispute in baseball—and there have been a lot of them—I have found I get straighter answers from Marvin than from anyone else I know in baseball. I have yet to find any trace of evidence that he’s ever told me an untruth.
There have been times when he has said, “I think I had better not talk about that now,” which is understandable. I don’t doubt for a moment that he knows he’s talking for publication and he’s going to tell me what he thinks will look good on his side of the argument. But as far as I know, it’s the absolute truth. More honest than most. Sports promoters find lying to the press is part of their business. They have no hesitation at all about it.
This generally applies across the board. I was going to say it also includes league presidents, but I would hate to think of Chub Feeney lying. I think Joe Cronin would avoid a fact now and then, or evade one. As for the present commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, he doesn’t tell you anything so I don’t know whether he lies or not. But the sportswriter learns to adjust, to make allowances. When you’re listening to these people, who are serving special interests, you simply adjust by taking a little off the top.
Over the years, of course, all sportswriters, especially those assigned to and traveling with ball clubs, have difficulties with a ball player, or ball players. I never had anything as crucial as an actual fist fight, but I did have some differences with Bill Werber. This was when I was in Philadelphia and when he was traded or sold. The A’s sent him to the Cincinnati Reds, and when the deal was announced I think I probably wrote something to the general effect of “Good riddance.” I’m not sure. I didn’t care deeply for Bill. I thought he paraded his formal education. He was out of Duke, you know, and he used to correct the grammar of other ball players. There were things about Bill that didn’t enchant me.
In 1939 the Reds were in the World Series—that was the year the Yankees won in four straight and when big Ernie Lombardi wound up sprawled out at the plate. When we got to Cincinnati for the third game I went down to the bench before the game, and my old friend Paul Derringer said, “Hello, Red, you know Bill Werber, don’t you?”
And Werber said, “Yes, I know the sonofabitch.”
It went on, a tiny few exchanges like that, and then he said, “Get off this bench! Get out of the dugout!”
I said, “No, I’m a guest here.”
And he got up and shouldered me out of the dugout, just kind of strongarmed me out. I had my portable and I was strongly tempted to let him have it—with the typewriter. But I somehow didn’t feel like doing that on the field before the first World Series game in Cincinnati and so I left.
I remember Charlie Dexter coming along behind me and he said, “What are you going to do? Are you going to protest to the Baseball Writers Association?”
And I said, “No, Charlie, the player doesn’t like me.”
I didn’t speak to him again. And then one day I was in Washington, in the National Press Building. I was on the elevator going to the Press Club and a most successful-looking insurance salesman carrying a briefcase, well dressed, got aboard and said, “Hello, Susie,” to the elevator operator.
And I said, “Hello, Bill,” and we shook hands. It had been at least ten years.
When Curt Flood sued baseball, Bill wrote me a letter. He was absolutely against Flood’s suit and wrote disagreeing with something I had written in a column. Bill said that Curt Flood, with his limited education, was doing better than he had any right to expect.
I wrote back one letter saying that Flood had more ability and character than a great many educated men. I was trying to put Bill down. But he quickly responded with further argument which I didn’t bother to answer. I didn’t want to become his pen pal.
I won’t deny that the heavy majority of sportswriters, myself included, have been and still are guilty of puffing up the people they write about. I remember one time when Stanley Woodward, my beloved leader, was on the point of sending me a wire during spring training, saying, “Will you stop Godding up those ball players?” I didn’t realize what I had been doing. I thought I had been writing pleasant little spring training columns about ball players.
If we’ve made heroes out of them, and we have, then we must also lay a whole set of false values at the doorsteps of historians and biographers. Not only has the athlete been blown up larger than life, but so have the politicians and celebrities in all fields, including rock singers and movie stars.
When you go through Westminster Abbey you’ll find that excepting for that little Poets’ Corner almost all of the statues and memorials are to killers. To generals and admirals who won battles, whose specialty was human slaughter. I don’t think they’re such glorious heroes.
I’ve tried not to exaggerate the glory of athletes. I’d rather, if I could, preserve a sense of proportion, to write about them as excellent ball players, first-rate players. But I’m sure I have contributed to false values—as Stanley Woodward said, “Godding up those ball players.”
Otis Crater was late for the fanciers’ organizational meeting at the Cherokee Lounge for good reason. He had just stabbed a U-TOTE-M attendant following a discussion of the economic impact of a five-cent price increase on a six-pack of beer.
Crater kicked open the lounge door and bounced off the wall, scattering a table of Arabs who had made the mistake of thinking the Cherokee was a hangout for University of Texas exchange students. Crater carried the remnants of a six-pack under one arm and cradled his baby pit bulldog, Princess, under the other. He looked like a crazed, bloody scarecrow.
“That sorry bastard started it,” Crater told those already gathered for the meeting. “I had turned my back to leave when he came at me with a butcher knife. He tore open my right side. Daddy was out in the truck with Princess and a load of cedar. I said, ‘Don’t ask me why right now, just give me your knife.’”
“Did you kill the sorry bastard?” Stout asked.
“I don’t know,” Crater said, as though he hadn’t considered the question until now. “I ‘spect I made him a Christian. Daddy told me, ‘You’re a goddamn fool springing a knife on a man when you can’t even see straight. You’re liable to cut yourself as him.’ I think I got myself in the thigh.”
Crater and his family are cedar choppers, a profession they have followed for a hundred years or longer. Cedar chopper has become a generic term, like redneck, almost without precise meaning. But there are still real people out among the evergreen hills, spring-fed creeks, and wild backroads west of Austin who earn their keep by clearing stands of scrub cedar for land developers. Their wages are the wood they cut in a day. They drive broken-down pickup trucks, deal in cash, preach self-reliance, and maintain a fundamental faith in the use of physical force.
Thus, an increase in the price of a six-pack is of genuine concern. One could well imagine Crater’s old daddy embellishing the story for the domino players, who would nod approval and observe that Otis was a good boy, if inclined to be a little hotheaded on occasion. “Heh, heh,” his daddy would say, “I taught him better. First slash, he missed by eight inches and cut his ownself in the leg.”
Stout, a telephone company lineman, had summoned the fanciers to call to their attention an ad in Pit Dog Report, an earthy, nearly illiterate “Mag. of reading and not to many picturs” published in Mesquite and circulated nationally.
The ad read:
OPEN TO MATCH
any time … any where
BULLY, male, 54 lb.
A DEAD GAME DOG!
Parties interested could contact Mr. Maynard at a post office box in Phoenix, Arizona. It wasn’t necessary to mention that challengers lacking the proper securities need not respond. They had all heard of Mr. Maynard and his legendary beast, Bully. Mr. Maynard was the Max Hirsch of pit bulldog breeding, and Bully was Man o’ War. Bully had every quality a fighting dog can have—gameness, biting power, talent, stamina, bloodline. As the saying goes, a dead game dog.
‘We’re gonna get it on!” Stout declared, cackling and slamming the magazine on the table.
“He’s crazy as a mudsucking hen,” Crater said, addressing the table. J.K., a professional breeder who works with his daddy, ran the tip of a frog sticker under his walnut-colored fingernails and said nothing. Annabelle, a girl with an Oklahoma Dust Bowl face who lives with J.K., was practically sitting in J.K.’s lap, which was as far away as she could get from Stout.
“I got fifteen hundred bucks,” Stout said. “That leaves fifteen hundred for the rest of you.”
Crater looked down at Princess, who was chewing on his foot. “What are we gonna use for a dog?” he inquired. “I’m afraid Princess here is a shade might young. Boudreaux’s dead … Tombstone’s dead … and that dark brindle of J.K.’s wouldn’t make a good lunch for a beast like Bully.”
“Tell him,” Stout said. Then J.K. related what fate had brought their way.
It seemed that J.K.’s daddy knew a driver who knew a dispatcher who had a brother in El Paso who had a dog named Leroy. Leroy was so god-awful bad nobody in El Paso would speak his name, but for a price his owner was willing to loan him out. J.K. and his daddy had taken a pretty game dog named Romeo out to El Paso where Leroy had had him for high tea.
But that wasn’t all. J.K.’s daddy noticed that one of Leroy’s toes had been cut off-cut clean, not like in a fight, but like a man had taken a chisel and cleaved the toe with a blow from a mallet.
Crater looked around the Cherokee and whistled. Stout yelled for some beer. They had all heard the story, how you never saw a genuine Maynard dog with a full set of toes. This was the result of a legendary training technique peculiar to the Maynard kennel. On a pup’s first birthday, Mr. Maynard drops him in the pit with an older, experienced dog. As soon as the animals hit in the center of the pit and get a good hold, Mr. Maynard cleaves off one of the pup’s toes. If the pup lets go his hold, if he loses heart and whines and slobbers, Maynard cleaves open his head and goes about his business. But if the pup holds on, if he keeps on fighting, Maynard has found a new beast to ward off the wolves of his trade. Anytime you see a three-toed dog, move over.
“You trying to tell us Leroy is one of old man Maynard’s stock?” Crater asked.
“I’m trying to tell you Leroy is the son of Bully!” Stout cackled, banging his giant fist on the table. “Only the sainted Doctor Maynard don’t know it. He thinks Leroy is dead somewhere out in California.”
“He won’t for long,” Crater said. “Don’t you think old man Maynard won’t recognize his own work?”
“Me and daddy cut off a toe on his other foot,” J.K. admitted. “Then I dyed him brindle.”
“Hell,” Stout said. “You seen a thousand pit bulls. After a few fights, who knows the difference?”
Crater had to laugh. Leroy, son of Bully. Even his own daddy wouldn’t know him.
“That’s still a lot of money,” he said, tumbling Princess with his other boot. “How do we know he can take him?”
“That’s just a chance we have to take,” Annabelle said. flinching as Stout grabbed her knee. Stout was leaning forward, grinning like a berserk grizzly bear. His shirttail was out, and you could see the bulge of a .38 Super pushed down into his jeans.
Pit bulldogs. Killers, yes. For two thousand years or longer, pit bulldogs have been bred for a single purpose—to fight. To fight to the death, if necessary. To attack anything with four legs. They do not defend, understand. They are worthless as watchdogs unless the intruder happens to be another dog, or a lion, or an elephant. No, they attack. That’s their only number. They were bred that way—short neck, tremendously powerful body and legs, an undershot jaw capable of applying 740 pounds of pressure per square inch (compared to a German shepherd’s 45 or 50), a nose set back so they can hang on and breathe at the same time. The symbol of Winston Churchill and the English-speaking race.
The American Kennel Club refuses to register the breed. In its well-stocked library in New York, which includes such titles as The Dog in Action, Spine of the Dog, and Canine Madness, there are few references to the pit bulldog, or American pit bull terrier as they call it, careful to distinguish this nondog from such registered breeds as the ordinary bull terrier or the Staffordshire bull terrier.
Pure pit bulldogs are descendants of the old English mastiff, which Caesar greatly admired and brought back to Rome after his invasion of England in 55 B.C. Years before the Roman invasion, peasants kept mastiffs, or tiedogs as they were called—after the Anglo-Saxon practice of keeping mastiffs tied by day and letting them run loose at night. It was a practical method of regulating populations of wolves and other predators. Nobility, clergy, and other public-spirited citizens enjoyed dog fights and bequeathed legacies so that the common folk might be entertained on holidays.
Common folk are still entertained by the sport, especially throughout the South, the Southwest, and Southern and Central California, but also in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, and most likely everywhere else. Fanciers, as they call themselves after the old English tradition, gather on Sunday mornings, in the thickets or bayous, along river bottoms or arroyos, in grape arbors, in junk yards, under railroad trestles. They bring their dogs and their wages and plenty of wine and beer and knives and guns, and they have one hell of a time.
Until recently, the fanciers bothered no one except each other, which was by free choice. Then, in the post-Watergate doldrums, newspapers in Dallas, Fort Worth, San Diego, and Chicago joined forces with the New York Times in exposing and deploring the sport, which they customarily refer to as a “practice.” Boxing and auto racing are sport.
“This metropolitan area has more active dog fighting than any other region nationally,” an investigative reporter wrote in the Dallas Morning News. Not only that, the story continued, but prostitutes and gamblers are rumored to congregate around the pits.
Almost every state has a law against dog fighting, but the sport is so clandestine that enforcement is nearly impossible. A vice squad detective for the Los Angeles sheriff’s department told the New York Times that his department knew when and where the fights were held, but they couldn’t get on the property to obtain evidence. Dog fighting is a Class A misdemeanor in Texas and can cost you two thousand dollars and a year in jail; the catch is you can’t prosecute without a witness. There’s not a pit bulldog breeder alive willing to testify against a fellow fancier.
But now that pit bulldog fighting has become an issue, all that may change. The Dallas Morning News (which supports the death penalty and Manifest Destiny and longs to invade Indochina) published an editorial titled “Despicable ‘Game,’” the final paragraph of which I quote: “Every effort should be made to stop these fights. Quite simply, they are inhumane and appalling to any thinking citizen. Such senseless mayhem should not be tolerated in our midst.”
Noble sentiments, but if history has taught us anything, it’s that one man’s mayhem, senseless or otherwise, is certain to be another’s calling. Fanciers—like other individualists or subcultures—consider themselves to be a special breed, a class apart from what, to their point of view, are the drones of mainstream society. Fanciers care for their animals fanatically, certainly as conscientiously as most football coaches or generals treat their charges. Preservation of the bloodline is every fancier’s solemn duty and privilege. When an insurance man advertised “White Cavalier (Pit) Bull Terriers” in the Austin American-Statesman, Crater and Stout called on the gentleman, pointing out that he was attempting to pass off lemons as oranges and promising to break his spinal column if the ad ever reappeared, which it did not. The American Kennel Club should take note, if not of the method, at least of the diligence.
Otis Crater’s jaded old daddy had reached an age where he’d lost interest in most dog fights, but he couldn’t resist this one; there he was in Stout’s house trailer, spitting Garrett’s snuff juice into a paper cup and recalling the morning in Dripping Springs when the legendary Black Jack Jr. went nearly two hours before turning Marvin Tilford’s Big Red.
The match ended when Marvin Tilford’s dog turned, or gave up. Big Red knew when he’d had enough, but Marvin was so humiliated (and broke) that he didn’t show up for a year. Big Red was later drowned by a boar coon who got him by the back of the neck in the South San Gabriel River.
“He should of never gone in water,” Crater’s old daddy pontificated as he rocked slowly and watched Princess chew on his boot. “Men and dogs belong on ground. Birds belong in air. Fish belong in water. When a creation starts believing they invented how things are, they forgot how things are.”
“Hey, daddy,” Crater interrupted, “tell ‘em about the deputy sheriff.”
“That’s another story,” the old man snorted, dabbing his gums with a frayed matchstick. ‘We was going pretty good when the deputy called and asked me how things was going. ‘Pretty good,’ I said. ‘The dogs been fighting twenty minutes and the people seventeen.’”
Watching Princess tumble around the floor of Stout’s trailer, you wouldn’t take her for a killer. She’s no larger than a football, this furry little alligator with sad eyes and a wrinkled face, chewing mindlessly, somehow reminiscent of J. Edgar Hoover. According to procedure, Crater had already clipped her ears, which now looked like two raw navels. They were adequate for hearing but impossible to bite down on.
Princess was fun to play with—the trouble was she didn’t like to stop. She was playing with a big black poodle one afternoon when someone noticed that the poodle was no longer playing, or moving: the illusion of movement was caused by the steady jerking motion of Princess’s head. Shortly following life’s final measure of response, Princess dropped the black curly mess on the lawn and trotted over to examine a rosebush.
Before he got Princess, Crater traveled with a big brindle pit bulldog named Boudreaux. Crater was managing an Austin tavern when Boudreaux tore into a German shepherd three times his size. In the ten seconds or so it took Crater to separate them with his hickory wedge, Boudreaux ripped out the shepherd’s chest.
You could already hear the yelps and groans of men and animals down at the creek bottom when Stout arrived, carrying a package wrapped in brown paper.
“I guess you heard Claxon got stabbed,” Stout said.
“I heard he got some new marks,” Crater said. “What happened?”
“In the bathroom at the Cherokee. Claxon called this dude a Meskin. The dude was a Indian. Hell, I could tell right away he wasn’t no Meskin.”
“How’s he doing?”
“He’s about half dead and half proud,” Stout said, and his laugh sounded over-oiled, hollow, and obligatory. He tore away the brown paper and held up a framed, hand-lettered scroll. There were tears in his eyes. The scroll was a poem, written by his mama, Toots; her first poem since Stout’s daddy was shot to death by three blacks who hijacked his tiny grocery and market. Toots watched her husband die as she fired off several rounds at the fleeing killers. Austin police captured two of the hijackers, and the third, so it’s said, was captured by Stout’s vigilantes and is now fertilizing a worthy crop in a cedar chopper’s garden. Who knows?
Stout turned his head so that the others wouldn’t see the tears, and he looked for a place to hang the scroll. He selected a spot on the wall next to a poster of Pancho Villa enjoying a smoke under a mesquite tree.
Toots’s poem went like this:
The clock of life is
wound but once
And no man has the power
to tell just when the hands will stop.
At late or early hour.
Now is the only time we own,
live, love, toil with a mill;
Place no faith
in tomorrow for
The clock may then
There was silence throughout the trailer as Otis Crater read the words of Toots’s poem aloud, but Stout excused himself and slipped outside. He kept his back to the trailer and his head down, following the fossilized debris of an ancient riverbed. He stopped in front of an oak almost as wide as himself and took something from a homemade cabinet nailed to the tree trunk. It was a package of sunflower seeds. His short, knotted arms stretched for a low-hanging branch, and he filled a bird feeder with sunflower seeds.
Judging from the license plates of the campers and trucks scattered throughout the woods, the fanciers had come from as far away as California, Mexico, Florida, and even Canada. It was a young crowd, mostly in their twenties and thirties, a mixed bag of longhairs, cedar choppers, and high-risk investors, with a few blacks and Chicanos and some transients from a Houston motorcycle gang thrown in.
There were some women and enough children to make it look like a club picnic. A skinny kid named Tarlton, who stole ten-speed bikes for a living, passed out beer in paper cups. Tarlton wore a homemade T-shirt with a picture of Snoopy dragging a dead cat by the tail. There was no mistaking Mr. Maynard. He was the tall, lean, silver-haired man in a blue jump-suit and wraparound shades standing by his Winnebago talking to J.K.’s daddy. You’d figure him for a bomber pilot in World War II, but he was just another dog soldier a long way from home. The cold scars in Maynard’s eyes reached back to quarrels too horrible to translate: it had been a long time since he found it necessary to look tough or talk big.
There were a dozen bulldogs chained to heavy iron stakes around the perimeter of the clearing, but there was also no mistaking which one was Bully. While the other beasts were whimpering and sniffing blood and straining at their chains for some action, Bully relaxed on his haunches, observing the scene with sad, patient eyes.
Mr. Maynard and J.K.’s daddy talked and shared a drink, not at all interested in the fight in progress or the other fanciers clumped around the hay bales that formed the pit walls. A spotted cur owned by two black kids was trying to survive the jaws of one of Marvin Tilford’s pups. The match was hopelessly one-sided, which meant there was hardly any betting, and the crowd was restless.
“Why don’t you do the fair thing and give that leopard of yours a rest,” Marvin told the black kids. They conferred in whispers, then picked up their pet and paid off. The bet was fifty dollars.
That’s how most dog fights end, with a humiliated owner “doing the fair thing,” picking up and paying off. Dogs are frequently wounded and occasionally killed, but only in serious challenges where the stakes are high and the owners’ reputations well traveled. Even then an owner will usually do the fair thing when his beast is clearly outclassed, greatly preferring a healthy animal to an over-exercised ego.
“Dogs that are the best performers aren’t necessarily the best dogs,” Mr. Maynard told me as we drank scotch in his Winnebago. He knew that I was a writer. He even helped me with my notes, spelling out names, and carefully considering dates. He was only anxious that the sport not get a bad name.
“People talk about pure Maynards as they do about Picassos,” I observed.
“It’s an art,” he said.
“How do you do it7 What’s your secret?”
“No secret,” he smiled. “I just breed best to best. Now, knowing what is best, that’s a gift. I can’t tell you about that any more than Sugar Ray could tell you how he boxed. The best performers aren’t necessarily the best dogs, that’s just one quality. You look for everything from performance to pedigree to conformation to the way a dog holds his head when he pees. ‘Course, gameness is everything in a fighting dog, and you’re not gonna know that until you see him scratch for the first time. I’ve heard it said that if fanciers had millions of dollars like horse people we could come up with the perfect fighting dog, but I haven’t heard anyone claim they’ve come up with the perfect racehorse yet.”
I asked him about the familiar story, how he tested a pup by cleaving off one of its toes, then cleaved its head if the dog wasn’t game enough to suit Maynard standards.
“Naw,” he said, pouring two more drinks. “That’s an old story. I did it once or twice when I was getting started. I’m a businessman. A man growing corn doesn’t burn his fields because a few ears aren’t sweet. I raise dogs, I don’t kill them. Best to best, that’s the secret of a Maynard dog.”
“Some people think this is a cruel sport,” I said, understating the position as much as I dared.
“I guess it’s cruel as anything else in life,” he said, after considering the question from all sides. “These dogs only have one purpose in life, that’s to fight.” Fanciers are not long on philosophy. They accept what they do with the same lack of introspection that they accept war and General Motors. Their sport is part of their life.
The October sun came through the Winnebago window, overexposing the pastiche of fanciers around the hay bales. From the swell of the crowd it sounded like a hell of a fight. Then I realized it was Crater and Stout doing the cat number.
The cat number is traditional at dog fights, much like clowns at a circus or halftime bands at football games. What they do is throw live cats—which they buy for fifty cents a head from the city pound—to assorted dogs who aren’t fighting that day but who need exercise, self-confidence, and a show of affection. J.K. and his daddy use cats for training. Some handlers claim you shouldn’t run a dog, but J.K.’s daddy runs all of his beasts, using a homemade device consisting of an axle and a crosspole on which he can leash one dog and one cat. The leashes are measured so the dog can chase the cat till doomsday and never catch up, which he usually will attempt to do. If a dog has worked well, J.K.’s daddy will toss him a reward—the cat of his recent ordeal. A cat who has had a run-in with a pit bulldog is something out of a wax museum—a statue frozen in terror, eyes wide with disbelief, front claws arched, fangs bared in a silly, final grin.
Several wax museum cats lay in the grass around the hay bales. Marvin Tilford’s little boy walked by, swinging a dead cat by the tail.
It was a few minutes after 2 p.m. when Stout and Annabelle brought Leroy down from the trailer. They had changed his name to Tag. If he made it through the day, he would be Leroy again. He would return triumphantly to El Paso, but for now he was Tag, a dog with no past and an unenviable future. Tag looked more like a walking anthill of petrified Jell-O than any animal that might come to mind. He had so much scar tissue that you couldn’t tell what part was the original dog. J.K.’s dye job was blatantly atrocious; it looked as if Leroy had been tie-dyed.
“He wants Cajun rules,” J.K.’s daddy told Marvin Tilford, who by previous agreement would referee the match.
“Yessir,” Marvin said.
“He says, if you see a turn, call it. But let them maneuver. Don’t let the handlers push their dogs out of corner. Check the handlers … make ‘em roll up both sleeves, and make sure they taste their dogs’ drinks. No sponges … no towels … all the handler can take in the pit is his dog’s drink and a fan to fan him.”
“Yessir,” Marvin said.
When the handlers had carried the dogs to the pit, Mr. Maynard walked over and examined Leroy’s teeth.
“Nice animal,” he said. “Good head.” If he thought the markings curious, or observed the stubs of two toes, one so recently cleaved that the skin hadn’t grown back, he didn’t let on.
“Let’s roll,” he told Marvin.
Both dogs scratched hard out of their corners, and Bully took the lead, going low, forcing Leroy to bite around the nubs of gristle that had once been ears. Christ, he was strong. But there was no doubt Leroy was his daddy’s boy; he just kept coming. “It’s gonna be a long afternoon,” Crater said. Unless you have more money than you can possibly afford riding on the outcome, a dog fight is about as interesting as a college wrestling match: the beasts hit, lock on, and hold fast, in endless repetition. The fight quickly settles into a test of strength, endurance, and gameness. Even the blood takes on a surrealistic quality after a while, like ghost shadows in a hall of mirrors.
After forty-five minutes—when Marvin Tilford called the first pick-up and broke the dogs apart by forcing his hickory wedge between their jaws and twisting counterclockwise—it was still impossible to say who was top dog.
While the handlers were cooling off their animals, Crater and I walked down by the old Indian mound. You could feel the excitement bouncing off the limestone walls of the creekbed: it wasn’t watching the dogs that did it, it was being there, experiencing an almost-vanished culture of blood rites and a close familiarity with death.
Then we caught sight of Annabelle, coming out from behind some bushes, buttoning her pants.
“Damn,” she said, ‘Tm so nervous I almost wet my britches.”
“You think Mr. Maynard knows something?”
She shook her head. “I’d hate to find out. Old men like him can be real bad customers.”
“He didn’t say nothing when he looked at Leroy’s teeth.”
“That’s not what worries me,” Annabelle said. ‘Wait till his beast gets off on the acid.”
“What’s that suppose to mean?” Crater asked, squinting into the sun.
“I’m asking you.”
“We rubbed Leroy’s chest with acid,” Annabelle said. “Very shortly now Leroy’s daddy’s gonna take his first trip on LSD.”
Crater watched the light hit and fracture off the creek walls.
“Oh, me,” he sighed. “I get this awful feeling the center’s not holding.” Crater walked to his truck and got his gun. One of the fascinating things about Crater and his friends is the way they use the language. They are not educated, but they are amazingly literate.
At the second pick-up an hour later, both dogs were bloody but strong. Bully’s handler whispered something to Mr. Maynard, but Mr. Maynard shook his head and the handler told Marvin: “Let ‘em roll.” Leroy was bleeding from the chest and from the stifle of his left rear leg.
The battle was into its third hour when J.K. told his daddy: “His leg is starting to pump blood.”
“I can’t help that,” his daddy said.
“He’s making you like it, Leroy. You better eat!” Annabelle hollered out suddenly. At the name Leroy, both Stout and Crater felt for their guns, but Mr. Maynard didn’t blink.
“Work him, Tag!” J.K. yelled.
Bully was clearly the top dog now. Leroy was losing blood and weakening noticeably, but Bully was zonked far past the fatigue and mere dogdom. The ploy of the LSD was backfiring. The hair and blood in Bully’s mouth told him that he was a sixty-ton gorilla at the Captain’s Table reciting compound fractions in a tongue not previously heard on this planet. “Stand back,” he said in his strange tongue. “This one will be for keeps.” He took Leroy down by the front leg and chewed on the stifle, shaking hard, lifting Leroy off the ground and working him against the pit wall.
“Goddamn it, Marvin,” Stout hollered, “keep ‘em off the wall!” Marvin moved in with his hickory wedge, but before he could break the beasts Bully shook Leroy so hard he snapped off his hold and flew halfway across the pit. Then, by God, Leroy was on him, tearing at the soft part of his throat. This time Marvin called a pick-up, which was the proper thing to do. Marvin had to help the handler restrain Bully and drag him back to his corner.
“Jesus, he’s pumping,” said Tarlton, the bicycle thief. “Don’t let ‘em roll again.”
Marvin looked at Mr. Maynard, then at J.K. “You want to roll again?” he asked. J.K. answered by releasing his beast, who lunged straight at Bully and got him by the eye.
“No more pick-ups,” Mr. Maynard said quietly. “Let ‘em roll.”
“Let ‘em roll,” J.K. agreed.
So that would be it—one of the dogs would have to die or quit, and it wasn’t difficult to project which alternative would prevail.
Three hours and fifty-eight minutes into the match, it happened. Bully was going for the chest, boring in like a jackhammer, when suddenly Leroy got a leg and flipped him easy as you turn a pancake. There was a wailing sound like echoes colliding, then Bully’s eyes froze over. He lay still as Leroy tore out his throat. Leroy relaxed his hold, sniffed his dead opponent, then limped over and licked J.K.’s hand.
“If that don’t beat all!” Otis Crater’s old daddy said as they stood over the corpse of the late, great Bully. “It’s like his old heart just give out on him.”
J.K.’s daddy nodded. “Looks like he busted apart inside.”
“If that don’t beat all!” Otis Crater’s old daddy said again.
Mr. Maynard walked over to his Winnebago and returned with a .44 Magnum and a sheaf of hundred-dollar bills. “Here’s what I owe you,” he told J.K.’s daddy.
Mr. Maynard turned the cold scars of his eyes on Stout, then on the others, taking his time.
“I don’t know what you little bastards did to my dog,” he said, “but you’re the ones that have to live with it.”
He walked over to Leroy, patted Leroy’s head, then raised his .44 Magnum to Leroy’s head and blew it off. No one moved or spoke a word.
“If you boys ever get to Phoenix,” he said, looking each of them over one more time, “look me up.”
Postscript (from 1982)
This is my all-time favorite story, maybe because it was turned down by nearly every magazine in the country. Rolling Stone, Esquire, Playboy, Sports Illustrated, they all had a shot at the story and rejected it. It wasn’t just a judgment call; they truly hated the story. “Good Lord, dogs killing dogs,” Sports Illustrated editor Ray Cave (now editor of Time) told me. “My wife would never speak to me again if I printed that.” The story touched some primordial sense of revulsion in all these editors; people were killing people daily, by the hundreds of thousands, but there was something about dogs that was too much for their sensibilities. I had to beg Texas Monthly editor Bill Broyles to accept the story, though he loved it once he saw it in print. Everyone did. Not long after publication I received a call from Esquire editor Geoffrey Norman, who had rejected the piece when he was still articles editor at Playboy, but apparently didn’t remember. Norman wanted to know why I never sent any really good pieces like this to him.
People still ask me if this really happened. It did, though I changed the names and combined several dog fights into a single big event. It’s interesting to note the blow-by-blow account of the fight, a holdover from my sportswriting days, no doubt: a fascination with the ritual itself. But more than that, it shares a fascination with the almost-vanished “sub-culture of blood rites and a close familiarity with death.” I remember Broyles asking if Crater really said “the center’s not holding”; that seemed a little esoteric for a mere cedar chopper, but then that’s what I was trying to show. These guys read books, too.
As Margaret Mead so eloquently phrased it: “I don’t judge ‘em, I just write down what happened.”
Gary Cartwright has had a distinguished career as a newspaper reporter and as a freelance writer, contributing stories to such national publications as Harper’s, Life, and Esquire. He was a senior editor at Texas Monthly for 25 years until his retirement in 2010 at age 76. He has written several books, including Confessions of a Washed-up Sportswriter, which grew out of an essay he wrote forHarper’s. He has co-written three movie scripts, J. W. Coop (Columbia, 1972); A Pair of Aces (CBS-TV, 1990), which he also co-produced; and Pancho, Billy and Esmerelda, which he co-produced for his own production company in 1994. In addition, he co-produced Another Pair of Aces for CBS. Blood Will Tell was filmed by CBS-TV as a four-hour miniseries in 1994. In 1998 his book, HeartWiseGuy, was published.
You’ll enjoy this, Jared Haynes’ interview with Roger Angell. I came across this when I was at the baseball Hall of Fame doing research eight years ago. Found it in Angell’s file and think it’s just great.
Originally published in the fall 1992 edition ofWriting on the Edge and reprinted here with permission.
Roger Angell has been a fiction editor for The New Yorker since 1956 and has contributed to the magazine for close to fifty years. He is best known for his pieces on baseball, written for the magazine’s “The Sporting Scene” section. Many of these pieces have been gathered into collections (The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings, Season Ticket).
Every time I read one of Angell’s articles, I come away with a deeper appreciation and understanding of baseball. His year-end roundups sift through the minutiae of the long season to see what, at the end, really mattered, what was startling and unexpected, and what came to nothing. Other pieces investigate the skills and knowledge that players need to play their positions; or illustrate the swings in momentum within an at-bat, a game, a series, or a season; or tease apart the conflicts between differing factions—owners, management, players, and, most forgotten of all, the fans.
I talked with Roger Angell early in July in his office at The New Yorker. The day was hot and muggy, and because of a traffic jam, I arrived late and anxious. Angell greeted me graciously and gave me a glass of water and time to wind down. We then spent a pleasant hour and a half talking about writing and baseball, while the faint street sounds of New York wafted up from seventeen stories below.
WOE: When did you first start to consider yourself a writer?
ANGELL: The wish to be a writer was built into me very early, because of my family background. My mother was connected with The New Yorker from the second year of its existence, in 1926. And then my stepfather, E. B. White, was a writer. So I was attracted to that. My father was a lawyer; he wrote a couple of books, but he was a lawyer primarily. I was not attracted to the law, but that was not a vote against him. He was always completely supportive of whatever I chose to do.
I was a kid writer in school and editor of the school paper. I knew I would end up in publishing somewhere, editing or publishing, and I’ve been both an editor and a writer all my life. During the war I became managing editor of a GI magazine in the Pacific called Brief, which was the only weekly slick-paper, coated-stock, enlisted-man’s publication in that war. That was great practice. We covered all of the central Pacific, something like 2 million square miles. I had to write every week and help get the thing together. It’s not bad; I’ve gone back and looked at it and we did a pretty good job.
WOE: Would you say that the influence of your mother and stepfather was fairly direct? I don’t mean that they taught you, but did they give advice?
ANGELL: It was more from watching, but, sure, their influence was important. It mattered for me in psychological terms, because my parents were divorced when I was about eight years old and I ended up with my father, which was not the best arrangement. I saw a lot of my mother, but she was away. I was young and I yearned for her, so what she did, working forThe New Yorker, was of great significance to me. And what Andy White, my stepfather, did was attractive to me. My mother always supported my wishes to be a writer, my baby efforts. I had a first contribution to the famous Franklin P. Adams column, “The Conning Tower,” when I was about nine years old. I dashed it off and my stepfather picked it up and sent it in and it got published.
And, of course, when I got older, I realized that Andy White was a wonderful model. He was there at hand, and he wrote so well. I learned things from him, the main one being to try to write simply and directly and to try to make it sound easy. Be clear, be unaffected if you can, and try to arrive at a tone that is your own tone, not somebody else’s. It takes a while for you to recognize what your own tone is. I also learned how hard writing is. He made it look easy, and anybody reading E. B. White thinks, Well, this was a snap, this was a cinch for him. Of course it wasn’t. He suffered the way all writers suffer. I remember summers in North Brooklin, Maine, when he was writing “Comment”—he wrote that first page of The New Yorker for years. He’d write on Tuesdays, as I recall, when he’d close himself in his study all day. He’d come out for lunch looking pale, and he wouldn’t speak. Then he’d go back in there. He’d mail it off in the late afternoon, and then, half the time, he’d try to get it back because he thought it wasn’t good enough. Of course, it was good enough, but I recognize the impulse. Every writer understands that. Writing is hard; it’s really hard. Maybe he should have told me to turn back before it was too late!
Most writers are made at an early age. I don’t think many people come to it as a late idea. But there are always people who think, “Say, maybe I could become a writer!” I’ve heard people say, “Oh, you’re a writer. Isn’t that interesting. Someday I’m going to sit down and write a book.” You try not to laugh or scream. A writer named Roger Burlingame—someone my father’s age—had this happen years ago. Someone came up to him at a party and said this. So Burlingame asked him, “What’s your line of work?” and the man answered, “Well, I’m a civil engineer.” “That’s amazing,” Burlingame said. “You know, you won’t believe this, but all these years I’ve told myself that someday I’m going to sit down and build a bridge.”
When I talk to groups of young writers, I sometimes ask them, “Do you really want to do this?” I have cautionary tales about how tough it is, and how it doesn’t get any easier. They think that once they get the hang of it, the difficulty will go away, and of course it’s not true. Back in the mid-seventies, I was writing a piece about the Super Bowl, of all things—a “Sporting Scene” piece. The Super Bowl is two weeks of hype followed by two hours of football. I was there for a full week of the hype and I got to know the other writers. Just after the game we were in the pressroom eating a sandwich, and I said, “Now the hard part comes, we gotta write this stuff.” And a writer next to me—l was older than he was by about fifteen or twenty years—actually turned pale, and said, “You mean, it’s still hard for you?” and I said, “Yeah.” I understood his problem and I said, “I’m sorry, but it’s never going to get any easier.”
WOE: Did you have any worthwhile writing instruction in school or college?
ANGELL: When I was a freshman at Harvard, they had some remarkable instructors in composition. Wallace Stegner was there and Mark Schorer—celebrated teachers of writing. They were all in their late twenties. There were five or six sections that were all top-class. We had to write every week, which was good practice. But there isn’t much to say in a classroom about writing. You can talk endlessly about a piece of copy, or a paragraph or a sentence, and to some effect, but in general terms you can’t go much beyond “Show them, don’t tell them,” “Keep it direct,” “Be effective,” “Don’t be pompous”—all the standard things.
In those days, the great influence, the great exemplar, was Hemingway. I remember in that course at Harvard, we used to get our themes back in sort of a mail-box, with pigeon-holes, and of course you’d pick out other people’s stories and read them. Whenever I did this, I realized that every one of us was writing like Hemingway. I still remember the first sentence of one of my classmates’ stories I’d picked up: “Eddie stank of squirrel guts.”
WOE: Your first published works were short stories.
ANGELL: I wrote those pieces when I was in my twenties and thirties. I was just trying to become some kind of a writer. There were a couple of them that were OK, I guess. I really didn’t decide to stop; I just didn’t have a lot more stories to tell.
Of course in my work as an editor, I’ve been aware of most of the reigning influences in the short story.
WOE: Who have those been?
ANGELL: Oh, Raymond Carver was a very powerful influence. Donald Barthelme, back before him. Salinger to an extraordinary degree. Before that, Cheever and John O’Hara. Updike has been an influence all along, and a very strong one, but he’s difficult for students. His flavor is distinct, but not perceptible sentence by sentence. Barthelme was almost overpowering as an influence for a while because that quirky, pasted-together style looked easy, and of course it wasn’t. There was only one Donald. When he’d been going a few years, his brother Frederick Barthelme—Rick Barthelme—began sending us stuff that was exactly like Donald’s. I had to tell him, through Don at first, because I didn’t know him, that we already had one of these, we couldn’t use two. But then in time he arrived at his own way, his own approach to writing, which was entirely different, and we published a great many of his stories. I don’t think there is a dominant short-story model now. It’s strange. I don’t think there’s any meaning to it. It just doesn’t happen at the moment that there is a model. I can’t think of any.
WOE: How did you come to start writing about baseball?
ANGELL: William Shawn, then the editor [of The New Yorker], wanted to have more sports in the magazine. I had written a piece for the magazine about hockey— I’d been a hockey fan. But he was wary because he understood the difficulties of writing about sports. He didn’t want us to be cynical, he didn’t want us to be too knowing, and he didn’t want us to be sentimental. He said, “Why don’t you go down to spring training and see what happens?” I went to Florida in the spring of ’62, I guess, and wrote that first baseball piece, and I just kept going after that. I had no idea it would go on this long. It was never planned that this would become such a specialty of mine, a considerable part of a career. I just went on from year to year because I always found something else I wanted to write about. It seemed to be a good fit.
WOE: How did you envision that first assignment when you went down to Florida?
ANGELL: What I did was write about baseball from the fans’ point of view. I was in my forties—I was forty-one—and I knew enough to know that I didn’t know a great deal about baseball, even though I was a true-blue fan. I’d followed baseball all my life. But I was wary of talking to players; I felt very nervous about that. So I sat in the stands and reported on what that was like. The piece was called “The Old Folks Behind Home.” It was about old men and women watching spring training. The great preponderance of fans in ’62 were old folks.
And also, although it was not a conscious plan, I wrote about myself, because I was a fan. It set a pattern for me. I am a fan, I refer to myself as a fan, and I report about my feelings as a fan, and nobody else, to my knowledge, does that. It’s no great thing, but those old restrictions on reporting seemed to say that you can’t put yourself in the piece and you can’t betray emotion. It’s funny, because most of the beat writers have this surface objectivity and toughness, but underneath it all, I’ve noticed, they are just as much fans as the rest of us, or more so. If you sat up there and didn’t care about baseball in some personal way, it would be a deadly assignment, I think, year after year. Some of them are fans of other teams, not the team they’re covering. But if it comes down late in the season, to the last week or the last weekend, and your team still has a chance to get into the playoffs, you look around in the pressbox and everybody up there is pulling for them, and an occasional hopeful yell escapes their lips, even though no cheering in the pressbox is the absolute rule.
WOE: Has your vision of the assignment changed over the years?
ANGELL: Sure it’s changed. I eventually came to know more about baseball. I came to know some players and I began to feel free about going onto the field and into the clubhouse and talking to some players. And then, I guess in the seventies and early eighties, I began to realize that there was a great deal about the game I didn’t understand, and that many people didn’t understand. I still feel that way. That’s one of the reasons I’m still doing this. Baseball is intensely complicated, beautifully complicated. If you can get the players talking about what they do, it can make for interesting pieces. The best defense against partisanship is expertise, because the game is too painful otherwise. Year after year, it hurts to be a fan. There is much more losing than winning in baseball, if you think about it—in all sports, actually. If your hopes have been high, it can be almost unbearable. Sometimes it becomes a long slow ache, if you’ve been a Red Sox fan. Or it can be a sudden shock if you’ve gotten your hopes up for the first time, when your team comes from nowhere and seems to have a shot and then suddenly falls apart before your eyes.
WOE: It seems that you play the odds—you have three or four favorite teams that you cover.
ANGELL: The day-to-day teams that I follow most have been the Mets and the Red Sox. In 1986 I suddenly had to figure out which of the two I cared more about. It was true act of discovery; this was not contrived at all. Late in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, I suddenly realized the Mets were about to be eliminated and I was downcast. I was surprised. I would have bet the other way, that I cared more about the Red Sox, but I was wrong. So I had to write and confess that there was more Met than Red Sock in me. And my readers—I get quite a lot of mail from readers who care about baseball—my New England mail was remarkably forgiving. I thought I would be excoriated.
The other team I’ve followed is the Oakland Athletics. I’ve gotten to know the management well, first from a Profile I wrote about Roy Eisenhardt. I also admire the Haas family, the Levi Strauss people who decided to buy the team in 1980. Walter Haas, Sr. is a true baseball fan, a sports fan. They really wanted to do something for the city of Oakland. They’re liberal multi-millionaires, which is a surprising combination. They’re admirable people. Oakland was a depressed city, a city with a high preponderance of minorities, in very dire straits. They thought it would be good for Oakland to keep a big-league team, and it has been good for Oakland. This sort of concern is very rare among owners. Oakland is among the two or three most admired franchises by the players and by people who really know baseball.
WOE: You mentioned how complicated the game is. One of the pieces I’ve most admired is “In the Fire,” the one about catchers. I think it opened my eyes as a fan to how difficult and complex the game is.
ANGELL: What I learned on that story was how smart catchers have to be. They really do run the game. They see everything out there; they’re the only ones who are looking out at the field, except for the fans. I think that was the first “What do you do?” piece that I wrote. Players I talked to at first couldn’t believe that was all I wanted. They were sort of close-mouthed and thought I was after just another sports story, but I said “No, just tell me what you do.” I think for most reporters that’s probably a pretty good question, because all of us are entranced with what we do, if it’s complicated at all, and love to talk about it. So once they began to talk about it I couldn’t shut them up. There’s a lot about catching I couldn’t get in there. As I said in the piece, this is just beginning to get into what it’s all about.
On these “What do you do?” pieces, I tend to leave out the most obvious or most famous player. I don’t want to go to the top man, because what he does may seem too easy to him. So I didn’t go to Johnny Bench, although he talks about baseball and about catching very well. The people I did go to were great talkers. Of course any reporter knows enough to go to a good talker. You remember who talks well—who talks in sentences and now and then even in paragraphs. There are several Hall of Fame talkers in that same piece.
WOE: What goes into researching and writing a piece on baseball?
ANGELL: It depends on the piece. The big fall roundup really requires me to go to games fairly steadily through the summer, to take notes and keep scorecards. I also used to keep enormous stacks of newspapers and clips, The Sporting News, Baseball America, the Times, out of town papers, and last year, The National. I’d have stacks and stacks of stuff like that around here and at the end of the year I’d have to try to make some sense out of it. The biggest question, first of all, is what to leave out. There’s far more material than I can deal with. If you get a brilliant World Series like the one last fall, between the Braves and the Twins, that’s easy, because you know you’re going to hurry to the World Series in the piece. And the playoffs were just as good. You want to go back and recreate the feeling of those very close, low-scoring games, when most of us were just getting to know these young players. We didn’t know them well at all because they were both last place teams the year before. As I wrote, a great many fans said, “Who are these guys? I don’t care about these guys.” And then of course they played so well, it was like discovering baseball for the first time. I’d come in and people around here would say, “Wow! I’m worn out.” They were terrific games. It was like a World Series that was nothing but one long ninth inning.
There’s a lot to organize for those pieces in the fall. This year I’m going to try to do a shorter piece about the World Series, if I can break the habit.
When I go to games, I take a lot of notes. I take a standard, three-subject school notebook like this [picks it up off his desk], and I write all the way through games. This is a piece I’m working on, getting ready to write right now, about Class A baseball, the lowest level of organized ball, up in Oneonta, New York. I was up there last week. People who have known me in various pressboxes around the league know that I write a lot during the games. It’s a kind of joke—all the notes I take. But the reason is that I’m going to write much later than anybody else. I may be at a game in July and the chances are I won’t use any part of it in an autumn piece, but you never know. You don’t know when you’re watching a game if this is going to fit into something else that happens in September and something else that happens in October, or some recurrent theme I want to pick up on, or something about this particular player that I’m going to see later on. Well, I can’t remember what happened at this at-bat back in June. I can’t suddenly pull this out of the air. It’s got to be down on paper.
WOE: Do the notes allow you to revisualize the play?
ANGELL: Yes, if the notes are okay. I sometimes write down little things, how someone looks standing up at bat, what the pitcher’s mannerisms are up on the mound, or even what happened on a particular play, if it’s unusual. Baseball is a sport uniquely suited to writing, because you can go back and reconstruct a game from fairly simple notes and from a scorecard. You can bring back a moment, or even the pattern of the game. When something started to happen, if there was a game with a shift in it, a hinge in it. Then you can say this is why this game started this way and went that way. It all moves at a pace that allows you to write it down and watch it beginning to happen. Usually if there’s a shift in the game you can go back and say, “Well, actually this began the inning before or the inning before that.” You can do it in some detail. I don’t think anybody does it in more detail than I do. I’ve been laughed at sometimes for this, but I think fans like it. Baseball is really a writer’s game. All those idle moments at the ballpark where you look around and enjoy the day or the evening and another peanut, and now and then a thought actually comes, or even an idea crosses your mind. That doesn’t happen much in basketball or hockey because too many things are happening. And in football you can’t tell what’s happening. In baseball, you can. It’s very rare that something happens where people will say, “What was that?”
WOE: Do you tend to write in complete sentences in your notebooks?
ANGELL: I don’t think so. These notebooks [on Class A baseball] are different because I wasn’t doing very careful stuff about these games themselves. I was doing it about the setting. No, these aren’t sentences. These are quotes in some cases. But in my game notebooks I sometimes have something drawn. I make a little rough sketch of what someone looks like. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched Will Clark, who has this elegant, beautiful swing. It’s such a wonderful thing to watch. I would begin to watch how he’d do this and I’d make a drawing of that column made by his front leg and the fulcrum as he twists his body around.
WOE: What is most difficult for you in writing?
ANGELL: Starting a piece seems to be extremely difficult for me. It always has been. People around here are used to my cries of rage and woe, because I can’t get cranked up. Once I start to write, I’m pretty quick. But starting is a terrible block for me. Perhaps the reason is that good writing is based on clear thinking, which is the hardest thing we have to do. It’s as plain as that. It’s hard to start to write because what you have to do is to start to think. And not just think with the easy, up front part of your brain but with the deeper, back parts of the unconscious. The unconscious comes into writing in a powerful way. When I was writing weekly pieces—and I think daily writers feel this as well—if I am having a hard time I can go to bed at night and say, “When I wake up I’m going to have the lead.” And you do. You can train your mind to do that. Some part of you is sitting there hunched over, under a light, looking over possibilities.
I think part of my problem is that I don’t write regularly. I’m not just a writer, I’m an editor—my full time job is an editor—so I write something and then I stop. Then I may not write again for a month or two or even three or four months. And when that happens, you’ve got to remember what writing is. You have to teach yourself all over again. It doesn’t come naturally. Whenever I’ve been in the situation where I had to write every week—I did the movies for the magazine for six months once—it was a cinch. I knew I came in on Tuesdays and I was going to write the piece. By the end of the day the piece would be done. That’s no problem. But if you’re going to write five thousand or ten thousand or even a fifteen thousand words, and you haven’t done anything of the sort for a good many weeks, it’s hard to get it right. But I think all this time I’m basically sorting out the material, mostly unconsciously; I’m getting ready to decide where to put the emphasis.
I think I’m also hampered a little bit by the feeling that I’m probably competing with myself, although I try to combat this. I don’t feel a need to write a better piece each time I go out, but l know that I’ve got something of a reputation and I don’t want to write a bad piece, I really don’t. I don’t want to let down the side—by which I mean I don’t want to let myself down. I recognize this feeling among ballplayers because the great motivating factor for every major-league athlete, anybody who’s been an athlete for a long time, is that you don’t want to look bad out there. People say players today are out there thinking about money, but the truth is, they want to do well. That’s why they’re there. There’s another connection between sports and writing—all writers want to do well. It’s one of the reasons why it’s so damned hard.
WOE: I remember your quoting one player who asked his teammates, “Please tell me when I need to retire.”
ANGELL: I think that was Bob Boone. Actually he’d said it the other way around. He was still playing and he was forty-three years old. He’d played more games than any other catcher. And now that Carlton Fisk has been injured all this year it looks as if he’ll keep that record. I was a friend of Bob Boone’s and I asked him once, “How do you keep going?” He said, “I never think about my age. Never. If I go into a slump, I don’t ask myself ‘Is this because I’m old?’” Because it’s tough enough without that. And then he said, “They’ll tell me when I’m too old to play. They’ll come take the uniform away and say, ‘You can’t play any more.’ I’m not going to tell myself that.”
WOE: When you go to do a piece on, say, Class A baseball, do you go with a specific purpose in mind? Do you know ahead of time what you want to get out of it? Or do you just go to watch the games and see what happens?
ANGELL: Well, I’m doing the piece on Class A baseball right now because Major League baseball is such a pain in the ass. We are burdened by front-office news and issues of money, with these squabbles with the commissioner—league rearrangements, expansion franchises, and all the rest of it—and it’s hard to remember what we came for, which is to watch baseball. I think all of us in the stands, not just writers but all of us, feel farther away from the game than we used to. It requires enormous effort to remember that we go to the park to have fun.
I don’t want to whine here, because I think I’ve become used to most of the terrific changes, the amazing changes in the game. They’re not amazing, they’re depressing. There have been significant changes in the apparatus of baseball since I began watching it. Diamond Vision is a huge change. Everything that happens out there is replayed up on that huge board. There is rock music between the innings and even during the innings sometimes. There is organized cheering in some ballparks. The Nipponization of sports is beginning to take hold here. And of course we’re all distracted by the publicity, the fame, and we don’t really identify with those players now. With all the blather and noise and distraction of big-time sports—which is very much the same sort of stuff that’s going on in America itself—it’s hard to remember why we were drawn to this in the first place.
I went back to Class A ball and up to Oneonta because I’d heard that this was a delightful small ballpark, with a president-owner who had been there for almost thirty years now. It’s a Yankee franchise. It’s short season Class A league, where the teams are made up of players just out of college. They’re new draftees. I watched them play a Red Sox team and then a Houston team and then I went over to Pittsfield and watched them play a Mets team. It’s nice. It’s small town baseball, the trees are very close, you’re within five yards of first base, you can smell the grass, the kids are young, and the stands are full of parents and babies. It’s the way spring training used to be. It’s a lot of fun and that’s all I’m going to try to say in the piece. I don’t have anything more to say than that.
WOE: What about revising pieces? When you get to the point where it’s “done,” do you give it to somebody else to look at?
ANGELL: I don’t do a lot of revising. I work at a typewriter. Writer friends keep telling me I should move to a word processor. Every interviewer comes in here, particularly younger ones, and sees this old Olympia, and the first thing they write in their notes is “Still writes on funky upright typewriter.” I don’t do a lot of drafts. I don’t rewrite big sections. I do the editing while I’m writing. I might rewrite a page or so. I write and I “x” out, I write and I “x” out some more. When I’m done, what I have is a great untidy stack of manuscript, a lot of which is held together with Scotch tape. But by the time I’m done, it’s pretty well the way it’s going to be. I sometimes might go back and add something—a thought, or a little theme, a couple of extra pages that I didn’t have the first time. And sometimes I’ll take out something that’s repetitious. But by the time I’ve gone through the process, it’s about ready to go to type.
I also have an editor here whom I rely on to tell me when I’ve been foolish or repetitious or boring, and I count on that. All New Yorker writers do that. The mark of a professional, or a veteran anyway, is that you know you’re going to make mistakes. You need somebody there to tell you that. My editor is now Chip McGrath, who is the managing editor here. My editor before that was Gardner Botsford, who is now retired. These are terrific editors. Gardner would sometimes cut a few lines and I wouldn’t even notice it. Reading the galleys I’d say, “Didn’t I have something else in here?” He’d be very pleased when I finally realized it, because he’d been so deft that there was no scar left.
WOE: That need for outside help is hard to get across to students when we’re teaching them writing.
ANGELL: Absolutely. A lot of my work as an editor involves young writers, and new writers tend to feel that the way they wrote it is the way it’s meant to be. Once you see your stuff in type you think you wrote every one of those words without crossing out a line. It’s an illusion that we all have, to some extent. And the truth of the matter is that any piece of writing is just the last proof; it’s the one we had to let go of because the deadline is here.
This [indicating a sheaf of pages on his desk] is a page proof of a new John Updike story. It’s very short, just five pages. These are some corrections from our copy desk, some suggestions on grammar and usage, whatever. But we’ve already sent him the author’s proof, which had a lot more on it—factual queries from the “checking department, little things he might want to consider. All that’s gone off to him and he has answered them, and his corrections are in this page proof. I’ve sent up the page proofs already by overnight mail. I’ll talk to him tomorrow morning and we’ll go over these possible fixes. He will answer those questions, and meantime he will have some changes of his own. He rewrites on the author’s proof, but he also rewrites on page proof. He may have four or five sentences he’ll want to handle differently—rephrasing, new sentences—and sometimes he’ll ask me “What do you think? Is this better than that?” He’s open to my opinion because that’s what I’m here for. I’m not trying to rewrite John Updike, but to say “Why don’t you try it this way?”
WOE: And you find veteran writers more receptive to this?
ANGELL: Sure. And some very well known writers require quite a lot of editing. I don’t think it makes them lesser writers; it’s just what they are. Then there are some writers who are famously clean and write finished copy from the beginning. Updike is like that. With Donald Barthelme, you hardly had to do anything, but he still counted on me as an editor. I remember he said once, “I count on you to get the hay out.” And I count on my editors in turn when I’m writing.
WOE: I get the impression when reading your pieces that you are working on several ideas at once, some that you may not use until later. For example, the piece on catchers. You worked on it the season before but didn’t really get around to writing it until later. Do you consciously have several projects going on in your mind at once?
ANGELL: I wish I had more things going on. But, sure, the catching piece contained a lot of material and I wanted more time to get around and talk to more people. I don’t always have all that much time to get away from my desk and go out reporting. I wrote that piece in the winter. I started in spring training the previous year and finished writing it in the winter.
Right now I’ve got some notes on coaching from my spring-training travels that I haven’t used yet. I’m not sure there’s enough there, or that I understand enough yet.
WOE: You frequently mention the linearity of baseball in your pieces.
ANGELL: Well, watching a ball game is something like reading. Something happens and then something else happens, and something else happens after that. As I said before, you can go back in your mind and see which events or characters mattered during those early boring but necessary chapters. You have to pay attention because you don’t know what kind of a book or what kind of a game it’s going to turn out to be. You won’t know until you get on toward the end. Sometimes the whole thing goes flat. Sometimes it’s promising and then disappointing. Sometimes there are continuous themes, sometimes there are sudden changes. Now and then you realize that you’re reading a classic.
WOE: I’m curious as to how you envision your audience. How do you think about your reader?
ANGELL: I don’t have anybody in particular in mind. The person is probably me or somebody like me. I know a lot about my readers because I get mail from them right through the year. I think this is because baseball means a lot to people and perhaps also because I write about myself in my baseball pieces. One of the great privileges for me is that I’ve been able to say “I” a lot. I can cut directly to things I feel strongly about. Since I write personally, and since baseball seems to mean a lot to real fans, then they feel I’m writing to them and they write back. They write me not just about baseball, but about their lives. Floods of mail, or what seems like floods. I’m always behind. This winter, I wrote a piece about my baseball beginnings as a boy fan, and I’ve had well over two hundred letters, maybe three hundred letters, from people writing about their own baseball beginnings. And they’re not all old geezers like me. Whatever their age, they all seem to remember going with their father to the park for the first time, and when they first saw this team or that player.
We write because we want a response. Writing is a lonely occupation, but I think all writers are writing to somebody. As long as you remember that, you’re not going to go too far astray. You can’t write and then put it away. That’s what Salinger has been doing all these years, and it’s a shame, because I can’t believe that it’s going to be any good. He has had his own reasons, to be sure.
When you’re writing, you have to think about the person who’s going to be reading this, every moment. This is what I say to young writers I deal with. What will the reader think? What will the reader think? We are doing this very complicated thing in concert with the person who is going to read this. You have signed an invisible compact that promises that you are not going to let this guy down. You’re not going to play tricks on him, you are not going to lead him up this way and then turn on him and do something else.
Whenever I get the feeling that I’m writing well, it’s because in some way I can intuit or imagine what a reader is thinking. I think this must be true for most writers. It certainly is for me. You can set up things that are going to work later on in a piece. You prepare a reader almost unconsciously, and then something happens later on that connects with that earlier passage. The reader is pleased or saddened or whatever, sometimes not quite knowing why, butyou know why. This is the part of writing that is deeply pleasing if you can do it right. It’s another reason why it’s so hard. It’s never just you and the page. It’s you and the page and the person who is going to consume this object at the other end.
WOE: That idea of preparing the reader reminds me of your piece on Dan Quisenberry. Reading that, I feel he’s such an artist and such an interesting person. Then toward the end, you talk about how his pitching starts to fall apart, and his bewilderment about what went wrong is very sad.
ANGELL: Sure. And there’s another example of difficulty. This is another connection between baseball and writing. They are both intensely difficult. They look easy, but they’re hard.
WOE: Let me ask you about your style. It’s a very literate style. As I read through Season Ticket, I picked out just a couple of the many metaphors or allusions you made: a piece on the Detroit ball club of 1984 is called “Tiger, Tiger”; two women behind you in the stands are a Euripidean chorus; a particular player’s stance is like limeflower tea to your memory. These are things that the average reader of a newspaper sports section is not going to latch onto at all.
ANGELL: I hope I don’t do this in an affected way. I worry about this because I don’t want to use references that my readers are unable to follow. I think in The New Yorker you find an audience that is ready for this sort of thing. The references are ones that come readily to my mind while I’m writing, and if they’re literary, it’s because I’ve read a lot. But I also have a lot of very commonplace figures, a lot of jokes, slang, movie references, because this is also what I am. I’m an informal sort of a guy.
WOE: Is there any precedent for that kind of writing in sports? Where did it come from? Is it natural for you?
ANGELL: I think it’s natural for me. There are people in sports who have written this way. A great model for me was Red Smith, who was a model for almost every sportswriter. The great thing about Red Smith was that he sounded like himself. His attitude about sports was always clear. He felt himself enormously lucky to be there in the pressbox. He was not in favor of glorifying the players too much—Godding up the players, in Stanley Woodward’s phrase. But he was Red Smith in every line. You knew what he had read and what his influences were.
I don’t try to be a literate sportswriter; I try to be myself. It’s as simple as that. Everybody’s got to find what their voice is. You’ve got to end up sounding like yourself if you’re going to write in a way that’s going to reward you when you’re done. If you end up sounding like somebody else, you’re not going to be any good. You won’t get anywhere. Readers are smart. They will pick up whether the tone is genuine or not. Tone is the ultimate thing writers have to think about. You could write on a given subject—a ball game or a national crisis or a family crisis—in twenty or thirty different ways. You only have to pick what you want people to make of this.
Sometimes when you’re writing, you find that your own feelings are quite different from what you thought they would be, and then you have to go with that. Sometimes there are complex things happening that you have to go along with. I wrote a piece which meant a lot to me, called “In the Country,” about a semi-pro ball player and his girlfriend, Ron Goble and Linda Kittle. He was playing semi-pro ball, she was a would-be poet, and they were living together. Baseball meant a lot to them. They took me into their lives and basically told me everything about themselves—an amazing thing to do. I went up to Vermont to write about baseball and ended up writing about them. I was very moved, because they trusted me. They said, “We’ve given you our lives.” A lot of emotion went into that piece that I didn’t really anticipate when I first went out to do it.
WOE: That was a wonderful piece—very respectful of their feelings, their ups and downs.
ANGELL: You have to respect your subject. If you’re writing about professional athletes, respect is a crucial ingredient. You can’t patronize these guys. There are many ballplayers who are less educated than the people writing about them. Many of them find it difficult to talk and it’s a big problem. If you put down exactly what they say—particularly Hispanic ballplayers—it sounds as if you’re patronizing. If their English isn’t good, you have to be very selective and suggest in a minimal sort of way that some of this is being delivered in an accent. But underneath this, you can’t laugh at these guys. You know that sometimes ballplayers can be laughable when they are talking about what they’ve done, or maybe just pretentious, too full of themselves. If you want to say they are too full of themselves, you have to say it, you can’t suggest it. I remember a couple of times I had what I thought was first-class stuff about a player, or a lively anecdote, but I didn’t use it because I couldn’t get it right. I couldn’t write it without sounding as if I were inviting the audience to feel superior.
Sometimes I don’t mind. If it was Reggie Jackson, I did sometimes try to suggest that he’s full of himself. But in the next minute, he would astound you with a line or an idea. He was always very aware of what he was doing, talking to writers. He was trying to use me and I was trying to use him. Every writer had that experience with Reggie.
WOE: Are there recurring themes in baseball you tend to come back to?
ANGELL: Difficulty is one. And heartbreak is an innate part of the game. Aging is very much a part of it, because if there’s any subtext to sports that really holds up over a long period of time it is that in a rather short span of years, you can watch an athlete go through a lifetime, so to speak. You watch him be born as a rookie, come to young manhood, and then to middle age; you see him begin to slow down, begin to worry, try to remember what it was he used to do so easily and effortlessly, and then fade away and die, in effect, all in the space of ten years. Even kids sense that. I remember seeing DiMaggio slow down. I was in my twenties then and I’d picked up on him when I was twelve years old. This is sad stuff. The last few seasons of Willie Mays were heartbreaking. You didn’t want it to happen.
WOE: I felt the same about Mickey Mantle.
ANGELL: I try never to go to Old-Timers games. They say, “Come back and see these wonderful guys.” I don’t want to see these wonderful guys. It’s hard enough for the rest of us to get old. I can look in a mirror, but what’s the fun of that? I want to remember these guys and what they looked like when they were at their best.
I try to stay away from the deeper meanings in sports. If they’re there, they’ll come through. You sense what they are. Sports are about us as a species. We want to see how people respond under conditions of enormous stress, however artificially prepared. We want to see how they perform when they fail and we want to see how they perform when they succeed. Then we want to see them go and do it again. That’s what makes you a pro. Some pitcher said years ago, “That’s the difference. People say to you, ‘You were great today, now go out and be great again tomorrow.”‘ That’s what separates us from them.
WOE: I have the impression that your writing has become more personal and contemplative about sports over the years, more about baseball the game than about the individual games that you’ve gone to see.
ANGELL: I guess so. It’s not a plan. I’m the age that I am and I have a different outlook on this than I did in my forties. People at my age become more contemplative. If it makes you any wiser, I don’t know. It’s a natural stage of things.
Your memory of things in the distant past becomes remarkably sharp. You remember things from thirty years ago, forty years ago with little effort, sometimes more clearly than what happened last week.
I want to keep fresh. I think if I become too distanced from baseball or too much seeing the larger picture, it’ll be time to stop, because this is a game played by young men. It’s very hard for me to talk to ballplayers now, because when they start calling you “Sir” you’re in big trouble as a reporter. They’re terrifically young. It’s harder for all baseball writers now because access is very difficult; they don’t want to talk to you. They make so much money and they see themselves as public figures, as television stars, once they’re on their way. The players don’t talk about baseball as much as they used to. The last great daily talker about baseball was Keith Hernandez, who played wonderful first base for the Mets—the best defensive first baseman I ever saw. When the game was over he’d sit down and have a couple of beers and several cigarettes and talk about the game with all comers. It was great stuff. There was always a crowd of writers around him, finding out what really happened. There aren’t many players like that around now.
Very few players think about the fans. They glance up there, and once in a while you will hear them say that the fans have been great, “the tenth player,” but that’s all by rote. The only player who surprised me about this was Willie McCovey, in San Francisco in the early seventies, when the Giants in mid-September were suddenly in first place or close to it. They had just lost a couple in a row and eventually they dropped back to third place, but ten days before the end of the season, they had a real shot. I was talking with McCovey and he understood how rare this chance was because he’d played in the World Series, in ’62, but not since then. He knew how rare it was for a player. I said, “Willie, the fans here are dying. Do you ever think about this? They’re really suffering.” And he looked up in the stands and said, “Yes, I know. When you step up to bat, you’re all they’ve got. If you fail, they fail.” Of all the players I’ve talked to, he’s the only person who saw that connection.
WOE: How has television affected the way fans see the game?
ANGELL: TV has made us all much more expert as fans. We know these games much better than we did, because we’ve seen so many of them. But this is an enormous subject. The biggest change in America in my lifetime has been television. I just went to my fiftieth reunion at Harvard, where I was on a panel discussing journalism and our times, or something like that. Tom Winship, the former editor of the Boston Globe, called me up a few weeks before and asked, “What are we going to talk about? What’s the biggest change in our life?” I said, “Television,” and he agreed. So we talked about television. It was gloomy stuff.
Television has totally altered the nature of sports. It’s made it a permanent all-star attraction. It’s all about winning, it’s nothing about losing—losing is pushed away. And more and more about money, of course. What it’s done to amateur sports is disastrous. Most college sports are corrupt now, and we know it. We have these mercenaries we pay to see, in many cases at very high prices to their lives. We watch these young men play basketball in the Final Four during the last couple of weeks of the basketball season and we know that very few of them are students. We know it, but we don’t remind ourselves, because if we did we’d be ashamed to be paying attention. Basketball is now seen as the quickest way out of the inner city for young blacks, which is heartbreaking because so few of them are going to make it. The money distorts everything.
WOE: What sort of advice would you give someone who wanted to go into sports writing? How would they would get into it and how would they learn the craft?
ANGELL: I think the usual way is to model ourselves on somebody in the field. If you’re young, you do this naturally There’s nothing wrong with this. I once heard Borges say that when he was young, he could write Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson better than they could. He told me, “I finally got over that, but it got me going.”
But I’m not sure I would encourage people to go into sports writing right now. Television has taken over so much of the reporting. That’s where the action is. It’s not as if you can’t get good sports writing jobs if you’re talented, but it’s a more limited profession than it used to be, or more challenging. The basic level of sports writing is higher than it was when I started. Writers are better educated; there are more smart, thoughtful, enterprising writers. With the structure of modern sport, you have to be more energetic to go out and do a good reporting job every day. I admire beat writers. It’s a difficult job to travel with a team every day, to really say what’s going on, and to report on the tone of the team, as well as to say who won or lost, and not to get jaded or begin to dislike the players. You have to be critical and also to be able to get along with the players so that you can get them to talk to you. It’s tough.
WOE: Especially if you’ve just written something unfavorable about the team.
ANGELL: Absolutely. But if you’re going to go into writing at any point, it always looks as if there’s too much talent around. The odds are always hopelessly loaded against you. But that’s true in most professions. You think, “I could never succeed in that.” Maybe you won’t, but you’ve got to try. If you want to do it, you will try. The figures are never as bad as they look, because a lot of the competition will turn out not to have much talent or won’t stick with it. If you’re going to do it, do it. But as I’ve been saying right along, writing is hard.
(Originally published in the October 1982 issue of Inside Sports.)
The game is over and the baseball player sits in the hotel lobby, his eyes fixed on nothing. He thinks his secret is safe but he is never quite sure, so at midnight in the lobby it is always best to avoid the other eyes. He neither hears the jokes nor notices that a few teammates are starting to wear towels around their waists in the locker room. He does not want to hear or see or know, and neither do they.
The baseball player waits until the lobby empties of teammates and coaches. Some are in the bar, some out on the town, some in their rooms. Some, of course, have found women. He walks briskly out the door toward the taxicab, never turning his head to look back. He mutters an address to the driver and has one foot in the cab. …
“Hey, where you going, man? You said you were staying in tonight.”
The baseball player feels his lie running up the back of his neck. “Changed my mind.”
“Can I come with you? I got nothing going tonight.”
The baseball player pauses. “You don’t want to go where I’m going,” he says at last. He is leaving a crack there, in case this teammate knows the secret and really would like to go with him.
“Okay—have it your way.”
The baseball player is in the back seat, the door slams, his heart slams, the cab is pulling away. Fifteen minutes later it stops a block from the place the passenger actually intends to go. He pays the driver. Did the driver look at him sort of funny?
The baseball player steps out and walks back a block, his face turned 90 degrees to his left shoulder, away from the traffic, just in case. What if he meets someone he knows there tonight? There was the ballplayer’s brother the one night and the son of.a major league manager another. Man, they have to know, don’t they? And if he is recognized tonight, should he pretend he is someone else?
Suddenly he is pulling open the door and the men inside smile and the music swallows him and for a few hours in the bar the baseball player does not feel so alone.
At age 22, Glenn Burke was a sexual blank. He grew up attending church six times a week. singing in two choirs and serving as an usher. He bathed two or three times a day and still he never felt clean. He grew up with no father. He grew up with no sex.
He diverted the tension into sports, and there was the scent of animal energy in the way he ran a fastbreak, the way he circled the bases, the way he flogged a line drive. Once, he hit three home runs and two singles in one game, just two days after joining the Merritt College team in midseason. He was 5-11, 193 pounds, he could run 100 yards in 9.7 seconds and bench-press 350 pounds. UCLA and Nevada and Cal all wanted to get him on a basketball court; the Los Angeles Dodgers wanted him to play baseball.
He took the $5,000 Dodger signing bonus and after three seasons as an outfielder in the minors, his combined average was .303. Three times he led his league in stolen bases.
Still there was a need for more. When NCAA eligibility rules were relaxed, he agreed to play basketball at Nevada in the offseason. He averaged 16 points in six games and then twisted a knee spinning for a layup. The Dodgers said No More and Glenn Burke came home. The void was becoming difficult to ignore. At last, the lidded tension burst.
His younger sister told him that a high school teacher of his had asked how he was doing. Something inside him went click. The man had been one of Burke’s favorite teachers, so Burke went over to school to see him. He was feeling loose, open. Maybe it was the basketball thing coming to an end, suddenly seeing life as more than just sports.
“The minute he spoke, l knew. I know it sounds a little crazy. Here I was, 22, no sexual experience, nothing. Yet I felt something I’d never felt before, something deep. We went to his place. Funny, he must have known me better than I knew myself. We didn’t say much. He fixed dinner and afterwards we lay by the fire and got close. I stayed the night. When I got home the next day, I went into the bathroom and cried. This was who I was, the whole me at last.”
He was happy, and yet he felt he was sneaking. He felt guilty. He knew he never would be accepted in sports. In a profession in which every contest, every movement, every attitude seemed a reassertion of virility, Glenn Burke realized he was gay.
The most famous gay community in the world is a 75-cent bridge toll and a 20-minute freeway ride away from the streets of Oakland where Glenn Burke grew up. In his sexual naiveté, he had never known that. He had never known there were bars and entire neighborhoods for homosexuals.
A week after his first experience, he and some friends went to a straight bar in San Francisco. One of the friends pointed to a girl. “Look at that fox. ” he said. “Look at her boyfriend.” Burke thought. They went over to talk and asked if the couple knew a place where they could go dancing. “Try the Cabaret.” the girl said, “but watch out—gays go there, too.” A place for gays? Burke went there and couldn’t believe it.
It was a new world and he explored it enthusiastically. He walked Castro Street in San Francisco and felt pulled in two directions. Sports had taught him to keep the fists up and the soft side down and the pants tailor-made and the shirt silk and the walk a powerful strut. This new world was Levi’s, and Docksides shoes and Lacoste shirts and handkerchiefs. He wondered if he could be masculine and gay, a baseball player and gay, Glenn Burke and gay.
A few weeks later, he met a man in a bar and the next day he was hanging his clothes in the closet of his first live-in lover. A few more weeks passed and it was time for spring training, time to try to begin living the great untruth.
The trouble with going underground was Burke’s personality. He was the guy doing Richard Pryor imitations, the guy leading bench cheers, the guy fiddling with the music box and dancing in the locker room. After games, the guys all wanted to take the party from the locker room to the disco. Burke, the life of the team, started saying no. To explain why not, he had to tame the nervousness in his voice and the muscle formations of his face. These were difficult things for an extrovert to do.
Double A in Waterbury, Connecticut, 1975, was not a good place for a metamorphosis. His friends wanted to share an apartment with him and he groped for an appropriate reason to say no. He ended up rooming at the local YMCA, so they would stop asking. There was one gay bar, but a black man in a small New England town can feel the eyeballs everywhere he walks. He tried not to go, and went anyway. Sometimes in the bar he would be asked if he had been at the game that night. The team’s leading basestealer and home-run hitter would shake his head no. One night he glimpsed a member of the club’s front office at the bar. He walked past him and out the door and prayed the man would be too frightened to admit having been there to see him. On the long road trips, he could feel the wall of space he had created between himself and his friends.
He hit .270 and when the season ended, he headed back to San Francisco. “It was great being back, being myself,” he said. “Straight people cannot know what it’s like to feel one way and pretend to be another. To watch what you say, how you act, who you’re checking out. In San Francisco I opened up again. But I still wasn’t sure if I could be gay without being a sissy.”
In 1976 the Dodgers summoned him up to play the first and last months of the season. In between, he hit .300 with 63 stolen bases at Albuquerque, but in the major leagues he struggled with the curveball and batted .239 in 46 at-bats. The Dodgers still saw enough to congratulate themselves.
“Unlimited potential,” said second baseman Davey Lopes.
“Once we get him cooled down a little bit,” said the late Junior Gilliam, then Dodger coach, “frankly, we think he’s going to be another Willie Mays.”
The stakes were growing higher now. It was easier to lose himself in the big cities on major league road trips, but in Los Angeles he was becoming a face on sports pages and a name on the radio. He wanted success, yet he feared it. Half of him wanted to hit .300 and become a superstar and a commodity and then if the secret leaked maybe he could tell them all to go to hell, and half of him said maybe a nice, inconspicuous number like .250 would be better because then he could guard his privacy and they might not find out at all.
He met Dave Kopay, the former 49er and Redskin running back whose book on his homosexuality had become a bestseller. The two compared anguish. “He was very nervous about who and what he was,” remembers Kopay. “I had compensated for my gayness by going from a player who did not like contact in college to being a super-aggressive player in the pros, as a disguise. It’s common among gay athletes, overcompensating for one’s sexuality. Glenn might have been doing the same thing, but it doesn’t work in baseball. There, you have to be relaxed, not overaggressive. I couldn’t really advise him, except to tell him to follow his instincts.
“There is really no one to talk to in sports when you are gay. Who can you really trust? There are so many insecurities, it’s tragic. Almost all of them that I know in sports are married and have deep problems. Many of them are heavily into alcohol and drugs.”
Burke played on, refusing the ruse of an occasional girlfriend. He caught hepatitis playing winter ball in Mexico and missed most of spring training in 1977. The Dodgers sent him to Albuquerque to open the season and he hit .309. He learned that the Dodgers were recalling him, and that night in his last Albuquerque game, with two outs, runners on first and third with a one-run lead in the ninth inning, he backpedaled to the warning track for a fly ball, switched his glove from his left hand to his right—and squeezed the last out. If there was a metaphor there, the manager was in no mood to admire it. Jim Williams waited for him on the dugout steps, glaring. “If you ever do that again …”
“I’m leaving, skip,” chirped Burke. “Now you’ll have something to talk about when I’m gone.”
He was irrepressible. He bought his first car and celebrated by having his astrological sign, Scorpio, tattooed on his forearm. Within a few months he was stomping into Tommy Lasorda’s office, amidst the Hollywood stars who gathered there before games, fixing himself a sandwich from the deli tray and shouting, “Hi, Tommy!” He was not a model bench-sitter. He prowled the dugout with a caged hyperactivity, and when a teammate belted a home run he would tweak Lasorda by butting in front of him to be first to hug the returning hero. He would walk back to the dugout imitating Lasorda’s big-bellied, bowlegged gait and his teammates would howl.
One day in 1977, a teammate homered and in the heat of his enthusiasm Burke extended his arm and invented a sports ritual. He delivered the first high-five. “Most people think I started it,” said leftfielder Dusty Baker. “But it wasn’t me. I saw Glenn doing it first, and then I started.”
On a team preoccupied with presenting the clean-shaven, Dodger-blue front, the street kid from Oakland became one of the behind-the-scenes catalysts. “He always had the music blasting and was saying something silly to keep the team laughing,” said Baker. “He’d be playing cards and all of a sudden you would hear this loud voice scream, ‘Rack ‘em, Hoss, the poor boy’s just lost!’ and then there’d be that crazy laugh of his again.”
Burke made them laugh and he made them squirm. In an argument he would swing first and negotiate later. A fastball in a teammate’s ear would bring him out of the dugout first. Everybody wanted to keep “Burkey” giggling because when his eyes clouded you could suddenly sense the violence. He wanted that machismo right out there on his skin; it made him feel safer.
“I was like Lou Ferrigno, who kept wanting to get bigger and badder than anybody because he had a speech impediment,” Burke said. “I had 17-inch biceps and I made sure everybody knew I wasn’t afraid to use them. I wanted to establish that if you found out I was gay, you might not want to start hassling me about it, because I could still kick your ass.”
The Dodgers. meanwhile, were in a pennant chase and the double life was becoming more difficult to lead. He was handsome and personable and there was a glut of girls who wanted to walk into a disco next to him. Some nights they grew so insistent he would tell the switchboard operator to reject all calls to his room. He’d go out with girls occasionally, but it would never involve sex. He didn’t want to mislead them.
His teammates noticed. In baseball, even married men can be made to feel isolated if they do not join the woman-hunt on the road. “There is a tendency,” said A’s pitcher Matt Keough, “to achieve the success off the field that you are not achieving on it.”
“I had a really cute cousin that I tried to set up with Glenn,” Baker said. “He just ignored her. He’d say, ‘Too fat, too ugly.’ I’d say, ‘Wait a minute. I know that one ain’t ugly.’”
Without Burke realizing it, word began to seep. “I was eating at a restaurant when someone told me,” remembered Lopes, then a teammate on the Dodgers. “I think some girl from his neighborhood in Oakland had told someone on the team. My fork dropped out of my mouth. He was one of the last guys you would have thought was gay. I still liked him. I don’t know how other ballplayers feel, but I believe a man has a right to choose any lifestyle as long as it doesn’t infringe on others. It never infringed with Glenn.”
“The guys didn’t want to believe it,” Baker said. “He was built like King Kong. There was no femininity in his voice or his walk. But it all made sense when I thought about it. When we’d go on the road he always went to the YMCA to work out. And he’d never let us take him home. He’d say he had a friend coming later to pick him up and he’d wait at the far end of the parking lot.
“I just made the situation invisible, but some guys began to make jokes. Stuff like, ‘Is Glenn waiting in the parking lot for his girlfriend?’ and ‘Don’t bend over in the shower when he’s around.’ I know a couple of guys felt uncomfortable in the shower. A few wore towels on their way back and forth in the locker room.
“If you had a team made up of guys from California and New York, I don’t think it would bother them as much as guys from the country and small towns. I’m from California and I can get along with priests, prostitutes, pimps and pushers, as long as they don’t try to push nothing on me.”
Burke didn’t push it, as much out of respect as fear of detection. “I was attracted occasionally by other players,” he said. “but didn’t mix business with pleasure. I respected their space. Besides, I always preferred more mature men.”
He was a simple man leading a complicated life. and slowly the strain began to break him. He kept one eye on the door when he went in gay bars. He worried about getting in a fight or getting caught drunk there. There were times he thought the front office had someone following him. He was afraid everybody was whispering about him.
He’d have to plan everything. He’d think, “If they see me leaving the hotel, I’ll say I was going to take a walk or to get something to eat.” He was always telling white lies.
Some days he’d sit in a mall and try to meet people, sometimes he would call a friend and ask him to check his directory on where the gay bars were in town. His mind was never clear. Some nights he’d come back to his room sad and smoke a little grass.
The high only interrupted the fears. The Dodgers did a lot of hugging and Burke always worried that they had found out about him and would think he was making a pass. He worried constantly about being blackmailed. The only reason he wasn’t, he believed, was that he had gay friends who warned anybody who started to talk too much. He saw a palm reader and she said that he had something inside him that he should let out, or he might have a heart attack in two or three years.
He couldn’t sort it all out. “I couldn’t understand why people said gays were sick. I wasn’t some dizzy queen out trying to make everybody all the time. The bottom line was, I was a man.”
There were the good memories mixed with the miseries. There was the night Baker became the fourth Dodger to hit 30 home runs in one season, a major league record, and Burke, the on-deck batter met him at the plate with a walloping high-five as the people stood and roared, and then before they even had a chance to sit Burke was driving another white speck into the blackness and the festival in the stands went on and on.
He finished the 1977 season hitting .254 in 169 at-bats, the Dodgers made the World Series and his face was on TV screens across the country. He went 1-for-5 in the three game he played packed after the Yankees had won and headed back for Castro Street. He walked into a gay bar the first night there and was greeted by a party celebrating his World Series appearance.
“I walked out,” Burke said. “They weren’t my friends there, they were mostly people just making a big deal because I was a gay baseball player.”
His insecurity ran rampant. In one world he feared they would not like him only because he was gay, and in the other he feared they did like him only because he was gay. For the first time since he had picked up a baseball bat, Glenn Burke considered quitting.
“By 1978,” said Davey Lopes, “I think everybody knew.”
They knew the way parents know their 16-year-old is drinking beer but don’t say anything until the bottles are rolling across the floor of the family car. As long as Burke’s homosexuality was not official, no one felt compelled to react.
“Then Al Campanis [Dodger vice-president] called me into his office ” Burke recalled. “I really liked Al, he was always very nice to me. The whole organization was, for the most part. But Al said. ‘Everybody on the team is married but you, Glenn. When players get married on the Dodgers, we help them out financially. We can help you so you can go out and have a real nice honeymoon.’
“l said, ‘Al, I don’t think I’ll be getting married no time soon.’”
The Dodgers, in the words of Junior Gilliam, could not “cool him down.” He burned for more playing time and when he did not get it, he did not keep it to himself. “They couldn’t con me,” he said. “Lasorda would bark an order and I was supposed to jump like some little kid, grateful for the attention. It bothered him too that I was popular with the guys on the team. Once he got ticked off at some laugh I’d gotten and he said, ‘Burke, if I was your age, I’d take you in the bathroom right now and kick your ass.’ At first I thought he was kidding, then I realized he wasn’t. I think he was trying to get me to explode.
“With one out in the ninth, he’d pull Rick Monday and trot me out to the outfield for the last two outs. I’d stand there waiting for the game to end. Then I’d trot back to the dugout where all the guys are supposed to tell you how great you played. Only I hadn’t, and I’d feel like a fool.
“One night I was really ticked and I stared a hole through Lasorda. He took me in the locker room and, in front of Junior Gilliam and Preston Gomez, cussed me to filth. Every other word in his vocabulary was ‘mother.’ It hurt. Deeply. I didn’t really dislike the man, it was just the situation. We probably should have gotten along—we’re both hardheaded.”
On May 16, 1978, with Glenn Burke in centerfield as the last out was recorded, Vin Scully announced that Burke had been traded to the Oakland A’s for Bill North. North had led the American League twice in stolen bases, the last time in 1976, and now he was 30 and his average had dropped 64 points in those two years.
“Lasorda told me, ‘We’re tired of you walking back and forth in the dugout like a mad tiger in a cage. We’re sending you to Oakland, where you can play more.’ He was nice about it but he was detached. It was as if they couldn’t wait for me to leave, but they were being careful so there wouldn’t be a scene. I walked out of his office and the whole locker room was dead. Steve Garvey and Don Sutton, two of my best friends on the team, had tears in their eyes. Garvey and me had always gotten along great. He taught me how to tie a tie, he gave me hats and T-shirts, he sat next to me on the team plane and he made me promise to play for him if he ever had a football team.
“Leaving those guys, I was in shock. Players don’t come and go on the Dodgers the way they do on other clubs.”
Lopes remembers picking up the newspaper the next day and reading a quote from a scout. “I believe it was an American League scout at the Angel game in Anaheim that night,” Lopes said. “The guy said, ‘Wait until the A’s find out what they really got in Glenn Burke.’”
The locker room was still silent the next day, and Lopes’ reaction was quoted in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. ”I knew something was missing when I came in today. It will probably remain like this until somebody comes along with a personality like Glenn’s. And I don’t think that’s going to happen. I’ve heard a lot of adverse things about him from people, but they didn’t know him. He was the life of the team, on the bases, in the clubhouse, everywhere. All of us will miss him.”
One Dodger angrily went to the front office and demanded an explanation. Dusty Baker didn’t need to go that far. “I was talking with our trainer, Bill Buhler. I said, ‘Bill, why’d they trade Glenn? He was one of our top prospects. ‘ He said, ‘They don’t want any gays on the team.’ I said, ‘The organization knows?’ He said, ’Everybody knows.”
Burke sprayed three hits the first night with the A’s, and then felt himself becoming absorbed by the damp misery of Charlie Finley’s last years in baseball. The Dodgers had not played him as much as he felt he deserved, but the organization had always gone first class. The A’s in the late 1970s were a dead thing looking for a box to lie still in. Finley was cutting expenses and players, lopping off fans with them. A man with peace of mind could play on. Glenn Burke could not. In the hush of a baseball stadium with 3,000 people, he could hear a voice urging him to leave and stop living a lie.
Four years of life as a sexual fugitive had passed and his self-esteem was fraying. By now his family had pieced the evidence together and guessed. They still accepted him, removing one weight from his mind, but the weight at the stadium showed no sign of relenting. One day he was playing centerfield in Comiskey Park, and a fan called him a faggot. His first thought was “Damn, if they know, everybody else must know.” They probably said it to lots of outfielders, but he didn’t think that then. He went to the dugout at the end of the inning and got a felt-tip pen from the trainer. Next inning he went back out and stuck a piece of paper in the back of his pants. It said, “Screw you.”
He finished the 1978 season hitting .235. Early in the 1979 season, he was sitting in the A’s clubhouse, chatting with outfielder Mitchell Page, a good friend. “Suddenly he got quiet,” Burke said. “He said this scout from Pittsburgh—he came up in the Pirate system. and they were interested in me—had come right out and asked him if I was bisexual. Bisexual. Me, who’d never been with a woman. They couldn’t say gay, I guess. It was tough on Mitchell, talking to me like this. I didn’t say much and he ended up telling the scout, ‘Glenn Burke’s sex life is Glenn Burke’s business. And if it’s any of your business, he’s my friend and I’d go anywhere with him.’
“But at that moment, when Mitchell told me, everything stopped. If some joker in Pittsburgh knew, so did a few others. I realized it had all come to an end. They’d stripped me of my inner-most thoughts.”
Page remembered it as a writer from Oakland who had asked him (Burke still insists it was a scout from Pittsburgh). “The guy told me the word was out,” Page said, “and that he didn’t know if Glenn would be here next season. I felt I should let Glenn know instead of talking behind his back like the other players were. The guys on the A’s never bothered him about it because of the way he handled it. Besides, they were afraid to say anything to his face.
“I liked Glenn, but if I’d seen him walking around making it obvious, I wouldn’t have had anything to do with him. I don’t want to be labeled and have my career damaged. You make sure you point out that I’m not gay, okay?”
“I roomed with him,” said A’s pitcher Mike Norris. “Sure, I was worried at first. You came back to your hotel room at midnight, sat around and listened to music, and you wondered if he’d make a move. After awhile you realized he wouldn’t, and it wasn’t a big problem. Guys would watch out for him but it wasn’t a completely uncomfortable feeling. If it had been out in the open, though, there would have been all kinds of problems. We’re all macho, we’re all men. Just make sure you put in there that I ain’t gay, man.”
The walls were beginning to close in. A gay friend, eager to advance the homosexual movement, kept insisting that Burke come out of the closet and tried to arrange a luncheon appointment with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. Burke refused to attend, but Caen wrote that there was a rumor out that a local professional ballplayer could be found on Castro Street.
Midway through the 1979 season, Finley learned that Burke was refusing to take a cortisone shot for a pinched neck nerve. “I feel an injury should heal on its own,” Burke said. “Once you take the first shot, you take another and another. Charlie came to talk to me on the field before a game. I said no. They sat me for two weeks. Finally, I told them I needed a voluntary retirement and walked out. The whole operation was minor league, with Finley calling the dugout making lineup changes. I probably wouldn’t have left if there hadn’t been the other problem, the gay thing, but put it all together and it was too much.”
It was not that simple to walk away. Baseball had often tortured him, but it still owned a part of him. He returned next spring, attracted by the idea of playing for new manager Billy Martin.
Burke ripped knee cartilage that spring and was sidelined a month. The A’s requested he return to the minor leagues, in Ogden, Utah, and Burke reluctantly agreed. To avoid the small-town stares, he drove 56 miles round-trip so he could live in Salt Lake City. He stopped now, and mulled the absurdity of his life. He was 27, getting no closer to the superstar role he knew he must have to declare his homosexuality and knowing that even if he did achieve it, he would likely be afraid to. He was still dodging management, lying to teammates, and now even ducking Mormons, too. Quietly, with the sports world focused on more important things, Glenn Burke quit baseball for good.
“I had finally gotten to the point,” he said, “where it was more important to be myself than a baseball player.”
Sunshine and shade share the seats in Dodger Stadium and the steady crack of batting practice echoes off the empty concrete. The game is still three hours away. Tommy Lasorda, chipper on this first evening back from the All-Star break, stands in foul territory watching his players re-tune their rhythm at the plate.
A visitor informs him that Glenn Burke is openly discussing his homosexuality. Lasorda’s eyes narrow. “He’s admitting it?” he says. “I have no comment.”
Did he know Burke was gay when he played here? Did it have a bearing on the trade? “I didn’t make that trade,” Lasorda says. “Go talk to the man who made it. I have no more comment.”
The man who made it is just arriving in his office from a trip to assess minor league talent in Hawaii. Al Campanis stands over his desk, looking down at the stack of message slips that has gathered during his absence. He is asked if everybody knew, as Lopes has said, and his eyes stay on his desk, until the length of the silence suggests he is waiting for the subject to crawl out of the room. It does not.
“Quote Davey Lopes then,” he says.
He is pressed on the subject. Long pause. “We traded him because of other situations,” he says. “We didn’t trade him for that. He wasn’t hitting enough, and things of that nature. We didn’t even know … ”
An organization as sharp as the Dodgers did not know? “We thought some things were odd,” he allows. “But we didn’t know. We never saw him with a girl, and when we called his home number a man usually answered. The man said he was his carpenter. But you hear a lot of rumors about players, and just because you see these things, that doesn’t mean a guy’s a fairy, or gay.
“We’re not a watchdog organization, and we’re not like an ostrich with our head in the sand. But he was not traded on suspicion. He was traded because we needed a lefthanded hitter in the outfield. One we thought would help us win the pennant. Glenn had problems with the curveball and his attitude was argumentative, but I always liked him. Sure, some people got mad about the trade; one player came to me all worked up, but were they right? Glenn didn’t do anything after he left here, did he?”
And what of the offer of financial help if Burke had married?
“That dates way back,” he says. “The Dodgers have traditionally liked our players to be married. The player has a wife, children, he gets more serious and settles down. We like our young men to have some responsibilities.”
He is reminded that Dodger rightfielder Pedro Guerrero was married in October, 1980, and received no bonus. Campanis bristles.
“A completely different situation,” he says. “Pedro had an agent, he was settled, he was like my son. We treat situations differently. You have to, in this position. The thing with Glenn Burke wasn’t a bribe. It was a helpful gesture. ”
The baseball player swings and meets the ball just beyond the sweet inches of the bat and still he sends the rightfielder staggering up the hill in front of the wire-mesh fence. The ball clears the fence and the baseball player circles the bases with a home plate-sized grin. All his teammates spring from the bench, forming a line to congratulate him.
A few months away from his 30th birthday, Glenn Burke is one of the stars of the Gay Softball League.
There are perhaps 50 people watching from wooden seats that cry for a carpenter. The atmosphere is carefree. A woman in her 50s lifts her blouse to reveal her “Pendulum Pirates” T-shirt and yells, “Take this!” The fans take it, without looking twice.
Burke goes 4-for-4 but bobbles a grounder in the third inning. Disgusted, he straddles the ball with both feet and jumps, launching it up to his hand. The opposing team’s fans taunt him good-naturedly. “Queeeeeen!” they shout in chorus.
Burke’s team, the Pirates, remains undefeated with a 16-4 victory over On The Mark. The Pirates gather in a huddle at the end and chant, “Two-four-six-eight, who do we appreciate’! On The Mark! On The Mark!” On The Mark reciprocates, and both teams stream to their cars for the postgame ritual. The first hour after the game is always spent at the sponsoring bar of the losing team and then all move on to the winner’s bar for the rest of the afternoon.
At Stables, the bar that sponsors On The Mark, Burke walks out to the sunshine of the patio, where there is enough quiet to reflect. “People say I should still be playing,” he says. “But I didn’t want to make other people uncomfortable, so I faded away. My teammates’ wives might have been threatened by a gay man in the locker room. I could have been a superstar but I was too worried about protecting everybody else from knowing. If I thought I could be accepted, I’d be there now. It is the first thing in my life I ever backed down from. No, I’m not disappointed in myself, I’m disappointed in the system. Your sex should be private, and I always kept it that way. Deep inside, I know the Dodgers traded me because I was gay.
“It’s harder to be a gay in sports than anywhere else, except maybe president. Baseball is probably the hardest sport of all. Every man in America wants his son to be a baseball player. The first thing every father buy for his son is a ball and glove. It’s all-American. Only a superstar could come out and admit he was gay and hope to stay around, and still the fans probably would call the stadium and say they weren’t going to bring their kids. Instead of understanding, they blackball you.
“Sure, there are other gays in baseball, the same per cent as there are in society. Word travels fast in baseball. Guys come home from road trips and tell their wives and they tell other players’ wives. As soon as a player comes to bat, you’ll hear a biography of him in the dugout. I’ve never heard anybody verbally get on a player from the bench about being gay, though.”
He does not want to name names. The relationships, he says, are never between two baseball players. That would be too dangerous.
“There are even more gays in football,” he says. “In football they are like a family, there is so much closeness down there in the trenches, and they can really get off on the body chemistry. But most of the gays I know of in sports fake it. They go out with girls and they get married, so their careers won’t get ruined. They suffer even more than I did.”
Glenn Burke still searches for himself. He plays in five softball leagues and has not worked regularly since leaving baseball. He hopes to finish his college education and become a high school basketball coach, and he hopes that speaking out on the issue will begin to chip at the barriers that marooned him between two cultures. He participates in BWMT (Black and White Men Together), a group fighting racial discrimination within the gay community. “I feel like a representative of the community,” he says. “If I can make friends honestly, it may be a step toward gays and straight people understanding each other. Maybe they’ll say, ‘He’s all right, there’s got to be a few more all right.’ Maybe it will begin to make it easier for other young gays to go into sports.”
As he talks, muscles move on both sides of his forehead, and one can sense that half of his energies still seethe in a person just beneath the skin. It may be a different half there now, but it is still a half.
“Sure, I miss baseball,” he says, “but I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s been a test and it has made me mentally stronger.”
It has created a hollowness and a happiness and an image that lingers, of Glenn Burke walking a gauntlet of high-fives after his home run over the wire-mesh fence and laughing that crazy laugh once again. There might have been more, there might have been cash and fame, but there is none of this now.
There is instead the legacy of two men’s hands touching, high above their heads.
At the time of this story’s publication, Michael J. Smith was the editor of BWMT Quarterly. Glenn Burke died in 1995 of complications from AIDS. He was 42.
[Featured Illustration: Bruce Hutchison for ESPN The Magazine]
This profile of Steve Carlton “Thin Mountain Air” was written by our man Pat Jordan. It originally appeared in Philadelphia magazine in April, 1994 and appears here with the author’s permission.
Durango, Colorado, is a cold mountain community 6,506 feet above sea level. It is known for its thin air, which can make residents light-headed, disoriented. It is surrounded by the La Plata mountain range. Built into the foothills of those mountains is a domed concrete house covered with snow and dirt. No one but its owner can explain what he was seeking with that house.
“I came to Durango in 1989 to get away from society,” he says. He is a big man, 6–5, 225 pounds, dressed in a Western shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. He is standing beside his truck in the thick snow that covers the land around his bunker and rests gently on the branches of the low-lying piñon trees that dot his 400 acres. It is a few days before Christmas.
“I don’t like it where there are too many people,” he says. “I like it here because the people are spiritually tuned in.” He glances sideways, out of the corner of his eyes. “They know where the lies fall.”
He makes a sweeping gesture with a long arm, encompassing his bunker, his barn with its turkey, pheasants and horses, and more than 160 fruit trees he has planted. “This is sacred land,” he says. “We’re self-sufficient here. There’s no one around us. We grow our own food.”
He points to sliding glass doors that lead inside his bunker to the greenhouse off his bedroom. “We have our own well,” he says. “And 16 solar batteries for heat and electricity.”
Even his telephone works on cellular microwave transmitters. That way no one can tap his wires.
“The house is built with over 300 yards of concrete,” he says. “Three-feet-thick walls covered by another three feet of earth.” Why? He looks startled, like a huge bird. His small eyes blink once, twice, and then he says, “So the gamma rays won’t penetrate the walls.”
Built under the house is a 7,000-foot storage cellar. He’s stocked it with canned foods, bottled water, weapons. “Do you know if you store guns in PVC pipe, they can last forever underground without rusting?” he says.
He glanced sideways again. “The Revolution is definitely coming.” He believes in the Revolution, only he isn’t precisely sure which of a myriad of conspiratorial groups will begin it. Possibly, he says, it will be started by the Skull and Bones Society of Yale University. Or maybe the International Monetary Fund. Or the World Health Organization. There are so many conspiracies, and so little time. Sometimes all those conspiracies confuse him and he contradicts himself. One minute he’ll say, ”The Russian and U.S. governments fill the air with low-frequency sound waves meant to control us,” and the next he’ll say, “The Elders of Zion rule the world,” and then, “The British MI-5 and-6 intelligence agencies have ruled the world since 1812,” and, “Twelve Jewish bankers meeting in Switzerland rule the world,” and, “The world is controlled by a committee of 300 which meets at a roundtable in Rome.” The subterfuge starts early. Like the plot by the National Education Association to subvert American children with false teachings. “Don’t tell me that two plus two equals four,” he once said. “How do you know that two is two? That’s the real question.”
He believes that the last eight U.S. presidents have been guilty of treason, that President Clinton “has a black son” he won’t acknowledge and that his wife, Hillary, “is a dyke,” and that the AIDS virus was created at a secret Maryland biological warfare laboratory “to get rid of gays and blacks, and now they have a strain of the virus that can live ten days in the air or on a plate of food, because you know who most of the waiters are,” and finally, that most of the mass murderers in this country who open fire indiscriminately in fast-food restaurants “are hypnotized to kill those people and then themselves immediately afterwards,” as in the movie The Manchurian Candidate. He blinks once, twice, and says, “Who hypnotizes them? They do!”
Maybe he isn’t really contradicting himself. Maybe he is just one of those people who read into the simplest things a cosmic significance they may or may not have. Conspiracies everywhere to explain things he cannot fathom. The refuge of a limited mind. “The mind is its own place,” John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost. “And in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
Steven Norman Carlton, “Lefty,” discovered his first conspiracy in 1988, when he was forced to leave baseball prematurely and against his will, he says—after a 24-year-major-league pitching career of such excellence that he was an almost-unanimous selection for baseball’s Hall of Fame on his first try, this past January. He received 96 percent of all baseball writers’ votes, the second-highest percentage ever received by a pitcher (after Tom Seaver’s 98 percent) and the fifth-highest of all time.
Carlton, who pitched for the Phillies from 1972 to 1986, after seven years with the St. Louis Cardinals, has—after the Braves’ Warren Spahn—the most wins of any left-handed pitcher. Carlton won 329 games and lost 244 during his career. Six times he won 20 games or more in a season, and he was voted his league’s Cy Young Award a record four times. His most phenomenal season, one of the greatest seasons a pitcher has ever had, came in his first year with the Phillies: Carlton won 27 games, lost only ten, and fashioned a 1.98 ERA for a last-place team that won only 59 games all season. In other words, he earned almost half of his team’s victories, the highest such percentage ever. For almost 20 years, he was the pitcher against which all others were judged.
The secrets to his success were many. Talent. An uncanny ability to reduce pitching to its simplest terms. An unorthodox, yet rigorous, training regimen. A fierce stubbornness and an even fiercer arrogance. All contributed to his success on the mound and, later, to his inability to adjust to the complexities of life off the mound.
As a pitcher, Carlton knew his limitations. A mind easily baffled by intricacies. There were so many batters. Their strengths and weaknesses confused him, so he refused to go over batters’ tendencies in pregame meetings. He blocked them out of his consciousness and reduced pitching to a mere game of toss between pitcher and catcher—his personal catcher, Tim McCarver. He used only two pitches: an explosive fastball and an equally explosive, biting slider. He just threw one of the two pitches to his catcher’s glove. Fastball up and in; slider low and away.
He worked very hard to let nothing intrude upon his concentration. Once the third baseman fired a ball that hit him in the head. He blinked, waved off the players rushing to his aid, picked up the ball, toed the rubber and faced his next batter. His parents, Joe and Anne Carlton, claim they’ve never seen their son cry.
It was not always easy for him to be so singularly focused while pitching.
“Concentration on the mound is a battle,” he says. “Things creep into your mind. Your mind is always chattering.”
To prevent any “chattering” before a start, he had the Phillies build him a $15,000 “mood behavior” room next to the clubhouse. It was soundproof, with dark blue carpet on the floor, walls, and ceiling. He’d sit there for hours in an easy chair, staring at a painting of ocean waves rushing against the shore. A disembodied voice intoned “I am courageous, calm, confident, and relaxed … I can control my destiny.”
Carlton, said teammate Dal Maxvill, lived in “a little dark room of his mind.” His training routine was just as unorthodox. He hated to run wind sprints, so instead he stuck his arm in a garbage pail filled with brown rice and rotated it 49 times, for the 49 years that Kwan Gung, a Chinese martial-arts hero, lived. By then, Lefty himself was a martial-arts expert.
He performed the slow, ritualized movements in his clubhouse before each game. He also extensively read Eastern theology and philosophy. Those texts discussed the mysteries of life, the unknowable and how a man should confront them. Silence, stoicism, and simplicity. Those tenets struck a chord in him because, increasingly, his life off the mound was becoming more complex than a game of catch. People constantly clamored for his autograph. Waitresses messed up his order in restaurants, so he tore up their menus. Reporters began to ask him questions he didn’t like, or didn’t understand, or maybe he just thought were trivial. They even had the effrontery to question him about his failures.
“People are always throwing variables at you,” he said in disgust, and refused to talk anymore. The press called it “the Big Silence.” From 1974 to 1988, Carlton wouldn’t speak to the media. (It wasn’t just Daily News sportswriter Bill Conlin’s stories, as many assumed, but a series of articles, Carlton says now, that drove him to withdraw.) One sportswriter said there would come a time when Lefty would “wish he’d been a good guy when he’d had the chance.” But he didn’t have to be a good guy. He wasn’t interested in the fame being a good guy would bring him. He wanted only to perfect his craft, which he did, and to become rich.
Over the last ten years of his career, Carlton earned close to $10 million, almost all of it in salary because he didn’t want the annoyance of doing endorsements. It was demeaning, he thought, for him to hawk peoples’ wares. Then again, thanks to the Big Silence, there weren’t a lot of sponsors beating down his door. He already had a reputation for sullen arrogance. When he went to New York City once to discuss a contract for a book about his life, he told the editors he really didn’t care about the book, that he was just doing it for the money and because his wife, Beverly, thought it was a good idea. The editors beat a hasty retreat.
Carlton didn’t need a publisher’s money, or a sponsor’s, because he had a personal agent who promised to make him so rich that when he retired he could do nothing but fish and hunt. He had his salary checks sent directly to the agent, David Landfield, who invested them in oil and gas leases, car dealerships and Florida swampland. Since Carlton couldn’t be bothered with the checks and often had no idea exactly how big they were, Landfield simply sent him a monthly allowance, as if he were a child. These monthly allotments would be all Carlton would ever see out of his $10 million. Not one of Landfield’s investments for him ever made a cent. By 1983, all the money was gone.
During the nine years that Landfield worked for him, Carlton’s friends tried to warn him off the agent. Bill Giles, the Phillies’ owner, and Mike Schmidt, Lefty’s teammate, pleaded with him to drop Landfield. But he wouldn’t listen. One time, he even got in a fight with Schmidt in the clubhouse because of Landfield, and the two, formerly close friends, stopped speaking. Carlton said it was because he was loyal to Landfield, whom he trusted. Others said he was just being stubborn and arrogant because his success on the mound had led him to believe he was invincible off it. McCarver once said that Lefty “always had an irascible contempt for being human. He thinks he’s superhuman.”
When the truth of what Landfield had done with his money finally intruded into Carlton’s psyche, it was too late. He went through the motions of suing Landfield in 1983, but by then Landfield had declared bankruptcy. Worse, Carlton never had a chance to recoup his money, because only a few years later his career was on the downswing and those big paychecks were a thing of the past. He began to lose the bite on his slider in ’85, and people told him he should try to pick up another pitch. But he refused. He continued to throw the only way he knew how.
Fastball up and in, slider low and away.
Between 1986 and 1988, Carlton was traded or released five times, until finally, after being cut by the Minnesota Twins, no club would sign him—even for the $100,000 league minimum. Carlton was furious. At 43 he insisted he could still pitch. That’s when he uncovered his first conspiracy.
“The Twins set me up to release me by not pitching me,” he says today. “And other owners were told to keep their hands off. Other teams wouldn’t even talk to me. I don’t understand it.” To understand it, all Carlton has to do is look at his pitching record from 1985 to 1988: 16 wins, 37 losses and an ERA of more than five runs per game. It was a reality he didn’t want to face. So, sullen and hurt, Carlton decided to punish those who had hurt him. He retreated to Durango and soon afterward began building his mountain bunker, turning his back on the game and the real world that had betrayed him.
Steve Carlton, 49, dressed in a T-shirt and gym shorts, is standing on his head in the mirrored exercise room, performing his daily three hours of yoga.
“I don’t even feel any weight above my neck,” he says, upside down. Just then a screaming flock of children runs into the room with their female yoga instructor, who is dressed in black tights. Immediately, Carlton takes out two earplugs and sticks them in his ears.
“It takes the bite off the high-end notes,” he says, smiling. He is still a handsome man, his face relatively unlined. His is a typically American handsomeness, perfect features without idiosyncrasies. Except for his eyes. They are small and hazel and show very little.
“I spend my summers riding motorcycles and dirt bikes,” he says. “I work around the house. It’s taken us three years and we’re still not finished. (It is rumored that he doesn’t have the money to do so.) In the winter I ski and read books, Eastern metaphysical stuff. All about the power within. Oneness with the universe. I want to tap into my own mind to know what God knows.” He rights himself, sits cross-legged on a mat and begins contorting into another yoga position, the ankle of his left leg somewhere behind his ear.
“You ought to try,” he says. “Yoga for three hours a day. And skiing, too.” He says this with absolute conviction, as if it has never crossed his mind that there are those who do not have three hours in the morning to spare for yoga, and three more hours in the afternoon to ski. In fact, Durango seems to be the kind of town where people have unlimited leisure time. At 10:30 on a weekday morning, the health club is packed. Durango is one of those faux-Western towns whose women dress in dirndl skirts and cowboy boots and whose men, their faces adorned with elaborately waxed 1890s handlebar mustaches, wear plaid work shirts rolled up to the elbows. It has a lot of “saloons”—not bars—with clever names, like Father Murphy’s, that have walls adorned with old guns, specialize in a variety of cappuccinos and frown upon cigar smoking. Clean air is an important subject in Durango. When the town’s only tobacco shop wanted to hold a cigar smoker, its two owners were afraid it would be disrupted by protesters chaining themselves to their shop door. It’s a town for people who cannot countenance the idiosyncrasies of their fellow man. So they come to this clean, thin mountain air where they can breathe without being contaminated by the foulness of the rest of the world.
Carlton believes he is in better physical shape now than when he left baseball six years ago. “In a month I could be throwing in the 80s [miles per hour] and win,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I was labeled ‘too old.’ But you can still pitch in your 50s. It’s not for money but for pride, proving you can perform. That’s the beauty of it. Then to be cut off … It’s disheartening. If only they let you tell them when you know you’re done. It hurts. But I haven’t looked back. No thought of what I should have done. Maybe I should have learned a circle change up in my later years. But I didn’t think I needed a change.”
Most great pitchers intuit the loss of their power pitches before it actually happens. Warren Spahn, for example. He could see, in his early 30s, a time when his high, leg-kicking fastball would no longer be adequate. So he began to perfect an off-speed screwball and a slow curve. By the time Spahn lost his fastball, he had perfected his off-speed pitches, and his string of 20-victory seasons continued unbroken into his late 30s and early 40s. But Carlton was both luckier than Spahn and less fortunate. Because he did not lose his power pitches until late into his 30s, he was deluded into thinking he would never lose them, and so didn’t develop any off-speed pitches.
Carlton, lying on his back now, pulls one leg underneath himself and stretches it. “Baseball was fun,” he says. “But I have no regrets. Competition is the ultimate level of insecurity, having to beat someone. I don’t miss baseball. I never look back. You turn the page. Eternity lies in the here and now. If you live in the past, you accelerate the death process. Your being is your substance.”
As a player, Carlton was known for his conviviality with his teammates. He spent a lot of his off-hours drinking with them, and there were hints in the press, most notably by Bill Conlin, that his drinking contributed to some of his disastrous years, such as the 13–20 ’73 season. After he left baseball, Carlton, who used to be a wine connoisseur, with a million-dollar cellar, gave up drinking.
“I had nobody to go drinking with anymore,” he says. “Now when I see old baseball players, I have nothing to talk to them about. All that old-time bullshit. It bores me. I live in the here and now. I’d be intellectually starved in the game today.” Still, Carlton would like to get back into it. He sees himself as a pitching coach in spring training.
“I’d like to teach young pitchers the mental aspect of the game,” he says. “Teach them wisdom, which is different than knowledge. Champions think a certain way. To a higher level. They create their future. The body is just a vehicle for the mind and spirit. Champions will themselves to win. They know they’re gonna win. Others hope they’ll win. The mind gives you what it asks for. That’s its God.”
Then he relates a story about a friend in Durango, who, years ago, didn’t want to play on his high school basketball team because he knew it was going to have a losing season. Before the season began, the friend was hit by a car, destroying his knee.
“See,” says Carlton, as if he’s just proved a point. “If you have an accident, you create it in your mind. That’s a fact. The mind is the conscious architect of your success. What you hold consciously in your mind becomes your reality.”
If this is so, then Carlton must have willed his own failure in the twilight of his career. When such a possibility is broached to him, he looks up, terrified. He blinks once, in shock, and a second time to banish the thought from his psyche. “Why do you ask such questions?” he says shrilly. He has so carefully crafted his philosophies that he can become completely disoriented when they are challenged. That’s why Carlton has withdrawn from the world into the security of his bunker.
There he is left alone with only his thoughts, his dictums, his conspiracies, with no one to question them. Such questions strike fear in Carlton. And above all else, Steve Carlton is a fearful man.
“Fear dictates our lives,” he has said. “Fear is a tremendous energy that must be banished. Fear makes our own prisons. It’s instilled in us by our government and the Church. They control fear. It’s the Great Lie. But don’t get me started on that.” For a man who, for 15 years, was known for his silences, Carlton now talks a lot. In fact, he can’t stop himself. When he was voted into the Hall of Fame this past January, he held a press conference. At the end of its scheduled 45 minutes, the sportswriters got up to leave. Carlton called them back to talk some more.
“I don’t mind,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”When he is inducted, with Phil Rizzuto, into the Hall in late July before the assembled national press, it will be interesting to see if he will still be so loquacious.
A lot of people are suspicious of his motives for talking so much. Carlton claims, “It’s all Bev’s idea.” He says his wife wants him to get back into the world. For years, Beverly Carlton ran interference for her husband during “the Big Silence.” After Carlton won his 300th game, in 1983, he surrounded himself with a police escort and fled the clubhouse to avoid reporters. He left it to Bev to talk to the press.
“Steve would like to play another ten years,” she told them. “He just might. Baseball’s been great to us.”Then, to humanize her distant husband, she revealed a little intimacy. “Well,” she said, “he likes Ukrainian food.”
In Carlton’s final season, when he began to rethink his silence, he said it was because “my wife convinced me that if I want to find a job after I’m through playing, having my name in the paper doesn’t hurt.” Even today, Bev Carlton schedules her husband’s interviews. (He no longer has an agent.) When reporters show up in Durango, Carlton will feign surprise at their presence.
“I didn’t know you were coming,” he says. When told that his wife said she confirmed the interview with him, he blinks, once, twice, and says, “I didn’t pay any attention.”
In this way, he can lay off the distasteful prospect of being interviewed on his wife. He can maintain, in his mind’s eye, the lofty arrogance of “the Big Silence” while no longer adhering to it. (“Bev likes to read about me,” he says.) It is likely that Carlton is talking now because he needs money, looking to reassert his presence in the public’s consciousness so he can do endorsements.
“We’ll probably do some of that stuff in the coming years,” he says. It’s a distasteful position his old agent put him in, and one he doesn’t like to be reminded of. “It’s one of life’s little lessons,” Carlton says of David Landfield. “I don’t want to talk about it. I no longer live in the past.”
Then, after a moment of silence, he adds, “It all came down to trust. You’re most vulnerable there. When your trust is breached, it affects you.”
Most of Carlton’s money for the past few years has come from his two businesses. He claims he is a sports agent, but won’t mention the names of his clients. (It is hard to imagine anyone, even a ballplayer, entrusting his money to a man who lost millions of his own.) The bulk of his money, a reported $100,000 or so per year, comes from autograph shows and the Home Shopping Network, where he peddles his own wares. Caps, cards, T-shirts, little plaster figurines of himself as a pitcher—all emblazoned with the number 329, his career victory total. He sells these objects by mail, too, out of a tiny, cluttered office in a nondescript, wooden building a few miles from town. A sign out front lists the building’s occupants, lawyers and such. But there is no mention of Carlton’s enterprise, Game Winner Sports Management, and he likes it that way.
“We didn’t want a sign up so people would know where we are,” he says, smiling. In fact, even the occupants of the building aren’t sure where “the baseball player’s” office is.
“We have a toll-free number [1-800-72LEFTY],” he says. “We accept VISA and checks. Just send me a check and don’t bother me.” Now as Carlton finishes with his yoga, the instructor in the black tights ushers one of the children over to him. The teacher is smiling, giggly, blushing, a vaguely attractive woman who seems to have a crush on Carlton. She leans close to him and says, “I have someone who wants to meet you.” Carlton shrinks back from her even as she urges the uncomprehending child toward him.
“Go ahead,” she says. The child looks up at the towering man and says, “Happy birthday.” Carlton blinks, confused.
“I don’t celebrate birthdays,” he says.
At the foot of a steep, winding dirt road rutted with snow, Steve Carlton stops his truck and gets out to engage its four-wheel drive. When he gets back in and begins driving carefully up the path, he says, “I’ve been lucky. I’ve had teachers in my life. One guy began writing me letters, four or five a week, in 1970. That’s the year I won 20 games with the Cardinals. He told me where the power and energy comes from. He was a night watchman. We talked on the phone a few times and met a couple times. He was a very spiritual guy. All I knew about him was that his name was Mr. Briggs. Then he was gone as quickly as he came into my life. It was a gift.”
When he reaches his bunker, at twilight, he stops and gets out. He looks out over his land and says, “There’s nothing like being by yourself. I’m reclusive. I want to get in touch with myself.” He glances sideways, and adds, “But society is coming.”
That’s why he is preparing by being self-sufficient. He is not so self-sufficient, however, that he’s ever mustered the courage to butcher his animals for food. But, that’s a moot point now. All his chickens were killed by raccoons last winter.
It’s late. Carlton has a dinner appointment. But he’s not sure what time it is now, because he doesn’t wear a watch. “I never know what time it is,” he says. “Or what day it is. Time is stress. Pressure melts away if you don’t deal with time. I don’t believe in birthdays, either. Or anniversaries. I don’t watch television. We don’t read newspapers. We don’t even have a Christmas tree. Those things hold vibrations of the past, and I exist only in the now. Bev is even more into it that I am.”
He trudges through the snow to the side door of his odd, domed bunker. Inside, he puts the flat of one palm against the concrete and says, “I’m waiting for the coldness to come out of the walls.” Bev is waiting for him in the living room. She is a small, sweet, nervous woman, sitting in a chair by a space heater. She used to bleach her hair blonde, but now her short cut is its natural brown. She smiles as her husband sits down across from her. She hugs herself from the cold, and then drags on a cigarette.
Their home is starkly furnished, not out of design but necessity. A few wooden tables, a bookcase filled with Carlton’s Eastern metaphysical books, a patterned sofa and easy chair, hand-me-downs from their son Scott, 25, a bartender in St. Louis. Their other son, Steven, 27, lives in Washington State, where he writes children’s songs.
Carlton doesn’t like to talk about his kids. “Why do you have to know about them?” he says plaintively. He doesn’t talk much about his parents, either, whom he rarely sees or speaks to. They, it seems, are another part of Carlton’s past that he has cut out of his life.
“The correspondence lacks,” admits Joe Carlton, 87 and blind. “We don’t hear from him much. It’s okay, though.”
“We keep up with him in the newspapers,” says Anne Carlton, who says of her age, “It’s nobody’s damned business.”
The elder Carltons are sitting in the shadowed, musty living room of their small, concrete house in North Miami, where they raised their son and two daughters, Christina and Joanne. From the outside, it looks uninhabited. The drab house paint is peeling, and the yards out front and back, dotted with Joe’s many fruit trees, are overgrown, rotted fruit littering the tall grass.
Inside, the furniture is old and worn, and thick dust coats the television screen. Even the many photographs and newspaper articles on the walls are faded and dusty, like old tintypes. The photos are mostly of their son in various baseball uniforms. As a teenager—gawky, with a faint, distant smile, posing with his teammates, the Lions. With the Cardinals, his hair fashionably long, back in the ’60s. Then with the Phillies, posing with Mike Schmidt, captioned MVP AND CY YOUNG.
“No, I haven’t heard from him,” says Joe, a former maintenance man with Pan Am. He is sitting on an ottoman, staring straight ahead through thick glasses. “I can’t see you, except as a shadow,” he says, staring out the window. He is a thin man, almost gaunt, with long silvery swept-back hair. He is wearing a faded Hawaiian shirt.
“It’s no special reason,” says Anne, sitting in her easy chair. “He just doesn’t call me anymore.”
“He called when Anne’s mother died, at 101,” says Joe. Then he begins to talk about his son as a child. How Joe used to go hunting with him in the Everglades. “We used to shoot light bulbs,” he says.
“Steve was a natural-born hunter,” says Anne. “Tell what kind of animals you hunted in the Everglades.”
“Lions and tigers.”
“Oh, you didn’t. There are no lions and tigers in the Everglades. Tell what kind of animals.”
Joe, confused, says, “There were lots of animals.” Anne shakes her head. “Steve was always quiet,” adds Joe, trying to remember. “He wasn’t very talkative around the house when he was a boy.” He fetches an old scrapbook and opens a page to a newspaper photograph of his son in a Phillies cap. There is a zipper where his mouth should be.
“Can I bum a cigarette off you?” Anne says to their guest. “Oh, you don’t have any. Too bad.”
“The last time we saw Steve was five years ago,” says Joe.
“It wasn’t that long ago.”
“Yes, it was. Time flies.”
“It was only four years.”
“He never told us about his house.”
“We don’t even know where Durango is. I never heard of it. Have you seen his house? Really, it’s built into a mountain?”
“Steve got an interest in his philosophies when he got hold of one of my books when he was in high school,” says Joe.
“He doesn’t believe in Christmas trees anymore?” asks Anne. “We always had a Christmas tree. Bev liked Christmas trees. No, we never asked him for any money,” Anne continues. “He would have given it to us if we asked, though.”
“He never helped us financially. I didn’t need it.” Joe, who is also hard of hearing, cups a hand around an ear. “What? His sons? You mean Steve’s sons? No, we never hear from them, either.”
“Our daughters call, though,” says Anne.
“They came down for my 85th birthday,” says Joe. “They gave me a surprise party. Steve didn’t come.”
Joe gets up and goes into a small guest room where, on a desk, dresser, and two twin beds, he has laid out mementos of his son’s career. A photograph of a plaster impression of Steve’s hand when he was a boy. A high school graduation photo of Steve with a flattop haircut.
“Steve doesn’t collect this stuff,” says Joe. “He’s too busy. Here’s another picture of Steve. I got pictures all over. I got another picture here, somewhere, when we took Steve to St. Augustine, where Anne is from. It’s a picture of Steve in the oldest fort in America. He’s behind bars.”
Joe rummages around for the photo, disturbing dust, but he can’t find it. He leafs through one last scrapbook; on its final page is a photograph of a burial mound of skulls and bones, thousands of them, piled in a heap. Joe looks at it and says, “We took it in Cuba. See here what I wrote at the bottom: The end.”
There are no photographs of Joe and Anne in their son’s living room. No photos of his and Bev’s children. No photos of themselves when younger. No wedding photos of smiling bride and bridegroom. No photos of Carlton in a Phillies uniform or on a hunting trip. There are no keepsakes of their past. No prints on the wall. No Christmas tree, no presents, nestled in cotton snow. There is nothing in that huge, high, concave, whitewashed concrete room except the few pieces of nondescript furniture and the space heater. Bev and her husband seem dwarfed by the cave like room. They huddle around the space heater like a 20th-century version of the clan in the movie Quest for Fire. Mere survival seems their only joy, their only beauty, except for the view through the sliding-glass living room doors of the La Plata mountain range, all white and purple and rose in the setting sun, which Beverly has turned her back on.
Bev tries to make small talk as she drags on her cigarette. Curiously, her husband no longer hates cigarette smoke as he once did as a ballplayer, when he claimed he could taste it on his wineglass if someone in the room was smoking. Of course, in those days he didn’t eat red meat either because of the blood. His thinking has changed now, he has said, because he realizes “that the juice of anything is its blood, that the juice of a carrot is the carrot’s blood.”
Bev is talking about the time she and other Phillies’ wives met Ted Turner. “Oh, yes,” she says, “he kept putting his hands on the behinds of the wives.”
“He was crude and vulgar,” says Carlton. “What’s wrong with America?” He shakes his head in disgust and begins a long monologue on the unfairness of the American government, primarily because it won’t allow its citizens to walk around armed. Bev listens patiently smiling her thin smile, her head nodding like a small bird sipping water. Her husband is right. She is a lot like him. Frightened. When it is time to meet their guests for dinner, Carlton stands up. Bev remains seated hugging herself against the cold.
“Oh, I’m not going to dinner,” she says without explanation. “Just Steve.”
It’s confusing to their guest, until he remembers Carlton’s words: “Bev wants me to get out into the world,” Carlton had said. Which is what she is doing now: sending him out into that fearful world in order to make a living for them. It’s something she knows he has to do on his own if they are going to survive, like a mother bundling her tiny child off the school for the first time. Meanwhile she sits at home in their stark bunker huddled close to the space heater for warmth, worrying about him out there, alone and scared, in the real world he shunned for so many years.
The Carlton story is a riot. So I’m working for my friend Elliot Kaplan in Philadelphia and I wasn’t getting paid a lot. I’d known Eliot for years and done a lot of work for him when he was at GQ. Carlton was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame and he had been a Philly guy.
I had one rule with Eliot. I said, “As long as you pay me what you pay your other writers, I don’t care. But if I ever find out that you were paying me less because of our friendship, I’ll be really annoyed.” He wasn’t paying much but I’d do whatever I could for him.
He wanted me to do Steve Carlton, but he didn’t have the budget to fly me to Durango, Colorado, which is an expensive flight. L.A. would be a cheap flight from Fort Lauderdale, where I lived at the time. New York is a cheap flight. Durango is not.
Now, I had an assignment to do Brian Boitano for the L.A. Times Magazine, so I booked a triangle flight: Ft. Lauderdale, San Francisco, did Boitano, took a puddle-jumper to Denver, rented a car, and drove to Durango. My wife Susan went with me and we got to Denver in the middle of a snow storm. We get on this puddle-jumper plane and they are de-icing the wings to go fly over the Rocky fucking Mountains. I hate to fly and I said, “Oh shit, this is how I’m going to die? I’m going down for friendship, for Eliot? I’m going to die in the fucking mountains for Steve Carlton, who I didn’t want to do anyway?”
I knew nothing about Carlton other than he hated to talk to the press. But he was going to the Hall of Fame and he wanted to capitalize on it. So I get there. I’m supposed to meet him the next morning at a gym, at 10. Susie and I got up at 6 or 7 and it’s freezing in Durango. We drive and I find the gym so I know where it is. Before we go to breakfast I drive back to the airport to make sure I can find my way back there. On the way, we get a flat tire on the highway. It’s so cold my hands are sticking to the lug nuts. I change the tire. Now, I’m in a panic to get back to Carlton, and I’m going to get back just in time. I get back to the gym, he’s doing yoga or something, there’s women running around, kids, and we start talking. I wasn’t tape-recording because there was too much noise.
Carlton was odd. He told me, “I’m up here because I wanted to be secluded because of what America’s becoming,” or something like that. So I changed the subject and told him about a new gun I had bought. I’m into guns. For some reason, I knew that would perk him up. So I mentioned that I had gotten a Czechoslovakian military pistol, a CZ 85.
He said: “Oh yeah, that’s a great gun. You know you’d better bury that in PVC pipes because the UN is coming in black helicopters to confiscate all of our guns.”
I said, “Oh, really?”
He said, “Yeah, it’s a world organization that’s dictated by the Elders of Zion, the twelve Jews in Switzerland who control the world.”
At this point, I just let him go. We went from the gym to his office where he was selling all of his tchotchkes, figurines of him pitching, autographs. This is how he thought he was going to make a living, ’cause he was almost broke at the time. He had lost a fortune because of his agent.
So we talked in his office and then I went out to his house, which is like a concrete bunker. And he was really weird. I called Eliot and said: “Eliot, this guy’s crazy. He’s the kind of guy who should not be allowed to read a book. He believes everything in the last book he read. Like the whole Elders of Zion thing. He told me he had read that in a book.” Well, shit, there are other books than that.
So I wrote the story and it caused a big stink. The Today Show came down to interview me. Now, after the story came out, everybody started defending Steve. Tim McCarver, Jim Kaat, all these guys who were in the fraternity of ex-athletes. Even though they knew I had written the truth, I was not in the fraternity. I was the outsider, the outlaw freelance writer living in Florida. The guy you can’t trust. So the papers are running pieces about what a hatchet job I did on poor Steve Carlton.
Eliot Kaplan (via email): I had recently moved to Philadelphia Magazine as editor-in-chief after several years as the deputy at GQ. Pat had done some fantastic stories for us at GQ, everything from Greg Louganis and Pete Rose Jr. to Marilyn Chambers and Traci Lords. When I got to Philly, he was kind enough to agree to write for me, more out of friendship than money. We paid him whatever our top rate was then, probably $2,000-2,500. Including travel expenses!
Steve Carlton had not talked to any media in almost 20 years but was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame and agreed to be interviewed. I think both Pat and I were expecting a rather bland, clipped interview but figured Pat could make something out of it, as he always does. Pat ended up flying over a winter holiday, through a bumpy blizzard, into Colorado.
He called me that night. I remember leaving a holiday dinner and him telling me, “He’s nuts. Carlton is nuts,” and proceeding to describe the bunker-type residence, Carlton’s vast conspiracy theories, his almost survivalist mentality.
Pat got great stuff and wrote a spectacular piece.
It came out in the April issue and then … nothing. Not a peep in the media.
Two reasons come to mind. First, Philly can be a weird place. The newspapers and Philadelphia Magazine were always competitive and antagonistic toward each other, so they weren’t going to talk up the piece. And remember, this was before the internet or magazines having publicists.
But more importantly, the same issue featured a very juicy story in which the popular mayor, Ed Rendell, was quoted making extremely saucy, suggestive comments to reporter Lisa DePaulo. THAT story was the one that grabbed the headlines, including a few front days of the Philly Daily News.
It wasn’t until about a week later when my friend, the writer and Philadelphia native Joe Queenan, was on a New York radio show and mentioned the Carlton piece, that it suddenly exploded, with the New York media being the ones driving it and the Philadelphia media then forced to react. I don’t think it affected sales of the magazine by that point but it definitely got a lot of chatter and reaction from Phillies PR, who denied everything. You can look up a Tim McCarver interview in Times that basically said, Yeah, Carlton is kinda nuts but not an anti-Semite (which I believe, but the Elders of Zion thing was easy for people to pick up on). Thought I came up with a good line to one reporter: “Carlton was always known for his slider. Turns out screwball is more like it.”
Originally published in the October 1992 issue of GQ, here is a classic from Peter Richmond.
(A postscript from the author follows.)
Nighttime in Los Angeles, on a quiet street off Melrose Avenue. An otherwise normal evening is marked by an oddly whimsical celestial disturbance: Baseballs are falling out of the sky.
They are coming from the roof of a gray apartment building. One ball pocks an adjacent apartment. Another bounces to the street. A third flies off into the night, a mighty shot.
This is West Hollywood in the early eighties, where anything is not only possible but likely. West Hollywood shakes its head and drives on by.
But if a passerby’s curiosity had been piqued and he’d climbed to the roof of a neighboring building to divine the source of the show, he would have been rewarded by a most unusual sight: a man of striking looks, with long blond hair, startlingly and wincingly thin, hitting the ball with a practiced swing—a flat, smooth, even stroke developed during a youth spent in minor-league towns from Pocatello to Albuquerque.
This is not Tommy Lasorda Jr.’s, routine nighttime activity. A routine night is spent in the clubs, the bright ones and dark ones alike.
Still, on occasion, here he’d be, on the roof, clubbing baseballs into the night. Because there were times when the pull was just too strong. Of the game. Of the father. He could never be what his father was—Tommy Lasorda’s own inner orientation made that impossible—but he could fantasize, couldn’t he? That he was ten, taking batting practice in Ogden, Utah, with his dad, and Garvey, and the rest of them?
And so, on the odd night. On a night he was not at Rage, or the Rose Tattoo, he’d climb to the roof, the lord of well-tanned West Hollywood, and lose himself in the steady rhythm of bat hitting ball—the reflex ritual that only a man inside the game can truly appreciate.
“Junior was the better hitter,” recalls Steve Garvey. “He didn’t have his father’s curveball, but he was the better hitter.”
“I cried,” Tom Lasorda says quietly. He is sipping a glass of juice in the well-appointed lounge of Dodgertown, the Los Angeles baseball team’s green-glorious oasis of a spring-training site. It’s a place that heralds and nurtures out-of-time baseball and out-of-time Dodgers. A place where, each spring, in the season of illusion’s renewal, they are allowed to be the men they once were.
On this February weekend, Dodgertown is crowded with clearly affluent, often out-of-shape white men, each of whom has parted with $4,000 to come to Dodgers fantasy camp. In pink polo shirts and pale-pink slacks—the pastels of privilege—they are scattered around the lounge, flirting with fantasy lives, chatting with the coaches.
“I cried. A lot of times. But I didn’t cry in the clubhouse. I kept my problems to myself. I never brought them with me. I didn’t want to show my family—that’s my family away from my house. What’s the sense of bringing my problems to my team?
“I had him for thirty-three years. Thirty-three years is better than nothing, isn’t it? If I coulda seen God and God said to me ‘I’m going to give you a son for thirty-three years and take him away after thirty-three years,’ I’d have said ‘Give him to me.’”
His gaze skips about the room—he always seems to be looking around for someone to greet, a hand to shake, another camper to slap another anecdote on. Tom Lasorda floats on an ever-flowing current of conversation.
“I signed that contract [to manage the Dodgers] with a commitment to do the best of my ability,” he says. “If I’m depressed, what good does it do? When I walk into the clubhouse, I got to put on a winning face. A happy face. If I go in with my head hung down when I put on my uniform, what good does it do?”
These are words he has said before, in response to other inquiries about Tommy’s death. But now the voice shifts tone and the words become more weighted; he frames each one with a new meaning.
And he stops looking around the room and looks me in the eye.
“I could say ‘God, why was I dealt this blow? Does my wife—do I—deserve this?’ [But] then how do I feel, hunh? Does it change it?” Now the voice grows even louder, and a few fantasy campers raise their eyebrows and turn their heads toward us.
“See my point?”
The words are like fingers jabbed into my chest.
Then his eyes look away and he sets his face in a flat, angry look of defiance.
“You could hit me over the head with a fucking two-by-four and you don’t knock a tear out of me,” he says.
“Fuck,” he says.
The word does not seem to be connected to anything.
He was the second of five sons born, in Norristown, Pennsylvania, a crowded little city-town a half-hour north of Philadelphia, to Sabatino Lasorda, a truckdriver who’d emigrated from Italy, and Carmella Lasorda.
By the age of twenty-two, Tom Lasorda was a successful minor league pitcher by trade, a left-hander with a curveball and not a lot more. But he was distinguished by an insanely dogged belief in the possibility of things working out. His father had taught him that. On winter nights when he could not turn the heat on, Sabatino Lasorda would nonetheless present an unfailingly optimistic face to his family, and that was how Tom Lasorda learned that nothing could stomp on the human spirit if you didn’t let it.
Tom Lasorda played for teams at nearly every level of professional ball: in Concord, N.H.; Schenectady, N.Y.; Greenville, S.C.; Montreal; Brooklyn (twice, briefly); Kansas City, Missouri; Denver; and Los Angeles. Once, after a short stay in Brooklyn, he was sent back to the minors so the Dodgers could keep a left-handed pitcher with a good fastball named Sandy Koufax, and to this day Lasorda will look you in the eye and say “I still think they made a mistake” and believe it.
The Dodgers saw the white-hot burn and made it into a minor-league manager. From 1965 to 1972, Lasorda’s teams—in Pocatello, Ogden, Spokane, then Albuquerque—finished second, first, first, first, second, first, third and first. Sheer bravado was the tool; tent-preaching thick with obscenities the style.
In 1973, the Dodgers called him to coach for the big team, and he summoned his wife and his son and his daughter from Norristown, and they moved to Fullerton, Calif, a featureless sprawl of a suburb known for the homogeneity of its style of life and the conservatism of its residents.
In 1976, he was anointed the second manager in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ nineteen-year history. His managing style was by instinct, not by the book, and his instincts were good enough to pay off more often than not. In his first two years, the Dodgers made the World Series. In 1981, they won it. In 1985, they didn’t make it because Lasorda elected to have Tom Niedenfuer pitch to St. Louis’s Jack Clark in the sixth game of the playoffs, against the odds, and Jack Clark hit a three-run home run. In 1988, though, he sent a limping Kirk Gibson to the plate and gave us a moment for history.
From the first, Lasorda understood that he had to invent a new identity for this team, the team that Walter O’Malley had yanked out of blue-collar-loyal Brooklyn-borough America and dropped into a city whose only real industry was manufacturing the soulless stuff of celluloid fantasy. His clubhouse became a haunt for show-business personalities, usually of distinctly outsized demeanor—Sinatra, Rickles—and he himself became the beacon of a new mythology, leader of the team that played in a ballpark on a hill on a road called Elysian, perched above the downtown, high and imperious. Because, really, aren’t there too many theme parks to compete with in Los Angeles to manage your baseball team as anything other than another one?
In sixteen years, the tone of the sermon has seldom faltered, at least not before this year. This year, through no fault of Tom Lasorda’s, his fielders have forgotten how to field, in a game in which defense has to be an immutable; and if this is anyone’s fault, it’s that of the men who stock the farm system. His pitching is vague, at best. So the overwhelming number of one-run—is, in fact, testament, again, to Lasorda’s management. No one has questioned his competence.
His spirit has flagged considerably, but his days, in season and out, are as full of Dodger Blue banquet appearances as ever, with impromptu Dodgers pep rallies in airport concourses from Nashville to Seattle. Unlike practitioners of Crystal Cathedral pulpitry, Lasorda the tent-preacher believes in what he says, which, of course, makes all the difference in the world. Because of his faith, Dodger Blue achieves things, more things than you can imagine. The lights for the baseball field in Caledonia, Miss.; the fund for the former major leaguer with cancer in Pensacola: Tom showed up, talked Dodger Blue, raised the money. Tom’s word maintains the baseball field at Jackson State and upgraded the facilities at Georgia Tech.
“I was in Nashville,” Tom says, still sitting in the lounge, back on automatic now, reciting. “Talking to college baseball coaches, and a buddy told me nine nuns had been evicted from their home. I got seven or eight dozen balls [signed by Hall of Fame players], we auctioned them, and we built them a home. They said, ‘We prayed for a miracle, and God sent you to us.’”
Nine nuns in Nashville.
In the hallway between the lounge and the locker room hang photographs of Brooklyn Dodgers games. Lasorda has pored over them a thousand times, with a thousand writers, a thousand campers, a thousand Dodgers prospects—identifying each player, re-creating each smoky moment.
But on this day, a few minutes after he’s been talking about Tommy, he walks this gauntlet differently.
“That’s Pete Reiser,” Tom Lasorda says. “He’s dead.” He points to another player. He says, “He’s dead.” He walks down the hallway, clicking them off, talking out loud but to himself.
Back in his suite, in the residence area of Dodgertown, I ask him if it was difficult having a gay son.
“My son wasn’t gay,” he says evenly, no anger. “No way. No way. I read that in a paper. I also read in that paper that a lady gave birth to a fuckin’ monkey, too. That’s not the fuckin’ truth. That’s not the truth.”
I ask him if he read in the same paper that his son had died of AIDS.
“That’s not true,” he says.
I say that I thought a step forward had been taken by Magic Johnson’s disclosure of his own HIV infection, that that’s why some people in Los Angeles expected him to…
“Hey,” he says. “I don’t care what people…I know what my son died of. I know what he died of. The doctor put out a report of how he died. He died of pneumonia.”
He turns away and starts to brush his hair in the mirror of his dressing room. He is getting ready to go to the fantasy-camp barbecue. He starts to whistle. I ask him if he watched the ceremony on television when the Lakers retired Johnson’s number.
‘”I guarantee you one fuckin’ thing,” he says. “I’ll lay you three to one Magic plays again. Three to one. That Magic plays again.”
As long as he’s healthy, I say. People have lived for ten years with the right medication and some luck. Your quality of life can be good, I say.
Lasorda doesn’t answer. Then he says, “You think people would have cared so much if it had been Mike Tyson?”
On death certificates issued by the state of California, there are three lines to list the deceased’s cause of death, and after each is a space labeled TIME INTERVAL BETWEEN ONSET AND DEATH.
Tom Lasorda Jr.’s, death certificate reads:
IMMEDIATE CAUSE: A) PNEUMONITIS — 2 WEEKS
DUE TO: B) DEHYDRATION — 6 WEEKS
DUE TO: C) PROBABLE ACQUIRED IMMUNE
DEFICIENCY SYNDROME — 1 YEAR.
At Sunny Hills High School, in Fullerton, Calif.—”the most horrible nouveau riche white-bread high school in the world,” recalls Cat Gwynn, a Los Angeles photographer and filmmaker and a Sunny Hills alumna—Tommy Lasorda moved through the hallways with a style and a self-assurance uncommon in a man so young; you could see them from afar, Tommy and his group. They were all girls, and they were all very pretty. Tommy was invariably dressed impeccably. He was as beautiful as his friends. He had none of his father’s basset-hound features; Tommy’s bones were carved, gently, from glass.
“It was very obvious that he was feminine, but none of the jocks nailed him to the wall or anything,” Gwynn says. “I was enamored of him because he wasn’t at all uncomfortable with who he was. In this judgmental, narrow-minded high school, he strutted his stuff.”
In 1980, at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Cindy Stevens and Tommy Lasorda shared a class in color theory. Tommy, Stevens recalls, often did not do his homework. He would spend a lot of his time at Dodgers games or on the road with the team. At school, they shared cigarettes in the hallway. Tommy would tell her about the latest material he’d bought to have made into a suit. She’d ask him where the money came from. Home, he’d say.
“He talked lovingly about his father and their relationship—they had a very good relationship,” Stevens says now. “I was surprised. I didn’t think it’d be like that. You’d think it’d be hard on a macho Italian man. This famous American idol. You’d figure it’d be [the father saying] ‘Please don’t let people know you’re my son,’ but it was the opposite. I had new respect for his father. There had to be acceptance from his mom and dad. Tommy had that good self-esteem—where you figure that [his] parents did something right.”
In the late seventies, Tommy left Fullerton, moving only an hour northwest in distance—though he might as well have been crossing the border between two sovereign nations—to West Hollywood, a pocket of gay America unlike any other, a community bound by the shared knowledge that those within it had been drawn by its double distinction: to be among gays, and to be in Hollywood. And an outrageous kid from Fullerton, ready to take the world by storm, found himself dropped smack into the soup—of a thousand other outrageous kids, from Appleton, and Omaha, and Scranton.
But Tommy could never stand to be just another anything. The father and the son had that in common. They had a great deal in common. Start with the voice: gravelly, like a car trying to start on a cold morning. The father, of course, spends his life barking and regaling, never stopping; he’s baseball’s oral poet, an anti-Homer. It’s a well-worn voice. Issuing from the son, a man so attractive that men tended to assume he was a woman, it was the most jarring of notes. One of his closest friends compared it to Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist—the scenes in which she was possessed.
More significantly, the father’s world was no less eccentric than the son’s: The subset of baseball America found in locker rooms and banquet halls is filled with men who have, in large part, managed quite nicely to avoid the socialization processes of the rest of society.
Then, the most obvious similarity: Both men were so outrageous, so outsized and surreal in their chosen persona, that, when it came down to it, for all of one’s skepticism about their sincerity, it was impossible not to like them—not to, finally, just give in and let their version of things wash over you, rather than resist. Both strutted an impossibly simplistic view of the world—the father with his gospel of fierce optimism and blind obeisance to a baseball mythology, and the son with a slavery to fashion that he carried to the point of religion.
But where the illusion left off and reality started, that was a place hidden to everyone but themselves. In trying to figure out what each had tucked down deep, we can only conjecture. “You’d be surprised what agonies people have,” Dusty Baker, the former Dodger, reminds us, himself a good friend of both father and son, a solid citizen in a sport that could use a few more. “There’s that old saying that we all have something that’s hurting us.”
In the case of the son, friends say the West Hollywood years were born of a Catch-22 kind of loneliness: The more bizarre the lengths to which he went to hone the illusion, the less accessible he became. In his last years, friends say, everything quieted down, markedly so. The flamboyant life gave way to a routine of health clubs and abstinence and sobriety and religion. But by then, of course, the excesses of the earlier years had taken their inexorable toll.
As for the father, there’s no question about the nature of the demon he’s been prey to for the past two years. Few in his locker room saw any evidence of sadness as his son’s illness grew worse, but this should come as no surprise: Tom Lasorda has spent most of four decades in the same baseball uniform. Where else would he go to get away from the grief?
“Maybe,” Baker says, “his ballpark was his sanctuary.”
It’s a plague town now, there’s no way around it. At brunch at the French Quarter, men stop their conversations to lay out their pills on the tables, and take them one by one with sips of juice. A mile west is Rage, its name having taken on a new meaning. Two blocks away, on Santa Monica Boulevard, at A Different Light, atop the shelves given over to books on how to manage to stay alive for another few weeks, sit a dozen clear bottles, each filled with amber fluid and a rag—symbolic Molotovs, labeled with the name of a man or a woman or a government agency that is setting back the common cause, reinforcing the stereotypes, driving the social stigmata even deeper into West Hollywood’s already weakened flesh.
But in the late seventies, it was a raucous, outrageous and joyous neighborhood, free of the pall that afflicted hetero Los Angeles, thronged as it was with people who’d lemminged their way out west until there was no more land, fugitives from back east.
In the late seventies and the early eighties, say his friends and his acquaintances and those who knew him and those who watched him, Tommy Lasorda was impossible to miss. They tell stories that careen from wild and touching to sordid and scary; some ring true, others fanciful. Collected, they paint a neon scar of a boy slashing across the town. They trace the path of a perfect, practiced, very lonely shooting star.
His haunt was the Rose Tattoo, a gay club with male strippers, long closed now. One night, he entered—no, he made an entrance—in a cape, with a pre-power ponytail and a cigarette holder: Garbo with a touch of Bowie and the sidelong glance of Veronica Lake. He caught the eye of an older man. They talked. In time, became friends. In the early eighties, they spent a lot of time together. Friends is all they were. They were very much alike.
“I’m one of those gentlemen who liked him,” says the man. “I was his Oscar Wilde. He liked me because I was an older guy who’d tasted life. I was his Marne. I showed him life. Art. Theater. I made him a little more sophisticated. [Showed him] how to dress a little better.”
They spent the days poolside at a private home up behind the perfect pink stucco of the Beverly Hills Hotel, Tommy lacquering himself with a tan that was the stuff of legend. The tan is de rigueur. The tan is all. It may not look like work, but it is; the work is to look as good as you can.
He occasionally held a job, never for long. Once, he got work at the Right Bank, a shoe store, to get discounts. His father bought him an antique-clothing store. He wearied of it. Tommy, says one friend, wanted to be like those women in soap operas who have their own businesses but never actually work at them.
Tommy’s look was his work. If there were others who were young and lithe and handsome and androgynous, none were as outre as Tommy. Tommy never ate. A few sprouts, some fruit, a potato. Tommy spent hours at the makeup table. Tommy studied portraits of Dietrich and Garbo to see how the makeup was done. Tommy bleached his hair. On his head. On his legs. Tommy had all of his teeth capped. Tommy had a chemabrasion performed on his face, in which an acid bath removes four of the skin’s six layers. Then the skin is scrubbed to remove yet another layer. It is generally used to erase scars or wrinkles. Tommy had two done.
But he smoked, and he drank. Champagne in a flute, cigarette in a long holder, graceful and vampish at the same time: This was Tommy at the Rose Tattoo. His friend also remembers how well Tommy and his father got along. His friend would drive Tommy to the Italian restaurant where he’d meet his father for Sunday dinners.
“He loved his father, you know. They got along perfectly well.” His friend was never his lover. Only his friend. That was all. That was enough. “He was very lonely.”
On occasion, the nighttime ramble led him far from the stilted elegance of Santa Monica Boulevard. In the punk dubs, amid the slam-dancing and the head-butting, Tommy parted the leathered seas, a chic foil for all the pierced flesh and fury, this man who didn’t sweat. This man who crossed himself when someone swore in public.
Penelope Spheeris met him at Club Zero. She would go on to direct the punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization and, years later, Wayne’s World. They became friends. They met at punk clubs—the blond man in custom-made suits, the striking woman in black cocktail dresses and leather boots. In 1981, she interviewed Tommy for a short-lived underground paper called No Mag.
PENELOPE: Have you been interviewed very much before?
TOMMY: No, but I’m very…oral…
PENELOPE: People who would see you around town, they would probably think you were gay.
TOMMY: I don’t care.
PENELOPE: What do you do when you get that reaction from them?
TOMMY : I like all people. And it’s better having comments, be it GOOD, BAD or WHATEVER. I don’t mind at all, but I dress quite…well, I wouldn’t say it’s FLAMBOYANT because it’s not intentional. It’s just intentionally ME.
PENELOPE: O.K., but you understand, when somebody looks at a picture of you, they’re going to say, this guy’s awfully feminine.
TOMMY: I’m there for anyone to draw any conclusions.
PENELOPE: Are you?
TOMMY: Well, I mean, I’ve done different things…of course…I have no label on myself because then I have restrictions. I would really hate to state anything like that.
PENELOPE: When you were young did your dad say, “Come on, Tommy, Jr., let’s go play baseball”?
TOMMY : Never. They always allowed me to do exactly what I pleased. I don’t know how they had the sense to be that way. As parents they’re both so…well, very straitlaced and conservative. I don’t know how I was allowed to just be ME, but I think it was because I was so strongly ME that I don’t think they thought they could ever STOP IT…
PENELOPE: Do you feel like you should be careful in the public eye?
TOMMY: I feel like I should, but I don’t.
PENELOPE: Do you think the press would be mean to you if they had the chance?
TOMMY: I’m sure they would, but I’ll take ANY PUBLICITY.
TOMMY: Because that’s what I want…I do everything TO BE SEEN.
“I found him totally fascinating. He was astoundingly beautiful, more than most women,” Spheeris says now. “I became interested in…the blatant contrast in lifestyles. Tommy Lasorda Sr., was so involved in that macho sports world, and his son was the opposite…”
“I was astounded at how many clothes he had. I remember walking into the closet. The closet was as big as my living room. Everything was organized perfectly. Beautiful designer clothes he looked great in.”
Often in the early eighties, when fashion photographer Eugene Pinkowski’s phone would ring, it would be Tommy. Tommy wanting to shop or Tommy wanting Eugene to photograph his new look.
When they went shopping, they would fly down Melrose in Tommy’s Datsun 280Z, much, much too fast, Tommy leaning out of the driver’s window, hair flying in the wind, like some Valley Girl gone weird, hurling gravelly insults (“Who did your hair? It looks awful”) at the pedestrians diving out of the way.
He was a terrible driver. Once he hit a cat. He got out of the car, knelt on the street, and cried. He rang doorbells up and down the street, trying to find the owner.
Tommy would call to tell Eugene he was going to buy him a gift. Then Tommy would spend all his money on himself. Then, the next day, Tommy would make up for it. He would hand him something. A pair of porcelain figures, babies, a boy and a girl, meant to be displayed on a grand piano—very difficult to find, very expensive.
Then the phone would ring. It’d be Eugene’s mother, saying she just got a bracelet. From his friend Tommy.
“He was a character,” Pinkowski says at breakfast in a Pasadena coffee shop. “He was a case. He was a complete and total case.”
Then he looks away.
“He was really lonely,” Pinkowski says. “He was sad.”
When he was being photographed, Tommy was always trying to become different people.
Eugene captured them all. Tommy with long hair. With short hair. With the cigarette. Without it. With some of his exceptionally beautiful women friends. Tommy often had beautiful women around him, Pinkowski recalls—vaguely European, vaguely models. Sometimes Tommy had Pinkowski take pictures of them.
Mostly he took pictures of Tommy. Tommy with a stuffed fox. Lounging on the floor. In the piano. Sitting in a grocery cart.
In red. In green. In white. In blue. In black and gray.
His four toes. Tommy had four toes on his right foot, the fifth lost in a childhood accident. He posed the foot next to a gray boot on the gray carpet. Then he posed it next to a red shoe on the gray carpet. The red looked better.
Tommy and his foot were a regular subject of conversation, often led by Tommy.
“Tommy was a great storyteller, and he’d tell you stories of his dad in the minor leagues,” Pinkowski says. “Everybody’d like him. He was very much like the old boy. He could really hold his own in a group of strangers. And he’d do anything to keep it going. To be the center of attention. He’d just suddenly take his shoe and sock off at dinner and say ‘Did you know I was missing my toe?’”
One day, Tommy wanted to pose wrapped in a transparent shower curtain. Tommy was wearing white underwear. For forty-five minutes they tried to light the shot so that the underwear was concealed, to no avail. Tommy left, and returned in flesh-colored underwear.
There was nothing sexual about Tommy’s fashion-posing. Tommy’s fashion-posing was designed to get Tommy into fashion magazines. Tommy was forever bugging the editors of Interview to feature him, but they wouldn’t.
“As beautiful as he was, as famous as his father was, he thought he should be in magazines,” Pinkowski says now. “He was as hungry as Madonna. But Bowie and Grace [Jones] could do something. He couldn’t do anything. He could never see any talent in himself.”
The closest Tommy came was when he bought himself a full page in Stuff magazine, in 1982, for a picture of himself that Eugene took.
He would pay Eugene out of the house account his parents had set up for him. On occasion, Eugene would get a call from Tommy’s mother: We don’t need any more pictures this year. Still, Tommy would have several of his favorites printed for his parents. One is from the blue period.
At the Duck Club, down behind the Whiskey, in 1985, Tommy sat in a corner drinking Blue Hawaiians. To match his blue waistcoat. Or his tailored blue Edwardian gabardine jacket. This was during his blue period. In his green period, he was known to wear a green lamé wrap and drink crème de menthe. But the blue period lasted longer. The good thing about the blue period was that on the nights he didn’t want to dress up, he could wear denim and still match his drink. And, sometimes, his mood.
“He walked around with a big smile on his face, as if everything was great because he had everything around him to prove it was great,” Spheeris says. “But I don’t think it was…When you’re that sad, you have to cover up a lot of pain. But he didn’t admit it.”
The nature of the pain will forever be in debate. Few of his friends think it had to do with the relationship with his parents. “The parents—both of them—were incredibly gracious and kind to everyone in Tommy’s life,” says a close friend of the family’s.
Alex Magno was an instructor at the Voight Fitness and Dance Center and became one of Tommy’s best friends. Tommy was the godfather of his daughter. “We used to ask him, ‘You’re thirty-three, what kind of life is that—you have no responsibilities. Why don’t you work?’” says Magno. “You lose your identity when you don’t have to earn money, you know what I mean? Everything he owns, his parents gave him. I never heard him say ‘I want to do my own thing.’ When you get used to the easy life, it’s hard to go out there. I don’t think he appreciated what he had.”
He loved the Dodgers. He attended many games each season. His father regularly called him from the road. In his office at Dodger Stadium, the father kept a photograph of Tommy on his desk.
Tommy loved the world of the Dodgers. He loved the players. To friends who were curious about his relationship with his father’s team—and all of them were—he said it was great. He told Spheeris they were a turn-on.
“He was a good, sensitive kid,” says Dusty Baker, now a coach with the San Francisco Giants. “There was an article one time. Tommy said I was his favorite player because we used to talk music all the time. He loved black female artists. He turned me on to Linda Clifford. He loved Diana Ross. He loved Thelma Houston.
“Some of the guys kidded me. Not for long. Some of the guys would say stuff—you know how guys are—but most were pretty cool. That’s America. Everybody’s not going to be cool. Most people aren’t going to be. Until they have someone close to them afflicted. Which I have.”
Baker spent last Christmas Eve distributing turkey dinners with the Shanti Foundation, an AIDS-education group in California.
“There are a lot of opinions about Tom junior, about how [his father] handled his relationship with his son,” says Steve Garvey, who more than anyone was the onfield embodiment of Dodger Blue. “Everyone should know that there is this Tom [senior] who really loved his son and was always there for him. The two loving parents tried to do as much for him as he chose to let them do…Junior chose a path in life, and that’s his prerogative. That’s every individual’s right.”
Garvey attended the memorial service for Alan Wiggins, his former teammate on the San Diego Padres, who died of an AIDS-related illness last year, after a seven-year career in the majors.
“He was a teammate, we always got along well, he gave me one hundred percent effort, played right next to me. I think the least you can do, when you go out and play in front of a million people and sweat and pull muscles and bleed and do that as a living, when that person passes away, is be there. It’s the right thing to do.”
Garvey was the only major league baseball player at Wiggins’s service. I ask him if he was surprised that he was alone.
“Not too much surprises me in life anymore,” Garvey says.
In the mid-1980s, Tommy’s style of life changed. It may have been because he learned that he had contracted the human immunodeficiency virus. According to Alex Magno, he knew he was infected for years before his death. It may have been that he simply grew weary of the scene. It may have been that he grew up.
He entered a rehabilitation program. He became a regular at the Voight gym, attending classes seven days a week. Henry Siegel, the Voight’s proprietor, was impressed by Tommy’s self-assurance and generosity. Tommy moved out of his West Hollywood place into a new condo in Santa Monica, on a quiet, neat street a few blocks from the beach—an avenue of trimmed lawns and stunning gardens displayed beneath the emerald canopies of old and stalwart trees. “T. L. Jr.” reads the directory outside the locked gate; beyond it, a half-dozen doorways open onto a carefully tiled courtyard. The complex also features Brooke Shields on its list of tenants.
He was a quiet tenant, a thoroughly pleasant man. He had a new set of friends—whom he regaled, in his best raconteurial fashion, with tales of the past.
“Tommy used to tell us incredible stuff about how he used to be…everything he’d done—drugs, sleeping with women, sleeping with men,” says Magno.
“He went through the homosexual thing and came out of it,” Magno continues. “Gay was the thing to be back when he first came to L.A. Tommy used to tell his friends he had been gay. He didn’t pretend. He let people know he had been this wild, crazy guy who had changed. He was cool in that. When you got to meet him, you got to know everything about him.”
Including that he slept with guys?
“Yes. But…he didn’t want to admit he had AIDS because people would say he was gay.”
This apparent contradiction surfaces regularly in the tale of Tommy Lasorda.
“I think he wanted to make his father happy,” says his Oscar Wilde. “But he didn’t know how to. He wanted to be more macho but didn’t know how to. He wanted to please his dad. He wished he could have liked girls. He tried.”
No one who knew Tommy in the seventies and the early eighties recalls him having a steady romantic relationship. Pinkowski remarks on the asexual nature of the masks his friend kept donning—and about how his friend kept some sides of himself closed off. “He’d never talk about being gay. He’d never reveal himself that way. He’d never say anything about anybody that way.”
“Of course he was gay,” says Jeff Kleinman, the manager of a downtown restaurant who used to travel the same club circuit as Lasorda in the early eighties. “No, I never saw him with another guy as a couple. [But] just because a man doesn’t have a date doesn’t mean he isn’t gay! To say he wasn’t gay would be like saying Quentin Crisp isn’t gay. How could you hide a butterfly that was so beautiful?”
“Please,” says his Oscar Wilde. “He was gay. He was gay. He was gay.”
“Gay,” of course, is not a word that describes sexual habits. It speaks of a way of living. No one interviewed for this story thought that Tommy wasn’t gay; reactions to his father’s denial range from outrage and incredulity to laughter and a shake of the head. Former major league umpire Dave Pallone, who revealed his own homosexuality in an autobiography two years ago, knows the father well, and also knew his son.
“Tommy senior is, as far as I’m concerned, a tremendous man,” says Pallone. “I consider him a friend. I have a lot of empathy for what he’s going through. [But] as far as I’m concerned, I don’t think he ever accepted the fact that his son was a gay man. I knew him to be a gay man, and I knew a lot of people who knew him as a gay man.
“We don’t want to be sexual beings. We just want to be human beings.”
“If nothing else, his father should be proud that he repented,” Alex Magno says. “He’d come a long way—denying what he used to be, so happy with what he’d become.”
I tell him his father denies the illness.
“He died of AIDS,” Magno says. “There’s no question. But what difference does it make? He was a good man. He was a great man. You shouldn’t judge. He had had no sex for a long time. We didn’t know how he could do that. I mean…but he was incredible. He gave up everything. That’s what he said, and there was no reason not to believe him. He was totally like a normal man. He was still feminine—that gets in your system—but there was no lust after men.”
In the last two years of his life, Tommy’s illness took its toll on his looks. He was not ashamed. though. The surface self-assurance remained. One night, he made an entrance into Rage—thinner, not the old Tommy, but acting every bit the part. He still showed up at Dodger Stadium, too, with his companion, a woman named Cathy Smith, whom Tom senior said was Tommy’s fiancée. When he did, he was as elegant and debonair as ever: wide-brimmed hats, tailored suits.
“Nobody in their right mind is going to say it’s not difficult—I know how difficult it is for them to try and understand their son,” Dave Pallone says. “And to accept the fact he’s not with them and what the real reason is. But…here was a chance wasted. The way you get rid of a fear is by attacking it…Can you imagine if the Dodgers, who are somewhat conservative, could stand up and say, ‘We understand this is a problem that needs to be addressed…We broke down the barriers from the beginning with Jackie Robinson. Why can’t we break down the barriers with the AIDS epidemic?’”
A close friend who was with Tommy the day before his death vehemently disagrees.
“If his father has to accept his son’s death right now in that way, let him do it,” she says. “If he can’t accept things yet, he may never be able to..but what good does it do? [Tom's] world is a different world. We should all do things to help, yes, but at the same time, this is a child who someone’s lost. Some people have the fortitude, but they simply don’t have the strength…There comes a point, no matter how public they may be, [at which] we need to step back and let them be. You can’t force people to face what they don’t want to face without hurting them.”
“There’s something wrong with hiding the truth,” Penelope Spheeris says. “It’s just misplaced values. It is a major denial. People need to know these things. Let’s get our values in the right place. That’s all.”
“I’m in a position where I can help people, so I help people,” Tom Lasorda says. We are strolling through the night in Dodgertown, toward the fantasy-camp barbecue. “You don’t realize the enjoyment I got with those nuns in that convent. I can’t describe how good that made me feel.”
I ask him what his dad would say if he were alive.
“I think he’d have been so proud of me. My father was the greatest man.”
He tells me that his winters are so busy with appearances that “you wouldn’t believe it.” I ask him why he doesn’t slow down.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I like to help people. I like to give something back.”
On Valentine’s Day, 1991, Eugene Pinkowski’s phone rang. It was Tommy. His voice was weak.
“He was typical Tommy. He was really noble about it. He was weak, you could tell. I was so sad. He said, in that voice, ‘I’m sure you’ve read that I’m dying. Well, I am.’
“Then he said, ‘Thank you for being so nice to me during my lifetime.’ He said, ‘I want to thank you, because you made me look good.’”
On June 3, 1991, with his parents and his sisters at his bedside, in the apartment on the cool, flower-strewn street, Tommy Lasorda died.
His memorial service was attended by Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles. Pia Zadora sang “The Way We Were,” one of Tommy junior’s favorite songs.
Tom Lasorda asked that all donations go to the Association of Professional Ball Players of America, a charity that helps former ballplayers in need.
In the coffee shop in Pasadena, it is late morning, and Eugene Pinkowski is lingering, remembering. His Tommy portfolio is spread across the table. Tommy is smiling at us from a hundred pictures.
I ask Eugene if Tommy would have wanted this story written.
“Are you kidding?” he says. “If there’s any sort of afterlife, Tommy is looking down and cheering. This is something he wanted. To be remembered like this. He’d be in heaven.”
First, the obvious answer to the obvious question: Yes, Tommy was livid when it was published. Tracked me down in a motel in Indiana, screamed over the phone, talked of how he thought we were friends, although our relationship had consisted of a half-dozen interviews over the years in which I quoted him and presented him in my newspaper exactly as he wanted to be presented, which did not cleave to my idea of friendship. On the other hand, as a father, I was torn. Did I have a right to go against a father’s wishes? To display for all of the world to see a part of his son he didn’t want seen? Especially since the more I reported, the more obvious it became that this was a love story about a father and a son? But ultimately, on balance, I had no choice. I had to adhere to what Penelope Spheeris had referred to: values.
The first time I saw Tommy Jr. was a decade earlier. He was on the field during BP. Assuming he was a woman, I asked a writer, “Who’s that?”
“That’s Tommy’s son,” he said.
“Really? That’s incredible. Who’s written the best piece about this?”
No one had. Not a single Los Angeles writer, seeing the diaphanous beauty on the field, talking to his father, Mister Baseball, had seen fit to explore it. By the time I joined GQ‘s staff, the plague had blown up. I had visited a friend at St. Vincent’s who was in the terminal stages of an HIV-related illness, and smuggled in a chocolate milkshake from McDonald’s for him, and fed it to him, but he couldn’t keep it down. I could never get the image out of my mind. Then I reported, and reported, and wrote and rewrote—and took note that all Tommy Sr. had spoken of was how the son’s death had affected him and his wife, and not of his kid, and how difficult it must have been to be one thing to himself, and something else to please his dad—and waited, and waited, and finally, the death certificate I’d asked for from the county arrived in the mail, and I knew what I had to do.
There was a plague, and it was gutting the arts world in my city, and it needed to be cured, and quickly. Expecting the father to ask that donations go to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis? That would have been too much. But what if Tommy Sr., one of the most highly visible men in all of professional sports in those days, had simply acknowledged his son’s sexuality and his cause of death? It could have saved more lives than we can ever know.
Ultimately, I wrote the piece confident that it would advance the cause. I was wrong. Two decades later? No vaccine. More locker-room enlightenment about gays in sports? Despite current events, ultimately, no. In corporate sportsworld, talking the talk is very different from walking the walk. As a for-profit goliath, fed by young men who learn homophobia at an early age, governed by men who were themselves raised in a primitive society, Big Sport’s seeds of gender-preference bias have been sown very, very deeply, and uprooting them is going to take more than a story or two and more than a handful of men who come out every few years. It’s going to take loud voices and even louder fury. It’s funny that Tommy cites Magic, isn’t it? The man who earlier this month spoke so wonderfully of his pride in his gay son? I couldn’t help wondering what Tommy Sr. thought when heard about how Magic was so supportive of his son. I wonder if he even listened.
“The truest thing in the world was that you showed who you were writing a column. He said that at his lectures, and they always took that to mean politics or how you feel about the death penalty. Which had nothing to do with it. There were as many dick shrivelers that wanted to ban nuclear sites and love their brother as there were that wanted to bomb Russia. It was almost incidental, what you had for issues. But how you saw things, how physical things went into your eyes and what your brain took and what it threw back, that told who you were.”
—From Pete Dexter’s first novel, God’s Pocket (1983)
Our man Dexter was a legendary newspaper columnist in Philadelphia and then in Sacramento from the late 1970s through the mid-’80s, but unless you lived in those towns at the time or unless you hung out in the microfilm room of your local library, it was nearly impossible to track down his work. Dexter has written seven novels—the third one, Paris Trout, won the National Book Award—and they are all in print. But until Dexter’s old friend, Rob Fleder, a longtime magazine (Esquire, Playboy, Sports Illustrated) and book editor, had the notion to compile Dexter’s journalism, some of his greatest work remained unavailable to us.
What follows was put together from several recent phone conversations with Pete.
Bronx Banter: What kind of reporter were you when you began?
Pete Dexter: I didn’t have a specialty or anything. I was kind of looked on as a guy who could write. I was a careful writer and a careless reporter. Reporting is a talent but it’s also just a matter of rolling up your sleeves. A guy like Bob Woodward didn’t get where he is by being charming or having a way with people I don’t think. He just did it by following all the rules and taking things as far as they could be humanly taken. That wasn’t what I wanted to do. I knew that early on. I didn’t get any satisfaction out of breaking a story. It just didn’t appeal to me.
BB: You started in the Watergate Era when Woodward and Bernstein made the whole idea of being a reporter something else, a star.
PD: Yeah, all of a sudden kids were going to journalism school so they could take down a president. It was a passing fad, I guess, but it lasted ten years anyway. You used to call them “serious young journalists.” You sign up for that, and…if you don’t have your heart in it, if that’s not compulsive in you, if you don’t feel like you have to do it, you’re probably not going to be much of a reporter. Early on I recognized that I was going to have to come from some other direction. On the other hand, I loved being part of the newspaper, I loved that feeling when big stories were breaking, though it wasn’t me that broke them.
BB: And you didn’t have a need to be that guy.
PD: No, I never wanted to be Hoag Levins, who worked for the Philadelphia Daily News. Hoag would put on black face and army fatigues and crawl up to Mayor Rizzo’s house and come away with how much the doorknobs cost and then try to figure how a guy who’d made a living as a police chief and mayor could afford an expensive house. He was wildly ambitious and he was a really good guy. But eventually he made a couple of mistakes and then something got him tripped up—I can’t even remember what it was now—some story he got wrong. They had to fire him. And that would not have been done easily cause you couldn’t help but like him and admire his energy.
BB: Was there a part of reporting, even before you had the column, the part where you’d just go out and talk to people, that you liked? Were you interested in people?
PD: Yeah, not so much for the newspaper. I used to drive around a lot in this old Jeep and I’d see somebody doing something interesting and I’d always pull off the road and go talk to them. That’s been something I’ve always done. And sometimes you hear some real strange stuff. Other times people just won’t talk to you, and that’s OK.
BB: So your natural curiosity helped you.
PD: It wasn’t a conscious thing. I’ve always loved stories. If you’re patient enough there are more people than you’d ever guess that have stories. It wasn’t deliberate but that’s what my stuff’s always been about: It’s about stories.
BB: Had you thought about wanting to have a column even before Gil Spencer arrived at the paper?
PD: That had been in my head. It was the only job outside of running the paper that I wanted. And they were not going to let me run the paper, that was pretty obvious.
BB: Did you get along with your editors?
PD: All the problems I’ve had with management, and they have been legion, were with people that feel the necessity to control you or put their two cents in. This started when I was a reporter. There’s that city editor, assistant city editor, sometimes the managing editor, that certain class of people, as part of their job they feel an obligation to change things just so that they have their own imprint on it somehow. And that’s where the rub comes because if you say, “That’s silly, that doesn’t make sense and here’s why…” you are no longer questioning their editing but you’ve confronted their power, their position. And once that starts, once you let them know you’re not just on their side, that’s where the problems always come from. At least with me. I never enjoyed the confrontations, certainly not as much as I’ve been given credit for, but that’s what it always was about. Power. My thought was you can be the nighttime assistant city editor for the rest of your life and I don’t care, you don’t have anything I want, just leave me alone.
BB: They weren’t about making the piece better necessarily.
PD: I never worked for anybody I looked up to as a writer but I worked for a lot of people that I looked up to as a newspaper guy, and if those people said something, I listened. But the ones who knew what they were doing knew enough to leave me alone in what I did, and if I stepped over a line in their world then not only was I glad for the criticism—if they’d caught some mistake that kept me from being embarrassed again—I was always grateful for that. I didn’t have a sense that if I wrote it it has to be right.
BB: Before you started a column, what columnists did you read, either in Philadelphia or around the country? Not so much that you wanted to emulate them necessarily but who got you interested in the form.
PD: This is hard to explain but when I came to Philly I was in my early thirties. I came out of Florida and had been in the newspaper business on-and-off for about two years and I didn’t know what a newspaper column was. I hadn’t read Breslin or Pete Hamill or Mike Royko. I didn’t know what they did. There were two columnists at the News when I got here, Tom Fox who wrote a column on Page Two, and Larry McMullen, who recently died. McMullen would go out in the street, hear these stories, and write them. He was from South Philadelphia and he was of that time and of that place and of that paper and I’ve never seen a better fit for a paper. When I saw that he was writing stories, that’s when I wanted to do it. He was writing five times a week and when I started I was doing that too—went to four and then to three.
BB: Did you get to know McMullen well?
PD: Oh, yeah, McMullen and I were old friends. I never felt any rivalry. The other guy, Tom Fox, was one of these little guys who walks around … someone called him the best columnist in the country—someone is always saying something like that about you—and he believed it. He’d write about some shooting and he was throwing in tough guy talk like, “He blew the faggot away.” I remember someone wrote a letter to the editor and said, “Who’s really the faggot?” And some criticism of Fox came in that letter. He was just outraged. That was pretty funny to see, at least to me. Those are two perfect examples for someone who wanted to be a columnist—I saw exactly the kind of columnist I wanted to be and the kind I didn’t want to be. It’s good to have one of each.
BB: Did Spencer give you the columnist job or did you have a test run, first?
PD: There was a little time there that I wrote one or two a week when I was still a reporter. That was a short period of time, I can’t tell you how long, a couple of months. But once he gave me a taste of it I was even harder to deal with on the city desk. There was this guy Zach Stalberg who later ran the paper and who is really a good guy, the kind of guy you’d want running your newspaper if you couldn’t have Spencer. Gil made Stalberg the city editor and a couple of months later he became the managing editor. But his present to Stalberg was giving me the column so I was no longer his responsibility. When I started the column if anyone had any problems with me they went straight to Spencer and that was good for everybody. Yeah, I think everybody was happy the way that worked out.
BB: Was it a big transition for you?
PD: It was an avalanche of sudden work. You go from the city desk where someone tells you, “Go interview the widow of this guy who just got shot,” and so you go to the movies and come back and say, “She wasn’t there,” to having to do a story every day. It was more than a small change. If you are a reporter and you’re not a good reporter there are places to hide. You can do all kinds of stuff to avoid producing. But if that column space is yours and you’ve got to fill it by definition you’ve got to fill it. That was good for everybody, too. First of all, it made me a better reporter.
BB: How so?
PD: You come to realize when you’re writing a column that the best columns—the very best ones come off your head—but if you are going to do it three times a week, some of those days you go talk to real people and by the time you get back the column writes itself. I’m thinking about that column in the book [Paper Trails] about the guy in Camden who found the head in the bag. You drive 10 minutes over to Camden, talk to this guy for half an hour, and yeah, I got lucky that day, but that was exactly what a newspaper column is supposed to be. And it was just handed to you. By that time I could write well enough the words were just there, the story was there. And that sort of thing, when it worked, was what a column was about. Most of my better columns were about that, going to actually talk to somebody.
BB: The great sport columnist Red Smith didn’t think of himself as a columnist but as a reporter.
PD: Yeah, that’s right.
BB: You said earlier that you’d drive around, stop the car, and talk to a guy. When you were doing the column, did you force yourself even more to do that because you thought, hey, I’ve got to have something to write about today?
PD: When you’re writing a column, your first question when you look at things are: Is this a column? But if I saw something interesting I’d still want to go ask about it. I’m still like that. I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve talked to who are on skateboards. Just ask them how they do what they’re doing and stuff like that. In a way, I kind of believe that thing of, there are no stupid questions, although God knows I get asked a lot of them. But to me, if you don’t know something and you’ve wondered about it, why not find out?
BB: Did you ever come across something that you found interesting but felt was too big to be a column?
PD: Yeah, but you could usually turn it into a three-part column or write about the same thing for three days. Sometimes that couldn’t be done and yeah it’d be a size you couldn’t handle.
BB: Did you talk to Spencer or anyone else about what you were going to write about beforehand?
PD: No. Good Christ. No.
BB: Did you ever junk one? Or just go with something you didn’t think was that good?
PD: You can write a letters column, you can find something else to do when it’s not going your way but that didn’t happen very often. What you really need is your voice being there three times a week.
BB: How long did it take to develop your voice or style?
PD: The voice was there from the get-go. That goes back to basic writing. If you’re thinking about developing your voice you’re thinking about the wrong things. That should just be—
BB: Like your speaking voice—
PD: You don’t want to be conscious of it. It just happens, at least that’s the way I think. Jeez, I’m looking at my dog outside and he’s taking like the third crap of the last two hours. … Probably shouldn’t have given him that pork chop. We have a rule against giving them pork. Shit.
BB: Kosher, huh?
BB: What about subject matter? Did you ever think, Oh, I’ve written three heavy pieces so far this week; I want to change it up with something light?
PD: No. Whatever came. Once, early on in my column writing, I wrote a piece, I can’t remember what it was about exactly, a guy’d lost his cat and I talked to him for a little while. A guy from one of the neighborhoods. When you write a column you get your detractors. And I got a letter from someone who said that I ripped off a Hemingway short story, where that was a line, something “and the fact that cats that can take care of themselves was all he had.” And I had. Christ knows it wasn’t conscious. I went back and looked at the story. It absolutely looked intentional and it wasn’t. It wasn’t enough on the nose where anyone could say it was plagiarism or anything but the idea of it, I sure could see why the guy said what he said. That’s the only time something like that ever happened to me. And I don’t to this day know … I know that it wasn’t intentional. I really can’t say much more about it but it was there and the idea was behind a short story that Hemingway had written and one that I’d read in college.
BB: Did you write back to the guy?
PD: Probably talked to him. I called people, I didn’t write letters much. There wasn’t much to say, really. But he did have a point. So when years later I heard that Doris Kearns Goodwin was accused of plagiarism … I guess all I’m saying is that I’ve got some sympathy. When you’re writing enough, when you’re writing everyday something like that can creep into your stuff without knowing you’re really doing it. I know it was only once and nobody ever mentioned anything else. But it bothered me.
BB: Did you read the letters that were sent to you by readers?
PD: Read them? Sure.
BB: Did you enjoy them?
PD: Eh, when they were funny. Twenty a day was a big day, six letters a day was predictable. Some were funny. Sometimes they had stories and that could be valuable. But most of the time they were either agreeing with you and disagreeing with you and who cares?
BB: You ever wake up and say, “I got nothing?”
PD: No. There’s always something. I took it fairly seriously but I was always doing enough stuff. If something funny wasn’t going on or something interesting wasn’t going on I could usually do something bad enough that I could write about it the next day.
BB: In your own life?
PD: Yeah. I ended up with an FBI guy at a bar one night and I bet him that I could throw a case of beer across Pine Street. The cops showed up. So you had the cops and the FBI guy and me and everyone from Dirty Frank’s out there in the street and it looked like a riot … and that makes a nice little column.
BB: You said earlier that other than running the paper writing a column was the only job you wanted. After two or three years of doing the column, did you feel like you’d found your calling, were you happy with it?
PD: Yeah, I was happy but I didn’t feel like that was it. I would have been probably a lot better off, if you call what I did a career—whatever this is—if I’d devoted myself entirely to that space in the Philly Daily News or gone to New York or stayed with newspapers. I would have definitely been a better newspaper columnist. And who knows, you have to do what makes you happy at the time. I don’t regret any of that. I don’t regret not being in newspapers but there are sure days when I miss it.
BB: The immediacy of it?
PD: I don’t know. I just liked being in the city room, I liked the people I worked with—some of them anyway. It was just nice. You’re—
BB: Part of something.
PD: And an important part of it and that makes a difference.
BB: Writing a column sounds a whole less solitary than writing novels.
PD: Oh, yeah. There’s no comparison.
BB: Did you write the column at home or go in to the paper?
PD: No, I went into the paper every day. If I didn’t have a column the next day, I went in anyway just to see what was going on.
BB: So it was a social thing, then.
PD: Oh, yeah. I couldn’t help it.
BB: Was it like a locker room?
PD: Yeah. I was always kind of working. I mean, I didn’t write a column every day but I always went in to see what’s going on and that’s work in a way. Yeah, I just liked being around those people, I liked to see what people were doing. Some of them I still think about to this day and wish I had contact with. There were a bunch of real good reporters.
BB: Do you keep in touch with any of them?
PD: There was a guy named Bob Fowler at the Inky [the Philadelphia Inquirer] that I still talk to once in a while and when I go back there I look up a guy named Gehringer, Dan Gehringer, he’s a real good writer, who I knew from back in Florida. But for the most part, no. No, I really don’t, that’s the truth.
BB: Did you hang out and have drinks with copy editors and reporters?
PD: Eh, not too much. Once in a while, a drink with somebody. For most of that time I wasn’t in the bars at all once that thing happened in South Philadelphia, that’s when I started writing novels and I didn’t have the time or inclination for the bars anymore.
BB: When you were doing the column did you then start to read other guys like Breslin or Hamill?
PD: I’d see Breslin’s stuff and Hamill’s stuff once in awhile. A guy like Breslin, he was a columnist. And that was in spite of the The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. That’s what he was. And he never was much good at anything else that I know of.
BB: You’ve said before that you never had ambition to write novels, but after the first three, you were still writing the column. Did writing fiction inform the nature of how you wrote the column?
PD: No, I don’t think so. I’d just sort of get up and do what was in front of me that day.
BB: Did you ever go to the office to work on a novel?
PD: No, I couldn’t do that there. That’s a separate deal. I was never conscious of anything going on intentionally. It’s a funny thing to say. Every place I ever went I stumbled into accidentally. Maybe one thing led to another but not intentionally.
BB: So you didn’t have a grand plan?
PD: At some point I decided I was done with newspapers but …
BB: Yeah, before that: What was it like leaving Philly and going to the Sacramento Bee?
PD: Oh, fuck, it was the worst thing I ever did professionally. I went there because the guy that ran the paper was an old friend of mine. I’d rather not get into that, but the whole place smacked of an office environment, a business environment. I wasn’t there that long, but when I left they asked me to continue to write up in Washington State where I lived but you can’t be a local columnist and not be local. And the truth is when you’re writing well, the only columnists are local columnists. National columnists are something different. There aren’t as many stories. It’s more reports and views. Where the best columns are just there, they’re just stories. For me, anyway.
BB: In order to be a good columnist to you need to have a basic sense of outrage about things?
PD: I think different guys do it different ways. It’d just wear me out to go in the office every day outraged. And you shouldn’t do that now that I think about it because that ruins the taste for when something real comes along. You can’t go at it like one of these television guys who every night has some breaking news about how bad Obama’s fucked up or something. When you’re always outraged, it’s like the boy that cried wolf and it’s too much. It can be entertaining for someone who is reading the paper for the first time but if all you get from that space is outrage pretty soon nobody believes it, I don’t think. And if it does it appeals to people who are outraged by nature and want to be outraged more.
BB: So everything changed for you as a columnist once you Philly.
PD: It was never the same. I mean, Philadelphia is probably the best place of them all to write a newspaper column. The place is so rich. I missed that. And the paper was so open to what I had to offer, way more than any other paper in the country would have been. And Spencer was such a good guy about it. I don’t think there was a better place to work than the Philadelphia Daily News. And I left it … for reasons that don’t make any sense to me now. I left it ’cause it was time to do something else, I guess. But if I was going to stay in newspapers I’d made a terrible mistake.
BB: You were a columnist for about a decade. Are there guys that get better after 15 years or do they create a persona and then there’s a cap for how far you can go?
PD: Oh, no, you can get better. If you have initiative, if your interest is in the paper and the stories themselves, if you’re a newspaperman in your heart, you continue to get better and love it. I think at the center of things, as much fun as it was for me, I wanted to do something else.
BB: Why does it sound like you have regret about it?
PD: I’m just sorry because it was so much fun. There’s good things and bad things about anywhere but there was an awful lot of good things about that place, Philadelphia. And in that way I’m sorry we left.
BB: When you go back, is it a different place?
PD: No. The paper’s not the same, I’ll tell you.
BB: It’s funny, you could have stayed at the paper and then you’d be going through all these cutbacks and changes.
PD: Oh, I’d be way more unhappy. I mean I get sad about it, I get melancholy about it, but don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t go back and change it.
PD: Not really. That’s an awful lot of writing for—it was an awful lot of work and in the end all you have is a magazine story. As much as I like stopping along the road and talking to somebody I don’t like invading their lives, which is what you need to do. You have to spend a couple of weeks around Jim Brown to begin to get anything. I’ve been on the other side of it, having a guy hanging around me taking notes, and I don’t like it. And I don’t like doing it to someone else for that reason.
BB: How is newspaper reporting different?
PD: You can’t hang around them at all, really. I mean, Christ, I don’t know how many columns I wrote about Randall Cobb and his quest to be the champion of the world but Cobb and I would have been friends anyway. That was a sure-fire column at least once a month, sometimes more than that.
BB: There’s a funny Cobb story about a rental car in Paper Trails. The four columns you wrote on Cobb during the week he fought Larry Holmes in Houston for the heavyweight championship aren’t in the book but I really like them. They were so emotional.
PD: Yeah, it was a sad time.
BB: Because of the Holmes fight?
PD: Yeah, it’s hard to watch somebody realize the dream of his life is never going to happen and he’s doing everything he can and it’s … you know, you really have to set your mind to do something like that. In the first place, you have to lie to yourself all the time. And then to see it all spilled out in front of you like it was, that it wasn’t going to happen … it was sad. He really tried hard.
PD: No, that went beyond … that wasn’t guilty. I felt bad about it but he and I’d been through so much other stuff, and it just, um, what was going on between me and Randall was a lot closer to—I don’t want to say brotherhood, exactly—but we’d been … no, I didn’t feel guilty about it. But I wasn’t one of the guys … I mean, there was 5,000 people in Philadelphia thinking they’re Randall Cobb’s best friend. Because he was nice to everybody and he would tell people stuff and they would go around thinking that he’d told them something real. But he and I were friends in a different way than that. I understood and he understood exactly what happened that night.
BB: What exactly was that?
PD: No, it’s too complicated. I can’t go into that anymore than I already have 2,000 times because there’s something at the bottom of it between Cobb and me, something that if I tried to go back and explain it, it all just washes over me again. He’s just so … like I said, those were such sad times in the way that I mentioned. What you’re asking about is going into a place that I don’t talk about with anybody. It’s private in some way between me and Cobb in a way that probably doesn’t lend itself very well to words.
BB: Shit, I’m sorry if I made you uneasy even asking about it.
PD: No, it’s alright. I’d gotten hit that night in the bar and I was unconscious. It’s just … that moment when I wake up and Cobb was the only guy there and I wanted to get him—something happened there between us that I’ve not, something I can’t revisit easily, let’s put it that way. But don’t feel bad about asking me, that’s what you’re supposed to do.
BB: Did you guys stay close after the Holmes fight?
PD: Yeah. I mean, he’d started moving away before he fought Holmes. About a month before he fought Holmes he disappeared for a while. I don’t know where he was training but I couldn’t get through to him. He got rid of his manager and his trainer and showed up with a different guy at the fight. And those people were … I mean, everybody was after Cobb as a meal ticket. Money was what they all wanted. He’d been carrying a hundred people around on his back forever, y’know, being everybody’s best friend. If he had $10 and somebody asked him for it, he gave it to them. Whatever he had they could have and he was always like that. And it finally, I think it got to be too much. Christ, he didn’t care what he signed, contracts and shit like that, he never paid any attention to that. He and I kind of lost touch for a while but you don’t give up what you feel about somebody like that.
BB: So when you and Rob Fleder went through the material for Paper Trails did you read tons of columns that you’d forgotten about?
PD: Oh sure. And I’m sure there were tons more than Fleder passed on I still haven’t seen or remember. You got to remember it’s more than a thousand columns, at least. It’s kind of like finding an old diary or something.
BB: Did you enjoy reading through them?
PD: Uh, sort of. Fleder did the work. Fleder’s the guy that read them all. He’s the reason the book is there. He’s absolutely as much a reason that book exists as I am. It’s a funny thing that makes you smile when you look at it. It was such a nice thing for him to do. It wasn’t like we were going to get rich or anything. God, it’s just the nicest thing you can do for somebody in a way. When I look back on the book, I think about Fleder and what a great thing that was to do for me.
BB: In Yiddish they call that a Mitzvah. A blessing.
BB: A nice thing to do.
PD: And that’s what this is, I guess. A mitz-vah.
You can buy Paper Trails here or download it for to your phone or tablet here. Source photo by Marion Ettlinger, from the back cover of Dexter’s fourth novel, Brotherly Love. Background photo via Getty.
HOUSTON – The tap on the door came at 6 o’clock in the morning. I knew it was 6 o’clock because there was a clock on the dresser, next to a copy of the Bible, and I’d been lying in bed since 2 o’clock looking at it.
The phone had rung all night, friends from Philly and Montana and Tennessee telling me that Howard Cosell had painted Randall Cobb as some kind of a freak of nature on national television.
I didn’t know what to say, except it would catch up with Howard later. I did mention that it was a measure of Howard’s depth that he has no trouble enunciating the bravery of television actors who compete, despite pulled muscles, in a tug of war in ” Battle of the Network Stars,” and couldn’t see any of that in staying in the ring with Larry Holmes for 15 rounds.
Yes, Randall took a pounding.
No, he didn’t quit. The only other man Holmes has failed to knock out since he became champion was Trevor Berbick, but – as Holmes would tell me later in the day – Berbick wasn’t fighting, he was just trying to survive. “Fifteen rounds, after all the shots,” Holmes would say, sounding like he was remembering it from a long time ago, “Cobb was still tryin’ to win the fight. He fought me harder than anybody. ”
I got up off the bed and opened the door. “I knew an ambitious young businessman like yourself would be an early riser,” he said, coming in. “All of us are early risers.” One of his eyes was swollen half shut, there were six small stitches in the lid of the other one. He sat down on the bed and looked out the window at the Astrodome. It was still raining in Houston, as far as I knew it always had been.
“Are you hurt?” I said. I’d walked with him back to the dressing room after the fight, but I left when he and his trainer George Benton started talking about the next one. I think a lot of George Benton, but I didn’t want to hear about any more fighting then.
“It looks a lot worse than it is,” he said. “I don’t know why, usually it’s worse than it looks. No, I’m fine, except my ears. “Randall always gets an ear infection after a fight. He hit himself on the side of his head, like a kid who has been in a swimming pool.
I said, “If something comes dripping out of there I’m going to lock myself in the bathroom.”
He smiled and looked at the television. I’d left it on, trying to sleep. It was a Kung Fu rerun, David Carradine remembering the advice of his old dime- eyed teacher on how to disarm a troop of drunk and insensitive American cavalry troops. “You must listen to the color of the sky,” he said,” and see the sound of the hummingbird’s wing. ”
“You think I need a blind trainer?” he said.
“He did have a right hand,” I said, meaning Holmes.
“I didn’t think it was that fast,” he said. He looked out the window again. “I didn’t think he was that good. It was like an advanced game of tag in there. “And then a few minutes later, “Larry is a bad bitch in a game of tag.”
There was a tiny, unstitched cut about an inch under his left eye, where so many of the right hands had landed, and as he spoke it leaked watery blood down his cheek. The cut must have gone all the way into a tear duct, and his face, on that side, was streaked with two long, bloody tears.
“Did I tell you about Hagerman, New Mexico?” he said. “Me and my brother Marty dug ditches there for the high school gymnasium one summer. The dirt was so hard you couldn’t dig it without a pick, the hottest dirt in the world. You couldn’t walk on it with bare feet. I know, I tried and Marty had to come save me, pick me up.
“And every morning three members of the city council were out there, looking down into the ditch where me and Marty were digging. It would be 102 degrees by 8 o’clock, going to 114. And the first one would always say, ‘Hot enough for you?’ and the second one would say, ‘Whatchu doin’? ‘
“And me and Marty were so competitive, we’d stand out there all day, tryin’ to see who could shovel more dirt, watchin’ each other so you could say, ‘Ha! I shoveled four of these while you only shoveled three. ‘And the water had the worst taste of anyplace I ever been. It was something in the ground, gave everybody in town gas. You can imagine what the town smelled like.
“And when me and Marty complained about the water, they always said, ‘You keep diggin’, and it’ll taste good.’” He dabbed at the blood on his face. ” The city council’s probably still there,” he said. “Gettin’ together right now over at the gym, and one of them says, ‘Hot enough for you?’ and the other one says, ‘Whatchu doin’?’ And they all stand around, passing the worst gas in North America, wondering how come the town doesn’t grow. ”
He looked back out the window again. I got some coffee and Cokes from room service, and we sat like that in the room until noon, talking about Larry Holmes’ right hand and Hagerson, New Mexico, and what could have been underneath it to make the dirt so hot and the water so bad.
At noon I had to leave to get a plane back to Philly. He said he was thinking of taking a look at Australia.
“Are you hurt?” I said.
He shook his head no. “It was just an advanced game of tag,” he said, “and Larry won.” A fresh bloody tear came out of the cut underneath his eye and worked its way down his face.
Here is third of four Dexter columns on the Cobb-Holmes fight (you can find the first two: here and here). This story is reprinted with the author’s permission.
By Pete Dexter
Friday, November 26, 1982
HOUSTON – Howard Cosell came through the hotel lobby yesterday morning, complaining about being away from his family at Thanksgiving. Randall Cobb’s fight with Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship of the world was clearly an inconvenience.
The news of Howard’s inconvenience was relayed to Randall through one of the national reporters also here to cover the fight. “Howard’s upset to be away from his family,” one of them said.
Randall looked up from under the hood of his boxing robe and nodded. “I know,” he said,” I got a thank-you note from his wife this morning. ”
That night, one of those reporters came to me in the hotel bar and asked when Randall was going to get serious. “He’s funny,” the reporter said,” everybody loves him, but when does he get ready? That’s Larry Holmes he’s got to fight, and Larry’s serious…”
Randall is serious.
He is as solid as I’ve ever seen him before a fight. There are no questions left in him, about himself or Holmes, and a kind of peace has set in that lets him smile at the distractions.
And the distractions aren’t just the prospects of fighting Larry Holmes. As Randall has become more valuable, more and more people have become interested in guiding his career.
As far as I know, there are two basic factions trying to eliminate each other from his affections, and factions within the factions trying to eliminate each other too. There are rumors of bugged rooms and spies and thieves.
The thieves, of course, are not rumors, they are facts.
There is serious trouble with the contract, which promoter Don King has amended because Randall showed up in Houston a week late – not for the fight, for publicity. King, of course, has been concerned enough about publicity to spend, oh, $20 on promotion, and allow the month of November to start without having set a final date for the fight.
His amendment is going to cost Randall several hundred thousand dollars.
Then there are reporters and television interviews and hundreds of people who want to touch Randall, or tell him something, or take pictures of their 3- year-old sons sitting on his lap. Everybody wants something.
And Randall sits alone and holds babies and signs autographs – and no matter how many times the people around him say, “We’re ready,” or ” We’re going to kill Holmes,” Randall is still going to step into the ring by himself – and he handles it.
Yes, he is serious.
And watching it happen, it occurs to me that I want something, too. I keep going back to the mornings at Mickey Rosati’s gym. Two or three mornings a week, Randall and I and Arthur Bourgeau used to meet there, and Randall would work three or four rounds with Arthur and then three or four rounds with me.
Work may be a little strong. He’d play with both of us, keeping enough pressure on to make it serious. In the end, I’d be too tired to take my own gloves off.
He’d wait until I felt better, and then we’d go over to the little coffee shop at 18th and McKean and read the newspapers or talk with Mickey, and for an hour or two nobody wanted anything from us. For an hour or two, it was peaceful.
And after that, everything else seemed easier. It was like a fresh start.
And sitting here on a rainy Thanksgiving Day in a hotel across the street from the Astrodome, I could use a fresh start. It’s all slow- motion now.
The old men and the sparring partners are always in the lobby, waiting forever. The line of people following Randall into the weigh-in seems longer than it was when he came in for interviews yesterday afternoon, more reporters come in by the hour. And across the street, the Astrodome is as gray as the sky, and it seems to hover there, always on the edge of your vision, like the fight itself.
And I wish that somehow we could go to Mickey Rosati’s gym tomorrow morning, and afterwards to the coffee shop, and sit there for an hour or two reading the papers, and have nobody wanting anything from any of us again.
And maybe then I could tell him what I have on my mind, that it doesn’t matter what happens against Larry Holmes, that the people who care for him don’t depend on him or what he does for who they are.
He already knows that, of course, but I wish I could say it anyway – not blurt it out, but just sit around until it came out – and let him know once, before it all changes, how happy it made me, the way it was.
Here’s the second of four columns by Pete Dexter on Randall Cobb’s championship fight against Larry Holmes. (The first one is here.) Reprinted with the author’s permission…
“Gifts Aren’t Everything”
By Pete Dexter
Wednesday, November 24, 1982
HOUSTON – On the last day of work before he meets Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship of the world, Randall Cobb sparred three rounds with a light heavyweight named Charlie Singleton and then spent 10 or 15 minutes jumping rope.
I can’t tell you exactly how long because Randall jumping rope is something I can’t make myself watch. I don’t know why, but rope doesn’t fit under his feet.
As Charlie Singleton says, “Maybe Tex don’t have all the natural gifts. He didn’t get no fast left hand like Larry, he didn’t get no bouncy legs. ”
But as Charlie Singleton also says, “Maybe he got some gifts that was more subtle, and maybe he got some gifts that he give himself.”
For natural gifts, all you have to do is look at the undercard for Friday’s fight. Greg Page versus James “Quick” Tillis. Leg speed, hand speed, reflexes. You can’t help thinking of the destruction Randall could do with that stuff. Tillis, as a matter of fact, not only jumps rope, he does rope tricks. In fact right after the workout, he lassoed Randall’s trainer and then Inquirer sports writer Thom Greer.
Quick Tillis always carries a pink lasso.
But impressive as that is, Quick Tillis gave away his shot against WBA heavyweight champion Mike Weaver last year when he got in the ring and refused to get close enough to Weaver to throw punches.
And Page took himself out of consideration for a championship fight about the same time, saying he wasn’t ready, and then proved it by losing to a Canadian named Trevor Berbick on the undercard of the Holmes/Gerry Cooney fight earlier this year.
Berbick doesn’t have even as many natural gifts as Randall.
So in boxing, like anyplace else, gifts aren’t everything, and the kind you give yourself are the ones that matter most, at least at this level.
Which is not to say Randall Cobb doesn’t have physical tools. He does, but – as Charlie Singleton puts it – they’re subtle. He is stronger than any heavyweight in the top 10, and he may have the best chin in the history of boxing. And while he doen’t have a single big punch, he is what is called heavy handed.
“Sometime you box with him a round or two, the punches don’t stun you,” Charlie said,” they just feel heavy. I mean like somebody put a weight on you every time they land. It don’t matter if it’s on the arm or the shoulder, it still has that weight.
“And you don’t think he’s hurt you, and then after ’bout four rounds, suddenly you can’t move no more. He throws that nice relaxed way, it don’t look like nothin’, and then suddenly it’s broke you up inside. ”
The reason Randall is fighting Larry Holmes, though, isn’t his chin and it isn’t his strength. He’s gotten where he is because he tries. “He got that heart,” Charlie said.
Holmes has some of that too. And one of the best jabs in history, and a good right hand. He doesn’t have anything that can take Randall out, though, and Randall won’t be waiting for him to set up and throw his punches. And Holmes has always needed time to set up.
And in the end that’s what it will come down to. Time and heart. And those aren’t things that you’re given, they are things that you make for yourself.
Holmes doesn’t believe Randall can throw 100 punches a round for more than four rounds.
Randall does believe it. And that is something he has given himself too. He believes he will win this fight, and he believes in things harder than other people do. I have known him a long time, and that’s the way he is.
He believes it now, and he will believe it going into the 10th round, or the 12th, or however long the fight goes. By that time Larry Holmes will have hit him with everything he can hit him with, he will have tried every trick he knows, and most of them will have worked.
And someplace in the fight – maybe deep into the fight – Holmes will begin to feel the weight of that belief, and finally, as Mr. Singleton says, he will realize he’s broke up inside.
And someplace in the fight, Larry Holmes will come to believe it too.