"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Banter Gold Standard

BGS: The Hippest Guy in the Room

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Not everyone gets Humphrey Bogart to play them in the movies. Harold Conrad did. In Mark Jacobson’s pitch-perfect story of the ultimate been-everywhere-done-everything knock-around guy, Conrad and a bygone era of gangsters, boxers, and movie stars are brought to life.

Jacobson has long been one of our finest magazine writers. He’s most famous for the stories that were the basis of the TV show Taxi and the movie American Gangster, as well as the brilliant profiles of Dr. J and Sonny Rollins. He called Conrad “a prince of a man, and a good friend” and this piece features Jacobson at his best. It’s featured in the essential collection Teenage Hipster in the Modern World. Originally published in Esquire in 1992, it appears here with the author’s permission.

Dig in, this is a treat.

The last time I saw Harold Conrad, he was lying in a hospital bed wearing dark sunglasses. Leave it to Harold to stake out a small territory of cool amid the fluorescent lighting, salt-free food, and stolid nurses bearing bedpans. The results were in by then, a tale told in black shadows on X-ray transparencies: one in the lung, the other in the head. But Harold always had an angle, and even now, a step from death, the cancer throughout his 80-year-old body, he sought an edge.

He motioned me closer, rasped into my ear, “Did you bring a joint?”

A few weeks later, after Harold died, I told this story at a memorial service. It got a laugh. Several of Harold’s old friends were there, telling Harold Conrad stories. Norman Mailer recalled the evening Harold once saved his life. Mailer was drunk that night, he didn’t notice the television set falling off the shelf above him, hardly even saw Harold, stronger than he looked, snatch the machine out of midair.

“Harold Conrad preserved half my head,” Mailer said.

Budd Schulberg (author of What Makes Sammy Run?) talked about a wild week in Dublin, where Harold found himself promoting a Muhammad Ali fight and how everyone lost money when the crowd stormed the gates because, people said, “It is an insult to ask an Irishman to pay to see a fight.” Bill Murray recollected a particularly gelatinous massage and steam bath procedure Harold once directed him to. “I was trapped. Melting away. Soon I would be a wet spot on the floor. And I said: I used to be somebody before I met this Harold Conrad.” These stories got laughs, which was only right. Harold would never tolerate a wake that didn’t turn into a celebration; that would go double for his own.

You could say this about Harold Conrad, newspaperman, superflack, friend to bard and bozo, custodian of a bygone age—he went out on his forever-bent shield. It was Harold’s life mission: to be in his own particular vision of the right place at the right time.

Like just two months before he died, when we were in Vegas.

Harold had been to Vegas before, of course, about 9 million times. In fact, along with almost every other bit of semi-off-brand action worth a tumble in this hot-breathed century of ours, Harold Conrad was in Vegas at the beginning, before they even threw the switch on the first neon sign. Ground-floor kind of guy, Harold. It was Bugsy Siegel (Ben to you) who got him out to the desert back in ’48, when the Strip was nothing but a dusty two-lane highway between here and L.A.

“I need you. Today,” Siegel summoned. In the way of Aeneas, Bugs was possessed by a revelatory calling to found a great city. His Flamingo Hotel, all pink and heat-waved in the sun’s blare, was ready to open, and he needed a mouthpiece, a PR sharpie to sling his ink, say how wholesome and all-American the slots and hookers were going to be. Harold had the bona fides. He’d handled the publicity for Meyer Lansky and the boys in Florida when they bought the Broward County sheriff and ran a Colonial Inn-cum-gambling joint down near Lauderdale in ’47; he was wise as to what to put in the papers and what to keep out, how to smooth over the rough spots.

There was the time Harold helped the boys, fixing that dicey scene with Walter Winchell. Winchell was on a gangbusters kick, making noise in his column about blowing Lansky’s whole operation. Winchell was big, you couldn’t muscle him. No one knew what to do until Harold, just out of the Air Force’s 101 Bomber Command, was riding in the car with Meyer, Frank Costello, and Joe Adonis. Never shy, Harold told the mobsters they had it wrong if they thought they could get tough with Winchell. The columnist was a royal prick, but he had this soft spot for Damon Runyon, who was dying at the time. A five-thousand-dollar check to the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund, of which Winchell was the chairman, would help, Harold suggested. It did, too, but a well-placed word that a cute little number from Kansas City—whom Winchell had been known to eyeball—was working in the Colonial chorus line didn’t hurt either.

But the truth was, Harold didn’t really care to work for gangsters, which is why he turned down Bugsy Siegel. “Can’t help you,” Harold said to Siegel as the gangster showed him around the Flamingo’s best suite, the one with the escape chutes in the closets and steel shutters on the windows. “I’m a writer. This PR stuff’s on the side.”

“You can be a writer, too. I own Hollywood,” Bugs said. “That’s no problem.”

Great, Harold thinks, that’s all I need: to show up in Zanuck’s office with my typewriter and say, “Bugsy sent me.” Again he refuses. So Siegel shakes his head and says all right, if Harold doesn’t want the job, that’s good enough for him. That’s Harold: He turns down Bugsy Siegel and lives.

Yeah, like Kathmandu and Monte Carlo, Maine and Monrovia, Harold had been to Vegas before. In ’63, when he was hyping the Floyd Patterson-Sonny Liston fight there, he drove out from New York in his Ford woody, along with his wife, the fabulous Mara Lynn, his son, Casey, and the family cat, which ripped up all the upholstery. They stopped off along the way, took in a few sights: the Grand Canyon and Eisenhower’s birthplace. Took six weeks. Flackery had a more unhurried aspect back then. Not now. This week they got Mike Tyson and Razor Ruddock over at the Mirage, where the fake volcano blows up every twenty minutes.

“Fucking town,” Harold grumbles as he reconnoiters the tourist-dense casino. Forty-five years ago Runyon referred to Harold as “my good friend, the tall and stately columnist for the New York Mirror.” Now, even as Harold remained seemingly eternally tall and stately in his dapper safari suit and pencil moustache, the Mirror was long gone, along with every other sheet he had ever worked for, including his beloved Brooklyn EagleJust the month before, after decades of smoking and drinking and staying out all night long, he turned 80. He’s not nuts about the idea. “You know what it’s like to look in the mirror and see the big eight-oh looking back?” Conrad imagined if he got this far it’d be enough time to “get revenge.” Instead, he opens his address book and “there’s two dead guys on every page.”

We went over to the Riviera coffee shop and talked with Gene Kilroy. Harold and Kilroy, a giant, raucous man who now works as an “executive casino host,” go back a long way. Together they went around the world with Muhammad Ali, to Zaire, Manila, Kuala Lumpur. It was the most perfect party, a road show no one thought would end. Harold first ran into Ali at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami back in ’61. He was working the third Patterson-Johansson fight, using every huckster’s wile to propagate the notion that the shopworn Swede actually had a chance. Johansson needed a sparring partner, and a young, brash man, just a year out of the amateurs, volunteered. Pop, pop, pop, Ali—then Cassius Clay—surrounded the lumbering Scandinavian with zinging leather. “Sucker,” the young man taunted, “I should be fighting Patterson, not you.” Harold’s eyes opened wide. He’d covered fights back to when they ran weekly cards in little dives like the Broadway Arena, where Murder Inc. had the first row on permanent reserve. Right off, Harold knew what he was looking at. “I saw the new champ today,” he told anyone who’d listen. Later, after they took Ali’s title because, as he said, war was against his religion and besides he didn’t have “nothing against no Cong,” Harold went around the country trying to get the Champ’s license back; persistent guy, Harold—he was in 20 states before Georgia said yes and Ali got to knock out Jerry Quarry in Atlanta.

Being with The Greatest was always electric, the most vital place to be, like the time in the Philippines when Ali leaned across Imelda, over to Marcos, and asked, “You the president? President get a lot of pussy?” “Much pussy,” Marcos nodded, with a curt smile. “You’re not as dumb as you look,” Ali returned.

Everyone figured Ali would be coming in for Tyson-Ruddock. He usually shows up for the big heavyweight fights and often picks up a few Gs from the promotion just for waving when they say his name. But the Champ’s not here. The Parkinson’s is getting worse, he’s too sick to travel. “Last time I talked to him on the phone I couldn’t understand a thing he was saying…” Harold says, softly. Kilroy nods glumly.

So it goes. In Conrad’s neo-autobiography Dear Muffo, a wry and passionate chronicle of his near-lifelong interface with celebrity large and small, he talks about how, in the service of hawking the first Ali-Liston fight, he got the Louisville Lip together with the Beatles, who were then on their first American tour. Taking his accustomed long view, Harold noted: “The Beatles and Cassius Clay—the two hottest names in the news, worldwide. They are all about the same age. I wonder how posterity will treat them.”

“I never expected to find out,” mutters Harold, who for the last 25 years of his life lived in the Oliver Cromwell on West 72 Street, his window overlooking the entrance of the Dakota, where John Lennon was shot dead. “At my fucking age you’re supposed to be dead, or at least sitting on your ass in Florida getting stoned. I didn’t know I’d still be out here hustling, trying to make a goddamned living.”

For Harold, that was a big part of the disappointment at Ali not being in Vegas this week; he’s supposed to be doing a piece on Muhammad for Rolling Stone,which probably made him the oldest freelance magazine writer in the world. A couple of years before, he had applied his special broth of piquant newspaperese to the pages of Spin magazine. Seventy-eight years old! Working for a low-life rockrag like Spin magazine! Getting cut for space between the Iron Maiden and Megadeath profiles. High blood pressure and arthritis—working for Spin magazine!

“What am I supposed to do?” Harold shouts in his ratchety voice. “I need the scratch.” Then he smiles and his eyes come on like star sapphires. “Also the action.”

Action. Harold’s unquenchable desire, the axis mundi of his existence.

Action. Something genuine happening. People coming together, energy pouring into a room until your head’s light and you can’t breathe right. It doesn’t happen every day, not the real stuff, Harold knew. He’d been in on more than his share of fakes and hustles. He was the point man in the promotion when Evel Knievel swore he’d soar across Snake River Canyon in a sawed-off rocket ship. He once put Casey Stengel on high-top skates to hype a roller derby in Oakland. He flacked for numerous wrestlers and six-day bicycle races. The smell of the unkosher come-on was not unknown to the less-than-petite Conrad honker. Legitimate action is a rare thing, eminently perishable. It can be a heavy jones.

Right now, here in Vegas, the tingle’s beginning. The crowd torsos past the slots, a crush of velveteen, a sheen of sequins. Here comes Tyson’s team, a dozen bodyguards, growly and hard, in black leather hats that say KICK ASS. Ruddock’s people are wearing Day-Glo baseball jackets. They’re singing Bob Marley songs, because Ruddock is from Jamaica. Harold has seen it before and better, way, way better. But shabby as it is, compared to the days of Sugar Ray and drinking coffee with George Balanchine (as Harold used to do), this doesn’t get old. Not this—that time before the bell when the drumbeating and backbiting and cadging suddenly cease and, for an instant at least, there’s a chance of witnessing something absolutely pure.

“Six forty-four, Pacific Time,” Harold says, looking at his watch. “Six forty-four, and there’s no place on earth where they have action like this. And we’re here. This is what there is to live for.”

Let me say, flat out, that Harold Conrad was the single most happening, been-everywhere/done-everything cat I ever met. For certain he had the best resume. I mean, sure, there’s that business about being Meyer Lansky’s press agent, and all those days and nights hanging with his particular rogue’s gallery of rats, badhats, and plutocrats, Runyon, Charley Lucky, Joe Kennedy, George Raft, Sonny Liston, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle (“the biggest pecker in Hollywood”), Marilyn Monroe, John Huston, Howard Hughes (he tried to pick up Mara Lynn), and Mike Todd, not to mention Mailer, Murray, James Baldwin, and Hunter Thompson.

Besides, how many guys can say Humphrey Bogart played them in the movies? It happened back in ’54, when Budd Schulberg wrote his novel about an even seamier side of boxing, The Harder They Fall, using his good friend Conrad as an exceedingly convenient model for the central figure of the somewhat dissolute, wholesomely cynical sports reporter Eddie Lewis. When they got around to making the movie, Bogart took the Lewis role.

“You can imagine how proud I am,” Harold says. “Bogart, my favorite actor, playing me in the movies! So one night I’m in a Sunset Strip joint, and I see Bogart sitting at a table. He’s got his head down over his glass, and I say, ‘Mr. Bogart, my name is Harold Conrad. I just want to tell you how proud I am that you’re playing me in The Harder They Fall.’ Now he raises his head, and I can see how skulled he is. His eyes are barely open. I repeat my line about how proud I am.

‘Why don’t you go fuck yourself,’ he says and drops his head back down over the glass … I was never so crushed in my whole life.”

The coda to the story is that Bogart later apologized, saying Harold caught him on an off night, that they both had a laugh about it. Good thing, too. Because, as Harold says, “If I hadn’t got that squared away with Bogie, I don’t think I would have ever been the same.” And that makes you happy, because Harold was the sort of fellow for whom you want (after appropriate duress, of course) everything to turn out right.

Born in East New York, Brooklyn, in 1911, the only son of Romanian steerage travelers, graduate of Franklin K. Lane High School, Harold Conrad swaggered a broken field through the century with the consuming immigrant pluck that told him anything was possible as long he thought fast, talked faster, and kept his head down in the clinches. To me—one who has never been able to casually say, as Harold did so frequently, “So one night I walk into Lindy’s,” Harold Conrad was a conduit to another, more vibrant, infinitely more colorful age. In a sea of retro-gimmicked, James M. Cain fashion knockoffs in slouch hats, he was the legitimate article, a guy with a capital G, a gaudy-pattered, Basie-rhythmed remnant of a time when people made buildings with spires lurching to the sky because they believed their works were beautiful and assumed the heavens would concur.

Hanging out with Harold was never a sweat. You’d go up to his apartment, look at the photos on the wall—Harold with the young Joe Louis, Harold with the old Joe Louis, Harold sitting at Sloppy Joe’s bar in Havana with Hemingway, Harold sipping tea in Cairo with King Farouk—and light up. Harold, you see, was always what they used to call “a viper.” He shared his first joint with Louis Armstrong and Dickie Wells backstage at Three Deuces on 52 Street. Armstrong told Harold that reefer was “medicine for headaches, toothaches, and the blues,” advice Conrad took to heart. He smoked marijuana every day of his life for the next 55 years. The haze lingered. In Vegas, Smokin’ Joe Frazier greeted Harold with the shout, “Hey man, you still with them funny cigarettes?”

Once you’re properly blasted, the stories can commence. Forever positioning himself as the bemused adjuster of bollixed-up situations, the sane everyman set down amid the messes of majesties and morons, saints and liars, Harold unveils his dense, textured oral history with snazzy syntax and much wingy body English. You hear of Harold’s days on the newspapers, immerse yourself in the dense incense of the dripping lead type in Hildy Johnson’s city room. Harold worked the Broadway beat and wrote sports. He covered the Dodgers for the Brooklyn Eaglewhere they set the box score on the front page by hand.

It was frantic back when 12 dailies hit the New York streets with half a dozen editions each. Harold scored his own kind of scoops. Once he was sitting in a bar and everyone was talking about how tough Capone was, and someone said, “Yeah, but he ain’t as tough as the guy who gave him the scar.” Got to find that man, Harold vowed, and he did, locating an unassuming barber in South Brooklyn. The story was, the young Capone felt the barber hadn’t given him the best cut. An argument ensued. Capone reached for his gun, but the barber was quicker with the razor. Slice. The fact that Capone never came back for revenge led Harold to conclude that Scarface didn’t need a PR team to tell him the value of a good nickname (“Nick-name, Some pun, ha, ha”).

The sagas go on from there, an eclectic, free-associated torrent owing nothing to chronology or rote, seamlessly stitched together by Harold’s singular baritone scrape. Tales of Roy Cohn and Cardinal Spellman’s strange liaison, days and nights with Ray Robinson, accounts of a month spent with Lucky Luciano in Naples, during the gangster’s melancholy deportation. “You don’t know what I’d give to go eating a hot dog behind third base at the Polo Grounds,” Harold quotes Charley Lucky as mournfully saying over a double espresso.

Often the reverie rolled on deep into the night, an unflagging, unredundant product of the raconteurial mind. You could be walking down the street, and apropos of nothing Harold would say, “So I was screwing Jack Webb’s girl…” Then he’d be back to Ali, talking about the time he had to hide the Champ in his apartment before the Ken Norton fight at Yankee Stadium. Ali was running around “trying to give away all his money to every Boys’ Club in town,” looking peaked; he had to be taken out of circulation—after all, Norton was tough, he’d broken Ali’s jaw back in San Diego. Harold tells how Dick Gregory came around with his health therapies and blenders. “You have to neutralize your poisons, Ali. You have to drink your own urine,” Gregory said, demonstrating with a beaker of his own bodily fluids.

“Drink my own piss?” Ali boggled. “He poured out everything Gregory gave him after that, the vegetable juices, every elixir,” Harold says. “Gregory never knew. But he kept raving, ‘See! He looks better already.”‘

Assessing the veracity quotient of Harold’s stories, Norman Mailer, Conrad’s friend for more than three decades, said, “I suspect they are more true than you might expect. They are true because we want them to be true, and it would break our hearts if they’re not.”

You wonder if it even matters anymore. Like Mailer says, we accept them because they’re better than most other stories, tales handed down from a previous generation we here in the pygmy land of corporate spin can only regard as godlike. People like Harold hailed from a pre-TV day when it seemed as if American giants strode the earth, a time when wiseacres and sharpies, suddenly free of the shtetl, Sicilian village, and failed potato farm, were given free rein to self-invent a wholly new urban ethos (“action”) in the hitherto-unexplored marginalia of the cityscape. In that way Harold, profoundly unsentimental with his faintly detached yet undeniably firsthand merge of style and substance, performed a patriotic service; he, alone, it seemed, survived for so long to tell thee of a time when the national spirit appeared to strike a bolder, more heroic chord. With the dekiltered surrealism Harold brought to that telling, he’d sometimes break through to what can only be called Art.

Like the time his first wife threw a lamp at him.

It goes, more or less, this way: “Yeah, I was living on 32 Street at the time. Right near Sixth. Across from the Empire State Building. My first wife was a great babe. Great body. Eurasian. But sometimes she’d get crazy. So she picks up this lamp and throws it at me across the room. Did you ever have a lamp thrown at you? It takes a little bit of time to get there. So I’m looking at this lamp coming at me, and I’m thinking, That plane outside the window is flying pretty low. Really low. Low and loud. I’m thinking all this as the lamp is coming. Then it goes by my shoulder, smashes against the wall with this tremendous crash. Bam! A lot louder than I would have figured. I’m thinking, wow, she’s really got a hell of an arm. The whole building shook. And know what? I didn’t find out until later that it was right then that that plane smashed into the Empire State Building.”

Ever offhand, relentlessly imperturbable, Harold was typically diffident about his appeal to the younger generation of would-be hepcats. He’d narrow his brown eyes (which so many women less than half his age found irresistible), puff on his cigarette (only adding to the aura of understated octogenarian sexuality), and unfurl his most compelling half-sneer. “I know about you guys, why you want to hang around with me, you fuckers. You see these pictures of me on the deck of the Queen Mary with a bottle of champagne, and you get all misty; you know there’s nothing you can do about getting that. No amount of money buys it back.”

But then, in the form of a disclaimer, he’d say, “Just stop me before I get to be one of those creaky fucks who sits around talking about how great the old days were. That’s the worst. Of course the old days were better. In the old days, you didn’t have arthritis. In the old days, you could get a hard-on. What scares me is when I can’t help thinking: It was better then. I mean: look at it, on paper. Then against now. Forget about it. I don’t want to let myself think like that. Instead I say, you just have to look harder to find the action now.”

So that brings us back around to Vegas, where Mike Tyson is driving Razor Ruddock into the ropes, and the referee, Richard Steele, is stopping the fight. This denouement is not appreciated by the Ruddock camp, which all week long has been predicting that something exactly like this would happen, since Steele’s got a track record for quick triggers, and besides he works as a pit boss for Steve Wynne, who owns the Mirage and happens to have a deal for Tyson’s next fight with Iron Mike’s paramour, the indefatigably skulduggerous Don King. Right now Murad Muhammad, Ruddock’s smarmier-than-thou promoter, is in the ring kicking Tyson’s trainer Richie Giachetti in his ample gut as a form of protest.

“Another black eye for boxing,” Harold remarks with his seasoned sarcasm as he watches the ensuing riot, referring to the headlines he knows will appear in every paper tomorrow. “Boxing’s like the night. It’s got a thousand eyes, all of them black.”

Harold gets up with a grunt. He’s been feeling crappy since we got to Vegas, tired. It’s a pulled muscle in his side, he keeps claiming, taking out another joint, playing craps until three in the morning. “It’s all fucking downhill after 80,” he groans. It’s not exactly like you’d notice, however, since Harold hasn’t looked his age for years. As the decades wore on, Harold took increasing delight in telling people, especially women, his age. No squint-eyed carny could ever guess it; it’s a shock to find out he’s 20 years older than you always thought.

Mailer says, “I first met Harold in ’61. I was 38 and he was 50. He looked 50. Then he didn’t age a day in the next two and a half decades. It’s only since Mara died that you began to see a change. That was a blow. Mara was in every way Harold’s equal.”

About that there can be no argument. Mara Lynn was, by all accounts, a piece of work, a doll with a capital D. Twenty years of study with Balanchine, she made her mark dressed in funny costumes hoofing beside Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, playing a zany with Marilyn Monroe in Let’s Make Love, and pouring a rum and coke over the head of an excessively raging Jake LaMotta. Budd Schulberg refers to her as “a one-girl riot.”

Mailer, who featured Mara in his movie Wild 90, says with a stab of reverence, “She was a blond witch and a blond angel, she could be both, often at the same time, depending on her mood. She could get a guy agitated. Like every man married to a beautiful woman, Harold, I think, was always a little in awe of her.” Others, too. As one story goes, Bianca Jagger, impressed, once made a plaster cast of Mara’s posterior.

Harold first met Mara back in ’48, when he was doing a Broadway column for the MirrorShe was dancing at a place called the Hurricane Club. A deadly entry at any price, they got married in 1950, divorced in ’56, got back together a couple of years later, and lived together for decades more. Life with Mara apparently could be quite stormy. Once, when he was doing the second Ali-Spinks fight in New Orleans, Harold and Mara had an all-time argument. He stomped out of the hotel room and found a French Quarter bar to get drunk in. Sometime during the night, he fell in with a shipload of sailors and found himself inside an all-night tattoo parlor getting a tricolor severed heart affixed to his bicep. MARA, it said. Mara was shocked—after all, 67-year-old Jewish men are not known for getting tattoos on their arms in the middle of the night. It’ll keep you out of the cemetery when you die. But Mara was swayed. She said Harold’s tattoo was the greatest tribute of love she’d ever seen.

The fun stopped when Mara got sick, and Harold spent all his money trying to save her, which is how at age 80 he wound up writing articles for Spin magazine. As horrific as the end must have been, it was in keeping with the romance of a certain romantic age. Harold and Mara remarried after nearly 30 years of living in sin, smoked a last joint together, and that was it.

“Been faking it since then,” Harold would admit grudgingly. “I’m all front.”

In Vegas, you could tell things weren’t right. Even Don King—Harold’s collaborator on several Ali fights, whose incessant effulgence of “wit, grit, and bullshit” Conrad approvingly recognizes as being in boxing’s scalawag tradition—noticed. Nattily attired in a baggy red, white, and blue ONLY IN AMERICA sweatsuit, King was in the middle of swearing on a metaphorical stack of his dead mother’s Bibles that the Tyson-Ruddock battle would “separate the pugilistic wheat from the chaff,” quoting Frederick Douglass, George Bush, and Plato in the same sentence when he sees Harold. Losing no beat, the promoter abruptly launched into an apparently heartfelt, equally loud reverie about “Harold Conrad—the legend!—a man of much moxie, the nonpareil of sell!” But then King stops, tilts his multipronged coif, and says, “Hey, Harold, you all right, man?”

He’s not. Maybe he shouldn’t have had those couple of drinks with the Brit sportswriters, Harold says with the deep embarrassment of someone forever finicky about appearances, because when he got back to the hotel, he slipped in the lobby, fell down between the dollar slots, and his head’s been spinning ever since. It’s just his luck that there’s a chiropractor convention at the hotel, because before he even hits the lobby floor, six guys are pushing cards at him.

The next morning, walking through the casino lobby, a woman in a stretchy orange dress comes over and asks Harold (who never ceases to look like a somebody), “Are you a movie star?” “Sure, I’m big,” Harold replies. She takes out a piece of paper and asks for an autograph. Harold writes “Best wishes always, Ramon Navarro.” She looks at the paper, back up at Harold, and asks, “Aren’t you dead?” Harold only bugs his eyes, shrugs his shoulders, walks on.

A week after Harold’s return to New York, however, with merciless diagnostic secession, the pulled muscle mutates to “a small stroke” and then inoperable cancer. Plenty of times Harold would talk about how he spent day after day at Damon Runyon’s bedside, how one time Runyon, who couldn’t speak near the end, once wrote him a crotchety note followed by three exclamation points. “You don’t have to yell at me, Damon,” Harold replied.

After that, Harold hated hospitals. Now, so soon after Mara’s death, he was in Mount Sinai, the same place, “just about the same room,” where a couple of years earlier he visited his longtime friend Buddy Rich, when the famous drummer was dying. It was terrible, Harold recalls, watching the great basher who only went one speed—fast—stare up at the ceiling. Then Harold raises his right arm, and real pain crosses his face. “That’s what Buddy did,” he says, “raised his arm and said, ‘If I can’t play I don’t want to live.”‘

This gets very sad because soon the tumor is pressing on Harold’s brain, making it next to impossible for him to talk. Impossible to tell the stories, to rekindle the grander times. So you sit beside Harold’s bed with his son, Casey, next to the flowers sent by the Friars Club (“Frank Sinatra—Abbot”), watching him alternately doze and glance at the muted television, where the Mets are getting shut out, and the silence is awful, because three weeks ago Harold never would have tolerated such emptiness on the soundtrack.

A few days later Harold is on a plane to Mexico, going to a clinic seeking an alternative to the chemotherapy he was certain would kill him. It doesn’t help. And a few days after that, the New York Times has a three-column-inch item headed by the phrase HAROLD CONRAD, BOXING PROMOTER. The obit indicates that Harold was “a colorful character.” Likely, Harold would have accepted the short shrift with his usual cynic’s grace. He knew they always screw you on space.

As a storyteller he would also know that you can’t stop the tale there. So, allow me one more story about my old friend Harold Conrad. It was a night a few months ago when Harold and I went over to watch Sugar Ray Leonard fight an upstart named Terry Norris at the Garden. Harold, of course, has been to the Garden before, about 9 million times. Mostly he went to the old Garden, the one on 49th Street and 8th that was torn down back in the late ’60s. That was where the real action was, standing underneath the giant curve of the marquee, waiting for something to happen, sensing that this night—like so many before it—was magic. The new Garden, except for that one ecstatic evening when Ali fought Frazier 20 years ago, and a basketball game or two, has never had the same juice.

Tonight’s event is typically desultory, overpriced, the half-filled building little more than a TV studio, the backdrop for the cable-TV broadcast. The canned music, heavy on the sampler machine, is blaring. Leonard has been a great fighter, no argument, and you can’t knock a guy for getting rich, but with his viciously cute smile and bitchy demeanor, he’s always been a tinny presence, especially now that he’s a half dozen years past his prime. Harold’s never been a fan. He wouldn’t even have come to the fight if it wasn’t for that outside chance, that possibility, that something, something memorable, might happen. It’s the action, Harold’s addiction.

The result is an upset. Leonard loses, but where’s action in that? He was in there only due to his innate hubris and not knowing when enough’s enough. As when Ali and Joe Louis had that one last, unnecessary fight, the whole thing is mostly depressing. Harold knew it in the first round. A minute in, he turns and says, “He’s got nothing.”

So the fight’s over, and we’re walking over to Broadway in the cold night air. We’re at Herald Square, it’s Saturday night, and the town’s dead, no one moving except for some ragged figures over where the big welfare hotel used to be. “You could shoot a cannon off out here,” Harold snorts. “Used to be, on a big fight night, by now everyone would be going up to Toots Shors: Winchell, Joe D if the Yanks were in town, the Fischetti Brothers, who ran Chicago, right next to J. Edgar Hoover. People would be all decked out, up and down Broadway from here to 57th Street….”

We walk on, freezing. Years ago Damon Runyon wrote a column about how Harold never wore a hat. Everyone else wore one then, why didn’t he, Runyon asked Harold. “Because I do not look good in a hat,” Runyon quoted Harold as replying. Tonight, however, Harold is wearing a hat, crammed down over his outsized ears. “Got to,” he says, “my head gets cold.” Then, reminded that when Runyon died he had his ashes thrown out of a plane so they sprinkled over Broadway, Harold says, “Not for me. Dust in people’s eyes? No thanks. It’s against my religion. Besides, you never know, maybe I’ll live forever.”

BGS: Greatness Revisited

Muhammad Ali vs Sonny Liston, 1965 World Heavyweight Title

Muhammad Ali “shocked the world” 50 years ago today when he beat Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Since then Ali has been written about more than any famous athlete. He’s what the Madonna was to Renaissance painters—every writer has to take his shot. Fortunately for them, Ali was the gift that kept on giving.

A sampler of the better efforts includes stories by such legendary sports writers as Robert Lipsyte and Dick Schaap, as well as Davis Miller and Mark Kram.

This profile by Peter Richmond, first published in the April 1998 issue of GQ (and reprinted here with the author’s permission), is a classic lion in winter piece. It shows Ali dealing with Parkinson’s but still sharp, charismatic, and more revered than ever.

Muhammad Ali in Excelsis

By Peter Richmond

He is in mellow middle age now. Parkinson’s disease has silenced the voice once full of preening, arrogant poetry. But in his stillness he has become the god he always wanted to be.

On the table in front of him sit a copy of the holy Koran and a plate holding three frosted raspberry coffee cakes, and when he leans forward on the couch and reaches out it is not for enlightenment. It is for a piece of pastry. With his right hand wobbling just this side of uncontrollably, he guides it, slow inch by slow inch, toward the mouth that once yapped without stopping but that now, largely mute, chews slowly, as the eyes stare straight ahead, seeing nothing; only the patter of a cold rain splashing the leaves of the trees outside the window mars the silence. Flecks of frosting tumble in slow motion to light on his belly, which gently swells beneath a black sweater. I am sitting next to him. Close enough to see the tiny scar on his eyelid that looks like a birthmark. Close enough to hear him chew. Close enough to taste the cake as he tastes it. The look on his face is the fat and happy near smile topping the fat and happy body of all the renderings of Buddha you’ve ever seen. It is an expression of bemusement and contentment and wonder at the beauty to be found in the simplest things.

As I watch him eat, I have never been more sure of a man’s inner contentment. Except maybe when he eats the second piece.

It’s not supposed to be Buddha. It’s supposed to be Allah, because it is Allah who has ruled his life since even before Liston, and Allah who controls it now more than ever before. The contents of his briefcase say so. He is carrying the briefcase as he enters the room, so still even in walking that he does not disturb the air around him. He opens the briefcase to reveal hundreds of well-thumbed sheets of paper filled with typewritten words. It is the briefcase a man would carry if he were to knock on your screen door to convert you to his faith, and on this day, dressed in black, shoulders slumping toward his paunch, gray sprinkling his temples, he looks like such a man.

He shuffles through the papers, finds one, hands it to me.

“First Chronicles 19:18,” I read aloud while he listens. “‘Then the Syrians fled before Israel. David killed 7,000 charioteers and 40,000 foot soldiers of the Syrians.’ Second Samuel 10:18: ‘Then the Syrians fled before Israel, and David killed 700 charioteers and 40,000 horsemen of the Syrians.’ Was it 700 or 7,000? Was it foot soldiers or horsemen?”

“The Bible has contradictions,” he says to me, the voice sandpapered raw by the disease. “Not in there,” he says, nodding at the Koran. His briefcase also holds a black-and-white photograph of three boxers—Ali, Joe Louis, and Sugar Ray Robinson; it looks like a snapshot from the turn of the century—but most of the case’s contents are there to do Allah’s work.

It’s easiest for him to talk about Allah, although it is not easy for him to talk, because the muscles of his face don’t work as well as they once did. His wife, Lonnie, has asked if I want her to sit with us so she can tell me what he is saying. Lonnie is a strong woman who walks through a room like a beautiful storm approaching. But right now I ask her if Ali and I can be alone and if she could close the door, which she does, leaving the two of us in silence in a small room in the suite of offices on Ali’s southern Michigan farm. The farm used to belong to AI Capone’s bookmaker. A workman doing renovations recently dug some bullets out of the floorboards from back in the days when people were shooting one another here. Now it’s just about the quietest place on earth.

After he hands me several more tracts, I tell him I’m pretty much a nonbeliever, and at this his eyebrows arch up and the words come quickly.

“Do you believe that phone made itself?”

No, I say.

“Do you believe the chair made itself?”

No.

“Do you believe the table made itself?”

No.

“Do you believe the sun made itself?”

No.

“The Supreme Being made it.”

The Bible’s inconsistencies don’t persuade me, nor do the sermons. It’s when he levitates that I start to come around. Well, not when he levitates—when he pretends to. His levitation trick is like his handkerchief-in-the-fake-thumb trick or the trick where he rubs his fingers together behind your ear and what you hear sounds like a cricket. He’s been playing pranks since he was a kid, to complement his verbal trickery, but now his pranks are the currency with which he communicates.

It’s when he’s pretending to levitate that I figure out what’s happening with Ali now, and it sounds an awful lot like something involving divine intervention. At the very least, it sounds like the sort of parable that ought to be typed up and carried around in the briefcase of someone trying to convert you.

“For decades,” it would read, “Allah had Muhammad Ali doing Allah’s work. Ali was the most remarkable young black man the nation had ever seen, unafraid to take on the mightiest of the white man’s institutions, speaking out, yes, for the black man, but even more for Allah, in a fashion that Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad never could have.

“But the older the disciple grew, the more he began to lose fights to people like Trevor Berbick. And the more he began to lose fights, the more he threatened to fall into the black hole wherein reside all the great athletes who tried to hang on too long. Allah knew that the closer Muhammad Ali got to the ultimate indignity of punch-drunkdom, the less use he was for Allah as an emissary on earth. Yes, a million faithful would line the airport runway in Malaysia, and he could move the masses in Syria and in Algeria and in Turkey, but it wasn’t working in America, where the enemy lived.

“So Allah hit upon a plan. Where Ali’s voice once moved mountains, Allah struck him mute. Where Ali’s swift fists once rained upon opponents with the precision of a surgeon, Allah struck them with terrible tremors so that they struggled to hold a piece of cake. Where Ali once had more physical vibrancy than any athlete the world had ever known—a face like a thousand different masks, a dancer’s body, all of it always in motion—Allah wrapped him in an invisible cloak of paralysis, and he had to labor to move any muscles at all.

“And this is how Allah made sure that Muhammad Ali would be doing his work again. Tenfold. For in infirmity, Ali came to mean much more than he ever had before.”

“I can levitate,” he says, and he tries to get up from the couch, but he cannot. The couch is too deep, and he is growing heavier; he will be Buddha-like in girth at some point soon. I reach out to help him, but he dismisses me with a gesture of his left hand; the closed fist that sits rocking back and forth at his side opens slightly and motions me away. He speaks with his hands now, even though they are constantly trembling and not much good to him. It has taken me a full hour in his presence to begin to recognize the nuances in his shaking fingers, and it has taken me equally long to understand the nuances of his facial expressions, from the eyebrows shooting straight up in true surprise to the rare half smile to the flat, expressionless expressions that are differentiated by the degree to which the eyes and the eyelids move.

All the gyrations and the mugging and the shouting have been distilled into a thimbleful of expressions, but it is a bottomless thimble. So when with a single slight crook of an index finger he tells me not to help him, it’s as if a healthy person had slapped my hand away. Then he tries again, rocks against the back of the couch and vaults himself up. He walks over to a corner of the room, where he turns away and, with his back to me, slowly rises off his feet.

His body appears to levitate—his left foot is off the ground. I cannot see his right foot. Maybe he is levitating. This sounds absurd, but it would make more sense if you were in the room with him and could feel the otherworldliness his utter stillness and oddly detached gaze now impart. In the lasting silences between long questions and short answers and magic tricks, as he stares straight ahead, I begin to feel a mounting sense of disorientation. It’s as if the room is growing smaller or he is growing bigger, as if the space is too little to hold whatever he is becoming now. It’s as if Euclidean rules are being bent.

I’d expected the disease to have robbed him of the vitality that once exploded from him. I’d expected the disease to represent the ultimate cruel triumph of the world that had always wanted the black boy from Louisville, Kentucky, to shut the hell up.

But up close, I am discovering that his affliction has taken nothing away, none of the energy, none of the wit, none of the pride; it has only bound all of it, captured and constricted it, with the entirely unexpected result that, as an aeon of geologic forces can compress a large vein of coal into a very small diamond, whatever was the essence of Muhammad Ali is now somehow magnified. He is at last what he always pretended to be but never was: the Greatest. For it must be axiomatic that if someone calls himself the Greatest, as Ali did for years, he cannot possibly be; the Greatest would never have to label himself as such. Only when he was forced to stop proclaiming his greatness did it become possible.

Never has he been more mortal—struck dumb and slow, crumbs spilling down his shirt—and never have we deemed him more godly.

On the afternoon prior to the kickoff of the Louisville-Penn State football game at Cardinal Stadium on the Kentucky fairgrounds, he was sitting alone in a golf cart behind the grandstand next to the locker room, waiting to be driven to midfield for a pregame ceremony. Suddenly, a few feet away, there stood Joe Paterno leading his team out of the visiting locker room door, dozens of huge, young Pennsylvania mountain men lined up snorting behind the little man in khakis and a sweater and thick glasses, stamping their feet behind Paterno, his energy bubbling out of his body—a game to play!—oblivious to anything else, even to the dozens of folks who had turned around in the top two rows of the bleachers to look down at the man in the golf cart just a few yards away from the football team, oblivious even to the several hundred more fans who had quietly filed out of those bleachers to form a line on each side of the golf cart, like sidewalk crowds at a parade.

Standing directly behind the golf cart, I saw the world as he must always see it, looking straight ahead, looking out through the tunnel of his illness: people crowding to be in his field of vision, chanting his name, some smiling, some shouting, some staring with mouths agape.

Joe Paterno, something of a god himself, saw none of it; he was minutes from the kickoff. When an official signaled for him to enter the stadium, he began to jog, the general leading his infantry, past the golf cart, glancing over his shoulder—and then he stopped. The Penn State players behind him ran into one another like confused cattle. Now shaken from his reverie, stunned, Paterno walked over to the golf cart and crouched and shook the hand of the champ. Then he rose and led his team onto the field.

The golf cart followed. “Ladies and gentlemen,” rang the public address voice, “at the 50 yard line, please welcome the heavyweight champion—” But the announcer didn’t get to finish his sentence; the swell of the roar blotted out the words. Forty thousand people were on their feet singing his name in a two-syllable mantra. Finally, he waved—a quick flip of his right hand—and the cart wheeled around, the beery bleachers still chanting “A-LI!” as the cart disappeared behind them.

In the first half, I sat next to him in the front row of the stadium. We could not watch the football game because we’d been seated behind the Louisville bench and the players blocked our view. Even if Ali could have seen the field, he could not have followed the game, because his head does not move back and forth quickly. So he sat there looking pretty much straight ahead while people such as the former governor of Kentucky came and sat on his other side and called him champ. We did not speak at all. I spent the half handing him peanuts. He would take each one out of its shell and deliberately raise it to his mouth and chew until finally, with a motion of his right hand, he signaled that he didn’t want any more, and he reached out for his soda, which sat on top of the concrete wall in front of him, and very carefully guided the cup to his mouth. The liquid in the cup roiled like a sea, but none of it spilled.

In the limousine back to town, he did not speak, either, except to say, as he threw a left jab and looked out the window, “Gonna make a comeback. Exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. Twenty million dollars. Champion of the world at 55.” It was the only time I heard him voluntarily refer to the man he had once been, but it was enough to confirm what I had suspected—that if he were not hindered by disease, he would indeed be trying to make a comeback at the age of 55, and he would be humiliated and pummeled. Frazier tried; Holmes tried. Tyson will try. And while Muhammad Ali was smarter and better than any of them, he is still a boxer.

When the limousine pulled up at his mother-in-law’s house in the suburbs of Louisville to disgorge its passengers—Ali; his best friend, Howard Bingham; his attorney Ron DiNicola; another attorney; and me—l was surprised to see that they all walked quickly up the driveway, leaving him behind to take baby steps up the asphalt toward the house. No one who’s around him a lot treats him as if he’s infirm, because they know he isn’t.

“Oh yeah, he’s all there; he gets it all,” Bingham told me, a little wearily and a little impatiently, as if he were surprised I had to ask.

Then Ali’s wife came out and saw him.

There he is,” she said softly and went to his side.

That night 11,000 people filled Freedom Hall at the fairgrounds to see an entertainment-extravaganza tribute to Muhammad Ali, starring Natalie Cole and Jeff Foxworthy. After the gospel choir sang, a boxing ring was wheeled to the front of the stage and a series of embarrassing boxing exhibitions ensued, including one in which former heavyweight champion Jimmy Ellis faced Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum and took a dive as an expressionless Ali watched from a mezzanine seat.

Then a 13-year-old-boy bounced into the ring—a thin kid with gloves as big as his head, his face, nearly in shadow, framed in the padding of the protective headgear. But I could see the eyes and the mouth; they were the features of a boxer before a fight. It turned out he was the youth boxing champion of South Carolina, and he was going to fight Muhammad Ali. I do not think that the youth boxing champion of South Carolina had the slightest idea of the significance of the man who was going to join him in the ring.

I glanced at a man seated next to me, and the look he cast back mirrored the anxiety in my eyes. Then someone raised the ropes for Ali, and as he slowly ducked to climb into the ring the applause swelled, but it was a worried ovation. The bell rang, and the kid charged, fists flying out like misdirected darts; he wanted to kill the old fool. But before anyone could wince, Ali was dancing to one side and then dancing back the other way—not the Ali of 1965, but not a cripple either: It was the dance of an overweight former athlete who was perfectly healthy. The kid could not land a punch.

Then, as the cheers of relief started to rise, he did the Ali shuffle. I’d forgotten about the Ali shuffle. This was not the shuffle of 1966 but the shuffle of an overweight former athlete in perfect health. Ali did not do one dance and one shuffle. He kept it up for a full minute.

Finally, he reached down and grabbed the kid in a bear hug and smiled the best smile he could, although it was just a wink of a smile, and that was the end of it.

When I found him a few minutes later in a room behind the stage, dining on fried chicken, he did not resemble the man in the boxing ring, except for the face. He was surrounded by friends and family, and women—one was fetching him a piece of cake. There was an inordinate number of women in the room, watching him avail himself of the post-event spread, making sure he got enough to eat, wearing expressions that seemed quite maternal. They were not the expressions I’d seen on the women at the black-tie banquet the night before. After Louisville’s high society had grazed its way through a two-hour open-bar cocktail party, Ali had slowly made his way to the dais, and I saw on the faces of the pearled women with low-cut gowns and bustiered girls in impossibly high heels the distinct expression I’ve come to recognize as the one women wear when they’re looking at a man they want.

The boxing match was the last official event of Muhammad Ali’s weekend, but the last unofficial event took place at midnight in the bar at the Seelbach Hotel. It is a historic place, often cited in those stories about great old bars in the great Old South. Natalie Cole and her band were lounging at the bar. I was with one of Ali’s counsel and her boyfriend when Howard Bingham, sloe-eyed and cool, slid a chair up to our table and ordered a beer. Bingham, a photographer, has been by Ali’s side from the beginning, and he is the only one who never left it.

I waited until Howard was halfway through his beer before I asked him what had happened at Freedom Hall that evening.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

The dancing, I said. The shuffling.

“Oh yeah, he can do that; he does that sometimes.”

He can? Then why doesn’t he do it more often?

Bingham had no immediate answer. He was not looking at me or at anything when a moment later he took his right arm and started to windmill it, like an old Ali punch. Then he stopped, and the hand wrapped around the mug of beer.

“Sometimes,” Bingham said, “I just want to…” But he did not finish the sentence. He said something else: “He could be 100 percent better.”

And he could. If he spent more time in boxing rings. It turns out that only when Muhammad Ali is in a boxing ring can he, or does he choose to, turn back the clock. It’s only a boxing ring, fittingly enough, that moves him to movement. Perhaps he believes that if some of us are now finding divine inspiration in his metaphysical majesty, his real power will always derive from his ability to outwit, outpunch, and overpower everyone else.

What Parkinson’s disease does is make you brittle. Ali’s version of the disease is a slow one, but it’s making him brittle nonetheless. The way to fight being brittle—to keep the disease at bay—is to work at being limber. And the only time he feels like working at being limber—at fighting the disease—is when he’s in an environment where he’s always been accustomed to fighting.

“He won’t exercise in a regular gym or do the Nautilus or a StairMaster; he will not do it,” says Lonnie. Her voice is exasperated, because she is exasperated. “I have bought him state-of-the-art equipment. He won’t use it. He says it’s for sissies. That’s why I’m building him a gym on the farm, with a ring and mirrors and a heavy bag. Because that’s what he knows. And that’s how he wants to do it.

“Sometimes Muhammad, unfortunately, might use this illness. Don’t get me wrong, but Muhammad knows when to turn it on and off. And sometimes I think he does it deliberately. Turns it off. He’s a master manipulator; I’m not going to kid you. He will look more fragile than he actually is. Why he does it, I don’t know.”

Perhaps I do. Perhaps if I were being worshiped by flocks of followers, my every whim attended to, and all I could see from behind the smoked glass was legions shouting my name and feeding me cake, well, I would have stopped trying to get better a long time ago, too. Especially if the crowds were finally affirming what I’d been saying for 40 years: that in me you see a god.

“I began to suspect that he was a special vessel that might be ordained for special things,” a writer named Mort Sharnik once said of Cassius Clay as the writer tried to come to grips with the essence of this strange new champion.”Esse est percipi,” an eighteenth century bishop named George Berkeley said many years earlier as he tried to figure out what it meant to exist, to be. After a lifetime of considering the notion, Berkeley decided that to be is to be perceived. And so it must be now with Muhammad Ali. If he is a vessel, it is not only his own self that fills it; it is filled up by all of us, filled with whatever it is we need to find in him. He is what we perceive him to be.

What we see in him is purely an individual matter. It might be something in the eyes, which seem particularly expressive because everything else on the face has shutdown—a sense in his eyes of not only the playful jester but also the kind and compassionate man whose clowning and belittling of opponents often obscured the goodness of the soul within. It might be forgiveness: of him, for adopting a racist religion or acting like a self-centered showman at so many people’s expense—like the cruelty he showered on Joe Frazier (“See how ignorant you are?”); or forgiveness of ourselves, for not realizing how special he was beneath the bluster and the lunacy. For not sensing what we had in our midst.

It might be reverence for the physical embodiment of the greatest man ever to fight, and for the greatest athlete we’ve ever known: The title of heavyweight champion, before its devaluation, was a kingly title. And no one has ever ruled the sport as gracefully, or as magically—although his crowning triumph, his victory over Frazier in their third fight, in Manila, was the most brutally beautiful heavyweight championship fight in history, a battle won not with wits but with soul. If the disease came on while he was fighting—if it was not inherited, as his wife insists—then this is the fight during which it must have taken root.

It might be simple awe at the survival of a man who had the balls to stand up to white America and risk its wrath when most of us would have shut up and joined the damned army. In 1967 to be a young black man from Kentucky who refused induction—one year before Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis, three years after three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi—was to be made of a singular fabric.

And it might be pity, although if it’s pity, he neither merits it nor wants it. When l ask him, after he levitates, if we should feel sorry for him, he says, “No,” and slumps hack against the couch in a manner that l recognize as meaning he will have more to say on the matter in a moment. This happens only three times in our two hours in that room: There are three questions he wants to answer slowly, not reflexively. This is not to say that some of his quick answers aren’t honest ones. When I ask if he misses boxing and he quickly answers, “No”; when l ask if he’d want his son to be a boxer and he quickly says, “No”; when l ask, “Are you a happy man?” and he quickly answers, “Um-hmm.” But three times when l ask him questions, he slumps back on the couch and closes his eyes, then opens them and speaks.

Sometimes he gets only the first three or four words out and then has to stop and try again before uttering a complete thought—like a car turning over several times before catching on a cold morning.

So when l ask if we should feel sorry for him, he says, “No,” and then a few moments later he says, “Everything… everything… everything has a purpose.”

Another time I ask if he’d change anything in his life. After several seconds, he says, “I wouldn’t change nothin’. It all turned out to be good.”

The third time, l ask how he wants history to remember him. This is the one he takes the most time to think about. He closes his eyes and slumps against the back of the couch for what seems to be a very long time. Then he opens his eyes, leans forward, and says in quick bursts of words, “I want people to say, ‘He fought for his rights. Fought for my people. Most famous black man in the world. Strong believer in God.’”

I have a million more questions, but he is tired, and I am not going to get the answers I want. When I ask what lessons he has learned on his long and troublesome journey—when I lean in and, in tones drenched with meaning, ask him what we should know—he says, “Do a lot of running; eat the right foods.”

And when I tell him l think that it was the third Frazier fight, not the Foreman fight, that was his best, he looks at me and rasps, “You’re not as dumb as you look,” which makes me laugh in delight—how sharp he is—until I remember that this is exactly what he said to the Beatles when he met them in Miami Beach in 1964.

We shake hands—it’s a soft handshake but not a sickly one; it’s like a gentleman’s handshake—and he picks up the briefcase and rises to walk down the hall to say goodbye to his wife, who is working in another room, before he walks over to the main house. I take a tour of the rest of the office suite. One room’s windows overlook an expanse of emerald green grass bordering a river, and stacked against the wall beneath the windows are 13 translucent plastic cartons with the words PROPERTY OF THE U.S. POSTAL SERVICE printed on the sides. Each is overflowing with letters and envelopes. Perhaps a thousand pieces of mail.

“A week’s worth,” says a woman whose job is to open them and answer them: the well-wishers, the autograph requesters, the charity seekers. Most of Ali’s life is given over to good works now. Last fall a Roman Catholic nun who cares for Liberian children at a missionary center in the Ivory Coast wrote Ali to ask for his help.The next month, she was surprised to see him there in person, giving out food.

In another room sits a woman who presides over the memorabilia being packed up to be shipped to the nascent Ali museum in Louisville: the autographed Golden Gloves, the photograph of Ali standing over Liston’s prone body in Lewiston, shouting at his defeated foe. Glass trophies and engraved plaques line walls, huddle atop tables, rest on floors—too many to examine any particular honor; the cumulative effect of the glittery clutter says enough.

My tour has taken 10 or 15 minutes, and as I turn down the hallway toward the door that will take me outside, I see that Ali is standing exactly where l saw him last; he hasn’t moved an inch. He is standing in a doorway looking at his wife, who is sitting in front of a computer wearing a telephone headset. She is a woman with discernible soft and humorous sides, but she is also a no-nonsense person, and right now she is talking to a lawyer in tones as authoritative and sure as those of a general commanding troop placement from a bunker, discussing some award Ali will be receiving in New York next month; she is running the business of Muhammad Ali.

He leans down to whisper something in my ear. By now l know not to expect anything profound.

“I like my office,” he says, and I nod, understanding instantly what he means. That he likes standing and watching people testify to his power and his goodness. That he likes all these tangible testaments to how important he has become. Also, I think he likes the women.

He escorts me down the stairs, out the door, and we stand for a moment beneath the outstretched arms of the giant elms. This is where I leave him, surveying his kingdom. As l walk to my car, he is still standing there, and as I drive away down the long, winding driveway toward the iron gates, I have no doubt that as soon as I’m out of sight he will turn around and go back upstairs to eat the last piece of coffee cake.

BGS: Guaranteed to Raise a Smile

“If the Beatles meant a lot in England, they meant very much more in America,” wrote Nik Cohn in his brisk, entertaining history of Rock n Roll, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: Pop from the Beginning. “They changed everything. They happened at a time when American pop was bossed by trash, by dance crazes and slop ballads, and they let all of that bad air out. They were foreign, they talked strange. They played harsh, unsickly, and they weren’t phoney. Just as they’d done in England, they brought back reality.”

Cohn spent 7 weeks in the spring of 1968 writing his tour de force of pop music. He had just turned 22. “My purpose was simple,” he remembered years later, “to catch the feel, the pulse of rock, as I had lived through it. Nobody, to my knowledge, had ever written a serious book on the subject, so I had no exemplars to inhibit me. Nor did I have any reference books or research to hand. I simply wrote off the top of my head, whatever and however the spirit moved me. Accuracy didn’t seem of prime importance (and the book, as a result, is rife with factual errors). What I was after was guts, and flash, and energy, and speed. Those were the things I’d treasured in the rock I’d loved.”

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. What better time to revisit Cohn’s chapter on the Fab Four? (Keep in mind that it was written before the band broke up.)

Cohn is a ton of fun even when–or especially when–you don’t agree with him.

Dig in.

awop

 

By Nik Cohn

Next came the Fab Four, the Moptop Mersey Marvels, and this is the bit I’ve been dreading. I mean what is there possibly left to say on them?

In the beginning, I should say, the Beatles were the Quarrymen, and then they were the Silver Beatles, and there were five of them—John Lennon, Stuart Sutcliffe, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best. All of them came from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds in Liverpool and the only ones with any pretensions to anything were Paul McCartney, who had racked up five ‘O’-levels,.and Stuart Sutcliffe, who painted.

The heavies at this time were Sutcliffe and John Lennon, who were at art school together.

Sutcliffe was something like an embryo James Dean, very beautiful-looking, and he wore shades even in the dark, he was natural image. Of all the Beatles, at this stage, he was the most sophisticated and the most articulate and Eduardo Paolozzi, the painter, who taught him for a time, says that he was very talented indeed.

As for Lennon, he was a roughneck. His father, who was a seaman, had left home when Lennon was still a small child, his mother had died, and he’d been brought up by his Aunt Mimi. And by the time he got to art school, he’d grown into a professional hard-nut, big-mouthed and flash, and he rampaged through Liverpool like some wounded buffalo, smashing everything that got in his way. He wrote songs with Paul McCartney. He had hefty intellectual discussions with Sutcliffe. He was rude to almost everyone, he was loud and brutally funny, his putdowns could kill. A lot of people noticed him.

The Beatles, at this time, were still total Teds: they wore greasy hair and leather jackets and winkle pickers, they jeered and got into fights and were barred from pubs.

The music they played then was souped-up rock, much influenced by Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly, not notably original, and they were less than an explosion. In 1960, they managed a tour of Scotland with Johnny Gentle, one of the lesser figures in the Larry Parnes stable, but mostly they alternated between random gigs in Liverpool and seasons at the Star Club in Hamburg, where they played murderous hours each night and halfway starved to death.

At this point, Stuart Sutcliffe left the group to concentrate on his painting and, soon afterwards, died of a brain tumour. He was twenty-one. Meanwhile, the Beatles had begun to move up a bit—they’d made some records in Germany, bad records but records just the same, and they’d built themselves a solid following, both in Germany and at home. And musically, they’d become competent and they had their own sound, a crossbreed between classic rock and commercial R&B, and they were raw, deafening, a bit crude but they were really exciting. At least, unlike any other British act ever, they didn’t ape America but sounded what they were, working-class Liverpool, unfake, and that’s what gave them their strength, that’s what made Brian Epstein want to manage them.

Epstein was the eldest son in a successful Jewish business family and he ran a Liverpool record store. In his early twenties, he’d wanted to be an actor and he’d gone to RADA [The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] but now, approaching thirty, he’d resigned himself to being a businessman. Intelligent and loyal and neurotic, painfully sensitive, he was nobody’s identikit picture of a hustler but he was civilized, basically honest, and he had capital. So he asked the Beatles to let him be manager and they agreed.

Soon after this, Pete Best, the drummer, got flung out and was replaced by Ringo Starr. Best had laid down a loud and clumsy beat, quite effective, but he’d been less sharp, less clever, less flexible than the other Beatles and they’d got bored with him, they wanted him out.

Ringo Starr’s real name was Richard Starkey and he’d been playing with Rory Storme and the Hurricanes, Liverpool’s top group of that time. Actually, he wasn’t too much of a drummer and he had rough times at the hands of vengeful Pete Best fans; he was given a fierce baptism. But he had his own defences, a great off-hand resilience and a deadpan humour, and he survived.

Meanwhile, Epstein acted like a manager. Privately, he had huge inhibitions about hustling, but he fought them down and sweated. So he had demos made and touted them round the record companies; he pleaded and spieled and harangued. And having been first turned down by Dick Rowe at Decca, the King Dagobert of pop, he finally got a contract with E.M.I. and everything began.

From there on in, it was fast and straight-ahead: the first single, Love Me Do, made the thirty and the second, Please Please Me, made number one and the third, From Me To You also made number one (louder) and the fourth, She Loves You, made the biggest hit that any British artist had ever cut. All of them were written by Lennon and McCartney.

By spring of 1963, they had taken over from Cliff Richard here and, by autumn, they were a national obsession. At the beginning of 1964, given the most frantic hype ever, they broke out in America and stole the first five places solid on the chart. Summer, they released their first movie, Hard Day’s Night, and it smashed and that just about rounded things out. Altogether, it had taken two years from first big push to last.

T

At the end of all this, they had become unarguably the largest phenomenon that pop had ever coughed up and, even more remarkably, they’ve hardly slid since. To the time of writing they have sold upwards of two hundred million records and they’re coming up for their twentieth straight number one.

Beyond that, they had made millions of pounds for themselves and many more millions of pounds for the Government and, in reward, they were all given the MBE [Member of the Order of the British Empire] for their contributions to the export drive. This was a clincher—assorted worthies sent their own medals back in protest but everyone else was delighted. That’s how respectable pop had become and it was all the Beatles who’d made it like that.

Beyond their music itself, their greatest strengths were clarity of image and the way they balanced. It’s a truism that no pop format is any good unless it can be expressed in one sentence, but the Beatles went beyond that, they could each be said in one word: Lennon was the brutal one, McCartney was the pretty one, Ringo Starr was the lovable one, Harrison was the balancer. And if Lennon was tactless, McCartney was a natural diplomat. And if Harrison seemed dim, Lennon was very clever. And if Starr was clownish, Harrison was almost sombre. And if McCartney was arty, Starr was basic. Round and round in circles, no loose ends left over, and it all made for a comforting sense of completeness.

Completeness, in fact, was what the Beatles were all about. They were always perfectly self-contained, independent, as if the world was split cleanly into two races, the Beatles and everyone else, and they seemed to live off nobody but themselves.

There is a film of their first American press conference that expresses this perfectly. Hundreds of newsmen question them, close in and batter and hassle them but the Beatles aren’t reached. They answer politely, they make jokes, they’re most charming, but they’re never remotely involved, they’re private. They have their own club going and, really, they aren’t reachable. They are, after all, the Beatles.

Throughout this, they are very subtly playing image both ways—they are anti-stars and they’re superstars both. They use Liverpool accents, they’re being consciously working class and non-showbiz and anti-pretension but, in their own way, they’re distancing themselves, building up mystique for all they are worth. With every question that gets thrown at them, they spell it out more clearly: we are ordinary, modest, no-nonsense, unsentimental and entirely superhuman.

For some reason, such built-in arrogance hardly ever misses—it’s the same equation that the inherited rich sometimes have, the way that they can be charming, gentle, humble as hell and still you know you can’t ever get to them, they’re protected and finally, they only function among themselves. They’re in their own league and you’re insulted, you sneer but you’re hooked and, kid, would you ever like in.

This is the superstar format, the only one that really works, and the Beatles had it exactly, they were a whole new aristocracy in themselves. And, of course, they’d have been huge anyway, they’d have come through on their music and their prettiness alone, but it was this self-sufficiency, this calm acceptance of their own superiority, that made them so special.

Between them, the four of them being so complementary, they managed to appeal to almost everyone.

Lennon, for instance, trapped the intellectuals. He started writing books and he knocked out two regulation slim volumes, In His Own Write and Spaniard In The Works, stories, poems, doodled drawings and assorted oddments.. Mostly, they were exercises in sick, sadistic little sagas of deformity and death, written in a style halfway between Lewis Carroll and Spike Milligan.

Predictably, the critics took it all with great solemnity and, straightaway, Lennon was set up as cultural cocktail food, he got tagged as an instinctive poet of the proletariat, twisted voice of the underdog. He himself said that he only wrote for fun, to pass time, but no matter, he was turned into a heavy Hampstead cult.

Meanwhile, he sat around in discotheques and tore everyone to pieces. He was married and had a son. He lived in a big suburban mansion in Weybridge and he was sharp as a scythe. He wrote songs as if he was suffocating. Still, he was powerful and he generated a real sense of claustrophobia, he had great command of irony and he owned one of the best pop voices ever, rasped and smashed and brooding, always fierce. Painful and obsessive, his best songs have been no fun whatever but they’ve been strong: I Am The Walrus, A Day In The Life, Happiness Is A Warm Gun and, most racked of all, Strawberry Fields Forever.

On stage, he played monster and made small girls wet their knickers. He hunched up over the mike, very tight because he couldn’t see an inch without his glasses on, and he’d make faces, stick his tongue out, be offensive in every way possible. On Twist and Shout, he’d rant his way into total incoherence, half rupture himself. He’d grind like a cement mixer and micro-bops loved every last dirty word of him. No doubt, the boy had talent.

Paul McCartney played Dick Diver. He was stylish, charming, always elegant and, whenever he looked at you, he had this strange way of making you feel as if you were genuinely the only person in the world that mattered. Of course, he’d then turn away and do exactly the same thing with the next in line but, just that flash while it lasted, you were warmed and seduced and won over for always.

He was a bit hooked on culture: he went to all the right plays, read the right books, covered the right exhibitions and he even had a stage when he started diluting his accent. No chance—Lennon brought him down off that very fast indeed. Still, he educated himself in trends of all kinds and, when he was done, he emerged as a full-blown romantic, vastly sentimental, and he wrote many sad songs about many sad things, songs that were so soft and melodic that grannies everywhere bought them in millions.

In their different styles, then, both Lennon and McCartney had gotten arty and their music changed. In the first place, their work had been brash, raucous, and the lyrics very basic—She Loves You, Thank You Girl, I Saw Her Standing There. Good stuff, strong and aggressive, but limited. From about 1964 on though, they got hooked on the words of Bob Dylan and their lyrics, which had always been strictly literal, now became odder, quirkier, more surreal. Message and meaning: suddenly it was creative artist time.

My own feeling is that Lennon has heavy talent and that McCartney really hasn’t. He’s melodic, pleasant, inventive but he’s too much syrup.

Still, they do make a partnership: Lennon’s toughness plays off well against McCartney’s romanticism, Lennon’s verbal flair is complemented by McCartney’s knack of knocking out instantly attractive melody lines. They add up.

Of course, when McCartney runs loose with string quartets, some horribly mawkish things happen—Yesterday, She’s Leaving Home—but he has a certain saving humour and he’s usually just about walked the line.

At any rate, he looks sweet and more than anyone, he made the Beatles respectable at the start and he’s kept them that way, no matter what routines they’ve got involved in. Even when he confesses to taking acid or bangs on about meditation, he invariably looks so innocent, acts so cutely that he gets indulged, he’s always forgiven. Regardless, he is still a nice boy. Also, not to be overlooked, he is pretty and girls scream at him.

More than any of the others, though, it was Ringo Starr who came to sum the Beatles up.

ringo

America made him. In England, he was always a bit peripheral, he always sat at the back and kept his mouth shut but, when the Beatles hit New York, they were treated very much like some new line in cuddly toys, long-haired and hilarious, and Ringo stole it.

Big-nosed and dogeyed, he had a look of perpetual bewilderment and said hardly anything: “I haven’t got a smiling mouth or a talking face.” He only bumbled, came on like some pop Harry Langdon and women in millions ached to mother him. In fairness, it has to be said that this was not his fault—he looked that way by nature and couldn’t change.

Every now and then, out of deep silence, he’d emerge with some really classic line. No verbal gymnastics like Lennon, not even a joke—just one flat line, so mumbled and understated as to be almost non-existent.

My own favourite was his summing-up of life as a Beatle: “I go down to John’s place to play with his toys, and sometimes he comes down here to play with mine.”

He’s solid. When he got married, he chose no model, no starlet, but a girl from Liverpool, a hairdresser’s assistant. He’d known and gone steady with her for years. And when all the Beatles went meditating in India with the Maharishi, he said that it reminded him of Butlins and came home early.

Really, he summarizes everything that’s best in the English character—stability, tolerance, lack of pretension, humour, a certain built-in cool. He knows he’s not a great drummer and it doesn’t upset him. Not very much upsets him in fact: he only sits at home and plays records, watches television, shoots pool. Simply, he passes time.

He is hooked on Westerns and he loves new gadgets and he spends a lot of his time just playing. He sits with his wife and his children. Well, he may be slightly bored at times because he has nothing much to do any more but he isn’t too bothered and, quite genuinely, he would make out all right if the Beatles went broke on him and he had to get a nothing job again. No matter what, he ticks over.

George Harrison is more problematic.

To begin with, he wasn’t much more than a catcher, a trampoline for the others to bounce off. On stage, he’d set himself a little way back from the mike and play along without smiling. He hardly moved and he’d look cut off, vaguely bored.

His big moment used to be when he and Paul McCartney would suddenly bear down hard on the mike together and, cheeks almost touching, they’d shake their heads like mad. This gesture used to provoke more screams than almost anything else. But when it was over, Harrison never followed it up, he only dropped back and looked bored again.

In interviews, too, he was less than impressive. He was slower than the rest, less imaginative, and he tended to plod a bit. In every way, he was overshadowed by Lennon/McCartney.

At this stage, his most publicized interest was money and he got very tight with Epstein, who used to explain the complexities of Beatle finance to him. Epstein, who worshipped the Beatles and was greatly afraid of losing touch with them, loved this and used to speak of Harrison as his most favourite son.

george

Still, as Lennon/McCartney got increasingly arty, Harrison was stung and he began chasing. He went on a heavy intellectual streak himself.

First up, he got interested in Indian music and took lessons on sitar from Ravi Shankar. Second, he was to be seen flitting in and out of London Airport wearing beads and baggy white trousers. Third, he started writing Indian-style songs, all curry powder and souvenirs from the Taj Mahal, very solemn. And finally, he went up a mountain with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru to the stars, and came down again a convinced mystic. From here on, he was a philosopher, a sage, and his interviews were stuffed full of dicta, parables and eternal paradoxes. Sitting crosslegged in Virginia Water, he hid his face behind a beard, a moustache, two Rasputin eyes and he was almost unrecognizable as George Harrison, guitar-picker.

Ringo apart then, all of the Beatles had gone through heavy changes. In 1963, they’d epitomized everything that was anti-pretension: they’d been tough and funny and cool, merciless to outsiders, and they’d had the most murderous eyes for pomposity of any kind. That was one of their greatest attractions, their total lack of crapola and, even after they’d made it so huge, they didn’t lose out. Well, maybe they read more books, went to more theatres and so forth but, basically, they stayed as hard as ever. Paul McCartney wrote a few sentimental ballads, Harrison learned sitar. Lennon put smoked windows on his Rolls but the wit was still dry, the put-downs fierce, the lack of sell-out total.

It wasn’t until the release of Rubber Soul, Christmas 1965, that the cool first began to crack. Musically, this was the subtlest and most complex thing they’d done and lots of it was excellent, Drive My Car and Girl and You Won’t See Me, but there were also danger signals, the beat had softened and the lyrics showed traces of fake significance. One song at least, The Word, was utter foolishness and hardly anything had the raw energy of their earlier work, there was nothing as good as I Saw Her Standing There or I’m A Loser. Simply, the Beatles were softening up.

The next album, Revolver, was further on down the same line. Again, there was a big step forward in ingenuity and, again, there was a big step back in guts. Eleanor Rigby was clever but essentially sloppy. Harrison’s Love You To wasn’t even clever. And then there was Tomorrow Never Knows.

What had happened? In general, it was probably the inevitable effect of having so much guff written about them—they got told they were geniuses so often, they finally believed it, and began to act as such. In particular, it was acid.

In the context of this book, it doesn’t matter much whether acid was good or bad for them. All that counts is that it greatly changed them. Right then, they quit being just a rock group, Liverpool roughnecks with long hair and guitars and fast mouths, and they turned into mystics, would-be saints.

Soon after he’d owned up to using acid, early summer 1967, I did an interview with Paul McCartney and he was into a whole different level from anything I’d ever read by him before. No putdowns, no jokes, no frivolity whatever—he was most solemn and his eyes focused somewhere far beyond the back of my head. “God is in everything,” he said. “People who are hungry, who are sick and dying, should try to show love.”

Having gone through acid, the next inevitable step was that the Beatles went into meditation: George Harrison climbed his mountain with the Maharishi and soon the others had swung behind him, they’d renounced acid and devoted themselves to lives of total spirituality.

Undoubtedly, all of this was a major triumph for Harrison: it must have been sweet indeed to have Lennon and McCartney follow his lead, he made the most of it, he came out on TV and looked beatific and scattered dicta like chaff. “This is going to last all our lives,” he said, and he sat crosslegged on the floor.

Meanwhile, during the first weekend that the Beatles spent with the Maharishi, September 1967, Brian Epstein had died, aged thirty-two.

Inevitably, being so successful, he’d been the butt of much schnidery within the industry and, generally, he’d been rated pretty low. Paraphrased, the party line was that he was really a less-than-averagely shrewd businessman but he’d gotten lucky one time, very lucky, and he’d happened to be hanging round as the Beatles came by.

Also, beyond incompetence, he was meant to be weak, vain and maudlin. Most of this was true. Just the same, I liked him.

The main thing about him was that he wasn’t moronic, he wasn’t even entirely fascist. He wasn’t much criminal and he didn’t have people beaten up and he didn’t automatically scrabble on his knees each time someone dropped sixpence in a darkened discotheque. More, he read books and went to theatres and understood long words. No use denying it: he was intelligent.

By the conventions of British management, this was all eccentric to the edge of insanity and it changed things, it set new standards. After Epstein, managers became greatly humanized: they weren’t necessarily any more honest but they were less thuggish, altogether less primitive and, sometimes, they even liked pop itself.

Beyond the Beatles, of course, Epstein had handled whole Liverpudlian armies—Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer, Cilla Black, the Fourmost, Tommy Quickly. In the beginning, around 1963–4, these were all hugely successful but, mostly, they were light on talent and, Cilla excepted, they didn’t sustain. Still, Epstein always stayed remarkably loyal to them, never kicked them out. Partly this was due to injured pride, but partly it was conscience, principle, integrity—the whole bit.

Just how much did the Beatles really owe him? Well, he was no Svengali, no alchemist and, obviously, they would have happened without him. He wasn’t greatly imaginative, he pulled no outrageous strokes for them but he was steady, painstaking, and he didn’t flag. Occasionally, his inexperience betrayed him into raw deals but, taken overall, he worked well for them.

Most important, he was a mother figure—he cared for them, reassured them, agonized on them, nagged them, even wept for them. He needed them. Even towards the end, when they’d outgrown management and would no longer take orders from anyone, he was always there, always available, devoted and doggy as ever. He could always be fallen back upon. And, most of the time, his advice was good and they took it rightly. After all, in all the time he managed them, they never once made fools of themselves.

His major problem was anti-climax.

Having managed the Beatles, having helped make maybe the biggest entertainment phenomena of this century, he still had to manage the rest of his stable and he’d been a lonely, neurotic man at the best of times but, in his last two years, he got quite frantic—he financed bad plays that flopped and promoted tours, sponsored a bullfighter called Henry Higgins, turned the Saville Theatre into a would-be pop shrine, and he kept thrashing about for new diversions to keep himself amused. Nothing worked. Everything bored him.

Already, in the last days of Epstein’s life, the Maharishi had been taking his place as resident mother, as adviser and comforter in chief (a development that must have struck him as a betrayal), and now, with Epstein dead, the guru had the field all to himself. Like I said earlier on, meditation was a logical progression from acid, just because it did the exact same things for you as acid did, except that acid-love was artificially-induced and nirvana was natural. And so, when the Beatles jumped, half the hip end of pop followed dutifully behind them. Donovan and the Beach Boys and Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon and the Doors, and the Maharishi’s Indian headquarters got all clogged up with hair and hippie beads.

As for the guru himself, he was less than impressive and, by spring 1968, the Beatles had left him.

letit be

Meanwhile, Christmas 1967, they’d shown Magical Mystery Tour, their first self-produced film, and it was bad; it was a total artistic disaster. It was the first real failure they’d ever had but still it made profits and hardly weakened them at all. That’s just how secure they’d become—they were establishment, institutionalised, and nothing could touch them.

More important, they launched Apple. In the beginning, this was conceived as a huge artistic and business complex, covering records and films, merchandising and electronics and music publishing, TV and literature, plus any other assorted media that might arise, and it was going to straddle the world in one vast benevolent network, handing out alms to anyone and everyone that deserved them. Young poets that couldn’t get published, musicians and designers and inventors, unrecognized talents, everyone, they were to come straight to Apple and the Beatles would review their case in person, the Beatles would help.

Inevitably, such saintliness was short-lived: the Beatles promptly found themselves besieged by massed no-talents and maniacs and charlatans, bummers of all descriptions, and they began to cut back fast. Within a year, the whole Utopian structure had boiled down to not much more than one indie record label, no better and no worse than any other.

Undeterred, the Beatles plunged on headlong into project after abortive project—there was a full-length cartoon film, Yellow Submarine, which did nothing much in England and cleaned up in the States, and there was a stage adaptation of John Lennon’s In His Own Write, which was successful, and there was also a John Lennon art exhibition, which wasn’t, and there was an excursion into boutique-management, which was a mistake, and, finally, there was a mammoth double-album ninety minutes and thirty tracks long, which was mostly just boring. And John Lennon got divorced from his wife and took up with Yoko Ono, a Japanese lady, and, between them, they came up with an album full of squeaks and squawks, Two Virgins, with nude pictures of themselves all over its cover. And Paul McCartney called Lennon a saint. And George Harrison wrote further mock-Orientalisms on the soundtrack of a film called Wonderwall. And Ringo Starr, of course, went right on shooting snooker.

In America and in England, they have become two entirely separate things: in the States, where pop is followed with great solemnity by almost everyone intelligent under the age of thirty, there are still many people who take them seriously, who see them as divinities and hang upon their every utterance, while in England, where pop remains mostly entertainment, they’re seen as cranks, millionaire eccentrics in the grand manner, vaguely regrettable, maybe, but quite harmless.

Either way, they continue to sell records in millions, they’re still flying, they’re up so high by now that nothing can bring them back down again. Simply, they’ve gone beyond.

The thing that fascinates me most in all this is that it’s happened so fast, that it’s taken only five years for ultimate hardheadedness to get changed into ultimate inanity, and I’m puzzled. There are, of course, lots of easy explanations—too much acid, too many ego-trips, too much money and success and wasteable time—and maybe the easiest answers are the right ones after all but, myself, I’m not so sure, I sense that there’s something here that I don’t yet understand, that’s only going to become clear in retrospect.

In any case, they’re still young, they have time to return inside their skulls and then, just possibly, they’ll do what they promised in the first place, they’ll purge pop of pretension. Meanwhile, though, they’ve only killed off one style in bullshit to replace it with another.

roof

From here on in, I have only one or two final evaluations to make and then I’m through. First, their music.

What do I say? They’re good. They have talent and Lennon/McCartney are the most inventive, wide-ranging and melodically ingenious writers pop has produced. They’ve added whole new dimensions to pop, they have introduced unthought-of sophistications, complexities and subtleties. And Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, their best album, really was quite an impressive achievement.

For all this, I don’t enjoy them much and I’m not at all convinced that they’ve been good for pop. So all right, the Beatles make good music, they really do, but since when was pop anything to do with good music?

Sergeant Pepper was genuinely a breakthrough—it was the first ever try at making a pop album into something more than just twelve songs bundled together at random. It was an overall concept, an attitude: we are the Lonely Hearts Club Band, everyone is, and these are our songs. It was ideas, allusions, pastiches, ironies. In other words, it was more than noise. Some of the songs were dire (Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, She’s Leaving Home, Within You Without You) and others were pretty but nothing (When I’m 64, With A Little Help From My Friends) and a few really worked out (Lovely Rita, A Day In The Life, I’m Fixing A Hole and Sergeant Pepper itself). In any case, the individual tracks didn’t matter much—what counted was that it all hung together, that it made sense as a whole. Added up, it came to something quite ambitious, it made strange images of isolation, and it sustained. It was flawed but, finally, it worked.

So, if Sergeant Pepper passes, what am I grousing for? Well, it did work in itself, it was cool and clever and controlled. Only, it wasn’t much like pop. It wasn’t fast, flash, sexual, loud, vulgar, monstrous or violent. It made no myths.

And why should the Beatles limit themselves to pop? Why can’t they just expand and progress as they want, not thinking about categories? No reason—they’re responsible only to themselves and they can work whichever way they like.

The only thing is that, without pop, without its image and its flash and its myths, they don’t add up to much. They lose their magic boots and then they’re human like anyone else, they become updated Cole Porters, smooth and sophisticated, boring as hell. Admittedly, the posh Sundays say they’re Art and that’s true but, after all, what’s so great about Art? What does it have on Superpop?

The way I like it, pop is all teenage property and it mirrors everything that happens to teenagers in this time, in this American twentieth century. It is about clothes and cars and dancing, it’s about parents and high school and being tied and breaking loose, it is about getting sex and getting rich and getting old, it’s about America, it’s about cities and noise. Get right down to it, it’s all about Coca Cola.

And, in the beginning, that’s what the Beatles were about, too, and they had gimmick haircuts, gimmick uniforms, gimmick accents to prove it. They were, at last, the great British pop explosion and, even when their songs were trash, you could hear them and know it was mid-twentieth century, Liverpool U.S.A., and these boys were coke drinkers from way back.

They’ve changed. They don’t belong to their own time or place any more, they’ve flown away into limbo. And there are maybe a million acid-heads, pseudo-intellectuals, muddled schoolchildren and generalized freaks who have followed them there but the mass teen public has been lumbered.

What’s more, because the Beatles are so greatly worshipped by the rest of pop, most every group in the world pursues them and apes them and kneels at their feet, and that’s why there’s no more good fierce rock ‘n’ roll music now, no more honest trash.

And at least, with the Beatles, there has always been a certain talent and wit at work but, with their successors, there’s been little but pretensions. Groups like Family and the Nice in England, the Grateful Dead and Iron Butterfly in America, they’re crambos by nature and that’s fine, they could be knocking out three-chord rock and everyone would be happy. But, after the Beatles and Bob Dylan, they’ve got into Art and so they’ve wallowed in third-form poetries, fifth-hand philosophies, ninth-rate perceptions. And, who’ve lost out? Teenagers have.

In America, admittedly, kids have tended to take anything they’ve been given and like it, they’ve come to talk in the same crapola terms as their groups. But in England, they’ve mostly shrugged and walked away, record sales have crashed and everything’s gone stale.

It’s bad: originally, in the fifties, the whole point about rock was its honesty, the way it talked so straight after all those years of showbiz blag, and now it’s become just as fake as Tin Pan Alley ever was.

So it isn’t really their fault, you could hardly blame them, but, indirectly, the Beatles have brought pop to its knees. It’ll get back up again, it must do because somehow it’s needed, but I don’t think it’ll be the Beatles who’ll revive it, I think it’s already too late for that.

In some sense, they have opted out and they can hardly come back in again. They’ll keep progressing, they’ll make better music yet and they won’t ever fall. Only, in thirty years, I don’t think they’ll have meant so much as Elvis Presley.

In the end, Bert Berns may still have summed them up better than anyone.

As I mentioned in an earlier chapter, Berns was a most shrewd man and he understood pop perfectly. And one afternoon, about three years ago, he sat in some decaying West Hampstead café and looked gloomy over a picture of the Beatles. Then he shook his head in infinite sage sadness. “Those boys have genius,” he said. “They may be the ruin of us all.”

 

Run to Daylight!

11-Vince-Lombardi

A couple of days ago I posted an excerpt of W.C. Heinz’s Vince Lombardi book, Run to Daylight!, over at The Daily Beast.

It also includes a preface by David Maraniss that can also be found in a new 50th anniversary edition of the book.

Check it outski.

BGS: Tyson the Terrible

From our man Pete, republished with her permission, this story originally appeared in Playboy back in 1988.

Mike-Tyson-001

By Pete Dexter

Back in the early Sixties, when Floyd Patterson was still heavyweight champion of the world, an intelligent and high-spirited boxing writer named Jack McKinney was passing an afternoon in Darien, Connecticut, with Cus D’Amato, talking, among other things, about Patterson’s upcoming fight with Sonny Liston. D’Amato, of course, was Patterson’s manager.
P

In its way, it was a melancholy conversation. The question was not if Liston would win but if Patterson—a limited fighter—would be maimed. D’Amato cared more for the fighter than the title.P

“Cus had vision,” McKinney said, “but he didn’t need it to see what was about to happen to Patterson.”P

And then, after they talked about Patterson and Liston, and the way things were and the way they ought to be, D’Amato leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling and began to talk about a different kind of fighter.
P

He told McKinney that if he could find the right athlete—someone with intelligence, concentration, hand speed, coordination and courage, who had never boxed a minute—he could turn that athlete into a world champion.P

The guess is that my friend McKinney—who had once disappeared from his job at thePhiladelphia Daily News for most of a week, only to surface in Sandusky, Ohio, knocking out a professional middleweight fighter in a four-round preliminary—began to think this might be his own shot at the title. But no.P

“He wanted someone fresh, who hadn’t been around boxing,” McKinney said. “Usually, by the time you were good enough to be noticed by Cus, you had acquired habits that couldn’t be changed. Things had been set in motion.”P

D’Amato eventually got such an athlete into the ring, but nothing came of it. At least, not right away.P


Six or seven years after that conversation in Connecticut, a child was born in an unhealthy part of Brooklyn called Bedford-Stuyvesant to a woman named Lorna Tyson. He was the youngest of her three children and the most like her—timid, soft-spoken, shy. He played mostly with his sister. On the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, he was sometimes called “little fairy boy,” and no place outside his apartment was safe for him. When the boy was ten, his mother moved from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Brownsville, which is also in Brooklyn. The neighborhoods are different in that in Brownsville, the weak and the timid are not teased, they are eaten. The boy was beaten up again and again; his shoes were stolen; the little money he had belonged to whoever saw him first.
P

He kept pigeons on the roof and called them his “babies.” I am thinking now of his square, dimpled hands stroking and feeding his babies; I am thinking of the revelation that must have come when he finally used them as weapons. The story, of course, has been told. Ten-year-old Michael Tyson, who would turn over his shoes or his coat or his money, drew the line at his pigeons.
P

An older boy tried to take one of them away, and Michael began to swing. The revelation was not so much that he won the fight but how much he enjoyed it.P

“I was beating the shit out of this guy,” he said, “and I was so happy. To this day, it makes me happy. The fight itself, when all the talk is over and there is nothing left to say, nothing else to do but fight. That’s the best part, in the ring. The rest of it, being the champion, I don’t get so much pleasure from that as you might think.”P

So young Michael kicked the shit out of the kid who had tried to steal his pigeon; then he kicked the shit out of some of the kids who had stolen his clothes and money; and then he kicked the shit out of a bunch of people who just seemed to need the shit kicked out of them.P

Noticing this, members of the Brownsville community began to include him in their activities. “They held the guns,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1986.”I just put everything in a bag. I was 11.”
P

The stealing bothered Michael’s mother, and it bothered the cashiers in the stores that were being held up, and eventually it bothered the police. And so, just when he’d finally adjusted to Brooklyn, Michael found himself moving to the Tyron School for Boys in Upstate New York, which is sort of a prep school for youngsters trying to get into Attica.P

And it was there, at the age of 13, that he met Bobby Stewart, who taught him the fundamentals of boxing. Five years before, Stewart had been the 178-pound national Golden Gloves champion, which is to say he could fight. Within a few months, however, Tyson was giving him all he could handle.P

Stewart took the boy to his friend Cus D’Amato, who watched him spar three rounds, talked with him a few minutes and saw the fighter he had been waiting for all his life.P

D’Amato had become reclusive in the last years, at least as distrustful of the Don Kings and Bob Arums as he had been of guys like Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo back when they owned and operated the sport. He lived in a large farmhouse outside Catskill, New York, overlooking the Hudson River, and trained his fighters in the gym on the third floor of Citizens Hose Company, in town.P

He educated the boy in his house and in his gym; and if you were looking for the difference between Mike Tyson and the other fighters D’Amato had taught, it probably lay in the depth of Tyson’s understanding of the things D’Amato was teaching him.P

It is one thing to know what words mean and accept them, it is another thing to believe them. You may understand intellectually that courage is not a constant in anyone and that discipline is—or can be. Discipline will get you through the times when your courage fades. But for discipline to help when everything inside you is suddenly calling in sick, you have to believe it. It has to be true, or it’s useless.
P

So what I mean by teaching is not that D’Amato put anything inside Tyson but that he showed him where it was and how to use it. At any rate, Tyson stayed with D’Amato in the house overlooking the Hudson until the old man died on November 4, 1985. He was 77 years old. Tyson was 19, a professional fighter for only eight months. His mother was dead. He had fought 13 times and knocked 13 people out. Nine in the first round.P

The funeral for Cus D’Amato was held at a Catholic church in Catskill, and among the pallbearers were two men who would guide Mike Tyson the rest of the way to the championship, Kevin Rooney and Jimmy Jacobs. Rooney had been one of D’Amato’s fighters, too—a tenacious welterweight who had fought successfully without exceptional tools—and would take over as Tyson’s trainer.P

Jacobs was one of Tyson’s co-managers and was as devoted to the old man in his way as the kid was. He is the owner—along with Tyson’s other manager, Bill Cayton—of the greatest collection of fight films in existence. The number is close to 26,000. He and D’Amato used to show up in Philadelphia from time to time and show them at benefits for retired fighters. He was also arguably the greatest handball player who ever lived, and perhaps because of his own success as an athlete, he could appreciate boxing and its players the way D’Amato appreciated it—in a pure way, for the sport itself. Jacobs did not need to see himself in its reflection—not now, not back in the Sixties, when D’Amato had talked with him, just as he had talked with McKinney, about taking an athlete who had never fought a round and turning him into a world champion. The difference being that the athlete D’Amato had sought was Jacobs himself.P


A year and two weeks after D’Amato’s funeral, Jacobs and Rooney had Mike Tyson in a boxing ring at the Las Vegas Hilton with a heavyweight fighter named Trevor Berbick, whom you would call undistinguished, except that he happened to be the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion of the world.P

Berbick had once survived 15 rounds with Larry Holmes—the first man to do that after Holmes became champion—but he hadn’t tried to win, only to last; and in the end, the distinction of staying 15 rounds was forfeit to his lack of ambition.P

At any rate, it was the wrong night for Berbick to try to make things right. The wrong night and the wrong ring and the wrong opponent. You never know what gets into somebody else’s head, but Berbick went right at Tyson—a man with twice his ability—tried to back him up, and in two rounds he was gone.P

And Mike Tyson, 20 years old, was the youngest heavyweight champion in the history of the sport. That night, he said he felt Cus watching.P

I don’t know.P

I’ve never been much of a believer in being watched by the dead, but I do know that Michael Spinks, the man who had taken Larry Holmes’s International Boxing Federation title, was watching at ringside and shortly afterward backed out of the contract he had signed with Home Box Office to fight the winner of a heavyweight-champion elimination match between Tyson and the World Boxing Association champion.P

On one hand, you cannot fault Spinks. One minute, you’re fighting Tyson, the next, you’re up there with Cus, watching the doctors work over your body.
P

On the other hand, what Spinks did seemed to drop him into the same category as the other heavyweight “champions” of recent years—guys like Berbick and Pinklon Thomas and Greg Page and Tim Witherspoon and Bonecrusher Smith and Michael Dokes—who had cheapened what was once the most prestigious title in sports until it had no meaning.P

You cannot talk about cheapening the heavyweight title, of course, without mentioning the three ruling bodies of boxing—the W.B.C., the W.B.A. and the I.B.F., each of which has the integrity of a Cleveland pimp. In the long years since boxing was divided into ruling bodies, you sometimes forgot that being heavyweight champion of the world was once a serious job.P

And part of what Tyson holds out is a return to that. It is part of his appeal, a return to a time when the heavyweight champion of the world could fight.P

The night I decided to write a piece on Mike Tyson, I was sitting on the couch watching theDick Cavett Show with my dog McGuire. I have been trying to teach the animal the rudiments or house watching for a long time, without results.P

The scarier somebody looks, the friendlier he gets. A Hell’s Angel once gave him a hamburger at a Burger King and he never forgot it.P

So you start at the other end, with a twerp.”You see that guy in the suit’” I said to him when Cavett came on. “Anybody like that comes near the house, you fuck him up, all right? Him and his suit.” P

McGuire studied the set a long time, memorizing Dick Cavett. I had the sudden thought that l might get him on David Letterman’s show, which features a segment called “Stupid Pet Tricks.”P

“Well, Dave, McGuire here fucks up Dick Cavett…” and they bring Cavett in, and the dog breaks his legs. Then I take him to Burger King as a reward.P

And so, not wanting to distract the dog from Dick Cavett, I left the television on and went into the kitchen for some Oreo cookies, which McGuire loves. If a Hell’s Angel had given him an Oreo cookie, he’d be riding around on the back of a Harley right now.P

Anyway, by the time I got back to the couch, Cavett was talking with Mike Tyson, dazzling him with that precious twerp wit. And then Cavett, in as memorable an attack of little man’s disease as I have ever seen, stood up, in front of a television audience that must have run into the thousands, and induced Tyson to try to hold on to his (Cavett’s) wrists.P

Tyson moaned. You could see he did not want to grab Dick Cavett’s wrists; you could see he was embarrassed by what was happening.P

Cavett insisted.P

Tyson took his wrists.P

“Now hold on,” Cavett said.P

Tyson held on.P

Cavett made an oblique reference to his 80-some-year-old martial-arts instructor and then moved his arm against the place where Tyson’s thumb met his fingers and pulled free. This, obviously, is invaluable stuff to anyone grabbed by the wrists on television and, just as obviously, means that hidden underneath the wonderful suit and all that wit is a very dangerous guy who can probably handle himself with the ladies, too.P

And I wondered, sitting there as McGuire finished the Oreos, what a 20-year-old kid made of rich little white guys who wanted him to hold on to their wrists, and decided to ask.P


I caught up with Mike Tyson a month or two later in Catskill, New York. It was two months before the fight with Bonecrusher Smith, his first day in the gym since taking the title from Berbick.P

The gym had once been an auditorium, and Tyson was undressing in a room off to one side of the stage. Jeans, a sweat shirt, tennis shoes. I think there was an American flag in the corner. One of the truly horrifying things about Tyson is that in loose clothes, he looks pudgy, like somebody you might pick on in a bar. Alright, that is not exactly all of it.P

What is horrifying is the similarity to the movie Alien, in which Sigourney Weaver and a bunch of ordinary guys are sitting around having lunch in space when all of a sudden, one of them goes into convulsions and this awful thing eats its way out of his chest and leaves him lying there in his plate. I mean, you’re just naturally terrified to find out somebody you might know has something like that inside. P

And there is something like that inside Tyson, and he isn’t the one who gets eaten.P

Anyway, thoughts of pudginess disappear as he takes off his shirt. He is not the most muscular heavyweight I have seen, but there has never been another, at least to my knowledge, who carried as much muscle and could fight as long without seeming to tire. A lot of that is conditioning, of course, but a lot of it is simply a gift, like speed or natural power.P

Tyson covers his chest and arms in grease and then slips into a black leotard. “I like this,” he said. “It feels good.”P

I ask him then, while he’s tying his boots, what it’s like to grow up in the streets, get saved by Cus D’Amato and turned into a professional fighter, fight all the way to the top and knock out Trevor Berbick in two rounds for the title and then have Dick Cavett get up on national television and ask you to hold his wrists. P

“That didn’t bother me much,” he said in that familiar soft voice. “I think they must pay him to act like that; I don’t know why. There’s always somebody wanting to tell you something about a fight they had—might go back to sixth grade. I don’t pay too much attention. Or they tell you how bad they were, but their mother made them stop boxing. I don’t know what to say to somebody like that. I don’t even know for sure what they want.P

“I’m a serious person, but I don’t take this for more than it is. I like the fights themselves; I love that moment before it starts when you’re scared and excited and you know it’s time. The talk doesn’t mean much. I’m not going to tell anybody how bad I am; I’ll do that in the ring.P

“And when I’m through in the ring, that’s it. I’ll find something else. You’ve got such a short time. You can’t go around being the legendary champion because that’s what people expect you to be.” P

That is one of the things that bother Tyson about his celebrity—the obligations to people he does not know. “Society puts these things on you,” he said. “Some of them are saying you are insensitive to be part of this brutality; they don’t know the first thing about who you are. At the same time, here are all these articulate people they look up to, sitting in the best seats at the fight. What about that?P

“I do not see that I’ve got to be the focus of a bunch of bullshit. I do what I do. You’ll never hear anybody leaving this camp thinking anything bad about me. I don’t try to hurt anybody in the gym; I leave the 16-ounce gloves on, even if somebody else is wearing 12s. I will always put myself at the disadvantage; that’s when you learn. P

“I have my fights, and people say things about them. About me. But you can’t confuse that with what I am and what I do. Fighting is all I do, but I’m something else besides the fighter.”P

And somehow, that is at the core of things. Think of the heavyweights over the past 30 years. Patterson, who hid behind beards and sunglasses after Liston beat him, and never really quit hiding. Liston, dead from an overdose, probably murdered. Muhammad Ali, the best and the brightest, fogged in and showing up from time to time with Evil Knievel. Joe Frazier, who never learned to live with his losses to Ali, sending his own kids into the ring with Larry Holmes and then with Tyson, when the kid had no chance. Holmes, who has never learned to live on the same planet as Ali, and, assuming his comeback fight with Tyson comes off, never learned from him, either. Leon Spinks.P

All of them out of place in the world, because after the ring they had no place.P


A few minutes later, Tyson is in the ring. The fighter with him is a new sparring partner, who has come in with his trainer. I do not know exactly what the fighter and his trainer have in mind for the afternoon, but as soon as they see that Tyson spars without headgear, the sparring partner removes his.P

He begins the round moving to his left, away from Tyson’s hook, throwing jabs. There is some feeling that Tyson is vulnerable to a fighter who moves and can jab, and the sparring partner is clearly here to take some rounds from the champion. P

Fifteen seconds into the round, however, Tyson throws a jab of his own—it is not a slow punch, but it carries all his weight—and staggers the sparring partner. The sparring partner is shocked; I am shocked. Tyson isn’t supposed to have a jab.P

The first fighter who took Tyson the distance, in fact, was a man named Quick Tillis, and Tyson went 10 rounds that night without throwing any jabs that I remember. If he had thrown jabs, Tillis would not have been there at the end.P

The hand is gone from the sparring partner’s face less than half a second when it returns from the side—a hook, and then a right hand. A minute and a half into the round, the new sparring partner is holding his head, defenseless, and Tyson, not wanting to embarrass him, pulls his punches and holds, giving him time to recover; but the new sparring partner has lost interest, and Tyson stops altogether.P

For the ten or 15 seconds it takes the sparring partner to get through the ropes, Tyson ignores him. It is exactly as if he wasn’t there.P

Another sparring partner comes into the ring, a good-natured journeyman heavyweight named Irish Mike Jameson, who goes the rest of that round and two more. Jameson is not quick enough, but he takes a punch well and is not afraid to mix it up.P

He is the kind of fighter who makes Tyson look unbeatable, which right now he may be. No one in the division boxes well enough to keep him off—witness Tyrell Biggs—no one with enough power and speed to stand in one spot and trade.P

Three times in Tyson’s career—against Quick Tillis, Mitch Green and Bonecrusher Smith—he has been taken to a decision, but each of those opponents gave up on winning early (if any considered winning) and held on to Tyson for the entire fight.P

You cannot win like that, of course, but you get to live.P

At least for now. It would seem to be only a matter of time before Tyson reacts better to holding, giving up some of the powerful arc punches for shorter, straighter jabs and rights. It is a harder proposition to hold on to someone who is three feet away, on the other side of the fist, than it is to hold someone who is standing under your chin, trying to reach your head with off-angle hooks. But I’m going to leave that end of things to Tyson and Rooney.P

What I am more interested in is what happens after that.P

Tyson is still a kid.P

He seems to know things that 21-year-old kids shouldn’t know, and some of that—most of it—comes from Cus D’Amato.P

In the end, though, you drive your own wagon. When the training and the fighting are over, when things are not clean-cut, the way they are in the ring, and the old man’s words are not so fresh, it will be easier to talk about who Tyson is. I know this much about it—there will be something to talk about.P

Tyson is smart; he feels things; he has standards.P

D’Amato did not teach that; he helped him find it.P

The old man was a visionary, and it did not begin or end with boxing. When he saw Tyson, I think he saw the rarest kind of heavyweight there is:P

The one who would not break his heart.P

[Photo Credit: Richard Harbus/Corbis]

The Power and the Gory

Here’s a powerful story from my pal Paul Solotaroff. It originally appeared in the Village Voice (1990) and it is presented here with the author’s permission.

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“The Power and the Gory”

By Paul Solotaroff

Half the world was in mortal terror of him. He had a sixty-inch chest, twenty-three-inch arms, and when the Anadrol and Bolasterone backed up in his bloodstream, his eyes went as red as the laser scope on an Uzi. He threw people through windows, and chased them madly down Hempstead Turnpike when they had the temerity to cut him off. And in the gym he owned in Farmingdale, the notorious Mr. America’s, if he caught you looking at him while he trained, you generally woke up, bleeding, on the pavement outside. Half out of his mind on androgens and horse steroids, he had this idea that being looked at robbed him of energy, energy that he needed to leg-press two thousand pounds. Nonetheless, one day a kid walked up to him between sets and said, “I want to be just like you, Steve Michalik. I want to be Mr. America and Mr. Universe.”

“Yeah?” said Michalik in thick contempt. “How bad do you think you want it?”

“Worse than anything in the world,” said the kid, a scrawny seven-teen-year-old with more balls than biceps. “I can honestly say that I would die for a body like yours.”

“Well, then you probably will,” snorted Michalik. “Meet me down at the beach tomorrow at six A.M. sharp. And if you’re like even half a minute late …”

The kid was there at six A.M. pronto, freezing his ass off in a raggedy hood and sweats. “What do we do first?” he asked.

“Swim,” grunted Michalik, dragging him into the ocean. Twenty yards out, Michalik suddenly seized the kid by his scalp and pushed him under a wave. The kid flailed punily, wriggling like a speared eel. A half minute, maybe forty-five seconds, passed before Michalik let the kid up, sobbing out sea water. He gave the kid a breath, then shoved him down again, holding him under this time until the air bubbles stopped, whereupon he dragged him out by the hood and threw him, gasping, on the beach.

“When you want the title as bad as you wanted that last fucking breath,” sneered Michalik, “then and only then can you come talk to me.”

For himself, Michalik only wanted two things anymore. He wanted to walk on stage at the Beacon Theater on November 15, 1986, professional bodybuilding’s Night of Champions, and just turn the joint out with his 260 pounds of ripped, stripped, and shrink-wrapped muscle. And then, God help him, he wanted to die. Right there, in front of everybody, with all the flashbulbs popping, be wanted to drop dead huge and hard at the age of thirty-nine, and leave a spectacular corpse behind.

The pain, you see, had become just unendurable. Ten years of shot-gunning steroids had turned his joints into fish jelly and spiked his blood pressure so high he had to pack his nose to stop the bleeding. He’d been pissing blood for months, and what was coming out of him now was brown, pure protoplasm that his engorged liver hadn’t the wherewithal to break down. And when he came home from the gym at night, his whole body was in spasm. His eight-year-old boy, Steve Junior, had to pack his skull in ice, trying to take the top 10 percent off his perpetual migraine.

“I knew it was all over for me,” Michalik says. “Every system in my body was shot, my testicles had shrunk to the size of cocktail peanuts. It was only a question of which organ was going to explode on me first.

“See, we’d all of us [professional bodybuilders] been way over the line for years, and it was like, suddenly, all the bills were coming in. Victor Faizowitz took so much shit that his brain exploded. The Aldactazone [a diuretic] sent his body temperature up to one hundred twelve degrees, and he literally melted to death. Another guy, an Egyptian bodybuilder training for the Mr. Universe contest, went the same way, a massive hemorrhage from head to toe—died bleeding out of every orifice. And Tommy Sansone, a former Mr. America who’d been my very first mentor in the gym, blew out his immune system on Anadrol and D-ball [Dianabol], and died of tumors all over his body.

“As for me, I couldn’t wait to join ‘em. I had so much evil in me from all the drugs I was taking that I’d go home at night and ask God why be hadn’t killed me yet. And then, in the next breath, I’d say, ‘Please, I know I’ve done a lot of terrible things—sold steroids to kids, beaten the shit out of strangers—but please don’t let me go out like a sucker, God. Please let me die hitting that last pose at the Beacon, with the crowd on its feet for a second standing O.’”

Michalik’s prayers might better have been addressed to a liver specialist. Two weeks before the show, he woke up the house at four in the morning with an excruciating pain beneath his rib cage. His wife, Thomasina, long since practiced at such emergencies, ran off to fetch some ice.

“Fuck the ice,” he groaned. “Call Dr. Ludwig.”

Dr. Arthur Ludwig, a prominent endocrinologist who had been treating Michalik on and off for a number of years, was saddened but unsurprised by the call. “Frankly,” he told Michalik, “I’ve been expecting it now for ages. Your friends have been telling me lately how bad you’ve been abusing the stuff, especially for the last five years.”

That he certainly had. Instead of cycling on and off of steroids, giving his body here and there a couple months’ recuperation, Michalik had been juicing pretty much constantly since 1976, shooting himself with fourteen different drugs and swallowing copious amounts of six or seven others. Then there was all the speed he was gulping—bennies, black beauties—to get through his seven-hour workouts, and the handful of downs at night to catch four hours of tortuous sleep.

There, at any rate, Michalik was, doubled over in bed at four in the morning, his right side screaming like a bomb had gone off in it.

“You’d better get him to New York Hospital as fast as you can,” Ludwig told Michalik’s wife over the phone. “They’ve got the best liver specialist on the East Coast there. I’ll meet you in his office in an hour.”

At the hospital, they pumped Michalik full of morphine and took a hasty sonogram upstairs. The liver specialist, a brusque Puritan who’d been apprised of Michalik’s steroid usage, called him into his office.

“See this?” he pointed to the sonogram, scarcely concealing a sneer. “This is what’s left of your liver, Mr. Michalik. And these”—indicating the four lumps grouped inside it, one of them the size of a ripe grapefruit—”these are hepatic tumors. You have advanced liver cancer, sir.”

“I do?” grinned Michalik, practically hugging himself for joy. “How long you think I’ve got?”

“Mr. Michalik, do you understand what I’m telling you?” snapped the doctor, apparently miffed that his news hadn’t elicited operatic grief. “You have cancer, and will be dead within weeks or days if I don’t operate immediately. And frankly, your chances of surviving surgery are—”

“Surgery!” blurted Michalik, looking at the man as if he were bonkers. “You’re not coming near me with a knife. That would leave a scar.” The doctor was with perfect justice about to order Michalik out of his office when Ludwig walked in. He took a long look at the sonogram and announced that surgery was out of the question. Michalik’s liver was so compromised, he would undoubtedly die on the table. Besides, Ludwig adjudged, those weren’t tumors at all. They were something rarer by far but no less deadly: steroid-induced cysts, or thick sacs of blood and muscle, that were full to bursting—and growing.

He ordered Michalik strapped down—the least movement now could perforate the cysts—and wheeled upstairs to intensive care. The next twenty-four hours, he declared, would tell the tale. If, deprived of steroids, the cysts stopped growing, there was a small chance that Michalik might come out of this. If, on the other hand, they fed on whatever junk he’d injected the last couple of days—well, he’d get his wish, at any rate, to die huge.

Michalik knew it was the liver, of course. He might have been heedless, but he was hardly uninformed. In fact, he knew so much about steroids that he’d written a manual on their use, and gone on the Today show to debate doctors about their efficacy. Like the steroid gurus of southern California, Michalik was a self-taught sorcerer whose laboratory was his body. From the age of eleven, he’d read voraciously in biochemistry, obsessed about finding out what made people big. He walked the streets of Brooklyn as a teenager, knocking on physicians’ doors, begging to be made enlightened about protein synthesis. And years later he scoured the Physicians’ Desk Reference from cover to cover, searching not for steroids but for other classes of drugs whose secondary function was to grow muscle.

Steroids, Michalik knew, were a kind of God’s play, a way of rewriting his own DNA. He’d grown up skinny and hating himself to his very cell level. According to Michalik, his father, a despotic drunk with enormous forearms, beat him with whatever was close to hand, and smashed his face, for fun, into a plate of mashed potatoes.

“I was small and weak, and my brother Anthony was big and graceful, and my old man made no bones about loving him and hating me,” Michalik recalls. “The minute I walked in from school, it was, ‘You worthless little shit, what are you doing home so early?’ His favorite way to torture me was to tell me he was going to put me in a home. We’d be driving along in Brooklyn somewhere, and we’d pass a building with iron bars on the windows, and he’d stop the car and say to me, ‘Get out. This is the home we’re putting you in.’ I’d be standing there, sobbing on the curb—I was maybe eight or nine at the time—and after a while he’d let me get back into the car and drive off laughing at his little joke.”

Fearful and friendless throughout childhood—even his brother was leery of being seen with him—Michalik hid out in comic books and Steve Reeves movies, burning to become huge and invulnerable. At thirteen, he scrubbed toilets in a Vic Tanny spa just to be in the presence of that first generation of iron giants—Eddie Juliani and Leroy Colbert, among others. At twenty, stationed at an Air Force base in Southeast Asia, he ignored sniper fire and the 120-degree heat to bench-press a cinder-block barbell in an open clearing, telling the corps psychiatrist that he couldn’t be killed because it was his destiny to become Mr. America. And at thirty-four, years after he’d forgotten where be put all his trophies, he was still crawling out of bed at two in the morning to eat his eighth meal of the day because he still wasn’t big enough. As always, there was that fugitive inch or two missing, that final heft without which he wouldn’t even take his shirt off on the beach—for fear that everyone would laugh.

And so, of course, there were steroids. They’d been around since at least the mid-1930s, when Hitler had them administered to his SS thugs to spike their bloodlust. By the fifties, the eastern bloc nations were feeding them to school kids, creating a generation of bioengineered athletes. And in the late sixties, anabolics hit the beaches of California, as U.S. drug companies discovered that there was a vast new market out there of kids who’d swallow anything to double their pecs and their pleasure.
The dynamics of anabolic steroids have been pretty well understood for years. Synthetic variations of the male hormone testosterone, they enter the bloodstream as chemical messengers and attach themselves to muscle cells. Once attached to these cells, they deliver their twofold message: grow, and increase endurance.

Steroids accomplish the first task by increasing the synthesis of protein. In sufficient quantities, they turn the body into a kind of fusion engine, converting everything, including fat, into mass and energy. A chemical bodybuilder can put on fifty pounds of muscle in six months because most of the 6,000 to 10,000 calories he eats a day are incorporated, not excreted.

The second task—increasing endurance—is achieved by stimulating the synthesis of a molecule called creatine phosphate, or CP. CP is essentially hydraulic fluid for muscles, allowing them to do more than just a few seconds’ work. The more CP you have in your tank, the more power you generate. Olympic weightlifters and defensive linemen have huge stockpiles of CP, some portion of which is undoubtedly genetic. The better part of it, though, probably comes out of a bottle of Anadrol, a popular oral steroid that makes you big, strong, and savage—and not necessarily in that order.

Over the course of eleven years, Michalik had taken ungodly amounts of Anadrol. If his buddies were taking two 50 mg tablets a day, he took four. Six weeks later, when he started to plateau, he jacked the ante to eight. So, too, with Dianabol, another brutal oral steroid. Where once a single 5 mg pill sufficed, inevitably he was gulping ten or twelve of them a day, in conjunction with the Anadrol.

The obstacle here was his immune system, which was stubbornly going on about its business, neutralizing these poisons with antibodies and shutting down receptor sites on the muscle cells. No matter. Michalik, upping the dosage, simply overwhelmed his immune system, and further addled it by flooding his bloodstream with other drugs.

All the while, of course, he was cognizant of the damage done. He knew, for instance, that Anadrol, like all oral steroids, was utter hell on the liver. An alkylated molecule with a short carbon chain, it had to be hydralized, or broken down, within twenty-four hours. This put enormous stress on his liver, which had thousands of other chemical transactions to carry out every day, not the least of which was processing the waste from his fifty pounds of new muscle. The Physicians’ Desk Reference cautions that the smallest amounts of Anadrol may be toxic to the liver, even in patients taking it for only a couple of months for anemia:

WARNING: MAY CAUSE PELIOSIS HEPATIS, A CONDITION IN WHICH LIVER TISSUE IS REPLACED WITH BLOOD-FILLED CYSTS, OFTEN CAUSING LIVER FAILURE. . . . OFTEN NOT RECOGNIZED UNTIL LIFE-THREATENING LIVER FAILURE OR INTRA-ABDOMINAL HEMORRHAGE OCCURS. . . . FATAL MALIGNANT LIVER TUMORS ARE ALSO REPORTED.

As lethal as it was, however, Anadrol was like a baby food compared to some of the other stuff Michalik was taking. On the bodybuilding black market, where extraordinary things are still available, Michalik and some of his buddies bought the skulls of dead monkeys. Cracking them open with their bare hands, they drank the hormone-rich fluid that poured out of the hypothalamus gland. They filled enormous syringes with a French supplement called Triacana and, aiming for the elusive thyroid gland, shot it right into their necks. They took so much Ritalin before workouts to psych themselves up that one of Michalik’s training partners, a former Mr. Eastern USA, ran out of the gym convinced that he could stop a car with his bare hands. He stood in the passing lane of the Hempstead Turnpike, his feet spread shoulder-width apart, bracing for the moment of impact—and got run over like a dog by a Buick Skylark, both his legs and arms badly broken.

Why, knowing what he knew about these poisons, did Michalik continue taking them? Because he, as well as his buddies and so many thousands of other bodybuilders and football players, were fiercely and progressively addicted to steroids. The American medical community is currently divided about whether or not the stuff is addictive. These are the same people who declared, after years of thorough study, that steroids do not grow muscle. Bodybuilders are still splitting their sides over that howler. Michalik, however, is unamused.

“First, those morons at the AMA say that steroids don’t work, which anyone who’s ever been inside a gym knows is bullshit,” he snorts. “Then, ten years later, they tell us they’re deadly. Oh, now they’re deadly? Shit, that was like the FDA seal of approval for steroids. C’mon, everybody, they must be good for you—the AMA says they’ll kill you!

“Somehow, I don’t know how, I escaped getting addicted to them the first time, when I was training for the Mr. America in 1972. Maybe it was because I was on them for such a short stretch, and went relatively light on the stuff. Mostly, all it amounted to was a shot in the ass once a week from a doctor in Roslyn. I never found out what was in that shot, but Jesus, did it make me crazy. Here I was, a churchgoing, gentle Catholic, and suddenly I was pulling people out of restaurant booths and threatening to kill them just because there were no other tables open. I picked up a three-hundred-pound railroad tie and caved in the side of some guy’s truck with it because I thought he’d insulted my wife. I was a nut, a psycho, constantly out of control—and then, thank God, the contest came, and I won it and got off the juice, and suddenly became human again. I retired, and devoted myself entirely to my wife for all the hell I’d put her through, and swore I’d never go near that shit again!”

A couple of years later, however, something happened that sent him back to the juice, and this time there was no getting off it. “I’d bought Thomasina a big house in Farmingdale, and filled it with beautiful things , and was happier than I’d ever been in my life. And then one day I found out she’d been having an affair. I was worse than wiped out, my soul was ripped open. It had taken me all those years to finally feel like I was a man, to get over all the things my father had done to me … and she cut my fucking heart out.”

Michalik went back to the gym, where he’d always solved all his problems, and started seeing someone we’ll call Dr. X. A physician and insider in the subculture, for two decades Dr. X had been supplying bodybuilders with all manner of steroids in exchange for sexual favors. Michalik hit him up for a stack of prescriptions, but made it clear that he couldn’t accommodate the doctor sexually, to the latter’s keen disappointment. The two, however, worked out a satisfactory compromise. Michalik, the champion bodybuilder who was constantly being consulted by young wannabes, directed some of them posthaste to the tender governance of Dr. X.

“They had to find out sooner or later that the road to the title went through Dr. X’s office,” Michalik shrugs. “Nobody on this coast was gonna get to be competition size unless they put out for him—that, or they had a daddy in the pharmaceutical business. The night Dr. X first tried to seduce me, he showed me pictures of five different champions that he said he’d had sex with. I checked it out later and found out it was all true. Nice business, isn’t it, professional bodybuilding? More pimps and whores than Hollywood.”

Michalik didn’t care about any of that, however. Nor did he care if he went crazy or got addicted to steroids. “I didn’t care if I fucking died from ‘em. All I cared about was getting my body back. I was down to one hundred fifty pounds, which was my natural body weight, and no one in the gym even knew who I was. Big guys were screaming at me, ‘Get off that bench, you little punk, I wanna use it!’ Three months later, I’m two hundred pounds and bench-pressing four hundred, and the same guys are coming over to me, going, ‘Hey, aren’t you Steve Michalik? When did you get here?’ And I’d tell ‘em, ‘I’ve been here for the last three months, motherfucker. I’m the guy you pushed offa that bench over there, remember?’”

By that third month, he recalls, he was hopelessly hooked on steroids, unable to leave the house without “gulping three of something, and taking a shot of something else. I’d get out of bed in the morning feeling weak and sick, and stagger around, going, ‘Where’s my shit?’ I was a junkie and I knew it and I hated myself for it. But what I hated much, much more was not getting to Dr. X’s office. He had the real hot shit—Primobolan, Parabolin—that you couldn’t get anywhere else. They were so powerful you felt them immediately in your muscles, and tasted them for hours on your lips. My heart would start pounding, and the blood would come pouring out of my nose, but he’d just pack it with cotton and send me on my way.

“Suddenly, all I was doing was living and dying for those shots. I was totally obsessed about seeing him, I’d have terrible panic attacks on the subway, my brain would be racing—was I going to make it up to his office before I fell down? I was throwing people out of my way, shoving ‘em into poles, practically knocking the door down before we pulled into the station.

“Understand, there was no justification for the things I did; not my wife’s affair, not what had happened to me as a kid—nothing. I was an adult, I knew what I was doing, at least at the beginning, and when you add it all up, I deserve to have died from it.

“But I want you to understand what it’s like to just completely lose yourself. To get buried in something so deep that you think the only way out is to die. Those ten years, it was like I was trapped inside a robot body, watching myself do horrible things, and yelling, ‘Stop! Stop!’ but I couldn’t even slow down. It was always more drugs, and more side effects, and more drugs for the side effects. For ten years, I was just an animal on stimulus-response.”

He flew to London in the fall of 1975 for the Mr. Universe show, already so sick from the steroids and the eight meals a day that he could scarcely make it up the stairs to the stage. “I had a cholesterol level of over 400, my blood pressure was 240 over 110—but, Jesus Christ, I was a great-looking corpse. No one had ever seen anything like me on stage before, I had absolutely perfect symmetry: nineteen-inch arms, nineteen-inch calves, and a fifty-four-inch chest that was exactly twice the size of my thighs. The crowd went bazongo, the judges all loved me—and none of it, not even the title, meant shit to me. Joy, pride, any sense of satisfaction—the drugs wiped all of that out of me. The only feeling I was capable of anymore was deep, deep hatred.”

Michalik went home, threw his trophy into a closet, and began training maniacally for the Mr. Olympia show, bodybuilding’s most prestigious event. He’d invented a training regimen called “Intensity/Insanity,” which called for seventy sets per body part instead of the customary ten. This entailed a seven-hour workout and excruciating pain, but the steroids, he found, turned that pain into pleasure, “a huge release of all the pressure built up inside me, the rage and the energy.”

And with whatever rage and energy he had left, he ran his wife’s panicked lover out of town, and completed his revenge by impregnating her “so that there’d be two Steve Michalik’s in the world to oppress her.” Spotlessly faithful to her for the first ten years of their marriage, he began nailing everyone he could get his hands on now, thanks in no small part to his daily dosage of Halotestin, a steroid whose chief side effect was a constant—and conspicuous—erection. He was also throwing down great heaps of Clomid and HCG, two fertility drugs for women that, in men, stimulate the production of testosterone.

“Bottom line, I was insatiable, and acting it out all over the place. I had girlfriends in five different towns in Long Island, and one day I was so hormone-crazed I fucked ‘em all, one right after the other. Suddenly, I saw why there was so much rampant sex in this business, why the elite bodybuilders always had two or three girls in their hotel room, or were making thousands of dollars a weekend at private gay parties. In fact, one of my friends in the business, a former Mr. America, used to get so horny on tour that he’d fuck the Coke machine in his hotel. Swear to God, he’d stick his dick right in the change slot and bang it for all he was worth. I’m telling you, my wife saw him do this, she can vouch for it. He fucked those machines from coast to coast, and even had ratings for them. I seem to remember the Chicago Hyatt’s being pretty high up there on the list.”

Hot, in any event, off his win in the Mr. Universe, and absolutely galactic now at 250 pounds, he was the consensus pick among his peers to put an end to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reign as Mr. Olympia and begin a five- or six-year run of his own. He had even prepped himself to follow Ahnuld into show business, taking two years of acting lessons and a year of speech at Weiss-Baron Studios in Manhattan. One of the networks approached him about hosting a science show. George Butler and Charles Gaines filmed him extensively for Pumping Iron, the definitive bodybuilding flick that put Schwarzenegger on the map in Hollywood.

And then, driving himself to the airport for the Mr. Olympia show that November, Michalik suddenly ran into something bigger than steroids. A tractor-trailer driver, neglecting to check his mirror, veered into Michalik’s lane on Route 109 and ran right over the hood of his Mustang. Michalik was dragged twenty yards into an embankment; the Mustang crumpled up around him. When they finally sawed him out of it two hours later, he had four cracked discs and a torn sciatic nerve, and was completely paralyzed from the waist down.

The bad news, said the surgeon after a battery of X-rays, was that Michalik would never walk again. The good news was that with a couple of operations, the pain could be substantially mitigated. Michalik told him to get the fuck out of his room. For months he lay in traction, refusing medication, and with his free arm went on injecting himself with testosterone, which had with him in a black bag at the time of the accident, and which the hospital had so thoughtfully put on his bedside table.

“It was hilarious. The idiot doctors kept coming in and going. ‘Gee, your blood pressure seems awfully high, Mr. Michalik,’ and I’d just lay there with a straight face and go, ‘Well, I have been very tense, you know, since the accident’

“Meanwhile, for the one and only time in my life, the steroids were actually helping me. They speeded up the healing, which is actually their medical purpose, and kept enough size on me so that the nurses used to fight over who was supposed to wash me every day. I started getting a little sensation back in my right leg, enough so that when the doctor told me he’d send me home if I could stand up, I managed to fake it by standing on one leg.”

There, however, the progress halted, and Michalik, unspeakably depressed, lay in bed for a year, bloating on steroids and chocolate chip cookies. He got a call from the TV people, telling him that they’d hired Leonard Nimoy to replace him on the science show. He got another one from the producers of Pumping Iron, informing him that he’d been all but cut out of the film. Worst of all, his friends and training partners jumped ship on him, neither calling nor coming by to see him.

“So typical of bodybuilders,” he sneers. “‘Hey, Michalik’s crippled, I gotta go see him—nah, it’s Tuesday, chest-and-back day. Fuck him.’ But the real reason, I think, was they couldn’t stand to see one of their own hurt. In order to keep on doing what they’re doing—the drugs, the binge eating, the sex-for-money—they’ve gotta keep lying to themselves, saying, ‘I can’t be hurt, I can’t get sick. I’m Superman. Cancer is afraid to live in my body.’”

About the only person who didn’t abandon him was his kid brother, Paulie, an adopted eight-year-old who utterly worshipped Michalik. “He used to come into my room every day and massage my legs, going, ‘You feel anything yet? You feel it?’ He’s stubborn like me. He just refused to give up, he kept saying, ‘You’re a champion, Steve, you’re my hero, you’re gonna be back.’

“And then one day we’re watching TV, and a pro bodybuilding show comes on. This was 1978, and the networks had started up a Grand Prix tour to cash in on the fad after Pumping Iron. I’m watching all the guys and just going crazy, wishing I could just get up on stage against ‘em one more time, and Paulie goes, ‘You can do it, Steve. You can come back and whip those guys. I’ll help you in the gym.’”

Aroused, Michalik called an old friend, Julie Levine, and begged him for the keys to his new gym in Amityville. The next night, he got out of bed at 2 A.M. and scuttled to the window, where Paulie assisted him over the sash. Crawling across the lawn to his wife’s car, Michalik got in the driver’s seat and pushed his dead legs back, making room for his little brother beneath the steering wheel. As he steered, Paulie worked the gas and brake pedals with his hands, and in this manner they accomplished the ten miles to Amityville.

In the gym, Paulie dragged him from machine to machine, helping him push the weight stacks up. Michalik’s upper body responded quickly—muscle had remarkable memory—but his legs, particularly the left one, lay there limp as old celery. After several months, however, the pain started up in them. Sharp and searing, it was as if someone had stuck a fork in his sciatic nerve. Michalik, a self-made master of pain couldn’t have been happier if he’d hit the lottery.

“The doctors all told me it would be ten years, if ever, for the nerve to come back, and here it was howling like a monster. I kicked up the dosages of all the stuff I was taking, and started attacking the weights instead of just lifting ‘em. Six months later, the pain was so bad I still could barely straighten up—but I was leg-pressing seven hundred and eight hundred pounds, and my thighs were as big as a bear’s.”

And a year after that, he walked on stage in Florida, an unadvertised guest poser at the end of a Grand Prix show. The crowd, recognizing a miracle when it saw one, went berserk as Michalik modeled those thirty-four-inch thighs, each of which was considerably wider than his twenty-seven-inch waist. Schwarzenegger, in the broadcast booth doing color for ABC, was overwhelmed. “I don’t believe what I am seeing,” he gasped. “It’s Steve Michalik, the phantom bodybuilder!”

There Michalik should have left it. He was alive, and ambulatory, and his cult status was set. Thanks to Arnie, he would be forever known as the Phantom Bodybuilder, a tag he could have turned into a merchandising gold mine, and retired.

But like a lot of other steroid casualties, Michalik couldn’t stop pushing his luck. He had to keep going, had to keep growing, testing the limits of his skeleton and the lining of his liver. If he’d gotten galactic, he figured, on last year’s drugs, there was no telling how big he could get on this year’s crop. A new line of killer juice was coming out of southern California—Hexalone, Bolasterone, Dehydralone—preposterously toxic compounds that sent the liver into warp drive but which grew hard, mature muscle right before your very eyes. Sexier still, there was that new darling of the pro circuit, human growth hormone, and who knew where the ceiling even began on that stuff?

Instead of pulling over, then, Michalik put the hammer down. He joined the Grand Prix tour immediately after the show in Florida and began the brutal grind of doing twelve shows annually. Before the tour, top bodybuilders did five shows a year, tops—the Mr. Olympia, the Night of Champions, and two or three others in Europe—which gave them several months to recuperate from the drugs and heavy training. Now, thanks to TV, they had to do a show a month. The pace was quite literally murderous.

“Not only did guys have to peak every month, they had to keep getting better as the year went on. No downtime, no rest from the binging and fasting—you could see guys turning green from all the shit in their systems. As you might expect, some of them were falling by the wayside, one guy from arrhythmia, another guy from heart attacks.

“As for me, all I knew was that I was spending every dime I had on drugs. It cost me $25,000 that first year just to keep up, and that was without human growth hormone, which I couldn’t even afford. The sport had become like an arms race now. If you heard that some guy was using Finajet, then you had to have it, no matter what it cost or where you had to go to get it. It actually paid to fly back and forth to France every couple of months, where you could buy the crap off the shelves of some country pharmacy and save yourself thousands of bucks.

“Needless to say, those five years on the tour were the most whacked-out of my life. My cognitive mind went on like a permanent stroll, and I became an enormous, lethal caveman. The only reason I didn’t spend most of that time in jail was because two thirds of the cops in town were customers of mine. They belonged to my gym, and bought their steroids from me, and when I got into a little beef, which was practically every other day, they took care of it on the QT for me.

“Once I was on Hempstead Turnpike, on my way to the gym, when some guy in a pickup gave me the finger. That’s it, lights out. I chased him doing ninety in my new Corvette, and did a three-sixty in heavy traffic right in front of him. I jumped out, ripped the door off his truck, and caved in his face with one punch. The other guy in the cab, who had done nothing to me, jumps out and starts running down the divider to get away from me. I chased him on foot and was pounding the shit out of him on the side of the road when the cops pulled up in two cruisers. ‘Michalik, get outta here, ya crazy fuck,’ they go, ‘this is the last goddamn time we’re lettin’ you slide.’”

Word quickly got around town that Michalik was to be avoided at all costs. That went double for the wild-style gym he opened, which did everything but hang a sign out saying, STEROIDS FOR SALE HERE. There were plaques on the walls that proclaimed, UP THE DOSAGE! and pictures not of stars but of twenty-gauge syringes.

As for the clientele, it ran heavily toward the highly crazed. There was the seven-foot juice freak who stomped around muttering, “I’ll kill you all. I’ll rip your guts out and eat them right here.” There was the mob hit man who drove up in a limo every day and checked his automatic weapons at the door. There was the herpetologist who came in with a python wrapped around him, trailing a huge sea turtle, for good measure, on a leash. There was the former Mr. America who was so distraught when his dog died that he had it stuffed, and dragged it around the gym from station to station.

“I had every freak and psycho within a 300-mile radius,” Michalik recalls. “At night, there’d be all these animals hanging around outside my gym, slurping protein shakes and twirling biker chains—and every single one of ‘em was afraid of me. That was the only way I kept ‘em in line. As crazy as they all were, they knew I was crazier, and that I’d just as soon kill ‘em as re-enroll ‘em.”

If that sounds like dubious business practice, consider that a year after opening, Michalik was so successful that he had to move to a location twice the size. But for all the money he was making, and for all the scams he was running—selling “Banana Packs,” a worthless mixture of rotten bananas and egg powder, as his “secret muscle formula” for $25 a pop; passing himself off as a veterinarian to get cases of human growth hormone at wholesale for his “clinical experiments”—he was still being bankrupted by his skyrocketing drug bills.

The federal heat had begun to come down on the steroid racket, closing out the pill-mill pharmacies where Michalik was filling his ’scrips. The national demand, moreover, for the high-octane stuff—Hexalone, Bolasterone, etc.—was going through the roof, which meant that Michalik, like everybody else, had to get on line, and pay astronomical prices for his monthly package from Los Angeles.

Constantly broke, and going nowhere fast on the Grand Prix tour—”where in the beginning I’d been finishing third or fourth in the shows, by 1983 I was coming in like eleventh or twelfth”—Michalik began caving in emotionally and physically. He’d come home from the gym at night, dead-limbed and nauseous, and suddenly burst into tears without warning. Cut off from everyone, even the stouthearted Thomasina, who had finally thrown up her hands and stopped caring what he did to himself, he sat alone in a dark room, hearing his joints howl, and dreamed about killing himself.

“I was just lost, gone, in a constant state of male PMS—the hormones flying around inside, my mood going yoyo. I just wanted an end to it; an end to all the pain I was in, and to the pain I was causing others.

“I mean, of course I had tried to get off the drugs, and always it just got worse. The depression got deeper, the craving was incredible, and those last couple of years, I was worse than any crackhead. As crazed as I was, l’d have killed to keep on going, to get my hands on that next shipment of Deca or Maxibolin.”

As for his body, it was finally capitulating to all the accumulated toxins. By 1983, he was bleeding from everywhere: his gums, kidneys, colon, and sinuses. The headaches started up, so piercing and obdurate that he developed separate addictions to Percodan and Demerol. And worst of all (by Michalik’s lights), his muscles suddenly went soft on him. No matter how he worked them or what he shot into them, they lost their gleaming, osmotic hardness, and began to pooch out like $20 whitewalls.

His last two years on the tour were a run-on nightmare. He almost dropped dead at a show in Toronto, collapsing on stage in head-to-toe convulsions; the promoters, disgraced, hauled him off by the ankles. There was a desperate attempt in 1985, after his cholesterol hit 500, to wean himself from steroids once and for all. His testosterone level plummeted, however, his sperm count went to zero, and all the estrogen in his body, which had been accruing for years, turned his pecs into soft, doughy breasts. Such friends as he still had pointed out that his ass was plumping like a woman’s, and tweaked him for his sexy new hip-swishing walk.

He ran to one endocrinologist after another, begging them for something to reverse the condition. To a man, each pointed to Michalik’s liver reading and showed him out of his office. Leaving, he had the distinct feeling that they were laughing at him.

And so, after weighing his options—a bleak, emasculated life off steroids or a slam-bang, macho death on them—Michalik emphatically chose the latter. He packed a bag, grabbed his weight belt, and caught a plane for L.A., winding up for nine months in the valley, where all the chemical studs were training.

Just up the freeway, a cartel of former med students were minting drugs so new they scarcely had names for them yet. The stuff ran $250, $300 a bottle, but pumped you up like an air hose and kept you that way. It also made you violently sick to your stomach, but Michalik didn’t have time to worry about that. He simply ran to the bathroom to heave up his guts, then came back and ripped off another thirty sets.

His hair fell out in heavy clumps; a dry cough emanated from his liver, wracking him. Every joint was inflamed; it was excruciating even to walk now. But at night, in bed and in too much pain to sleep, it cheered him to think that he would finally be dead soon, and that it would take eight men to carry his casket.

He came back to New York in the fall of 1986, on his last legs but enormous and golden brown. All along, he’d targeted the Night of Champions, to be held that November at the Beacon Theater, as his swan song. It was the Academy Awards show of bodybuilding. Everyone would be there, all the stars and cognoscenti, and it would consolidate his legend to show up one last time, coming out of a coffin to the tune of Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend.” Of course, it would really help matters if he could drop dead on stage, but that seemed too much to hope for. All that mattered, finally, was that he go out with twenty-five hundred people thundering their approval, drowning out, once and for all, his old man’s malediction that he’d never amount to shit.

And then, two weeks before the show, he woke up at four in the morning with his liver on fire, and that was the end of all that.

Happily afloat on morphine and Nembutol, Michalik drifted for seventy-two hours, dreaming that he was dead. In the course of those three days, however, his extraordinary luck held up. The huge cysts in his liver stabilized and began to shrink, though they’d so eviscerated the organ already that there was practically nothing left of it. Short of a transplant, it would be months before he could so much as sit up and take nourishment. His bodybuilding career, in any case, was finished.

When Michalik awoke in intensive care, he was inconsolable. Not only was he still unaccountably alive, his beautiful body was dissolving and going away from him. His muscles, bereft of steroids and the five pounds of chicken he ate a day, decomposed and flowed into his bloodstream as waste. In three weeks, he lost more than 100 pounds, literally pissing himself down to 147 from a steady weight of 255.

Predictably, his kidneys began to fail, functioning at 60 percent, then 40, then 20. His black hair turned gray, and the skin hung off him in folds. His father came in and told him, with all his customary tact, that he looked like an eighty-five-year-old man.

In the few hours a day that he was lucid, Michalik wept uncontrollably. Out of the unlikeliest materials—bad genes, a small bone structure, and a thoroughly degraded ego—he had assembled this utterly remarkable thing, a body that no less than Arnold Schwarzenegger once venerated as the very best in the world. Now he was too weak to lift his head off the pillow. He lay there inert for months and months, the very image, it seemed to him, of his old man’s foretelling.

“I was just like Lyle Alzado, who I went to high school in Brooklyn with: weak and broken-down, leaning on my wife to keep me alive. She came and fed me every day through a straw, and swiped the huge bunch of pills I was saving to kill myself. To thank her for still being there after everything, I sold the gym and gave her all the money from it. I didn’t want any of it, I didn’t want anything. I just wanted to lie in bed and be miserable by myself. I was so depressed I could hardly move my jaws to speak.”

Finally, by the spring of 1988, he’d recovered sufficiently to get out of bed for short stretches. Possessed by the sudden urge to atone for his sins, Michalik called every promoter he knew, begging them to let him go on stage in his condition and dramatize the wages of steroids. Surprisingly, several of them agreed to the idea. They brought Michalik out, a bag of bones in a black shirt, and let him turn the place into a graveyard for ten minutes.

“All these twenty-year-olds would be staring up at me with their jaws hanging open, and I’d get on the mike and say, ‘You think this can’t happen to you, tough guy? You think you know more about steroids than I do? Well, I wrote the book on ‘em, buddy, and they still ate me up. I’m forty years old and I’m finished. Dead.”

The former proselytizer for steroids got some grim satisfaction out of spreading the gospel against them. He dragged himself out to high schools and hard-core juice gyms, using himself as a walking cautionary tale. But whatever his good works were doing for his soul, they weren’t doing a damn thing for his body. He still woke up sick in every cell, poisoned by the residue of all the drugs. The liver cysts, shrunk to the size of golf balls but no further, sapped his strength and forced him to eat like a sparrow, subsisting on farina and chicken soup. His hormones were wildly scrambled—a blood test revealed he had the testosterone level of a twelve-year-old girl—and it had been two years since he’d had even a twinge of an erection. Indeed, his moods were so erratic that he had his wife commit him to a stretch in a Long Island nut bin.

“I wasn’t crazy, but I didn’t know what else to do. All day long I just sat there, consumed with self-hatred: ‘Why did you do this? Why did you do that?’ I mean, even when I was huge, I never had what you would call the greatest relationship with myself, but now it was, ‘You’re weak! You’re tiny! You’re stupid! You’re worthless!’—and what the hell was I going to say to shut it up? The only thing I’d ever valued about myself was my body, and I’d totally, systematically fucked it up. My life, as you can probably guess, was intolerable.”

It was here, however, that fate stepped in and cut Michalik a whopping break. Halfway across the world, an Australian rugby player named Joe Reesh somehow heard about Michalik’s plight and called to tell him about a powerful new detox program. It was a brutally arduous deal—an hour of running, then five hours straight in a 180-degree sauna, for a minimum of twenty-one days—but infallibly, it leeched the poisons out of your fat cells, where they’d otherwise sit, crystallized, for the rest of your life.

Utterly desperate, Michalik gave it a shot. He could scarcely jog around the block that first day, but in the sauna, it all started coming out of him: a viscous, green paste that oozed out of his eyes and nostrils. By the end of the first week, he reports, he was running two miles; by the end of the second, his ex-wife verifies, his gray hair had turned black again. And when he stepped out of the sauna after the twenty-third and final day, his skin was as pink and snug as a teenager’s. Liver and kidney tests confirmed the wildly improbable: he was perfectly healthy again.

“Everything came back to me: my sense of humor, my lust for life—hell, my lust, period. Don’t forget, it’d been almost three years since l’d gotten it up—I had some serious business to take care of. But the greatest thing by far was what wasn’t there anymore. All the biochemical hatred I’d been walking around with for twelve years, it was like that all bled out of me with the green stuff, and I had this overpowering need to be with people again, especially my son, Stevie. I had tons of making up to do with him, and I’ve loved every minute of it. It kills me that I could’ve let myself get so sick that I was ready to die and leave him.”

Michalik went to his wife and told her he was going back to bodybuilding. It was his life, his art, he couldn’t leave it alone—only this time, he swore on heaven, he was going to do it clean. She understood, or at least tried to, but said she couldn’t go through with it again: the 2 A.M. feedings, the $500-a-week grocery bills. They parted amicably, and Michalik returned to the gym, as zealous and single-minded as a monk. In the last two years he’s put on 60 pounds, and looks dense and
powerful at 225, though he’s sober about the realities.

“There are nineteen-year-olds clocking in now at two sixty-five,” he says, shaking his head. “The synthetic HGH [human growth hormone] has evolved a new species in five years. By the end of the decade, the standard will be three-hundred-pounders, with twenty-three-inch necks that are almost as big as their waists.

“But all around the country, kids’ll be dropping dead from the stuff, and getting diabetes because it burns out their pancreas. I don’t care what those assholes in California say, there’s no such thing in the world as a ‘good’ drug. There’s only bad drugs and sick bastards who want to sell them to you.”

Someone ought to post those words in every high school in the country. The latest estimate from a USA Today report is that there are half a million teenagers on juice these days, almost half of whom, according to a University of Kentucky study, are so naive they think that steroids without exercise will build muscle. In this second stone age, the America of Schwarzkopf and Schwarzenegger, someone needs to tell them that bigger isn’t necessarily better. Sometimes, bigger is deader.

 

BSG: Summer’s End Recalls Memory of a Faded Dream

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Excerpted from From Black Sox to Three-Peats: A Century of Chicago’s Best Sports Writing (University of Chicago Press), edited by Ron Rapoport and featuring stories from the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Daily News, and the Chicago Defender, among other papers.

Today gives John Schulian’s column from the Sept. 24, 1983, Sun-Times.

“Summer’s End Recalls Memory of a Faded Dream”

By John Schulian

Up ahead, you could see a full moon sandwiched by thick, wet clouds. Beneath them glowed the lights of Chicago, turning the soggy heavens red-orange and proving that this ribbon of highway actually led somewhere.

Another country radio station faded into oblivion inside the car, so you pressed a button and came across the White Sox, summer’s golden children at play on a night made for antifreeze.

Their presence should have been a comfort at 70 miles an hour, just as it had been since they used June as their launching pad to glory. But now the Sox were bidding adieu to their regular season at home. They weren’t going to return to Comiskey Park until October’s playoffs, and the thought left you feeling as empty as a farewell at a train station. Summer was over.

All you could do about it was punch another button on the car’s radio, punch another button and hope you would hear the Police singing “Every Breath You Take.” For that was the song that provided the background music for the last three months, lingering in your mind whether you were mowing the lawn or trying to describe the cosmic significance of the infield fly rule. The melody haunted you, the lyrics left you wondering about the residue of your own tilling and threshing. And, like a lot of other things this summer, that hadn’t happened for a while.

Maybe you have to go back as far as the days before baseball finally defeated you, days of keg parties and a curveball pitcher who lay down next to a stereo speaker filled with the Rolling Stones’ voices and begged his kid brother to turn the music louder. The season was over by then and the unraked diamonds had started turning hard under the fading sun. Every morning, the chill sunk a little deeper and lasted a little longer, and you began to realize how impossible it is to hang on to summer and all the things it represents.

No team you played on would ever be the same, no chance for a professional contract ever as good, no friendships ever so unencumbered. And that was what mattered to a catcher with a strong arm and a weak bat, a kid who hid inside a game and thought it would always sustain him.

Even on the night he graduated from high school, he tried to flee what scared him most for the safety that the Salt Lake Bees provided. But before he got to his $1.50 seat, before he even got out of the auditorium where he had received his diploma, there was lipstick on his cheek and a pretty girl saying, “Now you can go.”

Funny how long a kiss can last. Ask the man who got it now and he will tell you that summers should have such staying power. For he would think about it from time to time, smile and wonder about the girl who didn’t dance off into that happy night before she had made sure he was remembered. And when it came time for the 20th reunion this summer, when he flew back to the place that used to be home, he wondered if she would remember her own kindness. He looked for her and found only a mutual friend with bad news: “She’s very sick. I understand it’s terminal.”

What do you do then? Do you write a letter, or do you pray? Do you retreat into the silence that has become your comfortable enemy, or do you hope that the next knock on your door brings a smiling face and laughter that tinkles like chimes in an ocean breeze? Do you see your own life reduced to what the poet Yeats called “day’s vanity and night’s remorse,” or do you borrow from Tom T. Hall, the hillbilly songwriter, and tell someone dear, “You love everybody but you”?

The questions pile up, but there are never enough answers to clear them all away. Ten years ago, you couldn’t have imagined such a predicament. You knew everything then—knew it and said you knew it and expected the world to know you knew it. Perhaps it is only age that brings stupidity.

Summer certainly suggested as much. Whether you were gazing out at Lake Michigan or laboring over your prose, your mind kept drifting away from the business at hand. For too many hours, neither the splendor of Floyd Bannister’s left arm nor the foot in Dallas Green’s mouth held the appeal of life’s complexities. It was time to consider what you had let get away from you, and how, and why. The process was as unsettling as the gray taking over your beard and the lines growing deeper around your eyes.

“I don’t know,” you kept saying. “I just don’t know.” It was an all-purpose reply for a summer that raised new questions almost daily. It could also, however, be tiresome. “This is the place for you,” a friend said, passing a senior citizens’ center. And you couldn’t keep from laughing. You feigned anger, too. But down deep, you thanked God there was someone who cared enough to remind you that the sun always comes up in the morning.

It shows its face later and later now, though. You can’t ignore that. The leaves on the trees have already started to turn, and even if the White Sox go on to win the World Series, there won’t be many more trips to Comiskey Park. The days are growing short, and more and more you cling to the brightness that Ron Kittle, the rookie free spirit, brings to them. “Here’s my bat,” he said to a team trainer after two hitless nights. “Take its temperature.” What a pleasure to find someone who knows where to get answers.

But when they aren’t to your questions, the answers are only for enjoyment, not enlightenment. They serve the same function summer did this year as you spun your wheels for week after week, searching for something you hesitate to define and eventually heading back to the garage empty-handed. The answers made you forget the storm front, but by the time you got home it was starting to rain again.

 

John Schulian was a sports columnist for the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Philadelphia Daily News before moving to Hollywood, where he wrote for a number of television shows and was the co-creator of Xena: Warrior Princess. His work has been collected in several books, including Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us. With George Kimball, he edited At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing for the Library of America. 

[Photo Credit: Sarah Elston and Paolo Di Lucente via MPD]

BGS: The Called Shot Heard Round the World

Excerpted from From Black Sox to Three-Peats: A Century of Chicago’s Best Sports Writing (University of Chicago Press), edited by Ron Rapoport and featuring stories from the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Daily News, and the Chicago Defender, among other papers. It’s an excellent collection, and this week we’ll be selecting a story every day to give you a taste. First up: Westbrook Pegler’s “The Called Shot Heard Round the World,” from the Chicago Tribune, Oct. 2, 1932.

There, in the third ball game of the World Series, at the Cubs’ ball yard on the north side yesterday, the people who had the luck to be present saw the supreme performance of the greatest artist the profession of sport has ever produced. Babe Ruth hit two home runs.

Now, Lou Gehrig also hit two home runs, and Jimmy Foxx of the Athletics or any other master mechanic of the business might have hit three or four home runs and you would have gone away with the same impression that a factory tourist receives from an hour of watching a big machine lick labels and stick them on bottles of mouthwash or pop. The machine might awe you, but would you love it?

The people who saw Babe Ruth play that ball game and hit those two home runs against the Cubs came away from the baseball plant with a spiritual memento of the most gorgeous display of humor, athletic art and championship class any performer in any of the games has ever presented.

The Babe is 38 years old, and if you don’t know that he is unable to hike as far for fly balls or stoop as nimbly as he used to for rollers coming to him through the grass, that must be just your own fault, because he would not deceive you. As an outfielder he is pretty close to his past tense, which may mean that one more year from now he will be only a pinch-hitter. He has been breaking this news all year to himself and the customers.

Why, when Bill Jurges, the human clay pigeon, hit a short fly to him there in left field and he mauled it about, trying for a shoestring catch, he came up off the turf admitting all as Jurges pulled up at second.

The old Babe stood up, straightened his cap and gesticulated vigorously toward Earl Combs in center. “Hey!” the old Babe waved, “my dogs ain’t what they used to be. Don’t hit them out to me. Hit to the young guy out there.”

The customers behind him in the bleachers were booing him when the ball game began, but they would have voted him president when it was over, and he might not be a half-bad compromise, at that. Somebody in the crowd tossed out a lemon which hit him on the leg. Now there are sensitive ball players who might have been petulant at that and some stiff-necked ones who could only ignore it, boiling inwardly. But the Babe topped the jest. With graphic gestures, old Mr. Ruth called on them for fair play. If they must hit him with missiles, would they please not hit him on the legs? The legs weren’t too good anyway. Would they just as lief hit him on the head? The head was solid and could stand it.

I am telling you that before the ball game began the Babe knew he was going to hit one or more home runs. He had smacked half a dozen balls into the right-field bleachers during his hitting practice and he knew he had the feel of the trick for the day. When his hitting practice was over he waddled over toward the Cubs’ dugout, his large abdomen jiggling in spite of his rubber corsets, and yelled at the Cubs sulking down there in the den, “Hey, muggs! You muggs are not going to see the Yankee Stadium any more this year. This World Series is going to be over Sunday afternoon. Four straight.”

He turned, rippling with the fun of it and, addressing the Chicago customers behind third base, yelled, “Did you hear what I told them over there? I told them they ain’t going back to New York. We lick ‘em here, today and tomorrow.”

The Babe had been humiliating the Cubs publicly throughout the series. They were a lot of Lord Jims to him. They had had a chance to be big fellows when they did the voting on the division of the World Series pool. But for a few dollars’ gain they had completely ignored Rogers Hornsby, their manager for most of the year, who is through with baseball now apparently without much to show for his long career, and had held Mark Koenig, their part-time shortstop, to a half share. The Yankees, on the contrary, had been generous, even to ex-Yankees who were traded away months ago, to their deformed bat boy who was run over and hurt by a car early in the season, and to his substitute.

There never was such contempt shown by one antagonist for another as the Babe displayed for the Cubs, and ridicule was his medium.

In the first inning, with Earle Combs and Joe Sewell on base, he sailed his first home run into the bleachers. He hit Charlie Root’s earnest pitching with the same easy, playful swing that he had been using a few minutes before against the soft, casual service of a guinea-pig pitcher. The ball would have fallen into the street beyond the bleachers under ordinary conditions, but dropped among the patrons in the temporary seats.

The old Babe came around third base and past the Cubs’ dugout yelling comments which were unintelligible to the patrons but plainly discourteous and, pursing his lips, blew them a salute known as the Bronx cheer.

He missed a second home run in the third inning when the ball came down a few feet short of the wire screen, but the masterpiece was only deferred. He hit it in the fifth, a ball that sailed incredibly to the extreme depth of center field and dropped like a perfect mashie shot behind the barrier, long enough to clear it, but with no waste of distance.

Guy Bush, the Cubs’ pitcher, was up on the top step of the dugout, jawing back at him as he took his turn at bat this time. Bush pushed back his big ears, funneled his hands to his mouth, and yelled raspingly at the great man to upset him. The Babe laughed derisively and gestured at him. “Wait, mugg, I’m going to hit one out of the yard.” Root threw a strike past him and he held up a finger to Bush, whose ears flapped excitedly as he renewed his insults. Another strike passed him and Bush crawled almost out of the hole to extend his remarks.

The Babe held up two fingers this time. Root wasted two balls and the Babe put up two fingers on his other hand. Then, with a warning gesture of his hand to Bush, he sent him the signal for the customers to see.

“Now,” it said, “this is the one. Look!” And that one went riding in the longest home run ever hit in the park.

He licked the Chicago ball club, but he left the people laughing when he said good-bye, and it was a privilege to be present because it is not likely that the scene will ever be repeated in all its elements. Many a hitter may make two home runs, or possibly three in World Series play in years to come, but not the way Babe Ruth made these two. Nor will you ever see an artist call his shot before hitting one of the longest drives ever made on the grounds, in a World Series game, laughing and mocking the enemy with two strikes gone.


Westbrook Pegler (1884-1969) was one of America’s most widely read sportswriters during the Golden Age of Sports in the 1920s. He then turned to political reporting, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize for articles on union racketeering, and wrote columns that were reviled in many quarters for their mixture of personal invective and right-wing politics. 

BGS: The Better Man

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“The Better Man”

By Juan Williams

Originally published in the May 17, 1987, edition of The Washington Post Magazine. Republished here with the author’s permission. His postscript follows. For more on Hagler-Leonard, check out Grantland’s oral history.

I’d never been to Las Vegas. Politicans, civil rights leaders, and thinkers, the people I usually write about, don’t often stop there. But it is the perfect place for a big fight, a town that reeks of dominance—rich over poor, white over black, male over female. White men with money come to Las Vegas to show that they have the power and the wealth that make losing a few grand over the weekend “no big deal.” They can buy the prettiest woman, the thickest steak and the biggest diamond ring. They can also buy two men to fight on a stage for their evening’s entertainment. Tonight it will be Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard.

When I was a little boy, the one event I dreamed of seeing in person was a big prizefight. Other sports were on television or available to a kid who wanted to sell Cokes. The big fights were in exotic places like Zaire, the Philippines and Las Vegas. They were held in different time zones and came over the late-night radio as wire service reports at the end of each round. The late hour, the distant locale, the million-dollar prizes and my desire to be seen as sexually powerful—a man able to dominate another man as a cocky, proud prizefighter does in the ring—combined to transport me to a mythic place in my mind. Only prize-fighting could do that for me.

And only prize-fighting salved my most basic fear—the fear of being beaten bloody. A prizefighter confronts this fear like no one else. It’s him alone, trapped in an elevated place, above the crowd and under hot lights. It’s him against another man who seeks to demolish him, and the judgment is absolute. Who is the better man? Fight fans. and fighters use that phrase repeatedly: “The better man.” As in: “Leonard will try to outsmart Hagler but he won’t try to show he’s the better man.” The better man is the fighter who is the aggressor, who menaces his opponent and finally and conclusively batters him. Dominates him. Knocks him out. He can leave him unconscious, legs quivering, eyes rolling back. He can kill him. That is the better man.

If I saw boxing for what it really is—just a business—I wouldn’t be interested. The passion is what captures me; the passion coupled with the risk of defeat and failure as two men fight for all they are worth. Marvin Hagler of Newark and Sugar Ray Leonard of Palmer Park know the importance of looking tough, of appearing dominant and keeping that reputation. To Hagler and Leonard it matters that they be known as “the better man.”

For me, a skinny boy growing up in a violent. poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. to be “the better man” had real meaning. You had to fight. More than that, you had to be ready to fight. Walking down the street, in the schoolyard, on the basketball court, going to the store with your mother’s money—you had to be ready. I have a spot in my eye from a punch thrown by a big ninth-grader when I was in the seventh grade. On the handball court he told me to go get his ball and I wouldn’t. I never saw the punch. He didn’t knock me out or down, but I couldn’t see. I did manage to pick up the ball and windmill my arm as if I were throwing it back at him. When he ducked, I kicked him in the face and ran. I remember being a second-grader walking past a bunch of shrieking kids surrounding two third-graders who were fighting. The terror on the fighters’ faces heightened the fear in me. I didn’t want to be caught in that circle of howling, stupid people who wanted to see blood, to see one person reduced to tears or unconsciousness.

At night when my mother made me take the garbage down the hallway to the trash room, I worried about someone attacking me. The trash room was next to the stairwell, where high school guys hung out, smoked and did drugs. Often the light bulb would be out—broken by someone who had been waiting to mug somebody. I was always scared and ready to fight. I didn’t want to fight. I made friends with Chuck, a fat but strong boy who was a feared street-fighter. Since Chuck and I were friends. I had an insurance policy, a personal bodyguard. My best friend, James, didn’t like to fight either. When he did fight, he usually lost. But because he would fight—and never backed down from a fight—he had a reputation as a tough guy and had fewer fights. I learned from his example.

The prospect of fighting for me is still an emotional risk, though I’m middle-class now and have a family and a job, and getting beat up does not hold the threat of defining me as an absolute loser. But fighting still has a hold on my primitive self and my emotions. If I have to fight, will I be the “better man,” and if I lose, what does that mean? Am I the lesser man? Do other people see me as shamed by submission, by the loss of face? Will women know? Would they want a lesser man? These doubts attack my pride and unsettle my confidence, my sense of who l am—”the better man.” A professional fight stirs these feelings in me.

Do you remember Tommy Hearns after his fight with Marvin Hagler? A beaten man, he could get back to his feet only by hanging onto his trainers and his friends. He was dazed, his long arms hanging like spaghetti, his neck so limp that his head dangled. His eyes did not dilate. Finally, one of his friends picked him up and carried him like a father carries a baby. That was defeat—total physical wreckage. Worse, it was emotional wreckage. Hagler ran around the ring celebrating, thrusting his hands up, grabbing his crotch, smiling. His emotions were pumped. After fights, I’ve seen some winning fighters stand on the ropes, making themselves taller, and scream—a throaty, visceral roar. They are alive. They are dominant. They are emotionally whole. The loser has no voice. This is a refinement over the street fight. Then when a man is down, while he’s out, the winner could kill him, sexually abuse him, take his woman, his possessions. That is emotional rape. Who will rape and who will be raped—emotionally—is the risk of fighting.

My father trained fighters, men named Kid Chocolate and Finnegan who were the lightweight champions of South America. My father never fought professionally, but he was a fighter, too. He is a very handsome man with dazzling black eyes and a thick, long scar that cuts across his chest. The scar came from a knife. He was fighting a guy on the street and stepped back, away from a looping right hand. The punch missed. But my father felt a stinging sensation across his chest. The other guy had a knife in his fist with the blade sticking out. My father had other fights. He fought for money and food on board Navy ships that would pass through the Panama Canal. When he was in his forties he married my mother and began working as an accountant during the day for steady income. What defined him, however, was that he trained fighters. His picture would be on the sports pages of the papers as a fight trainer. His words were quoted. He rarely came home, but when he did, it was often with his fighters so they could eat my mother’s cooking.

In one of the earliest pictures of me, I am standing in diapers, no shirt on, fists cocked. Across the way is my father in a fighting stance, crouched, on his toes, showing me the right way to get off a punch. He’s wearing baggy pants and two-tone brown-and-white shoes. My mother tells me he would take me, at age 2, on training runs with his fighters. His favorite game with me when I was a baby was shadow-boxing. I was just 3 when my mother took me, my sister and my brother to Brooklyn. She worked in a sweatshop in the garment district in Manhattan, sewing dresses, while my father would send money to help out. My boxing lessons didn’t resume until he came to Brooklyn when I was about 10. He was never home much, but sometimes he’d show me combinations: how to slide and jab, how to get out of a corner. As I remember, we would do this in the mornings, and he wouldn’t have shaved yet. His beard would rake my face in the clinches. I would swoon when he butted me. And even with my guard up, the force of his punches would make them slide off my hands and land against my face. I hated getting hit in the face. I stopped asking him to show me moves. The lessons ended.

Still, my love of boxing grew stronger. Muhammad Ali’s aura, his style, his poetry, his political activism drew me to him and the sport. The taunting of Frazier, the mugging with Howard Cosell (grabbing his toupee)—Ali was the greatest. When I was in college, I’d go into Philadelphia once in a while to watch Monday night fights at the Spectrum. I’d go alone. Those bouts were savage experiences, club fights pitting black against white, Cuban against Mexican, Boston against Philadelphia—inexpert boxers, many who had taken too many punches going at it for $100. They exchanged roundhouse rights until one man fell. I had to get what I could from the papers about more skillful fighters. I tried to catch the good Saturday afternoon bouts on television, but there weren’t many good ones. Then Sugar Ray Leonard became popular. I’d go out to the Capital Centre to watch his fights on the big screen. Once a guy took a swing at me when he heard me say Duran was winning the fight in Montreal. My friend Vernon decked him. I was getting closer but close wasn’t enough. I wanted to see the real thing up close—a true prizefight.


Inside the Bally Grand Hotel in Las Vegas is a huge mirrored wall. Plastered on the mirror are 20-foot-high profiles of Leonard and Hagler, their heads and chests almost touching. These profiles have no eyes, no expression, and the men are face to face as if ready to explode into combat. Hanging above the clatter and bells of the vast casino floor are big purple gloves with the fighters’ names written in fancy script. On the wide-screen television sets in the bar, they’re showing reruns of previous fights. The big-time fight hoopla doesn’t go past the bar. It does not intrude on the green felt of the gambling tables. There’s no talk of boxing here. The fight is kept out of the restaurant, too. People are absent-mindedly eating while circling 15 numbers on a sheet of paper to play a game called keno. They hand the paper with the 15 numbers to women who walk around in miniskirts and high heels. Then they gaze at the wall to see which 15 numbers appear; they’re looking for a winner.

The scene at Bally’s is muted compared with the neighboring bazaar—Caesars Palace. Here the dominance is as unrestrained as a fight between a pit bull and a toy poodle.

Several hundred people wait by the main entrance to Caesars. They stand in tribute, day and night, to America’s winners—any arriving celebrity. Climbing out of the Mercedes-Benzes, limousines, Jaguars and Porsches (which are all parked in ostentatious glory near the entrance), the celebrities take only a moment to acknowledge the riffraff. The crowd parts quickly at the ominous sight of Wilt Chamberlain. People push forward for a glance at the bejeweled Joan Collins. Inside the hotel, body builders, oiled and pumped, carry a beautiful Egyptian queen in costume on their shoulders while other women wave palms to cool her. Really.

At Caesars Palace, the gamblers are white men over 40. In Caesars Palace they are Caesar’s court. Some dress in country-club pastels, others in tuxedos, and ever so casually flash $700 fight tickets stamped “compliments of the casino.” One man told me he was sent the tickets because he has a standing $50,000 line of credit with Caesars. He had just come away from the baccarat table where $10,000 to $20,000 passes in a flash. He had to walk past two steely-eyed guards who nodded at him and the other white men but remained grim to every other passerby, openly antagonistic to blacks and women. This is the place for the fight—a place of power and dominance.

The fight will be held in an open-air stadium set up in the Caesars Palace parking lot. Past the casino, and past the pool that no one swims in, are three or four chain-link gates—entrances to an arena that holds 15,000 people. There’s a boxing ring in the middle surrounded by a few rows of press tables. Then a dozen rows of plastic bucket seats. Behind those seats, on all sides, rise grandstands with flat blue plastic planks set on metal girders. The scene is surprisingly Spartan, dominated by the wire fences, the criss-crossed bare metal poles that support the grandstands and the plain plastic seats.

Past the small stadium is a one-story, plain metal building housing a section of bleachers and a bare, wooden stage. This is where the fighters’ weigh-in will be held, a theater where the champion traditionally enters last to signify his superiority. He is weighed last and remains on the stage after the challenger leaves. The champion is dominant. But it is a place for both fighters to strut and preen. The fighters know this is play-acting, but they also know it is really the fight’s opening round. They don’t want to lose in any arena to a man they will soon have to fight; they want to keep the psychological advantage.


Leonard appears first. He wears a white T -shirt, slacks and black leather boots. He appears as royalty amid many courtiers. His aides, his trainers, his bodyguards, his son and home-town television types like Glenn Brenner and Frank Herzog chatter, point and wave as they form a moving colony around him. In their midst is this little brown man, not very muscular, but regal. His bearing is formal. He keeps his eyes forward, never turning to talk or to acknowledge anyone. He doesn’t react when the cheering for his appearance is overwhelmed by booing from the packed bleachers. Only Leonard and his trainers are allowed past the security guards and onto the stage. A bald, husky-voiced old guy, waving a cigar, has warned a moment before that he “don’t mean to offend anyone, but no hangers-on” will be allowed on the stage, “no aunts, no uncles, no best friends, no nobody…”

Now on the stage, Leonard begins to untie his leather boots. He does it slowly, then slides each foot out, deliberately and neatly taking off each sock. An aide rushes to take away the shoes the instant he is done. Then he stands and pulls down his pants, finally sitting to slip the legs over his feet. He has on black bikini underwear. With his T-shirt still on he walks over to the scales and mounts them, erect and expressionless. Several functionaries in three-piece suits rush over, bending to look at the numbers on the scale. Then they go away. Leonard remains, glorying in the reverence of his audience.

Suddenly there is a roar. Hagler’s troops have emerged from behind the grandstand. In place of Leonard’s black bodyguards in sunglasses, Hagler has old white men in white sweaters next to him—his trainers. He walks quickly. And he looks like a bad dude: shaved head, scars on his face, dark sunglasses. He bounds up the steps to the stage. His shoes are white high-topped sneakers with Velcro wraps around the ankles. He pulls off his sneakers roughly, stands and strips off his pants, then pulls the zipper on his sweat jacket and throws it off.

Now the psychological game is in bloom. I’ve seen it on the streets, in bars, in office politics. Dominance can be established by the man who struts and commands all attention for himself. He takes his power from the obeisance of sycophants. He takes power from staring at his opponent until the opponent looks away. He takes power at a bar by simply pushing his whiskey glass toward the other man, claiming turf at the other man’s expense. This, then, is really the opening round of the Leonard-Hagler fight.

Leonard, who had taken his seat while Hagler marched onstage, now remounts the scale and his weight is formally announced. Standing on the scale, he radiates calm and confidence. He raises his bands in victory. The cheers float over him. Hagler silences them. He steps in front of Leonard and flexes. His stomach and chest muscles move in a majestic symphony, his stomach muscles, especially, protruding in waves of defiant strength. Hagler—muscular, nude but for his bikini underwear—contrasts sharply with Leonard: flat, firm with few obvious muscles, his shirt on.

The brazen intimidation intended by Hagler’s posturing brings raucous remarks from the crowd. Leonard gets off the scale. Hagler rushes to get on. In his hurt he forgets that he has left his socks on. An official asks him to take them offIt slows the bull’s charge. Hagler rips the socks off, flinging them away. On the scale Hagler looks over at Leonard and gives a thumbs-down signal. Leonard is dressing as Hagler lingers, on the scale. Hagler turns to him and stares. Leonard is by then bent down to pull his shoes on. Hagler continues staring, even pointing at Leonard as he walks away from the scale. Leonard stares back, but there still is no expression to his face.

Round one to Hagler. He is the crowd’s favorite and has dominated the weigh-in ceremony. If this were the street, he would be “fronting,” sticking out his chest, swaggering and talking trash, insulting Leonard’s mother. But enough of the street. This is Las Vegas. This is Sugar Ray and Marvelous Marvin. We’re talking about tens of millions of dollars here, a boxing ring, a referee, judges and viewers worldwide. These men are professionals doing a job.

No—these are two men out to dominate. One will dominate and one will be dominated.

When Hagler was deciding whether to retire or fight Leonard, he said his wife told him, “Why don’t you go ahead and get that little skinny bastard out of the way.” Leonard has had his passionate words, too. While Hagler walked around Las Vegas in a black hat with the word “War” on it, Leonard told reporters he was not going to war to beat Hagler. “I see it as a battle of will and wit,” said Leonard with a smile that made it clear that Hagler is a dummy. “He gets mad …,” Leonard explained to reporters. “Little things make him fed up …. He gets frustrated.” A dumb animal to be contained.

After Hagler disappears from the weigh-in, a black man from Los Angeles wearing a gold-and-white sweat suit with red-and-white Fila athletic shoes and thick gold chains walks over to me. “Yeah, bro, it’s over,” he says. “You’ve seen my man’s body—he’s going to kill that little Leonard. Sure enough going to detach that eye, maybe pop the whole thing out.” He says he knows people in Hagler’s camp, and they are joking about letting Leonard have a bigger ring (20 feet instead of 18) and letting Leonard set the bout at a 12-round limit. “There won’t be no 12th round,” he says. “Ray will be lucky if there’s a second round.”

The conversation stirs me. There is heat in his words. I have the desire to have intense moments like these fighters will have tonight, moments that inspire heat in other men’s words. Tonight the fighters’ world will be totally focused. Their minds and energies will be limited to that ring, to dominating the other man, to controlling their emotions. their fears. angers and desires, until the job is done. Today will be spent in pure anticipation of that moment. Today the fighters do nothing but wait; they have gone without sex for weeks. They go without sex today. They lie in bed, watch TV, talk to no one. Hagler will eat two meals—first meatballs and spaghetti and then, in the afternoon, fish and salad. Leonard will eat one meal—chicken, corn bread and greens. Food doesn’t matter. Sex doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. They are waiting for their moment. One moment. The fight.

This fight means more to the fighters than mere money. If Hagler wins he can claim to be the greatest middleweight. He has not been beaten in 37 fights over 11 years. If Leonard wins, he will go down in history as a fighter like no other, a welterweight and junior middleweight champion who came back after a three-year hiatus and beat the most ferocious middleweight of his day. The loser will still be able to say he was good, but the winner of this fight becomes a legend. In the language of the streets, he will become, for all time, a bad mother.

In the restaurants. shapely women model tight sweater-skirt outfits, walking from table to table. Like automatons they repeat the name of the clothing, designer, the fabric and the colors available at a nearby shop. In the bars near-naked women serve drinks to tables crowded with men. Even outside, the streets are littered with ads for call-girls, pictures of practically nude women who for $150 will come to your hotel room.

The casinos seem a blur. The dizzy spinning roulette wheel; the rich men signaling for a light on thick cigars; the gilded baubles on display at Gucci (which is conveniently located a few feet from the casino); the paintings in the coffee shop of black slaves serving overripe fruit. There are no politics in Las Vegas, just people luxuriating in acceptance of a world where the rich are the righteous, celebrity is a must, women are sex objects, and blacks are the gladiators. Those who are not beautiful or strong enough serve drinks, deal cards, tote luggage and eventually get out of town.


All Monday, Las Vegas is frenzied. On the automatic walkway leading to Caesars Palace, a blonde Texan wearing red toenail polish under plastic high heels drops her highball and vomits. Baseball fans begin pushing and shoving as they stand in line for Willie Mays’ autograph. Bo Derek, Tony Danza, John Thompson, Telly Savalas, Timothy Hutton, Mark Gastineau, Gene Hackman—the sight of them sets off a rash of flashing bulbs outside the arena in the hour before the fight. Inside, a seating section to the right of the ring is reserved for celebrities only. The crowd is thick. The aisles of this small stadium cannot hold them. People are crushed together, moving a step at a time. The women are dressed for a White House dinner. They wear evening gowns and designer leather and big, shiny jewels. There are even some furs on this 50-degree night. But you’ve got to be dressed tonight. This is it. A big-time fight. I can’t believe I’m really here. I feel the terror, the butterflies, the urge to hit, the sexual, primitive response to threat.

Leonard comes out first. He is wearing a white satin jacket, with vents, an elastic band holding it snug to his waist. He dances around. He waits. Three minutes. Then the song “War” comes over the loudspeakers. Marvelous Mavin Hagler in black robe, hood up, marches through the arena and into the ring. High atop Caesars Palace an American flag begins to explode in a fireworks display. The flag starts coming apart. The exploding, crumbling flag, with its threat of starting a fire, is an excess on top of the excesses of Las Vegas, and it fascinates the crowd. Necks crane toward the flag. Meanwhile. Leonard dances over toward Hagler’s comer. It looks like a taunt. He is purposely riling Hagler. It is part of his fight plan. He comes back to Hagler’s comer once again and this time does a lightning-fast spin. Hagler watches. A jaguar watching a deer, waiting for him to come too close. The anthem is sung. The Pointer Sisters get out of the ring. The fight begins. Finally.

Hagler smacks his red gloves against his bald head and stomps into the middle of the ring. For the first minute he stays there, Leonard circling him, throwing a few quick combinations. Hagler doesn’t throw a punch. Finally he punches at Leonard, who is immediately off at a run, pursued by Hagler. This exchange sets the style of the fight: Leonard running, Hagler pursuing, and occasionally catching Leonard on the ropes for a few quick seconds (to the delight of the crowd) before Leonard again slides off the ropes and resumes his run. As the round ends, Leonard, on the ropes, throws a flurry of punches at Hagler. This too becomes a pattern Leonard will follow throughout the fight. At every round’s end, he throws punches, flashy quick punches to Hagler’s head. My father once told me that in boxing it’s important to always get in the last punch. Your opponent will remember it, and the judges will have it in their minds as they score the round.

Leonard looks incredibly sharp for a man who was knocked down in his last fight three years ago by a mediocre fighter named Kevin Howard. Leonard is spinning off the ropes, his legs look good and his combinations are crisp. And because Hagler is chasing him. Leonard is dictating the pace of the fight.

The most important thing going on in these early rounds follows the rule from every bar-room fight—control your fear. Leonard is controlling his fear by controlling his opponent. He sets up Hagler. Hagler never sets up Leonard. Leonard can predict where Hagler will be—right in front of him. Hagler never knows where Leonard will be. Leonard’s fear, his uncertainty—all the talk he has heard about being out of the ring too long—is burning itself out. If he can control the other guy, there is no need to be scared; there is no reason to have fear.

Even while Leonard is fighting his fear, Hagler is fighting his anxiety. He wants to fight, slug it out, man-to-man with Leonard. But he knows Leonard’s reputation as a cunning opponent who sets traps for bigger, stronger, meaner fighters. Hagler does not want to fall into one of Leonard’s traps. So he waits in the center of the ring in the early minutes of the fight. He fights his impulse to bombard the slimmer Leonard. He doesn’t want to get tired before Leonard does. Leonard is gaining confidence by the moment. He sticks his chin out at Hagler. At the end of the fourth round he hits Hagler on the top of his bald head, leaving the judges with the memory of a flurry of punches.

Leonard’s control of the early rounds infuriates Hagler. Talking trash is part of street-fighting. So it is in the ring. Anger your opponent, and he begins to flail, stops thinking. Leonard calls Hagler a sissy. He pushes Leonard into the ropes. He’s shouting, come on and fight me. This is Hagler’s game—anger, rage, fury.

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But even when Hagler backs him into the ropes, Leonard is in control, setting up Hagler. He continues to land his punches before Hagler can get going. Coming off the ropes. he’ll clamp Hagler’s right fist under his left arm and then walk into Hagler. Referee Richard Steele is slow to break them. Hagler isn’t complaining and he isn’t pushing Leonard off; he’s stupidly pleased to have Leonard in one place, finally standing still, and now he’s trying to hit him. But the short shots have no leverage, and since Leonard is pushing him backward, there’s all the less power in the punches.

In the streets, there is no benefit to dancing around your opponent unless you can hit him often enough to make him give up, quit. In the ring, the judges award points for dancing, for blows to the head, chest, stomach and kidneys. It really doesn’t matter how hard the punches are, just that they connect. No one can really tell how hard a punch is unless the fighter who gets hit reacts—that is, gets knocked down or gets knocked out. In the first four rounds Leonard simply out-points Hagler. He isn’t trying to knock him out, just to hit him, keep a glove in his face, frustrate him, while showing the judges that he can hit Hagler.

My father once told me that fighting a bigger boy is like playing with fire. Fire, he said, can cook your dinner, light your home, warm you at night. It can also burn your house down and kill you. The key to controlling the fire is understanding its nature and working within that nature to achieve what you want to achieve. Leonard is handling Hagler like fire—being very careful not to get burned while using Hagler’s heat, his aggressive nature and bull-ahead charging tactics to defeat him. Can he do it for 12 rounds?

Hagler’s anxiety is growing. He wants to knock Leonard around, but he doesn’t want to fall into a trap. His indecision has cost him the first four rounds of the fight. In the fifth Hagler drops all pretense of strategy and begins an aggressive assault. Now Leonard is on the defensive. Hagler is crowding him, firing good body shots. Some miss, some hit, but more hit than ever before. At the round’s end Sugar Ray’s flurry isn’t there. Instead he is against the ropes trading punches with Hagler. A jab, then an uppercut catch Leonard. The crowd roars. Leonard counters, softly, and doesn’t move off the ropes. The bell rings. Leonard stumbles across the ring to get back to his comer. Hagler’s fire has been turned up and Leonard looks singed. The roar of the crowd says it smells knockout. “That’s it, next round he’s gone.” the man in front of me is screaming.

Pain is a distraction. It clouds the mind. It invites confusion and, worse—it invites fear. Leonard has had his fear under control. Now, for the first time, Leonard’s handlers look concerned. Leonard’s eyes are far away as he sits on his stool. If he forgets his plan—if he’s hurt and unable to move, if he decides he has to prove himself by slugging it out with Hagler—this will be a short night. Angelo Dundee, Leonard’s trainer, is in his face, spittle flying, shouting through the haze. Stick and run, keep him punching at the angles, this is your night Ray, you’re winning Ray, you’re winning. Leonard is up before the bell and across the ring waiting for Hagler.

In Round 6, Hagler’s aggression returns. And so does Leonard’s fear. It never overwhelms him, though. At the round’s end Hagler has Leonard on the ropes, but he and Leonard are trading body shots. Leonard isn’t connecting with any power, though, and is busy fighting to stay on top of Hagler’s aggression. Some of Leonard’s movements look herky-jerky. But he still has his growing fear under control. The punch to the top of Hagler’s head at the end of the round is evidence that Leonard is in charge.

Leonard’s behavior reminds me of the words of comedian Billy Crystal on “Saturday Night Live.” It’s not how you feel—it’s how you look. And Ray looks marvelous. Inside his head, he is fighting increasing fear and pain. But neither Hagler nor the judges see it. Leonard’s theatrical ability and will to win are keeping him alive. What a boxer!

By the ninth round, Hagler senses this fight has gone on too long. His corner looks panicky. They want him to take Leonard out—go to him and get him now. Hagler catches him against the ropes early on and looks to connect with the jab—the set-up for the bomb. He’s hitting Leonard but Leonard is keeping himself moving, twisting his body, moving his head and counter-punching. Hagler keeps coming. Against the ropes again, Leonard is hit with a good Hagler combination to the body. But he responds with a flurry of punches and, surprisingly, dances away. The crowd is roaring. This is the fight they came to see.

Leonard’s face reveals a new thought as he sits in his comer at the end of the ninth. This fight has only three rounds to go. Leonard’s will is amazing. He’s tired. Hagler’s fire is coming on stronger. But from his heart, Leonard is working, continuing to fire combinations that have no power but nonetheless land, scoring punches. Leonard continues to keep his body at angles, thwarting the power of Hagler’s punches.

Then, in a show of bravado that brings us back to “it’s not how how you feel, it’s how you look,” Leonard turns and postures with a bolo punch, taunting Hagler. Leonard is winning the fight of images. Even as the strength is draining from his body he is concealing his fear and exhaustion. Most important, Hagler, who clearly looks stronger and less fatigued, doesn’t sense Leonard’s fear and that increases his feeling of frustration at not having nailed him. Now Hagler begins to throw wild punches. Leonard catches him with a combination to the body.

In the final round, Leonard continues to showboat. He comes off his stool with his hands raised in victory. He beckons for Hagler to come to the middle of the ring. He waves to the crowd, asking them to cheer him on. They do. He is controlling Hagler and the crowd. At the end he hits Hagler on the head. This round is Leonard’s, for mental and emotional strength.

My score card shows Leonard a winner, seven rounds to five, He found a strategy to beat Hagler, he found the skill to execute it and the mental strength to keep to it. If a man makes his world, then Leonard made this fight follow his script, and he put on a classic boxing show. That brilliance was also in a sense the fight’s flaw. By the law of the streets a fight should scream violence—two men throwing their bodies at each other and the stronger, meaner man winning. In the street Leonard would not have been able to rely on a 12-round limit or the judge’s scoring. He would do better to talk his way out of a disagreement with Mr. Hagler. By that standard this fight was polite, bloodless, a delight for the cognoscenti. It was evidence that brains and strategy can defeat brawn.


As the final bell rings, Leonard raises his arms and walks around the ring. He understands that the fight is not over until he exults, shows he feels he has won. Then he falls to his knees in collapse. He is that tired. Hagler remains in his comer, his face cold and expressionless.

I am standing with two other reporters. One has the fight dead even—a draw. The other has it as a win for Leonard. I do, too. A fan, a guy from San Antonio, walks over to me, asks me how I scored the fight. He says Leonard has not beaten Hagler badly enough to take away the title. All Leonard did was survive, hold and run and survive, he says. I agree. But I say my score card shows Leonard the winner of seven rounds of a 12-round fight.

The ring announcer comes to the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “we have a split decision. Judge Dave Moretti scores it 115-113 Hagler. Judge Lou Filippo scores it 115-113 Leonard. And Judge Jo-Jo Guerra scores it 118-110. The new …”

At the sound of the word “new,” the arena explodes. Leonard jumps around the ring, waving his arms, shaking his fists.

But the fight isn’t over yet. In my neighborhood the fight itself was not as important as what people Had to say afterward. If the crowd believed the cops showed up too early, or somebody got a knife from one of his boys, then the decision could go either way. If the loser was robbed, he might as well be the winner.

There is no doubt tonight. The talk is of Leonard’s “great performance” and “his strategy.” In the press room. Prentice Bird, who handles fighters, including Tommy Hearns, for the Kronk gym in Detroit, says Hagler is too old, his legs are “gone.” Jesse Jackson comes over to me and compares Leonard to Ali.

Suddenly Leonard appears. He stands by the microphone, a sly grin on his face, and holds up a piece of paper. He reads off the names of sportswriters, all of whom had picked Hagler to win, then drops the paper; Hagler called him names, Leonard says, shaking his head as a father does when disappointed with a child, but he knew Hagler was in trouble because Hagler gave away the first five rounds and would have had to get a knockout to win it. With the wave of an aristocrat, a man who has proven himself in some real, unquestionable way, he says, “No more questions … I have no more to say, gentlemen,” turns and leaves. His wife, Juanita, comes forward. She is wearing the green leather championship belt like a sash, slung over her shoulder, across her chest, the gold buckle lying between her breasts. She seems in a daze. She stands there as if she is the trophy. There she is—the winner’s woman.

Half an hour later, Hagler unexpectedly walks out and sits in a chair on the stage. Usually, the losers disappear in emotional disrepair. Hagler hardly looks upset—he looks angry. “They took it away from me and gave it to Sugar Ray of all people,” he says. Boxing is politics and the people who run boxing don’t want him to retire as he had planned to do. The boxing money-men wanted Sugar Ray to win and it left him with a “bitter taste” in his mouth. He was the aggressor the whole fight—”You saw it”—and the bell saved Leonard three or four times. “He fought like a girl in there,” he says, waving his hand and insisting Leonard never hurt him. Pointing to the reporters, he says Leonard “told me himself—he said, ‘You beat me.’”

Still Hagler keeps talking. He says he can’t believe he lost. He says when he wakes up in the morning, he’ll have to check to make sure this really happened. Hagler wants to talk more, but Bob Arum, the promoter, ends the press conference.

I find one of Leonard’s entourage and ask if what Hagler said was true. He laughs. Leonard told Hagler, he says, that Hagler was still the middleweight champion. Ray doesn’t want to be the middleweight champion. He doesn’t want the belt, he says. “Hagler can be the champion—Ray is the superstar.”

I feel sorry for Marvelous Marvin. He didn’t understand. Leonard made a passing comment and in his embarrassment Hagler has seized on it, even repeated it to the press, without understanding it. Leonard humiliated him. In the terms of a Brooklyn schoolyard fight, Leonard had “busted that mother.” Now the fight was really over. And it wasn’t even close.


Postscript

I’m a fight fan and I suggested doing the story for the Washington Post‘s Sunday magazine. It was a pleasure to write because I didn’t have to report the news, there was no hard deadline. I could take my time and explore my personal history with fighting. My father trained boxers. There’s a strange picture of me when I was young on the balcony in Panama. I’m in white shoes, my fists cocked. That’s an odd thing for a father to do to a toddler but I think he was imparting what he knew to me. It’s not that he expected me to be a boxer.

When I was four, my mother took my two siblings and me from Colon, Panama, to New York and my father didn’t join us until I was 10. A few years later I went away to prep school so there were large gaps in my childhood when he wasn’t present. My brother and sister were 8 and 10 years older. We lived in the Ebbets Field Houses in Brooklyn—section 8 housing. I was the little guy, left behind, sitting alone on the stoop. I didn’t have neighborhood protection until later when I proved that I was good at basketball.

Where I grew up fighting was a survival thing. I wasn’t a fighter by nature. Fear was the driving instinct, and fighting was about learning how to manage the fear. I just didn’t want to be crushed but I didn’t have the desire to dominate someone else. Getting hit when you practice had no appeal for me. Getting hit in the face even when head gear protects your skin from being torn is still getting hit in the face. It’s an unpleasant experience. As I wrote in this piece my father told me that fighting a bigger boy is like playing with fire. The crucial part is to control the fire and learn how to use it to your advantage.

Which is partly why I identified with Leonard. Also, he was from the D.C. area, that’s where I was working, so he was a hometown guy. The central point of that fight, the heart and soul of the fight, was that Leonard had an effective strategy for fighting Hagler and Hagler had no strategy other than to knock Leonard out. He was the raging bull. It was the lion vs. an antelope.

The perception of the fight may have changed over time but not in my mind. I don’t recall anyone saying at the time that Hagler got robbed. I can only see that being the case because Hagler was the aggressor and some people may feel that the one who was hitting harder should have won. But if you appreciate the beauty of the sport—who controls the fight—there is no question, at the end particularly, that Leonard was in control of the ring and of the fight.


Juan Williams was a longtime reporter and columnist at The Washington Post. He is now a political analyst for Fox News.

[Featured Image by Joe Maloney]

BGS: Great Men Die Twice

MUHAMMAD-ALI

Another gem. Originally published in the June 1989 issue of Esquire. Republished here with the permission of the late author’s son, Mark Kram Jr., a wonderful storyteller in his own right. His postscript follows. For a contemporary, but very different, glimpse of Ali, check out Davis Miller’s story about his day with the champ.

Great Men Die Twice

By Mark Kram

There is the feel of a cold offshore mist to the hospital room, a life-is-a-bitch feel, made sharp by the hostile ganglia of medical technology, plasma bags dripping, vile tubing snaking in and out of the body, blinking monitors leveling illusion, muffling existence down to a sort of digital bingo. The Champ, Muhammad Ali, lies there now, propped up slightly, a skim of sweat on his lips and forehead, eyes closed, an almost imperceptible tremor to his arms and head. For all his claims to the contrary, his surface romance with immortality, Ali had a spooky bead on his future; he never saw it sweeping grandly toward him but bellying quietly along the jungle floor. “We just flies in a room,” he liked to say, moving quickly across the ruins of daily life, plane crashes, train wrecks, matricide, infanticide; then after swatting half of humanity, he’d lower his voice and whisper, as if imparting a secret, “We just flies, that’s all. Got nowhere to fly, do we?”

Images and echoes fill the room, diffuse and speeding, shot through with ineluctable light and the mythopoeic for so long, the glass darkened to a degree no one thought possible; his immense talent, his ring wisdom, his antipathy for chemicals, argued against destructibility; all he would ever do is grow old. For twenty years, while he turned the porno shop of sports into international theater, attention was paid in a way it never was before or has been since. The crowds were a wonder to behold. Kids scaled the wings of jets to get a glimpse of him; thousands, young and old, tailed him in masses during his roadwork. World leaders marveled at the spell he cast over the crowds. “If you were a Filipino,” joked Ferdinand Marcos, “I’d have to shoot you.” The pope asked for his autograph; Sure, he said, pointing to a picture, but why ain’t Jesus black? A young Libyan student in London sat on his bed, kept him up half the night with dithyrambic visions of Muslim revolution. “Watch, one day you will see,” said Muammar Qaddafi. Half asleep, Ali said: “Sheeeet, you crazy.” Leonid Brezhnev once dispatched a note to an official at Izvestia: “I would like to see more on Muhammad Ali. Who is this man?”

The Ali Watch: how absurd that it would one day drop down here on a little hospital on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. The nurse dabs his face dry. What is he thinking? Never has his favorite phrase sounded so dismally precise: My, my, ain’t the world strange. If he could root back through the maze of moment and incident, would he find premonitory signs sticking out like dire figurations of chicken entrails? Does he remember King Levinsky, one of the many heavy bags for Joe Louis, in the corridor after the Miami Beach weigh-in? Boldly colored ties draped Levinsky’s neck (he sold them on the street), his synapses now like two eggs over-light, in permanent sizzle, as he tried to move into stride with a young Cassius Clay. Over and over, like a one-man Greek chorus, Levinsky croaked, eyes spinning, spittle bubbling from his lips: “He’s gonna take you, kid. Liston’s gonna take you, make you a guy sellin’ ties… Partners with me kid, ya kin be partners with me.” Does he remember a shadowed evening in his hotel room a day or so after the third Joe Frazier fight, moving to the window, his body still on fire from the assault? He stood there watching the bloodred sun drop into Manila Bay, then took a visitor’s hand and guided it over his forehead, each bump sending a vague dread through the fingers. “Why I do this?” he said softly. Does he remember the Bahamian cowbell tinkling the end of his final, pathetic fight, a derisive goodbye sound stark with omen? What is he thinking?

Ali poses a question, his eyes closed, his lips parting as if he were sliding open manhole covers. “You die here…. they take you home?” he asks. The nurses roll their eyes and smile, struck by his innocence; it has nothing to do, they know, with morbidity. He is not joking either. The practical aftermath of death seems to stimulate his curiosity these days; nothing urgent, mind you, just something that begins to get into your mind when you’re watching blood move in and out of your body for half the day. Though he is very much a mystic, there is a part of Ali that has always found security and a skewed understanding of life in the quantifiable: amounts, calibrated outcomes, the creaking, reassuring machinery of living. The night before in the hotel lounge, with his wife, Lonnie, beside him, bemusedly aghast, he grilled a pleasant waitress until he knew how many tips she got each week, how many children she had, the frequency of men hitting on her, and the general contour of her reality. “She have a sad life,” he said later. The nurse now cracks with a deadpan expression: “You die, we take you home, Muhammad.

Still, a certain chiaroscuro grimness attaches to their surreal exchange and cries out for some brainless, comic intervention. He himself had long been a specialist in such relief when he would instantly brighten faces during his favorite tours of prisons, orphanages, and nursing homes. When down himself (very seldom), he could count on a pratfall from his hysterical shaman, Drew “Bundini” Brown, on the latest bizarre news from his scheming court, maybe a straight line from some reporter that he would turn into a ricocheting soliloquy on, say, the disgusting aesthetics of dining on pig. No laughs today, though.

“Don’t make him laugh,” a nurse insisted when leading a writer and a photographer into the room. “Laughing shakes the tubing loose.” The photographer is Howard Bingham, Ali’s closest friend; he’s been with the Champ from the start, in the face of much abuse from the Black Muslims. Ali calls him “the enemy” or “the nonbeliever.” His natural instinct is to make Ali laugh; today he has to settle for biting his lower lip and gazing warily back and forth between Ali and his nurses. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands. Ali had requested that he leave his cameras outside; just one shot of this scene, of Ali on his back, the forbidding purge in progress, of fame and mystique splayed raw, would bring Bingham a minor fortune. “He doesn’t want the world to see him like this,” says Howard. “I wouldn’t take the picture for a million dollars.”

The process is called plasmapheresis. It lasts five hours and is being conducted by Dr. Rajko Medenica. The procedure, popular in Europe, is a cleansing of the blood. Ali is hooked up to an electrocardiograph and a blood-pressure monitor; there is always some risk when blood is not making its customary passage. But the procedure is not dangerous and he is in no pain, we are told. Two things, though, that he surely can’t abide about the treatment: the injection of those big needles and the ceaseless tedium. When he was a young fighter, a doctor had to chase him around a desk to give him a shot, and chaotic mobility to him is at least as important as breathing. Bingham can’t take his eyes off Ali; the still life of his friend, tethered so completely, seems as incomprehensible to him as it would to others who followed the radiated glow of Ali’s invulnerability. The nurses cast an eye at his blood pressure and look at each other. His pressure once jumped twelve points while he watched a TV report on Mike Tyson’s street fight with Mitch Green in Harlem. It’s rising a bit now, and the nurses think he has to urinate. He can’t bear relieving himself in the presence of women; he resists, and his anxiety climbs.

“Ali,” one of them calls. His eyes remain closed, his breathing is hardly audible. The nurse calls to him again; no response. “Come on now, Ali,” she complains, knowing that he likes to feign death. “Now, stop it, Ali.” He doesn’t move, then suddenly his head gives a small jerk forward and his eyes buck wide open, the way they used to when he’d make some incoherent claim to lineage to the gods. The nurses flinch, or are they in on the joke, too? Eyes still wide, with a growing smile, he says to the writer, weakly: “You thought I dead, tell the truth. You the only one ever here to see this and I die for ya. You git some scoop, big news round the whole world, won’t it be?” He leans his head back on the pillow, saying: “Got no funny people round me anymore. Have to make myself laugh.” The nurse wants to know if he has to urinate. “No,” he says with a trace of irritation. “Yes, you do,” the nurse says. “Your pressure…” Ali looks over at Lonnie with mischievous eyes. “I just thinkin’ ’bout a pretty woman.” The nurse asks him what he’d like for lunch. “Give him some pork,” cracks Bingham. Ali censures the heretic with a playful stare. Ali requests chicken and some cherry pie with “two scoops of ice cream.” He turns to the writer again: “Abraham Lincoln went on a three-day drunk, and you know what he say when he wake up?” He waits for a beat, then says: “I freed whooooooo?” His body starts to shake with laughter. The nurse yells: “Stop it, Muhammad! You’ll drive the needles through your veins.” His calms down, rasps, “I’ll never grow up, will I? I’ll be fifty in three years. Old age just make you ugly, that’s all.”


Not all, exactly; getting old is the last display for the bread-and-circuses culture. Legends must suffer for all the gifts and luck and privilege given to them. Great men, it’s been noted, die twice—once as great, and once as men. With grace, preferably, which adds an uplifting, stirring, Homeric touch. If the fall is too messy, the national psyche will rush toward it, then recoil; there is no suspense, no example in the mundane. The captivating, aspiring sociopath Sonny Liston had a primitive hold on the equation of greatness. “Clay (he never called him Ali) beeeg now,” Sonny once said while gnawing on some ribs. “He flyin’ high now. Like an eagle. So high. Where he gonna land, how he gonna land? He gonna have any wings? I wanna see.” Sonny, of course, never made it for the final show. Soon after, he checked out in Vegas, the suspicion of murder hovering over the coroner’s report.

Who wanted to ask the question back then, or even be allowed to examine in depth its many possibilities? It was too serious for the carnival, immediately at odds with the cartoon bombast that swirled around Ali, the unassailable appeal of the phenomenon, the breathtaking climb of the arc. Before him, the ring, if not moribund, had been a dark, somber corner of sports, best described by the passing sight of then-middleweight-king Dick Tiger, leaving his beat-up hotel wearing a roomy black homburg and a long pawnshop overcoat, a black satchel in his hand, heading for the subway and a title fight at the Garden. But the heavyweight champions—as they always will—illuminated the image sent out to the public. There was the stoic, mute Joe Louis, with his cruising menace; street fighter Rocky Marciano, with his trade-unionist obedience; the arresting and dogged Floyd Patterson, who would bare his soul to a telephone pole at the sight of a pencil; all unfrivolous men who left no doubt as to the nature of their work.

With the emergence of Muhammad Ali, no one would ever see the ring the same way again, not even the fighters themselves; a TV go, a purse, and sheared lip would never be enough; and a title was just a belt unless you did something with it. A fighter had to be; a product, an event, transcendental. Ali and the new age met stern, early resistance. He was the demon loose at a holy rite. With his preening narcissism, braggart mouth, and stylistic quirks, he was viewed as a vandal of ring tenets and etiquette. Besides, they said, he couldn’t punch, did not like to get hit, and seemed to lack a sufficient amount of killer adrenaline. True, on the latter two counts. “I git no pleasure from hurtin’ another human bein’,” he used to say. “I do what I gotta do, nothin’ more, nothin’ less.” As far as eating punches, he said, “Only a fool wanna be hit. Boxin’ just today, my face is forever.” Others saw much more. The ballet master Balanchine, for one, showed up at a workout and gazed in wonder. “My God,” he said, “he fights with his legs, he actually fights with his legs. What an astonishing creature.” Ali’s jab (more like a straight left of jolting electricity) came in triplets, each a thousandth of a second in execution. He’d double up cruelly with a left hook (rarely seen) and razor in a right—and then he’d be gone. Even so, it took many years for Ali to ascend to a preeminent light in the national consciousness. In the Sixties, as a converted Black Muslim, he vilified white people as blond, blue-eyed devils. His position on Vietnam—”I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong, anyway. They never called me nigger”—was innocent at first, but then taken up as if he were the provocateur of a national crisis. The politicians, promoters, and sweeping sentiment converged to conspire against his constitutional right to work; states barred him from fighting. He resisted the draft and drifted into exile. Three years later he returned, heavier, slower, but with a new kind of fire in his belly. Though he had defeated heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and defended his title nine times, Ali had never had a dramatic constituency before. Now a huge one awaited him, liberals looking for expression, eager literati to put it into scripture, worn-out hippies, anyone who wanted to see right done for once. The rest is history: the two symphonic conflicts with Joe Frazier; the tingling walk with him into the darkness of George Foreman. Then, the Hegelian “bad infinite” of repeating diminishing cycles: retiring, unretiring, the torture of losing weight, the oiling of mushy reflexes. The margins of dominance compressed perilously, and the head shots (negligible before exile) mounted.

Greatness trickled from the corpus of his image, his career now like a gutshot that was going to take its time before killing. His signing to fight Larry Holmes, after retiring a second time, provoked worried comment. After watching some of Ali’s films, a London neurologist said that he was convinced Ali had brain damage. Diagnosis by long distance, the promoters scoffed. Yet among those in his camp, the few who cared, there was an edginess. They approached Holmes, saying, “Don’t hurt him, Larry.” Moved, Holmes replied: “No way. I love Ali.” With compassion, he then took Ali apart with the studied carefulness of a diamond cutter; still, not enough to mask the winces at ringside. Ali failed to go the route for the first time in his career. Incredibly, fourteen months later, in 1981, his ego goaded him to the Bahamas and another fight, the fat jellied on his middle, his hand-speed sighing and wheezing like a busted old fan; tropic rot on the trade winds. Trevor Berbick, an earnest pug, outpointed him easily. Afterward, Angelo Dundee, who had trained Ali from the start and had to be talked into showing up for this one, watched him slumped in the dressing room, then turned away and rubbed his eyes as certain people tried to convince Ali that he had been robbed and that a fourth title was still possible.

The public prefers, indeed seems to insist on, the precedent set by Rocky Marciano, who quit undefeated, kept self-delusion at bay. Ali knew the importance of a clean farewell, not only as a health measure but as good commercial sense. His ring classicism had always argued so persuasively against excessive physical harm, his pride was beyond anything but a regal exit. But his prolonged decline had been nasty, unseemly. Who or what pressured him to continue on? Some blamed his manager, Herbert Muhammad, who had made millions with Ali. Herbert said that his influence wasn’t that strong.

Two years after that last fight, Ali seemed as mystified as everyone else as to why he hadn’t ended his career earlier. His was living with his third wife, the ice goddess Veronica, in an L.A. mansion, surrounded by the gifts of a lifetime—a six-foot hand carved tiger given to him by Teng Hsiao-ping, a robe given to him by Elvis Presley. Fatigued, his hands tremoring badly, he sat in front of the fire and could only say: “Everybody git lost in life. I just git lost, that’s all.”


Now, five years later, the question why still lingers, along with the warning of the old aphorism that “we live beyond what we enact.” The resuscitation of Ali’s image has been a sporadic exercise for a long time now, some of it coming from friends who have experienced heartfelt pain over his illness. Others seem to be trying to assuage a guilt known only to themselves, and a few are out to keep Ali a player, a lure to those who might want to use his name in business; though the marketplace turns away from billboards in decline. Not long ago, a piece in The New York Times Magazine pronounced him the Ali of old, just about terminally perky. Then, Ali surfaced in a front-page telephone interview in The Washington Post. He appeared to have a hard grasp on politics, current states’ rights issues, and federal judgeships being contested—a scenario that had seemed as likely as the fusillade of laser fire Ali said Muslim spaceships would one day loose on the white devils.

Noses began to twitch. What and who was behind the new Ali, the wily Washington lobbyist who had the ear of everyone from Strom Thurmond to Orrin Hatch? The wife of Senator Arlen Specter even baked Ali a double-chocolate-mousse pie. For a good while, most of these senators, and others, knew only the voice of Ali on the phone. Dave Kindred, a columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who has known Ali since his Louisville days, concluded that it was most likely Ali’s attorney, Richard Hirschfeld, widely regarded as a brilliant impersonator of Ali, who had made the calls. (Hirschfeld has refused to comment on whether or not he did so.) Hirschfeld and Ali had cut up a lot of money over the years on numerous enterprises (funded by other people), from hotels to cars, most of them failing. Ali’s lobbying seemed to center on a federal judgeship for a Hirschfeld friend, and a federal lawsuit in which Ali sought $50 million in damages from his “wrongful conviction in the 1967 draft evasion case.” He lost the suit but succeeded in getting Senator Hatch and others to explore a loophole that might remedy the verdict. Ali eventually had to materialize (with Hirschfeld hard by his side), and many on Capitol Hill were unable to match the man with the voice. One of Sam Nunn’s aides, noting Ali’s listlessness and Hirschfeld’s aggressive quizzing, wondered: “Is Ali being carted around like a puppet?” Certainly a serpentine tale; but had Ali been a collaborator all along?

At his farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan, Ali sits at the end of a table in the living room. The 247 pounds of weight have made him a bit short of breath. He’s battled his appetite (two, three desserts, meals back to back) and sedentary lapses for years. Several months before, he had been almost sleek, thanks to fourteen-mile walks and his wife’s efforts to police him at the table. But what is disturbing is the general profile of his condition.

For a long time now, he had appeared indifferent to the ravages of his problem. But he dispels that notion when asked how seriously he considered a dangerous brain operation in Mexico before his family talked him out of it. “Scale of ten,” he says, “a six.” The answer reflects the terrible frustration that must exist within him, the daily, fierce struggle with a body and mind that will not capitulate to his bidding. He sits there, his hands shaking, his movements robotic, the look on his face similar to what the Marines call a thousand-yard stare.

Why is it, do you think, that after all these years, the dominant sound around Ali is silence? Look at the cataract of noise caught by TV sound men, look at the verbosity that snared some novelists into thinking he was a primitive intelligence capable of Ciceronian insight. Part of the fever of the times; if the Black Panther Huey Newton, posing with a rifle and spear, could be written up as a theoretical genius, and his partner, Bobby Seale, interpreted as a tactical wizard, then how much a symbol was Ali, the first to tap and manifest glinting black pride, to dispute with vigor erosive self-laceration.

The fact was that he was not cerebral; he was a reflex of confusing emotions and instant passions. He did have street cunning, most of it aimed at keeping himself a mystery. “People like mystery,” he used to say. “Who is he? What’s he all about? Who’s he gonna be tomorrow?” To that end, he tossed the media rabble dripping hunks of redundant, rote monologue; his loudness provided a great show and diverted probing questions. By nature, he was gentle, sensitive man, and even in the throes of angry threats against whites it was hard to hide a smile, for he loved what the blacks call “selling wolf tickets,” tricking people into fear. The Black Panthers used that gambit well, and the TV crews followed their presence. Thinking of all of this, how could someone so alien to ideas, and thought, who communicated privately, in scraps and remote silences, be capable of fooling Washington politicians? Absurd, of course, but then the question emerges: Did he allow himself to be used?

“How about all those phone calls,” he is asked.

“What calls?” he responds, vacantly.

“To politicians, this past summer.”

“You can’t believe that,” he says. “Man wrote that, he’s cracker from way back in Louisville. Always hated blacks.”

“But the piece had the goods.”

“I’m signin’ my autographs now,” he says. “This is the only important thing in my life. Keepin’ in touch with the people.”

“Were you used?”

“Spend a hundred dollars on stamps every week. Give ‘em all my autograph that write me.”

“Were you used?”

“For what?”

“To influence your lawsuit.”

“I ain’t worried about money,” he says.

“Maybe you just want to be big again. Remember what you told Elvis. ‘Elvis, you have to keep singin’ or die to stay big. I’m gonna be big forever.’”

He smiles thinly: “I say anything shock the world.”

“You like politics now?”

“Politics put me to sleep.”

“You were at the Republican National Convention.”

“You borin’ me, putting me to sleep.”

“Reagan, Hatch, Quayle, they would’ve clapped you in jail in the old days.”

His eyes widen slightly: “That right?” He adds: “I’m tired. You better than a sleepin’ pill.”

But don’t let the exchange mislead. Ali is not up to repartee these days, never was, really, unless he was in the mood, and then he’d fade you with one of his standard lines (“You not as dumb as you look”). He speaks very, very slowly, and you have to lean in to hear him. It takes nearly as hour to negotiate the course of a conversation. Typically, he hadn’t been enlightening on the Capitol Hill scam. Over the years, he has been easily led, told by any number of rogues what his best interests were. If the advisors were friends who appealed to his instinct to help them move up a rung, he was even more of a setup. Later, Bingham says: “Ali was pissed about that impersonation stuff. He had no idea.” Why didn’t he just say that he didn’t make the calls? “You know him,” he says. “He’ll never betray who he thinks has tried to help him. The idea that people will think less of him now bothers him a lot.”

If there was ever any doubt about the staying power of Ali, it is swept aside when you travel with him. His favorite place in the world—next to his worktable at his farm—is an airport. So he should be in high spirits now; he’ll be in three airports before the day’s over. But he’s a bit petulant with Lonnie, who aims to see that he keeps his date at Hilton Head Island. He can’t stand hospitals. They get in the way of life. He found it hard to ever visit his old sidekick Bundini when he was dying. Paralyzed from the next down, Bundini could only move his eyes. Ali bent down close to his ear and whispered: “You in pain?” The eyes signaled “yes.” Ali turned his head away, then came back to those eyes, saying: “We had some good times, didn’t we?” Bundini’s eyes went up and down. Ali talks about this in the Chicago airport. He’s calmed down now, sits off by himself, ramrod-straight and waiting. He wears a pinstripe suit, red tie, and next to him is his black magician’s bag; he never lets it out of his sight. The bag is filled with religious tracts already autographed; which is the first thing he does every day at 6:00 a.m., when he gets up. All he has to do is fill in the person’s name.

His autograph ritual and travel are his consuming interests. He’ll go anywhere at the ring of a phone, and he spends much time on the road. Perhaps the travel buoys him; he certainly gets an energy charge from people. Soon they begin to drop like birds to his side. “You see,” he says, “all I gotta do is sit here. Somethin’, ain’t it? Why they like me?” He is not trying to be humble, he is genuinely perplexed by the chemistry that exists between himself and other people. “Maybe they just like celebrities,” he says. Maybe, he’s told, he’s much more than a celebrity. He ponders that for a moment, and says: “That right?” By now, a hundred people have lined up in front of him, and a security guard begins to keep them in line. Ali asks them his name, writes, then gives them his autographed tracts. Some ask him to pose for pictures, others kid him about unretiring. “Kong (Mike Tyson), I’m comin’ after you.” Near the end, he does a magic trick for a lady, using a fake thumb. “Where you going, Muhammad?” she asks. He thinks, and then leans over to the writer and asks: “Where we going?” The lady’s eyes fill, she hugs him and says: “We love you so much.” What is it that so movingly draws so many people—his innocent, childlike way, the stony visual he projects, set off against his highly visible symptoms?

That night over dinner, Ali’s eyes open and close between courses. He fades in and out of the conversation, has a hint of trouble lifting the fork to his mouth. His days includes periods like this, he’s in and out like a faraway signal. Sometimes he’s full of play. He likes to swing his long arm near a person’s ear, then create a friction with thumb and forefinger to produce a cricket effect in the ear. Then the play is gone, and so is he. “One day,” Lonnie is saying, “I want someone to catch his soul, to show what a fine human being he is.” Ali says, head down: “Nobody know me. I fool ‘em all.” Lonnie is Ali’s fourth wife. She was a little girl who lived across from Ali’s old Louisville home when he was at the top. She is a woman of wit and intelligence, with a master’s degree in business administration. She plans his trips, is the tough cop with him and his medicine, and generally seems to brighten his life. Ice cream dribbles down Ali’s chin. “Now, Muhammad,” she says, wiping it away. “You’re a big baby.” He orders another dessert, then says: “Where are we?” A blade of silence cuts across the table.

Bingham says: “Hilton Head Island.”

Ali says: “Ya ever wake up and don’t know where you are?” Sure, he is told, steady travel can make a person feel like that for an instant; yet it is obvious that short term-memory for him is like a labyrinth.


Ali’s day at the hospital is nearly over. He will soon be counting down the minutes. Right now, he’s in high spirits. A nurse has secretly slipped him some strips of paper. He has a complete piece of paper in his hands. He crumples the paper, pretends to put it in his mouth, then billows his cheeks until he regurgitates tiny pieces all over his chest. “Ain’t magic a happy thing,” he says, trying to contain his giggling. When Dr. Medenica comes, Ali jokes with him. The doctor goes about examining the day’s results. He looks at the bags of plasma: 15,000 cc’s have been moved through Ali. Floyd Patterson has expressed dismay over the current treatment. “No brain damage?” Floyd has said. “Next you’ll be hearing he was bit by a cockroach. He’s gonna kill Clay…. He’ll drop dead in a year.” Medenica bridles at the comment. “He’s rather ignorant. I’m going to have to call that man.” Ali wants to know what Patterson said. Nobody wants to tell him. “Tell me,” says Ali. Everyone looks at each other, and someone finally says: “Floyd says you’ll drop dead in a year.” Ali shrugs it off: “Floyd mean well.”

It is Medenica’s contention that Ali suffers from pesticide poisoning. Though his work has met with some skepticism in the medical community, Medenica is respected in South Carolina. His desk is rimmed with pictures of prominent people—a senator, a Saudi prince, an ambassador—patients for whom he has retarded death by cancer. He is supposed to have done wonders for Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia. Tito was so grateful, he arranged funding for Medenica’s clinic in Switzerland. When he died, the funds were cut off and Medenica was left with bills and criminal indictment by the Yugoslavians and the Swiss. “Don’t ask how Ali got the pesticides,” Medenica says.

Plasmapheresis is a solid treatment for pesticide poisoning, which occurs more than ever these days. The blood cleaning removes the immune complex, which in turns removes toxins. But how can Medenica be so sure that Ali’s problem is not brain damage? Dr. Dennis Cope, of UCLA, has said that Ali is a victim of “Parkinson’s syndrome secondary to pugilistic brain syndrome.” In short, he took too many head shots. Medenica, though, is a confident man.

He predicts Ali will be completely recovered. “I find absolutely no brain damage. The magnetic resonator tests show no damage. Before I took him as a patient, I watched many of his fight films. He did not take many head blows.”

Is he kidding?

“No, I do not see any head blows. When he came this summer, he was in bad shape. Poor gait. Difficult speech. Vocal cord syndrome, extended and inflamed. He is much better. His problem is he misses taking his medicine, and he travels too much. He should be here once a month.”

Finally, Ali is helped out of his medical harness. He dresses slowly. Then, ready to go out, he puts that famous upper-teeth clamp on his bottom lip to show determination and circles the doctor with a cocked right fist. His next stop is for an interferon shot. It is used to stimulate the white blood cells. Afterward, he is weak, and there is a certain sadness in his eyes. On the way to the car, he is asked if the treatment helps. He says: “Sheeeet, nothin’ help.”

The Lincoln Town Car moves through the night. Bingham, who is driving, fumbles with the tape player. Earlier in the day, he had searched anxiously for a tape of Whitney Houston doing “The Greatest Love of All,” a song written especially for Ali years ago. He had sensed that Ali would be quite low when the day was over, and he wanted something to pick him up. The words, beautiful and haunting, fill the car.

Everybody’s searching for a hero,

People need someone

To look up to,

    I never found anyone who

Fulfilled that need;

A lonely place to be,
 

So learned to depend on me.

I decided long ago

Never to walk in anyone’s shadow;

If I fail, if I succeed

At least I lived as I believe,

And no matter what

They take from me,

They can’t take away my dignity;

Because the greatest love of all

Is happening to me

I found the greatest love of all

Inside of me.

The greatest love of all is easy

To achieve,

Learning to love yourself 

It is the greatest love of all.

“You hear that,” Bingham says, his voice cracking. “Everything’s gonna be just fine, Ali.”

The dark trees spin by. There is no answer. What is he thinking?

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Postscript

This 1989 Esquire piece by father on Ali in decline is one of my personal favorites. I am not exactly sure what he thought of it; he was the last person to go to for an opinion on any of his work. But I like it immensely. It blends his characteristic impressionistic style with exquisite reporting, grim humor and an undercurrent of compassion born of their long years together. Although my father took some swipes at Ali in his 2001 book, Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, I think he comes at his subject in this piece with his lance sheathed. He had always told me he had been of fond Ali personally and I think that comes across here.  It is a tender glimpse at a once extraordinary athlete who has been thrust by age and illness into a state of sad fragility.

–Mark Kram Jr., author of Like Any Normal Day: A Story of Devotion, the winner of the 2013 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. See more at www.markkramjr.com.


Mark Kram covered much of Ali’s career for Sports Illustrated, including all three of his bouts with Joe Frazier. He began his 40 year writing career as sports columnist as The Baltimore Sun in 1959. He spent 13 years at SI (1964-1977), during which he became one of the signature voices of the magazine. He later contributed pieces to PlayboyEsquire, and GQGhosts of Manila, his book on the Ali-Frazier rivalry, was published by HarperCollins in 2001. He died in 2002.

Hut-Hut…Hike!

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Yeah, the Yanks and Sox start their four-game series tonight but the NFL season also begins tonight for those of you who care about such a thing.

Over at The Stacks, I’ve reprinted a couple of goodies from the Playboy vaults as a way to kick the season off in style: Arthur Kretchmer’s classic 1971 Dick Butkus profile and a 1969 interview with Broadway Joe.

[Photo Credit: Neil Leifer/SI]

 

Banter Gold Standard: Tyrus

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Originally published in the June 1915 issue of American Magazine and anthologized in the Library of America’s new collection of Ring Lardner’s stories. Reprinted here with permission.

Sit down here a while, kid, and I’ll give you the dope on this guy. You say you didn’t see him do nothin’ wonderful? But you only seen him in one serious. Wait till you been in the league more’n a week or two before you go judgin’ ball players. He may of been sick when you played agin him. Even when he’s sick, though, he’s got everybody I ever seen skun, and I’ve saw all the best of ‘em.P

Say, he ain’t worth nothin’ to that club; no, nothin’! I don’t know what pay he’s gettin’, but whatever it is, it ain’t enough. If they’d split the receipts fifty-fifty with that bird, they wouldn’t be gettin’ none the worst of it. That bunch could get along just as well without him as a train could without no engine.P

He’s twicet the ball player now that he was when he come up. He didn’t seem to have no sense when he broke in; he run bases like a fool and was a mark for a good pitcher or catcher. They used to just lay for him when he got on. Sully used to tell the pitchers to do nothin’ but waste balls when he was on first or second base. It was pretty near always good dope, too, because they’d generally nail him off one base or the other, or catch him tryin’ to go to the next one. But Sully had to make perfect pegs to get him even when he knowed beforehand that he was goin’. Sully was the boy that could make them perfect pegs, too. Don’t forget that.P

Cobb seemed to think they was only one rule in the book, and that was a rule providin’ that nobody could stay on one base more’n one second. They tell me that before he got into the South Atlantic League he was with a club down there in Georgia called the Royston Rompers. Maybe he thought he had to keep on rompin’ up here.P

Another thing was that he couldn’t hit a left-hander very good. Doc W’ite used to make him look like a sucker. Doc was a fox to begin with, and he always give you just what you wasn’t lookin’ for. And then, his curve ball was somethin’ Ty hadn’t never saw before and it certainly did fool him. He’d hand Cobb a couple o’ curves and the baby’d miss ‘em a foot. Then, when he was expectin’ another one, Doc’d shoot his fast one right past his chin and make a monkey out of him.P

That was when he first come up here. But Ty ain’t the guy that’s goin’ to stay fooled all the time. When he wises up that somebody’s got somethin’ on him, he don’t sleep nor do nothin’ till he figures out a way to get even. It’s a good thing Doc had his chancet to laugh when he did, because Cobb did most o’ the laughin’ after a couple o’ seasons of it. He seen he couldn’t hit the curve when it was breakin’, so he stood way back in the box and waited till it’d broke. Then he nailed it. When Ty’d learned that trick, Doc got so’s he was well pleased when the balls this guy hit off’n him stayed in the park.P

It was the same way with every pitcher that had his number when he first busted in. He got to ‘em in short order and, before long, nobody was foolin’ him so’s you could notice it. Right now he’s as good agin left-handers as he is agin regular fellas. And if they’s any pitcher in baseball that’s got him fooled, he’s keepin’ the fact well concealed.P

I was tellin’ you what a wild base-runner he was at first. Well, he’s still takin’ chances that nobody else takes, but he’s usin’ judgment with it. He don’t run no more just for the sake o’ runnin’. They was a time when the guy on the base ahead of him was afraid all the time that he’d get spiked in the heels. But no more o’ that. They’s no more danger of him causin’ a rear end collision, providin’ the guy ahead don’t blockade the right o’ way too long.P

You may not believe it, but I’ll bet most o’ these here catchers would rather have somebody on second base when Ty’s on first base than to have him on first base alone. They know he ain’t goin’ to pull no John Anderson and they feel pretty safe when he can’t steal without bumpin’ into one of his own teammates. But when the track’s all clear, look out!P

All my life I been hearin’ about the slow, easy-goin’ Southerner. Well, Ty’s easy-goin’ all right—like a million-dollar tourin’ car. But if Southerners is slow, he must be kiddin’ us when he says he was born down South. He must of came from up there where Doc Cook pretty near got to.P

You say you’ve heard ball players talk about how lucky he was. Yes, he is lucky. But it’s because he makes his own luck. If he’s got horseshoes, he’s his own blacksmith. You got to have the ability first, and the luck’ll string along with you. Look at Connie Mack and John D. and some o’ them fellas.P

You know I ain’t played no ball for the last few years, but I seen a lot of it played. And I don’t overlook no chancet to watch this here Tyrus. I’ve saw him agin every club in the American League and I’ve saw him pull more stuff than any other guy ever dreamed of. Lots o’ times, after seein’ him get away with somethin’, I’ve said to myself: “Gosh, he’s a lucky stiff !” But right afterward, I’ve thought: “Yes, and why don’t nobody else have that luck? Because they don’t go out and get it.”P

I remember one time in Chi, a year or two ago. The Sox was two to the bad and it was the ninth innin’. They was two men down. Bodie was on second base and somebody hits a single to center field. Bodie tries to score. It wasn’t good baseball to take the chancet, because that run wasn’t goin’ to do no good without another one to put with it. Cobb pegs to the plate and the umps calls Bodie out, though it looked to everybody like he was safe. Well, it was a bad play of Bodie’s, wasn’t it? Yes. Well then, it was a bad play o’ Cobb’s to make the throw. If Detroit hadn’t of got the best o’ that decision, the peg home would of let the man that hit the ball go to second and be planted there in position to score the tyin’ run on another base hit. Where if Ty had of played it safe, like almost anybody would, the batter’d of been held on first base where it would take two base hits or a good long wallop to score him. It was lucky for Ty that the umps happened to guess wrong. But say, I think that guy’s pretty near smart enough to know when a umpire’s goin’ to make a rotten decision.P

O’ course you know that Ty gets to first base more’n anybody in the world. In the first place, he always manages to hit better’n anybody. And when he don’t hit safe, but just bounds one to some infielder, the bettin’s 2 to 1 that the ball will be booted or throwed wild. That’s his luck, is it? No, sir. It’s no such a thing. It’s his speed. The infielder knows he ain’t got no time to spare. He’s got to make the play faster’n he would for anybody else, and the result is that he balls it all up. He tries to throw to first base before he’s got the pill to throw, or else he hurries the throw so much that he don’t have no time to aim. Some o’ the ball players round the league says that the scorers favor Ty and give him a base hit on almost anything. Well, I think they ought to. I don’t believe in handin’ a error to a fella when he’s hurried and worried to death. If you tried to make the play like you do for other guys, Ty’d beat the ball to first base and then you’d get a hot call from the bench for loafin’.P

If you’d saw him play as much baseball as I have, you wouldn’t be claimin’ he was overrated. I ain’t goin to come right out and say he’s the best ever, because they was some old-timers I never seen. (Comiskey, though, who’s saw ‘em all, slips it to him.) I just want to tell you some o’ the things he’s did, and if you can show me his equal, lead me to him and I’ll take off my hat.P

Detroit was playin’ the Ath-a-letics oncet. You know they ain’t no club that the Tigers looks better agin than the Atha-letics, and Cobb’s more of a devil in Philly than anywheres else. Well, this was when he was battin’ fourth and Jim Delahanty was followin’ him. Ty singles and Del slips him the hit and run sign on the first ball. The ball was pitched a little outside, and Del cuts it down past Harry Davis for a single to right field. Do you know what Cobb done? He scored; that’s all. And they wasn’t no boot made, neither. Danny Murphy picked the ball up clean and pegged it to Davis and Davis relays it straight home to Ira Thomas. Ty was there ahead of it. If I hadn’t o’ been watchin’ close, I’d o’ thought he forgot to touch two or three bases. But, no, sir. He didn’t miss none of ‘em. They may be other guys that could do that if they tried, but the diff ‘rence between them and Cobb is that he done it and they didn’t. Oh, I guess other fellas has scored from first base on a long single in the hit and run, but not when the ball was handled perfectly clean like this one.P

Well, here’s another one: I forget the exact details, except that the game was between the White Sox and Detroit and that Tannehill was playin’ third base at the time, and that the score was tied when Cobb pulled it. It was the eighth innin’. He was on first base. The next guy hits a single to left field. Ty, o’ course, rounds second and starts for third. The left fielder makes a rotten peg and the pill comes rollin’ in. Ty has the play beat a mile and they ain’t no occasion for him to slide. But he slid, and do you know what he done? He took a healthy kick at that rollin’ ball and sent it clear over to the grand stand. Then he jumped to his feet and kept on goin’. He was acrost the plate with the winnin’ run before nobody’d realized what he’d did. It’s agin the rules, o’ course, to kick the ball a-purpose, but how could the umps prove that this wasn’t a accident? Ty could of told him that he thought the play was goin’ to be close and he’d better slide. I might o’ thought it was a accident, too, if that had of been the only time I seen him do it. I can’t tell you how many times he’s pulled it, but it’s grew to be a habit with him. When it comes to scorin’ on kicks, he’s got this here What’s-His-Name—Brickley—tied.P

I’ve saw him score from second base on a fl y ball, too; a fly ball that was catched. Others has did it, but not as regular as this guy. He come awful near gettin’ away with it agin a little while ago, in Chi. They was also somebody on third when the ball was hit. The guy on third started home the minute Bodie catched the ball and Ping seen they was no chancet to get him. So he pegs toward Weaver, who’s down near third base. Cobb’s at third before the ball gets to the infield. He don’t never hesitate. He keeps right on goin’ for the plate. Now, if Weaver’d of been able to of intercepted the ball, Ty’d of been out thirty feet. But the throw goes clear through to the third baseman. Then it’s relayed home. The gang sittin’ with me all thought Ty was safe. I don’t know about it, but anyway, he was called out. It just goes to show you what this guy’s liable to do. You can’t take no afternoon nap when he’s around. They’s lots of other fast guys, but while they’re thinkin’ about what they’re goin’ to do, he’s did it. He’s figurin’ two or three bases ahead all the while. So, as I say, you don’t get no sleep with him in the game.P

Fielder Jones used to tell us: “When that bird’s runnin’, throw the ball somewheres just’s soon as you get a-hold of it. I don’t care where you throw it, but throw it somewheres. Don’t hold onto it.”P

I seen where the papers says the other day that you outguessed him. I wasn’t out to that game. I guess you got away with somethin’ all right, but don’t feel too good about it. You’re worse off now than you was before you done it because he won’t never rest till he shows you up. You stopped him oncet, and just for that he’ll make you look like a rummy next time he plays agin you. And after he’s did it oncet and got even, he’ll do it agin. And then he’ll do it agin. They’s a lot o’ fellas round this league that’s put over a smart play on Tyrus and most of ‘em has since wished they hadn’t. It’s just like as if I’d go out and lick a policeman. I’d live to regret it.P

We had a young fella oncet, a catcher, that nailed him flatfooted off ‘n first base one day. It was in the first game of a serious. Ty didn’t get on no more that day, but he walked the first time up the followin’ afternoon. They was two out. He takes a big lead and the young fella pegs for him agin. But Tyrus was off like a streak when the ball was throwed, and about the time the first baseman was catchin’ it, he was slidin’ into second. Then he gets a big lead off ‘n second and the young catcher takes a shot for him there. But he throws clear to center field and Ty scores. The next guy whiffs, so they wouldn’t of been no run if the young guy hadn’t of got so chesty over the precedin’ day’s work. I’m tellin’ you this so’s you won’t feel too good.P

They’s times when a guy does try to pull something on this Cobb, and is made to look like a sucker without deservin’ it. I guess that’s because the Lord is for them that helps themselves and don’t like to see nobody try to show ‘em up.P

I was sittin’ up in the stand in Cleveland one day. Ty was on second base when somebody hits a fly ball, way out, to Birmingham. At that time, Joe had the best throwin’ arm you ever see. He could shoot like a rifle. Cobb knowed that, o’ course, and didn’t feel like takin’ no chancet, even though Joe was pretty far out there. Ty waits till the ball’s catched and then makes a bluff to go to third, thinkin’ Birmy’d throw and that the ball might get away. Well, Joe knows that Cobb knows what kind of arm he’s got and fi gures that the start from second is just a bluff ; that he ain’t really got no intention o’ goin’. So, instead o’ peggin’ to third, he takes a quick shot for second, hopin’ to nail Cobb before he can get back. The throw’s perfect and Cobb sees where he’s trapped. So he hikes for third. And the second sacker—I don’t think the big Frenchman was playin’ that day—drops the ball. If he’d of held it, he’d of had plenty of time to relay to third and nail Ty by a block. But no. He drops the ball. See? Birmy’d outguessed Ty, but all it done for him was to make him look bad and make Ty look good.P

Another time, a long while ago, Detroit needed a run to win from the Sox. Ty gets to fi rst base with one out. Sully was catchin’. Sully signs for a pitch-out and then snaps the ball to first base. Ty wasn’t lookin’ for it and he was caught clean. He couldn’t get back to fi rst base, so he goes for second. Big Anderson was playin’ first base and he makes a bum peg. The ball hits Cobb on the shoulder and bounds so far out in left center that he didn’t even have to run to get home. You see, Sully’d outguessed Ty and had pulled a play that ought to of saved the game. Instead o’ that, it give the game to Detroit. That’s what hurts and discourages a fella from tryin’ to pull anything on him.P

Tyrus: The Greatest Of 'Em All

Sometimes I pretty near think they’s nothin’ he couldn’t do if he really set out to do it. Before you joined the club, some o’ the boys was kiddin’ him over to Detroit. Callahan was tellin’ me about it. Cobb hadn’t started hittin’. One o’ the players clipped the averages out o’ the paper and took ‘em to the park. He showed the clippin’ to Ty.P

“You’re some battin’ champ, Ty,” he says. “Goin’ at a .225 clip, eh?”P

Tyrus just laughed at him. “I been playin’ I was one o’ you White Sox,” he says. “But wait till a week from to-day. It’ll be .325 then.”P

Well, it wasn’t. No, sir! It was .326.P

One time, in 1912 I think it was, I happened to be goin’ East, lookin’ for a job of umpirin’, and I rode on the train with the Tigers. I and Cobb et breakfast together. I had a Sunday paper with me and was givin’ the averages the oncet over.P

“Read ‘em to me,” says Ty.P

“You don’t want ‘em all, do you?” I says.P

“No, no. Just the first three of us,” he says. “I know about where I’m at, but not exactly.”P

So I read it to him:P

“Jackson’s first with .412. Speaker’s second with .400. You’re third with .386.”P

“Well,” says Ty, “I reckon the old boy’d better get busy. Watch me this trip!”P

I watched him, through the papers. In the next twenty-one times at bat, he gets exactly seventeen hits, and when the next averages was printed, he was out in front. He stayed there, too.P

So I don’t know, but I believe that if Jackson and Speaker and Collins and Lajoie and Crawford was to go crazy and hit .999, this Cobb would come out on top with 1,000 even.P

He’s got a pretty good opinion of himself, but he ain’t no guy to really brag. He’s just full o’ the old confidence. He thinks Cobb’s a good ball player, and a guy’s got to think that way about himself if he wants to get anywheres. I know a lot o’ ball players that gets throwed out o’ the league because they think the league’s too fast for ‘em. It’s diff ‘rent with Tyrus. If they was a league just three times as fast as the one he’s in and if he was sold up there, he’d go believin’ he could lead it in battin’. And he’d lead it too!P

Yes, sir, he’s full o’ that old stuff , and the result is that lots o’ people that don’t know him think he’s a swell-head, and don’t like him. But I’m tellin’ you that he’s a pretty good guy now, and the rest o’ the Tigers is strong for him, which is more’n they used to be. He busted in with a chip on his shoulder, and he soon become just as popular as the itch. Everybody played him for a busher and started takin’ liberties with him. He was a busher, too, but he was one o’ the kind that can’t take a joke. You know how they’s young fellas that won’t stand for nothin’. Then they’s them that stands for too much. Then they’s the kind that’s just about half way. You can go a little ways with ‘em, but not too far. That’s the kind that’s popular.P

Cobb wouldn’t stand for nothin’. If somebody poured ketchup in his coffee, he was liable to pick up the cup and throw it at the guy nearest to him. If you’d stepped on his shine, he’d of probably took the other foot and aimed it at you like he does now at the ball when it’s lyin’ loose on the ground. If you’d called him some name on the field, he’d of walloped you with a bat, even if you was his pal. So they was all stuck on him, was they not?P

He got trimmed a couple o’ times, right on his own club, too. But when they seen what kind of a ball player he was goin’ to be, they decided they’d better not kill him. It’s just as well for ‘em they didn’t. I’d like to know where their club would of finished—in 1907 and 1908, for instance—if it hadn’t of been for him. It was nobody but him that beat us out in 1908. I’ll tell you about it later on.P

I says to him one day not long ago, I says:P

“You wasn’t very strong with the boys when you first come up. What was the trouble?”P

“Well,” he says, “I didn’t understand what was comin’ off . I guess they meant it all right, but nobody’d tipped me that a busher’s supposed to be picked on. They were hazin’ me; that’s what they were doin’, hazin’ me. I argued with ‘em because I didn’t know better.”P

“You learned, though, didn’t you?” I says.P

“Oh, yes,” says Ty, “I learned all right.”P

“Maybe you paid for your lessons, too,” I says.P

“Maybe I did,” he says.P

“Well,” I says, “would you act just the same way if you had it to do over again?”P

“I reckon so,” he says.P

And he would, too, because if he was a diff ‘rent kind o’ guy, he wouldn’t be the ball player he is.P

Say, maybe you think I didn’t hate him when I was playin’ ball. I didn’t know him very well, see? But I hated him on general principles. And I never hated him more’n I did in 1908. That was the year they beat us out o’ the big dough the last day o’ the season, and it come at a time when I needed that old dough, because I knowed darn well that I wasn’t goin’ to last no ten years more or nothin’ like that.P

You look over the records now, and you’ll see that the Detroit club and us just about broke even on the year’s serious agin each other. I don’t know now if it was exactly even or not, or, if it wasn’t, which club had the best of it. But I do know one thing, and that is that they beat us five games that we’d ought to of copped from ‘em easy and they beat us them games for no other reason than that they had this here Georgia Peach.P

The records don’t show no stuff like that, but I can remember most o’ them games as if they was played yesterday; that is, Cobb’s part in ‘em. In them days, they had Crawford hittin’ third and Cobb fourth and Rossman fi fth. Well, one day we had ‘em licked by three runs in the seventh innin’. Old Nick was pitchin’ for us and Sully was catchin’. Tannehill was at third base and Hahn was switched from right to left field because they was somethin’ the matter with Dougherty. Well, this seventh innin’ come, as I was sayin’, and we was three runs to the good. Crawford gets on someway and Cobb singles. Jones thought Nick was slippin’, so he hollered for Smitty. Smitty comes in and pitches to big Rossman and the big guy hits one back at him. Smitty had the easiest kind of a double play starin’ him in the face—a force play on Crawford at third and then the rest of it on Rossman, who wasn’t no speed marvel. But he makes a bad peg to Tannie and the ball gets by him. It didn’t look like as if Crawford could score, and I guess he was goin’ to stop at third.P

But Tyrus didn’t pay no attention to Crawford. He’d saw the wild peg and he was bound to keep right on comin’. So Crawford’s got to start home to keep from gettin’ run over. Hahn had come in to get the ball and when he seen Crawford startin’ home, he cut loose a wild peg that went clear to the bench. Crawford and Cobb both scored, o’ course, and what does Ty do but yell at Rossman to follow ‘em in, though it looked like sure death. Sully has the ball by that time, but it’s just our luck that he has to peg wild too. The ball sailed over Smitty, who’d came up to cover the plate. The score’s tied and for no reason but that Tyrus had made everybody run. The next three was easy outs, but they went on and licked us in extra innin’s.P

Well, they was another game, in that same serious I think it was, when Big Ed had ‘em stopped dead to rights. They hadn’t no more business scorin’ off ‘n him than a rabbit. I don’t think they hit two balls hard all day. We wasn’t the best hittin’ club in the world, but we managed to get one run for the Big Moose in the fi rst innin’ and that had ought to of been a-plenty.P

Up comes Cobb in the fourth and hits one that goes in two bounds to Davis or whoever was playin’ short. If he could of took his time, they’d of been nothin’ to it. But he has to hurry the play because it’s Cobb runnin’, and he pegs low. Izzy gets the ball off ‘n the ground all right, but juggles it, and then Ty’s safe.P

They was nobody out, so Rossman bunts. He’s throwed out a mile at fi rst base, but Ty goes all the way to third. Then the next guy hits a fly ball to Hahn that wouldn’t of been worth a nickel if Cobb’d of went only to second on the sacrifice, like a human bein’. He’s on third, though, and he scores on the fly ball. The next guy takes three swings and the side’s out, but we’re tied up.P

Then we go along to the ninth innin’ and it don’t look like they’d score agin on Big Ed if they played till Easter. But Cobb’s up in the ninth with one out. He gets the one real healthy hit that they’d made all day. He singled to right field. I say he singled, because a single’s what anybody else would of been satisfied with on the ball he hit. But Ty didn’t stop at first base. He lights out for second and whoever was in right field made a good peg. The ball’s there waitin’ for Ty, but he slides away from it. Jake thought he had him, but the umps called him safe. Well, Jake gets mad and starts to kick. They ain’t no time called or nothin’. The umps turns away and Jake slams the ball on the ground and before anybody could get to it, Cobb’s on third. We all hollered murder, but it done us no good. Rossman then hit a fly ball and the game’s over.P

I remember another two to one game that he win from us. I don’t recall who was pitchin’—one o’ the left-handers, I guess. Whoever it was had big Rossman on his staff that day. He whiffed him twicet and made him pop out another time. They was one out in the eighth when Cobb beats out a bunt. We was leadin’ by one run at the time, so naturally we wanted to keep him on first base. Well, whoever it was pitchin’ wasted three balls tryin’ to outguess Tyrus, and he still stood there on first base, laughin’ at us. Rossman takes one strike and the pitcher put the next one right over and took a chancet, instead o’ runnin’ the risk o’ walkin’ him. Rossman has a toe-hold and he meets the ball square and knocks it clear out o’ the park. We’re shut out in the ninth and they’ve trimmed us. You’ll say, maybe, it was Rossman that beat us. It was his wallop all right, but our pitcher wouldn’t of wasted all them balls and got himself in the hole if anybody but Cobb’d of been on first base.P

One day we’re tied in the ninth, four to four, or somethin’ like that. Cobb doubled and Rossman walked after two was out. Jones pulled Smitty out o’ the game and put in Big Ed. Now, nobody was lookin’ for Ty to steal third with two out. It’s a rotten play when anybody else does it. This ain’t no double steal, because Rossman never moved off ‘n first base. Cobb stole third all right and then, on the next pitch, Rossman starts to steal second. Our catcher oughtn’t to of paid no attention to him because Walsh probably could of got the batter and retired the side. It wasn’t Sully catchin’ or you can bet no play’d of been made. But this catcher couldn’t see nobody run without peggin’, so he cut loose. Rossman stopped and started back for first base. The shortstop fired the ball back home, but he was just too late. Cobb was acrost already and it was over. Now in that case, our catcher’d ought to of been killed, but if Tyrus hadn’t did that fool stunt o’ stealin’ third with two out, they’d of been no chancet for the catcher to pull the boner.P

How many did I say he beat us out of? Five? Oh, yes, I remember another one. I can make it short because they wasn’t much to it. It was another one o’ them tied up affairs, and both pitchers was goin’ good. It was Smitty for us and, I think, Donovan for them. Cobb gets on with two down in the tenth or ‘leventh and steals second while Smitty stands there with the ball in his hand. Then Rossman hits a harmless lookin’ ground ball to the shortstop. Cobb runs down the line and stops right in front o’ where the ball was comin’, so’s to bother him. But Ty pretends that he’s afraid the ball’s goin’ to hit him. It worked all right. The shortstop got worried and juggled the ball till it was too late to make a play for Rossman. But Cobb’s been monkeyin’ so long that he ain’t nowheres near third base and when the shortstop fi nally picks up the ball and pegs there, Cobb turns back. Well, they’d got him between ‘em and they’re tryin’ to drive him back toward second. Somebody butts in with a muff and he goes to third base. And when Smitty starts to pitch agin, he steals home just as clean as a whistle.P

The last game o’ the season settled the race, you know. I can’t say that Tyrus won that one for ‘em. They all was due to hit and they sure did hit. Cobb and Crawford both murdered the ball in the fi rst innin’ and won the game right there, because Donovan was so good we didn’t have no chancet. But if he hadn’t of stole them other games off ‘n us, this last one wouldn’t of did ‘em no good. We could of let our young fellas play that one while we rested up for the world’s serious.P

I don’t say our club had a license to be champions that year. We was weak in spots. But we’d of got the big dough if it hadn’t of been for Tyrus. You can bet your life on that.P

You can easy see why I didn’t have no love for him in them days. And I’ll bet the fellas that was on the Ath-a-letics in 1907 felt the same toward him, because he was what kept ‘em from coppin’ that year. I ain’t takin’ nothin’ away from Jennin’s and Crawford and Donovan and Bush and Mullin and McIntire and Rossman and the rest of ‘em. I ain’t tryin’ to tell you that them fellas ain’t all had somethin’ to do with Detroit’s winnin’ in diff ‘rent years. Jennin’s has kept ‘em fi ghtin’ right along, and they’s few guys more valuable to their club than Crawford. He busted up a lot o’ games for ‘em in their big years and he’s doin’ it yet. And I consider Bush one o’ the best infi elders I ever see. The others was all right, too. They all helped. But this guy I’m tellin’ you about knocked us out o’ the money by them stunts of his that nobody else can get by with.P

It’s all foolishness to hate a fella because he’s a good ball player, though. I realize that now that I’m out of it. I can go and watch Tyrus and enjoy watchin’ him, but in them days it was just like pullin’ teeth whenever he come up to the plate or got on the bases. He was reachin’ right down in my pocket and takin’ my money. So it’s no wonder I was sore on him.P

If I’d of been on the same club with him, though, I wouldn’t never of got sore at him no matter how fresh he was. I’d of been afraid that he might get so sore at me that he’d quit the club. He could of called me anything he wanted to and got away with it or he could have took me acrost his knee and spanked me eighty times a day, just so’s he kept on puttin’ money in my kick instead o’ beatin’ me out of it.P

As I was sayin’, I enjoy seein’ him play now. If the game’s rotten or not, it don’t make no diff’rence, and it don’t make a whole lot even if he’s havin’ a bad day. They’s somethin’ fascinatin’ in just lookin’ at the baby.P

I ain’t alone in thinkin’ that, neither. I don’t know how many people he draws to the ball parks in a year, but it’s enough to start a big manufacturin’ town and a few suburbs. You heard about the crowd that was out to the Sox park the Sunday they was two rival attractions in town? It was in the spring, before you come. Well, it was some crowd. Now, o’ course, the Sox draw good at home on any decent Sunday, but I’m tellin’ you they was a few thousands out there that’d of been somewheres else if Cobb had of stayed in Georgia.P

I was in Boston two or three years ago this summer and the Tigers come along there for a serious o’ fi ve games, includin’ a double-header. The Detroit club wasn’t in the race and neither was the Red Sox. Well, sir, I seen every game and I bet they was seventy thousand others that seen ‘em, or better’n fifteen thousand a day for four days. They was some that was there because they liked baseball. They was others that was stuck on the Red Sox. They was still others that was strong for the Detroit club. And they was about twenty-five or thirty thousand that didn’t have no reason for comin’ except this guy I’m tellin’ you about. You can’t blame him for holdin’ out oncet in awhile for a little more money. You can’t blame the club for slippin’ it to him, neither.P

They’s a funny thing I’ve noticed about him and the crowds. The fans in the diff’rent towns hates him because he’s beat their own team out o’ so many games. They hiss him when he pulls off somethin’ that looks like dirty ball to ‘em. Sometimes they get so mad at him that you think they’re goin’ to tear him to pieces. They holler like a bunch of Indians when some pitcher’s good enough or lucky enough to strike him out. And at the same time, right down in their hearts, they’re disappointed because he did strike out.P

How do I know that? Well, kid, I’ve felt it myself, even when I was pullin’ agin Detroit. I’ve talked to other people and they’ve told me they felt the same way. When they come out to see him, they expect to see him do somethin’. They’re glad if he does and glad if he don’t. They’re sore at him if he don’t beat their team and they’re sore if he does. It’s a funny thing and I ain’t goin’ to sit here all night tryin’ to explain it.P

But, say, I wisht I was the ball player he is. They could throw pop bottles and these here bumbs at me, and I wouldn’t kick. They could call me names from the stand, but I wouldn’t care. If the whole population o’ the United States hated me like they think they hate him, I wouldn’t mind, so long’s I could just get back in that old game and play the ball he plays. But if I could, kid, I wouldn’t have no time to be talkin’ to you.P

The other day, I says to Callahan:P

“What do you think of him?”P

“Think of him!” says Cal. “What could anybody think of him? I think enough of him to wish he’d go and break a leg. And I’m not sore on him personally at that.”P

“Don’t you like to see him play ball?” I says.P

“I’d love to watch him,” says Cal, “if I could just watch him when he was playin’ Philadelphia or Washington or any club but mine.”P

“I guess you’d like to have him, wouldn’t you?” I says.P

“Me?” says Cal. “All I’d give for him is my right eye.”P

“But,” I says, “he must keep a manager worried some, in one way and another; you’d always be afraid he was goin’ to break his own neck or cut somebody else’s legs off or jump to the Fed’rals or somethin’.”P

“I’d take my chances,” says Cal. “I believe I could even stand the worry for a few days.”P

I seen in the papers where McGraw says Eddie Collins is the greatest ball player in the world. I ain’t goin’ to argue with him about it, because I got nothin’ but admiration for Collins. He’s a bear. But, kid, I wisht McGraw had to play twenty-two games a year agin this Royston Romper. No, I don’t, neither. McGraw never done nothin’ to me.

BGS: Frank Sinatra Jr. Is Worth Six Buddy Grecos

frank-sinatra-son-frank-jr-1963

Here’s a keeper from Tom Junod. Originally published in the January 1994 issue of GQ. Reprinted here with the author’s permission. His postscript follows.

He is a 49-year-old man whose father has just yelled at him. He has worked hard for his father tonight, but something went wrong, he must have made a mistake, and now he is going to his room.P

He will stay there all night, if he can; he will draw the curtains and watch his movie and stay awake until dawn. If only he could get there, if only the fame of his father did not block his way and he did not have to linger among them, like a fox among hounds.P

Junior! Yo, Junior!P

Junior! You still singing, Junior?P

Junior, where’s Nancy?P

Junior, can you give me your autograph, even if you’re only Junior? P

They do not know that the show did not go well tonight, that there were problems. All they know is that after watching the father sing at the Sands Hotel in Atlantic City, they are waiting for an elevator with the son. He does not look like the father, no, not really; he is a pale, puffy, rounded man with short hair and glasses and a face of practiced, hardened anonymity … but the blood, the blood must be the same, and for them that is almost enough.P

Hey, Junior, at least I can say I rode an elevator with Sinatra!P

Can’t they see his eyes? His face is immobile, as stiff as a slab, but his brown eyes are dancing around from one face to another, as the people surround him, a ring of smiles and shiny tans. Then one of them, the one with the yellow shirt, the plaid pants, the biggest smile, the shiniest face, grabs his elbow.P

“You must be very proud,” he says.P

“Proud?” the son asks because on that night he is not proud, because on this night he was not perfect.P

“Yes, proud to be working with your father.”P

The son smiles in a quick, pained spasm. “If I keep on working with him, maybe I’ll lose some weight!”P

“What do you mean?”P

“I mean it’s hard work,” the son says, the smile gone as suddenly as it had come.P

“But your work must be a pleasure,” the man says. His smile is gone now too, and his voice is disappointed and incredulous. “I mean, I’m a schoolteacher, and you—you work with … Frank Sinatra.”P


When you are the son of Frank Sinatra, you learn, at every turn, your place in this world. How could you not? Your very birth was a photo opportunity: you lay at the bosom of your mother, the bed surrounded by a picket of flashbulbs, and there, right next to you, as big as you, is a portrait of your father, with his smile and his cheekbones, planted on the bed by a press agent. Your name is hobbled, affixed with an abbreviation that drags behind it like a comic caboose and provides the sneering masses with an instant punch line. Frank Sinatra … Jr.?P

Junior. J.R. Frankie. The Kid. By now he ought to know his place, and if he doesn’t, his old man is more than willing to teach him. Hell, it was just a few years ago, after Junior had sacrificed his own singing career (“Such as it was,” he says) to conduct his father’s orchestra, that the Old Man offered him a lesson in the natural order, in the balance that has been struck forever between Frank Sinatra and everyone else, even his son. The Old Man had just come to the centerpiece of his show—the “saloon song,” the song of smoke and liquor, yearning and regret—and now, in front of his audience, in front of thousands of people, he asked Junior if he knew the words to “One for My Baby.”P

Yes, Junior said. He knew the words.P

“Then you sing it, and I’ll wave my arms for the orchestra.”P

So Junior sang it. He took the microphone from his father, and, yes, by God, “he sang his ass off,” the musicians say. “He tore it up.” Then the old man took the microphone back. He sat on his stool, and lit his cigarette, and drank his drink. “Now I’ll show you how it’s supposed to be done,” he said and proceeded to seize the song back from Junior, and from everyone else who has ever tried to sing it. He sang it between the darkness and the light, behind a sheath of smoke that, in the single spotlight, turned the blue of a cataract and rose into a cloud ….P

But this is not one of the stories that Frank Sinatra Jr. likes to tell: “Did that happen? I don’t remember. It must have been a long time ago.” This is a story that his men tell, the member of the band and the members of the crew, when they are stuck in a hotel somewhere and they are drinking at the bar and talking about Junior, and the way he is, and what he must carry. No, not one of them would trade places with Junior. Not one of them can even imagine what it is like to be Junior, to have a father who would do something like that to his own son, to have a father who is proud enough, fierce enough, brutal enough and big enough to present his son to a thousand faces and then turn him into a shadow.P


It’s quarter to threeP

There’s no one in the placeP

Except you and me.P

So set ‘em up, JoeP

I’ve got a little storyP

I think you should know ….P

Know the words? Of course Junior knew the words. He’s stuck with the goddamn words. The words are his birthright and his fate. He knows the words to all the songs, just as he knows the names of the men who arranged them and the date of each recording and the hour each session started. He knows every line his father spoke, in every single one of his movies … knows, well, everything, practically every word that has ever snuck out of the Old Man’s famous mouth in snarl or song. As a child, he used to sit under the piano at the Old Man’s rehearsals; as a teenager, he attended, in coat and tie, the sessions that became the sound track of America, in its innocent desires and its dawning regrets; a young man, he used to wait in the wings of the stage, listening to his father cut up with the Rat Pack, absorbing Las Vegas into his very soul. Even when he left home, at the age of 19, to go out on the road, to dare open his mouth in song, he did not leave his father behind. He brought tapes of the Old Man wherever he went and listened to them incessantly, and he kept on listening to them, even when his musical mentors warned him of the dangers of emulation and urged him to go his own way. P

Know the words? Yeah, Junior knows the words. That’s why he became the Old Man’s conductor; he knows the words and his father doesn’t. Oh, sure, Junior will insist that he got the job because he himself is a singer—that Frank Sinatra needed a conductor with an intuitive understanding of his needs, and nobody can understand a singer better than another singer. Others will say that Junior got the job because he is the boss’s son, that “the Old Man wanted to do something nice for the kid,” that the two men in the Sinatra family were growing farther apart and the Old Man did what he could to stitch them together. Together, yes: It is an odd yoke for Frank Sinatra to wear, even at age 78, and on some nights it doesn’t fit—the nights when he is, as of old, in command, when he is stalking the stage and growling, when he is kicking the ass of the band and its leader. On the other nights, though … the nights when everything goes suddenly blank, and the blankness stifles the song in his throat … the nights when he can’t see his TelePrompTers and can’t hear his band … on those nights, a voice will come from behind him, from the shadows, singing the lost lines, feeding his memory, a voice that never forgets, the voice of his son, the voice of Junior.P


It is the voice of Junior tonight, singing in the heat. The air is damp and oily, the sun is a soiled smudge over the treetops, and the orchestra is stranded on the stage of an outdoor amphitheater in Atlanta, sweating out a rehearsal. In the wings of the stage, there is a small table dressed in white linen, and on top of the table, there is a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, a glass tumbler and a pack of Camels. Everything has to be just so for the Old Man, but the Old Man’s plane is delayed, and so now it is Junior who’s sitting on the stool, in a wet white T-shirt, black dress slacks and black shoe-boots, with a towel fashioned into a turban on his head, singing “Lonesome Road.”P

Weary totin’ such a loadP

Trudgin’ down that lonesome road.P

The Voice. That’s what they called the Old Man when he was a young man making them swoon. Did Junior ever have a nickname, a title? No, only the pipes, only a talent that has trapped him. He sounds just similar enough to his father to invite comparison and just different enough to make the comparison punishing. From the moment he started, the critics shoved him into the Old Man’s shadow—”Frank Sr. oozed innate musicality and phrasing,” Newsweek wrote in 1963, “and Junior, at least so far, oozes mainly mimicry”—as though he intended to compete with the greatest pop singer of the American Century, as though he had a choice and the mimicry didn’t just well up out of him, out of his genes, out of a lifetime of osmosis, out of everything he is. Look at the Kid out there, sweating bullets with his stooped shoulders and his chubby cheeks and his thick lips and his stony brown eyes—what does he have of the Old Man’s? He doesn’t have his looks or his movements or his pitiless drive. He has just the Voice, or a lounge-act version of it. And if this is his inheritance, he is forced to spend it every time he opens his mouth.P

Look down, look down, that lonesome roadP

Before you travel on.P

Frank Sinatra Jr. Is Worth Six Buddy Grecos

Why did he do it? Why did Junior decide to—dare to—become, of all things, a singer? Had he become a doctor or lawyer, his name would have been a garland, a laurel, instead of a source of comparison and rebuke. He didn’t have to sing. He didn’t burn for it, didn’t sing as an avowal of self, didn’t hear within himself a song he couldn’t contain. He just loved the music, that’s all. All his life, he wanted to be part of the sound that surrounded his father, and his voice—this flawed gift, this tinkling echo—had been his way in. He was still a kid, 19 years old, skinny and dark, playing piano at Disneyland, when he was invited to front the remnants of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, the orchestra that had made the Old Man a star. He opened in New York City in September 1963, in the big room of the Americana Hotel, and, although Dorsey himself had been dead for six years, Junior made the cover of Life and packed the house. Jackie Gleason, Toots Shor, Joe E. Lewis—they all wept when Junior sang his father’s hits, wept out of nostalgia and wept at the turning of time, wept listening to a kid who, on that night and every night for the next dozen years, couldn’t stand the sound of his own voice.P

True love, true love, what have I doneP

That you should treat me so?P

You couldn’t feel sorry for Junior, though, because he got what he wanted. He got a life in music. He had never dreamed of greatness—that dream was killed by the greatness of his father. He had dreamed, instead, of a kind of subsistence, of making a living with music—yes, a Sinatra dreaming of making a living—and subsistence is exactly what he got. Every nightclub, every hotel, every lounge, every dump willing to pay his rate—he played them all for twenty-five years, until 1988, when his father gave him the call.P

And now … here he is, singing onstage in Atlanta, and at last the music is his. It is Junior’s. He is singing, in the same naggingly nasal voice he has spent a lifetime training and improving, but he is at the center, in control. Strings, lean on that figure! ‘Bones, play it dirty! Drums, swing like you mean it! Yeeeaaahh!P

Then, in the descending darkness, an old man swaggers onstage, alone, with his hands thrust into the pockets of a short black satin jacket, and his eyes, even at a distance, are as blue as gas jets. He does not look at the band or at Junior but rather keeps his face turned slightly away from the eyes of any living thing. The orchestra—the world—is suddenly silent.P

When Junior approaches him, Frank Sinatra’s hands stay in his pockets.P

“Everybody’s sweating,” he says to his son. “It’s too damned hot. Why couldn’t we rehearse in a building?”P

“I wanted you to sweat,” Junior says.P

“What?”P

“I wanted you to suffer.”P

He has not sung in nearly a month, the Old Man. Out in Malibu, he worked on his tan rather than on his voice, and now, when the orchestra plays “September Rain” and he sidles next to the microphone to sing, the Old Man keep his hands in his pockets, and what comes out of his mouth is a gaping sound, thin and broken, the voice of age.P

“Okay,” the Old Man says at the close of the song, “what time tomorrow?”P

But Junior doesn’t stop, and the orchestra does not stop, and so the Old Man tries again, and this time, in the middle of the song, Sinatra looks at his son, and his son holds up his fist and says “Fight.” That’s all. But that one word—and one gesture—change everything, because now the Old Man’s jacket comes off, and he rolls the French cuffs of his cranberry-colored shirt up to his elbows, and he’s working, snapping his fingers and barking to the orchestra, “Go, go, go—let’ go! You have all day tomorrow to rest! Go, go, go, go, go!” He’s chain-smoking, for Chrissake, firing up one Camel after another and singing, in a haze of smoke, “September Rain” and “Imagination” and “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and as the Voice returns to him, he manages, in his black shoe-boots, to do a defiant soft-shoe out on the lip of the stage, toward the empty arena, the smoldering night.P


A few months from this evening in Atlanta, Junior will sing in the same hotel as his father, on the very same night. He will conduct the Old Man’s orchestra in the big room of the Desert Inn, in Las Vegas, and then hustle off to the lounge to sing with his own twenty-piece band. It is a special occasion, he says, and he has a special name for it: the Total Eclipse. The last Total Eclipse took place in 1977, and this time, to mark the fickle alignment of the spheres of father and son, Junior will buy a “Total Eclipse” ad in the newspaper, and he will give “Total Eclipse” buttons to his band and his crew. This is Junior’s idea of a joke. This is an example of what Nancy Sinatra calls her brother’s “off-the-wall sense of humor.” Total Eclipse. Junior thinks it’s pretty funny, although when he eats dinner after the rehearsal in Atlanta and tells a table of his musicians about the Total Eclipse, no one else is laughing.P

They don’t get it; they, for the most part, don’t get him. Sure, they appreciate Junior: They wouldn’t be eating dinner if it were not for his generosity. They were tired and hungry after the rehearsal, but the Old Man’s promoter hadn’t bothered to make any arrangements for feeding them, so Junior had to persuade the hotel manager to keep the dining room open past closing time, and then pay for the meal—a full meal for the twenty-seven-piece orchestra—out of his own pocket. Junior’s the best boss they’ve ever had—that’s what most of the musicians say about him. No question about it: the best, the fairest, the most concerned about his people. The only problem with Junior is, well, the way he is.P

“The way he is” is a phrase that comes up all the time in discussions about Junior. It finds its classic usage in the commendation of one of his musicians: “He treats us really well, which is good, because with the way he is, he could have been a real a-hole.” Tonight, the hotel dining room is full of musicians, and Junior is eating at a corner table, with one of his girlfriends, his manager and four women from the string section, and he is giving a crash course in the way he is. First, there’s the way he dresses, in the shoe-boots that he shines daily and the black pants that are too short and the black-and-white checked shirt that he will wear every day for a week and the white undershirt that peeks out at the collar and the heavy canvas-and-corduroy barn coat that he wears wherever he goes so that he doesn’t catch cold. Then there’s his pedantry, his penchant for obsessively detailed discussions of airplanes and automobiles, for literary and cinematic references ….P

“Ah, Madame Defarge,” he says with theatrical diction as one of the violin players sits down. “Still knitting?” It seems that he once espied the violinist knitting during a break and was reminded of the sinister character in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Junior knows his Dickens. Junior know his Dickens to the extent that now he begins quoting the famous opening passage from Two Cities, not just the first line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” but the whole damned thing, in a voice that is … sort of hard to place because it is so familiar. His enunciation is clipped and precise, his tone grave and somewhat edgy; he sounds at once sanctimonious and bullying, just like … but, no, he really doesn’t sound exactly the Old Man in conversation, either. His pipes have betrayed him again, and he sounds—yes, that’s it—like Jerry Lewis.P

It is a voice that is given to pronouncement rather than conversation, and soon the whole table is listening to him. Everybody has shut up, except for Junior and his manager, Vince Carbone, who has been with him on and off for thirty-one years. Well, Carbone’s not much for Dickens, so the discussion moves inexorably to Vegas. “Telly Savalas,” Carbone says, “signs autographs when he’s playing blackjack. Nobody will do that but Telly.”P

“Ah, Vinnie,” Junior says, “There are many celebrities but very few stars. You have a responsibility when you are a celebrity, and the few people who take that responsibility seriously are usually the real stars. Now Telly Savalas—that, Vinnie, is a star. The real star will always come through for you. One time I needed an opening act. I called Redd Foxx. He said ‘You got any booze?’ I said no. ‘You got any women?’ I said no. ‘Then what good are you?’ But he showed up, Vinnie. And he was funny. He had his head shaved for a role, and when he saw Telly Savalas, he said, ‘If we stand next to each other, we could make an ass of ourselves.”‘ Junior wags an uplifted finger and intones solemnly, “That, Vinnie, is funny.”P

No one laughs. There is a pause, and then Peg, a pretty frosted-blonde, makes the mistake of mentioning the name of Buddy Greco, a Vegas lounge singer. “Buddy Greco is a very talented singer and piano player,” Peg explains. “Unfortunately, he has an ego to match his talent.” Junior’s face hardens as he remembers a review of the Frank Sinatra Jr. show that appeared in a Las Vegas newspaper. “The entire review never mentioned my name,” Junior says.P

“Oh, darling, the writer must have some kind of grudge against you,” Peg says, suddenly speaking in a rapid, nervous trill.P

“It talked about my musicians, but it never talked about me.”P

“But, darling, it was the writer …”P

“Then, at the end, there’s a P.S.”P

“But, darling …”P

“‘P.S.,’ it says. ‘Frank Sinatra Jr. is worth six Buddy Grecos.’” Junior slaps his palms flat on the tabletop in a gesture of triumph and repeats to Peg, to Vinnie and to the silent string section, “‘Frank Sinatra Jr. is worth six Buddy Grecos’!”P


He had trouble with the orchestra, in the beginning, the boss’s son, and he had trouble because he had never conducted before, and he had trouble because there were guys still playing in the orchestra who remembered when Junior was just a kid with rounded shoulders and the Old Man kept yelling at him to stand up straight. There was a drummer who was open in his contempt for Junior, and there was a saxophone player who got drunk one night and wrote something about Junior on the hotel walls, and there is a piano player, Bill Miller, who used to conduct the orchestra and who—though he remains the piano and has now played with the old man for forty-three years—still seems to find a way to be out of a room that Junior is in.P

“I was guilty of it,” says Ron Anthony, who has been playing guitar in the orchestra for eight years. “When you first see him, and the way he is, and compare him to his dad, you say ‘Jesus Christ!’ It takes a while to realize what’s underneath. The heart there.” P

Frank Sinatra Jr. Is Worth Six Buddy Grecos

“It was considered cool not to like Junior,” says Buddy Childers, who played trumpet with him in Las Vegas and followed him to the Old Man’s orchestra. “To see how people treated him amazed me, and I began to understand why I was there: because he needed one friendly face in the band. I mean, you had guys saying, ‘Look, kid, we know the music—just leave us alone and we’ll be fine.’”P

He never left them alone, though. That’s the thing about Junior—from the start, he had an emotional connection to the music and knew how it should sound. He wanted it perfect, not only for the sake of the man who sang it but also for the sake of the men who wrote it, and played it, so long ago, when Junior was just a kid hanging around the sessions. He did not see much of his father in those days, so, for guidance and counsel, he depended on others, and especially on Nelson Riddle.P

“I was indifferent to my father’s music when I was a child,” he says. “I recognized my father’s voice when I heard it on the radio, like any toddler, but that was about it. Then, when I was 9 years old, a change came to my father’s life. He changed labels, and he started working with a new arranger … a man named Nelson Riddle. I heard his voice, and it changed my life. … When Nelson died, it left a hole in my life I can’t describe.”P

He would conduct, then, to honor the music and the musicians. He was still the boss’s son, yes, but he didn’t—and doesn’t—always seem to be on the boss’s side. In front of his musicians, he never refers to his father as “Dad” or “Pop,” and only rarely as “my father”; no, he says “the boss” or “our employer” or “F.A.S.” or “you know who” or sometimes just “Sinatra.” He never flies with the Old Man in the private jet and rarely stays in the same hotel or gambles with him in the casinos. In disputes with management, Junior often takes the side of his musicians, and if, say, the second alto saxophone makes a mistake and the Old Man cuts him in half with one of those looks, Junior takes the blame. “Taking care of my people”—that’s all he seems to talk about, care about. He won the musicians over—and if he couldn’t, he fired them, until all that was left in the orchestra were the friendly faces who even if they didn’t understand his joke or his pedantry or the way he is at least understood this: that, in the words of trombonist Danny Levine, “Junior just wants to be one of the cats.”P

He can never be one of the cats, of course. He is the boss’s son. He is a Sinatra. He carries the imperiousness common to his clan. One night in Atlanta, when a member of his crew, Brian Higgins, expresses his admiration for the promoter’s car, Junior turns around and sees that the car is a black Ferrari. Then he adjusts his eyeglasses and says, “That car, Brian, is wrong. There is only one color for a Ferrari, and that is a color known as Ferrari Red. I once had the honor of meeting Enzo Ferrari and taking a tour of the Ferrari Museum. There were no black Ferraris, Brian. That car is wrong.”P

“Urn, can I ask you a question?” a young woman named Amy says.P

“Of course,” Junior answers, gratified. After all, for the past half hour he has been entertaining Amy with a discourse on the development of jet aircraft, and there have been times—when Junior started detailing the first jet engine’s thrust, for instance, or specifying the structural advances incorporated into McDonnell Douglas Aircraft’s DC-6, DC-7, DC-8—when her beautiful silver-green eyes started to dart around, in a kind of panic, and her body began to curl lightly, there in her chair at the hotel restaurant, like the bodies of the hopelessly comatose.P

But she’s hung in there, and she’s with him. She’s communicating with Junior, and that’s all he asks for. They met on the plane from Atlanta to Chicago. She is a flight attendant in her early twenties, and sometime during the flight, she told him about her parents, great Sinatra fans living somewhere in the bosom of Illinois, and how much it would mean to them if she could get them tickets to the show. And he told her this: “Communicate with me.” He gave her the name of his hotel, and, sure enough, here she is, communicating with him, eating dinner with him and asking him questions. Can I ask you a question? Well, of course, she can ask him a question because whatever question she asks, Junior will know the answer. As everyone says, he’s brilliant; he knows everything.P

“Um, do you know Saturday Night Live?” Amy asks. “Do you know Phil Hartman? He does an impersonation of your dad, and I wanted to know what he thinks of that, if your dad thinks it’s funny.”P

Junior’s face freezes, and he clips his words as he speaks them. “I have no idea what my father thinks. He probably doesn’t know who the man is.”P

“In one show he called Sinéad O’Connor, ‘Sinbad’ O’Connor. He said ‘Lighten up, Sinbad.’ I love that. I think it’s so funny.”P

There is a pause, and Junior’s face cracks open, into a mirthless braying laugh. “Sinbad O’Connor,” he says. “That is funny.” Then there is another pause, the laugh leaves its echo, and Junior starts speaking again. “Now, the DC-9 …”P

Well, can you blame him? This is his life: No matter what he knows, all anybody really wants to talk about is the Old Man. Can you blame him if he builds a bunker of facts, an enormous fallout shelter of facts, and climbs into it? At least the facts are his. At least they are not his father’s. Who cares if people say that the son of Frank Sinatra is boring? Facts fill up the empty places, they shine in the shadows, and Junior hoards them with the hunger of a prisoner.P


Of course, Junior was a prisoner once, and it was then he learned what facts could do for him and how they could save him. He was 19, still young and skinny and handsome and hopeful. Hell, he was just getting started, in December 1963, when he answered a knock on the door of his hotel room in Lake Tahoe and a man stuck a gun in his ear and forced him out into the snow in his loafers and no socks, and Frank Sinatra Jr. became the nation’s most famous kidnapping victim since the Lindbergh baby. His captors blindfolded him, doped him, put him in the backseat of their car—but they didn’t kill him, and when they didn’t, his sister Nancy says, “his mind, that wonderful mind, took over.” The sound of the car’s engine, the noise of the planes overhead, the number of steps required to move from one place to another, the texture of his kidnappers’ hands—he memorized everything, all the facts, and when his father paid the ransom and one of the men dumped him on the side of a highway, the facts led the FBI right back to them.P

“I’m sorry, Dad”—that’s what he said to the Old Man when he arrived home.

At the trial, a defense lawyer tried a desperate gambit and accused Junior of collaborating on his own abduction as a publicity stunt. The strategy didn’t work—the jury convicted the kidnappers with extreme dispatch—but the accusation stuck. He was never the same; the thickening, the hardening, had begun. He began carrying a weapon on the road. He began, as the years went on, grousing at audiences who didn’t laugh at his jokes. He began saying thing about the Old Man—”I’d like to devote five minutes to my father; after all, he once told me that’s how much time he devoted to me”—and audiences began to grouse back. No, he didn’t rebel, although this was the Sixties and Junior had anger sufficient to light any number of fires. Instead, he became a symbol of the cost of obedience, of staying forever the good son: Singing in his short hair and his bow tie and his tuxedo, teaming up with Joey Heatherton to host the summer-replacement edition of The Golddiggers, he turned into a kitsch icon long before he turned 30. The record companies wanted him to, well, modernize, to at least try a protest song, or a song like “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” but he would have none of it. “I believed I was raised with better music,” he says. Junior hated the Sixties, long hair, hippies, the Beatles, Woodstock … and by the time he was 35, he says, “I had outlived my usefulness. After 1977, I couldn’t get work.”P

He came back, of course—Sinatra always comes back. In 1984, he got a gig at a Las Vegas hotel, the Four Queens, with a band of crack musicians, and this time the music saved him. He would no longer showcase himself; he would sing, but he would showcase the musicians and the songs, and he began packing rooms again. He would not sing very many of the Old Man’s songs, or any at all; no, when the crowd called for “My Way” and “New York, New York,” Junior would do “The Curly Shuffle,” and dance around onstage, not like a Sinatra but like a Stooge.P

He was back, back on the road, back to his life, his school, his crucible. “Everything l’ve learned, I’ve learned from travel,” he says, and like all true pilgrims, what he has learned is this: to simplify, to go it alone, to live hour by hour and day by day. That’s why he wears the same clothes day after day, that’s why he has never permitted himself to dream of empire or of opulence. Has he boiled life down to its essentials? “No,” he says, “you don’t boil life down. Life boils you down.”P

For thirty-one years, he has been ordering room service and eating alone. Sure, he loves company, especially the company of women; indeed, women, according to one of his musicians, are “Junior’s jones,” and many women, once they find out who he is—the name—are eager to “communicate” with him. There is, however, something impenetrable about Junior, an inviolate loneliness, a sense that his thickened flesh covers him like a carapace. He loves his family, but he has felt exiled from them ever since he was 14 and his parents sent him away to boarding school as punishment for hanging around with the wrong crowd. He turns 50 this month. He does not have a family of his own. He has never married, and this is what his sister Nancy laments, that “he has never found it in his heart to let a woman into his life.” He has had “serious” relationships; he has even been engaged, and he acknowledges a son, who, according to Nancy, “looks just like him.” In the end, though, the women have always gone away, or he has left them, and Nancy, after years of wondering why, has finally settled on her answer: “Because he doesn’t think he’s worthy.” So he works, and eats in his room, and then, as everything goes dark, and night proceeds into morning, he stays up and watches old movie and recites the lines he’s memorized. He carries with him, on every trip, a case full of music and movies, and sometimes he invites his musicians to watch with him. There are no titles on any of the tapes, though; no, there is instead a code, a number and a letter, and no matter what anybody wants to watch, no matter what anybody is in the mood for, the code is known only to Junior.P


He walks down an alley in Aurora, Illinois, toward the theater where his father is singing tonight, and a woman stops him, a small woman with a scarf wrapped around her head, who may very well know who he is or who may very well be crazy, possessed of the odd familiarity of the insane. “I’m keeping an eye on you,” she says, pointing a finger and smiling. “You’ve done all right so far, but I’m keeping an eye on you.”P

“Thank you,” Junior says and keeps walking in brisk, dogged steps. He opens the door of the theater, passes another table set with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a pack of Camels and, after finding his dressing room, changes into his tux—or, rather, his conducting outfit, since he doesn’t really wear a tuxedo so much as an assortment of black clothes and a white button-down shirt topped off with a bow tie. See, when he’s conducting for the Old Man, Junior quite literally does not want to shine; he wants to make sure his clothes are dull-black under the lights and blend in with the background. He knows exactly whose show it is and what he is there for; indeed, he calls himself the “aide-de-camp” and his father the “four-star general” and describes his job this way: “I have to see that my general is prepared at all times—that he never goes into battle unprepared.”P

He gets carried away, Junior does, with military terminology, but in this case, his choice of words is entirely appropriate because his job is a perilous one. The war the Old Man is fighting is not about other people anymore; it is about himself, and about time, and it is a war he is losing—and must lose—inch by bloody inch. “The making of a Sinatra show is a critical business,” Junior says. “It is second by second because at any time there may be a glitch.” Ah, yes, the glitches. You cannot witness a Frank Sinatra concert these days and ignore the glitches. They have become part of the show and lend every performance a weird exhilaration. That’s why Junior is so hard on himself, why he devotes hour upon hour to his sound checks and set lists—because he wants to protect his father, and to protect his father, he, Junior, has to be perfect.P

But tonight’s show in Aurora, Illinois, is not perfect from the very beginning, from the moment the Old Man opens his mouth and fails to steer the Voice past the soft, sad catches of age. The show is three or four songs old when the first glitch comes. The Old Man introduces a song, but Junior has cued up the wrong music, and there is a moment of confusion, and then the inevitable rough lash of the Old Man’s voice: “The wrong music? Get out of here … what good are you?” Then he softens and turns to the crowd and asks, “Did I introduce him? This is my son, Frank Jr. He’s a nice boy.”P

Well, as glitches go, it’s not so catastrophic. Oh, the Old Man is pissed off, all right, and he will let his son hear about it later, but right now, all things considered, Junior got off easy. The Old Man didn’t humiliate or berate or abuse him, as he’s been known to do; didn’t call him “dummy” and tell him to go back to music school; didn’t say, “I should stick my foot right up your ass.” And he didn’t make fun of Junior when he introduced him, either; didn’t say that he made Junior the conductor because the kid “needed a job, and his mother got sick of him hanging around the house.” Junior hates that stuff, really, but he accepts it, because that’s show biz—the Old Man has always needed a sparring partner onstage—and because, well, that’s Frank Sinatra, and Frank Sinatra can’t help himself.P

He loves his son, the people who know him insist; he’s proud of the Kid; he occasionally even compliments him—but only when Junior’s not around to hear. Sometimes, when people hear the Old Man praise his son, they can’t help saying “Why don’t you tell him what you just told me?” He never does, though, and one night, on this tour, Junior walked up to Bucky Pizzarelli—a jazz guitarist who had just played a doting set with his son John for the show’s opening act—and said, “The only time my father ever looks at me like that is after he tells me to go fuck myself.” Junior does not ask for tenderness; he simply endures the hardness because it is his duty, because it is his time to take care of his father. It was once Nancy’s time, and then their sister Tina’s, and now it is Junior’s. Who else is going to do it? Who else is going to worry about the Old Man? The managers, the mercenaries? No, it has to be the son, the man who was doomed to be Frank Sinatra Jr.—and who is now doomed, along with the rest of America’s sons, to watch a father grow old.P

Old, yes—Frank Sinatra is old tonight. He pulls out the stool for one of the saloon songs, and he sings, in a voice full of quiet hurt, “Isn’t it rich?/Aren’t we a pair?” He is singing “Send in the Clowns.” But … he hasn’t sung that in twelve years! It’s not even on the set list! He’s supposed to be singing “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” and that’s what the orchestra keeps playing as the Old Man stands out there, alone. The lights are still on him, and the TelePrompTers are spelling out the lyrics, and Junior is calling out the name of the song, but the Old Man is staring off somewhere, and he cries out with scary desperation, “I can’t see! I can’t hear!”P

Then the orchestra squeaks to a stop, and the spotlights are cut, and there is a black moment, a long foreshadowing silence that seems to go on forever, and the only sound, the only voice, the only movement, all that’s left, is Junior, who knows the words.P


PostscriptP

“Frank Sinatra Jr. Is Worth Six Buddy Grecos” is the second story I wrote for David Granger atGQ. It is, in a way, the first story that I wrote very much as myself, in my own voice, because in a way I was telling my own story. Anyone who has read my work over the years knows that I’vewritten many times about my father, Lou Junod, a band singer in World War II who never lost the conviction that he was a star. He modeled himself after Frank Sinatra, and my first awareness of who my father was and wasn’t came when I was very young, sitting in the back seat of my Dad’s Cadillac and listening to him sing along with some 8-track tape (perhaps Dean Martin, perhaps Robert Goulet, perhaps Sinatra himself). We passed a place called the Sunrise Village in Bellmore, Long Island, and I saw, on the big sign, who was singing there that night: Frank Sinatra Jr. I remember thinking to myself, “Frank Sinatra … Jr.? There’s a Frank Sinatra Jr.? That poor bastard!”P

I didn’t know what a magazine writer was, at the time; but at that moment I began to think like one, and the story of Frank Sinatra Jr. is the first story I pitched to David Granger after he andGQ editor-in-chief Art Cooper gave me a contract. And though I wrote this story twenty years ago, and the world it conjures is long gone, it formed the first installment of what I’ve always thought of as “The Swingin’ Dad Trilogy.” I first took on Frank Sinatra; then, in a story this website’s curator so graciously salvaged a few months ago, Tony Curtis; and then, at last, my own father, in “My Father’s Fashion Tips.” Flawed men, all; and even more flawed as husbands and fathers. But they had the balls to be themselves, and good Christ, they were funny … and so now, 15 years after the death of Frank Sinatra, three years after the death of Tony Curtis, and six years after the death of the man who never ceased to believe that he was their equal, I still write about Lou Junod, and live with his crazy maxims and commandingly precise diction ringing in my brain. P

Indeed, I just thought of him the other day, when my daughter was doing something to bother me. I thought of what my father would say: “Must you?” It made me laugh, just thinking about it. But, in reading “Frank Sinatra Jr. Is Worth Six Buddy Grecos” again after all these years, I couldn’t help but think who my father sometimes sounded like. He wanted to sound like Frank Sinatra. But just as often, God help me, he sounded like Junior.P

Frank Sinatra Jr. Is Worth Six Buddy Grecos


Tom Junod is a writer at large for Esquire and a two-time National Magazine Award winner. He’s @TomJunod on Twitter.

BGS: You Know Me, Al

John Lardner’s introduction to a 1959 edition of Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al, a fictional series of letters from professional ballplayer Jack Keefe to his friend Al. Those stories are included in the Library of America’s new collection. (There was also a comic strip based on the same characters, with continuity written by Ring.) John was Ring Lardner’s eldest son and a fine journalist in his own right.


The You Know Me Al letters have an unusual history, in terms of reputation. The impact of their original publication, forty-five years ago, was such that their fame has endured to a large extent by word of mouth, like that of New York’s blizzard of 1888. Mere memories of the prodigy have been handed down from one generation to another. It’s not necessary—as years of involuntary research have shown me—for someone to have read You Know Me Al to want to talk about it. I think that reading is better, because the letters are equal to their reputation and are equally timeless. But the fact of their continuing strength-through-hearsay remains, as a kind of literary curiosity. So does the fact that among people who have read them, they have been relished and judged from radically different points of view. I’ve known readers who associated them—delightedly—with the “funny-spelling” works of the Bill Nye school, which came earlier, and of Ed Streeter (“Dere Mable”), who came a little later. I’ve known readers who valued the language of the letters more highly than that, but who enjoyed them primarily as the most comical and engrossing baseball writing of all time. I’ve seen critical estimates that rated You Know Me Al as an all-around classic, or as a compact treasure-house of popular American English exactly observed and transcribed. On the whole, these cults have lived in perfect congeniality. As far as I know, no reader’s viewpoint has ever interfered with the pleasure of another reader.

It’s true that only a few of the readers or the knowing nonreaders of You Know Me Al have thought of it as a work of art. There’s a certain rough justice in that situation. The busher letters were not written with artistic prestige in mind. They were written because there was an urgent need around the home of the two hundred dollars that each of the first installments brought from The Saturday Evening Post. (Later, according to Donald Elder’s biography, Ring Lardner, which has more reliable information about those times than I have, Jack Keefe letters fetched up to twelve hundred and fifty dollars per installment. The cheaper installments—the ones that were incorporated in the book You Know Me Al—were the best.) Almost as soon as the Post began to publish them, the letters made their author as famous as the President of the United States. (They were to keep him famous in the same degree throughout the next two or three administrations.) This turn of events startled my father, but it totally failed to cause him to think of what he had written as literature.

At that stage, thanks to the atmosphere in which he worked and to his own ingrained shyness, he couldn’t think of anything he wrote in that way–although it may come to the same thing as conscious artistry that he struggled constantly to make his stuff as good and as true as it could be. A few years afterward, when H.L. Mencken, Gilbert Seldes, Franklin P. Adams, and others began to praise his work as art, he was deeply pleased—although, again, startled. He was critic enough himself, and his standards were severe enough, so that he sometimes pointed out, privately, what he thought were inaccuracies or inanities in some of the things that were written in his praise. In other words, he could react like a literary man when he was stimulated to do so. He had known when he wrote it that the language of You Know Me Al was right. He was bound to know—he had the world’s best ear. But it was impossible for him then, and hard at any time, to connect this sort of rightness, or rightness of character-drawing, in his own case, with the idea of artistic creation.

Some strong tributes have been paid to the literary importance of You Know Me Al. Probably the most striking is one that was written in England, in 1925, by Virginia Woolf, who didn’t know an infielder from a fungo bat and who approached all contemporary American writing in the spirit of an explorer of unknown territory. Earlier in the essay in question, she had said that Sinclair Lewis’s work had confused her by what she considered its self-consciousness—that Lewis seemed to be exhibiting and explaining American types in the style of an educated tourist guide, with his mind on British or European audiences.

“But Mr. Lardner,” she wrote, “is not merely unaware that we differ; he is unaware that we (the British) exist. When a crack player is in the middle of an exciting game of baseball he does not stop to wonder whether the audience likes the color of his hair. (Mr. Elder has noted that Mrs. Woolf may have guessed wrong in this detail.) All his mind is on the game. So Mr. Lardner does not waste a moment when he writes in thinking whether he is using American slang or Shakespeare’s English—whether he is proud of being American or ashamed of not being Japanese; all his mind is on the story. Hence, incidentally, he writes the best prose that has come our way. Hence we feel at last freely admitted to the society of our fellows.

”That this should be true of You Know Me Al, a story about baseball, a game which is not played in England, a story written often in a language which is not English, gives us pause. To what does he owe his success? Besides his unconsciousness … Mr. Lardner has talents of a remarkable order. With extraordinary ease and aptitude, with the quickest strokes, the surest touch, the sharpest insight, he lets Jack Keefe the baseball player cut out his own outline, fill in his own depths, until the figure of the foolish, boastful, innocent athlete lives before us. As he babbles out his mind on paper there rise up friends, sweethearts, the scenery, town, and country—all surround him and make him up in his completeness.”

Mrs. Woolf then raised a point that first struck me when it was made in reverse to indicate a weakness, rather than a strength—by F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Ring,” an obituary essay that appeared in The New Republic. “Ring” was a fine piece, eloquent, loving, and brilliantly written. I suspect, however, that some of its author’s reasoning was based on delayed intuitions summoned up for the occasion and shaped by his proselytizing instinct. I’ll quote briefly from a passage in which I think the spirit of do-it-my-way interfered with Fitzgerald’s sense of proportion.

He had been saying that Ring Lardner’s “achievement” fell short of what he was capable of, and speculating about my father’s unwillingness or inability to tackle presumably larger subjects than the ones he had handled in You Know Me Al and The Big Town and in his short stories.

“During those (sports-writing) years,” Fitzgerald wrote, “when most men of promise achieve an adult education, if only in the school of war, Ring moved in the company of a few dozen illiterates playing a boy’s game. A boy’s game, with no more possibilities in it than a boy could master, a game bounded by walls which kept out novelty or danger, change or adventure. This material, the observation of it under such circumstances, was the text of Ring’s schooling during the most formative period of the mind. A writer can spin on about his adventures after thirty, after forty, after fifty, but the criteria by which these adventures are weighed and valued are irrevocably settled at the age of twenty-five. However deeply Ring might cut into it, his cake had exactly the diameter of Frank Chance’s diamond.

“Here was his artistic problem, and it promised future trouble. So long as he wrote within that enclosure the result was magnificent: within it he heard and recorded the voice of a continent. But when, inevitably, he outgrew his interest in it, what was Ring left with?”

This appraisal overlooks the fact that very little of what my father wrote during the last fourteen years—almost one-third—of his life had to do with baseball. It fails to consider that one man’s period of creativity may be shorter—especially if his work has been cleaner and more painstaking—than another’s. Also, it seems to me, it tends to belittle what had been done, the depth of the cut in the cake. I don’t know, frankly, just how genius works in the matter of dimensions—whether it can probe a wide body as deeply as it can a narrow one. I have an idea that it was the compactness of the material, and the intensity, the concentration, that it produced, that made my father’s stories as good as they were. This would apply to The Big Town, and to Broadway stories like “Some Like Them Cold” and “A Day with Conrad Green,” and to the old people’s story, ”The Golden Honeymoon” (which has a lot in common with You Know Me Al), as well as to baseball stories. It’s my feeling, an entirely respectful one, that Scott Fitzgerald was at his best when he wrote in tight focus, about neat, intricate, carefully coded systems of life in which he knew all the moves.

Mrs. Woolf has said: “It is no coincidence that the best of Mr. Lardner’s stories are about games, for one may guess that Mr. Lardner’s interest in games has solved one of the most difficult problems of the American writer; it has given him a clue, a centre, a meeting place for the divers activities of people whom a vast continent isolates, whom no tradition controls. Games give him what society gives his English brother.”

I’m not sure that the problems that Mrs. Woolf spoke of were purely American even at the time she wrote. There was a good deal of writing in Europe in those days that was loose and garrulous, that teemed with unframed types and symbols. In the last ten or fifteen years—perhaps because the Second World War accelerated the decline of many traditions—there have been quantities of that kind of writing in nearly every country that publishes books. At any rate, I think it was lucky both for my father and for his readers that the things that interested him were snugly organized. His subjects suited his special abilities. He carried a sharp knife; with one stroke of it, in You Know Me Al, he laid bare all the vital parts of a man who, because he was a human being, was more meaningful than any type could be.

In other words, the author of You Know Me Al was able to do more than reproduce “the voice of a continent.” Still, what he accomplished in that direction was astonishing. As Mencken said in The American Language (1919), everything that had been observed about American English by the shrewdest scholars, and much that had not, was compressed into a single piece of fiction by a newspaper man—a writer who, obviously, had not read the findings of these scholars and who worked by ear and self-respect alone. As I’ve said, my father was exhilarated by Mencken’s learned notice. Also, whenever Mencken dissented, in phrases like “my own observation is” or “my own belief is,” my father swiftly—though privately—overrode the objections and alternatives, again by ear and from a sense of fitness. (He dissented strongly, for instance, from Mencken’s dissents in the matter of the participles “throwed” and “gave.” He thought that Mencken and other critics sometimes failed to allow for the differences between spoken American and written American.) I doubt if my father would ever have ruled publicly on questions like these if Mencken had not encouraged him to it by recognizing his gift. Still, when he did permit himself to criticize another writer’s “American” in print, which was rarely, he showed a scientific, and almost a proprietary, interest in the matter, along with an uneasy need to depreciate himself in the role of scholar. A review he wrote of John V. A. Weaver’s book of verse, In American, was both precise and apologetic.

The language in the book, he said, was “pure American, nearly. The few impurities are a lifesaver for the critic. We can’t hope to land a K.O. on the writer’s jaw, but we can fret him a little with a few pokes to the ear. For the most part, this organ has served Mr. Weaver well. But I think that on occasion it consciously or unconsciously plays him false. It has told him, for example, that we say everythin’ and anythin’. We don’t. We say somethin’ and nothin’, but we say anything and everything. There appears to be somethin’ about the y near the middle of both these words that impels us to acknowledge the g on the end of them. Mr. Weaver’s ear has also give or gave (not gi’n) him a bum hunch on thing itself. It has told him to make it thin’! But it’s a real effort to drop the g off this little word and, as a rule, our language is not looking for trouble.”

It was a long and not very relevant step to this kind of analysis from the entertainer’s mood in which the busher letters were written. There’s a long distance, too, between the views of Mencken and Mrs. Woolf and the untrained, reflexive pleasure of the public’s reaction to You Know Me Al. Mrs. Woolf has shown why ignorance of baseball need not prevent a reader from appreciating the book as a classic. But there is a great deal in it that she was bound to miss. For the knowledgeable, the baseball details are pure delight; the thirsty fan drinks them down like cold water. Many names and conditions that were topical in 1914—Cobb, Mathewson, the “Federals,” McGraw, the gracefully ruthless Comiskey, Walsh, the spitball, Cicotte, Buck Weaver—are historical now; but history, for the baseball-lover, is full of romance. And the baseball technique and dramatics of You Know Me Al are as timeless as the literary values.

Gilbert Seldes, in discussing what he felt was the iconoclastic effect of Al, wrote that “baseball has never recovered” from what my father did to its heroes. I think it’s true that there was an element of shock in the author’s treatment of Keefe and one or two other non-historical characters. I believe that Mr. Elder stated the point a little more reasonably when he said that baseball fandom was “far more ingenuous” before the First World War than it is now, and that You Know Me Al reduced the “baseball hero” (my father, however, did not make Keefe a type, or even necessarily a fans’ hero) to human dimensions. Baseball did not have to recover from You Know Me Al, because its hard assets had not been disturbed. The book did make an important change in a state of mind which Mr. Seldes, writing in the early 1920s, could recall vividly. Since then, there have been other changes in player attitudes and in fan habits with which the Keefe letters had nothing to do. It’s noteworthy that Al has survived change as easily as it has created it. Everything that is inherently sound in our national diversion, and everything that is characteristically silly, are fixed for all time in this story.

Superficially, ball players are not quite the same kind of people today as they were in Keefe’s day. Present times have developed a distinct athlete class, to which most professional players belong—a group of men at least semi-educated in classrooms as well as lavishly trained since early youth in sports. In former times, professional baseball was the chancy lot of a handful of average workingmen. Only a thin margin of luck and physical aptitude separated the ball player from the clerk, the cab-driver, the farmer, and the coalminer. The difference between old-time and present-day players is reflected partly in the jargon of the modern game. Keefe used a certain amount of shop-talk; but the new athlete class has greatly refined and expanded baseball culture, and its wordiness has infected fans and baseball writers and sportscasters (who to some extent have re-infected the players). The vocabulary of the game has become swollen with expertise, with “changeups” and “breaking stuff” and “hitting the ball where it is pitched” and “getting good wood on it” and “shading him a little toward left” and “three speeds of curve” and the whole prolix cult of the “slider.” “Inside ball,” which was a glamorous mystery in the heyday of McGraw and Mack, is now public property, and there is, ostensibly, a hell of a lot more of it than there used to be.

But all the essential truth about ball-playing can be found in You Know Me Al. Its broader values to one side, there has never been a sounder baseball book. The story flows along with unpretentious smoothness. But if you stop to pick over the accounts of ball games, you see that each detail is correct in relation to place, weather, time of year, and the hitting, pitching, or fielding idiosyncrasies of each of a hundred players. Baseball strategy is set down as accurately as the speech and characters of Keefe, his friends, his girls, and his in-laws. I have never read a piece of baseball fiction, besides this one, in which there was no technical mistake. (Thirty-odd years ago, my father and mother worried and conferred when I was caught reading a novel about flaming youth called The Plastic Age. But my father was even more worried when he caught me reading a baseball novel called Won in the Ninth. He didn’t take it away from me, but he warned me not to let my mind be soiled by corrupt observation of baseball procedures.)

There is one more salient point about You Know Me Al. It is funny. The fact has gone unmentioned, or been taken for granted, by Mrs. Woolf, Mencken, Fitzgerald, and others as they studied the literary or scientific aspects of the book. But Al knocked the country head over heels in the first place because people laughed at it, so intensely that the echoes have been accepted at face value ever since. My feeling about nonreaders and tradition-carriers is that they also serve. But reading, as I said before, is better.

Great stuff from son to father, huh?

Sof you aren’t familiar with Ring, let me suggest two books—The Lardners: My Family Remembered, a fine memoir by Ring Jr., and Jonathan Yardley’s excellent biography, Ring.

Here’s Yardley:

He was a writer of manners, and the manners he described were those of a society markedly different from that in the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James. He wrote about the manners of the bleachers and the clubhouse, the mezzanine and the dressing room, the barbershop and the beauty parlor, the Pullman car and the touring car, the kitchen and the diner, the bridge table and the bowling alley. He wanted us to get rich, and he showed us how foolish we often looked as we threw our new money after idle and inane pleasures and possessions; he had been truly bitter or misanthropic or hateful, he never would have succeeded in making us laugh at ourselves so heartily.

He wrote so perceptively and accurately about what he saw because he was a great journalist. This, in the end is the singular accomplishment of his life. Ring came into the profession when it was held in far too much disdain even to be considered a “profession”; it was a line of work pursued by coarse people who had a coarse talent for putting words together in a speedy way. He was one of the very first people to bring creativity and felicity of style to the press. He set an example that was eagerly followed by younger writers. His aristocratic manner and confident bearing gave the lie to the argument that journalists were by their very nature guttersnipes. The quality of his writing and the doggedness with which he kept it so high proved that good prose and journalism were not mutually exclusive. So, too, he showed that in newspapers one could do serious work and be respected for it. P

Ring Lardner: An American Original

And yet Lardner, who was widely admired by the likes of Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, and his friend and neighbor, Scott Fitzgerald, was chided by the critical establishment for not writing a novel. Maxwell Perkins, the famous editor, once wrote:P

Ring was not, strictly speaking, a great writer. The truth is he never regarded himself seriously as a writer. Healways though of himself as a newspaperman, anyhow. He had a sort of provincial scorn of literary people. If he had written much more, he would have been a great writer perhaps, but whatever it was that prevented him from writing more was the thing that prevented him from being a great writer. But he was a great man, and one of immense latent talent which got itself partly expressed. P

Yardley has a thoughtful take on the matter:P

Ring was scare of the mere idea of writing a novel; he had the journalist’s fear of taking on something so long and complex and structurally unclear. Beyond that, so many people had by now asked him so many times when he was going to write a “real” book that he must have felt that expectations had been raised past any point he could possibly hope to match.

…It is a mystery why he never simply said: Look, no one does what I do better than I do, so why not accept me for what I am? He could also have said, with utter legitimacy, that his mind functioned best over short, intense distances and that he did not think he was capable of writing a good novel—which in fact he probably was not.

Americans equate bigness with greatness, and all around him people were saying that he had to do something big if he wanted to be great. In truth, he probably did not care all that much about being great, but neither did he want to disappoint. He was a miniaturist to whom the world seemed to be shouting “Inflate! Inflate!” and he could not handle it. P

We’ve had Elmore Leonard on the brain, a writer famous for his ear and his ability to write dialogue. Ring Lardner built his reputation as a writer who appreciated how Americans talk. That’s no small achievement. He was also, as Yardley points out, funny. We’re grateful to theLibrary of America for celebrating an American original.

BGS: The Hit King

Here’s a keeper from Scott Raab. “The Hit King,” originally published in GQ back in 1997 and reprinted here with the author’s permission.

pete-rose

If you grew up in Cleveland, rooting ten, twenty, thirty years for what was then the most drab and futile team in baseball, you loathed Pete Rose for at least three reasons. You despised him for his skill and for his frenzy to win. You scorned him for being born, reared and revered in Cincinnati, a fussy, gooberous river burg, half Kraut, half hillbilly, buried so far downstate that it essentially was, and is, the capital of north Kentucky. Above all you hated him for July 14, 1970, when he scored the winning run in that year’s All-Star Game by maiming the Tribe’s finest rookie in decades, a toothy, well-muscled 23-year-old catcher named Ray Fosse. Fosse was planted a stride or two up the third-base line, blocking the plate; Rose wracked him knee to shoulder at full speed. Bruised, Rose missed three games. Fosse dislocated his entire career.

I didn’t care that this was not a cheap shot, that it was just the way the game is played. I didn’t care that Rose and Fosse had huddled at Rose’s home the night before—the game was in Cincy that year—talking baseball until 3 A.M., or that they kept in touch for years thereafter. I watched season after season as Ray Fosse fought to find his stroke, fought and failed, while Rose and his team became the Big Red Machine. I never forgave Pete Rose.

I never forgave Pete Rose, but on August 1, 1978, I discovered that I had ceased merely to loathe him. Having hit safely in forty-four games straight—second only to DiMaggio’s untouchable fifty-six in 1941—Rose went hitless that summer night. Feeling strangely bereft, I opened The Baseball Encyclopedia to DiMaggio’s name and saw that in ’41 he had been 26, in the heart of his glory. Rose was already a wondrous, ageless 37, and I understood then that this brick-bodied motherfucker would dog me forever. Without quite knowing it, I had come to regard him with that same mixture of emotion inspired in cave dwellers by earthquake and eclipse: terror, awe, powerlessness, and surrender. Beyond explanation or entreaty, he simply was and always could be. Even when he stopped playing, in 1986—he was the Reds’ player-manager then—Rose refused to officially retire, and I fully expected him to climb out of the dugout at any moment, bat in hand.

He never did. In 1989 Rose was tossed out on his ear, eighty-sixed like a drunk who had pissed on the jukebox. I took no pleasure from it, not even relief; whether he bet illegally or bet on baseball or bet on his own team, he was railroaded, denied due process in a vermin-infested, star-chamber investigation. I felt only wariness, certain he would sue and come back, until the almighty IRS, a force beyond even nature, pinched him for failing to report racetrack winnings and income from memorabilia sales. Pete Rose was finally done for. Before his sentencing, he read a statement asking for the court’s mercy—he’d paid the government, plus penalties and interest—his voice choked and quaking, too shamed to lift his head from the page. The judge, a Reds fan, gave him five months, plus a $50,000 fine to cover the cost of his upkeep in the federal prison in—I scarcely could believe it—Marion, Illinois. Ray Fosse’s hometown.

If you’re a Cleveland Indians fan, that’s how it goes: no justice, only irony.


“Lemme tell ya, I love Joe DiMaggio,” Pete Rose says, chugging coffee at four in the afternoon. We’re at a table near the back bar of the Pete Rose Ballpark Cafe. He’s 56, rock hard and proud of it. His jeans are light blue and jock tight; his white ribbed cotton pullover is tucked in at the waist; he has a thick gold chain around one wrist and a battered Rolex around the other. His hair is short, receding—he keeps a ball cap on his head—and bottle-brown. His pugish brow and nose have thickened; the whole face has grown a bit heavier, more coarse; but his eyes, flat brown, still burn, and his voice is the same tough-guy bark. “I went to Vietnam in 1967 just so I could meet Joe DiMaggio. They asked me to go on a goodwill trip. Joe and me went south; the other three guys went north. We had to carry cards that said we were colonels, because if we got captured and we didn’t have a card, we’d be considered spies. I was in awe of this guy. I mean, this guy was one of my heroes. I couldn’t believe I’m ridin’ in helicopters with Joe DiMaggio.”

I try to picture them—the 26-year-old hick, crew-cut and knot-faced, five whole seasons in the Bigs under his belt, and the Yankee Clipper, 53 then, an authentic pinstriped deity, silvering, aquiline, regal—squatting flank to flank in a Huey, skimming treetops, skirting enemy fire, Colonel Charlie Hustle’s incessant chatter ack-acking above the roar of the chopper and the bullets’ whine and the Phrygian silence of Colonel Joltin’ Joe.

Then Pete Rose says this: “I gave Joe DiMaggio a shower one night. I gotta be the only guy in the world ever to give Joe DiMaggio a shower.”

Say WHAT? It is as if an unearthed Hemingway letter recounted a lazy afternoon in Paris when Papa gave Scott Fitzgerald a foot rub.

“We’re down in the Mekong Delta. And it’s . . . it’s . . . it’s a jungle. It’s hot. I mean, it’s so goddamn hot ya can’t sleep. All you can hear goin’ off is boom-BOOM, boom-boom-BOOM. It’s a war out there. And we’re tryin’ to sleep. And Joe says, ‘I can’t sleep.’ He says, ‘I gotta take a shower.’”

Just then a paunchy white-haired man in a beige zippered jacket wanders over to the table, clutching a photo. Rose takes it from him without a glance, signs it, and hands it back. “Thanks, buddy,” Rose says.

The man stands gaping at the glossy in his hands, perplexed. “What’s that number there, uh, forty-two fifty-six?” he asks finally.

“That’s my prison number,” says Rose, poker-faced. Then he returns to the Mekong. “The way you take a shower, you got this big bamboo thing up here, like a pocket.” Rose cups his thick, square hands, lifting his forearms above his head. They are massive, tight as tree trunks, covered with dark hair. “You gotta get up on a chair, and you gotta feed the water. Then you pull a string, and the water comes through. So I’m the feeder; Joe’s takin’ the shower. I’m up on the thing feedin’ the water, and he’s takin’ a shower. Joe DiMaggio.”

Rose grins like a schoolboy. He pushes his cap, black leather with a gator-skin bill, back on his head and clasps his hands behind his neck. A large gold pin dangles from the center of the crown of the cap, formed of two letters: HK, for “Hit King.” I eye those oaken arms and see Ray Fosse somersaulting backward and coming to rest facedown in the dirt, his left shoulder torn from its socket.

“Joe was the most humble guy I ever seen. We got to sit in a meeting of fighter pilots who were goin’ on a mission over North Vietnam. Now you imagine Joe DiMaggio walkin’ in. ‘Hi, I’m Joe DiMaggio, old broken-down ballplayer,’ he used to say. And Joe goes up, and he gets the chalk, and—you know the bombs on the fighter planes? Joe writes ‘Fuck Ho’ on one. And this one guy came back [after the mission] and told Joe, ‘I got an ammunition dump with that thing.’ Joe was happy as he could be. ‘Fuck Ho,‘” Rose repeats, snorting at the memory, shaking his head with delight.

Truly, it is almost more exquisite than I can bear to hear Rose tell about the great DiMaggio in Vietnam. Just then, though, something happens to Pete Rose, something visible and ugly. His face, from brow to chin, turns hard; his eyes go cold; his lips, shrunk to a miser’s frown, barely part as he speaks. “Joe DiMaggio don’t sell bats,” he says, biting off the name. “They’re forty-nine ninety-five. That’s $4,995. Joe thinks everybody’s tryin’ to fuck him.”

Ray Fosse hit .307 in 1970, .307 with good power, and never again came close. He played out his enfeebled string, built a pension, found a broadcast job. DiMaggio, wealthy and still worshiped, is an ice-hearted, reclusive old man. Something worse happened to Pete Rose. Something odd and slow and subtle, something that swallowed him up and took him drifting down into nothingness, into a pale nearly beyond remembrance. Go figure. Had Rose simply croaked or grown doddering, we might have pondered how this brash hayseed colossus bestrode and embodied, like Elvis or Ali, an entire era, spoke with his rough art to the soul of a nation. Instead people hear the name, pause, and say, “Oh, sure. Hasn’t he got a restaurant somewhere?”


The Pete Rose Ballpark Cafe looks like any other edifice in Boca Raton, Florida, which is to say that it has a blank exterior of pinkish tan stucco. To find it, you should know that it is joined to the side of a tannish pink Holiday Inn, whose clover green marquee is one of a very few clues that the entire length of Glades Road from the freeway to the turnpike is not simply a palm-dotted, lizard-infested, pinkish tan strip mall erected to service the needs of an army of frosted-blonde women wielding scarlet talons, silver Lexi, and platinum Visas.

You may be tempted to order the Hall of Fame Chicken Scallopini. Don’t. Irony is no substitute for flair in the kitchen. Stick with a burger.

Your chef is Dave Rose, Pete’s younger brother. Except for Dave’s stringy, shoulder-length hair, the basketball-sized gut beneath his grease-spattered apron, and the slack derangement of his eyes, he and Pete look much alike. Something happened to Dave Rose, too: Vietnam. He didn’t go with DiMaggio.

The staff wears tags with their hometowns printed under their names. Everyone is young, trim, female, and from New York or New Jersey. Pete’s customers are more typical Boca dwellers: fat old men from New York or New Jersey. Pete’s afternoon routine is coffee, the sports page, and banter with the staff about fellatio technique, but today he’s also doing business with Marty. Hoarse, fat, and fiftyish, Marty hails from Boca via New York’s Upper West Side. His business is marketing sports memorabilia.

“I’m gonna throw out a name,” Marty says, “a very, very dear friend of mine. I’ve got very few friends. Marv Shapiro. Dr. Marv Shapiro.”

“Marv Shapiro,” Rose says. “I don’t know who that is.”

“Marv Shapiro is an ear, nose, and throat guy. He has, and I’ve seen it, your jersey from when you broke Cobb’s record.”

Rose shakes his head.

“No?” Marty rasps, his eyes wide. “He swears he paid you twenty-five grand for it. No?”

“I said I was gonna use three jerseys,” says Rose. “I only used one. I used that one right over there. Marge Schott’s got one. I gave one to Barry Halpern for that Ty Cobb bust up there. Did he say he got it from me?”

“Yeah, and he’s not a bullshitter. Great guy. Tremendous guy. Very successful guy.”

“He might be a great guy,” Rose tells Marty, “but he’s a goddamn liar.”

Marty sighs, crestfallen, searching for the right tone, the right words. When he speaks, his voice is heavy with sorrow. “The fraud that is running rampant in this business is perpetuated daily,” he says.

While I wonder if Marge Schott and Barry Halpern know that Rose snookered them—an unworn game jersey is not a game jersey—Marty recovers nicely. “My idea,” he tells Rose, “is to put out something that you authorize. I’ll do all the promoting. I’ll go to every show. It won’t interfere with you at all. To me it would be a privilege to work with you.”

Rose sips the coffee. “I think you could really sell bats with ‘Charlie Hustle,’” he muses. “I’ve never signed ‘Charlie Hustle’ on a bat.” Marty beams at me, radiant, and begins squeaking with joy. “Ooooh, that coy little, sly little fox. He’s Charlie Hustle. They call me ‘Marty Hustle.’ Ooooh. When—not if —he gets put into the Hall of Fame? Right to the moon. He knows it, too. Ooooh, is he good. And he’s young; he could be signing for the next thirty years.”

At the Pete Rose Ballpark Cafe Gift Shop, a signed copy of the black Mizuno that Rose used in the later years of his career goes for only $250. For $75 less, you can get a copy of his old Louisville Slugger. Take it from Pete, though: “I wouldn’t even look at that Louisville. I broke the record with a black Mizuno.”


The record. Rose mentions it often, just as he adds it as a coda to his signature: “4256,” more career hits than anyone in the history of baseball. He harps on this because he knows that despite “4256″ he never reached the Yahwehvian stature of Mays and Mantle and, yes, DiMaggio; unbeloved, he was not even, like the demigods Clemente and Kaline, much admired. Not only did Rose lack the supple arrogance of grace, the titanic strength and propulsive speed, even the innocent exuberance of an aw-shucks kid—he had none of the stuff that drops jaws and warms hearts—but also, and crucially, the little boy inside Pete Rose came off as a runtish bully, the outer man as an imperious lout.

What made Rose a great player was an invincible physique coupled with a monomaniacal fervor unseen since the demise of the baseball god most closely linked to him, the shiv-wielding madman whose record Rose chased for twenty-three years: Ty Cobb. Rose grew so obsessed with Cobb that he named his second son, Tyler, for him, and on the night Rose broke the record in 1985, he saw Cobb above the stadium lights, sitting in the clouds. Dead since 1961, Cobb has no bats to hawk, but a huge copper bust of him sits rooted upon a waist-high railing just past the Ballpark Cafe’s hostess station, where the Georgia Peach glares out from eternal captivity into the cafe’s enormous, glassed-in game room. Like Rose, Cobb departed the game not long after he was investigated by the league for wagering on the team he played for and managed. No finding was announced; he simply retired and was in the first group of players voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame at its inception in 1936.

Something far worse happened to Pete Rose. The agreement reached in 1989 with Commissioner Bartlett Giamatti—six months of inquisition had yielded a 2,000-page report based mainly upon the sworn word of two felons—stated plainly that there was no finding that Rose had bet on baseball games and that he could seek reinstatement in a year without prejudice. But at Giamatti’s press conference announcing the agreement, he was asked if he thought that Rose had bet on baseball. “Personally,” Giamatti replied, “yes.”

Rose, gagged by edict of the commissioner throughout the entire ordeal, unable to defend himself, forbidden to question his accusers, saw this on television in his lawyer’s office in Cincinnati and nearly shat his pants. He had spent a million and a half in lawyers’ fees negotiating the agreement Giamatti had just trashed the day after it was signed. The IRS was sniffing at his door. His career was kaput; his endorsements were gone. He was fucked, and he knew it.

Something worse than all of that—something closely resembling justice—happened to Bart Giamatti, ex-president of Yale, wooed from the Ivy League to reign over baseball, qualified for the job only by having had the sort of love affair with the game unique to fey, pristine intellectuals. “Reconfigure your life,” the commissioner told Rose at their last meeting, sending Rose out from the only life he had ever known. Then, after his press conference, Giamatti repaired to Martha’s Vineyard for a week of rest and recovery, nodded off in a hammock, and never woke up.

Rose has yet to apply for reinstatement. Giamatti was replaced by his pudgy steward, Fay Vincent, whom Rose blames for keeping him off the Hall of Fame ballot. “That lying son of a bitch,” Rose calls him. Vincent was ousted by a club owners’ uprising in 1992; the chair has been empty ever since, the game itself nearly consumed by its cannibal kings. Meanwhile, Rose wanders through his horse-hide diaspora, Kafka in cleats. He may buy a ticket to see a game, but visiting old mates in the broadcast booth is off-limits. When a Cincinnati bakery designed a poster to commemorate the Big Red Machine’s last championship, baseball informed it that an action photo of Rose was verboten. A group pose including him was okey-dokey.

I phoned the offices of Major League Baseball to ask what happened and what might happen to Pete Rose; my calls were not returned. I phoned Rose’s former lawyer, who negotiated the Giamatti agreement; he had his secretary call back to say that he wasn’t interested in talking. I also tried Rose’s current attorney. He rang back and answered all my questions, each with the same words: “No comment.”

I ask Rose what Bart Giamatti had meant by telling him to re-configure his life.

“He never said. I assume that means be very selective of the people that I’m hangin’ around with, and no more illegal gambling.” He still bets, he says, but only at the track. He lives in Boca; his second wife, Carol, and their two children live in Los Angeles. Rose says he gets out to see them as often as he can. “I talk to my kids every day,” he says in an aggrieved tone, as if he feels accused of yet another crime. “You have to do what you have to do.”

Weeknights he does the syndicated, two-hour “Pete Rose Show” from a radio studio adjacent to the kitchen. Rose’s on-air partner—Rose is neither glib nor focused enough to work alone—joins in on a phone hookup from Vegas. There is much talk of point spreads and odds, and a total of three phone calls are taken during the entire show. Through the Plexiglas window, customers gape and take snapshots of Rose yapping into the mike. In the booth, I can smell the potatoes frying, then hot cheese, as brother Dave weaves his culinary magic.

During one five-minute break for ads and a news update, Rose signs five dozen baseballs. While a producer and Rose’s fan-club president open the boxes for him, he autographs the sixty balls in four and one-half minutes, digitally timed.

“I can’t read this one,” the producer says, winking at me.

“They’re all the same,” says Rose, pen gripped tightly, hunched in concentration, unsmiling, not looking up. After signing each ball with a smooth stroke that seems to be one careful, continuous motion, he rolls it away, down the table, toward me. The tail of each final in Pete lifts to cross the before it. Each curlicued flows into the combined os in an almost floral kiss. He’s absolutely right: they are all the same.


Late January in West Texas beneath a warm, high, blue noon sky, and the place is blasted, bleak. It’s the land, skillet flat and dust brown, punctured by bobbing, creaking, sucking metal; it’s the enormous, yellowing Space for Rent placards pleading from every oil tower and the ground-floor windows of every bank and most of the other buildings on the twenty-mile stretch from downtown Midland to the Ector County Coliseum in Odessa; it’s the late-morning Saturday caravan of pickups moving sluglike down the road, each with its own wizened, check-shirted driver, lip bulging with either a pinch of snuff or a mouth tumor, each with his ten-gallon hat pulled down to his furled eyebrows. One weekend a month, sometimes more, Pete Rose hits the road for a card show. Today he’s here.

Except that it turns out to be a boat show, not a card show, and the Ector County Coliseum is not a coliseum at all but a beehive of separate metal outbuildings surrounded by a chain-link fence. The main edifice, which might pass for a coliseum to people whose entire lives are spent dangling from oil rigs, is filled with gap-toothed salesmen fondly stroking big-ticket water vessels that seem exactly as useful here in the Permian Basin as a Psalter in hell.

Chaperoned by two skinny Odessa cops, his eyes shaded by the bill of his “Hit King” cap, shod in off-white ostrich-skin half boots and sporting a diamond-dusted Piaget on his meaty wrist, Rose sits behind a long table on a small wooden stage in Barn G. Behind him hangs a huge poster, blue with silver stars and marked with the cramped John Hancock of Dallas Cowboys defensive-tackle emeritus Jethro Pugh, yesterday’s big draw. Ed “Too Tall” Jones was scheduled earlier this morning, but he didn’t show. Former Cowboys safety Cliff Harris is due in two hours.

Rose is not grinning. “You don’t have one guy charging money for an autograph and two or three other guys signing for free,” he crabs. “I’m not used to doing shows where I don’t sell out. The only way you don’t sell me out is if you fuck it up.”

The West Texas Marine Dealers Association has indeed fucked it up. It has paid Rose $18,000 for 1,000 autographs—below his standard twenty grand but enough to get him here—and it’s charging the public only fifteen bucks per signature, five less, Rose says, than his own floor. So it has guaranteed itself a $3,000 loss, minimum, undercut the value of the only meal ticket Pete Rose has left, and just for humiliation’s sake, it is trotting out these retired Dallas Cowboys—each of whom, however obscure, is the local equivalent of the Lubavitcher rebbe—into the same barn where the “Hit King” is enthroned.

About fifty people wait behind a roped-off set of stairs for Rose to begin signing; in addition to the $5 admission fee at the main building, they’ve forked over the extra $15 at a small booth marked by a spray of balloons near the entrance and received a hand-numbered slip of paper good for one Pete Rose autograph. First in line is a woman cradling the generic bat she has brought for a colleague dying of cancer. Rose’s policy is name only, no personalization, but he adds “To Don, Good Luck” above his signature. He offers the boys his hand to squeeze, calls all the men “buddy” and lets folks snap his photo as they please. He seems downright cheerful now, until he realizes that the policeman flanking him isn’t collecting the $15 slips.

“You gotta keep the tickets, buddy,” Rose instructs in deliberately calm, measured tones, as if speaking to a toddler, “or they’ll get back in line again.”

The officer peers at him with knitted brow, and vacant eves. “Oh, raaht,” he says, finally, flushing. “Raaahht.”

With the first rush of business over, Rose is alone onstage with two hours left to sit, visited occasionally by a few treasure hunters and, just as often, by men his age or older, their faces weather-lined and boyishly shy, who want only to shake his hand and speak their awkward piece.

“When you gonna make your comeback?” asks one, a rangy gent in newly pressed Levi’s.

“This is my comeback.” Rose, seeing nothing to sign, looks down at the table.

“But when they gon’ putcha in the Hall of Fame, Pete?’

“I’m waitin’.”
 “Well, we are, too.” “It’s not up to me,” Rose reminds him. “Yeah, ah know.”

Like Rose, he has nowhere to go, nothing to do. Later he will climb behind the wheel of his pickup and plod home. For now he is content to stand a spell in front of Pete Rose and shift his cud from cheek to cheek. Rose fiddles with his pens, lining them up on the table, capping and uncapping them.

‘Well, so long, Pete,” the guy says after a long silence, ‘jest ain’t a Hall of Fame ‘thout you innit.” He heads slowly toward the stairs.

Rose turns to me. “People receive me, don’t they?” he asks. He sounds tired, plaintive. I have no idea what he means.

“People receive me, don’t they?” he repeats.

“Yes, I suppose they do.”

“Not only here, but where you been. They recognize me.”

They do the only justice left to him now, these old men who share the obliquity of their love in return for the singles and doubles he stroked back in 1965. Sitting in a tin shed with his silly cap, his $40,000 watch and gold bracelet, his police armada, his plane ticket back to Boca in his leather satchel, he can’t grasp the irony, although his eyes betray the sadness of it.

What happened to Pete Rose his 4,256 hits can’t undo; they can’t shake his naked craving for assurance, not only that he still exists but that he will never not exist. Whatever befell him, I can imagine nothing worse: to grow old 2,500 miles from wife and children, hungry for the passing love of strangers.

With an hour to go, he has signed exactly 227 autographs, and a marine dealers’ rep starts to haul up cases of balls and stacks of pictures for him to ink. They have paid him his fee, and, by God, they are going to get their 1,000 Pete Rose signatures.


Studio City, California. Here Pete’s wife, Carol, lives with 12-year-old Tyler and 7-year-old Cara. It is a fine house on a high-priced hill two turns off Ventura Boulevard, but nothing grand. The living room is enormous and completely devoid of furnishings. There is a pool out back, of course: this is L.A., where everyone outside of Compton and Pacoima has a pool out back. The most impressive thing about the Rose home is its landlord, Alex Trebek, who lives next door. “When something breaks, Alex comes over in work clothes and a Jeopardy! cap to fix it himself. Pete says Alex Trebek’s mother also lives on the block, in the house on the other side of Alex.

We are gathered before a sixty-inch television to view tapes of the golden-tressed Cara, a fetching and adorable survivor of the Jon-Benet Ramsey pageant circuit. Cara is a pro now: guest shots on Ellen, an Amtrak commercial, agent, acting coach, voice coach, fax machine on the kitchen counter to receive her scripts. She sits next to me on the ivory leather couch as we watch footage of her as a rouged and lipsticked 4-year-old Miss Tiny Tots contestant, slowly, slowly, slowly doing full splits in her silver spangles and white leotard. Her lush chestnut tresses frame a small, satin apple of a face; she has a sweet, easy smile and dewy, knowing angel’s eyes. She is, in short, terrifying. She is not jailbait; she is castration bait, Depo-Provera bait, short-eyes-gets-eviscerated-in-the-shower bait.

Snub-nosed, spike-haired Tyler also acts, and he plays catcher on his Little League team. He has a ring from Cooperstown, where his team won some kind of tournament. “He beat me there.” Pete says. “Can you believe that?” He sounds more miffed than proud.

As for Carol, she is tawny haired and leather booted, her spandex workout clothes packed top and bottom by the hand of God himself. She doesn’t scare me; I am drinking her in and wondering what happened to Pete Rose that makes him want to live 2,500 miles away in Boca Raton.

After the children go to bed, Pete inserts a tape of himself on Larry King Live. It is every bit as incisive and interesting as any of Larry King’s oeuvre. In the final segment, Tyler and Cara appear at Pete’s side, which, he tells me now, was the whole point of his appearance. “That helps me,” he says, “when people see my kids, how talented they are and how down-to-earth they are and how nice they are. And how confident they are.”

They are all that and more, and I silently forecast harrowing futures for them both. What happened to Pete Rose—his life and dreams, his present and future, all mortgaged to the past—is happening to his children, who haven’t lived his cursed, infamous life yet are the means of its redemption in his eyes. Like most of us, he does not, cannot, see the brutal, common imprisonment of legacy. His own father was a bank clerk who played semipro football into his forties and drove Pete to focus every fiber of self on making the major leagues. Pete’s own first-born son, Pete Junior, 27, has labored in the minor leagues for the past nine seasons in four different organizations without giving anyone reason to offer him a single at-bat in the majors. What happens to us, all of us, is, first of all, what happened to our fathers.


He bet, bet big, bet often, bet illegally, partnered with steroid-crazed gym rats, coke dealers, and ratfuck scum. Down $34,000 on college hoops in the winter of ’86, he left town on business; his runner switched bookies while Rose was away. A snafu ensued over the debt and its payoff, followed by a rebuffed blackmail threat directed at Rose—and that, according to Rose, is how the whole thing blew up. A runner took his tale—that Rose had bet on baseball, on his own team—to Sports Illustrated and to a new scholar-commissioner who wanted to earn his spurs.

Rose says he never bet on baseball—not on the Reds, not on any team. Did he? I don’t fucking know; no one will ever know. Which is why he must be presumed innocent until proved otherwise in a court of law where his accusers aren’t also his judge and jury; precisely why he has no burden of proof to meet. Rose could have taken another route, tested Giamatti’s mettle and the strength of his case and the power of his office; instead he signed the agreement. It was all he could hope for, he says now: no finding that he bet on the game and a shot at reinstatement.

“Three days later, the son of a bitch dies,” Rose growls. “The son of a bitch dies, and everybody forgets all about the agreement.”

Even if you don’t believe him, don’t love baseball, don’t like Pete Rose, it’s a sour thing to hear him say that he goes to Cooperstown each summer on the weekend of induction to sign autographs for the pilgrims on Friday and Saturday and skips town before the ceremonies on Sunday. Even if you don’t believe in justice, it’s agony to hear him tell about the halfway house—he spent three months there after the five in Marion—where he bunked with paroled rapists and murderers and found himself taunted and pushed around, even by the house staff. They even stole his clothes.

“I kept my mouth shut,” he says, each word a drop of lye. “I didn’t complain. I didn’t bitch. But I shouldn’ta went. It was wrong.”

It was wrong, what happened to Pete Rose. But there is no justice, only irony. Which brings us, finally, to what happened to young Fosse.

“I started to go headfirst,” Rose begins, rising from his chair, coming at me, big and fit and strong, the cask of his chest and his arms hewn of oak, “but he had home plate blocked. So I’m comin’ in from third base, and this is home plate, and I’m comin’ this way, and he’s standin’ like this”—he turns and crouches, Fosse was waiting for the throw, his legs astride the base line. “Now why in the hell am I gonna slide into home plate? My knee hit his shoulder, here. If I go headfirst, I’m gonna break both my collarbones. People don’t know that. All they know is they think I ruined his career.”

Ach. Something happened to Pete Rose, a man as hard as a spear of boned ash: he gambled and lost, came to bat more often than anyone in baseball history, and never once connected with another human being. He has a restaurant somewhere.


Scott Raab writes for Esquire and is the author of The Whore of Akron: One Man’s Search for the Soul of LeBron JamesFollow him on Twitter, @ScottRaab64

What a Bargain

boston-globe-paper

Leigh Montville on John Henry buying the Globe:

The news last week that The Boston Globe was sold was not a great surprise. The New York Times had been shopping the newspaper for a couple of years and various bidders had been mentioned in a number of stories. The news that John Henry, principal owner of the Red Sox, was the winning bidder also was not a great surprise. He has become part of the fabric of the city, a 63-year-old rich man about town, a close-lipped maker and shaker, lives in a mansion, is married (again) to a younger local woman. This was another addition to an interesting business portfolio.

The price that he paid for this addition was the great surprise.

“I can’t believe he bought our newspaper for $70 million,” I, a one-time sportswriter at The Globe, said to another one-time sportswriter at The Globe. “He gets all that real estate. He gets all of those trucks. He gets the rights to all of the stories, all of the pictures, the 22 Pulitzers, all of the past, plus the computer present and future of the pre-eminent voice in all of New England. The Times paid $1.1 billion for The Globe 20 years ago. He gets it for $70 million? The stories say that’s about four percent of whatThe Times paid.”

“He just gave Dustin Pedroia a $110 million contract extension for eight years,” the other one-time sportswriter said. “So he’s paying $50 million more for the starting Red Sox second baseman than he is for the pre-eminent voice in New England…”

This fact made the two of us feel very old.

BGS: Heaven Ain’t What It Used To Be (Dick Young in Hell)

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New York sportswriting legend Dick Young was a lot of different things. Among them, for reasons laid out in this classic Ross Wetzsteon profile, he was a man one could easily imagine having a great time filing his column from the depths of Hell. Warren Leight and Charlie Rubin ran with the conceit in this parody, which originally appeared in The Village Voice on Jan. 17, 1989. It appears here with the authors’ permission.

NEWS ITEM: Young dies in September ’87

When I first arrived here, I took one look at the place and I felt. . . well, let down.

I figured Heaven should be a playground filled with stickball-playing kids and ringo-levio shouts and all the cold ones you could drink, served up by Pete Sheehy, the great Yankee clubhouse guy. Gofer.

I looked around.

OK, maybe I wasn’t expecting a marching band, but at least St. Peter, or an angel. . . a telegram. Something. I mean, I paid my dues, I made my deadlines, I never pretended I wasHemingway. Not to sound greedy but I was due a final reward.

Then I saw this place—the so-called “Heaven.” Ha! This is Heaven? I said to myself. This is this man’s pie-in-the-sky? In the first place, the sports page doesn’t have any West Coast scores. Ever. Instead we get the Broadway Show League scores. Updated inning by inning. Day and night. And the food is worse than half the clubhouse spreads I spent a lifetime loading up on.

Great, I think to myself, they ruined Brooklyn, they killed the Bronx, and they even let Heaven go to hell. Figures. It’s all over, I said to my pal Toots Shor—”Heaven ain’t what it used to be.”

I had to shout this, to get it over the goddamn disco music, but when he hears me he lifts his Bud Light (which is the only beer you can get here) and he says, “Dick, this ain’t Heaven. . . It’s Hell.”

Then Toots tells the bartender—who looks a lot like Roy Cohn, by the way—what I said, about Heaven not being what it used to be. And my line makes the rounds all the way to the back.

Everyone’s laughing so much I order another Bud Light and Roy says, “Sorry pal, it’s a two-beer-a-night limit.”

That’s when it hit me. It wasn’t the case of Heaven going to seed. It wasn’t like the bureaucracy and the bleeding hearts and the milquetoasts had ruined a good thing. It wasn’t that way at all.

Someone up in the sky had goofed, and I was in the Other Place.

NEWS ITEM: Young gets shaft

That night I wandered the streets—which all smell like the tunnel that connects the 1 Train to Port Authority—and I saw the place with new eyes. Maybe I even shed a tear.

The place was filled with tons of my old pals, sure, but cigarettes cost a deuce, and women wear pants and running shoes.

This wasn’t Heaven all right.

This was Hell.

Hell. Me, Dick Young, in Hell. Well, I knew it was a mistake, of course, and I knew I’d get out so I didn’t indulge myself in whiny self-pity a la Tom Seaver, but I will say this:

I’m not impressed.

This is Hell? This rundown gyp joint is hell? Like Hell it is.

I’ve seen Hell.

I’ve seen it in Washington Heights as a little boy sleeping on a fire escape at night in the days when poor people had too much dignity to demand air-conditioned housing projects.

This, this is like some great ultimate civil service honky-tonk on a sweaty summer night. But Hell?

Tell that to some reporter who walked his beat and earned an honest buck and only switched papers toward the end which anyone would’ve done if they had a chance.

The Hell with all the guff he took for it.

The only people who called this Hell are crybaby ballplayers pulling seven figures to play a little boys’ game half as well as real men played it in ’40s—baseball when the halvah was green.


NEWS ITEM: Young not bitter

No, I’m not. Mainly because I’m pretty convinced I’m going to be Called Up any day now.

Bitter? Why, I bet the more time I spend Heaven, the more I’ll actually look back fondly on this miscarriage of justice. That’s right.

Remember, My Generation was never opposed to getting a bit of seasoning in the minors. We were willing to lose the war in Africa in order to win the one in Spain. I mean in Europe. When I reminded myself of that, the rest came easy. Hell? Think of it as the Mexican League with better whores and better pitching.

And if Ted Williams could play three seasons in Triple A, I could make it through a couple of months with the head of a lizard.

Well, around the first of the year, what they do down here if you’re not going Up is they come around and tell you who’s going to win the Super Bowl, pennant races, Series, heavyweight bouts—they just spoil everything for you.

Evil One, I’ve got to hand it to you: it’s sportswriters’ Hell all right.

Which is what happened to me last year, in ’88.

First thought: get the scoop to all my loyal ex-readers on Earth. That way, they’d be as bored with sports as I was.

But then I realized I was being Tested.

Sure. If I took my disappointments out on my loyal ex-readers, if I gave away the winners to innocent people, then I belong in Hell.

So far, my strategy’s paid off. It’s mid-January, and I haven’t heard a peep. Fans, I think I’m Going Up to the place where you never have to change a ribbon.


NEWS ITEM: Some bitterness is justifiable

Yeah, I’ve got a beef.

Turns out the way you get into Heaven is a lot like the way you make it to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. There’s a ballot, your name has to appear on 75% of the total ballots cast, and the whole deal is politics. A bunch of jocks vote you In, and a lot of them never even saw me write.

Guess the Scooter knows the feeling. He’s been cheated out of Cooperstown for too long. Another tough break, Phil, is I’ve heard talk that there might be another “Election” in your future. I’m not saying what I’ve heard—it’s all gossip, Phil—but don’t let the phrase “abominations of perdition” scare you. It sounds a whole lot worse than it is.

Besides, Scooter, you’ll play yourself out of the Minors. Just like I did . . . Wait a minute, knock at the door. . . .

Brewers and Padres in the Series, 49ers in the Bowl, Tyson KO over BrunoMontana Genius in the derby, Cleveland in baskets, Calgary in hockey, and I hate everybody.

HELLHOUSE CONFIDENTIAL

When Bill Buckner dies, word is they’re going to toss him the key to the Pearly Gates. All he has to do is catch it, and he’s in. Tell me that’s not sick. . . . Remember when 54,633 Shea fans stood and cheered Keith Hernandez the day he returned from admitting drug addiction in Pittsburgh court? Four years later, not a single one of those fans is dead. This is fair? . . . You keep seeing things in Heaven that just shouldn’t be. Distasteful things. If I tell you that Paradise is filled with detox clinics and OTB offices, am I breaking your heart? . . . Plus, Casey Stengelwalks around Heaven buck naked. Can’t wait to see LeRoy Nieman paint that. . . . Like to see how any of these NBA druggies would stack up against City College’s starting five back in the days when Jews took set shots. . . . Never, never expected the Brooklyn Dodgers would play all their home games in Hell.

Bumped into Thurman, who told me the true story of how Ellie Howard died. Ellie had run up some questionable expenses while doing an out-of-town speaking engagement for the Yanks. He’d brought his wife along for the night in a Kentucky motel and then they phoned their kids and stayed on about 10 minutes. Boss George wanted to dock Ellie’s paycheck the extra $16.60, they had a row, but when Ellie collapsed, George knew the incident had gone far enough. Next day, he cut the motel bill and the phone bill into little pieces and sprinkled them over the future Hall-of-Famer’s open coffin. Even in death, fans, you hear stories of generous things Steinbrenner does quietly for so many people.

Memo to Bobby O.: your fingertip is in Heaven.


How many kids will drink themselves to death because Ring Lardner did it and he ended up with Wings?. . . Sad, sad, sad. . . . Make sense of this: seems all those sick kids Babe visited in the hospital and promised to swat a HR for? Well, apparently they all died on the operating table and went straight to Hell. . . . Mark Jackson and Rod Strickland are good players, but they’re no Bob Cousy. . . . Crybabies are upset that Syracuse didn’t cancel their ballgame the night Flight 103 went down. Hey, I didn’t see any pro teams take the night off when I died, and they all knew me a helluva lot better than anyone knew those spoiled kids. In my America, when a 19-year-old kid went to Europe, it was to shoot Nazis, not snapshots. . . . Don’t know what this means, but you get better reception on Sportschannel in Hell then you did in Manhattan. And another funny thing about hell—it takes less time to get cable guys here than it did in Midtown.

Regards to Frank Bruno from Benny “Kid” Paret. Frank, Benny says no reason to rush the fight.

Well, I finally met Hitler. I told him, “Adolph, let’s drop the formalities. You’re racist scum. But in a pickup basketball game, you’re not a bad ‘sixth man’ coming off the bench.” Sort of likeJohn Havlicek, Celts fans. I once asked Hondo for an interview and he said, “Soon’s I come back from the john.” He never came back. So what happens? 20 years later he winds up in the same sentence with Hitler. Stuck-up jocks, take note.

Can’t stomach reason source gave me why Israeli athletes murdered at ’72 Olympics aren’t in Heaven. Apparently, “they don’t believe in it.”. . . Just so no one gets the wrong idea, Hitler’s favorite sports writer is Red Smith. . . . Nothing against Reggie Otero, fine Cuban coach with Cincy Reds in ’60s, but he died October 21 and just reported to Heaven the other day. Claimed he had “visa problems.” Typical. After all these years, can’t Latins think up a better hustle to excuse chronic ethnic lateness? Another one I love is, “Oh, the death squads were torturing my mother.”. . . I always think, “At least in your country, government pays attentionto the elderly.”. . . Some Guys Never Get A Break Dept.: Wally Pipp is in Purgatory.

Memo to Joey D.Marilyn is sick of your weekly roses. Give it a rest.


Somebody want to tell me how a guy like Gastineau had the guts to do the right thing and stand up to his union stooges but then he turned around and folds like an accordion when some skirt cracks the whip?. . . Unimpeachable source swears to me that Steinbrenner sold his soul last year, before the season began. And the Yankees still finished fifth. Thurman, I mean the source, says that’s all the shipbuilder’s soul would fetch. . . . Walter O’Malley on difference between fans in Heaven and Hell: “The hellsters are your real fans. Beautiful example. The drowning of Yankee pitcher John Candelaria’s son. In Heaven the first thing they say is ‘Terrible tragedy.’ But in Hell you hear, ‘Gee, what was Candy’s record last season?’” Too true. . . . Another source tells me that part of Steinbrenner’s problem is that he already sold his soul once before to get Dave Collins. . . . If the swelling in Carl Lewis’s head has gone down, he may be interested to know that lots of “brothers” down here can outrun him. And that’s with a color TV on their shoulder.


Remember a few years ago when some jerk threw a snowball at the 49ers placekicker, indisputably depriving Niners of sure win over Browns? I met the culprit yesterday. Long, greasy hair. Pale. Advertising slogan on his T-shirt—natch. And checking into Heaven. I said, “Wow, kid. Didn’t you have something to answer for?” He laughed. “You mean that snowball thing? I pleaded that down to a P.I. [public intoxication] and did 60 hours in Purgatory. Cake, man. Piece of.” . . . All I can say is, the tragedy of America’s limp-wristed court system that punishes innocents but lets crooks off scott free, seems to extend a lot further than I thought.

Movement growing to hold cancelled 1980 Olympics in Hell. Catch is, all those kid jocks have to die first. A lot of blank spaces in the record books would be wiped out, but tell that to a bunch of selfish kids who could do the right thing and commit suicide—but that would mean thinking about something bigger than themselves, wouldn’t it?

The Hindenburg is a fixture at football games in Hell.


Don’t ask me how, America, but not only did Jackie Robinson make it to Heaven—he still won’t talk to me. Still hates the press, that guy, maybe because I told him once, “Why don’t you be the first Negro to own up to your own words and not scream you were misquoted?” Ah, wait’ll Pee Wee Reese dies. You could bet he won’t capitulate to this Heaven/Hell business. He’ll stick out his hand in plain view of everyone and say, “Dick, I don’t judge a man by the color of his flames. It’s great to see you.”. . . Wonder how Pee Wee’s feeling?

Howcum Dept.: Yesterday I see 200 Iranians walk right through the Pearly Gates, but Ty Cobb’s still non grata going on 30 years just because he never quit the Klan. . . . What are you supposed to do—hold a man’s whole life against him?. . . ’92 Olympic preview: Florence Griffith Joyner may walk off with three or four gold medals in track and field. She may win some, too. . . . Remember great line in It’s a Wonderful Life: “Every time a bell rings it means an angel got his wings”? Well, in Hell, every time “La Bamba” plays, Johnny Weismuller is forced to swim a monkey across the River Styx on his back. . . . Only nice point about Heaven was first told me by Nellie Fox. He said, “There’s Mexican food everywhere, and it doesn’t go right through you.”. . . You hear that a lot.

Mike Tyson’s a great fighter but he’s no Marciano. . . Here’s a guy who thinks an actress likes him for who he is, and then when he wakes up and smells the horsespit, he picks Don King to straighten out his finances. With judgment like that someday the Powers That Be will put him in charge of deciding who gets into Heaven, and who goes south. But I’m not bitter.

Memo to Wade Boggs: It’s always better to pay for it on a one-shot basis than to run up a tab.


Could go either way: Milk-shake drinker Steve Garvey should be a sure shot for Heaven, except for old scandal where his wife was walking around naked and it didn’t sex him up. . . . OK, this bugs me, and I’m not the only one: every Sunday, all the guys in Heaven line up on their clouds and spit down on us cheap-seaters in Hell. It just rains down what we used to call, in the Depression, flamoozy. Can’t believe that Our Almighty turns His back on this behavior. Look. God, I didn’t pound out 4000 words a week to end up treated like some jerk who wears a Cards cap to Shea. . . . I’ll tell you the kind of place Heaven is. Horses can talk, but they’ve got nothing to say. . . . Worst offender has to be Man O’ War, who actually told me, “The race is to the swift.” Then quickly added, “I don’t need no press. I don’t need no negativity.”

Big Daddy Lipscomb (heroin OD, 1963) was being fitted for a size 74 pair of wings the other day. Had the gall to tell me, “Geez, I love bein’ in Heaven.” Yeah, you should’ve seen it when itworked. . . . Old timers here tell me that when Lily Tomlin had her team in the Broadway Show League, the players thought that every time they got to third base, they scored. . . . I don’t get that.

Daily sight of Vince Lombardi currying favor with St. Peter tarnishes great coach’s image. Yesterday I heard him saying, “You know that expression of mine, ‘Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing?’ Well, there’s not a lot of logic in it, is there? If winning’s everything, then there’s nothing else it can be, right, so it has to be the only thing. Jeez, St. Pete, I bet a lot of young men were led astray by me. Can I come in now?” Terrific. The greatest coach in the history of football fumbling words like a Carter Administration puppet. . . . Blind item: What overrated sportswriter named Angell may not be?

Danny Kaye: Name one dive Greg Louganis can’t do.

Babe: The Muff Dive.

The guys down here crack me up. . . . Mick’s gonna love it.


I’m going to miss Willie Randolph—a class Yankee in the quiet-but-proud Roy Whitetradition (although he was no Bobby Richardson). . . . Memo to Dick Nixon: try to catch as many games as you possibly can this year. Especially early in the season. . . . Memo to Billy Martin: see previous memo. . . . I asked a guy who’d know if there was any clue you could use to determine in advance if a guy’s going to the Good Place or the Not Really All That Bad a Place. His answer: if a guy’s got H-E-Double Hockey Sticks in his name, that’s a big hint. So fuck you, Howie cosELL. Same goes for you too, micHaEL Lupica. Jeez, it’s great being dead.


THE POSTMAN DOESN’T KNOCK AS OFTEN AS HE USED TO

Dear Mr. Young,

The broad asks if she can visit, I figure I can get lucky, I get shot, Malamud writes the novel, my career is never the same, Malamud’s takes off. I send Malamud a letter saying I’m entitled to a little cash off the top, he sends it back with my spelling corrected.

OK. Now I’m mad but I wait till ’64. Malamud’s teaching creative writing at Bennington, beatnik students tell me how to find his office. I storm in. William Styron is there. I say I obviously have the wrong office. Styron says, “How?” I say, I was going to kill Bernard Malamud but I chose the wrong door.

Styron gets a novel out of it.

Did these kinds of things just happen to me?

Sincerely,

Eddie Waitkus

(ex-Cubs, Phils, O’s

d. 1972)


Dear Dick,

The Mets are great!

I want to die!

The Giants will rebound!

I want to die!

The Yanks are ready to hit the throttle.

I got the lid off the bottle.

The liberals were too rough on Meese,

I know where daddy keeps his piece.

I’m going to blow my brains to Paris.

Next Stop: Hell, and Roger Maris!

Pace, age 6

I don’t usually publish poetry, but the kid’s got spunk.


Dear Dick,

I am a big fan of yours. I almost had a career in professional basketball. I always wanted to meet you. About a month ago I tried to look you up. That’s one of the nice things about Heaven, is the chance to meet all the heroes I looked up to growing up as a child.

I was very shocked when they told me where you were.

How could this be?

Could it be that no matter how hard a basketball player tried to get his act together you kept calling him a druggie? Or even after another one had lost his life n a tragic accident that wasn’t his fault because some white Celtics fans slipped him five grams anyway? Swear to G – d.

Anyway, that’s all water under the syringe.

I was sad that I couldn’t meet you, but then I figured I can still read you. They have a great library system up here. Except when I asked for some of your back columns, they told me none were “available.” Not one word you wrote, in 50 years, was immortalized here. Can you believe it? That hurt when I heard that, man. That really hurt.

Your fan,

Len Bias


Warren Leight and Charlie Rubin are veteran screenwriters.

[Featured Image by Gary Larson]

 

BGS: Dick Young’s America

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Here’s a treat from Ross Wetzsteon. Originally published in the Aug. 1, 1985, issue of Sport magazine, it is reprinted here with permission of the author’s widow, Laura Ross.

Idols grow old like everybody else. Dick Young was once the patron saint, the most respected sportswriter in America, the one who changed all the rules, the guy who brought street smarts into the sports pages. He’s still the dean of American sportswriters, the most widely read and highly paid sports columnist in the country—and yet it’s not easy to find a colleague who has a good word to say about him.

When you finish reading one of his columns in the New York Post, they say, you have to take out your handkerchief and wipe the spittle off your face. “Young Ideas,” the title of his column, is “the greatest misnomer since Charley Winner.” As a baseball and football writer “he used to hang out with the players, but now all he does is suck up to the millionaire owners.” As a boxing writer “he would have no problem picking out Larry Holmes at a DAR convention.” “His values are sick and corrupt,” says a former New York Times sportswriter. And yet after saying all this—and adding that his “My America” tirades would embarrass Jerry Falwell, that his cranky obsessions are ruining his column into a one-man vigilante gang—even his sternest critics are unanimous in conceding that “the son of a bitch was still the best day-to-day writer who ever lived.” “The younger writers all loathe him,” says a veteran who’s worked with him more than 40 years, “but the thing they still have to learn from us old-timers is that you can only hate Dick Young 90 percent of the time.”

It’s partly a matter of generational style. Sitting in the front row of the press box at the World Series, the Super Bowl, the championship fight, bobbing his head up and down like a belligerent bantam, rapidly clawing out notes in his lefthanded scrawl, Dick Young, even at 67, looks like he should be in a Thirties B movie—the only thing missing is a snap-brim fedora with his press card jauntily stuck in the band. Dick Young belongs to the days when sportswriters banged out their stories on carriage-snapping typewriters, a cigarette dangling from their lips, a shot glass of bourbon at their side.

But it is his confrontational style that’s made him so many enemies. You’re drawn in by his lean, breezy, rat-tat-tat, three-dot prose, and then you realize what he’s saying (a litany of Genghis Khan causes, from anti-unionism to Red-baiting to good ol’ capital punishment), and even more clearly the tone in which he’s saying it (not just caustic but downright churlish; not just opinionated but out-and-out ranting). Is it any wonder that colleagues who began their careers by imitating his street-smart stance, his wiseass skepticism, now regard him as a doddering fossil?

People who’ve been reading Dick Young for only 10 years or so remember little more than his vicious vendettas (almost single-handedly driving Tom Seaver out of New York), or his ethnic insensitivities (advising his Spanish-speaking readers to leave their spray cans at home when visiting the reopened Yankee Stadium), or his hit-and-run blind items (“I’ve heard a rumor why the Johnny Benches split up,” he once wrote, “and I’ll never believe it”—end of item), or his mad-dog savaging of “druggies” (he could understand an athlete wanting a little on the side, he commented on the Edwin Moses prostitute/drug bust, but using those controlled substances was unforgivable). Dick Young is not a writer Hallmark would hire.

And yet if you go back more than 10 years, there’s another side to Dick Young. In the evolution of sportswriting from adolescent mythologizing to tell-it-like-it-is honesty, Dick Young was arguably the single most important transitional figure. There’s a better way to describe the arc of Dick Young’s career than to say he was a street-smart kid who rose to patron saint who degenerated into crotchety old man. And that’s to say that while his politics may be as reactionary as Louis XIV’s, his professional role has been as radical as Robespierre’s. What his detractors fail to understand is that there are many battles they don’t have to fight because Dick Young has already fought them—and won.


“What good can you say about a writer,” snips a columnist for a national newsweekly, “who thinks his greatest contribution to the English language is the word ‘horsespit’?” Well, one thing you can say is that when Dick Young began covering the Brooklyn Dodgers in the mid-Forties, baseball writing was characterized by a different kind of horsespit. One New York daily would lead off its story, “The mighty bats and nimble gloves of the visitors from St. Louis yesterday vanquished. . . .” But Dick Young was writing, “This story belongs on page three with the other axe murders.” When he’d begin his stories with fabled leads like “It was so cold out there today even the brass monkey stayed home,” he singlehandedly replaced the pompous poetry of the press box with the cynical poetry of the streets. “It may not seem that innovative today,” says Vic Ziegel, executive sports editor of New York’s Daily News, “but at the time we felt like people must have felt in the Twenties when they first heard Louis Armstrong.”

“How you going to deal with a guy whose enemies list makes Nixon look like Gandhi,” asks another young sportswriter. Well, one way you can deal with him is to remember that when Dick Young first began covering baseball, sportswriters were shameless shills for their teams, keeping the players at a heroic distance, settling for phonily alliterative nicknames like Joltin’ Joe or the Splendid Splinter. So when Young brought his cut ‘n’ slash opinions into his coverage, writing “it was a typical 400-foot Gene Hermanski drive, 200 feet up and 200 feet down,” readers were shocked. Mythic figures, bullspit; Dick Young drank in the same bars as these guys. If we take the warts-and-all closeups of today for granted, we’re neglecting to give him credit.

Dick Young's America ... The Reactionary Who Changed Sportswriting ...

Dick Young, they say, has broken so many stories because he’s a mouthpiece of management. Come again? When Dick Young first began covering baseball, writers routinely showed up in the press box five minutes before the game and only visited the lockerroom if the press box toilet was broken. “I had to stop by the clubhouse at 11:00 one morning,” says a colleague from those day, “and Dick Young was already there, sitting on his haunches beside the trainer and a ballplayer, taking notes. That was the first time I ever saw a writer in the lockerroom at anytime, so don’t tell me he got handouts from the front office.”

Then they say Dick Young is contemptuous of his colleagues, a competitive son of a bitch who’ll knee you in the gut for a beat. But his critics don’t know this story—it’s never been printed until now. Joe Trimble, Dick Young’s colleague at the Daily News, is sitting at his typewriter in the press box at Yankee Stadium, staring at a blank piece of paper. An hour ago Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the World Series and now the press room downtown is freaking out—where’s Joe Trimble’s story? “I’m blank,” Joe Trimble says to Dick Young in a cold-sweat panic. “I can’t write a word.” Dick Young calmly rolls a piece of paper in his own typewriter, types out a sentence, takes out the paper and hands it to Joe Trimble. “The imperfect man pitched a perfect game.” Forty-five minutes later, Joe Trimble’s story is finished, it’s the best story of his career, he wins awards for that story—and Dick Young never says a word.

Brash, vulgar, pushy—that’s yet another count in the indictment. But hey, the man is a reporter, not a hired gun. Dick Young walks into the press conference where it will be announced that Doug Flutie has signed with the USFL. He sees a row of chairs occupied by TV people, celebrities, Donald Trump favorites and flunkies, sees the newspapermen standing three and four deep at the back. So he walks up the steps to the stage, sits down on a wall in front of the podium and takes out his notepad. Donald Trump’s security goons politely ask him to move. Choosing his words with the care if not the vocabulary of Flaubert, he informs them that this is a press conference, that he’s press and goddamned if he’s going to budge. They find him a chair near the podium. Christie Brinkley may be there to get her picture in the paper, but Dick Young is there to get his story.


“Gimme a beer,” says Dick Young. “Whadda ya wanna know?”

Some of your younger colleagues think. . .

“Shit, those young guys. They don’t work hard enough, they don’t work the phones, they don’t have any respect for themselves as professionals. I remember when the New York Times started giving days off in spring training! They’re in Florida, for Christ’s sake, and they want a day off! Me? I only write five columns a week these days. Piece of cake.”

Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News says. . .

“Mike Lupica? He’s a newspaper version of a spoiled-brat ballplayer,” Dick Young snaps. “He writes bullshit based on his lack of experience.”

Dick Young’s not an off-the-record guy. Skipping all over the place, talking just like his Friday column, “Clubhouse Confidential,” a sentence, three dots, on to something else, three dots, on to something else. Next question?

Murray Chass of the New York Times? “He’d sell his soul for access.” Maury Allen of the New York Post? “Careless with facts and quotes.” Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times? “Just a gagster.” Dick Young is the same with nearly all his colleagues. Not angry, not even sarcastic, just matter-of-fact rat-tat-tat. Next question.

Howard Cosell? “Howie the Shill? A fraud. An ass. A pompous ass. Those are the good things I can say about him. Now what about the other side?” Dick Young leans back in his chair and grins from sideburn to sideburn. He’s feeling almost benevolent. Lucky you didn’t catch him in a bad mood. “Cosell gets more and more obnoxious over the years, but people who say I go after him too much don’t realize that I’ve never written a whole column about him. He’s not worth it. Just a little shot here and there.”

(For his part, Howard Cosell declined to comment, but he once told an interviewer, “He’s a sick, troubled person. He’s a hate merchant, crazed, who’s been writing trash and abuses the First Amendment.”)

You were saying how you used to steal papers when you. . .

“Not steal, borrow,” says Dick Young sharply. “We used to borrow paper from the candy store, check out the box scores, then put them back.” A law-and-order kid. “I had a wonderful childhood. Sure, my parents were divorced when I was three, but it pisses me off when I hear about some guy who sobs his way to the electric chair because he came from ‘a broken home.’ Icame from a broken home, and I always felt I was one of the luckiest guys alive.”

Dick Young’s mother was an American Jew of German descent, his father a Russian Jew. From age 6 to 12, he was boarded out with an Italian Catholic family. Talking about growing up in Washington Heights (a lower-middle-class neighborhood in upper Manhattan), about getting an 87.5 average in high school (“and a better education than lots of colleges give you these days”), about playing stickball in the streets (“I was one of the best around”), about going to the old Madison Square Garden or the Polo Grounds (“I was always a Giants fan”), he’ll sometimes go three sentences in a row without bursting into an angry denunciation of the hoods and druggies who’ve desecrated his idyllic past. The Depression Thirties? Idyllic? There’s no nostalgia quite as proud as that of a man who survived hard times.

After graduating from high school, Dick Young went to California to stay with his father, a cameraman in Hollywood. Didn’t work out. Los Angeles Junior College; kicked out when he couldn’t afford the non-resident fee. Joined the CCC; shipped to upstate New York, helped build a state park, still proud of that. Heard the Daily News was hiring, $15 a week. Hitchhiked to New York, turned out they wanted college graduates. Said he’d go to college at night. Took classes at NYU, worked his way up at the News. Finally, after five years, covered his first game, at the Polo Grounds, then given his first beat, the ’46 Dodgers, and before long another big promotion, this time to patron saint.

“I didn’t even want to be a sportswriter,” he says. “I wanted to be a hot-shot newspaperman like Walter Winchell. I wanted to be a stop-the-presses guy, competing with the other paper for the scoop and for the girl. I didn’t go for that fancy writing—still don’t. Some guys think they can fool sports fans with, quote, good writing, unquote, but the fan knows when he’s being bullshitted by a cute line. If you’ve got the story you report it, if you don’t you write it. A newspaper isn’t like a book, for Christ’s sake. When you’re through with it you throw it out and buy a new one.”


Dick Young writes over 4,000 words a week—which adds up to nearly 10 million words in his career, 100 books or so, give or take a War and Peace. For nearly four decades Dick Young wasthe Daily News, the most popular feature in the country’s largest-selling newspaper—a survey once showed that he was singlehandedly responsible for over 50,000 sales a day. But then, in 1981, rumors began to circulate that the Daily News might fold, and suddenly there’s Dick Young, the man who chastised Tom Seaver (“Be a man and honor your contract”) breaking hiscontract and jumping to the New York Post. Hypocrisy was the kindest word they used. Loyalty. Horsespit.

“People think they see an analogy, right?” Dick Young uses the word scornfully, like an epithet. Suddenly his anger seems less genial. “Just for openers,” he says, “there’s a helluva difference between a guy who works 45 years for an organization and a guy who works five years. And as for the money, the difference wasn’t that great. I only got a raise from $115,000, to $125,000 [he makes $155,000 now]. My dream situation was to work for 50 years at the News and then have a goodbye party when I reached 69. But there I was, 63½ years old, they’re talking about closing down the world’s greatest newspaper and how many places will give a job to a guy 63½ years old?”

Dick Young's America ... The Reactionary Who Changed Sportswriting ...

A lot of people feel Dick Young has lost his pop in the Post, that the Goetz-for-President tabloid has encouraged his pugnacity at the expense of his populism, turning him into a knee-jerk Neanderthal. Drugs, for instance.

“Nothing is as bad as drugs,” Dick Young says furiously. “Nothing. I get so angry when I see our country threatened by drugs. Ballclubs used to punish a guy for the slightest moral deficiency, but nowadays they welcome him back with open arms. I’ll get out of this business before I’ll beg a druggie to talk to me.”

Where does this rage come from, a bad experience? “Me? I only take one aspirin, for Christ’s sake.” The Dick Young segue—even in his fury he retains his humor. “I even gave up Camels—that was the closest thing to heroin in my time.”

Race? That’s a bit more complicated. Dick Young was one of Jackie Robinson’s earliest champions, but according to one of his colleagues on the Dodgers beat he once confided, “I can never forget he’s black” (to which Robinson responded, “I never want him to”), and was always closer to the nonmilitant Roy Campanella.

“I was all for Jackie,” says Dick Young, “but he thought everything that happened to him was because of his color. Racism was sometimes a crutch for Jackie. I can understand it, but that doesn’t make it right. And don’t give me any crap, racism is a two-edged sword. Blacks are as racist as anyone these days‚ maybe more so.”

This isn’t the kind of speech that’s going to win Dick Young any Brotherhood of Man awards. But while this kind of insensitivity appalls his white colleagues, his “I won’t bullshit you” stance has won him the grudging respect of many black athletes. Take Ali, for example.

“I was down on Ali at first,” Dick Young admits. “I felt he was exploited by the Muslims. He was a commercial racist, he didn’t hate white people, he just pretended he did in order to sell tickets. Anyway, one day Bundini Brown came over to me and said, ‘You guys should talk,’ and I said, ‘I’d be glad to.’ We had long discussions after that—politics, religion, everything. I still disagree with him, but we respect each other now. In his dressing room after his last fight, down in the Bahamas, we even kissed each other on the lips.”

Okay, that answers the question: Does Dick Young ever change his mind about anything? Still, one wonders if Ali really belongs in Dick Young’s America. “My America,” he calls it, President Young addressing his constituency, a land of afternoon ballgames, hardworking newspapermen, respect for Mom—and electric chairs.

“I know it bugs people. That’s why I do it. I use ‘My America’ almost facetiously now, just to needle people. But look, I was brought up in the greatest country in the world. To me, patriotism isn’t a matter of flag-waving but of the work ethic and respect for authority—those are the values I was brought up on.”

In Dick Young’s America, drugs are evil, unions are ruining sports and black athletes use racism as a “crutch.” But it’s revealing that he’d even suggest he’s only kidding. Dick Young’s politics are in the grand old tradition of American populism, of the little guy, of the boys in the bar, of the blue-collar, of the hardhat—of democratic bigotry.

“To me, there’s no such thing as a liberal or a conservative. It’s only this case, this case, this case—whose side deserves to be attacked at a particular time.” In Dick Young’s defense, it has to be pointed out that he’s led the fight for access to lockerrooms for women sportswriters. “They’re just doing their jobs,” he says, “they deserve to be treated like professionals. Why do the so-called liberals always lay claim to what’s right?”


Wiseass, sarcastic, swaggering—with a gutter wit, a toe-to-toe combativeness and most of all a tabloid cynicism that’s been elevated to the status of a political philosophy—never forget, Dick Young comes from the Thirties of The Front Page, not Norman Rockwell; he grew up in the Depression of Our Gang, not Eleanor Roosevelt. At times he seems less interested in changing your mind than in getting your goat.

“Today’s writers don’t have enough guts,” he says. “They let themselves be pushed around. The players give them all that crap and they accept it”—it’s hard to tell who ticks him off the most, the players or the press. “They even have ropes around the batting cage in spring training! Jesus Christ, how’m I supposed to do my job?” Three dots later and he’s off on druggies again, then three dots and he’s after the goddamned unions, then three dots and he’s dumping on a lazy colleague or a spoiled-brat player or even his own paper. “‘Today is Friday, the Post learned exclusively’—what the hell’s happened to our profession?”

When you read this stuff in his column you’re reminded of the obstinate dogmatism of the self-educated, but when you hear it it almost has a certain. . . charm. Even in his most vitriolic tirades there is a spark of wit, a flash of style. Dick Young may be the most opinionated, abusive, foul-mouthed bastard in an opinionated, abusive, foul-mouthed business, but still. . .

At the press conference after the first Ali-Frazier fight, Ali went into one of his harangues, berating the judges’ decision and announcing that be was going to organize a nationwide vote to let the people decide who won the fight. Everyone’s furiously scribbling notes when Dick Young’s voice suddenly pipes up. “You’ll lose,” he tells Ali. “Most of the brothers are in the slam and are ineligible to vote.” The reporters are aghast. Ali is speechless. But then suddenly he leans back and roars with laughter, the reporters join in and the harangue is history.

So what if he sometimes dresses like a cross between a senile hippy and a linoleum salesman—plaid pants, Day-Glo jackets, even, for a time in the Seventies, a medallion on his chest with a Miami Beach sport shirt open to his waist. What really keeps him young is the sharp one-sentence comeback, the snappy put-down. Dick Young, an embittered old man? No way. He’s still a brash, cocksure, pugnacious, candy-store kid who happens to be 67 years old.

In the meantime, the beat goes on—”in the sweatshop conditions of his Florida spring training camp,” Dick Young will write on a typical day, “where he works two-to-three hours a day and spends the rest of the time around the pool or on the golf course, Kent Tekulve has warned the plantation owners of baseball that the players are running out of patience. They aren’t going to put up with their terrible lives much longer. ‘We don’t want a strike, but if our backs are to the wall we’ll do it’ . . . a wall that most people wouldn’t mind being backed up against . . . . The players want to strike? Let ‘em.”

“A repugnant person,” says a writer who used to be on Dick Young’s staff at the Daily News.“He’d always try to graft his sensibility onto your work. At the Montreal Olympics, for instance, he’d even change my leads, adding phrases like ‘the dreaded Russians and their Red sisters. . .’ He somehow managed to be both corny and vile at the same time!”

Dick Young’s going to retire a year from January—at 69—50 years on the beat, the last of the great tabloid newspapermen. “Me and my wife, we own a piece of sand in Arizona. I like to cook, raise flowers. I think l’ll even try a novel.” A novel? “Sure, I’ll keep writing my crap as long as someone is willing to pay for it. The same stuff, only I’ll fictionalize it!’ Dick Young breaks into a malicious smile. “All those bastards, they’ll have a helluva time trying to figure out who the hell I’m talking about! Hah, I’d love to see their faces!”


Ross Wetzsteon was a journalist, critic, and editor in New York City for 35 years. From 1966 until his death in 1998, he worked at the the Village Voice as a contributor and editor, and for several years as its editor-in-chief. During his tenure at the Voice, Wetzsteon oversaw coverage of everything from politics to sports, but his abiding interest was the theater. For 28 years, he was the chairman of the Village Voice Obie Committee, responsible for bestowing awards for excellence on Off- and Off-Off Broadway artists and writers. Wetzsteon also contributed articles to New York Magazine, Men’s Journal, Playboy, The New York Times,Inside Sports, Conde Nast Traveler, Mademoiselle, and many other publications. He edited several anthologies, including The Obie Winners in 1980 and The Best of Off Broadway in 1984. He also wrote the preface to a collection of playwright Sam Shepard’s works, Fool for Love and Other Plays, and he was the author of Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960. He died in 1998.

BGS: The Loser

Here’s a keeper from Gay Talese. Originally published in the March 1964 issue of Esquire. Reprinted here with the author’s permission.

box_g_patterson1_sw_580

At the foot of a mountain in upstate New York, about 60 miles from Manhattan, there is an abandoned country clubhouse with a dusty dance floor, upturned barstools and an untuned piano; and the only sounds heard around the place at night come from the big white house behind it—the clanging sounds of garbage cans being toppled by raccoons, skunks and stray cats making their nocturnal raids down from the mountain.

The white house seems deserted, too; but occasionally, when the animals become too clamorous, a light will flash on, a window will open, and a Coke bottle will come flying through the darkness and smash against the cans. But mostly the animals are undisturbed until daybreak, when the rear door of the white house swings open and a broad-shouldered Negro appears in gray sweat clothes with a white towel around his neck.

He runs down the steps, quickly passes the garbage cans and proceeds at a trot down the dirt road beyond the country club toward the highway. Sometimes he stops along the road and throws a flurry of punches at imaginary foes, each jab punctuated by hard gasps of his breathing—“hegh-hegh-hegh”—and then, reaching the highway, he turns and soon disappears up the mountain.

At this time of morning, farm trucks are on the road, and the drivers wave at the runner. And later in the morning, other motorists see him, and a few stop suddenly at the curb and ask:

“Say, aren’t you Floyd Patterson?”

“No,” says Floyd Patterson, “I’m his brother, Raymond.”

The motorists move on, but recently a man on foot, a disheveled man who seemed to have spent the night outdoors, staggered behind the runner along the road and yelled, “Hey, Floyd Patterson!”

“No, I’m his brother, Raymond.”

“Don’t tell me you’re not Floyd Patterson. I know what Floyd Patterson looks like.”

“Okay,” Patterson said, shrugging, “if you want me to be Floyd Patterson, I’ll be Floyd Patterson.”

“So let me have your autograph,” said the man, handing him a rumpled piece of paper and a pencil.

He signed it—”Raymond Patterson.”

One hour later Floyd Patterson was jogging his way back down the dirt path toward the white house, the towel over his head absorbing the sweat from his brow. He lives alone in a two-room apartment in the rear of the house, and has remained there in almost complete seclusion since getting knocked out a second time by Sonny Liston.

In the smaller room is a large bed he makes up himself, several record albums he rarely plays, a telephone that seldom rings. The larger room has a kitchen on one side and, on the other, adjacent to a sofa, is a fireplace from which are hung boxing trunks and T-shirts to dry, and a photograph of him when he was the champion, and also a television set. The set is usually on except when Patterson is sleeping, or when he is sparring across the road inside the clubhouse (the ring is rigged over what was once the dance floor), or when, in a rare moment of painful honesty, he reveals to a visitor what it is like to be the loser.

“Oh, I would give up anything to just be able to work with Liston, to box with him somewhere where nobody would see us, and to see if I could get past three minutes with him,” Patterson was saying, wiping his face with the towel, pacing slowly around the room near the sofa. “Iknow I can do better. . . . Oh, I’m not talking about a rematch. Who would pay a nickel for another Patterson-Liston fight? I know wouldn’t. . . . But all I want to do is get past the first round.”

Then he said, “You have no idea how it is in the first round. You’re out there with all those people around you, and those cameras, and the whole world looking in, and all that movement, that excitement, and ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and the whole nation hoping you’ll win, including the President. And do you know what all this does? It blinds you, just blinds you. And then the bell rings, and you go at Liston and he’s coming at you, and you’re not even aware that there’s a referee in the ring with you.

“. . . Then you can’t remember much of the rest, because you don’t want to. . . . All you recall is, all of a sudden you’re getting up, and the referee is saying, ‘You all right?’ and you say, ‘Ofcourse I’m all right,’ and he says, ‘What’s your name?’ and you say, ‘Patterson.’

“And then, suddenly, with all this screaming around you, you’re down again, and you know you have to get up, but you’re extremely groggy, and the referee is pushing you back, and your trainer is in there with a towel, and people are all standing up, and your eyes focus directly at no one person—you’re sort of floating.

“It is not a bad feeling when you’re knocked out,” he said. “It’s a good feeling, actually. It’s not painful, just a sharp grogginess. You don’t see angels or start; you’re on a pleasant cloud. After Liston hit me in Nevada, I felt, for about four or five seconds, that everybody in the arena was actually in the ring with me, circled around me like a family, and you feel warmth toward all the people in the arena after you’re knocked out. You feel lovable to all the people. And you want to reach out and kiss everybody—men and women—and after the Liston fight, somebody told me I actually blew a kiss to the crowd from the ring. I don’t remember that. But I guess it’s true because that’s the way you feel during the four or five seconds after a knockout. . . .

“But then,” Patterson went on, still pacing, “this good feeling leaves you. You realize where you are, and what you’re doing there, and what has just happened to you. And what follows is a hurt, a confused hurt—not a physical hurt—it’s a hurt combined with anger; it’s a what-will-people-think hurt; it’s an ashamed-of-my-own-ability hurt. . . . And all you want then is a hatch door in the middle of the ring—a hatch door that will open and let you fall through and land in your dressing room instead of having to get out of the ring and face those people. The worst thing about losing is having to walk out of the ring and face those people. . . .”

Then Patterson walked over to the stove and put on the kettle for tea. He remained silent for a few moments. Through the walls could be heard the footsteps and voices of the sparring partners and the trainer who live in the front of the house. Soon they would be in the clubhouse getting things ready should Patterson wish to spar. In two days he was scheduled to fly to Stockholm and fight an Italian named Amonti, Patterson’s first appearance in the ring since the last Liston fight.

Next he hoped to get a fight in London against Henry Cooper. Then, if his confidence was restored, his reflexes reacting, Patterson hoped to start back up the ladder in this country, fighting all the leading contenders, fighting often, and not waiting so long between each fight as he had done when he was a champion in the 90-percent tax bracket.

His wife, whom he finds little time to see, and most of his friends think he should quit. They point out that he does not need the money. Even he admits that, from investments alone on his $8,000,000 gross earning, he should have an annual income of about $35,000 for the next 25 years. But Patterson, who is only 29 years old and barely scratched, cannot believe that he is finished. He cannot help but think that it was something more than Liston that destroyed him—a strange, psychological force was also involved, and unless he can fully understand what it was, and learn to deal with it in the boxing ring, he may never be able to live peacefully anywhere but under this mountain. Nor will he ever be able to discard the false whiskers and moustache that, ever since Johansson beat him in 1959, he has carried with him in a small attache case into each fight so he can slip out of the stadium unrecognized should he lose.

“I often wonder what other fighters feel, and what goes through their minds when they lose,” Patterson said, placing the cups of tea on the table. “I’ve wanted so much to talk to another fighter about all this, to compare thoughts, to see if he feels some of the same things I’ve felt. But who can you talk to? Most fighters don’t talk much anyway. And I can’t even look another fighter in the eye at a weigh-in, for some reason.

“At the Liston weigh-in, the sports writers noticed this, and said it showed I was afraid. But that’s not it. I can never look any fighter in the eye because . . . well, because we’re going to fight, which isn’t a nice thing, and because . . . well, once I actually did look a fighter in the eye. It was a long, long time ago. I must have been in the amateurs then. And when I looked at this fighter, I saw he had such a nice face . . . and then he looked at me . . . and smiled at me . . . and smiled back! It was strange, very strange. When a guy can look at another guy and smile like that, I don’t think they have any business fighting.

“I don’t remember what happened in that fight, and I don’t remember what the guy’s name was. I only remember that, ever since, I have never looked another fighter in the eye.”

The telephone rang in the bedroom. Patterson got up to answer it. It was his wife, Sandra. So he excused himself, shutting the bedroom door behind him.

Sandra Patterson and their four children live in a $100,000 home in an upper-middle-class white neighborhood in Scarsdale, New York. Floyd Patterson feels uncomfortable in this home surrounded by a manicured lawn and stuffed with furniture, and, since losing his title to Liston, he has preferred living full time at his camp, which his children have come to know as “Daddy’s house.” The children, the eldest of whom is a daughter named Jeannie now seven years old, do not know exactly what their father does for a living. But Jeannie, who watched the last Liston-Patterson fight on closed-circuit television, accepted the explanation that her father performs in a kind of game where the men take turns pushing one another down; he had his turn pushing them down, and now it is their turn.

The bedroom door opened again, and Floyd Patterson shaking his head, was very angry and nervous.

“I’m not going to work out today,” he said. “I’m going to fly down to Scarsdale. These boys are picking on Jeannie again. She’s the only Negro in this school, and the older kids give her a rough time, and some of the older boys tease her and lift up her dress all the time. Yesterday she went home crying, and so today I’m going down there and plan to wait outside the school for those boys to come out, and . . .”

“How old are they?” he was asked.

“Teen-agers,” he said. “Old enough for a left hook.”

Patterson telephoned his pilot friend, Ted Hanson, who stays at the camp and does public-relations work for him, and has helped teach Patterson to fly. Five minutes later Hanson, a lean white man with a crew cut and glasses, was knocking on the door; and 10 minutes later both were in the car that Patterson was driving almost recklessly over the narrow, winding country roads toward the airport, about six miles from the camp.

“Sandra is afraid I’ll cause trouble; she’s worried about what I’ll do to those boys, she doesn’t want trouble!” Patterson snapped, swerving around a hill and giving his car more gas. “She’s just not firm enough! She’s afraid . . . she was afraid to tell me about that groceryman who’s been making passes at her. It took her a long time before she told me about that dishwasher repairman who comes over and calls her ‘baby.’ They all know I’m away so much. And that dishwasher repairman has been to my home about four five times this month already. That machine breaks down every week. I guess he fixes it so it breaks down every week. Last time, I laid a trap. I waited forty-five minutes for him to come, but then he didn’t show up. I was going to grab him and say, ‘How would you like it If I called your wife baby? You’d feel like punching me in the nose, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s what I’m going to do—if you ever call her babyagain. You call her Mrs. Patterson; or Sandra, if you know her. But you don’t know her, so call her Mrs. Patterson.’ And then I told Sandra that these men, this type of white man, he just wants to have some fun with colored women. He’ll never marry a colored woman, just wants to have some fun. . . .”

Now he was driving into the airport’s parking lot. Directly ahead, roped to the grass airstrip, was the single-engine green Cessna that Patterson bought and learned to fly before the second Liston fight. Flying was a thing Patterson had always feared—a fear shared, maybe inherited from, his manager, Cus D’Amato, who still will not fly.

D’Amato, who took over training Patterson when the fighter was 17 or 18 years old and exerted a tremendous influence over his psyche, is a strange but fascinating man of 56 who is addicted to Spartanism and self-denial and is possessed by suspicion and fear; he avoids subways because he fears someone might push him onto the tracks; never has married; never reveals his home address.

“I must keep my enemies confused,” D’Amato once explained. “When they are confused, then I can do a job for my fighters. What I do not want in life, however, is a sense of security; the moment a person knows security, his senses are dulled—and he begins to die. I also do not want many pleasures in life; I believe the more pleasure you get out of living, the more fear you have of dying.”

Until a few years ago, D’Amato did most of Patterson’s talking, and ran things like an Italianpadrone. But later Patterson, the maturing son, rebelled against the Father Image. After losing to Sonny Liston the first time—a fight D’Amato had urged Patterson to resist—Patterson took flying lessons. And before the second Liston fight, Patterson had conquered his fear of height, was master at the controls, was filled with renewed confidence—and knew, too, that, even if he lost, he at least possessed a vehicle that could get him out of town fast.

But it didn’t. After the fight, the little Cessna, weighed down by too much luggage, became overheated 90 miles outside of Las Vegas. Patterson and his pilot companion, having no choice but to turn back, radioed the airfield and arranged for the rental of a larger plane. When they landed, the Vegas air terminal was filled with people leaving town after the fight. Patterson hid in the shadow behind a hangar. His beard was packed in the trunk. But nobody saw him.

Later the pilot flew Patterson’s Cessna back to New York alone. And Patterson flew in the larger, rented plane. He was accompanied on this flight by Hanson, a friendly, 42-year-old, thrice divorced Nevadan who once was a crop duster, a bartender and a cabaret hoofer; later he became a pilot instructor in Las Vegas, and it was there that he met Patterson. The two became good friends. And when Patterson asked Hanson to help fly the rented plane back to New York, Hanson did not hesitate, even though he had a slight hangover that night—partly due to being depressed by Liston’s victory, partly due to being slugged in a bar by a drunk after objecting to some unflattering things the drunk had said about the fight.

Once in the airplane, however, Ted Hanson became very alert; He had to, because, after the plane had cruised a while at 10,000 feet, Floyd Patterson’s mind seemed to wander back to the ring, and the plane would drift off course, and Hanson would say, “Floyd, Floyd, how’s about getting back on course?” and then Patterson’s head would snap up and his eyes would flash toward the dials. And everything would be all right for a while. But then he was back in the arena, reliving the fight, hardly believing that it had really happened. . . .

“… And I kept thinking, as I flew out of Vegas that night, of all those months of training before the fight, all the roadwork, all the sparring, all the months away from Sandra. . . . thinking of the time in camp when I wanted to stay up until eleven-fifteen P.M. to watch a certain movie on “The Late Show.” But I didn’t because I had roadwork the next morning. . . .

“… And I was thinking about how good I’d felt before the fight, as I lay on the table in the dressing room. I remember thinking, ‘You’re in excellent physical condition, you’re in good mental condition—but are you vicious?’ But you tell yourself, ‘Viciousness is not important now, don’t think about it now; a championship fight’s at stake, and that’s important enough and, who knows? maybe you’ll get vicious once the bell rings.’

“… And so you lay there trying to get a little sleep . . . but you’re only in a twilight zone, half asleep, and you’re interrupted every once in a while by voices out in the hall, some guy’s yelling ‘Hey, Jack,’ or ‘Hey, Al,’ or ‘Hey, get those four-rounders into the ring.’ And when you hear that, you think, They’re not ready for you yet. So you lay there . . . and wonder, Where will I be tomorrow? Where will I be three hours from now? Oh, you think all kinds of thoughts, some thoughts completely unrelated to the fight . . . you wonder whether you ever paid your mother-in-law back for all those stamps she bought a year ago . . . and you remember that time at two A.M. when Sandra tripped on the steps while bringing a bottle up to the baby . . . and then you get mad and ask: What am I thinking about these things for? . . . and you try to sleep . . . but then the door opens and somebody says to somebody else, ‘Hey, is somebody gonna go to Liston’s dressing room to watch ‘em bandage up?’

“… And so then you know it’s about time to get ready. . . . You open your eyes. You get off the table. You glove up, you loosen up. Then Liston’s trainer walks in. He looks at you, he smiles. He feels the bandages and later he says, ‘Good luck, Floyd,’ and you think, He didn’t have to say that, he must be a nice guy.

“. . . And then you go out, and it’s the long walk, always a long walk, and you think, What am I gonna be when I come back this way? Then you climb into the ring. You notice Billy Eckstine at ringside leaning over to talk to somebody, and you see the reporters—some you like, some you don’t like—and then it’s ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and the cameras are rolling, and the bell rings. . . .

“… How could the same thing happen twice? How? That’s all I kept thinking after the knockout. . . . Was I fooling these people all these years? . . . Was I ever the champion? . . . And then they lead you out of the ring . . . and up the aisle you go, past those people, and all you want is to get to your dressing room, fast . . . but the trouble was in Las Vegas they made a wrong turn along the aisle, and when we got to the end, there was no dressing room there . . . and we had to walk all the way back down the aisle, past the same people, and they must have been thinking, Patterson’s not only knocked out, but he can’t even find his dressing room. . . .

“… In the dressing room I had a headache. Liston didn’t hurt me physically—a few days later I only felt a twitching nerve in my teeth—it was nothing like some fights I’ve had: like that Dick Wagner fight in ’53 when he beat my body so bad I was urinating blood for days. After the Liston fight, I just went into the bathroom, shut the door behind me and looked at myself in the mirror. I just looked at myself, and asked, What happened? and then they started pounding on the door, and saying ‘Com’on out, Floyd, Com’on out; the press is here, Gus is here, com’on out, Floyd. . . .”

“… And so I went out, and they asked questions, but what can you say? What you’re thinking about is all those months of training, all the conditioning, all the depriving; and you think, I didn’t have to run that extra mile, didn’t have to spar that day, I could have stayed up that night in camp and watched ‘The Late Show’. . . . I could have fought this fight tonight in no condition. . . .”

“Floyd, Floyd,” Hanson had said, “let’s get back on course. . . .”

Again Patterson would snap out of his reverie, and refocus on the omniscope, and get his flying under control. After landing in New Mexico, and then in Ohio, Floyd Patterson and Ted Hanson brought the little plane into the New York airstrip near the fight camp. The green Cessna that had been flown back by the other pilot was already there, roped to the grass at precisely the same spot it was on this day five months later when Floyd Patterson was planning to fly it toward perhaps another fight—this time a fight with some schoolboys in Scarsdale who had been lifting up his little daughter’s dress.

Patterson and Ted Hanson untied the plane, and Patterson got a rag and wiped from the windshield the splotches of insects. Then he walked around behind the plane, inspected the tail, checked under the fuselage, then peered down between the wing and the flaps to make sure all the screws were tight. He seemed suspicious of something. D’Amato would have been pleased.

“If a guy wants to get rid of you,” Patterson explained, “all he has to do is remove these little screws here. Then, when you try to come in for a landing, the flaps fall off, and you crash.”

Then Patterson got into the cockpit and started the engine. A few moments later, with Hanson beside him, Patterson was racing the little plane over the grassy field, then soaring over the weeds, then flying high above the gentle hills and trees. It was a nice takeoff.

Since it was only a 40-minute flight to the Westchester airport, where Sandra Patterson would be waiting with a car, Floyd Patterson did all the flying. The trip was uneventful until, suddenly behind a cloud, he flew into heavy smoke that hovered above a forest fire. His visibility gone, he was forced to the instruments. And at this precise moment, a fly that had been buzzing in the back of the cockpit flew up front and landed on the instrument panel in front of Patterson. He glared at the fly, watched it crawl slowly up the windshield, then shot a quick smash with his palm against the glass. He missed. The fly buzzed safely past Patterson’s ear, bounced off the back of the cockpit, circled around.

“This smoke won’t keep up,” Hanson assured. “You can level off.”

Patterson leveled off.

He flew easily for a few moments. Then the fly buzzed to the front again, zigzagging before Patterson’s face, landed on the panel and proceeded to crawl across it. Patterson watched it, squinted. Then he slammed down at it with a quick right hand. Missed.

Ten minutes later, his nerves still on edge, Patterson began the descent. He picked up the radio microphone—”Westchester tower . . . Cessna 2729 uniform . . . three miles northwest . . . land in one-six on final . . .” —and then, after an easy landing, he climbed quickly out of the cockpit and strode toward his wife’s station wagon outside the terminal.

But along the way a small man smoking a cigar turned toward Patterson, waved at him and said, “Say, excuse me, but aren’t you . . . aren’t you . . . Sonny Liston?”

Patterson stopped. He glared at the man, bewildered. He wasn’t sure whether it was a joke or an insult, and he really did not know what to do.

“Aren’t you Sonny Liston?” the man repeated, quite serious.

“No,” Patterson said, quickly passing by the man. “I’m his brother.”

When he reached Mrs. Patterson’s car, he asked, “How much time till school lets out?”

“About fifteen minutes,” she said, starting up the engine. Then she said, “Oh, Floyd, I just should have told Sister, I shouldn’t have. . .”

“You tell Sister; I’ll tell the boys. . . .”

Mrs. Patterson drove as quickly as she could into Scarsdale, with Patterson shaking his head and telling Ted Hanson in the back, “Really can’t understand these school kids. This is a religious school, and they want $20,000 for a glass window—and yet, some of them carry these racial prejudices, and it’s mostly the Jews who are shoulder to shoulder with us, and . . .”

“Oh, Floyd,” cried his wife, “Floyd, have to get along here . . . you’re not here, you don’t live here, I . .”

She arrived at the school just as the bell began to ring. It was a modern building at the top of a hill, and on the lawn was the statue of a saint and, behind it, a large white cross. “There’s Jeannie,” said Mrs. Patterson.

“Hurry, call her over here,” Patterson said.

“Jeannie! Come over here, honey.”

The little girl, wearing a blue school uniform and cap, and clasping books in front of her, came running down the path toward the station wagon.

“Jeannie,” Floyd Patterson said, rolling down his window, “point out the boys who lifted your dress.”

Jeannie turned and watched as several students came down the path; then she pointed to a tall, thin, curly-haired boy walking with four other boys, all about 12 to 14 years of age.

“Hey,” Patterson called to him, “can I see you for a minute?”

All five boys came to the side of the car. They looked Patterson directly in the eye. They seemed not at all intimidated by him.

“You the one that’s been lifting up my daughter’s dress?” Patterson asked the boy who had been singled out.

“Nope,” the boy said, casually.

“Nope?” Patterson said, caught off guard by the reply.

“Wasn’t him, Mister,” said another boy. “Probably was his little brother.”

Patterson looked at Jeannie. But she was speechless, uncertain. The five boys remained there, waiting for Patterson to do something.

“Well, er, where’s your little brother?” Patterson asked.

“Hey, kid!” one of the boys yelled. “Come over here.”

A boy walked toward them. He resembled his older brother; he had freckles on his small, upturned nose, had blue eyes, dark curly hair and, as he approached the station wagon, he seemed equally unintimidated by Patterson.

“You been lifting up my daughter’s dress?”

“Nope,” the boy said.

“Nope!” Patterson repeated, frustrated.

“Nope, I wasn’t lifting it. I was just touching it a little . . .”

The other boys stood around the car looking down at Patterson, and other students crowded behind them, and nearby Patterson saw several white parents standing next to their parked cars; he became self-conscious, began to tap nervously with his fingers against the dashboard. He could not raise his voice without creating an unpleasant scene, yet he could not retreat gracefully; so his voice went soft, and he said, finally:

“Look, boy, I want you to stop it. I won’t tell your mother—that might get you in trouble—but don’t do it again, okay?”

“Okay.”

The boys calmly turned and walked, in a group, up the street. Sandra Patterson said nothing. Jeannie opened the door, sat in the front seat next to her father, and took out a small blue piece of paper that a nun had given her and handed it across to Mrs. Patterson. But Floyd Patterson snatched it. He read it. Then he paused, put the paper down, and quietly announced, dragging out the words, “She didn’t do her religion. . . .”

Patterson now wanted to get out of Scarsdale. He wanted to return to camp. After stopping at the Patterson home in Scarsdale and picking up Floyd Patterson, Jr., who is three, Mrs. Patterson drove them all back to the airport. Jeannie and Floyd, Jr., were seated in the back of the plane, and then Mrs. Patterson drove the station wagon alone up to camp, planning to return to Scarsdale that evening with the children.

It was 4 P.M. when Floyd Patterson got back to the camp, and the shadows were falling on the clubhouse, and on the tennis court routed by weeds, and on the big white house in front of which not a single automobile was parked. All was deserted and quiet; it was a loser’s camp.

The children ran to play inside the clubhouse; Patterson walked slowly toward his apartment to dress for the workout.

“What could I do with those schoolboys?” he asked. “What can you do to kids of that age?”

It still seemed to bother him—the effrontery of the boys, the realization that he had somehow failed, the probability that, had those same boys heckled someone in Liston’s family, the schoolyard would have been littered with limbs.

The Loser: The Most Honest Sports Story Ever Written

While Patterson and Liston both are products of the slum, and while both began as thieves, Patterson had been tamed in a special school with help from a gentle Negro spinster; later he became a Catholic convert, and learned not to hate. Still later he bought a dictionary, adding to his vocabulary such words as “vicissitude” and “enigma.” And when he regained his championship from Johansson, he became the Great Black Hope of the Urban League.

He proved that it is not only possible to rise out of a Negro slum and succeed as a sportsman, but also to develop into an intelligent, sensitive, law-abiding citizen. In proving this, however, and in taking pride in it, Patterson seemed to lose part of himself. He lost part of his hunger, his anger—and as he walked up the steps into his apartment, he was saying, “I became the good guy. . . . After Liston won the title, I kept hoping that he would change into a good guy, too. That would have relieved me of the responsibility, and maybe I could have been more of the bad guy. But he didn’t. . . . It’s okay to be the good guy when you’re winning. But when you’re losing, it is no good being the good guy.”

Patterson took off his shirt and trousers and, moving some books on the bureau to one side, put down his watch, his cuff links and a clip of bills.

“Do you do much reading?” he was asked.

“No,” he said. “In fact, you know I’ve never finished reading a book in my whole life? I don’t know why. I just feel that no writer today has anything for me; I mean, none of them has felt any more deeply than I have, and I have nothing to learn from them. Although Baldwin to me seems different from the rest. What’s Baldwin doing these days?”

“He’s writing a play. Anthony Quinn is supposed to have a part in it.”

“Quinn?” Patterson asked.

“Yes.”

“Quinn doesn’t like me.”

“Why?”

“I read or heard it somewhere; Quinn had been quoted as saying that my fight was disgraceful against Liston, and Quinn said something to the effect that he could have done better. People often say that—they could have done better! Well, I think that if they had to fight, they couldn’t even go through the experience of waiting for the fight to begin. They’d be up the whole night before, and would be drinking, or taking drugs. They’d probably get a heart attack. I’m sure that if I was in the ring with Anthony Quinn, I could wear him out without even touching him. I would do nothing but pressure him, I’d stalk him, I’d stand close to him. I wouldn’t touch him, but I’d wear him out and he’d collapse. But Anthony Quinn’s an old man, isn’t he?”

“In his forties.”

“Well, anyway,” Patterson said, “getting back to Baldwin, he seems like a wonderful guy. I’ve seen him on television, and, before the Liston fight in Chicago, he came by my camp. You meet Baldwin on the street and you say, ‘Who’s this poor slob?’—he seems just like another guy; and this is the same impression I give people when they don’t know me. But I think Baldwin and me, we have much in common, and someday I’d just like to sit somewhere for a long time and talk to him. . . .”

Patterson, his trunks and sweat pants on, bent over to tie his shoelaces, and then, from a bureau drawer, took out a T-shirt across which was printed “Deauville.” He has several T-shirts bearing the same name. He takes good care of them. They are souvenirs from the high point of his life. They are from the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach, which is where he trained for the third Ingemar Johansson match in March of 1961.

Never was Floyd Patterson more popular, more admired than during that winter. He had visited President Kennedy; he had been given a $35,000 jeweled crown by his manager; his greatness was conceded by sports writers—and nobody had any idea that Patterson, secretly, was in possession of a false moustache and dark glasses that he intended to wear out of Miami Beach should he lose the third fight to Johansson.

It was after being knocked out by Johansson in their first fight that Patterson, deep in depression, hiding in humiliation for months in a remote Connecticut lodge, decided he could not face the public again if he lost. So he bought false whiskers and a moustache, and planned to wear them out of his dressing room after a defeat. He had also planned, in leaving his dressing room, to linger momentarily within the crowd and perhaps complain out loud about the fight. Then he would slip undiscovered through the night and into a waiting automobile.

Although there proved to be no need for bringing disguise into the second or third Johansson fights, or into a subsequent bout in Toronto against an obscure heavyweight named Tom McNeeley, Patterson brought it anyway; and, after the first Liston fight, he not only wore it during his 30-hour automobile ride from Chicago to New York, but he also wore it while in an airliner bound for Spain.

“As I got onto this plane, you’d never have recognized me,” he said. “I had on this beard, moustache, glasses and hat—and I also limped, to make myself look older. I was alone. I didn’t care what plane I boarded; I just looked up and saw this sign at the terminal reading ‘Madrid,’ and so I got on that flight after buying a ticket.

“When I got to Madrid I registered at a hotel under the name ‘Aaron Watson.’ I stayed in Madrid about four or five days. In the daytime I wandered around to the poorer sections of the city, limping, looking at the people, and the people stared back at me and must have thought I was crazy because I was moving so slow and looked the way I did. I ate food in my hotel room. Although once I went to a restaurant and ordered soup. I hate soup. But I thought it was what old people would order. So I ate it. And after a week of this, I began to actually think I was somebody else. I began to believe it. And it is nice, every once in a while, being somebody else.”

Patterson would not elaborate on how he managed to register under a name that did not correspond to his passport; he merely explained, “With money, you can do anything.”

Now, walking slowly around the room, his black silk robe over his sweat clothes, Patterson said, “You must wonder what makes a man do things like this. Well, I wonder, too. And the answer is, I don’t know . . . but I think that within me, within every human being, there is a certain weakness. It is a weakness that exposes itself more when you’re alone. And I have figured out that part of the reason I do the things I do, and cannot seem to conquer that one word—myself—is because . . . I am a coward. . . .”

He stopped. He stood very still in the middle of the room, thinking about what he had just said, probably wondering whether he should have said it.

“I am a coward,” he then repeated, softly. “My fighting has little to do with that fact, though. I mean you can be a fighter—and a winning fighter—and still be a coward. I was probably a coward on the night I won the championship back from Ingemar. And I remember another night, long ago, back when I was in the amateurs, fighting this big, tremendous man named Julius Griffin. I was only a hundred fifty-three pounds. I was petrified. It was all I could do to cross the ring. And then he came at me, and moved close to me . . . and from then on I don’t know anything. I have no idea what happened. Only thing I know is, I saw him on the floor. And later somebody said, ‘Man, I never saw anything like it. You just jumped up in the air, and threw thirty different punches. . . .’”

“When did you first think you were a coward?” he was asked.

“It was after the first Ingemar fight.”

“How does one see this cowardice you speak of?”

“You see it when a fighter loses. Ingemar, for instance, is not a coward. ‘When he lost the third fight in Miami, he was at a party later at the Fontainebleau. Had I lost, I couldn’t have gone to that party. And I don’t see how he did. . . .”

“Could Liston be a coward?”

“That remains to be seen,” Patterson said. “We’ll find out what he’s like after somebody beats him, how he takes it. It’s easy to do anything in victory. It’s in defeat that a man reveals himself. In defeat I can’t face people. I haven’t the strength to say to people, ‘I did my best, I’m sorry, and what not.’”

“Have you no hate left?”

“I have hated only one fighter,” Patterson said. “And that was Ingemar in the second fight. I had been hating him for a whole year before that—not because he beat me in the first fight, but because of what he did after. It was all that boasting in public, and his showing off his right-hand punch on television, his thundering right, his ‘toonder and lightning.’ And I’d be home watching him on television, and hating him. It is a miserable feeling, hate. When a man hates, he can’t have any peace of mind. And for one solid year I hated him because, after he took everything away from me, deprived me of everything I was, he rubbed it in. On the night of the second fight, in the dressing room, I couldn’t wait until I got into the ring. When he was a little late getting into the ring, I thought, He’s holding me up; he’s trying to unsettle me—well, I’ll get him!”

“Why couldn’t you hate Liston in the second match?”

Patterson thought for a moment, then said, “Look, if Sonny Liston walked into this room now and slapped me in the face, then you’d see a fight. You’d see the fight of our life because, then, a principle would be involved. I’d forget he was a human being. I’d forget I was a human being. And I’d fight accordingly.”

“Could it be, Floyd, that you made a mistake in becoming a prizefighter?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you say you’re a coward; you say you have little capacity for hate; and you seemed to lose your nerve against those schoolboys in Scarsdale this afternoon. Don’t you think you might have been better suited for some other kind of work? Perhaps a social worker, or . . .”

“Are you asking why I continue to fight?”

“Yes.”

“Well,” he said, not irritated by the question, “first of all, I love boxing. Boxing has been good to me. And I might just as well ask you the question: ‘Why do you write?’ Or, ‘Do you retire from writing every time you write a bad story?’ And as to whether I should have become a fighter in the first place, well, let’s see how I can explain it. . . . Look, let’s say you’re a man who has been in an empty room for days and days without food . . . and then they take you out of that room and put you into another room where there’s food hanging all over the place . . . and the first thing you reach for, you eat. When you’re hungry, you’re not choosy, and so I chose the thing that was closest to me. That was boxing. One day I just wandered into a gymnasium and boxed a boy. And I beat him. Then I boxed another boy. I beat him, too. Then I kept boxing. And winning. And I said, ‘Here, finally, is something I can do!’

“Now I wasn’t a sadist,” he quickly added. “But I liked beating people because it was the only thing I could do. And whether boxing was a sport or not, I wanted to make it a sport because it was a thing I could succeed at. And what were the requirements? Sacrifice. That’s all. To anybody who comes from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, sacrifice comes easy. And so I kept fighting, and one day I became heavyweight champion, and I got to know people like you. And you wonder how I can sacrifice, how I can deprive myself so much? You just don’t realize where I’ve come from. You don’t understand where I was when it began for me.

“In those days, when I was about eight years old, everything I got—I stole. I stole to survive, and I did survive, but I seemed to hate myself. My mother told me I used to point to a photograph of myself hanging in the bedroom and say, ‘I don’t like that boy!’ One day my mother found three large X’s scratched with a nail or something over that photograph of me. I don’t remember doing it. But I do remember feeling like a parasite at home. I remember how awful I used to feel at night when my father, a longshoreman, would come home so tired that, as my mother fixed food before him, he would fall asleep at the table because he was that tired. I would always take his shoes off and clean his feet. That was my job. And I felt so bad because here I was, not going to school, doing nothing, just watching my father come home; and on Friday nights it was even worse. He would come home with his pay, and he’d put every nickel of It on the table so my mother could buy food for all the children. I never wanted to be around to see that. I’d run and hide. And then I decided to leave home and start stealing—and I did. And I would never come home unless I brought something that I had stolen. Once I remember I broke into a dress store and stole a whole mound of dresses, at two A.M., and here I was, this little kid, carrying all those dresses over the wall, thinking they were all the same size, my mother’s size, and thinking the cops would never notice me walking down the street with all those dresses piled over my head. They did, of course. . . . I went to the Youth House. . . .”

Floyd Patterson’s children, who had been playing outside all this time around the country club, now became restless and began to call him, and Jeannie started to pound on his door. So Patterson picked up his leather bag, which contained his gloves, his mouthpiece and adhesive tape, and walked with the children across the path toward the clubhouse.

He flicked on the light switches behind the stage near the piano. Beams of amber streaked through the dimly lit room and flashed onto the ring. He took off his robe, shuffled his feet in the rosin, skipped rope, and then began to shadowbox in front of the spit-stained mirror, throwing out quick combinations of lefts, rights, lefts, rights, each jab followed by a “hegh-hegh-hegh-hegh.” Then, his gloves on, he moved to the punching bag in the far corner, and soon the room reverberated to his rhythmic beat against the bobbling bag—rat-tat-tat-tetteta, rat-tat-tat-tetteta-rat-tat-tat-tetteta-rat-tat-tetteta!

The children, sitting on pink leather chairs, moved from the bar to the fringe of the ring, watched him in awe, sometimes flinching at the force of his pounding against the leather bag.

And this is how they would probably remember him years from now: a dark, solitary, glistening figure punching in the corner of a forlorn spot at the bottom of a mountain where people once came to have fun—until the clubhouse because unfashionable, the paint began to peel, and Negroes were allowed in.

As Floyd Patterson continued to bang away with lefts and rights, his gloves a brown blur against the bag, his daughter slipped quietly off her chair and wandered past the ring into the other room. There, on the other side of the bar and beyond a dozen round tables, was the stage. She climbed onto the stage and stood behind a microphone, long dead, and cried out, imitating a ring announcer, “Ladieeees and gentlemen . . . tonight we present . . .”

She looked around, puzzled. Then, seeing that her little brother had followed her, she waved him up to the stage and began again: “Ladiees and gentlemen . . . tonight we present . . .Floydie Patterson. . . .”

Suddenly, the pounding against the bag in the other room stopped. There was silence for a moment. Then Jeannie, still behind the microphone and looking down at her brother, said, “Floydie, come up here!”

“No,” he said.

“Oh, come up here!”

“No,” he cried.

Then Floyd Patterson’s voice, from the other room, called: “Cut it out . . . I’ll take you both for a walk in a minute.”

He resumed punching—rat-tat-tat-tetteta—and they returned to his side. But Jeannie interrupted, asking, “Daddy, how come you sweating?”

“Water fell on me,” he said, still pounding.

“Daddy,” asked Floyd, Jr., “how come you spit water on the floor before?”

“To get it out of my mouth.”

He was about to move over to the heavier punching bag when the sound of Mrs. Patterson’s station wagon could be heard moving up the road.

Soon she was in Patterson’s apartment cleaning up a bit, patting the pillows, washing the teacups that had been left in the sink. One hour later the family was having dinner together. They were together for two mere hours; then, at 10 P.M., Mrs. Patterson washed and dried all of the dishes, and put the garbage out in the can—where it would remain until the raccoons and skunks got to it.

And then, after helping the children with their coats and walking out to the station wagon and kissing her husband good-bye, Mrs. Patterson began the drive down the dirt road toward the highway. Patterson waved once, and stood for a moment watching the taillights go, and then he turned and walked slowly back toward the house.


Gay Talese is the best-selling author of The Kingdom and the PowerHonor Thy FatherUnto the Sonsand Thy Neighbor’s Wife. “The Loser” can be found in The Gay Talese Reader andThe Silent Season of a Hero, an anthology of Talese’s sportswriting. He is also the author of “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” which the editors of Esquire pronounced the best story the magazine has ever published.

Million Dollar Movie

Or: “How Hollywood Ruined Our Best Football Novel”

By John Schulian

Long before he established himself as the Ring Lardner of the Pepsi generation, Dan Jenkins wrote about sports for the blighted Fort Worth Press. He had to rise at 4 every morning to put out the paper’s first edition, and the indignity of that, he claims with typical reckless abandon, made his hair hurt.

Twenty years later, Jenkins has yet to describe the pain of seeing what Hollywood did to Semi-Tough, his best-selling bellylaugh about professional football. He tried to say something not long ago in Sports Illustrated, the magazine where his typing skills came to light, but the most emotion he could muster was mild bemusement. The possibility exits, however, that he didn’t do any better because he was in shock.

You will know the feeling if you read the book and see the movie, which will descend on Chicago this Christmas season like a curse from King Herod. Billy Clyde Puckett, the halfback hero of Semi-Tough, would probably want to know where Herod played his college ball, but there are more important questions to be asked about the cinematic mutation Michael Ritchie, a certified hot-shot director, has given us. The biggest one is: Why did he bother saying he was making a movie of Jenkins’ novel?

Just about the only thing left from it are the title, the diary Billy Clyde is keeping during Super Bowl week, and the fact that he is forever being interrupted by his podnuh, Marvin (Shake) Tiller, the mystic wide receiver, and their mutual playmate, Barbara Jane Bookman. Out of a book that ran better than 200 pages in hardback, that is not what anybody in his right mind would call a whole lot.

Ritchie’s explanation is that he was intrigued by the conclusion of the book, which found Shake doing a fly pattern all the way to India, where he could commune with his guru and ride elephants. Because of that, Ritchie would up putting Burt (Billy Clyde) Reynolds and Kris (Shake) Kristofferson in a movie about the consciousness movement. If you aren’t familiar with the consciousness movement, the premise on which it is built is that nobody’s hemorrhoids are more important than yours.

Such thinking is very big in California, which leads the universe in sun-baked brains. Everywhere else, people who become that bewitched, bothered and bewildered are called “tutti-fruttis.” Indeed, that is how Ritchie depicts them despite his West Coast ties. The irreverence is not unusual, for he has thrown darts at politics in The Candidate, at beauty contests in Smile, and at Little League baseball in The Bad News Bears. But he is so obsessed with puncturing the inherent silliness of the me-firsters that he has forgotten that Semi-Tough is supposed to be about the NFL’s inherent silliness.

In the process, some of Jenkins’ finest ideas ended up on the floor of Ritchie’s birdcage. There is no mention of how Pete Rozelle used the commissionership as a springboard to the U.S. Senate. T.J. Lambert, the flatulent defensive end, is never shown making a sandwich of six Dallas policemen. “The Giants and the Cowboys got together and kept our arrest quiet,” said Billy Clyde, who watched the proceedings in amazement. “We got to play in the game. I think the Giants had to give up a high draft choice to the Cowboys when it was over.”

Nor did Ritchie try to stage the outlandish halftime show Jenkins imagined, the one in which “several hundred trained birds—painted red, white and blue—would fly over the coliseum in formation of an American flag” while Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck sang “God Bless America.”

Even when the director relied on the author, he managed to foul things up. One wonderful scene has the drunken Lambert dangling a 20th Century fox over a terrace railing by the heels because she looked askance at his idea of how well they should get to know each other. In the book, Barbara Jane Bookman talks Lambert out of mayhem; she can’t do the same in the movie because it would rob Shake Tiller of a chance to display his new-found calm. Apparently Ritchie isn’t so iconoclastic that he would try to level the consciousness movement and machismo with the same swing.

If Jenkins should take offense to anything, however, it is what Ritchie did to his rating system for feminine pulchritude. Originally, the system went from 10—which was, you should pardon the expression, “a Healing Scab”—to 1, and of course there never was a 1. For the pure Hollywood hell of it, Ritchie completely reversed the ratings. If he had left them the way they were, Jill Clayburgh, who plays Barbara Jane, would have been a lot closer to the truth when she insists, “I’m a 10.”

She is, however, just one of Ritchie’s casting mistakes. Kristofferson wanders through his role as Shake in such a daze that he must have been handed a fistful of Valium instead of the usual NFL Sunday afternoon supply of greenies. As Barbara Jane’s father, a pinko-hating oil baron, Robert Preston appears to be a Communist plot himself. Only Reynolds, as Billy Clyde, is palatable, if you don’t mind watching him portray Burt Reynolds. And just in case you don’t, remember that he had a stand-in for most of his rib-cracking football scenes. No premiums are paid for acting with pain.

As it turns out, the audience does all the suffering, which is no small achievement for a movie that Ritchie calls “a racy comedy.” His choice of words may be the funniest thing about Semi-Tough. When it was a book, it was enjoyably bawdy, almost “Tom Jones with a Jockstrap.” Ritchie’s adaptation, however, is merely smarmy, filled with the kind of double entendres that aren’t even good enough for TV.

Naturally, that won’t stop TV from buying this worthless hunk of celluloid. If you are smart, you will wait until then instead of wasting your money on it in a theater. When it comes to passing judgement on Semi-Tough, you see, there is no semi about it. It is totally terrible.

John Schulian is a former syndicated sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. His work has appeared in GQSports IllustratedInside Sports, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. He also wrote for the TV shows Miami ViceL.A. Law, and co-created Xena: Princess Warrior. He is the author of Twilight of the Long-ball Gods and Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand, and co-editor of At The Fights.

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