"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Magazine Writers

BGS: Thin Mountain Air

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.


Postscript

Pat Jordan (as told to Alex Belth): I did Steve Carlton for Philly Magazine, which was the most controversial thing I did other than the Inside Sports piece on Steve and Cyndi Garvey.

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.”


[Photo Credit: Martina Lindqvist; Tabitha Soren]

BGS: Tangled Up in Blue

Originally published in the October 1992 issue of GQ, here is a classic from Peter Richmond.

(A postscript from the author follows.)

Nighttime in Los Angeles, on a quiet street off Melrose Avenue. An otherwise normal evening is marked by an oddly whimsical celestial disturbance: Baseballs are falling out of the sky.

They are coming from the roof of a gray apartment building. One ball pocks an adjacent apartment. Another bounces to the street. A third flies off into the night, a mighty shot.

This is West Hollywood in the early eighties, where anything is not only possible but likely. West Hollywood shakes its head and drives on by.

But if a passerby’s curiosity had been piqued and he’d climbed to the roof of a neighboring building to divine the source of the show, he would have been rewarded by a most unusual sight: a man of striking looks, with long blond hair, startlingly and wincingly thin, hitting the ball with a practiced swing—a flat, smooth, even stroke developed during a youth spent in minor-league towns from Pocatello to Albuquerque.

This is not Tommy Lasorda Jr.’s, routine nighttime activity. A routine night is spent in the clubs, the bright ones and dark ones alike.

Still, on occasion, here he’d be, on the roof, clubbing baseballs into the night. Because there were times when the pull was just too strong. Of the game. Of the father. He could never be what his father was—Tommy Lasorda’s own inner orientation made that impossible—but he could fantasize, couldn’t he? That he was ten, taking batting practice in Ogden, Utah, with his dad, and Garvey, and the rest of them?

And so, on the odd night. On a night he was not at Rage, or the Rose Tattoo, he’d climb to the roof, the lord of well-tanned West Hollywood, and lose himself in the steady rhythm of bat hitting ball—the reflex ritual that only a man inside the game can truly appreciate.


“Junior was the better hitter,” recalls Steve Garvey. “He didn’t have his father’s curveball, but he was the better hitter.”

“I cried,” Tom Lasorda says quietly. He is sipping a glass of juice in the well-appointed lounge of Dodgertown, the Los Angeles baseball team’s green-glorious oasis of a spring-training site. It’s a place that heralds and nurtures out-of-time baseball and out-of-time Dodgers. A place where, each spring, in the season of illusion’s renewal, they are allowed to be the men they once were.

On this February weekend, Dodgertown is crowded with clearly affluent, often out-of-shape white men, each of whom has parted with $4,000 to come to Dodgers fantasy camp. In pink polo shirts and pale-pink slacks—the pastels of privilege—they are scattered around the lounge, flirting with fantasy lives, chatting with the coaches.

“I cried. A lot of times. But I didn’t cry in the clubhouse. I kept my problems to myself. I never brought them with me. I didn’t want to show my family—that’s my family away from my house. What’s the sense of bringing my problems to my team?

“I had him for thirty-three years. Thirty-three years is better than nothing, isn’t it? If I coulda seen God and God said to me ‘I’m going to give you a son for thirty-three years and take him away after thirty-three years,’ I’d have said ‘Give him to me.’”

His gaze skips about the room—he always seems to be looking around for someone to greet, a hand to shake, another camper to slap another anecdote on. Tom Lasorda floats on an ever-flowing current of conversation.

“I signed that contract [to manage the Dodgers] with a commitment to do the best of my ability,” he says. “If I’m depressed, what good does it do? When I walk into the clubhouse, I got to put on a winning face. A happy face. If I go in with my head hung down when I put on my uniform, what good does it do?”

These are words he has said before, in response to other inquiries about Tommy’s death. But now the voice shifts tone and the words become more weighted; he frames each one with a new meaning.

And he stops looking around the room and looks me in the eye.

“I could say ‘God, why was I dealt this blow? Does my wife—do I—deserve this?’ [But] then how do I feel, hunh? Does it change it?” Now the voice grows even louder, and a few fantasy campers raise their eyebrows and turn their heads toward us.

“See my point?”

The words are like fingers jabbed into my chest.

“Hunh?”

Then his eyes look away and he sets his face in a flat, angry look of defiance.

“You could hit me over the head with a fucking two-by-four and you don’t knock a tear out of me,” he says.

“Fuck,” he says.

The word does not seem to be connected to anything.


He was the second of five sons born, in Norristown, Pennsylvania, a crowded little city-town a half-hour north of Philadelphia, to Sabatino Lasorda, a truckdriver who’d emigrated from Italy, and Carmella Lasorda.

By the age of twenty-two, Tom Lasorda was a successful minor league pitcher by trade, a left-hander with a curveball and not a lot more. But he was distinguished by an insanely dogged belief in the possibility of things working out. His father had taught him that. On winter nights when he could not turn the heat on, Sabatino Lasorda would nonetheless present an unfailingly optimistic face to his family, and that was how Tom Lasorda learned that nothing could stomp on the human spirit if you didn’t let it.

Tom Lasorda played for teams at nearly every level of professional ball: in Concord, N.H.; Schenectady, N.Y.; Greenville, S.C.; Montreal; Brooklyn (twice, briefly); Kansas City, Missouri; Denver; and Los Angeles. Once, after a short stay in Brooklyn, he was sent back to the minors so the Dodgers could keep a left-handed pitcher with a good fastball named Sandy Koufax, and to this day Lasorda will look you in the eye and say “I still think they made a mistake” and believe it.

The Dodgers saw the white-hot burn and made it into a minor-league manager. From 1965 to 1972, Lasorda’s teams—in Pocatello, Ogden, Spokane, then Albuquerque—finished second, first, first, first, second, first, third and first. Sheer bravado was the tool; tent-preaching thick with obscenities the style.

In 1973, the Dodgers called him to coach for the big team, and he summoned his wife and his son and his daughter from Norristown, and they moved to Fullerton, Calif, a featureless sprawl of a suburb known for the homogeneity of its style of life and the conservatism of its residents.

In 1976, he was anointed the second manager in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ nineteen-year history. His managing style was by instinct, not by the book, and his instincts were good enough to pay off more often than not. In his first two years, the Dodgers made the World Series. In 1981, they won it. In 1985, they didn’t make it because Lasorda elected to have Tom Niedenfuer pitch to St. Louis’s Jack Clark in the sixth game of the playoffs, against the odds, and Jack Clark hit a three-run home run. In 1988, though, he sent a limping Kirk Gibson to the plate and gave us a moment for history.

From the first, Lasorda understood that he had to invent a new identity for this team, the team that Walter O’Malley had yanked out of blue-collar-loyal Brooklyn-borough America and dropped into a city whose only real industry was manufacturing the soulless stuff of celluloid fantasy. His clubhouse became a haunt for show-business personalities, usually of distinctly outsized demeanor—Sinatra, Rickles—and he himself became the beacon of a new mythology, leader of the team that played in a ballpark on a hill on a road called Elysian, perched above the downtown, high and imperious. Because, really, aren’t there too many theme parks to compete with in Los Angeles to manage your baseball team as anything other than another one?

In sixteen years, the tone of the sermon has seldom faltered, at least not before this year. This year, through no fault of Tom Lasorda’s, his fielders have forgotten how to field, in a game in which defense has to be an immutable; and if this is anyone’s fault, it’s that of the men who stock the farm system. His pitching is vague, at best. So the overwhelming number of one-run—is, in fact, testament, again, to Lasorda’s management. No one has questioned his competence.

His spirit has flagged considerably, but his days, in season and out, are as full of Dodger Blue banquet appearances as ever, with impromptu Dodgers pep rallies in airport concourses from Nashville to Seattle. Unlike practitioners of Crystal Cathedral pulpitry, Lasorda the tent-preacher believes in what he says, which, of course, makes all the difference in the world. Because of his faith, Dodger Blue achieves things, more things than you can imagine. The lights for the baseball field in Caledonia, Miss.; the fund for the former major leaguer with cancer in Pensacola: Tom showed up, talked Dodger Blue, raised the money. Tom’s word maintains the baseball field at Jackson State and upgraded the facilities at Georgia Tech.

“I was in Nashville,” Tom says, still sitting in the lounge, back on automatic now, reciting. “Talking to college baseball coaches, and a buddy told me nine nuns had been evicted from their home. I got seven or eight dozen balls [signed by Hall of Fame players], we auctioned them, and we built them a home. They said, ‘We prayed for a miracle, and God sent you to us.’”

Nine nuns in Nashville.


In the hallway between the lounge and the locker room hang photographs of Brooklyn Dodgers games. Lasorda has pored over them a thousand times, with a thousand writers, a thousand campers, a thousand Dodgers prospects—identifying each player, re-creating each smoky moment.

But on this day, a few minutes after he’s been talking about Tommy, he walks this gauntlet differently.

“That’s Pete Reiser,” Tom Lasorda says. “He’s dead.” He points to another player. He says, “He’s dead.” He walks down the hallway, clicking them off, talking out loud but to himself.

“He’s dead. He’s dead. He’s dead. He’s dead. He’s dead. He’s dead.”

Back in his suite, in the residence area of Dodgertown, I ask him if it was difficult having a gay son.

“My son wasn’t gay,” he says evenly, no anger. “No way. No way. I read that in a paper. I also read in that paper that a lady gave birth to a fuckin’ monkey, too. That’s not the fuckin’ truth. That’s not the truth.”

I ask him if he read in the same paper that his son had died of AIDS.

“That’s not true,” he says.

I say that I thought a step forward had been taken by Magic Johnson’s disclosure of his own HIV infection, that that’s why some people in Los Angeles expected him to…

“Hey,” he says. “I don’t care what people…I know what my son died of. I know what he died of. The doctor put out a report of how he died. He died of pneumonia.”

He turns away and starts to brush his hair in the mirror of his dressing room. He is getting ready to go to the fantasy-camp barbecue. He starts to whistle. I ask him if he watched the ceremony on television when the Lakers retired Johnson’s number.

‘”I guarantee you one fuckin’ thing,” he says. “I’ll lay you three to one Magic plays again. Three to one. That Magic plays again.”

As long as he’s healthy, I say. People have lived for ten years with the right medication and some luck. Your quality of life can be good, I say.

Lasorda doesn’t answer. Then he says, “You think people would have cared so much if it had been Mike Tyson?”

On death certificates issued by the state of California, there are three lines to list the deceased’s cause of death, and after each is a space labeled TIME INTERVAL BETWEEN ONSET AND DEATH.

Tom Lasorda Jr.’s, death certificate reads:

IMMEDIATE CAUSE: A) PNEUMONITIS — 2 WEEKS

DUE TO: B) DEHYDRATION — 6 WEEKS

DUE TO: C) PROBABLE ACQUIRED IMMUNE

DEFICIENCY SYNDROME — 1 YEAR.


At Sunny Hills High School, in Fullerton, Calif.—”the most horrible nouveau riche white-bread high school in the world,” recalls Cat Gwynn, a Los Angeles photographer and filmmaker and a Sunny Hills alumna—Tommy Lasorda moved through the hallways with a style and a self-assurance uncommon in a man so young; you could see them from afar, Tommy and his group. They were all girls, and they were all very pretty. Tommy was invariably dressed impeccably. He was as beautiful as his friends. He had none of his father’s basset-hound features; Tommy’s bones were carved, gently, from glass.

“It was very obvious that he was feminine, but none of the jocks nailed him to the wall or anything,” Gwynn says. “I was enamored of him because he wasn’t at all uncomfortable with who he was. In this judgmental, narrow-minded high school, he strutted his stuff.”

In 1980, at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Cindy Stevens and Tommy Lasorda shared a class in color theory. Tommy, Stevens recalls, often did not do his homework. He would spend a lot of his time at Dodgers games or on the road with the team. At school, they shared cigarettes in the hallway. Tommy would tell her about the latest material he’d bought to have made into a suit. She’d ask him where the money came from. Home, he’d say.

“He talked lovingly about his father and their relationship—they had a very good relationship,” Stevens says now. “I was surprised. I didn’t think it’d be like that. You’d think it’d be hard on a macho Italian man. This famous American idol. You’d figure it’d be [the father saying] ‘Please don’t let people know you’re my son,’ but it was the opposite. I had new respect for his father. There had to be acceptance from his mom and dad. Tommy had that good self-esteem—where you figure that [his] parents did something right.”

In the late seventies, Tommy left Fullerton, moving only an hour northwest in distance—though he might as well have been crossing the border between two sovereign nations—to West Hollywood, a pocket of gay America unlike any other, a community bound by the shared knowledge that those within it had been drawn by its double distinction: to be among gays, and to be in Hollywood. And an outrageous kid from Fullerton, ready to take the world by storm, found himself dropped smack into the soup—of a thousand other outrageous kids, from Appleton, and Omaha, and Scranton.

But Tommy could never stand to be just another anything. The father and the son had that in common. They had a great deal in common. Start with the voice: gravelly, like a car trying to start on a cold morning. The father, of course, spends his life barking and regaling, never stopping; he’s baseball’s oral poet, an anti-Homer. It’s a well-worn voice. Issuing from the son, a man so attractive that men tended to assume he was a woman, it was the most jarring of notes. One of his closest friends compared it to Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist—the scenes in which she was possessed.

More significantly, the father’s world was no less eccentric than the son’s: The subset of baseball America found in locker rooms and banquet halls is filled with men who have, in large part, managed quite nicely to avoid the socialization processes of the rest of society.

Then, the most obvious similarity: Both men were so outrageous, so outsized and surreal in their chosen persona, that, when it came down to it, for all of one’s skepticism about their sincerity, it was impossible not to like them—not to, finally, just give in and let their version of things wash over you, rather than resist. Both strutted an impossibly simplistic view of the world—the father with his gospel of fierce optimism and blind obeisance to a baseball mythology, and the son with a slavery to fashion that he carried to the point of religion.

But where the illusion left off and reality started, that was a place hidden to everyone but themselves. In trying to figure out what each had tucked down deep, we can only conjecture. “You’d be surprised what agonies people have,” Dusty Baker, the former Dodger, reminds us, himself a good friend of both father and son, a solid citizen in a sport that could use a few more. “There’s that old saying that we all have something that’s hurting us.”

In the case of the son, friends say the West Hollywood years were born of a Catch-22 kind of loneliness: The more bizarre the lengths to which he went to hone the illusion, the less accessible he became. In his last years, friends say, everything quieted down, markedly so. The flamboyant life gave way to a routine of health clubs and abstinence and sobriety and religion. But by then, of course, the excesses of the earlier years had taken their inexorable toll.

As for the father, there’s no question about the nature of the demon he’s been prey to for the past two years. Few in his locker room saw any evidence of sadness as his son’s illness grew worse, but this should come as no surprise: Tom Lasorda has spent most of four decades in the same baseball uniform. Where else would he go to get away from the grief?

“Maybe,” Baker says, “his ballpark was his sanctuary.”


It’s a plague town now, there’s no way around it. At brunch at the French Quarter, men stop their conversations to lay out their pills on the tables, and take them one by one with sips of juice. A mile west is Rage, its name having taken on a new meaning. Two blocks away, on Santa Monica Boulevard, at A Different Light, atop the shelves given over to books on how to manage to stay alive for another few weeks, sit a dozen clear bottles, each filled with amber fluid and a rag—symbolic Molotovs, labeled with the name of a man or a woman or a government agency that is setting back the common cause, reinforcing the stereotypes, driving the social stigmata even deeper into West Hollywood’s already weakened flesh.

But in the late seventies, it was a raucous, outrageous and joyous neighborhood, free of the pall that afflicted hetero Los Angeles, thronged as it was with people who’d lemminged their way out west until there was no more land, fugitives from back east.

In the late seventies and the early eighties, say his friends and his acquaintances and those who knew him and those who watched him, Tommy Lasorda was impossible to miss. They tell stories that careen from wild and touching to sordid and scary; some ring true, others fanciful. Collected, they paint a neon scar of a boy slashing across the town. They trace the path of a perfect, practiced, very lonely shooting star.

His haunt was the Rose Tattoo, a gay club with male strippers, long closed now. One night, he entered—no, he made an entrance—in a cape, with a pre-power ponytail and a cigarette holder: Garbo with a touch of Bowie and the sidelong glance of Veronica Lake. He caught the eye of an older man. They talked. In time, became friends. In the early eighties, they spent a lot of time together. Friends is all they were. They were very much alike.

“I’m one of those gentlemen who liked him,” says the man. “I was his Oscar Wilde. He liked me because I was an older guy who’d tasted life. I was his Marne. I showed him life. Art. Theater. I made him a little more sophisticated. [Showed him] how to dress a little better.”

They spent the days poolside at a private home up behind the perfect pink stucco of the Beverly Hills Hotel, Tommy lacquering himself with a tan that was the stuff of legend. The tan is de rigueur. The tan is all. It may not look like work, but it is; the work is to look as good as you can.

He occasionally held a job, never for long. Once, he got work at the Right Bank, a shoe store, to get discounts. His father bought him an antique-clothing store. He wearied of it. Tommy, says one friend, wanted to be like those women in soap operas who have their own businesses but never actually work at them.

Tommy’s look was his work. If there were others who were young and lithe and handsome and androgynous, none were as outre as Tommy. Tommy never ate. A few sprouts, some fruit, a potato. Tommy spent hours at the makeup table. Tommy studied portraits of Dietrich and Garbo to see how the makeup was done. Tommy bleached his hair. On his head. On his legs. Tommy had all of his teeth capped. Tommy had a chemabrasion performed on his face, in which an acid bath removes four of the skin’s six layers. Then the skin is scrubbed to remove yet another layer. It is generally used to erase scars or wrinkles. Tommy had two done.

But he smoked, and he drank. Champagne in a flute, cigarette in a long holder, graceful and vampish at the same time: This was Tommy at the Rose Tattoo. His friend also remembers how well Tommy and his father got along. His friend would drive Tommy to the Italian restaurant where he’d meet his father for Sunday dinners.

“He loved his father, you know. They got along perfectly well.” His friend was never his lover. Only his friend. That was all. That was enough. “He was very lonely.”

On occasion, the nighttime ramble led him far from the stilted elegance of Santa Monica Boulevard. In the punk dubs, amid the slam-dancing and the head-butting, Tommy parted the leathered seas, a chic foil for all the pierced flesh and fury, this man who didn’t sweat. This man who crossed himself when someone swore in public.

Penelope Spheeris met him at Club Zero. She would go on to direct the punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization and, years later, Wayne’s World. They became friends. They met at punk clubs—the blond man in custom-made suits, the striking woman in black cocktail dresses and leather boots. In 1981, she interviewed Tommy for a short-lived underground paper called No Mag.

PENELOPE: Have you been interviewed very much before?

TOMMY: No, but I’m very…oral…

PENELOPE: People who would see you around town, they would probably think you were gay.

TOMMY: I don’t care.

PENELOPE: What do you do when you get that reaction from them?

TOMMY : I like all people. And it’s better having comments, be it GOOD, BAD or WHATEVER. I don’t mind at all, but I dress quite…well, I wouldn’t say it’s FLAMBOYANT because it’s not intentional. It’s just intentionally ME.

PENELOPE: O.K., but you understand, when somebody looks at a picture of you, they’re going to say, this guy’s awfully feminine.

TOMMY: I’m there for anyone to draw any conclusions.

PENELOPE: Are you?

TOMMY: Well, I mean, I’ve done different things…of course…I have no label on myself because then I have restrictions. I would really hate to state anything like that.

PENELOPE: When you were young did your dad say, “Come on, Tommy, Jr., let’s go play baseball”?

TOMMY : Never. They always allowed me to do exactly what I pleased. I don’t know how they had the sense to be that way. As parents they’re both so…well, very straitlaced and conservative. I don’t know how I was allowed to just be ME, but I think it was because I was so strongly ME that I don’t think they thought they could ever STOP IT…

PENELOPE: Do you feel like you should be careful in the public eye?

TOMMY: I feel like I should, but I don’t.

PENELOPE: Do you think the press would be mean to you if they had the chance?

TOMMY: I’m sure they would, but I’ll take ANY PUBLICITY.

PENELOPE: Why?

TOMMY: Because that’s what I want…I do everything TO BE SEEN.

“I found him totally fascinating. He was astoundingly beautiful, more than most women,” Spheeris says now. “I became interested in…the blatant contrast in lifestyles. Tommy Lasorda Sr., was so involved in that macho sports world, and his son was the opposite…”

She laughs.

“I was astounded at how many clothes he had. I remember walking into the closet. The closet was as big as my living room. Everything was organized perfectly. Beautiful designer clothes he looked great in.”

Often in the early eighties, when fashion photographer Eugene Pinkowski’s phone would ring, it would be Tommy. Tommy wanting to shop or Tommy wanting Eugene to photograph his new look.

When they went shopping, they would fly down Melrose in Tommy’s Datsun 280Z, much, much too fast, Tommy leaning out of the driver’s window, hair flying in the wind, like some Valley Girl gone weird, hurling gravelly insults (“Who did your hair? It looks awful”) at the pedestrians diving out of the way.

He was a terrible driver. Once he hit a cat. He got out of the car, knelt on the street, and cried. He rang doorbells up and down the street, trying to find the owner.

Tommy would call to tell Eugene he was going to buy him a gift. Then Tommy would spend all his money on himself. Then, the next day, Tommy would make up for it. He would hand him something. A pair of porcelain figures, babies, a boy and a girl, meant to be displayed on a grand piano—very difficult to find, very expensive.

Then the phone would ring. It’d be Eugene’s mother, saying she just got a bracelet. From his friend Tommy.

“He was a character,” Pinkowski says at breakfast in a Pasadena coffee shop. “He was a case. He was a complete and total case.”

Then he looks away.

“He was really lonely,” Pinkowski says. “He was sad.”

When he was being photographed, Tommy was always trying to become different people.

Eugene captured them all. Tommy with long hair. With short hair. With the cigarette. Without it. With some of his exceptionally beautiful women friends. Tommy often had beautiful women around him, Pinkowski recalls—vaguely European, vaguely models. Sometimes Tommy had Pinkowski take pictures of them.

Mostly he took pictures of Tommy. Tommy with a stuffed fox. Lounging on the floor. In the piano. Sitting in a grocery cart.

In red. In green. In white. In blue. In black and gray.

His four toes. Tommy had four toes on his right foot, the fifth lost in a childhood accident. He posed the foot next to a gray boot on the gray carpet. Then he posed it next to a red shoe on the gray carpet. The red looked better.

Tommy and his foot were a regular subject of conversation, often led by Tommy.

“Tommy was a great storyteller, and he’d tell you stories of his dad in the minor leagues,” Pinkowski says. “Everybody’d like him. He was very much like the old boy. He could really hold his own in a group of strangers. And he’d do anything to keep it going. To be the center of attention. He’d just suddenly take his shoe and sock off at dinner and say ‘Did you know I was missing my toe?’”

One day, Tommy wanted to pose wrapped in a transparent shower curtain. Tommy was wearing white underwear. For forty-five minutes they tried to light the shot so that the underwear was concealed, to no avail. Tommy left, and returned in flesh-colored underwear.

There was nothing sexual about Tommy’s fashion-posing. Tommy’s fashion-posing was designed to get Tommy into fashion magazines. Tommy was forever bugging the editors of Interview to feature him, but they wouldn’t.

“As beautiful as he was, as famous as his father was, he thought he should be in magazines,” Pinkowski says now. “He was as hungry as Madonna. But Bowie and Grace [Jones] could do something. He couldn’t do anything. He could never see any talent in himself.”

The closest Tommy came was when he bought himself a full page in Stuff magazine, in 1982, for a picture of himself that Eugene took.

He would pay Eugene out of the house account his parents had set up for him. On occasion, Eugene would get a call from Tommy’s mother: We don’t need any more pictures this year. Still, Tommy would have several of his favorites printed for his parents. One is from the blue period.


At the Duck Club, down behind the Whiskey, in 1985, Tommy sat in a corner drinking Blue Hawaiians. To match his blue waistcoat. Or his tailored blue Edwardian gabardine jacket. This was during his blue period. In his green period, he was known to wear a green lamé wrap and drink crème de menthe. But the blue period lasted longer. The good thing about the blue period was that on the nights he didn’t want to dress up, he could wear denim and still match his drink. And, sometimes, his mood.

“He walked around with a big smile on his face, as if everything was great because he had everything around him to prove it was great,” Spheeris says. “But I don’t think it was…When you’re that sad, you have to cover up a lot of pain. But he didn’t admit it.”

The nature of the pain will forever be in debate. Few of his friends think it had to do with the relationship with his parents. “The parents—both of them—were incredibly gracious and kind to everyone in Tommy’s life,” says a close friend of the family’s.

Alex Magno was an instructor at the Voight Fitness and Dance Center and became one of Tommy’s best friends. Tommy was the godfather of his daughter. “We used to ask him, ‘You’re thirty-three, what kind of life is that—you have no responsibilities. Why don’t you work?’” says Magno. “You lose your identity when you don’t have to earn money, you know what I mean? Everything he owns, his parents gave him. I never heard him say ‘I want to do my own thing.’ When you get used to the easy life, it’s hard to go out there. I don’t think he appreciated what he had.”

He loved the Dodgers. He attended many games each season. His father regularly called him from the road. In his office at Dodger Stadium, the father kept a photograph of Tommy on his desk.

Tommy loved the world of the Dodgers. He loved the players. To friends who were curious about his relationship with his father’s team—and all of them were—he said it was great. He told Spheeris they were a turn-on.

“He was a good, sensitive kid,” says Dusty Baker, now a coach with the San Francisco Giants. “There was an article one time. Tommy said I was his favorite player because we used to talk music all the time. He loved black female artists. He turned me on to Linda Clifford. He loved Diana Ross. He loved Thelma Houston.

“Some of the guys kidded me. Not for long. Some of the guys would say stuff—you know how guys are—but most were pretty cool. That’s America. Everybody’s not going to be cool. Most people aren’t going to be. Until they have someone close to them afflicted. Which I have.”

Baker spent last Christmas Eve distributing turkey dinners with the Shanti Foundation, an AIDS-education group in California.

“There are a lot of opinions about Tom junior, about how [his father] handled his relationship with his son,” says Steve Garvey, who more than anyone was the onfield embodiment of Dodger Blue. “Everyone should know that there is this Tom [senior] who really loved his son and was always there for him. The two loving parents tried to do as much for him as he chose to let them do…Junior chose a path in life, and that’s his prerogative. That’s every individual’s right.”

Garvey attended the memorial service for Alan Wiggins, his former teammate on the San Diego Padres, who died of an AIDS-related illness last year, after a seven-year career in the majors.

“He was a teammate, we always got along well, he gave me one hundred percent effort, played right next to me. I think the least you can do, when you go out and play in front of a million people and sweat and pull muscles and bleed and do that as a living, when that person passes away, is be there. It’s the right thing to do.”

Garvey was the only major league baseball player at Wiggins’s service. I ask him if he was surprised that he was alone.

“Not too much surprises me in life anymore,” Garvey says.


In the mid-1980s, Tommy’s style of life changed. It may have been because he learned that he had contracted the human immunodeficiency virus. According to Alex Magno, he knew he was infected for years before his death. It may have been that he simply grew weary of the scene. It may have been that he grew up.

He entered a rehabilitation program. He became a regular at the Voight gym, attending classes seven days a week. Henry Siegel, the Voight’s proprietor, was impressed by Tommy’s self-assurance and generosity. Tommy moved out of his West Hollywood place into a new condo in Santa Monica, on a quiet, neat street a few blocks from the beach—an avenue of trimmed lawns and stunning gardens displayed beneath the emerald canopies of old and stalwart trees. “T. L. Jr.” reads the directory outside the locked gate; beyond it, a half-dozen doorways open onto a carefully tiled courtyard. The complex also features Brooke Shields on its list of tenants.

He was a quiet tenant, a thoroughly pleasant man. He had a new set of friends—whom he regaled, in his best raconteurial fashion, with tales of the past.

“Tommy used to tell us incredible stuff about how he used to be…everything he’d done—drugs, sleeping with women, sleeping with men,” says Magno.

“He went through the homosexual thing and came out of it,” Magno continues. “Gay was the thing to be back when he first came to L.A. Tommy used to tell his friends he had been gay. He didn’t pretend. He let people know he had been this wild, crazy guy who had changed. He was cool in that. When you got to meet him, you got to know everything about him.”

Including that he slept with guys?

“Yes. But…he didn’t want to admit he had AIDS because people would say he was gay.”

This apparent contradiction surfaces regularly in the tale of Tommy Lasorda.

“I think he wanted to make his father happy,” says his Oscar Wilde. “But he didn’t know how to. He wanted to be more macho but didn’t know how to. He wanted to please his dad. He wished he could have liked girls. He tried.”

No one who knew Tommy in the seventies and the early eighties recalls him having a steady romantic relationship. Pinkowski remarks on the asexual nature of the masks his friend kept donning—and about how his friend kept some sides of himself closed off. “He’d never talk about being gay. He’d never reveal himself that way. He’d never say anything about anybody that way.”

“Of course he was gay,” says Jeff Kleinman, the manager of a downtown restaurant who used to travel the same club circuit as Lasorda in the early eighties. “No, I never saw him with another guy as a couple. [But] just because a man doesn’t have a date doesn’t mean he isn’t gay! To say he wasn’t gay would be like saying Quentin Crisp isn’t gay. How could you hide a butterfly that was so beautiful?”

“Please,” says his Oscar Wilde. “He was gay. He was gay. He was gay.”

“Gay,” of course, is not a word that describes sexual habits. It speaks of a way of living. No one interviewed for this story thought that Tommy wasn’t gay; reactions to his father’s denial range from outrage and incredulity to laughter and a shake of the head. Former major league umpire Dave Pallone, who revealed his own homosexuality in an autobiography two years ago, knows the father well, and also knew his son.

“Tommy senior is, as far as I’m concerned, a tremendous man,” says Pallone. “I consider him a friend. I have a lot of empathy for what he’s going through. [But] as far as I’m concerned, I don’t think he ever accepted the fact that his son was a gay man. I knew him to be a gay man, and I knew a lot of people who knew him as a gay man.

“We don’t want to be sexual beings. We just want to be human beings.”

“If nothing else, his father should be proud that he repented,” Alex Magno says. “He’d come a long way—denying what he used to be, so happy with what he’d become.”

I tell him his father denies the illness.

“He died of AIDS,” Magno says. “There’s no question. But what difference does it make? He was a good man. He was a great man. You shouldn’t judge. He had had no sex for a long time. We didn’t know how he could do that. I mean…but he was incredible. He gave up everything. That’s what he said, and there was no reason not to believe him. He was totally like a normal man. He was still feminine—that gets in your system—but there was no lust after men.”

In the last two years of his life, Tommy’s illness took its toll on his looks. He was not ashamed. though. The surface self-assurance remained. One night, he made an entrance into Rage—thinner, not the old Tommy, but acting every bit the part. He still showed up at Dodger Stadium, too, with his companion, a woman named Cathy Smith, whom Tom senior said was Tommy’s fiancée. When he did, he was as elegant and debonair as ever: wide-brimmed hats, tailored suits.

“Nobody in their right mind is going to say it’s not difficult—I know how difficult it is for them to try and understand their son,” Dave Pallone says. “And to accept the fact he’s not with them and what the real reason is. But…here was a chance wasted. The way you get rid of a fear is by attacking it…Can you imagine if the Dodgers, who are somewhat conservative, could stand up and say, ‘We understand this is a problem that needs to be addressed…We broke down the barriers from the beginning with Jackie Robinson. Why can’t we break down the barriers with the AIDS epidemic?’”

A close friend who was with Tommy the day before his death vehemently disagrees.

“If his father has to accept his son’s death right now in that way, let him do it,” she says. “If he can’t accept things yet, he may never be able to..but what good does it do? [Tom's] world is a different world. We should all do things to help, yes, but at the same time, this is a child who someone’s lost. Some people have the fortitude, but they simply don’t have the strength…There comes a point, no matter how public they may be, [at which] we need to step back and let them be. You can’t force people to face what they don’t want to face without hurting them.”

“There’s something wrong with hiding the truth,” Penelope Spheeris says. “It’s just misplaced values. It is a major denial. People need to know these things. Let’s get our values in the right place. That’s all.”


“I’m in a position where I can help people, so I help people,” Tom Lasorda says. We are strolling through the night in Dodgertown, toward the fantasy-camp barbecue. “You don’t realize the enjoyment I got with those nuns in that convent. I can’t describe how good that made me feel.”

I ask him what his dad would say if he were alive.

“I think he’d have been so proud of me. My father was the greatest man.”

He tells me that his winters are so busy with appearances that “you wouldn’t believe it.” I ask him why he doesn’t slow down.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I like to help people. I like to give something back.”

On Valentine’s Day, 1991, Eugene Pinkowski’s phone rang. It was Tommy. His voice was weak.

“He was typical Tommy. He was really noble about it. He was weak, you could tell. I was so sad. He said, in that voice, ‘I’m sure you’ve read that I’m dying. Well, I am.’

“Then he said, ‘Thank you for being so nice to me during my lifetime.’ He said, ‘I want to thank you, because you made me look good.’”

On June 3, 1991, with his parents and his sisters at his bedside, in the apartment on the cool, flower-strewn street, Tommy Lasorda died.

His memorial service was attended by Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles. Pia Zadora sang “The Way We Were,” one of Tommy junior’s favorite songs.

Tom Lasorda asked that all donations go to the Association of Professional Ball Players of America, a charity that helps former ballplayers in need.

In the coffee shop in Pasadena, it is late morning, and Eugene Pinkowski is lingering, remembering. His Tommy portfolio is spread across the table. Tommy is smiling at us from a hundred pictures.

I ask Eugene if Tommy would have wanted this story written.

“Are you kidding?” he says. “If there’s any sort of afterlife, Tommy is looking down and cheering. This is something he wanted. To be remembered like this. He’d be in heaven.”


Postscript

First, the obvious answer to the obvious question: Yes, Tommy was livid when it was published. Tracked me down in a motel in Indiana, screamed over the phone, talked of how he thought we were friends, although our relationship had consisted of a half-dozen interviews over the years in which I quoted him and presented him in my newspaper exactly as he wanted to be presented, which did not cleave to my idea of friendship. On the other hand, as a father, I was torn. Did I have a right to go against a father’s wishes? To display for all of the world to see a part of his son he didn’t want seen? Especially since the more I reported, the more obvious it became that this was a love story about a father and a son? But ultimately, on balance, I had no choice. I had to adhere to what Penelope Spheeris had referred to: values.

The first time I saw Tommy Jr. was a decade earlier. He was on the field during BP. Assuming he was a woman, I asked a writer, “Who’s that?”

“That’s Tommy’s son,” he said.

“Really? That’s incredible. Who’s written the best piece about this?”

No one had. Not a single Los Angeles writer, seeing the diaphanous beauty on the field, talking to his father, Mister Baseball, had seen fit to explore it. By the time I joined GQ‘s staff, the plague had blown up. I had visited a friend at St. Vincent’s who was in the terminal stages of an HIV-related illness, and smuggled in a chocolate milkshake from McDonald’s for him, and fed it to him, but he couldn’t keep it down. I could never get the image out of my mind. Then I reported, and reported, and wrote and rewrote—and took note that all Tommy Sr. had spoken of was how the son’s death had affected him and his wife, and not of his kid, and how difficult it must have been to be one thing to himself, and something else to please his dad—and waited, and waited, and finally, the death certificate I’d asked for from the county arrived in the mail, and I knew what I had to do.

There was a plague, and it was gutting the arts world in my city, and it needed to be cured, and quickly. Expecting the father to ask that donations go to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis? That would have been too much. But what if Tommy Sr., one of the most highly visible men in all of professional sports in those days, had simply acknowledged his son’s sexuality and his cause of death? It could have saved more lives than we can ever know.

Ultimately, I wrote the piece confident that it would advance the cause. I was wrong. Two decades later? No vaccine. More locker-room enlightenment about gays in sports? Despite current events, ultimately, no. In corporate sportsworld, talking the talk is very different from walking the walk. As a for-profit goliath, fed by young men who learn homophobia at an early age, governed by men who were themselves raised in a primitive society, Big Sport’s seeds of gender-preference bias have been sown very, very deeply, and uprooting them is going to take more than a story or two and more than a handful of men who come out every few years. It’s going to take loud voices and even louder fury. It’s funny that Tommy cites Magic, isn’t it? The man who earlier this month spoke so wonderfully of his pride in his gay son? I couldn’t help wondering what Tommy Sr. thought when heard about how Magic was so supportive of his son. I wonder if he even listened.


Peter Richmond is at work on two books for imprints of Penguin Publishing: Lord of the Rings, a biography of Phil Jackson, scheduled to be published this fall, and Always a Catch, a young-adult novel, to be published in the autumn of 2014. His most recent book is Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death, and John Madden’s Oakland Raiderswhich was excerpted on Deadspin. Find more of his work at his website.

Anybody Out There?

Over at Grantland, check out this beautifully-presented story by Brian Phillips: “Out in the Great Alone.” 

[Photo Credit: Regina]

On the Fame of a King

Guest Post

By Peter Richmond

I wasn’t courtside for either of Bernard King’s consecutive 50-point games in 1984 (the Knicks won both), or the 60-pointer the following year (a game they lost). As a Knick freak, I feel as if I must have been, but the calendar says otherwise. I was in Miami. But I do remember that a few years later, when I interviewed him for The Miami Herald one day in an empty Garden before practice, when I tried to bring up what had happened back in Utah he told me, quite emphatically, that we weren’t going to go there.

I had to try. Maybe, as a sportswriter, I shouldn’t have. But I’ve never been good at separating the sportsman from the man when it comes to his treatment of women, whether it’s Bobby Cox (shoe-in for the MLB Hall of Fame, 2014), whose wife retracted the charges she’d filed about how he’d hit her in 1995, as long as Bobby undertook “violence counseling,” or Michael Irvin (inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, 2007), whose parties in 1996 at that Texas motel were intense enough for a policeman to take out a hit on Irvin’s life. (True, there was no evidence that either of the “topless models” who partook of his regular parties was coerced; it was just the cop’s common-law wife whom Irvin allegedly threatened if she testified about said parties.)

In team sports, hall of fame inductions are the penultimate reward, outranked only by a ring (ask Patrick Ewing, who would gladly give up the Hummer he received on his appreciation night [the car kind, not the Gold Club kind; see court testimony, 1999], and probably his right leg, to have one). They are generally judged by statistics.

These are Bernard King’s statistics as a member of the Utah Jazz: five felony forcible sexual-assault charges; three for forcible “sodomy,” two for forcible “sexual abuse.” Convictions after the arrest? Just one, after King pled down to misdemeanor to “Attempted Forcible Sexual Assault.”

I do not pretend to know what happened in Utah. I do know that, reportedly, he was passed out from the use of alcohol after police subsequently went to his apartment after the woman’s complaint. He reportedly pled down after six different lie-detector tests said that he was telling the truth when he said he had no recollection of what happened that night.

I do know that alcohol sometimes allows inner demons to emerge. And that, never having had a multi-millioned career at stake over the actions of a drunken evening when I had acted feloniously, I can easily imagine pleading down, given that the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor could be fairly significant for my career. His sentence was suspended, and he underwent treatment for alcohol in California. He came home and went to meetings. And five years later, became the basketball player he’d once promised to be. He averaged 33 points a game in 1985 for New York. The Knicks finished that season 24-58.

He would play for seven teams (twice for the Nets). None won a ring.

Then, in 1994, now 37, one year after he’d retired, according to a report in the Associated Press, he was arrested for allegedly choking a 22-year-old woman while intoxicated. The wire-service account states that when police arrived, King was asleep; that he was charged with third-degree assault, and that the woman was treated at New York Hospital.

In 2004, now working for Bruce Ratner, King was arrested and charged with three counts of assault and one count of harassment after security at a hotel in lower Manhattan were alerted to alarming noises in a hotel room at 4:30 in the morning. The court report, according to the AP, said that King’s wife “suffered a cut with bleeding, and bruises, swelling and redness to her eye and forehead.”

The New York Daily News’ account , citing her “swollen” face, read, in part, “‘He pushed me down to the floor three times’” a bruised and trembling Shana King told cops, according to court documents. ‘This has got to stop. I want him arrested.’”

She subsequently declined to proceed with the charges. King was ordered to attend 10 marriage counseling sessions.

I am not condemning Bernard King if he’s innocent of all of these charges. I’m just using Bernard King the basketball player, whom I did see, several times, perform amazing feats of basketball-ism, as an example. Because if we continue to celebrate men who are even suspected of the cowardice that hitting a woman entails, voting them into institutions which are meant to celebrate character as well as athletic prowess, we’re devaluing sport.

That King and Cox might have had substance abuse problems is irrelevant. That’s between the man and the substance. That they hit women, if they did, is unconscionable.

If you Google “Bernard King” today, you will see photographs of him wearing a crown and a cape, like a king. If you read his Wikipedia entry, you will find no mention of his arrests.

I have visited Naismith’s hall up in Springfield several times. I’m not sure I ever will again.

Now What Was I To Do?

Over at Roopstigo, here’s the latest from Pat Jordan:

Vito Frabizio is 23 now. In 2009, when he was 19, the Baltimore Orioles signed him to a $130,000 bonus. “I was the best pitcher in the Orioles’ minor leagues,” he says. “Scotty McGregor (former O’s pitcher) told me I’d win the Cy Young Award one day.” He looks around, and then back at me, adding, “I’d always been in the right place at the right time. Now I’m here, the lowest of the low.”

Vito is sitting behind bars in the visiting room of the Yaphank, Long Island, minimum security prison on a fall day. The visiting room is crowded with men in green prison jumpsuits talking to women, some of them in low-cut blouses, who lean over to remind their men of what waits for them when they get out. The guards have put Vito in the far corner of the room so he can talk to me with a little privacy through the bars. He grips the bars with both hands and says, “The other prisoners can’t believe it. ‘You played baseball and robbed banks? Why?’” Actually, Vito robbed three banks to support his 20-bag, $200-a-day heroin habit.

Even in his prison-issued jumpsuit, with white socks and flip-flops that slapped against the floor when he walked toward me with that slouching, hangdog shuffle of prison cons, Vito is still a good-looking man. Just not that good-looking anymore. He has a jailhouse pallor — he’s been incarcerated for two years at this point — with the blemished skin of a needle junkie and tattoos, which can be seen in his police mug shots. There’s a naked woman in flames on his upper left arm. A heart and a cross adorn his upper right (throwing) arm. A Burmese python suffocates a tiger on his stomach. The word “Hollywood” is scrawled across his upper back. “I always had to be the center of attention,” he tells me. “The most popular. Class clown. Even in here I make people laugh so the time goes easier.” He also amuses them with glimpses of his pitching prowess of two years ago. He wets paper, molds it into a ball, and puts a sock over it, then shows his fellow cons his pitching motion. “Until the guards take the ball away,” he says. “Then I make another.”

[Photo Credit: David Bauman]

BGS: Fi$hing for Catfi$h

Here’s an Opening Day treat from the late, great, Paul Hemphill. This story was first published in Sport magazine as “The Yankees Fish for a Pennant.” It is featured in the wonderful collection, Too Old to Cry and appears here with permission from Hemphill’s wife, Susan Percy.

“Fi$hing for Catfi$h”

By Paul Hemphill

Ahoskie, North Carolina

There is something in the old baseball scout reminding us of grandfatherly chats, squeaky slippers, soft wine, and a knowledge gained only through experience. They have been there in rickety, skeletal bleachers in small Iowa towns and on grassy knolls at downtown St. Louis playgrounds, witnessing it all—wild-swinging young brutes who would discover the curveball in Class D the year after signing, burly Okies who would turn out to be afraid to pitch in front of crowds; crew-cut shortstops who would invest their eight-thousand-dollar bonus in beer and pool and frowsy blondes in McAlester, Oklahoma—and now the men who discovered stars and signed them up to play professional baseball turn up, graying and sixtyish, wiser than the rest of us. After the frantic years of squinting out into hard-baked, skinned infields, abruptly having to adjust their eyes from deepest center field to the stopwatch in their wrinkled hands, they come down to wearing loose alpaca sweaters and lazily lipping slender cigars and treading gentlemanly in broken-in Hush Puppies and speaking warmly to the parents of the top prospect in town.

Such is George Pratt. It is turning dark on the day after Christmas. Pratt, who got as high as Class AAA as a player and has recently been put out to pasture as a “bird dog” scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates due to heart trouble, is sitting in the lobby of the Tomahawk Motel in Ahoskie, mumbling soft exchanges with a stumpy, aggressive fellow named Dutch Overton, the assistant principal at Ahoskie High, in the barren, swampy stretches of far northeastern North Carolina. They are idly waiting for the Pirates’ hierarchy to fly in the next morning and try to sign the best pitcher ever to have come out of this part of the country: Jim “Catfish” Hunter, a former high school phenomenon who went on to establish himself as genuine Hall of Fame material with the Oakland A’s. These days, after a petulant violation of his contract by A’s owner Charles O. Finley, Hunter trucks into his Ahoskie lawyers’ offices each morning in a gray, mud-spattered Ford pickup with a dog pen in the back. Then Hunter spits tobacco juice into a Styrofoam coffee cup while major league owners and their accountants sit at the other end of a long walnut conference table in a back room, wearing elegant dark suits and rummaging through stacks of tax tables and such, earnestly competing to make him the highest-paid player in the history of baseball. This has been going on for about ten days now and should end in about a week, when all of the clubs not faint of heart have their cards on the table. It is not unlike the auctioning of a prize bull.

“Time flies, all right,” Dutch Overton is saying. “It wasn’t ten, maybe twelve years ago I was assistant baseball coach over at Hertford where Jim was playing. Most times I’d wind up umpiring our games behind the plate. They’d always say, ‘No wonder Jimmy wins. He brings his own personal umpire.’”

“Competitive spirit played a part, too,” says Pratt.

“Say y’all talk with ‘em in the morning?”

“Us in the morning. Cincinnati in the afternoon.”

“Jim’s out hunting if I know him.”

“I would imagine that’s the case, Dutch.”

Pratt is showing off his 1971 World Series ring to a motel guest when Overton asks who he thinks will eventually sign Hunter. “The Yankees,” he says flatly. “Clyde Kluttz is their top scout, and he and Jim go hunting together all the time. Jim could make an awful lot of extra money in New York, too, and don’t overlook that. And the Yankees can start winning pennants again if they get him. If I had to bet on it, I’d say the Yankees.”

When it was announced at a frantic press conference on New Year’s Eve of 1974 in New York that the Yankees had persuaded Jim Hunter to sign what was easily the most awesome contract in the history of major-league baseball—the five-year package came to an estimated $3.75 million, including salary and insurance and deferred bonuses—the whole story read like a novel. It involved a Southern country boy suddenly inspired to give it his best shot in the Big Apple, a club owner forced by the commissioner of baseball to stay out of the negotiations, a general manager putting the finishing touches on what could become another Yankee dynasty, a kindly veteran scout who got the job done through the back door with old-fashioned friendship and trust, a sleepy little tobacco and farming town abruptly basking in national prominence, a mercurial sports entrepreneur finally letting his arrogance and stubbornness get the best of him, a generous portion of vindictiveness from several sides, and, less pronounced, a general restlessness over the traditional notion that a player is a slave until proved otherwise. The cast:

James Augustus “Catfish” Hunter. Born and reared on a farm near Hertford, some fifty miles from Ahoskie on Albemarle Sound, signed with the then-Kansas City Athletics for a $75,000 bonus in 1964 and is now, at twenty-eight, the premier pitcher in baseball. Because fishing is a passion, he was nicknamed “Catfish” by Finley as a gimmick. Has won 88 games and lost only 35 over the past four seasons, with a career earned-run average of 3.12 (and in 37 World Series innings is 4-0 and 2.19). A country-cool good old boy, devoted to his childhood sweetheart and two children, stays close to home. Salary with the A’s in ’74 was $100,000.

Charles O. Finley. Controversial owner of the Oakland A’s who is always in the spotlight: for proposing orange baseballs; for designing garish, multicolored uniforms; for firing a second baseman who botched a couple of plays in a Series game; for trying to make pitcher Vida Blue change his first name to “True”; for cutting corners on accommodations and salaries in spite of three straight World Series clubs. When he delayed paying Hunter the remaining $50,000 on his ’74 contract, Hunter was declared a free agent by an arbitration panel. After the Yankees signed Hunter, Finley paid the $50,000 and said he would take the matter to the Supreme Court.

The Yankees. Having traded Bobby Murcer even-up to San Francisco for Bobby Bonds in a case of grand larceny at the trading block, the Yankees became a gathering storm in the American League, thanks in large part to the canny purchases and trades of president and general manager Gabe Paul. In the Hunter pursuit the Yankees were driven by revenge as well: toward Finley, for not releasing Dick Williams from a contract with the A’s so he could manage the Yankees; toward commissioner Bowie Kuhn, for not helping them in the Williams tussle and for slapping a two-year suspension on club general partner George Steinbrenner for being indicted on charges of illegal political campaign contributions.

Clyde Kluttz. Originally from the Ahoskie-Hertford area, Kluttz is the scout who first signed Hunter for the Athletics, a decade ago, and is now, at fifty-seven, the Yankees’ superscout. A mediocre catcher for nine seasons with five big league clubs, Kluttz’s top yearly salary was $10,000 (“I deserved every penny of it”). Hunter says, “Clyde never lied to me. He’s my friend. That’s why I signed with the A’s and that’s why I signed with the Yankees.”

The Bit Players. There was pitcher Gaylord Perry, who came from nearby Williamston, trying to talk his old buddy into going with his Cleveland Indians. And the dean of major league managers, saintly Walter Alston, of the Dodgers, who wanted Hunter badly enough to fly coast to coast for a chat. And Gene Autry, the old cowboy movie star and singer who now owns the California Angels, who stood on the streets of Ahoskie handing out autographed Christmas albums he had recorded. And A’s manager AI Dark, who showed up with his wife one night at the Hunter spread, claiming he “just happened to be in the area” for some appearances. And Dick Williams, Hunter’s friend and former A’s manager, now managing the Angels, in Ahoskie also to do some ear-bending. And even attorney Dick Moss, of the Major League Baseball Players Association, instrumental in breaking Finley’s hold on Hunter and, as a result—time will tell—possibly tearing a chink in the historical “reserve clause” binding a player to one club for life unless traded or sold.

Much of the story’s charm lay, of course, in its setting. Hunter lives an hour away, on a 113-acre farm, but when it was determined that he was free to sign with any major league club, Ahoskie was selected as the bargaining table, since that is where Hunter’s lawyers work, out of a quaint, old two-story brick building on Main Street. The second largest town in sparsely populated northeastern North Carolina, Ahoskie (pop. 5500) is a farmer’s delight, with ten churches, a handful of family style restaurants, an ample supply of feed-and-seed stores and tobacco warehouses, and a textile mill that employs nearly four hundred workers. Only twice in memory has the town attracted any sort of national attention: when Lady Bird Johnson made a train stop to promote her national beautification project (the train doesn’t stop there anymore) and when the funeral was held for a native son killed while performing with the Air Force’s acrobatic Blue Angels. It is baseball country, though. From the area over the years have come such major league players as Torn Umphlett, Enos “Country” Slaughter, Stuart Martin, Jim and Gaylord Perry, and now Catfish Hunter.

It was in Hertford (pop. 2023), some fifty miles south of Norfolk, that Jim Hunter was born—the last of four sons—to a tenant farmer and two-dollar-a-day logger named Abbott Hunter. Life wasn’t easy, but when the chores were done Jim found himself competing with his bigger brothers at whatever sport came to mind. He was growing up tough and big and strong—as a freshman at Perquimans High School in Hertford he stood six feet tall and weighed nearly 175 pounds—making him a prep star in football and baseball during his four years. (“He was just a big old country boy who liked it rough,” recalls Bobby Carter, who coached Hunter at Perquimans High and now coaches at Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.) Hunter was a linebacker and offensive end (“He could’ve probably been a pretty good football player at one of the smaller colleges”). But it was in baseball that he began to attract attention. Playing shortstop and batting cleanup when he wasn’t pitching, Hunter would eventually pitch five no-hitters during his high school career—one of them a perfect game, on the day following Easter Sunday of 1963—and bring the major-league scouts flocking to the porch of his father’s farmhouse. This was in 1964, the last year of open bidding for young talent before the free-agent-draft era began, and one night in the living room of the Hunter house young Jim Hunter signed his bonus contract with the Kansas City Athletics and Clyde Kluttz.

Those were the days when bonus babies had to remain with the major league club, rather than being farmed out for nursing in the minors, so Hunter spent the summer of his eighteenth year pitching batting practice and occasionally posing for gimmicky publicity pictures, sitting on the lap of fifty-nine-year-old pitcher Satchel Paige (another Finley stunt and possibly the beginning of Hunter’s long dislike of Finley). During the 1965 and ’66 seasons Hunter won only 17 games and lost 19. But he came forward as a genuine star in 1967, the A’s last year in Kansas City before Finley moved the franchise to Oakland, when his earned run average abruptly dipped to 2.80. In 1968 he became the first American Leaguer to pitch a regular season perfect game in 46 years, and in 1971 he began a string of 20-game seasons that now stood at four straight. Last year, when he finished 25-12 with a 2.49 ERA, he won the Cy Young Award.

But there was bad blood brewing between Hunter and Finley. Who can figure Finley? He gave Hunter $75,000 to sign, $5,000 for pitching his perfect game, another big bonus for winning 21 games in 1971, an investment in 1972 that netted Hunter $15,000 after taxes, and once lent him $150,000 to buy nearly 500 acres adjoining his own 100 in Hertford. That loan from Finley came in 1970, and it was agreed orally that Hunter would pay back at least $20,000 at the end of each season, plus 6-percent interest, until it was all paid off.

“We never had anything down on paper,” Hunter was saying one day at Ahoskie during a lull in negotiations with the various clubs. “I appreciated the loan. I really wanted that land next to my place. I knew I could pay back the money every year, with the kind of money I was making with the A’s. But we got into the season, down into August, and Finley started hounding me about the money. I said, ‘But I’m supposed to pay you when the season’s over,’ and he said, ‘I know, but I’m buying a hockey team and a basketball team and I need the money.’ Well, the worst part was it seemed like he never called me about it except on days when I was going to pitch. I started eight games that August and didn’t have a single win the whole month. I was worried. One time I asked him why he never called except when I was pitching, and he said he didn’t know who was going to pitch then. That’s bull. Charley Finley knows more about that ball club than the manager—whoever the manager might be in a given year.”

That was the beginning of the end of their relationship. Hunter sold off most of the 500-odd acres he had bought with the loan, so he could pay back Finley at the end of the year. From that moment on he simply lay low and tried to forget about everything except getting batters out, which he was now doing masterfully. His tactic worked until he let Finley charm him into a two-year contract calling for $100,000 a year beginning with the 1974 season (“It was the fastest contract I ever signed; I don’t know what got into me”), only to see lesser players take their dealings with Finley to arbitration and, in some cases, win more pay. When Finley piddled around about paying half of last year’s salary to Hunter’s agent in deferred payments, Hunter immediately pounced. This time he contacted Dick Moss, of the Players Association, got the matter before an arbitration board, and became an ex-Oakland A. “I felt like I’d just gotten out of prison,” says Hunter, “even if I did regret how the other players might feel about my leaving the club.” So A’s slugger Reggie Jackson: “With Catfish we were world champions. Without him we have to struggle to win the division.” With Finley pleading that he had never fully understood his obligations in the contract, and vowing there would be hell to pay for anyone who dared sign Hunter, the battle was engaged.

At eight thirty in the morning, three days after Christmas, J. Carlton Cherry—a bulky, balding native who is senior partner of Cherry, Cherry and Flythe, Attorneys—was already in his office, cleaning out wastebaskets from the night before. Cherry and Jim Hunter have been associated since Hunter signed his first contract and “discovered a baseball player needs help on some things.” For better than a week Cherry and his partners and a harried coterie of secretaries had presided over a small mob scene that took place each day, all day. Another delegation of major-league executives would arrive and, for an hour or more, retire to a small conference room with Cherry and Hunter to make its proposition.

Carlton Cherry is no small town hayseed lawyer working from a squeaky swivel chair in front of great granddaddy’s roll top desk. Although this was easily the biggest project he had ever handled, he had methodically gone about his business—making discreet calls to baseball and sports agentry people to get the feel of the new opportunities open to athletes and sitting down with Hunter to put down precisely what was most important to him and his family and, finally, declaring that the store was open for business—and he stood to make enough off the month’s work he was putting in to allow two more generations of Cherrys the best North Carolina can offer. The Tigers, the Orioles, and the Cardinals never entered the bidding for Hunter, for lack of that kind of money and for fear of wrecking “team morale,” but the twenty-one other clubs had been busily exerting every imaginable pressure. Some clubs sent in personal friends of Hunter’s, as the Brewers did in dispatching Mike Hegan, an ex-A’s teammate, to Ahoskie. Other clubs would undermine the Yankees and Mets by using Hunter’s devotion to family (“God, Jim, your wife wouldn’t even dare go to the grocery store in that jungle up there”). “We’re looking for the overall picture,” said Cherry. “The living conditions, whether the club is a contender; the ball park, whether it is a ‘pitcher’s park’; the money, of course, and the security. The total package. We’ve told every club it has an equal opportunity, even Oakland, and that we’ll do no horse trading and make no special deals with any club.”

The Yankees were going after Catfish Hunter with the doggedness that Hunter himself shows when stalking a deer along a somber inlet on Albemarle Sound, and they intended to get him. Their nearness to a string of pennants was a driving force and a bargaining point. The magic of the Yankee name—the Yankees almost never lost when Jim Hunter was growing up—was another asset. And they knew that when it came down to the crunch, they had in their corner a fellow named Clyde Kluttz.

Clyde Franklin Kluttz was reared in the same part of America as Jim Hunter, knew the same baying of dogs and lapping of water and the loose feeling of hanging around the steps of a country store telling lies and enjoying the company of men in no hurry to do anything more than savor life. Ten years ago, scouring the Southeast for prospects in behalf of the Kansas City Athletics, he spent countless afternoons keeping watch over young Jimmy Hunter of Perquimans High, in Hertford, North Carolina, and countless evenings having supper with the possibility of his signing Hunter to an Athletics contract. He, like George Pratt, of the Pittsburgh Pirates, was that grandfatherly sort a farm family and a wide-eyed young prospect from the Southern outback could trust, and when Hunter’s free agency was declared Kluttz knew what to do. He flew to Norfolk, rented a car, drove to Hertford, and checked in for an indefinite stay at a motel twelve miles from Hunter’s home.

While the executives and scouts from the other clubs made their appointments through Carlton Cherry and flashed in on Lear jets for their stiff presentations to Cherry and Hunter, Kluttz sat in his motel room and read papers and watched daytime television. When the day began to close down he got into his car and drove over for a family visit with Hunter. What about living around New York City? Hunter would ask. Look, Kluttz would say, I hated it, too, at first, but people are people. You’ve got good ones and you’ve got bad ones no matter whether it’s Hertford or New York. Hunter would say, But San Diego says they’ll pay me anything I want, and Kluttz would ask how many players from provincial cities like San Diego ever made the Hall of Fame. It was a steady, logical, neighborly, sensible bombardment that Jim Hunter could not resist. When you are talking about three million-plus, what’s a few thousand?

The Yankees had the cash. The Yankees, with him as their ace pitcher, would be in the World Series. There would be all of the endorsements and other side money in New York, money generally unavailable if you play in San Diego or Kansas City or Texas. If eight million people could manage to survive in New York then why couldn’t Jim Hunter and his family? Having the matter boiled down like that, tossing and turning over it in the shank of the night with his childhood girl friend at his side, Jim Hunter could make but one decision: the Yankees, the Big Apple.

There would be the logistics of finalizing the deal. The Yankees could save considerable money on taxes if the contract were signed during 1974. A press conference was called for New Year’s Eve, at the Yankee offices in Flushing. An attorney for the Yankees named Ed Greenwald scribbled out the terms of the contract on ten pages of a yellow legal pad as he flew by private jet to North Carolina. Cherry and Hunter met the jet at a country airport, and the jet then flew on to New York with all three aboard. Limousines were waiting. The group went to the Yankees’ offices, and then there was much merriment, with the press corps furiously recording the occasion. A fishing pole, bought in haste for $13.21 at a sporting goods store that evening, was presented Hunter by an aide to Mayor Abe Beame. Clyde Kluttz was introduced and began to cry. Gabe Paul passed out a statement saying that George Steinbrenner had not been allowed to work actively in the negotiations but had told Paul, “Anytime you have an opportunity to buy the contract of a player for cash, I want you to go ahead whenever, in your judgment, it should be advantageous to the Yankees.” At a bar along Third Avenue, celebrating New Year’s Eve when he heard the news, a fellow said to a Daily News reporter, “What does this mean for the price of hotdogs, peanuts, and beer at the park?”

Yes. Precisely. And along that line, during the weeks following the signing of Catfish Hunter for more than $3 million to pitch baseballs, there were those columnists and commentators who would speak with outrage at the very notion that such amounts of money could fall into the hands of the few—be it Hunter, the president of General Motors, or Nelson Rockefeller—at a time in American history when unemployment and inflation were coupling to make it difficult for millions of Americans to put bread on the table or gas in the car. “How can a nation be in dire financial straits and yet treat its linebackers and pitchers as if they were a great natural, irreplaceable resource like gold or oil?” wrote Jean Shepard in the The New York Times. In spite of the excitement the Hunter contract generated nationally, this aspect of the story was not entirely lost on the citizens of Ahoskie, North Carolina.

Joe Andrusia is not as articulate as, say, Jean Shepard. But during the two weeks of visitations by major league executives and lawyers the imbalance of it all had been gnawing at him. Andrusia, fifty-nine, runs the barber shop in Ahoskie, directly across Main Street from the Cherry law offices, and had himself a ringside seat for the whole affair. Late one morning he sat in one of his barber chairs, wearing his white shirt and Hush Puppies, reading in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot about the death of Jack Benny, listening to gospel music on the radio. It was nearly noon, and there had been only one customer so far. “Kids don’t even get haircuts anymore,” he said, “and the working folks have taken to letting the wife do the job with a pair of scissors to save money.”

“Been quite a show around here,” he was told.

“Lots of famous people dropping in, all right.”

“You gotten any autographs?”

“Ah,” Joe Andrusia said. “I wouldn’t walk across the street to see Gene Autry. Him or any of the rest. All of those people wanting to give one man that kind of money. It’s crazy. Crazy.” Andrusia was bored. He folded the newspaper and walked to the plate glass window and idly slapped his leg with the paper. “Why should I be so excited when this doesn’t put money in my pocket? Hunter’s not from here. All he spends around here is dimes for parking so he can get rich and spend the big money in New York.” There was a swirl around the entrance to the building across the street as reporters and network television crews pounced and bounded after the big league executives as they walked briskly to their limousines. Andrusia shrugged and mounted the barber chair again. “Jack Benny,” he said. “He had a test for cancer just a month ago, and they said it was all gone. He kept complaining, but the doctors said to quit worrying. Then, all of a sudden, he dies from cancer. You’ve got that kind of stuff going on, and people out of work and families starving and that Watergate mess, and now they’re over there across the street trying to give some country boy four million dollars to throw baseballs. Crazy. Something’s wrong somewhere.”

No Foolin’

I was in seventh grade when this story came out and I remember reading it in the school library. For a couple of periods my friends and I were buzzing.  The Mets already had Doc Goodon and now this? Sidd Finch was too good to be true. Sure enough, he was. The story was a dirty trick and even if he was going to be a Met I still felt burned.

Million Dollar Movie

This here is intriguing. Mark Jacobson’s 1999 article for New York magazine on Stanley Kubrick and Joe D:

One can only suppose how Stanley Kubrick might have filmed the life story of Joe DiMaggio. How might the disparate life visions of these two Bronx icons who last week died barely hours apart have meshed on the silver screen? For one thing, Kubrick, who liked biographies of the outsize (he made Spartacus, wanted to make Napoleon), would almost certainly have used idiosyncratic, Max Ophlus-like moving-camera shots to depict those two nifty backhand stabs utilized by Ken Keltner to stop Joltin’ Joe’s famous streak in 1941. As for the Yankee Clipper’s well-documented weekly ritual of sending a bouquet of roses to Marilyn Monroe’s grave site for twenty years, one can only guess at how Kubrick’s mordant comic spirit might have handled that. After all, Kubrick, horny boy of the Bronx, was never noted for love scenes, requited or not, even if Shelly Winters did keep the ashes of her beloved husband on her beside table in Lolita.

Joe D, a film by Stanley Kubrick — it might not be Dr. Strangelove, but ya gotta love it. Could have happened, too, since as a boy-wonder Bronx still photographer in the midst of cranking out a 70 average at Taft High School and haunting movie palaces like the Loews Paradise and the RKO Fordham, Kubrick rarely missed an opportunity to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, where he saw the peerless Clipper patrol the center-field greenery in all his Apollonian glory. The stuff of dreams, no doubt. While never fulfilling his primary ambition of playing second base for the Bronx Bombers, once Kubrick began working as an assignment photographer for Look magazine, he often returned to the Big Ballpark. Indeed, in the May 9, 1952, issue of Look, there is a photo of Joe DiMaggio taken by Stanley Kubrick.

Sometimes Love Don’t Feel Like it Should

Over at SB Nation’s Longform, here’s Pat Jordan’s latest–The Pain and Pleasure of Spring Training:

That spring, I was assigned to the Boise club in the Class C Pioneer League. It might not have seemed like much of a jump from my Class D stint in McCook, Neb., the previous year, but Boise was one of the Braves’ elite minor league teams for its top prospects, especially pitchers. The Braves stacked Boise with so many great hitters that it was impossible for Boise pitchers to have losing records, even if their earned run averages were above five per game. The Braves thought that young pitchers needed confidence in their ability to win games and a stint at Boise would give it to them.

I threw well that spring, maybe 95-98 mph (there were no radar guns then) with a devastating overhand curveball that my teammates called “the unfair one.” I coasted through the first half of spring training with great anticipation for the start of the season, until one day, during a stint pitching batting practice, when my arm felt weak. I knew it was just a spring training sore arm, nothing serious, and it just needed rest, but I was too foolish to tell my manager, a redneck Southerner named Billy Smith. I wasn’t able to put much on the ball during my batting practice and my teammates complained to my catcher, Joe Torre. Torre kept shouting at me to throw harder, but I couldn’t. Finally, after one pitch, he walked halfway out to the mound and fired the ball at me. When he turned back around, I fired the ball at his head. It hit his mask, sent it spinning off his head, and the next instant we were both wrestling in the red dirt until our teammates pulled us apart.

The next morning I was assigned to a Class D team, Quad Cities, in the Midwest League. Billy Smith had told the Braves’ farm director, John Mullen, he didn’t want “no red-ass guinea” on his team. When I heard that, I wondered why I was the “red-ass guinea” and not Torre.

BGS: Where Have You Gone, Mickey Mantle?

Let’s stick with baseball now that spring training has begun. Here’s a wonderful Mickey Mantle profile by Diane K. Shah. The story originally appeared in New York Magazine (April 21, 1980) and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

“Where Have You Gone, Mickey Mantle?”

By Diane K. Shah

I’m in a taxi, trying to get to Yankee Stadium. I’m late and I’ve got my uniform on. But when I get there the guard won’t let me in. He doesn’t recognize me. So I find this hole in the fence and I’m trying to crawl through it, you know? But I can only get my head in. I can see Billy and Whitey and Yogi and Casey. And I can hear the announcer: “Now batting … number 7 … Mickey Mantle.” But I can’t get through the hole. That’s when I wake up. My palms are all sweaty.

July 1979: Mickey Mantle, almost 48, is sitting in Billy Martin’s office on Old Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium. He is wearing his number 7 uniform and looks much the same as always. The broad shoulders, the thick neck, the sun-faded blue eyes. But the stomach is soft with middle age, and the face has aged too quickly, from either all those summers in the sun or all the nights on the town, to belong beneath the bill of a baseball cap.

“You ever have dreams like that, Billy?” Mantle asks.

Martin, sitting behind his manager’s desk poring over a record book, looks up at Mantle through his reading glasses. “All I ever dream is that I just got fired,” he says and breaks up laughing.

But Mantle wants to be serious. “You know that song by Roy Clark, ‘Yesterday When I Was Young’? Well, that’s what they’re going to play at my funeral. Every time I hear it I could just cry.”

March 20, 1980: Anheuser Busch today unveils a new advertising campaign for its Natural Light beer, involving “the greatest defection since Solzhenitsyn” and “the most radical breakthrough in beer marketing in years.” The campaign features five famous ex-athletes, including three—Mickey Mantle, “Smokin’” Joe Frazier, and Nick Buoniconti—who previously appeared in commercials for Miller Lite. Mantle has taken a break from his Yankee spring training batting instructor job to attend the press conference.

Speaking for the three defectors, Buoniconti says, “Even though the new commercials are lighthearted spoofs, Mickey, Joe, and I are serious about this. This wasn’t just a case of an advertiser offering us a bunch of money. We each did a comparison taste test and preferred the taste of naturally brewed Natural Light. We signed sworn affidavits to that effect.”

Perhaps it is the fate of all great athletes to leave their arenas too soon and to reflect forever more on what was—and what might have been. Mantle was 36 when his career ran out on him. It is that age that still gnaws at Mantle today. “All I’d ever known was baseball,” he says. “And there I was, 36, not even in the prime of my life, and I was through. That’s what keeps hurting.”

For nearly two decades Mickey Charles Mantle was one of the dominant baseball players of his time. There was his power, from both sides of the plate, and those frightening swings that could rattle a stadium. Ten times he smashed home runs right- and left-handed in the same game, a record that stands today. His most famous home run was the tape-measure shot out of Washington’s old Griffith Stadium in 1953 that wound up—was it possible?—565 feet from home. He was a legendary outfielder, his speed—3.2 seconds from home to first—made him one of baseball’s best drag bunters, and his arm was strong and sure.

But always there was the tape.

In his first season, during the 1951 World Series, he tore the cartilage in his right knee when he caught his spikes on a drainage cap in right-center trying not to crash into Joe DiMaggio. After that, despite four operations and the yards of bandage he methodically wrapped around it, the weakened joint could never keep up with the powerful body. Going easy on the right leg, he injured the left. His ailments, one after another, grabbed as much space in the papers as his triumphs.

It was this dramatic interplay of brute strength and fragility, excessive in Mantle’s case, that fueled the Mantle legend and made him a hero to a generation. Even his teammates idolized him—six named sons after him. Like many of the small town boys who came to play baseball in the fifties, Mantle lived only for the game. Other than golf and hunting, he had no outside interests. Money seemed secondary. Once, in 1958, he tried to hold out on his contract. But shortly after spring training started, he spotted a newspaper story that said if he didn’t report to camp right away he would be traded. “I was there the next day,” says Mantle. “Being traded from the Yankees would have killed me.”

In the end, though, his legend proved larger than his legacy. He played at his peak only a few of those eighteen seasons, the ones when his legs held up, and the giant records eluded him. He did not get 3,000 hits (he had 2,415) or 2,000 RBI’s (1,509), and his main goal, a .300 lifetime batting average, slipped away from him in his disappointing final four years, when his average plunged ten points to .298. Finally, in the spring of 1969, his legs would not come around. He called a news conference at the Yankees’ Fort Lauderdale training camp, announced he was finished, and headed unhappily home to Dallas.

But what exactly had become of the great Yankee slugger? How had this athletic superstar, who attained so much success at such a young age, made the transition into real life? Emotionally, he always knew it would be difficult. But financially . . . well, he had half a dozen money-making schemes all lined up. Long ago, he outlined his hope for the future: “I just want to get rich and play golf every day.”

The Longview Mall in Longview, Texas, has barely shaken awake at nine o’clock on a muggy Saturday morning. Everywhere there are signs: APPEARANCE—MICKEY MANTLE. Inside, in a small business office, half a dozen local reporters are sitting around a conference table studying the “Official Mickey Mantle Agenda.”

Mantle is delayed on the 140-mile drive from Dallas by a sudden downpour. When he finally appears in the doorway, 50 minutes late, he apologizes, smiles weakly, and slouches into a chair. He is wearing tan slacks, a pastel plaid shirt, and the look of a man who has been railroaded into coming to a party he didn’t want to attend. He hikes his left ankle onto his right knee and looks gloomily around the room. “Aren’t you supposed to ask me questions?” he says.

The questions are the same ones he’s heard a zillion times. What was his biggest thrill? Wouldn’t he like to manage? Doesn’t he wish he could be playing at today’s high salaries?

You can see Mantle is trying to do his best. He answers every question politely, and when he finishes, if no one jumps in with another one, he continues belaboring it.

“We were going to give you some pictures to look at ahead or time to help you, but …”

“Pictures,” says Mantle, “0f what?” Mantle, it seems, has no idea what his appearance at the mall entails, only that it will take four hours and pay him $2,500. As he’s being escorted from the press conference, Mary LaTourneau, the mall’s marketing director, tries to explain about the look-alike contest. There will be two: one for children, one for middle-aged men.

Suddenly, Mande stops cold in the hallway. “You mean.” he says incredulously, “I’m supposed to pick out some guy who looks like me?”

“The thing is,” Mary says apotogetically, “only one man entered.”

Before a small crowd of several dozen curious shoppers. Mantle lumbers onto a makeshift stage and comes face to face with his look-alike. The man, a 43-year-old dime store manager from nearby Marshall, Texas, is wearing pastel green slacks and a face wreathed in smiles. He’s overweight, his ears stick out, and if he resembles anyone, it’s a middle-aged Howdy Doody.

“Congratulations,” mumbles Mickey, at a loss.

“I used to play ball in high school with your twin brothers,” the pleased man gushes.

Mantle hands him a letter from the mall telling him where to collect his $100 reward, then he looks around helplessly. Below him are the upturned faces of a dozen youngsters who are participating in the other look-alike contest. “Pick out the one who most looks like you did at that age,” someone prompts him.

Mantle turns and studies them. He hesitates before a blond, freckle-faced boy of eleven. “Best I can remember,” he drawls. “Stanley here looks like me.”

Stanley Woods, shy and as embarrassed as Mantle is, collects the ballplayer’s autograph and then scampers off to join his aunt, a large, fat woman with a ponytail and a white T-shirt. “I used to be married to a pitcher for the White Sox,” she sings happily, “but he died.” Then, patting Stanley’s head, she says, “I just knew he would win. He looks exactly like Mickey did. I just know it.”

Judging look-alike contests at shopping malls is not what Mantle intended to do with his life. But that’s the way it’s worked out.

He still lives in Dallas, where he is a vice-president of Reserve Life Insurance Company. He shows up at company “victory” dinners, where agents who have sold a lot of policies get to rub his elbow over cocktails. In addition, he does a week-or-two-long “informal golfing excursion” each year with Allied Chemical. and in the spring George Steinbrenner pays him to throw out baseballs at Yankee farm club openers. He also makes appearances. These, his TV commercials, and his Reserve contract pay him more than the Yankees did—$150,000 to $200,000 a year.

He knows he should not complain. In fact, he is genuinely flattered that people even remember him. Last year, a New Jersey housewife paid Mantle an appearance fee to show up at her husband’s fortieth birthday party. When Mantle arrived, the man, once an avid fan, burst into tears. Mantle was moved by this, and when he got home he impulsively shipped the man the uniform the Yankees had given him when they retired his number.

Nevertheless, after all these years, Mantle still finds himself dreading public occasions. When Gerald Ford invited him to the White House for a state dinner honoring the president of France, Mantle’s response was to throw out the invitation. “Why do they want me there?” he kept complaining as the White House barraged him with phone calls. “I don’t know anything about politics.” As it turned out, Mantle was seated at the president’s table, his wife beside Vice President Rockefeller. Ford talked golf with Mantle; Rocky inquired endlessly about the Mantle boys. “They were so elated that they had such a good time,” says his attorney, Roy True, who had urged Mantle to attend, “that the next day they hopped a plane to Las Vegas as a sort of dessert.”

Now, driving to Oak Forest Country Club for lunch, Mande says little. He is being escorted by three cheerful young women from the shopping mall who are polite but out of their element. To them, Mantle is a celebrity whose name rings a distant bell.

Mary is reminded of an anecdote. “I heard a story about you,” she begins, “from a guy who parks cars at another country club in town!”

Mantle jerks his head around. “What was it?”

“Well, I don’t think I can tell.”

Mantle looks uneasy. “It can’t be that bad,” he says hopefully.

“Well … er, he said you went outside and … I can’t.”

By now the slugger is turning red. “Come on,” he says, “what’d I do?”

Taking a deep breath, Mary blurts, “You used the bushes for a toilet.”

That afternoon’s activity consists of two autographing sessions—one, for an hour, at Dillard’s department store, the other at J. C. Penney. The local radio men cover Mantle’s arrival at Penney like a papal visit. “He’s entering the housewares department … he’s climbing onto the platform….”

The lines stretch from housewares into bedspreads and sheets, past shower curtains and gift wrappings, along the cafeteria, beyond the credit desk—all the way to the rest rooms at the back of the store. Dan Whyte, a retired Marine who nearly had his head shot off in Vietnam, has been anxiously awaiting Mantle’s visit all week. A native of the Bronx, he has brought with him a yellowed scrapbook filled with pictures of the Yankees of yore. There are several of the early Mantle, who looks about fifteen years old in his baggy pinstriped uniform. “Mantle,” gushes Whyte, “is like the John Wayne of baseball. Still looks good, doesn’t he? Too bad about his knees. He would have made a good marine.”

At last, Whyte’s moment comes. He steps up to the platform and thrusts his scrapbook under Mantle’s nose. Mantle starts to sign “Mickey Mantle”—for his hand is too tired now to pen “Best Wishes”—but Whyte is trying to flip through the pages, to show him. Mantle stares blankly, smiles, and reaches for the next piece of paper.

“I guess he was kind of busy,” sighs Whyte.

At three o’clock, with the lines still stretching, Mantle is escorted from the platform, visibly tired now, his official engagement over. He walks out into the heat of the parking lot and climbs into his 1976 Cadillac Eldorado.

On the ride back to Dallas, he says, “I think about baseball all the time. I think about how I didn’t finish with a .300 batting average. I think about what it would have been like if I’d played in a different ball park. It was 480 to center, you know, and I lost a lot of home runs. And my legs. My right knee hurt almost every day. I really do believe I would be way up at the top of everything if I hadn’t been injured. When I was healthy, I really believe I was the best of anyone I ever saw play.

“But,” he adds dolefully, “you have to go by the records.”

Mantle switches on his C.B. to see if there are any Smokies ahead. Then he says, “My biggest regret is not being able to play at least five more years. The Yankees wanted me to. But it was embarrassing to me to screw up like I did. I couldn’t hit worth a shit.

“It was all I lived for, to play ball,” he says. “I used to like to play so much that I loved to take infield practice. I couldn’t walt to go to the ball park. I hated it when we got rained out.”

Then, fearing perhaps that he’s left the wrong impression, he adds, “Look, it’s not that I’m not happy now. I am. But to be 25 years old and rounding the bases, the hero of the Yankees…”

Times have changed, so has his life, but Mantle, it seems, has not. From age 3, when his father first put a bat in his hands, until age 36, he was consumed by baseball. The hope of being the greatest ballplayer still runs through his dreams. By day, he makes a living off the dream. By night, he tries to recapture it.

He drops me off and heads for home—the end of another road trip.

“Mickey and I were in New York on a business deal in the spring of 1969,” said Roy True. “We were sharing a suite at the St. Moritz. One morning I woke up and found him wrapped in a towel, standing in front of some French doors that opened onto a balcony. I said, ‘What are you doing?’

“‘Just looking out at the city.’ he said. ‘It’s some city.’

“‘Yes, it is,” I told him.

“‘And that son of a bitch used to be mine,’ said Mantle, ‘all mine.’”

Mantle’s transition into the appearance business came largely at the hands of Roy True. Mantle first approached the Dallas attorney ten years ago on a Florida land deal, but it quickly became apparent to True that Mantle was hardly going to galvanize Wall Street. “Mickey is not a businessman,” says True. “He hates meetings. He isn’t interested in the ongoing process.He just wants to know the results.”

Before True came along, the results had been abysmal. His first big “deal” came the very day he arrived at Yankee Stadium when a fast-talking stranger “grabbed me and said he could make a million dollars for me in five years. All I had to do was give him half of everything I made for ten years,” Mantle recalls. “A million dollars is a lot when you’re making $7,500. I signed right away.”

Legally, Mantle was not old enough to sign a contract, so he got out of it. But he never did learn to distrust strangers. Even at the end of his career he was boasting about an investment that would make him rich for life. He bought 12,500 shares of stock at $10 each. Years later he sold them at $4.

True figured Mantle had better start promoting himself. Mantle balked. “The problem was he felt he didn’t have anything to contribute,” says True. “So I talked strong and long to him. Once he found out that people were interested in what he had to say, he gained the confidence that he was something other than a ballplayer.”

True came up with the Mickey Mantle speaking format—twenty minutes of baseball yams followed by Q and A—and set the Mickey Mantle fee, now $3,000. He books Mickey only into cities that are easy to reach. Still, Mantle becomes anxious before an appearance, worrying that his sponsors will want him to have tea with Aunt Tillie or something, and that if he refuses, “people will think I’m an ass.” Thus, True devised the official Mickey Mantle itinerary—pay for it and stick to it.

On Monday, I arrive at Roy True’s law offices right on time for my interview with Mantle and am surprised to find the ballplayer already there. He is wearing tan slacks and a yellow knit shirt, nicely dressed as always. We go into the law library, and again he seems uncomfortable. He sits in his chair, clutching a batch or letters, fidgeting like a well-behaved child who has been made to say a few polite words to grown-ups. As Mantle talks, I begin to understand: He was, and remains, a modest man who worked hard at the game he loved, wanting to excel through sheer competitiveness, never quite comprehending the acclaim that came with it.

“Coming out of Commerce, Oklahoma, which is 2,000 people, and going to New York when you’re nineteen would be tough on anyone,” he says. “But after my first spring training they started writing that I was going to be the next Joe DiMaggio. In a way I was lucky, I had time to grow with my fame. It wasn’t until 1956 that I did what the papers said I should do, and by then I was used to the attention and it didn’t bother me.”

“Do you miss the limelight now?”

“No, I don’t think it ever meant much to me. People come up to me and they say, ‘You remember that home run you hit in Boston in 1954?’ And I don’t. And they begin to describe this particular home run, inch by inch. It was like they were talking about someone else. It’s hard for me to remember what it was like then, or how I felt. Even now I’m not very conscious of being Mickey Mantle.”

Mantle is still fidgeting—though he has finally put the letters down—alternately scratching his enormous biceps, stretching, and yawning.

Outside of baseball, the continuing obsessions of his life are his children and his golf. Of his four boys—Mickey Jr., 26; David, 24; Billy, 21; and Danny, 19—the two youngest still live at home. And though Mantle brightens when speaking of his kids, he is oddly elusive about what they do. One close friend confides, “Mickey thinks the boys would be more active participants in the traditional sense of working men if they hadn’t been brought up the way they were. He always let them know he would take care of everything. He feels it’s his fault they haven’t really shown the ambition to pick something out and go get it.”

Of golf Mantle talks a blue streak. Every day he is in Dallas, save Mondays, when his club is dosed, he plays eighteen holes at Preston Trails, “where they don’t allow women—even as waitresses,” he says with delight. “Before they started building houses out there, we used to play naked.”

“Golf,” continues Mantle, “is the only thing I can still do. I can’t play racquetball or tennis or even ride a bike. And I have this need to compete. What bothers me is that my knee is getting worse, and when I’m 55 I may not be able to play at all. Then I don’t know what I’ll do.” His eyes looks sad.

“Don’t you still hunt and fish?” I ask.

“Yeah.”

“What do you hunt?”

For the first time Mantle grins. ” Puss,”‘ he say.

But the old devilishness simply is not there, and after a moment that smile fades and a more subdued Mantle reflects, “The one thing I would have done different in my life was to take better care of myself while I was playing. I really burned the candle at both ends. And it caught up with me.”

Suddenly he stands up. “Let’s drive by the house,” he says. “You can meet Merlyn.” He is out the door in a flash. The interview is over. The jailer has released him.

The Mantles’ four bedroom beige house sprawls on an acre of emerald green lawn in an upper-clan section of North Dallas. Its two wings wrap around a sparkling turquoise swimming pool that looks like it hasn’t been used for some time.

Merlyn Mantle, a tiny platinum blonde with large blue eyes is in the den talking to Joe Warren, a regional sales manager for Reserve Life, who had dropped by with two box of baseballs for Mantle to autograph. Mutely, Mickey carries the boxes to an easy chair. Balancing the boxes on his knees, he begins scrawling his name.

As Warren is speaking, Merlyn turns and says softly to her husband. “Do you want your glasses?”

“No,” mumbles Mantle in embarrassment, and keeps writing.

Later I am led through a spotless white kitchen to the back of the house, where, stuck on like an appendage, the trophy room is. It is an awesome treasure trove or memorabilia, every square inch of wall crammed with the mementos of Mantle’s extraordinary achichievments. Encased behind glass are an enormous sterling tape measure honoring his longest blast, a solid silver bat denoting his American League batting titles, the big, jeweled Hickock Belt for athlete of the year. Trophies that do not fit into the credenza spill out into the far comers of the room. One wall crawls with magazine covers of Mantle. Another holds a framed swatch of the number-7 pinstripe.

Throughout Merlyn’s tour, Mantle stands impassively in the doorway. He rarely comes into the room anymore, he says, and seems uninterested in it.

“When Mickey first retired,” Merlyn says, “I thought it was really great—he’d be home all the time. But he isn’t.”

“The last three months I haven’t been home hardly at all,” Mantle concedes. “That promotion I did for Cameron Wholesalers? I went to twenty cities all over Texas. They had this deal called Mickey Mantle Grand Slam Specials. You buy 50 doors and get one free”—he laughs—”or something like that.”

“Do you enjoy these appearances?” I ask.

“No,” says Mantle quietly. “It’s just a monetary thing. It doesn’t do anything for my ego. If somebody gave me $2 million I wouldn’t do another one.” Then, not wanting to sound ungrateful, he adds. “Really, I don’t mind it, though. It makes me feel good that people want me to come.”

It is only quarter to twelve, but itchy as ever, Mantle suggests we go out and eat lunch.

At the restaurant, the Mantles pick at their food and apologize that it is not very good. Mickey notes that he weighs 205 pounds—not much over his playing weight. “But it’s shifting,” he says with a small, sad smile.

Then abruptly he puts down his fork. “I just hate getting old,” he blurts.

Merlyn Mantle nods and looks away.

It is, sadly, the wrong note to end on. But perhaps that’s how it must be. “Mickey comes to me from time to time and says this guy or that guy wants to write a book about him,” says Roy True.”And I tell Mickey it’s not time. And Mickey says, ‘Well, what are we waiting for?’

“And I tell him,” says Roy True, “I’m waiting until we can have a happy ending.”

The Outcast

From the vaults, here’s Pat Jordan’s 2001 New Yorker profile of O.J. Simpson:

We turned the corner and drove down a residential street. Housewives in spandex shorts were jogging on the sidewalk. Simpson glanced at them and said, “I loved the way Nicole looked. If I saw her on that sidewalk right now, I’d pull over and hit on her. If she had a different head.”

Simpson is used to playing the character he created over the years—the genial O.J. we saw in the broadcasting booth, in TV commercials, and in films—and he seemed ill equipped to play a man tormented by tragedy. His features rearranged themselves constantly. His brow furrowed with worry; his eyebrows rose in disbelief; his eyelashes fluttered, suggesting humility; his eyes grew wide with sincerity. All of this was punctuated by an incongruous, almost girlish giggle.

It was Simpson’s will, as much as his talent, that enabled him to become not only a great football player but also one of America’s most beloved black athletes. (“When I was a kid growing up in San Francisco, Willie Mays was the single biggest influence on my life,” Simpson told me. “I saw how he made white people happy. I wanted to be like Willie Mays.”) Over the course of his life, Simpson had gotten virtually everything he has wanted—fame, wealth, adulation, Nicole Brown, and, eventually, acquittal. It was widely reported that Nicole told friends that if her husband ever killed her he’d probably “O.J. his way out of it.” Today, at fifty-three, almost six years after his acquittal, Simpson seems to be free of doubt, shame, or guilt. He refers to the murders of his wife and Ron Goldman, and his subsequent trials for those murders, as “my ordeal.” Now he wants vindication. Only that can erase the stigma that has transformed him from an American hero into a pariah, living out his days in a pathetic mimicry of his former life. And he appears to believe that he will get it, as he got everything—by sheer will—and with it a return to fame and wealth and adulation.

 

The Banter Gold Standard: Love Song to Willie Mays

Here’s another sure shot from the great Joe Flaherty (reprinted with permission from Jeanine Flaherty). You can find his story on Toots Shor, here; his wonderful piece on Jake LaMotta, here.  Meanwhile, enjoy a…

“Love  Song to Willie Mays”

by Joe Flaherty

When Willie Mays returned to New York, many saw it—may God forgive them—as a trade to be debated on the merits of statistics. Could the forty-one-year-old center fielder with ascending temperament and waning batting average help the Mets?

To those of us who spent our boyhood, our teens, and our beer-swilling days debating who was the first person of the Holy Trinity–Mantle, Snider, or Mays?–it was a lover’s reprieve from limbo. No matter how Amazin’ the Mets were, a part of our hearts was in San Francisco.

Mays was special to me as a teenager because I was a Giant fan in that vociferous borough of Brooklyn. This affliction was cast on me by a Galway father who reasoned that any team good enough for John McGraw was good enough for him and his offspring. So as boys, rather than take a twenty minute saunter through Prospect Park to Ebbets Field, the Flahertys took their odyssey to 155th Street, the Polo Grounds.

In that sprawling boardinghouse of a park I had to content myself with the likes of Billy Jurges, Buddy Kerr, and a near retirement Mel Ott whose kicking right leg at the plate was then a memory, no longer an azimuth which his home run followed. The enemy was as star laden as MGM: Reese, Robinson, Furillo, Cox, Hodges, Campanella, et al. So when Willie arrived in 1950, the Davids in Flatbush who had been hoping for a slingshot instead were bequeathed the jawbone of an ass.

Of course, we did have Sal Maglie, that living insult to Gillette, who thought the shortest distance between two points was a curve. But it was Willie who did it. It was he who gave the aliens in that Toonerville Trolleyland respectability. Even the enemy fan was in awe of him. He was no Plimptonesque hero about whom the beer drinkers in the stands fantasized. He was beyond that. His body was forged on another planet, and intelligent grown men know they have no truck with the citizens of Krypton. It has always amazed me to hear someone taking verbal vapors over the physical exploits of a ballet dancer while demeaning the skills of a baseball player. After all, is it not true that such as a Nureyev is practiced and choreographically moribund within a precise orbit I should swoon at such limited geography, when I have seen Mays ad lib across a prairie to haul down Vic Wertz’s 1954 World Series drive? No. Willie, like Scott Fitzgerald’s rich, is very different from you and me.

Yet, looking back on him (call it mysticism, if you like), I have the feeling his comet could have sputtered. This fall from grace, I feel, could have happened if he had come to bat in the final playoff game against the Dodgers in 1951. I was in the stands with a bevy of other hooky players, and I can’t help thinking Mays would have failed dismally if he had to come to the plate. He was just too young, a kid constantly trying to please his surrogate father, Durocher. Something dire surely would have happened: The bat would have fallen from his hands, or he would have lunged at the ball the way a drunk mounts stairs. Of course, this is all conjecture, since Bobby Thomson’s home run was his reprieve.

Still, let the mind’s eye conjure up the jubilant scene at home plate as the Giants formed a horseshoe to greet Thomson. Willie, who was on deck, should have been one of the inner circle, but he was on its outer fringes—at first too paralyzed to move, then a chocolate pogo stick trying to leap over the mob, leaping higher than all, which is an appropriate reaction from a man who has just received the midnight call from the governor.

But that’s rumination in the record book. Now, the day is Sunday, May 14, 1972, the opponent those lamisters from Coogan’s Bluff, Willie’s recent alma mater, the San Francisco Giants. The day was neither airy spring nor balmy summer but overcast and rain-threatening. I liked that—the gods were being accurate. This was no sun-drenched debut of a rookie; the sky bespoke forty-one years.

The park was as displeasing as usual. Shea Stadium is built like a bowl, and when one sits high up, he feels like a fly who can’t get down to the fudge at the bottom. An ideal baseball park is one that forces its fans to bend over in concentration, like a communion of upside down L’s. Ebbets Field was such a park.

The fans at Shea have always been too anemic for me. Even the kids with their heralded signs seem like groupies for the Rotarians or the Junior Chamber of Commerce: ”Hicksville Loves the Mets,” “Huntington Loves the Mets”; alas, Babylon can’t be far behind. And today the crowd was behaving badly, like an affectionate sheepdog that drools all over you. Imagine, they were cheering Willie Mays for warming up on the sidelines with Jim Fregosi! A Little League of the mind.

But there were dots of magic sprinkled throughout the meringue. The long-ago-remembered black men and women from the subway wars also were in attendance: the men in their straw hats, alternating a cigar and a beer under the awnings of their mustaches; the women, grown slightly wide with age, bouquet bottoms (greens, reds, yellows, purples) sashaying full bloom. These couples wouldn’t yell “Charge” when the organ demanded it (a dismal, insulting gift from the Los Angeles Dodgers), nor would they cheer a sideline game of catch. They were sophisticates; they had seen the gods cavort in too many Series to pay tribute to curtain-raising antics.

Mays was in the lead off spot, and one watched him closely for decay. Many aging ballplayers go all at once, and the pundits were playing taps for Willie. This (and a .163 batting average) roused speculation about Mays’ demise. Nothing much was learned from his first at bat. He backed away from “Sudden Sam” McDowell’s inside fast ball, a trait that is much more noticeable in him lately against pitchers who throw inside smoke. But he wasn’t feverishly bailing out, just apprehensively stepping back. Not a deplorable physical indignity but a small one, like an elegant man in a homburg nodding off in a hot subway. He walked, as did Harrelson and Agee after him. Then Staub, as if disturbed by the clutter, cleaned the bases with a grand slam. Mets 4–0.

His second time at bat I noticed he shops more for his pitches these days. There is a slight begging quality, where once there was unbridled aggressiveness. This time patience paid a price, and he was caught looking at a third strike. This was more disturbing. The head of the man in the homburg had just fallen on the shoulder of the woman next to him.

In the top of the fifth the Giants roughed up Met pitcher Ray Sadecki for four runs. Also in the course of their rally they pinch hit for their lefty McDowell, which meant that Mays would have to hit against the Giants’ tall, hard-throwing right hander Don Carrithers in the Mets’ bottom half. Bad omens abounded. If a left hander could brush Willie back, what would a right hander do? And now the game was tied, and he would have to abandon caution. Worse, the crowd was demanding a miracle, the same damn crowd which had cheered even his previous strikeout. The unintelligent love was sickening. He was an old man; let him bring back the skeleton of a fish, a single, this aging fan’s mind reasoned.

But one should not try to transmute the limitations that time has dealt him on the blessed. Even the former residents of Mount Olympus now and then remember their original address. Mays hit a 3-2 pitch toward the power alley in left center–a double, to be sure. I found myself standing, body bent backward like a saxophone player humping a melody, ’til the ball cleared the fence for a home run. The rest was the simple tension of watching Jim McAndrew in relief hold the Giants for four innings, which he did, and the Mets won, 5–4.

The trip home was romance tainted with reality. I knew well that Mays would have his handful of days like this. He still had enough skill to be a “good ballplayer,” though such a fair, adequate adjective was never meant to be applied to him. But life can’t be lived in a trunk, so I closed the lid on the memory of his lightning, and for a day, like an aging roué who has to shore up the present, I boldly claimed: “Love Is Better the Second Time Around.”

August 26, 1972

The Old Man

Larry L. King died last month and I’m sorry it’s taken so long to mention his passing in this space. Terrific writer. Confessions of a White Racist is a must-read. For more on King, check out this fine appreciation by John Spong. When you are done, treat yourself to one of King’s best stories, “The Old Man.”

It’s great (and kudos to Harper’s for making it available on-line):

Sons rarely get to know their fathers very well, less well, certainly, than fathers get to know their sons. More of an intimidating nature remains for the father to conceal, he being cast in the role of example-setter. Sons know their own guilty intimidations. Eventually, however, they graduate their fears of the lash or the frown, learn that their transgressions have been handed down for generations. Fathers are more likely to consider their own sins to have been original.

The son may ultimately boast to the father of his own darker conquests or more wicked dirkings: perhaps out of some need to declare his personal independence, or out of some perverted wish to settle a childish score, or simply because the young — not yet forged in the furnace of blood — understand less about that delicate balance of natural love each generation reserves for the other. Remembering yesterday’s thrashings, or angry because the fathers did not provide the desired social or economic advantages, sons sometimes reveal themselves in cruel ways.

[Photo Credit: Larry Kolvoord/American-Statesman]

Here Comes the Pain

 

Over at Esquire, check out Tom Junod on the NFL’s theater of pain.

Lede Time

Over at Grantland’s essential Director’s Cut series, Michael MacCambridge dusts off another gem: John Lardner’s “Down Great Purple Valleys.”

Can’t beat this lede:

Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.

That was in 1910. Up to 1907 the world at large had never heard of Ketchel. In the three years between his first fame and his murder, he made an impression on the public mind such as few men before or after him have made. When he died, he was already a folk hero and a legend. At once, his friends, followers, and biographers began to speak of his squalid end, not as a shooting or a killing, but as an assassination — as though Ketchel were Lincoln. The thought is blasphemous, maybe, but not entirely cockeyed. The crude, brawling, low-living, wild-eyed, sentimental, dissipated, almost illiterate hobo, who broke every Commandment at his disposal, had this in common with a handful of presidents, generals, athletes, and soul-savers, as well as with fabled characters like Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed: he was the stuff of myth. He entered mythology at a younger age than most of the others, and he still holds stoutly to his place there.

 

Love Among the Ruins

Over at Roopstigo, here’s Pat Jordan’s latest…on Hialeah:

Once upon a time Hialeah Park was the most beautiful and famous thoroughbred racetrack in the world. People ventured to the sport’s showplace outside of Miami in Hialeah, Florida, not only for the races but also for what they called “The Hialeah experience.” The glamour, the celebrities, the prettiness, the bougainvilleas, the hibiscuses, the royal palms, the pink flamingoes, the food, the champagne, the thoroughbreds and, almost incidentally, the wagering. You went to Hialeah if you were famous, and rich; and if you were not, you went to rub elbows with the famous and the rich under the flamingo pink-and-green canopy that led into the clubhouse.

Then, in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Hialeah fell on hard times. It struggled to survive until 2001, when it lost its thoroughbred racing license and faded to black. The track closed, the horses disappeared, and the crowds disbanded into memory like ghosts on the Titanic. The wooden stables rotted then were demolished. The royal palms began to die, their brown fronds littering the grounds. The ubiquitous bursts of pink and green gradually lost their zest. The concrete and coral clubhouse, with its winding stairs that bled the color of rust, decayed. The flock of flamingoes nesting on the infield grass by the small lake grew pale, lean, lethargic. They had no reason to flutter up, as when a trumpeter used to play “The Flight of the Flamingoes,” sending them flapping around the track to herald the most famous race of all, the Flamingo Handicap.

There were tales that Hialeah would be sold, torn down, and replaced by a shopping mall, or townhomes, or a casino. Or maybe not torn down, maybe just turned into a tourist attraction like the Queen Mary, tethered to a dock in Long Beach, California, where it could be gawked at by tourists while it rotted in the sun. But then. miraculously, in 2009–or maybe not so miraculously to some — Hialeah again was granted a horse racing license, but not for thoroughbred racing. Eight years after its demise, Hialeah reopened as a quarter horse racing track. Problem was, no one seemed to notice, at least not the people who counted, those who remembered Hialeah from the past. Quarter horse racing is to thoroughbred racing what drag racing a ’57 Chevy is to racing a Ferrari at Monaco. A low-rent distant cousin of profound embarrassment.

I had last been to Hialeah for the Flamingo Handicap in the early ’90s. So this winter I decided to return to Hialeah, like an archeologist to a Mayan ruin, to excavate, pick through bits and pieces of its bones, to see if I could reconstruct the lost civilization that once flourished there and that was now, like the Old South, gone with the wind.

[Photo Credit: Carleton Wood]

The Banter Gold Standard: Fore Play

Here’s a little honey from our man.

“Fore Play: A Celebration of Golf the Glorious”

By Richard Ben Cramer

I play golf, I recommend golf, I celebrate golf—for the exercise. For this I am roundly derided by friends. God knows what my enemies say. But they don’t understand. The exercise has nothing to do with getting winded, making the heart bump-a-whump for twenty minutes, or releasing amino-ketones (or whatever bodily chemical is this month’s Cosmo health trend). I do not mean to join in the national beatification of sweat.

Golf is exercise of the spirit, the trimming away of lumps and rolls that distend the successful psyche. We all have ways of jamming ourselves into contortions that the world rewards: the best lawyer I know has to build up a hard knot of rage at some injustice that threatens his client. I know a woman who cannot entertain without subjecting herself, her home and family, to such ferocious primping that she winds up a total wreck. But her parties are lovely. The point is there are many useful twists of persona, but things unnaturally bent grow brittle if they’re never snapped back into shape. And golf untwists. It’s more than the sun and air, stretching and flexing the body. For those corporeal joys, why not try gardening?

Golf is bodily, sort of. The swing, as anyone who has tried it knows, is such a demanding blend of physics and physicality that any of a hundred different muscles or movements can be cited as the latest cause of failure. But the essence of the game, and the locus of its experience, lies somewhere between the body and the mind, or in their fusion—not in the precision of latinate names with which we label musculature but in that murkier realm where words, if there be any useful words, must come from oriental tongues.

This stems from the nature of the contest: golf may be played with a partner or against an opponent, but the real and relentless competition is the self. Any golfer, even the worst, knows basically what to do: there is the ball—hit it toward the hole. But every golfer, even the most experienced, plays always against the tendency toward deviation and lapse. We play against our own capacity to screw up, against the limit of our imperfection, against the proverbial essence of humanity: to err. It is a solitary struggle, and humbling, trying to make the body do. Strength, speed, or size—none of these will avail; only the gentle coaxing of grace. It cannot be forced. The concentration is yogic.

Compare golf for a moment with some other sports: there are no bulked-up defenders trying to block the next shot. No faster player will thunder up to tackle us on the fairway. There is none of the fishy luck of the angler who can walk away from failure with a shrug and an easy alibi: “They just weren’t biting, today.” And none of the competitive consolation (“That serve of yours is just too quick!”) that tennis allows. In the game of golf, no one hits the ball out of reach—no one but us.

To the extent that we succeed we triumph over self, and when we confront failure we have nowhere to look but within. That accounts for the endless fretting, the golfer’s morose self-absorption. Of course the scoffers, the jokesters, see only the overt unhappiness (a “good walk spoiled,” Mark Twain called the game). And I concede one may not see right away the straight-line links from Aristotle and Aquinas to that overweight accountant speaking foul words as he slams the 3-iron back into his bag and drives his sputtering gas cart over the moribund grass he has just uprooted with his latest errant swipe. But, I assure you, no theologian, no saint, has examined and condemned his own frailty with more sincerity. Yes, the golfer may be ungainly with his tools; yes, he seems wrapped up in his woe; yes, he may talk of it without cease . . . but what can we expect from a being who is wrestling with the mortal mystery, the meagerness of the human will?

Then the miracle happens and something goes right (it always does, though, alas, too seldom). A long putt curves to the hole, slows, and . . . drops. A chip shot arches just over a vicious abyss of sand and . . . settles tractably on the green beyond. Or a drive leaves the tee . . . . Can those scoffers have felt even once such a tee shot? A miracle, nothing less. . . There is the ball: still, small, dimpled, damning our latest failures with an unsightly bruise or two, daring us to hit it again with all our might. Thwack! The driver connects with a glad clap of wood, and the ball is free of earth, aflight, ripping through the air under our fond eyes at a speed that makes a green blur of the ground; and now the ball, a shapely dart of white, rises fast, growing smaller, more perfect ever, as it climbs to its apogee, black now against a vault of blue sky, a speck of pure promise that seems to hang, holding hope aloft, as we hold our breath, until it settles, beautifully, white again, onto the velvet fairway, an eighth of a mile toward the hole.

A fine thing God has made for us! And the feeling it promotes is not one of chesty self-worth but wonder, awed pleasure: we are blessed. Of course, we cannot keep such joy for long. We lose the grace; all too soon we lapse. But oh, just to have had that moment, when we steadied the erring self and found within it the capacity to do right, to do perfectly! If it happens but once and the rest is dross, if we lose the match, if we score like bums, if it rains and our feet squish in our shoes . . . still, we spent a day with our self, and found its best. We exercised it. We are untwisted.

I remember a game last summer with my favorite partner, that ferocious hostess I spoke of before. I had to drag her out. She was facing a breakfast for forty—some cousin’s daughter was getting married—only three days hence…”Just nine holes!” I cajoled her. “You have to get some air. . . .”

She hit the first drive badly. She never bothers to warm up. She always thinks of it as stealing the time, and on the first tee, she still carries all her cares. That day she swung with forty guests on her back. I said: “Want to hit another?” But I knew the answer. “No. Come on,” and she grimly shouldered her little bag and stepped off the tee toward the rough and her ball.

I watched her sink deeper in new troubles through the first hole, then the second. I saw the fretful changes to her swing as she rifled her mental grab bag of tips, teachings, and keys to success: turn on the backswing, hands ahead on the downswing, club head open, club head closed. . . . She duffed two shots on the third hole, then swung so hard she almost fell. “What is it?” she finally cried in despair, as if she’d searched the whole universe for the cause of her troubles.

I mumbled a few truisms—elbow in, shift the weight, keep the head down—and then, as I recall, some of the incantatory stanza that form my personal mantra: “Let the club head do the work, make the swing a slow and beautiful dance….”

Who knows what she heard, if she heard anything at all. She was so downcast, alone with her million mistakes. But something cased within her and her club head drew back in a graceful arc, and thwack! She began to hit the ball, only straight at first, but then hard, and harder, and she stood on tiptoes to see the ball bounding, scurrying over the hills ahead. “Liked that one!” she said as she grabbed her bag and strode on. I caught up and stood behind her as she hit her next shot. She smacked the ball free of the earth, watched it fall and roll, and she turned with a grin. “Feel better?” I asked. She tilted her head up, shook her head, and cried “Oooohhh!” to heaven. She had no words sharp enough for the joy.

Of course, she lost it, too. Just a few holes on, she overswung and pulled her ball sharply to the left, where it settled in a trap. And that one shot broke the spell. She hit some good ones still. But the blessing was off her head. Now she berated herself loud, or clucked in disapproval as a chip shot skittered off the back of a green. But she was smiling at herself, too, mocking her mere humanness (when she knew the divine was in her!). She had only herself to blame, after all, so she had only herself on her mind. Not the weight of the world: she’d been freed of that.

I stood behind her again in her kitchen that evening. She was bent at the sink, polishing silver. It wasn’t the silver she’d serve with that Sunday. Those pieces sparkled already. This was the silver that molders in the breakfront. In case anybody bothered to look, you know. She was thinking of fish. Could she call in her order? Would they pick out the best? Clean them perfectly? No, she would go, pick them out herself. Have them filleted under her exacting eye. Then, back home, she’d clean them all again. Those little bones… Could she get away with buying mayonnaise?…

“How was the golf?” It was her husband coming home. He walked in the back door and casually tossed off the question by way of hello. He didn’t mean much, just, How was your day?

But as she turned, all tightness at her eyes disappeared, her hands unclenched from a polish-smeared bowl, and her smile was of another world, a smile of the Sufis, of the saintly, of the saved.

Ohh,” she said.”It was de-licious.”

[Photo Credit: Ringworld; George Huff; Jimbodownie]

Originally published in the June 1987 issue of Esquire and reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Beat Me, Beat Me

Head on over to SB Nation and check out the story “Once a Yankee Fan” by Pat Jordan.

I contributed a sidebar (and Steve Goldman, another).

Dig…

I’ve known Patty Jordan for close to ten years. We talk on the phone about every other day and have spent hours discussing writing technique, discipline, and about how not to screw up my marriage. Pat is a few decades my senior, so it’s reasonable to assume that he’s a kind of sainted avuncular figure, but the truth is we’re only friends so he can torture me about the Yankees.

The first time we spoke was back in the summer of 2003, when I interviewed him for my blog, Bronx Banter. He said he loved the teams of the late ‘90s. He called Paul O’Neill’s at bat against John Rocker in Game One of the 1999 Whirled Serious the best he’d ever seen. But he wasn’t so sure about these new Yankees. He didn’t like Jason Giambi and wasn’t crazy about Mike Mussina. He called Jeff Weaver “a fucking wimp,” and said, “Somebody should rip that gold chain off of Weaver’s neck.”

A few years later I edited a book of Patty’s sports writing. It was around this time that I started getting phone calls from him any time the Yankees lost a game.

“Hiya, Al,” he’d said.

“The hell do you want?”

“Oh, just wondering if you caught the Yankee game last night?”

I’d unleash a string of profanities ending with my telling him to perform an anatomical impossibility on himself right before I hung up.

My wife would be horrified. “Honey, you can’t do that to Patty, you’ll hurt his feelings.”

She’d give me a look and I’d feel ashamed. “Ah, maybe you’re right.”

This is when the phone would ring again. “Hiya, Al…”

Well, it takes a red ass to know a red ass and I’m easily excitable, especially when it comes to the Yankees. For Patty, the teasing isn’t so much about the Yanks, though, it’s about me being a sports fan. The only team he’s even remotely rooted for like a normal person is University of Miami football. He calls them “God’s Team.” But he’s too much of a coward to watch their games when they’re losing and I’ve got too much compassion than to kick an ankle away from a one-legged man.

Unlike most sportswriters, Patty’s not a sports fan. He’s a movie fan. He used to cry himself to sleep to the Lifetime Network, and is now he’s a sucker for British TV serials, but finds it beneath his dignity to be a fan of professional sports. He was a $50,000 bonus baby for the Milwaukee Braves and could throw in the mid-90s back when players wore wool uniforms. He played with Joe Torre and Phil Niekro in the minors. It doesn’t matter that his career fell apart and that he never made it to the majors. To this day Patty sees himself as a jock.

Typical Patty: After he’d turned himself into a writer, he was at spring training one year with a venerated reporter watching players shag flies. The writer lamented that they would never know what those players were really talking about. “They’re talking about beer, steak, and pussy,” Pat said. When the writer spoke of trembling with anxiety before interviewing Bob Gibson, Pat said, “Bob Gibson should be trembling before he talks to me. I’m PATTY FUCKING JORDAN.”

I can rag on his outsized ego and call him a cult writer who has shamelessly milked an abortive baseball career for forty years, but there it is: He played, I didn’t. He could throw the ball 95 mph—even for an occasional strike—I can fill out a scorecard. And he’s the kind of writer we all want to be. Aside from that, there’s no talking sense to a man who makes a living as a writer and still uses a Hermes 10 portable typewriter. He’ll rail against the Yankees, while I present lucid, well-balanced arguments. And for what? Just to get angrier?

Sometimes I try the Bugs Bunny trick and just agree with him. You’re right, the Yankees don’t know how to develop pitching—they completely ruined Joba Chamberlain. Oh yeah, Alex Rodriguez is a phony. It never works. I still end up red in the face, yelling like a madman.

The only trump card I hold is that Patty can’t compose himself for long, either. It’s like Kramden vs. Kramden and I can always get him going by calling his hero, Whitey Ford, a cheat or saying that Warren Spahn was a nice pitcher for his time but overrated. He especially hates it when I patronize him and defer to his greatness. Then he yells back at me, cursing my mixed Belgian and Jewish heritage.

That’s when his wife knows who is on the phone. “Give Alex my love,” I’ll hear her say in the background.

He’s no real fan like me, never could be. I watch every game no matter what. Admittedly, there’s no true suffering going on here. These are the Yankees, after all, not the Royals or the Cubs. But I suffer with each loss anyway, which makes me fair game. Last September, as the Yankees’ lead in the American League East withered, I got not one but two or three calls a day from Uncle Patty.

The angrier I became, the more times I hung up on him, and the happier he was. If he didn’t call, I’d call him, knowing that my tantrums were making his day. Who was I to deny an old man? Finally, after days of abuse, he relented, like a cat that’s grown bored with torturing a doomed mouse.

Which reminds me of one of his favorite jokes.

Masochist: “Beat me, beat me.”

Sadist: “No.”

The Banter Gold Standard: L.T. and the Home Team

John Ed Bradley played football at LSU and was a rising star at the Washington Post in the 1980′s before he left the newspaper business left to write novels. He’s written some fine ones too, including Tupelo Nights, Smoke, Restoration and My Juliet. He also wrote It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium, a wonderful memoir about playing ball at LSU.  In the meantime, he’s been a first-rate magazine writer, notably for Esquire and Sports Illustrated.

Here’s one of his best Esquire stories, first published in December 1985, and reprinted here with the author’s permission.

 

“L.T. and the Home Team”

By John Ed Bradley

Out one night last summer in Williamsburg, Virginia—a night that started warm and breezy but quickly turned as hot and rank as old meat—D’Fellas quit talking about local trim for a minute and somebody started on God. Eric Stone, gazing cow-eyed at a sky only half as big as his dreams started on God but soon let Pritchett figure it out. Pritchett was smart and he thought he could figure everything out. Even that outsize belly of his—brought on, everybody said, by the wife’s collard greens and smothered pork chops and whatever fruit pie happened to be in the cupboard—Pritchett liked to figure the extra girth was really only a stretch of “clogged tool,” and he told D’Fellas so. He patted his big gut and hiked up his britches and let his chin multiply into a fleshy mosaic.

“Preacher man,” Lawrence.Taylor had told Dylan Pritchett earlier in the day, “you’re fatter’n Fat Albert…. How much is it you been weighin’ these days?”

And Pritchett had said, “I’m tellin’ you it ain’t fat. It’s an extension of something else. Backed way up my belly…. I’m a gigolo, man.”

Now, at about 1:00 in the morning or a little after, Taylor was working a shaggy pinch of long-cut between cheek and gum, looking off in the direction of town. He started, “You’re just bogartin’ again, Pritchett, Preacher Pritchett runnin’ his head”—and saw it coming, growing way off in the distance, moving at a ridiculously happy clip. There was a single white eye in the head of the machine, a light more yellow, really, than white. Arid the sound was of wild unrest, of steel on steel, dark and real and terrible.

Cosmo, who sometimes went by the name of Glenn Carter, pulled his hand off his crotch, where he’d been working an itch, and pointed for everyone to see. He said, “A coal train, boys. Look at that damn thing.”

And someone else, probably L.T., who had returned home to see D’Fellas and spend one last night on the town before his fifth season with the New York Giants took him away for at least six months, said, “It’s magic, I’m telling you, fellas. It’s like every old thing that ever used to be.”

Besides the single white beacon from the engine, there was another wash of lights, this from D’Fellas’ party van parked in the middle of the dead-end road, and you saw how Taylor stood in it. Farm-boys big at six feet three and 250 pounds, the best player in football wore tight gray gym shorts that made his butt look like two great humps of meat grafted onto legs that can cover forty yards in 4.5 seconds. He wore a white straw hat with an olive-colored linen band, the brim tipped down low over the eyes, and his shirt was cut loose around the belly, giving him room to breathe.

“This is nice,” Taylor suddenly felt inclined to say. “I mean, this is really nice. All it was ever supposed to be.”

Then, with his eyes on nothing at all, down on the pea gravel at his feet: “So many things, mostly the good ones, D’Fellas were part of. It never goes away, either. That feeling, l mean, of being together again. You see that train, and you see all of us, standing here again. l’in telling you, it never goes away.”

L.T.—THERE HE WAS, SAME OLD BOY, running with the same old boys he had run with since second grade—had come home again. hardly seemed to matter that he’d moved way the hell up north and made something of himself, earning in the neighborhood of $1 million a year. He might take home about $85,000 a game, as one of his defensive mates once figured out on a pocket calculator, but after watching him break through a double-team block and dump a quarterback in a great, whining heap, or intercept a pass and take it down the pasture for a touchdown, it was never hard to understand why even his enemies said he was worth every damn penny.

During Taylor’s NFL career more than a couple of coaches have wondered aloud how someone playing on the buck-ass end of the defensive line can so dominate a game. As an outside linebacker, Taylor has been known to chase down running backs, fleeing in the opposite direction, like some hard dog after his own tail. He has put the fear of permanent disfigurement in all offensive people who look too good and smell too sweet, winking at them as he often does from across the line of scrimmage, seconds before the snap of the ball. They have called his game make-do and creative, mainly because he behaves as he pleases out there, sometimes forsaking the coach’s music he picked up in camp for the primal song that makes him go. Coming from the “weak” or “blind” side of the line, he often emerges on quarterbacks preparing to pass like some awful wave of terror. He seems to focus on a point two feet behind his target, blow right through what meat, bone, and heart stand in the way, and come out screaming on the other side.

“We don’t know the difference in L.T.,” Pritchett once professed. “We see a good tackle and it’s a good tackle. But whether he plays well or not, we’re there. We’re still his brothers, man. We’re blood, you know.”

Taylor, D’Fellas back home always said, never forgot where he came from, even though he kept a fancy place in a subdivision in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, a big two-story brick house with a lawn that was more garden than yard, and a gold Mercedes-Benz parked out front. He kept the house, his wife, Linda, said, but you could never keep him in it, not even during the off-season, when he liked to shoot hoops in the sun and play a little golf and take an occasional trip south to Williamsburg, in the southeastern heel of the state, to visit the boys.

There were only six of them in the whole world—D’Fellas—and each founding member owned a plaque proving it. Only three, Cosmo, Pritchett, and Stoney, still lived in the town where they grew up. The one Taylor seemed to miss and admire most, John (J.D.) Morning, managed a seafood place in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Eric (Doc) Pruden earned his living making Busch beer in Virginia Beach.

Earlier, driving around with no place in particular to go, somebody had said it felt as if every clock and calendar in the Virginia countryside had been turned over on its face, as if time no longer mattered. Having drunk more than a few bottle of beer at the Green Leafe Café near the campus of William and Mary, even L.T. owned up to finding himself overcome by a flood of lost time. So they had taken a craze of narrow back roads to a place on the edge of town, where a bridge made of creosoted railroad ties had once crossed a great divide and where a freight train still passed every few hours, whining like a pack of rabid wolf-hounds hot for the kill.

The old Mooretown Bridge, directly above, had barely been wide enough for two small cars to pass. D’Fellas had called it the Motown Bridge, because they had come time and again to lean against its rickety railings and sing the blues and talk about God. And about women and football Friday nights at Cooley Stadium and about what it meant to be young and alive and in no great hurry to grow up.

Now, on a rag-ass Sunday night that lent more moon than stars, Taylor stood behind the hurricane fence and heavy iron rail sealing off the short stretch of blacktop that had once led to the treacherous expanse of warped and buckling boards, and remembered the night the bridge burned. Stoney, who works at:the firehouse, had driven out with the water trucks and seen it engulfed in flames. Little orange chips of wood and ash had climbed in the night air, and no one but D’Fellas figured it was a bad thing. Too many people had died on the bridge or thereabouts. And Taylor, who rarely looked back on his days with D’Fellas except to laugh, saw this: the time an old drunk had tried to walk across the bridge with his eyes closed, nursing a bottle of cough syrup. The man had said he was Jesus Christ come down to save tile world. Then, not five minutes after announcing that he could walk on water, the man had lost his footing and fallen. He had fallen all the way down to the tracks and lain there in a silent, unmoving heap.

Taylor told the boys, “Crazy nigger thought he could walk on water. He couldn’t even walk straight.”

And who, L.T. said he wondered, could figure how many people had died trying·to negotiate the curve leading up to the bridge? Seemed like every Friday and Saturday night somebody missed the turn and drove clear into the void. L.T. once joked and said the Motown Bridge killed more poor colored folks than the Klan ever did. But there was good about it, too.

There was this to look back on: that one impossibly cold night when he and D’Fellas stood in the middle of the expanse, huddled against the snow that fell in hard, white sheets. The headlight of a train had appeared up ahead, moving in the direction of the pottery factory. As it drew near, you could see the dark chunks of coal in the open-top cars. dusted over with snow. There was a fabulous blue winter light that seemed to come from no particular source. Years later Stoney would pick a little fleck of something off the tip of his tongue and ask if anything on this earth had ever looked as pretty.

That night, the cold had made their lips feel useless and rubbery; their lungs burned, but they had sung their songs anyway, until about 6:00 in the morning. Taylor provided bass, deep as grubworms in a canna bed, and Stoney was static. He sounded like nails on a chalkboard, and everyone looked for Doc and J. D. to make pretty as choirboys at Sunday service. Sometimes Cosmo got so high, the boys said, he could do it better than a castrated man, but you tried not to hear Pritchett, who this night was moaning like a sick calf on the way to the sale barn. One blow, a pretty one that applied, went:

Gawnna leave all the crowds
Climb to the clouds
Anna look at life the way we use’a doo

Now Taylor wanted to know, “Who was it that pissed on the train as it went by that time it snowed so damn much?” But you could barely make out his voice over the thunder of the train down below.

“This is some serious memories,” Pritchett said. “Some serious memories. I used to ride my bike all around here. I remember how the bridge smelled. It ain’t the same. I’m used to feeling it under me.”

“Was it you that pissed?” Taylor asked no one in particular.

And Stoney started, “You can’t reach out and touch it anymore. There was only four or five feet between the bottom of the bridge and the top of the train cars. You could remember the feeling in your feet—that feeling that what you stood on wouldn’t be there very long and when it went, it would take you with it. And you went to bed at night feeling that feeling, wondering at it like some kind of mystery.”

Then Cosmo, half shouting atTaylor, let on, “I remember how you’d climb down to the tracks and say you were going to stop the train. We believed you could stop it, L.T. ‘That train ain’t nothin’,’ you’d say. And it would get pretty close before you jumped off the tracks. Then we’d all take turns, climbing down the rocks and standing on the tracks. ‘That train ain’t nothin’,’ you’d say. And Pritchett went, ‘Go on and stop it then, Cosmo.’ And I told him, ‘Who do you think I am? I ain’t no L.T.’”

“It might have been me that pissed,” Stoney said finally. “Hey, Taylor. I think it was me that pissed.”

Then Pritchett figured, “It wasn’t only you, man. It was all of us. It was Taylor, too. Shit, it was all D’Fellas. We did everything together.”

D’FELLAS ALWAYS caught L.T.’s games on television when the Giants went national, and the made it up north to New Jersey and the Meadowlands three or four times a year to watch their old friend perform in person, before great crowds that sometimes chanted, “Elllteee! Ellltee! Eltee!” when number 56 came up with a big hit. He always put D’Fellas up at home, in his house, and on Saturday nights before the games, when he had to turn in early, he gave Linda some money and the car keys and insisted she drive the gang to New York, where there were things to do.

The boys flew out to Hawaii for the 1985 Pro Bowl, and L.T., who had been a unanimous all-NFL selection since the Giants chose him first in the 1981 draft, put them up in individual hotel suites with king-size beds, living rooms, and private liquor cabinets. He took care of their expenses and introduced them to strangers on the beach as teammates. Even Stoney, who was built like a tired old catcher’s mitt, signed a round or two of autographs.

D’Fellas were proud of L.T.’s success and read countless reports saying he had emerged as the most dominant player in professional football, if not the very best, but they preferred to remember him as the wild-eyed boy who worked at the Dairy Queen in the summer when he was seventeen, eating all those free sundaes and Dilly Bars and going home to Iris, his beautiful, picture-book mama, and asking what’s for supper. He was just that way when he was growing up: eat anything. As a high school junior he stood only five feet ten and weighed 180 pounds. But coming into his senior year, he grew more than five inches in three months and grew mean in a way that would make him rich and famous and, arguably, the finest linebacker ever to play in the National Football League.

D’Fellas preferred to remember him the night they were going down Richmond Road in Pritchett’s car, Pritchett driving the limit if not a hair more. It was broad daylight when the good preacher man—who really wasn’t a preacher at all, but a supervisor of the black-history program at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation—ran head on into a pair of German shepherds copulating in the middle of the road. Both dogs, worked up, as they were, in primal heat, died on the spot. But what you remembered was Pritchett driving off as if nothing happened and thinking that Taylor, if provoked, could hit you just as hard. He’d take your damned head off, everybody said. He’d take your damned head off and spit in your neck. Then, if further provoked, he’d crawl down what was left of your throat and do a little tap dance on your tonsils.

While at the University of North Carolina, one of only two schools to recruit him out of high school, Taylor spent more than a few nights terrorizing frat boys. He liked to go downtown, into Chapel Hill, and pick fights with people who didn’t look right. He took to chewing tobacco and spitting a lot. He cut classes and hid out in the student union, shooting pool until he ran out of quarters or out of luck, whichever, came first. He once said, “I’m the kind of person who refuses to allow any damn good thing in life to pass me by.”

But during his junior year in college something changed him. The boys said it all started when he met Linda. She was so beautiful, you imagined her picture on some neon board above the city, wearing silk, wearing velvet, and holding a silver goblet to her lips. Looking the way she did, you imagined her drinking a mint julep and saying something like, “Goes down good,” to a world gone bad.

She asked Taylor, “Why do you keep pushing people around?” Then she called him a monster and a bully.

It was not hard to figure why the young man, then only twenty, became love-sick so bad. More than one night, he had sat alone in his dormitory room, waiting for the telephone to ring; the girl on the other end to speak his name. Hi there, baby. Something had changed him, all right. Something had tamed him too. L.T. discovered that the best way to earn someone’s respect was out on the pasture, on the football field, where playing the hoodlum had its rewards. His coaches, aware of his enormous potential as.an outside linebacker, decided to turn him loose. They let him rely on instinct more than any hardline technique that might have come up during a head session, and their thinking paid off.

His junior year, Taylor made eighty solo tackles and caused seven fumbles. The next year, 1980, he made fifty-five solo hits and accounted for sixteen quarterback sacks on his way to winning honors as the outstanding player in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He made all-American, easy, and was the second player chosen in the draft, after Heisman Trophy-winner George Rogers of the University of South Carolina.

As a rookie in the NFL, Taylor was so impressive people started comparing him to the finest defensive players in the history of the game, linebackers such as Dick Butkus, Sam Huff, and Ray Nitschke. His contribution on the field was so significant, he helped lead the Giants to the play-offs, their first such trip in almost twenty years. Back home in Williamsburg, D’Fellas had no trouble taking L.T.’s good story in stride. They knew Taylor was bad, but it had always been good to be bad when they were coming up. They liked to remember what L.T. did that day to poor old Nathan Merritt, who might have become one of D’Fellas had he not died in a car crash out on Longhill Road, on the way to school.

It was just something that happened at Lafayette High School one morning, back when D’Fellas indulged in a lawless game of rough-and-tumble called Chester. The way it worked, you walked around campus with your chest exposed, and one of the boys, by right of charter membership in D’Fellas, could lay a hard right hand into your open titty. Whenever the aggressor landed a big hit, he was supposed to say, “Chester’s back in town,” and clear out as quickly as possible, before his victim was able to regain his senses and take retaliatory measures. One day poor old Nathan Merritt opened up on Eric Stone, then only a freshman, and hit him way below the breastbone, nearly knocking him unconscious. L.T., who saw the cheap lick and came running, pinned old Nathan Merritt to a run of lockers and tried to press him through the slats in the louvered door. There was a storm of fussing in the hall, and L.T. started shouting, “Who the hell you think you are, shithead, hittin’ my friend so goddamned hard?”

Taylor was just that way: good to the people he loved and hard on those he didn’t. The kind of love that made him and the boys different, it was fierce and final. They had a time saying it, but D’Fellas were family in a way that ran deeper than any old blood, in a way that would last the sum of six separate lifetimes, and not a day longer. It was forever, but only for now. They often said their children would carry on the line and form their own little clique, the second generation of D’Fellas, but they said this with little conviction. Their children, growing up in different parts of the country, would probably never know how it feL.T. to be shoulder-to-shoulder in somebody’s living room on Saturday night, playing a hand of spades by lamplight and sharing the same tall quart of Miller beer. D’Fellas had created a separate kinship, a new order, and it was a whole lot more than just six good men running the streets together.

“I know a few things,” Taylor often told the boys, “but D’Fellas’ honor is the greatest thing I know.”

Theirs was a democracy, and there were rules. Once, at about 3:00 in the morning, D’Fellas went to the drive-in window at an all-night burger place and ordered twelve dollars’ worth of food. All Taylor wanted was fries, a Coke, and a plain burger, with nothing on it. D’Fellas in the van heard him tell the girl who was working the register that he would not tolerate a burger with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mayonnaise, ketchup, or mustard and she assured him that she would handle it, there was no reason to worry. L.T. paid for everything, then told Eric Stone, who was driving, to head out for the bridge, he wanted to flush out the silt in his pipes and sing some Motown.

They were less than a mile down the road when Taylor discovered lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mayonnaise, ketchup, and mustard on his burger. He said, “Turn the hell around. i want my food right.” But Stoney said, “I ain’t turning around, home. You should have looked your thing over at the place.”

Taylor felt wounded, then angry. He had told the girl exactly what he wanted and she had said not to worry, she would take care of it for him. She had looked him in the eyes and told him that everything would be okay. Didn’t she know who he was? Shouldn’t she know? He was Lawrence Taylor—L.T., goddammit, the best player in football.

“I can’t eat this shit,” he said. Then he screamed out the window, “and i won’t eat this shit.”

“That’s too bad, home,” Stoney said, digging into a bag of fries.

“If I can’t eat,” Taylor said, “nobody eats,” and took all the food, stuffed it back into the paper sack, and threw it out the window, into the wide, empty street. Some of D’Fellas turned around and watched their supper disappear to the back window. The soft-drink cups rolled down into the gutter, but the burgers looked as if they’ve been blasted by a cherry bomb. Only Eric Stone had managed to save a cup of Coke, and he was sucking it down with a straw. Taylor said, “Excuse me, home,” grabbed the drink from his friend’s hand, and threw it out into the night.

“If I don’t drink,” he said, “not a damn one of us drinks.”

BEFORE L.T. was born, his old man, Clarence Taylor Sr., Worked as a janitor at the college in town. After that played out, he got on as a trucker in the Newport News shipyards, about 40 minutes away, and was on the road each morning by 5:30, glancing back at the place and the people he loved in his rearview mirror. Some days he didn’t return home until after the late-night news, when his three sons had already gone to bed and his wife had cleared the kitchen. Clarence and Iris Taylor had had married in their teens—”too darn young,” he said—and the boys had come one right after the other, quickly filling up their little frame house set off Highway 60. They lived in just another one of those places you see out in the country, with a big, beat-to-hell sign standing on the front edge of the property celebrating the grand opening of some new chicken shack in town, and with moonvine choking every last inch of earth not already occupied by a chinaball tree.

“In those days, you never caught us talking about money,” Mr. Taylor like to say. “Mainly because there was never any money to talk about.”

L.T., muleheaded as he was, always said there had to be a better way. One morning, watching his old man drive off in the half-light of another cheap dawn, he promised his mother he’d be a millionaire before he turned twenty-one and vaguely smiled when she said, “Go on, boy.” To make money, he bought cinnamon toothpicks and packs of Juicy Fruit at Happy Stout’s grocery, then turned around and sold his goods to schoolmates for a big profit.

His father said, “If you want to see the boy do something, tell him he can’t do it.”

When it finally happened, when he made his first million, he was 22. “So what?” He told the folks at home. “I said 21. My timing was a little off. ”

Two years ago Taylor signed a six-year contract with the Giants worth $6.5 million, but only after becoming embroiled in a nasty dispute with club management. Taylor was the most visible and outstanding player on the team, but he was sick of losing; he wanted more money or he wanted out. In 1982 and 1983, his second and third years in the league, the Giants went 4–5 and 3–12–1. Taylor grew sullen and, at times, obstinate. He refused to talk to reporters. Before practice, he spent hours at his locker, mumbling things like, “Get me out of here,” and hiding his face under a cowboy hat. Tired of carrying the load for a team that couldn’t wait, he committed himself to play for the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League. Donald Trump, the generals owner, offered to pay him $3.2 million over four years, starting in 1988, when his option year with the Giants expired. Trump also threw in a $1 million loan, interest free. But when the Giants came back with an even better offer, Taylor asked to be released from his contract with the Generals. After two weeks of negotiations, Trump gave in and Taylor agreed to return the loan, with a $10,000 interest charge tacked on. The settlement also call for Taylor to pay back $750,000 over the next five years.

“The money,” Taylor said, “I need lots of money. But I’ve also got lots of people hitting me up for it, people I hardly know, some I haven’t seen in years. D’Fellas, they know they can get any damed thing they want from me, and yet they never ask. When I want to give, I’ve almost got to force it on them. You say, ‘Here, home, take this crap. Take it, I said. Take it. Take it because I love you and because if you don’t take it, I’ll break your damn face.’”

L.T. bought his parents house not long after signing with the Giants in 1981. He took great pleasure in knowing it was the biggest house on the street, with a two-car garage, fenced-in piece of backyard for the dogs, “Florida room,” so named by his father, who dressed it up with rose-colored shag carpet and rose-colored blinds and rose-colored bottles of liquor set on glass shelves. You could bet your life savings nobody else in Williamsburg, Virginia, owned the room like it. On top of that, there were plenty of extra bedrooms upstairs for L.T.’s wife and two little babies, and the grass stayed green even in winter, which really tickled Mr. Taylor, who enjoyed pushing a mower.

When L.T. came home last summer, he spent only an hour or so with the new house before borrowing his father’s party van and rounding up D’Fellas. There was so much to come back to, and the last thing he wanted to make sure and see before calling it a night was the crib off Highway 60, the old place. It amounted to only three acres set hard by the road, but a real estate man in town had thrown a money figure at his folks, hoping they’d bite and turn it over for development as a housing subdivision. L.T. asked his parents to hang on to the property; he figured $20,000 or $25,000 would be enough to fix it up. And money, hell, he had plenty of that.

There was a greasy, iron dark about that night when the boys finally rode down the driveway to the old house, running clean over a little chicken tree just setting roots, and around potholes full of mud that looked white against their headlights. Taylor rounded the corner of the house and parked in front of two old heaps, a light blue Maverick with a Mr. Peabody air-freshener hanging from the rearview and a two-tone pickup with four flat tires. D’Fellas, in a hurry to turn the woods into their private latrine, wrestled getting out of the van, and Taylor let the lights wash over the whole back lot, which was overgrown with knapweed and baby sycamores.

“Some serious memories,” Dylan Pritchett said, pulling on the fleshy folds under his chin. “This is some serious damn memories.”

Taylor pushed the brim of his straw hat out of his eyes and ran his hands over the roof of the old Maverick, tearing at the rot of a million leaves. Both headlamps on the car appeared to have been shot out by a pellet gun, and the hood latch was stuck. “If this bitch could talk,” L.T. said, pointing at the car, “we’d all be in trouble.”

Stoney said, “What was the dogs name? You had a dog.”

“It was Kojak,” Cosmos said.

“He lived to be fifteen,” Taylor said. “When I bought Mama and Daddy the new house, he moved to the subdivision and thought he had a big dick. Old Kojak was all right.”

Stoney said, “I remember when those old boys from New Kent—they thought they could shoot hoops with D’Fellas—used to come out here and we’d kick ass all over the place. Everybody used to come. Like I said, we were bad.”

“See that big tree over there?” Taylor said, nodding his head at a brace of giant hardwoods. “I remember when it was little. That one there. Looked like a twig in the ground.”

“Kojak,”, Cosmo said, “he’d bark and never bite. The dog thought he was human. And shit, he was like everybody else. He thought he had what it takes to be one of D’Fellas.”

“I remember that tree and that tree and that tree,” L.T. said. “I even remember that one over there.”

“Goddamn, “Pritchett said. “This is some real shit. I mean, this brings it all back. Brings it all back home.”

“I remember all these trees,” Lawrence Taylor said. “I remember every last one of them.”

[Images Via: Garmonique; fuck yeah freight trainsBevin; Charlie Simokaitis; Sports Illustrated]

The Banter Gold Standard: Thieves of Time

The following piece was written by one of our best, Charlie Pierce (Esquire, Grantland). It originally appeared in The National (May 10, 1990) and can also be found in Pierce’s excellent collection Sports Guy.

“Thieves of Time”

By Charlie Pierce

The press conference was over, and two men from New Castle, Pa., named Robert Retort and Ed Grybowski had been charged with interstate transportation of stolen property, which is a federal felony. In the conference room of the FBI field office in Pittsburgh, an agent named Bob Reutter was looking over the stolen property, examining it, not with a G-man’s eyes, but with those of a fan. There were baseball uniforms—thick, heavy flannel things with the names of the great, lost teams on them. The Memphis Red Sox. The Kansas City Monarchs. There were autographed baseballs, and old, sepia-shrouded pictures of young men wearing the heavy flannel uniforms of the great, lost teams. Looking at them, you could see back through time, all the way to the outskirts of town. Bob Reutter spent a long time looking.

It all belonged to an 86-year-old former security guard at the St. Louis City Hall named James Bell. In 1922, when he and the world were young, James Bell was pitching one hot day for the St. Louis Stars in the Negro League. It was late in the game, and there were men on base, and at the plate was a signifying hitter named Oscar Charleston. If the Negro League had a Babe Ruth, it was Oscar Charleston. The 19-year-old pitcher stared down the alley, and struck Oscar Charleston out of there, saving the game.

Lord, the other Stars thought, that young man is cool. So that’s what they called him. Cool Bell. But Manager Bill Gatewood thought the nickname lacked sufficient dignity for the grave young man man with the thoughtful eyes. He’s older than that, thought Gatewood. Cool Papa, that’s who he is.

Cool Papa Bell.

The man had style. Anyone could see that. In the Negro League, the wardrobes always cut like knives. A player named Country Jake Stevens cold Donn Rogosin, the author of Invisible Men, that he knew he’d made the big club when the owner took him out and bought him three new suits and two new Stetson hats. Even in this company, Cool Papa was sharp. When he walked through Compton Hill in St. Louis, children danced in his wake.

He played for 29 years and for seven different teams. He was the fastest man anywhere in baseball, so swift and deft on the basepaths that, when it looked like Jackie Robinson was going to be chosen to shatter the segregation of the major leagues, Cool Papa once ran wild just to show the young shortstop what kind of play he could expect when and if Robinson were called up. Jimmy Crutchfield once told a baseball historian named Robert Peterson that, when Cool Papa hit one back to the pitcher, everybody else in the field yelled, “Hurry!” Satchel Paige claimed that Cool Pap could hit the light switch in the hotel room, and that he’d be in bed before the room got dark. That was the story they always cold about Cool Papa Bell. They even told it when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.

He is old now, and half-blind. For years, he held court in his house on what is now Cool Papa Bell Avenue in St. Louis. He would tell stories, and sign autographs, and he would show the curious everything he had saved from his playing days. The uniforms. The programs. The pictures. He always was an obliging man, was Cool Papa Bell. Even when his health began to fail, he always was that.

“He always had all of this memorabilia,” says Norman Seay, Bell’s nephew and an administrator at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. “People came from everywhere, from Timbuktu, to get autographs from Uncle Bell. It was a normal occurrence around that house.”

The, on March 22, all that changed. Bell was visited by Grybowski and Retort, who had driven 17 hours to St. Louis from New Castle, where Retort owns a company called R.D. Retort Enterprises. It operates within the bull market in what are called baseball collectibles. By all accounts, Retort is an aggressive collector. “He called here a lot, and you couldn’t get him off the phone,” says a source at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. “He never quite made it clear what the purpose of his research was, but he made a lot of requests for uniform numbers, and for what teams certain players played for. He didn’t seem to have much of a working knowledge of baseball history, but he kept us on the phone a half-hour at a time.”

Retort has declined comment on the specifics of the case against him, but does say that “when it all comes out, you’ll see there’s one huge world of difference between what I’ve been charged with, and what really happened. It’s a situation where, basically, I was there to get autographs from a Hall of Famer, and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

It is possible that Retort and Grybowski were invited to come to St. Louis by Bell, who rarely turned down such a request. The two spent several days there. Bell signed a lot of autographs, but it was a slow process. The FBI says that Retort paid Bell $100 for the various autographed items. That is all that Retort says he did there. The FBI does not agree.

According to investigators, Retort and Grybowski returned on March 25, and began to remove from the Bells’ house several cardboard boxes filled with the paraphernalia Cool Papa had collected over the course of his career. Bell and his wife, Clarabelle, told both the local police and the FBI that they had felt “trapped” by the two men, and that they were too intimidated to try and stop them. In fact, the Bells said, they were so intimidated that they didn’t even report the incident until their daughter, Connie Brooks, discovered what had happened a week later.

Retort, 38, and Grybowski, 65, were arrested on April 9. Both are free now, Retort on $25,000 bond and Grybowski on $10,000. They will stand trial this summer in St. Louis. Most of the memorabilia was recovered. Connie Brooks has flown in from New York, and she has spent a month helping investigators identify some of the articles. It is a federal offense to take more the [sic] $5,000 worth of stolen merchandise across state lines. The estimated value of everything that was taken from Cool Papa Bell’s house is $300,000, which has flatly flabbergasted some people who are close to him.

“I couldn’t believe it when they said that,” says Norman Seay. “I mean, a half-a-million dollars? To me, he was just my Uncle Bell, and all that stuff he had, I thought its real value was an internal kind of thing, that its value was intrinsic to him.”

But that is not the way the world is today. There are people who would call $300,000 a modest price for what was taken from Cool Papa Bell. These are people who understand a new and unsettlingly volatile marketplace in which the past is raw currency, and what energizes that marketplace is that same feeling that came over Bob Reutter, when he looked into the FBI’s conference room and saw an exposed vein of pure history stretched across its walls.

“I have to admit that I’m a fan, and I looked the stuff over,” admits the agent with a chuckle. “I saw those uniforms and I thought, ‘How did they ever play in those heavy things?’ It was all really interesting to me.”

Perhaps the Fourth Lateran Council had the right idea after all. In the 13th century, the Roman Catholic Church was awash in very pricey relics, including not only the purported heads of various saints, but also enough alleged pieces of the True Cross to build duplex homes for half the yeomanry in Western Europe. Embarrassed by this unbridled profiteering in the sacred, the church called the Council, which forbade the practice in 1215, whereupon the price of a saint’s head crashed all over Christendom.

That sort of naked interference in the free marketplace would not be tolerated today. We live in an acquisitive age, a trend encouraged from the very top of the political and cultural elite for more than a decade now. It manifests itself in everything from the leveraged buyout to the current desire of every cherubic four-year old to surround himself with replicas of pizza-chomping, Hey-Dude amphibians who are built like Ben Johnson. Indeed, today we have collectibles the instantly accrued value of which almost totally rests with the immediate demand for them. How much more, then, must genuine relics be worth?

It hit the art world first. In his book, Circus of Ambition, journalist John Taylor describes the rise of what he calls “the collecting class.” Taylor writes that, in the 1980s, “Collectors were returning in droves. One reason was the huge surge in income enjoyed by the individuals in the higher income brackets.” In one telling anecdote, Taylor overhears a rich young couple at an art auction. The husband complains that, “We’re unhappy with the Cezanne.” His wife responds, cheerily, “That’s OK because we’re going to trade up!”

Substitute “Pete Rose” for Cezanne in that conversation, and you’ve pretty much got what happened when this dynamic hit sports, the only difference being, of course, that, unlike Rose, Cezanne wasn’t around to pitch his own paintings on the Home Shopping Network. It is estimated that the trade in sports collectibles has become a $200 million industry in this country. It is manifested best by all those things that give the willies to the baseball purists. These include card shows—and the almost universally condemned notion of the $15 autograph—as well as the public auction of old baseball equipment.

When Taylor writes that, “Many of these collectors were frankly more interested in art as an investment than as a means of cultural certification,” it’s hard not to hear the complaint that echoes across the land every time another one of yesterday’s heroes starts peddling his memories. It’s hard not to hear the guy at Cooperstown saying that Robert Retort’s “working knowledge of baseball” was lacking.

As is the case with any good capitalist enterprise, if you push it far enough you find yourself passing through greed and moving all the way into the criminal. The case of Pete Rose is instructive here. First came the reports that there were several bats in circulation that were purported to be the one that Rose used to break Ty Cobb’s record on Sept. 11, 1985. Now, accounts of that historic at-bat indicate that Rose used only one bat. Where the other three (or four, or eight, or 12) came from remains a mystery, especially to the gullible people who bought them. In this, Pete Rose was lucky he only had to face the late Bart Giamatti. The Fourth Lateran Council would’ve had him in thumbscrews.

Now, however, it’s been revealed that Rose failed to declare to the Internal Revenue Service the cash income that he made at card shows, and in the sale of various memorabilia. There is some symmetry, at least, in the fact that, in the same week, Pete Rose and Michael Milken, symbols of their age, both faced a federal judge.

Nor is Rose the only criminal case in which baseball collectibles figure prominently. We have the odd affair involving National League umpire Bob Engel, who is alleged to have attempted to steal 4,180 baseball cards from a store in Bakersfield, CA. And, believing that his bats were being lifted by enterprisingly larcenous clubhouse personnel, at least one American League superstar has taken the radical step of having the bats sent directly to his hotel rather than to the ball park.

But the case of Cool Papa Bell is far more serious than either of these other two. After all, it involves the alleged intimidation of an 87-year old, half-blind, sickly man, and it also involves a federal felony even more serious than the one committed by Pete Rose. There would have to be a huge payoff involved for Retort to have risked such a crime. Experts say that there was, and that it has everything to do with the nature of the memorabilia itself.

In the first place, there is a finite number of Negro League collectibles available. When Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers, the Negro League essentially collapsed. Therefore, there’s no futures market in Negro League memorabilia.

In addition, the people who played in the Negro League are mainly quite old now—Bell is about the average age for a Negro League veteran—and there are not many left who even played back then. That means there are only limited prospects for the lucrative trade in replicas, in which a retired player will authorize (and autograph) things like duplicate bats and uniforms. The FBI charges that Retort and Grybowski forced Bell to sign a letter authorizing such replicas. Retort denies the charge.

Because Negro League memorabilia is so passing rare, there is no established price scale for any of it. Thus, traders are free to ask whatever price they want because there are no benchmarks by which that price can be measured. “If I saw a ball signed by the 1919 Black Sox, I’d know what that was worth,” says Alan Rosen, a New Jersey entrepreneur who’s known among memorabilia collectors as Mr. Mint. “But if I saw a ball signed by the original winners of the Black World Series, I wouldn’t know how to authenticate the signatures. I wouldn’t know how to price the thing.”

This is not an insignificant admission. Mr. Mint has been known to show up in the living rooms of baseball-card collectors with a briefcase full of cash. Indeed, if you were to skulk around Colin Cliveishly and dig up Christy Mathewson, Mr. Mint probably could price the bones for you. Nevertheless, Negro League memorabilia has brought top dollar at a number of auctions. An authentic poster advertising a Fourth ofJuly doubleheader featuring Satchel Paige once sold for $2,400. A program from an exhibition game between a Negro League All-Star team and Dizzy Dean’s barnstorming club went for $700. Intact tickets from the Negro World Series, or from the annual East-West All-Star game have fetched up to $500 apiece, and an autographed ball from the 1940 East-West game was sold to a collector for $850. A man named George Lyons even got $1,500 for an authenticated contract between a Cuban League team and one James Bell of St. Louis.

“Nobody really has any independent judgment regarding what to pay for something,” explains Herman Kaufman, a collector and auctioneer who specializes in Negro League memorabilia. “I’d say that 99 percent of collecting is pure enjoyment, but that the other one percent is knowing that you have something that nobody else has.”

Which brings up the question of how far a collector is willing to go to get what nobody else has. Investigators probing the recent massive art theft at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum say privately that, while they’re confident that they will apprehend the thieves, most of the actual paintings are probably gone forever, quietly sold to collectors and now hanging in someone’s library.

Kaufman dismisses the idea of a memorabilia underground—”Why buy something if you can never show it?” he asks—but others in the field are not as sanguine about the possibility. They think Cool Papa’s lucky that the FBI got most of his things back.

“If you’re asking if sometimes guys’ll come to me and say, ‘Look, I got this scuff here, and keep it between me and you where you got it,’ and that’s the deal, I’d have to say, yes that happens, says Joe Esposito of B&E Collectibles in New York. “You have to remember that you’re dealing with collectors. They’ll do anything.”

***

Cool Papa was hospitalized shortly after the incident with Retort and Grybowski. “He’s at the point of death,” says his wife. He’s at home now, but other family members wonder whether or not it’s time for him to leave the house on Cool Papa Bell Avenue and live out his days in a retirement home. They doubt whether Clarabelle can adequately care for him anymore.

“He’s very fragile and he’s very weak; ‘ says Norman Seay. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. You know, it’s funny, all those years growing up next door to him, I didn’t realize that he was a celebrity. He was just Uncle Bell. I never realized how great he really was. You know, as an African-American athlete, he never got the respect he should have. It was kind of a second-class identity for him.”

That, perhaps, is the real crime here. It’s more than a simple threat. It’s a kind of crime against history. Because of the entrenched racism of major league baseball, Cool Papa Bell never was able to profit fully from his enormous skills. At the very least, then, he ought to be able to profit fully from the accoutrements of that talent, or he ought to be able to leave it alone, snug in boxes in the basement. If what the FBI says is true, then that is the real crime here, not the mere pilfering of things to meet the demands of a marketplace gone dotty, or to satisfy an acquisitive age. *It is the further robbing of a man who’s already had too much of his self stolen.

There’s a man named Tweed Webb who knows what the crime is. He is the unofficial historian for the Negro League in St. Louis, and he is a friend of Cool Papa Bell’s. “I go back to about 1910,” he says. “I kept all my records because if you don’t have records, you can’t prove nothing happened. It’s like nothing ever did happen, if you don’t have records.

“Cool Papa, he’s been sick for 18 or 19 years, but we talk, you know? He told me about what happened right when it happened.

The FBI come out here to talk to me because, you know, I got valuable stuff myself. I got all my records, all my scorecards. Certain people’d love to get their hands on the stuff I got. But I don’t sell none of it. I pass along learning to people, but the records are priceless. At least, they’re priceless to me.”

Oddly enough, both the investigators and the defendant express concern for Bell’s health. “I did a lot of work on this out of loyalty to Cool Papa,” says Bob Reutter, G-man and baseball fan. “I heard that he wasn’t doing too well, and I wanted to get that stuff back for him. I don’t imagine the publicity’s going to help much, either. I mean, it probably isn’t good for him that people know he’s got a quarter-million dollars worth of stuff in his basement.”

“I’m worried about what all this will do to his health,” says Robert Retort. “It’s got to take a toll on the poor man.”

It will come to trial sometime this summer. For now, Connie Brooks stays in St. Louis, identifying pieces of her father’s past for the investigators. And Cool Papa Bell stays at home. He doesn’t get up much any more. In the twilight, Cool Papa Bell is already in bed. Someone else turns out the light.

Nobody was ever convicted of any crime in connection with Cool Papa Bell’s memorabilia. Cool Papa died on March 7, 1991 and he’s buried in Hilldale Cemetery near St. Louis. His fame lives on in the name of a popular Detroit funk band.

[Illustrations by Allan Mardon; Will JohnsonTom Chiarello; Mike Benny; John Wolfe]

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver