"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Sportswriting

The Miseducation of Alex Rodriguez

lips

J. R. Moehringer on Alex Rodriguez:

PEOPLE HATE HIM. Boy, wow, do they hate him. At first they loved him, and then they were confused by him, and then they were irritated by him, and now they straight-up loathe.

More often than not, the mention of Alex Rodriguez in polite company triggers one of a spectrum of deeply conditioned responses. Pained ugh. Guttural groan. Exaggerated eye roll. Hundreds of baseball players have been caught using steroids, including some of the game’s best-known and most beloved names, but somehow Alex Rodriguez has become the steroid era’s Lord Voldemort. Ryan Braun? Won an MVP, got busted for steroids, twice, called the tester an anti-Semite, lied his testes off, made chumps of his best friends, including Aaron Rodgers, and still doesn’t inspire a scintilla of the ill will that follows Rodriguez around like a nuclear cloud.

Schadenfreude is part of the reason. Rodriguez was born with an embarrassment of physical riches — power, vision, energy, size, speed — and seemed designed specifically for immortality, as if assembled in some celestial workshop by baseball angels and the artists at Marvel Comics. He then had the annoyingly immense good fortune to come of age at the exact moment baseball contracts were primed to explode. Months after he was old enough to rent a car he signed a contract worth $252 million. Seven years later: another deal worth $275 million. Add to that windfall another $500 million worth of handsome, and people were just waiting. Fans will root for a megarich athlete who’s also ridiculously handsome (body by Rodin, skin like melted butterscotch, eyes of weaponized hazelness), but the minute he stumbles, just ask Tom Brady, they’ll stand in line to kick him in his spongy balls.

Rodriguez’s defenders (and employees) are quick to say: Sheesh, the guy didn’t murder anybody. But he did. A-Rod murdered Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod brutally kidnapped and replaced the virginal, bilingual, biracial boy wonder, the chubby-cheeked phenom with nothing but upside. A-Rod killed the radio star, and his fall from grace disrupted the whole symbology and mythopoesis of what it means to be a superhero athlete in modern America.

[Image Via: Mark Murphy]

My Brother’s Secret

laundry

Here’s a beautiful story by my pal Kip Stratton about his step-brother:

I’d not seen my stepbrother Dale in more than two years when a bitter norther slammed into Texas in December 1989. Schools closed, pipes burst, and sleet-covered highways took on the look of salvage yards. I was sitting alone one blue-gray afternoon, listening to the frozen rain tick on the windows of my house in Belton, when the phone rang.

It was Dale’s mother, and she was in a panic. She was at Arlington Memorial Hospital, where her son was in intensive care. “He might not live through the night,” she said. “You’ll have to tell your mother and stepfather. They’ll never believe me if I call them.” I knew she was right; ever since her divorce from my stepfather, more than thirty years earlier, he had done little to hide his loathing for her, even after he’d retained custody of their two sons, Elden and Dale, and rebuilt a family with my mother and me. I promised to be at the hospital as soon as I could, then phoned my mother in Oklahoma. “What’s wrong with him?” she asked, stunned. I told her I didn’t know.

But that was not exactly true. Sitting in the car on my way to the hospital, inching across the ice on Interstate 35, I played news headlines from recent years over and over in my head. AIDS, a disease unknown to Americans just a decade earlier, was filling hospitals and clinics and hospices across the country with patients covered in lesions and fighting for each breath as their lungs were steadily destroyed. And in the late eighties, only one outcome awaited its victims: death.

[Photo Credit: Bruce Wrighton via MPD]

The General Who Never Was

bobbyknight

Sometimes a story comes along, jumps out at you, and won’t let go. Such was the case last year with Jeremy Collins’ beautifully-rendered memoir piece, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Greg Maddux.” It took a long time for the story to come together for Collins and when I finished my only concern was, “Maybe that’s all he’s got.”

Then he let me reprint an earlier variation featuring Sly Stallone and Rocky. It doesn’t have the same polish or control as the “Maddux” story, but it’s still really strong, proof that perhaps Collins is more than a one-trick pony.

Now comes his latest for SB Nation Longform, “The General Who Never Was,” a profile of the scoundrel Bobby Knight. It’s another beaut–told with precision and care:

What were the obstacles standing in Knight’s way of creating an enduring legacy? It wasn’t complicated. Zero-tolerance? Try common sense. All Knight had to do, in the words of former Indiana Trustee Ray Richardson, was “stop being a jerk. Try being a decent guy.” Or in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, a Hoosier who had seen war: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

In the end, I’m not sure what Knight saw when he looked out into the faithful crowd of fans and followers. Maybe in the blurry smokescreen of self-regard he didn’t see us at all. Not once did he mention the power of reading or wish the high school students in the stands well. Barely once in the onslaught of self-sentiment could he even speak the name of our shared motherland: Indiana, In-dee-anna, Indiana.

Instead, he put his hand up in an oddly formal gesture of farewell and held it there. Just like at Dunn Meadow back in 2000 after he asked everyone to bow their heads and observe a moment of silence in honor of himself and his family.

Never good at goodbye, I shouldn’t have expected more.

My pal Glenn Stout, series editor of the Best American Sports Writing and longform editor at SB Nation, has done a stellar job of shepherding young storytellers these past few years. So far–at least to my mind–Collins is his best find, a true breakaway talent. Can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

[Photo Credit: Zach Long/AP]

BGS: The Mongoose

Moore,Archie swinging bat

Bunch of years ago, my pal John Schulian hipped me to “The Mongoose”, Jack Murphy’s long 1961 New Yorker profile of Archie Moore. Murphy was a sports writer in San Diego–you remember, they named the ballpark after him–and this was a one-off freelance assignment. It’s a really nice, meaty piece. Reason you won’t find it in any boxing anthologies is because it’s just prohibitively long.

Enter–the Internet! It took awhile to secure the rights–a few years of hunting around, in fact–but I’m proud to finally bring it to you. So if n your interested, head on over to The Stacks and check out this story about one of boxing’s great characters:

Moore is acutely aware of his special position as a champion—and, more particularly, as a Negro champion. “A Negro champion feels he stands for more than just a title,” he says gravely. “He is a symbol of achievement and dignity, and it is tough to be a loser and let down a whole race.” In 1959, not long after the Durelle fight, Sam Goldwyn, Jr., invited Moore to try out for the role of Jim, the runaway slave, in a movie version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both Moore and his wife were leery of what they called “handkerchief-head parts,” and a Negro publication cautioned him against taking an “Uncle Tom” role, but he proceeded with the screen test, was offered the part, and signed a contract with Goldwyn.

Moore is unconscionably proud of the fact that he won the role in competition with professional actors as well as amateurs. (Among the latter was Sugar Ray Robinson, who was then the middleweight boxing champion. “Ray lost the part because he was too sleek,” said Archie. “They didn’t have sleek slaves in those days.”) Moore has boasted about how, although he was training for a title fight at the time, he memorized a sixteen-page transcript for his screen test and went before the cameras after only one rehearsal. The way he tells it, his performance in the test alone entitled him to an Oscar. At the end of the scene, as he recalls it, the professionals on the set—electricians, stagehands, and the like—broke into spontaneous applause. “Tears came from the director’s eyes,” says Archie. “Goldwyn was dabbing his eyes and shaking his head in wonder. An electrician told me it was only the second time in 30 years that he had seen such emotion during a test.” However accurate these recollections may be, the director of the movie, Michael Curtiz, appears to agree with Moore’s own estimate of his talent. “Archie has instinctive acting ability,” said Curtiz. “He seems to know just the right inflection to give a line, and his facial expressions are marvelous.”

When Moore first saw the script of the movie, he noted that the offensive word “nigger” appeared in it now and again, but he said nothing about this until the part was his and the contract signed. Then he began maneuvering. “I’m not a clever man, but I know how to get things done,” he said later. “The script used the word ‘nigger’ at least nine times. I went through it with a pencil and struck out the word everywhere I found it. Then I took it up with Mr. Goldwyn. I told him I couldn’t play the part unless he would agree to the deletions. I told him, ‘You are a young man, Mr. Goldwyn, and times are changing. How could I play this part when it would cause my people to drop their heads in shame in a theater?’ Goldwyn thought about it and he agreed with me. He ordered the deletions. The man who wrote the script was furious; his anger meant nothing to me. I had saved my people from embarrassment.” (Actually, the word was used only once in the movie, and then when Moore was offstage.)

[Photo Credit: Boxing Record Archie]

BGS: Lee Marvin Shoots from the Hip

the-man-who-shot-liberty-valance

Dig Robert Ward’s Rolling Stone profile of Lee Marvin:

“Ford,” he says reverentially. “Fucking Ford. You’ll never see skillets and steaks like that in anybody else’s picture. He’s like the Dickens. It’s all about bigger than life. That’s what the old guys understood about movies. If it’s not bigger than life, put it on television.

“We got along from the start. Maybe I knew how to deal with him. The first day of Liberty, I was hanging around waiting for Ford to come in. Everybody told me how tough he was and not to say anything or he’d single you out and get on you the whole shoot. But as he walked in, I got up and saluted him. There was a dead silence. And then I said, ‘Well, chief, when the admiral comes aboard, the first mate has to pipe him in.’ He never got on me after that. He was a great lover of the navy, and he liked me because of it. He called me Washington. Because my family is descended from George Washington’s brother, James. Which few people know or expect.”

Which is an understatement. The standard guess on Marvin might best be summed up by a writer friend of mine who said, “He looks like he carne out of nowhere. He had no father, no mother, just spawned out there in some gulch and has spent his whole life hating the world that vomited him up.” Marvin would love that, for he’s worked hard to create his image. People don’t come over in bars with a glad hand and ruin his lunch. The reason is simple: they’re afraid if they do, he’ll kill them.

Eat a Peach

peachess

This here is a keeper.

[Photo Via: Vintage-Kisses]

The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock

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Dig this long, terrific piece by David Freeman that I curated for the Beast last weekend:

He was a bit like the Eiffel Tower. You hear about it all your life, and when you finally see the damn thing, it looks so much like the postcards, it’s difficult to see it fresh. Hitchcock’s public self was so distinct that it was often impossible to know if I was dealing with the corporeal man or the invented persona. I think he sometimes got it confused, particularly in his storytelling. He was a well-known raconteur, and some of his stories were widely known and repeated–often by him. There were times when he seemed to feel obliged to tell Alfred Hitchcock stories. Sometimes he was at the top of his form and told them well; other times less so. I was aware of this and, as I came to see, so was he. With his high-waisted black suits–with trousers that rested above his enormous belly, leaving just a few inches of white shirt exposed and with a black tie tucked into his pants–he looked positively fictional, out of Dickens, perhaps, or a banker by Evelyn Waugh.

When I was working with him, he was seventy-nine years old and was sometimes lost in the solitude of great physical pain, arthritis mostly. He moved in and out of senility and yet, for all that, he seemed in no hurry to finish his work, even though his life was clearly limited. There was always time in our work sessions for stories and anecdotes. One minute the script, the next a story about Ivor Novello’s tailor or the Tahiti steamer schedule in the Thirties. Sometimes the talk was without apparent purpose, but at other times some shred of casual chatter would turn out useful to our work. He was obsessed with detail and had a slow, meandering style.

Hitchcock had the historical good fortune to have worked from silent films through television. At his best, he was an inventor of part of the modern cinema’s grammar. But unlike any other director, he was an identifiable public figure, as recognizable as any president or movie star. Television did that for him–but long before his television show he was popping up in all his own movies, those tiny cameo appearances that audiences loved. He exploited a physique that most would try desperately to diminish. He wasn’t crazy about being fat, but he saw his body as a tool to use in the making of his career. He always claimed that “in England everyone looks as I do, and no one would remark on it.” Maybe–but he exploited his profile as effectively as any pinup.

BGS: My Life in the Locker Room

sportswriter

Last week I reprinted this gem by Jennifer Briggs.

I have one of the few jobs where the first thing people ask about is penises. Well, Reggie Jackson was my first. And yes, I was scared. I was 22 years old and the first woman ever to cover sports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Up until then, my assignments had been small-time: high school games and features on father-daughter doubles teams and Hacky Sack demonstrations. But now it was late September, and my editor wanted me to interview Mr. October about what it was like not to make the playoffs.

I’d heard the stories: the tales of women who felt forced to make a stand at the clubhouse door; of the way you’re supposed to never look down at your notepad, or a player might think you’re snagging a glimpse at his crotch; about how you’ve always got to be prepared with a one-liner, even if it means worrying more about snappy comebacks than snappy stories.

Dressed in a pair of virgin white flats, I trudged through the Arlington Stadium tunnel—a conglomeration of dirt and spit and sunflower seeds, caked to the walkway like 10,000-year-old bat guano at Carlsbad Caverns—dreading the task before me. It would be the last day ever for those white shoes—and my first of many covering professional sports.

And there I was at the big red clubhouse door, dented and bashed in anger so many times it conjured up an image of stone-washed hemoglobin. I pushed open the door and gazed into the visitors’ locker room, a big square chamber with locker cubicles lining its perimeter and tables and chairs scattered around the center. I walked over to the only Angel who didn’t yet have on some form of clothing. Mr. October, known to be Mr. Horse’s Heinie on occasion, was watching a college football game in a chair in the middle of it all—naked. I remember being scared because I hadn’t known how the locker room was going to look or smell or who or what I would have to wade through—literally and figuratively—to find this man.

It’s worth your time:

 

 

It’s Hard Being Hooked

asteroids

I remember Pong and I remember when my Dad’s friend Marty got Atari and had Space Invaders. Then, at least in my memory, I remember Asteroids coming before Pac Man.

Over at the Daily Beast, I curated a story that David Owen wrote for Esquire back in 1981 on the Asteroids craze. It was the first magazine story Owen ever wrote and it holds up:

It’s lunchtime in Manhattan, and the Playland arcade at Forty-seventh Street and Broadway is crowded. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Playland’s traditional clientele of Times Square drifters and truant schoolboys is what appears to be a full-scale assault team from the corporate tower of nearby Rockefeller Center. You can hardly move from one end of the place to the other without grinding your heel on somebody’s wing-tip shoe. Over near the Seventh Avenue entrance, a tall thin man with a briefcase pressed between his knees is hunched over a flashing pinball table called JAMES BOND. At a change station near the center of the room, a portly lawyer type is converting the contents of his wallet into enough quarters to bribe a congressional subcommittee. There are three-piece suits everywhere. But the densest agglomeration of gray wool by far stands at the very front of the arcade by a long bank of thumping, thundering machines, where a veritable legion of young executives is lined up three deep to play Asteroids.

Asteroids, at the moment I am writing, is the most popular coin-operated game—video, pinball, or other—in the United States. It jumped to the number one spot not long ago by out-earning Space Invaders, a simple-minded but wildly successful Japanese import that swept this country after 
creating something close to mass hysteria (not to mention a coin shortage) in Japan. Introduced in December 1979, Asteroids quickly became standard equipment in bars, arcades, and airports all over the country. Tavern owners who had previously been scared away from coin-op games by pinball’s underworld reputation now began to clamor for Asteroids. Atari Inc., the game’s manufacturer, had trouble keeping production in step with demand. There are now sixty thousand Asteroids machines on location worldwide, most of them in the United States and most of them
astonishingly popular. Machines in hot locations have been known to bring in as much as one thousand dollars a week, enough to pay for themselves in a little more than a fortnight. Operators who tend fleets of machines are finding they have to make extra trips to their locations just to empty the coin boxes of the Asteroids machines.

As impressive as the sales and collection figures are, one of the most intriguing facts about Asteroids is not how many people are playing it but which ones. Continuing a trend begun by its immediate predecessors, Asteroids has helped open up the coin-op market to a brand-new clientele: not just chain-smoking teenagers with time on their hands but responsible, well-paid men in their twenties, thirties, forties, and even fifties, who in some cases haven’t seen the inside of an amusement arcade since the days when pinball games had pins. And now these men—these sober minions of the gross national product—are backing out of expense-account lunches and sneaking away from elegant restaurants to play Asteroids.

“I’ve pretty much eliminated lunch as an ongoing part of my daily routine,” says a thirty-four-year-old stockbroker. “I’d rather play than eat. Along about four o’clock my stomach begins to growl, but Asteroids has made me a happy man.”

BGS: The Eyes of Winter

ftapache

Paul Newman had been a star for more than two decades when he went on fantastic run. It might not be his best string of movies, but starting in 1977 with Slapshot and lasting through The Color of Money in 1986, Newman delivered some of his most impressive work in movies like Fort Apache, the Bronx; The Verdict; and Absence of Malice.

In her review of Slapshot, Pauline Kael wrote:

“Newman is an actor-star in the way Bogart was. His range isn’t enormous; he can’t do classics, any more than Bogart could. But when a role is right for him, he’s peerless. Newman imparts a simplicity and a boyish eagerness to his characters. We like them but we don’t look up to them. When he’s rebellious, it’s animal energy and high spirits, or stubbornness. Newman is most comfortable in a role when it isn’t scaled heroically; even when he plays a bastard, he’s not a big bastard—only a callow selfish one, like Hud. He can play what he’s not—a dumb lout. But you don’t believe it when he plays someone perverse or vicious, and the older he gets and the better you know him, the less you believe it. His likableness is infectious; nobody should ever be asked not to like Paul Newman.”

His last great performance came a few years later in Robert Benton’s adaptation of Richard Russo’s wonderful book, Nobody’s Fool.

That’s when our man Peter Richmond—whose terrific first YA novel, Always a Catch, was published a few weeks ago—caught up with him. This piece first appeared in the January 1995 issue of GQ and appears here with the author’s permission.

—Alex Belth

He answers the door in slippers, a polite and questioning half-smile set off by tortoiseshell bifocals perched on the bridge of his nose. He offers toast in the kitchen of his prewar penthouse late on a Sunday morning when the New York autumn is chilled by October showers and the sky is as absent of color as the froth of hair on top of his head. He is slicing a stick of butter, very carefully, with a serrated knife, peering over his spectacles so as not to cut off his fingertips. He is talking about the weather.

“I love it,” he says. “I just think the cold is blissful”—a pause for an inside-joke smile—“in my antiquity.”

It would seem, at best, an uneasy fit: Paul Newman and his seventieth birthday, this month. But spend more time with him and it’s clear that the man and the age are a good and comfortable match.

Eddie Felson, Cool Hand Luke, all the cons in search of the angle—maybe they’d fight it, fighting the roll of the seasons. But Paul Newman—who now, finally, is none of these people—is clearly at home with his current circumstance: as no one but himself.

You knew him for the color of his eyes and the chiseled perfection of his torso, but in fact you knew nothing but the way Paul Newman looked. You have never been on familiar terms with Paul Newman the symbol, the symbol of whatever it was you wanted him to be: the defiant youth, perhaps, but without the darker currents of James Dean, or the outcast, but without the bluster of Brando, or, eventually and most memorably, the cad thief or villain eternally redeemed by a beatific smile.

But he is no symbol now. Paul Newman’s physical presence is no longer overwhelmingly compelling, a fact that leaves us—and him—with much more of the essence of the man. In his new movie, the story of nothing but the quiet emotions of an aging man, his looks are irrelevant, and he seems entirely suited to the role.

***

He does not pretend to have all of the answers. Questions remain. He asks them gently, in a low voice, using measured words and separated by long pauses, all of it punctuated by frequent glances at the rain patting the terrace outside the living-room windows.

“I am thoroughly and predictably concerned about what was my accomplishment and what was the accomplishment of my appearance, which I have no control over,” he says. “What was attributable to me? And what is the difference between a truly creative artist and an interpretive artist? I have not concluded anything about that, but it’s fair to ask the question.”

It’s not the usual rope-skip one expects from people of note who deign to cede a few minutes of their days to an interviewer. This is a deliberative conversation, and he tries to get as much meaning into as few words as possible. He’s never had any love for the interview process, but he is nonetheless polite enough to want to convey something substantial in a short time. Envision, if you can, a weight attached to every phrase.

“And everybody shakes their head and says ‘Oh, isn’t it too bad that he doesn’t enjoy…more of a sense of accomplishment,’ and so forth,” he continues. “But it’s not a false sense of modesty or self-deprecation. It’s really just looking at it and saying ‘Where did it come from? What do you owe it to?’”

So it should come as no surprise that the definitive question Paul Newman poses about his life is whether an entire career was forged on the pigment of his eyes.

“You’re constantly reminded,” he says. “There are places you go and they say ‘Take off your dark glasses so we can see your beautiful blue eyes.’ And you just want to…you just want to…I dunno, um…thump them.”

He holds up his right hand—“A short chop right above the bridge of the nose”—and gives up a laugh.

“They could say, ‘Hey, its very nice to meet you’—that’s great. Or ‘Thanks for a bunch of great performances,’ and you can feed off that for a week and a half. But the other thing, which is always there, is a never-ending reminder.”

The eyes. He proposes that if we insist on putting his picture on GQ’s cover, we eschew the usual mug of shot and run one simply of his eye. His right eye. Close up. Just the eye.

“This bloodshot blue eye,” he says, and he laughs. And then he says, “Or take the engine out of a stock Ford. Have the hood up. I’ll just be sleeping in there.”

The last is not a non sequitar. It’s an allusion—a comic allusion—to an arena in which Paul Newman answered the question of how much of his success was due to talent and hard work. He was a champion race-car driver. He was good at driving; his looks didn’t matter. But that time is over now, too. Newman raced just once last year. The previous year, he’s raced in six events and crashed in five of them.

“Driver error,” he says now. “The teeth get longer. The hair gets thinner. The eyes and ears don’t sense danger as quickly as they did before. You can’t go fast, so you try and go faster.”

Madness lies that way, of course. And so on a Sunday morning when two years ago he might have been up on the track at Lime Rock, in Connecticut, he’s wending his way through The Times instead. His wife is in another part of the apartment, listening to opera. An aria winds out of the room and finds us. Newman falls silent; the conversation pauses.

But it is the most welcome of silences, too; fifteen stories above the Central Park reservoir, amid books and family photographs and very old paintings. It is so peaceful that time feels if it’s not even passing.

“Bette Davis said it best of all: ‘Getting old ain’t for sissies,’ “he said eventually. “I mean—suppose, to do it right, it ain’t for sissies.”

How do you do it right?

“Stay in the thick of it, I guess…I’ve been working on this thing on and off for seven years.”

I need a moment to make the connection: The “thing” is his current project—not Nobody’s Fool, the movie just out, but the next one—he assumes that I know what he’s talking about because it’s on his mind all of the time; it’s what binds his professional life now. It’s the script he’s been writing for the past year and a half. The film he’ll direct.

The writing is what drives him. It’s easier than getting in front of the camera, where the way he used to look has become an issue. “Which is part of why I’m directing this next film,” he says. “I don’t have to worry about it. I wouldn’t worry about it. But other people worry about it. And I’m at that point where…it just takes too much effort.”

***

They never seemed effortless, the men in Paul Newman’s catalogue. They were all highly complicated, not a flat-out, clear cut hero among them—pool hustler, grifter, alcoholic lawyer and now, in Nobody’s Fool, a man who abandoned his family because it was the easy thing to do. They were flawed and beautiful men in circuitous search of redemption, and Newman wore the characters effortlessly.

This was not luck or fortuitous casting. He did the foundation work for years, on the stage and in bad films, but so did any number of pretty young men. What Newman brought to the screen, what allowed him to blossom, was his ability to make Hud and Harper and Fast Eddie so familiar. So identifiable. Their troubles were always, somehow, real.

“I had some troubling years,” Newman says.

Newman did what many young men do. He drank; he fought. He should have known better, he says now. After combat duty in the Pacific, he put in four years at Kenyon College and a year at Yale Drama. He was kicked off the football team at Kenyon for taking part in a tavern rumble between college kids and townies—a particularly embarrassing episode, given that Newman hadn’t even been rounded up with the original arrestees; it was only when he showed up at the jail to give the quarterback his car keys that a cop saw the second-stringer’s scuffed knuckles and locked him up, too. Several years later, there was an arrest for leaving the scene of an accident in which no one had been hurt. “A mistake,” he admits. “Dumb.”

“I barely made it in my time,” he says. “And don’t forget that the acceleration of everything was much slower. We only had booze in our day—which was bad and ugly enough. We didn’t have crack.”

In the kitchen, two empty beer cans stand upside down, side by side, in the dish rack, rinsed for the recyclers—aligned in orderly fashion, in defiance of any hint of impropriety.

Did his drinking ever come close to derailing what he had going?

After a moment’s thought, he nods and nods and nods. The silence stretches on and on. Then he says, “Fortunately, that was back in the Stone Age.” Silence again. “So.”

It is neither the time nor the place to ask for elaboration. Not in Paul Newman’s living room. That is a given. The overriding theme of the hundreds of interviews Newman had granted is his discretion. He saves a special disdain for the public’s gutter curiosities. Several years ago, amid the flowering of tabloid journalism, Newman announced that he’d adopted a personal theme: Fuck Candor.

***

His father was the successful proprietor of a sporting-goods store in Cleveland, and when Newman speaks of him, it is with respect for nothing so much as Arthur S. Newman’s integrity: “In the Depression,” he says, leaning a little closer over his coffee, “[he] got $200,000 worth of consignment from Spalding and Rawlings because [his] reputation for paying, [his] honesty, was so impeccable.” Arthur Newman, his son says, was many things: ethical, moral, funny. And distant. Newman once spoke of his anger and frustration at never being able to earn his father’s approval.

He met and married his first wife, Jacqueline Witte, in 1949, when they were members of an acting troupe in Illinois. Upon his father’s death, in 1950, Newman moved his wife and infant son back to Cleveland but couldn’t put his heart into selling sports goods. He turned the business over to his brother and took his family to New Haven, for his year at Yale; soon afterward, he was working in New York. But his ascent on the stage coincided with a muddying of emotional waters: He met Joanne Woodward in 1952, worked with her frequently and found himself being pulled toward her. Newman and Jacqueline had three children by the time they divorced. In 1958, he married Woodward, and they subsequently had three daughters of their own. His career took flight.

In 1978, Scott Newman, his 28-year-old son, died of an accidental drug and alcohol overdose. The family endowed a drug-education foundation in his name. Several years later, Newman started a Connecticut camp for seriously ill children, and now his charity work had become the stuff of legend. He has gone into the food business and has been wildly successful in it. It’s typical refutation by Newman the person of Newman the Hollywood icon: Matinee idol joins the merchant class.

“I worked in the [sporting goods] store every Saturday as a kid,” he says. “And now I’m hustling salad dressing. What is the circularity of things?”

But the answer doesn’t seem too difficult to divine. The success of his food endeavor made Newman a businessman of good refute—someone his father could admire—and by donating his considerable profits ($56 million, so far) to various charities, he has equaled his father’s reputation for integrity.

More: He derives genuine pleasure from watching something he created flourish. “I can understand the romance of it,” he says. “Where you create something. It’s kind of like writing, in a way…where you say [to your creation] ‘Just stay right there’ and it says ‘I got other plans,’ and it goes shooting off in other areas. And you say ‘Look at that little fucker go.’ “

Clearly, the greatest joy he derives from the business these days is in designing the labels—fanciful, nonsensical, joyous paeans to the simple goodness of good food, Whitmanesque in spirit: “Terrifico! Magnifico…share with guys on the streetcar…ah, me, immortal!”

He writes the copy himself. On the new Caesar salad-dressing bottle, the government has co-opted three-fifths of his label for the mandatory nutritional data, robbing him of the space needed for what he wanted to write—an apocryphal story of the time he played Caesar at a regional theater and how, after he was stabbed, an offstage phone rang and another actor ad-libbed “I hope it wasn’t for Caesar.” Instead, he settled for a sketch of the morally wounded emperor, a bloody dagger pointing to the ingredients, and Caesar saying “Don’t dilute us, Brutus.”

Newman laughs at that one. Then he pauses again. Half of the morning in pauses.

Writing—the next movie, the labels—is a sensible thing for a man grown distrustful of the camera to do. He has found, in the scripting of a very personal film, a new creative surge. “I could have given up on this thing,” he says, “a long time ago.”

Did people tell him to?

“Oh boy—writers and friends. But I really am pleased with it. The way it turned out. It has the same kind of emotional progression as Nobody’s Fool. But much more personal.”

Nobody’s Fool is personal, too. As written, the character of Sully—an underachieving, good-natured, down-on-his-luck handyman in a depressed, snow-locked upstate-New York town—allowed for a great deal of invention on Newman’s part. “There wasn’t a tremendous amount of plot progression,” he admits. “[I] had to create the progression of where he was emotionally.”

In giving Sully a life, he gave the character some of his own life. And after a couple of intentionally over-the-top roles—Governor Earl Long in Blaze, a corporate shark in The Hudsucker Proxy—he may have finally come up with a way to quiet his own questions about how much of his success is the result of a craft he worked hard to perfect.

At first glance, Sully appears to be a man who finds a small nobility in living a life that requires nothing but getting through each day with his circle of small-town friends. But his story is tangled when, by chance, he meets the son he abandoned when the boy was a year old and the grandchildren he’s never met and has never particularly wanted to meet. Thereafter he is forced to examine his life: simple and reassuringly placid on the surface but rooted in irresponsibility and neglect. Sully decides to face the truth of what his negligence has sown. And to make amends.

“His bravery,” Newman says, “was that he was at that point in his life when he did not want to…deny it anymore. He no longer tries to keep his own…accessibility…away from himself. [He finally] accepts his sense of family. And the incredible magnetism of that.

“I don’t know whether the audience will get that,” he says. “They may get something else. I don’t know that they’ll get all of the things this film means to me…[the] secrets between me and the character. They are tiny discoveries. And they’re mine. I don’t know if they’ll be visible.”

It is an oblique soliloquy. The gist of it seems to be that in Sully, Paul Newman had finally found a man who has made the right decision: to face himself in his waning years.

I begin to observe that it sounds as if Sully is in microcosm what Newman himself…but that is as far as I get.

“Yeah,” he says, interrupting me. “Painfully close. As this next film will be.”

His wife has taken the dog for a walk. The radio is silent. The rain has stopped. The coffee is cold.

“The nice thing about the picture was that you didn’t have to discover where the money was—you had to discover where he was,” Newman says. “It’s an examination of the good in ordinary people. But maybe in order to be good [in movies] you have to kill 53 people. Used to be you only had to kill three or four. Now everything has escalated. The insistence on sexual, visceral gratification has become so intense…The human animal is an escalating beast.”

His expression makes it obvious that he is reluctant to be led into this old swamp, into routine condemnation of the modern age, but it would hardly be right to talk with Paul Newman without getting his take on the social pulse. He was a Connecticut delegate in the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and a member of a U.S. delegation to a 1978 United Nations session on disarmament. He was No. 19 on Nixon’s enemies list. But his activism has since been reined in. “The Sixties—I had to have my foot in everything then,” he says. “I’m doing the same thing now but through an intermediary. You know. The food company. Maybe that’s the way to go about it. You go right straight into the inferno, and when you get older, you pull back. You don’t really give up your responsibilities, but you find some less exhausting way.”

Still, when he’s led into conversation about the mores of our time, his hands tap a drumbeat on the arms of his antique wooden chair.

“It’s kind of like those little electric bumper cars where you drive around and see if you can hit the other guy. That’s exactly what the country is like now. You no longer have the sense of community. Of loyalty. It’s lost its sense of group. It has nothing to do with leadership. Everybody’s out there alone, getting his own whacks. Instead of deifying the community, they’ve deified the individual. Maybe that’s necessary in principle. In the Bill of Rights. But… ‘What’s good for the individual is good for the country’? It simply is not true. What is good for the community is good for the country. Once you put the individual on a pedestal, it’s at the expense of everything else.

“What I would really like to put on my tombstone is that I was part of my time,” he says. “And that I’m, satisfied with that. And that’s comforting. I did okay. It’s been good. It’s nice to finally…get it as you get into your mid-sixties. It’s better than not getting it at all. And I have seen a lot of people who go to their graves without ever…without ever getting in touch with what it is that’s the core of them. It’s very easy as an actor…you can just walk around as Hud all day long, have people marvel at your grace, your manliness, your quick-wittedness. [But] it all eats away at whatever is at the core of…your own humanity. At getting in touch with that, and being satisfied with it, and comfortable.”

Being satisfied. Being comfortable. Getting it. We’re talking about him now, right?

“Yeah,” he says.

A moment later, en route to the elevator, he amplifies. Only a bit. But enough.

“I don’t have to worry,” he says, “about being something for somebody.”

The other half of the thought doesn’t need to be spoken: Now it’s time to be him for him.

Which is why, finally, the smile at the end of the morning—back at the apartment door, in the foyer, the elevator summoned—is different from the one that greeted me. It’s not just on his lips. It’s in his eyes.

The difference is not in their color. Their color is just sort of pale-blue.

It’s the light behind them. Maybe the light I want to see behind them. The light I do see behind them. The particularly brilliant light of winter.

 

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[Photo Credit: Toni L. Sandys]

Redbird Backlash

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From my pal Brian Gunn:

I have some friends—Cardinals fans—who went to a game in Yankee Stadium in 2003. During a rain delay a segment of Yanks’ fans in the bleachers began serenading them with the sing-songy chant, “Dar-ryl Kile!… Dar-ryl Kile!” This was about a year after Kile, ace pitcher for the Cardinals, died suddenly in a Chicago hotel room. Now, do I hold this assholery against all Yankees fans, much less all of New York City? Of course not. That’d just be innumerate crap.

But of course we do this all the time: Red Sox fans, you often hear, are loudmouths; Dodgers fans are too distracted to arrive at the game before the fourth inning; Cubs fans are just there for the beer and brats. These are lazy stereotypes, false more often than not; yet places like Deadspin and Grantland and Bloomberg have no problem pushing these clichés as if they were actual think pieces.

The truth is, there are literally millions of Cardinals fans throughout the country—a mix of earnest Midwesterners, shrill dickheads, corny suburban dads, jorts-wearing dudes with rattails, hedge fund managers, soybean farmers, restaurateurs, night-shift nurses, old folks, schoolkids, PhD students, carpool moms, ex-cons, and that one guy who used to live down the street from you. For a sportswriter to think he has a handle on a fan base this big and diverse is so wrong-headed you feel kinda silly pointing it out.

 

Fire Alarm

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Two days ago at my weekend reprint gig for the Daily Beast, I curated this gem by H.L. Mencken on the 1904 Baltimore fire:

At midnight or thereabout on Saturday, February 6, 1904, I did my share as city editor to put the Sunday Herald to bed, and then proceeded to Junker’s saloon to join in the exercises of the Stevedores’ Club. Its members, having already got down a good many schooners, were in a frolicsome mood, and I was so pleasantly edified that I stayed until 3:30. Then I caught a night-hawk trolley-car, and by 4 o’clock was snoring on my celibate couch in Hollins Street, with every hope and prospect of continuing there until noon of the next day. But at 11 a.m. there was a telephone call from the Herald office, saying that a big fire had broken out in Hopkins Place, the heart of downtown Baltimore, and 15 minutes later a reporter dashed up to the house behind a sweating hack horse, and rushed in with the news that the fire looked to be a humdinger, and promised swell pickings for a dull winter Sunday. So I hoisted my still malty bones from my couch and got into my clothes, and 10 minutes later I was on my way to the office with the reporter. That was at about 11:30 a.m. of Sunday, February 7. It was not until 4 a.m. of Wednesday, February 10, that my pants and shoes, or even my collar, came off again. And it was not until 11:30 a.m. of Sunday, February 14—precisely a week to the hour since I set off —that I got home for a bath and a change of linen.

For what I had walked into was the great Baltimore fire of 1904, which burned a square mile out of the heart of the town and went howling and spluttering on for 10 days. I give the exact schedule of my movements simply because it delights me, in my autumnal years, to dwell upon it, for it reminds me how full of steam and malicious animal magnetism I was when I was young. During the week following the outbreak of the fire, the Herald was printed in three different cities, and I was present at all its accouchements, herding dispersed and bewildered reporters at long distance and cavorting gloriously in strange composing rooms. My opening burst of work ran to 64-and-a-half hours, and then I got only six hours of nightmare sleep, and resumed on a working schedule of from 12 to 14 hours a day, with no days off and no time for meals until work was over. It was brain-fagging and back-breaking, but it was grand beyond compare—an adventure of the first chop, a razzle-dazzle superb and elegant, a circus in 40 rings. When I came out of it at last I was a settled and indeed almost a middle-aged man, spavined by responsibility and aching in every sinew, but I went into it a boy, and it was the hot gas of youth that kept me going. The uproar over, and the Herald on an even keel again, I picked up one day a volume of stories by a new writer named Joseph Conrad, and therein found a tale of a young sailor that struck home to me as the history of Judas must strike home to many a bloated bishop, though the sailor naturally made his odyssey in a ship, not on a newspaper, and its scene was not a provincial town in America, but the South Seas. Today, so long afterward, I too “remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more—the feeling that I could last forever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men… Youth! All youth! The silly, charming, beautiful youth!”

Check it out.

[Photo Via: The Baltimore Sun.]

Constant Elevation

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A record producer friend once told me that Check Your Head,  the Beastie Boys’ 3rd album, was perfectly realized. That’s stuck with me over the years, the idea of being able to achieve something that lives up to your ambition. In a 1978 Playboy Interview, Bob Dylan said: “The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the Blonde on Blonde album. It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up.”

I thought of this after reading Jeremy Collins’ terrific story on SB Nation, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Greg Maddux”. As Tom Junod said on Twitter, “Every once in a while, a writer throws everything he’s got into a story. This is one of those stories.”

Sometimes, after I’ve read a good story I feel envious. After reading this piece, though, I felt elevated. It’s clear that Collins spent a long time, years, figuring out how to tell this ambitious, strong and exact story.

It’s worth your time.

[Photo Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images]

BGS: Sunset Boulevard Revisited

Today gives a wonderful profile of Billy Wilder that David Freeman wrote for The New Yorker in 1993. It originally appeared in the June 21, ’93 issue of the magazine and appears here with permission from the author.

Dig in, you’re sure to enjoy.

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“Sunset Boulevard Revisited”

By David Freeman

 

For a while in the mid-eighties, United Artists paid Billy Wilder a big salary and set him up in an office at its Beverly Hills headquarters. He was supposed to advise the studio’s executives and to give his opinion on the productions they were planning. I asked him at the time how the arrangement was working out. He told me, “Every script, I tell them the same thing: Don’t do it.”

“Do they listen?”

“They do it anyway. Nine times out of ten, the picture flops. Then it’s ‘We should have listened to Billy.’ When there’s a hit, they’re so happy they forget what I said.”

Billy Wilder is the youngest of the generation of directors who dominated Hollywood in the period that shaped American movies and consequently America’s view of itself. They were the princes of the cinema: Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, George Stevens, George Cukor, and William Wyler. Wilder’s immediate contemporaries were Joseph L. Mankiewicz and John Huston. Only Wilder remains.

Wilder’s best-known movie, Sunset Boulevard, is about to become an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Wilder says of the composer-impresario, “He’s the Ted Williams of musicals—all hits!” The production, with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, opens at the Adelphi Theatre in London on July 12th. Patti LuPone plays Norma Desmond, the silent movie queen who has outlived her era.

Sunset Boulevard has become a sort of rallying point for movie buffs. In Gloria Swanson’s performance as Norma they seem to see a camp diva, along the lines of Callas. The initiates recite the film’s dialogue, chanting such famous Norma Desmond lines as “We had faces” and “I’m ready for my closeup.” “You used to be big,” William Holden says to her. “I am big,” Swanson replies. “It’s the pictures that got small.”

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* * * *

After sixty years in Southern California, Wilder looks like a libidinous owl and is almost as famous as a raconteur as he is for his movies. He uses a highly personal international syntax, which doesn’t always include transitions. Wilder has a tendency to mumble and then to explode into his point, which is often a punch line. His stories of the Hollywood that was are enthralling in ways that go beyond such subjective matters as truth. He may repeat a story, but never the same way twice. Wilder’s remarks circulate in Hollywood, savored and retold for years. Before her marriage, his wife, Audrey, lived with her mother in modest circumstances. Wilder told her, “I’d worship the ground you walk on, if you lived in a better neighborhood.”

Billy Wilder’s first neighborhood was the town of Sucha, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was born on June 22, 1906, during the reign of the Emperor Franz-Josef. Wilder’s mother, Eugenia, who had visited America, named her second son Samuel but called him Billy, possibly for Buffalo Bill. (Billy’s brother, Wilhelm, was born in 1904. He, too, wound up in Hollywood, as W. Lee Wilder, a producer-director in the forties and fifties.) Billy’s father, Max, was in and out of businesses, including hotels and railroad station cafes, and in and out of money. As a child in Vienna, Billy took up a pool cue, stood on a chair in one of his father’s hotels, and shot billiards for pocket kronen. He lasted a few months at the University of Vienna, then quit to become a reporter on Die Stunde, a paper he recalls as the Viennese equivalent of a tabloid. “It was a revolver paper,” he says. “They came at you with a gun.” When the paper was putting together a special edition on the subject of Fascism, in 1925, Wilder was assigned to interview Richard Strauss, Arthur Schnitzler, Alfred Adler, and Sigmund Freud. He took the trolley around Vienna, pursuing the great men. “My question was ‘What do you think of Fascism and the future?’ With Freud, I got to ‘Good afternoon, Professor.’ He said, ‘What paper?’ ‘Die Stunde,’ I answered. ‘Out!’ he said.”

In 1926, Wilder went to Berlin and began to write scenarios. To earn money, he worked as a dancer at the thés dansants at the Eden Hotel, twirling older women around the floor. When the Reichstag burned, Wilder, feeling that career possibilities for twenty-six-year-old Jewish scenario writers might be limited, fled to Paris, leaving behind his family and his native language. By 1934, he was in Hollywood, with no money, no English, and no work. He has always said that he lived for a while in the ladies’ room of the Chateau Marmont Hotel. It has become part of Hollywood’s mythology, and it may even be true.

Ernst Lubitsch, a Berliner, was the head of production at Paramount for about a year in the mid-thirties—the only first-rank director ever to run a Hollywood studio. Wilder was in awe of him then and still is. “I was taught by Lubitsch you should not notice the director. He should be invisible. You should notice the characters,” Wilder said recently, reminiscing about his mentor. On being asked if such restraint wasn’t contradicted by the self-conscious style of German Expressionism, in which Lubitsch had dabbled, Wilder said, “Yeah, sure. They did all those angles and that lighting because they couldn’t afford sets. When they got money, in Hollywood, they dropped all that stuff.” Wilder has often said, “Lubitsch could do more with a closed door than most directors can with an open fly.”

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Wilder got his chance with Lubitsch in 1936, when Paramount assigned him to work with Charles Brackett, a more experienced writer, on Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. Brackett, fourteen years Wilder’s senior, was a novelist and a gent. He was Harvard Law, class of 1920, and had been a drama critic for The New Yorker. When Lubitsch moved to M-G-M, he hired the pair to work on Ninotchka. Seven Brackett-Wilder scripts were shot before Wilder started directing; later, Brackett produced the pictures that he and Wilder wrote together.

During the Brackett era, Wilder’s scriptwriting methods were established. While Brackett, like all Wilder’s partners to come, jotted notes, Wilder paced the room, gesturing with a swagger stick or a baton, slicing the air. Brackett’s boozy Republican gentility was often at odds with Wilder’s brash ambition. Wilder was the junior man but the more forceful personality. The partners were known for their screaming matches as well as for their scripts. “We were opposites, from different parts of the world,” Wilder recalls. “Our temperaments had to be held in check. We fought a lot. Brackett and I were like a box of matches. We kept striking till it lights up. He would sometimes throw a telephone book at me.” They walked out on each other several times, each vowing to go it alone. But, like a couple in a marriage that doesn’t quite work but won’t quite end, they kept at it, locked in productivity and combat, and came to be known as BrackettandWilder.

For Wilder, a third colleague may have been as significant as Lubitsch and Brackett. Mitchell Leisen, a staff director at Paramount, directed three Brackett-Wilder scripts, and was unwittingly responsible for making Wilder a director. Wilder couldn’t bear him and often said so, believing that Leisen, who had started as a designer, knew nothing about storytelling and cared only for the drape of a skirt or the way a shadow fell. Wilder accused Leisen of tearing up carefully written scenes on the whim of an actor or just to demonstrate his authority. “He hated writers,” Wilder says. “I would come on the set and stop him. ‘What happened to that line?’ I would say. He would say, ‘I cut it. You’re bothering me.’ He came from set dressing.” The idea of Wilder’s mellowing is unlikely, and he still finds the subject of Leisen distasteful, but he acknowledges that Midnight and Arise, My Love, directed by Leisen from Bracken-Wilder scripts, are “good pictures.” Then he mutters, “I could have done them better.”

In the spirit of Lubitsch, Wilder’s cinema is one of exquisitely constructed scripts rather than ravishing images. It is also a cinema of frequently unsympathetic leading characters and of jokes and gags, the more topical, self-referential, or exuberantly vulgar the better. There are no Fordian horsemen plowing down snowy mountains; it is a writer’s cinema. Wilder became a director to protect what he had written. He always mapped out his story with a partner, then stuck to it on the set, often shooting in sequence and allowing for only minor changes. He frequently began production with an uncompleted script, writing as he shot, and this made him hard to fire. It was his way of giving immediacy to what he had written. Contemporary directors routinely talk about “finding their film” in the cutting room. Even directors working from their own scripts often encourage actors to improvise. They’re in search of spontaneity. “Unfortunately, they often find it,” Wilder says. Of the complicated camera angles now so much in vogue he says, “Down the chimney, through the fireplace: point of view, Santa Claus. Who else would be up there?”

In 1943, Wilder collaborated with Raymond Chandler on the adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel Double Indemnity. “Brackett did not like to deal in risqué stories like that,” Wilder says. Although the movie is an enduring work, one of the best and most popular examples of film noir, Chandler had a rough time. He loathed Wilder’s strutting ways in the office. In a letter to Harnish Hamilton, his British publisher, he wrote, “Working with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity was an agonizing experience and has probably shortened my life.” Brackett was a picture man, though, and knew the value of the alliance. He and Wilder were soon back together for The Lost Weekend, which won Oscars in 1945 for best picture, script, and director, and for Ray Milland as best actor.

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Brackett and Wilder had patched things up, but Wilder’s marriage was coming apart. His wife, Judith, whom he had married in 1936, was the step daughter of the French artist Paul Iribe, who was also an art director for Cecil B. De Mille. The Wilders’ daughter, Victoria, was born in 1939. (Her twin brother, Vincent, died when he was four months old.) By 1942, Wilder had become involved with the actress Doris Dowling, who would later play the prostitute in The Lost Weekend. The affair was the subject of a great deal of gossip. Their friends assumed that Wilder would marry Dowling. Then he met Audrey Young, a singer, who was a bit player in The Lost Weekend. Wilder found himself separating from his wife, cheating on his mistress, and pursuing Audrey. She got the man, but her part in “The Lost Weekend” wound up on the cutting-room floor.

After the war, Wilder served with the Psychological Warfare Division of the United States Army in Germany. Among Colonel Wilder’s tasks was helping to rebuild the German film industry. To that end, he interviewed ex-Nazis, trying to decide which ones were the least undesirable. He was asked by the director of the Oberammergau Passion play to pass judgment on Anton Lang, who had played Christ before the war and had been in the S.S. Now the director wanted him back.

“On one condition,” Wilder said.

“And what is that?” he was asked.

“That in the Crucifixion scene you use real nails.”

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During his tour of duty, Wilder got a look at what was left of Berlin, the city where he had served his ad-hoc apprenticeship in the movies. He had not heard from his family during the war. Now he confirmed what he had suspected: his mother, his stepfather, and his grandmother had died in Auschwitz. “What ever pain he endured privately, his response was to make a comedy, A Foreign Affair, written with Brackett and Richard L. Breen. It is serious without being in the least earnest, and it brought Wilder’s reputation for vulgarity to an early peak. Maybe no one was in a mood to make fun of postwar Berlin—no one but Wilder, anyway.

The film opens with shots of bombed-out Berlin, seen from a plane carrying a dim-bulb congressional delegation to look into the morale of the occupation troops. The team includes Jean Arthur as a representative from Iowa who brings a constituent’s chocolate cake for an Army captain (John Lund). He trades it on the black market for a mattress, tosses the mattress in his jeep, then drives through the ashen hell of Berlin while the soundtrack plays “Isn’t It Romantic?” It’s Berlin, all right, but the real locale is Billy Wilder Land. Of the choice of music Wilder says, “Paramount owned it. You were obliged to use what they didn’t have to pay for. They thought I was a good soldier.”

Lund takes the mattress to Marlene Dietrich. In some casual love play, she calls him her Führer (“Heil Johnny”), and he says, “Why don’t I choke you a little. Break you in two. Build a fire under you, you blond witch.” There’s not a lot of kitchy-kitchy-coo in the dialogue. Richard Corliss called the Movie “Wilder at his most vile.”James Agee said, “A good bit of it is in rotten taste.”

The question of “taste” has plagued Wilder. It is as if the critics, confronted with his bawdy rudeness, became Rotarians. Wilder is an ironist—that was the point of using “Isn’t It Romantic?” Movies usually trade in more readily understood situations and characters. In A Foreign Affair. Dietrich is a not quite former Nazi, mostly because a girl’s got to eat. Wilder keeps it broad enough for the groundlings, but underneath there’s a dark, anarchic vision.

For Wilder, it has always been jokes above all. He has the true satirist’s compulsion: he mocks everyone, and speaks his mind in wisecracks. Of the writers and directors who refused to testify before HUAC, the so-called “unfriendly witnesses,” Wilder said, “Two of them have talent. The rest are just unfriendly.” But, like all satirists, he has a moralist’s heart. For every swindler, there’s a patsy; for every corrupted bimbo, there’s a venal, self-serving fool of a man. His movies, like Wilder himself, are often mordant and relentlessly unsentimental.

* * * *

Wilder doesn’t own prints or cassettes of his films, and says he has no interest in watching them again He’s seen clips from Sunset Boulevard over the years. “The same clips!” he mutters. “ ‘We had faces,’ ‘pictures got small’ Who needs it?” The last time he had seen the entire movie was at the Paramount studio theatre in the summer of 1950.

As he walked across the Paramount lot on a recent morning, Wilder recalled that earlier screening, which was just prior to the release of the picture. Sunset Boulevard had suffered an unsuccessful preview in Evanston, Illinois, causing Brackett and Wilder to shoot a new opening. The movie begins, famously, with William Holden as Joe Gillis, the murdered screenwriter, narrating the action from the dead, his body floating in a swimming pool The rejected version began in the Los Angeles morgue, with corpses chatting about how they got there. After Paramount showed the re-shot version, the industry crowd milled about in the alley outside the studio theatre. Louis B. Mayer, who had not cared for the portrait of Hollywood, was heard to say, “Billy Wilder should be run out of town.” Wilder took that for the challenge it was, and told the head of M-G-M, “Go shit in your hat.”

Now, in that same alley, Wilder said, “That’s what I’ll be remembered for, a stupid insult to Louis B. Mayer.”

“Isn’t what people remember that you wouldn’t let him insult you?”

“They remember shit in the hat.”

Screening Room No. 5, where Wilder was about to have his first look at Sunset Boulevard since the run-in with Mayer, is in a tangle of editing rooms, offices, and projection booths above the theatre. It has been repainted, and the equipment is newer, but otherwise the room is unchanged since the days when Brackett and Wilder watched rushes there. Paramount is where Sunset Boulevard was written, shot, and edited; several of the locations in the film were only steps away.

“Is this going to be like the opera?” Wilder asked. When I looked puzzled, he said, “I went to see Götterdämmerung. It started at eight. At midnight, when I looked at my watch, it was eight-fifteen.” Assured that Sunset Boulevard played faster than that, he sat down, ready to see just what it was that he and Brackett had made forty-four years ago. We were seated on either side of the console, which permitted us to control the volume or speak to the projectionist. Earlier, I had reminded him that if he couldn’t bear it he could tell the projectionist to skip a reel or two. Now he had his eye on the console.

As Franz Waxman’s score boomed out and William Holden’s narration began, Wilder, who is usually animated, grew still. His mouth tightened and his lips twitched. He didn’t perk up until Holden, bemoaning his lack of work, says, “I talked to a couple of yes-men at Metro. To me they said no.”

When Erich von Stroheim, as Max von Mayerling, the butler and chauffeur, mistakes Holden for someone else and says, “If you need any help with the coffin, call me,” Wilder nodded approval and said, “You get those little hooks into the audience. ‘Coffin’ out of nowhere.”

During Holden and Swanson’s first big scene, with the exchange that begins, “You’re Norma Desmond…You used to be big,” Wilder looked as if he were watching a take and deciding whether to ask for another. When he called out “Good!” I half expected the film to stop and the actors to take a break.

Not until he’d had a taste of Swanson’s performance did he seem to relax. The picture depends on her. It was made twenty years after the end of the silent era, when audiences had a sense of the transition to sound. But would any of it come through now? When Norma plays bridge with Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H. B. Warner, her contemporaries, Holden calls them “the waxworks.” Wilder seemed to be looking hard to see whether the film itself now belonged in that category.

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“He’s watching her,” Wilder said, meaning that Holden was watching Swanson, trying to decide what to make of this strange, pop-eyed wonder from another world. Through Holden’s eyes, the audience understands that every move and gesture Norma Desmond makes, every extravagant claim and demand, is real to her. Wilder saw that it was working, and began to enjoy himself. “That’s silent picture acting. You can’t teach somebody. Unless you grew up with it, you can’t do it.”

In von Stroheim’s first big scene, when he explains to Holden just who Norma Desmond is, he says, “There was a maharaja who came all the way from India to beg for one of her silk stockings. Later, he strangled himself with it.” Wilder laughed, and said, “So preposterous.” But when the scene was over he said of von Stroheim,”He’s like a light bulb that suddenly shines on in that scene—even with that strangling stuff.” Von Stroheim was himself a legendary director of the silent era—the film that Norma runs for Joe is his unfinished Queen Kelly, which starred Swanson. He brought a director’s sensibility to his role. “It was his idea that Max wrote all the fan letters Norma got,” Wilder explained. “He had an idea about Max washing her underwear. ‘I can do a lot with that,’ he said. It was too much, I didn’t use it.” Of von Stroheim as chauffeur, Wilder said later, “He didn’t know how to drive. We had to tow the car when he comes onto the lot. He still crashed it into the Bronson Gate.”

After Wilder was sure that the central performances held up, he occasionally hummed along with Waxman’s score. He was amused by the various sums of money mentioned: five hundred dollars a week for a screenwriter, and twenty-eight thousand dollars as the value of Norma Desmond’s lavish touring car, an Isotta-Fraschini. When Norma says, “I’m richer than all this new Hollywood trash. I’ve got a million dollars,” Wilder repeated the line and laughed.

But it was Swanson who continued to interest him. When she says, “Me, me, Norma Desmond,” in all her nutty megalomania, Wilder said, “Right up to the edge.” He meant that she had the courage to risk looking ridiculous and the skill to keep in character. A moment later, he said, “She was fifty-two. It was old then. Holden was about thirty. The chasm between silent pictures and talkies, you think there’s three hundred years between them.”

Sunset_Blvd_Gloria_Swanson

During a scene with Holden and Nancy Olson, the young screenwriter he meets, Wilder’s lips were moving, but I couldn’t follow what he was saying. I lowered the volume, and realized he was approximating the dialogue. But this was no reverie. He was apparently trying to get Holden and Olson to pick up the pace. I guessed he hadn’t liked the line readings in 1949 and didn’t like them now. Near the end of the scene, he said, sharply and loudly, “Then what happened?,” which was Holden’s line—he hadn’t got to it yet. It cued Olson’s “You did,” which ended the scene. Wilder said, “Good short line.”

Wilder took particular delight in the sequences with Cecil B. De Mille, who plays himself “He was shooting Samson and Delilah,” Wilder recalls. “We used his sets when Norma visits. We had him for one day. Ten thousand dollars. Then we required one more close-up. I asked him to come back and do it. He understood. It was the shot outside the stage where he says goodbye. He came back. For another ten thousand dollars.”

When DeMille tells Norma to sit for a moment, Wilder said, “I wanted De Mille to displace Hedy Lamarr and give her chair to Norma. She’d do it—for twenty-five thousand dollars. I said that it would be enough for Norma to sit in a chair with Hedy Lamarr’s name on it. That was ten thousand dollars. So I put her in De Mille’s chair.” While she’s sitting there, a boom microphone passes behind her, disturbing her hat and casting a shadow on her face. “Watch this,” Wilder said, anticipating the end of the shot. “Hah!” he whooped as Norma scowls at the microphone, the very thing that ended her era.

As Norma is about to make her final walk down the staircase, playing Salome to the newsreel cameras, Wilder said, “When I rehearsed this scene, very complex emotions are coming down those stairs. I rehearsed it to music.”

I nodded, and mumbled something about Strauss.

“No, no,” he said. “Strauss for the rehearsal. Then we got better than Strauss. Waxman!” When the music surged and the end credits ran, he nodded in time and hummed with the score as the lights came up. Then he was quiet. He knew that it is on this film that his reputation will rest for future generations. There were Paramount employees waiting with pictures and posters for him to sign, but no one was going to rush Billy Wilder at a time like this. Then, as always, retreating into anecdote, he said, “Willy Wyler made a picture called Hell’s Heroes. Thirty years later, he wanted to look at it again. It took them about a week to find a print. They sent it over to his house—he had a cutting room. He took a chunk out and sent it back. No one would ever see it! He wanted to improve it.”

“Do you want to recut?”

“I’m Wilder, not Wyler. We got mixed up all the time. Willy, Billy.”

“Would you like to go into the editing room with it?”

“Here, there, maybe. Some retakes. But no. There’s not much dust on it.” He was quiet again. Then he said, “Come on. I’ll buy you a cheap lunch.”

* * * *

Because Billy Wilder is a screenwriter, rewriting is in his blood. He can’t resist trying to improve something already written—or, in this case, spoken.

In a restaurant near his office in Beverly Hills, he talked more about Sunset Boulevard. “I dug out from one of the drawers a vague story about a silent era star,” he said. “More of a comedy. Mae West was a possibility. With a man half her age. As Charlie and I worked on it, I thought, maybe we need some young blood. Maybe we’re sort of pooped out So we got D. M. Marshman. He was a writer for Life magazine.”

“Were you and Brackett not getting along?”

“We had been working together thirteen years. We needed another mind in there. It was our last picture.”

Holden’s role was written for Montgomery Clift, who turned it down at the last minute, probably because it was too close to his own relationship with the singer Libby Holman. At the time, Wilder was furious, but, looking back, he says, “You wouldn’t believe Clift as a ghostwriter, even if he was hungry.”

Did he think Clift might have given a more complex performance? One could imagine him having an ambiguous reaction to his degradation.

“Holden is closer to a Hollywood writer. Not a poet of the new muse. The best actor I ever worked with was Charles Laughton—Witness for the Prosecution. He goes to a point where a tenth of an inch more and it would be ludicrous. Very few can do that. Swanson got it.” Then Wilder changed the topic without a pause. “The night shot where Holden and Nancy Olson walk on the lot, she tells how she grew up there, at Paramount. How she wanted to be in movies. That’s my wife’s background we used. Audrey’s mother worked in wardrobe. Aud grew up like that.”

Could he say what he had been thinking while he was watching the movie?

“I was involved in remembering, How did I work it? Did I get the best possible scene I could? Over all, the most comforting feeling was that, yes, I would shoot it this way again. The dialogue was not bad. I didn’t wince. I found it surprisingly believable. Only a few minutes that embarrassed me—if the picture is shown in the hereafter theatre, I’ll speed up the projectionist. Today, I couldn’t drum up such a cast. I needed Swanson, I got her. I needed De Mille, l got him. I needed von Stroheim, I got him. I was lucky. It looked pretty good. I would stand up for it. Now I don’t have to look at it for another forty-five years.”

* * * *

After Sunset Boulevard, the Brackett-Wilder partnership was dissolved. Brackett went on to a prominent career as a producer and was publicly upbeat about the breakup, but at the end of his life he told Garson Kanin that he’d never understood it. “We were doing so well,” he said. “It was such a blow, such an unexpected blow, I thought I’d never recover from it.” After Brackett, Wilder had a series of partners. Some were distinguished, but none stayed on for a second picture until I. A. L. Diamond, who always claimed his initials stood for Interscholastic Algebra League, turned up. Born ltek Dommnici, in Romania, Diamond arrived in America at nine and grew up in Crown Heights. After Columbia, where he wrote the book for the Varsity Show for each of his four years and edited the Daily Spectator, he kicked around Hollywood writing comedies and musicals. In 1956, he hooked up with Wilder for Love in the Afternoon. Eventually, they made twelve pictures together, including Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, One, Two, Three, Kiss Me, Stupid, and The Fortune Cookie, all black-and-white gems of the American idiom, written by men whose native language was not English.

behind-the-scenes-some-like-it-hot

Some Like It Hot was made during Marilyn Monroe’s marriage to Arthur Miller. She showed up on the set hours after her call, and she had trouble with her lines, requiring forty-seven takes over two days to enter a room and say, “Where’s the bourbon?” After the film was in release, Wilder made some indiscreet remarks about Monroe to the press, saying that after he’d made two pictures with her (The Seven Year Itch was the first) the Directors Guild should award him a Purple Heart. The result was a public squabble. Arthur Miller called Wilder “contemptible.” Today, Wilder takes a more relaxed view of Monroe. “Not all the doctors and chemists and clairvoyants know what makes a star,” he says. “When I would be driving to the studio in the morning, I would think the whole cast would be there, two hundred extras would be there, the crew would be there. And Marilyn? Who knows where? I would stop the car and throw up. My back was always out. Except the footage looked great. I would have preferred fewer takes, but each time she said a line it was the first time it was ever said.”

“Well,nobody’s perfect,” the picture’s famous last line, was considered for an earlier scene:

JERRY: He keeps marrying girls all the time.

JOE: But you’re not a girl. You’re a guy. And why would a guy want to marry a guy?

JERRY: Security!

In 1985, Diamond wrote in California Magazine that he had thought about adding, “Nobody’s perfect,” but was afraid that it “would kill the security joke.” He filed it away in his mind and later thought it might do as the last line of the movie. He remembered Wilder’s being uncertain, and saying, “Maybe we’ll think of something better on the set.”

Reminiscing about Diamond, Wilder said, “The highest compliment you could get from him would be ‘Why not?’ The Reagans once sent an invitation to go to the White House for dinner. I didn’t want it. lzzy said, ‘You’re right. If you go, then you’ll have to invite them to your house. Then back and forth. Who knows what it could lead to?’”

Diamond died of multiple myeloma in 1988, at the age of sixty-seven. “The script that was written was a completely different third act,” Wilder said. “I was fourteen years older. I was supposed to go first. He knew he had that disease four years. He never said a word. Finally, when we were talking about something I thought we could do, he said, ‘I better tell you, I guess.’ ” Then Wilder waved his hand and shrugged. Friends say he was distraught over Diamond’s death. “Flattened” is the way one put it.

ialdiamondbillywilder80s

Wilder had already endured a period of commercial flops. Now he had no partner. “If God would send me another Brackett or Diamond…” he said, letting the sentence trail off. The last Wilder-Diamond film was Buddy Buddy, in 1981. It was not well received. Even before Diamond’s death, more movies were doubtful. But the sheer fizz of Wilder’s personality made it unlikely that he would withdraw. He had long collected modern art, and owned works by Picasso, Miró, Giacometti, Balthus, Kirchner, and Cornell. By 1989, his collection had grown so large and the market was so good that he decided to sell. He declared himself Lord of the Tchotchkes and arranged for an auction at Christie’s in New York. The media couldn’t get enough of it. The sale generated thirty-two million six hundred thousand dollars. Wilder had been wealthy for years, but now he was a rich man. More important, he had a hit.

corney

Wilder can’t seem to stop collecting art. The walls of his office feature works by Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella; in one corner there are odd-looking found objects, awaiting sculptural treatment. He has always been fond of objets trouvés, and now, with the help of a friend, he has been turning out highly idiosyncratic pieces of sculpture. “Stallone’s Typewriter” is an old Underwood painted in camouflage green and black, with bullets and toy weaponry attached. The platen is wrapped in a gauzy American flag. Wilder says he’s working on a script but adds, almost plaintively, “I don’t know if anyone will let me direct it.” What he does know is that film directing has become a younger person’s sport. Wilder turns eighty-seven this month. In Beverly Hills, near his office, he’s a familiar sight on the streets, where passersby sometimes point him out, like a civic attraction. The Wilders will be in London for the opening of Sunset Boulevard, as guests of Andrew Lloyd Webber. “It’s going to be expensive,” Wilder says, grinning. “After the Connaught, it’s Paris for the collections and a tiny little stop at Christian Dior.”

Critics have often written disparagingly about Wilder, pointing out the themes of venality and corruption and usually calling them cynicism. But Wilder’s recurring motif is disguise, and his real theme is identity. A young screenwriter allows himself to be dressed like a plutocrat and makes love to a woman who appalls him. A saxophone player puts on drag, then a yachting costume, and starts sounding like Cary Grant. Who are these guys?” They, and a gallery of others, reside in an exaggerated world that belongs to the quick-witted and to those who can cut the best deals—a world where everything, and certainly love, is for sale. Taken collectively, Wilder’s raucous, impolite, and often impolitic movies are the record of an exile, a man of the century, made in a medium that was virtually unknown when he was born. Like Hollywood itself, they are a very American achievement. After their alliance was dissolved, Charles Brackett wrote of his former partner, “He was sassy and brash and often unwise, but…he was in love with America as I have seen few people in love with it.”

The critics are now catching up. In 1991, Andrew Sarris published an essay in Film Comment titled “Why Billy Wilder Belongs in the Pantheon.” Twenty-three years earlier, in his influential The American Cinema, Sarris had put Wilder in a category called “Less Than Meets the Eye.” Critical ideas and judgments change all the time, of course, but usually those criticized aren’t around to hear about it. Many of Wilder’s contemporaries, directors who were giants in their time, now seem like Ozymandias. But Wilder’s pictures are watched and studied by film students and professionals trying to figure out how he did it.

When I asked Wilder what he made of the critics’ coming around, he shrugged, apparently uninterested in the issue. A little later, he answered indirectly, saying, “The best insert shot ever made is in Potemkin. The sailors are going to mutiny because the meat is rank. Then there’s the insert of the meat. It’s crawling with maggots. The doctor looks at it and says, ‘The meat’s fine.’” Then Wilder laughed at the absurdity of ever worrying about what anyone says about anything. It reminded him of a story. “I told Sam Goldwyn I wanted to make a movie about Nijinsky. I explained how he was the greatest dancer ever and I told him about his career and how he ended up in a French nuthouse, thinking he was a horse. So Sam says, ‘What kind of picture is that? A man who thinks he’s a horse?’ I told him, ‘Don’t worry, there’s a happy ending. In the final scene, he wins the Kentucky Derby.’”

[Photo Credits: Images found, unattributed via Google Images; if you know who took various shots, please let me know and I will give the proper credit; shot of Chandler and Wilder via UCLA]

For more on Billy Wilder, head on over to the great site, Cinephilia and Beyond.

Where the Wild Things Were

bats

Ivan Solotaroff spent much of the summer of 1988 hanging out in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium. It was a different time: The Bronx wasn’t hospitable to, well, anyone back then. This was before the Disneyfication of Manhattan, before Rudy Giuliani, before Brooklyn became a Mecca of gentrification. You could go to Yankee Stadium and buy a ticket almost any night, then go smoke a joint in all but the fanciest of box seats. It could be an unnerving place, but it was not without its charms, which Solotaroff captures in “The Regulars: 1,900 Years in Yankee Stadium.” The story originally ran in the fall of ’88 in the Village Voice, and appears here with the author’s permission and his postscript, in which he reveals his subsequent clashes with his editors both at the poker table and over what exactly constitutes “journalism.”

“The Regulars”

By Ivan Solotaroff

There’s an evil-looking man with a pencil mustache in the last row of Yankee Stadium’s right field bleachers, leaning back against a 50-foot-high CITIBANK IS YOUR BANK sign. Immaculate in his tan fedora, sky-blue leisure suit, glowing white T-shirt, and white patent-leather loafers, he snorts the end of a joint through a gold roach-clip as the Toronto Blue Jays take the field for the bottom of the second inning, then begins to twist his arms and hands and fingers in suave convulsions, his mouth stretching into unnatural shapes as he trains his magnetizing gaze on Jays right fielder Jesse Barfield, pacing the well-lit grass of right field 90 feet below. I’ve been watching this man for months now, casting his limp-wristed spell on every American League right fielder not born in the Dominican Republic, and I have learned to fear his power. Midway through this late-August Yankee homestand, I feel a tingle in the back of my skull every time he starts conjuring.

Teena, a paper-thin Hispanic woman known among the Regulars as the Secretary of Da Fence, sees the effect he’s having on me, and yells up at him to Cut That Voodoo Bullshit Out. “He isn’t no Yankee fan,” she assures me, tucking a loose blond curl back into her impromptu Mohawk. “Bullshit Voodoo Man. I show you what’s a Yankee fan.”

Teena gathers the wealth of gold chains on her neck, and her yellow ashtray eyes cross as she looks down to exhibit the ornaments to me: six variations of the Yankee logo in 14 or 16 karats; a small, diamond-studded baseball and bat, accompanying the word YANKEES; and the brightest is a solid-gold 31, for Yankee all-star right fielder Dave Winfield.

“I show you the biggest Yankee fan there is,” she says, taking my hand and leading me down to Row A to meet Chico, a happy 300-pounder in a cobalt-blue Yankee jacket with a homemade 31 sewn on the back. “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog” is blasting on the P.A., and Chico’s rocking out an imaginary bass guitar, all 10 fingers moving in spidery patterns. “He’s been in the papers lots,” says Teena. “Hasn’t you, Chico?”

“Bellevue,” Chico agrees, keeping good time on the bass. “New York’s hometown paper. Intensive care. Times Square. Fifteen years.” At Teena’s prodding, he reaches in the pocket of his Yankee jacket for a half-dozen Polaroids of himself and an equally large woman having sex in a living room furnished entirely in red velvet.

“Motherfucking co’sucker, Jesse Barfield, maricón,” Chico screams suddenly. He takes his Polaroids back and pivots on his heel with surprising agility to rock the entire stadium, yelling, “Jesse Jesse fuck you messy” until the inning begins.


In 1973, Rick Goldfarb was my classmate at the Bronx High School of Science, a studious, awkward kid no one knew much about, except that he had a good head for numbers and a job selling beer at the Stadium. Over the years he’s kept a CPA practice going on Allerton Avenue in the South Bronx, from January to April 15; from April 16 through October, he sells beer in the third base box seats for the first four innings, and from the fifth on, he’s “Cousin Brewski,” the sweetest and loudest guy out here.

“How are you? How are you? How are you?” he greets me from 10 rows away. “I’ll tell you everything you wanna know about the Regulars. They’re the best fans out here. Class. They know everything you wanna know. Teena’s got it all: the batting averages, all the ERA’s, all the Won and the Lost. Bob the Captain knows every word of the ‘Gang Bang Song,’ the ‘Get the Puck Out Song,’ ‘Syphilis,’ the ‘Alibi Song,’ all the fabulous songs.  And over there’s Melle Mel. A big rap star [of Grandmaster Flash], one of the originals.

Rick’s mouth widens into a horse grin as Melle begins leading the Regulars in a rendition of “Camptown Races,” lyrics modified to honor Chili Davis’s alleged anal-passive tendencies. “Famous? Melle?” Rick asks himself rhetorically. “Oh-h, is he famous! Sees everything going on out here, too. The others tend to drift a little. Frank’s out here every day, brings candy”—

Rick excuses himself to go to the first row to join the second verse

Jesse takes it up the ass
Doo-da, doo-da
Jesse takes it up the ass
Oh, da-doo, da-day

then climbs back up the concrete steps, saying, “Where was I? Where was I? Where was I? Frank brings candy for the kids, Turkish Taffy sometimes. He’s got a heart of gold out here, do anything for anyone. If he knows you. We got business students from Clark University, summer interns from The Nation. There’s Buttonhead, sells all the different buttons—RED SOX SUCK, TIGERS SUCK, A’S SUCK, METS SUCK, STEINBRENNER SUCKS. And there’s Yankee Joints, sells what he sells. They’re here when it’s 100 degrees, when it’s 40. They brought in a huge plate of Spanish rice last week, chicken with chick peas, stuffed cabbages, all those greens with the good olive oil dripping off. Just one big heart of gold, getting old.”

I ask Rick how many years these people have been coming here, a question that brings out the accountant. “Figure, say, 100, 115 individuals total,” he calculates, surveying the 12 rows in front of us. “Then, maybe 20, say 17 years apiece, average. So you’re looking at what, maybe 1,900 years out here. But those are just numbers,” he says, waving an index finger. “You gotta figure in the human factor.”


The Yankees, 2-8 in their last 10 games, come into the fifth inning down by a familiar four-run count. Frank and his friend Ike are already ingesting their time-honored slump-remedy: Many Jumbo Beers. It only takes Don Mattingly’s lead-off single to left to make them crazed. After the obligatory four notes of the Hallelujah Chorus sound from the Stadium organ (echoed by Frank and Ike’s “O! the Mets suck!”), they get the first 12 rows up and pointing at Jesse Barfield:

U, G, L, Y
You ain’t go no alibi
You uglay
You uglay
P, A, P, A
We all know your papa’s gay
He’s homo
He’s homo
M, A, M, A,
We know how he got that way
Your mama
She uglay

The entire bleachers looking on, Melle Mel decides to create some game-changing noise. Flipping his night-game shades up, tightening the doo rag on his head, he spies a newcomer in a Hawaiian shirt. “BOOK HIM,” he commands, and the Regulars obey bynah-nah-nah-ing the “Hawaii Five-O” melody in the man’s face until, with a longing look at the blue seats of the loge level, he’s up on his bench and surfing it.

“If the Yankees are the best team in the world,” Melle yells above the roar of a 4 train passing 10 feet behind the bleachers, “say Yo-o.” Hundreds agreeing—and #31 himself stepping up to the plate, 375 feet away—Melle has a moment worthy of the Great Cause. “Let me hear it, one time, for my man, Mr. Da-a-a-a-ve Winfield.” “Dave, Dave, Dave,” a huge crowd chants as Winfield looks at a strike. They’re still chanting “Dave” as Winfield whiffs on a second pitch, looks at a third strike, then lopes indifferently back to the dugout.

“That’s the greatest number of all about this sport,” Rick explains when I mention that Winfield’s strikeout doesn’t seem to bother anyone. “You fail two out of every three times, 66 percent of your professional life, and out here you’re God’s gift.”


Statisticians of the great American game would do well to analyze Ali Ramirez, a tall, white-haired man who brings a cowbell to the games in a bowling-ball bag. A serious student of the game, Ali won’t ring his bell until he feels a Yankee hit. For the last few weeks, I’ve been getting goose bumps every time Ali stands and unsheathes his bell; with the Yankees down now by four runs and two outs, no one on in the bottom of the sixth, I suddenly understand why: I’ve been hearing this bell in the distance my entire life, behind Phil Rizzuto’s hypnotizing psalmodies on WPIX, and I’ve learned to expect a Holy Cow (Rizzuto’s unfailing ejaculation for Yankee home runs), or at least a single, every time Ali rings the bell.

As Jack Clark steps up to the plate, Ali hammers out an eight-beat salsa rhythm, which is echoed by a drumming on the free seats by the Regulars that I can feel, 10 rows up, through my tailbone. He follows with a 16-count, then ends with a steady beat that gets a deafening ” Ay-oh” chant. It’s broken by an unmistakable crack of Clark’s bat, and a flurry of kids heading to the empty right-field grandstands, where Clark’s 370-foot homer soon lands 20 rows deep.

“The Gods have spoken,” yells Melle Mel, up on his seat and salaaming. “Prai-ai-se A-A-Ali!” Almost everyone in the bleachers obeys, a moving sight—350 people bowing in a wave to this quiet man wearing a barber’s shirt, cradling his bell and drumstick, already evaluating Don Slaught’s stance at the plate.

Apparently it’s rally time, for Ali rings out another eight-count. Before he can start his 16′s, another long-ball crack gets the entire bleachers on its feet. I look up in the klieg-lit sky over right field and see a baseball coming at me, then under my seat for my first baseman’s glove to catch it, then back up in time to see the ball falling in the trough penning the bleachers apart from the rest of the stadium—50 feet from Clark’s homer, and 15 feet to the left of the man with the bell.

Ali, ignoring the pleas of the Regulars, zips up his bowling ball bag as Gary Ward strikes out to end the inning. The timeless nature of baseball wafts over me like car exhaust as it dawns on me that I haven’t had a first-basemen’s glove for 20 years. Twenty rows up, the Voodoo Man is striking an Edith Piaf pose against the Citibank sign after his exertions.


By the seventh inning, timelessness has given way to insoluble tedium, and I organize a small press conference in the top rows with some of the Regulars: Bob Greco, machinist from Bergen County, and Captain of the Bleachers; Frank Herrera, a college baseball umpire with a major stutter, who talks endlessly about whom he’s willing to beat up for the Yankees; and a strange man named Big Bird, who seems to have an obsession with Australia: Tonight, he’s telling me about the difficulties of sending videos of the 1978 World Series to Melbourne. “He was there six weeks, six years ago,” Bob explains. “Still fuckin’ talkin’ about it.”

The Yankees seem to have fallen into the lull. Though they ended the sixth down only two runs, the Angels have pounded relief pitchers John Candelaria and Steve Shields for four runs. For Bob, Frank, and Big Bird, however, watching a routine single drop in the hole between Ward and Winfield for extra bases, it’s clearly not an important failure. “If you came here every day, you’d just get used to it,” Bob says as Teena climbs the steps to tell me to tell the world that every Yankee reliever makes her puke. “And you would grow to like it out here. You would see how it’s like the family unit. You yell a bunch of shit, 50 people yell out with you. Get into a fight, you got a hundred backers. Plus, you can see everything from out here. Call balls and strikes. You can see inside the dugouts ….”

“Tell him about the time we gave you a birthday cake,” Frank interrupts. “You were all choked up and shit.”

“Time out,” Bob says. “I wanna tell him about training camp in Lauderdale. So, I’m down there with Kevin and George, couple the Regulars—.”

“Tell him about the cake, you fuckin’ dick,” says Frank.

“Time out, Frankie. We’re driving from the hotel to the ball park, half an hour, 45 minutes maybe, looking at all these maps. After four days, we realize we’re half a mile from the stadium.”

Bob sees Frank standing up with a look of terminal displeasure, and decides to tell me about the cake: “So I’m out here one night and they’re singing, ‘Happy Birthday.’ They got a cake, so I sing with ‘em. But when they get to the ‘Happy Birthday, dear…’ part, they’re like, singing my name.’”

Bob pauses, to let the mystery sink in. “It’s my 32nd birthday. The cake’s got my name on it, too. It’s probably like the biggest thrill of my life.”

The Blue Jays take the field for the bottom of the seventh, and Frank and Bob ask me if I’ve heard their “Mickey Mouse” cover:

Hey, Jesse!
M, I, C
See you real soo-oo-n
K, E, Y. Why-y-y?
‘Cause we don’t give a fuck about you

“I love that one,” says Frankie. “And, first time I heard the ‘Gang Bang,’ I was on the floor.” He stands up, glares at the air an inch above his head and five feet in front, and screams, “The Yankees suck what?” then begins punching the air. Bob shakes his head and finishes telling me about Lauderdale.

“So we get some pictures, the three of us with Dave, meet some other New Yorkers in the hotel—they weren’t there for the training, they were on some other business. The biggest thrill was with Dave. What else is new?”

“Do you guys know him?”

“Yeah, we know him. Not personally, on a social level, but he sees us on the street, he knows, ‘Yeah, the Bleachers.’ We give him a plaque last year, congratulating him for his sixth consecutive year hitting 100 RBIs. He didn’t do it, he ended up with 97, but we give him the plaque anyway.”

“I met Dave once,” says Frankie.

“Time out, Frankie. So we’re down there, waiting by the gate for Dave to come out. There’s a couple guys there, had their kids or something, and we ask, ‘Dave come out yet?’ And they’re like, ‘Don’t waste your breath, Dave don’t stop for nobody.’ So he comes out, and the three of us are like, ‘Dave, Dave, Dave.’ Big smile. He’s like, ‘What the fuck are you guys doing down here?’ signing autographs. He remembers the plaque. Suddenly”—Bob pauses to savor the irony—”the guys with the kids are like, ‘Hey, we’re with these guys.’ That was like the biggest thrill of my life.”

Frankie looks hurt. “I thought it was the cake.”

“Nah, that was the biggest thrill of my life out here,” Bob corrects him, standing up and brushing off his pants as he heads down to Row A. “Talk to the man, Frankie. He’ll make you famous.”


Against the backdrop of the “Get the Puck Out Song” and the “Gang Bang Song” (a series of knock-knock jokes ranging from “Eisenhower”/”Eisenhower Who?”/”Eisenhower late for the Gang Bang” to “Gladiator”/”… before the Gang Bang”), I listen to half an hour of Frankie’s fantasy life. It’s a familiar fantasy to anyone growing up in New York: being outnumbered and having the numbers to escalate.

“I would never suggest,” he begins, “for anyone to come out to the bleachers and to hit one of the Regulars. I would not suggest that. And I would never suggest what happened here, one time, when Yankee Joints got his bag taken by some guy. He asked for it back, and five guys stood up in his face, at him. So I walked over there, and, like, 50 guys jumped up behind me, it was like a wave. I tried to explain to these guys, I got, like, 50 guys behind me, and every last one of them’s willing to hit you. They don’t need no reason.”

I ask if there are a lot of fights out here. “This dude says, ‘Whenever there’s a fight, I never see you anywhere. Why?’ Why-y? You ain’t looking in the right place,” Frank answers. He seems convinced that it was me who asked the question. “If you ever see a fight,” he says, poking my chest hard, “look under the pile. Under the pile. That’s where you’ll find me. Under the fucking pile. But, like, if, like, this guy”—Frankie points to a fan two rows back—”like, if this guy were to hit Bob or Ike or Cousin Brewski, it would be suicide. And if I stood up in … his face”—Frank points to the same fan—”and said, ‘You gonna hit me, you gonna fucking hit me?’ I swear, 20 people will come behind me.”

Frank looks at the guy suspiciously, then tells me how five enormous security guards came to the bleachers for him one day last summer. “Now, that is the most idiotic thing in the world I have ever heard. If you got 2,000 fans and 3,000 guards, then maybe, maybe you could talk. But if you got five guards, I don’t care what size they are, I’ll throw 20 midgets on you to kick your ass. But they don’t think that way over there in Security.”

I ask Frank how he came to be an umpire.

“I was playing football and I got hurt bad. I could still move around and holler, but I couldn’t ever play again. I was going home, and the bus driver asked me did I want to umpire little-league ball with him. And I enjoyed it, a lot. See, what happened was, my first game, I threw the manager out. And I said, ‘Damn, I’m 13 and I just threw this 40-year-old man out.’ So, I grew up and went to umpiring school in San Bernardino. I do college now, and the Dominican Leagues in the winter. With a little luck, I’ll make it to the majors.”

Frank looks down at the field, where the Yankees have just gone down three straight, then over at the Regulars, who are singing “Syphilis.” “One day,” he nods his head, “I’ll be umping at the Stadium, and I would have to make a close call against this team.”

Frank continues nodding his head. “See, I know that would happen,” he adds with conviction, “And the Regulars would nail me. I know that. Fuck them. I call them like I see them. And I will be a Yankee fan till the day I die. I know that.”

A 4 train rumbles overhead, and Frankie starts thinking about something, shaking his head and moving his lips with a repeated, unspoken sentence. “Everywhere I go,” he finally says it. “Everywhere I go till the day I die.”

He stands up and looks down at the first rows. “Like, I was on the subway,” he says, “wearing my cap. And this guy’s wearing a Mets cap: ‘You should get a better cap.’ Get a better cap?! What?” Frankie takes his black Yankee cap off his head and pounds it into shape. “When you win as many World Championships as the Yankees,” he tells me. “When you win as many pennants. When you win as many division championships, as many World Series as this franchise, in its history, then you come back and see me.” Frank screws his cap back on his head, shoots me a hate-look, then heads down the steps to join the Regulars. “And I’ll meet you on this train,” he yells up at me, “3,000 years from now.”

Postscript

This piece was my way of hiding out for the summer of, I believe, 1988. Nothing good going on, a piece already published in the Village Voice sports section, so I got my second journalistic “assignment”: the months of July and August in the cauldron of the old Yankee Stadium’s right-field bleachers. I didn’t get to file receipts for most of the games, as they would’ve come to more than the commission. The Voice paid 10 cents a word until you got a contract, so I probably got $400 or so for the piece.

It didn’t matter. It was very well received at the Voice—a rare chance for that excruciatingly politically correct rag to publish sexism, racism, and homophobia to comic effect. Crucially, it got me into their monthly poker game as well, and they were terrible players. That amortized those unclaimed receipts several times over.

It wasn’t all good, however. The managing editor kept kvelling one game—it was getting embarrassing. When he said, “I’d love to read your fiction sometime,” I didn’t think twice, and said, “You just did.” The story’s set over one game—at 4,000 words or so, there wasn’t space for more, and I had two whole months to squeeze in. My reputation as a “piper” continues to this day, which is fine by me. I believe that all journalism is fiction. If it’s any good. And fuck them anyway.

But I did get read the riot act from my best friend at the time, who’s gay, as well as another act read (luckily before sending the story in), from another best friend, who objected to an original draft which incorporated Frankie’s stuttering. It read very funny, but it was cruel; I understood that fully only when I later learned that Frankie had passed away.

I tried to find a copy of the original story online just now, of course hopeless: Like Elvis Costello sang, “Yesterday’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper.” But it did lead me to Phil Bondy’s Bleacher Creatures, written after his summer spent with the Regulars, 15 years later. I was amused, would be the kind word, that he didn’t so much as reference the earlier article, as his title was lifted from the title my story ran under: That was a creation of the Voice‘s sports editor, and I didn’t much care for the inhumanity of the subjects it conveyed. If anything, I objected, they were human, all too human. When that didn’t fly, I did manage to get a bitch-slap of a title past a different Voice sports editor a decade later: on Mark Gastineau’s pugilistic career, which I entitled “Superhuman, All Too Superhuman.”

[Photo Credit: Don Rice via Lover of Beauty]

Bronx Banter Interview: John Schulian

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Today marks the publication of the Library of America’s latest sports anthology—Football: Great Writing about the National Sport. It’s edited by our old chum John Schulian.

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The book is terrific and I recently had a chance to chat with John about football writing and how he approached putting this collection together.

Dig in.

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Alex Belth: When you read boxing or baseball anthologies, there’s usually a lot of material written before WWII. I noticed less material from the early decades of the last century here. What is it about the more old-timey football writing that makes it uninteresting?

John Schulian: I know how it must look: the old-timers don’t seem to get much love even though I’m an old-timer myself. What you have to realize is that football before World War II, and even for more than a decade after it, was hardly the cultural and economic behemoth it is today. Baseball, boxing, and horse racing ruled the sports pages and the nation’s imagination. Football had to be content with harbingers of a better tomorrow—Jim Thorpe and Bronko Nagurski running wild, Slingin’ Sammy Baugh uncorking touchdown passes, George Halas and his fellow dreamers laying the foundation for the National Football League. It was swell that Fitzgerald and Irwin Shaw found inspiration in the games that gave old alums in raccoon coats a reason to howl, but the truth was still the truth: Football had some serious catching-up to do.

Beyond that, the writing it inspired was generally pretty dreary unless you have a high tolerance for adjectives, mixed metaphors, and stories dashed off by scribes who nipped from their flasks for four quarters. You’ll notice, for instance, that I made a point of not including Grantland Rice’s oft-reprinted paean to the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. To do so would have meant wading in the sludge of old Granny’s hyperbole, and I wasn’t about to risk scaring off readers that way. Instead, I went with an excerpt from his memoir about how he came to write the piece and, ever since, I’ve wondered how different it would be if Rice had been able to avail himself of today’s press-box replays and the locker-room interviews that were so scarce when he walked the earth.

Football is hard to cover under the best of circumstances, and the old-timers clearly suffered because of the primitive conditions under which they worked. I like to think that’s why I came up empty when I looked for compelling pieces by Heywood Broun and Damon Runyon. Both were memorable writers and, yet, when I read what they had to say about the sport, it seemed strained, uninformed, almost naïve—in other words, it was a lot like everything I ever wrote about hockey. I thought I would do better with Stanley Woodward, an ex-college lineman whose greatest achievements were as the no-guff, no-pandering sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune. I even knew a line from the Woodward story I hoped to use. When an inconsequential gaffe made a University of Michigan lineman the villain of a major upset, Woodward wrote: “Attributing that catastrophe to such a cause was like blaming the Johnstown flood on a leaky toilet in Altoona, Pennsylvania.” Let’s just say the line may have seemed so memorable because everything Woodward wrote before and after it was so forgettable.

Now I stand before you grateful that I was able to find what I did from football’s Pleistocene era. Grateful for W.C. Heinz’s visit with Red Grange, the first of the great broken-field runners, and for Myron Cope’s hilarious yet compelling interview with the self-named Johnny Blood, a vagabond as both a player and a coach. Grateful for Shirley Povich’s generosity when covering a football slaughter, and for the hat President Truman lost after an Army-Navy game, as if he knew Red Smith was looking for a way into a column. And if someone were to step forward now with a sheaf of the kind of pieces I couldn’t find, I’d be grateful for that, too. But it wouldn’t have changed football’s status as a stepchild in those early days, and if it pains you to read that, just hold on. Things got better in a hurry.

AB: I loved the Myron Cope piece. I know he’s best remembered as a broadcaster in Pittsburgh, but he had serious chops as a writer. He’s my favorite of the Sport magazine freelancers from the ’60s.

Myron Cope And Terrible Towel 1979 

JS: Cope was an absolute joy to read whether it was in Sport or Sports Illustrated or even True, which in the Fifties and Sixties was always showcasing sports writing heavyweights like W.C. Heinz and John Lardner and stars in the making like Jimmy Breslin, Dave Anderson, and Jerry Izenberg. Cope fit right in thanks to his sly wit and affinity for exotic characters. One month he’d be writing about Bo Belinksy, Muhammad Ali, or a self-promoting football scout named Fido Murphy, and the next month he’d be telling the sad tale of the Steelers team that sobered up for a showdown with the Giants and got hammered in a non-alcoholic way. But mention his name in Pittsburgh these days and the Cope the locals remember wasn’t just the Steelers’ funny, passionate, idiosyncratic play-by-play man, he was the inventor of the Terrible Towel, which for hardcore fans puts him in the same category as Jonas Salk.

Myself, I’m a lot more impressed by a collection of his best magazine work called Broken Cigars, and I’ve never been able to understand why someone hasn’t reprinted it. But having said that, I’m here to tell you Cope’s greatest achievement was as an oral historian. Sports Illustrated sent him out to track down the seminal figures of pro football’s early days, and he came back in 1970 with the makings for The Game That Was, which did for the sport what Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times did for baseball. The Library of America didn’t want a lot of book excerpts in Football, but I never doubted for a minute that Cope’s interview with a free spirit—wild man, actually—named John McNally would make the cut. While he was migrating from one college to another, he and a teammate wanted to earn some pocket money by playing semipro on the side. They couldn’t use their real names, of course, so they searched and searched and finally found just what they needed on a poster for a swashbuckler movie called Blood and Sand. All the man who became Johnny Blood had to do after that was wait for Cope to show up.

AB: Beyond Red Smith and Shirley Povich, I awas taken with the column on Jim Brown by Jimmy Cannon. Those are not a pair I would have put together. I knew there’d be a Jim Brown story in this collection—how could there not be?—but I wouldn’t have expected one from Cannon. I know Cannon was a great columnist in his prime but his reputation has faded through the years. Were you looking for a Cannon piece specifically?

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JS: I’ve been campaigning to put together a collection of Cannon’s greatest hits for the past few years, and though I’ve yet to find a taker, I always bring up his Jim Brown column when I’m bending someone’s ear. This is Cannon at his absolute best, spending the afternoon watching Brown trample the Giants and then taking what he saw in a direction that never would have occurred to another writer. Who else would have made the leap from a game that big to a recollection of the day he first heard Enrique Caruso, the great opera singer? Who else would have used the occasion to wax nostalgic about “the old neighborhood” and a barbershop run by a guy named—stop it, you’re killing me—Joe? But somehow Cannon makes it work with the magic he had when the stars were aligned and the wind was at his back. He was always stretching, always straining to out-write everyone, and a lot of times you could hear him grunting and groaning from the effort. This time, however, his words take flight, and the greatness on display is his as much as it is Brown’s and Caruso’s.

If you’re surprised to find Cannon writing about Brown, don’t be. The year was 1963 and Brown, to the best of my knowledge, had yet to rough up his first lady friend. Later, of course, it would become a recurring theme in his life, one I suspect Cannon, imbued with dry-drunk gallantry, would have used as a reason to tee off on him, disdain him, or both. But in or out of trouble, no one ever denied that Brown is a fascinating and complex character—perhaps the greatest running back ever, a movie star of some significance, a mentor for kids swept up in L.A. thug life. His name echoes through any number of the pieces in the book, and if I’d had more pages to work with, there would likely be one or two others devoted solely to him. God knows they’re out there, splendid work by splendid writers. But when I could only choose one, Cannon made it easy for me.

AB: What stuff did you include from the ’60s?

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JS: Myron Cope would have been an obvious choice, but he was already in the book. The same with Bill Heinz, whose Run to Daylight! was the first great look at the brilliance and indomitability of Vince Lombardi. I had already committed to Heinz on Red Grange, though, and I never regretted it because St. Vincent inspired so much compelling writing. Leonard Shecter stirred things up with a profile of Vince Lombardi for Esquire that was so mean it made Mrs. Lombardi cry; I loved it in my Young Turk days, but when I gave it a second look all these years later, it seemed gratuitously cruel and, much as I admire Shecter, riddled with buncombe. Sorry, no sale. On the other hand, there was the Jerry Kramer-Dick Schaap collaboration, Instant Replay, the chronicle of the Packers’ 1967 season that ruled the bestseller lists and begat a stampede of as-told-to books. We’re talking about work done nearly half a century ago, and it holds up because of the authors’ commitment to the truth. Nor does it hurt that Lombardi endures as a subject to this day. David Maraniss, the superb Bill Clinton biographer, seized on the old boy’s staying power and delivered a state-of-the-art study of Lombardi. If I’d failed to include something from it, I’d be guilty of dereliction of duty.

I feel the same about the excerpt from Paper Lion, George Plimpton’s chronicle of his training-camp exploits as the Lions’ last-string quarterback. The grace and self-deprecating wit in Plimpton’s prose always reminds me of Cary Grant’s acting. But even without my confession that I’m a sucker for it, any literate football fan should see the Plimpton excerpt coming. I hope I’ve thrown readers a curve—pardon my mixed sports metaphors—by mixing in two looks back at the Sixties by writers from other precincts. First is Baltimore boy Frank Deford, the star in SI’s crown for so many years, lifting a glass to the city’s beloved Johnny Unitas. Then there’s Jennifer Allen recreating a New Year’s Eve with her father, George Allen, after he’d been fired as the Los Angeles Rams’ head coach on Christmas Eve. Happy holidays, huh? It felt good to include the excerpt from Jennifer’s book Fifth Quarter for a couple of reasons. One, she’s an incisive and fearless writer. Two, I was able to make amends in some small way for the many times I described George as the NFL’s answer to Richard Nixon. Yes, he could be pretty crazy, loving ice cream because he didn’t have to waste time chewing and writing me off as a Baltimore fan on first meeting simply because I’d worked on a newspaper there. But there was never any doubting his genius for defense or his love for the beat-up old pros who populated his roster. And here’s what should have convinced me that my opinion of George needed an overhaul long ago: Those old pros loved him back.

Jimmy Breslin, the ultimate New York columnist, loved old pros, too. I get the feeling from his piece on Y.A. Tittle’s last stand that he may have loved them most when they lost. They didn’t whine or bitch, they just picked themselves up and moved on because they knew they had done everything they could. It wasn’t enough, but it was all they had, and there was something noble about taking satisfaction in that, the way Tittle does when he can’t quarterback the Giants past the Browns.

Breslin, like Bill Heinz before him, knew the losers’ locker room was fertile ground for great stories. But every time he looked around before he began covering the city at large, he found more young scribes in there with him. It was all part of the seismic change that the Sixties brought to sports writing. The best of them threw off the shackles of clichés and rah-rah coverage and started serving up humor and social commentary. If they could work in a song lyric by the Grateful Dead or something Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, so much the better. On the East Coast, there was Larry Merchant, who had made irreverence and unblinking insight his stock in trade first as sports editor of the Philadelphia Daily News and, by the end of the decade, as a columnist at the New York Post. He knew something about football, too, having been a schoolboy star in New York and a self-described “last-string halfback” on Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma powerhouses in the Fifties. What Merchant knew even more about, however, was the cultural significance of Broadway Joe Namath. I think you’ll see what I mean in the excerpt I pulled from his book … And Every Day You Take Another Bite.

At the same time, on the other side of the country, Jim Murray was playing his Los Angeles Times sports column for laughs with a mix of joy and intelligence that hadn’t been seen since Ring Lardner and his son John were running amok. Murray looked at sports in a funhouse mirror, delivering lines that are still quoted in press boxes and around breakfast tables half a century later. And oh, did he have fun when the Jets upset the Colts in the Super Bowl: “The missionaries ate the cannibals.” You know that one’s in the book.

What you may have realized by now is that none of the writers representing the Sixties were hard-nosed, watch-every-practice, grill-every-source beat reporters. The guys who fit that description best were Paul Zimmerman, who made his bones at the pre-Murdoch New York Post and later moved to Sports Illustrated, and Will McDonough, the Boston Globe enforcer who punched out a Patriots defensive back. I suppose I should mention Tex Maule, too, because it was his story in SI about Unitas leading the Colts over the Giants in overtime that bore the headline “The Greatest Game Ever Played” even though he never used those words himself. Maule was a reformed trapeze artist and former public-relations man who became a tool of the NFL in its war with the ragtag but thoroughly enjoyable American Football League. (Enjoyable, that is, to those of us enthralled with 57-56 scores and old goats like George Blanda and Tobin Rote.) But Maule’s greatest sin in the context of this book was that he was a ham-fisted writer, which disqualified him from inclusion. Alas, Zimmerman and McDonough had similar artistic deficiencies, so their prose didn’t make the cut, either, and that’s unfortunate. Without the digging they did—Zim on the intricacies of the game, McDonough on front-office shenanigans—the stylists who followed them never would have had such a well-lit path to travel.

AB: Of course, a certain amount of the material in a book like this is going to be personality-driven. Were there any specific players or coaches you wanted to feature?

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JS: It would have been a fool’s mission to try to make room for all the players who’ve been anointed as superstars and all the coaches who’ve been praised as smarter than Einstein. And big games? The nation turns its lonely eyes to them every weekend, in every NFL division and college conference. Biggest game of the season, biggest of the century, no matter how many times we’ve heard it, we still love to fall for it. Everything is outsized—the players, the coaches’ egos, the alumni pressure, the TV money—and the book could easily have wound up looking like it was on steroids. But I didn’t want to scare off people by turning it into a doorstop.

The best solution I could come up with was to select pieces that were, for lack of a better word, emblematic. You want quarterbacks, you’ve got Deford on Unitas and the pluperfect Charlie Pierce on Peyton and Archie Manning, which I like to think covers a lot of territory historically. You want linebackers, you’ve got Arthur Kretchmer on Dick Butkus, and while Kretchmer was no sports writer, I admire the way he parked himself next to Butkus and hung on for dear life. on the sideline and zeroed in on the guts of the game. You want coaching legends, you’ve got the street-smart novelist Richard Price putting his Bronx accent up against Bear Bryant’s tobacco-cured mumble and Gary Cartwright, a Texas legend, deciphering what went on under that hat Tom Landry wore. We’re talking about big names here—icons, if you believe in that sort of thing—but each piece reveals its subject as a human being. With all the blather and blare surrounding football, we need to be reminded of that occasionally.

It would seem more difficult to provide that kind of perspective in a game story—twenty-two large gentlemen in the equivalent of one freeway pile-up after another—but the beauty of the best game stories is they tap into narratives as unique as snowflakes. Of course, I can’t give you every great one ever written, but you’ll certainly get the feel of them when you read Dan Jenkins merrily tweaking Notre Dame for playing for a tie against Michigan State, and Leigh Montville hanging onto his hat after Doug Flutie’s magic act against Miami. And don’t let me forget Pat Forde weaving together the many themes of Boise State’s otherworldly Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma—the trick play, the running back’s marriage proposal, the idea that a team from a state famous for potatoes could fly so high. It was one of those stories Americans love, the underdog triumphant, but in college football’s latest realignment, the power conferences have done their utmost to make sure you’ll never see anything quite like it again.

So if you don’t mind, I’m going to revel in my own favorite upset for a moment. There’s no story about it in the book, but there isn’t a red-blooded University of Utah graduate who doesn’t get all puffed up every time he thinks of it. I say this in full confidence because I happen to be one. Anyway, there the Utes were in the Sugar Bowl, the undefeated champions of the Mountain West Conference, whatever that was worth, and it certainly didn’t seem like much to mighty Alabama on January 1, 2009. The Crimson Tide strutted into the Superdome in New Orleans as if they were about to be served a tray of red velvet cupcakes, and the Utes bitch-slapped them with 14 fast, furious points. That’s right, Nick Saban: all those blue chippers of yours got bitch-slapped. They tried mightily to come back, and, brother, every Ute fan had seen that movie before. Start like your ass is on fire, go toes up before halftime. But not these Utes. Somebody else could roll over and play dead. They were going to knock the snot out of Alabama. Final score: 31–17. I’m not counting on a repeat performance any time soon now that the Utes are in the Pac-12 and praying they can break .500 someday. But I’ve still got my memories of that sweet, sweet Sugar Bowl. Damn, Nick Saban looked good with his tail between his legs.

AB: I like how you included profiles of icons like Butkus and Bryant that were written by non-football writers. The Price story, in particular, is such an odd pairing of writer and subject and yet the reader comes away with a vivid picture of Bryant. What is it about being an outsider that can make the writing and reporting so sharp?

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JS: First, you’ve got to imagine the plight of the harried soul on the football beat whether for a newspaper or website. He or she has a million things to worry about—trades, roster moves, rumors, next week’s big game, players’ injuries, coaches’ lies, news stories, features, sidebars, blogs, tweets—and I haven’t even mentioned the editors who are constantly crying out for more, faster. My head hurts just thinking about it. I know there are some hardy souls out there who thrive on such pressure, but sooner or later it’s got to diminish either the desire or the time and freedom it takes to write something that’s both stylish and insightful. They reach a point where the job is as much about survival as ir ia anything else. Their eyes glaze over, and when that happens, they just want to see the finish line.

Not so Richard Price and Arthur Kretchmer.  Price was a young literary lion when Playboy enlisted him to profile Bryant and Kretchmer was the magazine’s editorial director who may have used his clout to get the Butkus assignment. They could stroll in, hang out, and look around until they seized on things a weary beat writer, even in the days before the, might have taken for granted. These outsiders had landed on what might as well have been the moon, and thanks to their cushy magazine deadlines, they could revel in the newness and the strangeness of it all.

After reading what the two of them wrote, I gather that Kretchmer was less an outsider primarily—most likely solely—because of the friendship he seems to have struck up with Butkus. And if they weren’t friends, Butkus certainly didn’t mind his company. It wasn’t just that they had lunch together, it was that Butkus gave him the gift of blunt honesty, and got him on the sidelines for a Bears game, too. That way, Kretchmer could calculate the seismic force of each play, hear the cracks and the thuds and the grunts and the sound of a Packers defensive end telling the Bear across from him, “I’m going to kill you.”

Unfortunately, the Bears were dreadful in their patented way—a constipated offense and a defense that took solace for defeat in the number of bruises and broken bones they meted out. In the midst of such inferiority, there was Butkus with his unsurpassed genius for violence, playing on a knee that was essentially a garbage pail, trying to defy futility. Kretchmer was moved to ask him why he kept beating his head against the wall that way. It was a question the daily press corps had undoubtedly asked, too, but sometimes it’s the outsider, the guy who’s not part of the daily inquisition, who gets the best answer. So it was when Butkus told Kretchmer, “That’s like asking a guy why he fucks.”

Price never pried as pithy an answer out of Bryant during the week he spent in Tuscaloosa. Or if he did, he didn’t understand what the Bear was saying in that unfiltered-Chesterfield voice of his. But it all played perfectly into the pose Price adopted for the story. It was 1979, after he’d scored big with The Wanderers and before he scored bigger with Clockers and Freedomland. He went to Alabama as the ultimate fish out of water, a New York wisenheimer thrust into the land of Ku Klux Klansmen and Freedom Riders. He had an earring and the longest hair this side of Duane Allman, and he was intent on milking everything he could from the reverse of stereotypical urban paranoia.

Mercifully, the piece doesn’t come off as an attack on the South unless you’re sensitive to the mileage Price gets from his failure to understand a joke Bryant tells. “I guess that ain’t funny to you,” Bear says, scowling. No way Price can make himself confess that Bryant might as well have told the joke in Urdu. Price simply tacks his discomfort onto everything else he has felt during his visit to this strange land, and, wonder of wonders, he gets away with it. True, he doesn’t break any new ground on Bryant, but that’s not the point. He’s goofing on the Bear, albeit with a healthy dose of respect. But he’s also goofing on himself, and he obviously enjoys it, even revels in it. He might not have seemed very bright to Bryant, but he was smart enough to get out of Tuscaloosa in one piece.

AB: My favorite game story in the book is Tom Archdeacon’s column on Jackie Smith. The media crush that Smith faced after that game seemed relentless according to Archdeacon’s piece and yet he was probably the only one to notice and incorporate Smith’s son into his story. There were so many columns written about that game. What made Archdeacon’s stand out?

JS: It’s a masterful example of what a true craftsman could do in the days of p.m. newspapers if he kept his eyes and ears open. While the morning-paper scribes from the East Coast were racing to make, say, a 9 p.m. deadline, Archdeacon might not have had to file for the Miami News, may it rest in peace, until 4 or 5 a.m. If he was like a lot of us who had that luxury at some point in our careers, he used every minute of it. It’s obvious he stayed in the Cowboys’ locker room to the very end—it’s how he gets rich, novelistic details like a writer stepping on Jackie Smith’s towel and another one accidentally leaving a line of ink on Smith’s shoulder blade.

The most impressive move Archdeacon made, however, was to zero in on Smith’s teenaged son, who had come to see his father’s hour of glory in the Super Bowl and instead witnessed an admirable display of courage and grace in the wake of that dropped pass. Not every athlete handles a situation like this as well as Smith did, believe me. Some get nasty, some hide in the trainer’s room, some vamoose. But the good ones will stand there and face wave after wave of reporters, just the way they would if they were the hero instead of the goat. Smith was obviously one of the good ones. But a lot of writers were going to say that the next day. Archdeacon needed something that would separate him from their number, and young Darrell Smith, son of Jackie, was it. His presence provided a new dimension to the scene in the locker room and set the stage for his father as a sympathetic figure. I don’t recall if any other writer bothered to talk to the boy, but I covered that game and I know I didn’t. I caved in to my a.m. deadline and belabored the obvious by writing about Terry Bradshaw. When I read Archdeacon’s column the next day, I gave myself a 15-yard penalty for lack of imagination.

It wasn’t guilt or shame that moved me to include Archdeacon in the book, however. I was just seeking an ounce of justice. I’m not sure how many people read what he wrote when it ran—the Miami News’ circulation was pitiful—and here was a chance to give it a second life. Archdeacon was someone whose work I had admired instantly, and I always thought he deserved a wider audience. I can certainly think of a lot of magazines over the years that could have benefited from his prose. But he stayed with the News until it sank, and then moved to the Dayton Daily News, his hometown paper, where he’s still writing better than a lot of bigger names with bigger paychecks in bigger cities. In a way, I suppose, he’s like Jackie Smith, more of a nobleman than you ever expected to find in his calling.

AB: I also loved the John Ed Bradley piece because it talks about the game from the inside. I’m crazy about John Ed’s writing, though, so I’m biased. When you were putting together this book, did you know that you’d include one of his stories?

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JS: Not only did I know John Ed would have a piece in the book, I knew which piece it would be. He’s written a multitude of keepers in his career, but he soared highest when he dug into his self-imposed exile from the LSU football program he had graced as a player and that haunted him for years afterward. Once his soulful, painful reminiscence ran in Sports Illustrated, it was obvious that John Ed had much more to say, and he said it in his memoir It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium. It’s labeled as a book about football, naturally, but it’s really about a young man’s struggle to come to grips with who he is. It’s about the human condition, which is what the best sports writing is always about.

The fact of the matter is, I don’t think of John Ed as a sportswriter, and I haven’t since the first time I read him in, I’m guessing, the early ’80s. It was a piece he wrote when he was at the Washington Post, and it began with him and LSU’s starting quarterback sitting on a hill on campus, drinking a few beers and wondering what the future held. The Post’s sports staff was brimming with talent then, the way it usually is, so finding terrific stories and columns was hardly a surprise, but this was so far beyond the norm that I was gobsmacked. Here was a guy who should have been taking baby steps at a powerhouse newspaper and he was producing work that fairly shouted he had books in him, serious books. That hardly qualifies me as a literary talent scout. There were lots of other people saying the same thing. But I’m still proud to have been there at the beginning.

AB: Did you make a conscious effort to include football stories from all levels of competition—high school, college, the pros—or did you just select what you thought was the best writing?

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JS: A book like this is first of all about the writing, but it’s also about the voices of both writer and subject, and the players and coaches who are emblematic of something larger, an era, perhaps, or a signature style of play. Whether the writing came from newspapers, magazines, or books didn’t really concern me. Naturally, magazine pieces, crafted in relative leisure, are going to be more polished than newspaper pieces, which are often written in a race against deadline that leaves no time smooth out their rough edges. But sometimes those ragged edges give the newspaper pieces the immediacy and passion that makes them memorable, even collectible.

I knew from the outset that the pros and the colleges were going to dominate the book. After all, what’s football without domination even when we’re just talking about its literary side? But I wanted high school football in the mix, too, because it’s so deeply ingrained in popular culture. (It’s also deeply ingrained in me—I read everything I can find about my old school’s team.) The obvious book to turn to was Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, which is nothing less than a masterpiece. It not only reminds readers of the joy and pain of high school football—and of adolescence—it explores the otherworldly nuttiness that envelops the sport in Texas. So, mission accomplished, right?

Not so fast, buckaroo. The next thing I knew, I found “Friday Night Tykes,” a smart, insightful look at preteen tackle football in the age of concussions. Naturally, it was set in Texas, too. Bryan Curtis wrote it for Texas Monthly, which by now should have retired the trophy for the country’s best regional magazine, and he did it without getting up on a soap box or passing judgment or any of the other traps a lesser talent might have walked into. He just laid his story out there and let the reader make up his own mind. By the time I finished reading it, all I could do was borrow a figure of speech from the kids Curtis had written about: he was so beast.

AB: Football isn’t really considered a writer’s sport, at least not in the way baseball or boxing is. You edited a collection of great boxing writing for the Library of America. Did you worry that you wouldn’t enough great material to chose from?

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JS: I was too dumb to be scared that I might not find enough first-rate material to fill a book. I’ve been reading great football writing since I decided I wanted to make a living playing with words in press boxes, and I knew it was out there. But I wouldn’t be foolish enough to tell you that football is a writer’s sport the way baseball used to be and boxing will be until they throw the last shovel of dirt on its coffin. There’s always been secrecy and paranoia in football, but it’s gotten worse over time. The evidence is right there in Roy Blount Jr.’s elegy to the freedom he had when he wrote . . . About Three Bricks Shy of a Load. Everywhere Blount goes on a visit to the Steelers, the team whose illustrious predecessors were at the heart of his book, he’s stymied by rules and badgered by nattering PR honks who would have been used for crow bait back in the day. And that’s no way to find out anything about anybody.

Great players can drift through their careers today as relative strangers to the people who cheer for them, worship them, maybe even want to be them. The coaches have always been on the secretive side—not enough prunes in their diet, I think—but writers could work around that. They learned to roll with coaches’ bland pronouncements and shameless prevarication because there were always players and assistant coaches who would tell them the truth or at least nudge them toward it. But for me, the real satisfaction in writing about football didn’t come from dissecting injury reports, and I sure as hell never wanted to loot a head coach’s office in search of a game plan. I probably wouldn’t have understood it anyway.

My aim was to find out what made the players tick. If I sat down with them—the good ones anyway, the ones who responded to thoughtful questions—I knew the odds of succeeding were in my favor. A lot of the guys I interviewed were incredibly bright and articulate, or they were blessed with wit and the kind of go-to-hell attitude that made them savor the massive collisions that happen on every play. If a writer can get 20 minutes with someone who fits either of those descriptions, he has a fighting chance to turn out something worth reading, at least for purposes of a newspaper piece or its Internet equivalent. For something longer, of course, a writer needs even more access. How much? Well, read Al Silverman on Gale Sayers coming back from a brutal knee injury or Michael Lewis on the high-wire lives of placekickers. Those weren’t done in a day, my friend.

The problem now as I see it—and I admit that I’m looking at it from a great distance—is that writers don’t have the kind of access my generation did. It’s that way in big league baseball, too, but football is the mother of managed media access. You’ve got staged press conferences, and only the head coach and a limited number of players are trotted out for them. Worse yet, everybody seems to be sticking to a script. Working the locker room seems to be a lost art, if indeed writers are even allowed inside. The best, or at least the most colorful, way to fight that is to do what T.J. Simers, the erstwhile L.A. Times columnist, used to do, and walk in anyway. He’d tell anyone who tried to stop him that he had a job to do, and he wasn’t about to be stopped. I confess I was never a fan of T.J.’s work once he left the football beat, but his balls belong in the hall of fame.

Much as I admire writers who aren’t afraid to tilt with the NFL’s windmills, I’m just as impressed by those who refuse to be fazed by the climate of secrecy. They’re scattered around the country, looking at football from fresh angles, turning out pieces so smart and well-reported and beautifully written that geezers like me are forced to admit that sports writing didn’t begin and end with us. Bryan Curtis, whom I mentioned earlier, is right there with the best of them. Wright Thompson, whose ode to Southern football is one of the book’s highlights, looks like he can do anything he sets his mind to as long as he isn’t writing about Elaine’s, the old New York literary saloon. (Save your tears, buddy. It was a dump whose time had long passed before you walked through the door.) Some day there will be another book like mine, and it will be brimming with memorable pieces by Thompson and Curtis as well as the young Turks I couldn’t squeeze into my collection. The bylines I’ve embraced will fall by the wayside, and time will march on. That’s the way it usually works, isn’t it?

AB: Speaking of the NFL, you covered the league when you were a columnist in the late Seventies and early Eighties. What was it like writing about pro football compared with the other sports?

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JS: I was never a beat reporter, though that’s what the Washington Post hired me to be in 1975. I was supposed to back up the intrepid Leonard Shapiro, who I’m sure had years taken off his life by his constant battle to get to the truth about the Redskins. But I soon proved myself to be ill equipped for the job. Short attention span, easily bored, something like that. So I wound up doing mostly features, and most of the contact I had with the Redskins was when I wrote sidebars after big games, and of course every game they played was a big one in that town. Even their damn practices were big.

My first day at the Post—Labor Day, or close to it—the boss tells me I can meet the staff and find out where the men’s room is later. He needs me to cover the Redskins’ practice. I haul ass to Redskin Park, out by Dulles Airport, and start poking around for something to write about a team I may know less about than anyone in the District of Columbia and its surrounding suburbs. I look at the bright side, though. At least I’ll meet George Allen, the ’Skins’ coach. He’s been called the Richard Nixon of the NFL, and since the real Nixon is long gone—he lost one too many in ’73, I’m told—I might as well put myself on Allen’s radar.

I seize a moment after his press conference and introduce myself. He squints at me curiously, a John Wayne kind of thing.

“Where are you from?” he asks.

“Baltimore.”

I’m about to tell him I worked on a paper there for the past five years, but he cuts me short.

“A Colts fan, huh?” he says, turning on his heel and walking away.

From that day forward, I’m convinced he thought of me as a spy, if indeed he thought of me at all.

It was no easy thing being around the Redskins, even in a limited capacity, and I’m sure it skewed my view of the NFL. Not that I didn’t encounter good men running other teams—Jim Finks and Ernie Accorsi were class acts—but the league wanted to control everything, including the media. When I became a columnist in Chicago, I went out of my way to make sure the league knew there would be no controlling me. If George Halas deserved to be smacked around—and he did, that churlish old tightwad—I was pleased to do the smacking. Was I always fair to him? No. But I was fair to his players and his coaches, and they mattered more to me than Halas did, even when I was roughing them up in print. Everybody else got it with both barrels.

That must have stunned whoever was keeping track of the press at NFL headquarters. The league was clearly on the rise, and first-rate writers—men and women I respected as professionals and valued as friends—were writing for its sanctioned Game Day program or working on telecasts that were filling the NFL’s coffers. The logical thing would have been for me to jump on board, but I’ve rarely been called logical. So a rosy-cheeked NFL factotum pulled me aside in the press box one Sunday afternoon and told me very solemnly, “You know, you’re not a friend of the league.” There was no fooling him.

AB: Concussions have become a critical part of the discussion when it comes to pro sports, and in recent years there have been several good profiles on the subject. Was it difficult to select just one?

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JS: Granted, there’s only one piece born solely of the concussion epidemic that the NFL could no longer ignore, but pain—the physical kind, the kind that hits you like lightning—is a constant presence in story after story. The one that comes closest to predicting how concussions would become an issue is Mark Kram’s relentless “No Pain, No Gain.” I remember reading it when it first appeared in Esquire in 1992 and flinching at Ronnie Lott’s description of tackling someone so hard that snot sprayed out of his own nose. And then there were the after effects—the ringing ears, the brain that went blank, the breath he fought to take. We call it entertainment.

NFL players are our gladiators, and though we gasp at the collisions, cheer them, and cry out for more, I don’t think many of us realized what we were really watching until the New York Times and SI and all the rest of them started hammering away at the issue. The players accepted the likelihood that they would pay physically for offering up their bodies this way, but even they didn’t seem to grasp the extent of the wreckage inside their heads until it became an issue. Once upon a time, they could joke about the wear and tear the way Dan Hampton, a hall of fame defensive end for the Bears, did when he heard that a teammate was being forced to retire because of a horrific spinal injury. “That’s how I want to go out,” Hampton told me. “With a real showstopper.”

Then the showstopper became the brain damage that was ignored all those times some wobbly behemoth was told to shake it off and get back out there and kick ass. It was the football way. You had to be tougher than the other guy. You had to want it more, “it” being the victory that the team could cash in on, maybe even point to as a reason for raising ticket prices, while the poor son of a bitch with the addled brain just hoped he could hang on for another year or two. You know, so he could set something aside for a retirement that would make it all worthwhile.

Funny how it so rarely works out that way for old pro footballers. They figured they might not be able to play tennis or even walk up the stairs when they were 50; they didn’t think their heads would be so screwed up they’d want to kill themselves. But that’s life and death in the National Concussion League, and I suppose I could have included a half-dozen stories on it. I would have been wrong if I had, though, just as I would have been wrong if I hadn’t included any. So I went with the one that spoke loudest to me, Paul Solotaroff’s searing look at Dave Duerson’s suicide. I remembered Duerson when he was fresh out of Notre Dame and making his presence known in the Bears’ secondary, but I didn’t realize he had been so successful in business. He was one of the smart ones, a mover and shaker who was proud of his brain even when it was damaged and driving him out of his mind. That’s why he didn’t blow his head off when he pulled the trigger. He shot himself in the heart instead, so his brain would be intact for doctors to examine. I doubt the NFL will ever salute him as a hero, but that’s what he is.

 

AB: What I noticed about this collection is that so many of the pieces reveal a nice pairing of subject and writer. We talked about the outsiders like Price, and to my mind one of the most true and beautiful stories in this collection comes from another outsider, Jeanne Marie Laskas on the Ben-Gals cheerleaders. It is written with such empathy and humor and understanding. Even though it’s tangentially about football, it is about football culture. How did you first come to read the story?

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JS: I first heard about Jeanne Marie Laskas’ story from my old pal Bill Nack. It was the year he was guest editor of Best American Sports Writing, and he raved about it. No one I know has better taste or higher standards than Bill, so I tracked the piece down in GQ, read it, and immediately started adding my praise to his whenever I bumped into someone I thought might like it. Was it a slam dunk for my book? What do you think?

The thing about Jeanne Marie is that she isn’t a sportswriter or, from what I gather, even a sports fan. She’s a reformed advice columnist and practicing academic who has the gift of being able to tap into whatever world her freelance magazine assignments happen to take her to. She has written about coal miners and migrant workers and hit men, so the NFL wasn’t going to be a problem. She left the winners and losers, stats, and college draft to the true believers whose lives revolve around them, and then she focused on the league’s concussion-damaged warriors for a series of pieces for GQ. Just when it looked like she was going to deliver yet another withering dispatch, she changed pace and wrote about Cincinnati’s Ben-Gals in a way that humanized them, understood them, and actually respected them.

There isn’t a red-blooded male writer who could have come close to accomplishing what Jeanne Marie did. Allow me use myself as Exhibit A for the prosecution. When Debbie Does Dallas – a classic cheerleader move, I’m sure you’ll agree – opened in Chicago, I felt it was my duty to review it. It probably broke my colleague Roger Ebert’s heart to give up the assignment, but he recognized the connection between Debbie and the sports page and graciously stepped aside. I don’t recall how high I stacked the praise in my review, but it was enough to get DePaul University’s basketball team, famed famed for its appreciation of high-class cinema, out to see the movie en masse. The next time I stopped by DePaul, the kids delivered rave reviews and couldn’t thank me enough for broadening their cultural horizons.

The last thing the Ben-Gals needed was to have a dirty old man like me snooping around in their lives. What they needed—what they deserved—was Jeanne Marie serving as a big sister and a sympathetic ear as they unburdened themselves of problems far more serious that lost hair gel. The stories they told her will touch even the sleaziest horndog’s heart and leave you rooting for them to catch the breaks they need and bask in the glow of the spotlight that tells them they have found safe harbor. If there’s a piece in the book I love more than this one, I’ve yet to find it.

AB: These days sports writing is more about data and analysis than prose. Is there’s still good writing about football to be found?

JS: The key to great football writing—to great writing of any kind, really—is people. Say all you want about the Packer Sweep and the Bears’ 46 defense and whatever the Harbaugh brothers are up to, it still wouldn’t register with us if human beings weren’t bringing them to life. And these aren’t just any human beings, either. They’re at the peak of their physical powers but even the best of them had failings and frailties they have to get past. Some respond to a pat on the back, others to the lash. That’s where the drama that makes for great writing is found. There’s no drama in computer printouts unless your computer freezes or your printer craps out. The drama is out there on the field when an aging quarterback remembers his greatness long enough to drive his team 97 yards with a minute to go, or some rookie kamikaze on the kickoff team, s guy you’ve never heard of before, gets stretchered off to what may be a future as a paraplegic.

What makes the writer’s task more difficult than ever is that TV has seized on the human dimension, too. Its technical brilliance was never in question. All the cameras, all the angles—I don’t know why anyone wants to watch a game in person when they can see it so much better at home. Actually, I do. They go for the tailgating and the camaraderie, the cheerleaders and the chance to be on camera with their shirts off when the thermometer nosedives below freezing. Most of all, they go for the tribal passion that sent football rushing into America’s bloodstream in the first place.

When the sport’s popularity soared, TV coverage got smarter, and it keeps doing so, especially on cable, where the cameras take fans places they thought they’d never see. The leader in all this, of course, is NFL Films, which has always been so inventive and imaginative. In my case, I was hooked for life the first time I saw Gale Sayers’ velvet runs set to jazz. Nothing about this violent game has ever been more artistic, more perfect. Every time it crosses my mind, I think of Ed and Steve Sabol, the father-son team that created NFL Films and nurtured it to brilliance. Someone should put up statues of them even if they never took my suggestion to hire Tina Turner as their public voice when John Facenda died.

On top of TV’s brilliance, there are a shrinking number of outlets for writers who aspire to use football as a means of examining the human condition. The report I just read in the New York Times about the shadow of doom hanging over newspapers and magazines sent me into a tailspin. I’ve always assumed that the Internet would provide a safe harbor for writers—you know, places like Deadspin and Grantland and SB Nation—all of which champion narrative one way or another. But this thing about online analysis getting in the way of literacy baffles me. Analysis is easy. It’s knowing what you’re talking about that’s hard.

Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It wouldn’t be the first time. But I’m sure of this much: Writers will keep writing about football. They’re stubborn that way. It’s why they sit in lonely rooms or crowded coffee shops every day and hammer away at their computers, trying to capture in words what they’ve seen and whom they’ve talked to and what they’re feeling. They’re doing what the writers in the book I’ve put together did going back nearly a century. I like to think that a century from now, there will still be writers writing about whatever football has become and how it fits into the society that has emerged by then. Maybe someone will even stumble across a copy of this book of mine. I hope they think kindly of it, but if they give it the same short shrift I gave the old-timers, I’ll understand. What goes around comes around, right?

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[Photo Credit: Bronko (Pro football Hall of Fame0; Cope (AP); Jim Brown (Inside Sports); Plimpton, Butkus (SI); Richard Price (Sara Krulwich/N.Y. Times); Wright Thompson (Neiman Storyboard); George Allen (SI); Dave Duerson (Jonathan Daniel/Getty); Jeanne Marie Laskas (via her website); NFL Films]

Once More Around the Park

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Head on over to the Stacks and check out my tribute to Roger Angell.

[Photo Credit: John Weiss]

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox

Dig this nice appreciation of Mark Buehrle by Rany Jazayerli over at Grantland:

Everyone makes mistakes. One of mine is that it took me a long time to appreciate Buehrle, and not just because every time he pitched for the White Sox, I had to listen to Hawk Harrelson sing his praises. I mean, Buehrle was drafted in the 38th round out of some college no one had heard of,2 he almost never hit 90 on the radar gun, and he didn’t strike anyone out. Sure, he reached the major leagues just 14 months after he signed as a draft-and-follow in 1999, but he was never a top prospect. He wasn’t much of a prospect, period. During his first full season in the majors, I fixated on his mere 126 strikeouts in 221 innings far more than on his 16-8 record, 3.29 ERA, or AL-leading 1.066 WHIP. He was a junk-tossing left-hander, and those guys always get figured out eventually.

Only, Buehrle hasn’t gotten figured out, and he’s currently helping fuel the Toronto Blue Jays’ playoff hopes. Despite pitching in arguably the AL’s best home run park for hitters for most of his career, he’s produced only one bad season: 2006, the sole year when his ERA+ dropped below 100 and, conveniently if less meaningfully, the only year when he finished with a losing record. He’s been consistently above average without ever being elite. He’s earned a single Cy Young vote just once, in 2005, and the category in which he’s most often led the league is hits allowed, four times.

He’s led the league in hits allowed four times because he throws a lot of innings, and because he gives up a lot of contact. And he gives up a lot of contact because the one thing he does not do is miss bats. After getting called up midseason in 2000, Buehrle struck out 37 batters in 51.1 innings, a ratio a tick higher than the league average at the time. He’s posted a below-average strikeout rate every season since, and has struck out 150 batters just once in his career.

[Photo Credit: Getty Images]

What’s In a Name?

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Slide on over to SB Nation Longform and check out Joe DePaolo’s profile of Mariano Rivera III:

The father is here to cheer on his 20-year-old son — a redshirt sophomore for the Gaels. Listed on the Iona roster as Mariano Rivera, the son’s legal name is actually Mariano Rivera III (although most everybody, including dad, refers to him as “Jr.”). Beyond the name and the fact that they both pitch, there are other similarities between the two. There are also many differences, one of which is that the son is a starter — at least while he is in college. “He’s too good to be a reliever at this level,” says Iona head coach Pat Carey.

That’s an assessment the scouts seem to agree with. After Rivera records the third out, the men put down their radar guns and dutifully record the pitch in their notebooks. They offer no expression, but can’t help but to have been impressed by what they’ve seen so far. This is a good lineup that Rivera has set aside in the first, all via strikeout. Seton Hall’s high-powered offense entered the contest averaging 7.8 runs per game. That offense has helped propel them to a 16-4 record and the No. 19 spot in ESPN’s unofficial power rankings going into today’s game. Iona, which plays in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, seldom plays a team of this caliber. It is a rare chance for the scouts to see what Rivera can do against a lineup with some punch.

As he makes his way back to the dugout, he avoids eye contact with the scouts, but he is fully aware of their presence.

“Twenty something scouts,” he says. “Most scouts ever in my life. Obviously, it’s in the back of my mind.”

Rivera takes a seat and grabs as much solitude as he can in the cramped Iona dugout. This is hardly out of character for him. Rivera is well liked among this group, and treated like just one of the guys. He is close friends with some teammates, but he tends to set himself apart, and sits alone between innings.

[Photo Credit: Holly Tonini]

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