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Category: Banter Gold Standard

The Banter Gold Standard: Something To Do With Heroes

Originally published in the Post (April 8, 1969) and reprinted here with permission from the author, he’s a keeper for the Yankee fans out there.

“Something To Do With Heroes”
by Larry Merchant

Paul Simon, the Simon of Simon and Garfunkel, was invited to Yankee Stadium yesterday to throw out the first ball, to see a ballgame, to revisit his childhood fantasy land, to show the youth of America that baseball swings, and to explain what the Joe DiMaggio thing is all about.

Paul Simon writes the songs, Art Garfunkel accompanies him. They are the Ruth and Gehrig of modern music, two kids from Queens hitting back-to-back home runs with records. They are best known for “Mrs. Robinson” and the haunting line, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” Joe DiMaggio and 100 million others have tried in vain to solve its poetic ambiguity.

Is it a plaintive wail for youth, when jockos made voyeurs of us all and baseball was boss? “It means,” said Paul Simon, “whatever you want it to.”

“I wrote that line and really didn’t know what I was writing,” he said. “My style is to write phonetically and with free association, and very often it comes out all right. But as soon as I said the line I said to myself that’s a great line, that line touches me.”

It has a nice touch of nostalgia to it. It’s interesting. It could be interpreted in many ways. “It has something to do with heroes. People who are all good and no bad in them at all.That’s the way I always saw Joe DiMaggio. And Mickey Mantle.”

It is not surprising, then, that Paul Simon wrote the line. He is a lifelong Yankee fan and once upon a boy, he admitted sheepishly, he ran onto their hallowed soil after a game and raced around the bases.

“I’m a Yankee fan because my father was,” he said. “I went to Ebbets Field once and wore a mask because I didn’t want people to know I went to see the Dodgers. The kids in my neighborhood were divided equally between Yankee and Dodger fans. There was just one Giant fan. To show how stupid that was I pointed out that the Yankees had the Y over the N on their caps, while the Giants had the N over the Y. I just knew the Y should go over the N.”

There was a Phillies fan too—Art Garfunkel. “I liked their pinstriped uniforms,” he said. “And they were underdogs. And there were no other Phillie fans. Paul liked the Yankees because they weren’t proletarian.”

“I choose not to reveal in my neuroses through the Yankees,” said Simon, who was much more the serious young baseball sophisticate. “For years I wouldn’t read the back page of the Post when they lost. The Yankees had great players, players you could like. They gave me a sense of superiority. I can remember in the sixth grade arguments raging in the halls in school on who was better, Berra or Campanella, Snider or MantIe. I felt there was enough suffering in real life, why suffer with your team? What did the suffering do for Dodger fans? O’Malley moved the team anyway.”

Simon and Garfunkel are both twenty-seven years old. Simon’s love affair with baseball is that of the classic big city street urchin. “I oiled my glove and wrapped it around a baseball in the winter and slept with it under my bed,” he said. “I can still remember my first pack of baseball cards. Eddie Yost was on top. I was disappointed it wasn’t a Yankee, but I liked him because he had the same birthday as me, October 13. So do Eddie Mathews and Lenny Bruce. Mickey Mantle is October 20.”

Simon played the outfield for Forest Hills High, where he threw out the first ball of the season last year. Yesterday, after fretting that photographers might make him look like he has “a chicken arm,” he fired the opening ball straight and true to Jake Gibbs.

Then Simon and Garfunkel and Sam Susser, coach of the Sultans, Simon’s sandlot team of yesteryear, watched the Yankees beat the Senators 8-4 with some Yankee home runs, one by Bobby Murcer, the new kid in town. “I yearned for Mickey Mantle,” Paul Simon said. “But there’s something about that Murcer. . . .”

The conventional wisdom is that there are no more heroes who “are all good and no bad.” Overexposure by the demystifying media is said to be the main cause. Much as I’d like to, I can’t accept that flattery. Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey were seen as antiheroes by many adults, as are Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath, but young fans always seem to make up their own minds.

The Banter Gold Standard: Jim Bouton, Reliever

Is it time for pitchers and catchers yet? Almost. In the meantime, dig this:

“Jim Bouton, Reliever”

By Jack Mann

Washington Daily News, 1969

Jim Bouton pitched an inning of relief for the Seattle Pilots Friday night, and two innings Saturday afternoon. That’s the way it is these days for Jim Bouton, 30, who started 37 games for the Yankees in 1964.

They were three pretty good innings for a guy who throws only one pitch. Bouton got almost everybody out and he got Frank Howard, on a one-two pitch, to pop up.

The trouble with Howard is that some of his pop-ups land in places where nobody can catch them. This one landed in the bullpen when it came off the wall That wasn’t bad.

What was bad was that Bouton’s hat never fell off. It hasn’t fallen off for a long time. It probably never will again.

The hat fell off when he labored in the vineyards of Auburn and Kearney and Greensboro and Amarillo. He is not a very big man, so he had to throw very hard to throw very fast. He knew he had to make it as a fastball pitcher or not at all.

Bouton came right over the top with the ball and the maximum effort made the fingertips of his right hand touch the ground as he followed thru. He needed all of it, all the time.

And the hat fell off. lt was still falling off when he won 21 games for the Yankees in 1963, and won half enough games to win the World Series in 1964.

Then he lost the fastball. Nobody believed he had lost it in 1965, when he went 4-15. He was lousy, but so, suddenly, were the Yankees.

By opening day, 1966, at Minneapolis, the truth was evident. He threw three consecutive change ups to Jim Kaat, a pitcher, and the third one beat him.

“I couldn’t throw the curve,” Bouton said yesterday. What he meant was that he could throw it, but unaccompanied by that fastball that hummed and darted, it didn’t fool anybody. He was Jim Bouton, fastball pitcher, and he had lost his fastball.

Two years ago the Yankees tentatively gave up on him and for the rest of the year, Bouton got knocked around in Syracuse. Last year they gave up on him unqualifiedly and shipped him to Seattle, which was still minor league.

Bouton didn’t give up. “I thought about quitting,” he said. “We talked about it a lot, but my wife is great. She just said, ‘Whatever you want to do.'”

Bouton wanted to pitch. He began throwing knuckle halls. “What could I lose? I was 0-7 in a minor league. I had thrown a knuckler as a kid, and I found out I could still throw it. After a while, I was getting it over.”

After a while he was 4-7. Maybe, he feels, he can still make it for a few years as a knuckleballer. And if he can’t, he feels, it’s no great tragedy. “I guess I’d sell real estate, or something,” he said. “I know I won’t work in an office. I’ll have to combine something to make a living, with something I really want to do.”

There are other things to think about. There is Kyong Jo Cho.

“Oh, sure,” Bouton said, “we could have had more children. But with the population situation what it is, I don’t think anybody has the right to have as many children as they can, where there are already so many children in the world that nobody is taking care of.”

Michael Bouton will soon be six and Laurie is almost four. For the past year, suburban New Jersey has been getting used to the fact that they have a middle brother named Kyong. “His mother was Korean,” Bouton explained. “His father was an American soldier. It’s not an advantage to have white blood in Korea.”

The Koreans, after several centuries of being whipping boys for the Japanese—being given in Japan the menial equivalent of Negroes in the American South—have finally found somebody of their own to be prejudiced against.

“We didn’t specify a Korean kid,” Bouton said. “We just told them we wanted a boy, and the age, and one with an aggressive personality.

“We did say we didn’t want a child with a Negro background. You know I don’t have anything against Negroes, but my wife and I had doubts about what kind of America it’s going to be 10 years from now.”

He had doubts about what kind of America it is right now. When Bouton came to the Yankees in 1962, he was brainwashed like all young Yankees about what not to say to newspapermen. He decided to make up his own mind and found that he even liked some of them. He horrified the senior Yankees by socializing with reporters.

He learned from the experience of a reporter his own age that adopting a Negro orphan could lead to unforeseen heartbreak and be a failure.

Kyong Jo Cho was on the way, so Jim Bouton went to Berlitz. “I learned how to ask him if he wanted a cab to his hotel,” Bouton said, “but I didn’t learn how to ask him, ‘Where does it hurt?’ So I took a cram course, and now a lot of kids in the neighborhood know how to say, ‘Where did he go?’ in Korean.”

It was, in a sense, a waste of time. Kyong has steadfastly refused to speak a word of Korean. He came to Bouton a few weeks ago and complained that all the kids were calling him Kyong.

“He said he wanted an American name,” Bouton said. “I asked what he thought about David. My wife and I had thought about that and we were hoping he would ask. He said that would be fine.”

David Bouton is a lucky kid.

The Banter Gold Standard: Love Song to Willie Mays

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

“Love  Song to Willie Mays”

by Joe Flaherty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 26, 1972

The Banter Gold Standard: The Earl of Baltimore

Here’s another gem from our man John Schulian. This column on Earl Weaver first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, August 16, 1981 (It can also be found in Schulian’s collection, Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand). It is featured here with the author’s permission.

“The Earl of Baltimore”

By John Schulian

BALTIMORE—Based on the available evidence, it is easy to assume that Earl Weaver perfected managerial sin. After all, the profane potentate of the Orioles has spent the past thirteen seasons kicking dirt on home plate, tearing up rule books under umpires’ noses, and generally behaving as if he were renting his soul to the devil with an option to buy. Yet here it is the middle of August and he has only been kicked out of one game. Reputations have been ruined for less.

Understandably, Weaver is not pleased to hear that his dark star appears to be fading. In his corner of Memorial Stadium’s third base dugout, he looks up from a pregame meal of a sandwich and a cigarette and searches the horizon for an explanation. “Musta been the foggin’ strike,” he says at last. “Guys like me, I coulda got tossed five foggin’ times in the time we were off. I’m streaky that way.”

Satisfied, he resumes dining only to be interrupted moments later by Jim Palmer, the noted pitcher and underwear model. With a mischievous smile, Palmer raises his voice in a song that suggests one more reason why his fearless leader has been wont to raise hell with umpires: “Happy Birthday.”

“Oh,” Weaver says, “you remembered.”

“Of course,” Palmer says.

“I know why you remembered, too,” Weaver tells his favorite rascal. “You know that at my age, it’s gotta hurt.”

He has turned fifty-one on this gray Friday, but there will be no party for him. The Orioles will play the White Sox, and then Earl Weaver, the owner of a full head of hair and none of his own teeth, will go home to be with his wife and his prized tomato plants. He will go home to rest, to savor his stature as the winningest manager in the big leagues, and to get away from all the insufferable questions about how the White Sox are pretending to be a new and improved version of the Black Sox.

They have been quoted anonymously in the press as saying they would throw games at the end of this split season if it would help them get into the playoffs. The mere suggestion of such chicanery has horrified the lords of baseball and forced the team’s management to talk faster than a married politician photographed in the arms of a Las Vegas strumpet. To Weaver, who once marched his team off the field in Toronto to save his bone-weary pitching staff, the Sox’s scheme sounds like the work of dummies.

“What the fog,” he says. “The White Sox better not lose too many foggin’ games deliberately or they’re not gonna be in it. The simplest thing for them to do is win as many games as they can and root like hell for foggin’ Oakland. Look at us, we’re in the same boat. We gotta hope New York beats every-foggin’-body except us. Ain’t that something? I gotta root for them damn pinstripes.”

Nobody said the split season would honor tradition. Indeed, there are those who believe that cutting the season in half smacks more of the old Georgia-Florida League than it does of the American or the National. “Oh, no you don’t,” says Weaver, who spent his playing career in towns where two cars on Main Street constituted a traffic jam. “I don’t want no foggin’ headline sayin’ WEAVER CALLS SPLIT SEASON BUSH.” As a matter of fact, if he had his way, every season would have two chapters, strike or no. “If you start bad,” he says, “it’s nice to be reborn again.” When was the last time Bowie Kuhn addressed any issue so eloquently?

The next thing you know, Weaver will find himself running for commissioner when all he really wants to do is figure out a better way to handicap horse races. That’s the way baseball works: What’s dumb gets done. So lest the game’s kingmakers get the wrong impression from his bleats about old age and his apparent flirtation with respectability, Weaver tries to erase some of the points he has scored with the establishment. The best way to do that is to discuss the fine art of making umpires look like donkeys.

He remembers hearing how a minor league manager named Grover Resinger responded to being given five minutes to get off the field and out of the ballpark. “He asked if he could see the umpire’s watch,” Weaver says, “and when the dumb fogger handed it to him, Resinger threw it over the top of the foggin’ grandstand.”

Then there is Frank Lucchesi, an old sparring partner from the Eastern League. Once, Lucchesi sat on home plate until the police came and carried him into the dugout. Another time, after being ordered off the premises, he climbed the flagpole behind the outfield fence and flashed signals to his team from there. But what Lucchesi did best was drive Weaver to heights of creative genius.

“I forget what the foggin’ call was,” Weaver says, “but the umpire blew it, so I went out and talked like a Dutch uncle and they changed it back. Then Lucchesi comes out and he talks like a Dutch uncle and they change it back. I’m standing there on the mound talking to my pitcher, and when I see them do this, I grab my foggin’ heart and fall on my face. Right there on the mound.

“One of my players comes runnin’ out and rolls me over and starts fannin’ me with his cap. The umpire is right there with him. He says, ‘Weaver, if you even open one eye, you’re out of this game.’ Well, hell, by then, I couldn’t resist, and you know what I saw? There was Lucchesi with one of them old Brownie box cameras. He told me later it was the greatest foggin’ thing he’d ever seen.”

A mischievous smile creases Weaver’s face. “Hey,” he says, “maybe I oughta do that again.”

It could save his reputation.

The Banter Gold Standard: Fore Play

Here’s a little honey from our man.

“Fore Play: A Celebration of Golf the Glorious”

By Richard Ben Cramer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ohh,” she said.”It was de-licious.”

[Photo Credit: Ringworld; George Huff; Jimbodownie]

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

The Banter Gold Standard: Bear Bryant’s Miracles

In this piece, published by Playboy in 1979, the author of such street-sharp novels as The Wanderers, Blood Brothers, and Clockers detours from the city to the unfamiliar terrain of Alabama where he is to meet with a Southern deity named Paul “Bear” Bryant. The imposing stature of one of college football’s most fabled coaches has Price contemplating a haircut and a quick perusal of the scriptures before his scheduled audience with the man in the houndstooth hat.

“Bear Bryant’s Miracles”

By Richard Price


Because l grew up in a multiethnic environment in New York City, the South has always conjured up some bad news reactions on word-association tests for me: Klan, lynch, redneck, moonshine, trap towns and death . . . lots of death.

As the years have passed, I’ve started hearing some flip sides. There’s the “New South,” with Atlanta as cosmopolitan as New York. I’ve heard that, despite the headline horrors, Southerners get along socially better than Northerners. And that foreign blacks prefer the upfrontness of the South to the hypocritical liberal bullshit of the North.

But despite all my revisionist thoughts, the only good images that have held up in my head are Southern novelists and the University of Alabama football team. The novelists because they are good or great and the Crimson Tide because, like Notre Dame, they are the New York Yankees of college football. I don’t give a rat’s ass about football, college or otherwise, and I’m not crazy about regimentation or bullet-head activities. But I do admire winners.

And as ignorant as I am of the “real” South and football in general, even I know that the man behind the winning tradition at Alabama is a magnetic, scary John Wayne type named Paul “Bear” Bryant. I would see him every few years on a televised bowl game, standing on the side lines, craggy-faced, in that houndstooth hat. I figured he was some kind of coaching genius. I also got the notion that he was somebody I very glad not to have as a teacher in any course I was flunking.

On the plane headed for Birmingham, I am armed with two documents: Bear, coach Bryant’s autobiography; and the 1978 Alabama Football Crimson Tide Press Guide. Bear doesn’t do much for me—it’s little too cagily humble. The Press Guide, on the other hand, has me freaking out six ways to Sunday. These guys are monsters. Even the handsome fraternity types have that combat-veteran look about them.

The other things that are dizzying in the press book are the win-loss stats. They’re almost pornographic. Since Bryant went to Alabama in 1958, the Tide’s record has been 193–38–8. In the past eight years, try 85–11—that’s almost 11 wins per season. They were in 20 bowl games in a row, won all but one Southeastern Conference title since 1971 (’76 went to Georgia), won five national championships since 1961 and have a home record of 60–1, with 45 straight victories.

Bryant is the winningest active coach, with 284 victories in 34 years at four schools, and is third in total wins only to Amos Alonzo Stagg and Pop Warner as far as the history of the game goes.

At the Birmingham airport, I start wondering why the hell I am keying in so much on the hairdos I see all around me. The Dolly Parton pompadours, the rock-a-billy duck asses, the military knuckleheads. Then I look in a mirror. With the possible exception of a photo of Duane Allman, I have the longest hair of anybody I’ve seen all day. I start getting visions of rusty scissors in a sheriff’s office. Ah, that’s all Hollywood horseshit, I tell myself. But I do go into a men’s room and remove earring.

Bryant Hall is where all the players have to live for the four or five years they’re at Alabama. It was among the first sports dorms in the country and it received a lot of flak for special treatment, pampering athletic elitism. Since then, sports dorms have popped up all over, but the controversy still goes on.

In any event, as I go there for lunch with Kirk McNair, Alabama’s sports information director, I expect to see something between a palace and a beachfront condominium. What I see is more like a cross between a dorm and a housing project. The place looks like shit. Off the lobby is a TV room and the dining room. Players walk by. Some are mammoth, with roast beef shoulders and ham hock thighs, and they shuffle sway-backed into the dining room; others aren’t much bigger than I am. Alabama opts for quickness over bulk; consequently, it’s not that big a team.

I eat with McNair and a Birmingham sportswriter, plus a short, heavy Italian guy who runs a restaurant in town, is a freak for the team and supplies everybody with food. He just likes to hang around with the boys.

From where we sit, I can see the guys taking the empty trays to the disposal area. They all seem to shuffle, drag their feet like they’re saving it up for practice—or else they have that sprightly pigeon-toed jock walk, as if they’re about to sprint across a room keeping a soccer ball afloat with their toes and knees.

I don’t hear anybody mention Bear Bryant. In fact, he doesn’t have that much personal contact with his players. He’s got a huge staff of coaching assistants who get down in the dirt with them.

But he’s there. He’s in that room. He is the team and everybody knows it.

A football is laid out with a white pen by the tray disposal area, and the players sign the ball after they get rid of their trays. Some kid is going to get the best birthday present in the entire state. Or maybe it’s for his old man.

Later that afternoon, I’m taken to the grass practice field. The sports offices are in the coliseum and there’s a long underground walkway that connects with the closed-to-the-public Astroturf practice field. The first thing I notice as I come up to ground level, slightly drunk on the waft of freshly cut grass, is a tower. A huge 50-foot-high observation post.

And up there is my first shot of Bear, slouched against the railing, wearing a beat-up varsity jacket, a baseball cap, a megaphone hanging from one wrist. He doesn’t move, just leans back like he’s lost in thought. Below him, there are maybe 100 guys running plays, mashing into one another in the dirt, attacking dummies. A massive division of labor of violence, speed and strength. Assistant coaches are all over, screaming, barking, shoving, soothing (though not too much), encouraging. A sound track of grunts, growls, roars and commands floats in the spring air. And above it all, Bear doesn’t move, he doesn’t even seem to be interested. It’s as though he’s a stranded lifeguard, six months off season, wondering how the hell he got up there and how the hell he’s gonna get down.

The most terrifying workout I see that day is called the gauntlet drill. You take three linemen, line them up one behind the other about ten feet apart. Then a relatively small running back is placed five feet in front of the first lineman, and at the sound of a whistle, he tries to get past the first lineman. If he does, the lineman gets the shit chewed out of him by the defensive coach. If he doesn’t, the running back gets dumped on his ass by an enormous amount of meat and gear. Either way, he has to set to, go around the second lineman, then the third. Somehow, with that coach bawling and shoving the lineman who fucked up, I feel more anxiety for the lineman than I do for the halfback.

On the Astroturf field, there are two practice scrimmages referees. I sit on the sideline bench with a number of pro scouts, a few privileged civilians and a bunch of shaggy-haired 12-year-olds who walk up and down the side line imitating that pigeon-toed jock walk, chewing gum and trying to look like future prospects. Like me, every few minutes they sneak a glance at the tower to check out the big man.

The players are wearing jerseys of one of five colors. Red jersey—first-string offense. White—first-string defense. Blue—second-string defense. Green-second-string offense. And gold. Gold signifies “Don’t tackle this man,” which means the guy is either a quarterback (quarterbacks never get tackled in practice) or nursing an injury.

I look up at the tower. Bear is gone.

The bench we’re sitting on divides the pits and the Astroturf from a long, flat grassy field with just a few goal posts at one distant end. Bear makes it down to earth and, head still down, slowly ambles over to the grassy field. Some of the 12-year-olds notice and nudge one another. He’s walking away. Going home. Hands in pockets. The bench divides the two shows: the number one college team working out to the west and the coach slowly walking alone to the east.

I turn my back on the players and watch Bear walk. He gets out about 50 yards toward the walkway back to the coliseum when a player on crutches, hobbling toward the Astroturf, meets him at midfield. They stop, exchange a few words (the crutches do not fall away as I would prefer) and the wounded player swings along toward the crowd.

Bear stands there, staring at his shoes, scratching his nose. Then, without looking up, he puts a whistle in his mouth, shoots a couple of weak toots I think only I can hear, and suddenly the earth is shaking and I’m caught in a buffalo stampede. Every player has immediately dropped everything and is tearing ass over to Bear.

They say no one ever walks for a second from the beginning end the of an Alabama practice. Within 20 seconds of his whistle, Bear is surrounded in a square by four perfect lines. Blue jersey, south; white, north; red, east; green, west. Bear squints into the distance. A player leaps forward out of the tense and taut blue south—they’re all in a slight crouch, eyes on the blue leader, who jerks his hands toward his helmet and, in a twinkling, they follow suit; he jerks his hands down to his flexed thighs, halfway up to his chest, a half jerk up, down, a feint, finger tips to the helmet. The entire blue squad is frozen except for its arms. Back and knees bent, eyes and neck straight ahead, they play flawless follow-the-leader for 15 seconds, then stand up straight, arching their backs, and clap and cheer for themselves.

As soon as they applaud, the leader of the green west leaps out and leads his squad through a perfect 15-second drill. The green applaud themselves. Bear stands alone in the center of all this, a deity, a religious rock being rapidly salaamed by an army of jocks. The green cheer is immediately followed by the white north, then applause, then red east. Fifteen flawless seconds each of heart stopping precision—Bear Bryant the centerpiece, looking nowhere, everywhere, watching or lost in thought.

Then every one of them is running back to where he came from. Back to the dirt, the Astroturf, the tackling sled. Back over my head and shoulders. And once again, Bear is alone on the field, hands in pockets just like 120 seconds before. He has not said a thing, seemingly never looked at anyone. Behind me, the practices are in full swing. I watch coach Bryant amble over to his tower and slowly ascend the 50 feet to his platform, resume his slouch against the railing and check out whatever those flinty eyes deem in need of checking out. Holy shit and kiss my ass. That was known as a quickness drill.

In terms of glory, there are no individual stars at Alabama. It really is a team. It has had plenty of All-Americans, plenty of pro stars such as Lee Roy Jordan, Joe Namath, Ken Stabler, but by and large, you don’t hear that much about individuals besides the coach.

How does he do it? The team is composed predominantly of home boys, who must have grown up worshiping Bear Bryant. I think of those 12-year-olds cock-walking the sidelines, one-eying the tower. Every year, the coach gets a batch of players who have been spoon-fed Bear stories and glories all their lives. So for an adolescent athlete from Birmingham, Florence, Demopolis, Bessemer to hear “Bear wants you”—it would turn him into a raving kamikaze, or at least a stout and loyal fellow. I don’t think Bear has to try very hard anymore to get players with the right “attitude.”

My first interview the following morning is with Steadman Shealy. We meet under the chandelier in the football dorm. Shealy isn’t much bigger than I am, but he’s a lot blonder and tanner. He also has a firmer handshake, better manners and a neater appearance. Shealy’s the first string quarterback.

We go up to his room and I get my first gander at the living arrangements. The dorm rooms are tiny, with two beds, cinder block walls and the usual campus bookstore assortment of banal posters. Shealy, at least, is average-human-being-sized. I try to imagine two nose guards sharing a room this narrow.

Shealy sits on his bed, confident, serene, courteous, helpful and cheerful. And he’s not putting me on. I ask him why he chose to go to Alabama, assuming he could have played anywhere in the South. I expect him to rave about Bear, but instead he says, “I really thought this was where God wanted me to come.”

I sit up a little straighter. At first I don’t know if he’s talking about the Lord or Bear, but then he says the second reason was the opportunity to play for coach Bryant—that Alabama has “something extra” in its winning tradition. And then he says something I will hear in the next several interviews: “And I want to be a winner.”

On the cover of Bear is the quote “I ain’t nothing but a winner.”

Shealy talks of Bear’s father image, of how the coach applies football to life (another thing I’ll hear again), of what it takes to win. All hokey stuff in the abstract—but not to Shealy or the others. The guys talk about these bland notions as though they were tenets of radical politics.

Shealy’s religiosity, as exotic to me as Bora-Bora, seems a natural extension of the team spirit. He is a Christian soldier, a leader and a follower. Not many of the guys say they’re religious, but—at least in interviews—there are no wise guys, no cynics. Frankly, all this clear-eyed devotion makes me extremely uncomfortable, but maybe that’s my problem.

And where does Shealy see himself five years from now? “Coaching or Christian ministry…it all depends on what doors God opens up. ” None of what he says about the coach, about winning and life is all that insightful, but his eyes and chin tell the story. He has no room in his face for sarcasm, despair or doubt. He loves the coach, he loves the team, he loves Christ: a clean-cut, all-American, God, Bear and ‘Bama man if ever there were one.

Attitude. I know Bryant doesn’t tolerate any guff from anybody. He suspended two of his most famous players, Namath and Stabler, for infractions. No matter who you are, if you don’t toe the line, the man will personally clean out your locker for you. Bear says in his book that works best with the kid who doesn’t know he’s not terribly talented but plays his heart out. He’s more attuned to that kind of athlete than to the hot-dog natural. Sort of like making the New York Yankees out of a bunch of Rocky types. The great American combo: underdog, superstar.

My next interview is with Don Jacobs, the second or possibly third string quarterback. He picked Alabama because, growing up in north Alabama, that’s all you hear: “Alabama this, Alabama that.” He says in the southern part of the state, boys are partial to Auburn, but Alabama is the “number-one university in your mind.”

“The first time I talked with coach Bryant,” says Jacobs, “I was scared to death. I was afraid to say anything at all. But he was real nice. He talked about Pat Trammel [a star on the 1961 championship team], ’cause Trammel was from Scottsboro, my hometown. Said he hoped I was good as Trammel.”

Bear, I’m thinking, is a frightening man, but from what I gather of the impressions and memories of players, he’s not a screamer, puncher, growler. He’s a man of few words, not even one for pep talks. Jacobs has never seen him get really angry, never lose his cool, never jump on anybody’s case.

I ask Jacobs how I should conduct myself when I meet Bear. “Be real courteous,” he says. “Say ‘Yes, sir, no, sir.’ Just be yourself.”

“Should I get a haircut?”

“I dunno. I wouldn’t go in there like that. When you go see him, you always shave, look real nice, don’t wear sloppy clothes. Lots of players tell you there’s a lot of things you don’t do when you see coach Bryant. It’s been passed down through history. You always take your hat off in the house, stuff like that.”

Awe and respect. Dedication and honor. And, oh, yes, talent.

In the early afternoon, I see a few players hanging out with some girls in front of Bryant Hall. A big dude comes walking in with his dad, mom, sis and his pretty gal. The father looks like a big baggy version of his son. Maybe the present son will come to this dorm 20 years later with his son. Football is a family sport. Everybody is proud of everybody. Bryant pushes that a lot in his talks to his players.

This is from a midweek, midseason talk to his 1964 national champs:

After the game, there are three types of people. One comes in and he ain’t played worth killing, and he’s lost. And he gets dressed and out of there as quick as he can. He meets his girl and his momma, and they ain’t too damn glad to see him. And he goes off somewhere and says how “the coach shoulda done this or that,” and “the coach don’t like me,” and “I didn’t play enough.” And everybody just nods.

And the second type will sit there awhile, thinking what he could have done to make his team a winner. And he’ll shed some tears. He’ll finally get dressed, but he doesn’t want to see anybody. His momma’s out there. She puts on a big act and tells him what a great game he played, and he tells her if he had done this or that, he’d be a winner, and that he will be a winner next week.

And then there’s the third guy. The winner. He’ll be in there hugging everybody in the dressing room. It’ll take him an hour to dress. And when he goes out, it’s a little something extra in it when his daddy squeezes his hand. His momma hugs and kisses him, and that little old ugly girl snuggles up, proud to be next to him. And he knows they’re proud. And why.

That afternoon, I have an interview with one of the black players, a nose guard named Byron Braggs. I have seen only a small photo of him in the press book and know that on the first day of practice his freshman year, he almost died of heatstroke but came back to be a top lineman.

I’m checking out my biceps in the empty lounge of Bryant Hall when I look up and jump 90 feet—there’s Braggs, 6’6″, 260 pounds, wearing a Cat-tractor hat. We go up to his room, which consists of a large roommate, a TV, a stereo and a full-size refrigerator. They must sleep standing up.

Braggs is a little different from the others I’ve talked with—a little less awestruck, more blasé. He came to Alabama because his “folks picked it for me. It’s near home.”

What does he think about Bryant? “A lot of guys are scared of him,” says Braggs. “They’re in awe of his presence. But I just look at him like anybody else. I’m just happy he can remember my name. He mixes up a lot of names and faces, but two minutes later, he’ll remember and apologize.”

Ten years ago, Alabama was segregated. When I ask Braggs if prejudice lingers, he just shrugs. “It doesn’t bother me,” he says. “There were times when things looked shaky, but there are no major problems.”

And is state-wide football fever a white fever, or does it affect black Alabamans, too? “Up until about eight to ten years ago,” says Braggs, “It was mainly white. I didn’t even know about Alabama. I would watch Notre Dame, USC with O. J. Simpson. I didn’t really notice Alabama until they beat USC out there. That was the first time I knew they had a team. And since they had black players, a lot more people became fans of the team. My folks and others follow the team now. In my home town, people have become real fans.”

How about those things Bryant teaches—about character and football and life? “It’s life and death out there on the field sometimes. It all ties in. Some coaches like Bryant, John McKay, Ara Parseghian tend to have a definite pull on which way you’re looking after you graduate. They’re sort of like the last shaping process that someone is going to do you. From then on, you do it from within.”

Bragg’s advice on how to relate to the coach? “Talk to him straight. Don’t beat around the bush. He’s not impressed with slickness or guys trying to fool him.”

Taking a breather between interviews, I walk around campus a bit, grooving on the coeds in their summer dresses, the chirping of the birds, the flora of the South. Old brick and columns. There’s not one physically ugly person on the campus.

Back on campus that afternoon, I interview defensive end Gary DeNiro. The reason I pick him is that he’s from Youngstown, Ohio, which is definitely Ohio State turf.

He went to Alabama, he says, because he “didn’t like Woody Hayes’s coaching that much” and was “always an Alabama fan.

“‘I like that the coach plays a lot of guys who are small [DeNiro is sex feet, 210 pounds]. Up North, they play bigger people. Coach Bryant plays the people who want to play.”

“How about your Ohio State buddies? What was the reaction when they found out you were going to play for Alabama?”

‘”They thought I made a big mistake. That I’d come down here and they’d still be fighting the Civil War. They were wrong.”

DeNiro’s first impression of Bryant?

“‘He’s a legend. Like meeting someone you always wanted to meet. Once Alabama wanted me, I didn’t have no trouble makin’ up my mind. I remember one time I was loafin’ when I was red-shirted, which is a hard time, ’cause you practice like everyone else, but come Friday night, when the team goes, you stay home. Anyway, I was ‘puttin’ in a day,’ as coach calls it, and he caught me and yelled, ‘DeNiro, who you think you’re tryin’ to fool?’ And from then on, l never loafed. There’s really no place for it on the field.”

“How about contact with the coach?”

“Maybe two or three times a year. He says his door is always open, but I’ll go in just maybe to say goodbye before I go home or something—nothing more. He has coaching meetings every day. He tells the coaches what he thinks, then we’ll have meetings with the coaches in the afternoon and they’ll tell us what we’re doing wrong. And then about three, four times a week, we’ll have a meeting with coach Bryant. We’ll all go in as a group. He’ll tell us what he sees overall. I imagine he gets more contact with the upperclassmen, because they’re the leaders and they’ll get it across to the team.”

“Where do you see yourself five years from now?”

“Hopefully, with a lot of money. Maybe pro ball if I’m not too small—coach Bryant proved the little man can work out. Or maybe I’ll coach. Coach Bryant is the legend of all coaches. If he is behind you, no telling how many doors can open for you.”

No telling is right. There’s a club based in Birmingham consisting of all Bear Bryant alumni now in the business world. They meet with graduating senior team members and help them find both summer and career jobs. Many kids want, if not to play pro, which most of them do want, to take a crack at coaching. There’s also a big business school down there and a strong education program. But whatever they do choose, if they stay in Alabama, playing for Bear and then going into anything in athletics or business is like graduating summa cum laude. Even outside Alabama, the alumni network is nationwide. I hear that one of the biggest diamond dealers in New York’s 47th Street district is an Alabama grad.

These interviews are frustratingly inconclusive. All this nonsense concerning life, character, winners’ attitudes—of course it’s going to come across bland and boringly obvious on a tape recorder. But it’s really a combat camaraderie, a brotherhood of suffering and surviving, a growing together in a violent, competitive world. And being rewarded by being called best. Call it character, call it chicken soup, but it’s really love. Love of the boss man. Love of one another and love of victory. All this hoopla about football applied to life comes down to this: I was the best in the world once. I know what that tastes like. I want more. Roll, Tide!

In areas of rural poverty, football is the American passion play, the emotional outlet for all the rage, boredom and bad breaks—just as basketball is in urban areas.

In The Last Picture Show, an entire Texas town lived for high school football; and that’s a common phenomenon. In our dissociated culture—despite whatever grace, glory and beauty they evoke in the best teams and players—contact sports serve two functions: They allay boredom, divert people from thinking about the dreariness of their lives; and they help people channel their rage.

You can go to a revival in Selma on Friday or you can scream your lungs out in Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa on Saturday. The bottom line at both is transference of a lot of anger into a socially acceptable outlet.

Like in football, there’s a lot of beatific beauty in Gospel, but it’s a bit beside the point. As coach Karl Marx once said, football is the opiate of the people. And not just here: There are soccer riots in the Third World stadiums. Christs for a day bloodying themselves in Latin-American pageants. Millions marching to Mecca. A lady in Selma once told me, “People leave Bryant stadium like they’re in a religious trance.”

It’s my day to interview Bear, and, to be honest, I’m scared. I consider giving myself a haircut with nail clippers. My heart is calling Kong to the gates.

McNair takes me up to the offices on the top floor of the coliseum, where I sit in the spacious waiting room. The walls are covered with floor-to-ceiling black-and-white blowups of every major bowl stadium—Rose, Orange, Sugar, Bluebonnet, Gator, Tangerine, you name it.

Everybody walking around is named Coach. It’s like sitting in a room with all the tall, stately, aging cowboys of Hollywood. A room full of Gary Cooper-Ben Johnson look-alikes, all nodding to one another. “Mornin’, coach.” “Hey, coach.” “Nice day, coach.” If I were to scream out “Coach!” there would be a ten-way collision. And everybody looks like Bear Bryant.

Several times I see someone walk in and hear someone say, “Hey, coach,” and I jump up, drop my tape recorder and extend my hand. After the fifth false alarm, I ignore the next look-alike. Too bad. That one is the mold.

I walk into his office, a large wood-paneled room with a color TV, a massive cluttered desk and a view of the practice field. Coach Bryant is cordial—patient but distant. He has been interviewed perhaps six times a week since coming to Alabama.

He looks all of his 66 years—his face is like an aerial shot of a drought area. His eyes are glittering hard. His hands are huge and gnarled. He needs a haircut himself.

As I fumble around with the tape recorder, explaining that I’m not a sportswriter, he opens a pack of unfiltered Chesterfields. He’s dressed like a retired millionaire entertainer—casual natty. A pale blue sweater, checked blue slacks and spiffy black loafers. When he laughs, all the creases in his face head toward his temples and he lets out a deep, gravelly “Heh-heh.” When he’s annoyed, his eyebrows meet over his nose and I feel like jogging back to New York. His movements seem slow; he seems almost phlegmatically preoccupied.

All in all, I like the guy, though I couldn’t see being in a sensory awareness class together.

The interview is a bit of a bust. I’m glad I have the tape recorder because I can’t understand a damn thing he says. He sort of mutters from his diaphragm in his artesian-well-deep Arkansas drawl and it’s like listening to a language you studied for only a year in high school.

Bear sits sideways in his chair, legs crossed, elbow on the backrest, absently rubbing his forehead and smoking those Chesterfields. I sit a few feet away in a pulled-up chair, a spiral notebook in my lap open to my questions. I tentatively slide my tape recorder toward him from the corner of his desk.

“Coach, you’re pretty much an American hero these days. I was wondering who your heroes are.” (Please don’t kill me.)

He pouts, shrugs. “Well, my heroes are John Wayne, Bob Hope, General Patton . . . J. Edgar Hoover, although he ain’t too popular, I guess….” He mentions various sports stars through the ages—from Babe Ruth to contemporary players—then he nods toward the tape recorder and says, “I suppose you’d like me to say Einstein.”

“Nah, nah, nah. Einstein, no . . . no, not at all.”

“Of course, with my heroes, as I get older, they get older.”

“Yeah, ha, ha.”

I ask a few boring questions about defining character, defining motivation, defining a winning attitude, none of which he can define but all of which he can sure talk about.

“I cain’t define character,” he says, “but it’s important, especially to those who don’t have that much natural ability—on the football field or elsewhere.”

Next comes my New York hotsy-totsy question.

“In Bear, I read about how you motivate players, psych them up. I also read that you understand people better than any other coach. Comprehension like that seems to be one of the attributes of a good psychiatrist. What do you feel about the field of psychiatry?”

He gives a chuckle. “Well, I don’t know nothing about psychiatrists. I prob’ly need one, but I don’t know the secret of motivatin’ people—an’ if I did, I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

Then he goes on about motivation. At one point, he says, “I remember one time. . . .” And about five minutes later, he says, “That was the damnedest . . . heh-heh,” in that noble garble of his.

Then his face darkens and he says, “I guess that ain’t funny to you.”

I almost shit. A joke! He told me a joke! Laugh, you asshole! Fake it!

I haven’t heard a word he’s said. I give a sick grin, say, “Naw, that’s funny, that’s funny!” and give my own “Heh-heh.” My armpits feel flooded.

For a while, I go sociological and nonsports, thinking maybe I can get him to admire my sensitive and probing mind—or at least throw him some questions that are a little more interesting than the traditional Southern sports groupie journalist fare.

“Are your players . . . uh . . . afraid of you?” (‘Cause I’m about to do a swan dive out this window, coach.)

He sits up a little.

“Afraid of me? Shit, heh-heh. I’m the best friend they got. Some haven’t been around here much. They might be a little reluctant. I dunno. But if somebody’s doin’ poorly, I’ll come after him. But I dunno what they’d be afraid of me about.”

One period in college history that has always fascinated me is the late Sixties—mainly because it was a transcendent radical bubble between the Fifties and the Seventies, but also because that’s when I was an undergraduate. I wonder what it was like to be a football player then, when regimentation was so reactionary—when long hair and a taste for dope were de rigueur. I know that Bryant’s worst years since coming to Alabama were 1969 and 1970. Is there any connection?

“I did a real poor job of recruiting and coaching,” he says. “Every youngster in America was goin’ through a rebellious period. Nobody wanted anybody to tell ‘im anything. I remember a boy sittin’ right there an’ tellin’ me, ‘I just wanna be like any other student.’ Well, shit. He can’t be like any other student. The players have to take pride in the fact that football means that much to ’em. That’s where the sacrificin’ comes in. That they are willin’ to do without doin’ some things. Without having some things other students have, to be playin’ football, to win a championship.”

“What was the campus attitude toward football at that time?”

“I really don’t know that much about what goes on over there [nodding toward the window]. I always tell ’em they’re the best in the world, at pep rallies and all. Whether they said anything about me I don’t know. I was just doin’ a lousy job then.”

“As an Alabaman, how do you feel about the image that your state has in the national eye, which is mainly a negative or fearful one?”

He doesn’t like that question. His eyebrows start knitting a sweater.

“I dunno if that’s true or not. I traveled all over the country. A large percentage of Alabamans consider the Yankees their baseball team, or the Red Sox. The only difference I see is that it ain’t as crowded down here, people aren’t in such a hurry. I’m afraid of New York City. It ain’t just what I heard, it’s what I seen. I dunno if we got as many thieves, crooks and murderers down here percentagewise, but, hell, it’s so many of them in New York. I don’t care to leave the hotel—alone or money in my pocket.”

“How about the football-dorm system? Is it still under fire for separatism?”

“Naw. About ten years ago, we were the first school to build one. They called it Alabama Hilton, Bryant Hilton. But everyone’s built one since then.”

“Is there any criticism because the players are segregated from the rest of the campus?”

“Well, a lot of coaches don’t do that, but I was brought up on it and we’re gonna do it. If anyone rules against it, we won’t, but I know that’s one of the ways that help us win. You live under the same roof together, fightin’ for the same thing. If you don’t see one another but occasionally, you have other interests, you don’t know what’s goin’ on. And I can see ’em over there, too. I like to see ’em. If one of them lives in an apartment and’s sick for a week, his mother’s not even there. I want ’em where I can find ’em, look at ’em.”

That’s it. Bear doesn’t move, just gazes out the window. I don’t move. I feel stuck. I don’t know how to say goodbye. I ask about Astroturf. About the coming A Day game. Bear says that he’d rather not even have it, but the alumni have things planned around it.

Outside the office, he signs my copy of Bear. I say “Howdy-do” and split.

Later in the week, I get a note from Bear via McNair that he wants to add Oral Roberts, Billy Graham, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus to his list of heroes—all American fat cats who made it through personal enterprise and charisma.

McNair says he’s never heard Bear mention Patton before and makes the analogy that in World War Two, to die for Patton was an honor and that the coach is the only other person he knows of whom people feel that way about.

Days later, I’m still smarting about that missed joke. I feel I’d understand something then about why this man is successful. There is something about him—about me in that moment when I blew being an appreciative audience—that goes past embarrassment. I feel like I let him down. I feel like I could have pleased him by laughing, made him like me for a moment, could have broken through the interviewer-interviewee roles for a few seconds in a way that would have made me feel like a million bucks because it would have given him pleasure. There is something in Bear’s subdued dignity, his cordial distance that got to me. He is a man of character. I could see myself having done Mexican tailspins during that interview to get his admiration or just his acknowledgment. And this was just a magazine assignment. If I were one of his five-year players, I could see myself doing 90 mph through a goal post to get a pat on the back. And, frankly, I can’t define motivation, either, but whatever it is that he lays on his boys, I got a tiny ray of it myself. The man could literally crush you by letting you know you were a disappointment to him. Shit, maybe I’ve just seen too many John Wayne movies.

I did go down to McNair’s office, though, with the queasy feeling that I’ve blown it. Not the interview so much, but I’m left with the feeling that if Bryant had to go over Pork Chop Hill, I wouldn’t be his first choice in the assault squadron.

“I didn’t understand a damn thing he said!” I half complain to McNair.

“Listen to this!” I play back Bear’s joke-anecdote for him and two other guys in the office. Instead of commiserating, they are all on the floor, howling with laughter.

“I never heard that one before!” says a trainer, wiping tears from his eyes.

“That’s the funniest thing I ever heard!” says McNair.

“Yeah, well, I think you guys are a little funny, too,” I mutter.

McNair translates the joke for me. Bear was recalling an old Kentucky-Tennessee game, a real “bloodletter.” During the half, a guy named Doc Rhodes (I can’t figure out what his relation to the team was) went into the Kentucky locker room and delivered “the damnedest talk I evah heard.” He had one big old boy just slobbering at the bit. The only problem was that big old boy wasn’t playing.

In the last quarter of the game, Tennessee was down on the Kentucky 15 and the coach finally sent the big old boy in. He ran halfway onto the field; then he went running back to the sidelines and “Coach, can Doc Rhodes talk at me again?”

I guess you had to be there.

Bear Bryant’s Miracles” by Richard Price.
Copyright (c) 1979.
Reprinted by permission of Playboy Magazine.

[Drawing of Richard Price by France Belleville-Van Stone]

BGS: Leonard Stuns Hagler With Split Decision

For years, Richard Hoffer was a stud at Sports Illustrated (where he still contributes the occasional essay), and before that he worked for the L.A. Times.  He  is a master stylist and writes lean, elegant prose–precise and wry. He is funny, though never showy. Combined with skillful reporting and sharp observations (his book on Mike Tyson is a must for any boxing fan) that is enough to make him one of our best.

Take, for instance, this  L.A. Times piece on the controversial Sugar Ray Leonard-Marvin Hagler fight.

Written on deadline, it is reprinted here with the author’s permission.


“Leonard Stuns Hagler With Split Decision”

By Richard Hoffer

Sugar Ray Leonard’s enormous bravado, which was nearly offensive in the pre-fight buildup, became a promise fulfilled Monday night when, after what was essentially a five-year layoff, he returned and upset boxing’s dominant champion, Marvelous Marvin Hagler. The sheer audacity of what he attempted was somehow matched by the strategic elegance with which he did it.

The comeback, culminated before the largest world audience to ever see a bout, had been judged foolhardy by most. The symmetry of their careers, their destinies so intertwined, somehow forgave the circumstances of the obvious mismatch. They deserved each other five years ago, but this was better than never.

Still, only those who believed in time travel gave Leonard any chance against Hagler. Leonard would have to return five years, to a time when hands were fast and legs tireless, to meet the foreboding Hagler on anything near equal terms.

Well, he wasn’t the welterweight of 1982, when he first retired after eye surgery. But there was more about Leonard than his tasseled shoes that recalled his time of greatness. For 12 tactically brilliant rounds, he circled and countered, confusing and confounding the bewildered middleweight champion, until he had secured a split decision.

Though the judges did not entirely agree on what they saw—Lou Fillippo had it 115-113 for Hagler, Dave Moretti 115-113 for Leonard, and JoJo Guerra 118-110 for Leonard—the only person near the ring in the parking lot at Caesars Palace to voice any genuine surprise at the decision was Hagler himself. “I beat him and you know it,” he said immediately afterward. “I stayed aggressive. C’mon. I won the fight.”

But Leonard’s game plan never let Hagler in the fight. He circled outside, daring Hagler to stalk him, occasionally entangling the champion in a brisk flurry. Hagler missed monumentally as he chased Leonard. Although neither was hurt or in any danger of going down, it was clear that Leonard was hitting more than Hagler and gaining angles on a man not particularly known for his balance.

“Hit and run, stick and move, taunt and intimidate,” explained Leonard, facing the press in a jaunty yachtsman’s cap afterward, “a variety of things.”

It was not always pretty and may have disappointed the nearly 300 million people watching, in that it lacked boxing’s concussive conclusion. But it was not ugly, as even Leonard’s attorney, Mike Trainer, had predicted when the comeback was announced a year ago.

Richard Steele, the referee, said: “Maybe he fought him the only style he could win with.”

Leonard, of course, knew better than to lead Hagler into any kind of brawl. Hagler (62-3-2, 52 KO) had leveled Thomas Hearns, the last fighter to try that, in just three rounds. In fact, he did fight Hagler the only possible way.

And he fought him that way the entire night. Leonard (34-1, 24 KOs) danced outside from the first round. The clinching was plentiful. And at times, Leonard leaned back into the ropes, imitating the last great popular champion, Muhammad Ali. It was obviously frustrating for Hagler. His long looping rights missed by feet, it seemed. Once he threw a punch, followed it into a ring post, while Leonard bobbed and returned to the center of the ring.

Leonard gave him head feints, his hands dropped, offering his chin disdainfully. Once, in the seventh round, Hagler threw three large right hands in a row. They sailed wide, tremendous arcs in the desert air.

Leonard was masterful in his attempt to frustrate Hagler. In the fourth round, Leonard mocked his opponent with a bolo punch to the stomach.

Hagler, of course, would not be unnerved in the way that Roberto Duran was, when Leonard frustrated him into submission. Still, he was mad, and the two often crossed stares at the bell, and several times had to be escorted to their corners. Hagler was often exhorting his long-time nemesis, “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” he kept repeating.

“Once,” said Leonard, shrugging his shoulders, “he called me a sissy.”

In the later rounds, when Leonard was obviously and desperately tired, Hagler began to close the distance between the fighters. In the ninth round, Leonard appeared in trouble in his own corner, but he battled out of it with a vicious fury. At times, he seemed to die against the ropes. Or was he inviting Hagler in for that staccato counter-punching?

In that ninth round, the best of the fight, Leonard four times ensnarled Hagler in some reckless flurries.

It was dangerous and, considering the scoring up to that point, unnecessary. In the 11th round, Leonard got cute. He got up on his toes, smirked as he circled the champion, and threatened yet another bolo punch.

In the 12th and final round, with Hagler continuing to miss, Leonard mocked him by raising his right glove, apparently in anticipation of victory.

Inasmuch as this fight is expected to pull in more than $60 million, a record gross, there will undoubtedly be some who felt they didn’t get their money’s worth. Yet Leonard, who received a flat guarantee of $11 million to Hagler’s $12 million (plus a percentage of the gross), certainly made an effort to earn his.

For, he won with as much grit as wit. At the fight’s end, he collapsed into the arms of his handlers. Those legs, suspect going into the fight, hadn’t failed him until then.

Leonard, 30, had fought just 32 rounds in six years but his year of conditioning apparently dissolved the ring rust that so affects boxers. Of the unlikeliness of his achievement, Leonard said: “It’s the first time a young guy came back against an old guy.” Previous examples of failure do not apply.

Hagler, 32, was obviously disappointed, and he referred very quickly to the trouble he has with judges in Las Vegas. He lost his first title bid on a controversial draw with Vito Antuofermo here. But he admitted that Leonard, who he had pursued for years, fought a “courageous fight.” He could pursue him, but it doesn’t look like he’ll ever catch him.

Hagler, who was stopped short of his 13th title defense in the sixth and final year of his reign, must now hope for a rematch. Leonard will not likely be quick to oblige, if at all. In the ring he said, laughing, “depends on the contract.” But later, he refused to guess one way or the other as to what he’d do.

The decision certainly creates some interesting matchups, and it will be fun to speculate on the combinations. Hearns, who has lost to both, will want in on the action. Permutations abound. If Hagler and Leonard remain true to their peculiar destinies, they are likely to chase each other around for years more, until finally, they really are too old for this kind of thing.

The Banter Gold Standard: Know Your Way Home

Let’s start the New Year with this gem from our pal Richard Cramer. It first appeared in Esquire (October, 1993) and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

“Know Your Way Home”

by Richard Ben Cramer

In England recently, I learned the real definition of parochial. A law in the time of Elizabeth I restricted you to your own parish. If you did leave, and ran into trouble elsewhere, you were literally whipped home: That is to say, the beadles of each parish between you and your place of birth would flog you through their territory, then hand you over at the boundary to the lash-bearing beadles of the neighboring parish . . . until you were, safely (for them), back in your slot.

I suspect it was success in colonial America (and, perhaps, in other sparsely peopled adventurelands) that spawned the idea of picking your own home—searching it out, as conviction or economy required. It was certainly Americans who turned this innovation into a way of life, first as frontier farmers and ranchers, later as industrial cowpokes—followin’ them fatct’ry dogies where they roamed.

But it was only our own post-war generation (with the meat-ax of sharper American succcess) that cleaved altogether the ideas of Necessity and Home. Now we selected our hometown (wasn’t that our right?) . . . off a menu as wide as the world. Maybe we talked about a job there (not that there weren’t jobs elsewhere)—but it was really about a friend there, or some girl who was nice to us in bar . . . the weather, the way the mountains looked . . . the college community gave it such “tone” . . . or it made us feel cool to say we lived there. We were operating so far from our forebears’ experience that we had to make up lame-brained words like lifestyle. Now everybody had to (you know, uh, like) . . . find his own space!

We got to the point—with our Boogie boards on the crest of the potent baby-boom wave—we thought we could surf over Home completely. If Home was supposed to be wherever we chose to make it . . . well, it was only a small step (and self-regard required it) to say that wherever we were was Home.

We were arrived upon a glorious age: The world was our oyster . . . not necessarily to be eaten (though, God knows, we’ve tried) . . . but we were raised to the conviction that wherever we—we favored grains of sand—lodge our grit, there we become pearls.

And in this all-freedom all-power, I was Homeless.

I DON’T MEAN I slept on a steam grate. I had apartments, I had houses—splendid places, too. By age twenty, at college. l had an old Maryland farmhouse (with acreage!) that would have contented any settler through most of America’s history.

Me, I graduated and moved on. Settling was definitively not the point—it smacked of settling for second-best. It never occurred to me to move back to where I was born. My friends had scattered. That was my parents’ home . . . anyway, what about that oyster world? Home was something dorks like Glen Campbell moaned about. We all lived in a yellow submarine. I made a bet with one girl: The first of us to have two out of the following three—kid, insurance, mortgage—would have to buy the other a sailboat. I knew she’d welsh.

I picked a job that would keep me on the move. Newspapering was about impermanence. You’d never have two workdays the same. The stories would carry you all over the world. I started in Baltimore (two apartments, one house) and Annapolis (a hundred hotel rooms); then Philadelphia (an apartment); New York (one apartment, a storage box); Cairo (an office apartment); London (one flat I barely saw); Rome (un attico). By that time, I didn’t even say I had a home. I had a bureau. In fact, by Boogie-board all-power, I was the bureau . . . until I was out of the newspaper business, and I had to decide where to live.

This was a new concept. Of course, I’d always said I lived somewhere. I lived in Cairo . . . it made me feel cool to say so. But I didn’t really live anywhere, except in the stories—everywhere at once. Now I was supposed to pick a home—for me. There wasn’t even much for me to consult. So I did what any sensible man of my age did. I decided I’d live . . . wherever my girlfriend wanted.

I haven’t mentioned the girlfriend. She was the reason I came back from Rome, and the reason I was faced with this crisis of all-freedom, this question of self, of Home. Not that she was much threat to saddle me with a domestic establishment. This girl didn’t even own a skillet.

But a strong decorating sense she had. So we moved to New York, to a place that was strong on decoration. It was what the French call mignon—though at the time, I didn’t know that word. For example, the bedroom window looked out on a patio with lights that shone aloft through plants from underneath the wooden deck—you could see this semi-Polynesian effect (we called it Hawaii) from the bed . . . which was a decorating coup as there was no room to be off the bed and you couldn’t go out to the patio because it was really someone’s roof and couldn’t take the weight of an actual human. Another example: The living room (which was pretty much the only real room) had a curved wall. This softening of standard form was a decorating coup . . . insofar as it softened (in fact, disguised past the start of the lease) the hard fact that much of this living room had been eaten away for the closet and bath. I also learned there that mirrors are a decorating-coup substitute for light and space. This living room had mirrors. In fact, when I paced it off—continuously for a year—it was the size of an upmarket Japanese car. l think it was in that place l first said, “I want a home.” Understandably, the girlfriend did not react. I talked to myself quite a bit that year.

Or it may have been in out second place in New York—it was bigger, I picked it—I started talking about Home. I brought the word up with the landlord, an Israeli gent…in summer, urging him to scrape the rime off the windows . . . in winter, I suggested the place would be better with heat, “Eli, don’r you understand?” I’d wail into the phone. “This is my home!” His reply was concision itself. “I get tsuris, yourrnt guzzup.” So I’d transfer wailing to the girlfriend: “I want a home!”

“What’s this? she’d say


But Eli had a point—it wasn’t my home. He knew, as well as I did: l’d be gone before the bum who slept in the downstairs doorway. The fact was, the girlfriend and I had no more home than the bum. And no idea what Home was: We kept getting it confused with the best place to live.

“How about Paris?” the girlfriend would say. (She thought Paris had the strongest decorating sense.)

“How ’bout Moscow?” (I still had a lingering confusion between Home and story.)

Said the girlfriend: “Get a life.”

I GOT A BOOK—which maintained the confusion for six years more. We moved around, hauling the book. The girlfriend came along to edit and argue.

“I want a home.”

“Shut up. Finish the book”

We married, had a child. I finished the book. We had to decide where to live. The wife announced: “Paris.”

“Yes, dear.” (Strangely, it turned out, at the end of six years’ labor, I owed.)

She leased an apartment on the basis of a snapshot that showed a gilded mirror. I contracted to pay for this decorating coup by working in Paris for a sixty-year-old magazine. We called movers—we had skillets now, furniture, a million books, and (by the movers’ count) three million four hundred twenty-two thousand articles for child care and entertainment. Those I carried to Paris.

That was January—when I learned the word mignon. It meant cute. Our apartment was mignon. The living room (pretty much—well, you get the idea . . .) featured that gilded mirror because there was no light or space. In fact, when I paced it off . . . well, I couldn’t, because of a Lego castle and a Brio train set. But I knew what to do.

I got an airline ticket to America. After two days in the country, I bought an old farmhouse, with acreage, in Maryland. I took some photos—I hoped they’d display potential for strong decoration. Then I got back on the airplane, to show the photos to the wife. I said: “This is home.”



And when our year in Paris has passed, we’ll go back there—Home. Our place. We’ll stay. We won’t have any choice. After twenty-two years of patient work. I have acquired one-tenth the acreage I had in college, at one hundred times the price. In fact, by my calculation, if I continue working for the sixty-year-old magazine, I will fully own this house three years after my death.

I don’t mind. I look at all those zeros on my mortgage as chainlike between the noble ideas of Necessity and Home.

I tell my wife: We’ll still travel . . . Hey! The world is our oyster! But I’ve no doubt if we do leave, for work, for wanderlust—somehow soon . . . life will whip us home.

[Images Via: Andre Klein; SonjaRob Brulinski]

BGS 2012: Gold Rush

Bronx Banter turned ten in November and to celebrate I thought it’d be cool to reprint a few classic articles. I figured we’d run five pieces but one thing led to another and now we’ve got a series cooking with three feature stories each week. The idea is to present great magazine and newspaper writing that you can’t find on-line.

In case you’ve missed any of them, here’s a complete listing of what we’ve got so far. And we’re going to keep this moving in 2013. Already, we’ve got gems lined up from the likes of Richard Price, Jack Mann, Larry Merchant, Richard Hoffer, Diane K. Shah, Tom Junod, Rich Cohen, John Schulian, Paul Solotaroff, Leigh Montville, Dan Jenkins, Gary Cartwright, Tom Boswell, Pat Jordan, Ira Berkow, and Tony Kornheiser.

The Banter Gold Standard:

“The End of Lenny Bruce” by Dick Schaap

“The Strange and Mysterious Death of Mrs. Jerry Lee Lewis” by Richard Ben Cramer

“Furry’s Blues” by Stanley Booth

The Boxing Gym”

“The Impression”

“Seven Scenes from the life of a Quiet Champion”
by Pete Dexter

“The Best-Kept Secret in American Journalism is Murray Kempton” by David Owen

Jimmy Cannon and Murray Kempton on Don Larsen and Sal Maglie

“The Life and Loves of the Real McCoy” by John Lardner

“L.T. and the Home Team” by John Ed Bradley

“Sympathy for the Devi”l by Joe Flaherty

“North Hollywood Forty” by Peter Gent

“The Clear Line” by Luc Sante

“Thieves of Time” by Charlie Pierce

“The Killing of Gus Hasford” by Grover Lewis:

“Brownsville Bum” by W.C. Heinz

“Quitting the Paper” by Paul Hemphill

And while you are digging through the archives, check out this compilation of previous Banter Reprints:

Richard Ben Cramer

The Ballad of Johnny France

Serious Business (Yankee Stadium)


Pete Dexter

Dying for Art’s Sake (LeRoy Neiman)

No Trespassing (Jim Brown)

The Apprenticeship of Randall Cobb (Tex Cobb)

Two for Toozday (John Matuszak)

LeeRoy, He Ain’t Here No More (LeeRoy Yarbrough)

The Old Man and the River (Norman Maclean)


W.C. Heinz

One Throw (Short Story)

The Happiest Hooligan of them All (Pepper Martin)

Death of a Racehorse

Speaking of Sports (Howard Cosell)

Maybe Tomorrow, Maybe the Next Day (Jeremy Vernon)


Pat Jordan

Trouble in Paradise (Steve and Cyndy Garvey)

Breaking the Wall (Burt Reynolds)

Bad (Rorion Gracie)

The Curious Childhood of an 11-Year Old Beauty Queen

The Horse Lovers (TV movie of the week)

Inside Marilyn Chambers

A Different Drummer

Running Cars

The Haircut

Dad’s Last Visit


George Kimball

Opening Day at Fenway Park

Fighting and Drinking with the Rats at Yankee Stadium


Carlo Rotella

Bedtime Story (Marvin Hagler)


John Schulian

One Night Only (Levon Helm)

My Ears are Bent (Joseph Mitchell)

No Regrets: A Hard-Boiled Life (James Crumley)

The Professional (George Kimball)

Jack Mann (An Appreciation by John Schulian, Tom Callahan, and Dave McKenna)

Bet a Million (Vic Ziegel)


Robert Ward

Reggie Jackson in No-Man’s Land 

[Photo Via: Ari Takes Pictures]

The Banter Gold Standard: The End of Lenny Bruce

It’s hard to believe that Dick Schaap died over ten years ago. For sports fans of my generation we knew him as a constant, reassuring presence in a world of TV hype–bright, even-handed, moral, with a wry sense of humor.

Before he moved to television, however, Schaap was an accomplished writer. Here’s a glimpse of his talent, a remembrance of Lenny Bruce which originally appeared in Playboy (1966) and is reprinted here with permission from Schaap’s widow, Trish.


“The End of Lenny Bruce”

By Dick Schaap

Lenny Bruce fell off a toilet seat with a needle in his arm and he crashed to a tiled floor and died. And the police came and harassed him in death as in life. Two at a time, they let photographers from newspapers and magazines and television stations step right up and take their pictures of Lenny Bruce lying dead on the tiled floor. It was a terrible thing for the cops to do. Lenny hated to pose for pictures.

The truth is what is, not what should be. What should be is a dirty lie.

Lenny was a very sick comedian when he died. He had grown to more than 200 pounds, with an enormous belly, fattened by candy bars and Cokes, and his mind was fat, too, with visions of writs and reversals and certificates of reasonable doubt. But he wasn’t a junkie. He wasn’t strung out. He just wanted, on August 3, 1966, a taste of stuff. It was his last supper.

You really believe in segregation? You’ll fight for it to the death? OK. Here’s your choice: You can marry a white, white woman or a black, black woman. The white, white woman is Kate Smith. And the black, black woman is Lena Horne. Now make your choice.

He was funny, frighteningly funny, with the kind of humor that could create instant laughter and instant thought, that could cut to the core of every hypocrisy. He was a wit and he was a philosopher.

C’mon, Lenny, said the television producer, be a man. Sell out.

He never sold out, not even to his friends. He thought that the petition circulated in his support, signed by Reinhold Niebuhr and Elizabeth Taylor and almost everyone in between—Lenny could have done something with that image—was ridiculous. He wanted nothing to do with it. He didn’t want to be a cause, a symbol of free speech. He had heard the clanging of too many false symbols. He simply believed he had the right to talk in night clubs the way corporation vice-presidents talk in their living rooms and their board rooms.

Suppose it’s three o’clock in the morning…. I meet a girl … I can’t say to her, “Would you come to my hotel?” … The next day at two in the afternoon, when the Kiwanis Club meets there, then “hotel” is clean. But at three o’clock in the morning …

The idea of a memorial service for Lenny Bruce would have, at best, appalled him. His friends knew this, but they held the memorial, anyway; it was held, as memorials are, for the benefit of the living. It was held for people who suspected they were alone until, maybe six, seven years ago, before Mississippi marches and draft-card barbecues, Lenny bound them all together.

Paul Krassner, who still wants to grow up to be Lenny Bruce, despite the implied life expectancy, conducted the memorial, and Lenny’s kind of people—kikes, spades, fags and other fortunates, perhaps 1000 strong—jammed New York’s Judson Memorial Church. One young man wore a blue sweat shirt with a single word emblazoned on it: GRASS. There were babies in arms, and a girl on crutches, and even a few people who actually knew Lenny. Cardinal Spellman did not attend.

Allen Ginsberg and the poet’s companion, Peter Orlovsky, sang a Hindu funeral chant, a fitting hymn to a Jew in a Protestant church. And then a young man wearing bright green pants and waving a tall American flag leaped to the stage, sort of a beat Billy Graham. None of the organizers of the memorial had arranged his appearance; Lenny must have sent him. His name was Nathan John Ross, a proper flag-waving name, and he had wild sideburns with eyes to match. “You will pay the dues,” intoned Nathan John Ross. “God will not be mocked.” Of course he will. God, obviously, has a sense of humor, sometimes even a slightly sick sense of humor.

Allan Garfield, an actor and poet, followed the flag act, and he told how he once sought to use Lenny’s act as an aphrodisiac. His strategy worked, partly. The only slip was that the date he brought to the night club left with Lenny.

“… I don’t make it with anybody …”

“How come you don’t make it with anybody?”

“I don’t like to talk about it.”

“You can tell me. I like to hear other people’s problems.”

“All right. It’s the way I’m built. I’m abnormally large.”

The Fugs came on. They are a rock ‘n’ roll group named after Norman Mailer’s most famous typographical euphemism, and the words to their songs were, for the most part, unintelligible. Their patter, unhappily, was not. They made jokes about pocket pool and sniffing armpits, the kind of jokes Lenny always found obscenely obvious.

Ginsberg read one of his poems, urging his disciples to “be kind to the universe of self,” and Nathan John Ross tried to top him with an impromptu cry, “I will be done and was done,” which, offhand, sounded logical enough.

Then Krassner quoted a song by Lenny that ended something like, “The hole in the ground is the end,” which triggered Nathan John Ross once more. “If I thought the hole was the last stop,” said good old reliable Nathan, “I wouldn’t bother getting up in the morning.”

“May your alarm clock never ring again,” suggested Tony Scott, the jazz clarinetist. Scott’s trio played hot blues, setting off thunderous applause and a few “Bravos!” courtesy of the male dancers in the congregatjon. Krassner thanked the jazzmen, called them “The Holy Trinity,” then remembered himself and mumbled, “Nothing personal,” to Nathan John Ross.

“I’ve got a Bible,” shouted Nate Ross. “Why don’t we say a prayer?”

“OK,” Krassner agreed. “A silent prayer.”

The Reverend Howard Moody minister of the Judson Memorial Church, the final speaker, talked about three of Lenny Bruce’s most notable characteristics: “His destructiveness, his unbearable moralism, his unstinting pigheadedness.”

Lenny Bruce, said the minister, “exorcized the demons that plagued the body of the sick society … He led a crusade in semantics … May God forgive all those who acquiesced in the deprivation of his livelihood.”

The Reverend Alvin Carmines, assistant minister of the Judson Church, concluded the service with a song, stressing the refrain, “I have to live with my own truth, whether you like it or not, whether you like it or not.”

“To the Jew first, then the Greek, then the gentile,” yelled Nathan John Ross to the departing mourners. None of the gentiles in the congregation seemed offended by the low billing.

One last four-letter word for Lenny.


At 40.

That’s obscene.

While we’re at it, please enjoy this sampler of some of Lenny’s most famous routines:

Lima, Ohio

White Collar Drunks

How To Relax Your Colored Friends

Jewish & Goyish


Airplane Glue

Shelley Berman–Chicago Nightclub Owners

Father Flotski’s Truimph [Unexpurgated]

Comic At The Palladium – Part 1

Comic At The Palladium – Part 2

Comic At The Palladium – Part 3

Thank You, Masked Man

Christ And Moses – Part 1

Christ And Moses – Part 2



BGS: The Strange and Mysterious Death of Mrs. Jerry Lee Lewis

Here is Richard Ben Cramer’s chilling Jerry Lee Lewis story. It originally appeared in Rolling Stone (March 1, 1984) and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

First up, a brief introduction from Cramer:

How was I out to lunch? Let me count the ways. I was new to magazines, never having written for a national publication, much less for ROLLING STONE. I was a newspaperman, just returned from the Middle East—a bit unsteady, still, in America. The provenance of rock & roll I had traced as far back as the record store. Past that lay a great sea of unknowing.

All of a sudden, I was in Hernando, Mississippi, where no restaurant order was complete until the waitress asked, “You wan’ gravy?” Where the leading candidate for sheriff was known as Big Dog Riley. Where Jerry Lee Lewis was a legend and a power, not to mention the spendingest man in the county, which spending had bought for almost a decade the quiet cooperation of local authorities who would perform all kinds of “community service,” like towing the Killer’s car out of a ditch without checking his blood for alcohol, or bargaining his drug charge down to a simple hoe, or shipping off the bruised body of his dead fifth bride for a private autopsy, with no coroner’s jury and little public inquiry into the cause of her death.

And I was proposing to penetrate this long-closed world, to find out how that girl died?

Truly, I was out to lunch.

But God looks after his children who were tardy on brain day. He introduced me to a splendid couple of folks who owned the local weekly newspaper, and then to the local prosecutor, who wanted to help me honorably, even though the resulting story could not reflect well on his grand-jury presentation. And then there were the ambulance drivers, the local cops, local merchants and matrons, meetings at midnight, anonymous notes left at my motel. Bit by bit, they made a picture of life where Jerry Lee lived.

Then, too, I was led to Hernando’s Hide-A-Way, the Killer’s favorite nightclub, fifteen miles north in Memphis, Tennessee, and to the lubricious owner of that nightclub, Kenny Rodgers; in Memphis, too, there was Elvis’s old doctor chum, Dr. Nick; there was Jerry Lee’s manager, J.W. Whitten, and Whitten’s little dogs, Nickie and Kai; there was J.W.’s former wife; and there were former band members, club bartenders, former girlfriends, bouncers, strippers, whores. . . .

Quickly, it became apparent that this unexpected, inexplicable death was not out of the ordinary in the world of Jerry Lee. And not long after, it would become equally clear that the official version of events diverged early and often from the facts. Something went violently wrong at the Killer’s mansion on the night of Shawn Lewis’s death. And as soon as that death was disclosed, everything went wrong with the investigation. A grand jury was quickly led to conclude that no crime had occurred. But I was sure Shawn’s death was no suicide, no mistaken handful of pills. No one would ever prove what happened: Only two people were in the house that night. One was dead and buried before the appropriate tests could be made. The other was Jerry Lee Lewis.

First, I had to learn something about where Jerry Lee’s music came from—and about the stark choices presented to a boy at the Assembly of God church in Ferriday, Louisiana. In a hundred times of trouble, he had vowed he would dedicate his soul and his music to the Lord’s work, forevermore, but he never could make that stick. And then the millions of miles and the thousands of nightclub dates—the rage they required, the drinks and drugs—took their toll. He ate away at himself. By the terms of his church, Jerry Lee made his living with the devil’s dance on his piano. “Great Balls of Fire” was his anthem not by happenstance.

And he ate through the lives of his women. His third wife, his cousin Myra Gale Brown, won divorce with horrific tales of how Jerry Lee beat her up in view of their little daughter. His fourth wife, Jaren Gunn, also won divorce, but she ended up dead, mysteriously drowned in a Memphis swimming pool, just before her settlement came through. Shawn Michelle Stephens was the fifth. A sharp and spunky twenty-five-year-old from Garden City, Michigan, she thought Jerry Lee was her ticket to the good life. They married on June 7th, 1983, and seventy-seven days later, she was dead.

It seemed to me unlikely that the magazine of rock & roll would greet this harsh story with enthusiasm. I thought, in fact, that if I meant to question Jerry Lee’s clean escape from this case, I’d have to possess a ton of stone-hard facts and present them as a wall, every stone immovable. It took weeks in Mississippi, Memphis and Detroit—more weeks in New York. It seemed to me a miracle that I never heard a discouraging word from my editor, Susan Murcko. I thought perhaps I hadn’t made exactly clear what it was I thought I’d found. I wrote with trepidation. I saw every word raising a wall that might fall back on me. It was months after the assignment when, at last, I presented to Murcko a thick sheaf of pages.

Too thick!

Murcko started thinning the wall. She worked with the infinite patience of a medieval mason. Thousands of words were chiseled to dust. And nothing was lost. Murcko, God bless her, was all dogged delicacy.

Then Jann Wenner looked it over. Too thick!

To hell with delicacy! More thousands of words, whole interviews, whole characters, were dust, mere dust. Murcko brushed the wall smooth again.

Then fact checkers . . .

Then copy editors . . .

Then lawyers!

I was unprepared for this woe. I was a newspaperman. The way I was brought up, you wrote the thing, you sent it in, it ran that night. Next day, it was over. This was months. This was murder.

February 1984, finally, the story was in type. Ten pages in the magazine. I looked it over as if it were some strange geode, compressed as it was by time and tread. I was shocked to discover that it said what I meant.

The county’s inquiry into Shawn’s death never was reopened. The feds took up the scent for a while, but they never made a case on the death of Jerry Lee’s wife. They put all their eggs into the Internal Revenue basket and actually charged Lewis under the tax laws. But as far as I know, nothing much came of it. Some bargaining went on—more judgments against Jerry Lee, more liens. What the hell, he already had enough judgments against him to pave the road to Tupelo.

Jerry Lee got married again—to a cute young thing. The tabloids attended and wrote about her ring.

The Killer’s only reaction to my story came through his manager, J.W. Whitten. He said Jerry Lee was “just surprised . . . that ROLLING STONE would do that kind of thing on us.”

Well, so was I.

“The Strange And Mysterious Death of Mrs. Jerry Lee Lewis”

By Richard Ben Cramer

The killer was in his bedroom, behind the door of iron bars, as Sonny Daniels, the first ambulance man, moved down the long hall to the guest bed- room to check the report: “Unconscious party at the Jerry Lee Lewis residence.”

Lottie Jackson, the housekeeper, showed Sonny into a spotless room: Gauzy drapes filtered the noonday light; there was nothing on the tables, no clothes strewn about, no dust; just a body on the bed, turned away slightly toward the wall, with the covers drawn up to the neck. Sonny probed with his big, blunt fingers at a slender wrist: it was cold. “It’s Miz Lewis,” Lottie said. “I came in…I couldn’t wake her up….” Sonny already had the covers back, his thick hand on the woman’s neck where the carotid pulse should be: The neck retained its body warmth, but no pulse. Now he bent his pink moon-face with its sandy fuzz of first beard over her pale lips: no breath. He checked the eyes. “Her eyes were all dilated. That’s an automatic sign that her brain has done died completely.”

Matthew Snyder, the second ambulance man, had barely finished Emergency Medical Technician school. He was twenty, blond, beefy, even younger than Sonny, and just starting with the Hernando, Mississippi, ambulance team. Even rookies knew there wasn’t anything uncommon about a run to Jerry Lee’s to wake up some passed-out person. But Matthew saw there was something uncommonly wrong now, as he caught the look of worry and excitement from Sonny over at the bed. “Go ahead and check her over,” said Sonny, and Matthew restarted the process With the woman’s delicate wrist. He saw, up on her forearm, the row of angry little bruises, like someone had grabbed her hard. He saw the little stain of dried blood on the web of her hand. He shook his head at Sonny: no pulse.

Lottie knew It was wrong, too. She was a stolid, hard-working black woman who’d taken care of Jerry Lee since before he moved down here from Memphis—more than ten years, that made it. She was crying as she moved down the hall and knocked at the door with the iron bars.

The Killer was there within seconds. If he’d been sleeping on the big canopied bed, he must have been sleeping in his bathrobe. For now, he came into the hall, with the white terrycloth lapels pulled right across his skinny chest, and he looked surprised to find Lottie in tears. Then he looked a silent question into Sonny Daniels’ eyes.

“Mr. Lewis, your wife….” Sonny averred his gaze. He said: “I just checked her over in there….”

Still, he didn’t meet the question in Jerry Lee’s hard eyes. He saw the two bright red scratches on the back of Jerry Lee’s hand, like a car had gouged him from the wrist to the knuckles. When Sonny looked up at last, his own eyes grew, his whole face seemed to grow larger, rounder, younger.

“Mr. Lewis,” he said. “I’m sorry. Miz Lewis is dead.”


The autopsy that cleared Jerry Lee Lewis called Shawn Michelle Lewis, 25, “a well-developed, well-nourished, white female, measuring sixty-four inches in length, weighing 107 pounds. The hair is brown, the eyes are green….” It hardly did her justice. She was a honey blond with a tan, small and full of bounce, with a grin that made everybody smile and had turned male heads since junior high.

“Everybody liked her. She was like the stepchild of the club. Everybody looked out for her,” says Mike DeFour, the manager of DB’s, a fancy nightclub in the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dearborn, Michigan, where Shawn Michelle Stephens worked as a cocktail waitress. DeFour treated his waitresses, “the DB’s girls,” like family—he loved them all, took care of them, saw to it that they made good money—even the new girls, like Shawn, who had started part time about four years ago. “Some of the girls I gave nicknames to. Shawn was ‘Little Buzz” because she was always buzzing around, you know, half buzzed….

“No, not like that. Drugs weren’t a big problem. You know, a hit on a joint or two, no problem. It was around. Or a shot from a bottle of schnapps—okay, I’d look the other way.”

Shawn loved working there. The money was great—sometimes $150 a night. But it wasn’t just that: It was upscale, crowded with people who dressed and threw money around. It was something more for a girl from Garden City, a suburb of little boxes built for the auto workers of the Fifties. There, more was the stuff of dreams.

But somehow, in Garden City, Shawn never seemed to get much more. Her mother’s divorce had only made it harder. Shawn had been in and out of jobs, mostly waitressing, since she graduated in 1975. She dreamed of marrying Scott, her boyfriend, but his parents were strict, and they never thought much of Shawn. So DB’s was fine for the moment—great, in fact. She loved the people. It almost wasn’t like work. The musicians took them to parries after hours—great parties.

One DB’s girl, Pam Brewer, took up with J.W. Whitten, the wiry bantam of a road manager for the Jerry Lee Lewis band. Pam flew off to Memphis, and when she came back the next year, she was soon to be Mrs. J.W. Whitten, traveling with the band, flying in Learjets and shopping from a limo! That’s when it happened to Shawn.

Jerry Lee, performing for a week at the Dearborn Hyatt, picked Shawn out from among the girls. Pam Brewer set it up: She told Shawn that Jerry Lee wanted to take her to a party in his suite. It wasn’t like Shawn had been looking for it. In fact, the first time she’d seen Jerry Lee, she’d told her mother: “Mom, he’s a lone man, and he’s about your age. You ought to come and try to meet him….” Instead, It was Shawn who went. ” I always thought Shawn’d be good for Jerry,” says Pam. “She was so cute, petite, and he likes little women. And she was so much fun to be with. I introduced them. I thought she was flexible enough to understand his moods.”

Jerry Lee wasn’t showing his moods the night of that first party. A great party, Shawn told her friends. actually, it was just a few drinks in his suite. A couple of other women were already up there. Jerry Lee played piano and sang, while Pam’s little Chinese Shih Tzu dog sat up with him on the stool. Shawn knew she was looking good, in her jeans, cowboy boots and a huggy little white rabbit jacket. And Jerry Lee treated her so nice! He’d turn away from the keyboard as he’d slow down his rhythm for a snatch of a love song. She felt him sing straight to her. It was February 1981. Shawn was twenty-three.


“Dead. you sure?” said the Killer, as he crossed the hall to the guest room. He grabbed Shawn’s wrist, as if to feel her pulse, then dropped it and just stood staring at her.

“Anything you can do?” Jerry Lee said, mostly to Sonny. “In the hospital?”

“No, sir, we woulda took her already,” said Sonny. He was real polite.

Jade McCauley, a deputy sheriff came into the room at that moment. By happenstance, he said, he’d been patrolling on Malone Road as the ambulance made the turn for Jerry Lee’s house. Of course, his ordinary patrol area was miles away, but nothing about Jack McCauley seemed to fit the ordinary. McCauley, 48, certainly was the sharpest deputy in DeSoto County: a college man, a Yankee transplanted to Mississippi, a man who said he’d made a small fortune on developments like the industrial park in the northeast comer of the county. John Burgess McCauley lived in a hideaway house that made Jerry Lee’s look modest—it must have been worth $200,000, according to realtors who’d seen it. Nobody quite knew what Jack was doing, fooling around in patrol cars with a deputy’s job that paid $12,000 a year. And the way he’d take your head off for the smallest little thing, start shouting and get red all the way up to his crewcut, no one asked Jack.

Sonny was going to explain to Jerry Lee the need for an inquest, but Jack McCauley took over from there. He had that air of command about him. McCauley announced he was going to clear the room. He wasn’t real polite like Sonny—more familiar. “Come to think of it,” says Sonny, “I don’t recall Jack introducing himself. Maybe he knew Jerry Lee.”

Maybe, but it’s hard to tell now. McCauley won’t talk about the case. And Jerry Lee never said much of anything about it, except that day, when he had a long talk with McCauley. They were alone in Jerry Lee’s little den for more than an hour before the state investigators or anybody else arrived at the house. McCauley never filed any report on that long conversation. He did write a report that told how he came in the wake of the ambulance, just after 12:30 p.m., August 24th, 1983, and how he got delayed in the driveway by two employees of Goldsmith’s department store, who’d come to the house to hang drapes, and then how Matthew Snyder told him “that a female subject was dead in one of the bedrooms.” His report continues:

Upon entering a small bedroom on the east side of the residence, Mr. Lewis was bending over the bed where a white female was lying partially covered by a bedspread. She was clad in a negligee….When I first arrived, Mr. Lewis’ speech was heavily slurred, but he was alert and coherent. I telephoned the sheriff’s office and requested a justice of the peace if the coroner could not be located, and an investigator. The latter was requested because there were no visible causes of death and because Mr. Lewis’ bathrobe contained apparent bloodstains and he had a cut on his wrist.

At 13:51 hours I advised Mr. Lewis that his manager J.W. Whitten had arrived but would not be allowed to enter the residence until the investigation was completed. Mr. Lewis commented we need to “find out who killed—how she died,” so funeral arrangements can be made.

So McCauley was the first to report that Jerry Lee’s robe was spotted with blood. Surely, McCauley must have seen, as well, the blood on Shawn Lewis, on her hand, on her hair, on clothes and a bra in another room, on a lamp, in a spot on the carpet. He must have seen the film of dirt on her, and the bruises on her arms and hip, maybe her broken fingernails with something that looked like dried blood underneath. None of this was in his report. But it didn’t matter much. For McCauley’s report never made it into the investigative file, never left the sheriff’s department until after the grand jury had decided no crime had occurred.


Shawn hadn’t been a great fan of the Killer’s, not until that first night in his suite. She was tiny in her mother’s womb when his “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” threatened to knock Elvis himself off the throne of rock & roll. At forty- five, Jerry Lee was still riveting—a star, and he seemed to like her. He’d make funny faces and twist his head around, trying to understand her funny Yankee way of talking. Then he’d understand and try to mimic, and everybody’d laugh—Jerry, too. Of course, girls were never a problem for the Killer. They were always around. Often, Jerry left the details of his trysting to others; now, in February 1981, it was Pam who issued another invitation, this time with a free ticket to Memphis: “Jerry was gettin’ ready to go to Europe, and I figured it was a good time to bring Shawn down. Because I figured he’d take her with him. Which he did….”

Clever girl! Pam Brewer is twenty-six now, and although she’s split up with J.W. Whitten, she still lives in Memphis. She talks in a molasses drawl (well, a girl’s got to fit in!) about Shawn’s springtime trip to Europe.

“He bought a beautiful gold watch for her. I don’t know how many thousands he spent on it. It was his first gift to her….They’d send her out, and she’d get herself a bunch of beautiful suits, and she’d come back and just look at herself in the mirror, because she couldn’t believe that was her in all those beautiful things….

“How could you not get taken by it? I was in heaven all the time I was, uh, involved.”

It was heaven–most of the time. Then there were the times Jerry was speeding so bad after a show: He couldn’t come down, and he’d bully Shawn to stay up with him. God, they never slept. And then it was kind of disgusting when Jerry would stick that big needle with the Talwin narcotic right into his stomach. He said his stomach was killing him, and no wonder, the way he lived.

It was better, sort of, back in Nesbit, Mississippi, in the big brick house—at least you could relax. There was the pool shaped like a piano, and the lake out back with the Jet Ski, a sort of kicky little snowmobile for the water. Shawn loved the sun, and she’d be out there all afternoon, before Jerry woke up. Then at night, they’d go to Hernando’s Hide-A-Way, Jerry’s home club, fifteen miles north, up in Memphis. They’d roll in about midnight, and Jerry Lee would sort of dance to his table, announcing: “The Killer is here.” They’d always drink, or have a pipe or two back in a little office by the bandstand. Sometimes, Hernando’s owner, Kenny Rodgers, would get up to the mike, straighten his pearly tie under the vest of his gray business suit and announce: “Ladies an’ gennlemen! The greates’ ennataina inna worl’…the Killa…Jerra Lee!” And then Jerry’d screw around for hours, while the house band wilted behind him, and Jerry would work to his own private rhythms, singing a snatch of this or that, cutting off songs in midverse, making the whole club dance to his tune. That could get ugly, too, like the time some patrons left the floor in disgust when Jerry Lee cut off another song. “You stupid ignorant sonsabitches,”Jerry Lee screamed from the piano bench. “You got a $20,000 show here, and y’all walkin’ offf rom the Killer!”

Shawn said she knew how to handle him. For one thing, you just had to pay attention. Shawn said she knew, too, how to handle other women. A friend and former DB’s girl, Beverly Lithgow, says: “Shawn told about one of the first times they went out to dinner down there near Memphis, and this girl came over to the table and asked for Jerry Lee’s autograph. So he gave it to her. She came back again and started talking with him. So the third time she came back, Shawn finally just grabbed her by the hair and pulled her down, and said, ‘He’s with me tonight. Leave him alone.’ Shawn said Jerry Lee loved it because she was so forceful.”

She had spunk—”She wasn’t a pansy,” says Bev—enough to leave him when her younger sister, Shelley, came down to visit, and Jerry started showing his moods. Shelley, 20, drove down with their brother, Thomas, and his friend, Dave Lipke. Jerry Lee got jealous; he thought Shelley was bringing a young man for Shawn. Then he got mad, according to Shelley, and started knocking Shawn around. Shelley says the real problem was Jerry Lee’s insistence that she and Shawn have sex with him.

“Iknew what he wanted, and I wouldn’t do it,” Shelley says.

“He made us leave, but he didn’t actually tell us to go. He made Shawn tell us. So she said, ‘Well, if you’re leaving, so am I.’

“It was really crazy. Jerry Lee was wild. He ended up accusing us of stealing his Jet Ski. But the Jet Ski is big, like a snowmobile. I mean, I only had a Camaro. And he saw us drive away. He parted the curtains. We saw him looking through the bars on his window. I kept saying, ‘Duck! Duck!’ We all thought he was going to shoot us.”

Later, Shawn called Jerry Lee to calm him. But Jerry wouldn’t be pacified. Shawn said he sounded “jealous, sort of sick….” As it turned out, it was more than sort of: Within weeks, by July 4th, 1981, the Killer was in a hospital bed with most of his stomach gone and a less than even chance of living. The jealousy was real, too: Shawn had called Jerry Lee from Texas, where she and Shelley wound up living with the love of Shawn’s young life, Scott.


Charlie Ward, the Hernando, Mississippi, city policeman who drove the ambulance truck, already had used the radio once to try to call in the coroner. But Jack McCauley said things might get too public. He decreed radio silence. McCauley used the phone from Jerry Lee’s kitchen to start planning with Sheriff Dink Sowell, who was just as eager to keep matters at a decorous hush. His first order of the day: a deputy to man the gates at the base of the driveway to keep the damn press away.

Sheriff Sowell didn’t need any noise while he was trying to retire in peace and keep a hand on the department with the election of his chosen successor, his chief deputy, James Albert “Big Dog” Riley. There were too many rumors already about James Albert and that Hernando’s Hide-A-Way crowd. You could talk to any of Big Dogs opponents in the hot Democratic primary and collect hellacious stones about James with drugs, and sang gospel songs to the crowds who greeted his return. And with more determination, he sought out the love of a woman, “a different kind of girl,” a woman who might have the strength to change him: Jerry Lee got out of the hospital and started calling Shawn.


Texas hadn’t turned out so well for Shawn, Shelley and Scott, and by the end of summer 1981, all three were heading for home.

At first Jerry Lee’s calls seemed funny to her, like a card from someone she’d met traveling—they didn’t seem part of real life. But as fall gave way to hard Michigan winter, the calls seemed to grow more important. After all, she was back in the same tired circle: the icy, gray streets of Detroit, back and forth to work at a secretarial job. Even Scott and his precious parents! What did his family have against her? And what did they have over him? Why didn’t he want her? Jerry Lee wanted her. He said he’d give her anything. H e wanted to send a ticket—a ticket to anywhere.

As it turned out, she met him close to home. In 1982, Jerry Lee was booked for a show in Michigan. Shawn, her mother, her brother and her sisters met the Killer’s plane, and suddenly, there it all was again: the jet, the limos, the big men holding the doors….Mother, brother and sisters rode with the band. Shawn rode with Jerry in the limousine.

And so it was that Jerry Lee came back into her life with that vision of something more. The Killer said he wanted to marry her, just as soon as he got free of Jaren. The girls from DB’s were so jealous!

Still, there was Scott. “The one thing she wanted out of life,” says her mother, “was to marry Scott and have his baby.”

Scott, now a factory worker in Livonia, Michigan, says: “Shawn just could never get over me and her. We had a lot in common, and we had fun together….But I never could forgive her for going off with Jerry Lee Lewis. That’s the bottom line. Everybody knew about it, and there was no way I could take her back.”

Jerry Lee kept pressing her. Jaren was dead and Jerry was free, and he wanted Shawn to be his. He demanded an answer by the tune he carne back from Europe in the spring of 1983. Shawn stayed behind in Michigan, savoring her dilemma.

Shelley remembers: “I guess we all just said, ‘Yeah, go ahead, try it. If you don’t like it, you can always get divorced.’ I feel so guilty about that….But it was flattering.”

After yet another transatlantic phone call, Shawn announced: “Mom, I’m going to Europe…I’m going to marry him.” Shawn put everything she wanted in her mother’s two suitcases. Except for her family, there was nothing more for her in Garden City. Even her tawny cat, Scottie, had run away.

In a beery bachelorette party at Henry’s, Bev Lithgow asked Shawn why she was marrying Jerry Lee. Shawn laughed: “Because he has a big dick and a lot of money.” Janice Quesenberry, another DB’s girl, says: “Shawn gave me a big hug and kiss and said, ‘Well, I’m going to go for it. I’m not crazy about the man, but I’ve never had this kind of life.’ I told her, ‘You know, you’re going to have his kids.’ Shawn told me: ‘There’s no way I’m having kids with that old creep. I’m just going to stay married for as long as I can, and then I’m getting the hell out.”‘

Still, down to the very last, she wasn’t sure. Scott says she called two days before the wedding to tell him: “If you’d just say the words, I’d come back….”

And still, she was asking Mike DeFour, DB’s manager: “Mike, what should I do?” DeFour shakes his head and remembers: “I told her, ‘You’re free, white and twenty. Go for it. Just make sure you got some money and a plane ticket home.’

“See, none of us ever gave the marriage more than six months to a year. But none of us ever expected her to wind up in a pine box.”


Bill Ballard was in his office when he got the call from Sheriff Sowell, about tw0 hours after Shawn was found. The sheriff told Ballard, the county attorney, that he wanted a legal paper authorizing an autopsy. Once again, there wasn’t much explaining required. William W. Ballard, 40, was likely the smartest man in Hernando. He was the kind of Ole Miss graduate who came out so studiedly tweedy that he made Harvard Law men look flamboyant.

The sheriff knew Ballard was just the man for the job: He had used Ballard as his private attorney. Ballard’s county post was part time—it only paid $14,800. Even Ballard didn’t have much explanation why he kept on with it, but he had, since 1968, and no one ever ran against him. It sort of came with the territory, as a Ballard: His father had been vice-president of the Bank of Hernando; now his brother was bank president. DeSoto County was Ballard country.

By the time Dink Sowell came to see him, Ballard had drafted an agreement insuring that all autopsy information be provided to County Attorney William W. Ballard. Both men headed out to the house on Malone Road.

The state police investigators already had been called there, and the scene was orderly—McCauley had seen to that. The only unofficial personage who had entered the guest room since it was cleared for pictures was Lottie Jackson. Jerry Lee stayed in his den, talking to McCauley. The Killer only emerged once, when the body was being removed from the house.

Sonny Daniels, Matthew Snyder and Charlie Ward were wheeling the body on a stretcher down the hall, when Jerry Lee popped out and asked if he could look. They took down the sheet, and he stared at Shawn. He turned away after a few seconds. He didn’t say anything. “He looked normal,” Charlie Ward recalled. “He seemed to be in good shape.”

Ballard and Sowell knew exactly what would happen to the body. The sheriff explained that he’d already contracted for an autopsy with Dr. Jerry Francisco, the medical examiner up in Memphis. Dr. J.T. Francisco was the man who had staunchly maintained to the world that Elvis Presley died of heart failure.

Of course, Francisco would cost a bundle—far more than the county’s $260 limit for autopsies. But McCauley had taken care of that. He and Jerry Lee had agreed that the Killer would pay. And that was good news, too. For it meant the autopsy was a private report; it need never be placed on public file.

Ballard tried to review these details with Jerry Lee in the big brick house. He needn’t have bothered. The Killer was in his recliner chair. He looked like he was just waiting for all this to be over. He wasn’t weepy. He seemed altogether without emotion, without energy, crashed, like a storm had passed and knocked him dull. When Ballard squatted next to the big recliner and showed Jerry Lee the authorization, the Killer seemed barely to look at the words. He just asked where to sign.

Ballard asked him, “Is there anything we can get for you, or anybody we can call?” He just said his manager, J.W. Whitten, was down at the gate, and he couldn’t get in. “So I told the sheriff, and the sheriff had him let in.”

Just as well, for the state men wanted to get Jerry Lee out of the house. Jay Clark, the chief investigator, really wasn’t that anxious about it. Clark was a bag, easygoing fellow, a plodder, a fifteen-year man with the highway patrol. Very little excited Jay, not even his own hair-raising habit of reading while he drove. But Creekmore Wright, the second man on the job, sure hadn’t seen any case this hot. Wright was younger than Clark, dark-haired, fresh-faced and square-jawed. Of course, Creekmore knew the tales about the Killer, and frankly, the house gave him the creeps. There were those bars on the doors and windows, the bullet holes in the windows and walls, the guns that kept turning up in strange corners of the house. The next day, when Creekmore was to make his second trip to the house, he showed up at the sheriff’s office with his own Magnum prominently holstered. He took some ribbing about it, but he was dead serious. He said he wasn’t going back there without some iron on his side. Now, as Wright and Clark were picking through some bloody clothes in the master bathroom, Creekmore nervously whispered: “Man, if we could just get him outta the house….”

“C’mon Jerry,” J.W. Whitten said, as he walked into the den. “Put some clothes on. Sheriff Sowell wants me to take you away from here.” Jerry Lee rose from the recliner.

Jay and Creekmore had moved into the master bedroom by the time Jerry Lee came in to dress. Ballard also had wandered in, his eyes shifting slowly around the room; he regarded the high, king-size bed, with its four heavy posters and canopy; he glanced at a tray of dirty dishes on the floor, with leavings of streak bones and vegetables, and broken glass on the floor, too, with no large pieces to show where it came from; he noticed the 9-mm pistol Jerry Lee kept on the bed table, and mentally, he tracked the line of fire from Jerry Lee’s expanse of mattress to the bullet holes in the wall.

“It seemed like somehow, we all ended up in the kitchen,” Ballard says. “He was fixin’ to leave. And he was lookin’ for a pair of sunglasses, just lookin’ around for a pair. And then someone went out to the car and brought in a box with what looked to me like twenty-five or thirty pairs of sunglasses. It was the manager, or maybe the manager’s brother, selected a pair and wiped ’em off, cleaned the lenses, you know, doin’ all his thinking for him. And then Jerry Lee stood there, and I can just see him. It was like somebody lookin’ for what kind of reaction he should have. He looked at us and said, ‘Sorry. Sorry. I don’t know what to say.’ He put on his glasses and went on. It was pathetic. If I’ve ever seen a tragic figure, I saw one then.”

As Jerry Lee made for the door, he carried a metal strongbox, two feet by two feet, and almost as deep. Creekmore Wright asked politely if he could check the contents. Jerry Lee reluctantly opened the lid to reveal diamond jewelry, a few papers and tens of thousands of dollars in cash. Creekmore got a look in the box and nodded. Jerry Lee took his hoard and departed in a black Cadillac.


The Killer wore a white tuxedo and a red, ruffled shirt to his wedding on the patio of the big Nesbit house. Shawn shone in ivory-colored silk, and she spoke her vows bravely to Justice of the Peace Bill Bailey, who presided. In the rush, they hadn’t been able to find a preacher to do the honors. (Well, J.W. Whitten found one, but he was black and Jerry might not have liked that, so J.W. got the judge.) In the rush, no one thought about the blood test for the license and the three days’ wait required by Mississippi law, until Lottie Jackson brought it up on the morning of the wedding. For a while, it looked like Jerry Lee would have to pack the whole parry off to Tennessee, where things could be done with less wait and bother. But J.W. fixed the license, too. “I made a phone call,” he says, with evident pride. “Just somebody I knew down there.” J.W. winks. “In the business, it’s called ‘juice.'”

Shelley arrived in Mississippi in the first days of June, driving a brand-new red Corvette that Shawn had asked her to deliver for her.

Shelley’s mother said the family would drive down, too, but Shawn insisted that they spring for one-way air fare. No problem, Shawn said: Jerry Lee could send them home in the Learjet.

When at last they got it together, it didn’t seem to want to start. Shawn’s mother walked down the hall to find out what was keeping Jerry. He was almost ready: He was sitting in the master bedroom with his friend, Dr. George Nichopoulos. Dr. Nick had his medical license suspended in 1980 for overprescribing addictive drugs. He was Elvis’ personal physician on part of the King’s long slide into drug oblivion. Dr. Nick testified at hearings that he also wrote narcotic prescriptions for Jerry Lee Lewis. Dr. Nick was still a frequent guest at the Nesbit house. On the wedding day, Shawn’s mother says, she found Jerry regarding three pairs of pills, laid out neatly on a bed table: two of each, three different colors. Jerry Lee said he’d be up in a moment.

J.W. Whitten had invited the National Enquirer, which supplied this account of the big day, June 7th, 1983:

Despite Jerry’s experience at saying, “I do,” he was a bundle of nerves during the ceremony….And three times the nervous groom flubbed the line “according to God’s holy ordinance.” Eventually, Jerry held up his hand to the judge and said, “Just a minute, sir. I’m going to get that right,” and went on to complete his vows perfectly.

Then he slipped a ring on the finger of the honey-blonde bride….The magnificent $6000 ring glittered with a two-carat diamond surrounded by smaller diamonds, all set in silver.

“Oh, Lord, was I nervous,” laughed the legendary hell-raiser, known to friends and fans as the Killer….

“It was love at first sight,” Jerry recalled. ”I’ve never believed in that sort of thing, but there it was: The Killer fell in love.”

There it was…and Shawn, was it there for her, too?

Well, she clipped the Enquirer’s story and sent it to friends and family. On each copy, she crossed out “$6000” and wrote in the margin, “$7000.”


Her father stood in the hallway shouting: “What’s the deal here? You marry my daughter, then you can’t even come out and see us? Thomas Stephens was steamed; the morning after the wedding, he’d arrived with the rest of the family at the house at eleven. They’d sat outside the locked doors at the pool for more than an hour, before Shawn could emerge from the bedroom to let them in the house. Now, after another hour, Jerry Lee still hadn’t made an appearance.

Jerry Lee showed a half-hour later, with a mumbled apology. He was buzzed. They couldn’t understand him. He wasn’t in a very good mood. “l went into the kitchen,” says Shelley, “and he yelled at me, ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘I just came in for a couple of beers.’ He started pounding his fist on the counter, screaming: ‘You scared of me? You should be. Why do you think they call me the Killer? How’d I get that name, huh?’ Then he slapped my face. I was trying nor to cry. I couldn’t tell my father. Shawn took us to a hotel there, near the airport, and dropped us off.”

The family didn’t have tickets home, and they didn’t have the money to buy them. Gone was the easy promise of the Learjet. Shawn’s mother, Janice Kleinhans, says there weren’t any rental cars available at the airport that day. At last, she had to call Jerry Lee. “I said, ‘I don’t know where this mix-up come from, but if you can get us home, you’ll have this money back right away.'”

Jerry Lee said: “I don’t want no money back from you.” He and Shawn came by a couple of hours later. Shawn was crying as she met her mother in the airport and laid $1000 cash in her hand. Jerry Lee kept the motor running.

In phone calls back to Michigan, Shawn seldom spoke of troubles. Still, at one point, she told a friend chat her life with the Killer was just like jail—she couldn’t stand his jealousy, she felt like she was watched all the time. Once, she called home all excited about her new Lhasa apso—a $500 dog! In her next call, she sadly reported that she had to give up the pet because Jerry Lee got jealous. Later in the seventy-seven-day marriage, most of the calls were about a homecoming, a Jerry Lee concert Sunday, August 28th, in Nashville, Michigan. The family planned to convene—even Shawn’s grandfather, who’d been too infirm to make it to the wedding, was planning to go. “Don’t forget that Sunday,” Shawn reminded them a dozen times.

She couldn’t wait to see her sister Shelley and called in the middle of August to invite her down for a visit. Shelley, who had left her apartment and had to wait a month before moving into her new one, delightedly agreed to a long vacation. “Perfect,” said Shawn. “I’ll send you a ticket.”

Her first night there, they went to Hernando’s Hide-A-Way. Jerry was in a good mood, joking and dancing with Shawn, trying to charm Shelley. When they left at four in the morning, Jerry Lee was still flying. He played some piano back at the house, then put on the cassette of his new, unreleased album. “No one has ever heard any of these before,” the Killer told Shelley and Shawn. When the song “One and Only You” started playing on the tape, Jerry Lee smiled and murmured, “This is dedicated to you.”

He said it to both the sisters, but Shelley felt he was pressuring her. She didn’t want him coming on. She didn’t go for group sex. She said she’d better get to bed. Shawn said: “Oh, stay up a little longer.” Shelley didn’t want to be put on the spot. She said good night and went to bed.

When she got up at two the next afternoon, Jerry Lee was still up, drinking in his den. His sister, Linda Gail, and her children were over at the house for a visit. Shawn and Shelley sat in the sun at the pool until Jerry Lee came out, looking mean and slurring his words. “He said something like, ‘I think you girls better get your shit together,’ and then he hit-me on the thigh and slapped me across the face. Shawn sat up to say something, and he hauled off and backhanded her across the face. He hit her hard, too. Then he just looked at us really crazy and walked off into the house again.

“I just looked at Shawn, and she asked me, ‘Did he hit you hard? Did it hurt?’ I said, ‘You’re damn right it hurt!’ I said, ‘I’m leaving. I don’t care who he is. Nobody can….’ And then I started to cry. ‘He can’t hit me like that….’ I said I was going to the police.

“Shawn said It wouldn’t be a good idea to go to the police down there, because they were with Jerry, and they’d be trying to find a way to get me for trying to cause trouble for him. So I just said I was going. I was really upset. And she said, ‘Just wait a little, Shel, ’cause I’m leaving, too. I’m not staying if you don’t. I know what he’ll do to me if I go back in that house.’ I said, ‘Get your stuff, ’cause I’m leaving, with you or without you.'”

They passed through the den on their way in, and Shelley said, trying not to cry, “I think I’m going to go now.”

Jerry Lee said, “Go. Get your ass outta here. Get walkin’.” He mumbled something about her being trouble.

“Then Shawn said, ‘Shelley’s been as quiet as a mouse since she’s been here.’ Jerry didn’t hear her. She was over by the record shelf He started yelling: ‘Speak up! Whaddya say about me?’ He grabbed some albums out from under her hands, and he smashed them on the floor. Then he knocked her across the room. Linda Gail grabbed up her two kids and left.

“Shawn was, like, whimpering: ‘You’re so mean. What’s wrong with you?’ She was sunk down into the big brown chair. He picked up a set of keys and whipped ’em at her, hit her in the forehead. She bent down to get the keys, and she told him: ‘I’m leavin’ with Shel. I’m not stayin’ here with you.’ So he tells her, ‘I’ll show ya leavin’. He grabs her by the front of her robe, and he hauls her off down the hall. He says, ‘You’re my wife. I’ll kill you before you leave me.'”

Shelley left the house on foot. She hitched a ride to the nearest store and called her father.

Back in Detroit, Shelley called her mother to recount the fight, but she omitted any mention of group sex. “Well, there may be things you didn’t know about,” her mother said. “Maybe she was making him mad somehow. There’s two sides to everything. One night, when you’re over here, we’ll call her together and all talk about lt.” But before they made that call, Shawn wakened her mother with a phone call at 3:30 a.m., August 23rd.

“She said, ‘I’m leaving him:” her mother recalls, “‘if and when I can get away from him….’

“I said, ‘Shawn, it’s three o’clock in the morning. Call me tomorrow.’

“She said, ‘I don’t know if l can. Whatever you do, make sure nobody calls for me here.’

“‘Honey, call me tomorrow, okay?’

“‘I don’t know if I can, but I’ll be in touch, Mom.’

“‘Okay, talk to you later….'”

The next day, Shawn was dead.


In the quiet house, after Jerry Lee left, Jay Clark and Creekmore Wright, Sheriff Sowell and Bill Ballard drafted a report for Dr. Francisco, who’d requested a description of the scene. Jay Clark did the writing. Jay and Creekmore did the talking, since they were the ones who’d seen the body. Later, Ballard would seem very upset when the funeral director, Danny Phillips, fed the statement to reporters. Ballard needn’t have worried; the description they drafted was mild enough:

Ambulance arrived on the seen approx. 12:52 p.m. Victim was located in front bedroom lying in the bed with cover up to neck. The bed was very neat and did not appear to have been slept in.

There was by visual inspection blood, or what appeared to be blood, on the web of the left hand. There were also bruises on the lower left arm and the upper right thigh. Victim was clothed in a blue nightgown. There were no other items near the victim’s body. . . .

They decided that should wrap it up.

By that time, they knew about the blood on Jerry Lee’s robe and on his slippers. They knew, or had reason to assume, that the body was moved to the guest bed and reclothed in the nightgown. They knew someone had tried to clean up the house after a disturbance. They saw bloody clothes in the bathroom, blood in a rivulet on a door, blood in a spot on the carpet; they could see a bloody piece of gauze on a cabinet in the billiard room where they were writing the report. Why did they omit these facts? “It wasn’t my report,” says Ballard. “I was just watching.” None of the others will talk, including Lottie.

Ballard and Sowell left for the Brantley-Phillips funeral home to attach the report to Shawn’s body for the trip to the morgue in Memphis. On the way out, Sowell paused to tell the reporters that Jerry Lee had been wakened just after noon, by the drapers from Goldsmith’s. Jerry Lee talked with them and then told Lottie Jackson to go wake up Shawn. Sowell declined to offer a theory on the cause of Shawn Lewis’ death. The sheriff said a search had turned up no nonprescription drugs, and no unusual amounts of prescription medicines.

In the big brick house fifty feet away, state investigators and crime lab technicians would work for another full day, collecting enough drugs to fill three single-spaced pages on a crime-lab list, and at least one hypodermic syringe. There was no way to tell if they were illegal drugs or prescription medicines: The job of analysis wasn’t finished for months, and the job wasn’t even started when Bill Ballard and a county grand jury wrapped up the case with a pronouncement that no crime had occurred.

Fifteen miles north, in Memphis, the Killer was resting at the house of J.W. Whitten, who told reporters that Jerry Lee wouldn’t be able to come to the phone: He was “in shock” and “heavily sedated.” But Jerry Lee soon made it to the phone: That evening he would call Shawn’s mother; he would calk to Shawn’s sister Denise. He would call Hernando’s Hide- A-Way, in a late-night search for hypodermic needles. A witness said the Killer asked, “You got any rigs? Goddamn cops cleaned me out.”

In the county sear of Hernando, at the Brantley-Phillips Funeral Home, the morticians, Danny Phillips and his father, John Phillips, had time for a good look at the corpse. It was Danny, the independent-minded thirty-year old, who first released the description that Jay Clark and Creekmore Wright had written up. It was Danny who first reported that Shawn Lewis had traces of blood in her hair, and under her broken fingernails. It was Danny who told reporters that the bruises on Shawn Lewis’ arm had fingernail indentations above them, showing that someone had grabbed her roughly. Danny told reporters, too, that her neck had discoloration. Perhaps someone had exerted pressure there. Bill Ballard came down hard on Danny for releasing the description of the body, and John Phillips had a talk with his son about the firm’s reputation and their “stake in this community.” So Danny grew more careful when he talked about Shawn Lewis. But he wasn’t going to shut up altogether:

“It’s like Charlie Ward said—he drove the ambulance that day, you know. He brought her from the house, and he was standin’ right here, and he said: ‘You know, somethin’ don’t seem right.’

“I’d never say Jerry Lee killed that girl,” Danny says, when he gets going on it. “It might be innocent as a train wreck. But I’d like to see it investigated. To me, I just can’t believe that girl just got to that bed and lay down and died. You just can’t make me believe it.”


“Jan? This is Pam’s friend…” Shawn’s mother had just gotten home from work. It was six p.m., August 24th. “…I called to tell you that Shawn didn’t wake up this morning.”

Shawn’s mother screamed and dropped the phone. Her husband, Robert Kleinhans, took the receiver and the scant information Pam could supply.

In the little Garden City house, the rest of the night was spent on the phone, calling relatives, the funeral home, Sheriff Sowell, Dr. Jerry Francisco, Bill Ballard, the funeral home, then a lawyer nearby in Michigan, then the funeral home again.

Sowell told Mr. and Mrs. Kleinhans to direct all inquiries to Ballard. Francisco called back the next morning to say: “If you’ve got any further communication, call Sheriff Sowell.” Danny Phillips, at the funeral home, told Shawn’s mother how the body looked when he carted it up to Memphis. It flashed on Mrs. Kleinhans that her daughter would be cut up and buried before she could even see her. “But I told her,” Danny remembers, “there wasn’t anything she could do about it, because It was private. It wasn’t DeSoto County orderin’ the autopsy.”

Mrs. Kleinhans called Bill Ballard, protesting the quick autopsy. She was too late, he told her. The autopsy was under way. Later, he recalled that he must have misspoken; the autopsy wasn’t begun until the next day. Shawn’s mother might have stopped it, or at least held It up. But she didn’t find out in time.

Mrs. Kleinhans picked up the phone again just after nine p.m. “This is Jerry,” she heard, and her breath caught. She says Jerry Lee told her: “I can’t understand why this happened, we were gettin’ along so well.”

“I said, ‘Wait a minute, Jerry. I know different. Shelley told me about the fight when you slapped them and dragged Shawn off to me bedroom…’

“He said, ‘I mighta slapped ’em, but I never drug Shawn off anywhere.’

“‘Well, that’s not what I heard.’

“‘Well, how would you like to wake up with your wife dead next to you?'”

Mrs. Kleinhans stared at the phone for a second. She answered with a quake in her voice: “They told me she was in another room.”

She says Jerry Lee snarled back, “Well, she’s dead. And I’m alive.”

Shawn’s mother says: “I didn’t know what, I couldn’t…I just told him, ‘I don’t think I want to continue this,’ and hung up. I didn’t know what to think.”

A girlfriend of Shawn’s put the family in touch with a lawyer, Michael Blake, who runs a plain-spoken practice, mostly drunk-driving and negligence cases, from a small office in a shopping mall a few miles from Garden City. He knew that the family couldn’t pay much; that was always Blake’s first question. But he thought he might bulldog the case for a while and find a wedge for a lawsuit. He, too, started calling Mississippi.

The night was nearly over when Blake got a call back from Jay Clark, who agreed to take statements from Shawn’s mother and sister. Blake also got through to Ballard, who promised, calmly, evenly—one legal man to another—to keep Blake fully apprised.

Just before midnight, Denise spoke to Jerry Lee for the last time. His speech was slurred. She could barely understand him: “‘Jesus Christ, Jerry, what happened?’

‘”Denise sisser’s daid an’ she ‘uz a bad girl.’

“‘What? What do you mean? Jerry! What do you mean?’

“‘Sheuzza baggirl. . . anshe daid. . . .’

Jerry mumbled on until Denise thought she would cry, then she hung up.


“No foul play,” Francisco reported to Ballard early the next day. “It’s pulmonary edema. Fluid in the lungs. Due to causes unknown.”

Ballard says: “He told me it was consistent with a drug overdose, but he said it’d be some time before all the drug scans would be completed.

“I asked him, ‘What’s your impression from what you’ve been able to do? Foul play doesn’t seem likely?’

“He said, ‘No likely about it. There is no indication of foul play.'”

Francisco’s chipper certainty took a weight off Ballard. The Memphis medical examiner might have looked like a fool or a liar in the Elvis Presley case; he had also been criticized by a congressional committee reviewing the autopsy of Martin Luther King Jr. Ballard knew the stories, but he knew Francisco couldn’t be shaken.

“He’s very good that way. He doesn’t talk down to a jury. he likes to tell you exactly what it is, and he likes to defend his position. Lawyers know with Francisco: Unless you can rake him apart, you don’t even question him in front of a jury. If he gets annoyed, he’s going to drive the nails right into your coffin.”

Francisco got Shawn’s body out of the lab within hours, back to the funeral home in Hernando. The embalming had to be hurried. The body was due in Jerry Lee Lewis country, Ferriday, Louisiana, Friday night. And Shawn had better look good.

The technicians from the state crime lab headed back toward Batesville, Mississippi, with their van full of stuff from the house on Malone Road. The state investigators, Jay Clark and Creekmore Wright, were out at the house again Thursday, but they assured all comers they had a good work-up on the scene; It should be smooth sailing from that point.

Sheriff Sowell also said he already had most of the mystery cleared up. In the days ahead, Sowell would release his account of the Shawn Lewis death. The Memphis metropolitan daily, the aptly named Commercial Appeal, took a swan dive on the story. The Hernando weekly, the DeSoto Times, was first and fullest with Sowell’s best stuff.

Sherriff Sowell said, “Jerry Lee had cut his finger on some glass,” and that this was probably responsible for the blood on Shawn Lewis’ hand. The bruises were described by Sowell as superficial, the kind that anybody might have. “She had been up during the day,” noted Sowell in explanation of how she might have lain down on a neat bed. Sowell noted that there was nothing to indicate that anybody had been attacked. “There were no marks of any violence.”

AIthough Sowell said he did not know when the autopsy would be completed, he did not see that there was any emergency now, since the autopsy had removed much of the urgency: “A lot of questions have been answered at this time.”

This sanguine confidence would last for a week, until the Detroit Free Press interviewed Shawn’s family, and the threats, abuse and violence of the marriage became public for the first time.


Shawn’s family bought round-trip tickets to Memphis and got to the funeral home in Hernando for the viewing late Friday afternoon. Thomas Stephens, Shawn’s father, a Catholic, requested some privacy with the body so he could recite the rosary for Shawn. Danny Phillips wasn’t taking chances. He called J.W. Whitten for permission, then fetched the local priest. When the prayers were said, Shawn’s father tucked a cross into her folded hands, and the casket was closed for the trip to Ferriday. Jerry Lee didn’t come to the viewing.

Shawn’s casket was opened for another viewing at one a.m. in Ferriday’s Comer Funeral Home. This time, the Killer came to look, and he said she wasn’t exactly right, something about the hair. Danny Phillips says they told him it never comes right after they open up the head for an autopsy. “Well, she was a pretty girl and I loved her,” Jerry Lee said. Then he saw the cross. “What’s that doin’ in there?”

The Ferriday funeral director said: “That is a symbol of the Catholic faith.” Jerry Lee took the cross from her hands. He was mad.

“How’d that get in there?” Danny Phillips told him about the family’s private prayer in Hernando. “‘That wasn’t right,” Jerry Lee said. He turned to J.W. Whitten, pointing: “You fucked up.”

J.W. protested: “I didn’t tell ’em to do it.”

The Killer waggled a finger between Whitten and Phillips:

“You fucked up. And you fucked up.” He ordered the casket dosed. There’d be no viewing that night.

The funeral went off at 2:30 Saturday. Some of Jerry Lee’s kin played piano and sang hymns from the front of the church. Jerry Lee’s cousin, Gerald, spoke the oration. It was all about Jerry Lee’s troubles. It slowly dawned on Shawn’s family, sitting in their third-row pew, that they were the only strangers in the Assembly of God church. This was Jerry Lee’s service. No one would say anything about Shawn. lt started to sink in on Shawn’s mother after the hymns, about ten minutes into the service, when Jerry Lee walked into the church and everything paused while he made his way up to the front pew. The Killer wore a white tuxedo and a red ruffled shirt.

Shawn was buried in the Lewis family graveyard, where Jerry Lee had played as a child. The Yankee strangers left as soon as they could. They barely talked on the long ride north to Memphis and the airport. They didn’t even pause in DeSoto County. There was nothing for them there.

The Killer, too, barely paused in DeSoto County. The next night, he was back in Memphis, back at Hernando’s Hide-A- Way, with two girls at his side; one witness said they were dancers from a strip joint called Gigi’s Angels. The Killer was singing through a lopsided grin; he was making up a little ditty as he moved to his table: “Ah tol’ her when she lef’ me. . .Ah’d have anothuh in her bed. . . .”


Interview: James Albert Riley, sheriff-to-be. He sat before a wall full of badges, in a big swivel chair, his bovine features set in mistrustful concentration. It was midnight, and no one except his campaign manager, David Camp, was in the sheriff’s office to hear him. Big Dog had picked the time.

A: I’ma tell ya the truth now…Jerry Lee Lewis don’ mean shit to me. I don’t even know ‘im.

A: Now, shit. I know y’all come to tie me up in this Jerry Lee Lewis shit….Now I’ll be straight with y’all now, I don’t know if Jerry Lee even knew about those checks. Shit. I’ll tell you this is gonna cost me the sheriff’s election. I don’t even know ‘im.

A: Now what the hell does Hernando’s Hide-A-Way have to do with anythin’? [Riley rocketed back in his chair, hit the wall, staring. He didn’t speak for a minute. His elbow started hammering on the padded arm of the chair.]

A: I’ll be hones’ with y’all, now. B’lieve it or not, Jerry Lee hardly even talked to me…I was only up oncet, aw, twicet, to Hernando’s….

A: I don’ know a damn thing about gamblin’ machines.

A: Now I don’t know shit about drugs. They couldn’t stack enough money in this room to make me put that stuff in my body.

A: You work an’ bust your ass and you try to be straight, and where the hell does it get you? It gets you in a damn magazine with this Jerry Lee Lewis shit to fuck up your whole damn life. Now, y’all got a man’s life in your hands! l’ll be hones’ with y’all now….


Interview: Roger Jones, County Coroner. He tucked at the waist carefully, to slide the solid slab of his chest behind a Formica table at Coleman’s Barbecue; he folded before him two hands the size of good dictionaries. “Them hands for pullin’ cow tits,” he said. He wasn’t always a coroner. He was a deputy sheriff. Meant to be sheriff someday, too.

Q: You signed the death certificate, but you never saw the body?

A: Well, in this case, an autopsy was performed by Dr. Jerry Francisco. So I just put on the certificate, “See autopsy.”

A: See, what I do, normally, is I get six people, bring ’em to where the body’s at. We investigate….Now, strange deaths, you know, twenty-five-, twenty-six-year-old people, bruises on the body, something like that, that’s a strange death. There’s no reason a twenty-five-, twenty-six-year-old person should be dead. But unless you have an autopsy, you can’t determine no cause of death….That takes the pressure offa everybody.

A: The death certificate signed, that don’t mean nothin’. Death certificate just shows the people dead.

A: No, I never done it like this before.

A: I’m still in the dark. Far as I know, there was two people there—him and her. You gotta ask him or her. Hell, no witnesses, nothin’. You gotta take a man at his word.

A: Well, I asked Bill Ballard. I tol’ him, I said, “I can’t sign the death certificate without a coroner’s inquest.” So he called down to Jackson, and he call me back, tol’ me: “Here’s how you could do it. You just say, ‘See autopsy?’ So that’s what I did.

A: No, I didn’t see it. Tuesday, I took the certificate over to Ballard. He showed me some paper, showed me he was gonna clip it together. He said, “You want me to send it for you?” I said, “That’d be fine.”


[Photo Credit: Jim Herrington]

J.W. Whitten squeezed the sleep from his eyes. He slowly adjusted to the afternoon sunlight filtering into his Memphis house. His little dogs greeted him, yapping and licking, climbing up the front of his bathrobe. J.W. said he wanted the dogs’ names in the story. They are Nickie and Kai.

Then J.W. got right to business: “I can see how her family’d be concerned. But they’re tryin’ to make Jerry into some kind of scapegoat or somethin’. You know they just liked the money. Some of the family’s constantly poppin’ in and out . One time they all of’ em came down and they went to the airport, called up, and they didn’t even have no money to get home. I told him, ‘Jerry, tell ’em all to get me hell out. You married Shawn, not all the rest of ’em.

“It’s my opinion this Shelley came around, an’ every time she’d come around, she’d cause trouble. She was connivin’. She’d always have Shawn off to the side, talkin’. Jerry’d think they were talkin’ about him. I’d tell him, ‘Those Yankee people ain’t the same as us. They don’t mean nothin’ by it.’…But if it wasn’t for the family, none of this woulda ever happened.”

J.W. Whitten has been taking care of the Killer’s business for twelve years. He got with him just by hanging around, being the biggest Jerry Lee fan in town. J.W. likes to tell how he and his daddy were riding in a pickup, down a farm road of Tennessee dirt one day in 1957, when the radio started playing “Great Balls of Fire.” J.W.s daddy told him: “Now, son, there’s your real talent.” J.W. never forgot.

Now, Jerry Lee is his life. On tour 200 days a year, it’s Jerry, twenty-four hours a day. J.W. writes all the checks. He confides, with something like pride, that the feds are planning to indict him, along with Jerry, on a tax charge. When J.W. talked of Shawn’s death, his story was Jerry’s, his reactions were Jerry’s, his feelings….

“No, it was really a shock. But, you know, you stumble into the bathroom, you know, take some pills, it’s easy to make a mistake. Hell, if you don’t know what you’re doing…

“No, they were just talkin’, watchin’ TV. She went to the bathroom. She said, ‘I took some sleepin’ pills.’ He said, ‘Well, how many? You didn’t take too many, or I’m gonna call the ambulance.’ She said, ‘No, It wasn’t that many.’

“People come out to hang the drapes, wake him up. That’s when he tried to wake her up because it was her project. That’s a woman’s job. He noticed her lips were blue. He couldn’t wake her. He smashed the wall with his hand. Cut his thumb. That’s where the blood come from. He walked her up and down the hall, carryin’ her, shakin’ her. Finally laid her on the other bed. That’s how she got to the other bed, see? She had that gown on….Called out to Lottie: ‘Lottie, I can’t get Shawn awake. Call the ambulance.'”

Lottie called J.W., too. He was at the gate in twenty minutes. A couple of hours later, Sheriff Sowell called him into the house, told him about the autopsy plan.

“No, Jerry picked him. Jerry wanted the autopsy and he wanted it in Memphis. He just wanted the best, and Francisco is the best in this part of the country. Sure, it cost us. I can tell you, $2800, but Jerry wanted the best.

“The sheriffs? Number one, as far as I’m concerned. They did their job, but they were very, very nice. Very understanding. Very sympathetic.

“Yeah, I gave the money for the campaign. Now, understand, now. I gave those contributions, but I did it for Jerry, of course. It was just my concern for Jerry, livin’ there and wantin’ the best man for sheriff.

“Well, a friend of mine in Memphis told me he was the best man in the race….No, not one particular friend….Oh, yeah, I checked it out and felt he was the best qualified.”

J.W. said Jerry Lee spent two days “in shock…right in this livin’ room, right where you’re sittin’…We talked, watched some TV, mostly talked. You know. things goin’ on, or business, workin’, things like that. He’d try to stray from the subject of death. He was tryin’ to push the death away from him.

“He’s the greatest,” J.W. said. “He’II come back from this. The first two days, you could tell he was really bothered, but after that, he got it together….”

J.W. picked up one of his dogs. “He talked to Nickie, didn’t he?” he goo-gooed in the dog’s little face. “You talked to the Killer, dincha, dincha?

“Put the dogs in the story, man. Nickie and Kai. They were very understanding. Jerry couldn’t believe how they sympathized with him.

“But you understand, Kai, doncha, doncha?”


Ballard said he’d take the case to the grand jury, just to allay all the doubt. “I’ve tried to make it clear,” he said, “that the only reason for the grand-jury inquiry is to try to dispel some of the suspicion. There is still no indication of foul play.”

With the drug scans after the autopsy, Francisco found what he sought. He phoned Ballard with glad tidings: fluid in the lungs resulted from an overdose of methadone, the synthetic narcotic most commonly used to wean junkies off heroin. Ballard had the cornerstone of his case: a precise and non-violent cause of death. It might have been a suicide, or an accident. It didn’t matter which. As long as it wasn’t a killing.

Ballard put out the news: AUTOPSY LINKS SHAWN LEWIS’ DEATH TO METHADONE, the headlines said. And for the evening paper: LEWIS’ WIFE KILLED HERSELF, OFFICIAL FEELS. Ballard later said his quote—”I believe it was suicide. She was no stranger to drugs…”—was supposed to be off the record.

He still didn’t have a written autopsy report. (He said he didn’t want to rush Francisco.) But Ballard and Jay Clark went to the morgue in Memphis for a meeting. As a courtesy, they took along Jimmy Radford, the district attorney’s investigator, although It was pretty clear there wasn’t going to be any prosecution. Francisco insisted at the meeting that Shawn herself must have taken the methadone. He said he could find ”no mechanism” by which it could have been forced on her.

“No indication of foul play,” Ballard told the Commercial Appeal that evening.” I think we made a thorough investigation of this case and nothing has pointed to homicide.”

How thorough?

There were basic forensic procedures incomplete:

There were drugs by the scoopful in the big brick house on Malone Road. No one knew which drugs Shawn used, or even what all the drugs were. The Mississippi state crime lab did not finish the testing for months. The tests were nowhere near complete by the time the case went to the grand jury.

There was blood on Shawn, blood on Jerry Lee’s robe and slippers, blood on a door, on the carpet, on a lamp, on gauze, on a towel, on bedding, on Shawn’s clothes found in the bathroom….No one knew whose blood It was. Once again, the crime lab did not finish the tests for months.

There was evidence still accruing from the investigation:

Jay Clark had gotten to the drapers from Goldsmith’s. They told him they never talked to Jerry Lee. Instead, they’d stood outside the house knocking for a half-hour. It was Lottie who tried to let them in, when she drove up at about 12:20. As she fiddled with her key in the lock, the Killer opened the door from within. Lottie went to the master bedroom to wake Shawn. Then Lottie came back and told the crew chief from Goldsmith’s: “I have something I have to take care of right now. Why don’t you wait in the den?” Lottie and the Killer were closeted in the master bedroom for a half-hour before the ambulance came, and for about fifteen minutes before the ambulance was called. What did Lottie find in the bedroom? And what was going on in the house while the drapers were stuck outside?

Jay Clark also found two girls Jerry Lee had picked up at Hernando’s Hide-A-Way three nights before Shawn’s death. After dawn, according to one of the girls’ statements, the Killer took them to his house for group sex with Shawn; it led to an argument. The girls ran out of the house across Malone Road and begged the neighbors to take them to Memphis. Did Shawn also try to escape?

There was evidence that the investigators didn’t turn up, or didn’t want to know:

For example, the married couple who rode the girls back to Memphis tried to deny the incident when a couple of reporters showed up at their door. Although they’d complained about the Killer for years, on this occasion. they launched into a loud panegyric on his neighborly virtues. When the reporters mentioned that the incident was covered in the investigative reports. the husband started snarling, “Thassa buncha shit.” Angrily, he dialed the sheriff’s office. asked by name for Deputy McCauley and shouted: “It ain’t s’posed to be in there. I never signed anythin’ like that!” Did McCauley cut some deal with the neighbors?

A night before Shawn died. Jerry Lee was spotted sitting alone in his Cadillac. stuck in a ditch off the exit ramp of the freeway leading to Memphis. The sheriff’s office was called; two deputies arrived at the scene. (The Killer ordered the deputies to fetch his tow-truck man, David Camp, campaign manager to James Albert Riley.) When Jerry Lee was taken home and his car was towed from the ditch, the deputies forgot to administer a test for intoxication. The incident was not recorded in the sheriff’s department logs. “I knew not to log it or nothin’,” said the dispatcher, John Crawford. “When I heard it was Jerry Lee Lewis, I knew is was just a community service.”

That same night, after Shawn called her mother to announce she was leaving Jerry Lee, she made another call, which Ballard & Co. might have known about if they’d pulled the Killer’s telephone bills. In Michigan, Scott’s sister was wakened by the call from Shawn. who asked about Scott: Did he still love her? She asked Scott’s sister to meet her, alone, at Jerry Lee’s August 28th concert in Nashville, Michigan. Shawn asked about seven times: You’re going to come now, aren’t you?” Shawn said she’d call back the next day to make sure about the meeting. She was in midsentence when the phone went dead. Was that the call of a woman planning suicide? And who cut the line?

Certainly, there was a fight at the Jerry Lee Lewis house on the night the Killer’s young bride died. And certainly, evidence was altered. Broken glass was still on the floor, but the big pieces had been removed. Shawn’s garments, with substantial bloodstains, were found stuffed in a paper sack in the master bathroom. Who tried to clean her up? Who reclothed her in the negligee? How did she get to the guest bedroom? Who stripped the sheets and pillowcases in the master bedroom?

Lottie Jackson stripped those sheers. Shortly after he took control of the scene, McCauley found her locked in the master bedroom. He knocked and she wouldn’t respond. He called, and still she wouldn’t open up. Lottie finally came to the door, and McCauley saw the cleanup in progress. McCauley revealed that episode in a “supplemental” report, dated nearly a month after the grand-jury verdict.

But no one needed more reports to shatter the Killers fragile story. lf Shawn went to bed after a quiet night, how did she get dirty? lf he shook her and dragged her up and down the long hall, why didn’t her feet show the contact with the carpet? lf he laid her atop the guest bed when he could carry her and shake her no longer, how did she get under the covers? Why did he say he sent Lottie there to wake her? Why did he say he’d just woken up?

Why would a stripped woman, “no pansy,” scheme to leave her husband, call for news of an ex-lover, make elaborate plans to meet family and friends, promise to telephone them soon…and the next day give it up and kill herself?

Or how did a canny twenty-five-year-old, “no stranger to drugs,” a woman who knew what sleeping pills were, who had used them one at a time with success, grow so careless as to swallow what Francisco described as “ten to twenty tablets” of a drug she’d never been known to use?

How did Shawn Lewis die?

“We may never have an entirely logical sequence,” Ballard said, very quietly, almost sadly, two days before the grand jury met. “You have to get your scenario of what happened and why. And sometimes, the why just lingers sometimes.”

But now he had a ten-page report from Francisco. He had his cause of death. He had an expert who’d testify surely that it was an accident, or suicide.

Ballard brightened: “I think that as time passes, I’ll feel better knowing that we let a grand jury see everything we had….The last thing I want to do is have anybody think I was putting a lid on this thing.”


The grand jury met for about three hours. The only witnesses were McCauley, Clark and Francisco. Ballard Francisco. Ballard had Lottie Jackson and the ambulance crew “on standby,” in case the jury wanted them. It didn’t. Jerry Lee wasn’t even on standby.

Ballard wouldn’t say what evidence was presented. The only witness to comment was Francisco, who brushed past reporters on the way out, after forty-five minutes in the jury room—the entire afternoon session. Francisco was asked to characterize his testimony.

“Painless,” he said.

Michael Blake, the Detroit lawyer, came down to witness the jury process. He wasn’t allowed to, so he spent his time in the courthouse records. He soon learned It wouldn’t be worth the time or trouble to sue Jerry Lee. The Killer already had a half-million dollars in judgments against him, and none of the plaintiffs could collect. They couldn’t even reach his possessions, because the IRS already had two liens on the house and its contents.

Blake did get from Ballard a copy of the autopsy which he showed to a medical examiner back in Detroit. “It seems incomplete,” said the examiner, Greg Kauffman. “It simply does nor answer a lot of questions—questions that should have come up.” He said: “Pulmonary edema is a totally nonspecific finding. It could be caused by a drug overdose, or it could be caused by drowning, strangulation, suffocation, asphyxiation, by trauma to the head or other parts of the body. “These possibilities can be tested, but the tests were either nor performed or nor reported.

Francisco’s autopsy does not even list the bruises and bloodstains evident to untrained eyes. There is no analysis of the blood observed on Shawn’s body. There is no mention of the bruises on her arm and hip. There’s no mention of the condition of her fingernails, nor analysis of the blood that appeared to be clotted beneath them.

There is no mention of any residue of the tablets that Shawn is supposed to have taken. “If they were ten-milligram tablets, she would have taken ten to twenty of them,” Ballard quoted Francisco. Bur the Killer’s prescription for methadone specified five-milligram tablets. Did Shawn gulp twenty to forty pills? And was there nothing left of them?

Francisco’s report shows only: “The stomach contents measures 725 cc’s.” That is a tremendous amount to find in a slender woman’s stomach. But the autopsy doesn’t say what It is. Could it be lake water or swimming-pool water gulped in extremis? Impossible to know. Could it be just a big dinner, or liquid that she drank herself? Once again, hard to say. But methadone hits the bloodstream within a half-hour of oral ingestion. It peaks at four hours. How could Shawn eat a big meal when she should have been already comatose? Or did the methadone enter her body with the meal? It would be soluble in liquids. Once again, Impossible to know. There was a tray of food remains visible in the master bedroom, but collection and analysts of the food seems to have been neglected.

Or could the methadone have entered via some route other than her mouth and her stomach, perhaps after she’d eaten? “Come to think of it,” says Danny Phillips, the funeral director, “it looked like there was a hypodermic mark on the inside of her right arm, just under the armpit. I’m sure of that. l’d hate to say it was a hypodermic mark, but It looked like a puncture wound.” Francisco’s autopsy notes: “There are two small abrasions on the anterior aspect of the right arm, adjacent to the arm pit measuring three millimeters in diameter each.” There is no further description of the “abrasions.”

There was at least one hypodermic picked up at the house that day. By January, Ballard said he still didn’t have an analysis of traces in the syringe. Ballard said he wasn’t qualified to discuss omissions or questions from the autopsy. Sowell refused to discuss any aspect of the case (although in a carefully worded leak to the Commercial Appeal, Sowell admitted that the private, out-of-state autopsy was illegal). And Francisco refused repeated calls for more information about his report. “Fran­cisco may be taking the position that I find myself in,” said Ballard. “When you don’t have a homicide, you don’t have an investigation, and when you don’t have an investigation, what right do I have to release information?”

On the day the grand jury met, Ballard refused to release the autopsy, “at the family’s request….” He meant husband Jerry Lee Lewis. Ballard refused to release investigative reports. “No sir, no reason. I just don’t make snap decisions like that.” He said no record of testimony was taken. The witnesses and jurors were sworn to silence.

To reporters who filled his office, Ballard announced that afternoon: “The grand jury was of the opinion of no probable cause of a crime being committed. There was still no indication of foul play….I don’t think the jury missed anything.”

Does that mean that he and the jury came to know how Shawn Lewis died?

Ballard came forward at his desk. His words grew more pronounced and even rose a notch in volume. “What ii still comes down to is there is no reason to suspect foul play. And whether I know what happened in the last twelve hours or the last two days before the death of Shawn Lewis, there is…still…no…reason…to…suspect…foul…play.”

Ballard serried back in his seat.

“That’s it, as far as I’m concerned.”


The Killer had a party at Hernando’s Hide-a-Way to celebrate his forty-eighth birthday. It was four days after the grand-jury session. Jerry Lee’s friends were happy.

They convened at about nine—record producers and independent truckers, ex-girlfriends of singers, Memphis matrons and off-duty cops, all bunching up at the door, flashing their printed invitations at a big black man in leather, whose eyes drifted unhurriedly from their faces, over their clothes to their shoes, with a detour toward the left armpit for men who might be packing guns.

Inside, the best tables went fast, staked out with bourbon bottles clumped in the center of the tablecloths. Late arrivals had to stand along the walls, leaning against the juke box or the poker machines. The men did a lot of back-pounding. Their women stood by, posing. There was a man in a suit and a smile, pounding every back and shaking the ladies’ hands. A campaign button on his lapel showed him in a smile and a suit, and advertised his name and lever. Owner Kenny Rodgers slid through the swelling crowd.

The noise from the crowd barely diminished as an inaudible introduction gave way to a wobbly country song by Webb Pierce, another Louisiana hell-raiser who was singing hits while Jerry Lee Lewis was learning to shave in Ferriday. Now nearly sixty, a drinker, thirty years past his prime, Pierce finished his song, and the crowd gave him a big hand for who he used to be. Pierce bowed and beamed like they meant it. Funny how they just don’t know.

And then he was there! Kenny Rodgers got up on the stage, took a mike and announced with wheezy emotion: “He’s here, folks. Here is Jerra. Jerra, you’re still the greatess. Ain’ nobody to touch ya.” The crowd cheered and whooped for Jerry Lee, who raised a hand and pulled his face in a taut grin.

They had a long table for him, set up to one side of the dance floor: a pile of gifts and a forest of bottles. Jerry drank from a glass of whiskey. Everybody tried to crowd around to the back of the table, to shake his hand, kiss him or whisper something. Jerry didn’t know most of them—especially the women, who bullied their way to the spot just behind him. One girl in a loose flowered shirt left her seat for a fifteen-minute struggle to Jerry Lee’s right ear. She whispered something and he answered, and she worked her way back through the crowd, beaming. “I told him, ‘You know, I came all the way from Kentucky to see you.’ And he said, ‘Oh, did you?’ That was all I had time for, cause Blondie next to him was goosin’ me.”

There was Blondie on has right and a lovely ltalianate brunette on the other side. There were a half-dozen other young women ringing the table. They took turns pouring or talking for him, if no one had his ear. Jerry Lee looked, without change of expression, from one to the other, as if they were so many TV sets. The lnstamatic flashes etched cruel skeletal shadows on his sagging face. The flesh seemed to have worn away with the millions of miles, millions of photos, millions of whispers. His eyes stared, flat black spots, unmoving, unblinking, giving out nothing. Now the Killer reached over toward the pile of gifts, lifted a gold paper crown and put it on his head. The flashes started popping off like crazy. The King was all bones and coal eyes under the shiny gold headband. The girls at the table all threw their heads back, threw their faces into bright young smiles…Oh, Jerry! Oh, Killer!

“It’s just some friends of ours, you know, some girls I put there, just to talk to him, you know,” J.W. Whitten said, looking on in approval, hovering at a corner of the dance floor. “Yeah, some of ’em he knows, some of ’em he don’t.” The dark-haired beauty at Jerry Lee’s left had her hands on his cheek and chin, her face right behind them. She was wiping lipstick off him. Kenny Rodgers was at the mike: “Folks, the mos’ greates’ ennataina in the worl’…y’all know him, so less givem a big han’….” Jerry Lee stood stiffly to work his way to his piano. He was holding up a hand, smiling, acknowledging cheers.

“Yeah, he looks good, don’t he?” J.W. said. “He’s okay now. That’s all over. You know the grand-jury vote? Sure I got it. Was 14-2, or somethin’, only two against us.

“Listen,” J.W. said, and he even turned away from the stage for a moment. They’ll never bust him in DeSoto County. That’s like bustin’ Elvis in Memphis. Never. Never. And you can quote me on that.”


The Banter Gold Standard: Furry’s Blues

“By now there must be in the world a million guitar virtuosos; but there are very few real blues players. The reason for this is that the blues–not the form but the blues–demands such dedication. This dedication lies beyond technique; it makes being a blues player something like being a priest. Virtuosity in playing blues licks is like virtuosity in celebrating the Mass, it is empty, it means nothing. Skill–competence–is a necessity, but a true blues player’s virtue lies in his acceptance of his life, a life for which he is only partly responsible.”–Stanley Booth, 1968

Another gem from Mr. Booth. Originally published in Playboy (1970) it appears here with the author’s permission.

“Furry’s Blues”

By Stanley Booth

When we cam into the alley, the children stopped playing. They stood poised, watching us. There were two-story brick buildings on both sides, with wooden stairways that shut out all but a thin blue strip of sky. Filthy rags and broken bottles lay on the concrete pavement. There were women sitting on the doorsteps, some of them together, talking, but most of them alone, sitting still, ignoring the heat and the buzzing flies.

“How are you?” Charley Brown spoke to one of them.

“I ain’t doin’ no good,” she said. She did not look up. The children’s gaze followed us as we walked on. The women talking would stop as we came near and then, as we went past, would start again.

Close by, a fat woman was holding a small brown-and-white dog to her bosom. “What you got there?” Charley asked her.

“Little spitz,” she said. “Look how dirty he is. He pretty when he clean.”

“Nice dog,” he said. ‘‘Is Furry home?”

“Dey up deah. Dey ain’t been long gone up.” We climbed the back stairs of the building on our left and went down a bare, dusty hall to a door with a metal number three over the cloth-patched screen. Charley started to knock, and then we heard the music and he waited. “ ‘Got a new way of spellin’,’ ” a quiet, musing voice sang, “ ‘Memphis, Tennessee.’ ” A run of guitar chords followed, skeptical, brief; “ ‘Double M, double E, great God, A Y Z.’ ” Then two closing chords, like a low shout of laughter, and Charley knocked.

The door swung open. There, sitting next to a double bed, holding a guitar, was Furry Lewis. During the hey­ day of Beale Street, when the great Negro blues artists played and sang in the crowded, evil blocks between Fourth and Main, Furry, a protégé of W. C. Handy, was one of the most highly respected musicians. He was also one of the most popular, not only in the saloons and gambling dives of Memphis but in the medicine shows and on the riverboats all along the Mississippi. In Chicago, at the old Vocalion studios on Wabash Avenue, he made the first of many recordings he was to make, both for Vocalion and for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label. But Beale Street’s great era ended at the close of the 1920s; since then, Furry has had only one album of his own—a 1959 Folkways LP.

Nor, since the Depression, has he performed regularly, even in his home town. He makes his living as a street sweeper. When he does play, it is usually at the Bitter Lem­on, a coffeehouse that caters mainly to the affluent East Memphis teenaged set, but whose manager, Charley Brown, is a blues enthusiast and occasionally hires Furry between rock-’n’-roll groups.

Charley, a tall, blond young man, bent to shake hands with Furry. Furry did not stand. One leg of his green pajamas hung limp, empty below the knee.

The boy wearing gold-rimmed spectacles who had got up from a chair to let us in said, “I’m Jerry Finberg. Furry’s been giving me a little guitar lesson.” We shook his hand, then Charley introduced me to Furry and we all sat down. The room held a sizable amount of old, worn furniture: the bed, a studio couch, three stuffed chairs, a chifforobe and a dresser. Beside the bed, there was a table made from a small wooden crate.

“It’s good to see you, Furry,” Charley said.

“You, too,” said Furry. “You hadn’t been here in so long. I thought you had just about throwed me down.”

Charley said that he could never do that and asked Furry if he would come out to the coffeehouse for a couple of nights in the coming week. Furry picked up a pair of glasses from the bedside table, put them on, then took them off again. He would like to, he said, but his guitar was at Nathan’s. “This here one belongs to this boy, Jerry.” He put the glasses back on the table. It held aspirin, Sal Hepatica, cigarette papers and a Mason jar full of tobacco. Charley said not to worry, he’d get the guitar.

“Will you, sure ’nough?” Furry asked, looking at Charley with serious, businesslike gray eyes.

“I’ll get it tomorrow. What’s the ticket on it?”

“Sixteen dollars.”

“I’ll get it tomorrow.”

“All right,” Furry said, “and I’ll come play for you.” He reached out and shook hands solemnly with Charley.

“Could you play something now, or don’t you feel like it?” Charley asked.

Furry smiled. “I may be weak, but I’m willing,” he said. He took a small metal cylinder from his pajama pocket and picked up the guitar. “I believe I’ll take you to Brownsville.” He slipped the cylinder over the little finger of his left hand and started to play, his short leg crossed over the longer one, his bare narrow foot patting softly the plain brown boards as he sang. “ ‘Well, I’m goin’ to Brownsville, I’m goin’ take that right-hand road’ ” ; the cylinder slid, whining, over the treble strings.

“I was in Brownsville, Tennessee,” Furry said, “working on a doctor show, and I met a little girl I liked; but her parents wouldn’t let me come around to see her, ’cause I was showfolks, and they was respectable. So I wrote this: ‘And the woman I love’s got great long curly hair.’ ” The guitar repeated the line, added a delicate, punctuating bass figure, and then, as if it were another voice, sang the next line with Furry; staying just behind or slightly ahead of the beat: “ ‘But her mother and father do not allow me there.’ ”

As he played, I looked around the room. The brown-spotted wallpaper was covered with decorations: Over the bed were a few sprigs of artificial holly, an American flag, hanging with the stripes vertical and the stars at the bottom left, three brightly colored picture postcards and an ink sketch of Furry. On the wall behind the couch, there was a child’s crayon drawing in which Jesus, dressed in handsome red-and-blue robes, held out his arms to an enormous white rabbit. Furry’s right hand swooped and glided over the guitar, striking notes and chords in what looked but did not sound like complete random. At times, he slapped the guitar box with two fingers or the heel of his hand as, in the same motion, he brushed the strings. ‘‘Call that spank the baby,” he said. The guitar was both an echo of his voice and a source of complex and subtle accents. He sang, “ ‘Don’t you wish your woman was long and tall like mine?’ ” then repeated the line, leaving out, or letting the guitar speak, half the words. “ ‘Well, she ain’t good-lookin’, but I ’clare, she takes her time.’” The bass figure followed, then one amused final chord. Furry laid the guitar down.

“You play beautiful guitar,” Charley said.

“Yes, it is,” Furry said, holding up the instrument. ‘‘Believe I’ll be buried in this one.”

“Was that Spanish tuning?” asked Jerry, who had been leaning forward, elbows on his knees, listening intently.

“They some beer in the icebox,” Furry said.

Jerry sighed and stood up. “Come on,” he said to me. “Help bring the glasses.” We went into the kitchen. It was almost as large as the front room, with a stove, a refrigerator, a good-sized table and, in one corner, another double bed. A cabinet held gallon jars of flour, sugar, lima beans and an assortment of canned goods: Pride of Illinois white sweet corn, School Day June peas, Showboat pork and beans, Lyke’s beef tripe, Pride of Virginia herring, Bush’s Best black-eyed peas and turnip greens.

Jerry took a quart of Pfeiffer’s beer out of the refrigerator. I found four glasses on a newspaper-lined shelf, rinsed them at the square metal sink (“They clean,” Furry called, “but no tellin’ what’s been runnin’ over ’em”) and we went back into the other room. We had just finished pouring when there was a knock at the door.

“That’s my wife,” Furry said, sliding the latch open. “Come in, Versie.” She came in, a compact, handsome woman. I introduced myself and the others said hello. Versie, in a pleasantly hoarse voice, told us that only that morning, she had been asking Furry what he had done to make his boyfriends stay away so long.

“They all throwed me down,” Furry said, then laughed and told Versie he was going out to play at the Bitter Lemon. She smiled and asked if she could get us anything to eat. We all said no, thank you, and she sat down.

“My wife loves to see after folks,” Furry said. “Do anything in the world for people. Feed ’em, give ’em something to drink; if they get too drunk to go home, got a bed in there to put you to sleep on. And I’m the same way. But you know, there’s one old boy, I see him every day at work, and every time I see him, he bum a cigarette from me. Now, it ain’t much, but it come so regular. So the other day, I told him, ‘Boy, ain’t but one difference ’tween you and a blind man.’ And he said, ‘What’s that?’ And I told him, ‘Blind man beg from everybody he hear, you beg from everybody you see.’ ”

“Well,” Versie said, from her chair on the other side of the room, “it’s a pleasure to do things for people who are so nice to us. We tried and tried to find out Furry’s age, so he could get this Medicare, and Jerry went out to Furry’s old school and made them look through the records and find out when he was born. He spent several days, just to help us.”

“Found out I was born 1893,” Furry said. “March the sixth, in Greenwood, Mississippi. But I moved to Memphis, with my mother and two sisters, when I was six. My mother and father were sharecroppers and they separated before I was born. I never saw my father, never even knew what he looked like.” He took a drink of beer.

“Where did you live when you came here?” I asked.

“My mother had a sister lived on Brinkley Avenue,” he said. “Call it Decatur now. We stayed with her. They a housing project there now, but I could still show you the spot.” He took another drink, looked at the glass, then emptied it. “I was raised right there and walked a few blocks to the Carnes Avenue School. Went to the fifth and that’s as far as I got. Started going about, place to place, catching the freights. That’s how I lost my leg. Goin’ down a grade outside Du Quoin, Illinois, I caught my foot in a coupling. They took me to a hospital in Carbondale. I could look right out my window and see the ice-cream factory.”

He took a cigarette from a pack of Pall Malls on the bedside table. “That was 1916,” he said. “I had two or three hundred dollars in my pocket when that happened, too; I had just caught a freight ’cause I didn’t feel like spending the money for a ticket.” He struck a match, but the breeze from the window fan blew it out. Charley took the cigarette, lit it and handed it back. “Love you,” Furry said. “Goin’ put you in the Bible.”

He stuck the cigarette in the corner of his mouth, picked up the guitar and played a succession of slow, blues-drenched chords that seemed to fill the room. “I’m doing all right,” he said. “What you want to hear?”

“Do you remember Stagolee?” I asked.

“What song?”

“One you recorded a long time ago, called Stagolee.”

“Long time ago—I wasn’t born then, was I?” He quickly changed tunings and started to sing the song. He did one chorus, but it went off after the second, which began, “ ‘When you lose your money, learn to lose.’ ”

“What was the last?” Charley asked.

Furry repeated the line. “That means, don’t be no hard loser. That’s what this song is about.” He began again, but after a few bars, he lost the tune. He was tired.

Charley stood up. “We’ve got to go, Furry.”

“No,” Furry said. “You just got here.”

“Got to go to work. I’ll pick you up Tuesday night.”

“I’m so glad you came by,” Versie told Charley, in the hall. “Sometimes Furry thinks everybody has forgotten him.”

It had rained while we were inside and the air in the alley smelled almost fresh. The women were gone now and only a few of the children were still out. It was nearly dark. We walked back to the car and drove down Beale Street, past the faded blocks of pawnshops, liquor stores and poolrooms. The lights were coming on for the evening.

THE BEALE Street that Furry Lewis knew as a boy had its beginnings when, after the Battle of Memphis in 1862, the Federal Army made its headquarters in the area. The Negro population of the city consisted mainly of former slaves, who felt they had good reason to fear the local citizenry and, therefore, stayed as close to Federal headquarters as possible. After the War, many Negroes came in from the country, trying to find their families. There were only about 4000 Negroes in Memphis in 1860, but by 1870, there were 15,000. Beale Street drew them, it has been said, “like a lodestone.”

The music the country Negroes brought, with its thumping rhythms, unorthodox harmonies and earthy lyrics, combined with the city’s musicians’ more polished techniques and regular forms to produce, as all the world knows, the Beale Street blues. Furry cannot remember when he first heard the blues, nor is he certain when he started trying to play them.

“I was eight or nine, I believe,” he said, “when I got the idea I wanted to have me a guitar.” We were at the Bitter Lemon now, Furry, Versie, Charley and I, waiting for the crowd to arrive. The waitresses, pretty girls with long, straight hair, were lighting candles on the small, round tables. We sat in the shadows, drinking bourbon brought from the liquor store on the corner, listening to Furry talk about the old days.

He was coatless, wearing a white shirt with a dark-blue tie, and he was smoking a wood-tipped cigar. “I taken a cigar box, cut a hole in the top and nailed a piece of two-by-four on there for a neck. Then I got some screen wire for the strings and I tacked them to the box and twisted them around some bent nails on the end of the two-by-four. I could turn the nails and tune the strings like that, you see. I fooled around with it, got so I could make notes, but just on one string. Couldn’t make no chords. The first real guitar I had, Mr. Cham Fields, who owned a roadhouse, gambling house, and W. C. Handy gave it to me. They brought it out to my mother’s and I was so proud to get it, I cried for a week. Them days, children wasn’t like they are now.” His cigar had gone out; he relit it from the candle on our table, puffing great gray clouds of smoke. “It was a Martin and I kept it twenty years.”

“What happened to it?” Charley asked.

“It died.”

Furry put the candle down and leaned back in his chair. “When I was eighteen, nineteen years old,” he said, “I was good. And when I was twenty, I had my own band, and we could all play. Had a boy named Ham, played jug. Willie Polk played the fiddle and another boy, call him Shoefus, played the guitar, like I did. All of us North Memphis boys. We’d meet at my house and walk down Brinkley to Poplar and go up Poplar to Dunlap or maybe all the way down to Main. People would stop us on the street and say, ‘Do you know so-and-so?’ And we’d play it and they’d give us a little something. Sometimes we’d pick up fifteen or twenty dollars before we got to Beale. Wouldn’t take no streetcar. Long as you walked, you’s making money; but if you took the streetcar, you didn’t make nothing and you’d be out the nickel for the ride.”

“That was Furry’s wild days,” Versie said. “Drinking, staying out all night. He’d still do that way, if I let him.”

Furry smiled. “We used leave maybe noon Saturday and not get back home till Monday night. All the places we played—Pee Wee’s, Big Grundy’s, Cham Fields’s, B. B. Anderson’s—when they opened up, they took the keys and tied them to a rabbit’s neck, told him to run off to the woods, ’cause they never meant to close.”

I asked Furry whether he had done much traveling.

“A right smart,” he said. “But that was later on, when I was working with Gus Cannon, the banjo player, and Will Shade. Beale Street was commencing to change then. Had to go looking for work.” He rolled his cigar’s ash off against the side of an ashtray. “In the good times, though, you could find anything you could name on Beale. Gambling, girls; you could buy a pint of moonshine for a dime, store-bought whiskey for a quarter. We’d go from place to place, making music, and everywhere we’d go, they’d be glad to see us. We’d play awhile and then somebody would pass the hat. We didn’t make too much, but we didn’t need much back then. In them days, you could get two loaves of bread for a nickel. And some nights, when the people from down on the river came up, we’d make a batch of money. The roustabouts from the steamboats, the Kate Adams, the Idlewild, the Viney Swing—I’ve taken trips on all them boats, played up the river to St. Louis, down to New Orleans—white and colored, they’d all come to Beale. Got along fine, too, just like we doing now. ’Course, folks had they squabbles, like they will, you know. I saw two or three get killed.”

There were enough squabbles to make Memphis the murder capital of the country. In the first decade of the century, 556 homicides occurred, most of them involving Negroes. Appeals for reform were taken seriously only by those who made them. When E. H. Crump ran for mayor on a reform ticket, W. C. Handy recorded the Beale Streeters’ reaction: ‘‘We don’t care what Mr. Crump don’t allow, we goin’ barrel-house anyhow.”

But as the righteous Crump machine gained power, the street slowly began to change. Each year, the red-light district grew smaller; each year, there were fewer gambling houses, fewer saloons, fewer places for musicians to play.

Then came the Depression. Local newspapers carried accounts of starving Negroes swarming over garbage dumps, even eating the clay from the river bluffs. Many people left town, but Furry stayed. “Nothing else to do,” he said. “The Depression wasn’t just in Memphis, it was all over the country. A lot of my friends left, didn’t know what they was goin’ to. The boy we called Ham, from our band, he left, and nobody ever knew what became of him. I did have a little job with the city and I stuck with that. I had been working with them off and on, when there wasn’t anyplace to play. They didn’t even have no trucks at that time. Just had mules to pull the garbage carts. Didn’t have no incinerator; used to take the garbage down to the end of High Street, across the rail­road tracks, and burn it.”

Before Beale Street could recover from the Depression, World War Two brought hundreds of boys in uniform into Memphis; and, for their protection, Boss Crump closed the last of the saloons and whorehouses. It was the final blow.

Furry sat staring at the end of his cigar. “Beale Street really went down,” he said after a moment. “You know, old folks say, it’s a long lane don’t have no end and a bad wind don’t never change. But one day, back when Hoover was President, I was driving my cart down Beale Street and I seen a rat, sitting on top of a garbage can, eating a onion, crying.”

FURRY HAS been working for the city of Memphis, sanitation department, since 1923. Shortly after two o ’clock each weekday morning, he gets out of bed, straps on his artificial leg, dresses and makes a fresh pot of coffee, which he drinks while reading the Memphis Press-Scimitar. The newspaper arrives in the afternoon, but Furry does not open it until morning. Versie is still asleep and the paper is company for him as he sits in the kitchen under the harsh light of the ceiling bulb, drinking the hot, sweet coffee. He does not eat breakfast; when the coffee is gone, he leaves for work.

The sky is black. The alley is quiet, the apartments dark. A morning-glory vine hanging from a guy wire stirs, like a heavy curtain, in the cool morning breeze. Cars in the cross alley are covered with a silver glaze of dew. A cat flashes between shadows.

Linden Avenue is bright and empty in the blue glare of the street lamps. Down the street, St. Patrick’s looms, a sign, 100 YEARS WITH CHRIST, over its wide red doors. Furry, turning right, walks past the faded, green-glowing bay windows of an apartment house to the corner. A moving van rolls past. There is no other traffic. When the light changes, Furry crosses, heading down Hernando. The clock at Carodine’s Fruit Stand and Auto Service reads 2:49.

The cafés, taverns, laundries, shoe-repair shops and liquor stores are all closed. The houses, under shading trees, seem drawn into themselves. At the Clayborn Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church, the stained-glass windows gleam, jewellike against the mass of blackened stone. A woman wearing a maid’s uniform passes on the other side of the street. Furry says good morning and she says good morning, their voices patiently weary. Beside the Scola Brothers Grocery is a sycamore, its brandies silhouetted against the white wall. Furry walks slowly, hunched forward, as if sleep were a weight on his shoulders. Hand­ printed posters at the Vance Avenue Market: CHICKEN BACKS, 12½¢ lb.; HOC MAWS, 15¢: RUMPS, 19¢.

Behind Bertha’s Beauty Nook, under a large, pale-leafed elm, there are 12 garbage cans and two carts. Furry lifts one of the cans onto a cart, rolls the cart out into the street and, taking the wide broom from its slot, begins to sweep the gutter. A large woman with her head tied in a kerchief, wearing a purple wrapper and gold house slippers, passes by on the sidewalk. Furry tells her good morning and she nods hello.

When he has swept back to Vance, Furry leaves the trash in a pile at the corner and pushes the cart, with its empty can, to Beale Street. The sky is gray. The stiff brass figure of W. C. Handy stands, one foot slightly forward, the bell of his horn pointing down, under the manicured trees of his deserted park. The gutter is thick with debris: empty wine bottles, torn racing forms from the West Memphis dog track, flattened cigarette packs, scraps of paper and one small die, white with black spots, which Furry puts into his pocket. An old bus, on the back of which is written, in yellow paint, LET NOT YOUR HEART BE TROUBLED, rumbles past: it is full of cotton choppers: Their dark, solemn faces peer out the grimy windows. The bottles clink at the end of Furry’s broom. In a room above the Club Handy, two men are standing at an open window, looking down at the street. One of them is smoking; the glowing end of his cigarette can be seen in the darkness. On the door to the club, there is a handbill: BLUES SPECTACULAR, CITY AUDITORIUM: JIMMY REED, JOHN LEE HOOKER, HOWLIN’ WOLF.

Furry pushes the garbage onto a flat scoop at the front of the cart, then goes to the rear and pulls a jointed metal handle, causing the scoop to rise and dump its contents into tire can. The scoop is heavy; when he lets it down, it sends a shock from his right arm through his body, raising his left leg, the artificial one, off the ground. Across the street, in a chinaberry tree, a gang of sparrows are making a racket. Furry sweeps past two night clubs and then a restaurant, where, through the front window, large brown rats can be seen scurrying across the kitchen floor. A dirty red dog stands at the corner of Beale and Hernando, sniffing the air. A soldier runs past, head­ing toward Main. The street lamps go off.

When Furry has cleaned the rest of the block, the garbage can is full and he goes back to Bertha’s for another. The other cart is gone and there is a black Buick parked at the curb. Furry wheels to the corner and picks up the mound of trash he left there. A city bus rolls past; the driver gives a greeting honk and Furry waves. He crosses the street and begins sweeping in front of the Sanitary Bedding Company. A woman’s high-heeled shoe is lying on the sidewalk. Furry throws it into the can. ‘‘First one-legged woman I see, I’ll give her that,” he says and, for the first time that day, he smiles.

At Butler, the next cross street, there is a row of large, old-fashioned houses, set behind picket fences and broad, thickly leafed trees. The sky is pale-blue now, with pink-edged clouds, and old men and women have come out to sit on the porches. Some speak to Furry, some do not. Cars are becoming more frequent along the street. Furry reaches out quickly with his broom to catch a windblown scrap of paper. When he gets to Calhoun, he swaps cans again and walks a block—past Tina’s Beauty Shop, a tavern called the Section Playhouse and another named Soul Heaven—to Fourth Street. He places his cart at the corner and starts pushing the trash toward it.

From a second-story window of a rooming house covered with red brick-patterned tarpaper comes the sound of a blues harmonica. Two old men are sitting on the steps in front of the open door. Furry tells them good morning. “When you goin’ make another record?” one of them asks.

“Record?” the other man, in a straw hat, says.

“That’s right,” says the first one. “He makes them big-time records. Used to.”

Furry dumps a load into the cart, then leans against it, wiping his face and the back of his neck with a blue bandanna handkerchief.

Down the stairs and through the door (the old men on the steps leaning out of his way, for he does not slow down) comes the harmonica player. He stands in the middle of the sidewalk, eyes closed, head tilted to one side, the harmonica cupped in his hands. A man wearing dark glasses and carrying a white cane before him like a divining rod turns the corner, aims at the music, says cheerfully, “Get out the way! Get off the sidewalk!” and bumps into the harmonica player, who spins away, like a good quarterback, and goes on playing.

Furry puts the bandanna in his pocket and moves on, walking behind the cart. Past Mrs. Kelly’s Homemade Hot Ta­males stand, the air is filled with a strong odor. Over a shop door, a sign reads: FRESH FISH DAILY.

Now the sky is a hot, empty blue, and cars line the curb from Butler to Vance. Furry sweeps around them. Across the street, at the housing project, children are playing outside the great blocks of apartments. One little girl is lying face down on the grass, quite still. Furry watches her. She has not moved. Two dogs are barking nearby. One of them, a small black cocker spaniel, trots up to the little girl and sniffs at her head; she grabs its forelegs and together they roll over and over. Furry starts sweeping and does not stop or look up again until he has reached the corner. He piles the trash into the can and stands in the gutter, waiting for the light to change.

For the morning, his work is done. He rolls the cart down Fourth, across Pontotoc and Linden, to his own block, where he parks it at the curb, between two cars. Then he heads across the street toward Rothschild’s grocery, to try to get some beer on credit.

WHILE WE were talking, people were coming in, and now the tables were nearly filled. Charley looked at his watch, then at Furry. “Feel like play­ing?” he asked.

Furry nodded abruptly, the way Indians do in movies. “I always feel like playing,” he said. He drank the last of the bourbon in his glass. “Yes, sir. Al­ways feel like that.”

“I’ll announce you,” Charley said. He carried a chair onto the stage, sat down and repeated the lecture he uses when­ ever he hires an old-time musician. It be­gins, “Without the tradition of American Negro music, there would be no rock music.” The lecture’s purpose is to in­spire the rock generation with love and respect for the blues. However, this audience, none of whom looks older than 20, seems more interested in each other than in anything else.

When the speech ended, with “I am proud to present . . . ” Furry, carrying his battered Epiphone guitar, limped onto the stage. The applause was polite. Furry smiled and waved. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “I’m very pleased to be here tonight to play for you all. I’ve been around Memphis, playing and sing­ing for many years. My wife is with me tonight; we’ve been married many years. When we got married, I only had fifteen cents and she had a quarter.” I looked at Charley. He avoided my eyes.

“And then one day,” Furry went on, his tone altering slightly, “she upped and quit me, said I had married her for her money.”

Furry laughed, Versie laughed, the crowd laughed, and Charley and I looked at each other and laughed and laughed, shaking our heads. “I love him, the old bastard,” Charley said. “Sorry, Versie.”

But Versie, watching Furry proudly, had not heard.

He had begun to play a slow, sad blues, one that none of us had ever heard, a song without a name: “ ‘My mother’s dead,’ ” he sang, the guitar softly following, “ ‘my father just as well’s to be. Ain’t got nobody to say one kind word for me.’ ”

The room, which had been filled with noise, was now quiet. “ ‘People holler mercy,’ ” Furry sang, “ ‘don’t know what mercy mean. People . . . ‘ ”—and the guitar finished the line. “ ‘Well, if it mean any good, Lord, have mercy on me.’ ”

When, after nearly an hour, Furry left the stage, the applause was considerably more than polite. But I knew that it was only the third time Furry had heard public applause during the year and that in this year, as in most of the years of his life, his music would probably bring him less than $100. Soon, we would take him home and he would change clothes and go out to sweep the streets. I wondered, as Charley and Versie were congratulating him and pouring fresh drinks, how he had managed to last, to retain his skill.

Furry was sitting back in his chair, holding a drink in one hand and a new cigar in the other, smiling slightly, his eyes nearly closed. I asked him if he had ever been tempted to give up, to stop playing. “Give out but don’t give up,” he said. He tasted his drink and sat straighter in the chair. “No,” he said, “all these years, I kept working for the city, thinking things might change, Beale Street might go back like it was. But it never did.”

“But you went on playing.”

“Oh, yes, I played at home. Sometimes, nothing to do, no place to play, I’d hock the guitar and get me something to drink. And then I’d wish I had it, so I could play, even just for myself. I never quit playing, but I didn’t play out enough for people to know who I was. Sometimes I’d see a man, a beggar, you know, playing guitar on the sidewalk, and I’d drop something in his cup, and he wouldn’t even know who I was. He’d think I was just a street sweeper.”

[Painting by Kai Zomei]

The Banter Gold Standard: The Boxing Gym

Let’s cap off Pete Dexter Boxing week with this beauty. It originally appeared in Esquire and can be found in Dexter’s stellar collection of non-fiction, Paper Trails, as well as the Library of America’s boxing anthology, At the Fights.

It appears here with the author’s permission.

The first day the fighter came into the gym he went two rounds with a weight lifter from New Jersey who was just learning to keep his hands up—and he tried to hurt him.

I didn’t know if it was something between them or if the fighter just had a mean streak. Some of them do. Whatever it was, the fighter went after him, turning his weight into his punches, missing some, but dropping enough right hands in so that at the end of the two rounds the whole left side of the weight lifter—without ever having been hit perfect—was blotted pink. It’s an honest gym, and what happened wasn’t particularly violent, but it was out of place.

I was sitting by the windows with Mickey Rosati at the time, and his son, little Mick.

The two of them are with each other all day. They work together in their garage downstairs, they run together, they box each other two or three times a week. The kid is a world-class amateur. They know each other inside out—moves and moods—and I’ve never heard a hard word between them. You get the feeling sometimes that they’re the same person, spaced about thirty years apart.

Up in the ring, the weight lifter was getting packed into the corner like one shirt too many in a hamper. “What’s that about?” I said.

Mickey shook his head. “They’re both from Jersey,” he said. “Maybe they got on each other’s nerves.”

The weight lifter had a brother named Dennis. He was fourteen year older—closing in on forty—and two or three times a week the two of them came over the bridge from New Jersey to work out.

The gym sits on a narrow street in South Philadelphia where people park on the sidewalks and sneakers hang from the telephone wires. Inside, it’s honest and clean; at least, for a gym it’s clean. We are not speaking here of Nautilus-center clean, but people have been known to hit the bucket when they spit, and when Mickey’s hawk—which is another story—used the ring for a bathroom one afternoon, the spot was scoured with Lysol before anybody fought again. That might not sound like much, but in most gyms, hawk shit will petrify before anybody cleans it up.

The weight lifter liked to box when he could; Dennis wasn’t as serious. He slapped at the heavy bags or shadow-boxed, and once in a while he mentioned that he ought to be getting paid for his entertainment value, which was probably true. If it came into his head, Dennis said it.

During the month or two Dennis and his brother had been coming up, Mickey had spent some time in the ring with the brother, getting him used to the feel of soft punches, showing him how to relax.

At the start, the brother had gone home depressed. Dennis reported it while Mickey was doing sit-ups on an elevated board, his teeth biting a cold cigar. “My brother’s got guys terrified of him in Jersey,” Dennis said. “He can’t believe somebody as old as you could do that to him. All weekend long he’s messed up.”

Mickey lay back on the board and closed his eyes. “Suddenly,” he said, the cigar moving in his teeth, “I don’t feel like doing sit-ups no more.”

As a step in the mending, Dennis and his brother decided Mickey probably wasn’t human; at least they had no idea he could be beaten or hurt. They called him the Punching Machine.

You could see how they might think that. Mickey Rosati is fifty-one years old and left-handed, and he can still fight. But he is fifty-one years old. His shoulders hurt him after he works out, he gets poison ivy just looking at the woods, and the speed he had when he won twenty-two straight fights back in the fifties isn’t there like it was. On brains and shape, he would still beat most of the four- and six-round fighters at his weight in the world, but he pays more to stay that way than anybody who isn’t around him could know.

The fighter from Jersey was back two weeks later. He came in with Dennis. Mickey was sitting in a chair, holding a cold cigar in his teeth, trying not to scratch his arms. He was just back from the Pocono Mountains, poison-ivyed half to death. He’d gone there for squirrels. Mickey has been hunting since he was seven years old—ever since he went after stray cats in the alleys of South Philadelphia with a baseball bat. As he gets older, though, he gets gentler, and cares less about the shooting and more about just being outside. This weekend, as a matter of fact, he’d left his gun in the cabin.

“This same path, I must’ve walked it a hundred times,” he said. “But this time, I was just walking along, and you know, there’s apples in all those trees. Millions of them. I been through there a hundred times, and I never saw the apples before . . .”

Dennis bent over him then. “Hey, Mick, 1 told this guy you’d give him two or three rounds,” he said.

Mickey looked at Dennis, then at the fighter, putting together what was doing. “All right,” he said. Mickey will always give you the benefit of the doubt; he will always give you his time.

The fighter dressed and wrapped his hands and then got laced into a pair of black gloves. He loosened up five or ten minutes, then fit his mouthpiece over his teeth and climbed into the ring.

Mickey slipped his unwrapped hands into an old pair of pull-on gloves and got in with him. He doesn’t use a mouthpiece or headgear. He was giving away twenty-five pounds, and twenty-five years. “Three rounds?” he said.

The fighter said, “I don’t know if I’m even in shape to finish one.” Mickey has been around gyms all his life and knew better than that.

The bell rang and the fighter came straight at him, throwing right hands and hooks, trying to hurt him. Little Mickey sat down a yard from the ropes and watched.

Mickey took the punches on his arms and gloves and shoulders, moving in and out, relaxed. A minute into the round, he threw a long, slow right hook at the fighter’s head, which the fighter blocked, and a short left under his ribs. Which he never saw.

The punch stopped the fighter cold. For two or three seconds he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t move his hands. In those seconds, Mickey could have ended it and gone back to his chair and let him go. And when the fighter could breathe again, he began to find Mickey with some of the right hands.

The gym was quiet, except for the sounds of the ring itself. Mickey and the fighter seemed even for a round and a half, but somewhere in it the fighter got stronger. He used his elbows and shoulders; Mickey gave ground and landed some hooks to the side, but his punches didn’t have much on them.

Between rounds Mickey walked in circles, breathing through his teeth, looking at the Boor. I thought about being fifty-one years old, working all day pulling transmissions and engines, and then coming upstairs with bad shoulders and poison ivy and having to fight life and death with some kid who didn’t even know who you were.

The third round started, and the fighter, if anything, was throwing harder now. Mickey let the punches hit his arms and sides and glance off his head, moving in the direction they pushed him. One of them scraped some skin off his eyebrow.

The fighter followed him, forgetting what had happened to him in the first round, forgetting that Mickey hadn’t hurt him when he was helpless. And then I heard little Mickey say, “He’s got him now.” I looked down at him to see how he knew that, and by the time I looked back up, Mickey was hitting the fighter with twelve clean punches in a row.

For the last minute and a half of the fight, Mickey hit him with everything he threw. When the fighter tried to come back at him, it opened him up for something else.

At the end, he had stopped fighting and was leaning against the ropes covering up. Mickey patted the fighter on the head, climbed out of the ring, and worked two hard rounds on the heavy bag, jumped rope, and then put a cigar between his teeth and did sit-ups, looking happier all the time.

I said to his son, “He shouldn’t have to do that.”

Little Mickey said, “Yeah, but you know my father. He liked the challenge, having to do it…”

I looked around the gym—a clean, honest room with enough windows so you could feel the street—and as nice as it was, that’s what it was for. Having to do it. Not every day or every week, but if you’re going to box, then once in a while it’s going to happen.

And Mickey doesn’t own the place by accident. Now and then you’ve got to let the dog out of the house to run.

Driving home from the gym that night, I told him I wouldn’t have patted the fighter on the head, no matter how grateful I was that he tried to kill me.

Mickey said, “Yeah, I should have bit him.” His mood was getting better and better. He looked down at his arms, though, touched his neck where the poison ivy was. “Five days,” he said, “before it goes away. I lie in bed at night, thinking about scratching it or not.”

“That long?”

“The doctor said they got some kind of shot, it gives you the worse case you ever got, and then you don’t get it anymore. You can’t take the shot when you already got poison ivy, though. You got to be cured, and then they can give it to you, and then they can cure you. Probably.”

He shook his head. “There’s nothing you can do about poison ivy,” he said, “but stay out of the way.”

He dabbed at the scrape over his eye. “And what good is that?”


[Photo Credit: Time; Tumblr ]

The Banter Gold Standard: The Impression

On Monday, we ran Pete Dexter’s Inside Sports piece on Larry Holmes. Here is Dexter’s short article on the Holmes-Ali fight, reprinted here with the author’s permission.

“The Impression”

By Pete Dexter

When I heard Ali had agreed to fight Holmes, the first thought I had was that Ali would be killed. The punch was five years gone, his hand speed had been mediocre over his last half dozen fights, and he’d been getting hit by people like Leon Spinks.

I didn’t see that two years in the pasture could have helped any of that. What figured to be left to him, at almost 39 years old, was the chin. Enough to keep him up a long time after he should go down.

The second thought I had was that I didn’t want to see it happen, and even if there was enough grace in that night to make me wrong once, there was nothing in it to make me wrong twice. And if the talk afterwards’ about thyroid pills and a fight with Mike Weaver is more than talk, I won’t be there. Ali might take the chance again. I won’t.

I couldn’t watch it again. Ali without his talent, growing old in one long night, people everywhere without words, growing old with him. In the casino you see Ray Robinson posing in pictures with people who remember him—you can’t imagine Ali like that.

YOU WOULD not imagine Ali like this either: standing in front of Larry Holmes all night, eyes swollen, throwing no punches and once, after catching a terrible right hand, turning away in the ring.

Holmes had come into the fight in the best shape of his life—maybe he had believed the talk of a miracle a little bit, too. He began with energy and something close to hate, but after the second round he walked back to his comer wearing a different expression. “I knew what that look was,” Richie Giachetti would say later. Giachetti is Holmes’ trainer/manager. “We’d found out he didn’t have nothin’ left, and he was too old, and Larry was askin’ himself, ‘Do I really want this?’ All this time he was talkin’ himself into fightin’ Ali and now it’s here, he knows he’s got it won and the look on his face, it was just no expression at all. Usually he’d be happy or excited or somethin’, but the second round on. it was no nothin’ there.

AFTER THE fifth round, Angelo Dundee threatened to stop the fight. It is the eighth round, though, that keeps coming back. It was like a dream that wouldn’t move. Ali lost in ringside smoke, leaning deep into the ropes, moving his hands in slow motion. The rinse washing out of his hair, going gray in front of my eyes … it seemed to last half an hour. Ali without his speed or a punch or his legs, without his mirrors, clearly without his miracle. Nobody to tell him he was pretty; nobody left to believe it could happen.

Standing because he would not let himself go down.

When Dundee finally stopped it after the tenth, Holmes came across the ring crying and hugged Ali. “I love you,” he ‘said.

An hour later he went to Ali’s suite and found him lying face down on his exercise table. “Please promise me,” Holmes said. “Promise me you won’t fight no more.”

It ‘was quiet, then Ali spoke, “Holmmm-z,” he said, “I want Holmes.”

The next morning Dundee was sitting in his room, answering the phone, drinking coffee. “I didn’t do good business last night. It was a horrible night. I seen an Ali, couldn’t do nothing. He just wasn’t there.”

He shook his head. “I hope he don’t fight again, but you know I don’t tell him what to do. Nobody does.”

In the end you have to admire that. He had an extraordinary talent. He had a talent as rare, in a way, as Robert Frost’s or Picasso’s. And a talent like that, I think, is always ahead of the man who has it. It leads him, it takes him places other people can’t go. And even when he understands what it does, he doesn’t necessarily know what it is.

But he had the courage to use it, to follow it, and when it left him standing in the ring, alone with the best heavyweight fighter in the world, he had courage for that, too. And one way or another—unless you’re Robert Frost or Picasso—that happens, because growing old is losing talent.

For a long time, Larry Holmes didn’t want the fight. Giachetti never wanted it. Don King, who would pick Joe Louis out of his wheelchair and feed him to Roberto Duran if the money were right, talked Holmes into it.

King told Holmes that he had been living in Ali’s shadow too long. Giachetti told him the shadow was there, and as shadows go it wasn’t bad.

“Nobody who really knows Ali can say anything bad about him,” Giachetti said. “Nobody wants to see him hurt. We knock him out, they say he’s an old man. We don’t, Larry’s a bum. It’s a no-win situation.”

Holmes listened to King. And in the way you sometimes do when you’re unsure, Holmes denied the part of himself that said he cared about Ali. And as the fight got closer, he came to believe Ali had taken something from him. “I don’t care. if he gets hurt,” he said. “He been denyin’ me my just dues all this time. The man hypnotizes everybody, he don’t hypnotize me. I know him better than he knows himself. There’ll be no mercy in there for him. He either gets knocked out or he gets hurt.” And there was hate in that.

GIACHETTI FORGOT his reservations and got Holmes ready. “It’s comin’ down to a head job now,” he said. That was two weeks before the fight, and from then until the fight itself he kept Holmes away from Ali. “Nobody beats Ali at talkin’,” Giachetti said. “It’s his game. He says the same old things, but everybody still loves to hear it. It’s like ‘Moon River.'” So he brought Holmes to the weigh-in early. He refused to let his fighter pose with Ali for pictures. But Ali was always there.

After. his afternoon workouts, Holmes would take the microphone and ask the audience to believe he would beat him. “The old man has made a mistake. Porky gone crazy, fightin’ me. I could kick his ass back in 1974 when I was his sparring partner, and he never gave me my just dues….” It would go on too long, get awkward. Holmes being Ali, at the same time saying things from his heart.

“If I lose, I’ll retire. People will say I wasn’t ever nothin’ if this sucker beats me I’d have to go hide.”

On September 15, a kid named Gary Wells tried to jump over the water fountain at Caesars on his motorcycle, the same jump that almost killed Eve! Knievel.

AN HOUR before the jump, Ali was sitting in bed, watching the Holmes-Weaver fight on the Betamax. As it moved into the later rounds Ali walked into a closet. There was a tray there with 30 different kinds of pills—that and a scale. He sorted out eight or 10 to eat with breakfast. He said, “I will tell you something. I believe I am on a mission from God. I pray five times a day, it’s 60 per cent of my power. Holmes out drinkin’ wine, gamblin’, how can he beat me?”

I asked if he had liked Holmes when he was a sparring partner. Ali looked at me to see if I was serious.

“I like him now,” he said.

By the time Ali got out of the closet, Holmes had knocked Weaver out, and Truman Capote was bragging to Phil Donahue that he’d ruined Jack Kerouac’s career. Ali watched a few minutes. “This is a messed up world,” he said.

He stood up and looked out the window. The crowd was already waiting for the kid on the motorcycle. Ali had met him earlier. He had shook the kid’s hand and said, “You crazy.” The kid had liked that. A reporter asked if Ali would watch the jump.

“I don’t want to see nobody get his head ripped off,” he said. “They encourage him, but I know what people want to see when they watch somethin’ like that.”

He looked at himself in the mirror again and then laid down. On some unspoken signal, the old Cuban who rubs him down closed the curtains and the room was as dark as the night, and the reflection—the proof of the miracle—was gone with the sun. “As sure as you hear my voice,” Ali said, “you and l will both die.”

An hour later I was lying in my room when I heard the crowd and knew the kid hadn’t made it. The crowd, then the sirens. I thought of Ali, alone in his room.

The Banter Gold Standard: Seven Scenes From The Life of a Quiet Champ

This week gives Dexter because, well, do we really need an excuse for more Dexter?

Let’s start with this 1980 Inside Sports profile of Larry Holmes written before the Holmes/Ali fight.  It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

“Seven Scenes From The Life of A Quiet Champ”

By Pete Dexter

“I don’t ever want to fight Ali. Ali’s a legend, I’m hoping he retires. It would be a lot of money [for an Ali fight], but money isn’t everything. When Ali dies, people going to remember him being more than a fighter…”

“To me, Ali’s a great man. I can’t say anything bad about him. When I was his sparring partner, he paid me and took me al over the world. I was a kid sparring with Ali in Reading, Pennsylvania, and he gave me a black eye. People tried to put ice on it, but I was going to knock them out. I was proud of it…”

“Ever since people known who I am, they been comparing me to Ali. They say I stole his style. It used to bother me, but now it doesn’t. I just smile and thank them and take it as the compliment it is.”
–Larry Holmes in various 1978 interviews

Easton, Pennsylvania. The sandwich is hurt bad but will not go down. It is a turkey sandwich—turkey and bacon and lettuce with rusty edges, leaking mayonnaise everywhere.

Larry Holmes is having trouble with the style. He checks one side, then the other, cuts off the escape routes with his fingers. He bites down, the meat slides out the back. The champion pulls away, his mouth full of mayonnaise, A terrible welt shows on the sandwich. “God-damn,” he says, “this is the kind of sandwich you think the heavyweight champion of the world be eatin’?”

I have to admit it, no. I’ve seen better looking lettuce coming out of a rabbit. Larry peels back the bread and scrapes the mayonnaise with his straw. “A world champion,” he says, “scrapin’ mayonnaise off his own sandwich.”

A month before the sandwich, there was 254-pound Leroy Jones, who presented the same problem. Too much mayonnaise to find the meat. Jones was Holmes’ 34th win without a loss, his 25th knockout, his sixth straight in defense of his WBC title.

The phone rings. Holmes manages to get it to his ear without using his thumb and first three fingers. It is Charlie Spaziani, his lawyer, with news of a woman in Cleveland who is saying that her four-year-old child has a heavyweight champion of the world for a daddy. The wet fingers wrap around the phone.

“What? In Cleveland? And she just comin’ around now? … Well, I’d like to keep it to maybe two dollars a week, ’cause I don’t know nothin’ about it.”

Holmes hangs up and looks at the sandwich. “I never heard they had sexual intercourse in Cleveland. I’ll tell you the truth, a man can’t win when it comes to the system.” He looks at his watch. “Right now it’s  quarter to one on Wednesday afternoon. If the woman go to the judge and say, ‘Pete got me pregnant at quarter to one, Wednesday afternoon,’ they goin’ to believe her. So you get me and nine witnesses to go down to the court with you, say you was talking to me at quarter to one, and nine times out of ten they ain’t goin’ to believe you anyway.” He thinks it over. “You wasn’t in Cleveland four years ago, were you?”

Which brings the champion’s attention back to the sandwich. He picks it up and decides it isn’t something he wants to eat after all. It isn’t something he wants to look at either. He moves it to a far spot on the desk, covers it with a napkin. In the end, all you can really say about it is that it lasted longer than Leroy Jones.

Larry picks up the rest of the napkin to wipe off his fingers and a cashier’s check for $100,000 comes up off the desk with them. It is the check that he and Richie Giachetti went to New York for the day before. The check that says his schedule fight with Ali will happen.

Ali, the man Holmes had said he never wanted to fight. He had been Ali’s sparring partner, and he had watched him and learned from him. He had called him his idol for the newspapers. He had been on the undercard in Manila, had seen the act of will Ali—who was already beyond his prime—past Joe Frazier. And as Holmes developed and Ali’s skills faded, a point had to come when Holmes knew he was the better fighter. But it was still Ali, and there was still something there that Holmes didn’t have, and never would.

Richie Giachetti is Larry Holmes’ manager and trainer. He is his friend. He has been with the 30-year-old Holmes eight years, and he doesn’t like the Ali fight at all. “I’ll do my job,” he will say later. “It’s $4 million, but anyway you look at it, Ali gets knocked out or hurt. [Don] King keeps talkin’ to Larry about gettin’ out of Ali’s shadow. Did Marciano get out of Joe Louis’ shadow, knockin’ out an old man? The shadow is there, and as shadows go, it’s not too bad….”

The way it comes out all at once, you know it’s something Giachetti has said before, probably to Holmes on the way to New York. Holmes shuts it off.

“Ali was yesterday, I am today. I been in his shadow too long, it’s time to come out. No, the fight don’t bother me. A fight is a fight. I don’t care if he got hurt, I can’t care. You care, that’s when you get hurt your own self.” It is as deep a disagreement as he and Giachetti have had, and something between them now feels wrong and unsettled.

Larry walks the check down to the bank, waving at every other car on the street. A school bus stops and the children pinch the windows down to yell they saw him on Channel 6 last night. Later, in the car, he drives past the project where he grew up, into the part of town he calls high society. He lives there, one of three or four black families in a white neighborhood. He says; “I understand where I’m from, and I wouldn’t live nowhere else.”

The car is a long, white Cadillac with silver buckles over the trunk and a gold-plated nameplate built into the dashboard. Forty-eight thousand dollars list price, but Larry says he got a deal. The tape in the stereo is a song about the champ and it sounds like there must be 40 speakers. “They sendin’ a guy up from Philly to paint my name on the door,” he says.

At the parking lot outside St. Anthony’s Youth Center, where Holmes learned to box and still works out, a middle-aged woman carrying a bag of groceries stands at the window two minutes, taking it all in. “My,” she says. “My, my.” Larry is talking economy to a television cameraman, saying he looked at the car for a year before he bought it, and doesn’t hear what the woman says before she leaves. She says, “That’s real cute.”

In the car again. Larry is talking about the old days, 11 brothers and sisters, no father to support them. He and his friends took gloves into the bars and fought each other so the men there would buy them hamburgers.

He talks about his mother, Flossie, and it makes you remember how deep worries went before you were old enough to understand what they were about, worries you couldn’t talk about then because you didn’t understand, and can’t talk about now because you understand them too well.

“Larry Holmes is a survivor,” he says. “No matter what happen to me, I’ll get by. I go back to work in the steel mills or to Jet Car Wash if I had to, I’d make out. My wife love me, my babies love me—what can happen to that?

“When I was a kid, I wasn’t tight with nobody. I’m still that way. I liked to stay home, just be in the house.

“George Foreman, they say he was scared to be alone in the dark. People say, how could somebody big and strong like that be ‘fraid to stay in his own house with the lights out? I could understand that. I know how it is, you got to have feelings with people.” He looks over and smiles. “I
ain’t scared of the dark….”

And a few minutes later, “I heard George got religion now, bought him his own church.”

Late afternoon. Earnie Shavers has flown into Easton to be part of tomorrow’s second annual “Run With the Champ” five-mile race. Eight years ago, Holmes was Shavers’ sparring partner, and they have been friends through two fights with each other.

Everybody in the Holmes’ camp is wearing Sasson jeans. They are dark jeans with white stitches, officially endorsed by the champion, who can’t wear them because they don’t come with room for his thighs.

They don’t come with room for Earnie’s thighs either.

Giachetti and Holmes and Shavers and two carloads of people—lawyers, trainers, brothers—head over to a shop called New York Tailors to find Earnie a pair of jeans.

“Whatever he wants, put it on my bill,” Larry says.

The shopkeeper shakes hands with Shavers. “You don’t look as big as you do on television,” he says.

Earnie tries on one pair after another, starting with all the 34s, and is working into the 36s now, trying to find something with thigh room. “Try them 38’s,” Larry says. Earnie disappears into a dressing room with a pair of 38s. When he comes out, they are still skin-tight around his legs and he has gathered a handful belt loops at the waist.

“These are close,” he says.

The man from New York Tailors hands him another stack and Earnie goes back into the dressing room. Giachetti says anybody who works out all the time and doesn’t drink can’t expect to fit into clothes. Years before Holmes, he managed Earnie Shavers.

“When me and Earnie was fightin’ last year,” Larry says, Earnie was taken a terrible punishment and I tol’ him, I said, ‘Earnie, Earnie, don’t be takin’ all these shots.’ All says is, “C’mon man, fight.” He had blood comin’ all down his mouth, and I was still thinkin’ about that when he hit me the right hand….”

The right-hand knocked Holmes down it—would have knocked anybody down—and almost ended the fight.

Earnie comes through the curtain carrying a pair that he says fit him. He isn’t the kind to want people waiting.

“Right here, y’all, Earnie Shavers. Come shake the hand that knocked down the champ. Hey, get us a drink. Get everybody a drink….”

Richie Giachetti is standing on a chair at the door of an all-black bar in downtown Easton, pointing at Earnie Shavers’ shining head. Earnie is still dressed in the three-piece suit he was wearing when he got off the plane. Women first, the bar comes over to shake his, touch his arm, ask for autographs. Earnie will spend all night signing autographs.

“The thing is,” Giachetti says, “every fighter comes to the point where he wants to do it all himself. They watch you five or six years and figure they can do the same thing. They all do it, it’s part of boxing.”

It is three or four drinks later, and Earnie and Larry are in the back of the bar, listening to the stories of Easton. Richie blows his nose and says as soon as this fight is over he’s getting his sinus cavities burned out. “They been killin’ me for years,” he says.

“Anyway, a fighter’s got to have somebody to tell him the truth. Larry’ll look bad, he’II line up 15 guys and ask them, ‘How did I look?’ And every one of them will say, ‘Fine, Champ,’ and he’ll look at me and I’ll say, ‘Who do you want to believe? You looked like hell.’ It’s like a marriage. He don’t want to hear that but he knows I’ll tell him the truth. Damn, I got to get my sinuses fixed….”

I say I have heard they do that operation without an anesthetic.

“That’s right, they can’t put you to sleep ’cause they don’t know when to stop burnin’.”

The fighters have worked their way to the front of the bar again, and Holmes hears the last of that. “You need help goin’ to sleep?” he says. “I’ll put you to sleep, Richie, be glad to.”

Giachetti gets back up on the chair and rubs his knuckles into Holmes’ scalp. Holmes says, “He jus’ love to do that to black folks.” Giachetti reaches around Larry’s head and finds his far ear, pulls it until the champ is square in his face. Then be puts a thumb as thick as a farmer’s in Larry’s nose! They look at each other a long minute, Giachetti kisses him on the cheek.

Holmes says, “Earnie, I know why you got rid of him now.”

The thing about Richie, no matter where we go he always takin’ me out to see somethin’.” The party has moved twice and is in a Chinese restaurant now. Richie is standing on a chair near the door, talking to a waitress, Larry is remembering the last time they were in San Francisco.

He says, “All I want to do is stay in the hotel room, but Richie, he says we got to go get somethin’ for his wife. The next thing I know, he got me out on a boat, going’ to Alcatraz prison. It’s cold and rainin’, and he takes me out there, walking all over to show me work Al Capone shit. You believe that? ”

There is a noise from door. Giachetti has grabbed the waitress by the head. “Richie,” she says, “you know how long it took to fix my hair?”

Giachetti speaks to the ceiling, still keeping his hand flat on her hairdo. “Forgive this sinner, O Lord,” he says. “Heal her, cleanse her. A woman weak of the flesh, gone astray, but nonetheless one of Your flock….”

The waitress says, “I’m Jewish, Richie.”

He says, “You? You don’t look circumcised.”

The whole town is out for the race the next morning. Giachetti and his wife and Larry’s wife and brother and Steve Sass, a sometimes cornerman, have all shown up wearing sneakers and Pony jogging suits to watch the race. Larry endorses Pony.

Nancy Giachetti and Diane Holmes are together at the finish line, Nancy holding the baby. Kandy Larie Holmes, seven weeks old, yawns pink. Nancy is hard and soft, a woman whose own kids are almost grown. She misses holding babies, she calls her husband Giachetti.

Giachetti himself is wearing sunglasses and drinking unnatural amounts of coffee. He says he feels fine, and the only consolation in that is it’s exactly what’ he said a few years ago after he’d been stabbed 20~odd times in a street fight in Cleveland, a fight, by the way, that he won. He said he felt fine and then went to sleep on the sidewalk.

The race is five miles, mostly downhill, and about 40 minutes old. The serious runners are already sitting in the grass sipping fruit juice and having their legs rubbed when Larry and Earnie come around the corner and start up the long hill to the finish.

Giachetti watches them finish, and while they sign autographs and pose for pictures he goes back to the Sheraton. Five men, early 20s, come into the lobby behind him. Holmes’ limousine is parked outside and one of them has read the name on the door. Coming in, he says, “Fuck Larry Holmes.”

Giachetti steps in front of them all. “Who said that?”

The biggest one says, “I did.”

Giachetti walks into his chest., The desk clerks have stopped breathing, everyone in the lobby is frozen. “What, you got somethin’ to do with Holmes?”

Giachetti looks up into the man’s face. He says, “I’m his friend:” The man looks at Giachetti, half a foot shorter, twice as wide. A cannon barrel.

“Well, excuse me,”he says. Giachetti keeps staring. “I said excuse me. What else do you want me to do?”

Steve Sass pats him on the ribs then. “C’mon Richie.” And Giachetti lets him go. The clerks are breathe again, people begin to move.

In the elevator, one of the me laughs. “I think he really meant it,” he says. The one who had looked into Richie Giachetti’s face doesn’t laugh. He knows he meant it.

The party after the race is at Jake’s house. Jake is Larry’s brother. Italian food, beer, fried chicken. Richie is holding Kandy Larie, and he and Larry are insulting each other. (Holmes has two other daughters who live in Easton with his first wife.) Nancy and Diane are sitting at the kitchen table. Larry looks at Nancy. “I can’t believe you don’t dye your hair,” he says. “Any woman been married to Richie 18 years got to have a head of gray hair.”

“I never understood it myself,” she says.

He thinks it over. “Richie,” he says, “I ought to kick your ass once for every time you done that woman wrong.”

Giachetti nods to Diane. “I ought to kick your ass for every time you done that woman wrong.”

Nancy and Diane look at each other. “Sounds like a whole lot of kickin’ to me,” Nancy says. Diane guesses about a month’s worth. The house is full of kids and noise. Larry’s brother-in-law is drunk in the corner, showing Earnie Shavers his fist. “When this lands, nobody gets up,” he says.

Earnie smiles, nods. “I can see, man,” he says. That is when Flossie Holmes comes in. She lives in a new house Larry built for her, 200 feet from Jake’s back door.

Giachetti hands Nancy the baby and leads Larry Holmes’ mother into the living room. “Here he is, Flossie,” he says, pointing at Shavers. “Here’s the one that knocked your boy down.”

Earnie puts up his hands. “Wait a minute, lemme explain….”

“He’s the one?” She takes a step toward Shavers.

“That’s right, Flossie, that one right there without any hair.”

Shavers says, “Please, it was just business, lemme explain….”

“You don’t look as big as you do on television,” she says.

The champ is in the kitchen, talking about Ali. “Back when I was sparring with him I thought I could’ve beat him then, but I never tried to hurt him or make him look foolish. Him or Joe [Frazier] either. They was the champions, and I respected them for that. But Ali’s mind made a date now that his body can’t keep.

“It don’t bother me that he’s gettin’ more money, $4 million is enough for me….”

Somebody asks if he thinks Ali will get hurt. Holmes turns loud, the way you sometimes do when you don’t want to hear yourself. “I don’t care,” he, says. “I don’t motherfucking care. I been in the man’s shadow too long, it’s time to come out. I will destroy him, I goin’ out there to take his head off.”

A tiny nephew—four or five years old—stands dead still in the doorway watching.

And out in the living room Earnie Shavers is explaining it again to Flossie Holmes. “It’s nothin’ personal in fightin’,” he says. “It’s just business.”


Two days later, on a Monday morning in April, Don King and a man named Murad Muhammad, who says he is destined to become the promoting star of the ’80s, sit down in front of 40 photographers to announce the fight. They have rented the Belvedere Suite, 64 floors above Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, and are serving their guests wet eggs and cocktails.

The band arrives in a helicopter.

On either side of the promoters are the fighters. Holmes smiling, uncomfortable Ali looking at the table in front of him, maybe realizing what a bad and dangerous fight this is.

Murad introduces himself as a man about to promote one of the greatest fights of all time. A fight that will “set all kinds of records.” The most money, the most people, the most stadium. It will be the first heavyweight championship fight he and Don King promote together, the first heavyweight championship fight in Brazil. Murad says he has suffered to get where he is, he has toiled in the vineyard. He says the fight will settle one of the great mysteries of our time.

Ali wipes at his forehead.

The kid lasts 10 minutes and hands it to King, who is wearing a mink tie. “These are two great gladiators, as in Rome in their sparkling glory,” he says. “The champion is today, Ali is yesterday. This is the last hurrah, the song is over but the melody lingers on.”

And he says the fight will put the issue of heavyweight fighters to the “quiet solitude of oblivion of which it was to be.”

That’s what he says. Then he gives the microphone to Holmes, who is still thanking people five minutes later when Ali begins to snore. He tries to ignore it, Ali snores louder, pounds the table. “I can’t stand it. I tried to be quiet.” He stands up. “I tried, but you killin’ these people. You borin’ all these smart white folks to death….”

Holmes tries to stay in it. “You sayin’ our people is stupid because you got to be white to be smart.”

And that is all Ali needs. He calls Holmes a peanut. He calls him a silly nigger, he calls him stupid. “I’m your daddy, I created you, I goin’ come out the rockin’ chair and whup your ass. Go whap, whap, whap….” He throws jabs, short right hands into the air.

Holmes says, “What I goin’ to be doin’?”

Ali does an impression of a man being hit on the chin six times.

It goes on too long, and in the end neither of them wants to be there.

A day later it will develop that King and the man destined to become the promoting star of the ’80s have forgotten to tell the talks down in Brazil they are coming. It will develop that a previous contract has been signed for Ali to fight Mike Weaver, who is the WBA champ.

But that’s tomorrow. For now, King and Murad Muhammad stand together, smiling for pictures. “This is what sports is all about,”‘ King says, “one hand helping the other.”

A man as gentle as Earnie Shavers might say it’s just business. But this time it’s more than that.

The promoters won’t understand it, but serious people have made commitments it hurt them to make. Commitments they will live with a long time past July, whether there’s a fight or not.

The promoters won’t understand it—they have no way to—but they are playing around with something that matters.

More Dexter:

Dying for Art’s Sake (LeRoy Neiman)

No Trespassing (Jim Brown)

The Apprenticeship of Randall Cobb (Tex Cobb)

Two for Toozday (John Matuszak)

LeeRoy, He Ain’t Here No More (LeeRoy Yarbrough)

The Old Man and the River (Norman Maclean)

BGS: The Best-Kept Secret in American Journalism is Murray Kempton

Let’s stick with Mr. Kempton, shall we? Here’s a wonderful portrait of Kempton by David Owen. It originally appeared in the March 1982 issue of Esquire and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.


“The Best-Kept Secret in American Journalism Is Murray Kempton”

By David Owen


AT THE Democratic National Convention in 1980, a small brigade of young reporters dogged the footsteps of a man in a dark green suit. The man picked his way through the crush on the floor of the convention hall, pausing now and then to glance up at the podium. When he paused, the young reporters paused too. Then the man moved on again, puffing on his pipe and cradling a spiral notebook in his arm. None of the young reporters had a pipe to puff on, but most of them had notebooks cradled in their arms, and when the man in the green suit stopped to scribble an observation, the young reporters scribbled too. They looked like obedient goslings learning the lay of the barnyard from their beloved mother goose.

The man in the green suit wasn’t a candidate or a kingmaker or an undercover cop. He was a newspaper columnist named Murray Kempton, and the reporters following him (I was one of them) were a band of his admirers. Something like this happens almost everywhere he goes: when Kempton covers an important story, other reporters cover him.

Murray Kempton is a sixty-four-year-old columnist for the Long Island paper Newsday and one of the real heroes of his profession. He is an old-fashioned reporter who knocks himself out in his search for stories and then writes them up in an elegant style that combines the pithy wickedness of Martial’s epigrams with the restrained excess of late Augustan prose. He is an eloquent champion of the lowly and a tireless persecutor of the corrupt and unjust. A dramatist at heart, he plies his trade wherever circumstances have contrived to build a stage, leading him one day to a hearing of the National Labor Relations Board, another to the sentencing of John Lennon’s murderer, another to a screening of a movie about crooked policemen. His nose for news is eclectic but exacting. For more than thirty years he has covered politics, labor, sports, literature, and a dozen other topics with such consummate skill and wit that in some circles he is spoken of in the same breath with H. L. Mencken. And yet, Kempton’s career has been mostly an obscure one. His colleagues and readers revere him, but in the vast territory beyond the suburbs of New York he is virtually unknown. He won a National Book Award a decade ago and a handful of other prizes, but he has never had anything resembling nationwide acclaim. His columns have never been syndicated, his books are out of print, he has never won a Pulitzer Prize. Murray Kempton is the best-kept secret in American journalism.

I FIRST encountered Kempton’s writing in college in a back issue of The New York Review of Books. The piece I read was so graceful and so incisive that I was astonished to learn that its author earned his living as a columnist for Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. The Post was a lively leftist paper when Kempton started out there in 1942, but under Murdoch it has been known less for its editorial quality than for its sensational full-page headlines. When Kempton left the Post for Newsday last year, most of his fans believed he had taken a step in the right direction, but the move cost him the heart of an already limited readership: Newsday is virtually unobtainable in New York City.

Kempton has occasionally done what his admirers have hoped he would do and broken away from newspapers to find a form in which he could reach a wider audience (and write at greater length). But his defections have never been long-lived. He left the Post for an editorship at The New Republic in 1963 but resigned a year later after discovering he preferred New York to Washington and daily deadlines to weekly ones. In 1969, he left the Post again, this time to become a free-lance writer. He excelled and even flourished at his new undertaking, and he did some of the best work of his career; but the newspaper eventually drew him back.

Born and raised in Mencken’s Baltimore, Kempton has journalism in his blood. He was weaned on the sort of newspapers that people tuned their lives to, and the fact that such newspapers don’t exist anymore has never entirely daunted him. Murdoch’s Post isn’t Mencken’s Sun, but Kempton has learned to make do with what’s available.

“I like outrageous newspapers,” he explains. “And I loved working for the Post. I enjoyed all that nonsense. The Post‘s headlines are like those signs in restaurants that say HOME COOKING: nobody believes them. My only objection to the Post is that it has that British view of political coverage. If you have a job like mine, you have to go around a lot, and it gets kind of embarrassing if the paper is knifing somebody. It was the kind of paper I’d rather read than write for.”

“But why write for newspapers at all?” I ask.

“I really do like newspaper reporting,” Kempton says. “I suppose it’s the fraternity of journalism that I love. And there’s also the fact that you’re paid a living wage. This is just the perfect life. You get up in the morning, look at the AP schedule, and just go out and do something. I expect to do this until I drop dead.”

“What about books?” I ask. Kempton has written four: Part of Our Time in 1955, America Comes of Middle Age in 1963, The Briar Patch, which won a National Book Award in 1973, and a book about the 1950s, which has not yet been published.

“I’ll never do another one,” he says. “I can’t see the possibility. And I can’t work as a free-lance magazine writer because, one, there isn’t that much money in it, and two, it takes so long. I’ve never wanted to be a syndicated columnist. I’m not a good familiar essayist, and I never have been, and I’m not about to become one now. I think I’m fairly smart, and if I see something happen and think about it awhile, my mind absorbs it; but I have to have something to react to. It’s the difference between a heavy hitter and a counter-puncher.”

As always, Kempton is self-deprecating to a fault. As a writer he could climb into the ring with anyone, but saying he couldn’t is as much a part of him as journalism is. With typical modesty he brushes aside all praise: “I’ve always thought I lacked the moral fiber that makes enemies,” he says. A slim, professorial figure with horn-rimmed glasses and a discrete collection of permanently rumpled suits, he is steeped in the faultless manners of his Confederate forebears. He “ma’am”s congresswomen and secretaries with equal deference and is never less than civil, even to the politicians he eviscerates in print. His face is scholarly but kind. His voice, a tobacco-thickened mixture of resonances with a hint of a southern drawl, is what Mark Twain’s must have been—a storyteller’s voice.

“You know,” he says, “Murdoch once paid me a great compliment. He said, ‘I don’t think you’re much of a writer, but where do you find these stories?’ A city is full of extremely good stories. I’m very lazy. I can’t go out and interview little old ladies, because I think that’s just an invasion of privacy. So what I like to cover is some sort of set scene. And since the papers don’t cover these things to a very great extent, I have a kind of monopoly.”

In an era when reporters thrust themselves into the foreground of their stories, Kempton is a man apart. He is a perpetual outsider, a careful observer who learns by keeping his eyes and ears open. His obscurity is one of the secrets of his craft. “It is a fundamental fact about journalism,” he has written, “and might even be a rule if it had the attention it deserves—that it is next to impossible to judge any public figure with the proper detachment once you begin calling him by his first name.”

IN THE  fall of 1955, Murray Kempton traveled to Lexington, Mississippi, on one of many journeys he took through the South in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The local sheriff was a man named Richard F. Byrd, a former Chevrolet salesman who had been elected under the slogan, Just ask the Boy Scouts about me. As sheriff, Byrd allowed his friends to prosper in the bootlegging business and spent spare moments beating up Negroes.

One night in 1954, Byrd drove up to a small group of law-abiding blacks and told them to “get gain’.” As they dispersed, Byrd pulled out his gun, aimed at random, and shot one of them in the back. A few days later, Hazel Brannon Smith, the editor of the local paper, found the courage to run a signed, front-page editorial condemning the sheriff. Hers was the only voice, official or otherwise, ever raised against him. Kempton visited her a year and a half after the shooting and then walked across the street to talk to the sheriff. He wrote in the Post:

There was a shoving of the door, and its jamb was tilled by Richard F. Byrd, himself, angling his shoulders to get through, a great, stubby, pearl-handled pistol cradled flat in his right hand as though he were carrying an ice-cream cone starting to melt.

[Deputy Sheriff] Coy Farmer backed off to a corner, and the sheriff of Holmes County—the strong right arm of the bootleggers and the Citizens Council—his pale hat drawn down to his steel glasses, a thick vein beating in his neck, pulled open the desk drawer and laid his weapon beside all its pretty sisters, another revolver, two blackjacks and a sap. He was like a collector savoring his treasures, and then he turned the eye of a basilisk upon his visitor….

“What’s yer name,” he said. “You’ve been around here before, haven’t ye?” The visitor said no, and gave his name and the sheriff wrote it down as slowly as though the pencil were a blunt knife and he were cutting flesh. There was a slow recognition beginning at the ankles and rising to the knee-hinges that the sheriff of Holmes County was sitting there balancing the pleasure and the peril involved in working over his visitor right there in the office. What need is there here for the sheriff to carry a gun in the daylight? Of course, the need is interior; Richard F. Byrd needs the feel of a weapon by daylight as some of us need whisky for breakfast; the only lawless, violent man in sight in Lexington at high noon is the appointed guardian of its law.

The visitor went back to say good-by to Hazel Smith, and said that he calculated his supply of adrenalin was good for just three minutes more in town. Hazel Smith rolled back her curly head and laughed; it was the laugh of a debutante. It will take a braver man than I to look Richard Byrd in the eye again; but, praise God, it takes a braver man than he to look Hazel in the eye.

Northern journalists by the dozen descended on the South in the 1950s, but only one of them sent back dispatches that captured more than a shadow of what he had seen. Kempton’s columns exposed the villainies of the time and celebrated the small acts of courage and humanity that marked the beginnings of the civil rights movement. While other reporters filed bloodless summaries of the trials and demonstrations, Kempton wrote what were essentially short stories, and all contained within the columnist’s eight-hundred-word limitation. He compresses volumes into the exasperating one-sentence paragraphs that are the stock-in-trade of daily journalism, and can set scene and mood as succinctly as O. Henry.

Over the course of his career, Kempton has written brilliantly about figures as diverse as Jimmy Hoffa and Evelyn Waugh, Ronald Reagan and Willie Mays, Nikita Khrushchev and H. L. Mencken, Jean Harris and Machiavelli. He is an expert on Italian opera, the Catholic Church, Henry James, the New York Giants. His reporting on the political conventions of the past thirty years is unequaled. His book The Briar Patch, a close study of the “Panther 21” trial of the early 1970s, not only remains the best account of the New York Black Panthers; it is also considered one of the two or three finest books ever written about the clash between radicals and government in that period. In 1967, he wrote a groundbreaking essay on Dwight D. Eisenhower from which historians have been pilfering ever since.

In his article Kempton overturned the view, which at the time was the consensus, that Eisenhower had been little more than an ineffective bumbler in the White House. Looking deeper, Kempton discovered a shrewd leader who had maintained his power by hiding his hand in everything he did and by allowing Nixon and Dulles, his Vice-President and Secretary of State, to catch the flak. Kempton also found in Eisenhower a general who was unromantic about military matters and who coolly anticipated the certain doom of the French at Dien Bien Phu. He wrote:

Never thereafter could he contemplate the war in Indochina except in the frozen tones of a War College report on a maneuver by officers who can henceforth abandon all hope of promotion. The French, he instructs Foster Dulles, have committed the classic military blunder. In Geneva, Dulles is said to have hinted that the United States might use the atom bomb to save the French; there is no evidence that he would have dared transmit that suggestion to a President who plainly would not have trusted him with a stick of dynamite to blow up a fishpond.

Two years later Garry Wills took Kempton’s article and reassembled it virtually paragraph by paragraph in a fine chapter in Nixon Agonistes. “I stole all my stuff on Eisenhower from Murray,” Wills cheerfully admits. (There’s a fair amount of Kempton in the rest of Nixon Agonistes, too.) Almost every historian who has written about Eisenhower since then has done the same. Kempton’s revisionism of fifteen years ago is the party line today.

This sort of thing happens all the time with Kempton. It happened with his pieces on Joe McCarthy, it happened with his pieces on Richard Nixon, it happened with his pieces on Vietnam. For decades first-rate writers have been sifting through the fragments of important stories only to find that Kempton has been there first and made off with most of the booty.

“GOING AROUND” is what Kempton calls it. Some days he walks for miles through New York City peering into courtrooms, dropping by government offices, turning over rocks looking for a story. Tagging along behind him at the Democratic convention, I heard him reveal the secret of his method: “I have no sources.” He insists on seeing things for himself. He will sit for hours at some excruciatingly boring hearing, working a crossword puzzle in his lap, waiting for nothing more than a moment of drama he can turn into one of his incomparable vignettes.

This morning I am waiting in the hallway outside Newsday‘s Manhattan bureau just after nine when he emerges from the rush-hour mob of the elevator. He is pushing the battered red bicycle that has been his preferred mode of transportation for years. The basket over the front wheel is crammed with this morning’s newspapers, the rack over the back wheel holds a dog-eared briefcase. Kempton unlocks the door, and we step inside.

Newsday‘s Manhattan office isn’t much to look at. There are a dozen desks, a copying machine, a drinking fountain, and a closet full of wire-service Teletypes. Kempton’s desk is just like all the others, a paper-clogged little perch over next to one of the walls, and he has to share an electronic composing terminal with the reporter next to him. He pounds the bowl of his pipe on the edge of his ashtray, then fishes a gooey pipe cleaner from somewhere on his desk and reams it through the stem.

“I went to see The Magic Flute last night,” he says, “and I must say that Tamino reminds me of Prince Charles. Have you seen The Magic Flute?”

“No,” I say.

“It’s so beautiful. And so boring.”

A woman across the office shouts that the Associated Press schedule for today has just come over the wire. I go to fetch a copy, then return to Kempton’s desk.

“Thank you, sir,” he says as he scans the paper.

“Anything good in there?” I ask.

Kempton shakes his head. “Not a damn thing.” He rummages around in one of his drawers, pulls out a can of butane, and begins to fill his lighter. “I’ve got two bad stories now,” he says. “If nothing else turns up, we’ll go to the criminal court.”

Back in the old days at the Post, Kempton and labor columnist Victor Riesel worked out of an upstairs office with a window that opened onto the roof. Kempton, who began as Riesel’s assistant and took over his job two years later, would stroll in, chewing on his pipe, and greet Riesel by saying, “Hello, fellow worker. Whom do we hack today?” They would then climb out onto the roof, which they treated as a private terrace, and pace back and forth in deep conversation, filling the air with smoke and fleshing out an idea for that day’s column.

The world has changed a great deal since those days, but Kempton’s journalistic instincts have survived intact. He works hard. He approaches every story as though he were in competition with half a dozen other reporters, all of them scrambling for a scoop. And it doesn’t seem to bother him that there aren’t half a dozen papers in New York anymore, or that he is often the only reporter on the beat.

Coupled with Kempton’s unstinting diligence is a moral and artistic perfectionism that has brought him into conflict with his editors over the years. “Murray resigned roughly every other day,” says former Post managing editor Paul Sann. “I used to keep a file of his resignations, but I had to throw it out because it took up so much room.” Sometimes Kempton actually left the Post when he quit, but he usually came back within twenty-four hours.

Sann remembers one experience in particular. It was the final night of a political convention, and the Post’s reporters were filing their stories from the floor. Kempton was seated next to Sann, working on what was intended to be the paper’s main wrap-up of the convention.

“Murray would write a take and put it under his portable,” Sann recalls, “and then go out for a walk on the floor, puffing on his pipe. Then he would come back and write another take and put it under his portable.” This continued until Kempton had piled up seven or eight pages under his typewriter, at which point he headed back out onto the floor of the convention hall and disappeared.

“Finally,” says Sann, “about four A.M. Murray reappeared from somewhere and said he had nothing he could file, because what he had written was just no good. So I lifted up the portable and took out the copy and read it. And it was absolutely priceless. It was Kempton at his best.”

While Sann was reading, Kempton, dejected, got up to leave. Sann pulled him back into his chair. “I said, ‘Murray, you ain’t gonna write better than this no matter how long you live. Now you gotta wrap it up, because if you don’t, I’m gonna.’ So he puffed on his pipe for a minute and then said, ‘All right, fellow worker. I’m ashamed of this copy, but you’re my friend, and I’ll write another take.'”

Similar anxieties still crop up from time to time. For several years he has been working on his book about the 1950s. “I struggled along,” he says, “but I didn’t have any particular feeling for it after a while. What I was afraid of was that I’d get lousy reviews, and I never have gotten lousy reviews—although I think the way I’ve magnificently avoided success has been to my benefit; the party of envy does not fall upon me as it does upon so many others. And, of course, if the book is never published, everybody will think it’s a masterpiece that never saw the light of day. I mean, Arthur Schlesinger keeps stopping me on the street and saying, ‘When is your book coming out?’ It doesn’t seem to be absolutely required that it appear.”

At a little before ten this morning we set out to track down the handful of story ideas that Kempton has come up with for today. One of them involves Jack Abbott, the convicted murderer who was paroled at the urging of Norman Mailer and who is now the author of a popular book about prison life. Yesterday the police announced that Abbott is a suspect in the weekend murder of a waiter at a Lower East Side restaurant. Kempton has decided to go down to the criminal court building, on the chance that Abbott will turn himself in.

“If anyone should call for me,” he hollers over his shoulder as we leave the office together, “tell them I’m in search of Norman Mailer’s last sound decision.”

On the subway downtown Kempton examines our fellow passengers and says, “Every composite drawing I’ve ever seen has looked exactly like the people sitting in whatever subway car I happened to be riding in at the time.” Kempton himself looks a little damp just now: we had to walk through the rain to get here. The blond-gray curls at the back of his head are glistening, and there are droplets on the lenses of his glasses. Even moist, though, he is an impressive figure. He also has an uncanny power to make you want to emulate him. It’s only our second meeting, but already I’m dressed exactly as he is (gray suit, white shirt, blue tie). When David Halberstam was a young reporter in Mississippi in the 1950s, he used to make weekend pilgrimages and gaze across a courtroom at Kempton, who was covering a trial. Halberstam couldn’t find the nerve to introduce himself until several years later. Kempton in those days had a collection of jazz records that he carried on the road, and for years afterward David Halberstam did too.

Even the victims of Kempton’s pen tend to find him irresistible. When he moved to The New Republic in 1963, he decided to do a piece on McCarthy hatchet man Roy Cohn, about whom he had written several nasty newspaper columns. Cohn later told a Newsweek reporter what happened: “When he called me for an appointment, he told my secretary he had discussed the piece with his editors and there wasn’t the slightest possibility he could give me a fair shake. I wasn’t going to see him, but when someone tells you that, how can you possibly refuse?”

Kempton’s effect on others is perhaps not the first thing one would expect from a man whose life has been filled with more than the usual sorrows. His first marriage ended in divorce, his second in a separation. A son, James Murray Jr. , was killed in an automobile accident ten years ago. Another son was born with a serious learning disability. A daughter, the (former) writer Sally Kempton, now a disciple of the guru Muktananda, once lashed out at her father in a bitter feminist memoir published in this magazine. Money has always been tight. Kempton now lives frugally and alone in a tiny apartment in Manhattan.

At the courthouse Kempton leads me to the dungeonlike pressroom, where he is immediately welcomed as a favorite son. Mike Pearl, who has covered the courts since the Early Cretaceous Period, immediately surrenders his desk and phone, the throne and scepter of his epochal reign. Pearl is king here, but Kempton takes precedence. For an hour he keeps our comer of the pressroom in stitches.

“This is the only murder case I know of where the possible hideout is The New York Review of Books,” he says, referring to the fact that part of Jack Abbott’s prison book was published in that magazine. “I don’t know, do you think he may surrender to The Hudson Review? He’s classy, you know. Maybe he’ll wait to turn himself in at the National Book Awards ceremony.”

When it becomes clear that Abbott isn’t going to show up, we head over to City Hall, where Kempton receives another royal reception. “Murray the K!” someone bellows when he steps into the pressroom. On the front steps we run into Mayor Koch, who is polite but wary, and with good reason: Kempton can give any politician the willies. At a City Hall press conference once, Kempton sat in a chair that broke beneath him, and Koch said, “Here comes Murray Kempton, breaking my furniture.” Kempton quickly corrected him. “It’s the people’s furniture, Mr. Mayor.”

“I WAS born in Baltimore,” Kempton says, thereby summarizing virtually all he chooses to reveal about his life. He is an extremely private man who seldom talks about his background and almost never about his personal life. Even his close friends find they know little about him. At the heart of Kempton’s reticence is a feeling, amounting almost to a code of honor, that one simply doesn’t talk about these things. Kempton is a very proud man, a man for whom “carrying on” has all the personal necessity of some great and ancient ancestral duty. When things go wrong, he takes pains to keep the injury to himself and to keep the people around him from shouldering what he believes to be a private grief. “I don’t think you talk about your troubles,” he says.

When Kempton was three, his father died of bronchitis and his mother moved her two sons into a modest Baltimore row house owned by her father, a judge. The four of them shared the house with Mrs. Kempton’s sister, who had never married. Kempton and his brother, now a Baltimore lawyer, walked a couple of blocks in one direction to school, a couple of blocks in another to church, and never ventured very far beyond the close confines of the neighborhood, which was in the gradual process of falling apart. He spent much of his youth buried in books.

“What was your childhood like?” I asked.

“Unattractive,” he said. “I mean, I was.”

“What did you want to be when you grew up?”

“I don’t have any idea what I wanted to be,” he said. “I was such a wet young man that all I wanted to be was left alone. No, I guess my ambition was to be an editorial writer. I think my dream was to write those things where you endorse Warren G. Harding for President. I had a kind of hortatory side to me then. I don’t know what I wanted to be. I wanted to be beloved of women, which I didn’t succeed in doing. Rich. A senator.” He paused for a moment. “My idea of a good senator is Howard Cosell.”

While in college, at Johns Hopkins, Kempton was editor of the student newspaper. He was also a campus legend. For years after his graduation, student journalists looked back on the period of his editorship as something of a golden age in the paper’s history. He became a member of the Young Communist League and, later, of the Socialist party. After graduation his first thought was to move away from Baltimore, and especially away from his neighborhood, whose decay he found oppressive. He worked briefly as publicity director of the American Labor party, then signed on at the Post in 1942.

In all the years since then he has lived a life true to the sort of ideals that most people shed as a matter of course.

“There used to be an old game that [Nation editor] Vic Navasky played,” says Russell Baker.”He’d send you a questionnaire to till out for a magazine he was editing. The question was, ‘Why did you sell out?’ Murray is the only guy I can think of who would be able to answer, ‘I never did.'”

I NEVER interview anyone,” Kempton said, “because I’m an atrocious interviewer. I’ll make a long speech, and then the guy I’m interviewing will say, ‘You may be right,’ and that’s the end of the interview.”

We were sitting in a Chinese restaurant around the comer from my apartment. Kempton had pedaled his bicycle uptown from Newsday‘s Times Square office to meet me there, and when he arrived, he had a sack of groceries under his arm: he had picked up his breakfast on the way.

Kempton sipped red wine and glanced over the menu. He mentioned that he had once tried to interest a publisher in subsidizing him for two years while he compiled a “collection of history as written by losers.” The project came to nothing, but there is something wonderfully typical about his having thought of it in the first place. Kempton has a maverick’s affection for dignified failures, and some of his best columns have concerned people who, for one reason or another, didn’t measure up. In 1956, on the day after Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in the history of the World Series, Kempton devoted his column to Sal Maglie, who was the losing pitcher in that contest. While every other sportswriter in the country turned his attention to Larsen, Kempton stole quietly into the loser’s locker room and came away with undoubtedly the best piece on the series.

“He worked his arm a little,” Kempton wrote, “and blew on his hands as though he came from a world no sun could warm.” Maglie was an old man, forty years old. He pitched what was in some ways the greatest game of his life, and he lost. That’s exactly the sort of story Kempton loves.

“Did you watch the royal wedding?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I kept hoping Lady Diana would run away with John McEnroe. You know, I thought that Borg match at Wimbledon was one of the most wonderful things I’d ever seen in my life. As time goes on I’ve come to hate the British. I don’t think anyone likes them anymore.”

Athletes fascinate Kempton (“You know what I like about them? They have statistics”), and one of the athletes who fascinates him most is Muhammad Ali.

“I have the most terrible awe of the man who has to fight the fight,” he said. “I remember the night before the Liston fight I was over in a black hotel in Miami having a cup of coffee with Malcolm X. I was being pompous about the Muslims, and I said to Malcolm, ‘You know, I have a lot of differences with you guys, but the thing is, I’ve known black nationalists for years—city black nationalists—and what always struck me about them was that they were terrified whenever they came into the white world. And the thing that fascinates me about your people is that they’re not afraid.’

“And Malcolm said to me, ‘That’s it! I’ve got to tell Cassius!’

“Clay was staying at the hotel, and there was a wonderful kid named Archie who worked for him. So Malcolm said to him in his imperial way, ‘Archie, go get Cassius. This is how he can win. He’s got to understand that he’s not afraid.’

“Well, Archie came back very shame-faced and said, ‘Cassius ain’t here.’ Malcolm said, ‘Where is he?’ And Archie said, ‘He took the car to meet Ray Robinson, and he hasn’t been seen for two hours.”‘

Kempton laughed heartily. “The point was that he was on a wavelength that none of us could understand. I mean, it’s something to have been the only heavyweight champion of the world, in my lifetime, who was his own man.”

Kempton is a masterful conversationalist. One doesn’t so much interview him as interrupt his train of thought.

“Someone once told me that you and Nixon were drinking buddies,” I said. “Is that true?”

“My social connection with Nixon,” he said, “consists of a series of moments in which I would run into him in the course of stories I was covering and he would say, ‘Slumming?’ And I would say, ‘Mr. Vice-President, I don’t live in a terribly high-rent district as it is.’ That was the extent of our conversation, but it happened again and again.Then, early in his administration, I was at the White House for some reason, and Nixon spotted me and stuck out his hand, and I had this horrible feeling that he was about to say, ‘Slumming? ” ‘ Kempton laughed. “I mean, the man knew how to conduct himself.

“Anyway, that was the absolute extent of our friendship, from which I profited greatly, because the son of a bitch—no offense meant—the man they snatched the golden bough from, is the single most brilliant political analyst I’ve ever known in my life. You give him any business except his own, and he would have been the greatest political manager alive. You know, I met him for lunch once. I had just seen John V. Lindsay, and I said to Nixon, ‘Lindsay has the greatest political future of anybody I’ve seen.’ And Nixon said, ‘Lindsay has no political future. In four years he’ll have some terrible fight with Nelson Rockefeller and he’ll end up a Democrat.’ Incredible!

“I’ve never understood him,” Kempton continued. “He had this incredibly keen political sense, which would just stop your breath, aesthetically, but he was always a bit ashamed of it. Maybe he wanted to be a tyrant, I don’t know. But whatever else he wanted to be, he wanted to be a great historical figure. And then he would collapse in awe before all these eastern Republicans. Intellectually he was worth a hundred of those people, but he could never escape being a figure of irony and ridiculousness, because whenever he came in the presence of some biggy, he immediately closed his eyes and thought, ‘Poor little me, listening to the sound of the railroad tracks in Whittier, California, now I’m in the big time.’ And who was it? John Mitchell. The big time!”

Shortly after Kempton’s son was killed in 1971, a mysterious messenger left a note at Kempton’s door. Although the note was handwritten on White House stationery, Kempton at first had no idea who had sent it.

“To the best of my memory,” he said, “the letter said something like, ‘When I read of your son’s death, I thought of you at the time we first met, and I remembered the idealism you showed.’ Now, I’m reading this letter addressing me as an old friend in this handwriting with which I am not familiar, and I figure maybe it’s from Steve Hess [at that time, national chairman of the White House Conference on Children and Youth]. But it was from Nixon. Now, what the hell was he talking about? My son was a member of the resistance and stood in total opposition to everything Nixon was doing; and as for my idealism, the first time I met Nixon I was trying to get something on Alger Hiss.

“You know, Nixon meant it in some way. I mean, he wanted to mean it. I don!t understand him. Hitler, Stalin, any of these people—they just didn’t have those dimensions. The sad thing about Nixon is that he’s capable of quite sincere emotions, and yet he invents. He didn’t write me a letter because he thought he would gain anything by it—with his rotten reputation, what did he have to gain? He wrote me a letter because he imagined this community. The fascinating thing about Nixon is that he social-climbs down.”

We sipped tea and Kempton lit his pipe. It was getting late.

“What’s your favorite book?” I asked.

Kempton puffed a moment. “Do you know Mencken’s comment about being hit on the head by Huckleberry Finn?”


“Well,” he said, “I suppose Huckleberry Finn is the greatest book I have ever read.” A gentleman present, as Boswell used to say, responded with something drunken and unintelligible about “Huck’s freedom,” and Kempton shook his head.

“People who talk about freedom don’t know what it’s like,” he said. “Huck doesn’t say, I want to be free. He says, I’m going to light out for the territory—something beyond where you are. It’s not to escape, it’s to find. And that’s what makes it such a great book.

“I have more freedom than I can live with. I don’t want freedom; I’d like to be responsible. I guess what I love about Huck is his sense of responsibility. It would not be a good book if he didn’t have a moral sense. And I always like to think that Huck wanted to light out for the territory not because of what he was escaping but because of what might be there.”

FOUR MORNINGS a week Murray Kempton, the Huckleberry Finn of American journalism, climbs onto his bicycle and pedals out into the world in search of what may be there. For more than thirty years he has been finding things other writers have not even thought to look for, and he has done so with a compelling humanity that is rare not just in his profession but in the human race as well. I have followed him as he made his regular rounds, and I have eaten at his table, and I am not all that certain that he is not the greatest man I have ever met.

I admire in him what he admires in Huck: his moral sense and his sense of responsibility. At the end of our dinner I dragged him back to my apartment to meet my wife. He was too polite to refuse, then too polite to stay. Our dachshund danced around his feet as he hesitated in our doorway. I felt a little silly afterward, but that’s just the sort of effect Kempton can have on you: you want to tow him all over town, introducing him to your relatives.

“The great lives are lived against the perceived current of their times, ” Kempton wrote recently in a column eulogizing the late Cardinal Wyszynski. He would object strenuously to the suggestion that his statement might also be applied to himself, but Kempton’s career has certainly been great, and it has been conducted in large measure against the current of his time. He is like a visitor from another era. “Churchill would have ceased to be Churchill the first moment he decided to be someone more up-to-date than a seventeenth-century Whig,” he continued in his column. “Wyszynski could not have been Wyszynski if he had ever left off being a thirteenth-century bishop.”

And Kempton would not be Kempton if he ever left off being—what? The obvious archetype is Mencken, whom Kempton adores, but I think first of Dr. Johnson. Kempton is more a creature of the eighteenth century than he is of Mencken’s, and although he is a Whig to Johnson’s Tory, the two men have much in common. Johnson used to trudge out into the streets of London to buy oysters for his cat, because he was afraid that if he left the task to a servant, the servant might come to hate the cat. It’s easy to imagine Kempton doing the same thing, except that he would probably pick up something for the servant as well. His prose style owes as much to Johnson as it does to anyone now breathing. His personality seems as inextricably bound up with New York as Johnson’s was with London. His happiness, like Johnson’s, has been built around a core of sorrow.

The last time I saw Murray Kempton it was after midnight and he was unchaining his bicycle from a parking meter in front of a grocery store on Third Avenue. An empty taxi slowed for a moment, then zoomed past. “God bless you,” he said, as he almost always says when saying goodbye. And then he loaded his breakfast into his basket, snapped a rubber band around each cuff, and rode off into the night.

The Banter Gold Standard: The Barber and the Dim-Time Guy

Please enjoy the deadline work of two heavyweights–Jimmy Cannon and Murray Kempton–on the unlikely winner and hard luck loser of Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. The 2-0 win by the Yankees gave them a 3-2 series lead (they’d win it in 7) but the game is remembered because Don Larsen threw the only perfect game in the history of the World Series.

From The New York Post, here’s Cannon on Larsen and Kempton on the losing pitcher, Sal Maglie.

“Perfect Day for a Dim-Time Guy” 

By Jimmy Cannon

You’re Don Larsen, the dim-time guy who pitched the perfect game. You’re a midnight kid who doesn’t miss any laughs. It’s one more for the road and no one ever gets sun-burned by a sallow morning sun. But yesterday on a sun-spangled afternoon you achieved everlasting fame in baseball. You pitched a no-hitter, the first in any World Series game, the perfect one because no one reached first base in nine rapid innings. So let them rib you about busting up a past-curfew car in St. Pete last spring. You weren’t hurt and yesterday it was 2-0 against the Dodgers in the fifth game of the World Series in Yankee Stadium.

All the night-long bus rides around the no-sleep leagues, from the village of Aberdeen to Globe-Miami in the Arizona Texas League, through the Three Eye League, through the North League, through Wichita and Wichita Falls, they brought you to the Stadium yesterday. From the St. Louis Browns to the Baltimore Orioles, and to the Yankees in ’55 after being dropped back to Denver, there fun all the way. And some grief, too, because in ’49 in Globe-Miami the right arm was sore. It wasn’t too much but down there you don’t get much help from specialists with the club picking up the bill. You were an outfielder for a while, a respectable one but pitching is your business. The arm healed itself and you returned to your trade.

You don’t counterfeit humility for the reporters. You don’t turn it on for the crowd. You’re a tall, slow-walking man and that’s the way you go. You kept to the usual routine of your life. You knocked over a few beers, grabbed a couple of laughs and hit the sheets at midnight, You belt a few every night and why not? Why go to bed early? You knew you don’t sleep. You’re a dim-time guy.

It occurred to you in the sixth or seventh inning you might be the first man to throw a no-hitter in a Series. You can’t remember exactly when this thought took shape. You don’t know who the batter was. You were taking them one at a time, hitter by hitter. The infielders didn’t give you any advice. Even Joe Collins, who generally reminds a pitcher to cover first when a lefthanded hitter is up, stayed away from you.

On the bench, Billy Hunter rolled the practice ball out to the infield. He made certain he did it every inning. Once Mickey Mantle came in and sat where Hunter had been all game long. Whispering so you wouldn’t hear it, Hunter asked Mantle for lis lucky seat. They were guided by superstition as the innings passed, each man following the same routine but not mentioning it to you.

Under the stands, Rip Coleman, who rooms with you on the road, tried to walk out the tension. He didn’t want to see the base hit that would take it away from you. A grounds-keeper told Coleman you were pitching a no-hitter. And Coleman didn’t reply, just glared at the guy.

You didn’t wind up once yesterday as you pitched the first perfect game since Charlie Robertson did it for the White Sox against Detroit during the regular season of 1922. You figured Del Baker, the Red Sox coach, was catching your pitches and tipping off the hitters. So you experimented without a wind-up after the Yankees had won the pennant this year. But your roommate claims you got this style from a comic book character called The Ghoul.

You used the fast ball, the curve ball and the slider. Only once, in the first inning to Pee Wee Reese, did you throw three balls to hitter. It came down to three and two and they the shortstop stood transfixed as a third strike was called by Babe Pinelli. In the ninth Yogi Berra told you that you had to get Jackie Robinson who was the first hitter. You threw him out, then Roy Campanella hit a ground ball to Martin and Dale Mitchell, batting for Sal Maglie, took a third strike.

At times you resembled a reflective man throwing stones into a river, so easy was your motion. Occasionally, you examined the ball as if it were made of crystal and could reveal the secrets of the innings to come. Against you, Maglie, sad as old men are who desperately hold onto their youth, squeezed the ball in both hands as if it were made of snow and he could press it smaller. He was marvelous, too, and stingy with his five hits. But Mantle hit a curve ball that slanted toward his wrists for a home run in the fourth inning. In the sixth a single by Andy Carey, your bunted sacrifice and Hank Bauer’s leftfield single made the other run.

Only four times was your perfect game in jeopardy. In the second, Robinson’s line-shot jumped out of Carey’s glove but Gil McDougald fielded it. In the fifth, Mantle, running sideways, made a spectacular back-handed catch of Gil Hodges’ fly. Also in the fifth, Sandy Amoros’ fly ball abruptly turned foul. If it had fallen fair, it would have been a home run. The one-leap ground ball Jim Gilliam hit to McDougald in the seventh was difficult, but the shortstop performed the play.

Early in the season, you were a five-inning pitcher but your stamina came back. You pitched one-and-a-third inning in the second game of this Series, but the four runs they made off of you on a hit and four bases on balls were unearned. The hell with al [sic] that. You’re Don Larsen, a dim-time guy, who pitched the perfect game.


“Maglie: Gracious Man With Dealer’s Hands”

By Murray Kempton

There was the customary talk about the shadows of the years and the ravages of the law of averages when Sal Maglie went out to meet the Yankees yesterday afternoon. It was the first time, after all the years, that he had ever pitched in Yankee Stadium, the home of champions.

He threw that humpbacked setup pitch that is last in the warm up, and then for the first time looked at Hank Bauer. He threw the curve in; Hank Bauer made a gesture at hunting; and the strike was called.

The hitter leaned over a little; the pitch was high; Hank Bauer skittered back in haste and the ball went by the catcher’s mitt and back to the wall.

“If I know Sal,” the old Giant writer in the stands said, “He threw that to tell -em on. He knows the Yankees probably think he’s a little tired. H’s saying to them, look fellas, I’m still around. You’ve got to come and get me.”

“The call was for an inside pitch,” said Sal Maglie later. “I threw it too high and it got away.” He is a gracious man who takes no pride in the legend of professional venom.

He worked his arm a little and blew on his hands as though he came from a world no sun could warm. And then Bauer plunked it up to Reese; Maglie looked once at the ball and then at the fielder, and, without needing to see the catch, bent over and worked his long, brown, dealer’s hands into the resin bag.

He got Joe Collins to hit on the ground to the wrong field; MickeyMantle went all the way around; Sal Maglie heard the sound and judged it. The left fielder was still circling under it when Sal Maglie crossed the foul line on his way to the dugout. He gives very little and can afford to to spend less.

He went that way through the line-up for the first three innings. It seemed a memorable incident when the first pitch to the eighth Yankee batter was a ball. The utility infield of the fifth-place team in the Westport Midget League League would have eaten up anything hit by either team in those three perfect 18 outs. “I figured,” said PeeWee Reese, “that both you guys weren’t giving anybody anything, and we’d have to call it at midnight.”

Sal Maglie ended the third for the Dodgers, walking out slowly carrying one bat, digging his spikes In as though anything ls possible in this game, driving the first pitch straight to Mickey Mantle and walking over towards third base to change his cap and get his glove. He threw the warm-up pitches; Roy Campanella was standing up and almost dancing at the plate.

Maglle got the two quick strikes on Bauer who hit to Jackie Robinson; Maglle did not look at the play; he was busy with the resin. He pushed the curve by Joe Collins; it was the third strike. Mantle was back.

The first strike was a curve and called. There were no times intrudlng upon the memory when he had seemed more sharp. He threw the next pitch outside, and then hit the corner again. He waited awhlle, rubbing his fingers on his shirt, wiping the afternoon’s first sweat of his forehead. He threw a pitch on the corner that was low by the distance of a bead or sweat from the skin; it was that close and was called a ball.

Mantle hit a foul. Sal Maglie knew it was out of play; the left fielder was still running and he was working on a new ball. The next pitch he threw Mantle was down the middle a little inside. Roy Campanella said later that he hit on his fists. Sal Maglie watched it almost curve and then stay fair in the stands; with the unseeing roar all around him. he walked back to the rubber and kicked it once.

“He’d been fouling off the outside pitches,” he said later. “I thought I’d try him Inside once.” He stopped for a minute, naked and dry beside his locker, the skin showing through the thin hair above his forehead. “That shows what can happen when you’re thinking out there and the other guy isn’t.” That was as close as he came to suggesting that God is too tolerant with the margin of error he assigns the very young.

Then Yogi Berra hit one hard to the wrong field; Duke Snider ran the distance of years, and tumbled up with lt. Sal Maglie had no reason lo know it then, but that was the inning and the run.

In the fifth Enos Slaughter was walked very fast. Billy Martin bunted. Sal Maglie came scuttling onto the grass and snatched the ball and turned around and fired it high and smoky to second just in time, a 40-year-old-man throwing out a 40-year-old-man and knowing he had to hurry. He was sweating hard by this time. Harold Reese went up half his height and knocked it into the air and recovered it for the double play. Sal Maglie was watching the way the ball went now; the sound was different; for the first time today he had to think of the fielders.

Don Larsen went on making the rest period painfully short. Sal Maglie took his warmups for the sixth; he was throwing the last one in hard now. Andy Carey hit one over his head into center and the old remembered tight rope walk had begun.

Larsen bunted the third strike; Maglie and Campanella scrambled off too late to get the runner at second; they had made their mistake. Carey went far off second; Bauer slapped the ball to lwft. Sal Maglie drove himself over to back up third, but the run was in and safely in. Walter Alston came out; the conference went on around Maglie. A man in the stands said that if Labine was reasy, it was time to bring him in. “Take Sal out?” Campanella said later, “the way he was pitching?” Joe Collins hit a low, hard single; Maglie went over to cover third again and came back slamming the ball into his glove. Mantle was up.

The first pitch was out of control; then he threw two strikes, one called, one swinging. Mantle hit the ball to the first baseman who threw to the catcher, who threw not well to the third baseman, who fell away and threw around Bauer to get him. After the game, Sal Maglie looked at Jackie Robinson sitting sombre across the dressing room: in a moment of surprise, Robinson’s hair was gray. “That was a throw,” he said. “Him falling away like that.” Maglie saw it and walked to the third base line and waited for the rundown so as not to interfere, like a waiter at his station, and then walked slowly back to the dugout.

He was the last to come out after the swift Dodger half of the seventh. That appears in the box score to have been all it was, except that in the bottom of the eighth, Don Larsen was the first to bat. Sal Maglie went on with his warmups; alone in that great ballpark, he and Campanella were not looking at the hitter. He struck out Larsen; he struck out Bauer; he struck out Joe Collins swinging. When he walked back, the crowd noticed him and gave him a portion of its cheers. It was the last inning of the most extraordinary season an old itinerant, never a vagrant, ever had. “If figured,” he said later, “that, for me, either way, it was the last inning and I didn’t have to save anything.”

”I would like to see him.” he said later, “pitch with men on bases.” Someone asked him if he had minded Larsen getting his no-hitter. “I might have wanted him to get it,” he answered, “If we hadn’t had a chance all the time.”

They asked him was he satisfied with the game he pitched. “How,” said Sal Maglie, “am I to be satisfied? But you got to adjust yourself.” To time and to ill chance, and the way they forget, you got to adjust yourself. Someone asked if you knew when you had a no hitter, and he said, of course you do. You remember who had hit, for one thing. “lf you ask me two years from now,” said Sal Maglie, “I’ll be able to tell you every pitch I threw this year.” He said it, in passing naked, his body white except for the red from countless massages on his right arm, tearing his lunch off a long Italian sausage.

On the other side of the room, somebody asked Campanella if Maglie had made any mistakes out there. “Sal, make mistakes?” said Campanella. “The only mistake he made today was pitching.” He pulled on jacket and turned to what was last of the assemblage. Maglie was going now, as losers are required to go, to get his picture taken with Don Larsen in the Yankee dressing room.

“I told you,” chided Roy Campanella, as Sal Maglie went out the door, “that there should be days like this.”


All efforts have been made to reach the rights-holders for these stories. If you are the rights holder and would like the material removed, please contact me.—Alex Belth

The Banter Gold Standard: The Life and Loves of the Real McCoy

When we talk about the all-time great sports writers a safe place to start is with Red Smith, W.C. Heinz, A.J. Liebling, Jimmy Cannon, and John Lardner. A few years ago, John Schulian edited The John Lardner Reader, a fine compilation of Lardner’s sports writing (and next spring, the University of Nebraska Press is publishing Southwest Passage, a collection of Lardner’s WWII correspondence).

I wrote this appreciation of Lardner for SI.com and you can find more on Lardner in the Banter archives:  here and here.

The following piece is a beaut. It originally appeared in True and is reprinted here with the permission of Susan Lardner.



“The Life And Loves of The Real McCoy”

By John Lardner

The hotel manager and the detective stood looking down at the man on the bed, who had killed himself during the night. “Norman Selby, it says on the note, and Selby was how he checked in,” the manager said. “Wasn’t that his right name?”

“It was his right name,” the detective said. “But he was also McCoy. The real McCoy.”

Kid McCoy lived by violence, by trickery, and by women. He fought 200 fights, and was beaten in only six of them. He married eight women—one of them three times—and shot another to death. For the murder, he paid a light price, lightly. There was vanity in him, and guile, and wit, and cruelty, and some larceny, and a great capacity for enjoying himself. Above all, there was self-satisfaction. At no time in his life—not when he was world’s welterweight champion (with a strong claim to the middleweight title, as well), nor when he was a bankrupt, nor a jailbird, nor a Broadway favorite, nor a suspected jewel thief, nor a semi-professional adulterer, nor a mellow old pensioner, owing his job to a friend—at no time did he do or say anything that displeased himself. No one knows why, on an April night in 1940, he suddenly lost his contentment with Norman Selby, alias Charles (Kid) McCoy, and wiped it all out with one impatient gesture.

The Kid wasn’t sick, or broke, when he checked in alone at Detroit’s Tuller Hotel that night. He had work. He was 66 years old, but in good shape, still with a lot of gray but curly hair over his fair-skinned, boyish face, and still nearly as neat, trim, and supple of body as ever. Registering with the night clerk, he had left a call for 10 the next morning. It was when he failed to answer the call that the manager went up with a passkey, and found him dead. An overdose of sleeping pills had put him out, and away. There were two or three notes in the room. In one of them, he asked the paymaster at the Ford Motor Company, where he’d been working, to turn over such wages as were due him to his eighth and final wife. In the longest note, the Kid said, in part:

“To whom it may concern—For the last eight years, I have wanted to help humanity, especially the youngsters who do not know nature’s laws. That is, the proper carriage of the body, the right way to eat, etc. . . . To all my dear friends, I wish you all the best of luck. Sorry I could not endure this world’s madness. The best to all. (signed) Norman Selby. P.S. In my pocket you will find $17.75”

As to health laws—it was true that McCoy had invented, and tried to sell, a so-called health belt, or health suspender. As to “this world’s madness”—most of the madness the Kid had known had been of his own arranging, and he had endured it well and gaily. As to helping humanity—the Kid had always helped himself. An old-timer, seeing the dead man lying there among his last words, would have reflected that never before had McCoy played so sweet, peaceful, and tender a part. The old-timer might have suspected a trick.

Once, in 1895, in Boston, a welterweight named Jack Wilkes was dismayed by McCoy’s looks, as they climbed into the ring to fight. The Kid’s face was as white as a sheet. There were dark hallows under his eyes. Every few moments, he put his left glove to his mouth, and coughed rackingly. When they clinched in the first round, McCoy whispered, “Take it easy, will you, Jack? I think I’m dying, but I need the money.” Wilkes took it easy; he mothered McCoy. But in the second round, just after a cough, McCoy’s coughing hand suddenly snapped out and pushed Wilkes’s guard aside, and his right hand drove against his chin, and knocked him unconscious. For that bout, McCoy had made up his face with talcum powder, and his eyes with indelible pencil. The prop cough was from many dime novels of the time.

In Philadelphia, in 1904, McCoy fought a large, highly-touted Hollander named Plaacke. In the second round he began to point frantically at Plaacke’s waistband. “Your pants are slipping!” he muttered. “Pull ’em up!” Plaacke reached for his pants with both hands. McCoy hit him on the jaw, and knocked him down. “Stay down, or I’ll tear your head off!” he snarled. The Dutchman was terrified by the savagery that had suddenly come into the Kid’s voice and by the cruelty that transfigured his impish face. He stayed down, and his American manager sent him back to Holland on the next cattle boat.

When McCoy ran a gymnasium in New York, in the early years of this century, he said to a new pupil one day, as the latter came in the door, “Who’s that that came in with you?” The pupil turned to look. McCoy knocked him down. “That’s your first lesson—never trust anybody,” he said. “Five dollars, please.”

The Kid got a lifelong pleasure out of teaching this lesson. Once, only a few months before he died, as he was driving along a road in Wayne County, Michigan, his car had a slight collision with a truck. Both vehicles stalled. The drivers got out, and the trucker came at McCoy, braying abuse. ”I’m a little hard of hearing, Mack,” McCoy said, cupping his hand to his ear. The trucker brought his chin close to the ear to make his point clearly, and McCoy, whipping his hand six inches upward, knocked him cold.

On the morning he was found dead, a true student of the ways of Kid McCoy, seeing the suicide notes, would have looked twice to make sure the Kid was there too. They were not the first suicide notes he had written. In 1924 McCoy was living with a divorcee named Mrs. Theresa Mors in a Los Angeles apartment. When Mrs. Mors was fatally shot by her lover, the police, investigating the crime, discovered near her body a message from Norman Selby which began—as his last one on earth was to do—”To whom it may concern.” The message suggested that the Kid meant to end it all—but no dead McCoy went with it. In jail, a few days later, McCoy moved on to still another strategem, feigning insanity to protect himself from the murder charge. A visitor found him walking around his cell with a blank look on his face, stop• ping now and then to lick bits of cardboard and stick them on the walls.

“What are those for?” the visitor asked.

“Quiet!” McCoy said. “I’m making a trap for that rat, her husband.”

The law, to be on the safe side, called in a team of alienists to examine the sudden madman. “He’s at least as sane as the rest of us,” the scientists reported. He was. The state, in proving its homicide case against him later, said that the Kid had had no notion of killing himself. He killed the lady, it charged, for a very intelligent reason—she was rich, and she wouldn’t marry him.

Of all the rich and beautiful women in the life of McCoy, she must have been the only one who wouldn’t. It was curious, the way the pattern of the Kid’s loves and marriages changed with the changes in his own career. When he was young, tough, and fight-hungry, scrapping first with skin-tight gloves and then by Marquis of Queensberry rules, first on turf and covered bridges and dance-hall floors, later in the ring, outboxing scientists like Tommy Ryan, the welter champion, mauling and knocking down heavyweights like the powerful Tom Sharkey—in those times his love affairs were brief. About his first marriage, at 22, to an Ohio girl named Lottie Piehler, McCoy once said: “A few months after l married her, I met a burlesque queen who finished me as a married man.” He wasn’t finished, he was just starting. But he had to keep on the move. There was less sense of investment, of security for McCoy, in those early matings. There was even romance in some of them. Certainly, he loved Mrs. Julia Woodruff Crosselmire, whose stage name was Julia Woodruff. Certainly, she loved him. He caught her eye by breaking up a free-for-all fight in a railroad car, one day in 1897 on a trip from New York to Philadelphia. In the next few years, they were married three times and divorced three times.

A change set in when the kid grew older, when he fought only when he had to and felt the pressures and hardships of life as a job-hunter and part-time con man. That was how it was in 1905 when he married Lillian Ellis, the young widow of a millionaire. Julia had recently cut him loose for the last time-as a matter of fact, he had divorced her, the only time it happened that way with McCoy.

“She ran away with a man named Thompson,” the Kid used to say. “They took a tour around the world, and when they got back, I seceded.”

On the morning his engagement to Mrs. Ellis was announced, the Kid was lying in his bed in the Dunlop Hotel, in New York, when the telephone began to ring. “Before I could get my shoes on that day,” McCoy said, “the phone had rung a hundred times, and a hundred friends had touched me for a million dollars.” Mrs. Ellis told the press that she knew what she was in for. “I know I’m not getting any angel, but I’m satisfied,” she said. The Kid himself was so moved that he wrote a wedding poem:

“Dogs delight to growl and fight,
But let men be above them,
It’s better to have a gal for a pal,
When he really knows she loves him.”

In a sense, McCoy said, these lines were his farewell to the fight game. For now, at least, he was through—”Even though Jeff,” he said, “is the only man alive who can lick me.” He was referring to James J. Jeffries, the retired heavyweight champion of the world.

High-flown though it sounded, the last statement may well have been true. It’s possible that for his weight, which ranged from 145 pounds to 170, McCoy was the finest fighter in the world, when he was at his best. ” A marvel, a genius of scientific fighting,” James J. Corbett called him. “Vicious, fast, and almost impossible to beat,” said Philadelphia Jack O’Brien. It was a strange fact about McCoy that he did not need his tricks to be great. He cheated because he loved to cheat, just as, in the early days, he married women because he loved them. Fighting on the level, he would still have been the real McCoy.

The phrase which keeps his name famous was born in San Francisco, in 1899. At least, McCoy always said so; and while he was one of the most fertile and tireless liars of his generation, there’s a good chance that he was telling the truth. The Kid went to the Coast in March of that year to meet the rough, hard-punching Joe Choynski. A little earlier, in San Francisco, a Joe McAuliffe had easily whipped a man named Peter McCoy. Kid McCoy, following this low-class act with a better one, gave Choynski a savage beating in 20 rounds, knocking him down 16 times. The press hailed him with gratitude: “Choynski is beaten,” a headline said, “by THE REAL MCCOY.”

As to how Norman Selby got the name of McCoy to begin with, there are two stories, both told by McCoy, and both plausible. He was hom, probably in October 1873, in Moscow, Indiana, a little farmland crossroads northwest of the town of Rushville. The Selby family moved to Indianapolis when Norman was small. When he was somewhere between 14 and 16, he and two other boys ran away by train to Cincinnati. Cops met them at the Cincinnati station, alerted by their fathers. “Are you Norman Selby?” a cop asked Norman. “I’m Charlie McCoy,” he said. The night before, through the train window, he had seen a sign, “McCoy Station.” When he made his first prizefight it was under the name of Charlie (Kid) McCoy.

In a story the Kid told another historian, he once saw a burlesque act featuring the exploits of two real-life safe-crackers, Kid McCoy and Spike Hennessy. In the theater lobby, for a dime, you could buy a book on the lives of McCoy and Hennessy. The Kid read the book, was taken with the daring, aggressive character of McCoy, and borrowed his name. Either way, there’s no doubt that he began fighting early in life as Kid McCoy. Some say his first bout, for $5 or $10, was against Charleston Yalla. Some say it was against Pete Jenkins, in St. Paul, in 1891. In St. Paul, the Kid, who was pausing there to wash dishes, joined the Baptist Church, because you had to be a member to join the YMCA, which had the only sports-training facilities in town. He beat Jenkins in four rounds.

After March 1895, the Kid was a fighter with a reputation; he was “the man who beat Shadow Maber.” To Maher, he was “that bloody trickster.” Shadow, an Australian fighting in the States and a boxer of note, met McCoy in Memphis. Near the end of one round, Maber heard a strong, clear voice say, “The bell has rung. Go to your comer.” He started to turn for his corner, and McCoy, the author of the unofficial announcement, belted him in the jaw. McCoy went on to beat the weakened Australian in 10 rounds.

He had marvelous speed and elusiveness, the Kid did, besides his tricks and the cruel, cutting power of his punches. By practising endlessly, he was able to run sideways, or backward, nearly as fast as the average man can run forward. “In a backward race, in fact,” he said once, “I could probably beat any man in the world.” He improved the use of his left hand by eating, writing, and throwing a ball left-handed. From every good fighter he fought or watched he learned something. Bob Fitzsimmons, then recognized as world’s middleweight champion, was training for a fight in New Orleans while McCoy was down there for a bout of his own. The Kid picked up a few dollars sparring with Ruby Robert.

“You’re a cunning bugger,” Fitz told him after McCoy, feinting a left, drove his right straight into the pit of Bob’s stomach, showing that he had mastered one of Fitzsimmons’s favorite moves. “And you can hit almost as hard as I can.”

“For the same reason,” the Kid said.

“Wot in ‘ell do you mean by that?” the Cornishman asked. He did not like to think he was giving away too much.

“You’re knock-kneed, Bob,” McCoy said. “I figured the reason you hit so hard is because your punch comes up from the knee instead of the waist or the hip.”

“—-! ” said Fitzsimmons unkindly. He considered that the theory was buncombe, and he may well have been right. It was a fact, however, as McCoy then demonstrated, that the kid had schooled his own knees to come inward by walking around for 20 minutes or a half hour at a time holding a fifty-cent piece between them.

Fitzsimmons (who was to win the heavyweight title from Jim Corbett in 1897) was too big and strong for McCoy who in those years weighed in at about the welter limit, 145. The welterweight champion of the world was Tommy Ryan, thought by many to be the most skillful boxer extant. Ryan and McCoy were matched to fight for the welter title in Maspeth, Long Island, in March, 1896. It was a match Ryan had no worries about. McCoy had sparred with him, too, a couple of years earlier, and McCoy had deliberately made a poor impression-chiefly by a kind of cringing timidity. Once, in a workout, he had asked Tommy not to hit him around the heart. “It makes me sick, Mr. Ryan,” he had said. “And it gives me a sharp pain that scares me. I wouldn’t fight if I didn’t have to.”

In their fight for the championship, Ryan did his best to hit McCoy around the heart-and every place else where he thought there might be an opening. But there were no openings, to speak of. And in the 12th round, getting impatient and beginning to swing wildly, Ryan exposed his own chin, and caught a straight right on the end of it that drained all the strength and science out of him and left him helpless. McCoy then slashed and mauled the champion until the 15th, when he knocked him out.

It was. in Africa, the Kid used to say, that he . developed the “corkscrew punch.” The phrase, like others coined by this prince of phrasemakers, became known all over the world. The corkscrew punch, probably, was only a left hook to the head, like other left hooks. Like other hooks, it involved a turning of the wrist, just before impact. But McCoy declared, and the world believed him, that he gave his left wrist an extra, prolonged spin that increased its velocity and its power to cut and maim. “It was the principle of rifling,” he said. “I learned it by studying a rifle in South Africa.”

It was in South Africa, too, at Bullawayo, that McCoy fought a 250-pound Negro called the King of the Kaffirs. In the first round, McCoy, running backward, lured the giant into McCoy’s corner. The King, in sudden pain and confusion, looked down at his bare feet, and the Kid, at the same moment, brought up his right hand and knocked the Kaffir senseless. The floor, as it happened—we have McCoy’s complacent word for this—had been sprinkled with tacks by McCoy’s seconds just as the fight began.

It was strange, the way the elements of human nature were mixed in this curly head, behind the bland, youthful face and the smooth, bragging tongue. The Kid could not help lying-his picaresque imagination worked day and night to add to his own legend. He could not help swindling-his fight with Corbett, in 1900, after Corbett had lost the heavyweight title, was called by contemporaries one of the most flagrant fixes in ring history. One reporter wrote, “It was the cleverest boxing match ever seen, as it should have been, considering how carefully it had been rehearsed in advance.”

But there was far more than greed and deceit in McCoy; there was courage and ferocity. He could fight, against odds, like a tiger. Under such conditions, Maurice Maeterlinck, the playwright, who had seen the Kid fight in Europe, once described him as “the handsomest human on earth.” McCoy must have been like that on the night he fought Tom Sharkey—after he had given up the welterweight title, had outgrown a brief claim to the middleweight crown and was fighting them as big as they came.

Sailor Tom Sharkey was not a giant—he was squat, but massive, and very tough. In 45 rounds of fighting, the great Jim Jeffries was never to knock him down once. Sharkey and McCoy met on January 10, 1899, at the old Lenox Athletic Club, in New York City. It was the biggest gate of McCoy’s life; there was $46,000 in the square brick arena that night. The Kid was about Sharkey’s height, but he looked like a thin, pale boy beside the Sailor. His legs were slender, his stomach was concave at the narrow waist. Such power as he had was bunched in big arms and low, sloping shoulders. Running like a burglar, he made Sharkey commit himself with rushes and lunging swings. Then the Kid let the gap close. He countered the swings. He hooked Sharkey’s head with his left, and drove straight rights against Sharkey’s teeth and cheekbones. Twice he floored the man whom Jeff could not bring down. By the end of the ninth, it looked like McCoy’s fight for sure, and the patrons were screaming for him to finish it. The truth was, the Kid himself was finished. He had used up all his strength on a head like an oaken bucket; in the tenth, his legs went dead. Sharkey caught him in that round, first with a body punch that seemed to cave in the Kid’s ribs, then with a smashing blow on the jaw. Paul Armstrong, the playwright who wrote “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” was covering the fight. Of the Kid, at the very last, he wrote:

“He clawed the canvas like some deep-sea crab . . . rattled along on all fours . . . and then bobbled into a meaningless heap.”

In 1900, the Kid ran a night club in the cellar of the Hotel Normandie, at the comer of Broadway and 40th Street. He ran it until a matter of what the police called “larceny from a customer” by McCoy came up—then the customers began to abstain from the Kid’s saloon. In 1904, he filed a petition in bankruptcy, having $25,000 worth of debts and no assets. The debts included one of $320 for clothing, and another of $569 for repairs to a fast, red car. It was natural that the Kid should react to this slump by marrying Lillian Ellis, the rich widow. It was natural that when Mrs. Ellis detached him, after three or four comfortable years, he should marry Mrs. Edna Valentine Hein, the daughter of a silverminer. The Kid impressed Mrs. Hein favorably, before the marriage, by winning a street fight from Mr. Hein.

It was one of the few fights he had, in those years. W hen occasional spells of non-marriage, meaning poverty, overtook him, and• McCoy was obliged to fight professionally again, he found the going hard. It was the flesh that was weak—not the two-edged brain. A lad named Young Jim Stewart climbed into the ring in New York one night, during these downhill days, to see what McCoy had left. He went to the Kid’s comer before the bout to pay his respects. McCoy, waving to friends in the crowd, pretended not to see him. Stewart, hurt, but not mortally so, returned to his corner. When the referee called them out for instructions, McCoy tramped heavily on the youngster’s feet and bumped him accidentally in the eye with his elbow. Next McCoy grabbed Stewart by the nape of the neck with one hand, pulled down his head, and cracked him two or three times in the jaw with his other fist. “What I want to know, Mr. Referee,” said the Kid, deferentially, “is whether it’s all right for him to hit me like this?” “No, it ain’t,” said the referee. Young Jim Stewart survived these preliminaries, and the fight got under way and went six rounds to no decision.

“Tell me, Mr. McCoy,” said Stewart afterward, “did you expect to soften me up with that stuff with the referee?” “God knows, boy,” the Kid said. “You can never tell till you try.”

In the last fight on his record, McCoy met a British seaman, Petty Officer Curran, in London, in 1914. The bout was scheduled for 20 rounds—a long, weary haul for a man of forty. Three-quarters of the way through it, McCoy’s feet had gone nearly flat. His nerves were snapping in his body like little twigs. Suddenly, the timekeeper, sitting by the ring in evening clothes, took a tall glass of whisky-and-soda from an attendant, and placed it carefully on the apron of the ring. A moment later, the Kid ran into a punch from Curran, fell to the floor near the timekeeper’s seat, snatched up the highball and drank it off. The fight went the full distance. It was close, but McCoy, making his last post a winning one, got the duke.

With Charlie Chaplin

Though he was still debonair, still a strutter, McCoy was plainly at the end of his rope, financially, when he beat his way home from London at the start of the first World War. The U. S. Army bought his meals for the next few years. Enlisting in 1915—tired, played out, turning to the security of a uniform and steady pay as he had turned to marriage when he was younger—McCoy served on the Mexican border in 1916, and on the home front generally in the wartime years, mostly as a boxing instructor. There was another fling left in him, but in the Army, for awhile, he charged his batteries, and marked time.

When his enlistment was up, the Kid headed for California. He got a few bit parts in Hollywood, but this career died quickly. In 1922, he became an official bankrupt again—assets: two suits of clothes. One way and another, he took the busy, hot town for a dollar here and a dollar there, and hung on. And in the summer of 1924, he found his way into the life of still another woman with money and a husband she did not like.

Theresa Weinstein Mors was on the point of divorcing Albert E. Mors when she met McCoy. She was in her late 30’s, and easy to look at. It is not known just how she came to meet the Kid, but on August 4, when their friendship became a matter of record, she described him to the police as her “bodyguard.” The police had been called in by Mors, who complained that his wife and McCoy had used him roughly. The visit had been for the purpose of discussing the Mors’ property settlement. The Kid, of course, had the habit of discussing things with his knuckles. In this case, however, it was Mrs. Mors who hit Mr. Mors in the mouth, while McCoy protected her.

A divorce followed, and the Kid and Theresa took an apartment together, under the names of Mr. and Mrs. N. Shields. There’s good reason to believe that the Kid wanted marriage in more than name. Mrs. Mors, at least for the time being, did not. For this reason, and perhaps for others, it was a quarrelsome partnership. It came as no surprise to the Shields’ neighbor, in the next apartment, when, on the sultry night of August 11, at a few minutes after midnight, she heard a woman’s voice in the Shields’ flat cry out, “Oh, my God, don’t do that!” The cry was repeated. Then came a single gunshot. The neighbor investigated, but only to the extent of trying the Shields’ door, which was locked. It was not till 10 a.m. on the 12th that the janitor found Theresa lying dead on the floor of the bedroom she had shared with McCoy. She had been shot once, in the left temple. A .32 pistol lay nearby. A photograph of the Kid had been placed across her breast. Also clearly visible was a suicide note signed Norman Selby leaving his estate to his mother.

At almost the same moment the police discovered the note and the body which did not match it, the Kid himself was running amok a few blocks away, with another gun, in an antique shop owned by his mistress. It was a wild scene he made there. Disheveled, apparently drunk, he burst into the shop with his gun out. He told the men there, mostly employes, to take off their shoes and pants. He put a dance record on the phonograph and, under cover of the noise, went through the pants pockets for money. Then, cursing with all the foulness he could muster from 51 years’ experience, he went out the door again and, in the street, shot and seriously wounded the first three people he met, two men and a woman. The police caught up with him as he was running blindly through Westlake Park.

Had he been drunk? McCoy, though he’d taken some wine in his time, had never been given to drinking. Had he been faking madness, to set up a defense against a murder rap? Maybe. At any rate, his wildness, real or feigned, subsided after a few days in jail, and at his trial he told the jury in serious, sensible tones that Theresa—”the only woman I ever loved”—had shot herself to death in his presence. It was a story the Kid was to stick to for the rest of his life. The prosecution, in rebuttal, pointed out that Mrs. Mors, a right-handed woman, had been shot in the left side of her head. The prosecutor told the jury that McCoy had said to his sister, after the crime, “I had to kill that woman.” It took the jurymen 78 hours to decide whom to believe. In the end, they disbelieved McCoy. He was sentenced to 10 years for manslaughter, and to two terms of 7 years each for the larceny and mayhem of his last daffy stand in Theresa’s antique shop: a total of 24 years.

The rap seemed to mean that the Kid would die of old age in San Quentin. There was one way to escape such a fate—sweetness, light and good conduct on a scale such as McCoy had never before attempted.

When he came out in 1932, paroled after a little more than seven years, the Kid had established one of the purest records in the history of San Quentin—never a mark against him. With him he brought a canary named Mike, a prison pet as harmless as the new McCoy. His future life was to be mild and pastoral, too. Years before, he had given boxing lessons to a Navy fighter who used the name of Sailor Reese. In 1932, under his real name of Harry Bennett, the sailor had become personnel chief for Ford, in Detroit. Bennett gave the parolee a job as watchman in one of the Ford public gardens. The new line on the payroll read: “Norman Selby. Age, 59. Farmhand.” The terms of his parole kept the Kid close to Detroit for five years. When, in 1937, he became totally free—the Kid used to say he’d been “pardoned,” but it was really just the formal ending of parole—he went on living in Detroit and working for Ford.

He did make a few trips out of town after the papers came through. One of them was to Rushville, Indiana, near the place of his birth, where he took unto himself an eighth wife, Mrs. Sue Cobb Cowley. Another was to New York, where the Kid and an old fellow-wizard, Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, pottered around town together for a day, cutting up touches and reviewing the past. Wherever he went, the Kid seemed happy. His marriage went well. His job was for life. When he lied, he told contented lies that showed the old vanity, the old satisfaction with Norman Selby, alias Kid McCoy. One day a man asked him if he ever saw his former wives.

“You won’t believe it,” the Kid said smugly, “but I see them all, regularly. Every year I give a party, and every woman I’ve ever been married to comes to Detroit to see me again.”

He gave a roguish smile. “Why wouldn’t they come, for me?”

The Kid was not crazy, or senile. He simply liked this lie and all the others that celebrated the glory, the beauty, the cunning of Kid McCoy. In everything he did, as his days dwindled down to the last and strangest one, his mind and his body worked smoothly and well.

And then, suddenly, smoothly and well, he killed himself. Perhaps there had been one special sin in his life that was too big for him to Jive with any longer. If so, nobody knows what it was but Kid McCoy.

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

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

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


“L.T. and the Home Team”

By John Ed Bradley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was Kojak,” Cosmos said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Banter Gold Standard: Jimmy the Greek

Peter Richmond is one of the finest takeout writers of the past thirty years. According to his website:

Peter Richmond attended Yale University, where he studied under the late, great John Hersey and the very alive, great David Milch. Somewhere in there he also attended auto mechanics school, from which he never graduated, but which led to his eventual purchase of a ‘77 Eldorado which is currently his family’s most mechanically reliable vehicle. He was awarded a Nieman Fellowship in Journalism at Harvard, where he studied art, architecture, paleontology, playwriting and humility.

His stories have been anthologized in 13 books, including “Best American Sportswriting of the Twentieth Century,” and four appearances in “Best Sportswriting of the Year” anthologies. (And, yes, he had the title essay in Riverhead Press’ “I Married My Mother-in-Law.”) He is the co-host, with author David Kamp, of a public radio show about his tragic attachment to the New York Giants called “Tangled Up in Blue,” which airs weekly on NPR’s smallest affiliate, WHDD-FM.

…His work has appeared in several periodicals, including Grantland.com, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Parade, GQ, Details, Architecture, Parade, Golf Digest, Travel + Leisure Golf and TV Guide, as well as two amazing magazines which, sadly, no longer exist: Play and New England Monthly.

He forgot The National where, along with Charlie Pierce, Johnette Howard, and Ian Thomsen, he made “The Main Event” a must-read.

Please enjoy this story, originally published in The National, and reprinted here with the author’s permission.

“Jimmy The Greek”

By Peter Richmond

His words break the silence of a breakfast conversation that has wound down to nothing. They are as soft and insubstantial as rust flaking away, so soft that at first you think you might have heard him wrong, except that his eyes are focused on something that isn’t there, and the flesh of his face has gone completely slack, and part of a bagel sits forgotten halfway to his mouth, and there really couldn’t have been any mistaking them at all.

“I’m dead.”

He doesn’t mean he’s dead tired. He doesn’t mean he’s dead because he’s in trouble. He doesn’t mean he’s literally dead; in fact, after spending nine months in and out of Miami Heart Institute, with the bad heart and the chicken pox and shingles and diabetes, he’s looking much, much better than last year, if dangerously overweight, certainly younger than 71.

He means he’s dead as in without life. He’s says “I’m dead” because no other word wraps as neatly around the emotion that dominates his life. Because when CBS took away his job two years and four months ago with a one-paragraph release that called him “reprehensible”—to be precise, it was his remarks they called reprehensible, not him, but that distinction blurred long ago within Jimmy Snyder’s mind—they apparently carved his guts right out, which have since been replaced completely by the singular obsession that he was wronged. And instead of diminishing, that sense of injustice has festered, until all that seems left of Jimmy Snyder is the core of anger and bewilderment.

“I still don’t know what I did,” he says, but there’s no outrage to the words, no heart to them, no Greek to them. The Greek would have bellowed those words. Not whispered them into a bowl of granola.

Andy Rooney, the apparent philosopher, no simple setter of odds, may or may not have said that blacks watered down their genes, but he definitely did say that “homosexual unions” were a cause of “premature death.” He didn’t say this in a spontaneous interview in a restaurant, but in a prerecorded network television show. Then, in a draft of a letter to a magazine, Rooney said that he considered sex between men “repugnant.” For this, Rooney was given a three-month suspension. Within days his producer, Don Hewitt, said, “I spend 90% of my waking hours trying to get Andy Rooney back.” And 22 days after the suspension was announced, Rooney was indeed back.

Jimmy the Greek said some strange and unconscionable things about black athlete, which he insists reflected his admiration for them, although it didn’t come out that way, and now he’s dead. His own boss, Brent Musburger, within days of The Greek’s indiscretions, excised Snyder’s name from history the way Winston Smith used to eviscerate history for a living in Orwell’s 1984. Today no one at CBS is losing any sleep over the return of Jimmy Snyder. In fact, except for a director who has since quit the “NFL Today,” no one from CBS has even given him a phone call since they pulled the trap door.

Maybe no one really thought he’d take it this hard. Maybe that’s why Brent and Ted Shaker and the rest of the crew haven’t bothered to drop so much as a postcard in the mail. Maybe they all said to each other, “Forget it, guys, it’s just The Greek.” As if for The Greek all the rules were different. As if maybe he wasn’t the guy Musburger’s kids once loved, or the guy Shaker once thanked for having paid for the new extension on his house because the ratings of the show he was producing had grown so high.

Maybe they all thought that if anyone was a survivor, The Greek was, and that losing the “NFL Today” gig was no different than losing his right to vote when the feds convicted him of interstate gambling in 1962. But it was different. It was everything.

The truth is, The Greek had spent the first 50 years of his life in one world and then vaulted, to his surprise, into another, and he wanted, desperately, to finish his life in that second world. The first was a fringe kind of world where a man might be a “felon or might not be, where money might flow unnaturally swiftly from sources best left unseen, where distinctions between good and bad were as vague as the distinction between night and day in a town where the neon glowed 24 hours. The second was the network TV world, a place where the morals are similar but the trappings arc not.

And while it may have never seemed to the people who watched him on Sunday afternoons that it mattered to The Greek that he was on a sound stage instead of at a betting window, it mattered more than you can imagine. A man who’d once been surrounded by federal marshals loosed by Bobby Kennedy had suddenly found himself surrounded by makeup artists and the high-priced talking-head spread of Brent and Phyllis and Irv, and it felt not only good, but legitimate.

So when they yanked it out from under him, the way The Greek sees it, they might as well have yanked out the stool from beneath the feet of a man with a noose around his neck. And here he is, living in an overstuffed luxury hotel on Miami Beach where the other guests glance at him in sidelong fashion as he fills the corner table alone.

“I got to start doin’ something,” he says. “I wake up some mornin’s and you say, ‘Jesus Christ! You’re not doin’ nothin’!’ And you get a little lonesome. And disgusted. With everything. It gets a little lonesome. No one comes around. No one calls.”

And here it is again:

“I’m dead.”

Iit’s not true. A few days later, he is besieged by autograph-seekers and the rest of the bit players who make up the supporting cast of his life at the race track. As he peels hundred~dollar bills with his left hand from the baseball-sized clot of bills in his right, Jimmy the Greek is wildly alive. And if it’s only alive the way a character on stage for the 2000th production of a fraying Broadway play is alive, it nonetheless breathes and moves and barks and snarls, which beats the hell out of being dead.

So there he sits, in his customary chair near the $50 window in the clubhouse at Gulfstream, still too weak from the three months in a hospital bed to jump to his feet and run to the window when the odds suddenly get good. So he throws fifties and hundreds at the half-dozen men with the oddest of morphs who circle him like distant planets all day without ever leaving the orbit.

“Jeff!” he’ll yell, or Mike, or someone else, and Jeff will skip over and take the hundred and head for the window while The Greek says, “Get the one-four and the four-one for 50 each.”

Sometimes the one-four hits. Sometimes not. He’s down a couple thousand after the sixth race. After the seventh he’s up a couple thousand, after picking the winning horses in the fifth, sixth and seventh, the Big Three, for $3,500. One of his pals cashed his ticket, and he had to be careful on the walk back across the floor lest the bills all spring out of his hand, they’re so thickly stacked. In this he is still The Greek. When the five horse runs in and The Greek shouts in glee, other horseplayers smile and say, “Way to go, Greek,” mostly because they’re so glad to see him looking half-alive again.

But even afloat on a seas of green, The Greek’s mind is elsewhere. He’s motioned to a tall blond kid to come over for a second.

“You play basketball?” The Greek says, and the kid nods. The kid’s built like a lamppost. The kid is a friend of one of The Greek’s track friends. The kid has wandered over because The Greek is a friend and The Greek is all right.

“C’mere,” says the Greek, and the kid steps up close to the Greek’s chair.

The kid walks over. The Greek reaches out and lays his incongruously lean and fragile fingers—they should be sausages with a body like his, but they’re more like angel-hair pasta—on the kid’s calf. In the adjacent chairs, The Greek’s track friends lean in to listen, as do some other people he doesn’t know.

“See how he’s built?” says The Greek as he describes the contours of the kid’s leg with his left hand. “See how his calf is like this, then it leads up to his thigh, and there’s hardly any difference in the size? The thigh’s hardly any bigger’n his calf?”

His friends nod, and the kid is looking down at The Greek’s hand with remarkable detachment considering the circumstances.

“Now the blacks, the thigh would go out like this, and that’s where they get their spring,” says the Greek.

“But you can’t say that,” the kid says.

“Can’t say what?” The Greek asks, pleading.

“‘Black,'” the kid says. “You can’t say ‘black.'”

The friends all nod, and their heads go up and down like pistons. “Work for CBS, tell the truth, get fired,” says one of them.

“We have a coach, he was a scoring champion in his conference,” says the kid, adding, “and his thighs are, like, out to here.”

“That’s all I said!” says The Greek, spreading his hands. “That’s all I said!”

NOT ENTIRELY. What he said during lunch at Duke Zeibart’s on the Friday of Martin Luther King Day in 1988, was, essentially, three things. The first was, “If they over coaching, like everybody wants them to, there’s not going to be anything left for white people.” This one packed the most immediate impact. Snyder insisted afterward it was just a bad joke, and a compliment to blacks, too. They’ve taken over all of sport because of their drive and their desire. They want it so badlv they’ve pushed the whites right out. (Look, he said, if anyone should have been mad, it was whites. He said whites were lazy. No whites got angry at what Jimmy said.)

Then he said, “There’s 10 people on a basketball court. If you find two whites you’re lucky.” The last word was the killer. Otherwise, it’s no different from the famous tabloid basketball columnist saying, a few years ago, “The blackest thing about the Celtics is their sneakers” in reverse. But he never should have said “lucky.” He might have been using it In nothing but a careless sense. but can’t be careless with live ammunition. More than anything, this was the statement that was indefensible.

Finally, he said, “[Black superiority] goes all the way back to the Civil War, when during the slave trading the owners would breed his big black with his big woman so he could have a big black kid.”

This is the one that stuck.

At any rate, within hours, Musburger and Shaker had viewed the tapes and talked to the CBS brain trust, most of whom happened to be in Hawaii. Later than night CBS issues a statement saying it found his remarks to be “reprehensible.” No one actually said he was fired. But when Sunday showed up, he’d been deleted.

“You know, on Friday afternoon, our former colleague Jimmy the Greek, made some regrettable and offensive remarks for which he has apologized,” Musburger said the way he might have recited the Seahawks’ injury list. “Yesterday, CBS issued a statement disassociating itself from those remarks. It goes without saying that his comments do not in any way reflect the thinking or attitude of the rest of us here at CBS Sports. While we deplore the incident, we are saddened that our 12-year association with Jimmy had to end this way. And the “NFL Today” will continue from RFK Stadium in Washington in just a moment.”

And that was the sum total on CBS of discussion about the several issue The Greek had raised. Elsewhere, reaction was mixed, and Snyder had his defenders.

“Much of what he said seemed unexceptional to most whites and a good many blacks as well.” wrote Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. “Blacks are more athletically gifted than whites. He spoke of racial differences. That is a taboo. Never mind that there are such things.”

“He’s right.” Jim Rice said a few weeks later, in the weight room off the Red Sox locker room at Fenway Park, during an interview for a Miami Herald series that had been prompted by The Greek’s firing. “It’s just a gift. Raw talent.” And a few days after that, at Yankee Stadium, Jesse Barfieid nodded: “Leaping, running—physiologically, we have an advantage.”

Recently, Synder’s former colleague, Jayne Kennedy-Overton, said, “If he was telling the truth, why blame Jimmy? Why not blame the people who made the history he spoke of?”


AFTER THE eighth race, he was up several thousand. He’d taken the 10 horse across the board for $400, and it won at 6-1. After the ninth, he was up another couple thousand with the two horse. He now had a bundle of hundred-dollar bills the size of Zeus’s fist in his right-hand pants pocket, all earned in a dizzying 90-minute span that left your mouth dry and your hands shaking just to he next to him. He has not mentioned the money on the drive back to Miami Beach.

“Brent panicked,” he says. “If he’d opened up his mouth that day for me. he could have saved my job. But he didn’t. Or if he did, it wasn’t to say anythin’ good. If only [Howardj Stringer had been there, he’d have looked at the tapes, and sat everyone down, and they coulda suspended me for that last game, and that would have been enough. But the big guys were in Hawaii, and Brent and Shaker were the only ones talkin’ to ’em. Nobody stood up for me. When you got the No. 1 producer and Brent against you nobody’s going to go against them. Who’s gonna say somethin’? Irv? The only guy who could have said somethin’ was Madden, but he was at a meeting of some sort and said it was all over by the time he got there: Summerall said somethin’ good in my behalf.

“Aw,” he says, “don’t let me start this.”

It’s absolutely huge, Jimmy’s car, as wide as a whole lane. It has a blue leather interior and the dashboard looks wooden, but it’s really only wood-pattern contact paper. On the glove compartment the pattern has all peeled away, leaving a bare metal panel. The inside of the passenger door is pocked with gray spots from the ash of his cigar, like a wall that’s been riddled with bullets.

Gliding the Cadillac to the hotel curb is like trying to dock a tugboat. It’s a car that has somehow survived beyond its age and now it is unwieldy and impractical. In these respects, it’s a lot like Jimmy. He has not gone into the new age gracefully. Watch him yelp at the pretty women—”Hey! Are you married?”—with that old man’s license to leer. He struts through his hotel, this outsized guy all in white and gold with his cane with the heavy steel knob as a handle, this purely exotic figure from some Graham Greene novel, part Sidney Greenstreet, talking too loudly, flashing that wad of hundreds. He doesn’t seem to realize that we’re in the mall age now, where the people we admire don’t come outsized any more They come in a garb of discreet homogeny. They come smooth. They come so they fit into a preconceived notion of special.

He’s not alone in this stumble into the late 20th century. Surely some of Rooney’s indiscretion can be chalked up to his inability—voluntary or otherwise—to evolve with the flow of time.

Most of us adapt. Some adapt by shedding ignorance. Others adapt by burying it. Only The Greek knows which camp he’s in. No one who’s ever spent any time at all with The Greek thinks he’s racist—”No black ever got mad at me,” he says. “The blacks all loved me”—but it doesn’t matter anymore.

Now he’s winking at the little girl in the scotch-plaid dress in the lobby. He is mugging. His face is all rubbery. She is fascinated. Her mother is leery. He loves kids. He’ll drop anything—anything—to wink a kid. How could he not? He lost two to cystic fibrosis, and he was never one himself, not after his mother was shot to death by his aunt’s estranged husband when Jimmy was 9. So he pats them and reaches out to them and laughs at them and mugs for them, and the kids love it, but the mothers wonder what in the hell this old guy is up to. And, of course, the mothers don’t know who The Greek is. The mothers only know who Bryant Gumbel and Willard Scott are.

“Without even saying goodbye. After 13 years. You think that’s fair? You think that’s fair?”

In the morning he’ll try to walk a mile on the beach, but it takes an hour. He’d rather linger over breakfast for a couple of hours until it’s time to go to the track, although these breakfasts can daunt an ego, because in the restaurant there are often several young families with children who won’t be all that amused by the man in the gold chains who frequently commandeers the telephone in the middle of the dining room and starts swearing at his stockbroker.

“I got some money in an Austrian money fund. and it was doing really good until this morning Gorbachev said somethin’ and it’s going straight down,” he says, returning to the table after one rant. “The market’s all I got. It’s the only excitement I have out of life. I win or lose 10 or 20 (thousand} a day. That’s all I got.”

He is spending a lot of time in Miami Beach. His wife, Joan, is in the house in North Carolina. “We don’t want to talk about that,” he says. Then he grows disgusted with himself: “Oh, listen, you take the good with the bad, what else you gonna do.”

Wilburn, the waiter, refills his cup. Wilburn is from Jamaica. Wilburn knows what Jimmy wants to eat before Jimmy can tell him. Jimmy regularly summons Wilburn by saying, “Get your black ass over here.” He loves to say things like, “I’m gonna get your black ass fired,” and Wilburn laughs.

Jimmy speaks like this loudly enough for the people in the restaurant to turn around and some of them smile. He does this because he wants the world to know that that is the Steubenville way he speaks, and that is the way he was speaking on Martin Luther King Day, casually, and not from prejudice. He will not allow the perception to endure. He simply will not. He Is adament.

That is the most important thing now. Not the firing. The firing, he concedes, was inevitable.

“It had gotten to the point where I kept fighting’ over the show with Shaker almost every Sunday by the end,” he days. “The last year they a;most cut me off completely. Shaker kept wantin’ to know what I was going to say beforehand. But I never knew. Which is what made it a great show. Tell him first? I’m sitting there with 100 things to say and I never knew what I was going to say. That’s what was so great about it. Everything was spontaneous.

“But I overcome that. I overcome so much. I overcome hittin’ Brent. I overcome a situation where I went to a racetrack and asked someone for figures and they were trying to grab the guy. Turned out he was a bookmaker. I overcome that. I went to Denver on a speaking engagement and said something about rednecks. Overcome that. I told Phyllis I hated her friggin’ husband, right on the air. Overcome that. I overcome everything. Then all of a sudden the thing I was paid to do I was fired for.”

Now there’s passion. The Greek has turned his chair to face his companion head on, and he’s squinting. Suddenly, it’s The Greek’s voice, all blustery and rough.

“Listen. I was the only person who never went with one camp or the other. l never cared about personalities. All I ever cared about was the good of the show. Ask anybody. I didn’t have grudges. I didn’t have vendettas. The show was everything to me. I thought this was supposedly going to be my life. “NFL Today” was … I mean I had a good PR firm, but little by little I gave everything up because of a show, then all of a sudden I woke up one day and I didn’t have it. All of a sudden I was the sonofabitch who said blacks were better athletes.”

Three men have dropped by the table. They have tans like they watched a nuclear test in person. They are on their way hack to the marina to sell more boats at the boat show, for $375,000 each.

“You got screwed, Greek,” says one, and the other two nod. After they leave, The Greek’s smiling.

“Next to survival, what’s the most important thing?” he says after they’ve gone. “Recognition.”

More important than health? Family?


“Those are both part of survival,” he says.


“I had a son and I lost him,” he says. Quietly. “So brilliant. He was a mathematic marvel. Professors from all over the United States—Michigan, Indiana—used to send him problems when he was a student at UNLV. He’d sit there for hours. Finally he’d look at me and say, ‘I got it Dad.” Once when a teacher went on vacation they let him teach the class. That’s how good he was. The teacher said, ‘The guy can spot me the deuce and still beat me at mathematics.'”


“Oh, well”—these words like marbles dropping off the edge of a kitchen table.


“He was somethin’. Tried so hard to live. He was 26. He was supposed to be dead at 2.”


“Look,” Jimmy says. “I’ll survive. I’ll get a show. I’ll have a 900 number by the fall.”


“Why’d they have to do it the way they did it? I begged them to not use reprehensible. It was just a word that wasn’t needed. “Take that word out,” I said. They wouldn’t. I said, “I can’t overcome that.”

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