You’ll enjoy this, Jared Haynes’ interview with Roger Angell. I came across this when I was at the baseball Hall of Fame doing research eight years ago. Found it in Angell’s file and think it’s just great.
Originally published in the fall 1992 edition ofWriting on the Edge and reprinted here with permission.
Roger Angell has been a fiction editor for The New Yorker since 1956 and has contributed to the magazine for close to fifty years. He is best known for his pieces on baseball, written for the magazine’s “The Sporting Scene” section. Many of these pieces have been gathered into collections (The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings, Season Ticket).
Every time I read one of Angell’s articles, I come away with a deeper appreciation and understanding of baseball. His year-end roundups sift through the minutiae of the long season to see what, at the end, really mattered, what was startling and unexpected, and what came to nothing. Other pieces investigate the skills and knowledge that players need to play their positions; or illustrate the swings in momentum within an at-bat, a game, a series, or a season; or tease apart the conflicts between differing factions—owners, management, players, and, most forgotten of all, the fans.
I talked with Roger Angell early in July in his office at The New Yorker. The day was hot and muggy, and because of a traffic jam, I arrived late and anxious. Angell greeted me graciously and gave me a glass of water and time to wind down. We then spent a pleasant hour and a half talking about writing and baseball, while the faint street sounds of New York wafted up from seventeen stories below.
WOE: When did you first start to consider yourself a writer?
ANGELL: The wish to be a writer was built into me very early, because of my family background. My mother was connected with The New Yorker from the second year of its existence, in 1926. And then my stepfather, E. B. White, was a writer. So I was attracted to that. My father was a lawyer; he wrote a couple of books, but he was a lawyer primarily. I was not attracted to the law, but that was not a vote against him. He was always completely supportive of whatever I chose to do.
I was a kid writer in school and editor of the school paper. I knew I would end up in publishing somewhere, editing or publishing, and I’ve been both an editor and a writer all my life. During the war I became managing editor of a GI magazine in the Pacific called Brief, which was the only weekly slick-paper, coated-stock, enlisted-man’s publication in that war. That was great practice. We covered all of the central Pacific, something like 2 million square miles. I had to write every week and help get the thing together. It’s not bad; I’ve gone back and looked at it and we did a pretty good job.
WOE: Would you say that the influence of your mother and stepfather was fairly direct? I don’t mean that they taught you, but did they give advice?
ANGELL: It was more from watching, but, sure, their influence was important. It mattered for me in psychological terms, because my parents were divorced when I was about eight years old and I ended up with my father, which was not the best arrangement. I saw a lot of my mother, but she was away. I was young and I yearned for her, so what she did, working forThe New Yorker, was of great significance to me. And what Andy White, my stepfather, did was attractive to me. My mother always supported my wishes to be a writer, my baby efforts. I had a first contribution to the famous Franklin P. Adams column, “The Conning Tower,” when I was about nine years old. I dashed it off and my stepfather picked it up and sent it in and it got published.
And, of course, when I got older, I realized that Andy White was a wonderful model. He was there at hand, and he wrote so well. I learned things from him, the main one being to try to write simply and directly and to try to make it sound easy. Be clear, be unaffected if you can, and try to arrive at a tone that is your own tone, not somebody else’s. It takes a while for you to recognize what your own tone is. I also learned how hard writing is. He made it look easy, and anybody reading E. B. White thinks, Well, this was a snap, this was a cinch for him. Of course it wasn’t. He suffered the way all writers suffer. I remember summers in North Brooklin, Maine, when he was writing “Comment”—he wrote that first page of The New Yorker for years. He’d write on Tuesdays, as I recall, when he’d close himself in his study all day. He’d come out for lunch looking pale, and he wouldn’t speak. Then he’d go back in there. He’d mail it off in the late afternoon, and then, half the time, he’d try to get it back because he thought it wasn’t good enough. Of course, it was good enough, but I recognize the impulse. Every writer understands that. Writing is hard; it’s really hard. Maybe he should have told me to turn back before it was too late!
Most writers are made at an early age. I don’t think many people come to it as a late idea. But there are always people who think, “Say, maybe I could become a writer!” I’ve heard people say, “Oh, you’re a writer. Isn’t that interesting. Someday I’m going to sit down and write a book.” You try not to laugh or scream. A writer named Roger Burlingame—someone my father’s age—had this happen years ago. Someone came up to him at a party and said this. So Burlingame asked him, “What’s your line of work?” and the man answered, “Well, I’m a civil engineer.” “That’s amazing,” Burlingame said. “You know, you won’t believe this, but all these years I’ve told myself that someday I’m going to sit down and build a bridge.”
When I talk to groups of young writers, I sometimes ask them, “Do you really want to do this?” I have cautionary tales about how tough it is, and how it doesn’t get any easier. They think that once they get the hang of it, the difficulty will go away, and of course it’s not true. Back in the mid-seventies, I was writing a piece about the Super Bowl, of all things—a “Sporting Scene” piece. The Super Bowl is two weeks of hype followed by two hours of football. I was there for a full week of the hype and I got to know the other writers. Just after the game we were in the pressroom eating a sandwich, and I said, “Now the hard part comes, we gotta write this stuff.” And a writer next to me—l was older than he was by about fifteen or twenty years—actually turned pale, and said, “You mean, it’s still hard for you?” and I said, “Yeah.” I understood his problem and I said, “I’m sorry, but it’s never going to get any easier.”
WOE: Did you have any worthwhile writing instruction in school or college?
ANGELL: When I was a freshman at Harvard, they had some remarkable instructors in composition. Wallace Stegner was there and Mark Schorer—celebrated teachers of writing. They were all in their late twenties. There were five or six sections that were all top-class. We had to write every week, which was good practice. But there isn’t much to say in a classroom about writing. You can talk endlessly about a piece of copy, or a paragraph or a sentence, and to some effect, but in general terms you can’t go much beyond “Show them, don’t tell them,” “Keep it direct,” “Be effective,” “Don’t be pompous”—all the standard things.
In those days, the great influence, the great exemplar, was Hemingway. I remember in that course at Harvard, we used to get our themes back in sort of a mail-box, with pigeon-holes, and of course you’d pick out other people’s stories and read them. Whenever I did this, I realized that every one of us was writing like Hemingway. I still remember the first sentence of one of my classmates’ stories I’d picked up: “Eddie stank of squirrel guts.”
WOE: Your first published works were short stories.
ANGELL: I wrote those pieces when I was in my twenties and thirties. I was just trying to become some kind of a writer. There were a couple of them that were OK, I guess. I really didn’t decide to stop; I just didn’t have a lot more stories to tell.
Of course in my work as an editor, I’ve been aware of most of the reigning influences in the short story.
WOE: Who have those been?
ANGELL: Oh, Raymond Carver was a very powerful influence. Donald Barthelme, back before him. Salinger to an extraordinary degree. Before that, Cheever and John O’Hara. Updike has been an influence all along, and a very strong one, but he’s difficult for students. His flavor is distinct, but not perceptible sentence by sentence. Barthelme was almost overpowering as an influence for a while because that quirky, pasted-together style looked easy, and of course it wasn’t. There was only one Donald. When he’d been going a few years, his brother Frederick Barthelme—Rick Barthelme—began sending us stuff that was exactly like Donald’s. I had to tell him, through Don at first, because I didn’t know him, that we already had one of these, we couldn’t use two. But then in time he arrived at his own way, his own approach to writing, which was entirely different, and we published a great many of his stories. I don’t think there is a dominant short-story model now. It’s strange. I don’t think there’s any meaning to it. It just doesn’t happen at the moment that there is a model. I can’t think of any.
WOE: How did you come to start writing about baseball?
ANGELL: William Shawn, then the editor [of The New Yorker], wanted to have more sports in the magazine. I had written a piece for the magazine about hockey— I’d been a hockey fan. But he was wary because he understood the difficulties of writing about sports. He didn’t want us to be cynical, he didn’t want us to be too knowing, and he didn’t want us to be sentimental. He said, “Why don’t you go down to spring training and see what happens?” I went to Florida in the spring of ’62, I guess, and wrote that first baseball piece, and I just kept going after that. I had no idea it would go on this long. It was never planned that this would become such a specialty of mine, a considerable part of a career. I just went on from year to year because I always found something else I wanted to write about. It seemed to be a good fit.
WOE: How did you envision that first assignment when you went down to Florida?
ANGELL: What I did was write about baseball from the fans’ point of view. I was in my forties—I was forty-one—and I knew enough to know that I didn’t know a great deal about baseball, even though I was a true-blue fan. I’d followed baseball all my life. But I was wary of talking to players; I felt very nervous about that. So I sat in the stands and reported on what that was like. The piece was called “The Old Folks Behind Home.” It was about old men and women watching spring training. The great preponderance of fans in ’62 were old folks.
And also, although it was not a conscious plan, I wrote about myself, because I was a fan. It set a pattern for me. I am a fan, I refer to myself as a fan, and I report about my feelings as a fan, and nobody else, to my knowledge, does that. It’s no great thing, but those old restrictions on reporting seemed to say that you can’t put yourself in the piece and you can’t betray emotion. It’s funny, because most of the beat writers have this surface objectivity and toughness, but underneath it all, I’ve noticed, they are just as much fans as the rest of us, or more so. If you sat up there and didn’t care about baseball in some personal way, it would be a deadly assignment, I think, year after year. Some of them are fans of other teams, not the team they’re covering. But if it comes down late in the season, to the last week or the last weekend, and your team still has a chance to get into the playoffs, you look around in the pressbox and everybody up there is pulling for them, and an occasional hopeful yell escapes their lips, even though no cheering in the pressbox is the absolute rule.
WOE: Has your vision of the assignment changed over the years?
ANGELL: Sure it’s changed. I eventually came to know more about baseball. I came to know some players and I began to feel free about going onto the field and into the clubhouse and talking to some players. And then, I guess in the seventies and early eighties, I began to realize that there was a great deal about the game I didn’t understand, and that many people didn’t understand. I still feel that way. That’s one of the reasons I’m still doing this. Baseball is intensely complicated, beautifully complicated. If you can get the players talking about what they do, it can make for interesting pieces. The best defense against partisanship is expertise, because the game is too painful otherwise. Year after year, it hurts to be a fan. There is much more losing than winning in baseball, if you think about it—in all sports, actually. If your hopes have been high, it can be almost unbearable. Sometimes it becomes a long slow ache, if you’ve been a Red Sox fan. Or it can be a sudden shock if you’ve gotten your hopes up for the first time, when your team comes from nowhere and seems to have a shot and then suddenly falls apart before your eyes.
WOE: It seems that you play the odds—you have three or four favorite teams that you cover.
ANGELL: The day-to-day teams that I follow most have been the Mets and the Red Sox. In 1986 I suddenly had to figure out which of the two I cared more about. It was true act of discovery; this was not contrived at all. Late in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, I suddenly realized the Mets were about to be eliminated and I was downcast. I was surprised. I would have bet the other way, that I cared more about the Red Sox, but I was wrong. So I had to write and confess that there was more Met than Red Sock in me. And my readers—I get quite a lot of mail from readers who care about baseball—my New England mail was remarkably forgiving. I thought I would be excoriated.
The other team I’ve followed is the Oakland Athletics. I’ve gotten to know the management well, first from a Profile I wrote about Roy Eisenhardt. I also admire the Haas family, the Levi Strauss people who decided to buy the team in 1980. Walter Haas, Sr. is a true baseball fan, a sports fan. They really wanted to do something for the city of Oakland. They’re liberal multi-millionaires, which is a surprising combination. They’re admirable people. Oakland was a depressed city, a city with a high preponderance of minorities, in very dire straits. They thought it would be good for Oakland to keep a big-league team, and it has been good for Oakland. This sort of concern is very rare among owners. Oakland is among the two or three most admired franchises by the players and by people who really know baseball.
WOE: You mentioned how complicated the game is. One of the pieces I’ve most admired is “In the Fire,” the one about catchers. I think it opened my eyes as a fan to how difficult and complex the game is.
ANGELL: What I learned on that story was how smart catchers have to be. They really do run the game. They see everything out there; they’re the only ones who are looking out at the field, except for the fans. I think that was the first “What do you do?” piece that I wrote. Players I talked to at first couldn’t believe that was all I wanted. They were sort of close-mouthed and thought I was after just another sports story, but I said “No, just tell me what you do.” I think for most reporters that’s probably a pretty good question, because all of us are entranced with what we do, if it’s complicated at all, and love to talk about it. So once they began to talk about it I couldn’t shut them up. There’s a lot about catching I couldn’t get in there. As I said in the piece, this is just beginning to get into what it’s all about.
On these “What do you do?” pieces, I tend to leave out the most obvious or most famous player. I don’t want to go to the top man, because what he does may seem too easy to him. So I didn’t go to Johnny Bench, although he talks about baseball and about catching very well. The people I did go to were great talkers. Of course any reporter knows enough to go to a good talker. You remember who talks well—who talks in sentences and now and then even in paragraphs. There are several Hall of Fame talkers in that same piece.
WOE: What goes into researching and writing a piece on baseball?
ANGELL: It depends on the piece. The big fall roundup really requires me to go to games fairly steadily through the summer, to take notes and keep scorecards. I also used to keep enormous stacks of newspapers and clips, The Sporting News, Baseball America, the Times, out of town papers, and last year, The National. I’d have stacks and stacks of stuff like that around here and at the end of the year I’d have to try to make some sense out of it. The biggest question, first of all, is what to leave out. There’s far more material than I can deal with. If you get a brilliant World Series like the one last fall, between the Braves and the Twins, that’s easy, because you know you’re going to hurry to the World Series in the piece. And the playoffs were just as good. You want to go back and recreate the feeling of those very close, low-scoring games, when most of us were just getting to know these young players. We didn’t know them well at all because they were both last place teams the year before. As I wrote, a great many fans said, “Who are these guys? I don’t care about these guys.” And then of course they played so well, it was like discovering baseball for the first time. I’d come in and people around here would say, “Wow! I’m worn out.” They were terrific games. It was like a World Series that was nothing but one long ninth inning.
There’s a lot to organize for those pieces in the fall. This year I’m going to try to do a shorter piece about the World Series, if I can break the habit.
When I go to games, I take a lot of notes. I take a standard, three-subject school notebook like this [picks it up off his desk], and I write all the way through games. This is a piece I’m working on, getting ready to write right now, about Class A baseball, the lowest level of organized ball, up in Oneonta, New York. I was up there last week. People who have known me in various pressboxes around the league know that I write a lot during the games. It’s a kind of joke—all the notes I take. But the reason is that I’m going to write much later than anybody else. I may be at a game in July and the chances are I won’t use any part of it in an autumn piece, but you never know. You don’t know when you’re watching a game if this is going to fit into something else that happens in September and something else that happens in October, or some recurrent theme I want to pick up on, or something about this particular player that I’m going to see later on. Well, I can’t remember what happened at this at-bat back in June. I can’t suddenly pull this out of the air. It’s got to be down on paper.
WOE: Do the notes allow you to revisualize the play?
ANGELL: Yes, if the notes are okay. I sometimes write down little things, how someone looks standing up at bat, what the pitcher’s mannerisms are up on the mound, or even what happened on a particular play, if it’s unusual. Baseball is a sport uniquely suited to writing, because you can go back and reconstruct a game from fairly simple notes and from a scorecard. You can bring back a moment, or even the pattern of the game. When something started to happen, if there was a game with a shift in it, a hinge in it. Then you can say this is why this game started this way and went that way. It all moves at a pace that allows you to write it down and watch it beginning to happen. Usually if there’s a shift in the game you can go back and say, “Well, actually this began the inning before or the inning before that.” You can do it in some detail. I don’t think anybody does it in more detail than I do. I’ve been laughed at sometimes for this, but I think fans like it. Baseball is really a writer’s game. All those idle moments at the ballpark where you look around and enjoy the day or the evening and another peanut, and now and then a thought actually comes, or even an idea crosses your mind. That doesn’t happen much in basketball or hockey because too many things are happening. And in football you can’t tell what’s happening. In baseball, you can. It’s very rare that something happens where people will say, “What was that?”
WOE: Do you tend to write in complete sentences in your notebooks?
ANGELL: I don’t think so. These notebooks [on Class A baseball] are different because I wasn’t doing very careful stuff about these games themselves. I was doing it about the setting. No, these aren’t sentences. These are quotes in some cases. But in my game notebooks I sometimes have something drawn. I make a little rough sketch of what someone looks like. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched Will Clark, who has this elegant, beautiful swing. It’s such a wonderful thing to watch. I would begin to watch how he’d do this and I’d make a drawing of that column made by his front leg and the fulcrum as he twists his body around.
WOE: What is most difficult for you in writing?
ANGELL: Starting a piece seems to be extremely difficult for me. It always has been. People around here are used to my cries of rage and woe, because I can’t get cranked up. Once I start to write, I’m pretty quick. But starting is a terrible block for me. Perhaps the reason is that good writing is based on clear thinking, which is the hardest thing we have to do. It’s as plain as that. It’s hard to start to write because what you have to do is to start to think. And not just think with the easy, up front part of your brain but with the deeper, back parts of the unconscious. The unconscious comes into writing in a powerful way. When I was writing weekly pieces—and I think daily writers feel this as well—if I am having a hard time I can go to bed at night and say, “When I wake up I’m going to have the lead.” And you do. You can train your mind to do that. Some part of you is sitting there hunched over, under a light, looking over possibilities.
I think part of my problem is that I don’t write regularly. I’m not just a writer, I’m an editor—my full time job is an editor—so I write something and then I stop. Then I may not write again for a month or two or even three or four months. And when that happens, you’ve got to remember what writing is. You have to teach yourself all over again. It doesn’t come naturally. Whenever I’ve been in the situation where I had to write every week—I did the movies for the magazine for six months once—it was a cinch. I knew I came in on Tuesdays and I was going to write the piece. By the end of the day the piece would be done. That’s no problem. But if you’re going to write five thousand or ten thousand or even a fifteen thousand words, and you haven’t done anything of the sort for a good many weeks, it’s hard to get it right. But I think all this time I’m basically sorting out the material, mostly unconsciously; I’m getting ready to decide where to put the emphasis.
I think I’m also hampered a little bit by the feeling that I’m probably competing with myself, although I try to combat this. I don’t feel a need to write a better piece each time I go out, but l know that I’ve got something of a reputation and I don’t want to write a bad piece, I really don’t. I don’t want to let down the side—by which I mean I don’t want to let myself down. I recognize this feeling among ballplayers because the great motivating factor for every major-league athlete, anybody who’s been an athlete for a long time, is that you don’t want to look bad out there. People say players today are out there thinking about money, but the truth is, they want to do well. That’s why they’re there. There’s another connection between sports and writing—all writers want to do well. It’s one of the reasons why it’s so damned hard.
WOE: I remember your quoting one player who asked his teammates, “Please tell me when I need to retire.”
ANGELL: I think that was Bob Boone. Actually he’d said it the other way around. He was still playing and he was forty-three years old. He’d played more games than any other catcher. And now that Carlton Fisk has been injured all this year it looks as if he’ll keep that record. I was a friend of Bob Boone’s and I asked him once, “How do you keep going?” He said, “I never think about my age. Never. If I go into a slump, I don’t ask myself ‘Is this because I’m old?’” Because it’s tough enough without that. And then he said, “They’ll tell me when I’m too old to play. They’ll come take the uniform away and say, ‘You can’t play any more.’ I’m not going to tell myself that.”
WOE: When you go to do a piece on, say, Class A baseball, do you go with a specific purpose in mind? Do you know ahead of time what you want to get out of it? Or do you just go to watch the games and see what happens?
ANGELL: Well, I’m doing the piece on Class A baseball right now because Major League baseball is such a pain in the ass. We are burdened by front-office news and issues of money, with these squabbles with the commissioner—league rearrangements, expansion franchises, and all the rest of it—and it’s hard to remember what we came for, which is to watch baseball. I think all of us in the stands, not just writers but all of us, feel farther away from the game than we used to. It requires enormous effort to remember that we go to the park to have fun.
I don’t want to whine here, because I think I’ve become used to most of the terrific changes, the amazing changes in the game. They’re not amazing, they’re depressing. There have been significant changes in the apparatus of baseball since I began watching it. Diamond Vision is a huge change. Everything that happens out there is replayed up on that huge board. There is rock music between the innings and even during the innings sometimes. There is organized cheering in some ballparks. The Nipponization of sports is beginning to take hold here. And of course we’re all distracted by the publicity, the fame, and we don’t really identify with those players now. With all the blather and noise and distraction of big-time sports—which is very much the same sort of stuff that’s going on in America itself—it’s hard to remember why we were drawn to this in the first place.
I went back to Class A ball and up to Oneonta because I’d heard that this was a delightful small ballpark, with a president-owner who had been there for almost thirty years now. It’s a Yankee franchise. It’s short season Class A league, where the teams are made up of players just out of college. They’re new draftees. I watched them play a Red Sox team and then a Houston team and then I went over to Pittsfield and watched them play a Mets team. It’s nice. It’s small town baseball, the trees are very close, you’re within five yards of first base, you can smell the grass, the kids are young, and the stands are full of parents and babies. It’s the way spring training used to be. It’s a lot of fun and that’s all I’m going to try to say in the piece. I don’t have anything more to say than that.
WOE: What about revising pieces? When you get to the point where it’s “done,” do you give it to somebody else to look at?
ANGELL: I don’t do a lot of revising. I work at a typewriter. Writer friends keep telling me I should move to a word processor. Every interviewer comes in here, particularly younger ones, and sees this old Olympia, and the first thing they write in their notes is “Still writes on funky upright typewriter.” I don’t do a lot of drafts. I don’t rewrite big sections. I do the editing while I’m writing. I might rewrite a page or so. I write and I “x” out, I write and I “x” out some more. When I’m done, what I have is a great untidy stack of manuscript, a lot of which is held together with Scotch tape. But by the time I’m done, it’s pretty well the way it’s going to be. I sometimes might go back and add something—a thought, or a little theme, a couple of extra pages that I didn’t have the first time. And sometimes I’ll take out something that’s repetitious. But by the time I’ve gone through the process, it’s about ready to go to type.
I also have an editor here whom I rely on to tell me when I’ve been foolish or repetitious or boring, and I count on that. All New Yorker writers do that. The mark of a professional, or a veteran anyway, is that you know you’re going to make mistakes. You need somebody there to tell you that. My editor is now Chip McGrath, who is the managing editor here. My editor before that was Gardner Botsford, who is now retired. These are terrific editors. Gardner would sometimes cut a few lines and I wouldn’t even notice it. Reading the galleys I’d say, “Didn’t I have something else in here?” He’d be very pleased when I finally realized it, because he’d been so deft that there was no scar left.
WOE: That need for outside help is hard to get across to students when we’re teaching them writing.
ANGELL: Absolutely. A lot of my work as an editor involves young writers, and new writers tend to feel that the way they wrote it is the way it’s meant to be. Once you see your stuff in type you think you wrote every one of those words without crossing out a line. It’s an illusion that we all have, to some extent. And the truth of the matter is that any piece of writing is just the last proof; it’s the one we had to let go of because the deadline is here.
This [indicating a sheaf of pages on his desk] is a page proof of a new John Updike story. It’s very short, just five pages. These are some corrections from our copy desk, some suggestions on grammar and usage, whatever. But we’ve already sent him the author’s proof, which had a lot more on it—factual queries from the “checking department, little things he might want to consider. All that’s gone off to him and he has answered them, and his corrections are in this page proof. I’ve sent up the page proofs already by overnight mail. I’ll talk to him tomorrow morning and we’ll go over these possible fixes. He will answer those questions, and meantime he will have some changes of his own. He rewrites on the author’s proof, but he also rewrites on page proof. He may have four or five sentences he’ll want to handle differently—rephrasing, new sentences—and sometimes he’ll ask me “What do you think? Is this better than that?” He’s open to my opinion because that’s what I’m here for. I’m not trying to rewrite John Updike, but to say “Why don’t you try it this way?”
WOE: And you find veteran writers more receptive to this?
ANGELL: Sure. And some very well known writers require quite a lot of editing. I don’t think it makes them lesser writers; it’s just what they are. Then there are some writers who are famously clean and write finished copy from the beginning. Updike is like that. With Donald Barthelme, you hardly had to do anything, but he still counted on me as an editor. I remember he said once, “I count on you to get the hay out.” And I count on my editors in turn when I’m writing.
WOE: I get the impression when reading your pieces that you are working on several ideas at once, some that you may not use until later. For example, the piece on catchers. You worked on it the season before but didn’t really get around to writing it until later. Do you consciously have several projects going on in your mind at once?
ANGELL: I wish I had more things going on. But, sure, the catching piece contained a lot of material and I wanted more time to get around and talk to more people. I don’t always have all that much time to get away from my desk and go out reporting. I wrote that piece in the winter. I started in spring training the previous year and finished writing it in the winter.
Right now I’ve got some notes on coaching from my spring-training travels that I haven’t used yet. I’m not sure there’s enough there, or that I understand enough yet.
WOE: You frequently mention the linearity of baseball in your pieces.
ANGELL: Well, watching a ball game is something like reading. Something happens and then something else happens, and something else happens after that. As I said before, you can go back in your mind and see which events or characters mattered during those early boring but necessary chapters. You have to pay attention because you don’t know what kind of a book or what kind of a game it’s going to turn out to be. You won’t know until you get on toward the end. Sometimes the whole thing goes flat. Sometimes it’s promising and then disappointing. Sometimes there are continuous themes, sometimes there are sudden changes. Now and then you realize that you’re reading a classic.
WOE: I’m curious as to how you envision your audience. How do you think about your reader?
ANGELL: I don’t have anybody in particular in mind. The person is probably me or somebody like me. I know a lot about my readers because I get mail from them right through the year. I think this is because baseball means a lot to people and perhaps also because I write about myself in my baseball pieces. One of the great privileges for me is that I’ve been able to say “I” a lot. I can cut directly to things I feel strongly about. Since I write personally, and since baseball seems to mean a lot to real fans, then they feel I’m writing to them and they write back. They write me not just about baseball, but about their lives. Floods of mail, or what seems like floods. I’m always behind. This winter, I wrote a piece about my baseball beginnings as a boy fan, and I’ve had well over two hundred letters, maybe three hundred letters, from people writing about their own baseball beginnings. And they’re not all old geezers like me. Whatever their age, they all seem to remember going with their father to the park for the first time, and when they first saw this team or that player.
We write because we want a response. Writing is a lonely occupation, but I think all writers are writing to somebody. As long as you remember that, you’re not going to go too far astray. You can’t write and then put it away. That’s what Salinger has been doing all these years, and it’s a shame, because I can’t believe that it’s going to be any good. He has had his own reasons, to be sure.
When you’re writing, you have to think about the person who’s going to be reading this, every moment. This is what I say to young writers I deal with. What will the reader think? What will the reader think? We are doing this very complicated thing in concert with the person who is going to read this. You have signed an invisible compact that promises that you are not going to let this guy down. You’re not going to play tricks on him, you are not going to lead him up this way and then turn on him and do something else.
Whenever I get the feeling that I’m writing well, it’s because in some way I can intuit or imagine what a reader is thinking. I think this must be true for most writers. It certainly is for me. You can set up things that are going to work later on in a piece. You prepare a reader almost unconsciously, and then something happens later on that connects with that earlier passage. The reader is pleased or saddened or whatever, sometimes not quite knowing why, butyou know why. This is the part of writing that is deeply pleasing if you can do it right. It’s another reason why it’s so hard. It’s never just you and the page. It’s you and the page and the person who is going to consume this object at the other end.
WOE: That idea of preparing the reader reminds me of your piece on Dan Quisenberry. Reading that, I feel he’s such an artist and such an interesting person. Then toward the end, you talk about how his pitching starts to fall apart, and his bewilderment about what went wrong is very sad.
ANGELL: Sure. And there’s another example of difficulty. This is another connection between baseball and writing. They are both intensely difficult. They look easy, but they’re hard.
WOE: Let me ask you about your style. It’s a very literate style. As I read through Season Ticket, I picked out just a couple of the many metaphors or allusions you made: a piece on the Detroit ball club of 1984 is called “Tiger, Tiger”; two women behind you in the stands are a Euripidean chorus; a particular player’s stance is like limeflower tea to your memory. These are things that the average reader of a newspaper sports section is not going to latch onto at all.
ANGELL: I hope I don’t do this in an affected way. I worry about this because I don’t want to use references that my readers are unable to follow. I think in The New Yorker you find an audience that is ready for this sort of thing. The references are ones that come readily to my mind while I’m writing, and if they’re literary, it’s because I’ve read a lot. But I also have a lot of very commonplace figures, a lot of jokes, slang, movie references, because this is also what I am. I’m an informal sort of a guy.
WOE: Is there any precedent for that kind of writing in sports? Where did it come from? Is it natural for you?
ANGELL: I think it’s natural for me. There are people in sports who have written this way. A great model for me was Red Smith, who was a model for almost every sportswriter. The great thing about Red Smith was that he sounded like himself. His attitude about sports was always clear. He felt himself enormously lucky to be there in the pressbox. He was not in favor of glorifying the players too much—Godding up the players, in Stanley Woodward’s phrase. But he was Red Smith in every line. You knew what he had read and what his influences were.
I don’t try to be a literate sportswriter; I try to be myself. It’s as simple as that. Everybody’s got to find what their voice is. You’ve got to end up sounding like yourself if you’re going to write in a way that’s going to reward you when you’re done. If you end up sounding like somebody else, you’re not going to be any good. You won’t get anywhere. Readers are smart. They will pick up whether the tone is genuine or not. Tone is the ultimate thing writers have to think about. You could write on a given subject—a ball game or a national crisis or a family crisis—in twenty or thirty different ways. You only have to pick what you want people to make of this.
Sometimes when you’re writing, you find that your own feelings are quite different from what you thought they would be, and then you have to go with that. Sometimes there are complex things happening that you have to go along with. I wrote a piece which meant a lot to me, called “In the Country,” about a semi-pro ball player and his girlfriend, Ron Goble and Linda Kittle. He was playing semi-pro ball, she was a would-be poet, and they were living together. Baseball meant a lot to them. They took me into their lives and basically told me everything about themselves—an amazing thing to do. I went up to Vermont to write about baseball and ended up writing about them. I was very moved, because they trusted me. They said, “We’ve given you our lives.” A lot of emotion went into that piece that I didn’t really anticipate when I first went out to do it.
WOE: That was a wonderful piece—very respectful of their feelings, their ups and downs.
ANGELL: You have to respect your subject. If you’re writing about professional athletes, respect is a crucial ingredient. You can’t patronize these guys. There are many ballplayers who are less educated than the people writing about them. Many of them find it difficult to talk and it’s a big problem. If you put down exactly what they say—particularly Hispanic ballplayers—it sounds as if you’re patronizing. If their English isn’t good, you have to be very selective and suggest in a minimal sort of way that some of this is being delivered in an accent. But underneath this, you can’t laugh at these guys. You know that sometimes ballplayers can be laughable when they are talking about what they’ve done, or maybe just pretentious, too full of themselves. If you want to say they are too full of themselves, you have to say it, you can’t suggest it. I remember a couple of times I had what I thought was first-class stuff about a player, or a lively anecdote, but I didn’t use it because I couldn’t get it right. I couldn’t write it without sounding as if I were inviting the audience to feel superior.
Sometimes I don’t mind. If it was Reggie Jackson, I did sometimes try to suggest that he’s full of himself. But in the next minute, he would astound you with a line or an idea. He was always very aware of what he was doing, talking to writers. He was trying to use me and I was trying to use him. Every writer had that experience with Reggie.
WOE: Are there recurring themes in baseball you tend to come back to?
ANGELL: Difficulty is one. And heartbreak is an innate part of the game. Aging is very much a part of it, because if there’s any subtext to sports that really holds up over a long period of time it is that in a rather short span of years, you can watch an athlete go through a lifetime, so to speak. You watch him be born as a rookie, come to young manhood, and then to middle age; you see him begin to slow down, begin to worry, try to remember what it was he used to do so easily and effortlessly, and then fade away and die, in effect, all in the space of ten years. Even kids sense that. I remember seeing DiMaggio slow down. I was in my twenties then and I’d picked up on him when I was twelve years old. This is sad stuff. The last few seasons of Willie Mays were heartbreaking. You didn’t want it to happen.
WOE: I felt the same about Mickey Mantle.
ANGELL: I try never to go to Old-Timers games. They say, “Come back and see these wonderful guys.” I don’t want to see these wonderful guys. It’s hard enough for the rest of us to get old. I can look in a mirror, but what’s the fun of that? I want to remember these guys and what they looked like when they were at their best.
I try to stay away from the deeper meanings in sports. If they’re there, they’ll come through. You sense what they are. Sports are about us as a species. We want to see how people respond under conditions of enormous stress, however artificially prepared. We want to see how they perform when they fail and we want to see how they perform when they succeed. Then we want to see them go and do it again. That’s what makes you a pro. Some pitcher said years ago, “That’s the difference. People say to you, ‘You were great today, now go out and be great again tomorrow.”‘ That’s what separates us from them.
WOE: I have the impression that your writing has become more personal and contemplative about sports over the years, more about baseball the game than about the individual games that you’ve gone to see.
ANGELL: I guess so. It’s not a plan. I’m the age that I am and I have a different outlook on this than I did in my forties. People at my age become more contemplative. If it makes you any wiser, I don’t know. It’s a natural stage of things.
Your memory of things in the distant past becomes remarkably sharp. You remember things from thirty years ago, forty years ago with little effort, sometimes more clearly than what happened last week.
I want to keep fresh. I think if I become too distanced from baseball or too much seeing the larger picture, it’ll be time to stop, because this is a game played by young men. It’s very hard for me to talk to ballplayers now, because when they start calling you “Sir” you’re in big trouble as a reporter. They’re terrifically young. It’s harder for all baseball writers now because access is very difficult; they don’t want to talk to you. They make so much money and they see themselves as public figures, as television stars, once they’re on their way. The players don’t talk about baseball as much as they used to. The last great daily talker about baseball was Keith Hernandez, who played wonderful first base for the Mets—the best defensive first baseman I ever saw. When the game was over he’d sit down and have a couple of beers and several cigarettes and talk about the game with all comers. It was great stuff. There was always a crowd of writers around him, finding out what really happened. There aren’t many players like that around now.
Very few players think about the fans. They glance up there, and once in a while you will hear them say that the fans have been great, “the tenth player,” but that’s all by rote. The only player who surprised me about this was Willie McCovey, in San Francisco in the early seventies, when the Giants in mid-September were suddenly in first place or close to it. They had just lost a couple in a row and eventually they dropped back to third place, but ten days before the end of the season, they had a real shot. I was talking with McCovey and he understood how rare this chance was because he’d played in the World Series, in ’62, but not since then. He knew how rare it was for a player. I said, “Willie, the fans here are dying. Do you ever think about this? They’re really suffering.” And he looked up in the stands and said, “Yes, I know. When you step up to bat, you’re all they’ve got. If you fail, they fail.” Of all the players I’ve talked to, he’s the only person who saw that connection.
WOE: How has television affected the way fans see the game?
ANGELL: TV has made us all much more expert as fans. We know these games much better than we did, because we’ve seen so many of them. But this is an enormous subject. The biggest change in America in my lifetime has been television. I just went to my fiftieth reunion at Harvard, where I was on a panel discussing journalism and our times, or something like that. Tom Winship, the former editor of the Boston Globe, called me up a few weeks before and asked, “What are we going to talk about? What’s the biggest change in our life?” I said, “Television,” and he agreed. So we talked about television. It was gloomy stuff.
Television has totally altered the nature of sports. It’s made it a permanent all-star attraction. It’s all about winning, it’s nothing about losing—losing is pushed away. And more and more about money, of course. What it’s done to amateur sports is disastrous. Most college sports are corrupt now, and we know it. We have these mercenaries we pay to see, in many cases at very high prices to their lives. We watch these young men play basketball in the Final Four during the last couple of weeks of the basketball season and we know that very few of them are students. We know it, but we don’t remind ourselves, because if we did we’d be ashamed to be paying attention. Basketball is now seen as the quickest way out of the inner city for young blacks, which is heartbreaking because so few of them are going to make it. The money distorts everything.
WOE: What sort of advice would you give someone who wanted to go into sports writing? How would they would get into it and how would they learn the craft?
ANGELL: I think the usual way is to model ourselves on somebody in the field. If you’re young, you do this naturally There’s nothing wrong with this. I once heard Borges say that when he was young, he could write Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson better than they could. He told me, “I finally got over that, but it got me going.”
But I’m not sure I would encourage people to go into sports writing right now. Television has taken over so much of the reporting. That’s where the action is. It’s not as if you can’t get good sports writing jobs if you’re talented, but it’s a more limited profession than it used to be, or more challenging. The basic level of sports writing is higher than it was when I started. Writers are better educated; there are more smart, thoughtful, enterprising writers. With the structure of modern sport, you have to be more energetic to go out and do a good reporting job every day. I admire beat writers. It’s a difficult job to travel with a team every day, to really say what’s going on, and to report on the tone of the team, as well as to say who won or lost, and not to get jaded or begin to dislike the players. You have to be critical and also to be able to get along with the players so that you can get them to talk to you. It’s tough.
WOE: Especially if you’ve just written something unfavorable about the team.
ANGELL: Absolutely. But if you’re going to go into writing at any point, it always looks as if there’s too much talent around. The odds are always hopelessly loaded against you. But that’s true in most professions. You think, “I could never succeed in that.” Maybe you won’t, but you’ve got to try. If you want to do it, you will try. The figures are never as bad as they look, because a lot of the competition will turn out not to have much talent or won’t stick with it. If you’re going to do it, do it. But as I’ve been saying right along, writing is hard.
Early one morning in March, Caitlin Morrissey showed me around the blindingly lit white range. She is 21, built strong with long blonde hair and blue eyes. She is pretty and perfectly made-up. “My ritual,” she said. “Shower, hair, make-up every morning. I’m very organized.” There is no artifice about her. She looked directly at me when she spoke. It was disconcerting. She stood at her locker, painstakingly putting on her uniform: shoes, a sling for her left arm, her gloves. “Everything’s so our muscles will not be used,” she said. She walked penguin-style to the firing line. She put on her granny glasses with blinders, and a third blinder over her left eye. “I don’t like to shut my left eye,” Caitlin said. “The exertion causes face fatigue. I took out my contacts too, so they won’t move around.” A lot of shooters wear glasses. Exceptional vision is overrated in shooting, they claim.She stood at the firing line, her body sideways to the distant target. She assumed a model’s slouchy pose, legs spread, loose-hipped, her left hip cocked higher than her right. She turned her head and shoulders toward the target, aimed her rifle, her left hand under the barrel, cradling the rifle very gently, her left elbow propped against her left hip for support.
“Girls are better shooters than boys ‘cause we have hips,” Caitlin said. No smile, a fact. She pressed her cheek against her rifle, whispered something to it, and aimed. She exhaled, her body relaxed, got still. She held this pose for a few minutes, and then put her finger on the delicate trigger. It takes 1½ ounces of pressure to depress that trigger. Most firearms require 5 – 12 pounds of pressure. Caitlin stopped breathing, “ping”, took a breath and said, “9.8. Anything less than 10.0 is a failure. I haven’t settled into my position yet.” She aimed again. Two, three minutes went by, and then she fired. “A 10.6,” she said. “10.9 is perfect. See? My body’s settling in.” She aimed again, “ping” and a 9.8. “I could feel it was a 9 when I broke the shot. I wasn’t smooth pulling the trigger; I jerked it,” she said. She shot again (10.4), again, (10.6) again (10.8). I asked Caitlin if shooting a 10.9 was thrilling. She lowered her rifle and looked at me. “I wouldn’t call it thrilling,” she said. ”Rewarding maybe.”
…As a young girl in Topeka she played all the sports against boys. When she was 7 years old, her father took her to a shooting club. By 9, she was beating all the boys. That was her main motivation, she said, but that didn’t last. Beating boys was no big deal. Beating girls, however, was something else. At first, boys were fascinated by the girl with the gun. By the eighth grade that was just her persona. That was when she learned that Margaret Murdock lived nearby. She went to visit her and wrote a story about the woman who’d won an Olympic gold medal in rifle shooting, and then had it taken away in favor of a man. Caitlin called her essay, a mini-book, really, “The Life of a Champion”, author: Caitlin Morrissey, Copyright: 2003, Publisher: Morrissey Publishing.
Maybe that’s still in the back of her mind, she said, because, “It’s still fun to beat boys. It’s an accepted fact that girls are better. Girls know how to calm themselves down, relax, focus on one thing. Boys get distracted. They don’t have our attention span. When we find something we like, we latch on to it. Ninety percent of shooting is mental toughness. We calm ourselves down after a bad shot, and not relax too much after a good shot.” She said that what gratifies her most about shooting is that it taught her how to calm herself in life. “It’s a monotonous sport,” she said. “You have to be self-motivating. You’re in the practice range for three hours every day. Your body is locked in a cramped position. Boys build muscle for movement. Girls build muscle for stability. We do neck and trapezius work” because that’s where all a shooter’s tension is. “What do I do to relax?” she said, smiling for the first time. “I go shopping. Or organize things, like our graduation party.”
Caitlin’s boyfriend is a hunter. “I could never be with a guy who didn’t like guns,” she said. “I’ve never hunted, but I might one day. I don’t have a Bambi Complex. But I don’t like to point my gun at anything I don’t intend to shoot. It’s a tool, like a baseball bat, never a weapon. I could never be a sniper. You should talk to Jaime. She’s a hunter. She’s in ROTC. She could be a sniper.”
I don’t know that anyone’s ever calculated this, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, in that order, are the two most written-about players in baseball history, or at least two of the top three, along with Babe Ruth. The year 2010 saw the publication of a thick and well-researched biography of Willie, Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend, by James Hirsch, and there are countless shorter lives of Willie, several autobiographies and memoirs, and a superb life-and-times account, Willie’s Time, by Charles Einstein that, in my opinion, stands as the best thing ever written about him. Also published in 2010 was Jane Leavy’s Mantle biography, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, the most detailed of the nine versions of his life.
There are also six volumes of autobiography, memoirs, and recollections, as well as numerous books by fans and collections of letters to and from Mickey, that have been published since his death. And yet, it seems to me that there has always been one major element missing from the many books on Mantle or Mays: each other. Though they are and always will be linked in the minds of millions, I don’t think it’s ever been noted exactly how much they had in common and how each man’s image reflected the other. The similarities in their lives were uncanny. Both were children of the Great Depression, born in 1931. They were almost the same size (about five-foot-eleven and 185 pounds, at least early in their careers); Mantle had a bit more muscle, and for most of his playing career probably outweighed Willie by five to ten pounds.
Both were heralded as phenoms when they arrived in New York in 1951 after brief but legendary minor league careers. (If integration had come along a couple of years earlier, they probably would have played against each other as minor leaguers.) Both started out playing for Hall of Fame managers, Mantle for Casey Stengel and Willie for Leo Durocher. Both played stickball in the streets of New York with kids (though only Willie was lucky enough to have TV cameras record the games). The burden of expectation caused each of them to break down in tears before his first season was over. Mickey exploded on the national scene in 1953 when he hit the first “tape measure” home run, and Willie the next year when he made the most famous catch in World Series and probably baseball history. In 1958 and 1959, they barnstormed against each other with specially selected All-Star teams.
Together they defined baseball in the 1950s and through the mid-1960s. Both made the covers of Time and Life, and they were the subjects of popular songs. In the 1960s, they were often pictured together on the covers of baseball magazines, including some devoted entirely to them. They were paired off on television on the popular show Home Run Derby, did commercials and endorsements together, and appeared together on numerous TV shows. Together they created nostalgia and the autograph and memorabilia craze. Finally, in the early 1980s, they were both banned from baseball by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for doing public relations work for Atlantic City casinos.
They had exactly the same talents—everyone who saw them observed that no other players in the big leagues possessed their astonishing combinations of power and speed. And despite Willie’s far greater durability, they were, in terms of effectiveness on the field, remarkably similar. Both batted over .300 ten times and hit over 50 home runs in a season twice. Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball ranks Mays as the best player in the NL from 1954, the year he returned from the Army, through 1965, except 1959, when he ranked fourth. (For the 1956 and 1961 seasons, he shared the top spot with Henry Aaron.)
Mantle was Total Baseball’s best player in the AL every year from 1955 through 1962; he was also ranked second in 1952 and fourth in 1954. (Mantle was surely poised to top Total Baseball’s ranking in 1963, when he batted .314 but was limited to just sixty-five games by injuries.) In every season from 1954 through 1965, Mickey and Willie were selected for the All-Star teams. From 1951 through 1964, the Yankees or the Giants were in every World Series except in 1959. Their fortunes in the World Series and All-Star Games contrasted oddly. Mays was the ultimate All-Star, hitting .307 in twenty-four games, producing 29 RBIs and runs scored, while Mantle hit just .233 in sixteen All-Star Games without a single home run. But in twenty World Series games, Mays managed just .239 without a single home run; in sixty-five games, Mantle set the all-time World Series home run mark with 18.
That Mickey and Willie were the most dominant players of that period isn’t simply a myth built up by worshipful New York sportswriters—it’s a fact. The ultimate question isn’t “Were they the greatest of their time?” but “Which of them was the greatest?” (That’s a subject I explore in detail in Appendix A.)
Both were consummate all-around athletes who excelled at basketball and football in high school. Reversing the stereotype, Willie was a great passing quarterback at Fairfield Industrial High School in Westfield, Alabama; at the same time, Mickey was a dazzling running back at Commerce High in Commerce, Oklahoma. If circumstances had been different, they might have ended up playing for the two greatest college football coaches of their era: Willie for Bear Bryant, then at Kentucky—Bryant had been hugely impressed when he saw Willie play baseball for the Black Barons at Rickwood Field—and Mickey for Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma.
They were both natural center fielders, but both played other positions when they were young. Mantle spent more time at shortstop than Willie, but neither of them ever quite got the hang of it. Willie began his rookie season in center field; Mickey began his rookie year in right field while Joe DiMaggio struggled through his final season, and in 1952 Mickey became the Yankees’ starting center fielder. Both had great throwing arms and were told during their early careers that they had a shot to make it as a pitcher. Mickey and Willie both idolized Joe DiMaggio. Both loved Westerns and, as boys, dreamed of growing up to be cowboys.
Their lives were dominated by their fathers, who saw baseball as a way for their sons to escape a life of brutal manual labor. For Cat Mays it was the steel mills, for Mutt Mantle the hellish zinc mines. By the time Mickey and Willie graduated from high school, both their mothers had almost disappeared from the narratives of their lives. It was often said of both that they were “born to play ball.” Whether or not that was true, they were certainly bred to the game. Cat began rolling a ball to his son while Willie was still an infant. Mutt began to throw to his son as soon as Mickey could hold a broom handle.
Both men were southerners. (New York sportswriters were fond of labeling Mickey a cowboy, a westerner—he did, after all, once ride a horse to school—but Mickey regarded himself as a southerner and often said so.) The Mantles and the Mayses were living, breathing Americana. The Mantles were what John Steinbeck’s Joad family might have been had they chosen to stay and scrape a living out of the harsh Oklahoma earth rather than emigrate to California. Willie’s folks were the country cousins of the Younger family in Lorraine Hansberry’s great play, A Raisin in the Sun; they resisted the lure of northern cities like Chicago and stayed near their roots.
They were both the products of two generations of ball-playing men, and both honed their skills through competition with industrial leaguers. Though neither of them was actually a member of an industrial league team, their fathers, uncles, and close friends played industrial ball, and Mickey and Willie played with and against them. Mantle and Mays were probably the last products of the great age of industrial league baseball that died out a few years after World War II. Neither man ever truly understood how to manage money. Mantle envied Willie’s salary; Willie was notoriously jealous of Mantle’s income from commercials and endorsements.
Needless to say, in spite of all these similarities, there were enormous cultural differences. Mickey grew up listening to country stars such as Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys; his favorite singer was Hank Williams. Willie and his family listened to country blues singers like Amos Millburn, the more sophisticated R&B sounds of Louis Jordan, and even jazz artists like Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole. The one singer both men enjoyed was Bing Crosby. The Mantle clan was large and closely knit; Mays came from a broken home. Mickey’s father drove him relentlessly toward baseball; Willie’s father helped him along and let him find the way to baseball on his own.
Mickey drank prodigiously and recklessly from an early age; Willie got sick on his first taste of alcohol and never touched it again. Mantle, though he remained married to his high school sweetheart for decades, led a sex life that was an unreported scandal. Mays, in contrast, was never the subject of rumors of promiscuity; his first marriage, to an older, more sophisticated woman, went badly. He had no biological children and, if the journalists who knew him are to be trusted, seldom saw his adopted son after his divorce.
One Mantle biographer, writing seven years after his death, concluded that “Mickey Mantle, like most heroes, was a construction; he was not real. He was all that America wanted itself to be, and he was also all that America feared it could never be.” Surely, it would be no stretch to say the same thing of Willie Mays. In his mammoth one-volume history of the decade, The Fifties, David Halberstam wrote that “Willie Mays seemed to be the model for the new supremely gifted black athlete. . . . He showed that the new-age black athlete had both power and speed. . . . [Mays was] a new kind of athlete being showcased, a player who, in contrast to most white superstars of the past, was both powerful and fast.” At the same time Mays was at his peak, there was a supremely gifted white athlete named Mantle who had at least as much power and speed. Bob Costas says, “There was one thing about Mantle that screamed out ‘The Natural.’ He was a God-made ballplayer.” Surely the same God made Willie Mays.
“Today,” Arnold Hano, one of Willie’s first biographers, wrote in 1965, “players are as skilled as most stars of the past, but something is lacking. Call it color, call it magic, but you call for it in vain. Except for Willie Mays. Oh, there are a few others. Mickey Mantle has always brought his own sense of excitement to the game.” He most certainly did, and who, at their peak, could have denied that Mantle’s “own sense of excitement” was a brand quite similar to Willie’s?
Though their names are melded in the minds of three generations of American sports fans and their careers ran along uncannily parallel lines, they are still, oddly, segregated. Indeed, for most of their playing careers the realities of American life dictated that they be segregated. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that they could meet together at restaurants and nightclubs in most parts of the country, and even then not in the Deep South. And it wasn’t until the 1970s that they began to appear together regularly at card shows, in commercials, and on television shows. Mantle and Mays were friends, probably as close as it was possible for a white man and a black man to be at that time.
In any event, their work schedules didn’t allow them to see each other more than a couple of times a year. Always, the newspapers kept one apprised of what the other was doing. “We kept an eye on each other, Willie and me. I was always aware of him,” Mantle remarked. “I’d go long periods without seeing him,” Mays said after Mantle died, “but I couldn’t go for two days without hearing about him. It was like we were never far apart.” Mickey and Willie—they were given boys’ names that they never grew out of. The private lives of both men revealed that they were ill equipped for life after baseball, a fact that those of us who loved them found almost impossible to understand. How, though, could we have understood? From our perspective, what could have been better than being Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays? Even after baseball, what better life could a fan imagine than being Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays?
“In some ways,” Roger Kahn told me, “I believe they knew each other better than anyone else knew them. They were the only two men in America who understood the experience they had both been through.”
Greg Prince: The Happiest Recap started in the depths of depression over the then-current Mets of 2009, who weren’t winning very often in real time. With the franchise’s 50th anniversary approaching, I got to thinking about highlights and wins from better times and came upon the idea of constructing a mythical season in which I — on Faith and Fear — would write about the “best” 1st game (or Opening Day) in Mets history, the “best” 2nd game…clear through to the “best” 162nd and 163rd games. The key was the number had to match an actual game played on a previous Mets schedule. Thus, the “best” 37th game, for example, was the 37th game of 1973. The “best” 146th game was the 146th game of 1976. It was a different twist on merely listing the Top ‘X’ games in Mets history or doing a “This Date” feature. I followed through and ran the series in 2011, shadowing the actual Mets schedule that year.
BB: So then how did it go from a series on the site to a book?
GP: Having published the book version of Faith and Fear in Flushing in 2009, I guess I had the fever a little bit to do something else. Around the time I began to think this project might work as a book, a publisher came out with a team-by-team series called “162-0,” which was similar but not exactly in line with what I was doing. So for a moment I was discouraged that a good idea had been used elsewhere, and not necessarily to my satisfaction. Thing is, the more I worked on the blog series, the less concerned I became with the “best” aspect for a particular game number and found myself fascinated by more than 162 games fitting a narrow description. I wound up writing about 326 games — a “Happiest” entry and an “Also Happy” entry for each game number — and within those entries, sometimes incorporating more games and more stories.
BB: That’s a nice evolution.
GP: The box scores I was researching and the books, magazines, web sites and newspaper clippings I was looking up in support of those box scores were reminding me of lost Met tales and bringing up names that had been tucked away in the Met memory storage locker for decades. It seemed a shame to leave them to fade into obscurity. Met histories are too often narrowed down to the lovable losers of 1962; stumbling into Seaver and hiring Hodges; 1969; 1973; 1986; and maybe Piazza hitting a dramatic homer after 9/11. Our fandom (anybody’s fandom, really) is so much more than the agreed-upon milestones. It’s the big inning we’re all talking about the next morning or the rookie who came up to pitch a shutout and then disappeared or the quirky game where all 17 hits were singles. It’s firsts and lasts and lots of in-betweens. It’s the championships and superstars, too, of course, but it’s also the moments of contention that fizzled and the stage being set for great things and the residual fumes on the other side of those great things and the games and players who got us through the rough times. It’s everything, if you’re a steadfast fan of a team.
BB: I love that.
GP: So with 50 years of Metsdom completed, I decided to shake out the contents of the blog series and rearrange and supplement all I’d done, digging a little deeper to come up with the 500 Amazin’ wins that would best tell the story of the first half-century of the franchise the way we as fans experienced it. It’s Mets History of the Subconscious, almost. The losses filter in because, let’s face it, these are the Mets, but I guarantee a 500-0 record when all is said and done.
BB: How did you decide to make it a four part series instead of one fat volume?
GP: I wanted to let the game stories breathe. I wanted to be able to write about Jim McAndrew for as long as it took to explain Jim McAndrew. I wanted to take a detour into Tom Seaver’s history as a relief pitcher. I wanted to make note of the handful of times the Mets have used a de facto designated hitter (a pinch-hitter who bats for the pitcher and then comes up again when the lineup bats around). I wanted to transcribe Bob Murphy’s and Lindsey Nelson’s calls where reading how we listened to them would bring a moment alive again. I wanted these, in a way, to be 500 bedtime stories. Put all that together, and that’s a pretty hefty volume. I found breaking the saga into four pieces helped discipline the eras a little better.
B: Yeah, that makes sense. GP: There is no narrative, per se, but I think one coalesces organically in each volume. In First Base, you can feel the youthful ineptitude of the early Mets wearing off little by little as you read about the first big moments produced by an Ed Kranepool or a Cleon Jones. At the same time, you have a sense that it’s still a team depending on a blast from the past via Duke Snider or leaning into a hopeful future with Ron Hunt or Grover Powell, whatever those guys become eventually in their careers. In a way, it’s the Mets family history as told by your well-meaning if slightly obsessive uncle.
BB: Did you have any hesitation about just writing about wins and not loses?
GP: From a practical standpoint, not really any regrets on 500 wins and 0 losses. The losses worm their way in anyway. You can’t write about the great wins of the 1973 postseason, for example, without acknowledging the gut-wrenching losses. Since the first volume officially ends with Game Five of that World Series, wherein the Mets take a 3-2 lead over Oakland, you can’t just say, “well, good night everybody!” Thus, Game Five becomes the platform to also discuss Games Six (George Stone not being chosen to start) and Seven (Willie Mays not being chosen to finish). And you can’t fully appreciate the few resonant wins from 1962 without noting there were only 40 wins to begin with that year.
BB: Good pernt.
GP: I mention in the introduction that my personal favorite game ever — best game I ever watched, in my opinion — was Game Six in 1999 against Atlanta, the one remembered mainly for Kenny Rogers walking in the winning run in the eleventh inning (thus largely reviled by Mets fans) but remembered fondly by me for how the Mets fought back from 0-5 in the first inning and 3-7 later to take 8-7 and 9-8 leads and how the game topped off the most intense 30 days of fandom I ever experienced. I promise “you won’t read about it here,” and then instantly backtrack that, yeah, you probably will, but only in the context of the whole story. I’ve learned from eight years of blogging that while Mets fans are willing, almost anxious to cope with reality (reminding each other of the woe that has befallen us from time to time), nobody really wants to be hit over the head with it as a going concern. So while you can say, “Oy, the collaspe of 2007!” the minute you start detailing the four-game sweep at the hands of the Phillies that presaged the blowing of an enormous lead (as I did in a blog entry in late August of 2012), the reaction is, per Tom Petty, let me up, I’ve had enough.
BB: I liked what you talked about in terms of being a steadfast fan. That can be a problem when you root for the Yankees where you tend to evaluate seasons on whether they’ve won the World Series or not. And when you do that you neglect some of the smaller things that are really the rich moments that make up not only a season but our fandom.
GP: It’s crossed my mind in the process that this wouldn’t necessarily work for other franchises, particularly ones wherein postseason berths are almost a given. The Mets have won 43 playoff and World Series games, and they’re all in here, but they’re not necessarily the most, shall we say, Amazin’. You get a Mets fan who was sentient on June 14, 1980, and he or she will eventually tell you about the Steve Henderson Game, a night the Mets trailed the Giants 0-6 and won 7-6 on Hendu’s three-run homer in the ninth. What made that game special was it was in the midst of the “Magic is Back” season in which the Mets had that silly ad campaign of the same name and weren’t winning and weren’t drawing flies and all of a sudden, everything falls into place for a couple of months. Every win is a come-from-behind affair and the “magic” thing catches on to such an extent that even Joe Torre and his players are talking about it. Henderson hits the home run on a Saturday night, and the next day there is such a large walkup crowd that they actually had to turn fans away.
BB: I vaguely remember that because Joel Youngblood was my brother’s favorite player at the time.
GP: Now by the end of 1980, the magic has dissipated and the Mets are back in the dumps and nobody is showing up at Shea, but a game like that lives forever. That’s the reward of constancy.
BB: Getting back to the format of the book for a sec. How much re-writing did you do with these pieces from the original blog posts?
GP: It depended on the entry. Some games were transplanted whole if they worked as such. Others were expanded if I didn’t think I gave enough information in the first place. For 1973′s pennant race on the blog, I had layered a lot into a couple of posts. In the book, every win from the middle of September onward gets its own treatment (maybe a few paragraphs, maybe a few pages) so you’re living the most improbable weeks in Mets history day-to-day almost, just as it occurred. I’ll do something similar when 1999 rolls around. Conversely, some blog posts were contracted altogether if I thought one more extra-inning marathon or walkoff home run wasn’t really revealing anything that wasn’t already being revealed in another game. And there’s a bunch that — because the original “best game number” format demanded tough choices — simply didn’t appear on the blog.One name that didn’t show up whatsoever in the blog series was Les Rohr, the Mets’ first-ever amateur draft pick.
GP: His debut in late 1967 (Game No. 50 in the book) was a success, which in itself is a bit of a milestone — one of the recurring themes of First Base is the Mets’ search for that young fireballer who’s going to lead them to the promised land — but digging a little deeper, I realized Les was the 54th player used by the 1967 Mets, the most they ever used in a season. So Les gives me a reason to talk about the Grand Central Terminal atmosphere that prevailed in the clubhouse in those days. Plus the year he was drafted, 1965, was the same year the Jets drafted Joe Namath. It’s not a huge thing, but it’s an intriguing parallel where highly touted prospects (playing in the same stadium, no less) are concerned. And then there’s what happened with Les Rohr after that first start. He pitched well a couple more times, hurt his arm in the 24-inning, 1-0 loss at the Astrodome the following April (an instance when I can mention a historic loss in a book all about wins) and after a token appearance exactly two years after his debut — as the Mets were on the verge of clinching their first title — he was done. Rohr was, on the surface, a flameout, but the Mets drafted very spottily with their high picks in those days, which is another tidbit I get to throw in (Steve Chilcott over Reggie Jackson and all that) and it provides some foreshadowing as well, because the lousy drafting would come back to haunt the Mets in the ’70s. In other words, you could do worse than drafting Les Rohr with your very first pick…and the Mets somehow managed to.
BB: Did you write it all at once and then are releasing it in four volumes or are you still working on the others? What are the publish dates for the other volumes?
GP: I’m pushing ahead chronologically so the second, third and fourth volumes are coming together in order, publication dependent on the respective schedules of my talented art director Jim Haines and myself. Second Base is currently in production. Third Base is being written. Home is loosening up in the on-deck circle. Think of it in the realm of waiting for the next series from Topps in a given year.
BB: One last thing. I’m curious about what, if anything you found in your research that surprised you?
GP: In a broad sense, it was surprising to realize that players who are historically written off as hopeless actually accomplished some things in a Mets uniform. Marv Throneberry hit a game-winning home run. The two Bob Millers teamed to pitch the Mets to a win. Jack Fisher may have lost 24 games in 1965, but he threw a gem from time to time. On an individual basis, if I hadn’t done this, I wouldn’t have known about the proto-Steve Henderson Game, the Tim Harkness Game, in 1963. It was a 14-inning affair that Harkness won, 8-6, with a grand slam after falling behind the Cubs in the top of the 14th when Billy Williams hit a two-run inside-the-park homer. What blows my mind about it is a) that Harkness came out from the center field clubhouse onto the balcony to take a bow the way Bobby Thomson had 11 years earlier and b) the comments I found on Ultimate Mets Database from people who were kids back then, still remembering the cries of “Let’s Go Mets!” echoing as they headed back to the subway. This was 1963, 111 losses, yet it didn’t matter. A friend once told me he thought the 1963 Mets were the bravest team he ever saw, that if they had the talent of the 2008 Mets, they’d have won 140 games. I didn’t get it when he told me that. I kind of got it after Tim Harkness and the rest of the games I looked at from that season.
BB: That’s interesting.
GP: One more surprise: I knew that The Odd Couple filmed its baseball scenes before a game in 1967 at Shea, with Bill Mazeroski hitting into a choreographed triple play. What I didn’t know was there was an even more bizarre scene in the real game that day with the Pirates batting out of order and Wes Westrum — who you never read anything about other than he couldn’t take all the losing — waited until a key moment in the game to bring it to the umpires’ attention and wound up getting Pittsburgh runs taken off the board. If you were at that game, you probably went home talking about it for a week.
BB: Go figure that.
GP: I know a lot about the Mets. I didn’t know that at all.
In the wake of the Biogenesis clinic scandal, Major League Baseball would plainly love to see Alex Rodriguez ride off into the sunset. And lord knows the Yankees would like to get out of the massive payments they owe their injured and PED-tainted albatross. There’s just one small problem: The evidence simply isn’t there, at least not yet. Maybe you believe that’s because it never existed; maybe you believe Rodriguez paid to have it destroyed, as “sources familiar with MLB’s investigation” have told ESPN. Either way, though, that means Rodriguez is probably not going away any time soon. Which means we — me, you, the media, the Yankees, the league — are going to have to make some sort of peace with his continued presence in the game, or risk going completely insane.
Given all that, the battle that Major League Baseball is waging against Alex Rodriguez — its own star, and not so long ago one of its most marketable — is, if not quite unprecedented, still fairly astounding. Some obvious comparisons leap to mind: Pete Rose, of course, and Shoeless Joe Jackson, who were each banned from the game. Yet neither hung around for years being loathed before their sentences were handed down, and both have plenty of defenders, even now. By the end of his career, MLB was none too fond of Barry Bonds, who felt (not without reason) that he was being blacklisted and forced into retirement; other PED users have also gotten a cold shoulder, but some, like Mark McGwire and Jason Giambi, have been forgiven. And Bonds and A-Rod’s fellow Biogenesis-linked bête noir Ryan Braun at least has a home team and fanbase that appreciates and enjoys him.
The same cannot be said of Rodriguez. It has been suggested that he should be banned from baseball, that he should be arrested, that he should be sued — just about everything short of Yankees general manager Brian Cashman killing him and making it look like an accident for the insurance money, and a poll would probably find some fans supporting that, too. There’s so much piling on, it’s almost enough to make you take the unnatural step of defending the guy.
(Originally published in the October 1982 issue of Inside Sports.)
The game is over and the baseball player sits in the hotel lobby, his eyes fixed on nothing. He thinks his secret is safe but he is never quite sure, so at midnight in the lobby it is always best to avoid the other eyes. He neither hears the jokes nor notices that a few teammates are starting to wear towels around their waists in the locker room. He does not want to hear or see or know, and neither do they.
The baseball player waits until the lobby empties of teammates and coaches. Some are in the bar, some out on the town, some in their rooms. Some, of course, have found women. He walks briskly out the door toward the taxicab, never turning his head to look back. He mutters an address to the driver and has one foot in the cab. …
“Hey, where you going, man? You said you were staying in tonight.”
The baseball player feels his lie running up the back of his neck. “Changed my mind.”
“Can I come with you? I got nothing going tonight.”
The baseball player pauses. “You don’t want to go where I’m going,” he says at last. He is leaving a crack there, in case this teammate knows the secret and really would like to go with him.
“Okay—have it your way.”
The baseball player is in the back seat, the door slams, his heart slams, the cab is pulling away. Fifteen minutes later it stops a block from the place the passenger actually intends to go. He pays the driver. Did the driver look at him sort of funny?
The baseball player steps out and walks back a block, his face turned 90 degrees to his left shoulder, away from the traffic, just in case. What if he meets someone he knows there tonight? There was the ballplayer’s brother the one night and the son of.a major league manager another. Man, they have to know, don’t they? And if he is recognized tonight, should he pretend he is someone else?
Suddenly he is pulling open the door and the men inside smile and the music swallows him and for a few hours in the bar the baseball player does not feel so alone.
At age 22, Glenn Burke was a sexual blank. He grew up attending church six times a week. singing in two choirs and serving as an usher. He bathed two or three times a day and still he never felt clean. He grew up with no father. He grew up with no sex.
He diverted the tension into sports, and there was the scent of animal energy in the way he ran a fastbreak, the way he circled the bases, the way he flogged a line drive. Once, he hit three home runs and two singles in one game, just two days after joining the Merritt College team in midseason. He was 5-11, 193 pounds, he could run 100 yards in 9.7 seconds and bench-press 350 pounds. UCLA and Nevada and Cal all wanted to get him on a basketball court; the Los Angeles Dodgers wanted him to play baseball.
He took the $5,000 Dodger signing bonus and after three seasons as an outfielder in the minors, his combined average was .303. Three times he led his league in stolen bases.
Still there was a need for more. When NCAA eligibility rules were relaxed, he agreed to play basketball at Nevada in the offseason. He averaged 16 points in six games and then twisted a knee spinning for a layup. The Dodgers said No More and Glenn Burke came home. The void was becoming difficult to ignore. At last, the lidded tension burst.
His younger sister told him that a high school teacher of his had asked how he was doing. Something inside him went click. The man had been one of Burke’s favorite teachers, so Burke went over to school to see him. He was feeling loose, open. Maybe it was the basketball thing coming to an end, suddenly seeing life as more than just sports.
“The minute he spoke, l knew. I know it sounds a little crazy. Here I was, 22, no sexual experience, nothing. Yet I felt something I’d never felt before, something deep. We went to his place. Funny, he must have known me better than I knew myself. We didn’t say much. He fixed dinner and afterwards we lay by the fire and got close. I stayed the night. When I got home the next day, I went into the bathroom and cried. This was who I was, the whole me at last.”
He was happy, and yet he felt he was sneaking. He felt guilty. He knew he never would be accepted in sports. In a profession in which every contest, every movement, every attitude seemed a reassertion of virility, Glenn Burke realized he was gay.
The most famous gay community in the world is a 75-cent bridge toll and a 20-minute freeway ride away from the streets of Oakland where Glenn Burke grew up. In his sexual naiveté, he had never known that. He had never known there were bars and entire neighborhoods for homosexuals.
A week after his first experience, he and some friends went to a straight bar in San Francisco. One of the friends pointed to a girl. “Look at that fox. ” he said. “Look at her boyfriend.” Burke thought. They went over to talk and asked if the couple knew a place where they could go dancing. “Try the Cabaret.” the girl said, “but watch out—gays go there, too.” A place for gays? Burke went there and couldn’t believe it.
It was a new world and he explored it enthusiastically. He walked Castro Street in San Francisco and felt pulled in two directions. Sports had taught him to keep the fists up and the soft side down and the pants tailor-made and the shirt silk and the walk a powerful strut. This new world was Levi’s, and Docksides shoes and Lacoste shirts and handkerchiefs. He wondered if he could be masculine and gay, a baseball player and gay, Glenn Burke and gay.
A few weeks later, he met a man in a bar and the next day he was hanging his clothes in the closet of his first live-in lover. A few more weeks passed and it was time for spring training, time to try to begin living the great untruth.
The trouble with going underground was Burke’s personality. He was the guy doing Richard Pryor imitations, the guy leading bench cheers, the guy fiddling with the music box and dancing in the locker room. After games, the guys all wanted to take the party from the locker room to the disco. Burke, the life of the team, started saying no. To explain why not, he had to tame the nervousness in his voice and the muscle formations of his face. These were difficult things for an extrovert to do.
Double A in Waterbury, Connecticut, 1975, was not a good place for a metamorphosis. His friends wanted to share an apartment with him and he groped for an appropriate reason to say no. He ended up rooming at the local YMCA, so they would stop asking. There was one gay bar, but a black man in a small New England town can feel the eyeballs everywhere he walks. He tried not to go, and went anyway. Sometimes in the bar he would be asked if he had been at the game that night. The team’s leading basestealer and home-run hitter would shake his head no. One night he glimpsed a member of the club’s front office at the bar. He walked past him and out the door and prayed the man would be too frightened to admit having been there to see him. On the long road trips, he could feel the wall of space he had created between himself and his friends.
He hit .270 and when the season ended, he headed back to San Francisco. “It was great being back, being myself,” he said. “Straight people cannot know what it’s like to feel one way and pretend to be another. To watch what you say, how you act, who you’re checking out. In San Francisco I opened up again. But I still wasn’t sure if I could be gay without being a sissy.”
In 1976 the Dodgers summoned him up to play the first and last months of the season. In between, he hit .300 with 63 stolen bases at Albuquerque, but in the major leagues he struggled with the curveball and batted .239 in 46 at-bats. The Dodgers still saw enough to congratulate themselves.
“Unlimited potential,” said second baseman Davey Lopes.
“Once we get him cooled down a little bit,” said the late Junior Gilliam, then Dodger coach, “frankly, we think he’s going to be another Willie Mays.”
The stakes were growing higher now. It was easier to lose himself in the big cities on major league road trips, but in Los Angeles he was becoming a face on sports pages and a name on the radio. He wanted success, yet he feared it. Half of him wanted to hit .300 and become a superstar and a commodity and then if the secret leaked maybe he could tell them all to go to hell, and half of him said maybe a nice, inconspicuous number like .250 would be better because then he could guard his privacy and they might not find out at all.
He met Dave Kopay, the former 49er and Redskin running back whose book on his homosexuality had become a bestseller. The two compared anguish. “He was very nervous about who and what he was,” remembers Kopay. “I had compensated for my gayness by going from a player who did not like contact in college to being a super-aggressive player in the pros, as a disguise. It’s common among gay athletes, overcompensating for one’s sexuality. Glenn might have been doing the same thing, but it doesn’t work in baseball. There, you have to be relaxed, not overaggressive. I couldn’t really advise him, except to tell him to follow his instincts.
“There is really no one to talk to in sports when you are gay. Who can you really trust? There are so many insecurities, it’s tragic. Almost all of them that I know in sports are married and have deep problems. Many of them are heavily into alcohol and drugs.”
Burke played on, refusing the ruse of an occasional girlfriend. He caught hepatitis playing winter ball in Mexico and missed most of spring training in 1977. The Dodgers sent him to Albuquerque to open the season and he hit .309. He learned that the Dodgers were recalling him, and that night in his last Albuquerque game, with two outs, runners on first and third with a one-run lead in the ninth inning, he backpedaled to the warning track for a fly ball, switched his glove from his left hand to his right—and squeezed the last out. If there was a metaphor there, the manager was in no mood to admire it. Jim Williams waited for him on the dugout steps, glaring. “If you ever do that again …”
“I’m leaving, skip,” chirped Burke. “Now you’ll have something to talk about when I’m gone.”
He was irrepressible. He bought his first car and celebrated by having his astrological sign, Scorpio, tattooed on his forearm. Within a few months he was stomping into Tommy Lasorda’s office, amidst the Hollywood stars who gathered there before games, fixing himself a sandwich from the deli tray and shouting, “Hi, Tommy!” He was not a model bench-sitter. He prowled the dugout with a caged hyperactivity, and when a teammate belted a home run he would tweak Lasorda by butting in front of him to be first to hug the returning hero. He would walk back to the dugout imitating Lasorda’s big-bellied, bowlegged gait and his teammates would howl.
One day in 1977, a teammate homered and in the heat of his enthusiasm Burke extended his arm and invented a sports ritual. He delivered the first high-five. “Most people think I started it,” said leftfielder Dusty Baker. “But it wasn’t me. I saw Glenn doing it first, and then I started.”
On a team preoccupied with presenting the clean-shaven, Dodger-blue front, the street kid from Oakland became one of the behind-the-scenes catalysts. “He always had the music blasting and was saying something silly to keep the team laughing,” said Baker. “He’d be playing cards and all of a sudden you would hear this loud voice scream, ‘Rack ‘em, Hoss, the poor boy’s just lost!’ and then there’d be that crazy laugh of his again.”
Burke made them laugh and he made them squirm. In an argument he would swing first and negotiate later. A fastball in a teammate’s ear would bring him out of the dugout first. Everybody wanted to keep “Burkey” giggling because when his eyes clouded you could suddenly sense the violence. He wanted that machismo right out there on his skin; it made him feel safer.
“I was like Lou Ferrigno, who kept wanting to get bigger and badder than anybody because he had a speech impediment,” Burke said. “I had 17-inch biceps and I made sure everybody knew I wasn’t afraid to use them. I wanted to establish that if you found out I was gay, you might not want to start hassling me about it, because I could still kick your ass.”
The Dodgers. meanwhile, were in a pennant chase and the double life was becoming more difficult to lead. He was handsome and personable and there was a glut of girls who wanted to walk into a disco next to him. Some nights they grew so insistent he would tell the switchboard operator to reject all calls to his room. He’d go out with girls occasionally, but it would never involve sex. He didn’t want to mislead them.
His teammates noticed. In baseball, even married men can be made to feel isolated if they do not join the woman-hunt on the road. “There is a tendency,” said A’s pitcher Matt Keough, “to achieve the success off the field that you are not achieving on it.”
“I had a really cute cousin that I tried to set up with Glenn,” Baker said. “He just ignored her. He’d say, ‘Too fat, too ugly.’ I’d say, ‘Wait a minute. I know that one ain’t ugly.’”
Without Burke realizing it, word began to seep. “I was eating at a restaurant when someone told me,” remembered Lopes, then a teammate on the Dodgers. “I think some girl from his neighborhood in Oakland had told someone on the team. My fork dropped out of my mouth. He was one of the last guys you would have thought was gay. I still liked him. I don’t know how other ballplayers feel, but I believe a man has a right to choose any lifestyle as long as it doesn’t infringe on others. It never infringed with Glenn.”
“The guys didn’t want to believe it,” Baker said. “He was built like King Kong. There was no femininity in his voice or his walk. But it all made sense when I thought about it. When we’d go on the road he always went to the YMCA to work out. And he’d never let us take him home. He’d say he had a friend coming later to pick him up and he’d wait at the far end of the parking lot.
“I just made the situation invisible, but some guys began to make jokes. Stuff like, ‘Is Glenn waiting in the parking lot for his girlfriend?’ and ‘Don’t bend over in the shower when he’s around.’ I know a couple of guys felt uncomfortable in the shower. A few wore towels on their way back and forth in the locker room.
“If you had a team made up of guys from California and New York, I don’t think it would bother them as much as guys from the country and small towns. I’m from California and I can get along with priests, prostitutes, pimps and pushers, as long as they don’t try to push nothing on me.”
Burke didn’t push it, as much out of respect as fear of detection. “I was attracted occasionally by other players,” he said. “but didn’t mix business with pleasure. I respected their space. Besides, I always preferred more mature men.”
He was a simple man leading a complicated life. and slowly the strain began to break him. He kept one eye on the door when he went in gay bars. He worried about getting in a fight or getting caught drunk there. There were times he thought the front office had someone following him. He was afraid everybody was whispering about him.
He’d have to plan everything. He’d think, “If they see me leaving the hotel, I’ll say I was going to take a walk or to get something to eat.” He was always telling white lies.
Some days he’d sit in a mall and try to meet people, sometimes he would call a friend and ask him to check his directory on where the gay bars were in town. His mind was never clear. Some nights he’d come back to his room sad and smoke a little grass.
The high only interrupted the fears. The Dodgers did a lot of hugging and Burke always worried that they had found out about him and would think he was making a pass. He worried constantly about being blackmailed. The only reason he wasn’t, he believed, was that he had gay friends who warned anybody who started to talk too much. He saw a palm reader and she said that he had something inside him that he should let out, or he might have a heart attack in two or three years.
He couldn’t sort it all out. “I couldn’t understand why people said gays were sick. I wasn’t some dizzy queen out trying to make everybody all the time. The bottom line was, I was a man.”
There were the good memories mixed with the miseries. There was the night Baker became the fourth Dodger to hit 30 home runs in one season, a major league record, and Burke, the on-deck batter met him at the plate with a walloping high-five as the people stood and roared, and then before they even had a chance to sit Burke was driving another white speck into the blackness and the festival in the stands went on and on.
He finished the 1977 season hitting .254 in 169 at-bats, the Dodgers made the World Series and his face was on TV screens across the country. He went 1-for-5 in the three game he played packed after the Yankees had won and headed back for Castro Street. He walked into a gay bar the first night there and was greeted by a party celebrating his World Series appearance.
“I walked out,” Burke said. “They weren’t my friends there, they were mostly people just making a big deal because I was a gay baseball player.”
His insecurity ran rampant. In one world he feared they would not like him only because he was gay, and in the other he feared they did like him only because he was gay. For the first time since he had picked up a baseball bat, Glenn Burke considered quitting.
“By 1978,” said Davey Lopes, “I think everybody knew.”
They knew the way parents know their 16-year-old is drinking beer but don’t say anything until the bottles are rolling across the floor of the family car. As long as Burke’s homosexuality was not official, no one felt compelled to react.
“Then Al Campanis [Dodger vice-president] called me into his office ” Burke recalled. “I really liked Al, he was always very nice to me. The whole organization was, for the most part. But Al said. ‘Everybody on the team is married but you, Glenn. When players get married on the Dodgers, we help them out financially. We can help you so you can go out and have a real nice honeymoon.’
“l said, ‘Al, I don’t think I’ll be getting married no time soon.’”
The Dodgers, in the words of Junior Gilliam, could not “cool him down.” He burned for more playing time and when he did not get it, he did not keep it to himself. “They couldn’t con me,” he said. “Lasorda would bark an order and I was supposed to jump like some little kid, grateful for the attention. It bothered him too that I was popular with the guys on the team. Once he got ticked off at some laugh I’d gotten and he said, ‘Burke, if I was your age, I’d take you in the bathroom right now and kick your ass.’ At first I thought he was kidding, then I realized he wasn’t. I think he was trying to get me to explode.
“With one out in the ninth, he’d pull Rick Monday and trot me out to the outfield for the last two outs. I’d stand there waiting for the game to end. Then I’d trot back to the dugout where all the guys are supposed to tell you how great you played. Only I hadn’t, and I’d feel like a fool.
“One night I was really ticked and I stared a hole through Lasorda. He took me in the locker room and, in front of Junior Gilliam and Preston Gomez, cussed me to filth. Every other word in his vocabulary was ‘mother.’ It hurt. Deeply. I didn’t really dislike the man, it was just the situation. We probably should have gotten along—we’re both hardheaded.”
On May 16, 1978, with Glenn Burke in centerfield as the last out was recorded, Vin Scully announced that Burke had been traded to the Oakland A’s for Bill North. North had led the American League twice in stolen bases, the last time in 1976, and now he was 30 and his average had dropped 64 points in those two years.
“Lasorda told me, ‘We’re tired of you walking back and forth in the dugout like a mad tiger in a cage. We’re sending you to Oakland, where you can play more.’ He was nice about it but he was detached. It was as if they couldn’t wait for me to leave, but they were being careful so there wouldn’t be a scene. I walked out of his office and the whole locker room was dead. Steve Garvey and Don Sutton, two of my best friends on the team, had tears in their eyes. Garvey and me had always gotten along great. He taught me how to tie a tie, he gave me hats and T-shirts, he sat next to me on the team plane and he made me promise to play for him if he ever had a football team.
“Leaving those guys, I was in shock. Players don’t come and go on the Dodgers the way they do on other clubs.”
Lopes remembers picking up the newspaper the next day and reading a quote from a scout. “I believe it was an American League scout at the Angel game in Anaheim that night,” Lopes said. “The guy said, ‘Wait until the A’s find out what they really got in Glenn Burke.’”
The locker room was still silent the next day, and Lopes’ reaction was quoted in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. ”I knew something was missing when I came in today. It will probably remain like this until somebody comes along with a personality like Glenn’s. And I don’t think that’s going to happen. I’ve heard a lot of adverse things about him from people, but they didn’t know him. He was the life of the team, on the bases, in the clubhouse, everywhere. All of us will miss him.”
One Dodger angrily went to the front office and demanded an explanation. Dusty Baker didn’t need to go that far. “I was talking with our trainer, Bill Buhler. I said, ‘Bill, why’d they trade Glenn? He was one of our top prospects. ‘ He said, ‘They don’t want any gays on the team.’ I said, ‘The organization knows?’ He said, ’Everybody knows.”
Burke sprayed three hits the first night with the A’s, and then felt himself becoming absorbed by the damp misery of Charlie Finley’s last years in baseball. The Dodgers had not played him as much as he felt he deserved, but the organization had always gone first class. The A’s in the late 1970s were a dead thing looking for a box to lie still in. Finley was cutting expenses and players, lopping off fans with them. A man with peace of mind could play on. Glenn Burke could not. In the hush of a baseball stadium with 3,000 people, he could hear a voice urging him to leave and stop living a lie.
Four years of life as a sexual fugitive had passed and his self-esteem was fraying. By now his family had pieced the evidence together and guessed. They still accepted him, removing one weight from his mind, but the weight at the stadium showed no sign of relenting. One day he was playing centerfield in Comiskey Park, and a fan called him a faggot. His first thought was “Damn, if they know, everybody else must know.” They probably said it to lots of outfielders, but he didn’t think that then. He went to the dugout at the end of the inning and got a felt-tip pen from the trainer. Next inning he went back out and stuck a piece of paper in the back of his pants. It said, “Screw you.”
He finished the 1978 season hitting .235. Early in the 1979 season, he was sitting in the A’s clubhouse, chatting with outfielder Mitchell Page, a good friend. “Suddenly he got quiet,” Burke said. “He said this scout from Pittsburgh—he came up in the Pirate system. and they were interested in me—had come right out and asked him if I was bisexual. Bisexual. Me, who’d never been with a woman. They couldn’t say gay, I guess. It was tough on Mitchell, talking to me like this. I didn’t say much and he ended up telling the scout, ‘Glenn Burke’s sex life is Glenn Burke’s business. And if it’s any of your business, he’s my friend and I’d go anywhere with him.’
“But at that moment, when Mitchell told me, everything stopped. If some joker in Pittsburgh knew, so did a few others. I realized it had all come to an end. They’d stripped me of my inner-most thoughts.”
Page remembered it as a writer from Oakland who had asked him (Burke still insists it was a scout from Pittsburgh). “The guy told me the word was out,” Page said, “and that he didn’t know if Glenn would be here next season. I felt I should let Glenn know instead of talking behind his back like the other players were. The guys on the A’s never bothered him about it because of the way he handled it. Besides, they were afraid to say anything to his face.
“I liked Glenn, but if I’d seen him walking around making it obvious, I wouldn’t have had anything to do with him. I don’t want to be labeled and have my career damaged. You make sure you point out that I’m not gay, okay?”
“I roomed with him,” said A’s pitcher Mike Norris. “Sure, I was worried at first. You came back to your hotel room at midnight, sat around and listened to music, and you wondered if he’d make a move. After awhile you realized he wouldn’t, and it wasn’t a big problem. Guys would watch out for him but it wasn’t a completely uncomfortable feeling. If it had been out in the open, though, there would have been all kinds of problems. We’re all macho, we’re all men. Just make sure you put in there that I ain’t gay, man.”
The walls were beginning to close in. A gay friend, eager to advance the homosexual movement, kept insisting that Burke come out of the closet and tried to arrange a luncheon appointment with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. Burke refused to attend, but Caen wrote that there was a rumor out that a local professional ballplayer could be found on Castro Street.
Midway through the 1979 season, Finley learned that Burke was refusing to take a cortisone shot for a pinched neck nerve. “I feel an injury should heal on its own,” Burke said. “Once you take the first shot, you take another and another. Charlie came to talk to me on the field before a game. I said no. They sat me for two weeks. Finally, I told them I needed a voluntary retirement and walked out. The whole operation was minor league, with Finley calling the dugout making lineup changes. I probably wouldn’t have left if there hadn’t been the other problem, the gay thing, but put it all together and it was too much.”
It was not that simple to walk away. Baseball had often tortured him, but it still owned a part of him. He returned next spring, attracted by the idea of playing for new manager Billy Martin.
Burke ripped knee cartilage that spring and was sidelined a month. The A’s requested he return to the minor leagues, in Ogden, Utah, and Burke reluctantly agreed. To avoid the small-town stares, he drove 56 miles round-trip so he could live in Salt Lake City. He stopped now, and mulled the absurdity of his life. He was 27, getting no closer to the superstar role he knew he must have to declare his homosexuality and knowing that even if he did achieve it, he would likely be afraid to. He was still dodging management, lying to teammates, and now even ducking Mormons, too. Quietly, with the sports world focused on more important things, Glenn Burke quit baseball for good.
“I had finally gotten to the point,” he said, “where it was more important to be myself than a baseball player.”
Sunshine and shade share the seats in Dodger Stadium and the steady crack of batting practice echoes off the empty concrete. The game is still three hours away. Tommy Lasorda, chipper on this first evening back from the All-Star break, stands in foul territory watching his players re-tune their rhythm at the plate.
A visitor informs him that Glenn Burke is openly discussing his homosexuality. Lasorda’s eyes narrow. “He’s admitting it?” he says. “I have no comment.”
Did he know Burke was gay when he played here? Did it have a bearing on the trade? “I didn’t make that trade,” Lasorda says. “Go talk to the man who made it. I have no more comment.”
The man who made it is just arriving in his office from a trip to assess minor league talent in Hawaii. Al Campanis stands over his desk, looking down at the stack of message slips that has gathered during his absence. He is asked if everybody knew, as Lopes has said, and his eyes stay on his desk, until the length of the silence suggests he is waiting for the subject to crawl out of the room. It does not.
“Quote Davey Lopes then,” he says.
He is pressed on the subject. Long pause. “We traded him because of other situations,” he says. “We didn’t trade him for that. He wasn’t hitting enough, and things of that nature. We didn’t even know … ”
An organization as sharp as the Dodgers did not know? “We thought some things were odd,” he allows. “But we didn’t know. We never saw him with a girl, and when we called his home number a man usually answered. The man said he was his carpenter. But you hear a lot of rumors about players, and just because you see these things, that doesn’t mean a guy’s a fairy, or gay.
“We’re not a watchdog organization, and we’re not like an ostrich with our head in the sand. But he was not traded on suspicion. He was traded because we needed a lefthanded hitter in the outfield. One we thought would help us win the pennant. Glenn had problems with the curveball and his attitude was argumentative, but I always liked him. Sure, some people got mad about the trade; one player came to me all worked up, but were they right? Glenn didn’t do anything after he left here, did he?”
And what of the offer of financial help if Burke had married?
“That dates way back,” he says. “The Dodgers have traditionally liked our players to be married. The player has a wife, children, he gets more serious and settles down. We like our young men to have some responsibilities.”
He is reminded that Dodger rightfielder Pedro Guerrero was married in October, 1980, and received no bonus. Campanis bristles.
“A completely different situation,” he says. “Pedro had an agent, he was settled, he was like my son. We treat situations differently. You have to, in this position. The thing with Glenn Burke wasn’t a bribe. It was a helpful gesture. ”
The baseball player swings and meets the ball just beyond the sweet inches of the bat and still he sends the rightfielder staggering up the hill in front of the wire-mesh fence. The ball clears the fence and the baseball player circles the bases with a home plate-sized grin. All his teammates spring from the bench, forming a line to congratulate him.
A few months away from his 30th birthday, Glenn Burke is one of the stars of the Gay Softball League.
There are perhaps 50 people watching from wooden seats that cry for a carpenter. The atmosphere is carefree. A woman in her 50s lifts her blouse to reveal her “Pendulum Pirates” T-shirt and yells, “Take this!” The fans take it, without looking twice.
Burke goes 4-for-4 but bobbles a grounder in the third inning. Disgusted, he straddles the ball with both feet and jumps, launching it up to his hand. The opposing team’s fans taunt him good-naturedly. “Queeeeeen!” they shout in chorus.
Burke’s team, the Pirates, remains undefeated with a 16-4 victory over On The Mark. The Pirates gather in a huddle at the end and chant, “Two-four-six-eight, who do we appreciate’! On The Mark! On The Mark!” On The Mark reciprocates, and both teams stream to their cars for the postgame ritual. The first hour after the game is always spent at the sponsoring bar of the losing team and then all move on to the winner’s bar for the rest of the afternoon.
At Stables, the bar that sponsors On The Mark, Burke walks out to the sunshine of the patio, where there is enough quiet to reflect. “People say I should still be playing,” he says. “But I didn’t want to make other people uncomfortable, so I faded away. My teammates’ wives might have been threatened by a gay man in the locker room. I could have been a superstar but I was too worried about protecting everybody else from knowing. If I thought I could be accepted, I’d be there now. It is the first thing in my life I ever backed down from. No, I’m not disappointed in myself, I’m disappointed in the system. Your sex should be private, and I always kept it that way. Deep inside, I know the Dodgers traded me because I was gay.
“It’s harder to be a gay in sports than anywhere else, except maybe president. Baseball is probably the hardest sport of all. Every man in America wants his son to be a baseball player. The first thing every father buy for his son is a ball and glove. It’s all-American. Only a superstar could come out and admit he was gay and hope to stay around, and still the fans probably would call the stadium and say they weren’t going to bring their kids. Instead of understanding, they blackball you.
“Sure, there are other gays in baseball, the same per cent as there are in society. Word travels fast in baseball. Guys come home from road trips and tell their wives and they tell other players’ wives. As soon as a player comes to bat, you’ll hear a biography of him in the dugout. I’ve never heard anybody verbally get on a player from the bench about being gay, though.”
He does not want to name names. The relationships, he says, are never between two baseball players. That would be too dangerous.
“There are even more gays in football,” he says. “In football they are like a family, there is so much closeness down there in the trenches, and they can really get off on the body chemistry. But most of the gays I know of in sports fake it. They go out with girls and they get married, so their careers won’t get ruined. They suffer even more than I did.”
Glenn Burke still searches for himself. He plays in five softball leagues and has not worked regularly since leaving baseball. He hopes to finish his college education and become a high school basketball coach, and he hopes that speaking out on the issue will begin to chip at the barriers that marooned him between two cultures. He participates in BWMT (Black and White Men Together), a group fighting racial discrimination within the gay community. “I feel like a representative of the community,” he says. “If I can make friends honestly, it may be a step toward gays and straight people understanding each other. Maybe they’ll say, ‘He’s all right, there’s got to be a few more all right.’ Maybe it will begin to make it easier for other young gays to go into sports.”
As he talks, muscles move on both sides of his forehead, and one can sense that half of his energies still seethe in a person just beneath the skin. It may be a different half there now, but it is still a half.
“Sure, I miss baseball,” he says, “but I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s been a test and it has made me mentally stronger.”
It has created a hollowness and a happiness and an image that lingers, of Glenn Burke walking a gauntlet of high-fives after his home run over the wire-mesh fence and laughing that crazy laugh once again. There might have been more, there might have been cash and fame, but there is none of this now.
There is instead the legacy of two men’s hands touching, high above their heads.
At the time of this story’s publication, Michael J. Smith was the editor of BWMT Quarterly. Glenn Burke died in 1995 of complications from AIDS. He was 42.
[Featured Illustration: Bruce Hutchison for ESPN The Magazine]
This profile of Steve Carlton “Thin Mountain Air” was written by our man Pat Jordan. It originally appeared in Philadelphia magazine in April, 1994 and appears here with the author’s permission.
Durango, Colorado, is a cold mountain community 6,506 feet above sea level. It is known for its thin air, which can make residents light-headed, disoriented. It is surrounded by the La Plata mountain range. Built into the foothills of those mountains is a domed concrete house covered with snow and dirt. No one but its owner can explain what he was seeking with that house.
“I came to Durango in 1989 to get away from society,” he says. He is a big man, 6–5, 225 pounds, dressed in a Western shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. He is standing beside his truck in the thick snow that covers the land around his bunker and rests gently on the branches of the low-lying piñon trees that dot his 400 acres. It is a few days before Christmas.
“I don’t like it where there are too many people,” he says. “I like it here because the people are spiritually tuned in.” He glances sideways, out of the corner of his eyes. “They know where the lies fall.”
He makes a sweeping gesture with a long arm, encompassing his bunker, his barn with its turkey, pheasants and horses, and more than 160 fruit trees he has planted. “This is sacred land,” he says. “We’re self-sufficient here. There’s no one around us. We grow our own food.”
He points to sliding glass doors that lead inside his bunker to the greenhouse off his bedroom. “We have our own well,” he says. “And 16 solar batteries for heat and electricity.”
Even his telephone works on cellular microwave transmitters. That way no one can tap his wires.
“The house is built with over 300 yards of concrete,” he says. “Three-feet-thick walls covered by another three feet of earth.” Why? He looks startled, like a huge bird. His small eyes blink once, twice, and then he says, “So the gamma rays won’t penetrate the walls.”
Built under the house is a 7,000-foot storage cellar. He’s stocked it with canned foods, bottled water, weapons. “Do you know if you store guns in PVC pipe, they can last forever underground without rusting?” he says.
He glanced sideways again. “The Revolution is definitely coming.” He believes in the Revolution, only he isn’t precisely sure which of a myriad of conspiratorial groups will begin it. Possibly, he says, it will be started by the Skull and Bones Society of Yale University. Or maybe the International Monetary Fund. Or the World Health Organization. There are so many conspiracies, and so little time. Sometimes all those conspiracies confuse him and he contradicts himself. One minute he’ll say, ”The Russian and U.S. governments fill the air with low-frequency sound waves meant to control us,” and the next he’ll say, “The Elders of Zion rule the world,” and then, “The British MI-5 and-6 intelligence agencies have ruled the world since 1812,” and, “Twelve Jewish bankers meeting in Switzerland rule the world,” and, “The world is controlled by a committee of 300 which meets at a roundtable in Rome.” The subterfuge starts early. Like the plot by the National Education Association to subvert American children with false teachings. “Don’t tell me that two plus two equals four,” he once said. “How do you know that two is two? That’s the real question.”
He believes that the last eight U.S. presidents have been guilty of treason, that President Clinton “has a black son” he won’t acknowledge and that his wife, Hillary, “is a dyke,” and that the AIDS virus was created at a secret Maryland biological warfare laboratory “to get rid of gays and blacks, and now they have a strain of the virus that can live ten days in the air or on a plate of food, because you know who most of the waiters are,” and finally, that most of the mass murderers in this country who open fire indiscriminately in fast-food restaurants “are hypnotized to kill those people and then themselves immediately afterwards,” as in the movie The Manchurian Candidate. He blinks once, twice, and says, “Who hypnotizes them? They do!”
Maybe he isn’t really contradicting himself. Maybe he is just one of those people who read into the simplest things a cosmic significance they may or may not have. Conspiracies everywhere to explain things he cannot fathom. The refuge of a limited mind. “The mind is its own place,” John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost. “And in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
Steven Norman Carlton, “Lefty,” discovered his first conspiracy in 1988, when he was forced to leave baseball prematurely and against his will, he says—after a 24-year-major-league pitching career of such excellence that he was an almost-unanimous selection for baseball’s Hall of Fame on his first try, this past January. He received 96 percent of all baseball writers’ votes, the second-highest percentage ever received by a pitcher (after Tom Seaver’s 98 percent) and the fifth-highest of all time.
Carlton, who pitched for the Phillies from 1972 to 1986, after seven years with the St. Louis Cardinals, has—after the Braves’ Warren Spahn—the most wins of any left-handed pitcher. Carlton won 329 games and lost 244 during his career. Six times he won 20 games or more in a season, and he was voted his league’s Cy Young Award a record four times. His most phenomenal season, one of the greatest seasons a pitcher has ever had, came in his first year with the Phillies: Carlton won 27 games, lost only ten, and fashioned a 1.98 ERA for a last-place team that won only 59 games all season. In other words, he earned almost half of his team’s victories, the highest such percentage ever. For almost 20 years, he was the pitcher against which all others were judged.
The secrets to his success were many. Talent. An uncanny ability to reduce pitching to its simplest terms. An unorthodox, yet rigorous, training regimen. A fierce stubbornness and an even fiercer arrogance. All contributed to his success on the mound and, later, to his inability to adjust to the complexities of life off the mound.
As a pitcher, Carlton knew his limitations. A mind easily baffled by intricacies. There were so many batters. Their strengths and weaknesses confused him, so he refused to go over batters’ tendencies in pregame meetings. He blocked them out of his consciousness and reduced pitching to a mere game of toss between pitcher and catcher—his personal catcher, Tim McCarver. He used only two pitches: an explosive fastball and an equally explosive, biting slider. He just threw one of the two pitches to his catcher’s glove. Fastball up and in; slider low and away.
He worked very hard to let nothing intrude upon his concentration. Once the third baseman fired a ball that hit him in the head. He blinked, waved off the players rushing to his aid, picked up the ball, toed the rubber and faced his next batter. His parents, Joe and Anne Carlton, claim they’ve never seen their son cry.
It was not always easy for him to be so singularly focused while pitching.
“Concentration on the mound is a battle,” he says. “Things creep into your mind. Your mind is always chattering.”
To prevent any “chattering” before a start, he had the Phillies build him a $15,000 “mood behavior” room next to the clubhouse. It was soundproof, with dark blue carpet on the floor, walls, and ceiling. He’d sit there for hours in an easy chair, staring at a painting of ocean waves rushing against the shore. A disembodied voice intoned “I am courageous, calm, confident, and relaxed … I can control my destiny.”
Carlton, said teammate Dal Maxvill, lived in “a little dark room of his mind.” His training routine was just as unorthodox. He hated to run wind sprints, so instead he stuck his arm in a garbage pail filled with brown rice and rotated it 49 times, for the 49 years that Kwan Gung, a Chinese martial-arts hero, lived. By then, Lefty himself was a martial-arts expert.
He performed the slow, ritualized movements in his clubhouse before each game. He also extensively read Eastern theology and philosophy. Those texts discussed the mysteries of life, the unknowable and how a man should confront them. Silence, stoicism, and simplicity. Those tenets struck a chord in him because, increasingly, his life off the mound was becoming more complex than a game of catch. People constantly clamored for his autograph. Waitresses messed up his order in restaurants, so he tore up their menus. Reporters began to ask him questions he didn’t like, or didn’t understand, or maybe he just thought were trivial. They even had the effrontery to question him about his failures.
“People are always throwing variables at you,” he said in disgust, and refused to talk anymore. The press called it “the Big Silence.” From 1974 to 1988, Carlton wouldn’t speak to the media. (It wasn’t just Daily News sportswriter Bill Conlin’s stories, as many assumed, but a series of articles, Carlton says now, that drove him to withdraw.) One sportswriter said there would come a time when Lefty would “wish he’d been a good guy when he’d had the chance.” But he didn’t have to be a good guy. He wasn’t interested in the fame being a good guy would bring him. He wanted only to perfect his craft, which he did, and to become rich.
Over the last ten years of his career, Carlton earned close to $10 million, almost all of it in salary because he didn’t want the annoyance of doing endorsements. It was demeaning, he thought, for him to hawk peoples’ wares. Then again, thanks to the Big Silence, there weren’t a lot of sponsors beating down his door. He already had a reputation for sullen arrogance. When he went to New York City once to discuss a contract for a book about his life, he told the editors he really didn’t care about the book, that he was just doing it for the money and because his wife, Beverly, thought it was a good idea. The editors beat a hasty retreat.
Carlton didn’t need a publisher’s money, or a sponsor’s, because he had a personal agent who promised to make him so rich that when he retired he could do nothing but fish and hunt. He had his salary checks sent directly to the agent, David Landfield, who invested them in oil and gas leases, car dealerships and Florida swampland. Since Carlton couldn’t be bothered with the checks and often had no idea exactly how big they were, Landfield simply sent him a monthly allowance, as if he were a child. These monthly allotments would be all Carlton would ever see out of his $10 million. Not one of Landfield’s investments for him ever made a cent. By 1983, all the money was gone.
During the nine years that Landfield worked for him, Carlton’s friends tried to warn him off the agent. Bill Giles, the Phillies’ owner, and Mike Schmidt, Lefty’s teammate, pleaded with him to drop Landfield. But he wouldn’t listen. One time, he even got in a fight with Schmidt in the clubhouse because of Landfield, and the two, formerly close friends, stopped speaking. Carlton said it was because he was loyal to Landfield, whom he trusted. Others said he was just being stubborn and arrogant because his success on the mound had led him to believe he was invincible off it. McCarver once said that Lefty “always had an irascible contempt for being human. He thinks he’s superhuman.”
When the truth of what Landfield had done with his money finally intruded into Carlton’s psyche, it was too late. He went through the motions of suing Landfield in 1983, but by then Landfield had declared bankruptcy. Worse, Carlton never had a chance to recoup his money, because only a few years later his career was on the downswing and those big paychecks were a thing of the past. He began to lose the bite on his slider in ’85, and people told him he should try to pick up another pitch. But he refused. He continued to throw the only way he knew how.
Fastball up and in, slider low and away.
Between 1986 and 1988, Carlton was traded or released five times, until finally, after being cut by the Minnesota Twins, no club would sign him—even for the $100,000 league minimum. Carlton was furious. At 43 he insisted he could still pitch. That’s when he uncovered his first conspiracy.
“The Twins set me up to release me by not pitching me,” he says today. “And other owners were told to keep their hands off. Other teams wouldn’t even talk to me. I don’t understand it.” To understand it, all Carlton has to do is look at his pitching record from 1985 to 1988: 16 wins, 37 losses and an ERA of more than five runs per game. It was a reality he didn’t want to face. So, sullen and hurt, Carlton decided to punish those who had hurt him. He retreated to Durango and soon afterward began building his mountain bunker, turning his back on the game and the real world that had betrayed him.
Steve Carlton, 49, dressed in a T-shirt and gym shorts, is standing on his head in the mirrored exercise room, performing his daily three hours of yoga.
“I don’t even feel any weight above my neck,” he says, upside down. Just then a screaming flock of children runs into the room with their female yoga instructor, who is dressed in black tights. Immediately, Carlton takes out two earplugs and sticks them in his ears.
“It takes the bite off the high-end notes,” he says, smiling. He is still a handsome man, his face relatively unlined. His is a typically American handsomeness, perfect features without idiosyncrasies. Except for his eyes. They are small and hazel and show very little.
“I spend my summers riding motorcycles and dirt bikes,” he says. “I work around the house. It’s taken us three years and we’re still not finished. (It is rumored that he doesn’t have the money to do so.) In the winter I ski and read books, Eastern metaphysical stuff. All about the power within. Oneness with the universe. I want to tap into my own mind to know what God knows.” He rights himself, sits cross-legged on a mat and begins contorting into another yoga position, the ankle of his left leg somewhere behind his ear.
“You ought to try,” he says. “Yoga for three hours a day. And skiing, too.” He says this with absolute conviction, as if it has never crossed his mind that there are those who do not have three hours in the morning to spare for yoga, and three more hours in the afternoon to ski. In fact, Durango seems to be the kind of town where people have unlimited leisure time. At 10:30 on a weekday morning, the health club is packed. Durango is one of those faux-Western towns whose women dress in dirndl skirts and cowboy boots and whose men, their faces adorned with elaborately waxed 1890s handlebar mustaches, wear plaid work shirts rolled up to the elbows. It has a lot of “saloons”—not bars—with clever names, like Father Murphy’s, that have walls adorned with old guns, specialize in a variety of cappuccinos and frown upon cigar smoking. Clean air is an important subject in Durango. When the town’s only tobacco shop wanted to hold a cigar smoker, its two owners were afraid it would be disrupted by protesters chaining themselves to their shop door. It’s a town for people who cannot countenance the idiosyncrasies of their fellow man. So they come to this clean, thin mountain air where they can breathe without being contaminated by the foulness of the rest of the world.
Carlton believes he is in better physical shape now than when he left baseball six years ago. “In a month I could be throwing in the 80s [miles per hour] and win,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I was labeled ‘too old.’ But you can still pitch in your 50s. It’s not for money but for pride, proving you can perform. That’s the beauty of it. Then to be cut off … It’s disheartening. If only they let you tell them when you know you’re done. It hurts. But I haven’t looked back. No thought of what I should have done. Maybe I should have learned a circle change up in my later years. But I didn’t think I needed a change.”
Most great pitchers intuit the loss of their power pitches before it actually happens. Warren Spahn, for example. He could see, in his early 30s, a time when his high, leg-kicking fastball would no longer be adequate. So he began to perfect an off-speed screwball and a slow curve. By the time Spahn lost his fastball, he had perfected his off-speed pitches, and his string of 20-victory seasons continued unbroken into his late 30s and early 40s. But Carlton was both luckier than Spahn and less fortunate. Because he did not lose his power pitches until late into his 30s, he was deluded into thinking he would never lose them, and so didn’t develop any off-speed pitches.
Carlton, lying on his back now, pulls one leg underneath himself and stretches it. “Baseball was fun,” he says. “But I have no regrets. Competition is the ultimate level of insecurity, having to beat someone. I don’t miss baseball. I never look back. You turn the page. Eternity lies in the here and now. If you live in the past, you accelerate the death process. Your being is your substance.”
As a player, Carlton was known for his conviviality with his teammates. He spent a lot of his off-hours drinking with them, and there were hints in the press, most notably by Bill Conlin, that his drinking contributed to some of his disastrous years, such as the 13–20 ’73 season. After he left baseball, Carlton, who used to be a wine connoisseur, with a million-dollar cellar, gave up drinking.
“I had nobody to go drinking with anymore,” he says. “Now when I see old baseball players, I have nothing to talk to them about. All that old-time bullshit. It bores me. I live in the here and now. I’d be intellectually starved in the game today.” Still, Carlton would like to get back into it. He sees himself as a pitching coach in spring training.
“I’d like to teach young pitchers the mental aspect of the game,” he says. “Teach them wisdom, which is different than knowledge. Champions think a certain way. To a higher level. They create their future. The body is just a vehicle for the mind and spirit. Champions will themselves to win. They know they’re gonna win. Others hope they’ll win. The mind gives you what it asks for. That’s its God.”
Then he relates a story about a friend in Durango, who, years ago, didn’t want to play on his high school basketball team because he knew it was going to have a losing season. Before the season began, the friend was hit by a car, destroying his knee.
“See,” says Carlton, as if he’s just proved a point. “If you have an accident, you create it in your mind. That’s a fact. The mind is the conscious architect of your success. What you hold consciously in your mind becomes your reality.”
If this is so, then Carlton must have willed his own failure in the twilight of his career. When such a possibility is broached to him, he looks up, terrified. He blinks once, in shock, and a second time to banish the thought from his psyche. “Why do you ask such questions?” he says shrilly. He has so carefully crafted his philosophies that he can become completely disoriented when they are challenged. That’s why Carlton has withdrawn from the world into the security of his bunker.
There he is left alone with only his thoughts, his dictums, his conspiracies, with no one to question them. Such questions strike fear in Carlton. And above all else, Steve Carlton is a fearful man.
“Fear dictates our lives,” he has said. “Fear is a tremendous energy that must be banished. Fear makes our own prisons. It’s instilled in us by our government and the Church. They control fear. It’s the Great Lie. But don’t get me started on that.” For a man who, for 15 years, was known for his silences, Carlton now talks a lot. In fact, he can’t stop himself. When he was voted into the Hall of Fame this past January, he held a press conference. At the end of its scheduled 45 minutes, the sportswriters got up to leave. Carlton called them back to talk some more.
“I don’t mind,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”When he is inducted, with Phil Rizzuto, into the Hall in late July before the assembled national press, it will be interesting to see if he will still be so loquacious.
A lot of people are suspicious of his motives for talking so much. Carlton claims, “It’s all Bev’s idea.” He says his wife wants him to get back into the world. For years, Beverly Carlton ran interference for her husband during “the Big Silence.” After Carlton won his 300th game, in 1983, he surrounded himself with a police escort and fled the clubhouse to avoid reporters. He left it to Bev to talk to the press.
“Steve would like to play another ten years,” she told them. “He just might. Baseball’s been great to us.”Then, to humanize her distant husband, she revealed a little intimacy. “Well,” she said, “he likes Ukrainian food.”
In Carlton’s final season, when he began to rethink his silence, he said it was because “my wife convinced me that if I want to find a job after I’m through playing, having my name in the paper doesn’t hurt.” Even today, Bev Carlton schedules her husband’s interviews. (He no longer has an agent.) When reporters show up in Durango, Carlton will feign surprise at their presence.
“I didn’t know you were coming,” he says. When told that his wife said she confirmed the interview with him, he blinks, once, twice, and says, “I didn’t pay any attention.”
In this way, he can lay off the distasteful prospect of being interviewed on his wife. He can maintain, in his mind’s eye, the lofty arrogance of “the Big Silence” while no longer adhering to it. (“Bev likes to read about me,” he says.) It is likely that Carlton is talking now because he needs money, looking to reassert his presence in the public’s consciousness so he can do endorsements.
“We’ll probably do some of that stuff in the coming years,” he says. It’s a distasteful position his old agent put him in, and one he doesn’t like to be reminded of. “It’s one of life’s little lessons,” Carlton says of David Landfield. “I don’t want to talk about it. I no longer live in the past.”
Then, after a moment of silence, he adds, “It all came down to trust. You’re most vulnerable there. When your trust is breached, it affects you.”
Most of Carlton’s money for the past few years has come from his two businesses. He claims he is a sports agent, but won’t mention the names of his clients. (It is hard to imagine anyone, even a ballplayer, entrusting his money to a man who lost millions of his own.) The bulk of his money, a reported $100,000 or so per year, comes from autograph shows and the Home Shopping Network, where he peddles his own wares. Caps, cards, T-shirts, little plaster figurines of himself as a pitcher—all emblazoned with the number 329, his career victory total. He sells these objects by mail, too, out of a tiny, cluttered office in a nondescript, wooden building a few miles from town. A sign out front lists the building’s occupants, lawyers and such. But there is no mention of Carlton’s enterprise, Game Winner Sports Management, and he likes it that way.
“We didn’t want a sign up so people would know where we are,” he says, smiling. In fact, even the occupants of the building aren’t sure where “the baseball player’s” office is.
“We have a toll-free number [1-800-72LEFTY],” he says. “We accept VISA and checks. Just send me a check and don’t bother me.” Now as Carlton finishes with his yoga, the instructor in the black tights ushers one of the children over to him. The teacher is smiling, giggly, blushing, a vaguely attractive woman who seems to have a crush on Carlton. She leans close to him and says, “I have someone who wants to meet you.” Carlton shrinks back from her even as she urges the uncomprehending child toward him.
“Go ahead,” she says. The child looks up at the towering man and says, “Happy birthday.” Carlton blinks, confused.
“I don’t celebrate birthdays,” he says.
At the foot of a steep, winding dirt road rutted with snow, Steve Carlton stops his truck and gets out to engage its four-wheel drive. When he gets back in and begins driving carefully up the path, he says, “I’ve been lucky. I’ve had teachers in my life. One guy began writing me letters, four or five a week, in 1970. That’s the year I won 20 games with the Cardinals. He told me where the power and energy comes from. He was a night watchman. We talked on the phone a few times and met a couple times. He was a very spiritual guy. All I knew about him was that his name was Mr. Briggs. Then he was gone as quickly as he came into my life. It was a gift.”
When he reaches his bunker, at twilight, he stops and gets out. He looks out over his land and says, “There’s nothing like being by yourself. I’m reclusive. I want to get in touch with myself.” He glances sideways, and adds, “But society is coming.”
That’s why he is preparing by being self-sufficient. He is not so self-sufficient, however, that he’s ever mustered the courage to butcher his animals for food. But, that’s a moot point now. All his chickens were killed by raccoons last winter.
It’s late. Carlton has a dinner appointment. But he’s not sure what time it is now, because he doesn’t wear a watch. “I never know what time it is,” he says. “Or what day it is. Time is stress. Pressure melts away if you don’t deal with time. I don’t believe in birthdays, either. Or anniversaries. I don’t watch television. We don’t read newspapers. We don’t even have a Christmas tree. Those things hold vibrations of the past, and I exist only in the now. Bev is even more into it that I am.”
He trudges through the snow to the side door of his odd, domed bunker. Inside, he puts the flat of one palm against the concrete and says, “I’m waiting for the coldness to come out of the walls.” Bev is waiting for him in the living room. She is a small, sweet, nervous woman, sitting in a chair by a space heater. She used to bleach her hair blonde, but now her short cut is its natural brown. She smiles as her husband sits down across from her. She hugs herself from the cold, and then drags on a cigarette.
Their home is starkly furnished, not out of design but necessity. A few wooden tables, a bookcase filled with Carlton’s Eastern metaphysical books, a patterned sofa and easy chair, hand-me-downs from their son Scott, 25, a bartender in St. Louis. Their other son, Steven, 27, lives in Washington State, where he writes children’s songs.
Carlton doesn’t like to talk about his kids. “Why do you have to know about them?” he says plaintively. He doesn’t talk much about his parents, either, whom he rarely sees or speaks to. They, it seems, are another part of Carlton’s past that he has cut out of his life.
“The correspondence lacks,” admits Joe Carlton, 87 and blind. “We don’t hear from him much. It’s okay, though.”
“We keep up with him in the newspapers,” says Anne Carlton, who says of her age, “It’s nobody’s damned business.”
The elder Carltons are sitting in the shadowed, musty living room of their small, concrete house in North Miami, where they raised their son and two daughters, Christina and Joanne. From the outside, it looks uninhabited. The drab house paint is peeling, and the yards out front and back, dotted with Joe’s many fruit trees, are overgrown, rotted fruit littering the tall grass.
Inside, the furniture is old and worn, and thick dust coats the television screen. Even the many photographs and newspaper articles on the walls are faded and dusty, like old tintypes. The photos are mostly of their son in various baseball uniforms. As a teenager—gawky, with a faint, distant smile, posing with his teammates, the Lions. With the Cardinals, his hair fashionably long, back in the ’60s. Then with the Phillies, posing with Mike Schmidt, captioned MVP AND CY YOUNG.
“No, I haven’t heard from him,” says Joe, a former maintenance man with Pan Am. He is sitting on an ottoman, staring straight ahead through thick glasses. “I can’t see you, except as a shadow,” he says, staring out the window. He is a thin man, almost gaunt, with long silvery swept-back hair. He is wearing a faded Hawaiian shirt.
“It’s no special reason,” says Anne, sitting in her easy chair. “He just doesn’t call me anymore.”
“He called when Anne’s mother died, at 101,” says Joe. Then he begins to talk about his son as a child. How Joe used to go hunting with him in the Everglades. “We used to shoot light bulbs,” he says.
“Steve was a natural-born hunter,” says Anne. “Tell what kind of animals you hunted in the Everglades.”
“Lions and tigers.”
“Oh, you didn’t. There are no lions and tigers in the Everglades. Tell what kind of animals.”
Joe, confused, says, “There were lots of animals.” Anne shakes her head. “Steve was always quiet,” adds Joe, trying to remember. “He wasn’t very talkative around the house when he was a boy.” He fetches an old scrapbook and opens a page to a newspaper photograph of his son in a Phillies cap. There is a zipper where his mouth should be.
“Can I bum a cigarette off you?” Anne says to their guest. “Oh, you don’t have any. Too bad.”
“The last time we saw Steve was five years ago,” says Joe.
“It wasn’t that long ago.”
“Yes, it was. Time flies.”
“It was only four years.”
“He never told us about his house.”
“We don’t even know where Durango is. I never heard of it. Have you seen his house? Really, it’s built into a mountain?”
“Steve got an interest in his philosophies when he got hold of one of my books when he was in high school,” says Joe.
“He doesn’t believe in Christmas trees anymore?” asks Anne. “We always had a Christmas tree. Bev liked Christmas trees. No, we never asked him for any money,” Anne continues. “He would have given it to us if we asked, though.”
“He never helped us financially. I didn’t need it.” Joe, who is also hard of hearing, cups a hand around an ear. “What? His sons? You mean Steve’s sons? No, we never hear from them, either.”
“Our daughters call, though,” says Anne.
“They came down for my 85th birthday,” says Joe. “They gave me a surprise party. Steve didn’t come.”
Joe gets up and goes into a small guest room where, on a desk, dresser, and two twin beds, he has laid out mementos of his son’s career. A photograph of a plaster impression of Steve’s hand when he was a boy. A high school graduation photo of Steve with a flattop haircut.
“Steve doesn’t collect this stuff,” says Joe. “He’s too busy. Here’s another picture of Steve. I got pictures all over. I got another picture here, somewhere, when we took Steve to St. Augustine, where Anne is from. It’s a picture of Steve in the oldest fort in America. He’s behind bars.”
Joe rummages around for the photo, disturbing dust, but he can’t find it. He leafs through one last scrapbook; on its final page is a photograph of a burial mound of skulls and bones, thousands of them, piled in a heap. Joe looks at it and says, “We took it in Cuba. See here what I wrote at the bottom: The end.”
There are no photographs of Joe and Anne in their son’s living room. No photos of his and Bev’s children. No photos of themselves when younger. No wedding photos of smiling bride and bridegroom. No photos of Carlton in a Phillies uniform or on a hunting trip. There are no keepsakes of their past. No prints on the wall. No Christmas tree, no presents, nestled in cotton snow. There is nothing in that huge, high, concave, whitewashed concrete room except the few pieces of nondescript furniture and the space heater. Bev and her husband seem dwarfed by the cave like room. They huddle around the space heater like a 20th-century version of the clan in the movie Quest for Fire. Mere survival seems their only joy, their only beauty, except for the view through the sliding-glass living room doors of the La Plata mountain range, all white and purple and rose in the setting sun, which Beverly has turned her back on.
Bev tries to make small talk as she drags on her cigarette. Curiously, her husband no longer hates cigarette smoke as he once did as a ballplayer, when he claimed he could taste it on his wineglass if someone in the room was smoking. Of course, in those days he didn’t eat red meat either because of the blood. His thinking has changed now, he has said, because he realizes “that the juice of anything is its blood, that the juice of a carrot is the carrot’s blood.”
Bev is talking about the time she and other Phillies’ wives met Ted Turner. “Oh, yes,” she says, “he kept putting his hands on the behinds of the wives.”
“He was crude and vulgar,” says Carlton. “What’s wrong with America?” He shakes his head in disgust and begins a long monologue on the unfairness of the American government, primarily because it won’t allow its citizens to walk around armed. Bev listens patiently smiling her thin smile, her head nodding like a small bird sipping water. Her husband is right. She is a lot like him. Frightened. When it is time to meet their guests for dinner, Carlton stands up. Bev remains seated hugging herself against the cold.
“Oh, I’m not going to dinner,” she says without explanation. “Just Steve.”
It’s confusing to their guest, until he remembers Carlton’s words: “Bev wants me to get out into the world,” Carlton had said. Which is what she is doing now: sending him out into that fearful world in order to make a living for them. It’s something she knows he has to do on his own if they are going to survive, like a mother bundling her tiny child off the school for the first time. Meanwhile she sits at home in their stark bunker huddled close to the space heater for warmth, worrying about him out there, alone and scared, in the real world he shunned for so many years.
The Carlton story is a riot. So I’m working for my friend Elliot Kaplan in Philadelphia and I wasn’t getting paid a lot. I’d known Eliot for years and done a lot of work for him when he was at GQ. Carlton was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame and he had been a Philly guy.
I had one rule with Eliot. I said, “As long as you pay me what you pay your other writers, I don’t care. But if I ever find out that you were paying me less because of our friendship, I’ll be really annoyed.” He wasn’t paying much but I’d do whatever I could for him.
He wanted me to do Steve Carlton, but he didn’t have the budget to fly me to Durango, Colorado, which is an expensive flight. L.A. would be a cheap flight from Fort Lauderdale, where I lived at the time. New York is a cheap flight. Durango is not.
Now, I had an assignment to do Brian Boitano for the L.A. Times Magazine, so I booked a triangle flight: Ft. Lauderdale, San Francisco, did Boitano, took a puddle-jumper to Denver, rented a car, and drove to Durango. My wife Susan went with me and we got to Denver in the middle of a snow storm. We get on this puddle-jumper plane and they are de-icing the wings to go fly over the Rocky fucking Mountains. I hate to fly and I said, “Oh shit, this is how I’m going to die? I’m going down for friendship, for Eliot? I’m going to die in the fucking mountains for Steve Carlton, who I didn’t want to do anyway?”
I knew nothing about Carlton other than he hated to talk to the press. But he was going to the Hall of Fame and he wanted to capitalize on it. So I get there. I’m supposed to meet him the next morning at a gym, at 10. Susie and I got up at 6 or 7 and it’s freezing in Durango. We drive and I find the gym so I know where it is. Before we go to breakfast I drive back to the airport to make sure I can find my way back there. On the way, we get a flat tire on the highway. It’s so cold my hands are sticking to the lug nuts. I change the tire. Now, I’m in a panic to get back to Carlton, and I’m going to get back just in time. I get back to the gym, he’s doing yoga or something, there’s women running around, kids, and we start talking. I wasn’t tape-recording because there was too much noise.
Carlton was odd. He told me, “I’m up here because I wanted to be secluded because of what America’s becoming,” or something like that. So I changed the subject and told him about a new gun I had bought. I’m into guns. For some reason, I knew that would perk him up. So I mentioned that I had gotten a Czechoslovakian military pistol, a CZ 85.
He said: “Oh yeah, that’s a great gun. You know you’d better bury that in PVC pipes because the UN is coming in black helicopters to confiscate all of our guns.”
I said, “Oh, really?”
He said, “Yeah, it’s a world organization that’s dictated by the Elders of Zion, the twelve Jews in Switzerland who control the world.”
At this point, I just let him go. We went from the gym to his office where he was selling all of his tchotchkes, figurines of him pitching, autographs. This is how he thought he was going to make a living, ’cause he was almost broke at the time. He had lost a fortune because of his agent.
So we talked in his office and then I went out to his house, which is like a concrete bunker. And he was really weird. I called Eliot and said: “Eliot, this guy’s crazy. He’s the kind of guy who should not be allowed to read a book. He believes everything in the last book he read. Like the whole Elders of Zion thing. He told me he had read that in a book.” Well, shit, there are other books than that.
So I wrote the story and it caused a big stink. The Today Show came down to interview me. Now, after the story came out, everybody started defending Steve. Tim McCarver, Jim Kaat, all these guys who were in the fraternity of ex-athletes. Even though they knew I had written the truth, I was not in the fraternity. I was the outsider, the outlaw freelance writer living in Florida. The guy you can’t trust. So the papers are running pieces about what a hatchet job I did on poor Steve Carlton.
Eliot Kaplan (via email): I had recently moved to Philadelphia Magazine as editor-in-chief after several years as the deputy at GQ. Pat had done some fantastic stories for us at GQ, everything from Greg Louganis and Pete Rose Jr. to Marilyn Chambers and Traci Lords. When I got to Philly, he was kind enough to agree to write for me, more out of friendship than money. We paid him whatever our top rate was then, probably $2,000-2,500. Including travel expenses!
Steve Carlton had not talked to any media in almost 20 years but was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame and agreed to be interviewed. I think both Pat and I were expecting a rather bland, clipped interview but figured Pat could make something out of it, as he always does. Pat ended up flying over a winter holiday, through a bumpy blizzard, into Colorado.
He called me that night. I remember leaving a holiday dinner and him telling me, “He’s nuts. Carlton is nuts,” and proceeding to describe the bunker-type residence, Carlton’s vast conspiracy theories, his almost survivalist mentality.
Pat got great stuff and wrote a spectacular piece.
It came out in the April issue and then … nothing. Not a peep in the media.
Two reasons come to mind. First, Philly can be a weird place. The newspapers and Philadelphia Magazine were always competitive and antagonistic toward each other, so they weren’t going to talk up the piece. And remember, this was before the internet or magazines having publicists.
But more importantly, the same issue featured a very juicy story in which the popular mayor, Ed Rendell, was quoted making extremely saucy, suggestive comments to reporter Lisa DePaulo. THAT story was the one that grabbed the headlines, including a few front days of the Philly Daily News.
It wasn’t until about a week later when my friend, the writer and Philadelphia native Joe Queenan, was on a New York radio show and mentioned the Carlton piece, that it suddenly exploded, with the New York media being the ones driving it and the Philadelphia media then forced to react. I don’t think it affected sales of the magazine by that point but it definitely got a lot of chatter and reaction from Phillies PR, who denied everything. You can look up a Tim McCarver interview in Times that basically said, Yeah, Carlton is kinda nuts but not an anti-Semite (which I believe, but the Elders of Zion thing was easy for people to pick up on). Thought I came up with a good line to one reporter: “Carlton was always known for his slider. Turns out screwball is more like it.”
Be patient. Impatience is the official language of youth. When you’re young, you want to rush to the next thing before you even know where you are. I always think of the joke in Colors that the wiser and older cop (Robert Duvall) tells his impatient rookie partner (Sean Penn). I’m paraphrasing, but it goes something like: “There’s two bulls standing on top of a mountain. The younger one says to the older one: ‘Hey pop, let’s say we run down there and screw one of them cows.’ The older one says: ‘No son. Let’s walk down and screw ‘em all.’” Now, to counter the profane with the profound, one of my favorite quotes is from the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “Talent hits the target no one else can hit; genius hits the target no one else can see.” I think the key to seeing the target no one else can see is in being patient, waiting for it to appear so you can do the right thing, not just the expedient thing. Learning to wait is one of my greatest accomplishments as I’ve gotten older.
Listen more than talk. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.
Being right is not always the right thing to be. Kareem, my man, learn to step away. You think being honest immunizes you from the consequences of what you say. Remember Paul Simon’s lyrics, “There’s no tenderness beneath your honesty.” So maybe it’s not that important to win an argument, even if you “know” you’re right. Sometimes it’s more important to try a little tenderness.
When choosing someone to date, compassion is better than passion. I’m not saying she shouldn’t be passionate. That’s a given. But look for signs that she shows genuine compassion toward others. That will keep you interested in her a lot longer.
“I got balls and guts,” Gary Stevens tweeted on the evening of Feb. 23. The barb was directed at an armchair critic who blasted the legendary jockey’s ride in that day’s Risen Star Stakes — at the Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, in New Orleans. Stevens’ mount, Proud Strike, finished eighth in the race, and some fans in the blogosphere blamed the rider. Stevens felt compelled to respond directly to one of the more vocal detractors.
Few would argue with Gary Stevens’ declaration. He has competed in more than 27,000 Thoroughbred races worldwide over a 34- year span, winning more than 5,000 and frequently putting himself in danger in the process. Over the years, he’s often tried to squeeze his horse through a tight opening, or pin a rival down on the inside — whatever it takes to win.
Oh, yes. Gary Stevens has guts and balls. He has ‘em to spare.
He’s also got an intense desire to show the world that he’s got them. And should you challenge him, as the Twitter pundit did, he’s going to want to fight you.