There is a joke told by Mexican baseball fans about Espino arriving at the pearly gates of heaven with much less fanfare. St. Peter doesn’t recognize Espino and asks God what he should do. “Don’t be a coward,” God says. “Pitch to him.”
Most American baseball fans wouldn’t recognize Héctor Espino either, even though he was the greatest hitter in Mexican history and by many accounts one of the best hitters of all time. Espino played from 1960 to 1984. He had wrists like the barrels of baseball bats and a body like a 5’11, 185-pound vending machine. He also hit somewhere between 755 and 796 professional home runs.
The exact total, like much about Espino’s career, is a matter of perspective.
You’ll enjoy this, Jared Haynes’ interview with Roger Angell. I came across this when I was at the baseball Hall of Fame doing research eight years ago. Found it in Angell’s file and think it’s just great.
Originally published in the fall 1992 edition ofWriting on the Edge and reprinted here with permission.
Roger Angell has been a fiction editor for The New Yorker since 1956 and has contributed to the magazine for close to fifty years. He is best known for his pieces on baseball, written for the magazine’s “The Sporting Scene” section. Many of these pieces have been gathered into collections (The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings, Season Ticket).
Every time I read one of Angell’s articles, I come away with a deeper appreciation and understanding of baseball. His year-end roundups sift through the minutiae of the long season to see what, at the end, really mattered, what was startling and unexpected, and what came to nothing. Other pieces investigate the skills and knowledge that players need to play their positions; or illustrate the swings in momentum within an at-bat, a game, a series, or a season; or tease apart the conflicts between differing factions—owners, management, players, and, most forgotten of all, the fans.
I talked with Roger Angell early in July in his office at The New Yorker. The day was hot and muggy, and because of a traffic jam, I arrived late and anxious. Angell greeted me graciously and gave me a glass of water and time to wind down. We then spent a pleasant hour and a half talking about writing and baseball, while the faint street sounds of New York wafted up from seventeen stories below.
WOE: When did you first start to consider yourself a writer?
ANGELL: The wish to be a writer was built into me very early, because of my family background. My mother was connected with The New Yorker from the second year of its existence, in 1926. And then my stepfather, E. B. White, was a writer. So I was attracted to that. My father was a lawyer; he wrote a couple of books, but he was a lawyer primarily. I was not attracted to the law, but that was not a vote against him. He was always completely supportive of whatever I chose to do.
I was a kid writer in school and editor of the school paper. I knew I would end up in publishing somewhere, editing or publishing, and I’ve been both an editor and a writer all my life. During the war I became managing editor of a GI magazine in the Pacific called Brief, which was the only weekly slick-paper, coated-stock, enlisted-man’s publication in that war. That was great practice. We covered all of the central Pacific, something like 2 million square miles. I had to write every week and help get the thing together. It’s not bad; I’ve gone back and looked at it and we did a pretty good job.
WOE: Would you say that the influence of your mother and stepfather was fairly direct? I don’t mean that they taught you, but did they give advice?
ANGELL: It was more from watching, but, sure, their influence was important. It mattered for me in psychological terms, because my parents were divorced when I was about eight years old and I ended up with my father, which was not the best arrangement. I saw a lot of my mother, but she was away. I was young and I yearned for her, so what she did, working forThe New Yorker, was of great significance to me. And what Andy White, my stepfather, did was attractive to me. My mother always supported my wishes to be a writer, my baby efforts. I had a first contribution to the famous Franklin P. Adams column, “The Conning Tower,” when I was about nine years old. I dashed it off and my stepfather picked it up and sent it in and it got published.
And, of course, when I got older, I realized that Andy White was a wonderful model. He was there at hand, and he wrote so well. I learned things from him, the main one being to try to write simply and directly and to try to make it sound easy. Be clear, be unaffected if you can, and try to arrive at a tone that is your own tone, not somebody else’s. It takes a while for you to recognize what your own tone is. I also learned how hard writing is. He made it look easy, and anybody reading E. B. White thinks, Well, this was a snap, this was a cinch for him. Of course it wasn’t. He suffered the way all writers suffer. I remember summers in North Brooklin, Maine, when he was writing “Comment”—he wrote that first page of The New Yorker for years. He’d write on Tuesdays, as I recall, when he’d close himself in his study all day. He’d come out for lunch looking pale, and he wouldn’t speak. Then he’d go back in there. He’d mail it off in the late afternoon, and then, half the time, he’d try to get it back because he thought it wasn’t good enough. Of course, it was good enough, but I recognize the impulse. Every writer understands that. Writing is hard; it’s really hard. Maybe he should have told me to turn back before it was too late!
Most writers are made at an early age. I don’t think many people come to it as a late idea. But there are always people who think, “Say, maybe I could become a writer!” I’ve heard people say, “Oh, you’re a writer. Isn’t that interesting. Someday I’m going to sit down and write a book.” You try not to laugh or scream. A writer named Roger Burlingame—someone my father’s age—had this happen years ago. Someone came up to him at a party and said this. So Burlingame asked him, “What’s your line of work?” and the man answered, “Well, I’m a civil engineer.” “That’s amazing,” Burlingame said. “You know, you won’t believe this, but all these years I’ve told myself that someday I’m going to sit down and build a bridge.”
When I talk to groups of young writers, I sometimes ask them, “Do you really want to do this?” I have cautionary tales about how tough it is, and how it doesn’t get any easier. They think that once they get the hang of it, the difficulty will go away, and of course it’s not true. Back in the mid-seventies, I was writing a piece about the Super Bowl, of all things—a “Sporting Scene” piece. The Super Bowl is two weeks of hype followed by two hours of football. I was there for a full week of the hype and I got to know the other writers. Just after the game we were in the pressroom eating a sandwich, and I said, “Now the hard part comes, we gotta write this stuff.” And a writer next to me—l was older than he was by about fifteen or twenty years—actually turned pale, and said, “You mean, it’s still hard for you?” and I said, “Yeah.” I understood his problem and I said, “I’m sorry, but it’s never going to get any easier.”
WOE: Did you have any worthwhile writing instruction in school or college?
ANGELL: When I was a freshman at Harvard, they had some remarkable instructors in composition. Wallace Stegner was there and Mark Schorer—celebrated teachers of writing. They were all in their late twenties. There were five or six sections that were all top-class. We had to write every week, which was good practice. But there isn’t much to say in a classroom about writing. You can talk endlessly about a piece of copy, or a paragraph or a sentence, and to some effect, but in general terms you can’t go much beyond “Show them, don’t tell them,” “Keep it direct,” “Be effective,” “Don’t be pompous”—all the standard things.
In those days, the great influence, the great exemplar, was Hemingway. I remember in that course at Harvard, we used to get our themes back in sort of a mail-box, with pigeon-holes, and of course you’d pick out other people’s stories and read them. Whenever I did this, I realized that every one of us was writing like Hemingway. I still remember the first sentence of one of my classmates’ stories I’d picked up: “Eddie stank of squirrel guts.”
WOE: Your first published works were short stories.
ANGELL: I wrote those pieces when I was in my twenties and thirties. I was just trying to become some kind of a writer. There were a couple of them that were OK, I guess. I really didn’t decide to stop; I just didn’t have a lot more stories to tell.
Of course in my work as an editor, I’ve been aware of most of the reigning influences in the short story.
WOE: Who have those been?
ANGELL: Oh, Raymond Carver was a very powerful influence. Donald Barthelme, back before him. Salinger to an extraordinary degree. Before that, Cheever and John O’Hara. Updike has been an influence all along, and a very strong one, but he’s difficult for students. His flavor is distinct, but not perceptible sentence by sentence. Barthelme was almost overpowering as an influence for a while because that quirky, pasted-together style looked easy, and of course it wasn’t. There was only one Donald. When he’d been going a few years, his brother Frederick Barthelme—Rick Barthelme—began sending us stuff that was exactly like Donald’s. I had to tell him, through Don at first, because I didn’t know him, that we already had one of these, we couldn’t use two. But then in time he arrived at his own way, his own approach to writing, which was entirely different, and we published a great many of his stories. I don’t think there is a dominant short-story model now. It’s strange. I don’t think there’s any meaning to it. It just doesn’t happen at the moment that there is a model. I can’t think of any.
WOE: How did you come to start writing about baseball?
ANGELL: William Shawn, then the editor [of The New Yorker], wanted to have more sports in the magazine. I had written a piece for the magazine about hockey— I’d been a hockey fan. But he was wary because he understood the difficulties of writing about sports. He didn’t want us to be cynical, he didn’t want us to be too knowing, and he didn’t want us to be sentimental. He said, “Why don’t you go down to spring training and see what happens?” I went to Florida in the spring of ’62, I guess, and wrote that first baseball piece, and I just kept going after that. I had no idea it would go on this long. It was never planned that this would become such a specialty of mine, a considerable part of a career. I just went on from year to year because I always found something else I wanted to write about. It seemed to be a good fit.
WOE: How did you envision that first assignment when you went down to Florida?
ANGELL: What I did was write about baseball from the fans’ point of view. I was in my forties—I was forty-one—and I knew enough to know that I didn’t know a great deal about baseball, even though I was a true-blue fan. I’d followed baseball all my life. But I was wary of talking to players; I felt very nervous about that. So I sat in the stands and reported on what that was like. The piece was called “The Old Folks Behind Home.” It was about old men and women watching spring training. The great preponderance of fans in ’62 were old folks.
And also, although it was not a conscious plan, I wrote about myself, because I was a fan. It set a pattern for me. I am a fan, I refer to myself as a fan, and I report about my feelings as a fan, and nobody else, to my knowledge, does that. It’s no great thing, but those old restrictions on reporting seemed to say that you can’t put yourself in the piece and you can’t betray emotion. It’s funny, because most of the beat writers have this surface objectivity and toughness, but underneath it all, I’ve noticed, they are just as much fans as the rest of us, or more so. If you sat up there and didn’t care about baseball in some personal way, it would be a deadly assignment, I think, year after year. Some of them are fans of other teams, not the team they’re covering. But if it comes down late in the season, to the last week or the last weekend, and your team still has a chance to get into the playoffs, you look around in the pressbox and everybody up there is pulling for them, and an occasional hopeful yell escapes their lips, even though no cheering in the pressbox is the absolute rule.
WOE: Has your vision of the assignment changed over the years?
ANGELL: Sure it’s changed. I eventually came to know more about baseball. I came to know some players and I began to feel free about going onto the field and into the clubhouse and talking to some players. And then, I guess in the seventies and early eighties, I began to realize that there was a great deal about the game I didn’t understand, and that many people didn’t understand. I still feel that way. That’s one of the reasons I’m still doing this. Baseball is intensely complicated, beautifully complicated. If you can get the players talking about what they do, it can make for interesting pieces. The best defense against partisanship is expertise, because the game is too painful otherwise. Year after year, it hurts to be a fan. There is much more losing than winning in baseball, if you think about it—in all sports, actually. If your hopes have been high, it can be almost unbearable. Sometimes it becomes a long slow ache, if you’ve been a Red Sox fan. Or it can be a sudden shock if you’ve gotten your hopes up for the first time, when your team comes from nowhere and seems to have a shot and then suddenly falls apart before your eyes.
WOE: It seems that you play the odds—you have three or four favorite teams that you cover.
ANGELL: The day-to-day teams that I follow most have been the Mets and the Red Sox. In 1986 I suddenly had to figure out which of the two I cared more about. It was true act of discovery; this was not contrived at all. Late in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, I suddenly realized the Mets were about to be eliminated and I was downcast. I was surprised. I would have bet the other way, that I cared more about the Red Sox, but I was wrong. So I had to write and confess that there was more Met than Red Sock in me. And my readers—I get quite a lot of mail from readers who care about baseball—my New England mail was remarkably forgiving. I thought I would be excoriated.
The other team I’ve followed is the Oakland Athletics. I’ve gotten to know the management well, first from a Profile I wrote about Roy Eisenhardt. I also admire the Haas family, the Levi Strauss people who decided to buy the team in 1980. Walter Haas, Sr. is a true baseball fan, a sports fan. They really wanted to do something for the city of Oakland. They’re liberal multi-millionaires, which is a surprising combination. They’re admirable people. Oakland was a depressed city, a city with a high preponderance of minorities, in very dire straits. They thought it would be good for Oakland to keep a big-league team, and it has been good for Oakland. This sort of concern is very rare among owners. Oakland is among the two or three most admired franchises by the players and by people who really know baseball.
WOE: You mentioned how complicated the game is. One of the pieces I’ve most admired is “In the Fire,” the one about catchers. I think it opened my eyes as a fan to how difficult and complex the game is.
ANGELL: What I learned on that story was how smart catchers have to be. They really do run the game. They see everything out there; they’re the only ones who are looking out at the field, except for the fans. I think that was the first “What do you do?” piece that I wrote. Players I talked to at first couldn’t believe that was all I wanted. They were sort of close-mouthed and thought I was after just another sports story, but I said “No, just tell me what you do.” I think for most reporters that’s probably a pretty good question, because all of us are entranced with what we do, if it’s complicated at all, and love to talk about it. So once they began to talk about it I couldn’t shut them up. There’s a lot about catching I couldn’t get in there. As I said in the piece, this is just beginning to get into what it’s all about.
On these “What do you do?” pieces, I tend to leave out the most obvious or most famous player. I don’t want to go to the top man, because what he does may seem too easy to him. So I didn’t go to Johnny Bench, although he talks about baseball and about catching very well. The people I did go to were great talkers. Of course any reporter knows enough to go to a good talker. You remember who talks well—who talks in sentences and now and then even in paragraphs. There are several Hall of Fame talkers in that same piece.
WOE: What goes into researching and writing a piece on baseball?
ANGELL: It depends on the piece. The big fall roundup really requires me to go to games fairly steadily through the summer, to take notes and keep scorecards. I also used to keep enormous stacks of newspapers and clips, The Sporting News, Baseball America, the Times, out of town papers, and last year, The National. I’d have stacks and stacks of stuff like that around here and at the end of the year I’d have to try to make some sense out of it. The biggest question, first of all, is what to leave out. There’s far more material than I can deal with. If you get a brilliant World Series like the one last fall, between the Braves and the Twins, that’s easy, because you know you’re going to hurry to the World Series in the piece. And the playoffs were just as good. You want to go back and recreate the feeling of those very close, low-scoring games, when most of us were just getting to know these young players. We didn’t know them well at all because they were both last place teams the year before. As I wrote, a great many fans said, “Who are these guys? I don’t care about these guys.” And then of course they played so well, it was like discovering baseball for the first time. I’d come in and people around here would say, “Wow! I’m worn out.” They were terrific games. It was like a World Series that was nothing but one long ninth inning.
There’s a lot to organize for those pieces in the fall. This year I’m going to try to do a shorter piece about the World Series, if I can break the habit.
When I go to games, I take a lot of notes. I take a standard, three-subject school notebook like this [picks it up off his desk], and I write all the way through games. This is a piece I’m working on, getting ready to write right now, about Class A baseball, the lowest level of organized ball, up in Oneonta, New York. I was up there last week. People who have known me in various pressboxes around the league know that I write a lot during the games. It’s a kind of joke—all the notes I take. But the reason is that I’m going to write much later than anybody else. I may be at a game in July and the chances are I won’t use any part of it in an autumn piece, but you never know. You don’t know when you’re watching a game if this is going to fit into something else that happens in September and something else that happens in October, or some recurrent theme I want to pick up on, or something about this particular player that I’m going to see later on. Well, I can’t remember what happened at this at-bat back in June. I can’t suddenly pull this out of the air. It’s got to be down on paper.
WOE: Do the notes allow you to revisualize the play?
ANGELL: Yes, if the notes are okay. I sometimes write down little things, how someone looks standing up at bat, what the pitcher’s mannerisms are up on the mound, or even what happened on a particular play, if it’s unusual. Baseball is a sport uniquely suited to writing, because you can go back and reconstruct a game from fairly simple notes and from a scorecard. You can bring back a moment, or even the pattern of the game. When something started to happen, if there was a game with a shift in it, a hinge in it. Then you can say this is why this game started this way and went that way. It all moves at a pace that allows you to write it down and watch it beginning to happen. Usually if there’s a shift in the game you can go back and say, “Well, actually this began the inning before or the inning before that.” You can do it in some detail. I don’t think anybody does it in more detail than I do. I’ve been laughed at sometimes for this, but I think fans like it. Baseball is really a writer’s game. All those idle moments at the ballpark where you look around and enjoy the day or the evening and another peanut, and now and then a thought actually comes, or even an idea crosses your mind. That doesn’t happen much in basketball or hockey because too many things are happening. And in football you can’t tell what’s happening. In baseball, you can. It’s very rare that something happens where people will say, “What was that?”
WOE: Do you tend to write in complete sentences in your notebooks?
ANGELL: I don’t think so. These notebooks [on Class A baseball] are different because I wasn’t doing very careful stuff about these games themselves. I was doing it about the setting. No, these aren’t sentences. These are quotes in some cases. But in my game notebooks I sometimes have something drawn. I make a little rough sketch of what someone looks like. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched Will Clark, who has this elegant, beautiful swing. It’s such a wonderful thing to watch. I would begin to watch how he’d do this and I’d make a drawing of that column made by his front leg and the fulcrum as he twists his body around.
WOE: What is most difficult for you in writing?
ANGELL: Starting a piece seems to be extremely difficult for me. It always has been. People around here are used to my cries of rage and woe, because I can’t get cranked up. Once I start to write, I’m pretty quick. But starting is a terrible block for me. Perhaps the reason is that good writing is based on clear thinking, which is the hardest thing we have to do. It’s as plain as that. It’s hard to start to write because what you have to do is to start to think. And not just think with the easy, up front part of your brain but with the deeper, back parts of the unconscious. The unconscious comes into writing in a powerful way. When I was writing weekly pieces—and I think daily writers feel this as well—if I am having a hard time I can go to bed at night and say, “When I wake up I’m going to have the lead.” And you do. You can train your mind to do that. Some part of you is sitting there hunched over, under a light, looking over possibilities.
I think part of my problem is that I don’t write regularly. I’m not just a writer, I’m an editor—my full time job is an editor—so I write something and then I stop. Then I may not write again for a month or two or even three or four months. And when that happens, you’ve got to remember what writing is. You have to teach yourself all over again. It doesn’t come naturally. Whenever I’ve been in the situation where I had to write every week—I did the movies for the magazine for six months once—it was a cinch. I knew I came in on Tuesdays and I was going to write the piece. By the end of the day the piece would be done. That’s no problem. But if you’re going to write five thousand or ten thousand or even a fifteen thousand words, and you haven’t done anything of the sort for a good many weeks, it’s hard to get it right. But I think all this time I’m basically sorting out the material, mostly unconsciously; I’m getting ready to decide where to put the emphasis.
I think I’m also hampered a little bit by the feeling that I’m probably competing with myself, although I try to combat this. I don’t feel a need to write a better piece each time I go out, but l know that I’ve got something of a reputation and I don’t want to write a bad piece, I really don’t. I don’t want to let down the side—by which I mean I don’t want to let myself down. I recognize this feeling among ballplayers because the great motivating factor for every major-league athlete, anybody who’s been an athlete for a long time, is that you don’t want to look bad out there. People say players today are out there thinking about money, but the truth is, they want to do well. That’s why they’re there. There’s another connection between sports and writing—all writers want to do well. It’s one of the reasons why it’s so damned hard.
WOE: I remember your quoting one player who asked his teammates, “Please tell me when I need to retire.”
ANGELL: I think that was Bob Boone. Actually he’d said it the other way around. He was still playing and he was forty-three years old. He’d played more games than any other catcher. And now that Carlton Fisk has been injured all this year it looks as if he’ll keep that record. I was a friend of Bob Boone’s and I asked him once, “How do you keep going?” He said, “I never think about my age. Never. If I go into a slump, I don’t ask myself ‘Is this because I’m old?’” Because it’s tough enough without that. And then he said, “They’ll tell me when I’m too old to play. They’ll come take the uniform away and say, ‘You can’t play any more.’ I’m not going to tell myself that.”
WOE: When you go to do a piece on, say, Class A baseball, do you go with a specific purpose in mind? Do you know ahead of time what you want to get out of it? Or do you just go to watch the games and see what happens?
ANGELL: Well, I’m doing the piece on Class A baseball right now because Major League baseball is such a pain in the ass. We are burdened by front-office news and issues of money, with these squabbles with the commissioner—league rearrangements, expansion franchises, and all the rest of it—and it’s hard to remember what we came for, which is to watch baseball. I think all of us in the stands, not just writers but all of us, feel farther away from the game than we used to. It requires enormous effort to remember that we go to the park to have fun.
I don’t want to whine here, because I think I’ve become used to most of the terrific changes, the amazing changes in the game. They’re not amazing, they’re depressing. There have been significant changes in the apparatus of baseball since I began watching it. Diamond Vision is a huge change. Everything that happens out there is replayed up on that huge board. There is rock music between the innings and even during the innings sometimes. There is organized cheering in some ballparks. The Nipponization of sports is beginning to take hold here. And of course we’re all distracted by the publicity, the fame, and we don’t really identify with those players now. With all the blather and noise and distraction of big-time sports—which is very much the same sort of stuff that’s going on in America itself—it’s hard to remember why we were drawn to this in the first place.
I went back to Class A ball and up to Oneonta because I’d heard that this was a delightful small ballpark, with a president-owner who had been there for almost thirty years now. It’s a Yankee franchise. It’s short season Class A league, where the teams are made up of players just out of college. They’re new draftees. I watched them play a Red Sox team and then a Houston team and then I went over to Pittsfield and watched them play a Mets team. It’s nice. It’s small town baseball, the trees are very close, you’re within five yards of first base, you can smell the grass, the kids are young, and the stands are full of parents and babies. It’s the way spring training used to be. It’s a lot of fun and that’s all I’m going to try to say in the piece. I don’t have anything more to say than that.
WOE: What about revising pieces? When you get to the point where it’s “done,” do you give it to somebody else to look at?
ANGELL: I don’t do a lot of revising. I work at a typewriter. Writer friends keep telling me I should move to a word processor. Every interviewer comes in here, particularly younger ones, and sees this old Olympia, and the first thing they write in their notes is “Still writes on funky upright typewriter.” I don’t do a lot of drafts. I don’t rewrite big sections. I do the editing while I’m writing. I might rewrite a page or so. I write and I “x” out, I write and I “x” out some more. When I’m done, what I have is a great untidy stack of manuscript, a lot of which is held together with Scotch tape. But by the time I’m done, it’s pretty well the way it’s going to be. I sometimes might go back and add something—a thought, or a little theme, a couple of extra pages that I didn’t have the first time. And sometimes I’ll take out something that’s repetitious. But by the time I’ve gone through the process, it’s about ready to go to type.
I also have an editor here whom I rely on to tell me when I’ve been foolish or repetitious or boring, and I count on that. All New Yorker writers do that. The mark of a professional, or a veteran anyway, is that you know you’re going to make mistakes. You need somebody there to tell you that. My editor is now Chip McGrath, who is the managing editor here. My editor before that was Gardner Botsford, who is now retired. These are terrific editors. Gardner would sometimes cut a few lines and I wouldn’t even notice it. Reading the galleys I’d say, “Didn’t I have something else in here?” He’d be very pleased when I finally realized it, because he’d been so deft that there was no scar left.
WOE: That need for outside help is hard to get across to students when we’re teaching them writing.
ANGELL: Absolutely. A lot of my work as an editor involves young writers, and new writers tend to feel that the way they wrote it is the way it’s meant to be. Once you see your stuff in type you think you wrote every one of those words without crossing out a line. It’s an illusion that we all have, to some extent. And the truth of the matter is that any piece of writing is just the last proof; it’s the one we had to let go of because the deadline is here.
This [indicating a sheaf of pages on his desk] is a page proof of a new John Updike story. It’s very short, just five pages. These are some corrections from our copy desk, some suggestions on grammar and usage, whatever. But we’ve already sent him the author’s proof, which had a lot more on it—factual queries from the “checking department, little things he might want to consider. All that’s gone off to him and he has answered them, and his corrections are in this page proof. I’ve sent up the page proofs already by overnight mail. I’ll talk to him tomorrow morning and we’ll go over these possible fixes. He will answer those questions, and meantime he will have some changes of his own. He rewrites on the author’s proof, but he also rewrites on page proof. He may have four or five sentences he’ll want to handle differently—rephrasing, new sentences—and sometimes he’ll ask me “What do you think? Is this better than that?” He’s open to my opinion because that’s what I’m here for. I’m not trying to rewrite John Updike, but to say “Why don’t you try it this way?”
WOE: And you find veteran writers more receptive to this?
ANGELL: Sure. And some very well known writers require quite a lot of editing. I don’t think it makes them lesser writers; it’s just what they are. Then there are some writers who are famously clean and write finished copy from the beginning. Updike is like that. With Donald Barthelme, you hardly had to do anything, but he still counted on me as an editor. I remember he said once, “I count on you to get the hay out.” And I count on my editors in turn when I’m writing.
WOE: I get the impression when reading your pieces that you are working on several ideas at once, some that you may not use until later. For example, the piece on catchers. You worked on it the season before but didn’t really get around to writing it until later. Do you consciously have several projects going on in your mind at once?
ANGELL: I wish I had more things going on. But, sure, the catching piece contained a lot of material and I wanted more time to get around and talk to more people. I don’t always have all that much time to get away from my desk and go out reporting. I wrote that piece in the winter. I started in spring training the previous year and finished writing it in the winter.
Right now I’ve got some notes on coaching from my spring-training travels that I haven’t used yet. I’m not sure there’s enough there, or that I understand enough yet.
WOE: You frequently mention the linearity of baseball in your pieces.
ANGELL: Well, watching a ball game is something like reading. Something happens and then something else happens, and something else happens after that. As I said before, you can go back in your mind and see which events or characters mattered during those early boring but necessary chapters. You have to pay attention because you don’t know what kind of a book or what kind of a game it’s going to turn out to be. You won’t know until you get on toward the end. Sometimes the whole thing goes flat. Sometimes it’s promising and then disappointing. Sometimes there are continuous themes, sometimes there are sudden changes. Now and then you realize that you’re reading a classic.
WOE: I’m curious as to how you envision your audience. How do you think about your reader?
ANGELL: I don’t have anybody in particular in mind. The person is probably me or somebody like me. I know a lot about my readers because I get mail from them right through the year. I think this is because baseball means a lot to people and perhaps also because I write about myself in my baseball pieces. One of the great privileges for me is that I’ve been able to say “I” a lot. I can cut directly to things I feel strongly about. Since I write personally, and since baseball seems to mean a lot to real fans, then they feel I’m writing to them and they write back. They write me not just about baseball, but about their lives. Floods of mail, or what seems like floods. I’m always behind. This winter, I wrote a piece about my baseball beginnings as a boy fan, and I’ve had well over two hundred letters, maybe three hundred letters, from people writing about their own baseball beginnings. And they’re not all old geezers like me. Whatever their age, they all seem to remember going with their father to the park for the first time, and when they first saw this team or that player.
We write because we want a response. Writing is a lonely occupation, but I think all writers are writing to somebody. As long as you remember that, you’re not going to go too far astray. You can’t write and then put it away. That’s what Salinger has been doing all these years, and it’s a shame, because I can’t believe that it’s going to be any good. He has had his own reasons, to be sure.
When you’re writing, you have to think about the person who’s going to be reading this, every moment. This is what I say to young writers I deal with. What will the reader think? What will the reader think? We are doing this very complicated thing in concert with the person who is going to read this. You have signed an invisible compact that promises that you are not going to let this guy down. You’re not going to play tricks on him, you are not going to lead him up this way and then turn on him and do something else.
Whenever I get the feeling that I’m writing well, it’s because in some way I can intuit or imagine what a reader is thinking. I think this must be true for most writers. It certainly is for me. You can set up things that are going to work later on in a piece. You prepare a reader almost unconsciously, and then something happens later on that connects with that earlier passage. The reader is pleased or saddened or whatever, sometimes not quite knowing why, butyou know why. This is the part of writing that is deeply pleasing if you can do it right. It’s another reason why it’s so hard. It’s never just you and the page. It’s you and the page and the person who is going to consume this object at the other end.
WOE: That idea of preparing the reader reminds me of your piece on Dan Quisenberry. Reading that, I feel he’s such an artist and such an interesting person. Then toward the end, you talk about how his pitching starts to fall apart, and his bewilderment about what went wrong is very sad.
ANGELL: Sure. And there’s another example of difficulty. This is another connection between baseball and writing. They are both intensely difficult. They look easy, but they’re hard.
WOE: Let me ask you about your style. It’s a very literate style. As I read through Season Ticket, I picked out just a couple of the many metaphors or allusions you made: a piece on the Detroit ball club of 1984 is called “Tiger, Tiger”; two women behind you in the stands are a Euripidean chorus; a particular player’s stance is like limeflower tea to your memory. These are things that the average reader of a newspaper sports section is not going to latch onto at all.
ANGELL: I hope I don’t do this in an affected way. I worry about this because I don’t want to use references that my readers are unable to follow. I think in The New Yorker you find an audience that is ready for this sort of thing. The references are ones that come readily to my mind while I’m writing, and if they’re literary, it’s because I’ve read a lot. But I also have a lot of very commonplace figures, a lot of jokes, slang, movie references, because this is also what I am. I’m an informal sort of a guy.
WOE: Is there any precedent for that kind of writing in sports? Where did it come from? Is it natural for you?
ANGELL: I think it’s natural for me. There are people in sports who have written this way. A great model for me was Red Smith, who was a model for almost every sportswriter. The great thing about Red Smith was that he sounded like himself. His attitude about sports was always clear. He felt himself enormously lucky to be there in the pressbox. He was not in favor of glorifying the players too much—Godding up the players, in Stanley Woodward’s phrase. But he was Red Smith in every line. You knew what he had read and what his influences were.
I don’t try to be a literate sportswriter; I try to be myself. It’s as simple as that. Everybody’s got to find what their voice is. You’ve got to end up sounding like yourself if you’re going to write in a way that’s going to reward you when you’re done. If you end up sounding like somebody else, you’re not going to be any good. You won’t get anywhere. Readers are smart. They will pick up whether the tone is genuine or not. Tone is the ultimate thing writers have to think about. You could write on a given subject—a ball game or a national crisis or a family crisis—in twenty or thirty different ways. You only have to pick what you want people to make of this.
Sometimes when you’re writing, you find that your own feelings are quite different from what you thought they would be, and then you have to go with that. Sometimes there are complex things happening that you have to go along with. I wrote a piece which meant a lot to me, called “In the Country,” about a semi-pro ball player and his girlfriend, Ron Goble and Linda Kittle. He was playing semi-pro ball, she was a would-be poet, and they were living together. Baseball meant a lot to them. They took me into their lives and basically told me everything about themselves—an amazing thing to do. I went up to Vermont to write about baseball and ended up writing about them. I was very moved, because they trusted me. They said, “We’ve given you our lives.” A lot of emotion went into that piece that I didn’t really anticipate when I first went out to do it.
WOE: That was a wonderful piece—very respectful of their feelings, their ups and downs.
ANGELL: You have to respect your subject. If you’re writing about professional athletes, respect is a crucial ingredient. You can’t patronize these guys. There are many ballplayers who are less educated than the people writing about them. Many of them find it difficult to talk and it’s a big problem. If you put down exactly what they say—particularly Hispanic ballplayers—it sounds as if you’re patronizing. If their English isn’t good, you have to be very selective and suggest in a minimal sort of way that some of this is being delivered in an accent. But underneath this, you can’t laugh at these guys. You know that sometimes ballplayers can be laughable when they are talking about what they’ve done, or maybe just pretentious, too full of themselves. If you want to say they are too full of themselves, you have to say it, you can’t suggest it. I remember a couple of times I had what I thought was first-class stuff about a player, or a lively anecdote, but I didn’t use it because I couldn’t get it right. I couldn’t write it without sounding as if I were inviting the audience to feel superior.
Sometimes I don’t mind. If it was Reggie Jackson, I did sometimes try to suggest that he’s full of himself. But in the next minute, he would astound you with a line or an idea. He was always very aware of what he was doing, talking to writers. He was trying to use me and I was trying to use him. Every writer had that experience with Reggie.
WOE: Are there recurring themes in baseball you tend to come back to?
ANGELL: Difficulty is one. And heartbreak is an innate part of the game. Aging is very much a part of it, because if there’s any subtext to sports that really holds up over a long period of time it is that in a rather short span of years, you can watch an athlete go through a lifetime, so to speak. You watch him be born as a rookie, come to young manhood, and then to middle age; you see him begin to slow down, begin to worry, try to remember what it was he used to do so easily and effortlessly, and then fade away and die, in effect, all in the space of ten years. Even kids sense that. I remember seeing DiMaggio slow down. I was in my twenties then and I’d picked up on him when I was twelve years old. This is sad stuff. The last few seasons of Willie Mays were heartbreaking. You didn’t want it to happen.
WOE: I felt the same about Mickey Mantle.
ANGELL: I try never to go to Old-Timers games. They say, “Come back and see these wonderful guys.” I don’t want to see these wonderful guys. It’s hard enough for the rest of us to get old. I can look in a mirror, but what’s the fun of that? I want to remember these guys and what they looked like when they were at their best.
I try to stay away from the deeper meanings in sports. If they’re there, they’ll come through. You sense what they are. Sports are about us as a species. We want to see how people respond under conditions of enormous stress, however artificially prepared. We want to see how they perform when they fail and we want to see how they perform when they succeed. Then we want to see them go and do it again. That’s what makes you a pro. Some pitcher said years ago, “That’s the difference. People say to you, ‘You were great today, now go out and be great again tomorrow.”‘ That’s what separates us from them.
WOE: I have the impression that your writing has become more personal and contemplative about sports over the years, more about baseball the game than about the individual games that you’ve gone to see.
ANGELL: I guess so. It’s not a plan. I’m the age that I am and I have a different outlook on this than I did in my forties. People at my age become more contemplative. If it makes you any wiser, I don’t know. It’s a natural stage of things.
Your memory of things in the distant past becomes remarkably sharp. You remember things from thirty years ago, forty years ago with little effort, sometimes more clearly than what happened last week.
I want to keep fresh. I think if I become too distanced from baseball or too much seeing the larger picture, it’ll be time to stop, because this is a game played by young men. It’s very hard for me to talk to ballplayers now, because when they start calling you “Sir” you’re in big trouble as a reporter. They’re terrifically young. It’s harder for all baseball writers now because access is very difficult; they don’t want to talk to you. They make so much money and they see themselves as public figures, as television stars, once they’re on their way. The players don’t talk about baseball as much as they used to. The last great daily talker about baseball was Keith Hernandez, who played wonderful first base for the Mets—the best defensive first baseman I ever saw. When the game was over he’d sit down and have a couple of beers and several cigarettes and talk about the game with all comers. It was great stuff. There was always a crowd of writers around him, finding out what really happened. There aren’t many players like that around now.
Very few players think about the fans. They glance up there, and once in a while you will hear them say that the fans have been great, “the tenth player,” but that’s all by rote. The only player who surprised me about this was Willie McCovey, in San Francisco in the early seventies, when the Giants in mid-September were suddenly in first place or close to it. They had just lost a couple in a row and eventually they dropped back to third place, but ten days before the end of the season, they had a real shot. I was talking with McCovey and he understood how rare this chance was because he’d played in the World Series, in ’62, but not since then. He knew how rare it was for a player. I said, “Willie, the fans here are dying. Do you ever think about this? They’re really suffering.” And he looked up in the stands and said, “Yes, I know. When you step up to bat, you’re all they’ve got. If you fail, they fail.” Of all the players I’ve talked to, he’s the only person who saw that connection.
WOE: How has television affected the way fans see the game?
ANGELL: TV has made us all much more expert as fans. We know these games much better than we did, because we’ve seen so many of them. But this is an enormous subject. The biggest change in America in my lifetime has been television. I just went to my fiftieth reunion at Harvard, where I was on a panel discussing journalism and our times, or something like that. Tom Winship, the former editor of the Boston Globe, called me up a few weeks before and asked, “What are we going to talk about? What’s the biggest change in our life?” I said, “Television,” and he agreed. So we talked about television. It was gloomy stuff.
Television has totally altered the nature of sports. It’s made it a permanent all-star attraction. It’s all about winning, it’s nothing about losing—losing is pushed away. And more and more about money, of course. What it’s done to amateur sports is disastrous. Most college sports are corrupt now, and we know it. We have these mercenaries we pay to see, in many cases at very high prices to their lives. We watch these young men play basketball in the Final Four during the last couple of weeks of the basketball season and we know that very few of them are students. We know it, but we don’t remind ourselves, because if we did we’d be ashamed to be paying attention. Basketball is now seen as the quickest way out of the inner city for young blacks, which is heartbreaking because so few of them are going to make it. The money distorts everything.
WOE: What sort of advice would you give someone who wanted to go into sports writing? How would they would get into it and how would they learn the craft?
ANGELL: I think the usual way is to model ourselves on somebody in the field. If you’re young, you do this naturally There’s nothing wrong with this. I once heard Borges say that when he was young, he could write Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson better than they could. He told me, “I finally got over that, but it got me going.”
But I’m not sure I would encourage people to go into sports writing right now. Television has taken over so much of the reporting. That’s where the action is. It’s not as if you can’t get good sports writing jobs if you’re talented, but it’s a more limited profession than it used to be, or more challenging. The basic level of sports writing is higher than it was when I started. Writers are better educated; there are more smart, thoughtful, enterprising writers. With the structure of modern sport, you have to be more energetic to go out and do a good reporting job every day. I admire beat writers. It’s a difficult job to travel with a team every day, to really say what’s going on, and to report on the tone of the team, as well as to say who won or lost, and not to get jaded or begin to dislike the players. You have to be critical and also to be able to get along with the players so that you can get them to talk to you. It’s tough.
WOE: Especially if you’ve just written something unfavorable about the team.
ANGELL: Absolutely. But if you’re going to go into writing at any point, it always looks as if there’s too much talent around. The odds are always hopelessly loaded against you. But that’s true in most professions. You think, “I could never succeed in that.” Maybe you won’t, but you’ve got to try. If you want to do it, you will try. The figures are never as bad as they look, because a lot of the competition will turn out not to have much talent or won’t stick with it. If you’re going to do it, do it. But as I’ve been saying right along, writing is hard.
Early one morning in March, Caitlin Morrissey showed me around the blindingly lit white range. She is 21, built strong with long blonde hair and blue eyes. She is pretty and perfectly made-up. “My ritual,” she said. “Shower, hair, make-up every morning. I’m very organized.” There is no artifice about her. She looked directly at me when she spoke. It was disconcerting. She stood at her locker, painstakingly putting on her uniform: shoes, a sling for her left arm, her gloves. “Everything’s so our muscles will not be used,” she said. She walked penguin-style to the firing line. She put on her granny glasses with blinders, and a third blinder over her left eye. “I don’t like to shut my left eye,” Caitlin said. “The exertion causes face fatigue. I took out my contacts too, so they won’t move around.” A lot of shooters wear glasses. Exceptional vision is overrated in shooting, they claim.She stood at the firing line, her body sideways to the distant target. She assumed a model’s slouchy pose, legs spread, loose-hipped, her left hip cocked higher than her right. She turned her head and shoulders toward the target, aimed her rifle, her left hand under the barrel, cradling the rifle very gently, her left elbow propped against her left hip for support.
“Girls are better shooters than boys ‘cause we have hips,” Caitlin said. No smile, a fact. She pressed her cheek against her rifle, whispered something to it, and aimed. She exhaled, her body relaxed, got still. She held this pose for a few minutes, and then put her finger on the delicate trigger. It takes 1½ ounces of pressure to depress that trigger. Most firearms require 5 – 12 pounds of pressure. Caitlin stopped breathing, “ping”, took a breath and said, “9.8. Anything less than 10.0 is a failure. I haven’t settled into my position yet.” She aimed again. Two, three minutes went by, and then she fired. “A 10.6,” she said. “10.9 is perfect. See? My body’s settling in.” She aimed again, “ping” and a 9.8. “I could feel it was a 9 when I broke the shot. I wasn’t smooth pulling the trigger; I jerked it,” she said. She shot again (10.4), again, (10.6) again (10.8). I asked Caitlin if shooting a 10.9 was thrilling. She lowered her rifle and looked at me. “I wouldn’t call it thrilling,” she said. ”Rewarding maybe.”
…As a young girl in Topeka she played all the sports against boys. When she was 7 years old, her father took her to a shooting club. By 9, she was beating all the boys. That was her main motivation, she said, but that didn’t last. Beating boys was no big deal. Beating girls, however, was something else. At first, boys were fascinated by the girl with the gun. By the eighth grade that was just her persona. That was when she learned that Margaret Murdock lived nearby. She went to visit her and wrote a story about the woman who’d won an Olympic gold medal in rifle shooting, and then had it taken away in favor of a man. Caitlin called her essay, a mini-book, really, “The Life of a Champion”, author: Caitlin Morrissey, Copyright: 2003, Publisher: Morrissey Publishing.
Maybe that’s still in the back of her mind, she said, because, “It’s still fun to beat boys. It’s an accepted fact that girls are better. Girls know how to calm themselves down, relax, focus on one thing. Boys get distracted. They don’t have our attention span. When we find something we like, we latch on to it. Ninety percent of shooting is mental toughness. We calm ourselves down after a bad shot, and not relax too much after a good shot.” She said that what gratifies her most about shooting is that it taught her how to calm herself in life. “It’s a monotonous sport,” she said. “You have to be self-motivating. You’re in the practice range for three hours every day. Your body is locked in a cramped position. Boys build muscle for movement. Girls build muscle for stability. We do neck and trapezius work” because that’s where all a shooter’s tension is. “What do I do to relax?” she said, smiling for the first time. “I go shopping. Or organize things, like our graduation party.”
Caitlin’s boyfriend is a hunter. “I could never be with a guy who didn’t like guns,” she said. “I’ve never hunted, but I might one day. I don’t have a Bambi Complex. But I don’t like to point my gun at anything I don’t intend to shoot. It’s a tool, like a baseball bat, never a weapon. I could never be a sniper. You should talk to Jaime. She’s a hunter. She’s in ROTC. She could be a sniper.”
I don’t know that anyone’s ever calculated this, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, in that order, are the two most written-about players in baseball history, or at least two of the top three, along with Babe Ruth. The year 2010 saw the publication of a thick and well-researched biography of Willie, Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend, by James Hirsch, and there are countless shorter lives of Willie, several autobiographies and memoirs, and a superb life-and-times account, Willie’s Time, by Charles Einstein that, in my opinion, stands as the best thing ever written about him. Also published in 2010 was Jane Leavy’s Mantle biography, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, the most detailed of the nine versions of his life.
There are also six volumes of autobiography, memoirs, and recollections, as well as numerous books by fans and collections of letters to and from Mickey, that have been published since his death. And yet, it seems to me that there has always been one major element missing from the many books on Mantle or Mays: each other. Though they are and always will be linked in the minds of millions, I don’t think it’s ever been noted exactly how much they had in common and how each man’s image reflected the other. The similarities in their lives were uncanny. Both were children of the Great Depression, born in 1931. They were almost the same size (about five-foot-eleven and 185 pounds, at least early in their careers); Mantle had a bit more muscle, and for most of his playing career probably outweighed Willie by five to ten pounds.
Both were heralded as phenoms when they arrived in New York in 1951 after brief but legendary minor league careers. (If integration had come along a couple of years earlier, they probably would have played against each other as minor leaguers.) Both started out playing for Hall of Fame managers, Mantle for Casey Stengel and Willie for Leo Durocher. Both played stickball in the streets of New York with kids (though only Willie was lucky enough to have TV cameras record the games). The burden of expectation caused each of them to break down in tears before his first season was over. Mickey exploded on the national scene in 1953 when he hit the first “tape measure” home run, and Willie the next year when he made the most famous catch in World Series and probably baseball history. In 1958 and 1959, they barnstormed against each other with specially selected All-Star teams.
Together they defined baseball in the 1950s and through the mid-1960s. Both made the covers of Time and Life, and they were the subjects of popular songs. In the 1960s, they were often pictured together on the covers of baseball magazines, including some devoted entirely to them. They were paired off on television on the popular show Home Run Derby, did commercials and endorsements together, and appeared together on numerous TV shows. Together they created nostalgia and the autograph and memorabilia craze. Finally, in the early 1980s, they were both banned from baseball by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for doing public relations work for Atlantic City casinos.
They had exactly the same talents—everyone who saw them observed that no other players in the big leagues possessed their astonishing combinations of power and speed. And despite Willie’s far greater durability, they were, in terms of effectiveness on the field, remarkably similar. Both batted over .300 ten times and hit over 50 home runs in a season twice. Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball ranks Mays as the best player in the NL from 1954, the year he returned from the Army, through 1965, except 1959, when he ranked fourth. (For the 1956 and 1961 seasons, he shared the top spot with Henry Aaron.)
Mantle was Total Baseball’s best player in the AL every year from 1955 through 1962; he was also ranked second in 1952 and fourth in 1954. (Mantle was surely poised to top Total Baseball’s ranking in 1963, when he batted .314 but was limited to just sixty-five games by injuries.) In every season from 1954 through 1965, Mickey and Willie were selected for the All-Star teams. From 1951 through 1964, the Yankees or the Giants were in every World Series except in 1959. Their fortunes in the World Series and All-Star Games contrasted oddly. Mays was the ultimate All-Star, hitting .307 in twenty-four games, producing 29 RBIs and runs scored, while Mantle hit just .233 in sixteen All-Star Games without a single home run. But in twenty World Series games, Mays managed just .239 without a single home run; in sixty-five games, Mantle set the all-time World Series home run mark with 18.
That Mickey and Willie were the most dominant players of that period isn’t simply a myth built up by worshipful New York sportswriters—it’s a fact. The ultimate question isn’t “Were they the greatest of their time?” but “Which of them was the greatest?” (That’s a subject I explore in detail in Appendix A.)
Both were consummate all-around athletes who excelled at basketball and football in high school. Reversing the stereotype, Willie was a great passing quarterback at Fairfield Industrial High School in Westfield, Alabama; at the same time, Mickey was a dazzling running back at Commerce High in Commerce, Oklahoma. If circumstances had been different, they might have ended up playing for the two greatest college football coaches of their era: Willie for Bear Bryant, then at Kentucky—Bryant had been hugely impressed when he saw Willie play baseball for the Black Barons at Rickwood Field—and Mickey for Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma.
They were both natural center fielders, but both played other positions when they were young. Mantle spent more time at shortstop than Willie, but neither of them ever quite got the hang of it. Willie began his rookie season in center field; Mickey began his rookie year in right field while Joe DiMaggio struggled through his final season, and in 1952 Mickey became the Yankees’ starting center fielder. Both had great throwing arms and were told during their early careers that they had a shot to make it as a pitcher. Mickey and Willie both idolized Joe DiMaggio. Both loved Westerns and, as boys, dreamed of growing up to be cowboys.
Their lives were dominated by their fathers, who saw baseball as a way for their sons to escape a life of brutal manual labor. For Cat Mays it was the steel mills, for Mutt Mantle the hellish zinc mines. By the time Mickey and Willie graduated from high school, both their mothers had almost disappeared from the narratives of their lives. It was often said of both that they were “born to play ball.” Whether or not that was true, they were certainly bred to the game. Cat began rolling a ball to his son while Willie was still an infant. Mutt began to throw to his son as soon as Mickey could hold a broom handle.
Both men were southerners. (New York sportswriters were fond of labeling Mickey a cowboy, a westerner—he did, after all, once ride a horse to school—but Mickey regarded himself as a southerner and often said so.) The Mantles and the Mayses were living, breathing Americana. The Mantles were what John Steinbeck’s Joad family might have been had they chosen to stay and scrape a living out of the harsh Oklahoma earth rather than emigrate to California. Willie’s folks were the country cousins of the Younger family in Lorraine Hansberry’s great play, A Raisin in the Sun; they resisted the lure of northern cities like Chicago and stayed near their roots.
They were both the products of two generations of ball-playing men, and both honed their skills through competition with industrial leaguers. Though neither of them was actually a member of an industrial league team, their fathers, uncles, and close friends played industrial ball, and Mickey and Willie played with and against them. Mantle and Mays were probably the last products of the great age of industrial league baseball that died out a few years after World War II. Neither man ever truly understood how to manage money. Mantle envied Willie’s salary; Willie was notoriously jealous of Mantle’s income from commercials and endorsements.
Needless to say, in spite of all these similarities, there were enormous cultural differences. Mickey grew up listening to country stars such as Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys; his favorite singer was Hank Williams. Willie and his family listened to country blues singers like Amos Millburn, the more sophisticated R&B sounds of Louis Jordan, and even jazz artists like Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole. The one singer both men enjoyed was Bing Crosby. The Mantle clan was large and closely knit; Mays came from a broken home. Mickey’s father drove him relentlessly toward baseball; Willie’s father helped him along and let him find the way to baseball on his own.
Mickey drank prodigiously and recklessly from an early age; Willie got sick on his first taste of alcohol and never touched it again. Mantle, though he remained married to his high school sweetheart for decades, led a sex life that was an unreported scandal. Mays, in contrast, was never the subject of rumors of promiscuity; his first marriage, to an older, more sophisticated woman, went badly. He had no biological children and, if the journalists who knew him are to be trusted, seldom saw his adopted son after his divorce.
One Mantle biographer, writing seven years after his death, concluded that “Mickey Mantle, like most heroes, was a construction; he was not real. He was all that America wanted itself to be, and he was also all that America feared it could never be.” Surely, it would be no stretch to say the same thing of Willie Mays. In his mammoth one-volume history of the decade, The Fifties, David Halberstam wrote that “Willie Mays seemed to be the model for the new supremely gifted black athlete. . . . He showed that the new-age black athlete had both power and speed. . . . [Mays was] a new kind of athlete being showcased, a player who, in contrast to most white superstars of the past, was both powerful and fast.” At the same time Mays was at his peak, there was a supremely gifted white athlete named Mantle who had at least as much power and speed. Bob Costas says, “There was one thing about Mantle that screamed out ‘The Natural.’ He was a God-made ballplayer.” Surely the same God made Willie Mays.
“Today,” Arnold Hano, one of Willie’s first biographers, wrote in 1965, “players are as skilled as most stars of the past, but something is lacking. Call it color, call it magic, but you call for it in vain. Except for Willie Mays. Oh, there are a few others. Mickey Mantle has always brought his own sense of excitement to the game.” He most certainly did, and who, at their peak, could have denied that Mantle’s “own sense of excitement” was a brand quite similar to Willie’s?
Though their names are melded in the minds of three generations of American sports fans and their careers ran along uncannily parallel lines, they are still, oddly, segregated. Indeed, for most of their playing careers the realities of American life dictated that they be segregated. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that they could meet together at restaurants and nightclubs in most parts of the country, and even then not in the Deep South. And it wasn’t until the 1970s that they began to appear together regularly at card shows, in commercials, and on television shows. Mantle and Mays were friends, probably as close as it was possible for a white man and a black man to be at that time.
In any event, their work schedules didn’t allow them to see each other more than a couple of times a year. Always, the newspapers kept one apprised of what the other was doing. “We kept an eye on each other, Willie and me. I was always aware of him,” Mantle remarked. “I’d go long periods without seeing him,” Mays said after Mantle died, “but I couldn’t go for two days without hearing about him. It was like we were never far apart.” Mickey and Willie—they were given boys’ names that they never grew out of. The private lives of both men revealed that they were ill equipped for life after baseball, a fact that those of us who loved them found almost impossible to understand. How, though, could we have understood? From our perspective, what could have been better than being Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays? Even after baseball, what better life could a fan imagine than being Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays?
“In some ways,” Roger Kahn told me, “I believe they knew each other better than anyone else knew them. They were the only two men in America who understood the experience they had both been through.”
Greg Prince: The Happiest Recap started in the depths of depression over the then-current Mets of 2009, who weren’t winning very often in real time. With the franchise’s 50th anniversary approaching, I got to thinking about highlights and wins from better times and came upon the idea of constructing a mythical season in which I — on Faith and Fear — would write about the “best” 1st game (or Opening Day) in Mets history, the “best” 2nd game…clear through to the “best” 162nd and 163rd games. The key was the number had to match an actual game played on a previous Mets schedule. Thus, the “best” 37th game, for example, was the 37th game of 1973. The “best” 146th game was the 146th game of 1976. It was a different twist on merely listing the Top ‘X’ games in Mets history or doing a “This Date” feature. I followed through and ran the series in 2011, shadowing the actual Mets schedule that year.
BB: So then how did it go from a series on the site to a book?
GP: Having published the book version of Faith and Fear in Flushing in 2009, I guess I had the fever a little bit to do something else. Around the time I began to think this project might work as a book, a publisher came out with a team-by-team series called “162-0,” which was similar but not exactly in line with what I was doing. So for a moment I was discouraged that a good idea had been used elsewhere, and not necessarily to my satisfaction. Thing is, the more I worked on the blog series, the less concerned I became with the “best” aspect for a particular game number and found myself fascinated by more than 162 games fitting a narrow description. I wound up writing about 326 games — a “Happiest” entry and an “Also Happy” entry for each game number — and within those entries, sometimes incorporating more games and more stories.
BB: That’s a nice evolution.
GP: The box scores I was researching and the books, magazines, web sites and newspaper clippings I was looking up in support of those box scores were reminding me of lost Met tales and bringing up names that had been tucked away in the Met memory storage locker for decades. It seemed a shame to leave them to fade into obscurity. Met histories are too often narrowed down to the lovable losers of 1962; stumbling into Seaver and hiring Hodges; 1969; 1973; 1986; and maybe Piazza hitting a dramatic homer after 9/11. Our fandom (anybody’s fandom, really) is so much more than the agreed-upon milestones. It’s the big inning we’re all talking about the next morning or the rookie who came up to pitch a shutout and then disappeared or the quirky game where all 17 hits were singles. It’s firsts and lasts and lots of in-betweens. It’s the championships and superstars, too, of course, but it’s also the moments of contention that fizzled and the stage being set for great things and the residual fumes on the other side of those great things and the games and players who got us through the rough times. It’s everything, if you’re a steadfast fan of a team.
BB: I love that.
GP: So with 50 years of Metsdom completed, I decided to shake out the contents of the blog series and rearrange and supplement all I’d done, digging a little deeper to come up with the 500 Amazin’ wins that would best tell the story of the first half-century of the franchise the way we as fans experienced it. It’s Mets History of the Subconscious, almost. The losses filter in because, let’s face it, these are the Mets, but I guarantee a 500-0 record when all is said and done.
BB: How did you decide to make it a four part series instead of one fat volume?
GP: I wanted to let the game stories breathe. I wanted to be able to write about Jim McAndrew for as long as it took to explain Jim McAndrew. I wanted to take a detour into Tom Seaver’s history as a relief pitcher. I wanted to make note of the handful of times the Mets have used a de facto designated hitter (a pinch-hitter who bats for the pitcher and then comes up again when the lineup bats around). I wanted to transcribe Bob Murphy’s and Lindsey Nelson’s calls where reading how we listened to them would bring a moment alive again. I wanted these, in a way, to be 500 bedtime stories. Put all that together, and that’s a pretty hefty volume. I found breaking the saga into four pieces helped discipline the eras a little better.
B: Yeah, that makes sense. GP: There is no narrative, per se, but I think one coalesces organically in each volume. In First Base, you can feel the youthful ineptitude of the early Mets wearing off little by little as you read about the first big moments produced by an Ed Kranepool or a Cleon Jones. At the same time, you have a sense that it’s still a team depending on a blast from the past via Duke Snider or leaning into a hopeful future with Ron Hunt or Grover Powell, whatever those guys become eventually in their careers. In a way, it’s the Mets family history as told by your well-meaning if slightly obsessive uncle.
BB: Did you have any hesitation about just writing about wins and not loses?
GP: From a practical standpoint, not really any regrets on 500 wins and 0 losses. The losses worm their way in anyway. You can’t write about the great wins of the 1973 postseason, for example, without acknowledging the gut-wrenching losses. Since the first volume officially ends with Game Five of that World Series, wherein the Mets take a 3-2 lead over Oakland, you can’t just say, “well, good night everybody!” Thus, Game Five becomes the platform to also discuss Games Six (George Stone not being chosen to start) and Seven (Willie Mays not being chosen to finish). And you can’t fully appreciate the few resonant wins from 1962 without noting there were only 40 wins to begin with that year.
BB: Good pernt.
GP: I mention in the introduction that my personal favorite game ever — best game I ever watched, in my opinion — was Game Six in 1999 against Atlanta, the one remembered mainly for Kenny Rogers walking in the winning run in the eleventh inning (thus largely reviled by Mets fans) but remembered fondly by me for how the Mets fought back from 0-5 in the first inning and 3-7 later to take 8-7 and 9-8 leads and how the game topped off the most intense 30 days of fandom I ever experienced. I promise “you won’t read about it here,” and then instantly backtrack that, yeah, you probably will, but only in the context of the whole story. I’ve learned from eight years of blogging that while Mets fans are willing, almost anxious to cope with reality (reminding each other of the woe that has befallen us from time to time), nobody really wants to be hit over the head with it as a going concern. So while you can say, “Oy, the collaspe of 2007!” the minute you start detailing the four-game sweep at the hands of the Phillies that presaged the blowing of an enormous lead (as I did in a blog entry in late August of 2012), the reaction is, per Tom Petty, let me up, I’ve had enough.
BB: I liked what you talked about in terms of being a steadfast fan. That can be a problem when you root for the Yankees where you tend to evaluate seasons on whether they’ve won the World Series or not. And when you do that you neglect some of the smaller things that are really the rich moments that make up not only a season but our fandom.
GP: It’s crossed my mind in the process that this wouldn’t necessarily work for other franchises, particularly ones wherein postseason berths are almost a given. The Mets have won 43 playoff and World Series games, and they’re all in here, but they’re not necessarily the most, shall we say, Amazin’. You get a Mets fan who was sentient on June 14, 1980, and he or she will eventually tell you about the Steve Henderson Game, a night the Mets trailed the Giants 0-6 and won 7-6 on Hendu’s three-run homer in the ninth. What made that game special was it was in the midst of the “Magic is Back” season in which the Mets had that silly ad campaign of the same name and weren’t winning and weren’t drawing flies and all of a sudden, everything falls into place for a couple of months. Every win is a come-from-behind affair and the “magic” thing catches on to such an extent that even Joe Torre and his players are talking about it. Henderson hits the home run on a Saturday night, and the next day there is such a large walkup crowd that they actually had to turn fans away.
BB: I vaguely remember that because Joel Youngblood was my brother’s favorite player at the time.
GP: Now by the end of 1980, the magic has dissipated and the Mets are back in the dumps and nobody is showing up at Shea, but a game like that lives forever. That’s the reward of constancy.
BB: Getting back to the format of the book for a sec. How much re-writing did you do with these pieces from the original blog posts?
GP: It depended on the entry. Some games were transplanted whole if they worked as such. Others were expanded if I didn’t think I gave enough information in the first place. For 1973′s pennant race on the blog, I had layered a lot into a couple of posts. In the book, every win from the middle of September onward gets its own treatment (maybe a few paragraphs, maybe a few pages) so you’re living the most improbable weeks in Mets history day-to-day almost, just as it occurred. I’ll do something similar when 1999 rolls around. Conversely, some blog posts were contracted altogether if I thought one more extra-inning marathon or walkoff home run wasn’t really revealing anything that wasn’t already being revealed in another game. And there’s a bunch that — because the original “best game number” format demanded tough choices — simply didn’t appear on the blog.One name that didn’t show up whatsoever in the blog series was Les Rohr, the Mets’ first-ever amateur draft pick.
GP: His debut in late 1967 (Game No. 50 in the book) was a success, which in itself is a bit of a milestone — one of the recurring themes of First Base is the Mets’ search for that young fireballer who’s going to lead them to the promised land — but digging a little deeper, I realized Les was the 54th player used by the 1967 Mets, the most they ever used in a season. So Les gives me a reason to talk about the Grand Central Terminal atmosphere that prevailed in the clubhouse in those days. Plus the year he was drafted, 1965, was the same year the Jets drafted Joe Namath. It’s not a huge thing, but it’s an intriguing parallel where highly touted prospects (playing in the same stadium, no less) are concerned. And then there’s what happened with Les Rohr after that first start. He pitched well a couple more times, hurt his arm in the 24-inning, 1-0 loss at the Astrodome the following April (an instance when I can mention a historic loss in a book all about wins) and after a token appearance exactly two years after his debut — as the Mets were on the verge of clinching their first title — he was done. Rohr was, on the surface, a flameout, but the Mets drafted very spottily with their high picks in those days, which is another tidbit I get to throw in (Steve Chilcott over Reggie Jackson and all that) and it provides some foreshadowing as well, because the lousy drafting would come back to haunt the Mets in the ’70s. In other words, you could do worse than drafting Les Rohr with your very first pick…and the Mets somehow managed to.
BB: Did you write it all at once and then are releasing it in four volumes or are you still working on the others? What are the publish dates for the other volumes?
GP: I’m pushing ahead chronologically so the second, third and fourth volumes are coming together in order, publication dependent on the respective schedules of my talented art director Jim Haines and myself. Second Base is currently in production. Third Base is being written. Home is loosening up in the on-deck circle. Think of it in the realm of waiting for the next series from Topps in a given year.
BB: One last thing. I’m curious about what, if anything you found in your research that surprised you?
GP: In a broad sense, it was surprising to realize that players who are historically written off as hopeless actually accomplished some things in a Mets uniform. Marv Throneberry hit a game-winning home run. The two Bob Millers teamed to pitch the Mets to a win. Jack Fisher may have lost 24 games in 1965, but he threw a gem from time to time. On an individual basis, if I hadn’t done this, I wouldn’t have known about the proto-Steve Henderson Game, the Tim Harkness Game, in 1963. It was a 14-inning affair that Harkness won, 8-6, with a grand slam after falling behind the Cubs in the top of the 14th when Billy Williams hit a two-run inside-the-park homer. What blows my mind about it is a) that Harkness came out from the center field clubhouse onto the balcony to take a bow the way Bobby Thomson had 11 years earlier and b) the comments I found on Ultimate Mets Database from people who were kids back then, still remembering the cries of “Let’s Go Mets!” echoing as they headed back to the subway. This was 1963, 111 losses, yet it didn’t matter. A friend once told me he thought the 1963 Mets were the bravest team he ever saw, that if they had the talent of the 2008 Mets, they’d have won 140 games. I didn’t get it when he told me that. I kind of got it after Tim Harkness and the rest of the games I looked at from that season.
BB: That’s interesting.
GP: One more surprise: I knew that The Odd Couple filmed its baseball scenes before a game in 1967 at Shea, with Bill Mazeroski hitting into a choreographed triple play. What I didn’t know was there was an even more bizarre scene in the real game that day with the Pirates batting out of order and Wes Westrum — who you never read anything about other than he couldn’t take all the losing — waited until a key moment in the game to bring it to the umpires’ attention and wound up getting Pittsburgh runs taken off the board. If you were at that game, you probably went home talking about it for a week.
BB: Go figure that.
GP: I know a lot about the Mets. I didn’t know that at all.
(Originally published in the October 1982 issue of Inside Sports.)
The game is over and the baseball player sits in the hotel lobby, his eyes fixed on nothing. He thinks his secret is safe but he is never quite sure, so at midnight in the lobby it is always best to avoid the other eyes. He neither hears the jokes nor notices that a few teammates are starting to wear towels around their waists in the locker room. He does not want to hear or see or know, and neither do they.
The baseball player waits until the lobby empties of teammates and coaches. Some are in the bar, some out on the town, some in their rooms. Some, of course, have found women. He walks briskly out the door toward the taxicab, never turning his head to look back. He mutters an address to the driver and has one foot in the cab. …
“Hey, where you going, man? You said you were staying in tonight.”
The baseball player feels his lie running up the back of his neck. “Changed my mind.”
“Can I come with you? I got nothing going tonight.”
The baseball player pauses. “You don’t want to go where I’m going,” he says at last. He is leaving a crack there, in case this teammate knows the secret and really would like to go with him.
“Okay—have it your way.”
The baseball player is in the back seat, the door slams, his heart slams, the cab is pulling away. Fifteen minutes later it stops a block from the place the passenger actually intends to go. He pays the driver. Did the driver look at him sort of funny?
The baseball player steps out and walks back a block, his face turned 90 degrees to his left shoulder, away from the traffic, just in case. What if he meets someone he knows there tonight? There was the ballplayer’s brother the one night and the son of.a major league manager another. Man, they have to know, don’t they? And if he is recognized tonight, should he pretend he is someone else?
Suddenly he is pulling open the door and the men inside smile and the music swallows him and for a few hours in the bar the baseball player does not feel so alone.
At age 22, Glenn Burke was a sexual blank. He grew up attending church six times a week. singing in two choirs and serving as an usher. He bathed two or three times a day and still he never felt clean. He grew up with no father. He grew up with no sex.
He diverted the tension into sports, and there was the scent of animal energy in the way he ran a fastbreak, the way he circled the bases, the way he flogged a line drive. Once, he hit three home runs and two singles in one game, just two days after joining the Merritt College team in midseason. He was 5-11, 193 pounds, he could run 100 yards in 9.7 seconds and bench-press 350 pounds. UCLA and Nevada and Cal all wanted to get him on a basketball court; the Los Angeles Dodgers wanted him to play baseball.
He took the $5,000 Dodger signing bonus and after three seasons as an outfielder in the minors, his combined average was .303. Three times he led his league in stolen bases.
Still there was a need for more. When NCAA eligibility rules were relaxed, he agreed to play basketball at Nevada in the offseason. He averaged 16 points in six games and then twisted a knee spinning for a layup. The Dodgers said No More and Glenn Burke came home. The void was becoming difficult to ignore. At last, the lidded tension burst.
His younger sister told him that a high school teacher of his had asked how he was doing. Something inside him went click. The man had been one of Burke’s favorite teachers, so Burke went over to school to see him. He was feeling loose, open. Maybe it was the basketball thing coming to an end, suddenly seeing life as more than just sports.
“The minute he spoke, l knew. I know it sounds a little crazy. Here I was, 22, no sexual experience, nothing. Yet I felt something I’d never felt before, something deep. We went to his place. Funny, he must have known me better than I knew myself. We didn’t say much. He fixed dinner and afterwards we lay by the fire and got close. I stayed the night. When I got home the next day, I went into the bathroom and cried. This was who I was, the whole me at last.”
He was happy, and yet he felt he was sneaking. He felt guilty. He knew he never would be accepted in sports. In a profession in which every contest, every movement, every attitude seemed a reassertion of virility, Glenn Burke realized he was gay.
The most famous gay community in the world is a 75-cent bridge toll and a 20-minute freeway ride away from the streets of Oakland where Glenn Burke grew up. In his sexual naiveté, he had never known that. He had never known there were bars and entire neighborhoods for homosexuals.
A week after his first experience, he and some friends went to a straight bar in San Francisco. One of the friends pointed to a girl. “Look at that fox. ” he said. “Look at her boyfriend.” Burke thought. They went over to talk and asked if the couple knew a place where they could go dancing. “Try the Cabaret.” the girl said, “but watch out—gays go there, too.” A place for gays? Burke went there and couldn’t believe it.
It was a new world and he explored it enthusiastically. He walked Castro Street in San Francisco and felt pulled in two directions. Sports had taught him to keep the fists up and the soft side down and the pants tailor-made and the shirt silk and the walk a powerful strut. This new world was Levi’s, and Docksides shoes and Lacoste shirts and handkerchiefs. He wondered if he could be masculine and gay, a baseball player and gay, Glenn Burke and gay.
A few weeks later, he met a man in a bar and the next day he was hanging his clothes in the closet of his first live-in lover. A few more weeks passed and it was time for spring training, time to try to begin living the great untruth.
The trouble with going underground was Burke’s personality. He was the guy doing Richard Pryor imitations, the guy leading bench cheers, the guy fiddling with the music box and dancing in the locker room. After games, the guys all wanted to take the party from the locker room to the disco. Burke, the life of the team, started saying no. To explain why not, he had to tame the nervousness in his voice and the muscle formations of his face. These were difficult things for an extrovert to do.
Double A in Waterbury, Connecticut, 1975, was not a good place for a metamorphosis. His friends wanted to share an apartment with him and he groped for an appropriate reason to say no. He ended up rooming at the local YMCA, so they would stop asking. There was one gay bar, but a black man in a small New England town can feel the eyeballs everywhere he walks. He tried not to go, and went anyway. Sometimes in the bar he would be asked if he had been at the game that night. The team’s leading basestealer and home-run hitter would shake his head no. One night he glimpsed a member of the club’s front office at the bar. He walked past him and out the door and prayed the man would be too frightened to admit having been there to see him. On the long road trips, he could feel the wall of space he had created between himself and his friends.
He hit .270 and when the season ended, he headed back to San Francisco. “It was great being back, being myself,” he said. “Straight people cannot know what it’s like to feel one way and pretend to be another. To watch what you say, how you act, who you’re checking out. In San Francisco I opened up again. But I still wasn’t sure if I could be gay without being a sissy.”
In 1976 the Dodgers summoned him up to play the first and last months of the season. In between, he hit .300 with 63 stolen bases at Albuquerque, but in the major leagues he struggled with the curveball and batted .239 in 46 at-bats. The Dodgers still saw enough to congratulate themselves.
“Unlimited potential,” said second baseman Davey Lopes.
“Once we get him cooled down a little bit,” said the late Junior Gilliam, then Dodger coach, “frankly, we think he’s going to be another Willie Mays.”
The stakes were growing higher now. It was easier to lose himself in the big cities on major league road trips, but in Los Angeles he was becoming a face on sports pages and a name on the radio. He wanted success, yet he feared it. Half of him wanted to hit .300 and become a superstar and a commodity and then if the secret leaked maybe he could tell them all to go to hell, and half of him said maybe a nice, inconspicuous number like .250 would be better because then he could guard his privacy and they might not find out at all.
He met Dave Kopay, the former 49er and Redskin running back whose book on his homosexuality had become a bestseller. The two compared anguish. “He was very nervous about who and what he was,” remembers Kopay. “I had compensated for my gayness by going from a player who did not like contact in college to being a super-aggressive player in the pros, as a disguise. It’s common among gay athletes, overcompensating for one’s sexuality. Glenn might have been doing the same thing, but it doesn’t work in baseball. There, you have to be relaxed, not overaggressive. I couldn’t really advise him, except to tell him to follow his instincts.
“There is really no one to talk to in sports when you are gay. Who can you really trust? There are so many insecurities, it’s tragic. Almost all of them that I know in sports are married and have deep problems. Many of them are heavily into alcohol and drugs.”
Burke played on, refusing the ruse of an occasional girlfriend. He caught hepatitis playing winter ball in Mexico and missed most of spring training in 1977. The Dodgers sent him to Albuquerque to open the season and he hit .309. He learned that the Dodgers were recalling him, and that night in his last Albuquerque game, with two outs, runners on first and third with a one-run lead in the ninth inning, he backpedaled to the warning track for a fly ball, switched his glove from his left hand to his right—and squeezed the last out. If there was a metaphor there, the manager was in no mood to admire it. Jim Williams waited for him on the dugout steps, glaring. “If you ever do that again …”
“I’m leaving, skip,” chirped Burke. “Now you’ll have something to talk about when I’m gone.”
He was irrepressible. He bought his first car and celebrated by having his astrological sign, Scorpio, tattooed on his forearm. Within a few months he was stomping into Tommy Lasorda’s office, amidst the Hollywood stars who gathered there before games, fixing himself a sandwich from the deli tray and shouting, “Hi, Tommy!” He was not a model bench-sitter. He prowled the dugout with a caged hyperactivity, and when a teammate belted a home run he would tweak Lasorda by butting in front of him to be first to hug the returning hero. He would walk back to the dugout imitating Lasorda’s big-bellied, bowlegged gait and his teammates would howl.
One day in 1977, a teammate homered and in the heat of his enthusiasm Burke extended his arm and invented a sports ritual. He delivered the first high-five. “Most people think I started it,” said leftfielder Dusty Baker. “But it wasn’t me. I saw Glenn doing it first, and then I started.”
On a team preoccupied with presenting the clean-shaven, Dodger-blue front, the street kid from Oakland became one of the behind-the-scenes catalysts. “He always had the music blasting and was saying something silly to keep the team laughing,” said Baker. “He’d be playing cards and all of a sudden you would hear this loud voice scream, ‘Rack ‘em, Hoss, the poor boy’s just lost!’ and then there’d be that crazy laugh of his again.”
Burke made them laugh and he made them squirm. In an argument he would swing first and negotiate later. A fastball in a teammate’s ear would bring him out of the dugout first. Everybody wanted to keep “Burkey” giggling because when his eyes clouded you could suddenly sense the violence. He wanted that machismo right out there on his skin; it made him feel safer.
“I was like Lou Ferrigno, who kept wanting to get bigger and badder than anybody because he had a speech impediment,” Burke said. “I had 17-inch biceps and I made sure everybody knew I wasn’t afraid to use them. I wanted to establish that if you found out I was gay, you might not want to start hassling me about it, because I could still kick your ass.”
The Dodgers. meanwhile, were in a pennant chase and the double life was becoming more difficult to lead. He was handsome and personable and there was a glut of girls who wanted to walk into a disco next to him. Some nights they grew so insistent he would tell the switchboard operator to reject all calls to his room. He’d go out with girls occasionally, but it would never involve sex. He didn’t want to mislead them.
His teammates noticed. In baseball, even married men can be made to feel isolated if they do not join the woman-hunt on the road. “There is a tendency,” said A’s pitcher Matt Keough, “to achieve the success off the field that you are not achieving on it.”
“I had a really cute cousin that I tried to set up with Glenn,” Baker said. “He just ignored her. He’d say, ‘Too fat, too ugly.’ I’d say, ‘Wait a minute. I know that one ain’t ugly.’”
Without Burke realizing it, word began to seep. “I was eating at a restaurant when someone told me,” remembered Lopes, then a teammate on the Dodgers. “I think some girl from his neighborhood in Oakland had told someone on the team. My fork dropped out of my mouth. He was one of the last guys you would have thought was gay. I still liked him. I don’t know how other ballplayers feel, but I believe a man has a right to choose any lifestyle as long as it doesn’t infringe on others. It never infringed with Glenn.”
“The guys didn’t want to believe it,” Baker said. “He was built like King Kong. There was no femininity in his voice or his walk. But it all made sense when I thought about it. When we’d go on the road he always went to the YMCA to work out. And he’d never let us take him home. He’d say he had a friend coming later to pick him up and he’d wait at the far end of the parking lot.
“I just made the situation invisible, but some guys began to make jokes. Stuff like, ‘Is Glenn waiting in the parking lot for his girlfriend?’ and ‘Don’t bend over in the shower when he’s around.’ I know a couple of guys felt uncomfortable in the shower. A few wore towels on their way back and forth in the locker room.
“If you had a team made up of guys from California and New York, I don’t think it would bother them as much as guys from the country and small towns. I’m from California and I can get along with priests, prostitutes, pimps and pushers, as long as they don’t try to push nothing on me.”
Burke didn’t push it, as much out of respect as fear of detection. “I was attracted occasionally by other players,” he said. “but didn’t mix business with pleasure. I respected their space. Besides, I always preferred more mature men.”
He was a simple man leading a complicated life. and slowly the strain began to break him. He kept one eye on the door when he went in gay bars. He worried about getting in a fight or getting caught drunk there. There were times he thought the front office had someone following him. He was afraid everybody was whispering about him.
He’d have to plan everything. He’d think, “If they see me leaving the hotel, I’ll say I was going to take a walk or to get something to eat.” He was always telling white lies.
Some days he’d sit in a mall and try to meet people, sometimes he would call a friend and ask him to check his directory on where the gay bars were in town. His mind was never clear. Some nights he’d come back to his room sad and smoke a little grass.
The high only interrupted the fears. The Dodgers did a lot of hugging and Burke always worried that they had found out about him and would think he was making a pass. He worried constantly about being blackmailed. The only reason he wasn’t, he believed, was that he had gay friends who warned anybody who started to talk too much. He saw a palm reader and she said that he had something inside him that he should let out, or he might have a heart attack in two or three years.
He couldn’t sort it all out. “I couldn’t understand why people said gays were sick. I wasn’t some dizzy queen out trying to make everybody all the time. The bottom line was, I was a man.”
There were the good memories mixed with the miseries. There was the night Baker became the fourth Dodger to hit 30 home runs in one season, a major league record, and Burke, the on-deck batter met him at the plate with a walloping high-five as the people stood and roared, and then before they even had a chance to sit Burke was driving another white speck into the blackness and the festival in the stands went on and on.
He finished the 1977 season hitting .254 in 169 at-bats, the Dodgers made the World Series and his face was on TV screens across the country. He went 1-for-5 in the three game he played packed after the Yankees had won and headed back for Castro Street. He walked into a gay bar the first night there and was greeted by a party celebrating his World Series appearance.
“I walked out,” Burke said. “They weren’t my friends there, they were mostly people just making a big deal because I was a gay baseball player.”
His insecurity ran rampant. In one world he feared they would not like him only because he was gay, and in the other he feared they did like him only because he was gay. For the first time since he had picked up a baseball bat, Glenn Burke considered quitting.
“By 1978,” said Davey Lopes, “I think everybody knew.”
They knew the way parents know their 16-year-old is drinking beer but don’t say anything until the bottles are rolling across the floor of the family car. As long as Burke’s homosexuality was not official, no one felt compelled to react.
“Then Al Campanis [Dodger vice-president] called me into his office ” Burke recalled. “I really liked Al, he was always very nice to me. The whole organization was, for the most part. But Al said. ‘Everybody on the team is married but you, Glenn. When players get married on the Dodgers, we help them out financially. We can help you so you can go out and have a real nice honeymoon.’
“l said, ‘Al, I don’t think I’ll be getting married no time soon.’”
The Dodgers, in the words of Junior Gilliam, could not “cool him down.” He burned for more playing time and when he did not get it, he did not keep it to himself. “They couldn’t con me,” he said. “Lasorda would bark an order and I was supposed to jump like some little kid, grateful for the attention. It bothered him too that I was popular with the guys on the team. Once he got ticked off at some laugh I’d gotten and he said, ‘Burke, if I was your age, I’d take you in the bathroom right now and kick your ass.’ At first I thought he was kidding, then I realized he wasn’t. I think he was trying to get me to explode.
“With one out in the ninth, he’d pull Rick Monday and trot me out to the outfield for the last two outs. I’d stand there waiting for the game to end. Then I’d trot back to the dugout where all the guys are supposed to tell you how great you played. Only I hadn’t, and I’d feel like a fool.
“One night I was really ticked and I stared a hole through Lasorda. He took me in the locker room and, in front of Junior Gilliam and Preston Gomez, cussed me to filth. Every other word in his vocabulary was ‘mother.’ It hurt. Deeply. I didn’t really dislike the man, it was just the situation. We probably should have gotten along—we’re both hardheaded.”
On May 16, 1978, with Glenn Burke in centerfield as the last out was recorded, Vin Scully announced that Burke had been traded to the Oakland A’s for Bill North. North had led the American League twice in stolen bases, the last time in 1976, and now he was 30 and his average had dropped 64 points in those two years.
“Lasorda told me, ‘We’re tired of you walking back and forth in the dugout like a mad tiger in a cage. We’re sending you to Oakland, where you can play more.’ He was nice about it but he was detached. It was as if they couldn’t wait for me to leave, but they were being careful so there wouldn’t be a scene. I walked out of his office and the whole locker room was dead. Steve Garvey and Don Sutton, two of my best friends on the team, had tears in their eyes. Garvey and me had always gotten along great. He taught me how to tie a tie, he gave me hats and T-shirts, he sat next to me on the team plane and he made me promise to play for him if he ever had a football team.
“Leaving those guys, I was in shock. Players don’t come and go on the Dodgers the way they do on other clubs.”
Lopes remembers picking up the newspaper the next day and reading a quote from a scout. “I believe it was an American League scout at the Angel game in Anaheim that night,” Lopes said. “The guy said, ‘Wait until the A’s find out what they really got in Glenn Burke.’”
The locker room was still silent the next day, and Lopes’ reaction was quoted in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. ”I knew something was missing when I came in today. It will probably remain like this until somebody comes along with a personality like Glenn’s. And I don’t think that’s going to happen. I’ve heard a lot of adverse things about him from people, but they didn’t know him. He was the life of the team, on the bases, in the clubhouse, everywhere. All of us will miss him.”
One Dodger angrily went to the front office and demanded an explanation. Dusty Baker didn’t need to go that far. “I was talking with our trainer, Bill Buhler. I said, ‘Bill, why’d they trade Glenn? He was one of our top prospects. ‘ He said, ‘They don’t want any gays on the team.’ I said, ‘The organization knows?’ He said, ’Everybody knows.”
Burke sprayed three hits the first night with the A’s, and then felt himself becoming absorbed by the damp misery of Charlie Finley’s last years in baseball. The Dodgers had not played him as much as he felt he deserved, but the organization had always gone first class. The A’s in the late 1970s were a dead thing looking for a box to lie still in. Finley was cutting expenses and players, lopping off fans with them. A man with peace of mind could play on. Glenn Burke could not. In the hush of a baseball stadium with 3,000 people, he could hear a voice urging him to leave and stop living a lie.
Four years of life as a sexual fugitive had passed and his self-esteem was fraying. By now his family had pieced the evidence together and guessed. They still accepted him, removing one weight from his mind, but the weight at the stadium showed no sign of relenting. One day he was playing centerfield in Comiskey Park, and a fan called him a faggot. His first thought was “Damn, if they know, everybody else must know.” They probably said it to lots of outfielders, but he didn’t think that then. He went to the dugout at the end of the inning and got a felt-tip pen from the trainer. Next inning he went back out and stuck a piece of paper in the back of his pants. It said, “Screw you.”
He finished the 1978 season hitting .235. Early in the 1979 season, he was sitting in the A’s clubhouse, chatting with outfielder Mitchell Page, a good friend. “Suddenly he got quiet,” Burke said. “He said this scout from Pittsburgh—he came up in the Pirate system. and they were interested in me—had come right out and asked him if I was bisexual. Bisexual. Me, who’d never been with a woman. They couldn’t say gay, I guess. It was tough on Mitchell, talking to me like this. I didn’t say much and he ended up telling the scout, ‘Glenn Burke’s sex life is Glenn Burke’s business. And if it’s any of your business, he’s my friend and I’d go anywhere with him.’
“But at that moment, when Mitchell told me, everything stopped. If some joker in Pittsburgh knew, so did a few others. I realized it had all come to an end. They’d stripped me of my inner-most thoughts.”
Page remembered it as a writer from Oakland who had asked him (Burke still insists it was a scout from Pittsburgh). “The guy told me the word was out,” Page said, “and that he didn’t know if Glenn would be here next season. I felt I should let Glenn know instead of talking behind his back like the other players were. The guys on the A’s never bothered him about it because of the way he handled it. Besides, they were afraid to say anything to his face.
“I liked Glenn, but if I’d seen him walking around making it obvious, I wouldn’t have had anything to do with him. I don’t want to be labeled and have my career damaged. You make sure you point out that I’m not gay, okay?”
“I roomed with him,” said A’s pitcher Mike Norris. “Sure, I was worried at first. You came back to your hotel room at midnight, sat around and listened to music, and you wondered if he’d make a move. After awhile you realized he wouldn’t, and it wasn’t a big problem. Guys would watch out for him but it wasn’t a completely uncomfortable feeling. If it had been out in the open, though, there would have been all kinds of problems. We’re all macho, we’re all men. Just make sure you put in there that I ain’t gay, man.”
The walls were beginning to close in. A gay friend, eager to advance the homosexual movement, kept insisting that Burke come out of the closet and tried to arrange a luncheon appointment with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. Burke refused to attend, but Caen wrote that there was a rumor out that a local professional ballplayer could be found on Castro Street.
Midway through the 1979 season, Finley learned that Burke was refusing to take a cortisone shot for a pinched neck nerve. “I feel an injury should heal on its own,” Burke said. “Once you take the first shot, you take another and another. Charlie came to talk to me on the field before a game. I said no. They sat me for two weeks. Finally, I told them I needed a voluntary retirement and walked out. The whole operation was minor league, with Finley calling the dugout making lineup changes. I probably wouldn’t have left if there hadn’t been the other problem, the gay thing, but put it all together and it was too much.”
It was not that simple to walk away. Baseball had often tortured him, but it still owned a part of him. He returned next spring, attracted by the idea of playing for new manager Billy Martin.
Burke ripped knee cartilage that spring and was sidelined a month. The A’s requested he return to the minor leagues, in Ogden, Utah, and Burke reluctantly agreed. To avoid the small-town stares, he drove 56 miles round-trip so he could live in Salt Lake City. He stopped now, and mulled the absurdity of his life. He was 27, getting no closer to the superstar role he knew he must have to declare his homosexuality and knowing that even if he did achieve it, he would likely be afraid to. He was still dodging management, lying to teammates, and now even ducking Mormons, too. Quietly, with the sports world focused on more important things, Glenn Burke quit baseball for good.
“I had finally gotten to the point,” he said, “where it was more important to be myself than a baseball player.”
Sunshine and shade share the seats in Dodger Stadium and the steady crack of batting practice echoes off the empty concrete. The game is still three hours away. Tommy Lasorda, chipper on this first evening back from the All-Star break, stands in foul territory watching his players re-tune their rhythm at the plate.
A visitor informs him that Glenn Burke is openly discussing his homosexuality. Lasorda’s eyes narrow. “He’s admitting it?” he says. “I have no comment.”
Did he know Burke was gay when he played here? Did it have a bearing on the trade? “I didn’t make that trade,” Lasorda says. “Go talk to the man who made it. I have no more comment.”
The man who made it is just arriving in his office from a trip to assess minor league talent in Hawaii. Al Campanis stands over his desk, looking down at the stack of message slips that has gathered during his absence. He is asked if everybody knew, as Lopes has said, and his eyes stay on his desk, until the length of the silence suggests he is waiting for the subject to crawl out of the room. It does not.
“Quote Davey Lopes then,” he says.
He is pressed on the subject. Long pause. “We traded him because of other situations,” he says. “We didn’t trade him for that. He wasn’t hitting enough, and things of that nature. We didn’t even know … ”
An organization as sharp as the Dodgers did not know? “We thought some things were odd,” he allows. “But we didn’t know. We never saw him with a girl, and when we called his home number a man usually answered. The man said he was his carpenter. But you hear a lot of rumors about players, and just because you see these things, that doesn’t mean a guy’s a fairy, or gay.
“We’re not a watchdog organization, and we’re not like an ostrich with our head in the sand. But he was not traded on suspicion. He was traded because we needed a lefthanded hitter in the outfield. One we thought would help us win the pennant. Glenn had problems with the curveball and his attitude was argumentative, but I always liked him. Sure, some people got mad about the trade; one player came to me all worked up, but were they right? Glenn didn’t do anything after he left here, did he?”
And what of the offer of financial help if Burke had married?
“That dates way back,” he says. “The Dodgers have traditionally liked our players to be married. The player has a wife, children, he gets more serious and settles down. We like our young men to have some responsibilities.”
He is reminded that Dodger rightfielder Pedro Guerrero was married in October, 1980, and received no bonus. Campanis bristles.
“A completely different situation,” he says. “Pedro had an agent, he was settled, he was like my son. We treat situations differently. You have to, in this position. The thing with Glenn Burke wasn’t a bribe. It was a helpful gesture. ”
The baseball player swings and meets the ball just beyond the sweet inches of the bat and still he sends the rightfielder staggering up the hill in front of the wire-mesh fence. The ball clears the fence and the baseball player circles the bases with a home plate-sized grin. All his teammates spring from the bench, forming a line to congratulate him.
A few months away from his 30th birthday, Glenn Burke is one of the stars of the Gay Softball League.
There are perhaps 50 people watching from wooden seats that cry for a carpenter. The atmosphere is carefree. A woman in her 50s lifts her blouse to reveal her “Pendulum Pirates” T-shirt and yells, “Take this!” The fans take it, without looking twice.
Burke goes 4-for-4 but bobbles a grounder in the third inning. Disgusted, he straddles the ball with both feet and jumps, launching it up to his hand. The opposing team’s fans taunt him good-naturedly. “Queeeeeen!” they shout in chorus.
Burke’s team, the Pirates, remains undefeated with a 16-4 victory over On The Mark. The Pirates gather in a huddle at the end and chant, “Two-four-six-eight, who do we appreciate’! On The Mark! On The Mark!” On The Mark reciprocates, and both teams stream to their cars for the postgame ritual. The first hour after the game is always spent at the sponsoring bar of the losing team and then all move on to the winner’s bar for the rest of the afternoon.
At Stables, the bar that sponsors On The Mark, Burke walks out to the sunshine of the patio, where there is enough quiet to reflect. “People say I should still be playing,” he says. “But I didn’t want to make other people uncomfortable, so I faded away. My teammates’ wives might have been threatened by a gay man in the locker room. I could have been a superstar but I was too worried about protecting everybody else from knowing. If I thought I could be accepted, I’d be there now. It is the first thing in my life I ever backed down from. No, I’m not disappointed in myself, I’m disappointed in the system. Your sex should be private, and I always kept it that way. Deep inside, I know the Dodgers traded me because I was gay.
“It’s harder to be a gay in sports than anywhere else, except maybe president. Baseball is probably the hardest sport of all. Every man in America wants his son to be a baseball player. The first thing every father buy for his son is a ball and glove. It’s all-American. Only a superstar could come out and admit he was gay and hope to stay around, and still the fans probably would call the stadium and say they weren’t going to bring their kids. Instead of understanding, they blackball you.
“Sure, there are other gays in baseball, the same per cent as there are in society. Word travels fast in baseball. Guys come home from road trips and tell their wives and they tell other players’ wives. As soon as a player comes to bat, you’ll hear a biography of him in the dugout. I’ve never heard anybody verbally get on a player from the bench about being gay, though.”
He does not want to name names. The relationships, he says, are never between two baseball players. That would be too dangerous.
“There are even more gays in football,” he says. “In football they are like a family, there is so much closeness down there in the trenches, and they can really get off on the body chemistry. But most of the gays I know of in sports fake it. They go out with girls and they get married, so their careers won’t get ruined. They suffer even more than I did.”
Glenn Burke still searches for himself. He plays in five softball leagues and has not worked regularly since leaving baseball. He hopes to finish his college education and become a high school basketball coach, and he hopes that speaking out on the issue will begin to chip at the barriers that marooned him between two cultures. He participates in BWMT (Black and White Men Together), a group fighting racial discrimination within the gay community. “I feel like a representative of the community,” he says. “If I can make friends honestly, it may be a step toward gays and straight people understanding each other. Maybe they’ll say, ‘He’s all right, there’s got to be a few more all right.’ Maybe it will begin to make it easier for other young gays to go into sports.”
As he talks, muscles move on both sides of his forehead, and one can sense that half of his energies still seethe in a person just beneath the skin. It may be a different half there now, but it is still a half.
“Sure, I miss baseball,” he says, “but I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s been a test and it has made me mentally stronger.”
It has created a hollowness and a happiness and an image that lingers, of Glenn Burke walking a gauntlet of high-fives after his home run over the wire-mesh fence and laughing that crazy laugh once again. There might have been more, there might have been cash and fame, but there is none of this now.
There is instead the legacy of two men’s hands touching, high above their heads.
At the time of this story’s publication, Michael J. Smith was the editor of BWMT Quarterly. Glenn Burke died in 1995 of complications from AIDS. He was 42.
[Featured Illustration: Bruce Hutchison for ESPN The Magazine]
This profile of Steve Carlton “Thin Mountain Air” was written by our man Pat Jordan. It originally appeared in Philadelphia magazine in April, 1994 and appears here with the author’s permission.
Durango, Colorado, is a cold mountain community 6,506 feet above sea level. It is known for its thin air, which can make residents light-headed, disoriented. It is surrounded by the La Plata mountain range. Built into the foothills of those mountains is a domed concrete house covered with snow and dirt. No one but its owner can explain what he was seeking with that house.
“I came to Durango in 1989 to get away from society,” he says. He is a big man, 6–5, 225 pounds, dressed in a Western shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. He is standing beside his truck in the thick snow that covers the land around his bunker and rests gently on the branches of the low-lying piñon trees that dot his 400 acres. It is a few days before Christmas.
“I don’t like it where there are too many people,” he says. “I like it here because the people are spiritually tuned in.” He glances sideways, out of the corner of his eyes. “They know where the lies fall.”
He makes a sweeping gesture with a long arm, encompassing his bunker, his barn with its turkey, pheasants and horses, and more than 160 fruit trees he has planted. “This is sacred land,” he says. “We’re self-sufficient here. There’s no one around us. We grow our own food.”
He points to sliding glass doors that lead inside his bunker to the greenhouse off his bedroom. “We have our own well,” he says. “And 16 solar batteries for heat and electricity.”
Even his telephone works on cellular microwave transmitters. That way no one can tap his wires.
“The house is built with over 300 yards of concrete,” he says. “Three-feet-thick walls covered by another three feet of earth.” Why? He looks startled, like a huge bird. His small eyes blink once, twice, and then he says, “So the gamma rays won’t penetrate the walls.”
Built under the house is a 7,000-foot storage cellar. He’s stocked it with canned foods, bottled water, weapons. “Do you know if you store guns in PVC pipe, they can last forever underground without rusting?” he says.
He glanced sideways again. “The Revolution is definitely coming.” He believes in the Revolution, only he isn’t precisely sure which of a myriad of conspiratorial groups will begin it. Possibly, he says, it will be started by the Skull and Bones Society of Yale University. Or maybe the International Monetary Fund. Or the World Health Organization. There are so many conspiracies, and so little time. Sometimes all those conspiracies confuse him and he contradicts himself. One minute he’ll say, ”The Russian and U.S. governments fill the air with low-frequency sound waves meant to control us,” and the next he’ll say, “The Elders of Zion rule the world,” and then, “The British MI-5 and-6 intelligence agencies have ruled the world since 1812,” and, “Twelve Jewish bankers meeting in Switzerland rule the world,” and, “The world is controlled by a committee of 300 which meets at a roundtable in Rome.” The subterfuge starts early. Like the plot by the National Education Association to subvert American children with false teachings. “Don’t tell me that two plus two equals four,” he once said. “How do you know that two is two? That’s the real question.”
He believes that the last eight U.S. presidents have been guilty of treason, that President Clinton “has a black son” he won’t acknowledge and that his wife, Hillary, “is a dyke,” and that the AIDS virus was created at a secret Maryland biological warfare laboratory “to get rid of gays and blacks, and now they have a strain of the virus that can live ten days in the air or on a plate of food, because you know who most of the waiters are,” and finally, that most of the mass murderers in this country who open fire indiscriminately in fast-food restaurants “are hypnotized to kill those people and then themselves immediately afterwards,” as in the movie The Manchurian Candidate. He blinks once, twice, and says, “Who hypnotizes them? They do!”
Maybe he isn’t really contradicting himself. Maybe he is just one of those people who read into the simplest things a cosmic significance they may or may not have. Conspiracies everywhere to explain things he cannot fathom. The refuge of a limited mind. “The mind is its own place,” John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost. “And in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
Steven Norman Carlton, “Lefty,” discovered his first conspiracy in 1988, when he was forced to leave baseball prematurely and against his will, he says—after a 24-year-major-league pitching career of such excellence that he was an almost-unanimous selection for baseball’s Hall of Fame on his first try, this past January. He received 96 percent of all baseball writers’ votes, the second-highest percentage ever received by a pitcher (after Tom Seaver’s 98 percent) and the fifth-highest of all time.
Carlton, who pitched for the Phillies from 1972 to 1986, after seven years with the St. Louis Cardinals, has—after the Braves’ Warren Spahn—the most wins of any left-handed pitcher. Carlton won 329 games and lost 244 during his career. Six times he won 20 games or more in a season, and he was voted his league’s Cy Young Award a record four times. His most phenomenal season, one of the greatest seasons a pitcher has ever had, came in his first year with the Phillies: Carlton won 27 games, lost only ten, and fashioned a 1.98 ERA for a last-place team that won only 59 games all season. In other words, he earned almost half of his team’s victories, the highest such percentage ever. For almost 20 years, he was the pitcher against which all others were judged.
The secrets to his success were many. Talent. An uncanny ability to reduce pitching to its simplest terms. An unorthodox, yet rigorous, training regimen. A fierce stubbornness and an even fiercer arrogance. All contributed to his success on the mound and, later, to his inability to adjust to the complexities of life off the mound.
As a pitcher, Carlton knew his limitations. A mind easily baffled by intricacies. There were so many batters. Their strengths and weaknesses confused him, so he refused to go over batters’ tendencies in pregame meetings. He blocked them out of his consciousness and reduced pitching to a mere game of toss between pitcher and catcher—his personal catcher, Tim McCarver. He used only two pitches: an explosive fastball and an equally explosive, biting slider. He just threw one of the two pitches to his catcher’s glove. Fastball up and in; slider low and away.
He worked very hard to let nothing intrude upon his concentration. Once the third baseman fired a ball that hit him in the head. He blinked, waved off the players rushing to his aid, picked up the ball, toed the rubber and faced his next batter. His parents, Joe and Anne Carlton, claim they’ve never seen their son cry.
It was not always easy for him to be so singularly focused while pitching.
“Concentration on the mound is a battle,” he says. “Things creep into your mind. Your mind is always chattering.”
To prevent any “chattering” before a start, he had the Phillies build him a $15,000 “mood behavior” room next to the clubhouse. It was soundproof, with dark blue carpet on the floor, walls, and ceiling. He’d sit there for hours in an easy chair, staring at a painting of ocean waves rushing against the shore. A disembodied voice intoned “I am courageous, calm, confident, and relaxed … I can control my destiny.”
Carlton, said teammate Dal Maxvill, lived in “a little dark room of his mind.” His training routine was just as unorthodox. He hated to run wind sprints, so instead he stuck his arm in a garbage pail filled with brown rice and rotated it 49 times, for the 49 years that Kwan Gung, a Chinese martial-arts hero, lived. By then, Lefty himself was a martial-arts expert.
He performed the slow, ritualized movements in his clubhouse before each game. He also extensively read Eastern theology and philosophy. Those texts discussed the mysteries of life, the unknowable and how a man should confront them. Silence, stoicism, and simplicity. Those tenets struck a chord in him because, increasingly, his life off the mound was becoming more complex than a game of catch. People constantly clamored for his autograph. Waitresses messed up his order in restaurants, so he tore up their menus. Reporters began to ask him questions he didn’t like, or didn’t understand, or maybe he just thought were trivial. They even had the effrontery to question him about his failures.
“People are always throwing variables at you,” he said in disgust, and refused to talk anymore. The press called it “the Big Silence.” From 1974 to 1988, Carlton wouldn’t speak to the media. (It wasn’t just Daily News sportswriter Bill Conlin’s stories, as many assumed, but a series of articles, Carlton says now, that drove him to withdraw.) One sportswriter said there would come a time when Lefty would “wish he’d been a good guy when he’d had the chance.” But he didn’t have to be a good guy. He wasn’t interested in the fame being a good guy would bring him. He wanted only to perfect his craft, which he did, and to become rich.
Over the last ten years of his career, Carlton earned close to $10 million, almost all of it in salary because he didn’t want the annoyance of doing endorsements. It was demeaning, he thought, for him to hawk peoples’ wares. Then again, thanks to the Big Silence, there weren’t a lot of sponsors beating down his door. He already had a reputation for sullen arrogance. When he went to New York City once to discuss a contract for a book about his life, he told the editors he really didn’t care about the book, that he was just doing it for the money and because his wife, Beverly, thought it was a good idea. The editors beat a hasty retreat.
Carlton didn’t need a publisher’s money, or a sponsor’s, because he had a personal agent who promised to make him so rich that when he retired he could do nothing but fish and hunt. He had his salary checks sent directly to the agent, David Landfield, who invested them in oil and gas leases, car dealerships and Florida swampland. Since Carlton couldn’t be bothered with the checks and often had no idea exactly how big they were, Landfield simply sent him a monthly allowance, as if he were a child. These monthly allotments would be all Carlton would ever see out of his $10 million. Not one of Landfield’s investments for him ever made a cent. By 1983, all the money was gone.
During the nine years that Landfield worked for him, Carlton’s friends tried to warn him off the agent. Bill Giles, the Phillies’ owner, and Mike Schmidt, Lefty’s teammate, pleaded with him to drop Landfield. But he wouldn’t listen. One time, he even got in a fight with Schmidt in the clubhouse because of Landfield, and the two, formerly close friends, stopped speaking. Carlton said it was because he was loyal to Landfield, whom he trusted. Others said he was just being stubborn and arrogant because his success on the mound had led him to believe he was invincible off it. McCarver once said that Lefty “always had an irascible contempt for being human. He thinks he’s superhuman.”
When the truth of what Landfield had done with his money finally intruded into Carlton’s psyche, it was too late. He went through the motions of suing Landfield in 1983, but by then Landfield had declared bankruptcy. Worse, Carlton never had a chance to recoup his money, because only a few years later his career was on the downswing and those big paychecks were a thing of the past. He began to lose the bite on his slider in ’85, and people told him he should try to pick up another pitch. But he refused. He continued to throw the only way he knew how.
Fastball up and in, slider low and away.
Between 1986 and 1988, Carlton was traded or released five times, until finally, after being cut by the Minnesota Twins, no club would sign him—even for the $100,000 league minimum. Carlton was furious. At 43 he insisted he could still pitch. That’s when he uncovered his first conspiracy.
“The Twins set me up to release me by not pitching me,” he says today. “And other owners were told to keep their hands off. Other teams wouldn’t even talk to me. I don’t understand it.” To understand it, all Carlton has to do is look at his pitching record from 1985 to 1988: 16 wins, 37 losses and an ERA of more than five runs per game. It was a reality he didn’t want to face. So, sullen and hurt, Carlton decided to punish those who had hurt him. He retreated to Durango and soon afterward began building his mountain bunker, turning his back on the game and the real world that had betrayed him.
Steve Carlton, 49, dressed in a T-shirt and gym shorts, is standing on his head in the mirrored exercise room, performing his daily three hours of yoga.
“I don’t even feel any weight above my neck,” he says, upside down. Just then a screaming flock of children runs into the room with their female yoga instructor, who is dressed in black tights. Immediately, Carlton takes out two earplugs and sticks them in his ears.
“It takes the bite off the high-end notes,” he says, smiling. He is still a handsome man, his face relatively unlined. His is a typically American handsomeness, perfect features without idiosyncrasies. Except for his eyes. They are small and hazel and show very little.
“I spend my summers riding motorcycles and dirt bikes,” he says. “I work around the house. It’s taken us three years and we’re still not finished. (It is rumored that he doesn’t have the money to do so.) In the winter I ski and read books, Eastern metaphysical stuff. All about the power within. Oneness with the universe. I want to tap into my own mind to know what God knows.” He rights himself, sits cross-legged on a mat and begins contorting into another yoga position, the ankle of his left leg somewhere behind his ear.
“You ought to try,” he says. “Yoga for three hours a day. And skiing, too.” He says this with absolute conviction, as if it has never crossed his mind that there are those who do not have three hours in the morning to spare for yoga, and three more hours in the afternoon to ski. In fact, Durango seems to be the kind of town where people have unlimited leisure time. At 10:30 on a weekday morning, the health club is packed. Durango is one of those faux-Western towns whose women dress in dirndl skirts and cowboy boots and whose men, their faces adorned with elaborately waxed 1890s handlebar mustaches, wear plaid work shirts rolled up to the elbows. It has a lot of “saloons”—not bars—with clever names, like Father Murphy’s, that have walls adorned with old guns, specialize in a variety of cappuccinos and frown upon cigar smoking. Clean air is an important subject in Durango. When the town’s only tobacco shop wanted to hold a cigar smoker, its two owners were afraid it would be disrupted by protesters chaining themselves to their shop door. It’s a town for people who cannot countenance the idiosyncrasies of their fellow man. So they come to this clean, thin mountain air where they can breathe without being contaminated by the foulness of the rest of the world.
Carlton believes he is in better physical shape now than when he left baseball six years ago. “In a month I could be throwing in the 80s [miles per hour] and win,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I was labeled ‘too old.’ But you can still pitch in your 50s. It’s not for money but for pride, proving you can perform. That’s the beauty of it. Then to be cut off … It’s disheartening. If only they let you tell them when you know you’re done. It hurts. But I haven’t looked back. No thought of what I should have done. Maybe I should have learned a circle change up in my later years. But I didn’t think I needed a change.”
Most great pitchers intuit the loss of their power pitches before it actually happens. Warren Spahn, for example. He could see, in his early 30s, a time when his high, leg-kicking fastball would no longer be adequate. So he began to perfect an off-speed screwball and a slow curve. By the time Spahn lost his fastball, he had perfected his off-speed pitches, and his string of 20-victory seasons continued unbroken into his late 30s and early 40s. But Carlton was both luckier than Spahn and less fortunate. Because he did not lose his power pitches until late into his 30s, he was deluded into thinking he would never lose them, and so didn’t develop any off-speed pitches.
Carlton, lying on his back now, pulls one leg underneath himself and stretches it. “Baseball was fun,” he says. “But I have no regrets. Competition is the ultimate level of insecurity, having to beat someone. I don’t miss baseball. I never look back. You turn the page. Eternity lies in the here and now. If you live in the past, you accelerate the death process. Your being is your substance.”
As a player, Carlton was known for his conviviality with his teammates. He spent a lot of his off-hours drinking with them, and there were hints in the press, most notably by Bill Conlin, that his drinking contributed to some of his disastrous years, such as the 13–20 ’73 season. After he left baseball, Carlton, who used to be a wine connoisseur, with a million-dollar cellar, gave up drinking.
“I had nobody to go drinking with anymore,” he says. “Now when I see old baseball players, I have nothing to talk to them about. All that old-time bullshit. It bores me. I live in the here and now. I’d be intellectually starved in the game today.” Still, Carlton would like to get back into it. He sees himself as a pitching coach in spring training.
“I’d like to teach young pitchers the mental aspect of the game,” he says. “Teach them wisdom, which is different than knowledge. Champions think a certain way. To a higher level. They create their future. The body is just a vehicle for the mind and spirit. Champions will themselves to win. They know they’re gonna win. Others hope they’ll win. The mind gives you what it asks for. That’s its God.”
Then he relates a story about a friend in Durango, who, years ago, didn’t want to play on his high school basketball team because he knew it was going to have a losing season. Before the season began, the friend was hit by a car, destroying his knee.
“See,” says Carlton, as if he’s just proved a point. “If you have an accident, you create it in your mind. That’s a fact. The mind is the conscious architect of your success. What you hold consciously in your mind becomes your reality.”
If this is so, then Carlton must have willed his own failure in the twilight of his career. When such a possibility is broached to him, he looks up, terrified. He blinks once, in shock, and a second time to banish the thought from his psyche. “Why do you ask such questions?” he says shrilly. He has so carefully crafted his philosophies that he can become completely disoriented when they are challenged. That’s why Carlton has withdrawn from the world into the security of his bunker.
There he is left alone with only his thoughts, his dictums, his conspiracies, with no one to question them. Such questions strike fear in Carlton. And above all else, Steve Carlton is a fearful man.
“Fear dictates our lives,” he has said. “Fear is a tremendous energy that must be banished. Fear makes our own prisons. It’s instilled in us by our government and the Church. They control fear. It’s the Great Lie. But don’t get me started on that.” For a man who, for 15 years, was known for his silences, Carlton now talks a lot. In fact, he can’t stop himself. When he was voted into the Hall of Fame this past January, he held a press conference. At the end of its scheduled 45 minutes, the sportswriters got up to leave. Carlton called them back to talk some more.
“I don’t mind,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”When he is inducted, with Phil Rizzuto, into the Hall in late July before the assembled national press, it will be interesting to see if he will still be so loquacious.
A lot of people are suspicious of his motives for talking so much. Carlton claims, “It’s all Bev’s idea.” He says his wife wants him to get back into the world. For years, Beverly Carlton ran interference for her husband during “the Big Silence.” After Carlton won his 300th game, in 1983, he surrounded himself with a police escort and fled the clubhouse to avoid reporters. He left it to Bev to talk to the press.
“Steve would like to play another ten years,” she told them. “He just might. Baseball’s been great to us.”Then, to humanize her distant husband, she revealed a little intimacy. “Well,” she said, “he likes Ukrainian food.”
In Carlton’s final season, when he began to rethink his silence, he said it was because “my wife convinced me that if I want to find a job after I’m through playing, having my name in the paper doesn’t hurt.” Even today, Bev Carlton schedules her husband’s interviews. (He no longer has an agent.) When reporters show up in Durango, Carlton will feign surprise at their presence.
“I didn’t know you were coming,” he says. When told that his wife said she confirmed the interview with him, he blinks, once, twice, and says, “I didn’t pay any attention.”
In this way, he can lay off the distasteful prospect of being interviewed on his wife. He can maintain, in his mind’s eye, the lofty arrogance of “the Big Silence” while no longer adhering to it. (“Bev likes to read about me,” he says.) It is likely that Carlton is talking now because he needs money, looking to reassert his presence in the public’s consciousness so he can do endorsements.
“We’ll probably do some of that stuff in the coming years,” he says. It’s a distasteful position his old agent put him in, and one he doesn’t like to be reminded of. “It’s one of life’s little lessons,” Carlton says of David Landfield. “I don’t want to talk about it. I no longer live in the past.”
Then, after a moment of silence, he adds, “It all came down to trust. You’re most vulnerable there. When your trust is breached, it affects you.”
Most of Carlton’s money for the past few years has come from his two businesses. He claims he is a sports agent, but won’t mention the names of his clients. (It is hard to imagine anyone, even a ballplayer, entrusting his money to a man who lost millions of his own.) The bulk of his money, a reported $100,000 or so per year, comes from autograph shows and the Home Shopping Network, where he peddles his own wares. Caps, cards, T-shirts, little plaster figurines of himself as a pitcher—all emblazoned with the number 329, his career victory total. He sells these objects by mail, too, out of a tiny, cluttered office in a nondescript, wooden building a few miles from town. A sign out front lists the building’s occupants, lawyers and such. But there is no mention of Carlton’s enterprise, Game Winner Sports Management, and he likes it that way.
“We didn’t want a sign up so people would know where we are,” he says, smiling. In fact, even the occupants of the building aren’t sure where “the baseball player’s” office is.
“We have a toll-free number [1-800-72LEFTY],” he says. “We accept VISA and checks. Just send me a check and don’t bother me.” Now as Carlton finishes with his yoga, the instructor in the black tights ushers one of the children over to him. The teacher is smiling, giggly, blushing, a vaguely attractive woman who seems to have a crush on Carlton. She leans close to him and says, “I have someone who wants to meet you.” Carlton shrinks back from her even as she urges the uncomprehending child toward him.
“Go ahead,” she says. The child looks up at the towering man and says, “Happy birthday.” Carlton blinks, confused.
“I don’t celebrate birthdays,” he says.
At the foot of a steep, winding dirt road rutted with snow, Steve Carlton stops his truck and gets out to engage its four-wheel drive. When he gets back in and begins driving carefully up the path, he says, “I’ve been lucky. I’ve had teachers in my life. One guy began writing me letters, four or five a week, in 1970. That’s the year I won 20 games with the Cardinals. He told me where the power and energy comes from. He was a night watchman. We talked on the phone a few times and met a couple times. He was a very spiritual guy. All I knew about him was that his name was Mr. Briggs. Then he was gone as quickly as he came into my life. It was a gift.”
When he reaches his bunker, at twilight, he stops and gets out. He looks out over his land and says, “There’s nothing like being by yourself. I’m reclusive. I want to get in touch with myself.” He glances sideways, and adds, “But society is coming.”
That’s why he is preparing by being self-sufficient. He is not so self-sufficient, however, that he’s ever mustered the courage to butcher his animals for food. But, that’s a moot point now. All his chickens were killed by raccoons last winter.
It’s late. Carlton has a dinner appointment. But he’s not sure what time it is now, because he doesn’t wear a watch. “I never know what time it is,” he says. “Or what day it is. Time is stress. Pressure melts away if you don’t deal with time. I don’t believe in birthdays, either. Or anniversaries. I don’t watch television. We don’t read newspapers. We don’t even have a Christmas tree. Those things hold vibrations of the past, and I exist only in the now. Bev is even more into it that I am.”
He trudges through the snow to the side door of his odd, domed bunker. Inside, he puts the flat of one palm against the concrete and says, “I’m waiting for the coldness to come out of the walls.” Bev is waiting for him in the living room. She is a small, sweet, nervous woman, sitting in a chair by a space heater. She used to bleach her hair blonde, but now her short cut is its natural brown. She smiles as her husband sits down across from her. She hugs herself from the cold, and then drags on a cigarette.
Their home is starkly furnished, not out of design but necessity. A few wooden tables, a bookcase filled with Carlton’s Eastern metaphysical books, a patterned sofa and easy chair, hand-me-downs from their son Scott, 25, a bartender in St. Louis. Their other son, Steven, 27, lives in Washington State, where he writes children’s songs.
Carlton doesn’t like to talk about his kids. “Why do you have to know about them?” he says plaintively. He doesn’t talk much about his parents, either, whom he rarely sees or speaks to. They, it seems, are another part of Carlton’s past that he has cut out of his life.
“The correspondence lacks,” admits Joe Carlton, 87 and blind. “We don’t hear from him much. It’s okay, though.”
“We keep up with him in the newspapers,” says Anne Carlton, who says of her age, “It’s nobody’s damned business.”
The elder Carltons are sitting in the shadowed, musty living room of their small, concrete house in North Miami, where they raised their son and two daughters, Christina and Joanne. From the outside, it looks uninhabited. The drab house paint is peeling, and the yards out front and back, dotted with Joe’s many fruit trees, are overgrown, rotted fruit littering the tall grass.
Inside, the furniture is old and worn, and thick dust coats the television screen. Even the many photographs and newspaper articles on the walls are faded and dusty, like old tintypes. The photos are mostly of their son in various baseball uniforms. As a teenager—gawky, with a faint, distant smile, posing with his teammates, the Lions. With the Cardinals, his hair fashionably long, back in the ’60s. Then with the Phillies, posing with Mike Schmidt, captioned MVP AND CY YOUNG.
“No, I haven’t heard from him,” says Joe, a former maintenance man with Pan Am. He is sitting on an ottoman, staring straight ahead through thick glasses. “I can’t see you, except as a shadow,” he says, staring out the window. He is a thin man, almost gaunt, with long silvery swept-back hair. He is wearing a faded Hawaiian shirt.
“It’s no special reason,” says Anne, sitting in her easy chair. “He just doesn’t call me anymore.”
“He called when Anne’s mother died, at 101,” says Joe. Then he begins to talk about his son as a child. How Joe used to go hunting with him in the Everglades. “We used to shoot light bulbs,” he says.
“Steve was a natural-born hunter,” says Anne. “Tell what kind of animals you hunted in the Everglades.”
“Lions and tigers.”
“Oh, you didn’t. There are no lions and tigers in the Everglades. Tell what kind of animals.”
Joe, confused, says, “There were lots of animals.” Anne shakes her head. “Steve was always quiet,” adds Joe, trying to remember. “He wasn’t very talkative around the house when he was a boy.” He fetches an old scrapbook and opens a page to a newspaper photograph of his son in a Phillies cap. There is a zipper where his mouth should be.
“Can I bum a cigarette off you?” Anne says to their guest. “Oh, you don’t have any. Too bad.”
“The last time we saw Steve was five years ago,” says Joe.
“It wasn’t that long ago.”
“Yes, it was. Time flies.”
“It was only four years.”
“He never told us about his house.”
“We don’t even know where Durango is. I never heard of it. Have you seen his house? Really, it’s built into a mountain?”
“Steve got an interest in his philosophies when he got hold of one of my books when he was in high school,” says Joe.
“He doesn’t believe in Christmas trees anymore?” asks Anne. “We always had a Christmas tree. Bev liked Christmas trees. No, we never asked him for any money,” Anne continues. “He would have given it to us if we asked, though.”
“He never helped us financially. I didn’t need it.” Joe, who is also hard of hearing, cups a hand around an ear. “What? His sons? You mean Steve’s sons? No, we never hear from them, either.”
“Our daughters call, though,” says Anne.
“They came down for my 85th birthday,” says Joe. “They gave me a surprise party. Steve didn’t come.”
Joe gets up and goes into a small guest room where, on a desk, dresser, and two twin beds, he has laid out mementos of his son’s career. A photograph of a plaster impression of Steve’s hand when he was a boy. A high school graduation photo of Steve with a flattop haircut.
“Steve doesn’t collect this stuff,” says Joe. “He’s too busy. Here’s another picture of Steve. I got pictures all over. I got another picture here, somewhere, when we took Steve to St. Augustine, where Anne is from. It’s a picture of Steve in the oldest fort in America. He’s behind bars.”
Joe rummages around for the photo, disturbing dust, but he can’t find it. He leafs through one last scrapbook; on its final page is a photograph of a burial mound of skulls and bones, thousands of them, piled in a heap. Joe looks at it and says, “We took it in Cuba. See here what I wrote at the bottom: The end.”
There are no photographs of Joe and Anne in their son’s living room. No photos of his and Bev’s children. No photos of themselves when younger. No wedding photos of smiling bride and bridegroom. No photos of Carlton in a Phillies uniform or on a hunting trip. There are no keepsakes of their past. No prints on the wall. No Christmas tree, no presents, nestled in cotton snow. There is nothing in that huge, high, concave, whitewashed concrete room except the few pieces of nondescript furniture and the space heater. Bev and her husband seem dwarfed by the cave like room. They huddle around the space heater like a 20th-century version of the clan in the movie Quest for Fire. Mere survival seems their only joy, their only beauty, except for the view through the sliding-glass living room doors of the La Plata mountain range, all white and purple and rose in the setting sun, which Beverly has turned her back on.
Bev tries to make small talk as she drags on her cigarette. Curiously, her husband no longer hates cigarette smoke as he once did as a ballplayer, when he claimed he could taste it on his wineglass if someone in the room was smoking. Of course, in those days he didn’t eat red meat either because of the blood. His thinking has changed now, he has said, because he realizes “that the juice of anything is its blood, that the juice of a carrot is the carrot’s blood.”
Bev is talking about the time she and other Phillies’ wives met Ted Turner. “Oh, yes,” she says, “he kept putting his hands on the behinds of the wives.”
“He was crude and vulgar,” says Carlton. “What’s wrong with America?” He shakes his head in disgust and begins a long monologue on the unfairness of the American government, primarily because it won’t allow its citizens to walk around armed. Bev listens patiently smiling her thin smile, her head nodding like a small bird sipping water. Her husband is right. She is a lot like him. Frightened. When it is time to meet their guests for dinner, Carlton stands up. Bev remains seated hugging herself against the cold.
“Oh, I’m not going to dinner,” she says without explanation. “Just Steve.”
It’s confusing to their guest, until he remembers Carlton’s words: “Bev wants me to get out into the world,” Carlton had said. Which is what she is doing now: sending him out into that fearful world in order to make a living for them. It’s something she knows he has to do on his own if they are going to survive, like a mother bundling her tiny child off the school for the first time. Meanwhile she sits at home in their stark bunker huddled close to the space heater for warmth, worrying about him out there, alone and scared, in the real world he shunned for so many years.
The Carlton story is a riot. So I’m working for my friend Elliot Kaplan in Philadelphia and I wasn’t getting paid a lot. I’d known Eliot for years and done a lot of work for him when he was at GQ. Carlton was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame and he had been a Philly guy.
I had one rule with Eliot. I said, “As long as you pay me what you pay your other writers, I don’t care. But if I ever find out that you were paying me less because of our friendship, I’ll be really annoyed.” He wasn’t paying much but I’d do whatever I could for him.
He wanted me to do Steve Carlton, but he didn’t have the budget to fly me to Durango, Colorado, which is an expensive flight. L.A. would be a cheap flight from Fort Lauderdale, where I lived at the time. New York is a cheap flight. Durango is not.
Now, I had an assignment to do Brian Boitano for the L.A. Times Magazine, so I booked a triangle flight: Ft. Lauderdale, San Francisco, did Boitano, took a puddle-jumper to Denver, rented a car, and drove to Durango. My wife Susan went with me and we got to Denver in the middle of a snow storm. We get on this puddle-jumper plane and they are de-icing the wings to go fly over the Rocky fucking Mountains. I hate to fly and I said, “Oh shit, this is how I’m going to die? I’m going down for friendship, for Eliot? I’m going to die in the fucking mountains for Steve Carlton, who I didn’t want to do anyway?”
I knew nothing about Carlton other than he hated to talk to the press. But he was going to the Hall of Fame and he wanted to capitalize on it. So I get there. I’m supposed to meet him the next morning at a gym, at 10. Susie and I got up at 6 or 7 and it’s freezing in Durango. We drive and I find the gym so I know where it is. Before we go to breakfast I drive back to the airport to make sure I can find my way back there. On the way, we get a flat tire on the highway. It’s so cold my hands are sticking to the lug nuts. I change the tire. Now, I’m in a panic to get back to Carlton, and I’m going to get back just in time. I get back to the gym, he’s doing yoga or something, there’s women running around, kids, and we start talking. I wasn’t tape-recording because there was too much noise.
Carlton was odd. He told me, “I’m up here because I wanted to be secluded because of what America’s becoming,” or something like that. So I changed the subject and told him about a new gun I had bought. I’m into guns. For some reason, I knew that would perk him up. So I mentioned that I had gotten a Czechoslovakian military pistol, a CZ 85.
He said: “Oh yeah, that’s a great gun. You know you’d better bury that in PVC pipes because the UN is coming in black helicopters to confiscate all of our guns.”
I said, “Oh, really?”
He said, “Yeah, it’s a world organization that’s dictated by the Elders of Zion, the twelve Jews in Switzerland who control the world.”
At this point, I just let him go. We went from the gym to his office where he was selling all of his tchotchkes, figurines of him pitching, autographs. This is how he thought he was going to make a living, ’cause he was almost broke at the time. He had lost a fortune because of his agent.
So we talked in his office and then I went out to his house, which is like a concrete bunker. And he was really weird. I called Eliot and said: “Eliot, this guy’s crazy. He’s the kind of guy who should not be allowed to read a book. He believes everything in the last book he read. Like the whole Elders of Zion thing. He told me he had read that in a book.” Well, shit, there are other books than that.
So I wrote the story and it caused a big stink. The Today Show came down to interview me. Now, after the story came out, everybody started defending Steve. Tim McCarver, Jim Kaat, all these guys who were in the fraternity of ex-athletes. Even though they knew I had written the truth, I was not in the fraternity. I was the outsider, the outlaw freelance writer living in Florida. The guy you can’t trust. So the papers are running pieces about what a hatchet job I did on poor Steve Carlton.
Eliot Kaplan (via email): I had recently moved to Philadelphia Magazine as editor-in-chief after several years as the deputy at GQ. Pat had done some fantastic stories for us at GQ, everything from Greg Louganis and Pete Rose Jr. to Marilyn Chambers and Traci Lords. When I got to Philly, he was kind enough to agree to write for me, more out of friendship than money. We paid him whatever our top rate was then, probably $2,000-2,500. Including travel expenses!
Steve Carlton had not talked to any media in almost 20 years but was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame and agreed to be interviewed. I think both Pat and I were expecting a rather bland, clipped interview but figured Pat could make something out of it, as he always does. Pat ended up flying over a winter holiday, through a bumpy blizzard, into Colorado.
He called me that night. I remember leaving a holiday dinner and him telling me, “He’s nuts. Carlton is nuts,” and proceeding to describe the bunker-type residence, Carlton’s vast conspiracy theories, his almost survivalist mentality.
Pat got great stuff and wrote a spectacular piece.
It came out in the April issue and then … nothing. Not a peep in the media.
Two reasons come to mind. First, Philly can be a weird place. The newspapers and Philadelphia Magazine were always competitive and antagonistic toward each other, so they weren’t going to talk up the piece. And remember, this was before the internet or magazines having publicists.
But more importantly, the same issue featured a very juicy story in which the popular mayor, Ed Rendell, was quoted making extremely saucy, suggestive comments to reporter Lisa DePaulo. THAT story was the one that grabbed the headlines, including a few front days of the Philly Daily News.
It wasn’t until about a week later when my friend, the writer and Philadelphia native Joe Queenan, was on a New York radio show and mentioned the Carlton piece, that it suddenly exploded, with the New York media being the ones driving it and the Philadelphia media then forced to react. I don’t think it affected sales of the magazine by that point but it definitely got a lot of chatter and reaction from Phillies PR, who denied everything. You can look up a Tim McCarver interview in Times that basically said, Yeah, Carlton is kinda nuts but not an anti-Semite (which I believe, but the Elders of Zion thing was easy for people to pick up on). Thought I came up with a good line to one reporter: “Carlton was always known for his slider. Turns out screwball is more like it.”
“I got balls and guts,” Gary Stevens tweeted on the evening of Feb. 23. The barb was directed at an armchair critic who blasted the legendary jockey’s ride in that day’s Risen Star Stakes — at the Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, in New Orleans. Stevens’ mount, Proud Strike, finished eighth in the race, and some fans in the blogosphere blamed the rider. Stevens felt compelled to respond directly to one of the more vocal detractors.
Few would argue with Gary Stevens’ declaration. He has competed in more than 27,000 Thoroughbred races worldwide over a 34- year span, winning more than 5,000 and frequently putting himself in danger in the process. Over the years, he’s often tried to squeeze his horse through a tight opening, or pin a rival down on the inside — whatever it takes to win.
Oh, yes. Gary Stevens has guts and balls. He has ‘em to spare.
He’s also got an intense desire to show the world that he’s got them. And should you challenge him, as the Twitter pundit did, he’s going to want to fight you.
Originally published in the October 1992 issue of GQ, here is a classic from Peter Richmond.
(A postscript from the author follows.)
Nighttime in Los Angeles, on a quiet street off Melrose Avenue. An otherwise normal evening is marked by an oddly whimsical celestial disturbance: Baseballs are falling out of the sky.
They are coming from the roof of a gray apartment building. One ball pocks an adjacent apartment. Another bounces to the street. A third flies off into the night, a mighty shot.
This is West Hollywood in the early eighties, where anything is not only possible but likely. West Hollywood shakes its head and drives on by.
But if a passerby’s curiosity had been piqued and he’d climbed to the roof of a neighboring building to divine the source of the show, he would have been rewarded by a most unusual sight: a man of striking looks, with long blond hair, startlingly and wincingly thin, hitting the ball with a practiced swing—a flat, smooth, even stroke developed during a youth spent in minor-league towns from Pocatello to Albuquerque.
This is not Tommy Lasorda Jr.’s, routine nighttime activity. A routine night is spent in the clubs, the bright ones and dark ones alike.
Still, on occasion, here he’d be, on the roof, clubbing baseballs into the night. Because there were times when the pull was just too strong. Of the game. Of the father. He could never be what his father was—Tommy Lasorda’s own inner orientation made that impossible—but he could fantasize, couldn’t he? That he was ten, taking batting practice in Ogden, Utah, with his dad, and Garvey, and the rest of them?
And so, on the odd night. On a night he was not at Rage, or the Rose Tattoo, he’d climb to the roof, the lord of well-tanned West Hollywood, and lose himself in the steady rhythm of bat hitting ball—the reflex ritual that only a man inside the game can truly appreciate.
“Junior was the better hitter,” recalls Steve Garvey. “He didn’t have his father’s curveball, but he was the better hitter.”
“I cried,” Tom Lasorda says quietly. He is sipping a glass of juice in the well-appointed lounge of Dodgertown, the Los Angeles baseball team’s green-glorious oasis of a spring-training site. It’s a place that heralds and nurtures out-of-time baseball and out-of-time Dodgers. A place where, each spring, in the season of illusion’s renewal, they are allowed to be the men they once were.
On this February weekend, Dodgertown is crowded with clearly affluent, often out-of-shape white men, each of whom has parted with $4,000 to come to Dodgers fantasy camp. In pink polo shirts and pale-pink slacks—the pastels of privilege—they are scattered around the lounge, flirting with fantasy lives, chatting with the coaches.
“I cried. A lot of times. But I didn’t cry in the clubhouse. I kept my problems to myself. I never brought them with me. I didn’t want to show my family—that’s my family away from my house. What’s the sense of bringing my problems to my team?
“I had him for thirty-three years. Thirty-three years is better than nothing, isn’t it? If I coulda seen God and God said to me ‘I’m going to give you a son for thirty-three years and take him away after thirty-three years,’ I’d have said ‘Give him to me.’”
His gaze skips about the room—he always seems to be looking around for someone to greet, a hand to shake, another camper to slap another anecdote on. Tom Lasorda floats on an ever-flowing current of conversation.
“I signed that contract [to manage the Dodgers] with a commitment to do the best of my ability,” he says. “If I’m depressed, what good does it do? When I walk into the clubhouse, I got to put on a winning face. A happy face. If I go in with my head hung down when I put on my uniform, what good does it do?”
These are words he has said before, in response to other inquiries about Tommy’s death. But now the voice shifts tone and the words become more weighted; he frames each one with a new meaning.
And he stops looking around the room and looks me in the eye.
“I could say ‘God, why was I dealt this blow? Does my wife—do I—deserve this?’ [But] then how do I feel, hunh? Does it change it?” Now the voice grows even louder, and a few fantasy campers raise their eyebrows and turn their heads toward us.
“See my point?”
The words are like fingers jabbed into my chest.
Then his eyes look away and he sets his face in a flat, angry look of defiance.
“You could hit me over the head with a fucking two-by-four and you don’t knock a tear out of me,” he says.
“Fuck,” he says.
The word does not seem to be connected to anything.
He was the second of five sons born, in Norristown, Pennsylvania, a crowded little city-town a half-hour north of Philadelphia, to Sabatino Lasorda, a truckdriver who’d emigrated from Italy, and Carmella Lasorda.
By the age of twenty-two, Tom Lasorda was a successful minor league pitcher by trade, a left-hander with a curveball and not a lot more. But he was distinguished by an insanely dogged belief in the possibility of things working out. His father had taught him that. On winter nights when he could not turn the heat on, Sabatino Lasorda would nonetheless present an unfailingly optimistic face to his family, and that was how Tom Lasorda learned that nothing could stomp on the human spirit if you didn’t let it.
Tom Lasorda played for teams at nearly every level of professional ball: in Concord, N.H.; Schenectady, N.Y.; Greenville, S.C.; Montreal; Brooklyn (twice, briefly); Kansas City, Missouri; Denver; and Los Angeles. Once, after a short stay in Brooklyn, he was sent back to the minors so the Dodgers could keep a left-handed pitcher with a good fastball named Sandy Koufax, and to this day Lasorda will look you in the eye and say “I still think they made a mistake” and believe it.
The Dodgers saw the white-hot burn and made it into a minor-league manager. From 1965 to 1972, Lasorda’s teams—in Pocatello, Ogden, Spokane, then Albuquerque—finished second, first, first, first, second, first, third and first. Sheer bravado was the tool; tent-preaching thick with obscenities the style.
In 1973, the Dodgers called him to coach for the big team, and he summoned his wife and his son and his daughter from Norristown, and they moved to Fullerton, Calif, a featureless sprawl of a suburb known for the homogeneity of its style of life and the conservatism of its residents.
In 1976, he was anointed the second manager in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ nineteen-year history. His managing style was by instinct, not by the book, and his instincts were good enough to pay off more often than not. In his first two years, the Dodgers made the World Series. In 1981, they won it. In 1985, they didn’t make it because Lasorda elected to have Tom Niedenfuer pitch to St. Louis’s Jack Clark in the sixth game of the playoffs, against the odds, and Jack Clark hit a three-run home run. In 1988, though, he sent a limping Kirk Gibson to the plate and gave us a moment for history.
From the first, Lasorda understood that he had to invent a new identity for this team, the team that Walter O’Malley had yanked out of blue-collar-loyal Brooklyn-borough America and dropped into a city whose only real industry was manufacturing the soulless stuff of celluloid fantasy. His clubhouse became a haunt for show-business personalities, usually of distinctly outsized demeanor—Sinatra, Rickles—and he himself became the beacon of a new mythology, leader of the team that played in a ballpark on a hill on a road called Elysian, perched above the downtown, high and imperious. Because, really, aren’t there too many theme parks to compete with in Los Angeles to manage your baseball team as anything other than another one?
In sixteen years, the tone of the sermon has seldom faltered, at least not before this year. This year, through no fault of Tom Lasorda’s, his fielders have forgotten how to field, in a game in which defense has to be an immutable; and if this is anyone’s fault, it’s that of the men who stock the farm system. His pitching is vague, at best. So the overwhelming number of one-run—is, in fact, testament, again, to Lasorda’s management. No one has questioned his competence.
His spirit has flagged considerably, but his days, in season and out, are as full of Dodger Blue banquet appearances as ever, with impromptu Dodgers pep rallies in airport concourses from Nashville to Seattle. Unlike practitioners of Crystal Cathedral pulpitry, Lasorda the tent-preacher believes in what he says, which, of course, makes all the difference in the world. Because of his faith, Dodger Blue achieves things, more things than you can imagine. The lights for the baseball field in Caledonia, Miss.; the fund for the former major leaguer with cancer in Pensacola: Tom showed up, talked Dodger Blue, raised the money. Tom’s word maintains the baseball field at Jackson State and upgraded the facilities at Georgia Tech.
“I was in Nashville,” Tom says, still sitting in the lounge, back on automatic now, reciting. “Talking to college baseball coaches, and a buddy told me nine nuns had been evicted from their home. I got seven or eight dozen balls [signed by Hall of Fame players], we auctioned them, and we built them a home. They said, ‘We prayed for a miracle, and God sent you to us.’”
Nine nuns in Nashville.
In the hallway between the lounge and the locker room hang photographs of Brooklyn Dodgers games. Lasorda has pored over them a thousand times, with a thousand writers, a thousand campers, a thousand Dodgers prospects—identifying each player, re-creating each smoky moment.
But on this day, a few minutes after he’s been talking about Tommy, he walks this gauntlet differently.
“That’s Pete Reiser,” Tom Lasorda says. “He’s dead.” He points to another player. He says, “He’s dead.” He walks down the hallway, clicking them off, talking out loud but to himself.
Back in his suite, in the residence area of Dodgertown, I ask him if it was difficult having a gay son.
“My son wasn’t gay,” he says evenly, no anger. “No way. No way. I read that in a paper. I also read in that paper that a lady gave birth to a fuckin’ monkey, too. That’s not the fuckin’ truth. That’s not the truth.”
I ask him if he read in the same paper that his son had died of AIDS.
“That’s not true,” he says.
I say that I thought a step forward had been taken by Magic Johnson’s disclosure of his own HIV infection, that that’s why some people in Los Angeles expected him to…
“Hey,” he says. “I don’t care what people…I know what my son died of. I know what he died of. The doctor put out a report of how he died. He died of pneumonia.”
He turns away and starts to brush his hair in the mirror of his dressing room. He is getting ready to go to the fantasy-camp barbecue. He starts to whistle. I ask him if he watched the ceremony on television when the Lakers retired Johnson’s number.
‘”I guarantee you one fuckin’ thing,” he says. “I’ll lay you three to one Magic plays again. Three to one. That Magic plays again.”
As long as he’s healthy, I say. People have lived for ten years with the right medication and some luck. Your quality of life can be good, I say.
Lasorda doesn’t answer. Then he says, “You think people would have cared so much if it had been Mike Tyson?”
On death certificates issued by the state of California, there are three lines to list the deceased’s cause of death, and after each is a space labeled TIME INTERVAL BETWEEN ONSET AND DEATH.
Tom Lasorda Jr.’s, death certificate reads:
IMMEDIATE CAUSE: A) PNEUMONITIS — 2 WEEKS
DUE TO: B) DEHYDRATION — 6 WEEKS
DUE TO: C) PROBABLE ACQUIRED IMMUNE
DEFICIENCY SYNDROME — 1 YEAR.
At Sunny Hills High School, in Fullerton, Calif.—”the most horrible nouveau riche white-bread high school in the world,” recalls Cat Gwynn, a Los Angeles photographer and filmmaker and a Sunny Hills alumna—Tommy Lasorda moved through the hallways with a style and a self-assurance uncommon in a man so young; you could see them from afar, Tommy and his group. They were all girls, and they were all very pretty. Tommy was invariably dressed impeccably. He was as beautiful as his friends. He had none of his father’s basset-hound features; Tommy’s bones were carved, gently, from glass.
“It was very obvious that he was feminine, but none of the jocks nailed him to the wall or anything,” Gwynn says. “I was enamored of him because he wasn’t at all uncomfortable with who he was. In this judgmental, narrow-minded high school, he strutted his stuff.”
In 1980, at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Cindy Stevens and Tommy Lasorda shared a class in color theory. Tommy, Stevens recalls, often did not do his homework. He would spend a lot of his time at Dodgers games or on the road with the team. At school, they shared cigarettes in the hallway. Tommy would tell her about the latest material he’d bought to have made into a suit. She’d ask him where the money came from. Home, he’d say.
“He talked lovingly about his father and their relationship—they had a very good relationship,” Stevens says now. “I was surprised. I didn’t think it’d be like that. You’d think it’d be hard on a macho Italian man. This famous American idol. You’d figure it’d be [the father saying] ‘Please don’t let people know you’re my son,’ but it was the opposite. I had new respect for his father. There had to be acceptance from his mom and dad. Tommy had that good self-esteem—where you figure that [his] parents did something right.”
In the late seventies, Tommy left Fullerton, moving only an hour northwest in distance—though he might as well have been crossing the border between two sovereign nations—to West Hollywood, a pocket of gay America unlike any other, a community bound by the shared knowledge that those within it had been drawn by its double distinction: to be among gays, and to be in Hollywood. And an outrageous kid from Fullerton, ready to take the world by storm, found himself dropped smack into the soup—of a thousand other outrageous kids, from Appleton, and Omaha, and Scranton.
But Tommy could never stand to be just another anything. The father and the son had that in common. They had a great deal in common. Start with the voice: gravelly, like a car trying to start on a cold morning. The father, of course, spends his life barking and regaling, never stopping; he’s baseball’s oral poet, an anti-Homer. It’s a well-worn voice. Issuing from the son, a man so attractive that men tended to assume he was a woman, it was the most jarring of notes. One of his closest friends compared it to Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist—the scenes in which she was possessed.
More significantly, the father’s world was no less eccentric than the son’s: The subset of baseball America found in locker rooms and banquet halls is filled with men who have, in large part, managed quite nicely to avoid the socialization processes of the rest of society.
Then, the most obvious similarity: Both men were so outrageous, so outsized and surreal in their chosen persona, that, when it came down to it, for all of one’s skepticism about their sincerity, it was impossible not to like them—not to, finally, just give in and let their version of things wash over you, rather than resist. Both strutted an impossibly simplistic view of the world—the father with his gospel of fierce optimism and blind obeisance to a baseball mythology, and the son with a slavery to fashion that he carried to the point of religion.
But where the illusion left off and reality started, that was a place hidden to everyone but themselves. In trying to figure out what each had tucked down deep, we can only conjecture. “You’d be surprised what agonies people have,” Dusty Baker, the former Dodger, reminds us, himself a good friend of both father and son, a solid citizen in a sport that could use a few more. “There’s that old saying that we all have something that’s hurting us.”
In the case of the son, friends say the West Hollywood years were born of a Catch-22 kind of loneliness: The more bizarre the lengths to which he went to hone the illusion, the less accessible he became. In his last years, friends say, everything quieted down, markedly so. The flamboyant life gave way to a routine of health clubs and abstinence and sobriety and religion. But by then, of course, the excesses of the earlier years had taken their inexorable toll.
As for the father, there’s no question about the nature of the demon he’s been prey to for the past two years. Few in his locker room saw any evidence of sadness as his son’s illness grew worse, but this should come as no surprise: Tom Lasorda has spent most of four decades in the same baseball uniform. Where else would he go to get away from the grief?
“Maybe,” Baker says, “his ballpark was his sanctuary.”
It’s a plague town now, there’s no way around it. At brunch at the French Quarter, men stop their conversations to lay out their pills on the tables, and take them one by one with sips of juice. A mile west is Rage, its name having taken on a new meaning. Two blocks away, on Santa Monica Boulevard, at A Different Light, atop the shelves given over to books on how to manage to stay alive for another few weeks, sit a dozen clear bottles, each filled with amber fluid and a rag—symbolic Molotovs, labeled with the name of a man or a woman or a government agency that is setting back the common cause, reinforcing the stereotypes, driving the social stigmata even deeper into West Hollywood’s already weakened flesh.
But in the late seventies, it was a raucous, outrageous and joyous neighborhood, free of the pall that afflicted hetero Los Angeles, thronged as it was with people who’d lemminged their way out west until there was no more land, fugitives from back east.
In the late seventies and the early eighties, say his friends and his acquaintances and those who knew him and those who watched him, Tommy Lasorda was impossible to miss. They tell stories that careen from wild and touching to sordid and scary; some ring true, others fanciful. Collected, they paint a neon scar of a boy slashing across the town. They trace the path of a perfect, practiced, very lonely shooting star.
His haunt was the Rose Tattoo, a gay club with male strippers, long closed now. One night, he entered—no, he made an entrance—in a cape, with a pre-power ponytail and a cigarette holder: Garbo with a touch of Bowie and the sidelong glance of Veronica Lake. He caught the eye of an older man. They talked. In time, became friends. In the early eighties, they spent a lot of time together. Friends is all they were. They were very much alike.
“I’m one of those gentlemen who liked him,” says the man. “I was his Oscar Wilde. He liked me because I was an older guy who’d tasted life. I was his Marne. I showed him life. Art. Theater. I made him a little more sophisticated. [Showed him] how to dress a little better.”
They spent the days poolside at a private home up behind the perfect pink stucco of the Beverly Hills Hotel, Tommy lacquering himself with a tan that was the stuff of legend. The tan is de rigueur. The tan is all. It may not look like work, but it is; the work is to look as good as you can.
He occasionally held a job, never for long. Once, he got work at the Right Bank, a shoe store, to get discounts. His father bought him an antique-clothing store. He wearied of it. Tommy, says one friend, wanted to be like those women in soap operas who have their own businesses but never actually work at them.
Tommy’s look was his work. If there were others who were young and lithe and handsome and androgynous, none were as outre as Tommy. Tommy never ate. A few sprouts, some fruit, a potato. Tommy spent hours at the makeup table. Tommy studied portraits of Dietrich and Garbo to see how the makeup was done. Tommy bleached his hair. On his head. On his legs. Tommy had all of his teeth capped. Tommy had a chemabrasion performed on his face, in which an acid bath removes four of the skin’s six layers. Then the skin is scrubbed to remove yet another layer. It is generally used to erase scars or wrinkles. Tommy had two done.
But he smoked, and he drank. Champagne in a flute, cigarette in a long holder, graceful and vampish at the same time: This was Tommy at the Rose Tattoo. His friend also remembers how well Tommy and his father got along. His friend would drive Tommy to the Italian restaurant where he’d meet his father for Sunday dinners.
“He loved his father, you know. They got along perfectly well.” His friend was never his lover. Only his friend. That was all. That was enough. “He was very lonely.”
On occasion, the nighttime ramble led him far from the stilted elegance of Santa Monica Boulevard. In the punk dubs, amid the slam-dancing and the head-butting, Tommy parted the leathered seas, a chic foil for all the pierced flesh and fury, this man who didn’t sweat. This man who crossed himself when someone swore in public.
Penelope Spheeris met him at Club Zero. She would go on to direct the punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization and, years later, Wayne’s World. They became friends. They met at punk clubs—the blond man in custom-made suits, the striking woman in black cocktail dresses and leather boots. In 1981, she interviewed Tommy for a short-lived underground paper called No Mag.
PENELOPE: Have you been interviewed very much before?
TOMMY: No, but I’m very…oral…
PENELOPE: People who would see you around town, they would probably think you were gay.
TOMMY: I don’t care.
PENELOPE: What do you do when you get that reaction from them?
TOMMY : I like all people. And it’s better having comments, be it GOOD, BAD or WHATEVER. I don’t mind at all, but I dress quite…well, I wouldn’t say it’s FLAMBOYANT because it’s not intentional. It’s just intentionally ME.
PENELOPE: O.K., but you understand, when somebody looks at a picture of you, they’re going to say, this guy’s awfully feminine.
TOMMY: I’m there for anyone to draw any conclusions.
PENELOPE: Are you?
TOMMY: Well, I mean, I’ve done different things…of course…I have no label on myself because then I have restrictions. I would really hate to state anything like that.
PENELOPE: When you were young did your dad say, “Come on, Tommy, Jr., let’s go play baseball”?
TOMMY : Never. They always allowed me to do exactly what I pleased. I don’t know how they had the sense to be that way. As parents they’re both so…well, very straitlaced and conservative. I don’t know how I was allowed to just be ME, but I think it was because I was so strongly ME that I don’t think they thought they could ever STOP IT…
PENELOPE: Do you feel like you should be careful in the public eye?
TOMMY: I feel like I should, but I don’t.
PENELOPE: Do you think the press would be mean to you if they had the chance?
TOMMY: I’m sure they would, but I’ll take ANY PUBLICITY.
TOMMY: Because that’s what I want…I do everything TO BE SEEN.
“I found him totally fascinating. He was astoundingly beautiful, more than most women,” Spheeris says now. “I became interested in…the blatant contrast in lifestyles. Tommy Lasorda Sr., was so involved in that macho sports world, and his son was the opposite…”
“I was astounded at how many clothes he had. I remember walking into the closet. The closet was as big as my living room. Everything was organized perfectly. Beautiful designer clothes he looked great in.”
Often in the early eighties, when fashion photographer Eugene Pinkowski’s phone would ring, it would be Tommy. Tommy wanting to shop or Tommy wanting Eugene to photograph his new look.
When they went shopping, they would fly down Melrose in Tommy’s Datsun 280Z, much, much too fast, Tommy leaning out of the driver’s window, hair flying in the wind, like some Valley Girl gone weird, hurling gravelly insults (“Who did your hair? It looks awful”) at the pedestrians diving out of the way.
He was a terrible driver. Once he hit a cat. He got out of the car, knelt on the street, and cried. He rang doorbells up and down the street, trying to find the owner.
Tommy would call to tell Eugene he was going to buy him a gift. Then Tommy would spend all his money on himself. Then, the next day, Tommy would make up for it. He would hand him something. A pair of porcelain figures, babies, a boy and a girl, meant to be displayed on a grand piano—very difficult to find, very expensive.
Then the phone would ring. It’d be Eugene’s mother, saying she just got a bracelet. From his friend Tommy.
“He was a character,” Pinkowski says at breakfast in a Pasadena coffee shop. “He was a case. He was a complete and total case.”
Then he looks away.
“He was really lonely,” Pinkowski says. “He was sad.”
When he was being photographed, Tommy was always trying to become different people.
Eugene captured them all. Tommy with long hair. With short hair. With the cigarette. Without it. With some of his exceptionally beautiful women friends. Tommy often had beautiful women around him, Pinkowski recalls—vaguely European, vaguely models. Sometimes Tommy had Pinkowski take pictures of them.
Mostly he took pictures of Tommy. Tommy with a stuffed fox. Lounging on the floor. In the piano. Sitting in a grocery cart.
In red. In green. In white. In blue. In black and gray.
His four toes. Tommy had four toes on his right foot, the fifth lost in a childhood accident. He posed the foot next to a gray boot on the gray carpet. Then he posed it next to a red shoe on the gray carpet. The red looked better.
Tommy and his foot were a regular subject of conversation, often led by Tommy.
“Tommy was a great storyteller, and he’d tell you stories of his dad in the minor leagues,” Pinkowski says. “Everybody’d like him. He was very much like the old boy. He could really hold his own in a group of strangers. And he’d do anything to keep it going. To be the center of attention. He’d just suddenly take his shoe and sock off at dinner and say ‘Did you know I was missing my toe?’”
One day, Tommy wanted to pose wrapped in a transparent shower curtain. Tommy was wearing white underwear. For forty-five minutes they tried to light the shot so that the underwear was concealed, to no avail. Tommy left, and returned in flesh-colored underwear.
There was nothing sexual about Tommy’s fashion-posing. Tommy’s fashion-posing was designed to get Tommy into fashion magazines. Tommy was forever bugging the editors of Interview to feature him, but they wouldn’t.
“As beautiful as he was, as famous as his father was, he thought he should be in magazines,” Pinkowski says now. “He was as hungry as Madonna. But Bowie and Grace [Jones] could do something. He couldn’t do anything. He could never see any talent in himself.”
The closest Tommy came was when he bought himself a full page in Stuff magazine, in 1982, for a picture of himself that Eugene took.
He would pay Eugene out of the house account his parents had set up for him. On occasion, Eugene would get a call from Tommy’s mother: We don’t need any more pictures this year. Still, Tommy would have several of his favorites printed for his parents. One is from the blue period.
At the Duck Club, down behind the Whiskey, in 1985, Tommy sat in a corner drinking Blue Hawaiians. To match his blue waistcoat. Or his tailored blue Edwardian gabardine jacket. This was during his blue period. In his green period, he was known to wear a green lamé wrap and drink crème de menthe. But the blue period lasted longer. The good thing about the blue period was that on the nights he didn’t want to dress up, he could wear denim and still match his drink. And, sometimes, his mood.
“He walked around with a big smile on his face, as if everything was great because he had everything around him to prove it was great,” Spheeris says. “But I don’t think it was…When you’re that sad, you have to cover up a lot of pain. But he didn’t admit it.”
The nature of the pain will forever be in debate. Few of his friends think it had to do with the relationship with his parents. “The parents—both of them—were incredibly gracious and kind to everyone in Tommy’s life,” says a close friend of the family’s.
Alex Magno was an instructor at the Voight Fitness and Dance Center and became one of Tommy’s best friends. Tommy was the godfather of his daughter. “We used to ask him, ‘You’re thirty-three, what kind of life is that—you have no responsibilities. Why don’t you work?’” says Magno. “You lose your identity when you don’t have to earn money, you know what I mean? Everything he owns, his parents gave him. I never heard him say ‘I want to do my own thing.’ When you get used to the easy life, it’s hard to go out there. I don’t think he appreciated what he had.”
He loved the Dodgers. He attended many games each season. His father regularly called him from the road. In his office at Dodger Stadium, the father kept a photograph of Tommy on his desk.
Tommy loved the world of the Dodgers. He loved the players. To friends who were curious about his relationship with his father’s team—and all of them were—he said it was great. He told Spheeris they were a turn-on.
“He was a good, sensitive kid,” says Dusty Baker, now a coach with the San Francisco Giants. “There was an article one time. Tommy said I was his favorite player because we used to talk music all the time. He loved black female artists. He turned me on to Linda Clifford. He loved Diana Ross. He loved Thelma Houston.
“Some of the guys kidded me. Not for long. Some of the guys would say stuff—you know how guys are—but most were pretty cool. That’s America. Everybody’s not going to be cool. Most people aren’t going to be. Until they have someone close to them afflicted. Which I have.”
Baker spent last Christmas Eve distributing turkey dinners with the Shanti Foundation, an AIDS-education group in California.
“There are a lot of opinions about Tom junior, about how [his father] handled his relationship with his son,” says Steve Garvey, who more than anyone was the onfield embodiment of Dodger Blue. “Everyone should know that there is this Tom [senior] who really loved his son and was always there for him. The two loving parents tried to do as much for him as he chose to let them do…Junior chose a path in life, and that’s his prerogative. That’s every individual’s right.”
Garvey attended the memorial service for Alan Wiggins, his former teammate on the San Diego Padres, who died of an AIDS-related illness last year, after a seven-year career in the majors.
“He was a teammate, we always got along well, he gave me one hundred percent effort, played right next to me. I think the least you can do, when you go out and play in front of a million people and sweat and pull muscles and bleed and do that as a living, when that person passes away, is be there. It’s the right thing to do.”
Garvey was the only major league baseball player at Wiggins’s service. I ask him if he was surprised that he was alone.
“Not too much surprises me in life anymore,” Garvey says.
In the mid-1980s, Tommy’s style of life changed. It may have been because he learned that he had contracted the human immunodeficiency virus. According to Alex Magno, he knew he was infected for years before his death. It may have been that he simply grew weary of the scene. It may have been that he grew up.
He entered a rehabilitation program. He became a regular at the Voight gym, attending classes seven days a week. Henry Siegel, the Voight’s proprietor, was impressed by Tommy’s self-assurance and generosity. Tommy moved out of his West Hollywood place into a new condo in Santa Monica, on a quiet, neat street a few blocks from the beach—an avenue of trimmed lawns and stunning gardens displayed beneath the emerald canopies of old and stalwart trees. “T. L. Jr.” reads the directory outside the locked gate; beyond it, a half-dozen doorways open onto a carefully tiled courtyard. The complex also features Brooke Shields on its list of tenants.
He was a quiet tenant, a thoroughly pleasant man. He had a new set of friends—whom he regaled, in his best raconteurial fashion, with tales of the past.
“Tommy used to tell us incredible stuff about how he used to be…everything he’d done—drugs, sleeping with women, sleeping with men,” says Magno.
“He went through the homosexual thing and came out of it,” Magno continues. “Gay was the thing to be back when he first came to L.A. Tommy used to tell his friends he had been gay. He didn’t pretend. He let people know he had been this wild, crazy guy who had changed. He was cool in that. When you got to meet him, you got to know everything about him.”
Including that he slept with guys?
“Yes. But…he didn’t want to admit he had AIDS because people would say he was gay.”
This apparent contradiction surfaces regularly in the tale of Tommy Lasorda.
“I think he wanted to make his father happy,” says his Oscar Wilde. “But he didn’t know how to. He wanted to be more macho but didn’t know how to. He wanted to please his dad. He wished he could have liked girls. He tried.”
No one who knew Tommy in the seventies and the early eighties recalls him having a steady romantic relationship. Pinkowski remarks on the asexual nature of the masks his friend kept donning—and about how his friend kept some sides of himself closed off. “He’d never talk about being gay. He’d never reveal himself that way. He’d never say anything about anybody that way.”
“Of course he was gay,” says Jeff Kleinman, the manager of a downtown restaurant who used to travel the same club circuit as Lasorda in the early eighties. “No, I never saw him with another guy as a couple. [But] just because a man doesn’t have a date doesn’t mean he isn’t gay! To say he wasn’t gay would be like saying Quentin Crisp isn’t gay. How could you hide a butterfly that was so beautiful?”
“Please,” says his Oscar Wilde. “He was gay. He was gay. He was gay.”
“Gay,” of course, is not a word that describes sexual habits. It speaks of a way of living. No one interviewed for this story thought that Tommy wasn’t gay; reactions to his father’s denial range from outrage and incredulity to laughter and a shake of the head. Former major league umpire Dave Pallone, who revealed his own homosexuality in an autobiography two years ago, knows the father well, and also knew his son.
“Tommy senior is, as far as I’m concerned, a tremendous man,” says Pallone. “I consider him a friend. I have a lot of empathy for what he’s going through. [But] as far as I’m concerned, I don’t think he ever accepted the fact that his son was a gay man. I knew him to be a gay man, and I knew a lot of people who knew him as a gay man.
“We don’t want to be sexual beings. We just want to be human beings.”
“If nothing else, his father should be proud that he repented,” Alex Magno says. “He’d come a long way—denying what he used to be, so happy with what he’d become.”
I tell him his father denies the illness.
“He died of AIDS,” Magno says. “There’s no question. But what difference does it make? He was a good man. He was a great man. You shouldn’t judge. He had had no sex for a long time. We didn’t know how he could do that. I mean…but he was incredible. He gave up everything. That’s what he said, and there was no reason not to believe him. He was totally like a normal man. He was still feminine—that gets in your system—but there was no lust after men.”
In the last two years of his life, Tommy’s illness took its toll on his looks. He was not ashamed. though. The surface self-assurance remained. One night, he made an entrance into Rage—thinner, not the old Tommy, but acting every bit the part. He still showed up at Dodger Stadium, too, with his companion, a woman named Cathy Smith, whom Tom senior said was Tommy’s fiancée. When he did, he was as elegant and debonair as ever: wide-brimmed hats, tailored suits.
“Nobody in their right mind is going to say it’s not difficult—I know how difficult it is for them to try and understand their son,” Dave Pallone says. “And to accept the fact he’s not with them and what the real reason is. But…here was a chance wasted. The way you get rid of a fear is by attacking it…Can you imagine if the Dodgers, who are somewhat conservative, could stand up and say, ‘We understand this is a problem that needs to be addressed…We broke down the barriers from the beginning with Jackie Robinson. Why can’t we break down the barriers with the AIDS epidemic?’”
A close friend who was with Tommy the day before his death vehemently disagrees.
“If his father has to accept his son’s death right now in that way, let him do it,” she says. “If he can’t accept things yet, he may never be able to..but what good does it do? [Tom's] world is a different world. We should all do things to help, yes, but at the same time, this is a child who someone’s lost. Some people have the fortitude, but they simply don’t have the strength…There comes a point, no matter how public they may be, [at which] we need to step back and let them be. You can’t force people to face what they don’t want to face without hurting them.”
“There’s something wrong with hiding the truth,” Penelope Spheeris says. “It’s just misplaced values. It is a major denial. People need to know these things. Let’s get our values in the right place. That’s all.”
“I’m in a position where I can help people, so I help people,” Tom Lasorda says. We are strolling through the night in Dodgertown, toward the fantasy-camp barbecue. “You don’t realize the enjoyment I got with those nuns in that convent. I can’t describe how good that made me feel.”
I ask him what his dad would say if he were alive.
“I think he’d have been so proud of me. My father was the greatest man.”
He tells me that his winters are so busy with appearances that “you wouldn’t believe it.” I ask him why he doesn’t slow down.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I like to help people. I like to give something back.”
On Valentine’s Day, 1991, Eugene Pinkowski’s phone rang. It was Tommy. His voice was weak.
“He was typical Tommy. He was really noble about it. He was weak, you could tell. I was so sad. He said, in that voice, ‘I’m sure you’ve read that I’m dying. Well, I am.’
“Then he said, ‘Thank you for being so nice to me during my lifetime.’ He said, ‘I want to thank you, because you made me look good.’”
On June 3, 1991, with his parents and his sisters at his bedside, in the apartment on the cool, flower-strewn street, Tommy Lasorda died.
His memorial service was attended by Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles. Pia Zadora sang “The Way We Were,” one of Tommy junior’s favorite songs.
Tom Lasorda asked that all donations go to the Association of Professional Ball Players of America, a charity that helps former ballplayers in need.
In the coffee shop in Pasadena, it is late morning, and Eugene Pinkowski is lingering, remembering. His Tommy portfolio is spread across the table. Tommy is smiling at us from a hundred pictures.
I ask Eugene if Tommy would have wanted this story written.
“Are you kidding?” he says. “If there’s any sort of afterlife, Tommy is looking down and cheering. This is something he wanted. To be remembered like this. He’d be in heaven.”
First, the obvious answer to the obvious question: Yes, Tommy was livid when it was published. Tracked me down in a motel in Indiana, screamed over the phone, talked of how he thought we were friends, although our relationship had consisted of a half-dozen interviews over the years in which I quoted him and presented him in my newspaper exactly as he wanted to be presented, which did not cleave to my idea of friendship. On the other hand, as a father, I was torn. Did I have a right to go against a father’s wishes? To display for all of the world to see a part of his son he didn’t want seen? Especially since the more I reported, the more obvious it became that this was a love story about a father and a son? But ultimately, on balance, I had no choice. I had to adhere to what Penelope Spheeris had referred to: values.
The first time I saw Tommy Jr. was a decade earlier. He was on the field during BP. Assuming he was a woman, I asked a writer, “Who’s that?”
“That’s Tommy’s son,” he said.
“Really? That’s incredible. Who’s written the best piece about this?”
No one had. Not a single Los Angeles writer, seeing the diaphanous beauty on the field, talking to his father, Mister Baseball, had seen fit to explore it. By the time I joined GQ‘s staff, the plague had blown up. I had visited a friend at St. Vincent’s who was in the terminal stages of an HIV-related illness, and smuggled in a chocolate milkshake from McDonald’s for him, and fed it to him, but he couldn’t keep it down. I could never get the image out of my mind. Then I reported, and reported, and wrote and rewrote—and took note that all Tommy Sr. had spoken of was how the son’s death had affected him and his wife, and not of his kid, and how difficult it must have been to be one thing to himself, and something else to please his dad—and waited, and waited, and finally, the death certificate I’d asked for from the county arrived in the mail, and I knew what I had to do.
There was a plague, and it was gutting the arts world in my city, and it needed to be cured, and quickly. Expecting the father to ask that donations go to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis? That would have been too much. But what if Tommy Sr., one of the most highly visible men in all of professional sports in those days, had simply acknowledged his son’s sexuality and his cause of death? It could have saved more lives than we can ever know.
Ultimately, I wrote the piece confident that it would advance the cause. I was wrong. Two decades later? No vaccine. More locker-room enlightenment about gays in sports? Despite current events, ultimately, no. In corporate sportsworld, talking the talk is very different from walking the walk. As a for-profit goliath, fed by young men who learn homophobia at an early age, governed by men who were themselves raised in a primitive society, Big Sport’s seeds of gender-preference bias have been sown very, very deeply, and uprooting them is going to take more than a story or two and more than a handful of men who come out every few years. It’s going to take loud voices and even louder fury. It’s funny that Tommy cites Magic, isn’t it? The man who earlier this month spoke so wonderfully of his pride in his gay son? I couldn’t help wondering what Tommy Sr. thought when heard about how Magic was so supportive of his son. I wonder if he even listened.
As a fan of the Knicks ever since Phil Jackson donned a uniform, I really, really, really, really, really hope that @TheRealLJ2 is not the real Larry Johnson, former Hornet, former Knick, even though there’s nothing to indicate on his Twitter site that he isn’t. Photographs of the real LJ, and his wife, and pictures of Knicks, and running commentary on Knick games, and the Tweeter’s photo being a shot of Larry Johnson as a Knick — all of it indicates that if the tweeter isn’t the real Larry Johnson, @TheRealLJ2 is an incredibly deft and savvy LJ impersonator.
I do not hope that this is a fake site simply because of what he has tweeted in the last two days, albeit sort of ungrammatically (these are accurate transcriptions): “homosexuality is nothing to fear, I don’t think it belongs in a mans locker room”; “I’m attracted to women, is it ok for me to walk around a women’s locker room naked, and they be naked”; “I don’t Jason Collins personally but he seems like a great guy. Me personally gay men in the locked room would make me uncomfortable”; “Ppl ! this is nothing against Jason or homosexual’s,all I’m saying is this don’t belong in a man’s locker room”, and “I don’t judge anyone!! I have fallen short of the grace of Allah myself, but stop trying to make this acceptable.” (That one got 12 retweets.)
On the Wikipedia page for Larry Johnson the former Knick (“This article may contain wording that promotes the subject in a subjective manner without imparting real information”) I discovered that LJ has recently converted to Islam. The Twitter site includes a posting about how bad it is to eat pork, which, well, it probably is, but, IMHO, not for religious reasons.
The Wiki site makes no mention of the fact that LJ reportedly sired five children by four different women. It does say he once signed a contract with the Charlotte Hornets for $84 million, which at that point was a record-breaker, and appeared in an episode of Family Matters. But none of that is really relevant to my point, I guess.
To be clear: If the tweeter is the real Larry Johnson, he has every constitutional right to air his assertions, although they seem a tad, um, dumb, because they seem to infer that a) when someone sees someone naked, the sight of said nudity is automatically arousing (he has apparently never been to the linemen’s corner in an NFL locker room, or the pitcher’s corner in an MLB locker room); b) that unlike heterosexual men, whose lives comprise balanced appetites, gay men think sex is the be-all and end-all to life, and that the sight of a genital would make them start frothing at the mouth, and quite likely be unable not to pounce upon the possessor of said genital; c) a real “man,” who should be the sole occupant of the inner sanctum of a locker room, is defined as a man capable of impregnating any woman who crosses his radar.
No, to be clear: What worries me, and not just as a Knick fan, is that the team’s website, as of 4/30/13, lists as “Business and Organization Representative” a man named Larry Johnson. And that the Wiki site mentioned that Johnson was now occupying said position. And that whatever that job title actually means, the word “Representative” implies that he is representing to someone, presumably outside of that manly locker room, The New York Knickerbockers.
I may be alone here, but, given recent occurrences, I do not think that he should be representing a basketball team when we seem to be taking the first steps toward turning a very important corner, gender-preference-in-sports-wise. Turning that corner may take decades, and it’s going to be like walking into a hurricane wind, but it’s sort of dumb for a team to be represented by a – excuse my German – Neanderthal. But that’s only if the tweeter is the actual Larry Johnson.
This morning, always (and probably deleteriously to my own career advancement) having always followed the Hippocratic Oath (“First, Do No Harm),” I e-mailed the Knick PR guy and apprised him of the circumstances.
He answered with one word: “Thanks.”
He did not say whether @TheRealLJ2 was Larry Johnson, but then, I hadn’t asked him. I wanted to be, like, a person first, and not a journalist. (Plus, as a journalist, who wants to piss off the PR guys if you need access for your next book?) And I figured that this was the first he’d heard of the situation.
And I really, really, really, really. really want to be believe that the tweeter isn’t the man we knew so humorously as “Grandmamma” in those Converse commercials. Even if I can’t help wondering whether the real LJ knows the grandmammas of those five kids.
So please, Knicks: Track down this imitator, threaten him with a lawsuit, and end this farce. Your “Representative” should not be saddled by the specter of an ignorant imitator haunting your employee. You’re having too cool a season to have an albatross like that hanging around your neck.
“The truest thing in the world was that you showed who you were writing a column. He said that at his lectures, and they always took that to mean politics or how you feel about the death penalty. Which had nothing to do with it. There were as many dick shrivelers that wanted to ban nuclear sites and love their brother as there were that wanted to bomb Russia. It was almost incidental, what you had for issues. But how you saw things, how physical things went into your eyes and what your brain took and what it threw back, that told who you were.”
—From Pete Dexter’s first novel, God’s Pocket (1983)
Our man Dexter was a legendary newspaper columnist in Philadelphia and then in Sacramento from the late 1970s through the mid-’80s, but unless you lived in those towns at the time or unless you hung out in the microfilm room of your local library, it was nearly impossible to track down his work. Dexter has written seven novels—the third one, Paris Trout, won the National Book Award—and they are all in print. But until Dexter’s old friend, Rob Fleder, a longtime magazine (Esquire, Playboy, Sports Illustrated) and book editor, had the notion to compile Dexter’s journalism, some of his greatest work remained unavailable to us.
What follows was put together from several recent phone conversations with Pete.
Bronx Banter: What kind of reporter were you when you began?
Pete Dexter: I didn’t have a specialty or anything. I was kind of looked on as a guy who could write. I was a careful writer and a careless reporter. Reporting is a talent but it’s also just a matter of rolling up your sleeves. A guy like Bob Woodward didn’t get where he is by being charming or having a way with people I don’t think. He just did it by following all the rules and taking things as far as they could be humanly taken. That wasn’t what I wanted to do. I knew that early on. I didn’t get any satisfaction out of breaking a story. It just didn’t appeal to me.
BB: You started in the Watergate Era when Woodward and Bernstein made the whole idea of being a reporter something else, a star.
PD: Yeah, all of a sudden kids were going to journalism school so they could take down a president. It was a passing fad, I guess, but it lasted ten years anyway. You used to call them “serious young journalists.” You sign up for that, and…if you don’t have your heart in it, if that’s not compulsive in you, if you don’t feel like you have to do it, you’re probably not going to be much of a reporter. Early on I recognized that I was going to have to come from some other direction. On the other hand, I loved being part of the newspaper, I loved that feeling when big stories were breaking, though it wasn’t me that broke them.
BB: And you didn’t have a need to be that guy.
PD: No, I never wanted to be Hoag Levins, who worked for the Philadelphia Daily News. Hoag would put on black face and army fatigues and crawl up to Mayor Rizzo’s house and come away with how much the doorknobs cost and then try to figure how a guy who’d made a living as a police chief and mayor could afford an expensive house. He was wildly ambitious and he was a really good guy. But eventually he made a couple of mistakes and then something got him tripped up—I can’t even remember what it was now—some story he got wrong. They had to fire him. And that would not have been done easily cause you couldn’t help but like him and admire his energy.
BB: Was there a part of reporting, even before you had the column, the part where you’d just go out and talk to people, that you liked? Were you interested in people?
PD: Yeah, not so much for the newspaper. I used to drive around a lot in this old Jeep and I’d see somebody doing something interesting and I’d always pull off the road and go talk to them. That’s been something I’ve always done. And sometimes you hear some real strange stuff. Other times people just won’t talk to you, and that’s OK.
BB: So your natural curiosity helped you.
PD: It wasn’t a conscious thing. I’ve always loved stories. If you’re patient enough there are more people than you’d ever guess that have stories. It wasn’t deliberate but that’s what my stuff’s always been about: It’s about stories.
BB: Had you thought about wanting to have a column even before Gil Spencer arrived at the paper?
PD: That had been in my head. It was the only job outside of running the paper that I wanted. And they were not going to let me run the paper, that was pretty obvious.
BB: Did you get along with your editors?
PD: All the problems I’ve had with management, and they have been legion, were with people that feel the necessity to control you or put their two cents in. This started when I was a reporter. There’s that city editor, assistant city editor, sometimes the managing editor, that certain class of people, as part of their job they feel an obligation to change things just so that they have their own imprint on it somehow. And that’s where the rub comes because if you say, “That’s silly, that doesn’t make sense and here’s why…” you are no longer questioning their editing but you’ve confronted their power, their position. And once that starts, once you let them know you’re not just on their side, that’s where the problems always come from. At least with me. I never enjoyed the confrontations, certainly not as much as I’ve been given credit for, but that’s what it always was about. Power. My thought was you can be the nighttime assistant city editor for the rest of your life and I don’t care, you don’t have anything I want, just leave me alone.
BB: They weren’t about making the piece better necessarily.
PD: I never worked for anybody I looked up to as a writer but I worked for a lot of people that I looked up to as a newspaper guy, and if those people said something, I listened. But the ones who knew what they were doing knew enough to leave me alone in what I did, and if I stepped over a line in their world then not only was I glad for the criticism—if they’d caught some mistake that kept me from being embarrassed again—I was always grateful for that. I didn’t have a sense that if I wrote it it has to be right.
BB: Before you started a column, what columnists did you read, either in Philadelphia or around the country? Not so much that you wanted to emulate them necessarily but who got you interested in the form.
PD: This is hard to explain but when I came to Philly I was in my early thirties. I came out of Florida and had been in the newspaper business on-and-off for about two years and I didn’t know what a newspaper column was. I hadn’t read Breslin or Pete Hamill or Mike Royko. I didn’t know what they did. There were two columnists at the News when I got here, Tom Fox who wrote a column on Page Two, and Larry McMullen, who recently died. McMullen would go out in the street, hear these stories, and write them. He was from South Philadelphia and he was of that time and of that place and of that paper and I’ve never seen a better fit for a paper. When I saw that he was writing stories, that’s when I wanted to do it. He was writing five times a week and when I started I was doing that too—went to four and then to three.
BB: Did you get to know McMullen well?
PD: Oh, yeah, McMullen and I were old friends. I never felt any rivalry. The other guy, Tom Fox, was one of these little guys who walks around … someone called him the best columnist in the country—someone is always saying something like that about you—and he believed it. He’d write about some shooting and he was throwing in tough guy talk like, “He blew the faggot away.” I remember someone wrote a letter to the editor and said, “Who’s really the faggot?” And some criticism of Fox came in that letter. He was just outraged. That was pretty funny to see, at least to me. Those are two perfect examples for someone who wanted to be a columnist—I saw exactly the kind of columnist I wanted to be and the kind I didn’t want to be. It’s good to have one of each.
BB: Did Spencer give you the columnist job or did you have a test run, first?
PD: There was a little time there that I wrote one or two a week when I was still a reporter. That was a short period of time, I can’t tell you how long, a couple of months. But once he gave me a taste of it I was even harder to deal with on the city desk. There was this guy Zach Stalberg who later ran the paper and who is really a good guy, the kind of guy you’d want running your newspaper if you couldn’t have Spencer. Gil made Stalberg the city editor and a couple of months later he became the managing editor. But his present to Stalberg was giving me the column so I was no longer his responsibility. When I started the column if anyone had any problems with me they went straight to Spencer and that was good for everybody. Yeah, I think everybody was happy the way that worked out.
BB: Was it a big transition for you?
PD: It was an avalanche of sudden work. You go from the city desk where someone tells you, “Go interview the widow of this guy who just got shot,” and so you go to the movies and come back and say, “She wasn’t there,” to having to do a story every day. It was more than a small change. If you are a reporter and you’re not a good reporter there are places to hide. You can do all kinds of stuff to avoid producing. But if that column space is yours and you’ve got to fill it by definition you’ve got to fill it. That was good for everybody, too. First of all, it made me a better reporter.
BB: How so?
PD: You come to realize when you’re writing a column that the best columns—the very best ones come off your head—but if you are going to do it three times a week, some of those days you go talk to real people and by the time you get back the column writes itself. I’m thinking about that column in the book [Paper Trails] about the guy in Camden who found the head in the bag. You drive 10 minutes over to Camden, talk to this guy for half an hour, and yeah, I got lucky that day, but that was exactly what a newspaper column is supposed to be. And it was just handed to you. By that time I could write well enough the words were just there, the story was there. And that sort of thing, when it worked, was what a column was about. Most of my better columns were about that, going to actually talk to somebody.
BB: The great sport columnist Red Smith didn’t think of himself as a columnist but as a reporter.
PD: Yeah, that’s right.
BB: You said earlier that you’d drive around, stop the car, and talk to a guy. When you were doing the column, did you force yourself even more to do that because you thought, hey, I’ve got to have something to write about today?
PD: When you’re writing a column, your first question when you look at things are: Is this a column? But if I saw something interesting I’d still want to go ask about it. I’m still like that. I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve talked to who are on skateboards. Just ask them how they do what they’re doing and stuff like that. In a way, I kind of believe that thing of, there are no stupid questions, although God knows I get asked a lot of them. But to me, if you don’t know something and you’ve wondered about it, why not find out?
BB: Did you ever come across something that you found interesting but felt was too big to be a column?
PD: Yeah, but you could usually turn it into a three-part column or write about the same thing for three days. Sometimes that couldn’t be done and yeah it’d be a size you couldn’t handle.
BB: Did you talk to Spencer or anyone else about what you were going to write about beforehand?
PD: No. Good Christ. No.
BB: Did you ever junk one? Or just go with something you didn’t think was that good?
PD: You can write a letters column, you can find something else to do when it’s not going your way but that didn’t happen very often. What you really need is your voice being there three times a week.
BB: How long did it take to develop your voice or style?
PD: The voice was there from the get-go. That goes back to basic writing. If you’re thinking about developing your voice you’re thinking about the wrong things. That should just be—
BB: Like your speaking voice—
PD: You don’t want to be conscious of it. It just happens, at least that’s the way I think. Jeez, I’m looking at my dog outside and he’s taking like the third crap of the last two hours. … Probably shouldn’t have given him that pork chop. We have a rule against giving them pork. Shit.
BB: Kosher, huh?
BB: What about subject matter? Did you ever think, Oh, I’ve written three heavy pieces so far this week; I want to change it up with something light?
PD: No. Whatever came. Once, early on in my column writing, I wrote a piece, I can’t remember what it was about exactly, a guy’d lost his cat and I talked to him for a little while. A guy from one of the neighborhoods. When you write a column you get your detractors. And I got a letter from someone who said that I ripped off a Hemingway short story, where that was a line, something “and the fact that cats that can take care of themselves was all he had.” And I had. Christ knows it wasn’t conscious. I went back and looked at the story. It absolutely looked intentional and it wasn’t. It wasn’t enough on the nose where anyone could say it was plagiarism or anything but the idea of it, I sure could see why the guy said what he said. That’s the only time something like that ever happened to me. And I don’t to this day know … I know that it wasn’t intentional. I really can’t say much more about it but it was there and the idea was behind a short story that Hemingway had written and one that I’d read in college.
BB: Did you write back to the guy?
PD: Probably talked to him. I called people, I didn’t write letters much. There wasn’t much to say, really. But he did have a point. So when years later I heard that Doris Kearns Goodwin was accused of plagiarism … I guess all I’m saying is that I’ve got some sympathy. When you’re writing enough, when you’re writing everyday something like that can creep into your stuff without knowing you’re really doing it. I know it was only once and nobody ever mentioned anything else. But it bothered me.
BB: Did you read the letters that were sent to you by readers?
PD: Read them? Sure.
BB: Did you enjoy them?
PD: Eh, when they were funny. Twenty a day was a big day, six letters a day was predictable. Some were funny. Sometimes they had stories and that could be valuable. But most of the time they were either agreeing with you and disagreeing with you and who cares?
BB: You ever wake up and say, “I got nothing?”
PD: No. There’s always something. I took it fairly seriously but I was always doing enough stuff. If something funny wasn’t going on or something interesting wasn’t going on I could usually do something bad enough that I could write about it the next day.
BB: In your own life?
PD: Yeah. I ended up with an FBI guy at a bar one night and I bet him that I could throw a case of beer across Pine Street. The cops showed up. So you had the cops and the FBI guy and me and everyone from Dirty Frank’s out there in the street and it looked like a riot … and that makes a nice little column.
BB: You said earlier that other than running the paper writing a column was the only job you wanted. After two or three years of doing the column, did you feel like you’d found your calling, were you happy with it?
PD: Yeah, I was happy but I didn’t feel like that was it. I would have been probably a lot better off, if you call what I did a career—whatever this is—if I’d devoted myself entirely to that space in the Philly Daily News or gone to New York or stayed with newspapers. I would have definitely been a better newspaper columnist. And who knows, you have to do what makes you happy at the time. I don’t regret any of that. I don’t regret not being in newspapers but there are sure days when I miss it.
BB: The immediacy of it?
PD: I don’t know. I just liked being in the city room, I liked the people I worked with—some of them anyway. It was just nice. You’re—
BB: Part of something.
PD: And an important part of it and that makes a difference.
BB: Writing a column sounds a whole less solitary than writing novels.
PD: Oh, yeah. There’s no comparison.
BB: Did you write the column at home or go in to the paper?
PD: No, I went into the paper every day. If I didn’t have a column the next day, I went in anyway just to see what was going on.
BB: So it was a social thing, then.
PD: Oh, yeah. I couldn’t help it.
BB: Was it like a locker room?
PD: Yeah. I was always kind of working. I mean, I didn’t write a column every day but I always went in to see what’s going on and that’s work in a way. Yeah, I just liked being around those people, I liked to see what people were doing. Some of them I still think about to this day and wish I had contact with. There were a bunch of real good reporters.
BB: Do you keep in touch with any of them?
PD: There was a guy named Bob Fowler at the Inky [the Philadelphia Inquirer] that I still talk to once in a while and when I go back there I look up a guy named Gehringer, Dan Gehringer, he’s a real good writer, who I knew from back in Florida. But for the most part, no. No, I really don’t, that’s the truth.
BB: Did you hang out and have drinks with copy editors and reporters?
PD: Eh, not too much. Once in a while, a drink with somebody. For most of that time I wasn’t in the bars at all once that thing happened in South Philadelphia, that’s when I started writing novels and I didn’t have the time or inclination for the bars anymore.
BB: When you were doing the column did you then start to read other guys like Breslin or Hamill?
PD: I’d see Breslin’s stuff and Hamill’s stuff once in awhile. A guy like Breslin, he was a columnist. And that was in spite of the The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. That’s what he was. And he never was much good at anything else that I know of.
BB: You’ve said before that you never had ambition to write novels, but after the first three, you were still writing the column. Did writing fiction inform the nature of how you wrote the column?
PD: No, I don’t think so. I’d just sort of get up and do what was in front of me that day.
BB: Did you ever go to the office to work on a novel?
PD: No, I couldn’t do that there. That’s a separate deal. I was never conscious of anything going on intentionally. It’s a funny thing to say. Every place I ever went I stumbled into accidentally. Maybe one thing led to another but not intentionally.
BB: So you didn’t have a grand plan?
PD: At some point I decided I was done with newspapers but …
BB: Yeah, before that: What was it like leaving Philly and going to the Sacramento Bee?
PD: Oh, fuck, it was the worst thing I ever did professionally. I went there because the guy that ran the paper was an old friend of mine. I’d rather not get into that, but the whole place smacked of an office environment, a business environment. I wasn’t there that long, but when I left they asked me to continue to write up in Washington State where I lived but you can’t be a local columnist and not be local. And the truth is when you’re writing well, the only columnists are local columnists. National columnists are something different. There aren’t as many stories. It’s more reports and views. Where the best columns are just there, they’re just stories. For me, anyway.
BB: In order to be a good columnist to you need to have a basic sense of outrage about things?
PD: I think different guys do it different ways. It’d just wear me out to go in the office every day outraged. And you shouldn’t do that now that I think about it because that ruins the taste for when something real comes along. You can’t go at it like one of these television guys who every night has some breaking news about how bad Obama’s fucked up or something. When you’re always outraged, it’s like the boy that cried wolf and it’s too much. It can be entertaining for someone who is reading the paper for the first time but if all you get from that space is outrage pretty soon nobody believes it, I don’t think. And if it does it appeals to people who are outraged by nature and want to be outraged more.
BB: So everything changed for you as a columnist once you Philly.
PD: It was never the same. I mean, Philadelphia is probably the best place of them all to write a newspaper column. The place is so rich. I missed that. And the paper was so open to what I had to offer, way more than any other paper in the country would have been. And Spencer was such a good guy about it. I don’t think there was a better place to work than the Philadelphia Daily News. And I left it … for reasons that don’t make any sense to me now. I left it ’cause it was time to do something else, I guess. But if I was going to stay in newspapers I’d made a terrible mistake.
BB: You were a columnist for about a decade. Are there guys that get better after 15 years or do they create a persona and then there’s a cap for how far you can go?
PD: Oh, no, you can get better. If you have initiative, if your interest is in the paper and the stories themselves, if you’re a newspaperman in your heart, you continue to get better and love it. I think at the center of things, as much fun as it was for me, I wanted to do something else.
BB: Why does it sound like you have regret about it?
PD: I’m just sorry because it was so much fun. There’s good things and bad things about anywhere but there was an awful lot of good things about that place, Philadelphia. And in that way I’m sorry we left.
BB: When you go back, is it a different place?
PD: No. The paper’s not the same, I’ll tell you.
BB: It’s funny, you could have stayed at the paper and then you’d be going through all these cutbacks and changes.
PD: Oh, I’d be way more unhappy. I mean I get sad about it, I get melancholy about it, but don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t go back and change it.
PD: Not really. That’s an awful lot of writing for—it was an awful lot of work and in the end all you have is a magazine story. As much as I like stopping along the road and talking to somebody I don’t like invading their lives, which is what you need to do. You have to spend a couple of weeks around Jim Brown to begin to get anything. I’ve been on the other side of it, having a guy hanging around me taking notes, and I don’t like it. And I don’t like doing it to someone else for that reason.
BB: How is newspaper reporting different?
PD: You can’t hang around them at all, really. I mean, Christ, I don’t know how many columns I wrote about Randall Cobb and his quest to be the champion of the world but Cobb and I would have been friends anyway. That was a sure-fire column at least once a month, sometimes more than that.
BB: There’s a funny Cobb story about a rental car in Paper Trails. The four columns you wrote on Cobb during the week he fought Larry Holmes in Houston for the heavyweight championship aren’t in the book but I really like them. They were so emotional.
PD: Yeah, it was a sad time.
BB: Because of the Holmes fight?
PD: Yeah, it’s hard to watch somebody realize the dream of his life is never going to happen and he’s doing everything he can and it’s … you know, you really have to set your mind to do something like that. In the first place, you have to lie to yourself all the time. And then to see it all spilled out in front of you like it was, that it wasn’t going to happen … it was sad. He really tried hard.
PD: No, that went beyond … that wasn’t guilty. I felt bad about it but he and I’d been through so much other stuff, and it just, um, what was going on between me and Randall was a lot closer to—I don’t want to say brotherhood, exactly—but we’d been … no, I didn’t feel guilty about it. But I wasn’t one of the guys … I mean, there was 5,000 people in Philadelphia thinking they’re Randall Cobb’s best friend. Because he was nice to everybody and he would tell people stuff and they would go around thinking that he’d told them something real. But he and I were friends in a different way than that. I understood and he understood exactly what happened that night.
BB: What exactly was that?
PD: No, it’s too complicated. I can’t go into that anymore than I already have 2,000 times because there’s something at the bottom of it between Cobb and me, something that if I tried to go back and explain it, it all just washes over me again. He’s just so … like I said, those were such sad times in the way that I mentioned. What you’re asking about is going into a place that I don’t talk about with anybody. It’s private in some way between me and Cobb in a way that probably doesn’t lend itself very well to words.
BB: Shit, I’m sorry if I made you uneasy even asking about it.
PD: No, it’s alright. I’d gotten hit that night in the bar and I was unconscious. It’s just … that moment when I wake up and Cobb was the only guy there and I wanted to get him—something happened there between us that I’ve not, something I can’t revisit easily, let’s put it that way. But don’t feel bad about asking me, that’s what you’re supposed to do.
BB: Did you guys stay close after the Holmes fight?
PD: Yeah. I mean, he’d started moving away before he fought Holmes. About a month before he fought Holmes he disappeared for a while. I don’t know where he was training but I couldn’t get through to him. He got rid of his manager and his trainer and showed up with a different guy at the fight. And those people were … I mean, everybody was after Cobb as a meal ticket. Money was what they all wanted. He’d been carrying a hundred people around on his back forever, y’know, being everybody’s best friend. If he had $10 and somebody asked him for it, he gave it to them. Whatever he had they could have and he was always like that. And it finally, I think it got to be too much. Christ, he didn’t care what he signed, contracts and shit like that, he never paid any attention to that. He and I kind of lost touch for a while but you don’t give up what you feel about somebody like that.
BB: So when you and Rob Fleder went through the material for Paper Trails did you read tons of columns that you’d forgotten about?
PD: Oh sure. And I’m sure there were tons more than Fleder passed on I still haven’t seen or remember. You got to remember it’s more than a thousand columns, at least. It’s kind of like finding an old diary or something.
BB: Did you enjoy reading through them?
PD: Uh, sort of. Fleder did the work. Fleder’s the guy that read them all. He’s the reason the book is there. He’s absolutely as much a reason that book exists as I am. It’s a funny thing that makes you smile when you look at it. It was such a nice thing for him to do. It wasn’t like we were going to get rich or anything. God, it’s just the nicest thing you can do for somebody in a way. When I look back on the book, I think about Fleder and what a great thing that was to do for me.
BB: In Yiddish they call that a Mitzvah. A blessing.
BB: A nice thing to do.
PD: And that’s what this is, I guess. A mitz-vah.
You can buy Paper Trails here or download it for to your phone or tablet here. Source photo by Marion Ettlinger, from the back cover of Dexter’s fourth novel, Brotherly Love. Background photo via Getty.
HOUSTON – The tap on the door came at 6 o’clock in the morning. I knew it was 6 o’clock because there was a clock on the dresser, next to a copy of the Bible, and I’d been lying in bed since 2 o’clock looking at it.
The phone had rung all night, friends from Philly and Montana and Tennessee telling me that Howard Cosell had painted Randall Cobb as some kind of a freak of nature on national television.
I didn’t know what to say, except it would catch up with Howard later. I did mention that it was a measure of Howard’s depth that he has no trouble enunciating the bravery of television actors who compete, despite pulled muscles, in a tug of war in ” Battle of the Network Stars,” and couldn’t see any of that in staying in the ring with Larry Holmes for 15 rounds.
Yes, Randall took a pounding.
No, he didn’t quit. The only other man Holmes has failed to knock out since he became champion was Trevor Berbick, but – as Holmes would tell me later in the day – Berbick wasn’t fighting, he was just trying to survive. “Fifteen rounds, after all the shots,” Holmes would say, sounding like he was remembering it from a long time ago, “Cobb was still tryin’ to win the fight. He fought me harder than anybody. ”
I got up off the bed and opened the door. “I knew an ambitious young businessman like yourself would be an early riser,” he said, coming in. “All of us are early risers.” One of his eyes was swollen half shut, there were six small stitches in the lid of the other one. He sat down on the bed and looked out the window at the Astrodome. It was still raining in Houston, as far as I knew it always had been.
“Are you hurt?” I said. I’d walked with him back to the dressing room after the fight, but I left when he and his trainer George Benton started talking about the next one. I think a lot of George Benton, but I didn’t want to hear about any more fighting then.
“It looks a lot worse than it is,” he said. “I don’t know why, usually it’s worse than it looks. No, I’m fine, except my ears. “Randall always gets an ear infection after a fight. He hit himself on the side of his head, like a kid who has been in a swimming pool.
I said, “If something comes dripping out of there I’m going to lock myself in the bathroom.”
He smiled and looked at the television. I’d left it on, trying to sleep. It was a Kung Fu rerun, David Carradine remembering the advice of his old dime- eyed teacher on how to disarm a troop of drunk and insensitive American cavalry troops. “You must listen to the color of the sky,” he said,” and see the sound of the hummingbird’s wing. ”
“You think I need a blind trainer?” he said.
“He did have a right hand,” I said, meaning Holmes.
“I didn’t think it was that fast,” he said. He looked out the window again. “I didn’t think he was that good. It was like an advanced game of tag in there. “And then a few minutes later, “Larry is a bad bitch in a game of tag.”
There was a tiny, unstitched cut about an inch under his left eye, where so many of the right hands had landed, and as he spoke it leaked watery blood down his cheek. The cut must have gone all the way into a tear duct, and his face, on that side, was streaked with two long, bloody tears.
“Did I tell you about Hagerman, New Mexico?” he said. “Me and my brother Marty dug ditches there for the high school gymnasium one summer. The dirt was so hard you couldn’t dig it without a pick, the hottest dirt in the world. You couldn’t walk on it with bare feet. I know, I tried and Marty had to come save me, pick me up.
“And every morning three members of the city council were out there, looking down into the ditch where me and Marty were digging. It would be 102 degrees by 8 o’clock, going to 114. And the first one would always say, ‘Hot enough for you?’ and the second one would say, ‘Whatchu doin’? ‘
“And me and Marty were so competitive, we’d stand out there all day, tryin’ to see who could shovel more dirt, watchin’ each other so you could say, ‘Ha! I shoveled four of these while you only shoveled three. ‘And the water had the worst taste of anyplace I ever been. It was something in the ground, gave everybody in town gas. You can imagine what the town smelled like.
“And when me and Marty complained about the water, they always said, ‘You keep diggin’, and it’ll taste good.’” He dabbed at the blood on his face. ” The city council’s probably still there,” he said. “Gettin’ together right now over at the gym, and one of them says, ‘Hot enough for you?’ and the other one says, ‘Whatchu doin’?’ And they all stand around, passing the worst gas in North America, wondering how come the town doesn’t grow. ”
He looked back out the window again. I got some coffee and Cokes from room service, and we sat like that in the room until noon, talking about Larry Holmes’ right hand and Hagerson, New Mexico, and what could have been underneath it to make the dirt so hot and the water so bad.
At noon I had to leave to get a plane back to Philly. He said he was thinking of taking a look at Australia.
“Are you hurt?” I said.
He shook his head no. “It was just an advanced game of tag,” he said, “and Larry won.” A fresh bloody tear came out of the cut underneath his eye and worked its way down his face.
Here is third of four Dexter columns on the Cobb-Holmes fight (you can find the first two: here and here). This story is reprinted with the author’s permission.
By Pete Dexter
Friday, November 26, 1982
HOUSTON – Howard Cosell came through the hotel lobby yesterday morning, complaining about being away from his family at Thanksgiving. Randall Cobb’s fight with Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship of the world was clearly an inconvenience.
The news of Howard’s inconvenience was relayed to Randall through one of the national reporters also here to cover the fight. “Howard’s upset to be away from his family,” one of them said.
Randall looked up from under the hood of his boxing robe and nodded. “I know,” he said,” I got a thank-you note from his wife this morning. ”
That night, one of those reporters came to me in the hotel bar and asked when Randall was going to get serious. “He’s funny,” the reporter said,” everybody loves him, but when does he get ready? That’s Larry Holmes he’s got to fight, and Larry’s serious…”
Randall is serious.
He is as solid as I’ve ever seen him before a fight. There are no questions left in him, about himself or Holmes, and a kind of peace has set in that lets him smile at the distractions.
And the distractions aren’t just the prospects of fighting Larry Holmes. As Randall has become more valuable, more and more people have become interested in guiding his career.
As far as I know, there are two basic factions trying to eliminate each other from his affections, and factions within the factions trying to eliminate each other too. There are rumors of bugged rooms and spies and thieves.
The thieves, of course, are not rumors, they are facts.
There is serious trouble with the contract, which promoter Don King has amended because Randall showed up in Houston a week late – not for the fight, for publicity. King, of course, has been concerned enough about publicity to spend, oh, $20 on promotion, and allow the month of November to start without having set a final date for the fight.
His amendment is going to cost Randall several hundred thousand dollars.
Then there are reporters and television interviews and hundreds of people who want to touch Randall, or tell him something, or take pictures of their 3- year-old sons sitting on his lap. Everybody wants something.
And Randall sits alone and holds babies and signs autographs – and no matter how many times the people around him say, “We’re ready,” or ” We’re going to kill Holmes,” Randall is still going to step into the ring by himself – and he handles it.
Yes, he is serious.
And watching it happen, it occurs to me that I want something, too. I keep going back to the mornings at Mickey Rosati’s gym. Two or three mornings a week, Randall and I and Arthur Bourgeau used to meet there, and Randall would work three or four rounds with Arthur and then three or four rounds with me.
Work may be a little strong. He’d play with both of us, keeping enough pressure on to make it serious. In the end, I’d be too tired to take my own gloves off.
He’d wait until I felt better, and then we’d go over to the little coffee shop at 18th and McKean and read the newspapers or talk with Mickey, and for an hour or two nobody wanted anything from us. For an hour or two, it was peaceful.
And after that, everything else seemed easier. It was like a fresh start.
And sitting here on a rainy Thanksgiving Day in a hotel across the street from the Astrodome, I could use a fresh start. It’s all slow- motion now.
The old men and the sparring partners are always in the lobby, waiting forever. The line of people following Randall into the weigh-in seems longer than it was when he came in for interviews yesterday afternoon, more reporters come in by the hour. And across the street, the Astrodome is as gray as the sky, and it seems to hover there, always on the edge of your vision, like the fight itself.
And I wish that somehow we could go to Mickey Rosati’s gym tomorrow morning, and afterwards to the coffee shop, and sit there for an hour or two reading the papers, and have nobody wanting anything from any of us again.
And maybe then I could tell him what I have on my mind, that it doesn’t matter what happens against Larry Holmes, that the people who care for him don’t depend on him or what he does for who they are.
He already knows that, of course, but I wish I could say it anyway – not blurt it out, but just sit around until it came out – and let him know once, before it all changes, how happy it made me, the way it was.
Here’s the second of four columns by Pete Dexter on Randall Cobb’s championship fight against Larry Holmes. (The first one is here.) Reprinted with the author’s permission…
“Gifts Aren’t Everything”
By Pete Dexter
Wednesday, November 24, 1982
HOUSTON – On the last day of work before he meets Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship of the world, Randall Cobb sparred three rounds with a light heavyweight named Charlie Singleton and then spent 10 or 15 minutes jumping rope.
I can’t tell you exactly how long because Randall jumping rope is something I can’t make myself watch. I don’t know why, but rope doesn’t fit under his feet.
As Charlie Singleton says, “Maybe Tex don’t have all the natural gifts. He didn’t get no fast left hand like Larry, he didn’t get no bouncy legs. ”
But as Charlie Singleton also says, “Maybe he got some gifts that was more subtle, and maybe he got some gifts that he give himself.”
For natural gifts, all you have to do is look at the undercard for Friday’s fight. Greg Page versus James “Quick” Tillis. Leg speed, hand speed, reflexes. You can’t help thinking of the destruction Randall could do with that stuff. Tillis, as a matter of fact, not only jumps rope, he does rope tricks. In fact right after the workout, he lassoed Randall’s trainer and then Inquirer sports writer Thom Greer.
Quick Tillis always carries a pink lasso.
But impressive as that is, Quick Tillis gave away his shot against WBA heavyweight champion Mike Weaver last year when he got in the ring and refused to get close enough to Weaver to throw punches.
And Page took himself out of consideration for a championship fight about the same time, saying he wasn’t ready, and then proved it by losing to a Canadian named Trevor Berbick on the undercard of the Holmes/Gerry Cooney fight earlier this year.
Berbick doesn’t have even as many natural gifts as Randall.
So in boxing, like anyplace else, gifts aren’t everything, and the kind you give yourself are the ones that matter most, at least at this level.
Which is not to say Randall Cobb doesn’t have physical tools. He does, but – as Charlie Singleton puts it – they’re subtle. He is stronger than any heavyweight in the top 10, and he may have the best chin in the history of boxing. And while he doen’t have a single big punch, he is what is called heavy handed.
“Sometime you box with him a round or two, the punches don’t stun you,” Charlie said,” they just feel heavy. I mean like somebody put a weight on you every time they land. It don’t matter if it’s on the arm or the shoulder, it still has that weight.
“And you don’t think he’s hurt you, and then after ’bout four rounds, suddenly you can’t move no more. He throws that nice relaxed way, it don’t look like nothin’, and then suddenly it’s broke you up inside. ”
The reason Randall is fighting Larry Holmes, though, isn’t his chin and it isn’t his strength. He’s gotten where he is because he tries. “He got that heart,” Charlie said.
Holmes has some of that too. And one of the best jabs in history, and a good right hand. He doesn’t have anything that can take Randall out, though, and Randall won’t be waiting for him to set up and throw his punches. And Holmes has always needed time to set up.
And in the end that’s what it will come down to. Time and heart. And those aren’t things that you’re given, they are things that you make for yourself.
Holmes doesn’t believe Randall can throw 100 punches a round for more than four rounds.
Randall does believe it. And that is something he has given himself too. He believes he will win this fight, and he believes in things harder than other people do. I have known him a long time, and that’s the way he is.
He believes it now, and he will believe it going into the 10th round, or the 12th, or however long the fight goes. By that time Larry Holmes will have hit him with everything he can hit him with, he will have tried every trick he knows, and most of them will have worked.
And someplace in the fight – maybe deep into the fight – Holmes will begin to feel the weight of that belief, and finally, as Mr. Singleton says, he will realize he’s broke up inside.
And someplace in the fight, Larry Holmes will come to believe it too.