Sit down here a while, kid, and I’ll give you the dope on this guy. You say you didn’t see him do nothin’ wonderful? But you only seen him in one serious. Wait till you been in the league more’n a week or two before you go judgin’ ball players. He may of been sick when you played agin him. Even when he’s sick, though, he’s got everybody I ever seen skun, and I’ve saw all the best of ‘em.P
Say, he ain’t worth nothin’ to that club; no, nothin’! I don’t know what pay he’s gettin’, but whatever it is, it ain’t enough. If they’d split the receipts ﬁfty-ﬁfty with that bird, they wouldn’t be gettin’ none the worst of it. That bunch could get along just as well without him as a train could without no engine.P
He’s twicet the ball player now that he was when he come up. He didn’t seem to have no sense when he broke in; he run bases like a fool and was a mark for a good pitcher or catcher. They used to just lay for him when he got on. Sully used to tell the pitchers to do nothin’ but waste balls when he was on ﬁrst or second base. It was pretty near always good dope, too, because they’d generally nail him off one base or the other, or catch him tryin’ to go to the next one. But Sully had to make perfect pegs to get him even when he knowed beforehand that he was goin’. Sully was the boy that could make them perfect pegs, too. Don’t forget that.P
Cobb seemed to think they was only one rule in the book, and that was a rule providin’ that nobody could stay on one base more’n one second. They tell me that before he got into the South Atlantic League he was with a club down there in Georgia called the Royston Rompers. Maybe he thought he had to keep on rompin’ up here.P
Another thing was that he couldn’t hit a left-hander very good. Doc W’ite used to make him look like a sucker. Doc was a fox to begin with, and he always give you just what you wasn’t lookin’ for. And then, his curve ball was somethin’ Ty hadn’t never saw before and it certainly did fool him. He’d hand Cobb a couple o’ curves and the baby’d miss ‘em a foot. Then, when he was expectin’ another one, Doc’d shoot his fast one right past his chin and make a monkey out of him.P
That was when he ﬁrst come up here. But Ty ain’t the guy that’s goin’ to stay fooled all the time. When he wises up that somebody’s got somethin’ on him, he don’t sleep nor do nothin’ till he ﬁgures out a way to get even. It’s a good thing Doc had his chancet to laugh when he did, because Cobb did most o’ the laughin’ after a couple o’ seasons of it. He seen he couldn’t hit the curve when it was breakin’, so he stood way back in the box and waited till it’d broke. Then he nailed it. When Ty’d learned that trick, Doc got so’s he was well pleased when the balls this guy hit off’n him stayed in the park.P
It was the same way with every pitcher that had his number when he ﬁrst busted in. He got to ‘em in short order and, before long, nobody was foolin’ him so’s you could notice it. Right now he’s as good agin left-handers as he is agin regular fellas. And if they’s any pitcher in baseball that’s got him fooled, he’s keepin’ the fact well concealed.P
I was tellin’ you what a wild base-runner he was at ﬁrst. Well, he’s still takin’ chances that nobody else takes, but he’s usin’ judgment with it. He don’t run no more just for the sake o’ runnin’. They was a time when the guy on the base ahead of him was afraid all the time that he’d get spiked in the heels. But no more o’ that. They’s no more danger of him causin’ a rear end collision, providin’ the guy ahead don’t blockade the right o’ way too long.P
You may not believe it, but I’ll bet most o’ these here catchers would rather have somebody on second base when Ty’s on ﬁrst base than to have him on ﬁrst base alone. They know he ain’t goin’ to pull no John Anderson and they feel pretty safe when he can’t steal without bumpin’ into one of his own teammates. But when the track’s all clear, look out!P
All my life I been hearin’ about the slow, easy-goin’ Southerner. Well, Ty’s easy-goin’ all right—like a million-dollar tourin’ car. But if Southerners is slow, he must be kiddin’ us when he says he was born down South. He must of came from up there where Doc Cook pretty near got to.P
You say you’ve heard ball players talk about how lucky he was. Yes, he is lucky. But it’s because he makes his own luck. If he’s got horseshoes, he’s his own blacksmith. You got to have the ability ﬁrst, and the luck’ll string along with you. Look at Connie Mack and John D. and some o’ them fellas.P
You know I ain’t played no ball for the last few years, but I seen a lot of it played. And I don’t overlook no chancet to watch this here Tyrus. I’ve saw him agin every club in the American League and I’ve saw him pull more stuff than any other guy ever dreamed of. Lots o’ times, after seein’ him get away with somethin’, I’ve said to myself: “Gosh, he’s a lucky stiff !” But right afterward, I’ve thought: “Yes, and why don’t nobody else have that luck? Because they don’t go out and get it.”P
I remember one time in Chi, a year or two ago. The Sox was two to the bad and it was the ninth innin’. They was two men down. Bodie was on second base and somebody hits a single to center ﬁeld. Bodie tries to score. It wasn’t good baseball to take the chancet, because that run wasn’t goin’ to do no good without another one to put with it. Cobb pegs to the plate and the umps calls Bodie out, though it looked to everybody like he was safe. Well, it was a bad play of Bodie’s, wasn’t it? Yes. Well then, it was a bad play o’ Cobb’s to make the throw. If Detroit hadn’t of got the best o’ that decision, the peg home would of let the man that hit the ball go to second and be planted there in position to score the tyin’ run on another base hit. Where if Ty had of played it safe, like almost anybody would, the batter’d of been held on ﬁrst base where it would take two base hits or a good long wallop to score him. It was lucky for Ty that the umps happened to guess wrong. But say, I think that guy’s pretty near smart enough to know when a umpire’s goin’ to make a rotten decision.P
O’ course you know that Ty gets to ﬁrst base more’n anybody in the world. In the ﬁrst place, he always manages to hit better’n anybody. And when he don’t hit safe, but just bounds one to some inﬁelder, the bettin’s 2 to 1 that the ball will be booted or throwed wild. That’s his luck, is it? No, sir. It’s no such a thing. It’s his speed. The inﬁelder knows he ain’t got no time to spare. He’s got to make the play faster’n he would for anybody else, and the result is that he balls it all up. He tries to throw to ﬁrst base before he’s got the pill to throw, or else he hurries the throw so much that he don’t have no time to aim. Some o’ the ball players round the league says that the scorers favor Ty and give him a base hit on almost anything. Well, I think they ought to. I don’t believe in handin’ a error to a fella when he’s hurried and worried to death. If you tried to make the play like you do for other guys, Ty’d beat the ball to ﬁrst base and then you’d get a hot call from the bench for loaﬁn’.P
If you’d saw him play as much baseball as I have, you wouldn’t be claimin’ he was overrated. I ain’t goin to come right out and say he’s the best ever, because they was some old-timers I never seen. (Comiskey, though, who’s saw ‘em all, slips it to him.) I just want to tell you some o’ the things he’s did, and if you can show me his equal, lead me to him and I’ll take off my hat.P
Detroit was playin’ the Ath-a-letics oncet. You know they ain’t no club that the Tigers looks better agin than the Atha-letics, and Cobb’s more of a devil in Philly than anywheres else. Well, this was when he was battin’ fourth and Jim Delahanty was followin’ him. Ty singles and Del slips him the hit and run sign on the ﬁrst ball. The ball was pitched a little outside, and Del cuts it down past Harry Davis for a single to right ﬁeld. Do you know what Cobb done? He scored; that’s all. And they wasn’t no boot made, neither. Danny Murphy picked the ball up clean and pegged it to Davis and Davis relays it straight home to Ira Thomas. Ty was there ahead of it. If I hadn’t o’ been watchin’ close, I’d o’ thought he forgot to touch two or three bases. But, no, sir. He didn’t miss none of ‘em. They may be other guys that could do that if they tried, but the diff ‘rence between them and Cobb is that he done it and they didn’t. Oh, I guess other fellas has scored from ﬁrst base on a long single in the hit and run, but not when the ball was handled perfectly clean like this one.P
Well, here’s another one: I forget the exact details, except that the game was between the White Sox and Detroit and that Tannehill was playin’ third base at the time, and that the score was tied when Cobb pulled it. It was the eighth innin’. He was on ﬁrst base. The next guy hits a single to left ﬁeld. Ty, o’ course, rounds second and starts for third. The left ﬁelder makes a rotten peg and the pill comes rollin’ in. Ty has the play beat a mile and they ain’t no occasion for him to slide. But he slid, and do you know what he done? He took a healthy kick at that rollin’ ball and sent it clear over to the grand stand. Then he jumped to his feet and kept on goin’. He was acrost the plate with the winnin’ run before nobody’d realized what he’d did. It’s agin the rules, o’ course, to kick the ball a-purpose, but how could the umps prove that this wasn’t a accident? Ty could of told him that he thought the play was goin’ to be close and he’d better slide. I might o’ thought it was a accident, too, if that had of been the only time I seen him do it. I can’t tell you how many times he’s pulled it, but it’s grew to be a habit with him. When it comes to scorin’ on kicks, he’s got this here What’s-His-Name—Brickley—tied.P
I’ve saw him score from second base on a ﬂ y ball, too; a ﬂy ball that was catched. Others has did it, but not as regular as this guy. He come awful near gettin’ away with it agin a little while ago, in Chi. They was also somebody on third when the ball was hit. The guy on third started home the minute Bodie catched the ball and Ping seen they was no chancet to get him. So he pegs toward Weaver, who’s down near third base. Cobb’s at third before the ball gets to the inﬁeld. He don’t never hesitate. He keeps right on goin’ for the plate. Now, if Weaver’d of been able to of intercepted the ball, Ty’d of been out thirty feet. But the throw goes clear through to the third baseman. Then it’s relayed home. The gang sittin’ with me all thought Ty was safe. I don’t know about it, but anyway, he was called out. It just goes to show you what this guy’s liable to do. You can’t take no afternoon nap when he’s around. They’s lots of other fast guys, but while they’re thinkin’ about what they’re goin’ to do, he’s did it. He’s ﬁgurin’ two or three bases ahead all the while. So, as I say, you don’t get no sleep with him in the game.P
Fielder Jones used to tell us: “When that bird’s runnin’, throw the ball somewheres just’s soon as you get a-hold of it. I don’t care where you throw it, but throw it somewheres. Don’t hold onto it.”P
I seen where the papers says the other day that you outguessed him. I wasn’t out to that game. I guess you got away with somethin’ all right, but don’t feel too good about it. You’re worse off now than you was before you done it because he won’t never rest till he shows you up. You stopped him oncet, and just for that he’ll make you look like a rummy next time he plays agin you. And after he’s did it oncet and got even, he’ll do it agin. And then he’ll do it agin. They’s a lot o’ fellas round this league that’s put over a smart play on Tyrus and most of ‘em has since wished they hadn’t. It’s just like as if I’d go out and lick a policeman. I’d live to regret it.P
We had a young fella oncet, a catcher, that nailed him ﬂatfooted off ‘n ﬁrst base one day. It was in the ﬁrst game of a serious. Ty didn’t get on no more that day, but he walked the ﬁrst time up the followin’ afternoon. They was two out. He takes a big lead and the young fella pegs for him agin. But Tyrus was off like a streak when the ball was throwed, and about the time the ﬁrst baseman was catchin’ it, he was slidin’ into second. Then he gets a big lead off ‘n second and the young catcher takes a shot for him there. But he throws clear to center ﬁeld and Ty scores. The next guy whiffs, so they wouldn’t of been no run if the young guy hadn’t of got so chesty over the precedin’ day’s work. I’m tellin’ you this so’s you won’t feel too good.P
They’s times when a guy does try to pull something on this Cobb, and is made to look like a sucker without deservin’ it. I guess that’s because the Lord is for them that helps themselves and don’t like to see nobody try to show ‘em up.P
I was sittin’ up in the stand in Cleveland one day. Ty was on second base when somebody hits a ﬂy ball, way out, to Birmingham. At that time, Joe had the best throwin’ arm you ever see. He could shoot like a riﬂe. Cobb knowed that, o’ course, and didn’t feel like takin’ no chancet, even though Joe was pretty far out there. Ty waits till the ball’s catched and then makes a bluff to go to third, thinkin’ Birmy’d throw and that the ball might get away. Well, Joe knows that Cobb knows what kind of arm he’s got and ﬁ gures that the start from second is just a bluff ; that he ain’t really got no intention o’ goin’. So, instead o’ peggin’ to third, he takes a quick shot for second, hopin’ to nail Cobb before he can get back. The throw’s perfect and Cobb sees where he’s trapped. So he hikes for third. And the second sacker—I don’t think the big Frenchman was playin’ that day—drops the ball. If he’d of held it, he’d of had plenty of time to relay to third and nail Ty by a block. But no. He drops the ball. See? Birmy’d outguessed Ty, but all it done for him was to make him look bad and make Ty look good.P
Another time, a long while ago, Detroit needed a run to win from the Sox. Ty gets to ﬁ rst base with one out. Sully was catchin’. Sully signs for a pitch-out and then snaps the ball to ﬁrst base. Ty wasn’t lookin’ for it and he was caught clean. He couldn’t get back to ﬁ rst base, so he goes for second. Big Anderson was playin’ ﬁrst base and he makes a bum peg. The ball hits Cobb on the shoulder and bounds so far out in left center that he didn’t even have to run to get home. You see, Sully’d outguessed Ty and had pulled a play that ought to of saved the game. Instead o’ that, it give the game to Detroit. That’s what hurts and discourages a fella from tryin’ to pull anything on him.P
Sometimes I pretty near think they’s nothin’ he couldn’t do if he really set out to do it. Before you joined the club, some o’ the boys was kiddin’ him over to Detroit. Callahan was tellin’ me about it. Cobb hadn’t started hittin’. One o’ the players clipped the averages out o’ the paper and took ‘em to the park. He showed the clippin’ to Ty.P
“You’re some battin’ champ, Ty,” he says. “Goin’ at a .225 clip, eh?”P
Tyrus just laughed at him. “I been playin’ I was one o’ you White Sox,” he says. “But wait till a week from to-day. It’ll be .325 then.”P
Well, it wasn’t. No, sir! It was .326.P
One time, in 1912 I think it was, I happened to be goin’ East, lookin’ for a job of umpirin’, and I rode on the train with the Tigers. I and Cobb et breakfast together. I had a Sunday paper with me and was givin’ the averages the oncet over.P
“Read ‘em to me,” says Ty.P
“You don’t want ‘em all, do you?” I says.P
“No, no. Just the ﬁrst three of us,” he says. “I know about where I’m at, but not exactly.”P
So I read it to him:P
“Jackson’s ﬁrst with .412. Speaker’s second with .400. You’re third with .386.”P
“Well,” says Ty, “I reckon the old boy’d better get busy. Watch me this trip!”P
I watched him, through the papers. In the next twenty-one times at bat, he gets exactly seventeen hits, and when the next averages was printed, he was out in front. He stayed there, too.P
So I don’t know, but I believe that if Jackson and Speaker and Collins and Lajoie and Crawford was to go crazy and hit .999, this Cobb would come out on top with 1,000 even.P
He’s got a pretty good opinion of himself, but he ain’t no guy to really brag. He’s just full o’ the old conﬁdence. He thinks Cobb’s a good ball player, and a guy’s got to think that way about himself if he wants to get anywheres. I know a lot o’ ball players that gets throwed out o’ the league because they think the league’s too fast for ‘em. It’s diff ‘rent with Tyrus. If they was a league just three times as fast as the one he’s in and if he was sold up there, he’d go believin’ he could lead it in battin’. And he’d lead it too!P
Yes, sir, he’s full o’ that old stuff , and the result is that lots o’ people that don’t know him think he’s a swell-head, and don’t like him. But I’m tellin’ you that he’s a pretty good guy now, and the rest o’ the Tigers is strong for him, which is more’n they used to be. He busted in with a chip on his shoulder, and he soon become just as popular as the itch. Everybody played him for a busher and started takin’ liberties with him. He was a busher, too, but he was one o’ the kind that can’t take a joke. You know how they’s young fellas that won’t stand for nothin’. Then they’s them that stands for too much. Then they’s the kind that’s just about half way. You can go a little ways with ‘em, but not too far. That’s the kind that’s popular.P
Cobb wouldn’t stand for nothin’. If somebody poured ketchup in his coffee, he was liable to pick up the cup and throw it at the guy nearest to him. If you’d stepped on his shine, he’d of probably took the other foot and aimed it at you like he does now at the ball when it’s lyin’ loose on the ground. If you’d called him some name on the ﬁeld, he’d of walloped you with a bat, even if you was his pal. So they was all stuck on him, was they not?P
He got trimmed a couple o’ times, right on his own club, too. But when they seen what kind of a ball player he was goin’ to be, they decided they’d better not kill him. It’s just as well for ‘em they didn’t. I’d like to know where their club would of ﬁnished—in 1907 and 1908, for instance—if it hadn’t of been for him. It was nobody but him that beat us out in 1908. I’ll tell you about it later on.P
I says to him one day not long ago, I says:P
“You wasn’t very strong with the boys when you ﬁrst come up. What was the trouble?”P
“Well,” he says, “I didn’t understand what was comin’ off . I guess they meant it all right, but nobody’d tipped me that a busher’s supposed to be picked on. They were hazin’ me; that’s what they were doin’, hazin’ me. I argued with ‘em because I didn’t know better.”P
“You learned, though, didn’t you?” I says.P
“Oh, yes,” says Ty, “I learned all right.”P
“Maybe you paid for your lessons, too,” I says.P
“Maybe I did,” he says.P
“Well,” I says, “would you act just the same way if you had it to do over again?”P
“I reckon so,” he says.P
And he would, too, because if he was a diff ‘rent kind o’ guy, he wouldn’t be the ball player he is.P
Say, maybe you think I didn’t hate him when I was playin’ ball. I didn’t know him very well, see? But I hated him on general principles. And I never hated him more’n I did in 1908. That was the year they beat us out o’ the big dough the last day o’ the season, and it come at a time when I needed that old dough, because I knowed darn well that I wasn’t goin’ to last no ten years more or nothin’ like that.P
You look over the records now, and you’ll see that the Detroit club and us just about broke even on the year’s serious agin each other. I don’t know now if it was exactly even or not, or, if it wasn’t, which club had the best of it. But I do know one thing, and that is that they beat us ﬁve games that we’d ought to of copped from ‘em easy and they beat us them games for no other reason than that they had this here Georgia Peach.P
The records don’t show no stuff like that, but I can remember most o’ them games as if they was played yesterday; that is, Cobb’s part in ‘em. In them days, they had Crawford hittin’ third and Cobb fourth and Rossman ﬁ fth. Well, one day we had ‘em licked by three runs in the seventh innin’. Old Nick was pitchin’ for us and Sully was catchin’. Tannehill was at third base and Hahn was switched from right to left ﬁeld because they was somethin’ the matter with Dougherty. Well, this seventh innin’ come, as I was sayin’, and we was three runs to the good. Crawford gets on someway and Cobb singles. Jones thought Nick was slippin’, so he hollered for Smitty. Smitty comes in and pitches to big Rossman and the big guy hits one back at him. Smitty had the easiest kind of a double play starin’ him in the face—a force play on Crawford at third and then the rest of it on Rossman, who wasn’t no speed marvel. But he makes a bad peg to Tannie and the ball gets by him. It didn’t look like as if Crawford could score, and I guess he was goin’ to stop at third.P
But Tyrus didn’t pay no attention to Crawford. He’d saw the wild peg and he was bound to keep right on comin’. So Crawford’s got to start home to keep from gettin’ run over. Hahn had come in to get the ball and when he seen Crawford startin’ home, he cut loose a wild peg that went clear to the bench. Crawford and Cobb both scored, o’ course, and what does Ty do but yell at Rossman to follow ‘em in, though it looked like sure death. Sully has the ball by that time, but it’s just our luck that he has to peg wild too. The ball sailed over Smitty, who’d came up to cover the plate. The score’s tied and for no reason but that Tyrus had made everybody run. The next three was easy outs, but they went on and licked us in extra innin’s.P
Well, they was another game, in that same serious I think it was, when Big Ed had ‘em stopped dead to rights. They hadn’t no more business scorin’ off ‘n him than a rabbit. I don’t think they hit two balls hard all day. We wasn’t the best hittin’ club in the world, but we managed to get one run for the Big Moose in the ﬁ rst innin’ and that had ought to of been a-plenty.P
Up comes Cobb in the fourth and hits one that goes in two bounds to Davis or whoever was playin’ short. If he could of took his time, they’d of been nothin’ to it. But he has to hurry the play because it’s Cobb runnin’, and he pegs low. Izzy gets the ball off ‘n the ground all right, but juggles it, and then Ty’s safe.P
They was nobody out, so Rossman bunts. He’s throwed out a mile at ﬁ rst base, but Ty goes all the way to third. Then the next guy hits a ﬂy ball to Hahn that wouldn’t of been worth a nickel if Cobb’d of went only to second on the sacriﬁce, like a human bein’. He’s on third, though, and he scores on the ﬂy ball. The next guy takes three swings and the side’s out, but we’re tied up.P
Then we go along to the ninth innin’ and it don’t look like they’d score agin on Big Ed if they played till Easter. But Cobb’s up in the ninth with one out. He gets the one real healthy hit that they’d made all day. He singled to right ﬁeld. I say he singled, because a single’s what anybody else would of been satisﬁed with on the ball he hit. But Ty didn’t stop at ﬁrst base. He lights out for second and whoever was in right ﬁeld made a good peg. The ball’s there waitin’ for Ty, but he slides away from it. Jake thought he had him, but the umps called him safe. Well, Jake gets mad and starts to kick. They ain’t no time called or nothin’. The umps turns away and Jake slams the ball on the ground and before anybody could get to it, Cobb’s on third. We all hollered murder, but it done us no good. Rossman then hit a ﬂy ball and the game’s over.P
I remember another two to one game that he win from us. I don’t recall who was pitchin’—one o’ the left-handers, I guess. Whoever it was had big Rossman on his staff that day. He whiffed him twicet and made him pop out another time. They was one out in the eighth when Cobb beats out a bunt. We was leadin’ by one run at the time, so naturally we wanted to keep him on ﬁrst base. Well, whoever it was pitchin’ wasted three balls tryin’ to outguess Tyrus, and he still stood there on ﬁrst base, laughin’ at us. Rossman takes one strike and the pitcher put the next one right over and took a chancet, instead o’ runnin’ the risk o’ walkin’ him. Rossman has a toe-hold and he meets the ball square and knocks it clear out o’ the park. We’re shut out in the ninth and they’ve trimmed us. You’ll say, maybe, it was Rossman that beat us. It was his wallop all right, but our pitcher wouldn’t of wasted all them balls and got himself in the hole if anybody but Cobb’d of been on ﬁrst base.P
One day we’re tied in the ninth, four to four, or somethin’ like that. Cobb doubled and Rossman walked after two was out. Jones pulled Smitty out o’ the game and put in Big Ed. Now, nobody was lookin’ for Ty to steal third with two out. It’s a rotten play when anybody else does it. This ain’t no double steal, because Rossman never moved off ‘n ﬁrst base. Cobb stole third all right and then, on the next pitch, Rossman starts to steal second. Our catcher oughtn’t to of paid no attention to him because Walsh probably could of got the batter and retired the side. It wasn’t Sully catchin’ or you can bet no play’d of been made. But this catcher couldn’t see nobody run without peggin’, so he cut loose. Rossman stopped and started back for ﬁrst base. The shortstop ﬁred the ball back home, but he was just too late. Cobb was acrost already and it was over. Now in that case, our catcher’d ought to of been killed, but if Tyrus hadn’t did that fool stunt o’ stealin’ third with two out, they’d of been no chancet for the catcher to pull the boner.P
How many did I say he beat us out of? Five? Oh, yes, I remember another one. I can make it short because they wasn’t much to it. It was another one o’ them tied up affairs, and both pitchers was goin’ good. It was Smitty for us and, I think, Donovan for them. Cobb gets on with two down in the tenth or ‘leventh and steals second while Smitty stands there with the ball in his hand. Then Rossman hits a harmless lookin’ ground ball to the shortstop. Cobb runs down the line and stops right in front o’ where the ball was comin’, so’s to bother him. But Ty pretends that he’s afraid the ball’s goin’ to hit him. It worked all right. The shortstop got worried and juggled the ball till it was too late to make a play for Rossman. But Cobb’s been monkeyin’ so long that he ain’t nowheres near third base and when the shortstop ﬁ nally picks up the ball and pegs there, Cobb turns back. Well, they’d got him between ‘em and they’re tryin’ to drive him back toward second. Somebody butts in with a muff and he goes to third base. And when Smitty starts to pitch agin, he steals home just as clean as a whistle.P
The last game o’ the season settled the race, you know. I can’t say that Tyrus won that one for ‘em. They all was due to hit and they sure did hit. Cobb and Crawford both murdered the ball in the ﬁ rst innin’ and won the game right there, because Donovan was so good we didn’t have no chancet. But if he hadn’t of stole them other games off ‘n us, this last one wouldn’t of did ‘em no good. We could of let our young fellas play that one while we rested up for the world’s serious.P
I don’t say our club had a license to be champions that year. We was weak in spots. But we’d of got the big dough if it hadn’t of been for Tyrus. You can bet your life on that.P
You can easy see why I didn’t have no love for him in them days. And I’ll bet the fellas that was on the Ath-a-letics in 1907 felt the same toward him, because he was what kept ‘em from coppin’ that year. I ain’t takin’ nothin’ away from Jennin’s and Crawford and Donovan and Bush and Mullin and McIntire and Rossman and the rest of ‘em. I ain’t tryin’ to tell you that them fellas ain’t all had somethin’ to do with Detroit’s winnin’ in diff ‘rent years. Jennin’s has kept ‘em ﬁ ghtin’ right along, and they’s few guys more valuable to their club than Crawford. He busted up a lot o’ games for ‘em in their big years and he’s doin’ it yet. And I consider Bush one o’ the best inﬁ elders I ever see. The others was all right, too. They all helped. But this guy I’m tellin’ you about knocked us out o’ the money by them stunts of his that nobody else can get by with.P
It’s all foolishness to hate a fella because he’s a good ball player, though. I realize that now that I’m out of it. I can go and watch Tyrus and enjoy watchin’ him, but in them days it was just like pullin’ teeth whenever he come up to the plate or got on the bases. He was reachin’ right down in my pocket and takin’ my money. So it’s no wonder I was sore on him.P
If I’d of been on the same club with him, though, I wouldn’t never of got sore at him no matter how fresh he was. I’d of been afraid that he might get so sore at me that he’d quit the club. He could of called me anything he wanted to and got away with it or he could have took me acrost his knee and spanked me eighty times a day, just so’s he kept on puttin’ money in my kick instead o’ beatin’ me out of it.P
As I was sayin’, I enjoy seein’ him play now. If the game’s rotten or not, it don’t make no diff’rence, and it don’t make a whole lot even if he’s havin’ a bad day. They’s somethin’ fascinatin’ in just lookin’ at the baby.P
I ain’t alone in thinkin’ that, neither. I don’t know how many people he draws to the ball parks in a year, but it’s enough to start a big manufacturin’ town and a few suburbs. You heard about the crowd that was out to the Sox park the Sunday they was two rival attractions in town? It was in the spring, before you come. Well, it was some crowd. Now, o’ course, the Sox draw good at home on any decent Sunday, but I’m tellin’ you they was a few thousands out there that’d of been somewheres else if Cobb had of stayed in Georgia.P
I was in Boston two or three years ago this summer and the Tigers come along there for a serious o’ ﬁ ve games, includin’ a double-header. The Detroit club wasn’t in the race and neither was the Red Sox. Well, sir, I seen every game and I bet they was seventy thousand others that seen ‘em, or better’n ﬁfteen thousand a day for four days. They was some that was there because they liked baseball. They was others that was stuck on the Red Sox. They was still others that was strong for the Detroit club. And they was about twenty-ﬁve or thirty thousand that didn’t have no reason for comin’ except this guy I’m tellin’ you about. You can’t blame him for holdin’ out oncet in awhile for a little more money. You can’t blame the club for slippin’ it to him, neither.P
They’s a funny thing I’ve noticed about him and the crowds. The fans in the diff’rent towns hates him because he’s beat their own team out o’ so many games. They hiss him when he pulls off somethin’ that looks like dirty ball to ‘em. Sometimes they get so mad at him that you think they’re goin’ to tear him to pieces. They holler like a bunch of Indians when some pitcher’s good enough or lucky enough to strike him out. And at the same time, right down in their hearts, they’re disappointed because he did strike out.P
How do I know that? Well, kid, I’ve felt it myself, even when I was pullin’ agin Detroit. I’ve talked to other people and they’ve told me they felt the same way. When they come out to see him, they expect to see him do somethin’. They’re glad if he does and glad if he don’t. They’re sore at him if he don’t beat their team and they’re sore if he does. It’s a funny thing and I ain’t goin’ to sit here all night tryin’ to explain it.P
But, say, I wisht I was the ball player he is. They could throw pop bottles and these here bumbs at me, and I wouldn’t kick. They could call me names from the stand, but I wouldn’t care. If the whole population o’ the United States hated me like they think they hate him, I wouldn’t mind, so long’s I could just get back in that old game and play the ball he plays. But if I could, kid, I wouldn’t have no time to be talkin’ to you.P
The other day, I says to Callahan:P
“What do you think of him?”P
“Think of him!” says Cal. “What could anybody think of him? I think enough of him to wish he’d go and break a leg. And I’m not sore on him personally at that.”P
“Don’t you like to see him play ball?” I says.P
“I’d love to watch him,” says Cal, “if I could just watch him when he was playin’ Philadelphia or Washington or any club but mine.”P
“I guess you’d like to have him, wouldn’t you?” I says.P
“Me?” says Cal. “All I’d give for him is my right eye.”P
“But,” I says, “he must keep a manager worried some, in one way and another; you’d always be afraid he was goin’ to break his own neck or cut somebody else’s legs off or jump to the Fed’rals or somethin’.”P
“I’d take my chances,” says Cal. “I believe I could even stand the worry for a few days.”P
I seen in the papers where McGraw says Eddie Collins is the greatest ball player in the world. I ain’t goin’ to argue with him about it, because I got nothin’ but admiration for Collins. He’s a bear. But, kid, I wisht McGraw had to play twenty-two games a year agin this Royston Romper. No, I don’t, neither. McGraw never done nothin’ to me.
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
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
“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
“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 friendlyface 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
“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
Tom Junod is a writer at large for Esquire and a two-time National Magazine Award winner. He’s @TomJunod on Twitter.
John Lardner’s introduction to a 1959 edition of Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al, a fictional series of letters from professional ballplayer Jack Keefe to his friend Al. Those stories are included in the Library of America’s new collection. (There was also a comic strip based on the same characters, with continuity written by Ring.) John was Ring Lardner’s eldest son and a fine journalist in his own right.
The You Know Me Al letters have an unusual history, in terms of reputation. The impact of their original publication, forty-five years ago, was such that their fame has endured to a large extent by word of mouth, like that of New York’s blizzard of 1888. Mere memories of the prodigy have been handed down from one generation to another. It’s not necessary—as years of involuntary research have shown me—for someone to have read You Know Me Al to want to talk about it. I think that reading is better, because the letters are equal to their reputation and are equally timeless. But the fact of their continuing strength-through-hearsay remains, as a kind of literary curiosity. So does the fact that among people who have read them, they have been relished and judged from radically different points of view. I’ve known readers who associated them—delightedly—with the “funny-spelling” works of the Bill Nye school, which came earlier, and of Ed Streeter (“Dere Mable”), who came a little later. I’ve known readers who valued the language of the letters more highly than that, but who enjoyed them primarily as the most comical and engrossing baseball writing of all time. I’ve seen critical estimates that rated You Know Me Al as an all-around classic, or as a compact treasure-house of popular American English exactly observed and transcribed. On the whole, these cults have lived in perfect congeniality. As far as I know, no reader’s viewpoint has ever interfered with the pleasure of another reader.
It’s true that only a few of the readers or the knowing nonreaders of You Know Me Al have thought of it as a work of art. There’s a certain rough justice in that situation. The busher letters were not written with artistic prestige in mind. They were written because there was an urgent need around the home of the two hundred dollars that each of the first installments brought from The Saturday Evening Post. (Later, according to Donald Elder’s biography, Ring Lardner, which has more reliable information about those times than I have, Jack Keefe letters fetched up to twelve hundred and fifty dollars per installment. The cheaper installments—the ones that were incorporated in the book You Know Me Al—were the best.) Almost as soon as the Post began to publish them, the letters made their author as famous as the President of the United States. (They were to keep him famous in the same degree throughout the next two or three administrations.) This turn of events startled my father, but it totally failed to cause him to think of what he had written as literature.
At that stage, thanks to the atmosphere in which he worked and to his own ingrained shyness, he couldn’t think of anything he wrote in that way–although it may come to the same thing as conscious artistry that he struggled constantly to make his stuff as good and as true as it could be. A few years afterward, when H.L. Mencken, Gilbert Seldes, Franklin P. Adams, and others began to praise his work as art, he was deeply pleased—although, again, startled. He was critic enough himself, and his standards were severe enough, so that he sometimes pointed out, privately, what he thought were inaccuracies or inanities in some of the things that were written in his praise. In other words, he could react like a literary man when he was stimulated to do so. He had known when he wrote it that the language of You Know Me Al was right. He was bound to know—he had the world’s best ear. But it was impossible for him then, and hard at any time, to connect this sort of rightness, or rightness of character-drawing, in his own case, with the idea of artistic creation.
Some strong tributes have been paid to the literary importance of You Know Me Al. Probably the most striking is one that was written in England, in 1925, by Virginia Woolf, who didn’t know an infielder from a fungo bat and who approached all contemporary American writing in the spirit of an explorer of unknown territory. Earlier in the essay in question, she had said that Sinclair Lewis’s work had confused her by what she considered its self-consciousness—that Lewis seemed to be exhibiting and explaining American types in the style of an educated tourist guide, with his mind on British or European audiences.
“But Mr. Lardner,” she wrote, “is not merely unaware that we differ; he is unaware that we (the British) exist. When a crack player is in the middle of an exciting game of baseball he does not stop to wonder whether the audience likes the color of his hair. (Mr. Elder has noted that Mrs. Woolf may have guessed wrong in this detail.) All his mind is on the game. So Mr. Lardner does not waste a moment when he writes in thinking whether he is using American slang or Shakespeare’s English—whether he is proud of being American or ashamed of not being Japanese; all his mind is on the story. Hence, incidentally, he writes the best prose that has come our way. Hence we feel at last freely admitted to the society of our fellows.
”That this should be true of You Know Me Al, a story about baseball, a game which is not played in England, a story written often in a language which is not English, gives us pause. To what does he owe his success? Besides his unconsciousness … Mr. Lardner has talents of a remarkable order. With extraordinary ease and aptitude, with the quickest strokes, the surest touch, the sharpest insight, he lets Jack Keefe the baseball player cut out his own outline, fill in his own depths, until the figure of the foolish, boastful, innocent athlete lives before us. As he babbles out his mind on paper there rise up friends, sweethearts, the scenery, town, and country—all surround him and make him up in his completeness.”
Mrs. Woolf then raised a point that first struck me when it was made in reverse to indicate a weakness, rather than a strength—by F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Ring,” an obituary essay that appeared in The New Republic. “Ring” was a fine piece, eloquent, loving, and brilliantly written. I suspect, however, that some of its author’s reasoning was based on delayed intuitions summoned up for the occasion and shaped by his proselytizing instinct. I’ll quote briefly from a passage in which I think the spirit of do-it-my-way interfered with Fitzgerald’s sense of proportion.
He had been saying that Ring Lardner’s “achievement” fell short of what he was capable of, and speculating about my father’s unwillingness or inability to tackle presumably larger subjects than the ones he had handled in You Know Me Al and The Big Town and in his short stories.
“During those (sports-writing) years,” Fitzgerald wrote, “when most men of promise achieve an adult education, if only in the school of war, Ring moved in the company of a few dozen illiterates playing a boy’s game. A boy’s game, with no more possibilities in it than a boy could master, a game bounded by walls which kept out novelty or danger, change or adventure. This material, the observation of it under such circumstances, was the text of Ring’s schooling during the most formative period of the mind. A writer can spin on about his adventures after thirty, after forty, after fifty, but the criteria by which these adventures are weighed and valued are irrevocably settled at the age of twenty-five. However deeply Ring might cut into it, his cake had exactly the diameter of Frank Chance’s diamond.
“Here was his artistic problem, and it promised future trouble. So long as he wrote within that enclosure the result was magnificent: within it he heard and recorded the voice of a continent. But when, inevitably, he outgrew his interest in it, what was Ring left with?”
This appraisal overlooks the fact that very little of what my father wrote during the last fourteen years—almost one-third—of his life had to do with baseball. It fails to consider that one man’s period of creativity may be shorter—especially if his work has been cleaner and more painstaking—than another’s. Also, it seems to me, it tends to belittle what had been done, the depth of the cut in the cake. I don’t know, frankly, just how genius works in the matter of dimensions—whether it can probe a wide body as deeply as it can a narrow one. I have an idea that it was the compactness of the material, and the intensity, the concentration, that it produced, that made my father’s stories as good as they were. This would apply to The Big Town, and to Broadway stories like “Some Like Them Cold” and “A Day with Conrad Green,” and to the old people’s story, ”The Golden Honeymoon” (which has a lot in common with You Know Me Al), as well as to baseball stories. It’s my feeling, an entirely respectful one, that Scott Fitzgerald was at his best when he wrote in tight focus, about neat, intricate, carefully coded systems of life in which he knew all the moves.
Mrs. Woolf has said: “It is no coincidence that the best of Mr. Lardner’s stories are about games, for one may guess that Mr. Lardner’s interest in games has solved one of the most difficult problems of the American writer; it has given him a clue, a centre, a meeting place for the divers activities of people whom a vast continent isolates, whom no tradition controls. Games give him what society gives his English brother.”
I’m not sure that the problems that Mrs. Woolf spoke of were purely American even at the time she wrote. There was a good deal of writing in Europe in those days that was loose and garrulous, that teemed with unframed types and symbols. In the last ten or fifteen years—perhaps because the Second World War accelerated the decline of many traditions—there have been quantities of that kind of writing in nearly every country that publishes books. At any rate, I think it was lucky both for my father and for his readers that the things that interested him were snugly organized. His subjects suited his special abilities. He carried a sharp knife; with one stroke of it, in You Know Me Al, he laid bare all the vital parts of a man who, because he was a human being, was more meaningful than any type could be.
In other words, the author of You Know Me Al was able to do more than reproduce “the voice of a continent.” Still, what he accomplished in that direction was astonishing. As Mencken said in The American Language (1919), everything that had been observed about American English by the shrewdest scholars, and much that had not, was compressed into a single piece of fiction by a newspaper man—a writer who, obviously, had not read the findings of these scholars and who worked by ear and self-respect alone. As I’ve said, my father was exhilarated by Mencken’s learned notice. Also, whenever Mencken dissented, in phrases like “my own observation is” or “my own belief is,” my father swiftly—though privately—overrode the objections and alternatives, again by ear and from a sense of fitness. (He dissented strongly, for instance, from Mencken’s dissents in the matter of the participles “throwed” and “gave.” He thought that Mencken and other critics sometimes failed to allow for the differences between spoken American and written American.) I doubt if my father would ever have ruled publicly on questions like these if Mencken had not encouraged him to it by recognizing his gift. Still, when he did permit himself to criticize another writer’s “American” in print, which was rarely, he showed a scientific, and almost a proprietary, interest in the matter, along with an uneasy need to depreciate himself in the role of scholar. A review he wrote of John V. A. Weaver’s book of verse, In American, was both precise and apologetic.
The language in the book, he said, was “pure American, nearly. The few impurities are a lifesaver for the critic. We can’t hope to land a K.O. on the writer’s jaw, but we can fret him a little with a few pokes to the ear. For the most part, this organ has served Mr. Weaver well. But I think that on occasion it consciously or unconsciously plays him false. It has told him, for example, that we say everythin’ and anythin’. We don’t. We say somethin’ and nothin’, but we say anything and everything. There appears to be somethin’ about the y near the middle of both these words that impels us to acknowledge the g on the end of them. Mr. Weaver’s ear has also give or gave (not gi’n) him a bum hunch on thing itself. It has told him to make it thin’! But it’s a real effort to drop the g off this little word and, as a rule, our language is not looking for trouble.”
It was a long and not very relevant step to this kind of analysis from the entertainer’s mood in which the busher letters were written. There’s a long distance, too, between the views of Mencken and Mrs. Woolf and the untrained, reflexive pleasure of the public’s reaction to You Know Me Al. Mrs. Woolf has shown why ignorance of baseball need not prevent a reader from appreciating the book as a classic. But there is a great deal in it that she was bound to miss. For the knowledgeable, the baseball details are pure delight; the thirsty fan drinks them down like cold water. Many names and conditions that were topical in 1914—Cobb, Mathewson, the “Federals,” McGraw, the gracefully ruthless Comiskey, Walsh, the spitball, Cicotte, Buck Weaver—are historical now; but history, for the baseball-lover, is full of romance. And the baseball technique and dramatics of You Know Me Al are as timeless as the literary values.
Gilbert Seldes, in discussing what he felt was the iconoclastic effect of Al, wrote that “baseball has never recovered” from what my father did to its heroes. I think it’s true that there was an element of shock in the author’s treatment of Keefe and one or two other non-historical characters. I believe that Mr. Elder stated the point a little more reasonably when he said that baseball fandom was “far more ingenuous” before the First World War than it is now, and that You Know Me Al reduced the “baseball hero” (my father, however, did not make Keefe a type, or even necessarily a fans’ hero) to human dimensions. Baseball did not have to recover from You Know Me Al, because its hard assets had not been disturbed. The book did make an important change in a state of mind which Mr. Seldes, writing in the early 1920s, could recall vividly. Since then, there have been other changes in player attitudes and in fan habits with which the Keefe letters had nothing to do. It’s noteworthy that Al has survived change as easily as it has created it. Everything that is inherently sound in our national diversion, and everything that is characteristically silly, are fixed for all time in this story.
Superficially, ball players are not quite the same kind of people today as they were in Keefe’s day. Present times have developed a distinct athlete class, to which most professional players belong—a group of men at least semi-educated in classrooms as well as lavishly trained since early youth in sports. In former times, professional baseball was the chancy lot of a handful of average workingmen. Only a thin margin of luck and physical aptitude separated the ball player from the clerk, the cab-driver, the farmer, and the coalminer. The difference between old-time and present-day players is reflected partly in the jargon of the modern game. Keefe used a certain amount of shop-talk; but the new athlete class has greatly refined and expanded baseball culture, and its wordiness has infected fans and baseball writers and sportscasters (who to some extent have re-infected the players). The vocabulary of the game has become swollen with expertise, with “changeups” and “breaking stuff” and “hitting the ball where it is pitched” and “getting good wood on it” and “shading him a little toward left” and “three speeds of curve” and the whole prolix cult of the “slider.” “Inside ball,” which was a glamorous mystery in the heyday of McGraw and Mack, is now public property, and there is, ostensibly, a hell of a lot more of it than there used to be.
But all the essential truth about ball-playing can be found in You Know Me Al. Its broader values to one side, there has never been a sounder baseball book. The story flows along with unpretentious smoothness. But if you stop to pick over the accounts of ball games, you see that each detail is correct in relation to place, weather, time of year, and the hitting, pitching, or fielding idiosyncrasies of each of a hundred players. Baseball strategy is set down as accurately as the speech and characters of Keefe, his friends, his girls, and his in-laws. I have never read a piece of baseball fiction, besides this one, in which there was no technical mistake. (Thirty-odd years ago, my father and mother worried and conferred when I was caught reading a novel about flaming youth called The Plastic Age. But my father was even more worried when he caught me reading a baseball novel called Won in the Ninth. He didn’t take it away from me, but he warned me not to let my mind be soiled by corrupt observation of baseball procedures.)
There is one more salient point about You Know Me Al. It is funny. The fact has gone unmentioned, or been taken for granted, by Mrs. Woolf, Mencken, Fitzgerald, and others as they studied the literary or scientific aspects of the book. But Al knocked the country head over heels in the first place because people laughed at it, so intensely that the echoes have been accepted at face value ever since. My feeling about nonreaders and tradition-carriers is that they also serve. But reading, as I said before, is better.
He was a writer of manners, and the manners he described were those of a society markedly different from that in the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James. He wrote about the manners of the bleachers and the clubhouse, the mezzanine and the dressing room, the barbershop and the beauty parlor, the Pullman car and the touring car, the kitchen and the diner, the bridge table and the bowling alley. He wanted us to get rich, and he showed us how foolish we often looked as we threw our new money after idle and inane pleasures and possessions; he had been truly bitter or misanthropic or hateful, he never would have succeeded in making us laugh at ourselves so heartily.
He wrote so perceptively and accurately about what he saw because he was a great journalist. This, in the end is the singular accomplishment of his life. Ring came into the profession when it was held in far too much disdain even to be considered a “profession”; it was a line of work pursued by coarse people who had a coarse talent for putting words together in a speedy way. He was one of the very first people to bring creativity and felicity of style to the press. He set an example that was eagerly followed by younger writers. His aristocratic manner and confident bearing gave the lie to the argument that journalists were by their very nature guttersnipes. The quality of his writing and the doggedness with which he kept it so high proved that good prose and journalism were not mutually exclusive. So, too, he showed that in newspapers one could do serious work and be respected for it. P
And yet Lardner, who was widely admired by the likes of Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, and his friend and neighbor, Scott Fitzgerald, was chided by the critical establishment for not writing a novel. Maxwell Perkins, the famous editor, once wrote:P
Ring was not, strictly speaking, a great writer. The truth is he never regarded himself seriously as a writer. Healways though of himself as a newspaperman, anyhow. He had a sort of provincial scorn of literary people. If he had written much more, he would have been a great writer perhaps, but whatever it was that prevented him from writing more was the thing that prevented him from being a great writer. But he was a great man, and one of immense latent talent which got itself partly expressed. P
Yardley has a thoughtful take on the matter:P
Ring was scare of the mere idea of writing a novel; he had the journalist’s fear of taking on something so long and complex and structurally unclear. Beyond that, so many people had by now asked him so many times when he was going to write a “real” book that he must have felt that expectations had been raised past any point he could possibly hope to match.
…It is a mystery why he never simply said: Look, no one does what I do better than I do, so why not accept me for what I am? He could also have said, with utter legitimacy, that his mind functioned best over short, intense distances and that he did not think he was capable of writing a good novel—which in fact he probably was not.
Americans equate bigness with greatness, and all around him people were saying that he had to do something big if he wanted to be great. In truth, he probably did not care all that much about being great, but neither did he want to disappoint. He was a miniaturist to whom the world seemed to be shouting “Inflate! Inflate!” and he could not handle it. P
We’ve had Elmore Leonard on the brain, a writer famous for his ear and his ability to write dialogue. Ring Lardner built his reputation as a writer who appreciated how Americans talk. That’s no small achievement. He was also, as Yardley points out, funny. We’re grateful to theLibrary of America for celebrating an American original.
Here’s a keeper from Scott Raab. “The Hit King,” originally published in GQ back in 1997 and reprinted here with the author’s permission.
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 e in Pete lifts to cross the t before it. Each curlicued R 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.
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…”
New York sportswriting legend Dick Young was a lot of different things. Among them, for reasons laid out in this classic Ross Wetzsteon profile, he was a man one could easily imagine having a great time filing his column from the depths of Hell. Warren Leight and Charlie Rubin ran with the conceit in this parody, which originally appeared in The Village Voice on Jan. 17, 1989. It appears here with the authors’ permission.
NEWS ITEM:Young dies in September ’87
When I first arrived here, I took one look at the place and I felt. . . well, let down.
I figured Heaven should be a playground filled with stickball-playing kids and ringo-levio shouts and all the cold ones you could drink, served up by Pete Sheehy, the great Yankee clubhouse guy. Gofer.
I looked around.
OK, maybe I wasn’t expecting a marching band, but at least St. Peter, or an angel. . . a telegram. Something. I mean, I paid my dues, I made my deadlines, I never pretended I wasHemingway. Not to sound greedy but I was due a final reward.
Then I saw this place—the so-called “Heaven.” Ha! This is Heaven? I said to myself. This is this man’s pie-in-the-sky? In the first place, the sports page doesn’t have any West Coast scores. Ever. Instead we get the Broadway Show League scores. Updated inning by inning. Day and night. And the food is worse than half the clubhouse spreads I spent a lifetime loading up on.
Great, I think to myself, they ruined Brooklyn, they killed the Bronx, and they even let Heaven go to hell. Figures. It’s all over, I said to my pal Toots Shor—”Heaven ain’t what it used to be.”
I had to shout this, to get it over the goddamn disco music, but when he hears me he lifts his Bud Light (which is the only beer you can get here) and he says, “Dick, this ain’t Heaven. . . It’s Hell.”
Then Toots tells the bartender—who looks a lot like Roy Cohn, by the way—what I said, about Heaven not being what it used to be. And my line makes the rounds all the way to the back.
Everyone’s laughing so much I order another Bud Light and Roy says, “Sorry pal, it’s a two-beer-a-night limit.”
That’s when it hit me. It wasn’t the case of Heaven going to seed. It wasn’t like the bureaucracy and the bleeding hearts and the milquetoasts had ruined a good thing. It wasn’t that way at all.
Someone up in the sky had goofed, and I was in the Other Place.
NEWS ITEM:Young gets shaft
That night I wandered the streets—which all smell like the tunnel that connects the 1 Train to Port Authority—and I saw the place with new eyes. Maybe I even shed a tear.
The place was filled with tons of my old pals, sure, but cigarettes cost a deuce, and women wear pants and running shoes.
This wasn’t Heaven all right.
This was Hell.
Hell. Me, Dick Young, in Hell. Well, I knew it was a mistake, of course, and I knew I’d get out so I didn’t indulge myself in whiny self-pity a la Tom Seaver, but I will say this:
I’m not impressed.
This is Hell? This rundown gyp joint is hell? Like Hell it is.
I’ve seen Hell.
I’ve seen it in Washington Heights as a little boy sleeping on a fire escape at night in the days when poor people had too much dignity to demand air-conditioned housing projects.
This, this is like some great ultimate civil service honky-tonk on a sweaty summer night. But Hell?
Tell that to some reporter who walked his beat and earned an honest buck and only switched papers toward the end which anyone would’ve done if they had a chance.
The Hell with all the guff he took for it.
The only people who called this Hell are crybaby ballplayers pulling seven figures to play a little boys’ game half as well as real men played it in ’40s—baseball when the halvah was green.
NEWS ITEM:Young not bitter
No, I’m not. Mainly because I’m pretty convinced I’m going to be Called Up any day now.
Bitter? Why, I bet the more time I spend Heaven, the more I’ll actually look back fondly on this miscarriage of justice. That’s right.
Remember, My Generation was never opposed to getting a bit of seasoning in the minors. We were willing to lose the war in Africa in order to win the one in Spain. I mean in Europe. When I reminded myself of that, the rest came easy. Hell? Think of it as the Mexican League with better whores and better pitching.
And if Ted Williams could play three seasons in Triple A, I could make it through a couple of months with the head of a lizard.
Well, around the first of the year, what they do down here if you’re not going Up is they come around and tell you who’s going to win the Super Bowl, pennant races, Series, heavyweight bouts—they just spoil everything for you.
Evil One, I’ve got to hand it to you: it’s sportswriters’ Hell all right.
Which is what happened to me last year, in ’88.
First thought: get the scoop to all my loyal ex-readers on Earth. That way, they’d be as bored with sports as I was.
But then I realized I was being Tested.
Sure. If I took my disappointments out on my loyal ex-readers, if I gave away the winners to innocent people, then I belong in Hell.
So far, my strategy’s paid off. It’s mid-January, and I haven’t heard a peep. Fans, I think I’m Going Up to the place where you never have to change a ribbon.
NEWS ITEM:Some bitterness is justifiable
Yeah, I’ve got a beef.
Turns out the way you get into Heaven is a lot like the way you make it to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. There’s a ballot, your name has to appear on 75% of the total ballots cast, and the whole deal is politics. A bunch of jocks vote you In, and a lot of them never even saw me write.
Guess the Scooter knows the feeling. He’s been cheated out of Cooperstown for too long. Another tough break, Phil, is I’ve heard talk that there might be another “Election” in your future. I’m not saying what I’ve heard—it’s all gossip, Phil—but don’t let the phrase “abominations of perdition” scare you. It sounds a whole lot worse than it is.
Besides, Scooter, you’ll play yourself out of the Minors. Just like I did . . . Wait a minute, knock at the door. . . .
Brewers and Padres in the Series, 49ers in the Bowl, Tyson KO over Bruno, Montana Genius in the derby, Cleveland in baskets, Calgary in hockey, and I hate everybody.
When Bill Buckner dies, word is they’re going to toss him the key to the Pearly Gates. All he has to do is catch it, and he’s in. Tell me that’s not sick. . . . Remember when 54,633 Shea fans stood and cheered Keith Hernandez the day he returned from admitting drug addiction in Pittsburgh court? Four years later, not a single one of those fans is dead. This is fair? . . . You keep seeing things in Heaven that just shouldn’t be. Distasteful things. If I tell you that Paradise is filled with detox clinics and OTB offices, am I breaking your heart? . . . Plus, Casey Stengelwalks around Heaven buck naked. Can’t wait to see LeRoy Nieman paint that. . . . Like to see how any of these NBA druggies would stack up against City College’s starting five back in the days when Jews took set shots. . . . Never, never expected the Brooklyn Dodgers would play all their home games in Hell.
Bumped into Thurman, who told me the true story of how Ellie Howard died. Ellie had run up some questionable expenses while doing an out-of-town speaking engagement for the Yanks. He’d brought his wife along for the night in a Kentucky motel and then they phoned their kids and stayed on about 10 minutes. Boss George wanted to dock Ellie’s paycheck the extra $16.60, they had a row, but when Ellie collapsed, George knew the incident had gone far enough. Next day, he cut the motel bill and the phone bill into little pieces and sprinkled them over the future Hall-of-Famer’s open coffin. Even in death, fans, you hear stories of generous things Steinbrenner does quietly for so many people.
Memo to Bobby O.: your fingertip is in Heaven.
How many kids will drink themselves to death because Ring Lardner did it and he ended up with Wings?. . . Sad, sad, sad. . . . Make sense of this: seems all those sick kids Babe visited in the hospital and promised to swat a HR for? Well, apparently they all died on the operating table and went straight to Hell. . . . Mark Jackson and Rod Strickland are good players, but they’re no Bob Cousy. . . . Crybabies are upset that Syracuse didn’t cancel their ballgame the night Flight 103 went down. Hey, I didn’t see any pro teams take the night off when I died, and they all knew me a helluva lot better than anyone knew those spoiled kids. In my America, when a 19-year-old kid went to Europe, it was to shoot Nazis, not snapshots. . . . Don’t know what this means, but you get better reception on Sportschannel in Hell then you did in Manhattan. And another funny thing about hell—it takes less time to get cable guys here than it did in Midtown.
Regards to Frank Bruno from Benny “Kid” Paret. Frank, Benny says no reason to rush the fight.
Well, I finally met Hitler. I told him, “Adolph, let’s drop the formalities. You’re racist scum. But in a pickup basketball game, you’re not a bad ‘sixth man’ coming off the bench.” Sort of likeJohn Havlicek, Celts fans. I once asked Hondo for an interview and he said, “Soon’s I come back from the john.” He never came back. So what happens? 20 years later he winds up in the same sentence with Hitler. Stuck-up jocks, take note.
Can’t stomach reason source gave me why Israeli athletes murdered at ’72 Olympics aren’t in Heaven. Apparently, “they don’t believe in it.”. . . Just so no one gets the wrong idea, Hitler’s favorite sports writer is Red Smith. . . . Nothing against Reggie Otero, fine Cuban coach with Cincy Reds in ’60s, but he died October 21 and just reported to Heaven the other day. Claimed he had “visa problems.” Typical. After all these years, can’t Latins think up a better hustle to excuse chronic ethnic lateness? Another one I love is, “Oh, the death squads were torturing my mother.”. . . I always think, “At least in your country, government pays attentionto the elderly.”. . . Some Guys Never Get A Break Dept.: Wally Pipp is in Purgatory.
Memo to Joey D.: Marilyn is sick of your weekly roses. Give it a rest.
Somebody want to tell me how a guy like Gastineau had the guts to do the right thing and stand up to his union stooges but then he turned around and folds like an accordion when some skirt cracks the whip?. . . Unimpeachable source swears to me that Steinbrenner sold his soul last year, before the season began. And the Yankees still finished fifth. Thurman, I mean the source, says that’s all the shipbuilder’s soul would fetch. . . . Walter O’Malley on difference between fans in Heaven and Hell: “The hellsters are your real fans. Beautiful example. The drowning of Yankee pitcher John Candelaria’s son. In Heaven the first thing they say is ‘Terrible tragedy.’ But in Hell you hear, ‘Gee, what was Candy’s record last season?’” Too true. . . . Another source tells me that part of Steinbrenner’s problem is that he already sold his soul once before to get Dave Collins. . . . If the swelling in Carl Lewis’s head has gone down, he may be interested to know that lots of “brothers” down here can outrun him. And that’s with a color TV on their shoulder.
Remember a few years ago when some jerk threw a snowball at the 49ers placekicker, indisputably depriving Niners of sure win over Browns? I met the culprit yesterday. Long, greasy hair. Pale. Advertising slogan on his T-shirt—natch. And checking into Heaven. I said, “Wow, kid. Didn’t you have something to answer for?” He laughed. “You mean that snowball thing? I pleaded that down to a P.I. [public intoxication] and did 60 hours in Purgatory. Cake, man. Piece of.” . . . All I can say is, the tragedy of America’s limp-wristed court system that punishes innocents but lets crooks off scott free, seems to extend a lot further than I thought.
Movement growing to hold cancelled 1980 Olympics in Hell. Catch is, all those kid jocks have to die first. A lot of blank spaces in the record books would be wiped out, but tell that to a bunch of selfish kids who could do the right thing and commit suicide—but that would mean thinking about something bigger than themselves, wouldn’t it?
The Hindenburg is a fixture at football games in Hell.
Don’t ask me how, America, but not only did Jackie Robinson make it to Heaven—he still won’t talk to me. Still hates the press, that guy, maybe because I told him once, “Why don’t you be the first Negro to own up to your own words and not scream you were misquoted?” Ah, wait’ll Pee Wee Reese dies. You could bet he won’t capitulate to this Heaven/Hell business. He’ll stick out his hand in plain view of everyone and say, “Dick, I don’t judge a man by the color of his flames. It’s great to see you.”. . . Wonder how Pee Wee’s feeling?
Howcum Dept.: Yesterday I see 200 Iranians walk right through the Pearly Gates, but Ty Cobb’s still non grata going on 30 years just because he never quit the Klan. . . . What are you supposed to do—hold a man’s whole life against him?. . . ’92 Olympic preview: Florence Griffith Joyner may walk off with three or four gold medals in track and field. She may win some, too. . . . Remember great line in It’s a Wonderful Life: “Every time a bell rings it means an angel got his wings”? Well, in Hell, every time “La Bamba” plays, Johnny Weismuller is forced to swim a monkey across the River Styx on his back. . . . Only nice point about Heaven was first told me by Nellie Fox. He said, “There’s Mexican food everywhere, and it doesn’t go right through you.”. . . You hear that a lot.
Mike Tyson’s a great fighter but he’s no Marciano. . . Here’s a guy who thinks an actress likes him for who he is, and then when he wakes up and smells the horsespit, he picks Don King to straighten out his finances. With judgment like that someday the Powers That Be will put him in charge of deciding who gets into Heaven, and who goes south. But I’m not bitter.
Memo to Wade Boggs: It’s always better to pay for it on a one-shot basis than to run up a tab.
Could go either way: Milk-shake drinker Steve Garvey should be a sure shot for Heaven, except for old scandal where his wife was walking around naked and it didn’t sex him up. . . . OK, this bugs me, and I’m not the only one: every Sunday, all the guys in Heaven line up on their clouds and spit down on us cheap-seaters in Hell. It just rains down what we used to call, in the Depression, flamoozy. Can’t believe that Our Almighty turns His back on this behavior. Look. God, I didn’t pound out 4000 words a week to end up treated like some jerk who wears a Cards cap to Shea. . . . I’ll tell you the kind of place Heaven is. Horses can talk, but they’ve got nothing to say. . . . Worst offender has to be Man O’ War, who actually told me, “The race is to the swift.” Then quickly added, “I don’t need no press. I don’t need no negativity.”
Big Daddy Lipscomb (heroin OD, 1963) was being fitted for a size 74 pair of wings the other day. Had the gall to tell me, “Geez, I love bein’ in Heaven.” Yeah, you should’ve seen it when itworked. . . . Old timers here tell me that when Lily Tomlin had her team in the Broadway Show League, the players thought that every time they got to third base, they scored. . . . I don’t get that.
Daily sight of Vince Lombardi currying favor with St. Peter tarnishes great coach’s image. Yesterday I heard him saying, “You know that expression of mine, ‘Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing?’ Well, there’s not a lot of logic in it, is there? If winning’s everything, then there’s nothing else it can be, right, so it has to be the only thing. Jeez, St. Pete, I bet a lot of young men were led astray by me. Can I come in now?” Terrific. The greatest coach in the history of football fumbling words like a Carter Administration puppet. . . . Blind item: What overrated sportswriter named Angell may not be?
Danny Kaye: Name one dive Greg Louganis can’t do.
Babe: The Muff Dive.
The guys down here crack me up. . . . Mick’s gonna love it.
I’m going to miss Willie Randolph—a class Yankee in the quiet-but-proud Roy Whitetradition (although he was no Bobby Richardson). . . . Memo to Dick Nixon: try to catch as many games as you possibly can this year. Especially early in the season. . . . Memo to Billy Martin: see previous memo. . . . I asked a guy who’d know if there was any clue you could use to determine in advance if a guy’s going to the Good Place or the Not Really All That Bad a Place. His answer: if a guy’s got H-E-Double Hockey Sticks in his name, that’s a big hint. So fuck you, Howie cosELL. Same goes for you too, micHaEL Lupica. Jeez, it’s great being dead.
THE POSTMAN DOESN’T KNOCK AS OFTEN AS HE USED TO
Dear Mr. Young,
The broad asks if she can visit, I figure I can get lucky, I get shot, Malamud writes the novel, my career is never the same, Malamud’s takes off. I send Malamud a letter saying I’m entitled to a little cash off the top, he sends it back with my spelling corrected.
OK. Now I’m mad but I wait till ’64. Malamud’s teaching creative writing at Bennington, beatnik students tell me how to find his office. I storm in. William Styron is there. I say I obviously have the wrong office. Styron says, “How?” I say, I was going to kill Bernard Malamud but I chose the wrong door.
Styron gets a novel out of it.
Did these kinds of things just happen to me?
(ex-Cubs, Phils, O’s
The Mets are great!
I want to die!
The Giants will rebound!
I want to die!
The Yanks are ready to hit the throttle.
I got the lid off the bottle.
The liberals were too rough on Meese,
I know where daddy keeps his piece.
I’m going to blow my brains to Paris.
Next Stop: Hell, and Roger Maris!
Pace, age 6
I don’t usually publish poetry, but the kid’s got spunk.
I am a big fan of yours. I almost had a career in professional basketball. I always wanted to meet you. About a month ago I tried to look you up. That’s one of the nice things about Heaven, is the chance to meet all the heroes I looked up to growing up as a child.
I was very shocked when they told me where you were.
How could this be?
Could it be that no matter how hard a basketball player tried to get his act together you kept calling him a druggie? Or even after another one had lost his life n a tragic accident that wasn’t his fault because some white Celtics fans slipped him five grams anyway? Swear to G – d.
Anyway, that’s all water under the syringe.
I was sad that I couldn’t meet you, but then I figured I can still read you. They have a great library system up here. Except when I asked for some of your back columns, they told me none were “available.” Not one word you wrote, in 50 years, was immortalized here. Can you believe it? That hurt when I heard that, man. That really hurt.
Here’s a treat from Ross Wetzsteon. Originally published in the Aug. 1, 1985, issue of Sport magazine, it is reprinted here with permission of the author’s widow, Laura Ross.
Idols grow old like everybody else. Dick Young was once the patron saint, the most respected sportswriter in America, the one who changed all the rules, the guy who brought street smarts into the sports pages. He’s still the dean of American sportswriters, the most widely read and highly paid sports columnist in the country—and yet it’s not easy to find a colleague who has a good word to say about him.
When you finish reading one of his columns in the New York Post, they say, you have to take out your handkerchief and wipe the spittle off your face. “Young Ideas,” the title of his column, is “the greatest misnomer since Charley Winner.” As a baseball and football writer “he used to hang out with the players, but now all he does is suck up to the millionaire owners.” As a boxing writer “he would have no problem picking out Larry Holmes at a DAR convention.” “His values are sick and corrupt,” says a former NewYork Times sportswriter. And yet after saying all this—and adding that his “My America” tirades would embarrass Jerry Falwell, that his cranky obsessions are ruining his column into a one-man vigilante gang—even his sternest critics are unanimous in conceding that “the son of a bitch was still the best day-to-day writer who ever lived.” “The younger writers all loathe him,” says a veteran who’s worked with him more than 40 years, “but the thing they still have to learn from us old-timers is that you can only hate Dick Young 90 percent of the time.”
It’s partly a matter of generational style. Sitting in the front row of the press box at the World Series, the Super Bowl, the championship fight, bobbing his head up and down like a belligerent bantam, rapidly clawing out notes in his lefthanded scrawl, Dick Young, even at 67, looks like he should be in a Thirties B movie—the only thing missing is a snap-brim fedora with his press card jauntily stuck in the band. Dick Young belongs to the days when sportswriters banged out their stories on carriage-snapping typewriters, a cigarette dangling from their lips, a shot glass of bourbon at their side.
But it is his confrontational style that’s made him so many enemies. You’re drawn in by his lean, breezy, rat-tat-tat, three-dot prose, and then you realize what he’s saying (a litany of Genghis Khan causes, from anti-unionism to Red-baiting to good ol’ capital punishment), and even more clearly the tone in which he’s saying it (not just caustic but downright churlish; not just opinionated but out-and-out ranting). Is it any wonder that colleagues who began their careers by imitating his street-smart stance, his wiseass skepticism, now regard him as a doddering fossil?
People who’ve been reading Dick Young for only 10 years or so remember little more than his vicious vendettas (almost single-handedly driving Tom Seaver out of New York), or his ethnic insensitivities (advising his Spanish-speaking readers to leave their spray cans at home when visiting the reopened Yankee Stadium), or his hit-and-run blind items (“I’ve heard a rumor why the Johnny Benches split up,” he once wrote, “and I’ll never believe it”—end of item), or his mad-dog savaging of “druggies” (he could understand an athlete wanting a little on the side, he commented on the Edwin Moses prostitute/drug bust, but using those controlled substances was unforgivable). Dick Young is not a writer Hallmark would hire.
And yet if you go back more than 10 years, there’s another side to Dick Young. In the evolution of sportswriting from adolescent mythologizing to tell-it-like-it-is honesty, Dick Young was arguably the single most important transitional figure. There’s a better way to describe the arc of Dick Young’s career than to say he was a street-smart kid who rose to patron saint who degenerated into crotchety old man. And that’s to say that while his politics may be as reactionary as Louis XIV’s, his professional role has been as radical as Robespierre’s. What his detractors fail to understand is that there are many battles they don’t have to fight because Dick Young has already fought them—and won.
“What good can you say about a writer,” snips a columnist for a national newsweekly, “who thinks his greatest contribution to the English language is the word ‘horsespit’?” Well, one thing you can say is that when Dick Young began covering the Brooklyn Dodgers in the mid-Forties, baseball writing was characterized by a different kind of horsespit. One New York daily would lead off its story, “The mighty bats and nimble gloves of the visitors from St. Louis yesterday vanquished. . . .” But Dick Young was writing, “This story belongs on page three with the other axe murders.” When he’d begin his stories with fabled leads like “It was so cold out there today even the brass monkey stayed home,” he singlehandedly replaced the pompous poetry of the press box with the cynical poetry of the streets. “It may not seem that innovative today,” says Vic Ziegel, executive sports editor of New York’s Daily News, “but at the time we felt like people must have felt in the Twenties when they first heard Louis Armstrong.”
“How you going to deal with a guy whose enemies list makes Nixon look like Gandhi,” asks another young sportswriter. Well, one way you can deal with him is to remember that when Dick Young first began covering baseball, sportswriters were shameless shills for their teams, keeping the players at a heroic distance, settling for phonily alliterative nicknames like Joltin’ Joe or the Splendid Splinter. So when Young brought his cut ‘n’ slash opinions into his coverage, writing “it was a typical 400-foot Gene Hermanski drive, 200 feet up and 200 feet down,” readers were shocked. Mythic figures, bullspit; Dick Young drank in the same bars as these guys. If we take the warts-and-all closeups of today for granted, we’re neglecting to give him credit.
Dick Young, they say, has broken so many stories because he’s a mouthpiece of management. Come again? When Dick Young first began covering baseball, writers routinely showed up in the press box five minutes before the game and only visited the lockerroom if the press box toilet was broken. “I had to stop by the clubhouse at 11:00 one morning,” says a colleague from those day, “and Dick Young was already there, sitting on his haunches beside the trainer and a ballplayer, taking notes. That was the first time I ever saw a writer in the lockerroom at anytime, so don’t tell me he got handouts from the front office.”
Then they say Dick Young is contemptuous of his colleagues, a competitive son of a bitch who’ll knee you in the gut for a beat. But his critics don’t know this story—it’s never been printed until now. Joe Trimble, Dick Young’s colleague at the Daily News, is sitting at his typewriter in the press box at Yankee Stadium, staring at a blank piece of paper. An hour ago Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the World Series and now the press room downtown is freaking out—where’s Joe Trimble’s story? “I’m blank,” Joe Trimble says to Dick Young in a cold-sweat panic. “I can’t write a word.” Dick Young calmly rolls a piece of paper in his own typewriter, types out a sentence, takes out the paper and hands it to Joe Trimble. “The imperfect man pitched a perfect game.” Forty-five minutes later, Joe Trimble’s story is finished, it’s the best story of his career, he wins awards for that story—and Dick Young never says a word.
Brash, vulgar, pushy—that’s yet another count in the indictment. But hey, the man is a reporter, not a hired gun. Dick Young walks into the press conference where it will be announced that Doug Flutie has signed with the USFL. He sees a row of chairs occupied by TV people, celebrities, Donald Trump favorites and flunkies, sees the newspapermen standing three and four deep at the back. So he walks up the steps to the stage, sits down on a wall in front of the podium and takes out his notepad. Donald Trump’s security goons politely ask him to move. Choosing his words with the care if not the vocabulary of Flaubert, he informs them that this is a press conference, that he’s press and goddamned if he’s going to budge. They find him a chair near the podium. Christie Brinkley may be there to get her picture in the paper, but Dick Young is there to get his story.
“Gimme a beer,” says Dick Young. “Whadda ya wanna know?”
Some of your younger colleagues think. . .
“Shit, those young guys. They don’t work hard enough, they don’t work the phones, they don’t have any respect for themselves as professionals. I remember when the New York Times started giving days off in spring training! They’re in Florida, for Christ’s sake, and they want a day off! Me? I only write five columns a week these days. Piece of cake.”
Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News says. . .
“Mike Lupica? He’s a newspaper version of a spoiled-brat ballplayer,” Dick Young snaps. “He writes bullshit based on his lack of experience.”
Dick Young’s not an off-the-record guy. Skipping all over the place, talking just like his Friday column, “Clubhouse Confidential,” a sentence, three dots, on to something else, three dots, on to something else. Next question?
Murray Chass of the New York Times? “He’d sell his soul for access.” Maury Allen of the New York Post? “Careless with facts and quotes.” Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times? “Just a gagster.” Dick Young is the same with nearly all his colleagues. Not angry, not even sarcastic, just matter-of-fact rat-tat-tat. Next question.
Howard Cosell? “Howie the Shill? A fraud. An ass. A pompous ass. Those are the good things I can say about him. Now what about the other side?” Dick Young leans back in his chair and grins from sideburn to sideburn. He’s feeling almost benevolent. Lucky you didn’t catch him in a bad mood. “Cosell gets more and more obnoxious over the years, but people who say I go after him too much don’t realize that I’ve never written a whole column about him. He’s not worth it. Just a little shot here and there.”
(For his part, Howard Cosell declined to comment, but he once told an interviewer, “He’s a sick, troubled person. He’s a hate merchant, crazed, who’s been writing trash and abuses the First Amendment.”)
You were saying how you used to steal papers when you. . .
“Not steal, borrow,” says Dick Young sharply. “We used to borrow paper from the candy store, check out the box scores, then put them back.” A law-and-order kid. “I had a wonderful childhood. Sure, my parents were divorced when I was three, but it pisses me off when I hear about some guy who sobs his way to the electric chair because he came from ‘a broken home.’ Icame from a broken home, and I always felt I was one of the luckiest guys alive.”
Dick Young’s mother was an American Jew of German descent, his father a Russian Jew. From age 6 to 12, he was boarded out with an Italian Catholic family. Talking about growing up in Washington Heights (a lower-middle-class neighborhood in upper Manhattan), about getting an 87.5 average in high school (“and a better education than lots of colleges give you these days”), about playing stickball in the streets (“I was one of the best around”), about going to the old Madison Square Garden or the Polo Grounds (“I was always a Giants fan”), he’ll sometimes go three sentences in a row without bursting into an angry denunciation of the hoods and druggies who’ve desecrated his idyllic past. The Depression Thirties? Idyllic? There’s no nostalgia quite as proud as that of a man who survived hard times.
After graduating from high school, Dick Young went to California to stay with his father, a cameraman in Hollywood. Didn’t work out. Los Angeles Junior College; kicked out when he couldn’t afford the non-resident fee. Joined the CCC; shipped to upstate New York, helped build a state park, still proud of that. Heard the Daily News was hiring, $15 a week. Hitchhiked to New York, turned out they wanted college graduates. Said he’d go to college at night. Took classes at NYU, worked his way up at the News. Finally, after five years, covered his first game, at the Polo Grounds, then given his first beat, the ’46 Dodgers, and before long another big promotion, this time to patron saint.
“I didn’t even want to be a sportswriter,” he says. “I wanted to be a hot-shot newspaperman like Walter Winchell. I wanted to be a stop-the-presses guy, competing with the other paper for the scoop and for the girl. I didn’t go for that fancy writing—still don’t. Some guys think they can fool sports fans with, quote, good writing, unquote, but the fan knows when he’s being bullshitted by a cute line. If you’ve got the story you report it, if you don’t you write it. A newspaper isn’t like a book, for Christ’s sake. When you’re through with it you throw it out and buy a new one.”
Dick Young writes over 4,000 words a week—which adds up to nearly 10 million words in his career, 100 books or so, give or take a War and Peace. For nearly four decades Dick Young wasthe Daily News, the most popular feature in the country’s largest-selling newspaper—a survey once showed that he was singlehandedly responsible for over 50,000 sales a day. But then, in 1981, rumors began to circulate that the Daily News might fold, and suddenly there’s Dick Young, the man who chastised Tom Seaver (“Be a man and honor your contract”) breaking hiscontract and jumping to the New York Post. Hypocrisy was the kindest word they used. Loyalty. Horsespit.
“People think they see an analogy, right?” Dick Young uses the word scornfully, like an epithet. Suddenly his anger seems less genial. “Just for openers,” he says, “there’s a helluva difference between a guy who works 45 years for an organization and a guy who works five years. And as for the money, the difference wasn’t that great. I only got a raise from $115,000, to $125,000 [he makes $155,000 now]. My dream situation was to work for 50 years at the News and then have a goodbye party when I reached 69. But there I was, 63½ years old, they’re talking about closing down the world’s greatest newspaper and how many places will give a job to a guy 63½ years old?”
A lot of people feel Dick Young has lost his pop in the Post, that the Goetz-for-President tabloid has encouraged his pugnacity at the expense of his populism, turning him into a knee-jerk Neanderthal. Drugs, for instance.
“Nothing is as bad as drugs,” Dick Young says furiously. “Nothing. I get so angry when I see our country threatened by drugs. Ballclubs used to punish a guy for the slightest moral deficiency, but nowadays they welcome him back with open arms. I’ll get out of this business before I’ll beg a druggie to talk to me.”
Where does this rage come from, a bad experience? “Me? I only take one aspirin, for Christ’s sake.” The Dick Young segue—even in his fury he retains his humor. “I even gave up Camels—that was the closest thing to heroin in my time.”
Race? That’s a bit more complicated. Dick Young was one of Jackie Robinson’s earliest champions, but according to one of his colleagues on the Dodgers beat he once confided, “I can never forget he’s black” (to which Robinson responded, “I never want him to”), and was always closer to the nonmilitant Roy Campanella.
“I was all for Jackie,” says Dick Young, “but he thought everything that happened to him was because of his color. Racism was sometimes a crutch for Jackie. I can understand it, but that doesn’t make it right. And don’t give me any crap, racism is a two-edged sword. Blacks are as racist as anyone these days‚ maybe more so.”
This isn’t the kind of speech that’s going to win Dick Young any Brotherhood of Man awards. But while this kind of insensitivity appalls his white colleagues, his “I won’t bullshit you” stance has won him the grudging respect of many black athletes. Take Ali, for example.
“I was down on Ali at first,” Dick Young admits. “I felt he was exploited by the Muslims. He was a commercial racist, he didn’t hate white people, he just pretended he did in order to sell tickets. Anyway, one day Bundini Brown came over to me and said, ‘You guys should talk,’ and I said, ‘I’d be glad to.’ We had long discussions after that—politics, religion, everything. I still disagree with him, but we respect each other now. In his dressing room after his last fight, down in the Bahamas, we even kissed each other on the lips.”
Okay, that answers the question: Does Dick Young ever change his mind about anything? Still, one wonders if Ali really belongs in Dick Young’s America. “My America,” he calls it, President Young addressing his constituency, a land of afternoon ballgames, hardworking newspapermen, respect for Mom—and electric chairs.
“I know it bugs people. That’s why I do it. I use ‘My America’ almost facetiously now, just to needle people. But look, I was brought up in the greatest country in the world. To me, patriotism isn’t a matter of flag-waving but of the work ethic and respect for authority—those are the values I was brought up on.”
In Dick Young’s America, drugs are evil, unions are ruining sports and black athletes use racism as a “crutch.” But it’s revealing that he’d even suggest he’s only kidding. Dick Young’s politics are in the grand old tradition of American populism, of the little guy, of the boys in the bar, of the blue-collar, of the hardhat—of democratic bigotry.
“To me, there’s no such thing as a liberal or a conservative. It’s only this case, this case, this case—whose side deserves to be attacked at a particular time.” In Dick Young’s defense, it has to be pointed out that he’s led the fight for access to lockerrooms for women sportswriters. “They’re just doing their jobs,” he says, “they deserve to be treated like professionals. Why do the so-called liberals always lay claim to what’s right?”
Wiseass, sarcastic, swaggering—with a gutter wit, a toe-to-toe combativeness and most of all a tabloid cynicism that’s been elevated to the status of a political philosophy—never forget, Dick Young comes from the Thirties of The Front Page, not Norman Rockwell; he grew up in the Depression of Our Gang, not Eleanor Roosevelt. At times he seems less interested in changing your mind than in getting your goat.
“Today’s writers don’t have enough guts,” he says. “They let themselves be pushed around. The players give them all that crap and they accept it”—it’s hard to tell who ticks him off the most, the players or the press. “They even have ropes around the batting cage in spring training! Jesus Christ, how’m I supposed to do my job?” Three dots later and he’s off on druggies again, then three dots and he’s after the goddamned unions, then three dots and he’s dumping on a lazy colleague or a spoiled-brat player or even his own paper. “‘Today is Friday, the Post learned exclusively’—what the hell’s happened to our profession?”
When you read this stuff in his column you’re reminded of the obstinate dogmatism of the self-educated, but when you hear it it almost has a certain. . . charm. Even in his most vitriolic tirades there is a spark of wit, a flash of style. Dick Young may be the most opinionated, abusive, foul-mouthed bastard in an opinionated, abusive, foul-mouthed business, but still. . .
At the press conference after the first Ali-Frazier fight, Ali went into one of his harangues, berating the judges’ decision and announcing that be was going to organize a nationwide vote to let the people decide who won the fight. Everyone’s furiously scribbling notes when Dick Young’s voice suddenly pipes up. “You’ll lose,” he tells Ali. “Most of the brothers are in the slam and are ineligible to vote.” The reporters are aghast. Ali is speechless. But then suddenly he leans back and roars with laughter, the reporters join in and the harangue is history.
So what if he sometimes dresses like a cross between a senile hippy and a linoleum salesman—plaid pants, Day-Glo jackets, even, for a time in the Seventies, a medallion on his chest with a Miami Beach sport shirt open to his waist. What really keeps him young is the sharp one-sentence comeback, the snappy put-down. Dick Young, an embittered old man? No way. He’s still a brash, cocksure, pugnacious, candy-store kid who happens to be 67 years old.
In the meantime, the beat goes on—”in the sweatshop conditions of his Florida spring training camp,” Dick Young will write on a typical day, “where he works two-to-three hours a day and spends the rest of the time around the pool or on the golf course, Kent Tekulve has warned the plantation owners of baseball that the players are running out of patience. They aren’t going to put up with their terrible lives much longer. ‘We don’t want a strike, but if our backs are to the wall we’ll do it’ . . . a wall that most people wouldn’t mind being backed up against . . . . The players want to strike? Let ‘em.”
“A repugnant person,” says a writer who used to be on Dick Young’s staff at the Daily News.“He’d always try to graft his sensibility onto your work. At the Montreal Olympics, for instance, he’d even change my leads, adding phrases like ‘the dreaded Russians and their Red sisters. . .’ He somehow managed to be both corny and vile at the same time!”
Dick Young’s going to retire a year from January—at 69—50 years on the beat, the last of the great tabloid newspapermen. “Me and my wife, we own a piece of sand in Arizona. I like to cook, raise flowers. I think l’ll even try a novel.” A novel? “Sure, I’ll keep writing my crap as long as someone is willing to pay for it. The same stuff, only I’ll fictionalize it!’ Dick Young breaks into a malicious smile. “All those bastards, they’ll have a helluva time trying to figure out who the hell I’m talking about! Hah, I’d love to see their faces!”
Ross Wetzsteon was a journalist, critic, and editor in New York City for 35 years. From 1966 until his death in 1998, he worked at the the Village Voice as a contributor and editor, and for several years as its editor-in-chief. During his tenure at the Voice, Wetzsteon oversaw coverage of everything from politics to sports, but his abiding interest was the theater. For 28 years, he was the chairman of the Village Voice Obie Committee, responsible for bestowing awards for excellence on Off- and Off-Off Broadway artists and writers. Wetzsteon also contributed articles to New York Magazine, Men’s Journal, Playboy, The New York Times,Inside Sports, Conde Nast Traveler, Mademoiselle, and many other publications. He edited several anthologies, including The Obie Winners in 1980 and The Best of Off Broadway in 1984. He also wrote the preface to a collection of playwright Sam Shepard’s works,Fool for Love and Other Plays, and he was the author of Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960. He died in 1998.
Here’s a keeper from Gay Talese. Originally published in the March 1964 issue of Esquire.Reprinted here with the author’s permission.
At the foot of a mountain in upstate New York, about 60 miles from Manhattan, there is an abandoned country clubhouse with a dusty dance floor, upturned barstools and an untuned piano; and the only sounds heard around the place at night come from the big white house behind it—the clanging sounds of garbage cans being toppled by raccoons, skunks and stray cats making their nocturnal raids down from the mountain.
The white house seems deserted, too; but occasionally, when the animals become too clamorous, a light will flash on, a window will open, and a Coke bottle will come flying through the darkness and smash against the cans. But mostly the animals are undisturbed until daybreak, when the rear door of the white house swings open and a broad-shouldered Negro appears in gray sweat clothes with a white towel around his neck.
He runs down the steps, quickly passes the garbage cans and proceeds at a trot down the dirt road beyond the country club toward the highway. Sometimes he stops along the road and throws a flurry of punches at imaginary foes, each jab punctuated by hard gasps of his breathing—“hegh-hegh-hegh”—and then, reaching the highway, he turns and soon disappears up the mountain.
At this time of morning, farm trucks are on the road, and the drivers wave at the runner. And later in the morning, other motorists see him, and a few stop suddenly at the curb and ask:
“Say, aren’t you Floyd Patterson?”
“No,” says Floyd Patterson, “I’m his brother, Raymond.”
The motorists move on, but recently a man on foot, a disheveled man who seemed to have spent the night outdoors, staggered behind the runner along the road and yelled, “Hey, Floyd Patterson!”
“No, I’m his brother, Raymond.”
“Don’t tell me you’re not Floyd Patterson. I know what Floyd Patterson looks like.”
“Okay,” Patterson said, shrugging, “if you want me to be Floyd Patterson, I’ll be Floyd Patterson.”
“So let me have your autograph,” said the man, handing him a rumpled piece of paper and a pencil.
He signed it—”Raymond Patterson.”
One hour later Floyd Patterson was jogging his way back down the dirt path toward the white house, the towel over his head absorbing the sweat from his brow. He lives alone in a two-room apartment in the rear of the house, and has remained there in almost complete seclusion since getting knocked out a second time by Sonny Liston.
In the smaller room is a large bed he makes up himself, several record albums he rarely plays, a telephone that seldom rings. The larger room has a kitchen on one side and, on the other, adjacent to a sofa, is a fireplace from which are hung boxing trunks and T-shirts to dry, and a photograph of him when he was the champion, and also a television set. The set is usually on except when Patterson is sleeping, or when he is sparring across the road inside the clubhouse (the ring is rigged over what was once the dance floor), or when, in a rare moment of painful honesty, he reveals to a visitor what it is like to be the loser.
“Oh, I would give up anything to just be able to work with Liston, to box with him somewhere where nobody would see us, and to see if I could get past three minutes with him,” Patterson was saying, wiping his face with the towel, pacing slowly around the room near the sofa. “Iknow I can do better. . . . Oh, I’m not talking about a rematch. Who would pay a nickel for another Patterson-Liston fight? I know I wouldn’t. . . . But all I want to do is get past the first round.”
Then he said, “You have no idea how it is in the first round. You’re out there with all those people around you, and those cameras, and the whole world looking in, and all that movement, that excitement, and ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and the whole nation hoping you’ll win, including the President. And do you know what all this does? It blinds you, just blinds you. And then the bell rings, and you go at Liston and he’s coming at you, and you’re not even aware that there’s a referee in the ring with you.
“. . . Then you can’t remember much of the rest, because you don’t want to. . . . All you recall is, all of a sudden you’re getting up, and the referee is saying, ‘You all right?’ and you say, ‘Ofcourse I’m all right,’ and he says, ‘What’s your name?’ and you say, ‘Patterson.’
“And then, suddenly, with all this screaming around you, you’re down again, and you know you have to get up, but you’re extremely groggy, and the referee is pushing you back, and your trainer is in there with a towel, and people are all standing up, and your eyes focus directly at no one person—you’re sort of floating.
“It is not a bad feeling when you’re knocked out,” he said. “It’s a good feeling, actually. It’s not painful, just a sharp grogginess. You don’t see angels or start; you’re on a pleasant cloud. After Liston hit me in Nevada, I felt, for about four or five seconds, that everybody in the arena was actually in the ring with me, circled around me like a family, and you feel warmth toward all the people in the arena after you’re knocked out. You feel lovable to all the people. And you want to reach out and kiss everybody—men and women—and after the Liston fight, somebody told me I actually blew a kiss to the crowd from the ring. I don’t remember that. But I guess it’s true because that’s the way you feel during the four or five seconds after a knockout. . . .
“But then,” Patterson went on, still pacing, “this good feeling leaves you. You realize where you are, and what you’re doing there, and what has just happened to you. And what follows is a hurt, a confused hurt—not a physical hurt—it’s a hurt combined with anger; it’s a what-will-people-think hurt; it’s an ashamed-of-my-own-ability hurt. . . . And all you want then is a hatch door in the middle of the ring—a hatch door that will open and let you fall through and land in your dressing room instead of having to get out of the ring and face those people. The worst thing about losing is having to walk out of the ring and face those people. . . .”
Then Patterson walked over to the stove and put on the kettle for tea. He remained silent for a few moments. Through the walls could be heard the footsteps and voices of the sparring partners and the trainer who live in the front of the house. Soon they would be in the clubhouse getting things ready should Patterson wish to spar. In two days he was scheduled to fly to Stockholm and fight an Italian named Amonti, Patterson’s first appearance in the ring since the last Liston fight.
Next he hoped to get a fight in London against Henry Cooper. Then, if his confidence was restored, his reflexes reacting, Patterson hoped to start back up the ladder in this country, fighting all the leading contenders, fighting often, and not waiting so long between each fight as he had done when he was a champion in the 90-percent tax bracket.
His wife, whom he finds little time to see, and most of his friends think he should quit. They point out that he does not need the money. Even he admits that, from investments alone on his $8,000,000 gross earning, he should have an annual income of about $35,000 for the next 25 years. But Patterson, who is only 29 years old and barely scratched, cannot believe that he is finished. He cannot help but think that it was something more than Liston that destroyed him—a strange, psychological force was also involved, and unless he can fully understand what it was, and learn to deal with it in the boxing ring, he may never be able to live peacefully anywhere but under this mountain. Nor will he ever be able to discard the false whiskers and moustache that, ever since Johansson beat him in 1959, he has carried with him in a small attache case into each fight so he can slip out of the stadium unrecognized should he lose.
“I often wonder what other fighters feel, and what goes through their minds when they lose,” Patterson said, placing the cups of tea on the table. “I’ve wanted so much to talk to another fighter about all this, to compare thoughts, to see if he feels some of the same things I’ve felt. But who can you talk to? Most fighters don’t talk much anyway. And I can’t even look another fighter in the eye at a weigh-in, for some reason.
“At the Liston weigh-in, the sports writers noticed this, and said it showed I was afraid. But that’s not it. I can never look any fighter in the eye because . . . well, because we’re going to fight, which isn’t a nice thing, and because . . . well, once I actually did look a fighter in the eye. It was a long, long time ago. I must have been in the amateurs then. And when I looked at this fighter, I saw he had such a nice face . . . and then he looked at me . . . and smiled at me . . . and I smiled back! It was strange, very strange. When a guy can look at another guy and smile like that, I don’t think they have any business fighting.
“I don’t remember what happened in that fight, and I don’t remember what the guy’s name was. I only remember that, ever since, I have never looked another fighter in the eye.”
The telephone rang in the bedroom. Patterson got up to answer it. It was his wife, Sandra. So he excused himself, shutting the bedroom door behind him.
Sandra Patterson and their four children live in a $100,000 home in an upper-middle-class white neighborhood in Scarsdale, New York. Floyd Patterson feels uncomfortable in this home surrounded by a manicured lawn and stuffed with furniture, and, since losing his title to Liston, he has preferred living full time at his camp, which his children have come to know as “Daddy’s house.” The children, the eldest of whom is a daughter named Jeannie now seven years old, do not know exactly what their father does for a living. But Jeannie, who watched the last Liston-Patterson fight on closed-circuit television, accepted the explanation that her father performs in a kind of game where the men take turns pushing one another down; he had his turn pushing them down, and now it is their turn.
The bedroom door opened again, and Floyd Patterson shaking his head, was very angry and nervous.
“I’m not going to work out today,” he said. “I’m going to fly down to Scarsdale. These boys are picking on Jeannie again. She’s the only Negro in this school, and the older kids give her a rough time, and some of the older boys tease her and lift up her dress all the time. Yesterday she went home crying, and so today I’m going down there and plan to wait outside the school for those boys to come out, and . . .”
“How old are they?” he was asked.
“Teen-agers,” he said. “Old enough for a left hook.”
Patterson telephoned his pilot friend, Ted Hanson, who stays at the camp and does public-relations work for him, and has helped teach Patterson to fly. Five minutes later Hanson, a lean white man with a crew cut and glasses, was knocking on the door; and 10 minutes later both were in the car that Patterson was driving almost recklessly over the narrow, winding country roads toward the airport, about six miles from the camp.
“Sandra is afraid I’ll cause trouble; she’s worried about what I’ll do to those boys, she doesn’t want trouble!” Patterson snapped, swerving around a hill and giving his car more gas. “She’s just not firm enough! She’s afraid . . . she was afraid to tell me about that groceryman who’s been making passes at her. It took her a long time before she told me about that dishwasher repairman who comes over and calls her ‘baby.’ They all know I’m away so much. And that dishwasher repairman has been to my home about four five times this month already. That machine breaks down every week. I guess he fixes it so it breaks down every week. Last time, I laid a trap. I waited forty-five minutes for him to come, but then he didn’t show up. I was going to grab him and say, ‘How would you like it If I called your wife baby? You’d feel like punching me in the nose, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s what I’m going to do—if you ever call her babyagain. You call her Mrs. Patterson; or Sandra, if you know her. But you don’t know her, so call her Mrs. Patterson.’ And then I told Sandra that these men, this type of white man, he just wants to have some fun with colored women. He’ll never marry a colored woman, just wants to have some fun. . . .”
Now he was driving into the airport’s parking lot. Directly ahead, roped to the grass airstrip, was the single-engine green Cessna that Patterson bought and learned to fly before the second Liston fight. Flying was a thing Patterson had always feared—a fear shared, maybe inherited from, his manager, Cus D’Amato, who still will not fly.
D’Amato, who took over training Patterson when the fighter was 17 or 18 years old and exerted a tremendous influence over his psyche, is a strange but fascinating man of 56 who is addicted to Spartanism and self-denial and is possessed by suspicion and fear; he avoids subways because he fears someone might push him onto the tracks; never has married; never reveals his home address.
“I must keep my enemies confused,” D’Amato once explained. “When they are confused, then I can do a job for my fighters. What I do not want in life, however, is a sense of security; the moment a person knows security, his senses are dulled—and he begins to die. I also do not want many pleasures in life; I believe the more pleasure you get out of living, the more fear you have of dying.”
Until a few years ago, D’Amato did most of Patterson’s talking, and ran things like an Italianpadrone. But later Patterson, the maturing son, rebelled against the Father Image. After losing to Sonny Liston the first time—a fight D’Amato had urged Patterson to resist—Patterson took flying lessons. And before the second Liston fight, Patterson had conquered his fear of height, was master at the controls, was filled with renewed confidence—and knew, too, that, even if he lost, he at least possessed a vehicle that could get him out of town fast.
But it didn’t. After the fight, the little Cessna, weighed down by too much luggage, became overheated 90 miles outside of Las Vegas. Patterson and his pilot companion, having no choice but to turn back, radioed the airfield and arranged for the rental of a larger plane. When they landed, the Vegas air terminal was filled with people leaving town after the fight. Patterson hid in the shadow behind a hangar. His beard was packed in the trunk. But nobody saw him.
Later the pilot flew Patterson’s Cessna back to New York alone. And Patterson flew in the larger, rented plane. He was accompanied on this flight by Hanson, a friendly, 42-year-old, thrice divorced Nevadan who once was a crop duster, a bartender and a cabaret hoofer; later he became a pilot instructor in Las Vegas, and it was there that he met Patterson. The two became good friends. And when Patterson asked Hanson to help fly the rented plane back to New York, Hanson did not hesitate, even though he had a slight hangover that night—partly due to being depressed by Liston’s victory, partly due to being slugged in a bar by a drunk after objecting to some unflattering things the drunk had said about the fight.
Once in the airplane, however, Ted Hanson became very alert; He had to, because, after the plane had cruised a while at 10,000 feet, Floyd Patterson’s mind seemed to wander back to the ring, and the plane would drift off course, and Hanson would say, “Floyd, Floyd, how’s about getting back on course?” and then Patterson’s head would snap up and his eyes would flash toward the dials. And everything would be all right for a while. But then he was back in the arena, reliving the fight, hardly believing that it had really happened. . . .
“… And I kept thinking, as I flew out of Vegas that night, of all those months of training before the fight, all the roadwork, all the sparring, all the months away from Sandra. . . . thinking of the time in camp when I wanted to stay up until eleven-fifteen P.M. to watch a certain movie on “The Late Show.” But I didn’t because I had roadwork the next morning. . . .
“… And I was thinking about how good I’d felt before the fight, as I lay on the table in the dressing room. I remember thinking, ‘You’re in excellent physical condition, you’re in good mental condition—but are you vicious?’ But you tell yourself, ‘Viciousness is not important now, don’t think about it now; a championship fight’s at stake, and that’s important enough and, who knows? maybe you’ll get vicious once the bell rings.’
“… And so you lay there trying to get a little sleep . . . but you’re only in a twilight zone, half asleep, and you’re interrupted every once in a while by voices out in the hall, some guy’s yelling ‘Hey, Jack,’ or ‘Hey, Al,’ or ‘Hey, get those four-rounders into the ring.’ And when you hear that, you think, They’re not ready for you yet. So you lay there . . . and wonder, Where will I be tomorrow? Where will I be three hours from now? Oh, you think all kinds of thoughts, some thoughts completely unrelated to the fight . . . you wonder whether you ever paid your mother-in-law back for all those stamps she bought a year ago . . . and you remember that time at two A.M. when Sandra tripped on the steps while bringing a bottle up to the baby . . . and then you get mad and ask: What am I thinking about these things for? . . . and you try to sleep . . . but then the door opens and somebody says to somebody else, ‘Hey, is somebody gonna go to Liston’s dressing room to watch ‘em bandage up?’
“… And so then you know it’s about time to get ready. . . . You open your eyes. You get off the table. You glove up, you loosen up. Then Liston’s trainer walks in. He looks at you, he smiles. He feels the bandages and later he says, ‘Good luck, Floyd,’ and you think, He didn’t have to say that, he must be a nice guy.
“. . . And then you go out, and it’s the long walk, always a long walk, and you think, What am I gonna be when I come back this way? Then you climb into the ring. You notice Billy Eckstine at ringside leaning over to talk to somebody, and you see the reporters—some you like, some you don’t like—and then it’s ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and the cameras are rolling, and the bell rings. . . .
“… How could the same thing happen twice? How? That’s all I kept thinking after the knockout. . . . Was I fooling these people all these years? . . . Was I ever the champion? . . . And then they lead you out of the ring . . . and up the aisle you go, past those people, and all you want is to get to your dressing room, fast . . . but the trouble was in Las Vegas they made a wrong turn along the aisle, and when we got to the end, there was no dressing room there . . . and we had to walk all the way back down the aisle, past the same people, and they must have been thinking, Patterson’s not only knocked out, but he can’t even find his dressing room. . . .
“… In the dressing room I had a headache. Liston didn’t hurt me physically—a few days later I only felt a twitching nerve in my teeth—it was nothing like some fights I’ve had: like that Dick Wagner fight in ’53 when he beat my body so bad I was urinating blood for days. After the Liston fight, I just went into the bathroom, shut the door behind me and looked at myself in the mirror. I just looked at myself, and asked, What happened? and then they started pounding on the door, and saying ‘Com’on out, Floyd, Com’on out; the press is here, Gus is here, com’on out, Floyd. . . .”
“… And so I went out, and they asked questions, but what can you say? What you’re thinking about is all those months of training, all the conditioning, all the depriving; and you think, I didn’t have to run that extra mile, didn’t have to spar that day, I could have stayed up that night in camp and watched ‘The Late Show’. . . . I could have fought this fight tonight in no condition. . . .”
“Floyd, Floyd,” Hanson had said, “let’s get back on course. . . .”
Again Patterson would snap out of his reverie, and refocus on the omniscope, and get his flying under control. After landing in New Mexico, and then in Ohio, Floyd Patterson and Ted Hanson brought the little plane into the New York airstrip near the fight camp. The green Cessna that had been flown back by the other pilot was already there, roped to the grass at precisely the same spot it was on this day five months later when Floyd Patterson was planning to fly it toward perhaps another fight—this time a fight with some schoolboys in Scarsdale who had been lifting up his little daughter’s dress.
Patterson and Ted Hanson untied the plane, and Patterson got a rag and wiped from the windshield the splotches of insects. Then he walked around behind the plane, inspected the tail, checked under the fuselage, then peered down between the wing and the flaps to make sure all the screws were tight. He seemed suspicious of something. D’Amato would have been pleased.
“If a guy wants to get rid of you,” Patterson explained, “all he has to do is remove these little screws here. Then, when you try to come in for a landing, the flaps fall off, and you crash.”
Then Patterson got into the cockpit and started the engine. A few moments later, with Hanson beside him, Patterson was racing the little plane over the grassy field, then soaring over the weeds, then flying high above the gentle hills and trees. It was a nice takeoff.
Since it was only a 40-minute flight to the Westchester airport, where Sandra Patterson would be waiting with a car, Floyd Patterson did all the flying. The trip was uneventful until, suddenly behind a cloud, he flew into heavy smoke that hovered above a forest fire. His visibility gone, he was forced to the instruments. And at this precise moment, a fly that had been buzzing in the back of the cockpit flew up front and landed on the instrument panel in front of Patterson. He glared at the fly, watched it crawl slowly up the windshield, then shot a quick smash with his palm against the glass. He missed. The fly buzzed safely past Patterson’s ear, bounced off the back of the cockpit, circled around.
He flew easily for a few moments. Then the fly buzzed to the front again, zigzagging before Patterson’s face, landed on the panel and proceeded to crawl across it. Patterson watched it, squinted. Then he slammed down at it with a quick right hand. Missed.
Ten minutes later, his nerves still on edge, Patterson began the descent. He picked up the radio microphone—”Westchester tower . . . Cessna 2729 uniform . . . three miles northwest . . . land in one-six on final . . .” —and then, after an easy landing, he climbed quickly out of the cockpit and strode toward his wife’s station wagon outside the terminal.
But along the way a small man smoking a cigar turned toward Patterson, waved at him and said, “Say, excuse me, but aren’t you . . . aren’t you . . . Sonny Liston?”
Patterson stopped. He glared at the man, bewildered. He wasn’t sure whether it was a joke or an insult, and he really did not know what to do.
“Aren’t you Sonny Liston?” the man repeated, quite serious.
“No,” Patterson said, quickly passing by the man. “I’m his brother.”
When he reached Mrs. Patterson’s car, he asked, “How much time till school lets out?”
“About fifteen minutes,” she said, starting up the engine. Then she said, “Oh, Floyd, I just should have told Sister, I shouldn’t have. . .”
“You tell Sister; I’ll tell the boys. . . .”
Mrs. Patterson drove as quickly as she could into Scarsdale, with Patterson shaking his head and telling Ted Hanson in the back, “Really can’t understand these school kids. This is a religious school, and they want $20,000 for a glass window—and yet, some of them carry these racial prejudices, and it’s mostly the Jews who are shoulder to shoulder with us, and . . .”
“Oh, Floyd,” cried his wife, “Floyd, I have to get along here . . . you’re not here, you don’t live here, I . . .”
She arrived at the school just as the bell began to ring. It was a modern building at the top of a hill, and on the lawn was the statue of a saint and, behind it, a large white cross. “There’s Jeannie,” said Mrs. Patterson.
“Hurry, call her over here,” Patterson said.
“Jeannie! Come over here, honey.”
The little girl, wearing a blue school uniform and cap, and clasping books in front of her, came running down the path toward the station wagon.
“Jeannie,” Floyd Patterson said, rolling down his window, “point out the boys who lifted your dress.”
Jeannie turned and watched as several students came down the path; then she pointed to a tall, thin, curly-haired boy walking with four other boys, all about 12 to 14 years of age.
“Hey,” Patterson called to him, “can I see you for a minute?”
All five boys came to the side of the car. They looked Patterson directly in the eye. They seemed not at all intimidated by him.
“You the one that’s been lifting up my daughter’s dress?” Patterson asked the boy who had been singled out.
“Nope,” the boy said, casually.
“Nope?” Patterson said, caught off guard by the reply.
“Wasn’t him, Mister,” said another boy. “Probably was his little brother.”
Patterson looked at Jeannie. But she was speechless, uncertain. The five boys remained there, waiting for Patterson to do something.
“Well, er, where’s your little brother?” Patterson asked.
“Hey, kid!” one of the boys yelled. “Come over here.”
A boy walked toward them. He resembled his older brother; he had freckles on his small, upturned nose, had blue eyes, dark curly hair and, as he approached the station wagon, he seemed equally unintimidated by Patterson.
“You been lifting up my daughter’s dress?”
“Nope,” the boy said.
“Nope!” Patterson repeated, frustrated.
“Nope, I wasn’t lifting it. I was just touching it a little . . .”
The other boys stood around the car looking down at Patterson, and other students crowded behind them, and nearby Patterson saw several white parents standing next to their parked cars; he became self-conscious, began to tap nervously with his fingers against the dashboard. He could not raise his voice without creating an unpleasant scene, yet he could not retreat gracefully; so his voice went soft, and he said, finally:
“Look, boy, I want you to stop it. I won’t tell your mother—that might get you in trouble—but don’t do it again, okay?”
The boys calmly turned and walked, in a group, up the street. Sandra Patterson said nothing. Jeannie opened the door, sat in the front seat next to her father, and took out a small blue piece of paper that a nun had given her and handed it across to Mrs. Patterson. But Floyd Patterson snatched it. He read it. Then he paused, put the paper down, and quietly announced, dragging out the words, “She didn’t do her religion. . . .”
Patterson now wanted to get out of Scarsdale. He wanted to return to camp. After stopping at the Patterson home in Scarsdale and picking up Floyd Patterson, Jr., who is three, Mrs. Patterson drove them all back to the airport. Jeannie and Floyd, Jr., were seated in the back of the plane, and then Mrs. Patterson drove the station wagon alone up to camp, planning to return to Scarsdale that evening with the children.
It was 4 P.M. when Floyd Patterson got back to the camp, and the shadows were falling on the clubhouse, and on the tennis court routed by weeds, and on the big white house in front of which not a single automobile was parked. All was deserted and quiet; it was a loser’s camp.
The children ran to play inside the clubhouse; Patterson walked slowly toward his apartment to dress for the workout.
“What could I do with those schoolboys?” he asked. “What can you do to kids of that age?”
It still seemed to bother him—the effrontery of the boys, the realization that he had somehow failed, the probability that, had those same boys heckled someone in Liston’s family, the schoolyard would have been littered with limbs.
While Patterson and Liston both are products of the slum, and while both began as thieves, Patterson had been tamed in a special school with help from a gentle Negro spinster; later he became a Catholic convert, and learned not to hate. Still later he bought a dictionary, adding to his vocabulary such words as “vicissitude” and “enigma.” And when he regained his championship from Johansson, he became the Great Black Hope of the Urban League.
He proved that it is not only possible to rise out of a Negro slum and succeed as a sportsman, but also to develop into an intelligent, sensitive, law-abiding citizen. In proving this, however, and in taking pride in it, Patterson seemed to lose part of himself. He lost part of his hunger, his anger—and as he walked up the steps into his apartment, he was saying, “I became the good guy. . . . After Liston won the title, I kept hoping that he would change into a good guy, too. That would have relieved me of the responsibility, and maybe I could have been more of the bad guy. But he didn’t. . . . It’s okay to be the good guy when you’re winning. But when you’re losing, it is no good being the good guy.”
Patterson took off his shirt and trousers and, moving some books on the bureau to one side, put down his watch, his cuff links and a clip of bills.
“Do you do much reading?” he was asked.
“No,” he said. “In fact, you know I’ve never finished reading a book in my whole life? I don’t know why. I just feel that no writer today has anything for me; I mean, none of them has felt any more deeply than I have, and I have nothing to learn from them. Although Baldwin to me seems different from the rest. What’s Baldwin doing these days?”
“He’s writing a play. Anthony Quinn is supposed to have a part in it.”
“Quinn?” Patterson asked.
“Quinn doesn’t like me.”
“I read or heard it somewhere; Quinn had been quoted as saying that my fight was disgraceful against Liston, and Quinn said something to the effect that he could have done better. People often say that—they could have done better! Well, I think that if they had to fight, they couldn’t even go through the experience of waiting for the fight to begin. They’d be up the whole night before, and would be drinking, or taking drugs. They’d probably get a heart attack. I’m sure that if I was in the ring with Anthony Quinn, I could wear him out without even touching him. I would do nothing but pressure him, I’d stalk him, I’d stand close to him. I wouldn’t touch him, but I’d wear him out and he’d collapse. But Anthony Quinn’s an old man, isn’t he?”
“In his forties.”
“Well, anyway,” Patterson said, “getting back to Baldwin, he seems like a wonderful guy. I’ve seen him on television, and, before the Liston fight in Chicago, he came by my camp. You meet Baldwin on the street and you say, ‘Who’s this poor slob?’—he seems just like another guy; and this is the same impression I give people when they don’t know me. But I think Baldwin and me, we have much in common, and someday I’d just like to sit somewhere for a long time and talk to him. . . .”
Patterson, his trunks and sweat pants on, bent over to tie his shoelaces, and then, from a bureau drawer, took out a T-shirt across which was printed “Deauville.” He has several T-shirts bearing the same name. He takes good care of them. They are souvenirs from the high point of his life. They are from the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach, which is where he trained for the third Ingemar Johansson match in March of 1961.
Never was Floyd Patterson more popular, more admired than during that winter. He had visited President Kennedy; he had been given a $35,000 jeweled crown by his manager; his greatness was conceded by sports writers—and nobody had any idea that Patterson, secretly, was in possession of a false moustache and dark glasses that he intended to wear out of Miami Beach should he lose the third fight to Johansson.
It was after being knocked out by Johansson in their first fight that Patterson, deep in depression, hiding in humiliation for months in a remote Connecticut lodge, decided he could not face the public again if he lost. So he bought false whiskers and a moustache, and planned to wear them out of his dressing room after a defeat. He had also planned, in leaving his dressing room, to linger momentarily within the crowd and perhaps complain out loud about the fight. Then he would slip undiscovered through the night and into a waiting automobile.
Although there proved to be no need for bringing disguise into the second or third Johansson fights, or into a subsequent bout in Toronto against an obscure heavyweight named Tom McNeeley, Patterson brought it anyway; and, after the first Liston fight, he not only wore it during his 30-hour automobile ride from Chicago to New York, but he also wore it while in an airliner bound for Spain.
“As I got onto this plane, you’d never have recognized me,” he said. “I had on this beard, moustache, glasses and hat—and I also limped, to make myself look older. I was alone. I didn’t care what plane I boarded; I just looked up and saw this sign at the terminal reading ‘Madrid,’ and so I got on that flight after buying a ticket.
“When I got to Madrid I registered at a hotel under the name ‘Aaron Watson.’ I stayed in Madrid about four or five days. In the daytime I wandered around to the poorer sections of the city, limping, looking at the people, and the people stared back at me and must have thought I was crazy because I was moving so slow and looked the way I did. I ate food in my hotel room. Although once I went to a restaurant and ordered soup. I hate soup. But I thought it was what old people would order. So I ate it. And after a week of this, I began to actually think I was somebody else. I began to believe it. And it is nice, every once in a while, being somebody else.”
Patterson would not elaborate on how he managed to register under a name that did not correspond to his passport; he merely explained, “With money, you can do anything.”
Now, walking slowly around the room, his black silk robe over his sweat clothes, Patterson said, “You must wonder what makes a man do things like this. Well, I wonder, too. And the answer is, I don’t know . . . but I think that within me, within every human being, there is a certain weakness. It is a weakness that exposes itself more when you’re alone. And I have figured out that part of the reason I do the things I do, and cannot seem to conquer that one word—myself—is because . . . I am a coward. . . .”
He stopped. He stood very still in the middle of the room, thinking about what he had just said, probably wondering whether he should have said it.
“I am a coward,” he then repeated, softly. “My fighting has little to do with that fact, though. I mean you can be a fighter—and a winning fighter—and still be a coward. I was probably a coward on the night I won the championship back from Ingemar. And I remember another night, long ago, back when I was in the amateurs, fighting this big, tremendous man named Julius Griffin. I was only a hundred fifty-three pounds. I was petrified. It was all I could do to cross the ring. And then he came at me, and moved close to me . . . and from then on I don’t know anything. I have no idea what happened. Only thing I know is, I saw him on the floor. And later somebody said, ‘Man, I never saw anything like it. You just jumped up in the air, and threw thirty different punches. . . .’”
“When did you first think you were a coward?” he was asked.
“It was after the first Ingemar fight.”
“How does one see this cowardice you speak of?”
“You see it when a fighter loses. Ingemar, for instance, is not a coward. ‘When he lost the third fight in Miami, he was at a party later at the Fontainebleau. Had I lost, I couldn’t have gone to that party. And I don’t see how he did. . . .”
“Could Liston be a coward?”
“That remains to be seen,” Patterson said. “We’ll find out what he’s like after somebody beats him, how he takes it. It’s easy to do anything in victory. It’s in defeat that a man reveals himself. In defeat I can’t face people. I haven’t the strength to say to people, ‘I did my best, I’m sorry, and what not.’”
“Have you no hate left?”
“I have hated only one fighter,” Patterson said. “And that was Ingemar in the second fight. I had been hating him for a whole year before that—not because he beat me in the first fight, but because of what he did after. It was all that boasting in public, and his showing off his right-hand punch on television, his thundering right, his ‘toonder and lightning.’ And I’d be home watching him on television, and hating him. It is a miserable feeling, hate. When a man hates, he can’t have any peace of mind. And for one solid year I hated him because, after he took everything away from me, deprived me of everything I was, he rubbed it in. On the night of the second fight, in the dressing room, I couldn’t wait until I got into the ring. When he was a little late getting into the ring, I thought, He’s holding me up; he’s trying to unsettle me—well, I’ll get him!”
“Why couldn’t you hate Liston in the second match?”
Patterson thought for a moment, then said, “Look, if Sonny Liston walked into this room now and slapped me in the face, then you’d see a fight. You’d see the fight of our life because, then, a principle would be involved. I’d forget he was a human being. I’d forget I was a human being. And I’d fight accordingly.”
“Could it be, Floyd, that you made a mistake in becoming a prizefighter?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you say you’re a coward; you say you have little capacity for hate; and you seemed to lose your nerve against those schoolboys in Scarsdale this afternoon. Don’t you think you might have been better suited for some other kind of work? Perhaps a social worker, or . . .”
“Are you asking why I continue to fight?”
“Well,” he said, not irritated by the question, “first of all, I love boxing. Boxing has been good to me. And I might just as well ask you the question: ‘Why do you write?’ Or, ‘Do you retire from writing every time you write a bad story?’ And as to whether I should have become a fighter in the first place, well, let’s see how I can explain it. . . . Look, let’s say you’re a man who has been in an empty room for days and days without food . . . and then they take you out of that room and put you into another room where there’s food hanging all over the place . . . and the first thing you reach for, you eat. When you’re hungry, you’re not choosy, and so I chose the thing that was closest to me. That was boxing. One day I just wandered into a gymnasium and boxed a boy. And I beat him. Then I boxed another boy. I beat him, too. Then I kept boxing. And winning. And I said, ‘Here, finally, is something I can do!’
“Now I wasn’t a sadist,” he quickly added. “But I liked beating people because it was the only thing I could do. And whether boxing was a sport or not, I wanted to make it a sport because it was a thing I could succeed at. And what were the requirements? Sacrifice. That’s all. To anybody who comes from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, sacrifice comes easy. And so I kept fighting, and one day I became heavyweight champion, and I got to know people like you. And you wonder how I can sacrifice, how I can deprive myself so much? You just don’t realize where I’ve come from. You don’t understand where I was when it began for me.
“In those days, when I was about eight years old, everything I got—I stole. I stole to survive, and I did survive, but I seemed to hate myself. My mother told me I used to point to a photograph of myself hanging in the bedroom and say, ‘I don’t like that boy!’ One day my mother found three large X’s scratched with a nail or something over that photograph of me. I don’t remember doing it. But I do remember feeling like a parasite at home. I remember how awful I used to feel at night when my father, a longshoreman, would come home so tired that, as my mother fixed food before him, he would fall asleep at the table because he was that tired. I would always take his shoes off and clean his feet. That was my job. And I felt so bad because here I was, not going to school, doing nothing, just watching my father come home; and on Friday nights it was even worse. He would come home with his pay, and he’d put every nickel of It on the table so my mother could buy food for all the children. I never wanted to be around to see that. I’d run and hide. And then I decided to leave home and start stealing—and I did. And I would never come home unless I brought something that I had stolen. Once I remember I broke into a dress store and stole a whole mound of dresses, at two A.M., and here I was, this little kid, carrying all those dresses over the wall, thinking they were all the same size, my mother’s size, and thinking the cops would never notice me walking down the street with all those dresses piled over my head. They did, of course. . . . I went to the Youth House. . . .”
Floyd Patterson’s children, who had been playing outside all this time around the country club, now became restless and began to call him, and Jeannie started to pound on his door. So Patterson picked up his leather bag, which contained his gloves, his mouthpiece and adhesive tape, and walked with the children across the path toward the clubhouse.
He flicked on the light switches behind the stage near the piano. Beams of amber streaked through the dimly lit room and flashed onto the ring. He took off his robe, shuffled his feet in the rosin, skipped rope, and then began to shadowbox in front of the spit-stained mirror, throwing out quick combinations of lefts, rights, lefts, rights, each jab followed by a “hegh-hegh-hegh-hegh.” Then, his gloves on, he moved to the punching bag in the far corner, and soon the room reverberated to his rhythmic beat against the bobbling bag—rat-tat-tat-tetteta, rat-tat-tat-tetteta-rat-tat-tat-tetteta-rat-tat-tetteta!
The children, sitting on pink leather chairs, moved from the bar to the fringe of the ring, watched him in awe, sometimes flinching at the force of his pounding against the leather bag.
And this is how they would probably remember him years from now: a dark, solitary, glistening figure punching in the corner of a forlorn spot at the bottom of a mountain where people once came to have fun—until the clubhouse because unfashionable, the paint began to peel, and Negroes were allowed in.
As Floyd Patterson continued to bang away with lefts and rights, his gloves a brown blur against the bag, his daughter slipped quietly off her chair and wandered past the ring into the other room. There, on the other side of the bar and beyond a dozen round tables, was the stage. She climbed onto the stage and stood behind a microphone, long dead, and cried out, imitating a ring announcer, “Ladieeees and gentlemen . . . tonight we present . . .”
She looked around, puzzled. Then, seeing that her little brother had followed her, she waved him up to the stage and began again: “Ladiees and gentlemen . . . tonight we present . . .Floydie Patterson. . . .”
Suddenly, the pounding against the bag in the other room stopped. There was silence for a moment. Then Jeannie, still behind the microphone and looking down at her brother, said, “Floydie, come up here!”
“No,” he said.
“Oh, come up here!”
“No,” he cried.
Then Floyd Patterson’s voice, from the other room, called: “Cut it out . . . I’ll take you both for a walk in a minute.”
He resumed punching—rat-tat-tat-tetteta—and they returned to his side. But Jeannie interrupted, asking, “Daddy, how come you sweating?”
“Water fell on me,” he said, still pounding.
“Daddy,” asked Floyd, Jr., “how come you spit water on the floor before?”
“To get it out of my mouth.”
He was about to move over to the heavier punching bag when the sound of Mrs. Patterson’s station wagon could be heard moving up the road.
Soon she was in Patterson’s apartment cleaning up a bit, patting the pillows, washing the teacups that had been left in the sink. One hour later the family was having dinner together. They were together for two mere hours; then, at 10 P.M., Mrs. Patterson washed and dried all of the dishes, and put the garbage out in the can—where it would remain until the raccoons and skunks got to it.
And then, after helping the children with their coats and walking out to the station wagon and kissing her husband good-bye, Mrs. Patterson began the drive down the dirt road toward the highway. Patterson waved once, and stood for a moment watching the taillights go, and then he turned and walked slowly back toward the house.
Or: “How Hollywood Ruined Our Best Football Novel”
By John Schulian
Long before he established himself as the Ring Lardner of the Pepsi generation, Dan Jenkins wrote about sports for the blighted Fort Worth Press. He had to rise at 4 every morning to put out the paper’s first edition, and the indignity of that, he claims with typical reckless abandon, made his hair hurt.
Twenty years later, Jenkins has yet to describe the pain of seeing what Hollywood did to Semi-Tough, his best-selling bellylaugh about professional football. He tried to say something not long ago in Sports Illustrated, the magazine where his typing skills came to light, but the most emotion he could muster was mild bemusement. The possibility exits, however, that he didn’t do any better because he was in shock.
You will know the feeling if you read the book and see the movie, which will descend on Chicago this Christmas season like a curse from King Herod. Billy Clyde Puckett, the halfback hero of Semi-Tough, would probably want to know where Herod played his college ball, but there are more important questions to be asked about the cinematic mutation Michael Ritchie, a certified hot-shot director, has given us. The biggest one is: Why did he bother saying he was making a movie of Jenkins’ novel?
Just about the only thing left from it are the title, the diary Billy Clyde is keeping during Super Bowl week, and the fact that he is forever being interrupted by his podnuh, Marvin (Shake) Tiller, the mystic wide receiver, and their mutual playmate, Barbara Jane Bookman. Out of a book that ran better than 200 pages in hardback, that is not what anybody in his right mind would call a whole lot.
Ritchie’s explanation is that he was intrigued by the conclusion of the book, which found Shake doing a fly pattern all the way to India, where he could commune with his guru and ride elephants. Because of that, Ritchie would up putting Burt (Billy Clyde) Reynolds and Kris (Shake) Kristofferson in a movie about the consciousness movement. If you aren’t familiar with the consciousness movement, the premise on which it is built is that nobody’s hemorrhoids are more important than yours.
Such thinking is very big in California, which leads the universe in sun-baked brains. Everywhere else, people who become that bewitched, bothered and bewildered are called “tutti-fruttis.” Indeed, that is how Ritchie depicts them despite his West Coast ties. The irreverence is not unusual, for he has thrown darts at politics in The Candidate, at beauty contests in Smile, and at Little League baseball in The Bad News Bears. But he is so obsessed with puncturing the inherent silliness of the me-firsters that he has forgotten that Semi-Tough is supposed to be about the NFL’s inherent silliness.
In the process, some of Jenkins’ finest ideas ended up on the floor of Ritchie’s birdcage. There is no mention of how Pete Rozelle used the commissionership as a springboard to the U.S. Senate. T.J. Lambert, the flatulent defensive end, is never shown making a sandwich of six Dallas policemen. “The Giants and the Cowboys got together and kept our arrest quiet,” said Billy Clyde, who watched the proceedings in amazement. “We got to play in the game. I think the Giants had to give up a high draft choice to the Cowboys when it was over.”
Nor did Ritchie try to stage the outlandish halftime show Jenkins imagined, the one in which “several hundred trained birds—painted red, white and blue—would fly over the coliseum in formation of an American flag” while Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck sang “God Bless America.”
Even when the director relied on the author, he managed to foul things up. One wonderful scene has the drunken Lambert dangling a 20th Century fox over a terrace railing by the heels because she looked askance at his idea of how well they should get to know each other. In the book, Barbara Jane Bookman talks Lambert out of mayhem; she can’t do the same in the movie because it would rob Shake Tiller of a chance to display his new-found calm. Apparently Ritchie isn’t so iconoclastic that he would try to level the consciousness movement and machismo with the same swing.
If Jenkins should take offense to anything, however, it is what Ritchie did to his rating system for feminine pulchritude. Originally, the system went from 10—which was, you should pardon the expression, “a Healing Scab”—to 1, and of course there never was a 1. For the pure Hollywood hell of it, Ritchie completely reversed the ratings. If he had left them the way they were, Jill Clayburgh, who plays Barbara Jane, would have been a lot closer to the truth when she insists, “I’m a 10.”
She is, however, just one of Ritchie’s casting mistakes. Kristofferson wanders through his role as Shake in such a daze that he must have been handed a fistful of Valium instead of the usual NFL Sunday afternoon supply of greenies. As Barbara Jane’s father, a pinko-hating oil baron, Robert Preston appears to be a Communist plot himself. Only Reynolds, as Billy Clyde, is palatable, if you don’t mind watching him portray Burt Reynolds. And just in case you don’t, remember that he had a stand-in for most of his rib-cracking football scenes. No premiums are paid for acting with pain.
As it turns out, the audience does all the suffering, which is no small achievement for a movie that Ritchie calls “a racy comedy.” His choice of words may be the funniest thing about Semi-Tough. When it was a book, it was enjoyably bawdy, almost “Tom Jones with a Jockstrap.” Ritchie’s adaptation, however, is merely smarmy, filled with the kind of double entendres that aren’t even good enough for TV.
Naturally, that won’t stop TV from buying this worthless hunk of celluloid. If you are smart, you will wait until then instead of wasting your money on it in a theater. When it comes to passing judgement on Semi-Tough, you see, there is no semi about it. It is totally terrible.
John Schulian is a former syndicated sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. His work has appeared in GQ, Sports Illustrated, Inside Sports, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. He also wrote for the TV shows Miami Vice, L.A. Law, and co-created Xena: Princess Warrior. He is the author of Twilight of the Long-ball GodsandSometimes They Even Shook Your Hand, and co-editor of At The Fights.
Not that Mark Sanchez dancing with Alana (a former “bottle service girl” at the San Diego club Voyeur) and Janna (a “socialite,”) wasn’t the best sports-video clip of a really slow day last week, although I was disappointed at the glaring absence of Katie, Jessika, Jenna, Nikki, Emi, Danielle, Krista, Gina, Ashley and the rest of the Jets Flight Crew 2013 swimsuit wall calendar gang. What brought me down was the flashback.
Last time I spoke to EK was when we were passing each other in the hallway at school in June 2008. She was a ninth-grader. I was her brother’s English teacher. She said, “Hi, Mr. Richmond,” and I said, “Hi.” That was the usual exchange between us. Nice kid. Good student. A few days later, she graduated from our private middle school and went on to high school, and I resigned after deciding that my day gig should no longer involve having to call out ninth-grade girls for violating the dress code by wearing Uggs in my classroom.
The next time I saw the girl was on the web in February of 2011. This was a few days after her cell-phone photographs of Mark Sanchez’ bedroom had hit the web after Deadspin broke the tale. I recognized the girl immediately, despite the noticeable increase in layers in makeup, because she didn’t look much older than she had three years earlier in ninth grade. At least to me, she didn’t. Apparently, though, glimpsed through the giddily romantic New Year’s Eve atmospherics of Lavo (“an Ultralounge!” raved New York), she was only seventeen.
At that point, according to the girl’s account, Sanchez was gentlemanly enough to respond that he couldn’t see her until she was 18. Mark clearly had the schoolgirl’s best interests at heart — at least, until she corrected him: in New York, she told him, to be seventeen years of age was to be (Yes! The initial ruling at the table is overturned!) of legal age. This news apparently cleared the way for the girl’s subsequent photographs of Sanchez’ bedroom in his place on a Jersey golf course.
The last time I saw a picture of the girl was in a paparazzi-tabloid shot taken in her Connecticut hometown a week after it all broke, wherein, caught outdoors in her village, in a parka, her expression vibed panic, on the verge of teenaged tears. This was the ninth-grader I used to see at the salad bar.
That summer, six months after his quarterback’s alleged tryst, alleged New York Jet coach Rex Ryan, alleged star of one of the great foot-fetish role-playing videos of all time (wherein he allegedly plays the cop drawn to the woman’s bare feet sticking out a car door; his alleged wife allegedly plays the woman), named Mark Sanchez his captain.
Talk of Sanchez’ schoolgirl dalliance quickly and mysteriously muted, and then mutated: In a GQ profile that allegedly appeared in September of 2011, allegedly eight months after the alleged liaison, the alleged affair is referred to thusly in a brief aside near the end of the piece: “A 17-year-old high-school student…told a gossipy sports site…they went on a date.” Indeed they allegedly did; the writer of the story identified an object in Sanchez’ bedroom that the girl had photographed with her phone.
(In a highlight in the annals of profile hilarity, the piece led with an anecdote in which then-linebacker Bart Scott chides Vladimir Ducasse about leaving a party the night before, despite their being so many “hos” at poolside. Ducasse complains that they were too old. Scott asks Sanchez, “Were those ho’s too old?”
(“Define old,” says Mark.)
As a lover of freakazoid behavior in the National Football Lockstep, a league sport that thinks it’s a branch of the Pentagon, I’m all for aberrance, as long as it stops short of a 24-year-old quarterback texting a high-school girl at 2 a.m. asking if she wants to go out that night, and she has to answer from her bedroom in her parents’ suburban Connecticut home, “I have school tomorrow,” and his head coach names him captain. Doesn’t a captain of a football team have to exhibit something approximating leadership qualities?
If teaching larval teenaged girls for three years taught me anything about larval teenaged girls, it’s that lots of them like to dress up and make-up to look more mature than they are, but have less idea of what they actually look like to older men as goldfish who want to look good to other goldfish in the tank in the dentist’s office know what they look like to people awaiting root canals.
I have no doubt that the girl wanted to look alluring at the ultralounge. I also have no doubt that to any rational adult in that club that night, which Mark Sanchez allegedly was, she looked exactly like what she was: someone beneath accepted legal age.
In 2011, the Jets went 8-8. They were 8-5 before losing their last three by a combined scored of 93-50. Mark completed 56 percent of his passes and threw only 18 interceptions.
In March of 2012, the Jets extended Mark’s contract, which guaranteed him $20 million. “It gives the team,” Mark said, “just a reminder that I’m the leader of this team.”
By that fall, Mark had put aside such childish things as the teenager I’d known. By the start of training camp, he was going out with Eva Longoria, the thespian known for, among other things, playing a detective in the wildly underrated Senorita Justice. Eva was 12 ½ years his senior. She’d already had an ugly breakup with Tony Parker. I figured her worldliness and experience would help the Jets’ leader grow up.
But one month into the season, she broke up with him. According to TMZ, in a break-up message, she called him “moody” and “inconsistent.” She did not elaborate on the latter adjective. She did say, “We’ll always have the season opener in Buffalo.” He’d completed 19 of 27, with three TD passes, in a rout, before the Jets lost ten of their next 15 games and finished 6-10. The team, perhaps sensing by now that Jesus was weeping, hired Tim Tebow.
Today, of course, the most viral video of Mark Sanchez remains the game last year when, scrambling, he runs into the butt of one of his lineman, and fumbles. But I am reassured that he is finally dancing on videos with age-appropriate women.
And since he might still possess football talent, I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt: that when he escapes the skeeviness of his current employee (see Favre, masseuses hired as rewards for good games; Ryan Footwear) and gets the start in whatever city the Jaguars are in two years from now, he might win more games than he loses. Being an NFL quarterback is a whole lot more difficult than being a bottle girl.
So how to compute Sanchez’ true Skeeve Quotient? Maybe, emotionally and developmentally, Sanchez is a 17-year-old himself. As Los Angeles’ (“City of Illusion”) former star Trojan, maybe no one ever asked him to grow up. If he’s psychologically stunted, then in his own head he did no wrong, right? When Sanchez allegedly called the girl I knew on an alleged Sunday night after allegedly losing to the Steelers in Pittsburgh in the playoffs, and she allegedly declined to meet him that night, wouldn’t that like, so indicate the melding of two teen minds? The girl saying, “I can’t! I didn’t do any homework all weekend!”
And the guy saying, “So what? Come on! I’m rich!”
Completely understandable adolescent behavior.
But for the sake of any other former ninth-graders I might know who might cross his ultrapath in the future, I would ask Mark to heed the wisdom Joe Namath offered him in the GQ piece. When the writer asks if Joe has any dating advice for his successor in the Lavo limelight, Joe answers: “To really do his homework.”
For a taste of Lenny Shecter’s no-bullshit, take-no-prisoners style, check out this excerpt from “The Flower of America” chapter of his 1969 book of essays, The Jocks.
By Leonard Shecter
There are famous Yankee players whose public images bear little relation to the kind of men they actually are—Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle, to name three.
Suave, sure, husband of Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio holds a unique place in Americana. He is super-hero. Sixteen years after he completed his remarkable feat of hitting in 56 straight games he was immortalized (if a god can obtain new immortalization) by Simon and Garfunkel in “Mrs. Robinson.”
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
In fact, the nation has not turned its lonely eyes to Joe DiMaggio. As Gay Talese showed in a remarkable article in Esquire in 1966, DiMaggio is a vain, lonely man, who is a tyrant to the sycophants who surround him. Wrote Talese. “His friends [know] . . . that should they inadvertently betray a confidence . . . [he] will never speak to them again.” Talese then described a scene in a restaurant called Reno’s in San Francisco which DiMaggio would often drop into.
They may wait for hours sometimes, waiting and knowing he may wish to be alone; but it does not seem to matter, they are endlessly awed by him, moved by the mystique, he is a kind of male Garbo. They know he can be warm and loyal if they are sensitive to his wishes, but they must never be late for an appointment to meet him. One man, unable to find a parking space, arrived a half-hour late once and DiMaggio didn’t talk to him again for three months. They know, too, when dining at night with DiMaggio, that he generally prefers male companions and occasionally one or two young women, but never wives; wives gossip, wives are trouble, and men wishing to remain close to DiMaggio must keep their wives at home.
His friends fawn on him, call him “Clipper” (one must wonder why a grown man would tolerate that), introduce him to mindless young women and pick up his tabs. At her death he turned a marriage to Marilyn Monroe that didn’t work (she complained that all he wanted to do was watch television) into a maudlin lost love. He held a permanent grudge against Robert Kennedy because he once spent a lot of time at a party dancing with Marilyn. This was aftertheir marriage had disintegrated.
And in the end he took a coaching job—not a managing job, a coaching job—with Charles O. Finley, the erratic owner of the Oakland Athletics. It was the act of a lonely, probably bitter man. No one had offered him a job as manager. In the fall of 1968 Joe DiMaggio was in Japan to teach the batters there how to hit. One suspects he had no more difficulty communicating with them than he did with American batters.
Yogi Berra is a particularly glowing example of an image which has outstripped the man. Of course, it is not his fault. It is not his fault that he is not a lovable gnome bubbling over withbon mots. Nor is it his fault that he is a narrow, suspicious man, jealous of the man other people supposed him to be and which he knew he was not. He was supposed to be a humorist because he said things like “Bill Dickey learned me all his experiences,” and “I want to thank you for making this award necessary.” In fact, there is severe doubt that Yogi Berra ever said anything intentionally funny in his life. The late Tom Meany used to tell this possibly apocryphal story about Berra which, at the least, illustrates the breadth of his knowledge. Berra was introduced to Ernest Hemingway at a party in a restaurant. When he returned to his table, he was asked what he thought of him. Said Berra: “He’s quite a character. What does he do?”
Well, he’s a writer.
“Yeah? What paper?”
After a while Berra and his wife, Carmen, came to believe that he was indeed something of a man of the world, raconteur, sophisticate. After all, weren’t they rich? (Berra has had enormous financial luck. He sold his interests in a bowling emporium at a great profit shortly before the bottom dropped out of the bowling business. And he took a block of stock in return for endorsing a little-known chocolate ”drink”-which means no milk and very little chocolate: the stock sky-rocketed.
There was an autobiography called Yogi. It was a typical baseball autobiography, all shiny and bright for the kiddies, naturally written by somebody else, a man who could have done better. But by the time the world was ready for a book about Berra, the Bern1s were not interested in reality. They wanted the book to be about Berra as they would have liked him to be. So it turned out to be a terrible book, cheap and phony and transparent I reviewed it that way.
It was a lovely spring day in St. Petersburg. The palm trees waved shiny green against the high blue sky. Yogi Berra saw me as soon as I arrived.
“You son of a bitch,” Berra said. “You cocksucker.”
He never said that in Yogi.
But that is not what I remember about him most. I remember most that the other ball players always complained that Yogi Berra would stand naked at the clubhouse buffet and scratch his genitals over the cold cuts.
Mickey Mantle is a quite different man. He was never shoe-horned into a role which, like Berra, he was unprepared by nature and intellect to play. Mantle was a country boy, ill-educated, frightened, convinced at an early age by a series of deaths in his family that he was doomed to live only a short life.
He was simple, naive and, at the very first, trusting. It did not take him long to misplace his trust. He soon found that he was trusting the wrong people and, when this cost him money, it made him withdrawn and sullen, as well as poor. Fortified by Yankee tradition—watch out for outsiders-Mantle was soon responding only to his teammates and the glad-handers and celebrity fuckers who flocked around him. (Mantle is almost universally liked by his teammates because he goes out of his way to be outgoing and friendly with them. He vigorously denies that he decided to behave that way after he, as a rookie, was ignored by the aloof, morose DiMaggio, but a young ball player I trust swears Mantle told him this and I have no reason to disbelieve him.) Pretty soon, as his skills blossomed, it became Mantle and his hedonistic enclave against the world.
And obviously the world didn’t count. The world was made up of crowds of sweaty, smelly little kids who demanded autographs and smeared ice cream on your new stantung suit, middle-aged slobs who accosted you in restaurants in ·mid-forkful to simper about getting an autograph for their little kiddies at home, and cloddish newspaper and magazine people who never got anything right and only wanted to hurt you anyway. When he was playing poorly or when he was especially plagued by one of his numerous injuries, Mantle would become particularly withdrawn and sulky, turn his back even on well-wishers. A great deal of this was sheer self-protection. For Mantle always doubted himself and, most of all, his knowledge of the game.
He had reason to. Mantle was never much of a student of baseball. Born with marvelous skills, he played it intuitively, never having to pay much attention to what was going on. More than once I heard him ask a teammate about a rival pitcher, “What’s he throw?” This is not an unusual question around a ball club-except if the pitcher had been in the league five years and pitched against the Yankees maybe 30 times.
It is possible that Mantle was incapable of even the minimum amount of concentration the finer points of baseball require. Certainly he refused to work on his own physical conditioning during the off-season, a refusal which, if it not actually shorten his career, obviously did nothing to prevent the pulled muscles in legs and groin which plagued him during almost every season. Year after year Mantle was told to go home and lift weights with his legs. He was begged to keep in good enough physical condition so that he would at least not disarrange a hamstring, as he did so often, in the opening days of spring training. But Mantle’s idea of keeping fit was to have an active social life and play golf out of an electric cart which was outfitted with a bar. He had fun. He also had pulled muscles.
It has become a cliche to wonder how great Mantle would have been had he been physically healthy during his career. What I wonder is how great he might have been had he even tried to keep physically healthy.
In the early years of his career Mantle was booed by the fans because he refused to live up to his promise. Later on the boos turned to cheers as he became known as a man who made a gallant effort despite enormous physical pain. I’m not sure the fans weren’t right in the first place.
More from John Lardner. Originally published in 1949 in the New Yorker and reprinted here with permission of Susan Lardner.
“The Battling Siki”
By John Lardner
Hell’s Kitchen, the region west of Eighth Avenue around the Forties, won its name many years ago and continued to deserve it until about the time the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed. Things are different there now. So its residents will tell you, and so you can see for yourself if, having known the neighborhood a little during Prohibition, you visit it even briefly today. Once it was carpeted, for nearly all its length and breadth, with low, swarthy brick tenement houses containing a warren of flats, speak-easies, six-table cellar “cabarets,” hole-in-the-wall stores and restaurants, back-room stills, and “social clubs,” where a portion of the manhood of the district stored guns and ammunition and planned stick-ups and highjackings. Right along the equator of Hell’s Kitchen ran the Ninth Avenue “L” tracks, throwing a grim, significant shadow by day and night. Other parts of town had clip joints, or “buckets of blood,” scattered through them, but the Kitchen, as a detective friend of mine used to say, was one big bucket of blood. Nowadays the Kitchen is a bit more shiny and much more respectable. Neon lights and modern shops and garages have pushed their way into it. The McGraw-Hill Building has gouged out half of what was considered one of the hottest blocks in Hell’s Kitchen in the nineteen twenties—the block bounded by Eighth and Ninth Avenues and Forty-first and Forty-second streets. The Lincoln Tunnel approaches have formed an asphalt plaza west of Ninth Avenue. The sleek New Jersey buses and automobiles bound for and away from the West Side Highway plow across the old badlands in steady procession. The retail liquor traffic thereabouts has become negligible; the city’s center of gravity of crime has shifted elsewhere, perhaps to Brooklyn. Broadly speaking, Hell’s Kitchen is not a frontier community any more but a sort of vehicular gateway to the heart of Manhattan. However, if you want to conjure up the atmosphere of earlier times, you can still find islands of squat tenement houses here and there to help you, many of them boarded up and condemned, and the empty shells of many basement grogshops. In the unlikely event that you want to visit the scene of the murder, twenty-four years ago, of a man called Battling Siki, which is what I did one day recently for no useful reason, you will come across a few surviving landmarks. You can pace off distances in the same gutter and seamy street—Forty-first—down which Siki crawled forty feet west toward Ninth Avenue, with two bullets in his body, before he collapsed and died. He crawled in the direction of the “L,” the cave of shadows that no longer is there. His killer threw away the gun in front of a grimy old house that is now gone; the McGraw-Hill Building is there instead. These changes make the setting less sinister than it used to be, but even now there’s plenty to show that it was a drab and lonesome place to die.
Siki who held the light-heavyweight boxing championship of the world for six months in 1922 and 1923, was born in Senegal, in French West Africa, in 1897 and was killed in Hell’s Kitchen twenty-eight years later, in 1925. He was the Kitchen’s most turbulent citizen in the short time he lived there. He was thought by neighbors who knew him to have an honest heart and a generous soul, but when he drank the newly cooked liquor of the parish, as he often did, the cab drivers, cops, bartenders, and hoodlums whom he chose, with impeccable lack of judgment, to knock around, found it hard to take him philosophically. Rear-line observers, on the other hand were usually able to be philosophical about Siki. During the three years of his life in which he received international publicity—the last three—he was referred to repeatedly as a “child of nature,” a “natural man ” and a “jungle child,” and at least once as “the black Candide.” After his murder, the New York World said editorially, “What is all this [Siki's physical strength, his brawling and dissipation] but the sulks and tempers of Achilles, the prank of Siegfried and the boars, the strutting of Beowulf, the armours of Lemminkaïnen? We have had a walking image of our beginnings among us and did not know it. . . . He had, it is true, the mentality of a backward toad… But he had the soul of a god.”
It strikes me that tributes paid by civilized people to a “natural man,” especially one who has walked among us, are apt to sound either patronizing, like the World’s, or uneasy, like some delivered by American correspondents when Siki won his boxing championship in Paris in 1922 and was first interviewed. After praising Siki’s strength and simplicity, one reporter wrote apprehensively, “He is very black and very ugly.” Siki’s manager at the time, a M. Hellers, was quoted as saying that Siki was a fine lad but “just a little bit crazy.” I can discover no support among those who were acquainted with Siki in America later on for the idea that he was crazy, except when he drank, or the idea that he was mentally toadlike. He was illiterate, never having been to school, but he could make himself understood in several languages including English, French, Spanish, Dutch, and German. As far as Candide is concerned, Siki resembled Voltaire’s hero in that he had a sheltered boyhood, was thrown suddenly into the thick of the best of all possible worlds, and found society both violent and larcenous. At seventeen, he was involved in a civilized world war. At twenty-five, he was permitted to box a champion on the condition that he lose the match. Having ignored the condition and won the championship, he insured his loss of that title, in all innocence, by fighting an Irishman in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day. He entered American life in the heyday of the Volstead act. He could not master the strong waters or the social customs of the West Side of New York City. He was killed by gunfire, after surviving a stabbing earlier in the same year. It may seem, offhand, that Hell’s Kitchen was a curious place for the curtain to fall on a twenty-eight-year-old Mohammedan born in St. Louis de Senegal on the fringe of the Sahara Desert, but Voltaire has shown that when civilization gets its hands on one of these natural men, it pushes him about at random from curious place to curious place. Candide was lucky to wind up safely cultivating his garden. He came close to meeting his end in an auto-da-fé in Portugal and, another time, on a roasting spit in Paraguay. Siki’s story is perhaps more realistic. He failed to last out the course.
The newspaper writers of the 1920s were merely being wishful when they called Siki a jungle child. St. Louis, his African home, is a seaport ten miles above the mouth of the Senegal River, on a bare plain that marks the Sahara’s southwesternmost edge. It’s doubtful whether anyone in Europe or America today knows what Siki’s real name was. Legend has it that when he was ten or twelve years old, a French actress touring the colonies saw him in St. Louis, was impressed by his appearance, and took him into her personal service, giving him, for reasons based on classical Greek, the name of Louis Phal. Whatever its origin, this, Anglicized as Louis Fall, was his legal name when he was married, and when he was murdered, in America. He did not become known as Battling Siki until he began to box professionally, in 1913; apparently the word “Siki” was coined or borrowed by French fight promoters, to whom it had vague “native” or colonial connotations. The tale about the actress was told widely in Paris in the days of Siki’s first fame, when he knocked out the celebrated Georges Carpentier, but it was never, so far as I know, closely checked up on. It accounts, plausibly enough, for the abrupt shift of Siki from dusty African streets to the perils of Western civilization. The lady is said to have taken him to her villa on the French Riviera and dressed him in a page boy’s uniform of bottle green. Subsequently, he worked in one town and another as a bus boy. He was fifteen when he started boxing.
Siki had just time for a handful of fights, most of which he won, before the war of 1914-18 broke out and he was conscripted into the 8th Colonial Infantry Regiment of the French Army. His war record was distinguished; in fact, he is reported to have been the bravest soldier in his outfit which saw action on several fronts and gave a strong performance generally. For heroism under fire, Siki won not only the Croix de Guerre but the Médaille Militaire. After demobilization, he could have had his choice of a variety of ordinary civilian jobs; his record guaranteed him that. However, he went back to the prize ring, where the rewards were intermittent but came in good-sized pieces when they came. He barnstormed in France, North Africa, Spain, Belgium, and Holland. From a tour of Holland in 1921 he returned to Paris, where he lived with a Dutch girl who was thought to be his wife and by whom he later had a child. Siki did not work especially hard at his trade. He fought once or twice a month, which is not often for a “club,” or journeyman, fighter, and, while he usually won, he beat nobody of major importance. Between bouts he drank more absinthe than is normal in the profession. American critics were to speak of him three or four years later as a fighter of considerable natural ability who might have been much better than he was. Weighing about a hundred and seventy-five pounds, the maximum for light heavyweights, and standing five feet eleven inches tall, he was a well-muscled young man with a leaping, bounding, lunging style from which he got slapstick effects that amused the galleries, and himself as well. In the early months of 1922, he happened to defeat a couple of men of some slight reputation and thus came to the notice of François Descamps, then the most influential and artful character in French boxing. Descamps offered him a bout for the world’s light-heavyweight championship with Carpentier, whom Descamps managed.
The prizefight business in Continental Europe in those days was an odd blend of laissez faire and team play—laissez faire being understood to mean “Let Descamps do it his way,” and “team play” to mean that all hands share in the spoils. Descamps owned a large stable of fighters and also, it was commonly believed in Paris, a large stable of sports writers. Some of the latter were growing restive in 1922, possibly because of a failure in the team-play system as administered by Descamps. When the Carpentier-Siki match was announced, certain journalists expressed a distrust of it. They suggested that, in Siki, Descamps had laid hold of a small-time, happy-go-lucky trouper with no ambitions beyond getting all the absinthe he could consume, who would be glad to bolster Carpentier’s fortunes—Carpentier had not fought for really big money since his knockout by Jack Dempsey in New Jersey, fourteen months before—without making too much trouble for the champion in the ring. Their hints were undoubtedly read by the public. Carpentier was a war hero, the toast of the boulevards, a boxer still regarded, in spite of his defeat by Dempsey, as peerless in Europe, but though the crowd of 55,000 that came to the new Buffalo Velodrome in Paris on the afternoon of September 24, 1922, to see him fight Siki was the largest in European boxing history, it showed before the day was over that it was on the alert for signs of skulduggery. Its suspicions were inflamed during the preliminary bouts by the work of Harry Bernstein, a referee charged by sports writers with occupying a special compartment in the hip pocket of M. Descamps. In one preliminary, the opponent of a Descamps featherweight named Fritsch was disqualified by Bernstein for hitting too low; in another, the opponent of a Descamps heavyweight named Ledoux was disqualified by Bernstein for not fighting hard enough. Bernstein’s rulings brought a volley of coups de sifflet from the customers, particularly those in the seven-franc seats, who had mustered their sous at a sacrifice and wished for their money’s worth of equality and justice.
The main bout was scheduled for twenty rounds. Carpentier, pale and blond, weighed 173 1/2 pounds, Siki 174. In the first round, Siki fought cautiously and less acrobatically than usual; Carpentier jabbed at him with his left hand. Once, hit lightly, Siki dropped to one knee; Bernstein, who was refereeing this bout, too, did not bother to count. “Get up, Siki, you’re not hurt,” he said. After the round, ringside spectators saw Carpentier smile broadly and heard him say, “I’ll get him whenever I want to.” The champion, boxing easily, won the first two rounds. In the third, Carpentier sent a right-hand blow to Siki’s jaw, and Siki dropped to his knee again, this time taking a count of seven. When he got up, he rushed at Carpentier and hit him violently in the body with a left and a right. Carpentier, looking startled as well as hurt, went down for four seconds. The rest of the fight was all Siki’s. Siki battered Carpentier about the ring in the fourth round while Carpentier hung on to Siki’s arms whenever he could and tried to pinion them with his own. In the fifth, Carpentier fell against the ropes. Siki leaned over him (“I whispered to him to quit,” Siki said later), and Carpentier, pushing himself up, butted angrily at Siki’s belly. Carpentier could hardly stand when the sixth round began. Siki hit him at will. A right uppercut followed by a shower of right and left swings sent Carpentier to the floor unconscious one minute and ten seconds after the start of the round. As he fell, one of his feet became tangled between Siki’s, assisting the fall.
It was plain that Carpentier was completely knocked out, but at that point Bernstein ruled that Siki had lost the fight by tripping his opponent illegally. The third disqualification of the day was more than the crowd was prepared to stomach. It pushed its way to the ring from all quarters of the stadium and stormed around it, yelling furiously. Police were called up to protect Bernstein. Descamps, meanwhile, for whose blood the demonstrators were also shouting, slipped out of the arena behind a couple of gendarmes. Three judges—Victor Breyer, Jean Pujol, and an Englishman, Tom Bannison—who, before the fight, had been appointed by the French Boxing Federation to make a decision in case there was no knockout were now appealed to. After conferring briefly with Federation officials, they announced that they would give a final and formal verdict either supporting or overruling Bernstein’s. They deliberated for three quarters of an hour while Bernstein stood in one comer of the ring among his police guards and practically no one in the audience went home, or even stopped talking unkindly to the referee. The judges, willingly or not, at last did what the crowd wanted: they declared Siki the winner by a knockout and, in the name of the Federation, awarded him the light-heavyweight championship of the world, plus a subsidiary title of Carpentier’s—the heavyweight championship of Europe. Siki said to Hellers, his manager, “Tell America I am ready for Dempsey,” and repaired in triumph to his dressing room. The crowd disbanded. The police saw Bernstein safely to the door of his dressing room.
Siki never got a match with Dempsey, but some offers of lesser opportunities did come to him from America. He was lavishly feted in Pans during the first two days after his victory, and after public enthusiasm subsided, his own continued to run high, especially in the Montmartre neighborhood. “No more absinthe. I will train and fight hard as champion,” Siki had told a gathering outside the office of the newspaper Echo des Sports on the twenty-fifth, the day following the fight. Later that evening, he took a few glasses of champagne, and on touring Montmartre in a rented car with a chauffeur, he reverted to absinthe wholeheartedly at every stop he made. After another week or so he acquired, probably as gifts from fellow colonials, a monkey, which he carried everywhere on his shoulder, and a lion cub, which he led about on a leash. Carpentier was still lying in bed suffering from a sprained ankle, two broken hands, and an unsightly swelling of his nose and lips. Most of the Parisian sporting press was sympathetic toward him but nastily jubilant about Descamps, who, it was implied, had overreached himself and been double-crossed. Rumors to the same effect circulated through Paris for the next several weeks. In early December, the French Boxing Federation precipitated the publication of what was very likely the true story of the fight by suspending Siki—it was charged that while seconding another fighter in the ring, he had struck the manager of his man’s opponent. Siki, deprived of a chance to make a living in France, went for help to M. Diagne, the representative for Senegal in the French Chamber of Deputies. Diagne asserted before the Chamber that the Boxing Federation was discriminating against colonials in favor of Parisian city slickers who wanted Siki out of the way, and in support of this theory he gave the deputies the account of the Carpentier bout that Siki had given him. When the Chamber appeared unwilling to take any action, Diagne called a press conference and had Siki repeat his story to reporters. It ran as follows: A fix had been arranged fifteen days before the bout took place, with Descamps dictating procedure to Siki’s manager. As a sign of good faith, Siki was to take a short count in the first round and another count in the third. He was to get himself knocked out early in the fourth. Siki followed the scenario through the third-round knockdown—”I stayed down for seven the first time Carpentier hit me hard enough to give me an excuse,” he said—but as he knelt on the floor at that point, he decided not to go through with the frameup. It was his pride, he said, and his loyalty to the public that made him change his mind. When he got up, he began to fight in earnest. He ignored a sharp reminder from his manager, between the third and fourth rounds, that his end was expected momentarily. (This detail in Siki’s narrative gave Hellers a clean bill of health, in a left-handed way; Descamps had been so suspicious of treachery by Hellers that he quarreled with him in public after the bout.) Siki surprised Carpentier with his counterattack and soon demolished him.
When Siki’s story was done, M. Diagne explained to the press what it meant: A simple, uneducated man had defended himself and all underprivileged peoples against exploitation by a predatory society. Siki, who was always emotional, wept freely at these words. His tears and his deputy’s arguments got him nowhere. Neither did a court of inquiry appointed by the Boxing Federation to investigate Siki’s statement. The court, with a flashy display of ingenuity, hired two deaf-mutes to watch the motion pictures of the fight and see if they could lip-read certain remarks delivered excitedly by Descamps to Hellers in Siki’s corner during “a critical phase of the battle,” after Siki had begun to knock Carpentier around. The experiment (unique, I think, in boxing history) was later described by the court as “successful,” but Siki remained suspended. He never fought in France again until after he had lost his championships elsewhere. My own opinion is that being champion constituted Siki’s chief sin in the eyes of the Federation. Also, I believe his story of the Carpentier match was substantially correct. A “sign of good faith”—a preliminary fall, or lapse of some other kind, by the loser—is a standard device in the plotting of sports frameups. Eddie Cicotte, a Chicago baseball player, hit the first batter he faced with a pitched ball in the crooked World Series of 1919, as a signal to gamblers that the fix was in. Siki’s tale confirmed the rumors that were current before and after the fight; it was in keeping with the character of Descamps and of Continental boxing methods in 1922, and it is believed by every European and American I know who was familiar in any degree with the time, the place, and the actors.
As it turned out, the Carpentier bout was the only one of importance in Siki’s professional career, except for the next one. The next one was weak and anticlimactic as a show, but it did involve a world’s championship, and it demonstrated in a special way how complicated the civilization of the West can be for an unlettered Moslem with no grounding in our rituals and customs. A fairly good light heavyweight from County Clare in Ireland named Michael Francis McTigue happened to pass through Paris with his staff during Siki’s suspension. Finding Siki idle and nearly broke, the visitors proposed a match between him and McTigue for the title. (The world’s light-heavyweight championship was the one that interested them; the heavyweight championship of Europe had no value in the world market, and has been recognized only sporadically since the day Carpentier lost it.) They spoke of Dublin as a pleasant spot for the Siki-McTigue bout. They mentioned March 17, 1923, as an open date in their engagement book. Siki fell in with these suggestions and met McTigue in the ring in the Irish capital on Saint Patrick’s Day. The operation for the removal of his crown was painless. The decision went to McTigue on points. There was nothing particularly wrong with this verdict, I am told by a neutral eyewitness, except that McTigue did not make the efforts or take the risks that are commonly expected of a challenger for a world’s championship. There was no need to. In the circumstances, nothing less than a knockout could have beaten him, and he avoided that possibility by boxing at long range throughout.
One device by which a civilized man can avoid a predicament like Siki’s in Dublin was illustrated by McTigue himself later in the same year. He went to Columbus, Georgia, to fight a Georgian named Young Stribling before a crowd that was strongly and ostentatiously in favor of his opponent. There was almost no way McTigue could avoid losing within the Georgia state limits, so, to protect his planetary interests, he took along a referee from the North. The referee called the bout a draw. Then, yielding to the howls of protest, he announced that he would deputize the local promoter to give the decision. The promoter called Stribling the winner. The referee, on his way back North by train with McTigue and McTigue’s manager, signed an affidavit that his own true and considered verdict was for a draw. That is how the result has been listed in the record books ever since.
Siki had only two more European fights, both in Paris, after he lost his titles. The last two years of his life he spent in America, disintegrating with headlong speed on bootleg gin and whiskey but nearly always able to make money in the ring when he needed it. When he first arrived in New York, in September 1923, his name had a certain value here, based on curiosity, which it no longer had abroad. He signed on with the stable of a veteran New York manager, Robert (Pa) Levy (Hellers appears to have discarded Siki at the time of his suspension in France), and his first fight in this country was a serious one with a respectable opponent, Kid Norfolk, who beat him in fifteen rounds at Madison Square Garden. From then on, American fight fans were not disposed to think of Siki as a boxer of the top rank, but they liked to watch him. His style was eccentric and funny. He was strong and fast enough to knock out most of the palookas he met, when he felt like it. He was booked as far west as California and as far south as New Orleans, and he earned, according to a fairly reliable estimate I have heard, nearly a hundred thousand dollars between November 1923 and November 1925. He was one of the best spenders, in proportion to income, that the United States has ever seen. In restaurants and speakeasies he sometimes tipped five or ten times the amount of the check. Once, having made five thousand dollars from a fight in New York on a Friday, he was turned out of his rooming house the following Monday for nonpayment of rent. Another time he gave away all the money in his pockets to passengers on a Lackawanna Railroad ferryboat on which he was returning from a fight in New Jersey. Scolded for this by his manager, Siki wept. Most of his cash, however, continued to be spent on gifts, liquor, and clothes. In clothes, Siki’s taste was unusual but rich. In the first part of his New York residence, when he lived and roamed mainly in the Times Square area, he almost always wore full dress when he went out at night. By day, ordinarily, he appeared in a high hat, a frock coat, red ascot tie, striped trousers, spatted shoes, and a monocle, and he carried a gold-headed cane. From time to time he gave away all the stylish clothes he had on and went home by cab in his underwear. He was particularly open-handed with his high hats. One of these, Siki’s gift to the management, hung on a peg in a West Side saloon I used to visit until a few years ago, when the place closed up.
Siki’s New York life was divided into two roughly equal periods, the second of which he passed largely in Hell’s Kitchen. He had been married in the summer of 1924, at the Municipal Building, to a woman from Memphis named Lillian Werner. The event attracted just enough attention to stimulate newspaper inquiries in Paris, where neighbors of the Dutch girl with whom he had lived in the suburb of Lanves said she was still there and was still thought to be his wife. She herself was not interviewed or quoted to that effect then or afterward, so far as I know. Siki and his American bride moved into a flat at 361 West Forty-second Street early in 1925. Siki had begun to go downhill physically and professionally by then. His bookings for fights were fewer than they had been, and he did not fulfill all those he made. He got into trouble, almost simultaneously, with the United States Immigration Service and the boxing commissioners of New York State. Siki had come to America on a short-term permit. In July 1925 he was arrested for felonious assault after slashing at a policeman with a knife, at which the Government began deportation proceedings. In August the Boxing Commission, annoyed by a facetious exhibition Siki had given at a small New York Cityfight club, summoned him and Levy to its office, suspended Siki, and told Levy to make sure that the fighter was somewhere beyond the three-mile limit within thirty days. The order may seem to have been a usurpation of Federal powers, but it coincided with the Government’s view. At this point, France told the United States that it would refuse to receive Siki if he were deported. Siki, who had wept in the Boxing Commission office when he heard the order to his manager, now took advantage of the stalemate and, in November, filed application for his first citizenship papers. Government decision on his deportation case was still pending when he died.
Siki had the reputation in Hell’s Kitchen in 1925 of being dangerous when drunk, mild and affable when sober. As he drank more heavily and fought less in the ring, he fought more in the street, and his opponents were a rough and active group of men. He was known for his favorite joke of hailing a cab, taking a ride, and then challenging the driver to fight for the fare. Occasionally, too, he would invade the Times Square station of the I.R.T. in the early morning in search of amateur boxing engagements. It is characteristic of many boxers that as they lose their ability in the ring they swing their fists more frequently outside it, as a sort of blurred insistence on the claim that they are as good as ever. That, along with the drinks Siki bought or charged up in the bars of the West Side, may account for his pugnacity in his last months. The only instance of Siki’s using a knife that I have found was the time he was arrested for drawing one on a policeman. His wife went to night court to plead for him on that occasion. She made a good impression and got him off with a five-dollar fine. Though he was stabbed in the back himself in August, not long after he had smashed up a speak-easy in the West Forties and spent a few days in the French Hospital on West Thirtieth Street as a consequence, Siki went on using his fists—and now and then a piece of furniture—in nearly all his brawls. He was fined another five dollars on December 6 for slapping a patrolman at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street.
At about seven o’clock in the evening on Monday, December 14, Siki’s wife met him on the stairs to their flat on West Forty-second Street. The house they lived in still stands, a house of dingy brick with ten walk-up apartments, two on each of its five floors. Siki told Mrs. Siki he was going “out with the boys” and would be back in time to help her pack for a trip they were making next day to Washington, where Siki was to appear in a theater. Shortly after midnight on the morning of the fifteenth, Patrolman John J. Meehan, of the West Thirtieth Street station, walking his beat along Ninth Avenue, had a brief encounter with Siki, whom he knew by sight. Siki, wobbling a little as he turned under the “L” tracks from Forty-first Street, called to Meehan that he was on his way home. The patrolman told him to keep going that way. At 4:15 A.M., Meehan walked past the intersection of Forty-first Street and Ninth Avenue again and saw a body lying about a hundred feet east of the corner in the gutter in front of 350 West Forty-first. Approaching it, he recognized Siki. The body was taken to Meehan’s station house where a doctor pronounced the fighter recently dead from internal hemorrhage caused by two bullet wounds. Detectives examined the deserted block of Forty-first between Eighth and Ninth avenues. In front of No. 346, some forty feet east of where Siki had died, they found a pool of blood on the sidewalk. It seemed to them that Siki might have been trying to crawl home after he was shot. They could not tell just where the shooting had taken place. The gun, a vest-pocket .32-caliber pistol, was lying in front of No. 333, on the other side of the street. Only two bullets had been fired from it. An autopsy showed that these had entered Siki from behind, one penetrating his left lung and the other his kidneys. The autopsy showed something else which surprised Siki’s neighbors a good deal when they heard of it: he had suffered from an anemic condition.
At his wife’s request; Siki was given a Christian funeral service at the Harlem funeral parlors of Effie A. Miller. The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell delivered a eulogy. However, seven Mohammedan pallbearers in turbans carried his body to the hearse, chanting prayers as they did so, while a crowd of three thousand people looked on. The body was clothed in evening dress, as Siki would undoubtedly have wished. His estate, estimated at six hundred dollars, was awarded to his wife in Surrogate’s Court after Levy made out an affidavit in her favor. The words of the affidavit while perhaps not strictly accurate in point of fact told the broad truth about Siki’s place in the world better, I think, than the editorial that spoke of Achilles, Siegfried, and “natural man.” To the best of his knowledge, Levy said, Siki left surviving “no child or children, no father, mother, brother, or sister, or child or children of a deceased brother or sister.” He lived as a man without kin or country, roots or guides, and that, it seems to me, is a hard way to do it.
Siki’s murder was never solved. There was an abundance of suspects, but none of them suited the police at all until one day in March 1926 a young man of eighteen who lived a block or two from Siki’s house was arrested and booked on a homicide charge in connection with the killing. Detectives disguised as truck drivers had heard him making incriminating remarks, they said, over a telephone in a bootleggers’ hangout at Tenth Avenue and Fortieth Street. On being arrested, he allegedly signed two statements which gave two different accounts of the crime. One said that Siki had staggered into a coffee pot at Eighth Avenue and Fortieth Street in the early morning of December 15 and had thrown a chair at the eight men, including the deponent, who were gathered there. Deponent ran out of the place in alarm and heard shots fired in the restaurant behind him. The other statement, which fitted the physical facts of the killing a little better, said that a short while after the throwing of the chair, he, the young man under arrest, lured Siki to Eighth Avenue and Forty-first Street on the promise of buying him a drink. At the corner they were joined by two other men, one of whom, as the party walked west on Forty-first, shot Siki in the back. The young man was held in the Tombs for eight months, until the fall of 1926, and then was released by the court without trial, presumably because the state was not satisfied with its case. I might add that in May 1927 this same young man got five to ten years for second-degree robbery, committed in April in the vicinity of Ninth Avenue and Forty-second Street against a tourist from another state. That was clearly the wrong part of town for a tourist to go to.
When he went off to cover the war in the Pacific in January 1943, John Lardner was twenty-nine years old and, thanks to his weekly column in Newsweek, already a major figure in sportswriting. Nothing at Madison Square Garden or Yankee Stadium, however, could match the lure of what awaited him overseas. “The war was everything,” he said. “I was glad to be in it, speeding along with it.”
Lardner’s first stops were Australia and New Guinea, and what he wrote there became the backbone of the book you hold in your hands, Southwest Passage: The Yanks in the Pacific. Originally published seventy years ago, this was a buried treasure in Lardner’s considerable body of work as a reporter during World War II. It’s blessed with Lardner’s unmistakable humor, and it captures the immediacy of what was then, to Americans, a new theater of war.
“There was more to be seen, heard, and felt in this war, of course, than the fighting of it,” he wrote. “It took Americans to a strange world, with a strange flavor, and gave many of them a long time to look around between bullets.”
Lardner crisscrossed Australia for four months, piling up ten thousand miles as he filed dispatches for the North American Newspaper Alliance and Newsweek. A lesser writer may have sought to dramatize what he saw, but Lardner pared away the extraneous with impeccable reporting. In the opening chapter, Lardner writes, “I want to tell the story with as few profundities and earth-shaking conclusions as possible.” It’s this unpretentious approach to reportage that keeps Southwest Passage fresh for us today.
Shortly after he arrived, Lardner observed an American soldier opening diplomatic relations with an Australian in a bar in Sydney.
“Well, boy,” said the American, “you can relax now. We’re here to save you.”
“Ow is that? I thought you were a fugitive from Pearl Harbor.”
About the locals, he wrote: “There can hardly be people in the world more fiercely and fanatically independent than Australians. The notion that the Yanks had come to ‘save Australia’—well, some of us had it, sure enough, and there was no quicker way of tasting the quick mettle and genial scorn of the fellow we came to save.”
No wonder Orville Prescott of the New York Times called Southwest Passage “as personal, informal and chatty a book of war correspondence as has yet come along. Mr. Lardner has the happy faculty of taking the war seriously without taking himself seriously.”
Lardner’s equanimity came naturally. He was, after all, the son of Ring Lardner, who was America’s most famous sportswriter before he became its most famous literary wit. Like his father, the son was serious about writing. As he said in a letter home: “It seems pretty plain that the best thing to do during the war is to work hard at whatever work you have to do, wherever it may be. Working is the only way I’ve ever found of being happy in a bad time.”
Lardner had been witness to the pitfalls of being labeled a sportswriter. His father never fully escaped being typecast as just a sportswriter. But John wasn’t just a sportswriter; he was one of the best. His reputation was cemented when he began a True magazine piece about a hell-bent prizefighter with these words: “Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.” Lardner’s fellow sportswriting legend Red Smith called it the “greatest novel ever written in one sentence.”
Like his contemporaries W. C. Heinz and A.J. Liebling, Lardner was a war correspondent, and if he didn’t enjoy their longevity or the lasting renown of Smith or Jimmy Cannon, he was every bit their equal. Heinz, in fact, is on record as calling Lardner “the best.”
“Time has a way of dimming the memory and achievements of writers who wrote, essentially, for the moment, as writers writing for journals must do,” Ira Berkow, a longtime columnist of the New York Times, told me. “But the best shouldn’t be lost in the haze of history and John Lardner was a brilliant writer—which means, in my view, that he was insightful, irreverent, wry and a master of English prose.”
John was born in 1912, the first of Ring and Ellis Lardner’s four boys. Their father was a study in reserve, a poker-faced observer of human folly who ushered his sons into the family business, although not by design. When his third son, Ring Jr., sold his first magazine piece, the father said, “Good God, isn’t any one of you going to turn out to be anything but a writer?”
The Lardners moved to the East Coast from Chicago in the fall of 1919. Early on, they lived in Great Neck, Long Island, the model for the fictional West Egg in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (for a time, Fitzgerald was one of Ring’s closest friends). Another friend was Grantland Rice, who succeeded Lardner as the most celebrated sportswriter in the country. Whenever Ring took his sons to Yankee Stadium, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig always came by to pay their respects.
In his memoir, The Lardners: My Family Remembered, Ring Jr. wrote about the striking similarities he and his brothers shared with their father: “Intellectual curiosity with a distinctly verbal orientation, taciturnity, a lack of emotional display, an appreciation of the ridiculous. It was a matter of course that you mastered the fundamentals of reading and writing at the age of four, and by six reading books was practically a full-time occupation.”
John was all of ten when he broke into print with this ditty for the New York World:
Babe Ruth and old Jack Dempsey,
Both sultans of the swatOne hits where other people are,
The other where they’re not.
Ring Jr. claimed that John, more than any of his brothers, patterned his life on his father’s. John was bright and restless, and perhaps he pushed himself because he didn’t want to be known only as Ring’s son. He wasn’t given to talking about his motivations, but it is no stretch to assume that his father’s considerable talent gave him something to shoot for.
“John grew up in the shadow of a father who was a great writer,” Liebling wrote. “This is a handicap shared by only an infinitesimal portion of any given generation, but it did not intimidate him.”
As for himself, John wrote, “In the interests of learning to read and cipher, I made the rounds at a number of schools, my tour culminating in Phillips Academy, Andover, and Harvard University (one year), where I picked up the word ‘culminating.”‘
He went to Paris for another year to study at the Sorbonne, worked for a few months in Paris on the International Herald Tribune, then returned to New York in 1931 and landed a job with the New York Herald Tribune. He covered local news and quickly earned bylines—no small achievement at what was considered the city’s best-written paper. “We are all swollen up like my ankles,” his father boasted.
At twenty-one, John left the Herald Tribune to write a column for the North American Newspaper Alliance. It was the Depression, and he was pulling down an impressive $100 a week, but his father would not live long enough to see him cash any paychecks. Ring died in 1933 after suffering for years from tuberculosis and alcoholism. He was forty-eight.
In the late ’30s, John began his transition to magazine writing. He published a story for the Saturday Evening Post on the Black Sox scandal and launched the Newsweek sports column that would run for eighteen years and establish his reputation. And yet, for all of that, the rumblings of the coming war were impossible to ignore.
Finally, in 1940, he wrote a letter to John Wheeler, his boss at NANA:
A year or so ago you suggested—not at all in a definitive way, but simply as something to think about—that in case of real action abroad, perhaps involving this country, you might consider sending me to do some work there instead of, or in addition to, the people that usually do the stuff of that kind for you and the Times. The idea stuck in my mind, naturally, but I haven’t given it any serious thought until recently. I think I can do other work as well as or better than most newspaper men and writers, and that a time may be coming shortly when that work will be more important and valuable to both you and me. This sounds swellheaded—but if I didn’t feel the way I do about writing, I wouldn’t give a damn about being a writer.
John got his wish not long after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. During his voyage to Australia he wrote to his wife, Hazel: “I have now stated for the 143rd time that I don’t think Billy Conn can beat Joe Louis. This opinion is not censorable, and I will pass it along to you, too, for what it is worth, though you probably knew it all the time.”
Lardner traveled with four other American reporters during his twelve weeks in Australia. All proved more than happy to break up their considerable downtime by arguing about the following: “Food; Russia; women; the Louis-Schemling fights; the art of Michelangelo; the Civil War; religion; the Newspaper Guild; Cornelia Otis Skinner; tattooing; the best place to live in New England; William Randolph Hearst; war production; venereal disease; the Pyramids; walking-sticks; dining out as opposed to dining home; the private life of Hedy Lamarr; marriage; For Whom the Bell Tolls; prizefight managers; education for children; Enzo Fiermonte; Paris; this war and all others; Leopold and Loeb; San Francisco restaurants; Greek and Roman architecture; Seabiscuit; the comparative merits of Cleopatra and Mary Queen of Scots. And several hundred others.”
As consistently amusing as Lardner is in Southwest Passage, he strives for more than comic effect in his dispatches. Take his description of Darwin, the ghost town “at the topmost pole of the dusty road across Australia, brooding over its scars”; or his account of the nurses who survived brutal air raids in the Philippines with “their hard-bought shell of resistance.” Nothing showy, nothing fancy—just a world-class observer at work, as Lardner was when he encountered a swing band performing for a U.S. Army outfit near Darwin a few days after Easter. “The night, following a day without bombs, was moonlit, and the Southern Cross blazed above. The musicians brought their guns as well as their instruments.”
Lardner downplayed any personal jeopardy he faced, but as Liebling said, “John was naturally brave. When he saw blinding bomb flashes by night, he used to move toward them to see better.” Lardner himself might have chalked that up to poor eyesight, but his courage is evidenced by his trip through hostile waters to Port Moresby on a freighter dubbed the “Floating Firecracker,” whose cargo consisted of bombs and drums of gasoline. On another occasion, after successfully bombing their target off the north coast of New Guinea, the plane Lardner was aboard stopped to refuel at a barren little base. The men ate bread and marmalade in the mess shack while Lardner talked to one of the soldiers about the ice hockey playoffs for the Stanley Cup.
We got our last thrill of the day then, thrown in for good measure and absolutely unsolicited. Doggedly the Zeros [Japanese fighter planes] had trailed us south, and with them carne bombers. The alarm sounded, and the crews on the ground beelined for their planes, for there is nothing more humiliating, useless, and downright impractical than to be caught on the ground, in the open, with your aeronautical pants down.
There is nothing more scary, I should add, because something always goes a little wrong when you try to take off under the condition known as “or else.” One of the engines missed. Then the door failed to shut tight . . . but we did get off, after sitting there for what seemed like a couple of minutes longer than forever.
Given his natural reticence, there is little to be found in Lardner’s papers revealing his feelings about Southwest Passage. In letters home he didn’t much talk about himself or the content of his work, just the conditions under which he produced it. “As far as I know the stories I’ve been writing have not been done by others,” he wrote to his wife. “The main trouble with being frontward and one of the reasons I’ll have to spend more time here is communications and censorship. You can’t be sure how fast your stuff is getting to headquarters and clearing from there, and you have no way of knowing what’s being taken out of stories. It’s like writing in a void.”
Lardner came home to resume his sports column in the summer of 1942, but by the end of the year he was a war correspondent again. His first stops were North Africa and Italy, then it was back to the Pacific, where he went ashore at Iwo Jima only a few hours after the first wave of marines. By the time he covered the invasion of Okinawa, now also writing for the New Yorker, he was haunted by the deaths of two of his brothers: Jim was the last American volunteer to die in the Spanish Civil War, in 1938, and David was killed in 1944 by a landmine in France. You can practically feel the shadow of mortality on him in the letter he wrote to his wife after filing his dispatch from Okinawa: “That was the last one, baby. During the last few days I was there, I got one or two small and gentle hints, much more gentle than the one at Iwo Jima, that my luck was beginning to run out and I had better quit while I was still in one handsome, symmetrical piece. By the time I get home it will be practically three and a half years since I started covering the war which I guess will be enough.”
Like his father, John had considerable health problems for much of his adult life: TB, heart disease, and multiple sclerosis. Undeterred, he worked hard and steadily as he gave up his syndicated newspaper column to write long magazine pieces for True and Sport as well as the New Yorker. Along the way he published two collections of his columns, It Beats Working and Strong Cigars and Lovely Women, and a history of the golden age of boxing called White Hopes and Other Tigers.
A certain mystique rose up around Lardner. He was forever described as someone who could stay at the bar all evening, nursing a Scotch, smoking, and scarcely saying a word. “He was as easy to like as he was hard to know,” said Liebling. And yet he was far from morose. “I’d like to fend off at least a few tragic overtones in the account of John Lardner,” his daughter Susan once wrote. “Those of us who knew my father . . . remember him as a song-singing, piano-playing, butter pecan ice cream-eating cat rancher and driver of Buick convertibles, who drank more milk than whisky and who often and rightly referred to himself as Handsome Jack.”
John had always told friends he wouldn’t outlive his old man, and he was right. He died of a heart attack in 1960 six weeks before his forty-eighth birthday. That day, he was writing an obituary for an old family friend, Franklin P. Adams. “F.P.A. was always a poor poker player and often a bore,” he wrote before collapsing with chest pains. When the family doctor arrived, he took Lardner in his arms and said, “John, you can’t die. John, you’re a noble human being.” Lardner looked at him and said, “Oh Lou, that sounds like a quotation.”
In September of 1943, Lardner sat down in a stone house in southern Italy to compose his latest dispatch from the war. He had written in less commodious surroundings as he bounced from Australia to New Guinea to North Africa, but he neither complained about them nor reveled in this rare taste of comfort. Usually he was glad for mail call, too, even if it came in midsentence. But not this day.
Lardner was hoping for a letter from his wife and instead received a legal notice from the midwestern law firm of Duffy, Claffy, Igoe & McCorkindale. The letter concerned a column he had written about a former outfielder from St. Louis named Bohnsack, who seemed not to have been memorable except that he once threw an umpire off a moving train. Lardner, who knew something worth writing about when he saw it, happily included the incident in his column. Now Bohnsack’s lawyers were claiming the anecdote was “false and misleading,” and they urged Lardner to settle out of court. Then as now, there was nothing like a little moola to ease a fellow’s “grievous social and mental damage.”
Lardner seethed: “Bohnsack annoyed me because he showed me that his world, which had also been my world, had great vitality, and that it took considerably more than a global battle to kill its self-preoccupation,” he wrote. It wasn’t just that Bohnsack had told Lardner personally that he’d thrown the umpire off a train, or that the first piece of mail he had received in the battle zone was not from his wife. “It was most of all that now, in the midst of the great and bloody planetary adventure of war, these barristers chose callously to call me back to the world of petulant outfielders and remind me that I was a sports writer.”
In fact, Lardner wrote about a variety of topics: lexicography, jury service, and New York history; for the New Yorker he contributed occasional film, theater, and book reviews and in the last three and a half years of his life wrote a column for the magazine on TV and radio. “Sportswriter” was a label that he, like his father, would never escape. This slim volume of his war reportage proves that Lardner was a quick-witted and assured writer no matter the subject. As Stanley Walker, the Herald Tribune’s city editor, said, Lardner “came close to being the perfect all-around journalist.” Never were those skills put to a stiffer test than on the battlefields in Europe and the Pacific. In the thickest drama, the unflappable man remained unflappable, at his best writing what Red Smith called novels in a single sentence.
You should’ve seen my father’s arms. He didn’t lift weights or do push-ups or exercise them in any way, and yet they were packed tight with muscle. When I was a boy and he lifted his high-ball in the evening for a sip, a round knot the size of a softball came up under the skin and slowly flattened out when he lowered the glass back down. I loved his arms so much that I memorized every vein, sinew, and golden hair. I knew the wrinkles of his elbows.
In the summer, when he worked for the city’s recreation department, supervising the baseball program at the park, Daddy liked to come home for lunch and a nap. He had lemonade and a BLT, then he had me lie close to him on the sofa, and he draped an arm around me. “One … two … three … ” he’d count in a whisper, and then he was out, sleeping that easily.
I lay there wondering if I’d ever have arms like his. I needed both hands to travel the distance around his wrist, the tips of my thumbs and fingers barely touching. I felt the hardness of his forearm. I saw how his wedding band fit him like a strand of barbed wire on a tree whose bark had grown around it. He smelled of the grass and the sun, of green and gold days that started early and ended late.
“Were you a good player?” I asked him once as he was coming awake.
“Was I what?”
“A good player.”
“You want to know if I was a good player?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“I don’t know. Did they run your name in the paper a lot?”
He looked at me in a way that let me know he wanted my attention. “None of it matters, John Ed. Was I a good teammate? Did I do my best and give everything I had to help the team? These are the questions you need to be asking.”
I wondered how to answer them, these questions he found of such importance. Many years would have to pass before I was old enough to join a team. He pulled me close again, as if he’d just remembered something. “John Ed?”
“Always be humble.”
The rest of the year he worked as a civics teacher and coach at the high school in town. The town was Opelousas, on the road between Alexandria and Lafayette, and it was just small enough, at about twenty thousand, to be excluded from Louisiana state maps when TV weathermen gave their forecasts in the evening. In the morning, my father left home wearing coach’s slacks with sharp creases and a polo shirt with a Tiger emblem and the words OHS FOOTBALL printed in Halloween orange on the left breast, the lettering melted from too much time in the dryer. A whistle hung from a nylon cord around his neck. It was still hanging there when he returned at night and sat down to a cold supper—the same meal Mama had served her children hours earlier. “You don’t want me to warm it for you, Johnny?”
“No, baby. That’s okay.”
Sometimes in the afternoon, Mama drove me out to the school. She parked under the oak tree by the gymnasium, pointed to where she wanted me to go, and I walked out past a gate in a hurricane fence to the field where my father and the other coaches were holding practice. Four years old, I wore the same crew cut that my father wore. I stumbled through tall grass and out past the red clay track that encircled the field. At home, my father didn’t raise his voice, but here he seemed to shout with every breath. A team manager took me by the hand and led me to a long pine bench on the sideline. I sat among metal coolers, spare shoulder pads and toolboxes crammed with first aid supplies. I waited until the last drill had ended and the players came one after another to the coolers for water the same temperature as the day, drunk in single gulps from paper cups shaped like cones. The players took turns giving the top of my head a mussing. “You gonna play football when you grow up?”
“I don’t know.”
“You gonna be a coach like your daddy?”
“I want to.”
Already I was certain that no one mattered more than a coach. I would trade any day to come for a chance to be that boy again, understanding for the first time who his father was. Give me August and two-a-days and a group of teenagers who are now old men, their uniforms stained green from the grass and black with Louisiana loam. Give me my father’s voice as he shouts to them, pushing them harder than they believe they can go, willing them to be better. Give me my father when practice is over and he walks to where I’m sitting and reaches his arms out to hold me.
During the week, when he would be on the road somewhere, the days at home began with the muffled slapping of screen doors and the dull starting of cars and I could look through the living-room window and see the same thing happening up and down the block: the other men, wearing drab blue factory uniforms or plain gray suits, carrying lunch pails or briefcases, going off to shuffle somebody’s papers or stand in somebody’s production line, a stolid army of beaten men moving out under the orders of fate to absorb whatever the world had to dump on them today. And when I saw them return in the late afternoon, their lunch pails empty and their chalky faces more pinched than ever now, my throat would_tighten and I would think, in the manner of a 12-year- old boy: My old man is better. Because I could not imagine then, nor can I imagine now, how a kid could get excited about a father like one of those; a father who wasn’t visible, a father who merely functioned. And because I knew that during the same day, in that nine hours between the going out and the coming back of the other men of the neighborhood, my old man had been Out There—Ohio, Kansas, California? Outwitting the Interstate Commerce Commission? Saving a life on the highway? Overtaking a Greyhound?—a mechanized Don Quixote challenging the world, spitting into its face the juice of a Dutch Masters Belvedere cigar, giving it a choice of weapons and then beating it at its own game. And, too, because I was faintly aware that a snarling four-ton Dodge pulling a sleek aluminum trailer was, unlike the portfolio of the insurance agent or the samples of the salesman, something a kid could sink his teeth into.
Then, on a Friday afternoon, my mother would be standing at the kitchen sink and suddenly say, with a slight inward smile I did not yet know, “Your daddy ought to be home soon.” And I would go out into the front yard, and shortly a mud-spattered red behemoth would top the long hill above the house, a clattering silver warehouse dragging behind, air brakes sneezing and air horns blasting at the wide-eyed kids gamboling on the sidewalks and the stunned old ladies swinging on their porches, the excitement swelling in my bony young chest until finally there was one final burp on the horns—for me—before the belching engine gasped and the whole rig shuddered to rest at the curb beside the house. “How-dee, I’m just so proud to be hyar,” he would yelp, Minnie Pearl at the Opry, swinging down from the cab like a Tom Mix dismounting—sunburned face, grimy hands, squinty piercing pale blue eyes, greasy overalls and pirate boots, a half-chewed cigar jammed in the corner of the mouth—the leathery adventurer, King of the Road, home from the wars. Neighborhood kids crowding around, daring to touch the simmering tires, while my old man digs through dirty socks and Cleveland newspapers and kitchen matches to produce a novelty-shop key to the City of Akron for me. A kiss for Mama and a hug for Sis, cowering, at the age of eight, in his presence. An hour in the vacant lot across the street, hitting mile-high pop flies until dusk over complaints from his wife (“Thirty-seven years old, acting like a boy”). Over supper, the stories of bad wrecks and truck stops and icy roads and outrunning the law and pulling the Appalachians at night, a born liar refining his art: “That fog was so bad I had to get out and feel that sign,” and “They got watermelons in Texas grow so fast the bottoms wear off before they can pick ‘em,” and “She had a face so ugly it wore out two bodies.” And afterward, a session at the old black upright piano in the living room, a self-taught Hoagy Carmichael: “I’d o’ learned to play with the left hand, too, but before they could mail me my second lesson the Injuns shot the Pony Express.” And finally to bed. Five days on the road, Birmingham to Akron and back, and he had made it home again tonight. He was my first hero and, the way things have been going lately, quite possibly the last.
So why, I am asking myself now, of all the good times we had together, why should I remember a bad one? The details are fuzzy. I must have been 18 or so. He came in off the road, but something was wrong. There was shouting. He talked about taking off again right after supper. My mother found a pint of booze in his overnight bag and, with hell-fire finality, flushed the contents down the toilet. He left. She and my sister were hysterical. It’s the son’s place to go find him and talk to him. Bewildered, I got into the car and raced into town, to the lot cluttered with tires and rusty engines and oil pans. I could see him sitting all alone in a dark corner of the cab, swigging from a pint, and when I pulled up and parked in the gravel beside the truck we tried not to look at each other. Blue lights laid a scary blanket over the lot. There was the desperate choking putt-putt-putt of a refrigerated trailer somewhere, broken by the occasional wail of a far-off train whistle, and after an interminable pause I heard myself say, “They’re crying.”
A gurgle, a cough. “Thought I’d get started early.”
“How come you did it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Made ‘em cry.”
“What’d you come down here for?”
“Mama said. I don’t know.”
“She shouldn’t o’ done that.”
“Well, she told me.”
He tilted back his head and began draining the bottle, his Adam’s apple quivering and some of the whiskey dribbling off to the side of his face, and his eyes looked like deep swollen ponds. I looked down and toed the gravel with my shoe while he finished. He sniffed and cleared his throat and then spoke in a frightened, vulnerable voice, a voice I had never heard come out of hun before. I’m not running anywhere, son. There’s a lot a boy don’t know. I don’t mean to make your mother cry, but sometimes a man’s, a man’s—” His voice had broken and when I dared look up at his face, bleached white by the pale lights on the lot, I saw that my old man, too, was crying.
Growing up is, of course, in line with the prevailing notion, a terrifying experience. But contrary to that notion, it is not accomplished in one giant symbolic leap, to the accompaniment of a dozen violins turning up full volume and the sudden brilliant dawning of a new and better day. Boys are not miraculously transformed into men through the first brutal sweaty defloration of a writhing rose in the back seat of a car, nor through the quaffing of eight beers without throwing up, nor by the stunning conquest of the neighborhood bully in defense of thy mother’s good name—although all of those events play a part in the transformation, however exaggerated their importance later becomes. No, growing up isn’t that simple. It may begin with a single pivotal moment, yes, but that moment is more likely to be one of defeat than of victory. In short, we must first discover that we do not know a goddamned thing and then take it from there. This has been known to take years.
Philosophically, theoretically, there is no good reason why it should take so long. Maybe one day we will become so sophisticated that we will modernize the whole system of maturing, organize it into an orderly program whereby young boys are weaned away from their childhood fantasies and patiently taught the mechanics of coping and therefore gently delivered into manhood as the grooming of young baseball players for the major leagues is done these days; you know, daily classes on Growing Up, regular weekly seminars with the old man where he speaks with candor about the times he screwed up and how it could have been avoided, and, finally, that ceremonial day of graduation into manhood just like the African tribes in television documentaries.
Maybe there are some fathers already doing that, but I doubt it. Because it is the nature of fathers to protect the old image, to set themselves up as infallible, and the nature of sons to swallow every bit of it. So growing up must begin with the shattering discovery that one’s father is not perfect, a knowledge not easily extracted or believed; and then you have to learn why he is not perfect; and, finally, you are getting somewhere when you determine how he has managed to compensate for this pitiable shortcoming.
That night in the lot haunted me for a long time. It isn’t easy to look on and see your father brought to his knees by mysterious devils. There was, indeed, “a lot a boy don’t know.” To this day—since it was a moment that embarrassed us both, we have never discussed it—I don’t know who the devils were. That would have been around 1954, when he was 43: about the time the Teamsters were beginning to make it difficult for independent, free-wheeling “lease operators” of his breed to make it; about the time more money was needed for us than ever before, my having attained college age; about the time a woman’s natural instincts for “respectability” were causing my mother to hack away at such issues as church and example-setting and a nicer house in a subdivision and a more secure job like driving a bus.
But the larger point is that I had seen him running scared, and it brought me to the first vague stirrings that life was not going to be easy or even fun; that life could be a bitch not above kicking you in the groin if you so much as winked at her; that there would be some terrible scars before it was done; that one day there would be a young boy looking up at me, wanting answers, and about all I might be able to give him in the way of solid advice would be to suggest he go into a clinch when they started working on the head. Here we had been working on the theory that he was unbeaten and untied, the last of the indomitable heroes, and now I knew differently and he knew I knew differently. From there, we began.
He has always seemed to treat everything that happened before he went into trucking as a prologue, which could explain why I have never been able to get much more than fragments about his growing up. I do know that he was born in 1911 at a tiny community in upper East Tennessee called Robbins, a then-prosperous but isolated mining and lumbering town that sat on a branch of the Southern Railroad between the birthplace of Sgt. Alvin York and the inaugural dam on the Tennessee Valley Authority system. Left fatherless at the age of eight, he got on a tram seven years later with his ailing mother and a sister and they went to live with relatives in Birmingham, never to return to the hills. He lacked a semester of English to graduate from high school, but instead of returning to finish—he has said he was a good student and could have gene to college if the money had been there, borne out every time I see him arrogantly complete the Sunday crossword of The New York Times with a ballpoint pen—he cut out for the Midwest to work at hard labor on the Rock Island Line. After a year or two he went back to Birmingham and married Velma Nelson, one of a husky coal miner’s six children, whom he had met one night while hanging around the steps of a Baptist church.
The Depression had hit rock bottom by then, and it was a scramble to stay alive. For a while he and a Greek named Mike Manos set up a news-butch operation on the daily excursion train running between Birmingham and Chattanooga—splitting $50 a week from the proceeds of newspapers, soft drinks and snacks at a time when most men felt lucky to earn $15—and later on he established a back-breaking one-man coal-mining business. I have heard some of the stories: how he and my mother won a drawing that gave them a free wedding on the stage of the Ritz Theater and a night in the honeymoon suite of the Thomas Jefferson Hotel, how she would get up well before dawn to make sandwiches to be sold on the train, how he painted the doctor’s house to pay for my birthing in 1936. I am sure that much of what he is today was shaped by those times, which is true with the great bulk of Americans who went through the Depression, but he is served well by a faulty memory of the whole thing.
Then, on a March morning in 1941, I awoke to the sounds of fierce sawing and hammering in the backyard. He was building wooden sideboards for a borrowed trailer and converting his dump truck to pull it, and with a war coming on he was announcing plans to go into trucking. “There’s gonna be a lot of stuff needs haulin’,” he said, “and I’m gonna help ‘em.”
It was the beginning, in a true sense, of his real life. He was born to drive a truck on the open road—a hard worker, a gambler, a fast talker, an adventurer with the eagle eyes and razor instincts and idiotic courage of a moonshine runner—and over the next 20 years he was to become something of a legend in that grim outback underworld of truck stops and loading docks and ICC checkpoints and cut-rate gas stations. Having a mountaineer’s inbred distrust of big companies and organized labor, preferring to make or break on his own merits, he set himself up as a “lease operator.” This meant he was a hired gun, a freelance trucker not on salary but on commission. The company, thus free of responsibility, couldn’t care less if he was overloaded or otherwise illegal in the eyes of the ICC; if he got caught, that was his problem. Just deliver the stuff by Tuesday morning.
You can see, then, how quickly my old man learned the location of every weight station on the continent, not to mention the sleeping habits and personal financial conditions of the men who ran them. He would stand there at the dock and tell them to fill ‘er up until she was bulging—with steel, tires, explosives, helmets, uniforms, whatever—and take off in the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness, like a bootlegger off on another run, twice as heavy as some states allowed but also twice as hungry. He knew every road in America by heart, and where to find the good coffee and the cheap gas, and how to make a gentleman’s arrangement at a truck stop in regard to somewhat clandestine cargo; and it seemed to be about all a man had to know. By the time the war had blown over, he had paid cash for a three-bedroom house and a ’46 Dodge automobile (“The 78th Dodge bought in Birmingham after the war”), started taking us on summer vacations to Florida and hired a driver to run a second rig. Those were the days of unblinking idolatry: that glorious time of puberty when I tried to wear my cap like his, and affected his hillbilly twang, and wondered what it took to be able to smoke and chew a cigar at the same time, and marveled at his ability to back a heaving trailer into the tightest hole. On summer evenings, at dusk, there was the great excitement of stuffing fresh socks and underwear into a bag and waiting impatiently for him to announce it was time to be going. “Now, Paul, I don’t want him growing up to be a truck driver,” my mother would say. “It’s good enough for me,” he would snap, “and I notice you ain’t starving.”
And a large part of growing up would begin to take place as we hit the open road, father and son, discovering the world and discovering each other together. Sleeping all day in the simmering Southern heat and riding all night to the songs of the whistling tires and the all-night country radio stations (“Ol’ Ernest Tubb sings like a bulldog, don’t he?”). Seeing the big tankers parked at the Mobile docks, the traffic in Atlanta, the tarpaper shacks in Mississippi, the cattle in Texas and the mist along the Blue Ridge. The truck stops at 3 o’clock in the morning, with bug-eyed truckers so high on bennies they couldn’t feed the pinball machines fast enough. “Your boy there looks just like you, Paul,” and, in response, “Well, the kid can’t help it.” Donora, Pennsylvania, where Stan Musial was raised. Nashville, where the Opry was. Pittsburgh, where the Pirates played. Blowing past a Greyhound on a straightaway, walking around a curve to see if the scales were open, standing on the running board to relieve ourselves while crawling up the Smokies, the jouncing of the cab and the pinup overhead bringing a curious new sensation to the groin. The mysterious hand signals exchanged with passing truckers, the wrecks and near-wrecks, the Cardinals game from St. Louis broadcast by Harry Caray, the black laborers begging to help unload at the docks at New Orleans. “Naw, ain’t got but a partial load o’ tires on,” to the ICC inspector and, a quarter-mile down the road, grabbing another gear, “Them boys just don’t take their work serious enough.” We had that to hold us together, and baseball—more than once we stood through Sunday doubleheaders to watch the Birmingham Barons play, then rushed home to work on my fielding until dark—and it seemed like a dream that would never end.
The breaking away began, of course, with that confusing night when I found him with his defenses down. W e didn’thave the trips together or the baseball any more—l had been jolted awake to the fact that I would never make it to the major leagues when I lasted only five days m spring training with a pathetic Class D club—and now I was cutting the umbilical, going off to college. In the college atmosphere, lost in a crowd of people whose fathers were doctors and architects and owners of legitimate businesses, I began to develop the notion that my old man was somebody to be ashamed of. It struck me for the first time that there had never been a book around our house, that my old man’s English was atrocious and that his business associates tended to be unlettered itinerants spending their dim lives driving other people’s trucks from one warehouse to another. I painfully learned that he, being a man of instinct rather than intellect, had been incapable of instructing me in any of the social graces now facing me, including sex. It occurred to me that while my friends were being staked to automobiles and off-campus apartments and fraternity initiation fees, I was having to serve up chow in a series of dining halls and work at summer jobs simply to stay in school. This was, remember, the 1950s, when we of the Silent Generation were in college for girls, football, parties and secure positions with big companies. Now my old man was no longer a character or a folk hero or even a champion to me; he was, as we say, tacky.
Which is not to say I had not been reminded of this before. He had always been the maverick in that great sprawling body on my mother’s side referred to as The Family. One uncle sold insurance. Another was a career man with Internal Revenue. Another was a mechanic. The other uncle was, the best I could determine, a freelance inventor; but then, his wife hadn’t let him out in years. It was a huge family, one that had in the early years knelt at the feet of my maternal grandfather—an imposing white-haired patriarch who reminded me of John L. Lewis and was respectfully called “Daddy Nelson”—and my old man had set the ground rules very soon after his marriage into The Family by refusing to cater to “the old man,” as he doggedly called him. His irreverence on that score, and on dozens of others, had made him an outcast, a role he seemed to relish. He drank. He didn’t believe in church. He talked loud and told blue jokes. He stated that the inventor had more brains than anybody in the bunch, he implied that being a deacon in the church was as good a way as any to sell insurance policies, and he was unable to fulfill his duties as a pallbearer at one relative’s funeral when he warmed up to the task with a few snorts of bourbon on an empty stomach. He worked with his hands, often outside the law, and to a group bent on attaining respectability—garden clubs, Sunday school, college, newer cars and bigger houses—he was, more often than not, a pain in the ass.
Meantime, I had finished school, gotten married, begun to write sports and to understand that I hadn’t seen much of the world at all. I had hitchhiked around a lot in pursuit of baseball clubs needing second basemen and I had covered a lot of miles in a truck with my old man, but it had been like running in place. After spending a year in France with an Air National Guard unit during John Kennedy’s “Berlin Crisis,” a year of enforced leisure in which I introduced myself to literature and found that a lot had happened in the world in 1946 besides the Cardinals’ winning of the World Series, I returned knowing that I had to do two things: quit writing about games, and get the hell out of Birmingham. By 1965 I found myself a daily columnist on The Atlanta Journal, featured prominently on the second page and free to write about anything—politics, Vietnam, sports, strippers—a sort of Jimmy Breslin, Dixie branch. But the real issue then was, of course, civil rights, and I found I was poorly equipped to handle it. I didn’t have the education or experience or, most important of all, the personal association with black people.
I had been raised by a Negro maid named Louvenia, never thinking to ask why she took her lunch on the back porch, and had grown up throwing rocks and jeering at a lanky fellow known as Nigger Charles as he ran from school to the shantytown that sat on a pile of scarred red dirt beyond our shaded neighborhood in Birmingham. My old man had always said they were shiftless and smelled bad and were not to be associated with, but the only opportunity I had to investigate that was when I played semipro baseball in Kansas with a dusky little local outfielder named Hank Scott; he turned out to be energetic, bright, deodorized and, to my astonishment, more of a soul brother to me than some of the white teammates from places like Chicago and St. Louis.
No, Louvenia and Nigger Charles and Hank Scott represented the only connections I had in what they were beginning to call the black community, unless you want to throw in the swarthy laborers who had always met my old man at the docks to help unload, and I had some homework to do. Not that I was alone in the South. Maybe the kids who grew up on a farm where there was nobody else to play ball with except the sharecroppers sons had prior relationships with the Negro, but most of my friends had never faced anything like that. We had blindly accepted the proposition that Negroes were inferior and should therefore be kept in their place—the back of the bus, the balcony of the theater, the “nigger bleachers” at the ballpark, and in their own churches and schools and restaurants—and now we had to make a decision: fight desegregation or work for it.
I must say that my old man made it easy for me. During the time I was living under his roof he had seldom felt it necessary to comment on the balance of the races, but the sight of those uppity folks actually demanding service in white Southern restaurants during the early 1960s drove him into a frenzy. This wasn’t my old man. It was somebody else. An autographed 8 x 10 of George Wallace showed up on the family piano. He quit hiring blacks to help him unload—at his age rolling into his trailer tires that sometimes weighed 500 pounds. He applauded the Birmingham Barons’ decision to drop out of the Southern Association rather than play integrated baseball. He talked about reactivating his father’s old squirrel rifle, which hadn’t been fired in at least 40 years. He discussed moving out of the old neighborhood. Once, on a visit with me when I was temporarily separated from my wife, he raved on and on about Communists and niggers and Catholics and Jews without addressing himself to my anguish. A trip to visit the folks in Birmingham invariably developed into an incredible one-way conversation: “This old boy out in Texas was telling me all about Jackie and those Secret Service agents . . . That’s all right, I know old Rastus McGill won’t let y’all say anything when you get out of Atlanta, but everybody knows he’s getting paid by Moscow . . . You talkin’ ’bout Martin Luther Coon? . . . Now that Strom Thurmond, that’s a man for you . . .” Ralph McGill paid from Moscow? Jackie Kennedy pleasuring the Secret Service? I mean, there are times when it doesn’t take an expert to sort out the truth. I became a liberal, through the back door.
During the last of the 1960s, then, our relationship, what there was left of it, caved in from what should have been peripheral pressures. He became just as convinced I was a freaky Communist as I was certain he was the last of the great racists, and one thing I did that I regret was to say it in my column. Not because I consider it an especially cheap shot to talk about your father like that in print or because it might have disturbed him, but because it made him polarize even further. Funny things were happening in The Family. After being bombarded by Freedom Riders and Martin Luther King and church bombers and police dogs, it seemed as though everybody in Birmingham was preparing to give the world 24 hours to get out of town. There had been a time when my old man’s audacious verbosity made him tacky, but now The Family was rallying around him as though he were some kind of proletarian prophet. “Well, now, Paul was telling me he heard over in Louisiana the other day how the nigras are being paid, yes paid, to, ah, go looking for young white girls and, ah . . . ,” said with some authority because my old man was, after all, as everybody knew, the one in The Family who traveled a lot and talked to different people.
Birmingham became a nice place for me to stay away from, what with one cousin being promoted to an executive position with the John Birch Society and my sister’s husband building a house on an elevated cul-de-sac and actually saying, if I remember correctly, that he would be.better able to “get a bead on ‘em when they start coming. Jesus. How the hell do you talk with them, reason with them,when their nostrils are flaring and their mouths are clucking while we all sit around the color television watching Daley’s cops riot in Chicago at the convention?Communists, everyone of ‘em. Enraged: Hell, they’re just kids. Calmly, smugly: Prove they ain’t Communists, then maybe I’ll believe it. Somebody, help.
“. . . never even a book in our house when I was growing up, and Auburn was better known then for its football players .and engineers than for its writers and thinkers. So I feel, in a sense, the Nieman program was made for somebody like me. I feel I can come to a better understanding of the South and people like my father by spending a year away from it all, in the academic atmosphere of Harvard . . .”
Each year a dozen newspapermen from all over the country are selected as Nieman Fellows, to spend a school year doing whatever they want to do at Harvard: reading, attending lectures, sleeping, drinking. The year is intended to put a spit-shine on promising young journalists, and it can be a good year if you handle it right. I mean, you don’t have to lift a finger for a whole year. At the suggestion of Dan Wakefield, the writer, who had been a Nieman once, I started filling out applications in the spring of 1968. I had the vague notion that maybe a year away from the South and The Family would help me put some things into perspective—”Give ‘em some of that poor-Southern-boy stuff and you’re in,” I was advised—but mainly I was running from the writing of six 1,000-word columns a week. I mentioned the possibility of a year at Harvard to my old man once, and all I got was a knowing smile. Then a wire came, saying I had been one of those picked, and I called Birmingham with the great news. “Mama, I won that fellowship,” I yelled over the phone. ‘What school did you say that was?” she replied. “Harvard, Mama.” In the background I could hear my old man’s response, and it didn’t take much imagination to guess what he might be saying. Went ahead and joined the damned Party, didn’t he? As far as he knew, the Nieman Fellows was an organization of Communist fags.
The joke was, as it turned out, on both of us. The atmosphere at Harvard was so academic it was overwhelming, eventually sending me into a shell I was unable to come out of. Among my fellow Niemans were two Moscow correspondents, a former Pulitzer reporter and a fellow who had once run errands for Scotty Reston at The New York Times. While many of the others had been fighting in the trenches of the civil rights push five years earlier, I had been picking up ten bucks a game as official scorer for the Augusta Yankees of the Class AA Sally League. Talk about your cultural shock. I was pretty good at drinking beer at Cronin’s, but when they broke out the sherry at the Faculty Club and Galbraith started in on the industrial state I began getting a headache.
But there was more. It dawned on me, after too many boring cocktail parties with too many terribly proper New Englanders, that what I was really missing at Harvard was the sweaty passion for life I had always taken for granted while growing up in the South. There was a superficiality, a sterility, in Cambridge—even among most of the Southern kids I met, who were, after all, from a different South than I—which was neatly packaged for me by a lady at one of those parties who told me, straining to be sympathetic, that she had been to the South and found it to be not nearly as bad as everybody thought: she and her husband had spent the night in Atlanta on the way to Miami Beach, and found the South to be altogether delightful. So I was able to develop a handy catch-all theory about life: that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who live life and those who ponder it. And I learned that a good way to break the routine at the parties was to get off in a corner and regale them with highly embellished stories about my old man and Junior Johnson and Roy Acuff—How quaint. Tell us about Johnny Cash’s years in prison—and the time to go back home didn’t come soon enough. The year at Harvard was the most profitable year I ever spent, for the wrong reasons.
Going back, then, I had a new frame of reference within which to view my old man. I had taken some 15 years to finally accept him for what he was—to discover why he wasn’t perfect and then to determine how he made up for not being perfect. I knew, now, that I had to overlook his racial hangups—we would just have to ride that one out, It being too late for him to be changed—and search for the larger truths he had left me: an involvement with and a passion for life, a willingness to take on the world If necessary, the courage to endure. That’s the word—endure—a word not so fashionable as it once was. Instead of bending or running when the blows came pouring down on his head—his wife harping on security and respectability, his children acting ashamed of him, the unions killing his way of life—he stood and fought and, if forced to retreat, was still standing there, bloody, throwing rocks and cussing, when they found him. About all a man should be asked to do, when it comes to raising sons, is somehow to see that there is a slight improvement in the species. It’s a hell of a burden.
He is 62 now, and those riotous days and nights of scrambling on the open road are faint memories. In the mid-1950s he chose to make it on his own rather than join a union or go with a big company, and by 1961 the unions were so strong that it was all over for the independent. Today he does some driving and bidding and odd jobs—”nigger work,” he calls it—for a Syrian in Birmingham who owns a surplus tire company, lives in an $80,000 house and can’t begin to understand what makes my old man tick. He and, my mother live serenely in a comfortable brick house where there is an expensive organ for him to play, as well as a piano; they have plenty of friends their age, and they go to Florida several times a year to inspect the converted swampland they plan to retire to in two or three years. Not everything is right with him—his job is dull, and his wife makes more money working at the Social Security office than he ever made trucking—but he manages to keep up a facade.
Two weeks before the 30th anniversary of his entry into trucking, we took a trip together. A fellow in Louisville was selling out his tire business and my old man was going up to take the rest of the tires off his hands. On a Saturday afternoon we left in a pitiful faded red truck—no fuel gauge, leaky heater, bad brakes, no radio, dusty lopsided trailer behind—and for a while, chugging up the trough into Middle Tennessee, both of us were trying to pretend it was the same. “Call that Jew Overdrive,” he cracked, cutting the engine to coast down a hill. We stopped off to watch the Opry from backstage—”Sure wish that pretty Jean Shepard ['A Dear John Letter'] was here”—before plugging on toward Louisville. From eight in the morning until two. Sunday afternoon he loaded huge surplus aircraft tires into the trailer, in the rain, with the help of a couple of white boys and an aging Negro named Clem Miller (“Yessuh, yo’ Daddy can go almost as hard as I can”), and after some sleep at a cheap motel across the river in Indiana we got up around two o’clock in the morning and headed back.
It wasn’t really the same anymore. All I had to do was look at the truck he was driving, to observe the meaningless work he was doing, to see that. I noticed, when we stopped for breakfast at an obscure roadside diner, that he had trouble reading the menu. But we tried, passing a bottle of Scotch back and forth, laughing at the stories, creaking through Nashville as the streets jammed with Monday morning traffic: “Yeah, that time there was this fellow just handed me $150 cash up in Delaware and told me where to deliver these aircraft parts in Atlanta. Saved him some money, made me some . . . At least two and a half million miles without an accident chargeable to me . . . Hell, if you’re driving a Greyhound they can fire you just because some little old lady didn’t like your looks . . . I was representing all 82 of the drivers at Alabama Highway, see, and when I told this union organizer we didn’t want to join up, he just looked at me real cold and said, ‘Well, we can’t be responsible,’ and I said, ‘For what?’ and he said, ‘If you get a brick through your windshield somewhere.’” And about the time the ICC almost nailed him in California, where he had some unpaid fines hanging: “Didn’t want ‘em to know my name, so I told ‘em I didn’t even have a license, was just helping out my buddy there who had passed out in the truck after drinking all night. ‘Yeah, I’m from Tennessee, just came along to see California, can’t get back home fast enough,’ I told ‘em. Never bothered to look in the truck. Think he just got tired of hearin’ me talk.” And disgust for the new breed of trucker: “Some of ‘em been to college. Got credit cards now, company rigs, and if they break down they just call collect and have ‘em send somebody out to fix it.”
We got back into Birmingham in the afternoon, dropped off the load of old tires and went by the house. While we waited for my mother to come home from work, we sat alone in the cool, darkened living room that I have never known and he sipped a beer and entertained me at the organ. Mama’s taking lessons,” he said, “and I just watch and do what she does. Teacher says he’s gonna start chargin’ double. Then I said something about how it sure wasn’t like it used to be, his work and his life, not knowing how he would take it, and he quit playing and slowly turned around on the bench . . . “If something was to happen to your mother, I’d be back out on the road in a minute,” he said. “There’s days I’ll be sitting on the yard downtown, nothing to do but drink bourbon and chase it with a six-pack, and out on the expressway I’ll hear some old boy in a rig whistle and get another gear, and it gets to me. Hell, yes, I miss it. It’s the only thing I ever wanted to do. Tell your boy, David, he better hurry if he wants to ride with me.”
The late Paul Hemphill was often called the Jimmy Breslin of the South but that doesn’t do him justice. He wasn’t just a brilliant columnist. His first book, “The Nashville Sound” remains one of the great books ever written about country music. And his baseball novel, “Long Gone,”later made into a fun and now over-looked movie (it was shown on HBO the year before “Bull Durham” came out), is a treat. Do yourself a favor and read Hemphill’s classic piece,“Quitting the Paper,” and then pick up one of his collections. This story comes from “The Good Old Boys” and is reprinted here with permission from Hemphill’s wife, Susan Percy.
Ten years ago my cousin, known round these parts as edoubletrouble, gave me a thoughtful birthday gift: Dispatches from the Sporting Life, a collection of Mordecai Richler’s sports writing. It’s a terrific book and a fine introduction to Richler, born and raised in Montreal, who was one of Canada’s premier novelists, essayists, and satirists. His most famous books are The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Barney’s Version, both made into feature films, though this generation may know him more for the Jacob Two-Two series of children’s stories. Richler died on July 3, 2001.
This here piece we bring to you cause the Stanley Cup Finals begin tonight. Originally published in Inside Sports in January 1981.
What Hockey Needs is More Violence”
By Mordecai Richler
Nudging 50, I find it increasingly difficult to cope with a changing world. Raised to be a saver, for instance, I now find myself enjoined by the most knowledgeable economists to fork out faster than I can earn, borrowing whenever possible. But the rate they are encouraging me to borrow at from my friendly bank manager is what I once understood to be usury. In the kitchen of my boyhood my mother cooked on a wood fire, because we couldn’t afford better, but now that I’ve grown up to heat my country home with oil, I am scorned by modish neighbors, many of whom are rich enough to re-equip with antique stoves, burning wood again. A couple of years ago, after taking in a World Series game at Yankee Stadium with author Wilfrid Sheed, the two of us found ourselves in midtown Manhattan, looking for a friendly bar where we could round off an enjoyable evening. As we passed a celebrated boîte on Second Avenue, I said, “Why don’t we go in there?”
“You don’t understand,” Sheed admonished me, a visitor from Montreal. “If we go in there, two men together, they’ll put us in the roped-off section for gays.”
A year earlier a militant feminist press in Canada had published a hockey book titled She Shoots! She Scores! It turned out to be very topical stuff, because an irate Ontario father later sued a bantam hockey league for not allowing his daughter to play, thereby depriving her of the possibility of growing up to be taken into the boards, as it were, by Dave Schultz or Paul Holmgren. A mind-boggling thought. Since then, we’ve had Scoring, The Art of Hockey, by Hugh Hood, with images by Seymour Segal. It is the book serious students of the game have been waiting for, the one that dares to ask, “Which came first, the penis or the puck?” Scoring offers the definitive answer to why so many American fans can’t follow the puck on TV. It isn’t because they lack puck sense. Rather, the psychologically informed Hood writes, “this seems a clear instance of sublimated sexual anxiety. Where is the little fellow?” Furthermore, the reasonable author observes, “one wants to know where the puck is at all times,” and then he throws in the kicker, “especially if one is a goalie, who occupies the most womanly position in contact sport.”
Obviously, there’s a whole new world out there. Me, I’m not only dizzy, I’m also resentful, if only because in confusing times sports used to be a consolation. An unchanging vista, its values constant. From the time I saw my first baseball game until now, the distance from home plate to first base has measured 90 feet. Though most of us can no longer afford it, a championship boxing match is still scheduled for 15 rounds. To win a hockey game you still have to score more goals than the opposition, but, alas, just about everything else in the game has changed.
Major league hockey, the game I grew up with during its vintage years, used to be played in six cities: Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Boston and New York. The 50-game season began in November, and the playoffs, involving the top four teams, were done with in March, when there was still snow on the streets of Montreal. Violence was an intrinsic part of the game, and any player over 16 who still had his front teeth in place was adjudged a sissy. One night Dick Irvin, who took over as coach of the Montreal Canadiens in 1940, rejuvenating a team that had failed to win the Stanley Cup for nine years, looked down his bench and said, ” I know what’s wrong here. Your faces are unmarked. I don’t see any stitches. I don’t see any shiners.”
It was Conn Smythe, owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who made the immortal pronouncement, “If you can’t beat ‘em in the alley, you can’t beat ‘em in the rink.” Smythe, who died at the age of 85 in November, bought the Toronto St. Patricks in 1927, changing their name to the Maple Leafs, providing at once both a challenge to the Canadiens and philologists. Recalling the legendary owner, Dink Carroll of the Montreal Gazette observed, “You know that pro hockey was so rough back in the early ’20s that it kept Smythe away for years? Hockey was the very end back then. The players were considered just a cut above bank robbers. When they came down the street people would cross over to avoid them. But when Smythe finally got into it, he eliminated a lot of woodchopping and got them good sweaters and made them comb their hair.
“It makes me laugh when they talk about violence in hockey today. You may not believe me but guys like Newsy Lalonde and Mean Joe Hall and Sprague Cleghorn and Lionel Hitchman were out to kill each other. Ching Johnson of the Rangers had a smile on his face the whole game, smashing everybody he could get close to with his stick.
“When they weren’t on the ice, they were in court half the time, for breaking up bars and fighting. I guess you could say there was a pioneer spirit in hockey back then.”
In the ’40s, when I first warmed to the game, goalies had yet to be pronounced womanly. Even later, none of us dreamed of a date with Gump Worsley, however cuddly he appeared between the pipes. In those days goalies did not look like witch doctors and you could read their faces when they stood to counter a three-on-one. During the offseason the players nursed their cracked ribs and scarred faces while driving beer trucks, helping to bring in the wheat on the family farm or working in the mines. A players’ union? Doug Harvey, the greatest defenseman ever to wear a Canadien sweater, began to make dissident noises about a players’ union and was condemned to the NHL’s Gulag the following season. He wore a Ranger uniform in 1961. Harvey, who now sharpens skates in his brother’s Montreal sports shop on weekends, never had a salary of more than $21,500 a year as a Canadien.
Today so-called major league hockey is played in 21 cities, the 80-game season begins early in October, before the World Series starts, and the playoffs, involving 16 teams, end in May, long after the next baseball season has begun. Salaries are prodigious. Marcel Dionne has signed a new contract with Los Angeles for $600,000 a year. Wayne Gretzky’s escalating contract with oil-rich Edmonton calls for millions over the next 20 years. If you talk to the players they will, understandably, tell you the game is burgeoning. So will NHL officials. But among the fans complaints abound:
1) The season is too long.
2) Frenetic expansion has led to too many yawners. Obvious mismatches.
3) There’s too much violence in the game.
Happily, I can report that these complaints originate either with Canadian soreheads who feel that the vile Americans, to whom we have already yielded Paul Anka, snowmobiles and the RCAF exercise book, have now also pilfered our national game, vulgarizing it in the hope of appealing to yahoos everywhere. Or with sexually sublimated Americans who obviously suffer from puck-envy. A post-Freudian malaise rampant in expansion cities. The truth is that far from there being too much violence in hockey, there is not enough anymore. But to deal with these ill-informed complaints in order:
1) The familiar argument proffered by ignorant fans runs that it is somewhat silly to play a total of 840 games, which settle nothing, and then embark on a round of playoffs that call for 16 of 21 teams to fight it out for the Stanley Cup. At least one owner, Howard Baldwin of the Hartford Whalers, also suffers from a short attention span. “I think,” he said recently, “we should condense the season and start on November 1, ending on March 30 but still playing 80 games. The playoffs should end by May 1, no later, and only 12 teams, not 16, should qualify.”
What Baldwin and many fans fail to grasp is that the season, far from being too long, is now too short. The so-called regular season, properly looked at, is no more than an endless exhibition series, which brings something reminiscent of real hockey to such hitherto deprived outposts as Washington, St. Louis, Calgary and Denver. Over the long wintry haul, the bored and jet-weary players only go all out in short spurts, usually when they are hoping to renegotiate a contract they pronounced binding only the year before. Who cares, who even remembers, who won the Norris or Smythe Division titles in 1976? The real season, the one that counts, the battle for the Stanley Cup, begins in April. Starting this second season in the spring provides jaded players with the novel opportunity to fight it out in fog, as in Buffalo in 1975, or at least on such soft slushy ice as to reduce the flying Canadiens to slow slithering idiots. With further expansion, a game which owes something to lacrosse will inevitably acknowledge its debt to water polo.
2) It’s true that expansion to 21 teams has made for a number of uneven contests, but this has not gone undetected by those purists who unfailingly put the fan’s interest before the owner’s profit, namely the savants who comprise the NHL Board of Governors. These skilled observers have noted that when the Winnipeg Jets (one win in their first 28 games) play Montreal or the Islanders they seldom get to touch the puck, never mind slip it into the net, and so, if only to accommodate this disability, there will be a rule change next season. Remember, you read it here first. Next season in certain games between unevenly matched teams there will be no puck whatsoever put into play, allowing the sportsmen on both sides to have a go at each other without unnecessary distractions. This will enable Winnipeg right wing James Edward Mann, who scored all of three goals and five assists last season, but led the league in penalty minutes (287), to prove that behemoths belong.
3) Which brings us to the question of violence.
When we talk about violence in the NHL today, one team immediately springs to mind. The Philadelphia Flyers, a.k.a. the Broad Street Bullies, whose aggregation, even without the fabled talents of Dave Schultz, still hold the following records:
Most penalty minutes, one team, one game: 194, the Flyers, March 11, 1979, at Philadelphia against the Kings. The Flyers received seven minors, eight majors, six 10-minute misconducts and eight game misconducts.
Most penalties, one team, one period: 31, the Flyers, February 22, 1980, at Vancouver, third period. The Flyers received 12 minors, 10 majors, one 10-minute misconduct and eight game misconducts.
Most minor penalties, 1979-80: 499, the Flyers again.
But the Broad Street Bullies had the most points in the regular season last year. And when they won Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975, they led the league in penalty minutes each season.
Item: In the most thrilling hockey event most Canadians can remember, the series that pitched Team Canada against the Soviets in 1972, Bobby Clarke grasped that there was no legitimate way of stopping the superb Valery Kharlamov, and so he did the next best thing: He whacked him over the ankles with his stick, taking him out of the game. “I realized,” Clarke said, “I had to do anything to win.” Put plainly, violence pays, and in the case of Clarke, it also shows what a patriotic Canadian boy is made of. Or does it?
Because the question we must now ask ourselves is: Is it violence? Or sexual abandon? Or, God help us, even attempted rape? Which brings me back to the burning question posed by Hugh Hood: “Which comes first, the penis or the puck?”
Hood replies: “In a general way, mind you, without making a mystery of it, we guess that the penis came first, and continues to come first in the sense that it directs the occasions of fecundity. If it—or something like it—doesn’t go in, no goal, no baby. The race is continued by sperm and egg, not the conjunction of that black rubber disk and the space enclosed by the Art Ross Safety Net.”
The difficulty inherent in writing this piece for fans who haven’t read Scoring is akin to addressing a group of scientists who are as yet unaware that the atom has been split, its energy harnessed. After Scoring, nothing will ever be the same again. Hockey is no longer seen through a glass darkly. Instead, its very essence has been illuminated.
Consider, for instance, what the uninformed once took to be a rink, and no more. “Looking down at the ice surface from a height,” Hood writes, “what you see is a human body, admittedly without head or arms or legs. A torso. The space, 200 feet by 85, has about the same proportions as a human trunk, with nipples marked on it and a navel—the point where the action always begins. . . . The spectators form a body, and the players seem more like blood in a torso than anything else, eternally circulating as red or white corpuscles wearing contrasting jerseys. The body is the name of the game.”
Conversely, of course, our bodies are filled with jerseyed red and white draft choices, some of them dandy playmakers. Our chests, properly considered, boast two faceoff circles. Which is to say, within every one of us there is a hockey league, eternally circulating. Cut yourself, and the good corpuscles clear the bench and rush to defend the infected area. It thenfollows, logically, that violence is no more than a healthy body defending itself. Against infection here, Paul Holmgren there.
Hood is especially rewarding on the sexual nature of the game. “There may be people to whom sex is a metaphor for hockey, an outer appearance containing a real inner struggle. Making love, such people, usually male, imagine themselves faking to their left, circling the goal, persuading the goalie to go down, then slipping it in on their backhand.” Astutely, Hood points out what should have been obvious to us before. The Art Ross Safety Net, only adopted by the NHL in 1936, is an image of the female body.
Or, put another way, Gordie Howe, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer, was a satyr. Constantly thrusting at the opposition nets, Phil Esposito, Bobby Hull and Maurice Richard were also sex-crazed, though we didn’t understand it at the time. Furthermore, once we have accepted the image of the goalie as womanly, we can understand that certain defensemen, traditionally pronounced unnecessarily violent, are actually gallant defenders of their goalperson’s virtue. Standing tall at the blue line, swinging their sticks with abandon, all to defend Chico Resch or Rogie Vachon from assault by Guy Lafleur, Mike Bossy or Marcel Dionne. It also follows that some of the game’s low-scoring forwards, players we took to be inept, are actually well brought up kids, too nice to go the limit—that is to say, slip the puck into the net—with some 16,000 howling fans (or voyeurs) cheering them on.
Properly understood, what today’s game needs is less blatant sex or scoring, more manly fighting spirit. What’s called for is more forechecking, less foreplay.
Mind you, this is not to suggest that so-called hockey violence can only be defended on grounds of sexual propriety on ice. The new rule designed to cut down on bench-clearing brawls, the rule that calls for a game misconduct for the third man into a fight, is (a) bound to even further limit the possibility of an American network contract for hockey and (b) especially directed against one team, the Montreal Canadiens.
If Americans, new to the game, can’t follow the puck on TV, they can certainly follow and identify with flying fists. More bench-clearing brawls, on a medium already attuned to violence, could only lead to popularity for a grand game.
Of course, we will have to get rid of the spoilsport—the referees—who tend to wrestle players to the ice just as their punches are beginning to tell. An obvious refinement of the curved-stick blade would be one sharpened to come to a point. It also would be exhilarating if fights could be continued in the penalty box and players were allowed to pursue taunting fans into the stands, with rows one to 10 being declared a free fire zone.
Older fans will remember that a minor penalty once lasted two minutes, no matter how many goals the team with the manpower advantage scored. But in the 1950s, the Montreal power-play (Beliveau, Richard, Geoffrion. Olmstead, Moore) proved so overwhelming, sometimes scoring three times in two minutes. that the rule was revised in 1956 to allow the penalized player to return after only one goal had been scored. Similarly, it is now common knowledge that a Canadien rookie is fortunate indeed to get on ice for more than a shift a game. His only other opportunity to stretch his legs during a game is a bench-clearing fight. The new rule is obviously calculated to render him sedentary and therefore a diminishing threat in his sophomore year.
Finally, I’m surprised that sociologists have failed to notice the obvious correlation between violence on the ice and the safety of Canadian streets. While muggers proliferate on the streets of Detroit, New York and Boston, prowling the streets after dark, nobody feels threatened in Montreal, Toronto or Calgary, even if tempted to take a 1 a.m. stroll downtown. This is because we have cunningly put our potential muggers into team sweaters, shoving them out on the ice, paying then handsomely to spear, slash and high stick or whatever.
Even our judiciary is aware or the Canadian solution and reacts accordingly. When Wayne Maki of the St. Louis Blues was brought before an Ottawa judge in 1970, charged with assault causing bodily harm for using his stick to fracture the skull of Boston’s Ted Green during an exhibition game, he was acquitted. Judge M.J. Fitzpatrick later found Green not guilty as well. “When a player enters an arena,” he decreed, “he is consenting to a great number of what otherwise might be regarded as assaults. The game of hockey could not possibly be played unless those engaging in it were willing to accept these assaults.”
A treat from Mark Jacobson. Originally published in Esquire in 1984 and anthologized in Teenage Hipster in the Modern World, a stellar collection of Jacobson’s non-fiction. Reprinted here with the author’s permission.
Michael Jordan is certainly the greatest basketball player of all time, but Julius Erving, the incomparable Doctor J, is my all-time favorite. No one ever gave me as much pleasure watching any kind of game. Since his retirement, Julius has been the subject of a number of distressing headlines, exactly the sort of stuff he sought to avoid during his career. He acknowledged the tennis player Alexandria Stevenson to be his out-of-wedlock daughter. Later, his son Cory drove his car into a lake in Florida and drowned. These are unfortunate, sad events, but even more so when connected to someone like Julius, who was once so effortlessly perfect. I’ve written numerous articles on sports figures, most of them basketball players, but Julius remains my number one. The fact that he used to pick me up at the Philadelphia train station in his Maserati, nearly unthinkable for a current-day player, is still one of highlights of my career. From Esquire, 1984.
I went for a ride through downtown Philadelphia with Julius Erving in his Maserati the other day, and with each passing block it became more apparent: Julius cannot drive very well. It wasn’t a question of reckless speed or ignored signals. Rather, he seemed unsure, tentative. His huge, famous hands clutched the steering wheel a bit too tightly, his large head craned uncomfortably toward the slope of the windshield. He accelerated with a lurch; there was no smooth rush of power. Obvious openings in the flow of traffic went unseen or untried. All in all, it reflected a total absence of feel.
This struck me as amusing—Julius Erving, the fabulous Doctor of the court, driving a Maserati with an automatic transmission.
Just an hour before, I’d compared the act of seeing Julius play basketball to Saint Francis watching birds in flight. It was my Ultimate Compliment. When a reporter with pretensions meets an Official Legend, especially a Sports Legend, it is mandatory to concoct the Ultimate Compliment, something beyond a plebeian “gee whiz.” Something along the lines of the august Mailer’s referring to Ali as a Prince of Heaven, whose very gaze caused men to look down. Or, perhaps, Liebling’s mentioning that Sugar Ray Robinson had “slumberland in either hand.” Saint Francis was what I’d come up with.
Viewing Doctor J move to the hoop inspired what I imagined to be an awe similar to what Saint Francis felt sitting in a field with the sparrows buzzing overhead, I told Julius. It was as if a curtain had been parted, affording a peek into the Realm of the Extraordinary, a marvelous communication that ennobled both the watcher and the watched equally. What wonders there are in the Kingdom of God! How glorious they are to behold!
“What you do affirms the supremacy of all beings,” I told Julius as we sat in the offices of the Erving Group, a holding company designed to spread around the wads of capital Julius has accumulated during his career as Doctor J. Large gold-leaf plaques calling Julius things like TASTEE CAKE PLAYER OF THE YEAR dot the walls. “Seeing you play basketball has enriched my life,” I finished.
“Thanks, thanks a lot,” Julius said politely. Then again, Julius is always polite. It was obvious, my Ultimate Compliment clearly did not knock his socks off. It was as if he were saying, “Funny thing, you’re the third guy who’s told me that today.”
Every serious hoop fan remembers the first time he saw Julius Erving play basketball. My grandfather, a great New York Giants baseball fan, probably had the same feeling the first time he ever saw Willie Mays go back on a fly ball. There was Julius, mad-haired and scowl-faced, doing what everyone else did, rebounding, scoring, passing, but doing it with the accents shifted from the accepted but now totally humdrum position to a new, infinitely more thrilling somewhere else. Who was this man with two Jewish names who came from parts unknown with powers far greater than the mortal Trailblazer?
Flat out, there was nothing like him. No one had ever taken off from the foul line as if on a dare, cradled the ball above his head, and not come down until he crashed it through the hoop. Not like that, anyway. Julius acknowledges a debt to Elgin Baylor, whom he calls “the biggest gazelle, the first of the gliders,” but, to the stunned observer, the Doctor seemed to arrive from outside the boundaries of the game itself. His body, streamlined like none before him, festooned by arms longer and hands bigger, soared with an athletic ferocity matched only by the mystical, unprecedented catapult of Bob Beamon down the Mexico City runway, or by the screaming flight of Bruce Lee.
Has any other individual in team sports radically altered the idea of how his particular game should be played to the degree Julius has? Jackie Robinson? Babe Ruth? Jim Brown? A more instructive comparison would be someone like Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio was impeccable, the nonpareil. He was simply better. Yet there is something hermetic about Joe DiMaggio. He did what everyone else did, but with incomparable excellence. Joe’s exemplariness is to be admired, but it doesn’t offer a whole program of reform. His greatness is a dead end, specific to Joe and Joe alone. Julius, on the other hand, may not have invented the slam dunk, the finger roll, or the hanging rebound—the entire airborne game in general. But he certainly popularized it, and by doing so he announced that others could follow in his footsteps, even surpass him. Seeing Julius fly to the hoop spread the news: it can be done, so do it. Nine years ago Julius appeared alone in his ability to go pyrotechnic at any time. This past year, however, lined up against a gaggle of his poetic offspring, “human highlight film” youngbloods like Dominique Wilkins and Larry Nance, Julius was content to make his final attempt a running foul-line takeoff: the “classical” dunk, a bit of archaeology demonstrated by the father of the form.
Befitting the matter-of-factness of a legend discussing his craft, Julius is not falsely modest about his contributions to the game. In the clinical fashion he employs when delineating the x’sand o’s of his profession, he says, “I’d say I’ve had an effect in three main areas. First, I have taken a smaller man’s game, ball-handling, passing, and the like, and brought it to the front court. Second, I’ve taken the big man’s game, rebounding, shot-blocking, and been able to execute that even though I’m only six-foot-six. What I’ve tried to do is merge those two types of games, which were considered to be separate—for instance, Bill Russell does the rebounding, Cousy handles the ball—and combine them into the same player. This has more or less changed the definition of what’s called the small forward position, and it creates a lot more flexibility for the individual player, and, of course, creates a lot more opportunities for the whole team. The third thing I’ve tried to do, and this is the most important thing, is to make this kind of basketball a winning kind of basketball, taking into account a degree of showmanship that gets people excited. My overall goal is to give people the feeling they are being entertained by an artist—and to win.”
Then Julius laughs and says, “You know, the playground game … refined.”
In Roosevelt, New York, the lower-middle-class, largely black Long Island community where he grew up, there is a playground with a sign that says THIS IS WHERE JULIUS ERVING LEARNED THE GAME OF BASKETBALL. Herein lies Julius’s triumph. He successfully transmuted the black playground game and brought that cutthroat urban staple to its most sumptuous fruition. He, once and for all, no turning back, blackified pro basketball.
He did it by forcing the comparatively staid, grind-it-out, coach-dominated NBA to merge with the old ABA, a semi-outlaw league that played the run-till-you-drop “black” playground game with a garish red, white, and blue ball. Julius was in the ABA, and the older, more established NBA could not allow a phenomenon like Doctor J to exist outside its borders. Most observers feel the NBA absorbed the whole funky ABA, with its three-point shots and idiotic mascots, just to get Julius. Once they did, the entire product of pro basketball was refocused. Surprise! The ABA, comprising many performers from Podunk Junior College and some who never went to any college, had a lot more than Julius Erving. Many players long scorned by the NBA brass became stars, the incandescent “Ice,” George Gervin, and Moses Malone among them. And there was a lot more running. Before the merger there was only one consistent fast-break team in the NBA, the Celtics. Now, with the ABA people around, it seemed as if the whole league was running, playing the playground game, Julius’s game.
This is not to say Larry Bird isn’t great, no matter where the game is, on the back lawn of Buckingham Palace or up in Harlem, but blackification was inevitable. No one will really deny that the majority of black players jump higher and run faster than the majority of white players, and that’s what pro ball, as it’s currently constituted, is all about—running and jumping with finesse.
Many people have wondered if all this running is such a good thing. Since the merger and the takeover by the “black” game, the pro sport has suffered reversals. Attendance is uneven and TV ratings are down; rumors of widespread social evils among the players abound. It is difficult to have any in-depth conversation about the status of the league without coming up against the Problem. A league official says, “It’s race, pure and simple. No major sport comes up against it the way we do. It’s just difficult to get a lot of people to watch huge, intelligent, millionaire black people on television.”
When presented with the notion that by elevating his art he may have served to narrow its appeal, Julius says, “It’s unfortunate, but what can be done about what is?” Well, at least the onset of the playground game has exploded several pernicious myths. If there is one thing Julius and his followers (Magic Johnson comes to mind) have proved without a doubt, it’s that just because you play “flashy” doesn’t mean you’re not a team player. No longer is it assumed that the spectacular is really, at its root, just mindless showboating easily thwarted, in the crunch times, by the cunning of a small man chewing a cigar on the coaching lines. Julius’s teams have always won.
For the hoop fan, though, likely the most treasured item concerning Julius Erving remains in that first cataclysmic moment of discovery, that first peek into the Realm of the Extraordinary. This has to do with the nature of the fan, the hoop fan in particular. All team sports have their cognoscenti, gamblers poring over the injury lists, nine-year-old boys with batting averages memorized, but somehow the variety of fan attracted to pro basketball is in a slightly more obsessive class, sweatier, seedier perhaps, but absolutely committed. This type of hoop fan I’m talking about isn’t much different from the jazz buffs of the 1940s and 1950s, white people digging on an essentially black world.
How Julius, the Official Legend, comes into this is that he approached the beady consciousness as Rumor. He was a secret. He wasn’t a well-publicized high school star like Kareem; he went to the University of Massachusetts (a school with no basketball reputation) and then played two years at one of the ABA’s most remote outposts, the Virginia Squires. There was no hoopla surrounding him, no Brent Musburger hyping the size of his smile. The Doctor was something for the grapevine.
It cuts both ways. Probably, by somehow staying out of the limelight (that was easier in 1970) and by choosing not to go to a “big program” school where a crusty Adolph Rupp might have made it a principle to correct all that boy’s strange habits, Julius was left alone to create his wholly new thing. And by virtue of this anonymity, the hoop fan was able to come upon Julius as a wondrous found object.
Magic Johnson, Sugar Ray Leonard—no one is knocking their talents, but they arrived on the scene tied in a bow, sold to anyone within eyeshot of a TV. They will always carry that stigma. Julius, however, remains eternally cool. You had to work to see Julius, seek him out. There wasn’t any cable; maybe you could catch him on an independent station that had been hustled into picking up one of the numerous ABA All-Star games. Even after he came from the Squires to the Nets, then the ABA New York entry, the hoop fan had to ply the forlorn parkways to the Nassau Coliseum to sit with four thousand dour faces expressing regret that they weren’t viewing a hockey game. You had to go out of your way to see Julius. But it was worth it. When you saw that Rumor was Fact, and a far more remarkable Fact than imagined, then you felt like you had your little bond with Julius, that he was in your heart.
That Julius has maintained the quality of play this long is gravy. How do you measure the benefit one gets from seeing beautiful things happen? Sometimes I find myself idly replaying some of Julius’s more astounding moves inside my head. The one against the Lakers in the championship a few years back, the one where he goes behind the backboard and comes around for the reverse layup? Ones like that bring tears to my eyes. Really.
Of course, it can’t last. Last season Julius’s club, the Philadelphia 76ers, for whom he’s played since the league merger in 1976, were mangled by the bedraggled New Jersey Nets, transplanted to the Garden State from Uniondale, New York. It was an upset. The year before the Sixers won the title in a near walkover. Of the thirteen games they played in the championship rounds, they won twelve. The Sixers didn’t come close to repeating. Julius did not have a particularly good series. There were several reasons. For one, it had been a grueling season for the Doc. Numerous Sixer injuries forced him to play many more minutes than he might have wanted to at his age. He responded with perhaps his best year in the past three and had his backers for league MVP. By the playoffs, however, he was weary, worn out. In the last moments of the deciding game he made repeated turnovers and missed key shots. Had a b-ball cognoscenti arrived from Mars right then, dumb to the history of the past fifteen years, he could have watched Julius’s play and pronounced it “ordinary.”
So it goes. Athletes get old, and soon they’re too old to play. In the variety of pro basketball Julius helped create, it happens even quicker. There is no DH in the NBA, and right now Julius, at thirty-four, is among the fifteen oldest guys in the league. If he stays another couple of seasons, as he hints he might, he could be the oldest. His Afro, once wild as a Rorschach blot and seemingly a foot high, is now demurely trimmed and flecked with gray. So it goes: a million dudes with the hot hand down in the schoolyard waiting for the Doctor to roll over so they can get their shot. No tears over that. But it’s this driving that’s upsetting, the way Julius is driving this Maserati with the automatic transmission. It’s all so ordinary, how Julius is driving.
“Don’t ask me any questions or I’ll miss my turn,” Julius says, smiling, as if to comment on his competence.
Then he makes this flabby, too-wide turn off Broad Street. What a deal: soon enough Julius is going to retire from basketball, but likely he’ll be driving that Maserati with the automatic transmission for years to come.
“As it came it can go, as it came it most definitely will go,” he says cheerfully, unaffected by his companion’s gloom. “It won’t really be that big a change for me,” Julius says. “I’ve always thought of myself as a very ordinary guy.”
This is a little tough to swallow, the Doctor an ordinary guy. This is not to say Julius Erving is not a regular guy. Sports-page “class”—Julius is the embodiment of it. Probably no athlete still playing has signed more autographs. His marathon sessions are spoken of with awe. Talking about it, Julius gives a look that asks, “Weren’t you ever a kid?” and says, “Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Should I accommodate today, or go straight ahead?’ and I usually find myself accommodating.” There is a limit, however. Walking through the icebound streets of Milwaukee, a fat guy accosted Julius, screaming, “Doc! Doc! Where’s the other shoe?” Julius frowned. “I gave that guy one of my sneakers three years ago,” he says, “and now, every time we go there, he asks for the other one. Some people are never satisfied.”
As far as hoop reporters are concerned, Julius is the best. “There is no second place,” says a Philly writer. This means that when deadlines are approaching and sweat is popping out on foreheads, Julius can be counted on to produce the proper verbiage, a smooth rap that, without much time-consuming translation, can be plugged into hastily written stories as “game quotes.” It is something Julius works on, like any part of what he calls “my basketball function.” He knows what reporters need and tries to give it to them.
“A courtesy,” Julius says. Ask the right questions (nothing controversial, if you please!) and Julius will, in a voice that makes Frankie Crocker sound shrill, calmly assess the team’s mood for you. He’ll also say that Denver’s Calvin Natt is among the toughest for him to score against, and that it is difficult to play Dallas’s Mark Aguirre because “his butt is so big you can’t get close to him,” and that George Gervin is his favorite player, and that the Knicks’ Bernard King, considered by many the best forward in the league, “will never get up to the level of the real all-timers like, say, Kareem, or myself, because he looks like he’s working too hard. When you reach a level of greatness, there’s a certain added element that goes into making it look easy.”
Mainly, Julius keeps a low profile. He will often make inquiries about jazz—more out of educational desire than passion, for he prefers fusion. You could call him elegantly laid-back, stylish, though certainly you’d never confuse him with Walt Frazier. He is always the clean-living family man and, while sharp, displays little outward flash. He leaves the five-pound jewelry to the Darryl Dawkinses of the world, although he appears to cop no attitude toward the more flamboyant displays, sartorial or otherwise, of his fellows. He has, after all, been around, and not much raises the Doctor’s eyebrow.
In Milwaukee, however, one John Matuszak, late of the Oakland Raiders football team and the movie North Dallas Forty, came close. The Tooz, as he has been known to call himself, appeared unannounced in the Sixers’ locker room, and he was calling some attention to himself. Even in a world of large men, the Tooz stands out. He goes six-foot-eight, about three hundred pounds. In addition, he sports a mug that resembles the sort of hood ornament Screamin’ Jay Hawkins might have mounted on his ’55 DeSoto to ward off unfriendly spirits. This is not to mention his dress on this particular night, which included a black silk coat, tuxedo pants, patent leather shoes, and a white satin tie over a leopard skin print shirt. He was also affecting a manner that would put him right up there for the Bluto part, should a remake of Animal Housebe made anytime soon.
It was the Tooz’s sworn purpose to have both Julius and Moses Malone, the Sixers’ famously intimidating center, join him at one of Milwaukee’s more stylish wateringholes.
First he invited Moses. “Gonna win this year, Moses?” was Tooz’s opener. Moses, no midget himself, was sitting on a stool stark naked. “Yeah, we’re gonna win, ” said Moses, laying on his usual Sonny Liston-style bale.
Then, like a shot, the Tooz was down on one knee. He clasped his palms together and drove them like a hammer into Moses’ thigh. “Don’t say we’re gonna win. Say we gotta win, Moses!!” the Tooz shouted, startling the few stragglers in the locker room. “Come on, Moses,” the Tooz continued, “repeat after me: WE GOTTA WIN!” And, to the amazement of onlookers, Moses, who had not uttered a word in public since telling Philly reporters, “I’ll be making no further comment for the rest of the season,” repeated this after the Tooz. Moses, however, steadfastly refused to have a drink with the former lineman.
Thwarted, the Tooz went looking for Julius, who was in the midst of taking a shower. Unmindful of the water splashing everywhere, the Tooz confided to Julius how much he loved him. “I love you, Doctor!” the Tooz bellowed. Then he said, “Come on, Doctor. The Doctor and the Tooz must have a drink together. I got some friends, it’ll be a party!”
Julius, never rude, thanked the Tooz for his offer but expressed his regrets, citing a 5 a.m. wake-up call the next morning.
“If you’re worried about people hassling you, forget about it,” the Tooz said with understanding. “No one will mess with you if you’re with the Tooz!”
The football player had now stepped over the edge of the shower, his long hair dripping down over his drenched suit.
Backing into the stall, Julius, seemingly unrattled, said. “You’re getting wet, you know that?”
“A drink, that’s all I’m asking,” Tooz repeated, reaching out to wrap his arms around the Doctor. “People love you, man,” the Tooz said with sincerity, “people live to see you do your thing.” Then, clearly disappointed, the Tooz left.
Several moments of silence ensued, during which Julius began to dress and Moses picked tape off his leg. Then Moses looked at Julius sleepily and said, “See those shoes?”
“What about the tie?” Julius said back.
Later Julius smiled and said, sure, it seemed like the Tooz was something of a boor, but you really had to get to know him better before you could say that unequivocally. After all, The Doc is not what you would call judgmental.
Teammates speak of him with healthy degrees of awe and camaraderie. Marc Iavaroni, a marginal forward cut by a couple of lesser NBA clubs before catching on as a “role player” in the Sixers’ system, says, “Playing with the Doc? Don’t pinch me, please. He looks for me. On and off the court. Can you imagine that! Doctor J looking to pass off to Marc Iavaroni? Know how that makes me feel?”
Nearly everyone close enough to Julius to have personal dealings speaks of some small kindness, a birthday remembered, an appreciated pep talk, a good laugh. League officials, always aware of the “image problem” of the sport, tell you how many young players Julius has done right by, how his example is primarily responsible for the “rehabilitation” of Chicago’s troubled Quintin Dailey. Julius’s community awards appear endless. Last year he got the Father Flanagan Award for Service to Youth at Boys Town; previous recipients include Mother Teresa, Danny Thomas, and Spencer Tracy’s wife. The list of charities supported, youth groups spoken to (he read Peter and the Wolf at a special children’s show of the Youth Orchestra of Greater Philadelphia), and hospital wards visited goes on and on.
“All part of my ‘nice-guy image,”‘ Julius says with a wink. He is aware that all these good vibes add up under the economic heading of “Doctor J”: is proud that the Q ratings of his numerous commercial endorsements show him rating higher in “believability” than in “popularity.” “But really,” he says, “I just try to be decent. I try to do the decent thing in the circumstances. Right now I happen to be a well-known professional athlete, so I attempt to be decent within that context. Being nice is pretty normal, I think. If someone was drowning in the river, you’d assume most people would throw them a life preserver. You’d figure most people would do that, under those circumstances. That would be the normal thing to do. That’s what I like to believe I’d do, being a normal person.”
This led to Julius’s further insistence that, really, he was a very ordinary guy. An ordinary guy dealing with extraordinary circumstances, perhaps, but ordinary nevertheless.
“I’ve never felt particularly unique,” Julius says. “Even within the context of basketball, I honestly never imagined myself as anything special. I remember, back home, when I first started playing. At nine, ten, I had a two-hand shot. Then by twelve and a half, thirteen, I got a one-hand shot. Always went to the basket, that pattern was set by then. Actually, I don’t think I’ve changed much as a player since then. Back then, before I was physically able, I felt these different things within me, certain moves, ways to dunk. It sounds strange, being five feet tall, thinking about dunking in a clinical way, but that’s how I was. I realized all I had to do was be patient and they would come. So I wasn’t surprised when they did, they were part of me for so long. But I didn’t find anything particularly special about it. I assumed everyone could do these things if they tried.”
Julius claims the idea of being a professional basketball player didn’t occur to him until he was among the country’s leaders in both scoring and rebounding at UMass. He wanted to be a doctor. That’s the source of his unbeatable nickname. In grammar school when the kids got up to say what they wanted to be when they grew up, Julius said, “A doctor.” “Doctor!” the kids shouted, and it stuck. Later, when playing in the Rucker League, the deejay types “announcing” games were calling him the Claw, a moniker based on his large hands. Julius, always sharp to the distasteful, objected and, when asked for a substitute, said, “Oh, why don’t you just call me Doctor.” Doctors, after all, Julius felt, were white-haired men with soothing voices, who surrounded themselves with a great air of dignity. They also made a lot of money. These were Julius’s two main concerns at the time. His father had left his mother and brother early on and wound up being run down by a car when Julius was eleven.
“I never really had a father,” Julius says, “but then the possibility that I ever would was removed.”
After that, security, financial and otherwise, became obsessional with Julius. Even today, with a contract that pays him more than a million each year and other lucrative interests (he refers to basketball as “my main business application”), Julius is notoriously parsimonious. Do not expect him to pick up the check. It was this desire for himself and his family (there are four children now, three boys and a girl, living in a mansion on 2.8 acres on the Main Line) that made Julius think of playing ball for money.
“That’s when I started hearing all these people talking about how different I was supposed to be,” Julius recounts. “When a hundred people, then a thousand people tell you you’re different, you just say to yourself, ‘Okay, I’m different. … Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. I liked what it got me. I was a young player, I was doing what came easy to me, I was having a good time, so I accepted it as a fact of life.” It was only during the stresses caused by his leaving the Nets (in a protracted contract battle), the subsequent league merger, and his arrival in Philadelphia to less than knock-out notices when Julius began to ponder, “Why am I different? Why, with all these great players all around, guys who play as hard as I do, guys who want to win as badly as I do, why am I Doctor J?”
Quite a picture: the angst-ridden superstar, his piston legs rocketing from the pinewood floor into the glare of the houselights, his seemingly inexorable gaze transfixed on the orange ring, yet, in reality, his leap goes nowhere, for he is lost.
That’s the way Julius paints it. During his first years in Philly it became commonplace to downrate the Doc. In the ABA he’d scored 28.7 points a game and nabbed nearly a thousand rebounds each season; now he was getting 21, 22, and his ‘bounds were way down. Some nodded and said it was true what they said about the old league; it was a circus, after all. In 1978 an unnamed coach was quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying, “[Julius] has been on vacation for three years.”
For his part, Julius complained that his knees were killing him (he has had a tendinitis condition for some time) and that he’d purposely hidden away much of the spectacular side of the Doctor, so as to better mesh with then-teammate George McGinnis, another ABA scorer not noted for his passing skills. Yet, it wasn’t fun. None of it. He let it slip that more than likely he’d be retiring when his contract ran out in 1982. Now, though, Julius says his main problem was a spiritual, not a physical, one. “I felt totally hollow,” he says. “It was eating at me. I started off asking, ‘Who is Doctor J? How did I get to be him? What does being Doctor J mean?’ … then it came down to asking, ‘Who, really, am I?’ I became very frightened when I began to sense that I really had no idea.”
One can imagine the terror Julius felt. He seems a very methodical person, someone who likes everything in its place, not one to rush into things. Perhaps due to his longtime regimen as an athlete, where every day the practice is set for a certain amount of time and the bus leaves at such-and-such o’clock, he is given to compartmentalizing his life and talking of it in terms of small, constantly repeated activities. “I admit to liking the feel of things being in context,” Julius says, “the sense of the familiar waters.” This extends even to the court. Julius contends, “Out of one hundred moves I make in a game, I’ve made ninety-nine before, at one time or another. Sure, that one new one gives me a hit, but actually I get as much or more out of doing the other ninety-nine, because when I do something I’ve done before it means that I’ve compiled this information in my mind and selected the right action for the proper situation. That gives me a lot of pleasure.
“Back then, though,” Julius adds, “I felt completely alone at times. Often, after a game and a late dinner, in one of those cities, I’d be sitting up, three o’clock, four o’clock, after eating a big steak, just watching that TV, with all the phones turned off. I never felt like that before.
“It was finding my faith that pulled me through,” Julius says, leaning back from the desk in his Philadelphia office. In front of him is a rectangular paperweight you’d figure would be made of copper or brass and say, in embossed letters, something like JULIUS WINFIELD ERVING JR., PRESIDENT. But it is wooden and appears to have been made in a junior high school shop class. It says JESUS.
Julius’s conversion occurred during the summer of 1978, at a family get-together in South Carolina. The previous season had been his worst yet. Julius had played poorly, and he was suffering from numerous injuries. The flak was getting intense. “I was feeling a little sorry for myself,” Julius says, “but when I got down there and saw all those people, people I didn’t know, some of whom I didn’t even know existed, yet people who were connected to me in some way, it was really something. Because I was well known, everyone sort of used me as a lightning rod, a common denominator. They used me to get closer to each other. And I felt all that love passing through me. It was a very strange and wonderful feeling.”
At the meeting Julius encountered an uncle of his, Alfonso, a preacher. He told Julius about a blessing that had been laid on the family that, Alfonso said, was now being manifested through Julius. “After that,” Julius says, “things fell into place for me.”
When the subject of Julius-as-Christian comes up, a good portion of the cognoscenti express surprise (it is not well known) and then shake their heads. However, to the reporter with pretensions, it seemed a great boon, a fabulous opportunity. This isn’t to say Julius won’t go Jaycee on you at any moment; no doubt his “Dare to Be Great” speech ranks with the best. He is also given to saying things like “Did I want to open the doors to essential knowledge or did I want to remain on the merry-go-round of nondiscovery?” Primarily, though, here was an intelligent, observant man, who by the vehicle of a mysterious “blessing” had been thrust into the Realm of the Extraordinary. The hope was that he would have the presence of mind to keep his eyes and ears open while in this marvelous land, and that hope was rewarded. I mean, you could enter into a metaphysical dialogue with this man!
On a Milwaukee street we mulled over the notion of the Divine Call. On a bus in Detroit we beat around the dichotomy of true Needs and venal Wants. In a Madison Square Garden locker room we pierced the outskirts of the Spirit of Giving. But it wasn’t until our discussion in his office, during a laborious spiel of mine concerning the duty of the seeker to examine the varieties of religious experience, that Julius began to get pissed.
“I just can’t agree,” he said, “because even if you do manage to synthesize all these systems, what good is it going to do you? Even if you’re the smartest man on earth, even if you’re Albert Einstein, you’ll still only have a thimbleful of all the knowledge in the world. Where does that lead you? Digging and grinding on this unbelievable quest? Is there happiness in that? So it comes down to making concessions … down to knowing you’re not the wisest or the smartest, not the ultimate of anything, but knowing too that you have this powerful need to grasp something meaningful, something purposeful … you want a way, a way that makes sense for you, that you can embrace.”
It was clear what Julius was getting at. After all, he is a black guy in America, the son of a very religious church lady mother. He reached out to what was available to him, and it worked. He found himself capable of faith. But really, was there any other solution for the intelligent, humble man with the nice-guy image? Doctor J has not simply been a great player, he has been the epitome of a player, God’s own fantasy of a player. If Julius meant to “deal with logic, infused by faith,” as he says is his bent, was there any other conclusion but to accept the notion of the involved, controlling presence of a Higher Power? There seemed a profound sanity in Julius’s belief, and the reporter with pretension found it very satisfying.
Julius says he has no fear of life A.B. (After Basketball). “The thing that frightens me is what I heard about spiritual casualties. A spiritual casualty is someone … say a well-known athlete who takes a spiritual stand, and then the focus shifts from looking at that person as an athlete to something else. Suddenly there are all these people who want to put this athlete in the forefront because they assume he can be as significant spiritually as he was athletically. Then this famous athlete uses this forum to talk about what he feels about this new field he’s entered … and he doesn’t know what he’s talking about … like, say, someone might say, ‘Kareem, he’s a superstar ballplayer, so he should be a superstar Muslim.’ A spiritual casualty is someone who falls for that.”
Julius shivers at the mention of Eldridge Cleaver, who did much to make a mockery of himself in his post-Panther days, showing up on The Hour of Power one minute and modeling codpiece trousers the next. Julius is well aware of what went into the creation and maintenance of Doctor J, and he will do almost anything to keep that image from being defiled. “The last thing I want to be perceived as is a flake,” he says warily.
Some suggest that Julius might be a little less cautious. There have been intimations that by stressing his “Christian umbrella,” Julius has demonstrated a degree of naïveté concerning day-to-day life in lower-rent districts. This talk became increasingly intense after Julius’s no-profile stance in the recent Philly mayoral election, which pitted liberal black W. Wilson Goode against neo-Neanderthal Frank Rizzo. Hearing this, Julius gets as close as he does to bristling. “I’m very sensitive to this type of criticism,” he says, “but I’m not going to be pressured by it. My track record in the black community speaks for itself. You know, I’m not blind, I understand how things are. I remember what it was like growing up, and when we go to Boston and Chicago, there’s racism there. We hear what people shout, you know. I understand the danger of getting so far from a situation that you fool yourself and say it doesn’t exist, or get the illusion that because you’re a well-known ballplayer it doesn’t apply to me. I’m not living in a dream world, but I’ll tell you I’d be a fool not to use the advantages I’ve earned through playing in behalf of my family. But I’m not going to invite a potentially hostile situation into my life, into the lives of my wife and children, for just anyone’s idea of solidarity. If I can afford an extra layer of protection, I will exercise it.
“I’ve never been a political person. I’ve never backed a political candidate in my life. When I was with the Nets, a picture came out of me in the newspaper with a local candidate. It was just some function for the team, but this guy was there and he was running for some office, and then all these people were asking me why I was supporting the Republican candidate. I don’t want that to happen again. It would threaten my livelihood. If I backed the Democratic candidate, I’d run the risk of alienating half my public, and the other way around.
“But mostly it comes down to: I’ve played basketball for twenty-five years, almost every situation that can come up has come up. Therefore I’m qualified to sit here and talk to you about basketball. I don’t have those sort of memory cells concerning other areas.”
So, Julius says, he will enter the realm of the ordinary as a businessman. “An entrepreneur,” he says, professing to have always had “a deep yearning” to be such a person. Typically enough, most of his investments have reflected a stolid, blue-chippy side. He is a large stockholder in the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of New York. He makes earnest use of the products he endorses, which have included Coke, Converse, Spalding, and Chap Stick.
Don’t look for Julius dancing in the back row of a Bally’s Park Place Hotel Casino commercial, or any Doc’s Dunkshot Bar opening in the East Sixties. Julius does, however, keep some mad money around for what he calls “risk capital ventures.” One of these ventures was the now-defunct Doctor’s Shoe Salon, a chic fulfillment of one of Julius’s long-cherished fantasies. Throughout his life, especially since he got rich, Julius found it galling that he could not find high-fashion shoes to wrap around his size fifteens. The Doctor’s Shoe Salon assumed there were many others in the same boat and sought to fill that need by offering a wide selection for the hard-to-fit dog, mostly in the two-hundred-dollar range. The shop, poshly appointed and located on Philly’s South Second Street, was slated to be the prototype for a far-flung chain that would eventually take in all the NBA cities. It was not a success. “It caused me untold duress and aggravation,” Julius says sheepishly. “A lot of people expected, because my name was involved, that I’d be there all the time. When I wasn’t, they got mad. And when I was, I couldn’t concentrate on the business. I got bombarded with all kinds of questions, basketball stuff, A to Z. Plus we had a lot of trouble with kids who thought it was a sneaker store.” Kind of humorous—the great Doctor as the harried shoe salesman. But never let anyone say Doc doesn’t learn from experience. Currently his “risk” project is REACH, a camp for gifted and highly motivated children. Nowhere on the brochure will you find the name Julius Erving.
Basically, though, Julius says, his business goal is “to work four hours and rest twenty, as opposed to now, when I’ve got to work twenty hours to rest four.” Until he gets there he has other things to think about. The end of all those hotel rooms and 5 a.m. flights to the next city will mean a lot more time at home, a lot more time.
“One hundred and thirty to 140 more nights,” Julius relates, admitting some anxiety about this. Now, Julius, his wife Turquoise, and their four children (Cheo, Julius III, Jazmin, and Cory) are pretty much your all-American family, as was witnessed at last season’s dunk contest, during which the kids told Dad which shots to make. But 130, 140 nights. “A lot of nights,” Julius predicts, “they’re gonna be saying, ‘Him? Again?”‘ Then he laughs and says, “This is all first-generation problems for all of us, my wife and I, dealing with the circumstances we find ourselves in. There’s going to be a lot of trial and error, that’s for sure.” Then he says he’s thinking of calling up John Havlicek, Jerry West, “some old-timers, people on my level,” to get some pointers on the life ahead. Somehow, you figure, he’ll get over.
Mark Jacobson is a writer and journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. He is known for his explorations of the seamy side of urban life, both here and abroad, and for his offbeat and witty take on popular culture.His 2000 profile of Frank Lucas formed the basis for the Ridley Scott film American Gangster. He is the author of The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans; 12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time: A Semi-Dysfunctional Family Circumnavigates the Globe; and the novels Gojiro and Everyone and No One. He has been a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Esquire, and New York. You can find more at his website.
Adapted from the original, which was published in 1989 in the Louisville Courier-Journal Magazine. A postscript from Glenn Stout, editor of Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Sports Writing series, follows. The story is the basis for a new opera, Approaching Ali, which debuts this weekend at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.
I’d been waiting for years. When it finally happened, it wasn’t what I’d expected. But he’s been fooling many of us for most of our lives.
For six months, several of his friends had been trying to connect me with him at his farm in Michigan. When I finally got to see him, it wasn’t in Michigan and I didn’t have an appointment. I simply drove past his mother’s house in Louisville.
It was mid-afternoon on March 31, three days before Resurrection Day. A block-long white Winnebago with Virginia plates was parked out front.* Though he hadn’t often been in town lately, I knew it was his vehicle.
I was sure it was him because I know his patterns and his style. Since 1962, when he has traveled unhurried in this country, he has preferred buses or recreational vehicles. And he owns a second farm in Virginia. The connections were obvious. Some people study faults in the earth’s crust or the habits of storms or of galaxies, hoping to make sense of the world and of their own lives. Others meditate on the life and work of one social movement or one man. Since I was 11 years old, I have been a Muhammad Ali scholar.
I parked my car behind his Winnebago and grabbed a few old magazines and a special stack of papers I’d been storing under the front seat, waiting for the meeting with Ali I’d been certain would come. Like everyone else, I wondered in what shape I’d find The Champ. I’d heard all about his Parkinson’s syndrome and had watched him stumble through the ropes when introduced at recent big fights. But when I thought of Ali, I remembered him as I’d seen him years before, when he was luminous.
I was in my early 20s, hoping to become a world champion kickboxer. And I was fortunate enough to get to spar with him. I later wrote a couple of stories about the experience and had copies of those with me today, hoping he’d sign them.
Yes, in those days he had shone. There was an aura of light and confidence around him. He had told the world of his importance: “I am the center of the universe,” he had said, and we almost believed him. But recent reports had Ali sounding like a turtle spilled onto his back, limbs thrashing air.*
It was his brother Rahaman who opened the door. He saw the stack of papers and magazines under my arm, smiled an understanding smile, and said, “He’s out in the Winnebago. Just knock on the door. He’ll be happy to sign those for you.”
Rahaman looked pretty much the way I’d remembered him: tall as his brother, mahogany skin, and a mustache that made him look a little like a cross between footballer Jim Brown and a black, aging Errol Flynn. There was no indication in his voice or on his face that I would find his brother less than healthy.
I crossed the yard, climbed the couple of steps on the side of the Winnebago, and prepared to knock. Ali opened the door before I got the chance. I’d forgotten how huge he is. His presence filled the doorway. He had to lean under the frame to see me.
I felt no nervousness. Ali’s face, in many ways, is as familiar to me as my father’s. His skin remained unmarked, his countenance had nearly perfect symmetry. Yet something was different: Ali was no longer the world’s prettiest man. This was only partly related to his illness; it was also because he was heavier than he needed to be. He remained handsome, but in the way of a youngish granddad who tells stories about how he could have been a movie star, if he’d wanted. His pulchritude used to challenge us; now he looked a bit more like us, and less like an avatar sent by Allah.*
“Come on in,” he said and waved me past. His voice had a gurgle to it, as if he needed to clear his throat. He offered a massive hand. He did not so much shake hands as he placed his in mine. His touch was as gentle as a girl’s. His palm was cool and uncalloused, his fingers were the long, tapered digits of a hypnotist, his fingernails look professionally manicured. His knuckles were large and slightly swollen, as if he’d recently been punching the heavy bag.
He was dressed in white, all white: new leather tennis shoes, over-the-calf cotton socks, custom-tailored linen slacks, thick short-sleeved safari-style shirt crisp with starch. I told him I thought white was a better color for him than the black he often wore those days.
He motioned for me to sit, but didn’t speak. His mouth was tense at the corners; it looked like a kid’s who has been forced by a parent or teacher to keep it closed. He slowly lowered himself into a chair beside the window. I took a seat across from him and laid my magazines on the table between us. He immediately picked them up, produced a pen, and began signing. He asked, “What’s your name?” and I told him.
He continued to write without looking up. His eyes were not glazed as I’d read, but they looked tired. A wet cough rattled in his throat. His left hand trembled almost continuously. In the silence around us, I felt a need to tell him some of the things I’d been wanting to say for years.
“Champ, you changed my life,” I said.* It’s true. “When I was a kid, I was messed up, couldn’t even talk to people. No kind of life at all.”
He raised his eyes from an old healthy image of himself on a magazine cover. “You made me believe I could do anything,” I said.
He was watching me while I talked, not judging, just watching. I picked up a magazine from the stack in front of him. “This is a story I wrote for Sports Illustrated when I was in college,” I said. “It’s about the ways you’ve influenced my life.”
“What’s your name?” he asked again, this time looking right at me. I told him. He nodded. “I’ll finish signing these in a while,” he said. He put his pen on the table. “Read me your story.”
“You have a good face,” he said when I was through. “I like your face.”
He’d listened seriously as I’d read, laughing at funny lines and when I’d tried to imitate his voice. He had not looked bored. It was a lot more than I could have expected.
“You ever seen any magic?” he asked. “You like magic?”
“Not in years,” I said.
He stood and walked to the back of his RV, moving mechanically. It was my great-grandfather’s walk. He motioned for me to follow. There was a sad yet lovely, noble and intimate quality to his movements.
He did about 10 tricks. The one that interested me the most required no props. It was a very simple deception. “Watch my feet,” he said, standing maybe eight feet away, his back to me and his arms perpendicular to his sides. Then, although he’d just had real trouble walking, he seemed to levitate about three inches off of the floor. He turned to me and in his thick, slow voice said, “I’m a baadd niggah,” and gave me the old easy Ali smile.
I laughed and asked him to do it again; it was a good one. I thought I might like to try it myself, just as 15 years earlier I had stood in front of the mirror in my dad’s hallway for hours, pushing my worm of a left arm out at the reflection, wishing mightily that I could replicate Ali’s cobra jab. And I had found an old cotton laundry bag, filled it with socks and rags and hung it from a ceiling beam in the basement. I pulled on a pair of my dad’s old brown cotton work gloves and pushed my left hand into that 20-pound marshmallow 200, 300, 500 times a day: concentrating on speed: dazzling, crackling speed, in pursuit of godly speed, trying to whip out punches so fast they’d be invisible to opponents. I got to where I could shoot six to eight crisp shots a second—”Shoe shinin,” Ali called it—and I strove to make my fists move more quickly than thought (like Ali’s), as fast as ionized Minute Rice; and then I’d try to spring up on my toes, as I had watched Ali do: I would try to fly like Ali, bounding away from the bag and to my left.
After the levitation trick, Ali grabbed an empty plastic milk jug from beside a sink. He asked me to examine it. “What if I make this jug rise up from the sink this high and sit there? Will you believe?”
“I’m not much of a believer these days, Champ,” I said.
“Well, what if I make it rise, sit this high off the ground, then turn in a circle?”
“I’m a hard man to convince,” I said.
“Well, what if I make it rise, float over here to the other side of the room, then go back to the sink, and sit itself back down. Then will you become … one of my believers?”
I laughed and said, “Then I’ll believe.”
“Watch,” he said, pointing at the plastic container and taking four steps back. I was trying to see both the milk jug and Ali. He waved his hands a couple of times in front of his body, said, “Arise, ghost, arise,” in a foggy-sounding voice. The plastic container did not move from the counter.
“April Fools’,” said Ali. We both chuckled and he walked over and slipped his arm around my shoulders.
He autographed the stories and wrote a note on a page of my book-length manuscript I asked him to take a look at. “To Davis Miller, The Greatest Fan of All Times,” he wrote, “From Muhammad Ali, King of Boxing.”
I felt my stories were finally complete, now that he’d confirmed their existence. He handed me the magazines and asked me into his mother’s house. We left the Winnebago. I unlocked my car and leaned across the front seat, carefully placing the magazines and manuscript on the passenger’s side, not wanting to take a chance of damaging them or leaving them behind. Abruptly, there was a chirping, insect-sounding noise in my ear. I jumped back, swatted the air, turned around. It had been Ali’s hand. He was standing right behind me, still the practical joker.
“How’d you do that?” I wanted to know. It was a question I’d find myself asking several times that day.
He didn’t answer. He raised both fists to shoulder height and motioned me out into the yard. We walked about five paces, I put up my hands, and he tossed a slow jab at me. I blocked and countered with my own. Many fighters and ex-fighters throw punches at each other or at the air or at whatever happens to be around. It’s the way we play. Ali must still toss a hundred lefts a day. He and I had both thrown our shots a full half-foot away from the other, but my adrenal gland was pumping at high gear from being around Ali, and my jab had come out fast—it had made the air sing. He slid back a half-step and took a serious look at me. I figured I was going to get it now. A couple of kids were riding past on bicycles; they recognized Ali and stopped.
“He doesn’t understand I’m the greatest boxer of all times,” he yelled to the kids. He pulled his watch from his arm, stuck it in his pants pocket. I slipped mine off, too. He’d get down to business now. He got up on his skates, danced to his left a little, loosening his legs. A couple of minutes before, climbing down the steps of his RV, he’d moved so awkwardly he’d almost lost his balance. I’d wanted to give him a hand, but knew not to. I’d remembered seeing old Joe Louis being “escorted” in that fashion by lesser mortals, and I couldn’t do that to Muhammad Ali. But now that Ali was on his toes and boxing, he was moving fairly fluidly.
He flung another jab in my direction, a second, a third. He wasn’t one-fourth as fast as he had been in 1975, when I’d sparred with him, but his eyes were alert, shining like black electric marbles, and he saw everything and was real relaxed. That’s one reason old fighters keep making comebacks: We are more alive when boxing than at almost any other time. The grass around us was green and was getting high; it would soon need its first cutting. A blue-jay squawked from an oak to the left. Six robins roamed the yard. New leaves looked wet with the sun. I instinctively blocked and/or slid to the side of all three of Ali’s punches, then immediately felt guilty about it, like being 14 years old and knowing for the first time that you can beat your dad at ping-pong. I wished I could’ve stopped myself from slipping Ali’s jabs, but I couldn’t. Reflexive training runs faster and deeper than thought. I zipped a jab to his nose, one to his body, vaulted a straight right to his chin, and was dead certain all three would have scored—and scored clean. A couple of cars stopped in front of the house. His mom’s was on a corner lot. Three more were parked on the side.
“Check out the left,” a young-sounding voice said from somewhere. The owner of the voice was talking about my jab, not Ali’s.
“He’s in with the triple greatest of all times,” Ali was shouting. “Gowna let him tire himself out. He’ll get tired soon.”
I didn’t, but pretended to, anyway. “You’re right, Champ,” I told him, dropping my hands. “I’m 35. Can’t go like I used to.”
I held my right hand to my chest, acting out of breath. I looked at Ali; his hand was in the exact same position. We were both smiling, but he was sizing me up.
“He got scared,” Ali shouted, conclusively.
Onlookers laughed from their bicycles and car windows. Someone blew his horn and one yelled, “Hey, Champ.”
“Come on in the house,” Ali said softly in my ear.
We walked toward the door, Ali in the lead, moving woodenly through new grass, while all around us people rolled up car windows and started their engines.
“Gowna move back to Loovul, just part-time.”
The deep Southern melody rolled sleepily in Ali’s voice. His words came scarcely louder than whisper and were followed by a short fit of coughing.
Back to Loovul. Back to hazy orange sunsets and ancestors’ unmarked graves; back to old, slow-walking family (real and acquired), empty sidewalks, nearly equatorial humidity, peach cobblers made by heavy, round-breasted aunts wearing flowered dresses; back to short, thin uncles with their straw hats, white open-collar shirts, black shiny pants, and spit-shined black Florsheims—back to a life that hadn’t been Ali’s since he was 18 years old.
We were standing in the “family room,” a space so dark I could not imagine the drapes ever having been drawn, a room furnished with dented, gold-painted furniture, filled with smells of cooking meat, and infused with a light not dissimilar to that of a fireplace fire.
Ali had introduced me to his mother, Mrs. Odessa Clay, and to Rahaman, then suddenly he was gone.
Ali’s family easily accepted me. They were not surprised to have a visitor and handled me with ritualistic charm and grace. Rahaman told me to make myself at home, offered a root beer, went to get it.
I took a seat on the sofa beside Ali’s mother. Mrs. Clay was in her early 70s, yet her face had few wrinkles. Short, her hair nearly as orange as those Louisville sunsets, she was freckled, fragile-looking, and pretty. Ali’s face is shaped much like his mother’s. While he was fighting she was quite heavy, but she had lost what looked to be about 75 pounds over the past 10 years.
Mrs. Clay was watching Oprah Winfrey on an old wooden floor-model TV. I was wondering where Ali had gone. Rahaman brought the drink, a paper napkin, and a coaster. Mrs. Clay patted me on the hand. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Ali hasn’t left you. I’m sure he’s just gone upstairs to say his prayers.”
I hadn’t realized that my anxiety was showing. But Ali’s mother had watched him bring home puppies many times during his 46 years. “He’s always been a restless man, like his daddy,” she said. “Can’t ever sit still.”
Mrs. Clay spoke carefully, with a mother’s sweet sadness about her. The dignified clip to her voice must once have been affected, but after cometing all over the globe with Ali, it now sounded authentically British and old-money Virginian in its inflections.
“Have you met Lonnie, Ali’s new wife?” she asked. “He’s known her since she was a baby. I’m so happy for him. She’s my best friend’s daughter. We used to all travel to his fights together. She’s a smart girl, has a master’s degree in business. She’s so good to him, doesn’t use him. He told me, ‘Mom, Lonnie’s better to me than all the other three put together.’ She treats him so good. He needs somebody to take care of him.”
Just then, Ali came back to the room, carrying himself high and with stately dignity, though his footing was unsteady. He fell deep into a chair on the other side of the room.
“You tired, baby?” Mrs. Clay asked.
“Tired, I’m always tired,” he said, rubbing his face a couple of times and closing his eyes.
He must have felt me watching or was simply conscious of someone other than family being in the room. His eyes weren’t closed 10 seconds before he shook himself awake, balled his hands into fists, and started making typical Ali faces and noises at me—sticking his teeth out over his lower lip, looking fake-mean, growling, other playful cartoon kid stuff. After a few seconds he asked, “Y-y-you okay?” He was so difficult to understand that I didn’t so much hear him as I conjectured what he must have been saying. “Y-y-you need anything? They takin care of you?” I assured him that I was fine.
He made a loud clucking noise by pressing his tongue across the roof of his mouth and popping it forward. Rahaman came quickly from the kitchen. Ali motioned him close and whispered in his ear. Rahaman went back to the kitchen. Ali turned to me. “Come sit beside me,” he said, patting a bar stool to his right. He waited for me to take my place then said, “You had any dinner? Sit and eat with me.”
“Can I use the phone? I need to call home and let my wife know.”
“You got kids?” he asked. I told him I had two. He asked how old. I told him the ages.
“They know me?” he asked.
“Even the 3-year-old. He throws punches at the TV whenever I play your fights.”
He nodded, satisfied. “Bring ‘em over Sunday,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I’ll do my magic for ‘em. Here’s my mother’s number. Be sure to phone first.”
I called Lyn and told her where I was and what I was doing. She didn’t seem surprised. She asked me to pick up a gallon of milk on the way home. I knew she was excited for me but we had a lot of history, some of it rough, and she wouldn’t show emotion in her voice simply because I was hanging out with my childhood idol. In September 1977, when Lyn and I were in college, we skipped class, took all of the money out of our bank accounts, drove from North Carolina all the way to New York, and attended the Ali-Earnie Shavers bout at Madison Square Garden.
As we were arriving in Manhattan the morning of the bout, we ran into Ali on the street in front of the Waldorf-Astoria. Traffic stopped in all directions. Thousands of us followed him as he walked to Madison Square Garden for the weigh-in. Although several people near Ali were taller and weighed more than he, he looked bigger than anyone I had seen in my life. There was a silence around him. As if his very skin were listening. There was pushing and shoving near the outside of the circle of people around Ali. Lyn and I stood on a concrete wall above and away from the clamor and looked down on him. There was a softness, a quietude, near the center of the circle; those closest to Ali were gentle and respectful.
That night in the Garden was the first time I’d seen 20,000 people move as one organism. The air was alive with smells of pretzels and hot dogs, beer and marijuana. It was Ali’s last good fight. He was regularly hurt by Shavers and would later say that Shavers had hit him harder than anyone ever. So resounding were the blows with which Shavers tagged Ali that Lyn and I heard them, the sound arriving what seemed a full second after we saw the punches connect, as we sat a quarter of a mile from the ring up in the cheap-seat stratosphere. In the 15th round, we were all standing and not realizing that we had stood. I was trembling and Lyn was holding my hand and thousands of us were chanting, “Ahh-lee, Ahh-lee,” his name our mantra, as his gloves melded into vermilion lines of tracers and the leering jack-o’-lantern opponent finally bowed before him.
We had spent all but $40 of our money on fight tickets. We could barely buy enough gas to make it back to North Carolina. For the rest of the year we had to live off of what little money I was able to make modeling for art classes at the university. Every weekend, to pay our electric bills, we filled a laundry bag (the same one I’d used as a boxing bag) with returnable soda bottles we picked up beside highways. But, all these years later, I think we’d both do it the same way to see Ali in one of his last fights.
Now Rahaman brought two large bowls of chili and two enormous slices of white bread from the kitchen. Ali and I sat at our chairs, took spoons in our hands. He put his face down close to the bowl and the food was gone. Three minutes tops. As I continued to eat, he spoke easily to me. “I remember what it was like to meet Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano for the first time,” he said. “They were my idols. I’d seen their fights and faces so many times I felt I knew them. Want to treat you right, don’t want to disappoint you.
“Do you know how many people in the world would like to have the opportunity you’re getting, how many would like to come into my house and spend the day with me?” he said. “Haven’t fought in seven years and still get over 400 letters a week.”
I asked how people got his address.
He looked puzzled. “I don’t know,” he answered, shaking his head. “Sometimes they come addressed ‘Muhammad Ali, Los Angeles, California, USA.’ Don’t have a house in L.A. no more, but the letters still get to me.
“I want to get me a place, a coffee shop, where I can give away free coffee and doughnuts and people can just sit around and talk, people of all races, and I can go and talk to people. Have some of my old robes and trunks and gloves around, show old fight films, call it ‘Ali’s Place.’”
“I’d call it ‘Ali’s,’” I said, not believing there would or ever could be such a place but enjoying sharing his dream with him. “Just ‘Ali’s,’ that’s enough.”
“‘Ali’s’?” he repeated, and his eyes focused inward, visualizing the dream. “People would know what it was,” I said.
I asked if he had videotapes of his fights. He shook his head no.
“Well, look,” I said, “why don’t I go to a video place and see if I can rent some and we can watch them tonight. Would you like that? You want to ride with me?”
“I’ll drive,” he said.
There was a rubber monster mask in the Winnebago and I wore it on my hand on the way to the video store, pressing it against the window at stoplights. A couple of times people in cars saw the mask, then recognized Ali. Ali wears glasses when he reads and when he drives. When he saw someone looking at him, he carefully removed his glasses, placed them in his lap, made his hands into fists, and put them up beside his head.
Ali was the worst driver I’d ever ridden with—other than my alcoholic grandfather near the end of his life. Ali careened from lane to lane, sometimes riding down the middle of the highway, and he regularly switched lanes without looking or giving turn signals. I balled my fists in my lap and pretended to be relaxed. A group of teenage boys became infuriated when he pulled in front of their old, beat-up Firebird and cut them off. Three of them leaned out the windows, shooting him the finger. Ali shot it back.
At the movie store, we rented an old Godzilla movie Ali wanted to see and a tape of his fights and interviews called Ali: Skill, Brains and Guts that was written and directed by Jimmy Jacobs, the international handball champion and fight historian. Jacobs had recently died of a degenerative illness. Ali hadn’t known of Jacobs’s death until I told him.
“He was a good man,” Ali said. His voice had that same quality that an older person’s takes on who daily reads obituaries. “Did you know Bundini died?” he asked, speaking in the same tone he’d use with a friend of many years. I felt honored by his intimacy and told him that I’ve heard.
In the Winnebago on the way back to his mom’s, he said, “You’re sincere. After 30 years, I can tell. I feel it rumblin’ up from inside people.”
“I know a lot of people have tried to use you,” I said.
“They have used me. But it don’t matter. I don’t let it change me.”
I stopped by my car again on the way into Mrs. Clay’s house. There was one more picture I hoped Ali would sign, but earlier I’d felt I might be imposing on him. It was a classic head-shot in a beautiful out-of-print biography by Wilfrid Sheed that featured hundreds of wonderfully reproduced color plates.* I grabbed the book from the car and followed Ali into the house.
When we were seated, I handed him the book and he signed the picture on the title page. “To Davis Miller, From Muhammad Ali, King of Boxing,” he wrote, “3-31-88.”
I was about to ask if he’d mind autographing the photo I especially wanted, but he turned to Page 2, signed that picture, then the next page and the next. He continued to sign for probably 45 minutes, writing comments about opponents (“Get up Chump,” he wrote beside a classic photo of the fallen Sonny Liston), parents, Elijah Muhammad (“The man who named me”), Howard Cosell, spouses (“She gave me Hell,” he scrawled across his first wife’s picture), then passed the book to his mother and brother to autograph a family portrait. He even signed “Cassius Clay” on several photos from the early ’60s. He flipped twice through the book, autographing nearly every photo, pointing out annotations as he wrote.*
“Never done this before,” he said. “Usually sign one or two pictures.”
As he turned from page to page, he studied, then chose not to autograph, a youthful picture of himself with the Louisville Sponsoring Group, the collective of rich white businessmen who owned his contract (and reportedly those of several race horses) until he became Muslim. He also hesitated over a famous posed shot taken for Life magazine in 1963, in a bank vault. In this photo a wide-eyed and beaming Cassius Clay sits atop one million one-dollar bills. Ali turned to me and said, “Money don’t mean nothin,” and leafed to a picture with Malcolm X, which he signed, then posed his pen above the signature, as if prepared to make another annotation. Suddenly, though, he closed the book, looked at me dead level, and held it out at arms’ length with both hands. “I’m giving you somethin’ very valuable,” he said, handing me the biography as if deeding me the book of life.
I stared at the book in my open palms and felt I should say something, should thank him in some way. I carefully placed it on a table, shook my head slightly, and cleared my throat, but found no words.
I excused myself to the bathroom, locking the door behind me. A pair of Ali’s huge, shiny black dress shoes was beside the toilet. The toe of one had been crushed, the other shoe was lying on its side. When I unlocked the door to leave, it wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t even turn the handle. After trying several times, I tentatively knocked. There was laughter from the other room. I distinctly heard Mrs. Clay’s and Rahaman’s voices. I yanked fairly hard on the door a few times. Nothing. Just when I was beginning to think I was stuck in Odessa Clay’s bathroom for the millennium, the door easily opened. I caught a glimpse of Ali bounding into a side room to the right, laughing and high-stepping like some oversized, out-of-shape Nubian leprechaun.
I peeked around the corner. He was standing with his back flat against the wall. He saw me, jumped from the room, and tickled me, a guilty-little-kid smile splashed across his features. Next thing I knew, he had me on the floor, balled up in a fetal position, tears flowing down both sides of my face, laughing. Then he stopped tickling me and helped me to my feet. Everybody kept laughing. Mrs. Clay’s face was round and wide with laughter. She looked like the mom of a Celtic imp.
“What’d you think happened to the door?” Rahaman asked. I told him I’d figured it was Ali. “Then why you turnin red?” he wanted to know.
“It’s not every day,” I said, “that I go to Muhammad Ali’s, he locks me in the bathroom, then tickles me into submission.”
Everyone laughed again. “Ali, you crazy,” Rahaman said.
Suddenly I recognized the obvious, that I’d been acting like a teenage admirer again. And that Muhammad Ali had not lost perhaps his most significant talent—the ability to transport people past thoughts and words to a world of feeling and play. Being around Ali, or watching him perform on TV, has always made me feel genuinely childlike. I looked at his family: They were beaming: Ali still flipped their switches, too.
After helping me up, he trudged off to the bathroom. Rahaman crept over from his seat on the sofa and held the door, trying to keep Ali in. The brothers pushed and tugged on the door and, when Ali got out, laughed and wrestled around the room. Then Ali threw several feathery punches at Rahaman and a few at me.
We finally slipped the Ali tape into the VCR.* Rahaman brought everyone another root beer and we settled back to watch, he to my left, Ali beside me on the right, and Mrs. Clay beside Ali. The family’s reactions to the tape were not unlike those you or I would have looking at old home movies or high-school yearbooks. Everyone sighed and their mouths arced at tender angles. “Oh, look at Bundini,” Mrs. Clay said. “Hey, there’s Otis,” Rahaman offered.
When there was footage of Ali reciting verse, everyone recited with him. “Those were the days,” Rahaman said several times, to which Mrs. Clay responded, “Yes, yes, they were,” in a lamenting lilt.
After a half-hour or so, she left the room. Rahaman continued to watch the tape for a while, pointing out people and events, but then said he was going to bed. He brought a pen and piece of paper. “Give your name and number,” he said, smiling. “We’ll look you up.”
Then it was just Ali and me. On the TV, it was early 1964 and he was framed on the left by Jim Jacobs and on the right by Drew “Bundini” Brown. “They both dead now,” he said, an acute awareness of his own mortality in his tone.
For a time, he continued to stare at the old Ali on the screen, but eventually he lost interest in peering at distant mountains of his youth. “Did my mom go upstairs? Do you know?” he asked, his voice carrying no further than mine would if I had my hand over my mouth.
“Yeah, I think she’s probably asleep.”
He nodded, stood, and left the room, presumably to check on her. When he came back he was moving heavily. His shoulder hit the frame of the door to the kitchen. He went in and came out with two fistfuls of cookies, crumbs all over his mouth. He sat beside me on the sofa. Our knees were touching. Usually, when a man gets this close, I pull away. He offered a couple cookies, yawned a giant’s yawn, closed his eyes, and seemed to go dead asleep.
“Champ, you want me to leave?” I said. “Am I keeping you up?”
He slowly opened his eyes and was back to our side of The Great Mystery. The pores on his face looked huge, his features elongated, distorted, like someone’s in an El Greco. He rubbed his face the way I rub mine when I haven’t shaved in a week.
“No, stay,” he said. His tone was very gentle.
“You’d let me know if I was staying too late?”
He hesitated slightly before he answered. “I go to bed at 11,” he said.
With the volume turned this low on the TV, you could hear the videotape’s steady whir. “Can I ask a serious question?” I said. He nodded OK.
“You’re still a great man, Champ, I see that. But a lot of people think your mind is fried. Does that bother you?”
He didn’t hesitate before answering. “No, there are ignorant people everywhere,” he said. “Even educated people can be ignorant.”
“Does it bother you that you’re a great man not being allowed to be great?”
“Wh-wh-whatcha you mean, ‘not allowed to be great?’” he said, his voice hardly finding its way out of his body.
“I mean … let me think about what I mean … I mean the things you seem to care most about, the things you enjoy doing best, the things the rest of us think of as being Muhammad Ali, those are precisely the things that have been taken from you. It just doesn’t seem fair.”
“You don’t question God,” he said, his voice rattling in his throat.
“OK, I respect that, but … aw, man, I don’t have any business talking to you about this.”
“No, no, go on,” he said.
“It just bothers me,” I told him. I was thinking about the obvious ironies, thinking about Ali continuing to invent, and be invented by, his own mythology. About how he used to talk easier, maybe better, than anybody in the world (has anyone in history so enjoyed the sweet and spiky melodies of his own voice?); about how he sometimes still thought with speed and dazzle, but it took serious effort for him to communicate even with people close to him. About how he may have been the world’s best athlete—when walking, he used to move with the grace of a leopard turning a corner; now, at night, he stumbled around the house. About how it was his left hand, the same hand from which once slid that great Ali snake-lick of a jab—the most visible phenomenon of his boxing greatness—the very hand with which he won more than 150 sanctioned fights and countless sparring sessions, it’s his left hand, not his right, that shook almost continuously. And I was thinking how his major source of pride, his “prettiness,” remained more or less intact. If Ali lost 40 pounds, in the right kind of light he’d still look classically Greek. The seeming precision with which things have been excised from Ali’s life (as well as the gifts that have been left him) sort of spooked me.
“I know why this has happened,” Ali said. “God is showing me, and showing you“—he pointed his shaking index finger at me and widened his eyes—”that I’m just a man, just like everybody else.”
We sat a long, quiet time then, and watched his flickering image on the television screen. It was now 1971 and there was footage of him training for the first Frazier fight. Our Most Public Figure was then The World’s Most Beautiful Man and The Greatest Athlete of All Times, his copper skin glowing under the fluorescents, secret rhythms springing in loose firmness from his fingertips.
“Champ, I think it’s time for me to go,” I said again and made an effort to stand.
“No, stay. You my man,” he says, and pats my leg. He has always been this way, always wanted to be around people. I take his accolade as one of the greatest compliments of my life.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” he says, and leans close. “I’m gowna make a comeback.”
“What?” I say. I think he’s joking, hope he is, but something in his tone makes me uncertain. “You’re not serious?” I ask.
And suddenly there is power in his voice. “I’m gowna make a comeback,” he repeats louder, more firmly.
“Are you serious?”
“The timing is perfect. They’d think it was a miracle, wouldn’t they?” He’s speaking in a distinct, familiar tone; he’s easy to understand. It’s almost the voice I remember from when I met him in 1975, the one that seemed to come roiling up from down in his belly. In short, Ali sounds like Ali.
“Wouldn’t they?” he asks again.
“It would be a miracle,” I say.
“Nobody’ll take me serious at first. But then I’ll get my weight down to 215 and have an exhibition at Yankee Stadium or someplace, then they’ll believe. I’ll fight for the title. It’ll be bigger than the Resurrection.” He stands and walks to the center of the room.
“It’d be good to get your weight down,” I say.
“Watch this,” he says and dances to his left, studying himself in the mirror above the TV. His clean white shoes bound around the carpet; I marvel at how easily he moves. His white clothing accentuates his movements in the dark room; the white appears to make him glow. He starts throwing punches, not the kind he’d tossed at me earlier, but now really letting them go. I’d thought what he’d thrown in the yard was indicative of what he had left. But what he’d done was allow me to play; he’d wanted me to enjoy myself.
“Look at the TV. That’s 1971 and I’m just as fast now.” One second, two seconds, 12 punches flash in the night. This can’t be real. Yet it is. The old man can still do it: He can still make fire appear in the air. He looks faster standing in front of me than do the ghostlike Ali images on the screen. God, I wish I had a video camera to tape this. Nobody would believe me.
“And I’ll be even faster when I get my weight down,” he tells me.
“You know more now, too,” I find myself admitting. Jesus, what am I saying? And why am I saying this? This is a sick man.
“Do you believe?” he asks.
“Well …” I say. God, the Parkinson’s is affecting his sanity. Look at the gray shining in his hair. The guy can hardly walk, for Christ’s sake. Just because he was my boyhood idol doesn’t mean I’m blinded to what his life is now like.
And Ali throws another three dozen blows at the gods of mortality. He springs a triple hook off of a jab, each punch so quick it trails lines of light. He drops straight right leads faster than (most fighters’) jabs, erupts into a storm of uppercuts, and the air pops, and his fists and feet whir. This is his best work. His highest art. The very combinations no one has ever thrown quite like Muhammad Ali. When he was fighting, he typically held back some; this is the stuff he seldom had to use.
“Do you believe?” he asks, breathing hard.
“They wouldn’t let you, even if you could do it,” I say, thinking, There’s so much concern everywhere for your health. Everybody thinks they see old Mr. Thanatos waiting for you.
“Do you believe?” he asks again.
“I believe,” I hear myself say.
He stops dancing and points a magician’s finger at me. Then I get the look, the smile, the one that has closed 100,000 interviews.
“April Fools’,” he says, and sits down hard beside me again. His mouth is hanging open and his breath sounds raw. The smell of sweat comes from his skin.
We sit in silence for several minutes. I look at my watch. It’s 11:18. I hadn’t realized it was that late. I’d told Lyn I’d be in by 8.
“Champ, I better go home. I have a wife and kids waiting.”
“OK,” he says almost inaudibly, looking into the distance, not thinking about me anymore, yawning the kind of long uncovered yawn people usually do among family.
He’s bone-tired, I’m tired, too, but I want to leave by saying something that will mean something to him, something that will set me apart from the two billion other people he’s met, that will imprint me indelibly in his memory and make the kind of impact on his life he has made on mine. I want to say the words that will cure his Parkinson’s.
Instead I say, “See you Easter, Champ.”
He coughs and gives me his hand. “Be cool and look out for the ladies.” His words are so volumeless and full of fluid that I don’t realize what he’s said until I’m halfway out the door.
I don’t recall picking up the book he signed, but I must have: It’s beside my typewriter now. I can’t remember walking across his mom’s yard and don’t remember starting the Volvo. But I recall what was playing on the tape deck. It was “The Promise of Living” from the orchestral suite to Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land.
I don’t forget Lyn’s gallon of milk. Doors to the grocery store whoosh closed behind me. For this time of night, there are quite a few customers in the store. They seem to move more as floating shadows than as people.
An old feeling comes across me I almost immediately recognize. The sensation is much like going out into the day-to-day world after making love for the first time. It’s that same sense of having landed in a lesser reality. And of having a secret that the rest of the world can’t see. I’ll have to wake Lyn and share the memory of this feeling with her.
I reach to grab a milk jug and catch a reflection of myself in the chrome at the dairy counter. There’s a half-smile on my face and I hadn’t realized it
Glenn Stout, author, series editor for the Best American Sports Writing, and contributing editor at SB Nation Longform: I first read Davis Miller’s “My Dinner with Ali” in Sport magazine, where it was published in 1989. I loved everything about it; guy drives by Ali’s mother’s house in Louisville, sees Ali’s RV in front of his house, stops in … and is transformed. From the first word, it came off as a very genuine, uncontrived piece. A couple years later, when I was approached to put together a sampler for a proposed new Best American title featuring writing about sports, I immediately recalled Miller’s story, and it was one of 12 or 15 stories I submitted as examples of the kind of story I would be looking for. Nearly a decade later, when Houghton Mifflin decided to do a Best American Sports Writing of the Century, I again remembered Miller’s story, sent it forward to guest editor David Halberstam, and he liked it as much as I did. Halberstam was a huge Ali fan, thought the writing about him was particularly important, and chose the story as one of six in the volume that focused on Ali (the others were by Murray Kempton, Dick Schaap, Norman Mailer, Mark Kram, and Jim Murray—pretty good company. Miller’s story is the last in the entire collection). It was then, while securing rights, that I got to know Miller a bit. I learned that the story first appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal‘s Sunday magazine, and before landing at Sport it had also been re-printed in a number of other Sunday magazines. More remarkably, it was the author’s first published story. Miller, whose life was changed by his embrace of martial arts and boxing as a child, went on to write books about both Ali and Bruce Lee, deftly merging his personal stories with theirs. In our interactions he was as genuine and unassuming as the character who knocked on Ali’s door. Every year or two, I re-read it and still like it as much as the first time.
Davis Miller is the author of The Tao of Muhammad Ali, which has been developed into the opera Approaching Ali, premiering this weekend at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. Miller is at work on two books, a memoir titled High Old Love Way and a collection titled Approaching Ali: The Muhammad Ali Stories.
[Color photo via Getty Premium; picture on the couch byHoward Bingham]
Red Smith is the most respected sports columnist we’ve ever had. In his prime, Jimmy Cannon, Smith’s friendly rival, was certainly as well-known. Cannon, the Voice of New York, was an emotional, colloquial writer whose reputation, unfortunately, has faded. But Smith endures. What is it about his writing that ages so well?
“It’s the same reason Shakespeare ages well,” Dave Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist told me recently. “He wrote beautifully, it’s as simple as that.”
The Library of America presents Smith’s finest work in the new collection, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith. It is available now and a must-read for all sports fans, young and old (and an ideal gift for Father’s Day). This week, with permission from Smith’s family, we’ll reprint a Red Smith column every day to offer you a sample of what he was all about. Today’s column is “The Moving Finger Writes, Etc.” which ran on October 19, 1977, the day after Reggie Jackson hit three home runs on three pitches in the deciding game of the World Series.
It had to happen this way. It had been predestined since November 29, 1976, when Reginald Martinez Jackson sat down on a gilded chair in New York’s Americana Hotel and wrote his name on a Yankee contract. That day he became an instant millionaire, the big honcho on the best team money could buy, the richest, least inhibited, most glamorous exhibit in Billy Martin’s pin-striped zoo. That day the plot was written for last night—the bizarre scenario Reggie Jackson played out by hitting three home runs, clubbing the Los Angeles Dodgers into submission, and carrying his supporting players with him to the baseball championship of North America. His was the most lurid performance in seventy-four World Series, for although Babe Ruth hit three home runs in a game in 1926 and again in 1928, not even that demigod smashed three in a row.
Reggie’s first broke a tie and put the Yankees in front, 4–3. His second fattened the advantage to 7–3. His third completed arrangements for a final score of 8–4, wrapping up the championship in six games.
Yet that was merely the final act of an implausible one-man show. Jackson had made a home run last Saturday in Los Angeles and another on his last time at bat in that earthly paradise on Sunday. On his first appearance at the plate last night he walked, getting no official time at bat, so in his last four official turns he hit four home runs.
In his last nine times at bat, this Hamlet in double-knits scored seven runs, made six hits and five home runs, and batted in six runs for a batting average of .667 compiled by day and by night on two sea-coasts three thousand miles and three time zones apart. Shakespeare wouldn’t attempt a curtain scene like that if he was plastered.
This was a drama that consumed seven months, for ever since the Yankees went to training camp last March, Jackson had lived in the eye of the hurricane. All summer long as the spike-shod capitalists bickered and quarreled, contending with their manager, defying their owner, Reggie was the most controversial, the most articulate, the most flamboyant.
Part philosopher, part preacher and part outfielder, he carried this rancorous company with his bat in the season’s last fifty games, leading them to the East championship in the American League and into the World Series. He knocked in the winning run in the twelve-inning first game, drove in a run and scored two in the third, furnished the winning margin in the fourth, and delivered the final run in the fifth.
Thus the stage was set when he went to the plate in last night’s second inning with the Dodgers leading, 2–0. Sedately, he led off with a walk. Serenely, he circled the bases on a home run by Chris Chambliss. The score was tied.
Los Angeles had moved out front, 3–2, when the man reappeared in the fourth inning with Thurman Munson on base. He hit the first pitch on a line into the seats beyond right field. Circling the bases for the second time, he went into his home-run glide—head high, chest out. The Yankees led, 4–3. In the dugout, Yankees fell upon him. Billy Martin, the manager, who tried to slug him last June, patted his cheek lovingly. The dugout phone rang and Reggie accepted the call graciously.
His first home run knocked the Dodgers’ starting pitcher, Burt Hooton, out of the game. His second disposed of Elias Sosa, Hooton’s successor. Before Sosa’s first pitch in the fifth inning, Reggie had strolled the length of the dugout to pluck a bat from the rack, even though three men would precede him to the plate. He was confident he would get his turn. When he did, there was a runner on base again, and again he hit the first pitch. Again it reached the seats in right.
When the last jubilant playmate had been peeled off his neck, Reggie took a seat near the first-base end of the bench. The crowd was still bawling for him and comrades urged him to take a curtain call but he replied with a gesture that said, “Aw, fellows, cut it out!” He did unbend enough to hold up two fingers for photographers in a V-for-victory sign.
Jackson was the leadoff batter in the eighth. By that time, Martin would have replaced him in an ordinary game, sending Paul Blair to right field to help protect the Yankees’ lead. But did they ever bench Edwin Booth in the last act?
For the third time, Reggie hit the first pitch but this one didn’t take the shortest distance between two points. Straight out from the plate the ball streaked, not toward the neighborly stands in right but on a soaring arc toward the unoccupied bleachers in dead center, where the seats are blacked out to give batters a background. Up the white speck climbed, dwindling, diminishing, until it settled at last halfway up those empty stands, probably four hundred fifty feet away.
This time he could not disappoint his public. He stepped out of the dugout and faced the multitude, two fists and one cap uplifted. Not only the customers applauded.
“I must admit,” said Steve Garvey, the Dodgers’ first baseman, “when Reggie Jackson hit his third home run and I was sure nobody was listening, I applauded into my glove.”