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Category: Banter Gold Standard

BGS: An Advanced Game of Tag

And so, here is the fourth of Pete Dexter’s columns on the Cobb-Holmes fight. It appears here with the author’s permission.

(Click here for Part One, Two and Three.)

“An Advanced Game of Tag”

By Pete Dexter

Monday, November 29, 1982

HOUSTON – The tap on the door came at 6 o’clock in the morning. I knew it was 6 o’clock because there was a clock on the dresser, next to a copy of the Bible, and I’d been lying in bed since 2 o’clock looking at it.

The phone had rung all night, friends from Philly and Montana and Tennessee telling me that Howard Cosell had painted Randall Cobb as some kind of a freak of nature on national television.

I didn’t know what to say, except it would catch up with Howard later. I did mention that it was a measure of Howard’s depth that he has no trouble enunciating the bravery of television actors who compete, despite pulled muscles, in a tug of war in ” Battle of the Network Stars,” and couldn’t see any of that in staying in the ring with Larry Holmes for 15 rounds.

Yes, Randall took a pounding.

No, he didn’t quit. The only other man Holmes has failed to knock out since he became champion was Trevor Berbick, but – as Holmes would tell me later in the day – Berbick wasn’t fighting, he was just trying to survive. “Fifteen rounds, after all the shots,” Holmes would say, sounding like he was remembering it from a long time ago, “Cobb was still tryin’ to win the fight. He fought me harder than anybody. ”

I got up off the bed and opened the door. “I knew an ambitious young businessman like yourself would be an early riser,” he said, coming in. “All of us are early risers.” One of his eyes was swollen half shut, there were six small stitches in the lid of the other one. He sat down on the bed and looked out the window at the Astrodome. It was still raining in Houston, as far as I knew it always had been.

“Are you hurt?” I said. I’d walked with him back to the dressing room after the fight, but I left when he and his trainer George Benton started talking about the next one. I think a lot of George Benton, but I didn’t want to hear about any more fighting then.

“It looks a lot worse than it is,” he said. “I don’t know why, usually it’s worse than it looks. No, I’m fine, except my ears. “Randall always gets an ear infection after a fight. He hit himself on the side of his head, like a kid who has been in a swimming pool.

I said, “If something comes dripping out of there I’m going to lock myself in the bathroom.”

He smiled and looked at the television. I’d left it on, trying to sleep. It was a Kung Fu rerun, David Carradine remembering the advice of his old dime- eyed teacher on how to disarm a troop of drunk and insensitive American cavalry troops. “You must listen to the color of the sky,” he said,” and see the sound of the hummingbird’s wing. ”

“You think I need a blind trainer?” he said.

“He did have a right hand,” I said, meaning Holmes.

“I didn’t think it was that fast,” he said. He looked out the window again. “I didn’t think he was that good. It was like an advanced game of tag in there. “And then a few minutes later, “Larry is a bad bitch in a game of tag.”

There was a tiny, unstitched cut about an inch under his left eye, where so many of the right hands had landed, and as he spoke it leaked watery blood down his cheek. The cut must have gone all the way into a tear duct, and his face, on that side, was streaked with two long, bloody tears.

“Did I tell you about Hagerman, New Mexico?” he said. “Me and my brother Marty dug ditches there for the high school gymnasium one summer. The dirt was so hard you couldn’t dig it without a pick, the hottest dirt in the world. You couldn’t walk on it with bare feet. I know, I tried and Marty had to come save me, pick me up.

“And every morning three members of the city council were out there, looking down into the ditch where me and Marty were digging. It would be 102 degrees by 8 o’clock, going to 114. And the first one would always say, ‘Hot enough for you?’ and the second one would say, ‘Whatchu doin’? ‘

“And me and Marty were so competitive, we’d stand out there all day, tryin’ to see who could shovel more dirt, watchin’ each other so you could say, ‘Ha! I shoveled four of these while you only shoveled three. ‘And the water had the worst taste of anyplace I ever been. It was something in the ground, gave everybody in town gas. You can imagine what the town smelled like.

“And when me and Marty complained about the water, they always said, ‘You keep diggin’, and it’ll taste good.'” He dabbed at the blood on his face. ” The city council’s probably still there,” he said. “Gettin’ together right now over at the gym, and one of them says, ‘Hot enough for you?’ and the other one says, ‘Whatchu doin’?’ And they all stand around, passing the worst gas in North America, wondering how come the town doesn’t grow. ”

He looked back out the window again. I got some coffee and Cokes from room service, and we sat like that in the room until noon, talking about Larry Holmes’ right hand and Hagerson, New Mexico, and what could have been underneath it to make the dirt so hot and the water so bad.

At noon I had to leave to get a plane back to Philly. He said he was thinking of taking a look at Australia.

“Are you hurt?” I said.

He shook his head no. “It was just an advanced game of tag,” he said, “and Larry won.” A fresh bloody tear came out of the cut underneath his eye and worked its way down his face.

He said, “Damn, I wish he’d wanted to fight.”

BGS: Randall’s Serious

Here is third of four Dexter columns on the Cobb-Holmes fight (you can find the first two: here and here). This story is reprinted with the author’s permission.

“Randall’s Serious”

By Pete Dexter

Friday, November 26, 1982

HOUSTON – Howard Cosell came through the hotel lobby yesterday morning, complaining about being away from his family at Thanksgiving. Randall Cobb’s fight with Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship of the world was clearly an inconvenience.

The news of Howard’s inconvenience was relayed to Randall through one of the national reporters also here to cover the fight. “Howard’s upset to be away from his family,” one of them said.

Randall looked up from under the hood of his boxing robe and nodded. “I know,” he said,” I got a thank-you note from his wife this morning. ”

That night, one of those reporters came to me in the hotel bar and asked when Randall was going to get serious. “He’s funny,” the reporter said,” everybody loves him, but when does he get ready? That’s Larry Holmes he’s got to fight, and Larry’s serious…”

Randall is serious.

He is as solid as I’ve ever seen him before a fight. There are no questions left in him, about himself or Holmes, and a kind of peace has set in that lets him smile at the distractions.

And the distractions aren’t just the prospects of fighting Larry Holmes. As Randall has become more valuable, more and more people have become interested in guiding his career.

As far as I know, there are two basic factions trying to eliminate each other from his affections, and factions within the factions trying to eliminate each other too. There are rumors of bugged rooms and spies and thieves.

The thieves, of course, are not rumors, they are facts.

There is serious trouble with the contract, which promoter Don King has amended because Randall showed up in Houston a week late – not for the fight, for publicity. King, of course, has been concerned enough about publicity to spend, oh, $20 on promotion, and allow the month of November to start without having set a final date for the fight.

His amendment is going to cost Randall several hundred thousand dollars.

Then there are reporters and television interviews and hundreds of people who want to touch Randall, or tell him something, or take pictures of their 3- year-old sons sitting on his lap. Everybody wants something.

And Randall sits alone and holds babies and signs autographs – and no matter how many times the people around him say, “We’re ready,” or ” We’re going to kill Holmes,” Randall is still going to step into the ring by himself – and he handles it.

Yes, he is serious.

And watching it happen, it occurs to me that I want something, too. I keep going back to the mornings at Mickey Rosati’s gym. Two or three mornings a week, Randall and I and Arthur Bourgeau used to meet there, and Randall would work three or four rounds with Arthur and then three or four rounds with me.

Work may be a little strong. He’d play with both of us, keeping enough pressure on to make it serious. In the end, I’d be too tired to take my own gloves off.

He’d wait until I felt better, and then we’d go over to the little coffee shop at 18th and McKean and read the newspapers or talk with Mickey, and for an hour or two nobody wanted anything from us. For an hour or two, it was peaceful.

And after that, everything else seemed easier. It was like a fresh start.

And sitting here on a rainy Thanksgiving Day in a hotel across the street from the Astrodome, I could use a fresh start. It’s all slow- motion now.

The old men and the sparring partners are always in the lobby, waiting forever. The line of people following Randall into the weigh-in seems longer than it was when he came in for interviews yesterday afternoon, more reporters come in by the hour. And across the street, the Astrodome is as gray as the sky, and it seems to hover there, always on the edge of your vision, like the fight itself.

And I wish that somehow we could go to Mickey Rosati’s gym tomorrow morning, and afterwards to the coffee shop, and sit there for an hour or two reading the papers, and have nobody wanting anything from any of us again.

And maybe then I could tell him what I have on my mind, that it doesn’t matter what happens against Larry Holmes, that the people who care for him don’t depend on him or what he does for who they are.

He already knows that, of course, but I wish I could say it anyway – not blurt it out, but just sit around until it came out – and let him know once, before it all changes, how happy it made me, the way it was.

[Photo Credit: Marco Rubio Jr.]

BGS: Gifts Aren’t Everything

Here’s the second of four columns by Pete Dexter on Randall Cobb’s championship fight against Larry Holmes. (The first one is here.) Reprinted with the author’s permission…

Dig in.

“Gifts Aren’t Everything”

By Pete Dexter

Wednesday, November 24, 1982

HOUSTON – On the last day of work before he meets Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship of the world, Randall Cobb sparred three rounds with a light heavyweight named Charlie Singleton and then spent 10 or 15 minutes jumping rope.

I can’t tell you exactly how long because Randall jumping rope is something I can’t make myself watch. I don’t know why, but rope doesn’t fit under his feet.

As Charlie Singleton says, “Maybe Tex don’t have all the natural gifts. He didn’t get no fast left hand like Larry, he didn’t get no bouncy legs. ”

But as Charlie Singleton also says, “Maybe he got some gifts that was more subtle, and maybe he got some gifts that he give himself.”

For natural gifts, all you have to do is look at the undercard for Friday’s fight. Greg Page versus James “Quick” Tillis. Leg speed, hand speed, reflexes. You can’t help thinking of the destruction Randall could do with that stuff. Tillis, as a matter of fact, not only jumps rope, he does rope tricks. In fact right after the workout, he lassoed Randall’s trainer and then Inquirer sports writer Thom Greer.

Quick Tillis always carries a pink lasso.

But impressive as that is, Quick Tillis gave away his shot against WBA heavyweight champion Mike Weaver last year when he got in the ring and refused to get close enough to Weaver to throw punches.

And Page took himself out of consideration for a championship fight about the same time, saying he wasn’t ready, and then proved it by losing to a Canadian named Trevor Berbick on the undercard of the Holmes/Gerry Cooney fight earlier this year.

Berbick doesn’t have even as many natural gifts as Randall.

So in boxing, like anyplace else, gifts aren’t everything, and the kind you give yourself are the ones that matter most, at least at this level.
Which is not to say Randall Cobb doesn’t have physical tools. He does, but – as Charlie Singleton puts it – they’re subtle. He is stronger than any heavyweight in the top 10, and he may have the best chin in the history of boxing. And while he doen’t have a single big punch, he is what is called heavy handed.

“Sometime you box with him a round or two, the punches don’t stun you,” Charlie said,” they just feel heavy. I mean like somebody put a weight on you every time they land. It don’t matter if it’s on the arm or the shoulder, it still has that weight.

“And you don’t think he’s hurt you, and then after ’bout four rounds, suddenly you can’t move no more. He throws that nice relaxed way, it don’t look like nothin’, and then suddenly it’s broke you up inside. ”

The reason Randall is fighting Larry Holmes, though, isn’t his chin and it isn’t his strength. He’s gotten where he is because he tries. “He got that heart,” Charlie said.

Holmes has some of that too. And one of the best jabs in history, and a good right hand. He doesn’t have anything that can take Randall out, though, and Randall won’t be waiting for him to set up and throw his punches. And Holmes has always needed time to set up.

And in the end that’s what it will come down to. Time and heart. And those aren’t things that you’re given, they are things that you make for yourself.

Holmes doesn’t believe Randall can throw 100 punches a round for more than four rounds.

Randall does believe it. And that is something he has given himself too. He believes he will win this fight, and he believes in things harder than other people do. I have known him a long time, and that’s the way he is.

He believes it now, and he will believe it going into the 10th round, or the 12th, or however long the fight goes. By that time Larry Holmes will have hit him with everything he can hit him with, he will have tried every trick he knows, and most of them will have worked.

And someplace in the fight – maybe deep into the fight – Holmes will begin to feel the weight of that belief, and finally, as Mr. Singleton says, he will realize he’s broke up inside.

And someplace in the fight, Larry Holmes will come to believe it too.

BGS: Cobb Refuses to be the Retiring Kind

We’ve got a special week of Dexter for you–four columns he wrote about his friend Randall “Tex” Cobb when Cobb fought against Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship. Each day for the rest of the week we’ll feature a column and next Monday there’ll be a long Q&A with Pete to celebrate the paperback edition of his non-fiction collection, Paper Trails.

Originally published in The Philadelphia Daily News this piece appears here with the author’s permission.

Enjoy.

“Cobb Refuses to be the Retiring Kind”

By Pete Dexter

Tuesday, November 23, 1982

 

The first time I ever brought up the subject of retirement, Randall Cobb had just stopped Earnie Shavers in the eighth round of a fight that ruined appetites all over Detroit. He’d broken Shavers’s jaw with a short left uppercut, but before that happened he and Earnie had stood in the middle of the ring 7 1/2 rounds throwing punches. There could have been six or seven that missed, but I didn’t see them.

We were sitting in the dressing room; Randall was sucking down Coca-Colas. His face looked exactly the way a face is supposed to look after Earnie Shavers has been beating on it half the night, and the sound of the inevitable throwing up afterward still hung in the air.

The dressing rooms in Detroit have the best acoustics in the world.

He looked over at me with that one eye he could still look out of and said, “You feeling better now?” And, while I’m admitting here that it wasn’t Randall who threw up, I would also like to point out that it wasn’t Randall who had to watch the fight.

His body was rope-burned and turning black and blue, and the end of his nose was red like he was four days into a bad cold. I said, “I wish you wouldn’t fight Earnie Shavers anymore.”

“I absolutely promise,” he said.

But I meant more than Earnie Shavers, and later that night, back at the hotel, he tried to relieve me of my obligations. He said, ” I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but if you can’t watch it, then don’t.”

I took that the wrong way, of course. I’d only known Randall a year then, but it could have just as soon been my own brother in there, as far as not watching went. He said he understood that. “I know it isn’t easy watching somebody you love fight Earnie Shavers,” he said.

I said, “It’d be a damn sight easier if somebody would keep his hands up.”

And that’s as much talking we did then about retiring. Randall had made $75,000 or $80,000 for that fight, and he was on the way up. He’d taken Shavers on short notice after Gerry Cooney had backed out of the fight – if Cooney hadn’t backed out, by the way, he never would have ended up in the ring with Larry Holmes earlier this year for $10 million. A lot of people saw Randall that night, and liked what they saw.

And a lot of people didn’t.

In the bars, they told me Randall couldn’t fight at all. Guys still bragging about five amateur fights 20 years ago went out of their way to tell me all the things Randall couldn’t do. They said any decent South Philly street fighter would kill him, they said he better get a job driving a truck while he still could.

I never said much back. When they talked about him getting hurt, I thought about it. The difference was, they didn’t care.

The first fight he lost was against Ken Norton, a split decision in San Antonio, Texas. He walked into the hardest single punch I’ve ever seen that night, a straight right hand that Norton threw from the bottom of his heart.

I can close my eyes and still see Randall’s face in the half-second after it landed. For that little time, he was lost. He was coming forward when it hit him, and for half a second he stopped.

Then he went back to work, and in the dressing room afterward I heard Norton tell him, “You beat the bleep out of me, man.” Norton had fought his best fight since the night he lost his title to Larry Holmes. He’d been braver and stronger than he’d been in four years.

It had been that way with Shavers, too, and later it would be that way against Bernardo Mercardo. I have seen Mercardo quit in his corner when he was winning, but against Randall he stayed there 10 rounds, taking one of the worst body beatings I’ve ever seen.

We talked about that after every one of them. After Mercardo I said, “You know, you’re giving them something out there. You spend the whole round proving they can’t hurt you, you throw 150 punches to their 25, and then at the end of the round, just when they’re sure you’re not human, you pat them on the ass and give them something to come out with in the next round. You’re taking away their fear. ”

“It’s a bad habit, all right,” he said. And in his next fight, at the bell ending the fourth round against Jeff Shelburg earlier this year – a round in which he landed at least 100 punches – I heard him say this: ” Hang in there, Jeff. After this is over we’re going to go out and get drunk. ”

Between Mercardo and Shelburg, of course, there was supposed to be a fight with WBA heavyweight champion Mike Weaver. That fell through in December, when a kid with a tire iron broke his arm. He was standing over my body at the time, fighting off a lot of kids with tire irons and baseball bats.

I was already unconscious – hit five or six times square in the head – and it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what would have happened if he’d left me. And it doesn’t matter how good you are in a fight, if you see 25 or 30 people coming at you with bats and crowbars and reinforced iron, you’ve got to think about leaving.

When I woke up he was shouting, “If he’s dead, every one of you is dead, too.” And it must have scared them off – it scared me – because the next thing I knew he was picking me up.

He said, “Pete?”

I said, “Any time you’re ready to leave . . .” They’d broken one of my hips and the leg attached to it wouldn’t move. I said, “Randall, this leg won’t move.”

He said, “We don’t have time for that leg not to move.” And somehow he got me in the truck and drove me to the hospital. He never said anything about his arm.

On the way, we talked things over. There was blood and swelling everywhere. It was a lot like a dressing room. I said, “You know, we could of planned this better.”

He said that Gen. George Pickett had planned it better at Gettysburg.

There is one other thing he said that night that stays in my mind. It was when the place was filling up with baseball bats and tire irons, and all of a sudden you could see how many of them there were, and what they meant to do, and how bad the night was going to turn out.

He leaned over to me and said, “I hope that’s the softball team.”

He lost his first chance with Weaver over that, and his second chance when Weaver hurt his back, and his third chance when he got cut in training a few days before the fight.

And I was sure he would beat Weaver, but the fight scared me. I was in Knoxville the night Weaver took the title from John Tate, and 10 minutes after Weaver had knocked him out, they brought Tate out of the ring, hidden in the middle of 10 or 15 of his people.

Tate’s eyes were open, he seemed to be talking, but then I looked down and saw the toes of his shoes dragging along the floor. John Tate was never the same after that fight, and I wasn’t interested in seeing Randall prove he could take the same shots and beat Weaver anyway. And that’s what he would have done.

And that’s what he’ll do against Holmes. He’ll take the jabs and the right hands, and then he’ll throw jabs and right hands back, mostly to the body. Two and three punches to one. And in the eighth or ninth round, I think Larry Holmes will lose his title.

And Randall probably will be cut, and I’ll be throwing up in the dressing room, and the guys still bragging about five amateur fights from 20 years ago will turn away from the television set at the bar and tell each other he still can’t fight.

I guess it doesn’t need to be pointed out here that the damage a punch does comes partly when it lands and partly later, when it accumulates with the other punches. The accumulation goes on as long as you keep getting hit, and sometimes it catches up with you and sometimes it doesn’t.

I don’t want to be there if it ever catches up with Randall Cobb. I remember that fractured moment when he was lost after Norton hit him with the right hand, and the only thing that saves me from that moment is remembering that half a second later he was all right.

I don’t want to be there to see him lost again, but I will be if it happens. As long as he wants to fight, I’ll be there. Not because he didn’t leave me one night last December, not because he needs me there – he doesn’t.

I’ll be there because it can’t be as bad watching him fight as it would be, being too afraid to watch.

[Photo Via: The Minimalisto]

Banter Gold Standard: Hopper’s World

Another one from the vaults by our man Peter Richmond. This one from GQ, reprinted with the author’s permission.

“Hopper’s World”

By Peter Richmond

It’s not that a ’70 BMW 2800 CS Coupe isn’t the most magnificent machine ever designed by man. It is. Or that I wouldn’t orchestrate a major drug deal to own one—or even drive one, just once, along an autumnal Vermont mountain road, en route to a fire-placed inn, with a case of ’85 Canon Saint-Emilion in the trunk, next to a Crouch & Fitzgerald valise stuffed with Thomas Wolfe first editions. I would. These are a few of my favorite things.

But they do not constitute the good life. I find the good life a little farther off the beaten path, in a world full of unsmiling figures, brooding tenements and shadowy streets-although the sunsets are pretty nice. Edward Hopper could always paint light. Hopper’s light is a corporeal thing, heavy and tangible, illuminating a quiet, unhurried place unbeset by the swarm of the modem species—a place where time has stopped,

My idea of the good life wouldn’t be to own a Hopper; it would be to live in one. Maybe in Gas, with its darkening road to unknown destinations, and its overwhelming sense of stillness in the forest of pines through whose needles wisps a wind making music that cannot be heard in my world. Or High Noon, in which a woman wearing only a bathrobe stands in the front door of a clapboard house. In the fashion of all Hopper’s solitary figures, her mouth is closed; her face is passive and yields no clues. It’s a mask of mystery. Unlike her modern-day counterpart, she feels no need to spill her secrets, to yammer endlessly on daytime television about the bad luck that has befallen her. She is at rest.

This stillness must be what people are trying to find when they spend enormous amounts of money vacationing at remote Caribbean resorts or buy whole islands in the South Pacific. I’ve found it a little closer: In 1978, before a minor league hockey game, in an art museum in Rochester, New York. In 1992 in an art museum in Cincinnati. In 1973, in a library in Massachusetts, I even held some Hopper etchings. The curator of the collection made me wear gloves, but I felt the calm just the same.

Does my consideration of a Hopper painting feel as good as the night I persuaded my tenth grade girlfriend to flee her prep school on an interstate bus to meet me in my older brother’s college dorm in Boston, where we fell asleep on the bare wooden floor in front of the fireplace and she slept on her side with her back to me and I awoke to sputtering firelight to find the palm of my right hand resting in the valley of her soft waist between the top of her jeans and the bottom of her ridden-up blue sweater, and it felt as if all of the currents at the heart of the universe were flowing beneath her skin? Does looking at a Hopper feel that good?

Well, no. But the two have something in common. In the contemplation of both (and that’s more or less what my tryst entailed—contemplation), there is something being stirred and stoked that physical pleasures can’t fuel: the imagination, with its promise of the infinite. Of anything you might want. Just beyond the frame of a Hopper, there’s always something more.

Take the country road in Gas: It’s a road to nowhere in particular, but wherever it’s going, things are probably better there. Or the faceless city in Manhattan Bridge Loop: You’d think it nothing but a cold pile of brick. But I know better. I know that inside the buildings, there is more to be found; there’s the soul of a city. And when I spend time in front of the canvas, I find it.

Or take High Noon. The woman’s bathrobe has fallen open, but shadows demurely cloak her. She is turning her face to the sun. Upstairs, behind waving curtains, her bedroom is dark. There might be someone in it. There might have been someone in it not long ago. There might be someone in it soon. Me, maybe.

You may remain unconvinced. You may find it a preposterous notion that the good life could be made up of windows into a state of mind. You may insist that the good life must comprise the sensory pleasures and the sensual ones. But when your Mondavi Cabernet is drained down to the sediment, your Jag needs new valves and your woman has dismissed you like an empty can of cat food lobbed into the trash, I’ll still have this place where, even if the sun reveals a world that’s haunting and bleak, it’s a sun that never sets.

Breast or Bottle?

Stan Isaacs, the acerbic, funny, and bright newspaper columnist, died on Tuesday. He was 83.

Over at ESPN, Bryan Curtis has a wonderful tribute. It’s a must-read (and while you are at it, check out Bryan’s story on the Chipmunks).

Here is an archive (you’ll need to scroll down) of pieces that Isaacs wrote on-line at The Columnists; here is a story he wrote on Mike Burke for Jock.

I met Stan at a session of The New York (baseball) Giants Nostalgia Society in the Bronx close to ten years ago. We exchanged e-mails periodically and he was terse and amusing. I’m proud to offer you, with Stan’s permission, two columns that he wrote in the 1960s. It will give you a small taste of his fine work.

In the meantime, our thoughts go to his family, friends, and colleagues.  May he rest in peace.

“Marvelous Marv”

By Stan Isaacs

(Newsday, 1962)

That’s a love affair flowering between the Met fans and Marv Throneberry. It’s not quite apparent right now because Throneberry is the only Met player the fans at the Polo Grounds boo regularly. The perceptive mind, however, can read beyond mere outward appearances. Just as love and hate are the opposite sides of the same coin, so is this passion for Throneberry building up among Met rooters. At the rate he was booed on the last home stand, he may turn out to be one of the most popular athletes New York ever had.

Right now, the love affair is in the stage where the lovers snap at each other. They already suspect they might be liking each other and that intensifies the bickering—until the whole thing flowers into true love. I have already moved to be one of the first on the bandwagon by forming a press box chapter of the “I Love Marv Throneberry Club.” I am not disturbed that only one other has agreed to join—as membership secretary, because there would be no work. I can see other potential members whose expressions of exasperation with Marv’s work indicate that they are potentially fervent club members.

A prime recruit would be the reporter who used the name, “Marvelous Marv,” by which Throneberry is known in the press box, as a form of scorn throughout a story about a game in which Throneberry figured prominently: Marv forgot to touch third base on a triple and he made a costly interference error.

Met clubhouse man Herb Norman took that as a cue and substituted the sobriquet, “Marvelous Marv,” for “Throneberry” on the namecard above Throneberry’s locker. “Other players might not go for that,” Norman said. “But I can do it with Marv, because he has a good sense of humor.”

Marv appreciated the gag. He even pointed the sign out to the man who wrote the story and told him before a doubleheader: “Hey, I’ve got good news for you—I’m playing in only one of the games today.”

Marv is too big a man to be upset by bad writeups. “You once wrote something bad about me,” he said to the president of his fan club, “but I never said anything, did I?” He didn’t. The piece, which the president is sorry for because it kicked a man when he was down, knocked Throneberry for his seeming lack of spirited movement.

It is that lack of outward hustle and bustle that makes Throneberry a target for boos. Of course, his fielding and hitting failures have helped, but other Mets err and hit badly without becoming such a target. “These are my natural movements,” Throneberry said. “If I were to start dashing about like little Elio Chacon just to look as if I were hustling, it would be phony.”

Marv says, “They’re not going to run me out of New York the way they did Norm Siebern.” He points out that Mickey Mantle used to be booed. He is also able to comfort himself that some of the boos are directed at him because he plays instead of the No. 1 Met love, Gil Hodges.

The other day he even twitted Casey Stengel for going out to the mound to take out pitchers. “Every time you go out there, they start booing you. Are you trying to take away my fans?” Marv promises that one of these days, when the time is right, “I’m going to surprise them; I’m going to doff my cap to them in a big way, the way Stengel does.”

If he does it at the right time, he should wow them. There have been some hints already of what will happen when the love affair does turn into the mad thing it is destined to be. The other day Throneberry ran a long way for a foul pop, then caught it with a deft stab just as he almost hit the field boxes. An ovation followed, and it seemed then that the time was ripe for Marv. All he had to do was make another good play or two, hit a few homers, and he would have them eating out of his glove.

Alas, he missed that chance. Shortly afterward, he not only fumbled a grounder, but then, as the pitcher came to take his toss, he threw an underhanded lob that went over the pitcher’s head. “Gene Conley (a six-foot, eight-inch pitcher) would have had it,” was the remark of one potential member of the fan club. This was the same chap who refused to admit that Marv made a good play on the foul pop-up, saying he had overrun the ball. Which just goes to show how much this bloke is going to love Throneberry when the time comes.

People react negatively to Marv because they regard him as the prototype of the “losing ballplayer.” Marv has been with the Yankees, Athletics, and Orioles so far and hasn’t realized his slugging potential. Aware of the rap against him, Mary says: “So far I have never had a real chance. Wherever I have been, I have played behind an established first baseman. I feel that this is the first time I’m getting a full chance.

“I think I wasn’t nearly ready to play when I first came to the Mets. I had not played in so long, I was defensive at the plate and not sharp in the field. I’m beginning to feel like an offensive hitter now. And I think my fielding will get better as I play more.”

Those of us whose eyes are ready to see the glory of the coming of Marv Throneberry are aware that the marriage of Marvelous Marv and the Met fans was made a long time ago; the initials of Marvin Eugene Throneberry read M-E-T.

“He Made The Mets Fun”

By Stan Isaacs

(Newsday, 1965)

The time of Casey Stengel as manager of the Mets has come to an end. While it lasted, wasn’t that a time? Wasn’t that a wonderful time?

By his own lights, Casey Stengel failed as manager of the Mets. He had hoped to build a young, promising team, leaving a legacy that would soon be translated into stirring deeds on the ball field. He left no such team. At best there are half-a-dozen shining prizes of the youth of America on the team, and greatness is nowhere in sight.

But Stengel, of course, didn’t fail. He brought the greatness of his own spirit to the Mets. He made them something bigger than the ordinary story of the won-lost standings. He made the Mets fun—a slice of the humor of American life.

Stengel, as a baseball figure, has been bigger than life, a man larger than the arena in which he operated. There are only a few people in this world who attain that stature. They say of people like this that they walk with kings. Stengel could walk with kings and give them a wink along the way.

When Winston Churchill died, somebody commented that one of the outstanding things about the man was that he spanned so many eras. Churchill was a dynamic figure in the Boer War at the turn of the century and still right in the thick of things during the post-World War II era. In baseball terms, Stengel was that kind of figure, a man whose phenomenal memory enabled him to talk with the same glibness about the old Washington Park in Brooklyn as he did about new fashions in the cut of baseball uniforms.

In the time that Casey Stengel has been managing baseball teams there have been seven Presidents of the United States. In the time since he broke into baseball in 1910, there have been 10 Presidents.

It was possible to shoot almost any topic at Stengel and be confident he would relate some experience to it. When there was a Maine Day celebration at Shea Stadium for Met pitcher Carl Willey, a Maine native, Stengel reached into his background for entertaining stories about Maine that nobody had ever heard him tell before. He cited a ball player named Chief Sockalexis as a Maine native, and sure enough, everything Stengel said about him was true. He so often astounded people with his recollections it was perhaps inevitable that he would adopt the phrase “You could look it up.”

Casey Stengei is too big for any one essay. There is a need here, though, to say that to be around him has been to bask in him, to experience an exaltation of the spirit. The feeling of joy captured in the last scene of the movie Zorba the Greek—when Anthony Quinn leads the young poet in a dance of exultation on the beach—is the kind of ecstatic warmth generated by Stengel at his best.

I would daresay that if somebody set out to make a good movie about Casey Stengel, Anthony Quinn would be a wonderful person to play this craggy-faced minstrel of joy and unflagging hope. At first, it might seem an unlikely casting, but perhaps not if you chew on it for a moment.

Stengel’s departure at the hotel press conference yesterday was sad. The old man came into the room limping on his cane, nervous and misty-eyed. He brightened later when he could talk about the team and when he could answer questions with a touch of his old finger-pumping belligerence. But it still wasn’t vintage Stengel.

His last press conference as a Yankee, when they fired him, was better. He went out kicking and screaming that day, and you had fair reason to believe he would return someday, if you were inclined to want to reason that way.

When somebody asked him yesterday to select which of his tenures in New York he enjoyed the most (he played for the New York Giants, and managed the Brooklyns, Yankees and Mets) it seemed as if he would have liked to cite the Mets, but couldn’t because he didn’t succeed at what he set out to do with them. “Well, you’d have to say,” he started out, then switched his thought in midsentence by adding, “You couldn’t feel good if you are losing.”

He would rather be remembered for his success as manager of the Yankees, when he won 10 pennants in 12 years and astounded baseball people with his unorthodox moves. Of course, he had the material then—his years with the Mets showed he couldn’t do anything without the material—but he nevertheless made revolutionary moves with the Yanks that influenced the new generation of managers.

Age showed on the thinking of the Connie Macks and Jimmy Dykes and Charley Dressens; Stengel commanded respect of his peers to the end. “He still can beat you from the dugout,” a young lion like Gene Mauch would say.

A comic definition of the difference between a master and a grand master in chess captures for me the Stengel managerial genius.

“A master,” said chessman Arthur Bisguier, “cogitates carefully, perhaps a half-hour, on a move. Finally, he chooses the correct square for the correct piece and places it there. A grand master is much more skillful. He hardly thinks at all. He throws the piece into the air and it just falls on the right square.”

BGS: There’s Something About Steve

More from our man Dexter. This one originally ran in the Philly Daily News on October 11, 1984. It appears here with the author’s permission.

“There’s Something About Steve”

By Pete Dexter

I don’t know how to tell you this, but I think my wife has a serious case for Steve Garvey. I know that must be embarrassing to hear, it’s certainly embarrassing to admit. I would personally rather come home and find her with egrets. I can’t say if it’s the boyish good looks that got to her, or the refreshing modesty or the way he wears his pants like his mother dressed him for school, but something is going on.

The first time I noticed it, the Dodgers were in the World Series. Steve played for them before he signed on with San Diego, and they beat the Yankees. My wife was a Yankees fan then – she will be again when George Steinbrenner buys enough people to win – and she listened to Garvey giving a post-game interview, refusing to take credit for a victory that had taken 25 guys pulling together to achieve. Yes, he talks like that.

She said, “That is the most disgusting human being I have ever seen. ” And I knew right there something was up. Word for word, that was what she used to say about me.

That, of course, was before we got married. A little of the magic has to leave after seven years, right?

Anyway, I thought it would pass. After all, her kidney stones did. And in fact after the series, we came to an unspoken understanding that the words Steve and Garvey were never to be heard, one after another, under our roof.

We didn’t use the expression first sacker, we even stayed away from the number six. We certainly never mentioned the Dodgers, even after Steve went to San Diego. But there are some things you can forgive and forget, and some things you can’t. And every time I wanted to say “first sacker” but stopped myself short, it hurt in a way I knew would never completely heal.

And it never did, because the old feelings came back the second I walked into the house last week and heard that Steve Garvey had just driven in five runs to tie the playoff series with the Cubs at two games each. He was being congratulated on television.

Steve smiled, a nice controlled smile, and said, “It was my pleasure. ” Then he said he couldn’t take credit for a victory that had taken 25 guys pulling together to achieve.

“He makes my skin crawl,” my wife said.

I stood in the door, stunned. “I thought I made your skin crawl,” I said, when I’d gotten myself together.

“Oh,” she said, “you do it better . . .”

Sure.

The night after that, the Padres came from three runs down to beat the Cubs and move into the World Series. Steve Garvey did not knock in five runs, but when I came in the door they were congratulating him anyway.

His teammates were pouring champagne over his head, and he had a controlled, good-natured smile on his face, and was waiting patiently for the microphone so he could say it takes all 25 people on a ball club to win.

“Have you ever seen him when he walks?” my wife said.

“He limps?” I said.

“No, when he walks at bat.”

“You mean he doesn’t always hit a home run?” I said. Ha. Stuck her a good one there, right?

She shook her head. She said, “Anybody else, they toss the bat in the dirt and run to first base. Steve Garvey hands it to the bat boy. He looks him in the eye. And when he gets to first base, he always says something to the first baseman that makes them both smile.

“Sometimes,” she said, “he makes the umpire smile too. ”

“So?”

“The smiles,” she said, “they last exactly four seconds.”

“What are you trying to tell me?” I said.

She said it was just that she couldn’t stand him. She said he probably had hair all over his back. She is supposed to hate that, but try pulling her out of the Great Apes exhibit at the zoo some time. She said the hair on his head was never out of place, not even sliding into home with the winning run.

“When he comes out of the dugout and tips his cap to the standing ovation,” she said, “he doesn’t put it back on, he fits it.”

She saw then that I was hurt, and tried to make it up to me. “You left a Coke in the freezer again last night,” she said. “It blew up and there’s little pieces of glass everywhere.” But there was no passion in it.

I smiled in a polite way. Not as polite as Steve Garvey would have smiled – Steve, of course, would have bought a new refrigerator and given the old one to orphans – but as polite as I can be when I see my wife complaining about another man.

I sat down at the table and fed a quarter of a pound of butter to the dog. I burped. The dog burped. I spilled spaghetti in my lap. She fussed, but there was no passion.

It is just something I’ll have to wait out.

On national television, Garvey was giving the credit to his teammates. ”Aulk,” she said. “Aulk.” That is a noise to simulate throwing up.

Our noise.

And in my worst nightmares, it never occurred to me that she could make it for somebody who is nothing like me at all.

BGS: Fi$hing for Catfi$h

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

“Fi$hing for Catfi$h”

By Paul Hemphill

Ahoskie, North Carolina

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jim’s out hunting if I know him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You gotten any autographs?”

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

The Banter Gold Standard: That Damn Yankee

Here is a gem from Tony Kornheiser, a long piece on George Steinbrenner. It originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine on April 9, 1978 at is featured here with the author’s permission.

You’re going to dig this one.

“That Damn Yankee”

By Tony Kornheiser

THE OLD MAN WAS rigid. Dinner was at 5:45 each evening, and it was “Please, sir” and “Thank you, sir” and “May I be excused, sir?” He was a perfectionist. He was an intercollegiate hurdles champion, and he had the kid running hurdles at age 12. If the kid ran three races and won two and finished second in the third, the old man wasn’t completely satisfied; he’d come down from the stands asking, “What the hell happened? How’d you let that guy beat you?” The old man thrived on work. He told the kid, “Always work as hard as, or harder than anyone who works for you.”

The old man owned a shipping company.

He planned that someday the kid would take it over. The kid did even better than that. Now the kid is 47 years old, and he’s chairman of the board of The American Ship Building Company, which is expected to do $180 million worth of sales in 1978. And he’s principal owner of the New York Yankees, the most famous sports franchise in the world, which brings its World Series championship team back to Yankee Stadium this week. And he owns a thoroughbred farm, a hotel and a lot of real estate on the booming west coast of Florida. And he has a piece of the Chicago Bulls basketball team. He has Kinsman Shipping, the family company he bought from his father, and has extensive holdings in land and banking operations. The kid say is a multimillionaire; the multis may well be approaching triple figures.

The kid says it’s lonely at the top, it’s the loneliest place in the world.

But every day he thanks the old man. “You never really appreciated him or liked him as a young person,” he says. “But you appreciated him more as every day of your life went on. I can’t give enough credit to my dad. Anything I ever accomplish I owe to him.”

The father is German. From the father, the kid says he learned to be tough, to drive and succeed, to win; he doesn’t believe in entering a contest just to compete. He believes in keeping score; he doesn’t mess around with No. 2. The mother is Irish. From the mother, the kid says he learned compassion, a feel for the underdog, the desire to help those less fortunate, less blessed. The kid has sent some 75 people through college; he serves on charitable committees; he chairs philanthropic foundations. His closest friends say he’s a soft touch.

But the thesis-antithesis-synthesis doesn’t compute. Something got lost in the mix, an overload of thesis perhaps. The kid is hard on his people. Like the secretary he once fired for failing to get him an airline reservation; he fired her from the airport, over the telephone, when the ticket he went to pick up wasn’t there.

“Clear out your desk,” he said, “you’re through.”

She didn’t budge. Maybe she knew the man.

The next day the kid went to see her in the office.

“I’ve made arrangements to send your son to camp this summer,” he told her; that was how the kid said he was sorry.

“I know I’m tough,” he says. “But I try to make it up to my people in other ways. I don’t like to hurt people. Sometimes I just. . . . Well, I guess I can’t help it.”

George Steinbrenner is charming, generous, philanthropic, well-connected, wealthy, energetic and a delight to be with. He is also imperious, tyrannical, impatient, tough, nasty and almost impossible to work for. If he has to pick a label to hang his psyche on, he picks none of the above.

He picks misunderstood.

“No one has been able to capture the real me, how I feel,” he says. “But I guess it’s tough. It’s hard for me to convey what I really feel. It’s not something I can easily say.”

He lists among his friends such people as Senator Edward Kennedy; Thomas P. O’Neill, better known as Tip, the Speaker of the House of Representatives; Cary Grant, the legend, and Barbara Walters, a close personal friend of Anwar el-Sadat. He lists among his prominent positions, spots on the boards of trustees at the University of Tampa. the Culver Educational Foundation, the University of South Florida Foundation. He is the Florida state chairman of the American Cancer Society. He lists among his accomplishments, assistant varsity football coach at both Northwestern and Purdue, chairman of the Democratic Party fund raising effort in 1969 and 1970, all sorts of charitable work for poverty foundations and sports-for-youth federations and co-producer of such award-winning Broadway shows as “Seesaw” and “Applause.” Oh, and he brought the Yankees back from comatose to champions in five years.

Yet what people remember him for most are his felony conviction for election-campaign fraud in the time of Watergate, and the weekly reports of his threats to fire Billy Martin, the manager of the Yankees, a 49-year-old Fonzie who has been described by John Schulian of The Chicago Sun-Times as “a mouse studying to be a rat.”

George Steinbrenner, who very much would like to be a man of the people, a working-class hero, hasn’t a shot. He takes his satisfactions privately; he gets his beatings publicly.

“I’m the heavy,” he says. “I don’t like it, but I don’t know how to change it.”

“TWO THINGSS ARE  important to George,” says a close friend who believes he needs anonymity on this one to stay close. “Two things—winning and power.”

Steinbrenner does not dispute the former; he pleads guilty, with an explanation, to the latter.

“Only if I can use it for good, to help those less fortunate than me,” he says. He is sitting in the restaurant in his Tampa hotel, the Bay Harbor Inn. He puts his elbows on the table and leans forward: This one is coming from the heart.

“I’ll tell you when I really bristle,” he says. “I’ll be sitting at some board meeting, and I’ll hear some big shot say—’Look at those people.’ And you’ll know exactly which people he’s talking about. ‘All they want is their unemployment checks.’ Well, let me tell you something. I’ve been to the South Bronx; how many of those big shots have been to the South Bronx? You gonna tell me that’s all that guy wants in life? No way. . . . If he had the opportunity that I had, God knows he might be a better man than all of us.

“Now look, I’m no crusader, I don’t want it to sound like that. I’m no Robin Hood. I just like to help people, that’s my bag. They call me a flaming liberal; guess I am.”

The little guy, Steinbrenner claims kinship with the little guy. The cabby who has to fight the traffic every day, the bartender, the hotel worker, that’s his cast of characters; he talks about them so often you’d think he did his senior thesis at Williams College on Damon Runyon instead of on the heroines in Thomas Hardy’s novels. His favorite little guy is the one who stops him on the street and thanks him for bringing the Yankees back. He makes it seem there are a legion of little guys out there on the streets of New York, patrolling every comer just waiting to spot him and shake his hand.

“Class,” he says. “What class they have.”

He shrugs.

“I wish I had class like that,” he says. “I wish I had the class to go up to a stranger and thank him for something. I don’t.”

Now it may be a bit hard to swallow that, to fully swallow how a man who likes the feel of a chauffeured limousine can claim this spiritual tie to the little guy. Especially since he’s so hard with his own little people, his secretaries and his office personnel. Especially since he stays at the Hotel Carlyle and wears $40 shirts and sits fifth-row center at the theater, house seats.

But down deep, even if he knows it isn’t readily visible, George Steinbrenner feels like one of the guys. Down deep, he’s at a fraternity party. All his life, through military school and through board meetings, he acted one way and coveted another, and down deep, he wants to be one of the common people, if only for a handshake. Of course his hero is the cabby. The common denominator in New York City is the traffic; Steinbrenner sees it even through the window of his chauffeured limo, he feels it, he sits in it. When you’re stuck on 37th Street, it doesn’t matter if you’re stuck in a cab, or a bus or a limo. You’re all alike. For maybe the only time in his life, he’s down with the people.

“I’ve always kept my emotions inside me,” he says. “They tell me I don’t let myself go, and that’s true. It’s a mark of strength among Germans, you know. . . . it isn’t that frequent that I really enjoy myself. It’s hard to explain, but the feeling I got after winning a World Series wasn’t what I thought it’d be. I remember saying to myself—I wonder why I’m not more excited? But then I saw the happiness I got was seeing happiness in others, and when that cabby comes up to me and says, ‘Thanks for bringing the Yankees back,’ even if it’s just ‘Thanks for spending your money,’ it’s unreal. I feel so good about winning one for New York. This is the greatest city in the world and its people are the greatest people in the world. And I just hope they like me.”

The New York Yankees won the World Series last season.

It should have been some party.

It wasn’t.

All season long the Yankees played “West Side Story” in dugouts and locker rooms throughout the country, and when they closed the curtain—when “Bernardo” Jackson hit his three homers and “Riff” Munson caught his last ball and “Tony” Martin got his contract extended and “Officer Krupke” Steinbrenner made nicey-nice and bought them all championship rings—the cast was too drained to dance. Even with Steinbrenner insisting that months of intramural feuding had forced them to acquire “the mental toughness necessary to win,” the Yankees could only ride their World Series high for one week or so before deflating like a hot-air balloon. The stars of the show needed time to recuperate.

Jackson went to the West Coast, where he apparently took a vow of silence, licked his wounds and rented all the king’s horses and all the king’s men to help put his psyche together again.

Martin, the darling of the fans, seemed to disappear completely. Steinbrenner did the banquet circuit. He made so many speeches and received so many awards that he was to the sports testimonial circuit what Charo is to talk shows.

Only Munson simmered publicly. For someone who rates reporters lower than the lowest, Munson attempted major league manipulation of the press. From his home in Canton, Ohio, he regularly demanded to be traded to the Cleveland Indians, threatened to quit baseball if he wasn’t, and accused Steinbrenner of stiffing him out of some verbal contractual promises. Steinbrenner seemed somewhat amused by Munson’s bluster; he could afford to be. He had Munson’s signature on a contract.

All things considered, not a bad winter at all.

And through it all, the Yankees sold tickets. There was just enough controversy, just enough bad blood to keep them cards and letters coming in. Steinbrenner is theatrical enough to know that controversy sells.

This winter, the Yankees got box office performances by Gabe Paul and Mike Torrez—who departed; Rich Gossage, Rawly Eastwick, Jim Spencer, Andy Messersmith and Al Rosen—who arrived—and Jackson, Munson and Sparky Lyle, the Three Stooges of spring training.

Behind it all—rather, above it all—moving the strings that make the puppets dance, George Steinbrenner’s hands were clearly visible.

Make no mistake, he is the New York Yankees.

Gabe Paul’s departure was at least gracious. He quit as president and general manager and signed on with the Indians. Paul didn’t say anything bad about Steinbrenner publicly, but if he’d had anything good to say he wouldn’t have left. As easily as changing a flat tire, Steinbrenner immediately installed Al Rosen in Paul’s place, as president in charge of explanations.

In Rosen, Steinbrenner has a good and true friend, the devoted ally he never had in Paul. Rosen’s presence is a sure sign that Steinbrenner will be calling all the shots; Steinbrenner believes that winning the championship last season vindicated the moves he made, and this season he will run his team as if it were one of his Great Lakes tankers. This time, if Steinbrenner wants Martin out, no one will be there to block the move; Martin will see Al Rosen opening the exit door as soon as Steinbrenner points to it, and Steinbrenner’s assistant, first base coach Gene Michael, will be walking in before Martin is halfway down the hall.

Torrez’s departure was noisier. He was the Yankees’ best pitcher in the playoff and Series, but Steinbrenner—through Paul—never seriously negotiated to keep him; Torrez was a rent-an-arm, that’s all. After signing as a free agent with Boston, Torrez was quoted as saying, “The Yankees will have just as much trouble next season because Munson and Nettles hate Jackson.” The only thing that surprised Torrez was that more people didn’t know it.

Again, Steinbrenner went the free agent route to improve his Yankees. He signed Rich Gossage, the best available relief pitcher, and Rawly Eastwick, the second-best available relief pitcher. In Gossage and Sparky Lyle, Steinbrenner has the best righty-lefty bullpen duo in baseball. If all this fast relief works out, Steinbrenner could put Alka-Seltzer out of business. Gossage’s presence infuriated Lyle enough to ask to be traded to a team where he’ll pitch more and earn more. Consider that Lyle was the best pitcher in the American League last season, and now he wants out. Could you ask for a better controversy?

Steinbrenner made one cosmetic attempt to trade Lyle, but found it easy to turn down a deal sending Lyle and Chris Chambliss to Texas for Claudell Washington and Paul Lindblad.

The next day Steinbrenner told the press that Lyle wasn’t going anywhere. Then, just to let Lyle stew in his own juices, Steinbrenner said, “Like I told Sparky, ‘How much market value is there for a 34-year-old reliever?'” It may not be great public relations, but it made a striking headline.

Oh, and Munson’s still here.

“You really didn’t think he’d quit?” Steinbrenner asks, doing a strut with his voice.

Some people take refuge in being the underdog; with his money, Steinbrenner is forced to be the overdog. The mistake is in thinking that the overdog won’t bite. New York City is making that mistake in its recent complaint about the size of the bone that Steinbrenner has buried in his tenant’s contract at Yankee Stadium with the city. Suddenly, after the Yankees won the World Series and made a $12 million profit in 1977, the city started crying about the contract it had negotiated with the Yankees even before Steinbrenner purchased the team in 1973. It seems that the contract—assumed by Steinbrenner, but signed by CBS, the previous Yankee owner—allows the Yankees to deduct maintenance costs before paying tenant taxes. That clause—perhaps it should be called “the insanity clause” in honor of the city lawyers who agreed to it—allowed the Yankees to pay only $150,000 to the city last year, less even than Ron Guidry makes for pitching for the Yankees. Now the city wants to renegotiate. You could hardly blame Steinbrenner for telling the city exactly where to file that request. Especially considering that the Mets’ contract at Shea Stadium with the city is even more of a sweetheart deal. Steinbrenner’s overdog philosophy is that he is being picked on just because he’s winning; As The Worm Turns in The Big Apple, on your soap opera digest.

“I’ll meet with the Mayor,” Steinbrenner says. “He’s the leader of the city.”

A simple one-on-one. Dueling egos. Bet on George.

IT IS EARLY IN  spring training and Steinbrenner is sitting comfortably in the Yankee dugout in Fort Lauderdale watching his players work out. As usual, he is wearing blue. Normalcy, such as it is, is alive and well on the Yankees.

Martin is out of Steinbrenner’s sight; Munson is avoiding reporters; Jackson is entertaining them. There is the sound of baseballs hitting bats, then skimming the grass, then slapping into gloves. Players are making fun of other players. Steinbrenner seems pleased.

He seems to be holding court from his dugout seat, greeting his players with a pleasant one-liner, then sending them on their way with a smile. This is his element, the throne room of spring training. From here he dispenses his medicines, always a first name, always a smile, always a gentle prodding to improve oneself. This will be a crucial season, he says. If it were breakfast time, he would insist this would be a crucial breakfast.

“Lou,” he says to outfielder Lou Piniella, “that hat’s too small.”

Piniella is wearing a size 3 cap on a size 7 head. “I need some sun, George,” Piniella says.

“Oh, you Spaniards all tan quick,” Steinbrenner says.

Surely, this must be the most fun of all for Steinbrenner. The jock chatter. He is in his dugout and all’s right with the world.

“Things are going just great,” he says, “Sure, we have problems, but every team has problems. The thing is that this year it will be so much easier. The players understand each other and they understand what Billy and I want. They went through hell last year, but they all were toughened by the experience.”

On another side of the field, Martin is answering questions about spring training and the upcoming season. Each time he is asked about Lyle, about Jackson-Munson, about Jackson-Martin, even about Steinbrenner-Martin, his answer is basically the same.

“Everything is beautiful,” Martin is saying. It sounds robotomized, something out of the closing scenes of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

It will be the Yankees’ slogan this year.

Everything Is Beautiful.

At least until the first blowup of the season, which ought to happen no later than next week, and possibly as soon as today.

The press corps that covers the Yankees is leery of Steinbrenner. It sees his charm, appreciates his availability and distrusts his sincerity. One reporter calls Steinbrenner, “the Queen of Hearts—he’s always one second away from shouting, ‘Off with their heads.'” Reporters think he starts controversies for the sheer sake of action. They think he’s very theatrical with them and very demeaning with his employees.

Worst of all, they think he lies.

More than anything else, Steinbrenner resents being called a liar. Specifics, he demands specifics. It has been alleged that the night before the final papers were to be signed—Steinbrenner instructed Joe Garagiola Jr.—then Yankee counsel, to write some clauses in Reggie Jackson’s contract in 1977, to deliberately attempt to substantially alter the oral agreement.

“An outright lie,” says Steinbrenner. “Boy, that bums me. I want you to call Steve Kaye, in Oakland, he’s Reggie’s attorney, and ask him about his dealings with me. Wait, here’s his private number. Call him.”

The call was made, and Kaye characterized the allegation as “ridiculous.” Kaye said Steinbrenner was “completely honorable in our dealings. Yes, there were some slight adjustments we made in the final contract, but that’s normal. George was eminently fair with us.”

It has been suggested that Steinbrenner, in 1976, had his employees’ office telephones tapped.

“Never,” says Steinbrenner. “We thought that our phones might have been bugged, so we had the telephone company sweep my office to see—just my office; they told us the lines were clean.”

New York Telephone Company records show that in 1976 the Yankees reported trouble with their phone lines. An inspection revealed no tapping, but a circuit problem; anyone calling in could patch into even the most private conversations. It was fixed.

Most of the allegations against Steinbrenner are groundless, apparently carried on the wings of distrust.

Others are not.

Steinbrenner did lie about the nature of an injury to Mickey Klutts, a shortstop; Steinbrenner concealed that Klutts had a broken hand, telling the press he had only a sprained thumb. He did so to prevent the Yankees—who were trying to trade for Bucky Dent—from being put in a compromising position on the deal.

“It will never happen again,” said Steinbrenner at that time. Last month, he said he had to do it to prevent another team from taking advantage of his Yankees.

Another alleged lie concerns Thurman Munson. It is alleged—publicly by Munson—that Steinbrenner reneged on certain verbal promises to Munson after making them to induce him to sign his contract in 1977. Munson has let people know that Steinbrenner promised him that he would be the highest paid Yankee, except for Catfish Hunter but including Reggie Jackson. The story that Steinbrenner put out is that the promise was based on annual salary, not total value of contract including deferred compensation.

“Go ask Thurman about it,” says Steinbrenner.

Munson will not comment.

“It’s just a misunderstanding,” says Steinbrenner. “Misunderstandings happen in business; they are not lies.”

Semantics, perhaps. But crucial to Steinbrenner’s character. He does not lie, he says. He demands loyalty, and he gives loyalty. He demands hard work, and he gives hard work. Uppermost is the belief in the system.

This leads to a personal theory about George Steinbrenner.

It is the Blue Spotlight Theory.

It holds that newspapers are printed in black and white, and black is a hard and fast color. George Steinbrenner does not photograph well in black and white. Blue is his favorite color, his best color. It is said that under a soft blue light a Phyllis Diller can look like a Phyllis George.

Steinbrenner carries a metaphorical soft blue spotlight around with him, and plugs it in and shines it on himself when the questions get hotter than he cares for. Half the time he shines it on himself on the record. Half the time he shines it on himself off the record, not for print. This system gives him the upper hand; he controls the rules. His sides of the stories are fascinating. They are also unprintable. The reporter deals in black and white; Steinbrenner speaks fluent blue.

“He’s a man of his word,” says Catfish Hunter, whose guaranteed contract makes him immune from retaliation. “Even though a lot of times you have to get it in writing to make sure of it.”

GEORGE STEINBRENNER STUDIED voice for three years and was the president of the Williams Glee Club; he attends the opera and ballet; he knows the difference between arabesque and changement de pieds, and how many people in baseball, he wants to know, know that?

Yet his favorite television program is “The Gong Show.” Obviously, a man of great width.

Most of his players couldn’t care less that Steinbrenner is familiar with the fifth position in ballet; they like his money.

He is generous with it. He pays his players as much as any team in baseball. He buys them free suits, gives them bonuses at All Star time, picks up their tabs in certain hotels and restaurants, notably in the Theatrical in Cleveland, gives them cab fare home so their wives won’t have to pick them up when the Yankee charter lands late at night. Steinbrenner’s players go only one way—first class. He rewards excellence just as he punishes incompetence; if you put out, he puts up.

The crown jewel in Steinbrenner’s holdings is the Yankees. Although Steinbrenner says his favorite businesses are still his shipping companies it’s because he has a sentimental tie with the industry that goes back 100 years in his family. It is the Yankees that afford him the most visibility and celebrity.

“The Yankees are a great, great vehicle,” Steinbrenner says.

His eyes twinkle.

He is now the majority owner of the team. In 1973, when he put together the team that purchased the team from CBS, Steinbrenner owned some 20 percent of the ball club. But in the past five years he has personally bought out such original partners as Jess Bell, Marvin Warner—now United States Ambassador to Switzerland—Ed Ginsberg, Sheldon Guren, Nelson Bunker Hunt, Edward Greeenwald and Thomas W. Evans, increasing his ownership to some 55 percent of the team. The Yankees are now valued at about $25 million, a 150 percent increase over the sale price in 1973.

“George is an empire builder,” says Patrick Shields, a close friend. “The only trouble is that he was born a little too late. Most of the world has already been parceled out.”

The Yankees are much more than just another company to Steinbrenner, they are an image and an obsession. He claims to still “well up” every time he sees Gary Cooper portray Lou Gehrig on film. Steinbrenner, who was born on the Fourth of July and who considers himself a patriot above all, truly believes that the Yankees are important to this country, that if they are strong, then the country is strong, that if they are neat and clean, then they serve as shining examples to the youth of this country. You cannot shake him from that tree.

“The Yankees are apple pie and hot dogs,” he says.

“You know that he bought the rights to ‘George M.’ when the Broadway show lost millions,” says Tip O’Neill. “You know that George put that show in every city in the country, not so much to make money, but to get people waving the flag again. He did it right after Vietnam. That tell you something about George?”

Steinbrenner wears Bill Blass shirts, primarily because Blass is an American designer. Steinbrenner’s favorite writers are Melville, James Fenimore Cooper and John Greenleaf Whittier. Americans all. He even refuses to buy foreign automobiles.

“I have a Rolls Royce,” says Reggie Jackson. This is obvious. It’s a silver and blue Corniche, the kind that retails for almost $80,000; it doesn’t wholesale. One day Jackson discovered some nicks on the passenger side and treated the discovery as if he had been told he had leukemia. If he didn’t want dents, he should have bought an anti-personnel tank.

“So George and I are having dinner one night,” Jackson says, “and I say to him, ‘Boss, when are you gonna get a real car? When are you gonna quit that Cad you been driving and get a Rolls? C’mon big man, get the kind of car you rate.'”

“‘I believe in America,” George says.

“‘So?”

“‘So, if it’s not made with American Steel, I don’t buy it.'”

Al Rosen says that Steinbrenner would have been comfortable with men like John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould, empire builders. History has called these men “ruthless.” Rosen does not like the sound of that word; he prefers tough, but fair. Steinbrenner never minds when people call him tough, but fair. He believes in winning. (“He’s the kind of owner,” says Piniella, “who likes a 163-game lead with 162 games left.” The baseball season, you should know, lasts 162 games.) He believes that if you win, it means you have done things right. Some people say that sounds like “The end justifies the means,” they say it sounds Machiavellian. Steinbrenner could share a chocolate sundae with Mr. Machiavelli.

Growing up in Cleveland, Steinbrenner was the kind of guy who was in bed by 10:30 every night of the year except on New Year’s Eve, when he was in by 11. But if he was a rooster in Cleveland, he is an owl in New York, and he has made the transition easily, remarkably easily, as if he had always known that he was born to run on the other side of midnight. If there is a term that applies to those people born west of the Hudson River who are convinced that they belong on Fifth Avenue, it might be “Neo-Yorker.”

In the history of this country, there are, arguably, a number of American myths that define who we are as a people. One is the Frontier. One is the New England town meeting. One is New Orleans jazz. Another is the New York Yankees.

The Yankees were up for sale and down in the standings. Steinbrenner saw himself as the person with cash, drive and vision enough to restore them to their proper position; more importantly, he recognized what that position was. Now, here was the Yankee club, a fallen idol in need of restoration. Like him, an inheritance to be claimed. Like him, a proud history. Like him, a need to be No. 1.

He came in shooting his mouth off about how he would make the Yankees world champions in five years–and he delivered. “Look, when I came here four years ago,” says Piniella, “all you ever heard about was the Mets. Now all you hear is the Yankees. That’s George.” He came in walking the walk and talking the talk of a native New Yorker, the ones he’d seen all those years on the Johnny Carson show. He seemed to be a boulevardier, but they were long gone since the days of Jimmy Walker, so now we’d call him a beautiful person. Think of the in-spots in New York—”21,” Le Club, Elaine’s, Jimmy Weston’s, Mike Manuche’s, P.J. Clarke’s—the spots where the sporting crowd, the literary crowd and the political crowd overlap, then look for George, the man in blue at the head of the featured table.

It is almost a secret that he is married and has four children, and that home is in Tampa. They are all shielded from the public eye that Steinbrenner seems to crave so much that you’d think he was born with an asbestos cornea. In Tampa and Cleveland he is still the same old George he always was. It is only in New York that he jumps from his base at the Carlyle to the opera, to the theater, to the ballet, to the ball park, as if he had stuffed chili peppers in his Gucci loafers.

Steinbrenner is very big on crowds. He seems to need them and feed off them. He has his walking around guys; the total effect is that of a permanent floating crap game. Some people who know him suggest that he is scared of the intimacy of one-on-one personal relationships, and, if it’s valid, that could be because he is, at his core, an insecure man, a man who has been able to win at almost everything he competed in but who never really found happiness in the winning. Look closely at George Steinbrenner and you’ll see that he is always running that third hurdles race and listening for his father’s approval. Look closely and you’ll see that his football background and his military school background and his business background have taught him that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Look closely and you’ll see a winner—even if he doesn’t. The shame of it is that he’s never satisfied. The one thing he didn’t count on when he counted on New York was that he couldn’t run away from himself.

There are some players who surmise that Steinbrenner, jocko that he is, bought the Yankees to be a Yankee. There is something to that. Steinbrenner likes to wander the locker room, although he does it less than before. The lesson was learned last season on a bus ride in Texas. The bus driver was hopelessly lost, driving the bus in circles around the Dallas airport. Almost two hours went by; the players were annoyed. As usual.

“I guess we’re just going out to do another favor for Steinbrenner’s daughter,” someone yelled out. In spring training Steinbrenner had the Yankees play an exhibition game at the University of North Carolina, where Steinbrenner’s oldest daughter attends college.

Steinbrenner heard the comment and foam formed on his lips.

“Who said that?” he demanded.

” Who said that?” the veins stood in his neck like chicken bones.

Graig Nettles—”cowering,” Steinbrenner says—said he did.

“Well, don’t you ever say another goddamned thing about my daughter again,” Steinbrenner said, making fists with his voice.

The next morning, at breakfast, Gene Michael, a former player and now an assistant to Steinbrenner, took his boss aside and told him if he wanted to ride the bus with the players, he’d have to learn to accept a certain amount of locker room humor—the kind of humor where a man with acne is called “Pizza Face.”

“George,” Michael said, “they wouldn’t kid you if they didn’t at least like you.”

“Gene,” Steinbrenner said,” I shouldn’t have been on the bus.”

Some of the tenseness still lingers. Steinbrenner recognizes it, and tries to laugh it off; he’s got a terrific sense of humor really. Much of it with himself as the target.

Just the other week, driving from the Fort Lauderdale airport to his hotel, Steinbrenner noticed a hang glider soaring over the beach. Turning to the driver, Steinbrenner said, “You wouldn’t get me up on one of those for all the money in the world.”

“It’s just a ride,” the man said. “The guy is being towed by a boat. It’s nothing scary.”

“Don’t kid me,” Steinbrenner said. “I’ll tell you what. I bet you could get every guy on the team to put up $1,000 each just to get me up there, and then one of them would stand there with a rifle and—bang—shoot the glider.”

Steinbrenner howled with laughter.

FLORIDA DOWNS IS A small thoroughbred track near Tampa. Steinbrenner has a filly running in the ninth, and he wants to watch her, and he brings guests, a young couple from Long Island on vacation in Florida. He knows the filly is over her head in a stakes race, but he’s hoping she’ll place in the top three; he plans to retire her and make her a brood mare, and placing in a stakes race will up the ante.

Before pulling out, Steinbrenner combs his hair. His hair is scientifically exceptional; it never ruffles in the wind. Some people have accused him of wearing a toupee, but he doesn’t. He just has obedient hair. Perhaps he has threatened to fire it. After starting the car, Steinbrenner puts in a cassette of disco music. He loves disco music. The story is told that Steinbrenner once berated the Yankee Stadium electrician for testing out the sound system—at 11 A.M. with no one in the park, mind you—with a record that was not a disco record. Some stories are too good to try to confirm.

The track has a country fair feel. Hialeah it ain’t. In the infield there is what appears to be a swamp. Steinbrenner moves to the Turf Club. None of the little people on his way recognize him although he is wearing his championship ring with its diamond-studded “NY” logo the size of Venezuela. Are there no cabbies in West Florida?

Steinbrenner has been in horses for about seven years. Prior to that he didn’t know a hoof from a flank. But he is a quick study. Now he’s expert on bloodlines and configurations. He starts talking about forelocks and fetlocks and possibly warlocks. He has the seventh doped in minutes. It is, he says, a question of breeding. He likes 7-4-2 in the perfecta; the sires impress him.

“What do you like?” he asks the Long Island girl.

“I bet numbers and colors.”

“And what do you like?” Steinbrenner asks her husband.

“I bet names.”

“Names?”

“Yeah. I like First of Dawn.”

First of Dawn went wire-to-wire in mud, paying $25.60.

“Unreal,” Steinbrenner said.

“Unreal.”

Next race, the wife liked Purple Britches, and the husband liked a horse trained by someone named A. Fink. Steinbrenner bet the quinella, that the horses would finish one-two.

“The true test of a champion is to repeat,” he told the husband.

“Get a bushel basket for the winnings,” the husband said.

Purple Britches ran first, followed by Beta Broker, trained by A. Fink. The quinella paid $34.

On his way to the paddock. Steinbrenner passed a frozen custard stand. Ice cream, especially chocolate, is his weakness. He tells people that he loses control of his car within one mile of a Dairy Queen. “They go there on their own,” he says. “I can’t stop them. Automatic steering.” Steinbrenner carries about 12 pounds more than he ought to around his belt line.

They decide to get some ice cream after Steinbrenner’s horse finishes. In the program morning line she’s 20-1; she may not finish for days.

Over the public address system comes the announcement. “In the ninth race, Jenny’s Lady, three pounds over. Jenny’s Lady!’

Steinbrenner winces. His blue eyes ice over; it appears to be smoke coming out of his left ear.

“That’s no good,” he says.

Jenny’s Lady is his horse. She’s overmatched anyway. She’s a come-from-behind horse, and the track is muddy so she might not even want to run. Now, instead of carrying 119 pounds, she has to carry 122 because her jockey is three pounds over. Steinbrenner thinks it will cost him at least one length. He slams his program at a wall.

“Trainer’s fault. Sure, the boy should come in at weight, but it’s the trainer’s fault for not knowing about it.”

There is a Steinbrenner story that has him firing a trainer after an incident at this very track when the trainer told Steinbrenner that his horse would win, and it finished last. Steinbrenner didn’t like being lied to. If the horse is a mutt, he wants it straight.

The jocks come out to claim their mounts. The one wearing the blue and brown of Kinsman Stud Farm looks as if he’d just got off a police lineup.

“That yours, George?”

“He’s the one. I wanted him because he’s a veteran, and I thought this little girl needed a veteran.”

Steinbrenner glared at the little man. “He’ll never ride for me again.”

Jenny’s Lady went off at 60-1 and deserved it. She finished next to last.

On the way out of the track Steinbrenner passed the frozen custard stand. It was closed.

“I HAVE SHORTCOMINGS too, but I am the boss,” Steinbrenner says.

Reggie Jackson certifies it by calling Steinbrenner “Boss.” He wouldn’t call Steinbrenner “Boss” unless he meant it respectfully and affectionately.

“A wheeler-dealer,” Jackson says, smiling. They like each other. Steinbrenner stood with Jackson last season when Billy Martin tried to humiliate him; Steinbrenner identifies with his player. They share the pursuit of excellence and celebrity. They understand that controversy fills the seats. “That’s what it’s all about,” as Steinbrenner says. They also share a spirit; neither was born in New York City, and neither flourished until getting here. New York is a spotlight city. Each discovered that he liked it.

“An action guy, he needs a lot of action going to keep his interest. He bores easily. He likes his chauffeured limos and his night life; he likes to roll the dice,” Jackson says. He pauses. “I’ll say this, and I won’t apologize for it later—if George Steinbrenner were a ballplayer, he’d be like Reggie Jackson.”

Negatives are suggested; Jackson listens attentively as the list is recited: Steinbrenner goes through secretaries the way some men go through martinis. Steinbrenner sets people up to take a fall for him. Steinbrenner drives a hard bargain, and you wouldn’t want to get on his bad side because he never forgets and he can do to a man in public what some people wouldn’t even dream of doing in private.

Ruthless? No, Jackson says. A good businessman. Acute.

“But no matter what’s said about the man,” Jackson says, “George Steinbrenner brought pride back to this city. He foot the tab. That was his neck stuck all the way out there, not mine, not yours. So, it’s his party.”

Pep talks are part of the party. Steinbrenner believes in pep talks. “Once you’ve heard the first one or two, you can almost sleep through the others,” says Catfish Hunter. “He means well, but they always sound the same. It’s always how we’re embarrassing ourselves and embarrassing New York and baseball and the country. George tells us how he was a football coach, and how he was in locker rooms before we were born. It’s always, ‘I, this’ and ‘I, that.’ The way he talks, you think he thinks he could do a better job than the manager. He tells us that he never makes a mistake, and that we can’t either; he tells us that if he made mistakes, he wouldn’t be as successful in business as he is—hell, even he makes mistakes.”

At least two.

At least one monster.

The first was in Cleveland, in the early 60’s, when he went down the chute with the Cleveland Pipers of the old American Basketball League. The team won, but it didn’t draw. Steinbrenner, turning on that little blue spotlight, says that he was 10 years ahead of his time with pro basketball in Cleveland. He lost about $400,000 and was advised to go into bankruptcy, but didn’t. What he did do proved to be the single smartest business decision he ever made. Instead of taking his partners down with him, he paid off all nine of them and then worked to pay off every creditor the Pipers owed. That made his reputation as a businessman of his word.

“Now,” says Walter Knapp, president of Tampa Ship Repair, a subsidiary of American Ship Building, “George’s word is so good that if he said he needed $10 million to make a deal tomorrow, he’d have 10 guys with a million each lined up tonight.”

But Watergate was a loss, a total loss.

He tries shining the blue spotlight on it, but he doesn’t have enough amps.

Although he was the Democrats’ chief fund-raiser in 1969 and ’70, he played footsie with the Committee to Re-Elect the President in 1972. Steinbrenner’s businesses weren’t growing the way he felt they should; the Internal Revenue Service was doing an audit; Government contracts were being stalled. Steinbrenner reasoned that he was being targeted by Nixon’s men, so he decided it would be good business to do some business with the Republicans. He agreed to give $75,000 of his own money to the Nixon people, and he decided to give $25,000 of other people’s money to the Nixon people. What he did was give his employees bonuses, then instruct them to give those bonuses to the Nixon people.

“My lawyers told me it was perfectly legal. They gave me written and oral permission to do it,” Steinbrenner says.

It wasn’t legal.

One of his lawyers was John Melcher Jr. Melcher has since resigned from the bar as a result of “this mess,” as he calls it. Watergate, he says, was “a nightmare.” He says, “George wants someone to blame this thing on.”

Why did Steinbrenner get involved with the Committee to Re-Elect the President? “I wanted to do things that I thought were needed for the Great Lakes, for Cleveland, and I knew if I had some pop, or whatever you want to call it, I could do the things that I knew had to be done for the people, and that’s the truth,” Steinbrenner says.

On April 5, 1974—opening day of the baseball season—Steinbrenner was indicted on 14 counts of illegal actions pertaining to election fraud.

On April 19, he pleaded not guilty.

On Aug. 23, some time after retaining the legal counsel of Edward Bennett Williams, Steinbrenner pleaded guilty to one count of illegal campaign contributions and one count of aiding and abetting obstruction of an investigation. Through plea bargaining, Williams succeeded in getting the other counts dismissed. Steinbrenner paid a $15,000 fine for his felony conviction, and to this day he cannot vote.

Most of the other corporate heads caught in the Watergate slime got off with misdemeanors. Steinbrenner got the felony, he thinks, because he didn’t come in voluntarily. One might disagree. One might reason that he drew the felony because he obstructed the investigation. Although Steinbrenner insists that he never asked his employees to lie about their part in the contributions—maybe he didn’t; maybe they were just so scared that when he “remembered” what happened in one way, they found it easy to “remember” it the same way—there is sworn testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee that Steinbrenner called his employees together and urged them to misrepresent what really happened. That sworn testimony was given by his employees.

“Under extreme pressure by the prosecutors.” says Steinbrenner, who doesn’t like to talk about what he calls “the election incident.”

Further, before sentencing, Tom McBride, the assistant special prosecutor—”an honorable man,” says Steinbrenner—told the Federal judge that Steinbrenner knowingly and continually urged his employees to lie even after receiving advice from counsel that such action was illegal.

“I never asked them to lie,” Steinbrenner says to a reporter just before he tells the reporter to turn off his tape recorder. Steinbrenner’s version, the soft blue spotlighted version, is off the record.

Steinbrenner has come to cast himself in the good soldier perspective. That posture suggests that he took the heat for his friends, presumably some high-level political friends who couldn’t afford to have their soiled linen laundered in open court. Some prominent Democrats—some very prominent Democrats—will agree. Not that Steinbrenner has forgotten his conviction. On the contrary, he wears it tattooed on his psyche just as he wears his World Championship ring on his finger. He does not need to be reminded that he is a felon.

To be sure, there are those who say he look the heat only after running out of people to lay it off on, and that a corporate head’s most deadly sin is not having enough lay-off guys when the seat heats.

Perhaps what happened to Steinbrenner is that he followed his own personal business law until it conflicted with the rule of law—and then followed it some more. The rules of law are, arguably, constructed to blunt the “laws” of business. Steinbrenner has his legal advice neatly arranged in signed affidavits. He also has his conviction. It is written in black and while, which are not his shades, not at all.

ANOTHER PERSONAL THEORY: Numbers Count, Make It Big.

Like many businessmen, Steinbrenner speaks in numbers. He uses them to make points, which are numbers too.

He is fond of saying that 50 people per week stop him on the street and thank him for bringing the Yankees back. He is fond of saying that the Yankees were the first American League club in the 76-year history or the league to draw two million in home attendance and another two million in road attendance. He tells you that while the Yankees receive only one-26th of the revenue from major league baseball properties—balls, balls, T-shirts, etc.—the Yankees account for 17 percent of all sales. That live televised baseball has been bought by the Japanese this year under the stipulation that 16 of the 22 televised games feature the New York Yankees.

This strategy, when abused, leads to the indefensible posture that if you pour three quarts of béarnaise sauce on a quarter pounder, you will think you are eating chateau briand.

George Steinbrenner is a generous man. He has, in fact, done more things, spent more money, given more time to youth sports projects in New York City than any other sports executive in this city.

But it is a quality of Steinbrenner’s that he goes for superlatives where ordinarys will suffice. Every game is crucial. Every series is crucial. Good things are super or unreal. Catch him at a bad time, and he says it is positively the worst time.

“If something goes wrong,” says an employee, “you never get the chance to give the full explanation of why it went went wrong because you’re stupid. And what’s worse is that he says it in front of other people.”

In a recent week, Steinbrenner was in Tampa on a Monday, in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, in Cincinnati on Wednesday, in Boston on Thursday, in Miami on Friday and in New York on Sunday. On Saturday, even Steinbrenner doesn’t remember where he was.

“It’s such a rat race for the guy,” says Catfish Hunter. “He can’t even take a vacation. People like that never have any fun.”

IN HIS OFFICE AT Yankee Stadium, Steinbrenner has a large, round wooden table. His chair is the only one with a high back, like a throne. He’ll call a meeting and his staff will give reports. Brief reports. Steinbrenner has no patience with rambling.

“O.K., that’s enough,” he’ll say. “That’s a red flag area. Get me a memo on it. Next.”

Red-flag areas produce rules: Employees are to be at their desks for 30 minutes after a night game, back at work at 9:30 a.m.; employees must sign out for lunch and leave a telephone number.

“He treats his employees like they’re in elementary school,” a former employee says. “He treated Gabe Paul like a secretary.”

Gabe Paul, the former Yankee president, a man Steinbrenner described as “brilliant” last Oct. 17, is with the Cleveland Indians now.

The story of Gabe Paul is an example of how rough Steinbrenner can be. On the record, Steinbrenner praised him, gave him credit for putting the Yankees together, credit for keeping relative peace among Jackson, Munson, Martin and even Steinbrenner. Off the record, Steinbrenner told reporters that Paul’s health was failing, that he didn’t understand what Steinbrenner was trying to do with the team, that he did not really put the team together, that he—Steinbrenner—assisted on all trades, that he—Steinbrenner—kept the peace. Steinbrenner dangled Paul’s authority all season long, insisting that Paul would make the final decision on the hiring or firing of Martin, thus insuring a lay-off guy if needed. There were times when Paul was seen crying in his office from the strain that Steinbrenner put on him.

“I don’t mind Gabe leaving with his image intact,” Steinbrenner said this spring in Fort Lauderdale. “But he was in baseball for 40 years, 25 as a general manager, and did he ever win a pennant before? You think he made all those moves with this team himself? You think all of a sudden he got brilliant?”

When Steinbrenner was reminded that “brilliant” was the precise word he had used not six months before to describe Paul, he changed course and flipped on something soft and blue.

“A brilliant baseball man, yes,” Steinbrenner said. “But he was getting old. Look, let him have his image if he wants it. I won’t say anything bad about Gabe. Maybe I was too hard on him. Maybe I hurt him. If I did, I’m sorry.”

Shoot first, apologize later.

Steinbrenner calls this tendency a dent in his armor.

What’s next for Steinbrenner?

Some of his close friends say he wants a Kentucky Derby winner real bad, that he’ll spend progressively more time with his horses, and back off the Yankees. But Steinbrenner devotes only about 25 percent of his time now to the Yankees, and he is unlikely to give up his main source of celebrity. The Yankees are still “a challenge” to him. Rich people use that word, “challenge.” Little guys, when they switch jobs, say, from the phone company to selling insurance, say they did it for “money.”

George Steinbrenner wants to be the most powerful man in baseball. Not the commissioner, mind you, just the most powerful. An example of that want lies in what he said when he planned to raise his minor league players’ salaries high above the minimum allowed, just to provide them with what he called “a decent standard of living, to show them we care.”

“The rule says you’re paying too much,” his farm director told Steinbrenner.

“Screw the rule.” Steinbrenner said. “We’ll make a new rule.”

One last story:

Twice in the last five minutes Steinbrenner had picked up the phone in his spring training office expecting to hear Ted Turner’s voice on the other end. Twice, the line had gone dead.

Steinbrenner buzzed the secretary in charge of telephones.

The secretary, mindful—ever mindful—that Steinbrenner is not a patient man, apologized.

He was waiting for Turner because Turner owns the Atlanta Braves, and Steinbrenner wanted Turner as a signatory on a letter he was drafting, a letter supporting the Commissioner of Baseball. In recent weeks, a small group of owners—notably Ray Kroc of San Diego and Brad Corbett of Texas—were trying to get Bowie Kuhn ousted as commissioner. Steinbrenner considered the move “ill-conceived.”

There arc two significant groups of baseball owners. One is the Young Turks. This coterie has been formed primarily by Steinbrenner and includes Ruly Carpenter of Philadelphia, Bob Lurie of San Francisco, Bud Selig of Milwaukee, Peter O’Malley of Los Angeles, Clark Griffith of Minnesota and Dan Galbreath of Pittsburgh. Significantly, O’Malley, Griffith and Galbreath are sons of owners who might logically be called the Old Turks. The Young Turks claim to stand for constructive change in baseball; the Old Turks basically stand for the National Anthem. Included among the Old Turks are such owners as Gussie Busch or St. Louis, M. Donald Grant of the Mets and Jerry Hoffberger of Baltimore. With Tom Yawkey of Boston and Phil Wrigley of Chicago now deceased, the Old Turks have lost significant power. They depend on such maverick owners as Bill Veeck of the While Sox, Brad Corbett of Texas and Ray Kroc of San Diego to blunt the Steinbrenner group, but Steinbrenner & Company seem to hold the trump cards now. Steinbrenner and Turner, who once tampered with another team’s player prior to a free agent draft, are the only owners Kuhn has ever suspended. Neither figures to support him; Kuhn would be well advised to bring a food taster should he go to dinner with Steinbrenner and Turner.

“Mr. Steinbrenner,” the secretary said, “Mr. Turner on 22.”

With considerable skepticism, Steinbrenner pushed the button.

“Ted, old guy, how are you?”

There followed a remarkable conversation, which clearly demonstrated Steinbrenner’s fund-raising capability. Within 10 minutes, Steinbrenner had persuaded Turner to become a signatory. He assured Turner that the letter in no way supported Kuhn personally, but supported the Office of Commissioner, which should be safe from attack. He congratulated Turner on his America’s Cup triumph, throwing in a few “supers” and a few “unreals” as he marveled at Turner’s ability to turn a yawner of a boat race into front page news worldwide. He reminded Turner he had lobbied for his reinstatement to full ownership privileges at the recent major league meetings. He told Turner that he was the kind of owner baseball needed; he said the Young Turks of baseball ownership really liked him and he could count on their continued support. He even told Turner that late at night, at his home in Tampa, he can get Turner’s Atlanta television station.

“Those are great ads you’ve got on for the Braves. Ted, I swear I saw them. Last night, when you were running that movie. ‘Mister Roberts’ with Jimmy Cagney. I saw it. Honest to God.”

By the end of their conversation Turner would have made out a blank check payable to Kuhn and had Steinbrenner fill in the amount.

“We needed him on that letter, you know,” Steinbrenner said to his visitor after the call. “The other guys knew it, but they were afraid to ask for his support. Not me.”

Steinbrenner leaned back and smiled. In the back of the room, a soft, blue spotlight was shining.

The Banter Gold Standard: The Last Swinger

This one here is a beaut. “The Last Swinger,” Tom Junod’s 1996 Tony Curtis profile for GQ (April). It appears here with the author’s permission.

Dig in and enjoy!

“The Last Swinger”

By Tom Junod

SO THERE’S THIS TREE OUTSIDE SPAGO, the restaurant in Los Angeles where Tony Curtis eats almost every night of the week. It’s a lemon tree, or a lime tree, something like that, with dark, shiny leaves and a peppery smell that softens the shrill air off Sunset, and it’s so beautiful that when I walked underneath it, my hand jumped automatically into its branches and clutched a hard green ball of fruit. I had just finished my first meal with Tony, and he was walking behind me with his girlfriend, Jill Vanden Berg, this strapping 25-year-old triumph of a blonde whom he had addressed, back in the restaurant, as “you goddess of love, you twin tower of desire, you two tons of vanilla ice cream, you.”Jill was having some trouble navigating the inclined sidewalk in the five-inch spike heels that made her roughly the size of a power forward, so I didn’t think Tony was watching me, but the second my fingers closed around that piece of fruit, and I mean the very second, I heard his voice, and it said, “Take it.”

Well, of course. He is Tony Curtis, after all, a man who pronounces his own name in italics, and he is alert to any instance of appetite, however idle, and now, with Jill on his arm, he came tilting and listing down the concrete and stopped in front of the tree. He indicated the fruit with a feint of his chin and shrugged with a quick, smarting grimace of impatience and indulgence. “Take it, take it,” he said again, with a heavy click of his consonants, and when I had done it, when I had broken the fruit from its branch and stashed it in my pocket, he sang the little tune, “Hey bop a rebop,” that strays to his lips whenever he’s happy or just wants to get things moving or wants to show the world that he, Tony Curtis, still has something to say about desire, and what a man’s obligated to do with it.

“I LIKE YOU,” TONY SAYS TO me at the bar at Spago. “You don’t want to know how big my dick is, and you don’t want to know who I fucked and who I didn’t fuck.” Then he changes his voice into the hoarse, booming whisper of a man in the habit of exchanging public confidence and adds, “Although just between you and me, my friend, I fucked them all!” Then he sips from the glass of vodka and Diet Coke he uses to wash down his various and sundry medicines, and slurps the silvery meniscal top off his shot of Patrón tequila, and laughs his great silly, twisting laugh, which always seems to start out as a gambit, a challenge of some sort, and then just keeps going, rising into one thing giddy and wild, a high hacking whinny that mines the mirth from his very bones—”Ha! Ha ha! Ha ha hee hee hoo hoo hoooooo….”

And why not? You were him, you’d laugh, too. Tony Curtis! He’s fucked them all; he’s fucked everybody, and here we are, another night on the town with old T.C., because guess what? He still fucks! He’s 70 year old, and he should be fucking dead, so virtuosic has he been in pursuit of his own corruption, and he still gets laid! “Am I not a fucking miracle?” he says. “Look at me! Look at the scars I got! I am a motherfucker, aren’t I?”

You can’t really see the scars, of course, because right now he’s in his black Armani suit, and his scooped-neck T-shirt that displays his floury ascot of chest hair, and his green suede shoes with the two-inch heels, and his long gray scarf swung rakishly around his neck, and his gold Chevalier medal from the French Ministry of Culture pinned heroically to his lapel—but they’re there, my friend, they’re there, all pink and shiny where they dug out his cancerous prostate…where they cracked open his sternum and garlanded his heart with the vein snatched from the length of his leg…where for ten years he ransacked his nose with all the major pollutants, cocaine, heroin, the works…where his crazy mother put his balls through the wringer…where his beloved little brother got run over by a truck…where his other little brother went nuts and wound up picking garbage off the street of Hollywood…and where, dear God, he lost his son, his son, his beloved son. Hell, the list is long: the list is endless; Tony’s a freaking amalgam of his wounds, and yet here he is—enjoying himself! Having fun! Offering the world instruction in the art of celebrity! At Spago, which he pronounces with a long, dawdling stress on the first syllable! With Jill, that gadzookian dish!

“Why, hello, darling,” he says to Jill, in a voice insinuating the thrill of discovery, even though Jill walked through the door with him, in a white fur that made her look like some exotic winter game, and even though for the past five minutes he has been standing next to him at the bar, drinking from a tulip glass of Champagne. “Hello, tateleh. Oh, you lovely creature. You look so beautiful tonight. So fresh! So young!”

“I thought you said I was getting older looking,” Jill says. She is on the long side of five-eleven in bare feet and six-five in her heels, and when she slips out of her fur, she is wearing a skintight dress of pearlescent vinyl whose high hem continually gooses her epic ass and make her legs loom like the pillars astride the gates of an ancient city. She has hair of Harlowesque platinum, and a beauty mark dabbed on her cheek, and lips surrounded by a dark border, and small, perfect sandblasted features, and skin of such powdery phosphorescent pallor that she seems to walk forever in the blanching nimbus of a flashbulb.

“Younger!” Tony says. “I said you were looking younger.”

“I thought I was getting too old for you,” Jill says, and although she is large, her voice is small and sad, a fretful coo that issues from a face as still as sculpture.

“You’re only 25!” Tony says. “Now, maybe when you’re 35, maybe then—but c’mon, darling, let’s enjoy it while we can! We have a lot of good years left!”

No, not for him, not for T.C., some old broad on his arm with nothing left in her eyes but forever. “Can you imagine me with a woman old enough to be my wife?” he once told me. “No, really. I’m serious. Can you imagine me walking into Spago with a 70-year-old woman? Forget it. Fuck that! I don’t have that spirit. My girlfriend is 25 years old—perfect.” See, there’s something about a woman just making her way in the world—”the smell, the taste: There’s a juice there that’s very important”—and these days when Tony walks into Spago with Jill on his arm, man, heads fucking swivel. Yeah, sure, they’re looking at Jill, but they’re looking at him too, because “you got to be something to walk with Jill. Shows you the kind of courage I got. And women love me now more than ever. They look at that fucking girl I’m with—’Look at that 25-year-old girl with that old fucking guy. Whoo! What does he do with his dick?'”

And that’s Tony Curtis for you: Not only does he still fuck—he still wants to show ’em; he still wants to own the room; he still wants. He’s the Last Swinger. The rest of them—that race of men who understood in their guts that the Big War had broken the world wide open and that America was going to stand up and applaud the guy with the balls to make a show not only of his talent but of his appetite—have either been killed off, like Sammy and poor Dino, or appeased, like Sinatra, an honored and honorable geezer at last. Tony’s the only one left, the only one clinging to dishonor, an embarrassment of carnality—the sly old satyr, unsated. You know how much more living he’s done than anyone else? Well, you can add it up. He’s made 112 movies—a lot of them shit but a lot of them an amplification of his experience, all of the life, as in “When you’re making Some Like It Hot and Marilyn Monroe sticks her tongue in your mouth all the way down to your navel, that’s not moviemaking, my friend, that’s life.”

He’s painted something like 1,500 paintings. He’s had four wives. He’s had six children—and now five. He’s had enough lovers to qualify him, in his own estimation, as “the greatest cocksman to ever come down the pike, man.” There’s no story he hasn’t heard, no lie he hasn’t told, no body buried in Hollywood he doesn’t know where, no vice he hasn’t afforded himself. You’d think he would be full by now, but no…look around. Tony’s everywhere; he’s as current as any of the trash celebrities: He’s showing up at Cannes, he’s out dancing with Jill, he’s mugging for the paparazzi, he’s hanging out with porn stars, he’s going to the birthday parties for Timothy Leary and Richard Pryor (“I love the guys who are gonna check out soon; they make me feel better”), he’s crashing parties, he’s telling people off…and now, at Spago, down two tequilas and his medicinal vodka and Diet Coke, he’s making his way from the bar to a table, his table, and offering his check to the crones and cronies who populate the place, “Kiss, kiss, dahlink.”

Then he sits down and orders “corn on the cob with the truffles, Caesar salad and a half order of sushi tuna, no avocado and bring it all out at once. Yes, yes, that’s how you eat, isn’t it? Everything on the table. Yes! Entrée the same time as the appetizer!” The waiter brings him another shot, and Tony starts talking about the dream he had a few nights earlier, a dream in which he goes to some posh party and is crucified in front of Jack Lemmon, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Robert Wagner, et al. Thing is, all those guys, they’re all smiling and laughing at the spectacle of Tony on the cross—”They thought it was a good idea, and so did I.” Then Tony’s corn comes, along with the salad—”Now bring the entrée! Good! Good!”—and a strange thing happens, the kind of thing that happens to Tony all the time: He looks up and purses his Cupid’s lips into a cagey smile enfolds his arms across his chest like a stricken fan and says, “As I live and breathe, if it isn’t R.J. Wagner.” And it is—fresh from the crucifixion, it’s Robert Wagner, whom Tony had called R.J. for forty-some-odd-years, and he’s wearing his president-of-the-Protestant-frat-circa-1962 getup, turtleneck and tweedy jacket, and he leans over and smiles and shakes Tony’s hand, but he doesn’t stop, not really, not long enough to talk, and when he is gone, I say, “My God, does that man ever age?”

And Tony, wiping a crumb from his lips, says, “No, he’s the same old man he was when he was 24.”

Then Jill St. John walks by, in Wagner’ wake. “Hi,Tony,” she says.

“Hi, Jill.”

“Hi Jill,” Jill St. John says to Jill Vanden Berg.

“Hi, Jill.”

Then she sits down at another table, and Tony’s face goes sour. “Jill St. John,” he says. “What a sack of shit.”

And Jill straightens up and pats Tony’s hand and says, “Now, Tony, be nice.”

But Tony is not nice. He can he generous and kind and charming, but he is not nice; he has never been nice, because from from the start he has been involved in the act of creation, and from the start he has understood that in order to create, you have to he willing to destroy.

HE CREATED HIMSELF, OF COURSE. He created Tony Curtis. He wanted to be Tony Curtis, but he was not Tony Curtis, he was Bernie Schwartz, a Hungarian Jew living in the back of his father’s tailor shop on the East Side of Manhattan and later in the Bronx. He had a mother who beat the shit out of him, and a little brother, Julie, who followed him around, and an awareness that not only he, Bernie Schwartz, was beautiful, but that his beauty was somehow incompatible with Bernie Schwartz in the place where Bernie had to live. “All the beautiful people leave their neighborhoods,” he says now. “And you know why? Because they don’t have to stay there! Beauty is America’s lottery, and celebrity is America’s royalty. That’s just the way it goes, just the way it is, and there’s nothing anyone can do to deny that.”

He began taking his leave one day when he was 13. He was out running around with his buddies, and Julie was tagging along. “Get the fuck out of here,” Bernie Schwartz said. “Go find your own friends.” Julie walked away, and on his way home, alone, he walked in front of a truck. He was 9 years old. His mother demanded that Bernie be the one to go to the hospital and identify him. Julie was still alive, in a coma, and Bernie whispered in his ear and told him he loved him. He died the next day, and so Bernie started going down to the East River to pray, to beseech God to allow him to see his brother, just once, just for a moment, their little secret, their little deal. But no, Julie Schwartz—perhaps the only person Bernie had ever loved enough to stay for—was gone, and so Bernie Schwartz was free to go.

He went out to Hollywood after the navy, after the war. Sure, he was still legally Bernie Schwartz, and he still had a mouthful of Bernie’s rotten teeth—but he already had Tony Curtis’s hairstyle, and he was already wearing his shirts just the way Tony Curtis would, with the open collar…and pretty soon he got his teeth capped, each and every one…and pretty soon Universal put him under contract…and pretty soon, when he went back to New York after his first movie, he told the limo driver to go by the theater where he had taken some acting courses. And there he saw Walter Matthau standing in the rain, and he rolled down the window and he shouted, “Hey, Walter! I fucked Yvonne De Carlo!”

What a benediction! But was it Bernie Schwartz who fucked her? No, it couldn’t have been. It had to have been Tony Curtis, because that’s who he was now—and it was Tony Curtis who married Janet Leigh; Tony Curtis who was voted the biggest box-office star four years in a row; Tony Curtis who made nearly four movies a year, “movies that were made for $200,000, that grossed 2½ million each, on tickets that cost a quarter. I was fucking King Kong! I could’ve eaten the world!”

Tony Curtis never got away from the Schwartzes, though. They followed him. His mother, his father and Bobby, the brother born after Julie’s death—they followed him to Hollywood, and they lived there, and his mother demanded that Tony take care of Bobby and get him into the movies. Oh, poor Bobby, he was crazy from his schizophrenia—but his mother, she was crazy from rancor, from malice. Nothing satisfied her—nothing. “Those were miserable fucking days,” Tony says. “My marriage to Janet started to deteriorate. I mean, give us a fucking break! Why wouldn’t we at the end of the day’s shooting close the doors and the windows, put up a sign: NOBODY BOTHER THEM. Why couldn’t I just say, ‘Hi, Mom. How much money do you need, Mom? Thirty-eight dollar for new suit? Then buy it. Leave me the fuck alone! Leave me the fuck alone! Leave me the fuck alone!’

He couldn’t do it—stay in his marriage, take care of his bother, any of it. Tony wasn’t built for endurance, you see; he was built for escape. He’d tried, in his fashion, to take care of Bobby, but often that meant farming him out—to friends; to other, lesser actors; to a guy like Nicky Blair. Yeah, that’s what Tony would do—he’d give Bobby to Nicky, and he’d be sure to get Nicky a part in the next Tony Curtis feature. Sometimes, though, Bobby would do some crazy thing, like leaving the hospital, living in the streets like a bag man, just to make Tony find him, just to make Tony prove that he loved him. “I felt bad about Bobby; I still feel bad about Bobby. But he’s one of the victims. You know? One of the victims. One of the ones that didn’t get away. Some get away; some don’t. Every family has that.”

And when Bobby Schwartz died, in 1993, Tony Curtis hadn’t seen him in five years.

“YOU KNOW WHAT HAPPINESS is?” Tony says. “I’ll show you what happiness is!”

He opens the door of his garage. He is wearing what he usually wears when he isn’t wearing his black suit–white shorts and a white muscle T-shirt and Birkenstocks, and of course, the accoutrement he is never without, his armature of hair, fashioned out of some spun silver alloy. He’s looking good, Tony Curtis is. He’s looking healthy, vital. He has thick, strong arms and thick, strong legs—one of them striped ankle to groin by his scar—and a body that bespeaks abundance, like a sack used in the plunder of a rich man’s house. He is no longer beautiful. His face is atavistic. His blue eyes have turned milky, and his nose is fat, and he no longer looks like the perpetual boy, the charmed and charming tagalong, but at last like a man who wears his life right on his kisser—and who has earned the right to tell me what happiness is.

There are two cars in the garage—a silver Camaro Z28 with a black convertible roof, and a white Firebird Trans Am with a blue convertible roof. They are both limited editions, and on the dashboard of each is a brass plaque that say, BUILT ESPEClALLY FOR TONY CURTIS. “Look at these fuckers!” Tony says. “Hee hee hee hee! Fuck Cadillacs! Happiness is having these two cars—it’s freedom!” He puts on a black leather jacket and a pair of leather driving gloves—he never drives anywhere without gloves—and a flat-brimmed Stetson, and we get in the Trans Am, whose passenger seat is littered with loose compact discs. (“Tony what kind of music do you listen to?” “Rap, man.”) Then we go. Tony likes to go. He likes to drive fast. He’s had eighty cars, “every car anybody would ever desire…Buick convertible, Dynaflow drive…Facel Vega…Ferrari…Aston Martin…that small Bentley…the Rolls and the Bentley…Maserati…all the Mercedes…every Firebird ever made”—and now here he is, on the freeway, eighty, eighty-five, ninety miles per hour, in a car without license plates, but what does he care? The cops stop him all the time, but they don’t give him tickets, once they see who he is, once they see that he’s Tony Curtis. “I’ve been privileged, I know. Do you know what kind of life I’ve had? And I still can’t get enough of it! I can’t get enough of it, my friend! The living, everything. Just what I’m doing with you now. I love it. I love driving down the fucking freeway!”

Do you know what kind of life he’s had? A few year ago, he was standing at a urinal, in France, and a man asked him if he was Tony Curtis. Tony said yes, he was. The man asked if he had fucked Marilyn Monroe. Tony said yes, he had. Then the man asked if he could kiss his dick, because he wanted to kiss the dick that had been inside Marilyn Monroe. “I said, ‘Get the fuck out of here.’ So he says, ‘Well, can I touch it then?'” That’s the kind of life he’s had. You know, people think that back in the ’50s. the Beats, Kerouac and all them were the pioneers. Well, fuck the Beats! When the Beats were off playing bongo drums, Tony was fucking starlets at the Château Marmont at 5:30 in the morning! Tony was the pioneer! He did eat the world! Tony was a Face Man of America! What, you never heard of the Face Men? Well, they were a group of guys—a club of sorts, consisting of Tony and Sammy and Frank and Dean and Jerry Lewis, guys like that, yeah, Nicky Blair, him too—dedicated to the art of eating pussy. “We were the harbingers of the future. I’m sure going down on girls was passed on and on and on, but we brought it to a new height of elegance—nobody was ashamed of it anymore. We had dinners. We had cards: ‘This is to certify that Tony Curtis is a member of the Face Men of America. ‘Yoo-hoo! I love it! I fucking love it!”

He used to dress up in costumes, like a sheikh or something, with sword and turban, when he made love to women. He used to hide in the closet and leave tape-recorded instructions for his lovers on his dining room table—”‘Hello, Gladys. I’m glad you made it. Lock the door behind you, dear. Go into the bedroom; put on something comfortable.’… Listen, they loved it! I’d laugh them into their orgasms.” He had his share of starlets, of course, but he preferred secretaries, strippers, porn stars. Then he began living with Jill, and he simplified. He didn’t want to squander himself, because his potency…well, his potency is hard-won, if you want to know the truth. See, when he had his prostate removed he learned that “with this operation, 50 or 60 percent of the time men will become completely impotent. I was not in that group, but I still had difficulty with erections. But then as time went on, I found I was becoming stronger and some of the women I went with excited me…and then they came up with some shots you could give yourself to the penis which will give you an erection. The doctor told me, ‘This injection will give you an erection for two hours.’ I said, ‘Doctor, that will be one hour and fifty-seven minute longer than I’ve ever had!'”

He starts to laugh. We are driving down the freeway as he tells me this—for as it happens, we are driving down the freeway whenever we talk about sex, or rather, we talk about sex whenever we are driving down the freeway—and his foot is on the gas, and he starts to speed, and what I hear above the Trans Am’s mad chatter, is this: “Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha! Yee-hee-hee-hoooo!”

AN ETERNAL ERECTION! WELL, WHY NOT? With the way he takes care of himself, and the medicines they have these days, maybe he’ll get away with it, all this giddy venery—maybe he’ll just go on forever—with the prostaglandins for his putz and the Prozac for his psyche, and the Percocet for his aches and pains, and the Patrón for his overall sense of bonhomie. Moderation in medication: That’s what Tony practices now, and some nights, when it’s late and he’s out dancing, he’ll drain another shot of Patrón and tell you that he’s finally found what he’s been looking for, and that secret is perpetual inebriation—a way of drinking all night long that neither violates his elegant equilibrium nor means that he is an alcoholic on his way to the abyss he once called home.

Yeah, the abyss, man, the gutter: Tony lived there, or pretty damned close to it, for nearly ten years. And do you know why. Because he got scared. He got desperate. He started hating everything, hating life itself. It happened in the ’70s, when Tony was closing in on 50, and that milestone, he says, “was like something obscene. It was like something that should be killed, that should be put away…My fucking looks went; everything went. My hair was falling out in handfuls. I was sick; I lost all my humor, I had no sense of myself, reality, anybody—I wouldn’t talk to anybody. I was so fucking mean and arrogant, because I was losing it, and I knew I was losing it, and I didn’t want to share that loss with anybody.” So he did cocaine. It made him feel like himself again, like Tony Curtis, omnipotent, unable to make a mistake, beyond consequence—he couldn’t possibly foresee that he would wind up stumbling around Hollywood, fainting in his own spittle, sleeping in the backseat of his Trans Am, as lost in his own way as his poor crazy brother Bobby was in his. He couldn’t possibly foresee that he would start freebasing. He couldn’t possibly foresee that he would start snorting and smoking heroin, the ultimate death drug, although he never shot it, thank God….

“Heroin?” I say, the first time he tells me all this. “I have, hard time believing that Tony Curtis did a drug like heroin.”

“Heroin!” Tony says. And then, suddenly, “That’s what killed my son! That’s what killed my son! That’s what killed my son!”

WE DRIVE TO HIS STUDIO, in an industrial park somewhere in the Valley. He wants me to see it because it moves him, this place where he stores most of his paintings and most of the shadow boxes he has obsessively and compulsively assembled. Imagine: You walk into an enormous windowless room, and the first thing you see are his paintings, dozens, maybe hundreds of them, big, quick, color-crazed still lifes—a goblet on a table, with a bottle of wine and a bowl of fruit—in the style of Matisse. Then you see his boxes, hundreds of them too…then his hooks, and his photographs, and the statues he’s collected, and the paintings he’s bought from other artists, and a genuine Warhol Marilyn, and an assortment of memorabilia from his movies and a show box of old colognes, and a jar of old toothbrushes, and some tape measures, some crystal goblets, some pipes, an old box camera, a shoe-shine kit, albums of press clippings, bowls of balls, books of cocktail recipes, hairbrushes, paintbrushes, pens, screws, shot glasses, thread, flashlights, pieces of quartz, pieces of flint, cigarette lighters, playing cards, scales, shoehorns, starfish. Scotch tape, eyeglass cases, watches, watch straps, luggage, locks, old shaving kits and marbles, marbles everywhere, like crumbs in a neglected kitchen. And none of this stuff has just been tossed here, either—no, what makes the place haunting is Tony’s proprietorship of it: the fact that, as he says, “there’s nothing in here I haven’t touched; there’s nothing I haven’t arranged, personally.” Indeed, as he walks around now in his muscle tee and his white shorts and his black leather jacket, that’s what he starts doing with this infinity of artifacts: he starts fiddling with them, adjusting them, rearranging them, a half inch here, a quarter inch there, until everything within reach of his pale and mottled hand is just so… “My boxes, this studio—I like them to happen the way the universe happened,” Tony says. “You know? Out of the big bang, everything flew away, and it’s like I’m trying to put it all back together…perfect, just the way it was.”

The big bang! Tony is his own big bang. Wherever he goes, he brings the blast with him….and then he tries to gather everything he has scattered, chasing the ash that falls from the sky. He has had four wives, and he severed himself from them with childlike concision: “I don’t like you. I don’t want to be married to you anymore. You make me mad. You displease me.” He has, or had, two children from each of his first three marriages: first Kelly and Jamie Lee, then Alexandra and Allegra, and then his sons. Benjamin and Nicholas…but nothing can be made completely whole once it has been blown apart; nothing can be just the way it was, unless of course it is something that Tony can catch, collect and place wherever it pleases him. He loves objects, you see. He believes in them, and when Tony is lonely, he does not often depend on the messy solace of human contact—no, he’d rather come here, to the studio, to find succor in the detritus of the lives he’s led, and the lives he’s left.

“C’mere,” Tony says. “I want to show you something.” We go into a little side room where he keeps some of his best boxes and his best marbles. He has been collecting marbles since he was a child; they are his Rosebuds, he says, these pieces of glass he took from his playmates because he was better at the game than they were and because that’s the way it is with Tony, and has alway been: Whatever it is you’ve got, he wants, and whatever it is you want, he’s got. l pick up a fat one, one of the shooters, an “immie.” It is radiantly blue—as blue as sapphire, as blue, perhaps, as Tony’s eyes were when he won it—and when Tony sees it, he says, “The guy who owned this marble is probably 80 years old. And yet the marble looks as though it’s never been used. See? An object can defy time, if it’s perfect.”

Then he closes my hand around it. “I want you to have it,” he says. “Happiness is a blue immie.”

NICHOLAS CURTIS WAS NOT PERFECT. “There was,” Tony says, “something unfinished about Nicholas—unfinished perhaps in his brain, that only in the high of cocaine and heroin did he achieve that moment of omnipotence, that moment of ‘Shit, man, I’ve got it all together—I can paint now; I can play my music now.'” An artist and a dreamer, he did not have what Tony has—the survivor’s carapace of selfishness and moxie—and in the summer of 1994, he shot himself in the arm, and just like that, he was one of them, one of the victims, and his father was now one of them, too: one of those forced to make a passage through the world of grief. Oh, sure, Tony had experienced loss before, but when Nicholas died, “that was a devastation. It was more than just a shock; it knocked me out from under my feet.”

His grief enfeebled him. He went to bed after the funeral, and he couldn’t get up—until, of course, one day he got hungry and went out to eat, and he had, he says, a bad experience with Billy Wilder: “We were having dinner one night at Spago. And as I came in, I saw him and I knelt down by him for a moment, and he said, ‘How are you, Tony?’ I said, ‘Billy, my son died. My son Nicholas died.’ This was just a week or so after. ‘He died of an overdose of heroin.’ Billy said to me, ‘He learned it from you.’ I just—it took my breath away. My breath was taken away. I felt terrible. Maybe I felt that it was my responsibility and I didn’t fulfill it, and my son is dead, and I was responsible for it.”

THE SECOND TIME I WENT TO SPAGO with Tony, we met his son Benjamin at the bar, and Tony put his hand on both our shoulders and said, “My sons, my two good sons. He drank three or four shots of Patrón and offered one in toast to Benjamin, a 23-year-old man whose wife is pregnant with a child whose name will be Nicholas.

When we sat down at his table—Tony and Jill, Benjamin and his wife, Nancy, and me—Tony said, “Look at us! We’re in the highest-priced piece of real estate—the most coveted piece of real estate—in the city, the country, the world!” He ordered the corn with truffles and the sushi tuna with no avocado and asked the waiter to bring everything to the table at the same time. And then he talked about Dean Martin and how Dean, after the death of his own son Dino, “lost interest in living”—and how when Dean ate at the same restaurant every night in Beverly Hills, it was not so much for a meal as it was for a nightly exhumation. Dean Martin, Tony said, “was a third-rate singer” who understood that the key to success was not talent but presentation: “His whole act was to make people think he didn’t care about anything, when in reality he cared too much.”

How much did Tony care? What kind of man chooses to die after the death of a son, and what kind of man chooses to live, furiously, impudently, with a Trans Am and a Z28 and a medal from the French government? Did his miraculous rebirth after Nicholas’s overdose signify a warm man or a cold man, a man full of life or a man who is, in some fundamental way, deficient? I asked this question of his first wife, Janet Leigh, and she answered that Tony “can absolutely bury something, so that it doesn’t exist,” and by something she meant almost anything—a marriage, a friendship, a memory, a misgiving, the past itself. And while I did not think that he could so easily bury his sense of culpability in the death of Nicholas, I began to wonder if whatever it was inside him that enabled him to walk away from his families in the first place—whatever gave him an almost unrivaled capacity to disappoint the people who loved him—was precisely what enabled him to go on living with such profligate force and now, as we got up to go, deliver a birthday cake to a table of strangers and kiss the elderly celebrant’s hand before helping her blow out the candles.

IT IS MY LAST NIGHT WITH HIM, and his heel is killing him. He does not know why, he didn’t even do anything, but the pain is such that when he pulls up to the restaurant—it’s not Spago tonight; it’s Drai’s, Tony’s other place—he can barely get out of the Z28, and he has to lean against Jill to get to his table, which is no problem, because Jill is so fucking big, so fucking strong, she could carry him to the table if she had to. And doesn’t Jill look wonderful tonight? Look at her, in her spike heels, and her white fur, and her blue vinyl dress, and her night sky of costume jewelry. She grew up in San Diego, dreaming of being glamorous, and that’s what Tony has encouraged her to be, allowed her to be, and when they sit down at their table—Jill sitting as always on Tony’s left, next to his good ear; Jill wiping crumbs from Tony’s lips—he says, “Oh, I love you much. You’re such a friend to me. I don’t know what I’d do without you. Do you know that? I don’t know what I’d do without you. You’re so up-to-date! You’re ’96—in your mind, your body, your heart, your soul! Your saliva gives me strength to live!”

She answers him as she alway does: by exhibiting a light flush, by whispering, “Oh, Tony,” by giving her shoulders a tiny shake, by squeezing her lips into a pout, by searching Tony’s eye with a look of flickering and wary belief. Oh, she is so vulnerable, Jill is, and that is why she reminds Tony of Marilyn, and that is why Tony goes nuts when people laugh at her. That’s right: Sometimes Jill will stand up in a restaurant, and certain Hollywood people, like Jackie Collins and her fiancé, that fucking Frank Calcagnini, will laugh, right out loud, practically to Jill’s face, the way people used to laugh at Marilyn. Of course, they’re laughing at him too—they’re laughing at Tony, the way they’ve always laughed at Tony, behind his back. But you know what? He used to take it. Now, thanks to Jill and the courage she gives him, he walked right up to Collins and Calcagnini and said, “Fuck you.” And it felt good! He liked saying it—liked it so much that he says it all the time!

People magazine put me on their Ten Worst Dressed List. I wrote them a letter. ‘Dear People magazine: Fuck you. Tony Curtis.’ They gave Sinatra a party not too long ago; we weren’t invited—I took it as a personal affront. Then I ran across her one day, the woman who gave the party. ‘Hi, Tony!’ I didn’t acknowledge her; I didn’t even pay attention to her. On the way out, she says, ‘Tony, aren’t you going to say hello?’ I said, ‘Fuck you! You give a party for Sinatra; you don’t invite me?’ Can you believe me saying that? But Jill says, ‘Good for you. Good for you.'”

He is free. He does not have to worry about damaging his career, because he damaged his career, irreparably, long ago. He does not have to worry about sabotaging friendships, because Hollywood friendships are something he disavows: “I hang with nobody. Fucking nobody!” Let’s face it: He’s never been accepted in Hollywood, he’s never gotten his due. Maybe because he was too pretty, maybe because he was too arrogant, maybe because he was too Jewish in a town full of “Jews who want to be Aryans”—who knows why, but he can name them all, all those who slighted him all those who treated him like a little fucking boy: Henry Fonda, Peter O’Toole, Laurence Harvey, oh, the Brits especially those grand, godlike Shakespeareans…. But fuck it. Fuck them. They used to bother him, but they don’t anymore, because he’s never going to be what this town wants him to be: He’s never going to be the elder statesman, he’s never going to be respectable, he’s never going to golf at the Hillcrest Country Club, he’s never going to walk into Spago with some brave old broad on his arm, and he’s never going to be given some Academy Award for lifetime achievement, although if he were, you know what he’d do! He’d turn it down. “I’d say, ‘You didn’t give me one for Sweet Smell of Success, you didn’t give me one for Some Like It Hot. You think that just because you decided to recognize the little Jewboy he’s going to come running! No fucking way!'”

HE IS NOT BITTER. No, not Tony. He just wants to disconnect himself from the past, because Tony Curtis cannot be about the past—he must be about the present and the future. “Have you noticed something about my life?” he asks me. “The way I live and everything? Because I’m like that kid again in New York—all I need is one good break. I’m due, double due and overdue. I’m always waiting for that next picture, that next thing.” He doesn’t stop, because he can’t stop. He is the Man Who Ate the World, and for his pleasure, this is his penance, his curse, his sentence: to keep going, to keep eating, drinking, dancing, working, fucking, living, because once he stops, all that’s left is the cost, all that’s left is the reckoning, and he’s faced enough of that already to know he doesn’t want to face it again.

This is what they usually do; this is their ritual three or four times a week: They eat, and then they go to a club off Sunset, and they dance. Tony steps onto the floor alone, and the girls, they just flock to him, strippers especially; he dances in a thicket of them, five or six at a time, until at last Jill stands before him and starts bumping and grinding, doing a dance that is an announcement of erotic intention, and then they go home, Tony says, and they play. Tonight, though, tonight Tony can hardly walk and is limping around in his green suede shoes; tonight Tony has lost his magical equilibrium somewhere between the Patrón and the Percocets; tonight they get to the club early, and it is empty and black, and when Tony goes out to dance, he dances alone, with little, tottering steps, with his eyes big and open and blind, and under the lights he is powdery and ghostlike, an effigy of his appetites. And yet he doesn’t stop; no, of course not. He keeps going; he travels a circuit of the empty floor until at last he reaches its center, and with slow, eerie concentration he points his finger to the disco ball hanging from the ceiling and starts opening and closing each of his hands in the spotlights, snatching at something that always drains away, like a child trying to steal the rain.

Then he comes back to our booth and finds a white napkin and draws a picture of a hand pointing to a slivered moon, with some kind of gem squeezed between its thumb and forefinger, and the stain of a woman’s lipstick imprinted above the cuff. He signs his name and hands me the napkin, and then I pluck from my pocket what he gave me earlier in the week and hold it before his eyes: the blue marble. “An immie!” Tony says, in a kind of startled moan, and then tells me a story: about how when his brother died and he went to the East River to cut his deal with God, he brought his twelve blue immies with him as barter. Just one more time, he asked God—allow him to see Julie just one more time and he would give up his immies; he would throw them in the river, without question or remonstrance. Of course, he never saw his brother again, and now, when “Beast of Burden” comes on and Jill says, “Oh, l love this song!” and stands in from of the the booth to do her bump and grind, Tony has his hand over his eyes, and he is talking to himself or, for all I know, to the God who refused his sacrifice, and he cannot see her.

He is driving home in the Z28. It is another night—because isn’t that the point: that there is always another night? He is wearing his driving gloves; he has found his equilibrium, and when he looks at Jill, he can tell that when they get home they’re going to play. They stop at a traffic light on Sunset, and another car pulls up, a white Trans Am convertible, limited edition, only 250 made in this whole world, the same one Tony has, back in the garage, built exclusively for him. And the kid behind the wheel, he’s wearing driving gloves, and he’s got his shirt open just so, and so Tony rolls down his window and says, “Hey, I got the same car!” And the kid looks at him and says, “Tony Curtis!” And Tony says, “Yeah, but I got the same car!” And the kid says, “I’m gonna be an actor, too!” And Tony says, “Well, you got the right car!” And when he drives away, it is with a feeling of elation, sure, but also of regret, because if only he had been driving his Trans Am, then this meeting with his mirror would have been more than coincidence—it would have been what Tony Curtis lives for, a fucking miracle.

 

BGS: How to Sleep with a Greek (You Do it Very Carefully)

More Dexter, because you can’t get enough of a good thing. This one was originally published on August 10, 1998 back when Pete was a syndicated columnist. It is featured in Paper Trails, now out in paperback, and appears here with the author’s permission.

“How to Sleep with a Greek (You Do it Very Carefully)”

By Pete Dexter

 

By nature, I am not a public person.

Writing a column like this one, however, there are times when it becomes necessary to discuss matters of a personal nature. You walk into the office once in a while and can’t come up with a single reason to pick on the district attorney, you’ve still got to write something.

There are limits, though, to how personal I will get – it’s a matter of good taste, really – and I do not violate them. I never talk about how much money I make, I never discuss my medical history except in the broadest terms, and I never discuss my first wife’s legs. These things are too distasteful to talk about with strangers.

On the other hand, I do feel that as readers, you are entitled to know what Mrs. Dexter is like in bed.

Which is what I am going to tell you about today.

The first thing you ought to know about Mrs. Dexter, I guess, is that she is of Greek extraction. These are the people, you may remember, who climbed into an artificial horse, waited until the Trojans pulled it inside their gates, and then, after the lights went out in town, crawled out and re-opened the gates for the entire Greek army, which conquered Troy.

Obviously, a people capable of this sort of thing – I mean, who would even think of something like that? – are light sleepers themselves, not easily surprised in their tents.

It is also fair to say, I think, that thousands of years after that one night squashed inside the horse, sitting on each other’s head, they are still fanatically defensive of their sleeping space. There is an old Greek saying, in fact, which pretty well spells this out: “Do not touch a sleeping Greek with thy toe, lest you forfeit thy leg and thy luck.”

Which means if you have any thought at all of getting lucky, do it before they go to sleep.

Now, my own heritage is not nearly as steeped in violence. I come from a peace-loving, straightforward, practical people who sleep very well. In fact, we are not unlike the people of Troy, now that I think about it, except, as I alluded to before, we have a certain innate sense of good taste, and would never bring the horse inside the city gates. At least not the one I saw in the movie.

We are also an affectionate people, who, on awakening in the night, like to reach for our loved ones and hold them close to our bosoms.

And so when one of us marries a Greek, and then wakes in the night – perhaps frightened, perhaps remembering the first wife’s legs – and reaches out in the dark for our loved one, what happens is that we are handed our lunch.

Here she is in the morning, staring horrified at a cut lip: “My God, what happened?”

The fact that this lip was cut by her own elbow or shoulder or – this is the one to watch out for – her head, is a source of a secret ethnic pride, although she will swear she has no memory of the assault.

But coming as I do from a peace-loving, straightforward, practical people, I do not try to change her. Instead, I adapt. When I awake and feel the need for something to hold close to my bosom, I reach for my second-string pillow. Soft and cool, it does not jump up unexpectedly into my chin at small noises, and no matter how close you get to it, you never hear that faint whistle of air passing through a nostril.

And the truth is, it fits better.

All in all, a hell of a pillow.

But life is more complicated than that. Greek women, it turns out, always know when their men are in bed with their arms around another, and at 3 in the morning, she is suddenly staring at me in the dark.

“What are you doing with that pillow?” she says.

“What pillow?” I ask. As a people, we are not great liars.

“You’re hugging a pillow,” she says softly. “Why don’t you just hug me?”

Very competitive, the Greeks.

“I didn’t want to wake you up,” I said. I toss the pillow back onto the floor, and she slides across the bed, and takes its place. Warm, soft, lithe; smelling like strawberry shampoo.

I whisper, “Good night, I love you ”

She whispers, “I love you too ”

I whisper, “Mrs. Dexter?”

“Yes?”

“I was talking to the pillow.”

There is a long, satisfying pause, but the Greeks are very tricky.

“So was I,” she says.

BGS: Can the Mets Survive Respectability?

Another good one from the late, great Joe Flaherty. This one from the summer of 1968. It appears in the fine collection, Chez Joey.

“Can the Mets Survive Respectability?”

By Joe Flaherty

If in a moment of campy whimsy Susan Sontag and Salvador Dali decided to have a love affair and conceive a child without sin, he would be destined to grow up and become a New York Met. In a dastardly age when we are accused of genocide at home and abroad, the Mets remain as innocent as a feather boa or a Busby Berkeley musical.

Admittedly, baseball, in Red Smith’s phrase, is still a game played by little boys, but it also is a serious business. One has only to remember the fabled exodus of Walter O’Malley’s Dodgers from loving Brooklyn to lush Los Angeles. The shacks of Mexican peasants were torn down to erect (as the Hollywood press agents call it) O’Malley’s Taj Mahal of sports arenas. And when his edifice was complete, it was discovered that there wasn’t a water fountain in the place. O’Malley in his countinghouse realized soda pop cost money and water was for nothing. So those poor bronzed blond darlings of Southern California, those objects of adoration of all the Humbert Humberts among us, were being subjected in that land of wheat germ and blackstrap molasses to sugary cavities. But these devious machinations have nothing to do with the Mets.

In their six-year history (1968 is their seventh) the Mets not only gave away water but a torrent of ball games as well. Their pitching staff had the marksmanship of Sergeant York-they hit every damn bat in sight. Their batters were as aggressive as flower children, and their baserunners circled the pads as though Mack Sennett and Richard Lester were coaching on first and third. The Mets’ defense was so feeble it could make Nasser feel like a Prussian general. Yet they were loved.

In six years they finished last in the National League standings five times and next to last once. Their unbelievable dramatic ninth-place finish in 1966 (28½ games behind the pennant-winning Dodgers) was relegated to a freak of nature when in 1967 they returned to form and finished last, 40½ games behind the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals.

But these were the innocent years. What could be expected of a club that paid $125,000 for Don Zimmer and Lee Walls and $75,000 for the likes of Ray Daviault and John De Merit? And who gave a hell about winning when their manager of three-and-one-half years, Casey Stengel, could combine jabberwocky and Finnegans Wake and convert tragedy into comedy? After Stengel’s heady reign, the Mets went into their Eisenhower years. Under Wes Westrum, the ex-Giant catcher, the Met fans mistook boredom for serious stewardship. For nearly three seasons the Mets slept.

But precociousness is a fragile commodity. What is adorable in adolescence is contemptible in adults. 1968 was the year the Mets were supposed to grow up. And the reason for their maturity was the hiring of Gil Hodges as manager. The feeling was that Hodges, the gentle giant, the solid man who was adored as the Brooklyn Dodgers’ first baseman for ten years, would bring stability to the Mets.

New York was always a National League town. The aristocratic Yankees are only tolerated here; the real action was always the Giants and the Dodgers. And Hodges was the embodiment of the golden years, the late forties and early fifties of the Dodgers. He was so unique as an individual he was never even jeered by the enemy Giant fans. In a borough that canonized the image of the “regular guy” Gil Hodges was a saint.

One remembers the elegance he brought to playing first base. His massive hands seemed to span the right side of the Dodger infield, making it impenetrable. And who could forget the 370 home runs-or, as Red Barber called them, “Old Goldies”? Then there was the human saga, the 1952 World Series in which Hodges batted 0 for 21, and on a Sunday every church in Brooklyn offered up prayers that Gil would end his slump. Indeed, Hodges always seemed to be a character in a morality play. One recalls the great confrontation between Hodges and Giant pitcher Sal “The Barber” Maglie. The blue-eyed Hodges at bat, who always had trouble hitting the curve ball, looking like Billy Budd facing the swarthy, unshaven Maglie as Claggart doing the unmentionable to the instrument of our national pastime-spitting on it-magnificently curving the hero to his death, while the faithful of Flatbush hissed the hairy villain. Even now Hodges says with a self-deprecating smile: “Sal would have to make a terrible mistake for me just to hit the ball.”

Hodges, who also was one of the original Mets, retired from active ball in 1963 because of a crippling knee injury. In 1963 he became manager of the last place Washington Senators of the American League. Within five years as the Senators’ manager Hodges raised the club from the cellar in 1963 to a respectable tie for sixth place in 1967. Then in ’68 the Mets summoned Hodges home, though in a way he had never left since he has lived on Bedford Avenue with his wife and four children (a boy and three girls) since 1948.

But for those looking for the Met image to change drastically the spring season didn’t offer much hope. The Mets compiled their worst loss record ever, and the zany stories were still getting into the press. Ron Swoboda, the team slugger and the sibling with the Chinese stepfather, was reported to heed a call from nature during an exhibition game and missed his turn at bat-once again, the Mets were caught with their pants down. Then there was the story of relief pitcher Hal Reniff urging Phil Linz, infielder and owner of the East Side swing spot Mr. Laffs, to come to spring training for a tryout. In typical Met fashion Reniff had a horrible spring and was cut, and Linz, playing brilliantly, made the team. In fact, Linz was so impressive that Daily News sportswriter. Dick Young was moved to write that Linz was one of the best prospects in spring training. Linz, upon reading the accolade, was moved to comment: “I know that’s not right.”

But these stories, which were the substance of Stengel’s existence, don’t amuse Hodges. Sitting in his office at Shea Stadium, Hodges solemnly said: “I used to enjoy Met stories as much as anyone else, but I don’t appreciate them anymore. We have to get away from the image of being a funny club.” But the old image didn’t have any major revision during the first two weeks of the season. The Mets blew their opening game to the Giants in the ninth inning and managed to lose six one-run ball games in their first twelve games through spotty relief pitching and horrendous fielding. In fact, if to err is human, to be a Met is divine. In the first seventeen games the Amazin’ Ones made nineteen miscues.

But loving the Mets is not a rational thing; it’s more like life with a drunken husband. He curses you, abuses you, beats you, and then every so often the lousy bastard does something so spectacular that passion overrules reason and your bed of nails once more becomes the arena of conjugal bliss. So it was with the Mets as they staggered home from their road trip, like Hickey the salesman, to their opener at Shea.

All the regular hoopla was present: marching bands, flags flapping everywhere, and a horseshoe wreath wishing Gil good luck. Then, in one loving swoop, all was forgiven. The current ace of Hodges’ staff, twenty-five-year-old Jerry Koosman, not only struck out the Giants, but struck out Willie Mays with the bases loaded. But such treats are rare. The same weekend the Mets threw away a doubleheader to the Dodgers, and Hodges sat in his office, his massive hand shaking, holding a filter cigarette, unable to talk to the reporters. He seemed to be suffering the frustration of so many talented participants who are now relegated to the sidelines to manage the ineptitude of others. The best he could mutter was “We’re beating ourselves, and that can be corrected.” When one looked at the pale blue eyes vacuous and washy, the face from our boyhood now lined and looking prematurely haggard, one thought of John Lindsay after managing a couple of tough summer seasons in this city.

But after a day off, Hodges looked refreshed at a Tuesday morning batting practice. Here one catches the real essence of Hodges. Essentially, Gil Hodges is a father. Young ballplayers treat him with respect but not awe. His jokes are mild-not clever, not cutting, just a touch of chastisement in them. He was hitting ground balls to first baseman Art Shamsky, taking particular glee when he drove one by him. Shamsky sheepishly smiled at the past master of the position he was trying to conquer, and then Hodges, grinning broadly, would hit him an easy grounder to make him look good. Hodges’ coach, Yogi Berra, was pitching batting practice. Berra is the only man alive who can make a baseball uniform look like a zoot suit. His low-slung pants seem pegged, his hat slouches over his eyes be-bop fashion, and his bouncy walk evokes the street corner. Tommie Agee stepped into the batting cage, and Hodges stopped smiling. Hodges traded away .300 hitter Tommy Davis and pitcher Jack Fisher to obtain the White Sox center fielder. Agee, who was suffering a terrific batting slump, couldn’t even hit the ball in practice. Hodges eyed him intently, looking for some flaw in the swing that might bring Agee around. When asked about the wisdom of giving up the Mets’ only .300 hitter for Agee (who later went on to tie the Mets’ record for most hitless times at bat—0 for 34), Hodges in his usual gracious manner said: “Certainly I’ll take credit for the trade. Tommie will come along just fine.”

But all is not bleak for Hodges and his Mets this year. Relaxed in his office after practice, he talked about the positive side of the Mets. “Our pitching is our strong suit,” he said. “These young boys are fine.” Indeed, the Mets do have a fine young staff in Koosman, Tom Seaver, who won 16 games last year, and Nolan Ryan, whose speed has been compared to that of Koufax and Feller. And Ron Swoboda is off to the finest start of his career. But there are the others, the nameless mediocrities who fill out the roster. Hodges has set a goal of winning 70 games this year and perhaps playing .500 ball next year. “These boys have it in them. They’re fine boys.”

Fine boys. The phrase is slightly square for a paid athlete. But then Hodges is slightly square. But then again baseball, like Hodges, is square—but in a nice sort of way. It is a game that is meant to be played under God’s sunshine, as Phil Wrigley used to say. Unlike football, it has no snob appeal. It’s a game for kids, cabdrivers pulling long night shifts, and the old Jewish men who stand on Flatbush Avenue outside Garfield’s Cafeteria. It’s a beer drinker’s game, where the fans do corny things like sing fight songs and take seventh inning stretches. And Gil Hodges fits perfectly into this milieu.

For all his size (6 feet 2, 210 pounds), one could never picture Hodges in pro football where everyone uses war game parlance as if they were bastard sons of Robert McNamara. Or where the season ticket holders are the ad boys with their plaid-covered flasks holding their Ambassador Twelve, snobbishly talking about “Z-outs” and “zig-ins,” as if they were talking about Kama Sutra positions instead of a ball game. Hodges seems content to settle for the glitter of Abner Doubleday’s diamond.

But one wonders if his team should be the Mets. One remembers the hand shaking, the soft drink on the desk, the pale face, and the hesitant speech. Then one thinks of Stengel, booze in hand, regaling sportswriters with sidesplitting tales of his clowns’ ineptitude. Hodges can’t play the buffoon; he takes his “boys” seriously. This may be the sadness of his homecoming. The Mets still look like a team to be run by a tipsy Falstaff rather than a sober, brooding, fatherly Lear.

May 27, 1968

The Banter Gold Standard: Of Life and Death

Another sure shot column from our man Dexter. It originally appeared in the Philly Daily News on Monday April 14, 1980 and is featured here with the author’s permission.

 

“Of Life and Death”

By Pete Dexter

A fog had settled on the lake the night Hobbles died. Behind it you could just see the outline of the moon. Markey called to tell me it had happened. I went out to the water then, trying not to think anything until I had a chance to get used to it. At the dock I looked back and couldn’t see the lights from the house. The only noises were the frogs, then a dog, barking from across the lake.

Thomas (Hobbles) Haggerty had taken 20 days to die. That’s how long he had been lying in a coma at Methodist Hospital, first in the coronary unit, then in intensive care. He was 30 years old, and right up until the Sunday night in mid-March when he came downstairs and told his mother she better call an ambulance, he’d thought he had the flu.

By then his pancreas was already bleeding. His neck was swollen, his temperature was 106, and he’d lost his vision. In the hour before that, he’d come down from his room enough times to drink half-a-gallon of water and at least a quart of soda. The last time he came down he walked into a wall.

That’s how fast it was happening.

His sister Peggy called a friend and they drove him to the hospital. It was 10 o’clock at night, and Hobbles got himself into the car. Five minutes later he had to be carried out. That’s how fast it was happening too.

By early morning, he had slipped into a coma, and at 4 o’clock his heart stopped. The doctors brought it back with electric shock. About 6 in the morning the hospital called the Haggerty home on Newkirk St. and spoke to one of his two sisters. They said the family should come right away.

For the next 20 days his family stayed at the hospital. In the first week the doctors told his friends to talk to him, they said that sometimes a familiar voice would bring somebody in a coma back.

The friends were there all week. They recorded whole nights at the Downtowner club–where Hobbles bartended–and left him listening to the tapes through ear phones when the nurses threw them out.

After a week, the doctors moved him from the coronary unit to intensive care and told the family all there was left was miracles.

And there were none of those. Two weeks later his heart stopped again. Sometimes it’s hard to say why you like somebody. That kind of thing has never lent itself much to words with me anyway – I just do or I don’t, and assume there’s a reason. But on the night Hobbles died, I stood out by the lake figuring it out. It was either that or wonder why it was he had to die, and I’ve been up that alley enough times to count the bricks at the dead end. What it came down to finally was all tied to the neighborhood. To Tasker. Row houses and broken glass, sometimes the smell of the oil refineries across the expressway. Everybody’s got knife scars on their stomach.

The first time I saw the place, I thought it looked like some kind of accident that was still happening. The people there told me it was beautiful. That was the word they used, and it took a long time for me to see what they were talking about.

And that was themselves. Whatever Tasker was, that was what they were. And they liked that enough to fight for it, and sometimes die for it. And gradually it came to me, that was human dignity.

And Hobbles had as much of that as anybody. And I cared about that kid, he would stand up.

I don’t know what else to tell you. He liked to drink beer and go to the shore and bet football. He had a lot of jobs, but nothing you would confuse with ambition.

His brother Paul said, “He seemed to stay young,” and that was the truth. In 1968, an off-duty cop shot him in the chest during a racial altercation in the street, and he almost died then. Paul said, “Before they took him into the operating room, he thought he was gonna die. He called my mother over and told her he loved her and he was sorry.”

Four years ago he got hepatitis and developed liver disease. His doctor told him to quit drinking, and he didn’t.

One of his friends was a heroin addict then. “When I finally got off the shit after all those years,” he said, “everybody says to me, ‘It’s about time you straightened out.’Hobbles was the only one who told me he was glad I’d beat it. He was the only one that understood I had just done the best thing in my life. He was proud of me. ”

I thought about some of that the night Hobbles died. I thought about it and tried to fit it with words. It was a waste, it was a tragedy, it was human. The words don’t come close. All I can tell you is that a fog settled over the lake that night, so thick that for a while I couldn’t see the lights from my own house.

And somewhere in it Hobbles was missing. And when it lifted I had finally understood he would never be back.

[Images Via: TreelineAmelia Thellen]

BGS: Down and Out at Wrigley Field

More baseball. Dig this piece by the most-talented Rich Cohen. It originally appeared in Harper’s (August, 2001), and is featured here with the author’s permission.

“Down and Out at Wrigley Field”

By Rich Cohen

When the Chicago Cubs last won a World Series, the automobile was still a new and untrusted invention and the electric light was not yet twenty years old. In the years since the fifth game of that series, most of the European monarchies have collapsed, two world wars have been fought, Communism has risen and fallen, and disco has come and gone and come again. Losing year after year, sometimes in the last weeks of the season, more often in the middle of August, the Cubs have become a symbol of futility, the blind, never-ending hope of a hopeless people. Before his death, Jack Brickhouse, the great Cubs play-by-play man, excused the team by saying, “Everyone is entitled to a bad century.”

For the Cubs, the current season has thus far played out like a dream. The team collected twelve straight victories in May and early June, a feat it had not accomplished since 1936—a year in which, incidentally, the Cubs did not reach the World Series. Despite the fact that such stretches come along once every five or six years in the manner of a remission that, for a time, masks the true direction of the disease, even the most cynical of fans clings, in a secret place hidden beneath the heckles and beer, to the belief in eventual victory. But if 2001 is indeed the breakthrough year, if the new century indeed ushers in a rebirth of the franchise, these rooters will lose a treasure more valuable than any World Series ring: they will lose an enduring, dependable, neatly mystical relationship with loss.

 

Last August, hoping to discover the secret of this relationship, I checked into a hotel just off Michigan Avenue on the North Side of Chicago and prepared to “cover” the Cubs. The team had just come off a winning streak that had left them a few games below .500 and a half dozen games behind the division leading St. Louis Cardinals, whom, in a few days, they would face at Wrigley Field. In other words, I had arrived at that most heartbreaking moment of any Cubs year: the false spring.

I went for walks along Rush Street, in and out of the bars. At Harry Caray’s on Kinzie and Dearborn, watching the Cubs on television, I heard a big guy in a SHUT UP AND DRINK YOUR BEER T-shirt refer to a towering Sammy Sosa home run as a “God Ball.” He then picked a fight with an old man in a Brewers hat, saying, “Look at your boys! In last place! We are in a solid third! All we got to do is sweep this series, sweep the next series, and go from there.”

On State Street, I ran into a friend who had just returned from New York, where he had made his first visit to Yankee Stadium. The Yankees were great, of course, but he thought the stadium a disgrace. No one familiar with Cub fans would find this judgment at all unusual: the prevailing aesthetic is, of necessity, beauty above victory. Anyone else might argue that Yankee Stadium, no matter how monstrous, is a treasure. Why? Because winning has made it beautiful. On the other hand, Wrigley Field, no matter how picturesque, might be considered an eyesore, because losing has made it ugly. The true Cub fan believes the opposite. My friend said, ”I’ll tell you what, kid, that stadium, it sure made me appreciate what we got right here at Wrigley Field.”

Wrigley Field is a trim configuration of red brick and steel. Built in 1914, it was first home to the Chicago Whales of the old Federal League. By the time the Cubs moved here in 1916, they had already won their last World Series. Over the years, with the destruction of most other early twentieth century ballparks, Wrigley has emerged as a lone witness to the glorious dead ball era. After generations of artificial turf and multipurpose stadiums, a new generation of architects has come to emulate Wrigley, building snug downtown parks in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Houston. For the most part, though, these stadiums are mere approximations, with none of the mood, or feeling, or grime, of the real thing, none of that terrible history. Wrigley Field is, after all, where, in the 1932 World Series, Babe Ruth supposedly called his shot, pointing two fingers at center field, then hitting a home run into those very seats.

When I went to the games as a kid, I sat in the bleachers, home of the sport’s most rabid fans. For a bleacher bum, it was a signal achievement to so incense an enemy outfielder that he climbed the wall in an attempt to get at you. I was at a game in which Omar Moreno of the Pirates started that climb only to be pummeled and covered in beer. Of course, such a climb was made possible by that most famous feature of Wrigley: the ivy, the lush green ivy, which softens all that red brick.

Now, here is the disturbing part: that ivy, that beloved, ticket-selling ivy, is a direct outgrowth of management’s realization that the Cubs might never again win a World Series. In 1931, when chewing gum magnate William Wrigley died, he left the team to his son, P. K Wrigley, who refused to waste company resources on baseball; he decided that fans must instead be given a reason other than player competence to go to the park. “The fun … the sunshine, the relaxation. Our idea is to get the public to go see a ball game, win or lose,” said P.K., who then told a young Bill Veeck, who would later become one of the greatest impresarios in the history of baseball, to plant the ivy. It was his way of selling the fans the sunshine.

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, about fifteen miles up Lake Michigan from Wrigley Field. In the summers, if I was not at the beach, or shopping for records at one of the stores uptown, or scanning the radio for my all-time favorite song, “Rhinestone Cowboy,” I was riding the public bus to Evanston, where I caught the elevated train, which threaded its way through a private world of red brick and fire escapes down to the ballpark. On the way I often read the sports section of the Chicago Tribune, or else a book about Cubs history. In school we studied the heroes and gods of antiquity, but for me the Cubs supplied a far handier mythology: the great teams of the eighties (the 1880s), The Cubs, a chatter member of professional baseball, known first as the White Stockings, and then, in succession, as the Orphans, the Colts, and the Cubs, played in the Congress Street Grounds, the “nicest park in America,” with 2,000 grandstand seats and velvet-curtained luxury boxes. Championships were won in 1880, 1881, 1882, 1885, and 1886. These were the teams of the legendary Cap Anson, who first devised the strategy wherein players run out of position to back up other players and, in another first, called for the banning of black athletes from the game.

In his autobiography, Anson wrote of an early minority hire:

Clarence was a little darkey that I had met sometime before while in Philadelphia. . . . I had togged him out in a suit of navy blue with brass burtons, at my own expense, and had engaged him as a mascot. He was an ungrateful little rascal…

There was Mike Kelly, a hard-drinking Irishman from the West Side, the first catcher to communicate with the pitcher in a secret code of often comical hand signals. There was Billy “The Evangelist” Sunday, who, before scaring sinners with his fiery prophecies of hell, was a speedy, base-stealing outfielder. In 1906, behind the awesome double-play combination of Tinkers to Evers to Chance, the team posted the best record in major league history, winning 116 games. After each victory, the players went drinking at Biggio Brothers Saloon on Polk and Lincoln Streets. In later years came Grover Cleveland Alexander, a once great pitcher who came back from the First World War shell-shocked. When Alexander fell into seizures on the mound, the infielders would shield him from view. In the biopic, Alexander was played by Ronald Reagan, who himself, as a young man, had called play-by-play for the Cubs.

William Wrigley took control of the Cubs in 1921 and fielded pennant-winning teams in ’32, ’35, and ’38. These teams boasted such superstars as Kiki Cuyler, Hack Wilson, Billy Jurges, Babe Herman, and Rogers Hornsby. In 1932, ]urges was shot in a hotel room by a jilted lover in a black veil, an episode borrowed by Bernard Malamud for his novel The Natural.

In 1929, Hornsby batted for a .380 average with 149 RBIs. Hack Wilson, a squat alcoholic of a power hitter, still holds the record for most runs batted in (190) during a single season. After retirement, Hack became a drifter. In 1948, when he died, his body went unclaimed for three days. Nineteen years earlier, in 1929, when the Cubs had lost the World Series, Wilson told a train of badgering reporters, “Let me alone now, fellows. I haven’t anything to say except that I am heartbroken and that we did get some awful breaks.”

In 1953 the club signed its first black superstar, Ernie Banks, a Hall of Famer who encouraged hope in the fans, beginning each season with a little poem, such as, “The Cubs will come alive in sixty-five,” or, ‘The Cubs will be heavenly in sixty-sevenly.” In my own childhood there were the Reuschel brothers, fat, mustachioed, glasses-wearing screwballers who, to me, looked like the newspaper’s photos of John Wayne Gacy.

On my baseball card, the Reuschels, Rick and Paul, are pictured over the words BIG LEAGUE BROTHERS. In this era, due to years of futility—the team had not even been in the postseason since 1945—a certain ugliness grew up between fans and management, peaking in 1983, when, during a postgame press conference, skipper Lee Elia attacked the bleacher bums, saying:

Eighty-five percent of the people in this country work The other fifteen percent come here and boo my players. They oughta go out and get a fucking job and find out what it’s like to go out and earn a fucking living. Eighty-five percent of the fucking world is working. The other fifteen percent come out here. A fucking playground for the cocksuckers.

CUBS 7, CARDINALS 3

Each day the Cubs lineup was posted, with slight variation, in the clubhouse. It was a collection of found parts, as is often the case: Damon Buford, a center fielder, who came in a trade from Boston; Joe Girardi, a born-again Christian from Peoria, Illinois, who started with the Cubs a decade ago and had returned to finish his career in Chicago; Mark Grace, the blond-haired, goateed first baseman, who before and after each game smoked a cigarette at his locker; Willie Greene, a third baseman from Milledgeville, Georgia, by way of the Toronto Blue Jays; Ricky Gutierrez, an edgy, error-prone shortstop, a free agent from the Houston Astros; Chad Meyers, a twenty-five-year-old infielder who looked like a sitcom sidekick on the WB (a Cubs fan from Nebraska, Meyers was, as a kid, certain the Cubs were always “just about to win it”); Brant Brown, an outfielder who, in 1998, had dropped a routine fly ball that almost kept the team out of that year’s postseason play.

At three o’clock, only the pitchers were in uniform, among them Kerry Wood, a lank, sullen-faced Texan who was once thought to be the savior of the team. In 1998, at twenty, in only his fifth start, Wood struck out twenty batters, tying a major-league record. A few months later he blew out his pitching arm; he was still recovering from the surgery. In his locker he had mounted a Big Mouth Billy Bass, the talking mechanical fish, which, on occasion, he let answer the press queries: “I run on batteries, don’t need no gas, I’m the Big Mouth Billy Bass.”

Sammy Sosa, the great star of the Cubs, showed up shouting, a man of entrances. Although the players in the clubhouse were listening to Pearl Jam, Sosa plugged in his radio and began playing salsa music, the sound of his native Dominican Republic. Someone turned up the Pearl Jam. Sosa turned up the salsa. For a moment, the sunny Caribbean faced off against the once grungy Pacific Northwest. Sosa closed his eyes and started to dance. Today, and each day, it ended with the Pearl Jam turned down and turned off. It was not hard to tell how Sosa’s teammates felt about this.

Standing in front of his locker, Sosa took several practice swings, which, like his body, were short and compact. In 1998 he had kept pace with Mark McGwire in a contest to break the single-season home-run record. Sosa had finished four homers behind McGwire. There are those who called Sosa a hot dog, error-prone, strikeout-prone, a one-way player who padded his statistics with meaningless late-game long balls. Earlier in the season, when the front office threatened to trade Sosa, there had been a tremendous uproar from the fans, who, in exchange for all that losing, expect at least one superstar. After a loss in which Sosa homered with the bases empty and struck out with the bases full, I asked him if he changed his approach depending on the situation—shortened his swing, stepped up in the box. He said, “I just hit the ball as hard as I can.”

By five o’clock the reporters had gathered in the clubhouse. They stood in a tight little knot like boys at a high school dance, waiting for some sign from a pretty girl across the floor. Now and then, one of these reporters would plunge in with his tape recorder; depending on whether he was welcomed or rebuffed, the reporter would return saying, “Wow, what a regular guy!” or, “Can you believe how much money those dumb fucks make?”

To reach the field we followed the clatter of cleats through a dank tunnel into the dugout. At eye level the grass, which in the middle of the season was already parched, stretched away to the power alleys. The bench was crowded with that gaggle of former players, broadcasters, and hangers-on that make up the courtier class of the national game. A few hundred fans had gathered for batting practice. They shouted, “Sammy! Sammy! Sammy!” I found myself in a conversation with Joe Girardi. In the clubhouse, I had seen Girardi, and everyone else, naked, and I was struck by his body, which seemed to me old-fashioned, a body from the Great Depression: thick torso and heavy arms, social realism, a WPA poster. He had spent the previous four seasons in New York, where he won three World Series. How could he now play for a team that never wins, has never won, and, it seems to many of us, never will win?

“When I was in third grade, I wrote an essay about how I would play for the Cubs,” Girardi said. “Ten times a summer, I drove with my father from Peoria just to see the games.” Back then, his favorite players were Ron Santo, a third baseman who, as a broadcaster, still travels with the team, and Jose Cardenal, remembered mostly for his vertiginous Afro, on top of which, the cherry on the ice cream sundae, perched his cap. Cardenal is credited with the worst excuse ever given for missing a game: he once told his manager he could not play because his eyelid was stuck open. “When I left the Cubs that first time, I was crushed,” said Girardi. “I had always wanted to be a Cubbie.”

I asked why the team never wins.

“The Yankees have a hundred-million-dollar payroll. Our club is sixty million. And there is also all the money spent on the minor leagues and free agents, signing kids from the Dominican, from Puerto Rico. But it’s more than that. In New York, you go into spring training expecting to get to the World Series. You feel it when you walk in the clubhouse—the pictures of all those Yankee greats, the monuments. There is something special about putting on the pinstripes. In Chicago, they hope for a good season, maybe the playoffs.”

“But they have pictures here at Wrigley Field,” I said. “The Cub greats, Hack Wilson, Kiki Cuyler.”

“Yeah, but just think about those pictures,” he said. “Still shots, each player by himself. In Yankee Stadium, it’s group shots, the team celebrating on the mound, in the clubhouse, the champagne, winning it all. Here you won’t see that.”

When Girardi went to take batting practice, I wandered out onto the field. The players chirped and fluttered around the cage like birds; players from the Cubs and players from the Cardinals met one another with backslaps and hugs. “In our day, there was no fraternizing,” Ron Santo told me. “You never saw one team up watching the other team hit. Never saw a guy hugging the other guy. You walked across the white lines, money was not the criteria. Winning was.” Sosa greeted every Latin player on the Cardinals, then wandered over to the seats, the crowd bubbling before him like surf. He spotted two friends from the Dominican and led them out onto the field. They were potbellied, sleepy-eyed, with slow, sad smiles; one wore a silk shirt decorated with naked girls, fast cars, tropical sunsets.

I walked over to a circle of beat reporters, three of them: a young banana-shaped one; a middle-aged, balding, red-haired one; and an old stately one with no hair at all. I said hello. Without a word, each turned his back on me. It took me some time to realize that these reporters, who after each game filed stories for the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and a third paper I had never heard of, were actually participants in the Cubs’ perpetual loss and naturally took a pride in the project that made it necessary to resent someone like myself, who had come aboard the Titanic to snap a few shots before shoving off. Of course, that ship was at least heading toward a conclusion, a climax. The Cubs, on the other hand, were and are forever adrift.

The only friend I made among the press was a kid entirely untouched by the stinking heartbreak of history. His name was Nick, and he was on summer break from Drake University in Iowa. He had landed a part-rime job writing about the Cubs for his hometown newspaper in Oak Park. A few times a week Nick went to the clubhouse and, without the least hesitation, pulled aside his favorite players. Before this game, he had talked to some of the Cardinals, even to Will Clark, rumored to be the crankiest man in the league.

Nick said, “Can I ask you some questions, Mr. Clark?”

Mr. Clark said, “Get the fuck away from me, kid.”

Nick told me that Mr. Clark had stunk of beer.

Nick led me up to the press box, high above home plate. As we talked, I could see the lake, blue and crowded with sailboats, beyond the apartment buildings. The game was a sellout, standing room only, men and women at the back of the bleachers in sketchy outline. To some, this remained the best explanation for the Cubs’ woes: if a team with a losing record sold 40,000 tickets on a Monday night and drew, win or lose, 2 million fans a year, while the White Sox, in first place on the South Side of the city, could not even sell out on a Saturday afternoon, what was the incentive? Why should the Tribune Company, which owns the Cubs, spend millions to build a winning team if, all these years later, the fans were still willing to pay for sunshine? “We hear a lot of that,” Kevin Tapani, a Cubs pitcher, told me. “But I don’t know of any player that says, ‘We’ve got a sold-out crowd, let’s lose.”

Of course, Tapani, at thirty-six, was precisely the sort of player a team might go after if it was not determined to win; that is to say, yes, Tapani tried to win, but perhaps, at this point in his career, he was no longer good enough to win consistently. And yet the Cubs did spend money. Not so much as the Dodgers or the Orioles but more than some successful teams (the Kansas City Royals, the Oakland A’s), and they traded for players and hired managers who had won elsewhere. A Cubs fan therefore learns to distrust the easy answers and to accept each moment, each game, for what it is, not for where it is leading, which is nowhere. A victory, any victory, is a victory. Like tonight, for example, with a warm breeze off the Lake, and the sun going down (ah, that beautiful Cubs sunshine), and the team at last stirring to life. Jeff Huson, a journeyman third baseman, with teeth as small and perfect as white Chiclets, drove a ball down the left field line, scoring the winning runs. And then we were following the ramps down to the clubhouse, where the players, having already changed into Nike shower sandals and gym shorts, ate fried chicken off Styrofoam plates and watched SportsCenter on ESPN. There was music, there was clowning. Cubs win! Cubs win!

CARDINALS 4, CUBS 2

Three hours before the first pitch, Carol Slezak, a columnist fur the Sun-Times, was in the dugout, looking for a story. Baseball is a world of men, and so it was strange and pleasing to see a woman on the field. Some of the older Latin coaches commented on Slezak’s eyes, her legs. “You are making me uncomfortable,” she said. “Stop it.”

A year ago, Slezak had written a column about Sosa’s music, how it had become an irritating and never-ending soundtrack. Sosa and Glenallen Hill (since traded) had pulled her aside and yelled at her. “Do you know how angry Sammy’s teammates are at you?” Hill said. “They love Sammy.”

“Do you want to hear what Sammy’s teammates say about his music,” asked Slezak

Sammy told her, “Fuck my teammates.”

Today, Carol was in a pregame panic. Her deadline was a few hours away and she had yet to find a subject. Players suggested she write about the heat. “I have a policy,” she said. “No stories about weather.” Mark Grace greeted her in a large way and sat at the end of the bench, determined to help. Each generation, there is one Cub who seems, for fans, to stand for the team. For the last several years that had been Grace. Previously, it had been Ryne Sandberg, Bill Buckner, Rick Monday, Ernie Banks. One of the great things about baseball is that, by setting these players, whose careers overlap, in a time line, you can link yourself clear back to Mike Kelly and Johnny Evers. After suggesting several stories, which Carol dismissed, Grace said, “What about the heat?”

Grace took off his hat, rubbed his scalp. A few weeks earlier, several Cubs had shaved their heads in a gesture of solidarity. Grace was lucky; he looked good. Some of the other guys had emerged knotty-skulled, or bug-eyed, or jug-eared. Grace talked about being thirty-six. In the minor leagues, the Cubs were developing Hee Seop Choi, a Korean power-hitting first baseman, to take his position. To a player like Grace, this was what the end must look like—a husky nobody from the minors with no feel for the game.

Mark Grace was the classic Cub playing in a pointless doubleheader on an August afternoon with the wind blowing in and nothing on the line but a flutter at the bottom of the standings. Only a player like Grace, who got the joke of being a Cub(1) and still reveled in it, could possibly explain to me how and why it was that each Cub season began and ended in futility.

I asked him if there was any thrill to being the spoiler, stopping some other team from making the playoffs often the only role left for the Cubs. “No, I don’t rake a whole lot of pleasure in it,” he said. “But the last thing you want is somebody clinching on your turf, mobbing, pouring bubbly on your field,”

Sosa emerged from the tunnel and shouted, “I just took a big shit. It feels good when you take your big shit.”

The temperature at game time was 91 degrees. In the fifth inning, the umpire left the game due to heat exhaustion. I asked Carol Slezak if the players were upset after such a loss, and she said, “They pretend to be.” The next day, in the Sun-Times, I read her story about how exceptionally hot it was at the game.

CARDINALS 5, CUBS 1

Even after a player retires from the Cubs, he remains a hero in Chicago, a god in the pantheon of loss. For players traded to the team this is a consolation. The smart ones, who understand a thing or two about history, must know that they will never be part of a dynasty here. Kevin Tapani remembers when he learned of his trade to the team: “Everyone around here tells you the history and says, ‘Now you are a part of it. You’re one of the lovable losers.’ And so you think, ‘Well, I was not a loser to start with, I did not come here to lose, I will not carry on like a loser.'” Some deluded Cubs even speak of being part of the team that at last breaks the streak. But fans—some of us, anyway, who know the truth—pity the talented young prospect who, having won in Little League, high school, and everywhere else, finds himself on the Cubs. Hope you enjoyed the ride, friend. Because, barring a trade, your winning days are over. In return such a player, if he is good enough to make an impression, is given the city. Chicago loves its Cubs as it loves no other athletes. The Cubs personify Chicago’s striving, the pride that locals take in even the smallest construction, the sense that the rest of the country, especially New York City, is giving us the high hat.

This love was in evidence a few minutes before yet another afternoon game against the Cardinals, as Ryne Sandberg, who for twelve seasons was the star of the Cubs, wandered across the infield to shouts and cheers. In 1994, Sandberg, the highest-paid player in the game, had returned millions of dollars and gone into early retirement, saying he wasn’t happy with his performance. He came back in ’96, found that he had lost his swing, and retired again. It was like watching someone grow old in public. He was now an instructor with the team. On the field, he wore prefaded jeans and a button-down shirt and moved with the stiffness one expects in a retired athlete, his glossy, handsome face turning red in the sun.

For every Cub fan, there is a season, an inning, an at bat, when all hope is lost, when, at long last, he becomes disillusioned and realizes with dread certainty that no matter how good its prospects the team will never win. “The better they look,” my father(2) had warned, “the bigger the heartbreak.” For some, hope was lost in 1969, when, after decades of loss, the management fielded an uncharacteristic collection of future Hall of Famers and all-stars. By September 1 the team was in first place by eight games. After each victory, Ron Santo, the third baseman, would jump up and click his heels. A song that year had the fans singing, “Hey hey, holy mackerel, no doubt about it, the Cubs are on their way!” By mid-September they had been overtaken by the expansion New York Mets, who went on to sweep the World Series. “The Mets were not a team you worried about,” Santo told me. “It was divine intervention. God just lived in New York that year.”

For some, hope was lost in 1989, when the Cubs, with Mark Grace at first base, were swept in the playoffs by the San Francisco Giants. For some it was in 1998, with Sosa hitting all those homers and the team still looking pathetic in the playoffs. For me it was 1984 and the collapse of the great team anchored by Ryne Sandberg, who that year won the National League MVP. In 1981 the Wrigley family had sold the franchise to the Tribune Company, filling the loyalists with hope. Whereas the Wrigleys had refused to spend top dollar on talent, often trading away their best prospects and, what’s worse, evincing a kind of country club racism, for years signing no black players and then signing only a few, the Tribune Company was a cash rich empire. For the first time in years real money was spent on the Cubs. A new general manager was brought in, and soon he had built the first team I ever really cared about. That team had Lee Smith, the fire-throwing relief pitcher, and Rick Sutcliffe, the red-headed ace, and Harry Caray, the great broadcaster, the true visage of the Cubs, who told you not what players were averaging but what they should be averaging were the world a decent place. “He’s really up around .400,” Harry would say. “He’s hit the ball well, but at people.” Harry said that the Cubs infield was not only the most competent in the game but by far the best looking: “Sandberg: classical good looks. Bowa: scrappy, sinewy, and sexy. Cey: just look at that guy! Durham: what woman would not love Bull Durham?”

The team won the National League East by six-and-a-half games. In August several Cubs, including Sutcliffe and Durham, released a country song that my brother called “a crime—an idiotic, stupid, jinx-inducing crime.” The song went like this: “As sure as there’s ivy on the center field wall, the men in blue are gonna win it all.” And: “We’re on top and looking down and picking up more steam.” And: “There’s been lots of talk about no lights in Wrigley Park, we don’t care, if we make it there, we’ll play in the dark.”

The Cubs at that time were the only professional team without lights, a fact that, from time to time, was suggested as a reason for their woes. When the team played night games on the road, so went the reasoning, they were out of sorts, up past their bedtime. In 1984 the commissioner of baseball was more concerned with the fact that no night games at Wrigley meant the league would be robbed of prime time TV revenue. As a result, the Cubs, in a great miscarriage of justice, were stripped of their home-field advantage, which, in the best-of-five playoff, proved crucial. I skipped school to attend the first game, which the Cubs won in a blowout. I followed game two at school, checking the score between classes on TV: another victory. The Cubs then went to San Diego, where they had to win only one of the next three games to clinch a trip to the World Series. In each game the Cubs went into the seventh inning with the lead. In each game they choked. The final blow came with a home run by Steve Garvey, the square-jawed Padres first baseman at the end of his career. The footage of the ensuing trot, Garvey pumping his fist, suggested everything that is wrong with the world.

ARIZONA 11, CUBS 2
ARIZONA 11, CUBS 3
ARIZONA 5, CUBS 4

Sooner or later every Cubs fan, if he is at all reflective, comes to realize that if the Cubs were somehow to cast off the past and win, they would no longer be the Cubs. There is a thrill in victory, yes, but there is a certainty in defeat, and is losing not, in the end, more righteous than winning? Sure, the team might enjoy the arrogance of victory for a season or two, or three, or however long it lasted, but it would thereby destroy the more interesting part of its identity. It would become just another club that won not long ago and is now not so good and not so bad. The first shall be the last and the last shall be the first. But what of those in the middle?

Since 1908, ninety-two teams have had hard luck, like the Red Sox, who have not won the World Series in eighty-three years, but the Red Sox have often gone deep into the Series. Perhaps there is more of a sting to the near miss, but the deep pain, the good stuff, is only to be had by never even coming close. If one must lose, it may as well be spectacularly, as was the case with the series I saw in Arizona. Everything went wrong. Every play was botched. Every player stank. If this were a movie I would title it, simply, Three Days in August.

The Diamondbacks play in a kind of terrarium, a vast biosphere in the center of Phoenix with a retractable roof and seats running clear up to the great glass panels. It was well over 100 degrees out there in the desert, but inside it is always a brisk 72; there is even a kind of autumn crispness in the air. Each player’s equipment had been hung in lockers on the far side of the clubhouse. Unfortunately, Sosa’s locker was at some distance from an electrical outlet, and thus he could not plug in his radio. A work crew was brought in to run an extension cord across the floor, which a pitcher proceeded to trip on.

Across the room sat a table with a pile of magazines, on top of which was a Sports Illustrated Where Are They Now? issue that showed William “Refrigerator” Perry, a lineman for the Bears, once a famous athlete in Chicago, in a hard hat and work clothes, over the words, “Bricklayer, Aiken, South Carolina.” The Cubs walked by this magazine as if it had nothing to do with them. They watched, on DVD, the scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High in which Judge Reinhold, caught masturbating in the bathroom, says, “Doesn’t anyone around here knock?” Sosa made the jerk-off motion—a locker-room gesture so basic and true it was like a revelation.

In the dugout, Mark Grace was talking with Joe Garagiola, himself a former catcher and now the vice president and general manager of the Diamondbacks. Grace told Garagiola that he considered himself a throwback, an old-fashioned player, demonstrated by the fact that, among other things, he did not wear batting gloves, saying he prefers “the feel of the wood.” Since he was a rookie, he said, the big change in the game had been pitchers, who no longer intimidated in the same way. If, as a young Cub, he had come to the plate following a home run, he could have expected the next pitch to be a fastball at his back, “between the one and the seven.” Now, Grace said, pitchers were so nervous about getting tossed from a game that “the best ball to hit is the one right after the home run.” The following night, after Sammy Sosa’s long home run off Randy Johnson, the next pitch is a fastball, to Grace, “between the one and the seven.”

HOUSTON 5, CUBS 4
HOUSTON 10, CUBS 7

With each loss, the clubhouse grew noticeably darker. There was no music during the losing streak, no chatter. Only the sound of Sosa talking with reporters about his most recent home run—a moon shot that kissed the outer glass of Enron Field before falling back into the seats. With each home run, you could see the chasm widening between Sammy and his teammates. “I never really watch the ball,” Sosa said. “I put my head down and run the bases. But I know I got that one good.” In the locker room, Tim Worrell, a pitcher who gave up a homer that meant a lot more than Sammy’s, sat with his head in his hands. A coach, stationed before a VCR, with two empty beer cans at his side, watched the home run, freezing the frame just prior to the disaster: Worrell in his follow-through, the ball hanging like a pigeon over the plate. The coach took notes, rewound, lived through the terrible moment again, then hit fast-forward: the batter, with lickety-split cartoon speed, dashed around the bases to score.

I think I wanted to travel with the Cubs and see them suffer in return for all of the suffering they have caused me. But being on the road with the team in a true slump—well, I guess I had no idea how awful it would be: the stillness of the clubhouses, the eyes on the floor, the jumpiness. Mark Grace saying, “”I’m 0 for this road trip, and that really sucks,” and after every game the manager, Don Baylor—why does a manager wear cleats?—making his statement to the press, the general of an army in perpetual retreat: “Defensively, we’ve gone from the bottom to second in the league.” Or, “That was a home run people can talk about for years. … Unfortunately, it comes as part of another loss.” It was hard to imagine how the Cubs would ever win another game.

Eventually I put the problem to the man charged, hopelessly, with fixing it. “What this club has always done is lose,” Baylor told me. “So even if you have to change the players, you need to find a way to switch the mind-set. You have to find winning players who will talk about winning and not about how the organization has never won.”

GENERAL MANAGER’S OFFICE

One afternoon in Chicago I met with Andy MacPhail, the president and general manager of the Cubs, in his office at Wrigley Field. MacPhail, who won two World Series with the Minnesota Twins, descends from baseball royalty. His grandfather Larry MacPhail, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, helped pioneer night baseball in the major leagues. His father, Lee MacPhail, was the general manager of the Yankees and the Orioles and the president of the American League. For Andy, a neatly dressed middle-aged man with blond hair and wire-rimmed glasses, turning the Cubs around is perhaps the only way he can outdo his father and grandfather, both members of baseball’s Hall of Fame. “The Cubs have not been good enough at bringing players through the system,” he told me. “Other clubs have done it better. You don’t have to look further than the Yankees, who’ve been going to the World Series ad nauseam in the nineties. People think it’s the payroll, but look at Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera—all of them come from the Yankees system. That’s what we need to do, and I’m confident that we’re doing it. We’re going to have our share of players coming up. I can see them in the pipeline.”

I asked if there wasn’t something greater at play with the Cubs. A corporation-wide funk, a mental or emotional block, a culture of loss.

“To be honest, I have been trying to figure that one out myself,” he said, “and here is what I realized: through different ownerships, managers, general managers, players, equipment managers, the one constant has been the ballpark, the vagaries of playing in Wrigley Field. In Minnesota, in the dome, we had AstroTurf, 70 degrees, and no wind, every day. You could customize your team to the environment where you played. You can’t do that here. One day the wind is howling straight in from the lake; the next day it’s howling straight out. You really have to be good all the way around.”

“What about the Cubs teams that were good but still lost?” I asked. “How do you explain ’69 and ’84?”

“I don’t think that there is a curse, if that’s what you mean.”

In 1945, when the Cubs last went to the World Series, the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, not allowed to bring his goat into the park, is said to have hexed the team—a curse some fans say explains ’69 and ’84, and all the rest of it.

I told MacPhail what Ron Santo had told me on the road. “Once you win it, and establish that you are a winning club, it becomes easier,” said Santo, who in his playing career never won anything. “When you have won and somebody comes to this organization, they cannot look back and say, ‘Well, we haven’t won since 1908, or even been there since 1945.'”

“I hate to disagree with a Cub legend,” said MacPhail, “but I can’t get into the occult. My problem is wins and losses, supply and demand. Do you really think Bill Buckner or Leon Durham was thinking about 1969? I don’t think it’s in the players’ minds. I do think it is popular with fans to have teams that represent futility. They like to have lovable losers. Even in the years where we were pretty good, they are slow to recognize it, or believe it, or want to believe it. Now, I find that personally repugnant, and I am going to die trying to change it.”

CUBS 15, HOUSTON 5

When it happens, it happens fast. One moment the Cubs cannot string together two hits, or turn a double play, or steal a base. The next minute they are driving the ball all over the field, sliding into clouds of dirt, racing around the bases. The beat reporters typed furiously into their laptops, adjectives flying everywhere. A pressbox announcer said that the fifteen runs scored by the Cubs ties their season record set in May in a game against Montreal, which the Cubs lost 16–15. In the clubhouse after the game, it was V-E Day all over again, music cranked up, players goofing in the showers. There were whoops, shouts, backslaps. In the aftershock of a high ten, I was racked by a memory that filled me with shame: In the sixth grade I was on a hockey team, the Winnetka Warriors, that had started the season 0 and 13. In our fourteenth game we beat a team from up north. Afterward, as the two teams stood side by side, we started to sing, “We are the Champions!” The other team, who knew they had lost to the biggest losers in the league, waited until we reached the line, “No time for losers.” That’s when the brawl broke out. I fought for my team, of course, but I was ashamed doing it. And that’s pretty much how I felt watching the locker room parry after the Cubs beat the Astros. There was something self-deceiving in the whole crummy display.

At night when I can’t sleep, I sometimes think back on my travels with the Cubs, and it is always the same image that first comes to mind: I was in the clubhouse in Arizona after another defeat. The room was somber, the players dressing quickly in front of their lockers. Several reporters had gathered around Mark Grace, who had caught that Randy Johnson fastball between the shoulder blades—retaliation for Sosa’s long home run; Grace had staggered and collapsed.

As Grace buttoned his shirt, one of the reporters said, “Looked like Johnson didn’t have his best stuff out there.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Grace. “The one that hit me felt pretty good.” You could already see the bruise. It was red and blue, and within it was a darker bruise left by the stitches on the ball. Over the next several days, this wound would develop like a photograph of yet another painful season for the Chicago Cubs.

Footnotes…

(1) At the end of the season, Grace would leave Chicago; unwanted, he would sign a two-year contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks. At the press conference he would say, “I know we play [the Cubs] nine times this year, and I want to kick their butt nine times. … I gave my heart and soul for thirteen years to the Chicago Cubs.” Cub greats have often met a dubious end. In my era, Bill Buckner was traded to Boston at the end of his career, where, in game six of the 1986 World Series, he let a routine grounder hop between his legs, costing the Red Sox their first championship since 1918. This inevitably leads to Mike Royko’s Cubs theorem: If you want to determine the outcome of any particular baseball game, simply calculate which ream has more ex-Cubs. That’s your loser. There are exceptions to this rule—players who go on to win Cy Young Awards and pennants elsewhere but these usually result from awful deals. The worst trade in ream history sent twenty-four-year-old Lou Brock to St. Louis, where he would rewrite the record books, in exchange for thirty-seven-year-old Ernie Broglio, a warhorse of a pitcher who would retire a year later.

(2) A New Yorker, my father had urged me to follow the Dodgers or the Yankees, the teams he had watched as a kid. He worried that in cheering for the Cubs I would come to accept losing as the natural condition of things and so ruin my life.

 

[Boom Box painting by Tim Sours]

The Banter Gold Standard: Parker

Here’s our pal Luc Sante on Richard Stark’s Parker. Stark, aka, Donald Westlake, was recently profiled by Michael Weinreb over at Grantland.

Luc’s piece is featured in several of the Parker books recently re-issued by the University of Chicago Press. If you’ve never read the Parker series, you’re in for a treat.

“Parker”

By Luc Sante

The Parker novels by Richard Stark are a singularly long-lasting literary franchise, established in 1962 and pursued to the present, albeit with a 23-year hiatus in the middle. In other ways, too, they are a unique proposition. When I read my first Parker novel–picked up at random, and in French translation, no less–I was a teenager, and hadn’t read much crime fiction beyond Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. I was stunned by the book, by its power and economy and the fact that it blithely dispensed with moral judgment, and of course I wanted more. Not only did I want more Parker and more Stark, I also imagined that I had stumbled upon a particularly brilliant specimen of a thriving genre. But I was wrong. There is no such genre.

To be sure, there are plenty of tight, harsh crime novels, beginning with Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, and there is a substantial body of books written from the point of view of the criminal, ranging from the tortured cries of Jim Thompson and David Goodis to the mordantly analytical romans durs by Georges Simenon. There are quite a few caper novels, including the comic misadventures Parker’s creator writes under his real name, Donald Westlake, and the works of a whole troop of French writers not well known in this country: José Giovanni, Albert Simonin, San-Antonio. The lean, efficient Giovanni in particular has points in common with Stark (anglophones can best approach him through movie adaptations: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le deuxième souffle, Claude Sautet’s Classe tous risques), but with the key difference that he is an unabashed romantic.

Stark is not a romantic, or at least not within the first six feet down from the surface. Westlake has said that he meant the books to be about “a workman at work,” which they are, and that is why they have so few useful parallels, why they are virtually a genre unto themselves. Process and mechanics and trouble-shooting dominate the books, determine their plots, underlie their aesthetics and their moral structure. A great many of the editions down through the years have prominently featured a blurb from Anthony Boucher: “Nobody tops Stark in his objective portrayal of a world of total amorality.” That is true as far as it goes–it is never suggested in the novels that robbing payrolls or shooting people who present liabilities are anything more than business practices–but Boucher overlooked the fact that Parker maintains his own very lively set of moral prerogatives. Parker abhors waste, sloth, frivolity, inconstancy, double-dealing, and reckless endangerment as much as any Puritan. He hates dishonesty with a passion, although you and he may differ on its terms. He is a craftsman who takes pride in his work.

Parker is in fact a bit like the ideal author of a crime-fiction series: solid, dependable, attentive to every nuance and detail. He is annoyed by small talk and gets straight to the point in every instance, using no more than the necessary number of words to achieve his aim. He eschews short cuts, although he can make difficult processes look easy, and he is free of any trace of sentiment, although he knows that while planning and method and structure are crucial, character is even more important. As brilliant as he is as a strategist, he is nothing short of phenomenal at instantly grasping character. This means that he sometimes sounds more like a fictional detective than a crook, but mostly he sounds like a writer. In order to decide which path the double-crosser he is pursuing is most likely to have taken, or which member of the string is most likely to double-cross, or the odds on a reasonable-sounding job that has just been proposed to him by someone with shaky credentials, he has to get all the way into the skin of the party in question. He is an exceptionally intelligent freelancer in a risky profession who takes on difficult jobs hoping for a payoff large enough to hold off the next job for as long as possible. He even has an agent (Joe Sheer succeeded by Handy McKay). Then again he is seen–by other characters as well as readers–as lacking in emotion, let alone sympathy, a thug whose sole motivation is self-interest.

And no wonder: Parker is a big, tough man with cold eyes. “His hands looked like they’d been molded of brown clay by a sculptor who thought big and liked veins”; the sentence appears like a Homeric epithet somewhere in an early chapter of most of the books. He might just possibly pass for a businessman, provided the business is something like used cars or jukeboxes. He doesn’t drink much, doesn’t gamble, doesn’t read, likes to sit in the dark, thinking, or else in front of the television, not watching but employing it as an aid to concentration. Crude and antisocial at the start of the series, he actually evolves considerably over its course. Claire, whom he meets in The Rare Coin Score, seems to have a lot to do with this–by Deadly Edge they actually have a house together. And Alan Grofield, first encountered in The Score and recurring in The Handle, among other titles, twice in the series becomes the recipient of what can only be called acts of kindness from Parker, however much Stark equivocates on this point, insisting that they merely reflect professional ethics or some such.

Parker is a sort of super-criminal–not at all like those European master criminals, such as Fantômas and Dr. Mabuse, but a very American freebooter, able to outmaneuver the Mob, the CIA, and whatever other forces come at him. For all that he lives on the other side of the law, he bears a certain resemblance to popular avengers of the 1960s and ‘70s, Dirty Harry or Charles Bronson’s character in Death Wish. He is a bit of a fanatic, and even though we are repeatedly told how sybaritic his off-duty resort-hotel lifestyle is, it remains hard to picture, since he is such an ascetic in the course of the stories. He is so utterly consumed by the requirements of his profession that everything extraneous to it is suppressed when he’s on, and we are not privy to his time off, except for narrow vignettes in which he is glimpsed having sex or, once, swimming. But then, writers are writing even when they’re not writing, aren’t they?

After The Hunter, all the remaining titles concern jobs gone wrong, which seems to account for most of Parker’s jobs, barring the occasional fleeting allusion to smoother operations in the past. The Seventh is, naturally, the seventh book in the series, as well as a reference to the split from the take in a stadium job. The actual operation is successful; the problem is what occurs afterward. It represents the very rare incursion, for the Parker series, of a thriller staple: the crazed gunman. Along with The Rare Coin Score, it is one of Stark’s always very pointed explorations of group dynamics. The Handle, with its private gambling island, ex-Nazi villain, and international intrigue, is (like The Mourner and The Black Ice Score) a nod to the espionage craze of the 1960s, when authors of thrillers could not afford to ignore James Bond. If The Seventh is primarily aftermath, The Handle is largely preamble. In The Rare Coin Score (the first of four such titles, succeeded by Green Eagle, Black Ice, and Sour Lemon) the culprit is an amateur, a coin dealer whose arrested development is so convincingly depicted the reader can virtually hear his voice squeak. Sharp characterizations abound in this one–its plot turns entirely on character flaws of various sizes.

The Parker books are all engines, machines that start up with varying levels of difficulty, then run through a process until they are done, although subject to different sorts of interference. The heists depicted are only part of this process–sometimes they are even peripheral to it. Parker is the mechanic who runs the machine and attempts to keep it oiled and on course. The interference is always caused by personalities–by the greed, incompetence, treachery, duplicity, or insanity of various individuals concerned, although this plays out in a variety of ways, depending on whether it affects the job at beginning, middle, or end, and whether it occurs as a single dramatic action, a domino sequence of contingencies, or a gradually fraying rope. The beauty of the machine is that not only is suspense as effective as it usually is, but its opposite is, too: the satisfaction of inevitability. Some Parker novels are fantastically intricate clockwork mechanisms (The Hunter, The Outfit, the seemingly unstoppable Slayground, the epic Butcher’s Moon), while others hurtle along as successions of breakdowns (the aptly acidic The Sour Lemon Score, the almost sadistically frustrating Plunder Squad).

Like all machines but unlike lesser thrillers the novels have numerous moving parts, and the more the better–more people, more subplots, more businesslike detail, more vignetted glimpses of marginal lives. Stark’s momentum is such that the more matter he throws into the hopper the faster the gears turn. The books are machines that all but read themselves. You can consume the entire series and not once have to invest in a bookmark.

BGS: Dead Dogs and Manhood

Another beaut from our man Dexter. This one originally appeared in the Philly Daily News on June 2, 1980. It is collected in Paper Trailsa must-read if there ever was one, and is featured here with the author’s permission.

“Dead Dogs and Manhood”

By Pete Dexter

The year I turned 5 my family moved to a little town in central Georgia called Milledgeville where my father taught physics at the military college. Our house was on a red clay road, next to a pine woods and a saw mill. The plums came off the trees hot from the sun, and I had a cocker spaniel puppy that followed me everywhere I went. And nobody wore shoes all summer long, except to Sunday school.

The puppy was almost grown when he was killed. A city garbage truck hit him and left him where he stopped rolling, beside the road on a hill half a mile from the house. I heard about it from a kid named Kenny Durkin, who was the kind of kid who would spend half the afternoon looking for you to be the one to tell you your dog was dead.

He is probably working for a newspaper now.

Anyway, Kenny found me down at the saw mill, walking around the inside edge of a round cement building where they burned scrap wood. The building had a clay floor, dug out into a pit, and if you fell off the edge that’s where you ended up, in there burning with the wood.

My friends and I went there once or twice a week and waited for the watchman to chase us out. We wanted to see it when he fell off the edge.

Kenny Durkin stuck his head into the open door and yelled at me. “Peter,” he said, “the city truck done run over yer dog and kilt him dead.”

We ran from the saw mill to the hill where the city truck had left my dog, stopping every now and then for Kenny Durkin to get his breath. I was scared and excited at the same time – I’d never seen a dead dog before.

By the time we got to place on the hill, the sun had baked one side of the dog’s coat so hot you could hardly touch him. The flies were all over his ears and eyes, and I brushed them away and picked him up. He had never seemed so heavy before. I told Kenny Durkin to go away.

I carried the puppy up the hill, stumbling under the weight. I fell in some stones, and he rolled into the ditch. I pulled him out by a leg, and there was a trail of blood and bubbles where his mouth had slid along the ground. It was cool in the ditch and I thought about leaving him there, but there was something worse in that than in what had already happened.

I picked him up and started for home again. I moved him from one shoulder to the other, trying to get rid of the ache in the muscles. But the ache got worse and worse and the next time I fell I couldn’t pick him up again, so I
dragged him home by the leg.

And I was crying as much from the ache as for the dog.

A neighbor woman came out from behind her screen door and told me to leave the puppy out in the street. “Come on in and have some ice tea,” she said.

“Your daddy’ll be by directly.”

But I was dizzy from the heat by that time, watching my feet move, one in front of the other against the red Georgia dirt, and I didn’t answer.

I didn’t have anything to say, and I had something to do. And a long time went by before I got the puppy home.

I remembered all that last week. I was driving some back roads near Elmer, N.J., when I came on a kid carrying a dead dog.

He was older than I had been – he might have been 9 or 10 – but you don’t pick the times you grow up, they pick you. The dog was a mongrel, maybe 35 pounds, and the kid was trying to balance it in front of him on the frame of his bicycle.

He’d pedal a few yards, then the handle bars would get away from him. He’d reach up to steady himself and the dog would fall off onto the road. I stopped the car behind him and asked what had happened.

“He got run over,” he said. The dog was lying at his feet and boy couldn’t control his voice any more than the handle bars. Everything was falling apart all at once.

I said, “Maybe I can help you get him home.”

He said, “I can do it.” He picked up the dog and lay him across the bicycle. The eyes swung in the air. The boy got back on the bicycle and tried again, the dog fell off again. “Oh, Goldie,” he said.

“How far do you live?”

The kid kept his face away when he answered, so you couldn’t see him crying.

“Just a little bit up the road. I can do it.”

“Close enough to walk? ” He nodded, still keeping his face away. I said, “Then hold her on the bicycle and walk her home.”

The kid put his dog across the bicycle, held her there with one hand and began to walk toward a red and white farm house a long ways down the road. From the back you could see the crying take over his body. Maybe if I’d asked him again, he would have let me drive him home.

But I didn’t ask.

He was finding out about himself, and tonight, after the dog was buried, that would be all he would have to take her place.

[Photo Credit: Sally Mann]

The Banter Gold Standard: The Sports Fan

More baseball. This here beaut by Pete Richmond was a “Main Event” takeout for The National Sports Daily back on August 30, 1990. It appears here with the author’s permission.

“The Sports Fan”

By Peter Richmond

The first time I called Bill Murray to see if he wanted to watch some Cubs games he insisted on reading me the Recipe of the Month from the Cubs newsletter, which was Ryne and Cindy Sandberg’s recipe for Chicken Parmesan. It didn’t sound particularly appetizing. We never found out what it tasted like, even though we did end up in Chicago, and we did end up eating a lot. We just never ate any of Ryne and Cindy Sandberg’s Chicken Parmesan. We did eat Diana Ditka’s chicken, which wasn’t anything special, especially after Bill picked up this kid who wanted an autograph and lowered his head until it was a few inches from the mashed potatoes. We also ate lamb chops with an orange sauce at a cocktail party for some of the Cubs in a men’s store that sold ties for $200, but there was nowhere to put the bones except in the pockets of the silk jackets. We also had eggs Benedict with fresh tomato slices, and some pretty good swordfish, but the most appetizing dish by far was the fruit bowl that looked like a Dutch still life in Mick Fleetwood’s hotel suite on the forty first floor. Unfortunately, he never offered us any, even though Bill was polite enough to read aloud from the unpublished science fiction manuscript written by Mick’s dad, the late Wing Commander Fleetwood of the RAF, at 3 A.M., while the rest of Fleetwood Mac drank pear brandy down at the bar.

And, of course, we ate Polish Sausages. We ate a lot of Polish sausages. In fact, the first thing Bill said when he reached our seats behind home plate in Wrigley Field during the national anthem for a 7:35 start against the Expos was, “I brought you a Polish,” and he held up a brown paper bag. He was wearing a baseball cap with the insignia of the Salt Lake Trappers on the crest. He was wearing baggy bluejeans and a black Adidas jacket with Cyrillic writing on it. Holding the bag in his left hand and his ticket stub in the right, with the brim of the cap pulled down, Bill had moved through the crowd without causing a ripple. He seems to fit in Wrigley Field the way something fits in your glove compartment that’s always there, where it belongs.

“Beer?” said the vendor who always brings her coldest case to where Bill’s sitting.

“That’s what we’re here for,” Bill said. He was right. We drank Old Style, and kept score, and talked about the 1957 Braves. The day they clinched the pennant, Bill’s dad—a lumber salesman, father of nine—drove the family up to Milwaukee and they cruised the streets in celebration, even though they were Cubs fans. He can still recite their starting lineup.

Since then, Bill has spent a lot of time in baseball parks. He had two at bats with the Grays Harbor Loggers. Now he owns part of the Trappers, the Charleston (S.C.) Rainbows, the Williamsport (Pa.) Bills and the Pompano Beach (Fla.) Miracle, which he recently visited on Gaelic night, and when he was presented with a baked potato, plain, he ate it so as not to offend his hosts.

But you’re likely to see him just about anywhere. Last autumn, for instance, in the middle of a pennant race, he leaned over the lip of the Cubs dugout in Shea Stadium in the late innings and
tried to hand a Heineken and some Cajun fries to Rick Sutcliffe, who pitches for the Cubs. Sutcliffe tried not to panic. His manager, Don Zimmer, had turned the color of a cherry tomato. “At least take the fries,” Bill said, hanging upside down. Sutcliffe didn’t even take the fries. Bill ate them. The Cubs won the division.

Bill had remembered to put everything on the Polish dogs, including jalapeños and celery salt. The girl at the Polish place on Waveland Avenue invariably gives him the best Polishes on the grill. Bill isn’t very comfortable with being treated specially, but a good Polish and a cold Old Style are two of the perks he’d be foolish to spurn, especially considering all of the drawbacks to trying to watch a Cubs game if you’re Bill, which are considerable. In Wrigley Field, for instance, he is seldom granted more than four seconds to himself, which grows quickly annoying to a man who is far more than a casual fan. (How many people do you know who know that Lloyd McLendon once hit five home runs in five at bats in Little League?)

“Are you Bill Murray or a lookalike?” said a doughy man in the bottom of the second as he walked in front of our seats. Marvel Wynne had just singled. “Are you Duffy Dougherty?” said Bill. He was trying to watch Wynne’s lead off first.

Then a guy with maximum security prison tattoos came up and said, “I know I shouldn’t bother you, so I’m going to. Bill looked at him the wav you’d look at a dead fish on the beach. The man left.

Another man came over and shoved a program in his face. “If I miss one pitch, I’m going to kill you,” Bill said. The man laughed. “I mean it,” Bill said. The man left.

“Hey Bill, l think it’s great how you support Chicago sports,” said someone else.

“I can’t do anything else,” Bill said.

Mostly Bill didn’t seem to mind, if it was between innings. When a teenage girl skipped in front of us and almost kicked over our beers, he said, “Hey, get those big feet outta here,” and when she turned around, blushing, he smiled, and she smiled back and sort of melted right there into a pink puddle. Another girl leaned over in the middle of an inning and he signed her program in mock exasperation.

“I’m only doing this because I like the way you look,” he said. She laughed. He was telling the truth. In fact, he was in a particularly good mood. A few days earlier he’d taken batting practice with the Trappers and put a few on the track, and the day before, the Miracle had taken part in the amateur draft and had picked up a couple of definite prospects. Also, Dwight Smith hit a home run in the fifth, and now Wynne hit one in the sixth—”He hit it!” Bill said, shooting to his feet, watching the arc of the ball over the ivy. But he regretted having made himself so conspicuous, for the Expos soon knocked Shawn Boskie out and took a considerable lead, and the crowd started paying more attention to Bill than to the Cubs. A woman tried to pass him a love note on an All-Star ballot, and a man handed him a cellular telephone and said loudly, “Talk to my wife.” Bill did. Faceless fans kept sending us beers, even though he kept refusing them. “You can’t get too relaxed in a military situation,” he said, and he was right: we were under siege.

“Dogs and cats, living together!” wailed someone a few rows back.

“This Ghostbusters thing is not going to go away until someone kills themselves with one of the toys,” Bill said.

In the middle innings, Mark Grace, who was suffering through a terrible slump, walked into the on-deck circle. Bill stood up and shouted “I can swing that bat!” so loudly that Grace had to turn around to see what kind of demented loon was sitting in the fifth row, and when he saw it was Bill, he couldn’t keep himself from smiling, all the while motioning frantically for him to sit back down before everyone got in trouble. I think Bill was trying to help him out of the slump, but he grounded to first base.

Finally, Nelson Santovenia hit a home run for the Expos.

“Nelson Santovenia?” Bill said softly.

It was all over but the shouting, of which there was a lot, so we ducked out a side door and went downtown for dinner.

As we drove down Lake Shore Drive in my rented Geo, Bill said, “The Cubs seemed sort of cranky.”

They had, too.

We found a restaurant that had the White Sox-Angels game from Anaheim on the television. As we found a table, Sammy Sosa threw an Angel out at the plate. It was a good sign. Bill never likes to stray too far from baseball. He keeps close tabs on the game and has many interesting theories about sports in general. One is his Civic Metropolitan Trauma Theory, whereby cities undergoing disasters and strife are likelier to be blessed with sports championships. It is not statistically verifiable, however.

Also, his theory about the National League East this year is that the team that eats the most protein will win. “That bodes well for the Mets,” he says, “because in New York, they eat their own, whereas in Pittsburgh they eat pure anthracite.”

Bill ordered the swordfish. I had the crab.

“You mind if I smoke?” he asked me. Your mother would like Bill. He has these manners. “Manners are the only thing left,” Bill said to me.

We tried to watch the White Sox game but people kept appearing from the dimness. The closer they got to the table, the more they all took on the look of subjects in a Diane Arbus photograph, or a Fellini film cast by Woody Allen.

“I want to talk to you about this idea I have for a theme restaurant—you and Belushi,” said a man waving a cigar the size of the Graf Zeppelin. (This is a recurring theme; in Pompano Beach, a woman who wanted Bill to ride on her Harley asked him. “How’s Belushi?” “He’s dead,” said Bill. “Yeah, I know,” she said, shaking her head.)

The man with the cigar kept trying to buy us drinks, although Bill was just drinking La Croix water, because it’s bottled in La Cross, Wisconsin, and they just turned it into French to sell it. Bill will drink anything made in Wisconsin.

Then another man left his woman friend at the bar to sidle up to Bill and introduce himself as a producer. He had something to do with the camera angles at Wrigley Field. About ten minutes later, when she realized that the man had no intention of summoning her, the woman sidled over, too. She was dressed in a black leotard top, and she had black hair and dark eyes and very white skin. She told us she didn’t like baseball as much as she liked hockey, which she said she liked because the athletes beat each other up. Bill and I exchanged glances.

“Are you out on the coast most of the time?” said the producer. “Yeah,” Bill said, “the East Coast.”

“Really?” said the man.

“I like the air,” Bill said.

“Yeah, but what about the females on the West Coast?” the man said, and he actually winked like Eric Idle used to in Monty Python skits.

“Well, I like to talk to the women I meet,” Bill said. The man didn’t get it. Bill was trying to watch the White Sox Angels game.

“Did you know,” he finally said to the man, “that one out of ten people comes from California? Is that frightening, or what?” The man left. Another one took his place, a much older man. “I used to know Georg’e Raft,” he said.

“I dated George Raft,” Bill said.

A woman came over to tell Bill that he didn’t seem very animated.

“I’m emotionally down because the Cubs lost,” he said. “If they’d won I’d be out ripping the antennas off cars.”

A woman came over with a glass full of clear liquor. Her eyes swam in her head the way the ice cubes swam in her glass. It apparently hadn’t been her first drink. She said she worked for the Illinois secretary of state.

“You look like the kind of person I could go on a kill spree with,” Bill said. “Knock over a few gas stations, kill a few people.” She did, too.

“Listen—I’ve struggled, darling,” she said as if she were on stage. People tend to approach Bill as if they were auditioning for really bad parts in life.

As we left the restaurant, the cigar man tried to pay the check.

Bill wouldn’t let him. As we left the guy was yelling, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” as if we’d insulted him or something.

On the street, a man in a wheelchair told Bill he’d been shot in the back because he refused to join a street gang. He asked Bill for enough money to stay in the Y. He had an upper body like Lawrence Taylor’s.

“I gotta think you could be applying yourself more, Roger,” Bill said, and Roger didn’t seem to disagree. Then Bill gave him more than enough money to stay for a night at the Y, and said that he hoped he wouldn’t see him back at the same spot on the street later that night. “I mean it,” Bill said, and judging from the expression on Roger’s face, I don’t imagine he’s returned to the spot yet.

Back at the bar in Bill’s hotel, Fleetwood Mac had a bodyguard named Roman who looked as if he’d sprung from the cellar of David Lynch’s imagination. He had a smile like he was being
shocked by electrodes. Bill asked the bartender for an aquavit. Everyone in Fleetwood Mac immediately asked for an aquavit. They were wearing a lot of silver jewelry and black clothes. Every few minutes one of them invited Bill to accompany them on their jet the next night to Columbus, Ohio. Bill smiled politely a lot. Mick Fleetwood drank everyone’s aquavit before they could, and kept saying profound things in an elegant voice. Then he invited Bill up to his suite to listen to his late father’s poetry. Bill could tell it meant a lot to Mick, so he agreed. Besides which, the band’s conversation had reached the level of chatter between tree slugs.

The poetry was pretty good. It was on a cassette. There were a couple of dozen beers arranged on ice in a huge silver bowl, like shrimp cocktails, only they were beer bottles. Mick offered us beers but none of the fruit.

Bill had an 8:30 radio appearance the next morning, so we left at 3: 15. As Mick saw us to the door, he asked me what he’d said that I’d written down on the corner of my Cubs program while we were at the bar, and so I read it.

“The English, the English,” I quoted. “The English are the hushpuppy brigade continuing to trample the world in disgrace.”

“You’re the only one who has that,” Mick Fleetwood said, nodding, with a smile. He’s right. I am.

Down on Michigan Avenue, Bill and I were the only people on the street. A very warm wind was buffeting the buildings. For some reason, it carried the scent of newly mowed grass, We agreed to meet on the same corner the next morning. Mike Harkey was starting for the Cubs, and we had good seats again.

On the radio show, someone from Elgin called in to ask him about his movie. Among other things, Elgin houses the Elgin Mental Health Center.

“Did you escape?” Bill said, “Are you one of those guys who climbs the sidewalk and kills people in his car?” The man didn’t laugh. The radio host asked Bill about the Cubs.

“I think they need a few laughs,” Bill said.

I met him on the street corner. He had a white T-shirt and a blue sweater under his arm. The cabdriver said he’d had a bad day. Bill asked him if he was the kind of cabdriver who said he’d had a bad day to get a big tip. The man insisted he’d had a bad day. Bill gave him grief most of the way. When we reached Wrigley, Bill tipped him $20 and told the man to spend it on an activity that family newspapers are reluctant to talk about, although it’s legal between consenting adults in most states.

Then we got more Polish sausage on Waveland Avenue.

A girl in a tank top with a Felix the Cat tattoo on the back of her left shoulder tried to sell him a Bart Simpson T-shirt. We were both feeling the effects of not getting much sleep, and the girl asked him why he was so crabby. I think he resisted the impulse to plant her upside down in one of the bushes. Instead he said, “That’s a nice tattoo. I bet you got one somewhere else.” If she did, she didn’t show us.

The Cubs had given us good seats again, but the team wasn’t playing any better. Our vendor wasn’t working, and the beer was never cold. In the top of the sixth the Expos scored three runs. A woman from a television network who had an anchor apprentice smile asked him to come watch her team play softball that weekend.

“Well,” Bill said, “maybe I’ll come by and insult you.”

“That’d be great,” she said.

A teenage girl asked him for an autograph.

“This girl smells really nice,” he said to me.

“Thank you,” she said. “You’re very sweet.”

“She really smelled good,” he said after she left. Another one took her place. She said her name was Jennifer.

“Jennifer, you’re a total babe,” he said. “Now go on. Get out of here.”

To a lot of people who kept coming up, he said, “You don’t understand. There’s a baseball game going on.” Once he said, “Hey! There’s a two-and-one count here!”

It was a strange game that afternoon, error-filled and back-and-forth. Bill likes games with errors. “A rally of a double and an error and another double, that’s somehow more exciting to me,” he said. “That’s the real game. Human error.”

In the bottom of the eighth it was tied. Bill had to do Siskel live in twenty minutes, back downtown. We decided to stay anyway. But then Jerry Goff hit a home run for the Expos in the top of
the ninth.

“Jerry Goff?” Bill said softly.

We found a cab and Bill said to the driver, “Can you get us to the CBS studios in eight minutes?”

“Sure,” the driver said, and I think he thought he was in a movie. He screeched the tires and missed a baby carriage by a foot and a half. We headed down Lake Shore Drive like one of those cars in a video driving game. The driver literally screeched up to the curb at CBS. A woman was holding the doors open, looking at her watch. Bill said, “Excuse me,” and ducked into the men’s room. He came out a moment later wearing the clean T-shirt and the blue sweater. He’d stuck his head under the sink and combed all his hair straight back. Siskel was wearing clothes that looked like he’d stepped out of a Brooks Brothers catalogue six minutes ago. The anchor people segued into Siskel and Bill.

“Bill Murray’s movies,” Siskel said, by way of introducing Bill, “average one hundred million dollars gross,” as if it had anything to do with anything. Bill didn’t get animated until Siskel asked him about the Cubs. When Siskel asked him how the studio had come to let him direct his latest film, Bill said. “Sometimes when it’s three-and-oh, they let you swing away.”

Outside the studio, back on the street, Bill’s studio’s publicist had produced a limousine the size of a stretch DC-9. He’d been trying to get Bill to ride in limos for two~days. This time Bill acquiesced, as a favor to the publicist, who belongs to the age when publicists knew how to publicize, but liked nothing more than making their stars feel like stars. He’d say things to Bill like, “Need anything? Plane tickets? Money?” And Bill~would say, “No thanks.” In the back of the limo, the publicist had Paris on the car phone, and so Bill talked to Paris for a minute. There were crystal glasses in the bar, but there wasn’t any time to use them because the hotel was about six blocks from the CBS studio. In fact, the limo was so big we probably could have gotten in one end at the studio and gotten out the other at the hotel without the car actually moving.

Bill’s hotel room was on the forty-fourth floor, facing north. You could see Greenland. A basketball sat in a window sill, looking north up the shore of the lake like someone pining away for something.

Bill changed into a purple shirt and blue jeans and we crossed the street to the cocktail party introducing the Chicago Cubs calendar. Jerome Walton was wearing enough jewelry to anchor a Japanese supertanker. We took some vodka-and-tonics off the trays that kept arriving on the arms of tuxedoed young men, and lamb chops with orange sauce. I put my bones in mv pocket, in
their napkins.

Mark Grace introduced Bill to a guy with long hair and a cowboy hat. He was the lead singer of a band called Restless Heart. They are apparently very big in white baseball circles. The Cubs all seemed relieved to have Bill to talk to, instead of having to talk to the other guests at the party, who clearly did their shopping at this store, but were not acting as cool as you’re supposed to act when your shirt costs $190. They clotted around Bill so that eventually he had to stand behind the sales counter. A man in a $6,000 suit—I’d guess—asked him what his plans were.

“I’m supposed to be making a movie in the fall,” Bill said, “but I’m going to try and get out of it.”

“Oh,” the man said, and went to look for the bar, which was up near the neckties.

We took a cab to Ditka’s. At a stoplight we stopped next to a Mercedes painted the color of mold, driven by a woman in dark glasses with a scarf over her hair. Bill leaned out the window.

“Nice color!” he said. “Hey, I’ll bet $10 you just quit smoking and drinking!”

When the light changed, she didn’t move. She looked as if someone had just hit her with a cattle prod.

We joined Grace and Sutcliffe and Steve Wilson and the lead singer of Restless Heart at a table in the Hall of Fame Room, where a man played lounge songs on an electric piano with a plaque that read “Myles Green at The Piano.” Myles was exactly like the lounge singers Bill used to imitate, and by the size of his smile when he recognized Bill, you’d have thought he sensed the irony of it all, but judging by the music he played, he apparently didn’t.

There were about thirty-five televisions up on the walls, all showing a Giants Cardinals game. Every time Will Clark came up, Mark Grace watched very intently. The Cubs asked Bill about his movies.

Bill steered the conversation back to baseball. He told them they’d probably turn it around on the West Coast trip.

“I’m going to give you guys a joke book,” Bill said. He was convinced they weren’t having enough fun this year. He was right. “We need it,” Grace said.

“We need something,” Sutcliffe said.

Bill ordered Diana Ditka’s chicken. It had a sauce with a lot of peas in it. When the kid showed up asking for an autograph, Bill shot out of his chair, grabbed the kid by the lapels of his shirt, picked him up two feet in the air and lowered him onto the table a few inches from Diana Ditka’s peas, and shook him in mock anger. The kid was laughing. Bill let him up and signed the autograph. Then, just when the kid thought he was safe, Bill grabbed him and did it again. The Cubs were more or less falling out of their chairs.

I think Bill was doing it for the Cubs, so they’d start winning.

Then a woman with white-blonde hair in a black leather skirt, black halter top, exposed midriff, and a lot of S&M jewelry came over and handed Bill a piece of paper to sign.

He wrote, “Judy: Don’t Let Them Behead Us. Bill.”

“What does it say?” she said, peering at it closely. He read it aloud. She left.

On the walk back to the hotel, Bill found a baseball hat with elephants on it in the window of a tie store. He wanted to buy it for Jerome Walton, but the place was closed. It started to rain and we ducked into a piano bar in the lobby of a nice hotel. We each had a Pernod and water. No one recognized him. The pianist was much better than Myles, but since he hadn’t pasted a plaque with his name to the piano, we never found out who it was.

Back at Bill’s hotel, no one was in the bar. Fleetwood Mac had gone to Columbus, but Bill’s family had arrived in the RV. It was one of the great trades of all time.

At breakfast the next morning, Bill’ son Homer brought a baseball to the table and tried to cut it with a knife and fork while we were waiting for the eggs to come. Homer is a catcher. He once started a triple play with the bases loaded by grabbing a bunt, stepping on home, and throwing to first, where the first baseman threw on to third. He’s such a catcher that the thing he loves most is blocking the plate and getting run into and holding on to the ball, and he’s only eight. Luke, who is five, had the glove he’d given Bill for Father’s Day. It was a beautiful glove. They were all en route to a vacation. But there was one more Cubs game to go to.

We took the Geo to Wrigley, up Lake Shore Drive, past picnics and beachgoers, and got a good parking place in the lot across the street. Before the game Bill hung out with Zimmer in his office while Grace got bubble gum for Homer and Luke. In the Cubs weight room, Sutcliffe told us Cubs stories. Sutcliffe asked where the seats were, and Bill said,”Up among the weird and the damned.”

But on this day, the crowd was soft and comfortable, and it was a fine day for a baseball game. Someone gave Bill a Twizzler and didn’t ask for anything in return, and he took it. All afternoon, Luke’s green eyes lit up the whole ballpark, and after he saw everyone asking Bill for autographs, he handed his baseball to Bill, and Bill signed it “Dad” and gave it back to him, and Luke tucked it into the pocket of his glove.

Bill’s putting the kid in Diana Ditka’s peas to make the Cubs laugh had worked, because on this afternoon, Grace broke out of his slump, and Sandberg hit two home runs—two!—and Jeff Pico won easily. The vendor with the nice smile was back, and all of her beer was cold enough to freeze the roof of your mouth.

In the seventh, Larry Walker hit a home run for the Expos.

Bill said, “Larry Walker?” in a soft voice.

But the Cubs won easily.

Outside in the parking lot we made plans to see the Miracle. Then he went on vacation and I went to Wyoming. On the plane I read a magazine with Bill on the cover. At the beginning of the story about Bill, the writer said that Bill seems like the kind of guy you think you can go to baseball games with, but you can’t.

He was wrong. You can. You should try. Really. For one thing, you get the coldest beers.

 

BGS: Where Have You Gone, Mickey Mantle?

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

“Where Have You Gone, Mickey Mantle?”

By Diane K. Shah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But always there was the tape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Congratulations,” mumbles Mickey, at a loss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, I don’t think I can tell.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘Yes, it is,” I told him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you miss the limelight now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

“What do you hunt?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you enjoy these appearances?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

Merlyn Mantle nods and looks away.

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

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

The Banter Gold Standard: Dexter Recalls Jack McKinney

Here’s another sure shot from our pal Dexter.

This one is from August 16, 2002 when he remembered his mentor and friend, Jack McKinney. (The piece appears here with the author’s permission.)

“Pete Dexter Recalls Jack McKinney”

By Pete Dexter

There are a thousand stories about Jack McKinney, and as it happens I was there for a few of them, enough at least to know that the rest are probably true.

I will tell you one no one has ever heard before in a minute, but first let me just make the observation that when you think of the people Jack McKinney knew over the years, the things he saw and did, the chances he took, you realize that even if you were McKinney’s friend, you probably never glimpsed a tenth of the whole picture.

A trusted friend of Sonny Liston, attacked physically by Norman Mailer for ironing Mailer’s wife’s hair in the kitchen during a party–what boundaries could there be?

He was also for years the best boxing writer in America and the loudest tenor in the history of late-night Center City. He fought for his cause in Northern Ireland, at least helped to invent modern talk radio, read four and five newspapers a day, and often ate a gallon of ice cream at a sitting. I could go on like this for an hour. The legend is endless.

But let me push all that aside for the moment and start with this: Jack McKinney, it seems to me, was led his whole life by three driving, and occasionally competing, forces. His intellect, his compassion and, of course, testosterone. These were not whims, blowing him gently from one place to another, they were gales. Huge impulses that he seemed helpless to resist, even when he knew there would be consequences. Jackpots, he called them.

The last time I spoke to him, I’d been sitting around thinking about one of my own jackpots, the very public thumping I took in Devil’s Pocket 20 years ago, something that I suppose I will always find myself sitting around thinking about. In the aftermath I was lying in the hospital when McKinney walked in and stood for a while at the end of the bed, looking me over.

“Well,” he said, “the first thing is, it was stupid to go over there.”

I guess that I ought to explain that when I came to Philadelphia I didn’t know anything or anybody, and Jack took me under his arm as much as anyone ever has and educated me in the ways of night life and the city. For a long time, I considered myself Jack’s apprentice.

I was lying on my pillow that day, trying not to move anything, 150 stitches in my head, a broken femur, a broken vertebra, nerve damage and half my teeth sheared to the gum line by a crowbar.

I said, “You think so, Jack?”

He closed the door and had a seat and talked to me for most of an hour, lecturing, I guess, but not scolding, just someone who had been in a few spots of his own, who had also been hurt. He told me that what had happened was going to follow me around a long time, which it did, and that I was in the process of finding out some things I needed to know. Which I was. He said these things in a kind way, somehow acknowledging that I was still someone he took seriously. It was always important to me, what Jack thought.

So the last time I spoke to him, it was a spur of the moment thing, I wanted to thank him for that hospital visit 20 years ago, for that kindness, to say that I didn’t think he ever knew how much it meant to me when he did it. And once the awkward silence that declaration provoked was out of the way, we talked about our families and kids. About the old days, the Daily News and the jackpots we got into, about the night he lent a company car to a woman with tattoos who told him she had to go buy baby formula. The woman, as I remember, did not return the car. Another night, the police stopped us at 2 o’clock on Walnut Street because Jack was singing too loud, and Jack spent 20 minutes trying to explain the beauty and passion of opera to these two very patient officers, making them promise finally that they would give it a try. Earlier that same night a drunk had pulled a knife on us and Jack, enjoying it hugely, told me to fan out, and I did everything but crawl into his back pocket.

The night I want to tell you about, though, never came up between us. I never talked about it to anybody. We’d been at the Pen and Pencil Club until 3 o’clock in the morning, Jack ranking all the tenors since Caruso between rounds of head-butting with an infamous Irish burglar who had a head the size of a mailbox. Jack was losing his toupee, and so he took it off – something he would never do in public – and handed it to me each time he went back to butt heads again. He also wanted me to stand in back of him in case the infamous Irish burglar butted him unconscious. “Just don’t let me drop,” he said. “Just stand there and catch me if I drop.”

I woke up the next morning still hearing the deep, hollow sound of heads colliding, wondering how McKinney’s was feeling. My own head wasn’t anything to brag about, and things did not improve when I got in the car to drive into work. How do I put this? There was a dead squirrel in the front seat. At least I thought so for a long moment, and then I leaned over and saw it more clearly, and in that same instant saw the complications lying out there ahead of me like 200 hundred miles of Mexican Highway.

First of all, I could not imagine myself walking into the office holding Jack McKinney’s hair. I could also not imagine sticking it in my pocket. I couldn’t imagine calling him at home, telling him I’d found it in my front seat. I couldn’t imagine approaching him with it in the office. I didn’t even know to a certainty–and still don’t–that it was Jack’s hair. The color seemed a little off, and stranger things than finding a toupee in the company car happened in those days on a fairly regular basis.

So I put it off, sticking the hair in the glove compartment, waiting for the right place and time to give it back, but it never came. I could never pull the trigger. And I could never quite throw it away. Jack was sensitive about his hair. The next time I saw him, up in the office, he was sitting beneath some hair that looked like his regular hair, working on his column. So, who knows?

But even if I can’t say definitively that it was Jack’s hair in my glove compartment, I can tell you the reason I never offered to give it back. I could never figure out how to do it without embarrassing him.

The truth is, this man who climbed in the ring as Bobo McKinney and knocked out a professional middleweight boxer, who would get into screaming political arguments and didn’t care who was there to hear it; this iconoclast, this idealist, this very bad tenor and legendary brawler, this friend of mine, I wouldn’t have hurt his feelings for the world.

It’s hard to imagine Jack’s candle burned out so fast, it feels like a whole species went extinct overnight. I stagger to think of the archives he took with him.

The Banter Gold Standard: Broadway Sportsman

Here’s a 1958 gem by the great Jimmy Cannon (from The World of Jimmy Cannon).

“Broadway Sportsman”
By Jimmy Cannon

The Broadway sportsman lives in Brooklyn with his widowed mother who would starve if she didn’t get Social Security. He generally eats dinner at home, but takes his coffee in the chophouses where the gamblers congregate. His idea of a celebrity is any man who can afford to wear silk shirts. He wears ready-made suits, but tears out the label to give the impression they’re tailor-made. Just once he would like a man to ask him who his tailor is.

He would consider it an honor if a man publicly accused him of stealing his wife. He spends a lot of time in Hanson’s drugstore and suggests to the press agents who hang out there that they tie him up with one of their clients. He has never had his name mentioned in a Broadway column but he refers to columnists by their first names in conversation. He occasionally takes out a hostess in a dance hall, but describes her as a showgirl to his kind. They know he is lying, but he puts up with their lies too, and they never call him.

The Broadway sportsman thinks of himself as a gambler. He knows the price on all sporting-events, but be is terrified when it comes to risking money He goes to the trotters and the flats by himself when he gets a pass from an office boy on a newspaper who is also a Broadway Sportsman, but he never bets more than a deuce to show. He usually loses that, too, because be bets on long shots, figuring they must run third. He has never learned to read a racing form and is too embarrassed to ask anyone to teach him.

He is one of the last of the sidewalk-loafers. You can find him outside of Shor’s, Reuben’s, Lindy’s, Moore’s and Gallagher’s. He is well-liked by the doormen because he kills time with them by discussing sports. He believes Leo Durocher is a hell of a manager and considers George Raft the greatest actor that ever lived. He tries to dress like them.

He reads Variety and talks that periodical’s language. He calls press agents flacks and show business is always show biz. He worked briefly in the office of a small-time theatrical agent who handled stripteasers. He was fired when he took one of the clients out and used so much profanity, she slapped his face. He figured that was the way to talk to a burlesque dame. His mother has a political connection and every Christmas he works in the post office.

The Broadway sportsman is a panhandler. He lives by touches. His victims are the lonely. He stands for hours nursing a beer; at the bars of sporting restaurants. Guys who drink in solitude find him a glad companion. He switches to bourbon when someone else buys. He has been around so long his face is familiar and he is an eager conversationalist with a cruel style of humor. His vicious comedy is founded on the insincerity of women. He gives the impression he has been betrayed in love. His mother is the only woman who ever loved him.

In his time the Broadway sportsman has eaten well in the best restaurants and sat in the best seats at theatrical openings, ballgames, fights and nightclubs. He makes his big touches when his benefactors go to the racetrack. He runs their bets, flatters them when they win and consoles them when they lose. If they have a winning day, it is a Broadway custom to stake the stooge. He wishes he had the courage to be a tout but his ignorance of horse racing is appalling. But when he is with his own species, he insinuates that he is a hustler who bleeds marks with horse information.

Waiters hate him. He is entitled to claim the Olympic record for being Mickey Finned. He abuses them if they are slovenly or slow. He also advises his hosts how much they should tip and adds up the tab in strange joints before he allows his master to pay it. He calls a waiter by snapping his fingers. Several waiters have accused him of stealing tips. He has never been caught at it.

He pretends to root for the ball team the guy who takes him to the game likes. The Broadway sportsman was a Brooklyn fan when Durocher managed the Dodgers and switched to the Giants with him, but he has bawled insults at his idol from a box seat to agree with his benefactors. He is a pest at ballgames. He umpires calling balls and strikes before the umpire. At a race track he spits at jockeys and calls them obscene names when they lose a bet for his man. He is the first guy in a fight audience to denounce a beaten pug as yellow. At a basketball game he yells dump every time a college kid misses a shot.

The Broadway sportsman probably knows more showgirls than anyone outside of show business. They continually turn him down for dates. He promises them he will manage them to stardom. He is so obvious in his pitch that even kids in their first show are amused by him. He often rides shotgun for a married benefactor who does a little cheating. He’s the third man in the party and pretends he’s the mouse’s escort. He loses benefactors because the girls can’t stand him.

The Broadway sportsman has damaged the reputations of people he has never met. At the tables where be mooches he hears gossip which he gives to the press agents in the drugstore. Some of it reaches the Broadway columns. He passes along a rumor as absolute truth. His biggest thrill came when be read an item be distributed which told of the divorce of a Hollywood couple. His next came when be was introduced to George Raft.

[Photographs by Walker Evans; featured image by Saul Leiter]

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