[Photo Credit: John Weiss]
[Photo Credit: John Weiss]
Friend of mine in London sent me the following. Taken from Maiden Speech by Eleanor Brown, published by Bloodaxe in 1996:
You ask what I think of your new acquisition;
and since we are now to be ‘friends’,
I’ll strive to the full to cement my position with honesty.
Dear – it depends.
It depends on taste, which must not be disputed;
for which of us does understand
why some like their furnishings pallid and muted,
their cookery wholesome, but bland?
There isn’t a law that a face should have features,
it’s just that they generally do;
God couldn’t give colour to all of his creatures,
and only gave wit to a few;
I’m sure she has qualities, much underrated,
that compensate amply for this,
along with a charm that is so understated
it’s easy for people to miss.
And if there are some who choose clothing to flatter
what beauties they think they possess,
when what’s underneath has no shape, does it matter
if there is no shape to the dress?
Its not that I think she is boring, precisely,
that isn’t the word I would choose;
I know there are men who like girls who talk nicely
and always wear sensible shoes.
It’s not that I think she is vapid and silly;
it’s not that her voice makes me wince;
But – chilli con carne without any chilli
is only a plate full of mince…
[Images by Katrien De Blauwer]
Originally published in the June 1915 issue of American Magazine and anthologized in the Library of America’s new collection of Ring Lardner’s stories. Reprinted here with permission.
Sit down here a while, kid, and I’ll give you the dope on this guy. You say you didn’t see him do nothin’ wonderful? But you only seen him in one serious. Wait till you been in the league more’n a week or two before you go judgin’ ball players. He may of been sick when you played agin him. Even when he’s sick, though, he’s got everybody I ever seen skun, and I’ve saw all the best of ‘em.P
Say, he ain’t worth nothin’ to that club; no, nothin’! I don’t know what pay he’s gettin’, but whatever it is, it ain’t enough. If they’d split the receipts ﬁfty-ﬁfty with that bird, they wouldn’t be gettin’ none the worst of it. That bunch could get along just as well without him as a train could without no engine.P
He’s twicet the ball player now that he was when he come up. He didn’t seem to have no sense when he broke in; he run bases like a fool and was a mark for a good pitcher or catcher. They used to just lay for him when he got on. Sully used to tell the pitchers to do nothin’ but waste balls when he was on ﬁrst or second base. It was pretty near always good dope, too, because they’d generally nail him off one base or the other, or catch him tryin’ to go to the next one. But Sully had to make perfect pegs to get him even when he knowed beforehand that he was goin’. Sully was the boy that could make them perfect pegs, too. Don’t forget that.P
Cobb seemed to think they was only one rule in the book, and that was a rule providin’ that nobody could stay on one base more’n one second. They tell me that before he got into the South Atlantic League he was with a club down there in Georgia called the Royston Rompers. Maybe he thought he had to keep on rompin’ up here.P
Another thing was that he couldn’t hit a left-hander very good. Doc W’ite used to make him look like a sucker. Doc was a fox to begin with, and he always give you just what you wasn’t lookin’ for. And then, his curve ball was somethin’ Ty hadn’t never saw before and it certainly did fool him. He’d hand Cobb a couple o’ curves and the baby’d miss ‘em a foot. Then, when he was expectin’ another one, Doc’d shoot his fast one right past his chin and make a monkey out of him.P
That was when he ﬁrst come up here. But Ty ain’t the guy that’s goin’ to stay fooled all the time. When he wises up that somebody’s got somethin’ on him, he don’t sleep nor do nothin’ till he ﬁgures out a way to get even. It’s a good thing Doc had his chancet to laugh when he did, because Cobb did most o’ the laughin’ after a couple o’ seasons of it. He seen he couldn’t hit the curve when it was breakin’, so he stood way back in the box and waited till it’d broke. Then he nailed it. When Ty’d learned that trick, Doc got so’s he was well pleased when the balls this guy hit off’n him stayed in the park.P
It was the same way with every pitcher that had his number when he ﬁrst busted in. He got to ‘em in short order and, before long, nobody was foolin’ him so’s you could notice it. Right now he’s as good agin left-handers as he is agin regular fellas. And if they’s any pitcher in baseball that’s got him fooled, he’s keepin’ the fact well concealed.P
I was tellin’ you what a wild base-runner he was at ﬁrst. Well, he’s still takin’ chances that nobody else takes, but he’s usin’ judgment with it. He don’t run no more just for the sake o’ runnin’. They was a time when the guy on the base ahead of him was afraid all the time that he’d get spiked in the heels. But no more o’ that. They’s no more danger of him causin’ a rear end collision, providin’ the guy ahead don’t blockade the right o’ way too long.P
You may not believe it, but I’ll bet most o’ these here catchers would rather have somebody on second base when Ty’s on ﬁrst base than to have him on ﬁrst base alone. They know he ain’t goin’ to pull no John Anderson and they feel pretty safe when he can’t steal without bumpin’ into one of his own teammates. But when the track’s all clear, look out!P
All my life I been hearin’ about the slow, easy-goin’ Southerner. Well, Ty’s easy-goin’ all right—like a million-dollar tourin’ car. But if Southerners is slow, he must be kiddin’ us when he says he was born down South. He must of came from up there where Doc Cook pretty near got to.P
You say you’ve heard ball players talk about how lucky he was. Yes, he is lucky. But it’s because he makes his own luck. If he’s got horseshoes, he’s his own blacksmith. You got to have the ability ﬁrst, and the luck’ll string along with you. Look at Connie Mack and John D. and some o’ them fellas.P
You know I ain’t played no ball for the last few years, but I seen a lot of it played. And I don’t overlook no chancet to watch this here Tyrus. I’ve saw him agin every club in the American League and I’ve saw him pull more stuff than any other guy ever dreamed of. Lots o’ times, after seein’ him get away with somethin’, I’ve said to myself: “Gosh, he’s a lucky stiff !” But right afterward, I’ve thought: “Yes, and why don’t nobody else have that luck? Because they don’t go out and get it.”P
I remember one time in Chi, a year or two ago. The Sox was two to the bad and it was the ninth innin’. They was two men down. Bodie was on second base and somebody hits a single to center ﬁeld. Bodie tries to score. It wasn’t good baseball to take the chancet, because that run wasn’t goin’ to do no good without another one to put with it. Cobb pegs to the plate and the umps calls Bodie out, though it looked to everybody like he was safe. Well, it was a bad play of Bodie’s, wasn’t it? Yes. Well then, it was a bad play o’ Cobb’s to make the throw. If Detroit hadn’t of got the best o’ that decision, the peg home would of let the man that hit the ball go to second and be planted there in position to score the tyin’ run on another base hit. Where if Ty had of played it safe, like almost anybody would, the batter’d of been held on ﬁrst base where it would take two base hits or a good long wallop to score him. It was lucky for Ty that the umps happened to guess wrong. But say, I think that guy’s pretty near smart enough to know when a umpire’s goin’ to make a rotten decision.P
O’ course you know that Ty gets to ﬁrst base more’n anybody in the world. In the ﬁrst place, he always manages to hit better’n anybody. And when he don’t hit safe, but just bounds one to some inﬁelder, the bettin’s 2 to 1 that the ball will be booted or throwed wild. That’s his luck, is it? No, sir. It’s no such a thing. It’s his speed. The inﬁelder knows he ain’t got no time to spare. He’s got to make the play faster’n he would for anybody else, and the result is that he balls it all up. He tries to throw to ﬁrst base before he’s got the pill to throw, or else he hurries the throw so much that he don’t have no time to aim. Some o’ the ball players round the league says that the scorers favor Ty and give him a base hit on almost anything. Well, I think they ought to. I don’t believe in handin’ a error to a fella when he’s hurried and worried to death. If you tried to make the play like you do for other guys, Ty’d beat the ball to ﬁrst base and then you’d get a hot call from the bench for loaﬁn’.P
If you’d saw him play as much baseball as I have, you wouldn’t be claimin’ he was overrated. I ain’t goin to come right out and say he’s the best ever, because they was some old-timers I never seen. (Comiskey, though, who’s saw ‘em all, slips it to him.) I just want to tell you some o’ the things he’s did, and if you can show me his equal, lead me to him and I’ll take off my hat.P
Detroit was playin’ the Ath-a-letics oncet. You know they ain’t no club that the Tigers looks better agin than the Atha-letics, and Cobb’s more of a devil in Philly than anywheres else. Well, this was when he was battin’ fourth and Jim Delahanty was followin’ him. Ty singles and Del slips him the hit and run sign on the ﬁrst ball. The ball was pitched a little outside, and Del cuts it down past Harry Davis for a single to right ﬁeld. Do you know what Cobb done? He scored; that’s all. And they wasn’t no boot made, neither. Danny Murphy picked the ball up clean and pegged it to Davis and Davis relays it straight home to Ira Thomas. Ty was there ahead of it. If I hadn’t o’ been watchin’ close, I’d o’ thought he forgot to touch two or three bases. But, no, sir. He didn’t miss none of ‘em. They may be other guys that could do that if they tried, but the diff ‘rence between them and Cobb is that he done it and they didn’t. Oh, I guess other fellas has scored from ﬁrst base on a long single in the hit and run, but not when the ball was handled perfectly clean like this one.P
Well, here’s another one: I forget the exact details, except that the game was between the White Sox and Detroit and that Tannehill was playin’ third base at the time, and that the score was tied when Cobb pulled it. It was the eighth innin’. He was on ﬁrst base. The next guy hits a single to left ﬁeld. Ty, o’ course, rounds second and starts for third. The left ﬁelder makes a rotten peg and the pill comes rollin’ in. Ty has the play beat a mile and they ain’t no occasion for him to slide. But he slid, and do you know what he done? He took a healthy kick at that rollin’ ball and sent it clear over to the grand stand. Then he jumped to his feet and kept on goin’. He was acrost the plate with the winnin’ run before nobody’d realized what he’d did. It’s agin the rules, o’ course, to kick the ball a-purpose, but how could the umps prove that this wasn’t a accident? Ty could of told him that he thought the play was goin’ to be close and he’d better slide. I might o’ thought it was a accident, too, if that had of been the only time I seen him do it. I can’t tell you how many times he’s pulled it, but it’s grew to be a habit with him. When it comes to scorin’ on kicks, he’s got this here What’s-His-Name—Brickley—tied.P
I’ve saw him score from second base on a ﬂ y ball, too; a ﬂy ball that was catched. Others has did it, but not as regular as this guy. He come awful near gettin’ away with it agin a little while ago, in Chi. They was also somebody on third when the ball was hit. The guy on third started home the minute Bodie catched the ball and Ping seen they was no chancet to get him. So he pegs toward Weaver, who’s down near third base. Cobb’s at third before the ball gets to the inﬁeld. He don’t never hesitate. He keeps right on goin’ for the plate. Now, if Weaver’d of been able to of intercepted the ball, Ty’d of been out thirty feet. But the throw goes clear through to the third baseman. Then it’s relayed home. The gang sittin’ with me all thought Ty was safe. I don’t know about it, but anyway, he was called out. It just goes to show you what this guy’s liable to do. You can’t take no afternoon nap when he’s around. They’s lots of other fast guys, but while they’re thinkin’ about what they’re goin’ to do, he’s did it. He’s ﬁgurin’ two or three bases ahead all the while. So, as I say, you don’t get no sleep with him in the game.P
Fielder Jones used to tell us: “When that bird’s runnin’, throw the ball somewheres just’s soon as you get a-hold of it. I don’t care where you throw it, but throw it somewheres. Don’t hold onto it.”P
I seen where the papers says the other day that you outguessed him. I wasn’t out to that game. I guess you got away with somethin’ all right, but don’t feel too good about it. You’re worse off now than you was before you done it because he won’t never rest till he shows you up. You stopped him oncet, and just for that he’ll make you look like a rummy next time he plays agin you. And after he’s did it oncet and got even, he’ll do it agin. And then he’ll do it agin. They’s a lot o’ fellas round this league that’s put over a smart play on Tyrus and most of ‘em has since wished they hadn’t. It’s just like as if I’d go out and lick a policeman. I’d live to regret it.P
We had a young fella oncet, a catcher, that nailed him ﬂatfooted off ‘n ﬁrst base one day. It was in the ﬁrst game of a serious. Ty didn’t get on no more that day, but he walked the ﬁrst time up the followin’ afternoon. They was two out. He takes a big lead and the young fella pegs for him agin. But Tyrus was off like a streak when the ball was throwed, and about the time the ﬁrst baseman was catchin’ it, he was slidin’ into second. Then he gets a big lead off ‘n second and the young catcher takes a shot for him there. But he throws clear to center ﬁeld and Ty scores. The next guy whiffs, so they wouldn’t of been no run if the young guy hadn’t of got so chesty over the precedin’ day’s work. I’m tellin’ you this so’s you won’t feel too good.P
They’s times when a guy does try to pull something on this Cobb, and is made to look like a sucker without deservin’ it. I guess that’s because the Lord is for them that helps themselves and don’t like to see nobody try to show ‘em up.P
I was sittin’ up in the stand in Cleveland one day. Ty was on second base when somebody hits a ﬂy ball, way out, to Birmingham. At that time, Joe had the best throwin’ arm you ever see. He could shoot like a riﬂe. Cobb knowed that, o’ course, and didn’t feel like takin’ no chancet, even though Joe was pretty far out there. Ty waits till the ball’s catched and then makes a bluff to go to third, thinkin’ Birmy’d throw and that the ball might get away. Well, Joe knows that Cobb knows what kind of arm he’s got and ﬁ gures that the start from second is just a bluff ; that he ain’t really got no intention o’ goin’. So, instead o’ peggin’ to third, he takes a quick shot for second, hopin’ to nail Cobb before he can get back. The throw’s perfect and Cobb sees where he’s trapped. So he hikes for third. And the second sacker—I don’t think the big Frenchman was playin’ that day—drops the ball. If he’d of held it, he’d of had plenty of time to relay to third and nail Ty by a block. But no. He drops the ball. See? Birmy’d outguessed Ty, but all it done for him was to make him look bad and make Ty look good.P
Another time, a long while ago, Detroit needed a run to win from the Sox. Ty gets to ﬁ rst base with one out. Sully was catchin’. Sully signs for a pitch-out and then snaps the ball to ﬁrst base. Ty wasn’t lookin’ for it and he was caught clean. He couldn’t get back to ﬁ rst base, so he goes for second. Big Anderson was playin’ ﬁrst base and he makes a bum peg. The ball hits Cobb on the shoulder and bounds so far out in left center that he didn’t even have to run to get home. You see, Sully’d outguessed Ty and had pulled a play that ought to of saved the game. Instead o’ that, it give the game to Detroit. That’s what hurts and discourages a fella from tryin’ to pull anything on him.P
Sometimes I pretty near think they’s nothin’ he couldn’t do if he really set out to do it. Before you joined the club, some o’ the boys was kiddin’ him over to Detroit. Callahan was tellin’ me about it. Cobb hadn’t started hittin’. One o’ the players clipped the averages out o’ the paper and took ‘em to the park. He showed the clippin’ to Ty.P
“You’re some battin’ champ, Ty,” he says. “Goin’ at a .225 clip, eh?”P
Tyrus just laughed at him. “I been playin’ I was one o’ you White Sox,” he says. “But wait till a week from to-day. It’ll be .325 then.”P
Well, it wasn’t. No, sir! It was .326.P
One time, in 1912 I think it was, I happened to be goin’ East, lookin’ for a job of umpirin’, and I rode on the train with the Tigers. I and Cobb et breakfast together. I had a Sunday paper with me and was givin’ the averages the oncet over.P
“Read ‘em to me,” says Ty.P
“You don’t want ‘em all, do you?” I says.P
“No, no. Just the ﬁrst three of us,” he says. “I know about where I’m at, but not exactly.”P
So I read it to him:P
“Jackson’s ﬁrst with .412. Speaker’s second with .400. You’re third with .386.”P
“Well,” says Ty, “I reckon the old boy’d better get busy. Watch me this trip!”P
I watched him, through the papers. In the next twenty-one times at bat, he gets exactly seventeen hits, and when the next averages was printed, he was out in front. He stayed there, too.P
So I don’t know, but I believe that if Jackson and Speaker and Collins and Lajoie and Crawford was to go crazy and hit .999, this Cobb would come out on top with 1,000 even.P
He’s got a pretty good opinion of himself, but he ain’t no guy to really brag. He’s just full o’ the old conﬁdence. He thinks Cobb’s a good ball player, and a guy’s got to think that way about himself if he wants to get anywheres. I know a lot o’ ball players that gets throwed out o’ the league because they think the league’s too fast for ‘em. It’s diff ‘rent with Tyrus. If they was a league just three times as fast as the one he’s in and if he was sold up there, he’d go believin’ he could lead it in battin’. And he’d lead it too!P
Yes, sir, he’s full o’ that old stuff , and the result is that lots o’ people that don’t know him think he’s a swell-head, and don’t like him. But I’m tellin’ you that he’s a pretty good guy now, and the rest o’ the Tigers is strong for him, which is more’n they used to be. He busted in with a chip on his shoulder, and he soon become just as popular as the itch. Everybody played him for a busher and started takin’ liberties with him. He was a busher, too, but he was one o’ the kind that can’t take a joke. You know how they’s young fellas that won’t stand for nothin’. Then they’s them that stands for too much. Then they’s the kind that’s just about half way. You can go a little ways with ‘em, but not too far. That’s the kind that’s popular.P
Cobb wouldn’t stand for nothin’. If somebody poured ketchup in his coffee, he was liable to pick up the cup and throw it at the guy nearest to him. If you’d stepped on his shine, he’d of probably took the other foot and aimed it at you like he does now at the ball when it’s lyin’ loose on the ground. If you’d called him some name on the ﬁeld, he’d of walloped you with a bat, even if you was his pal. So they was all stuck on him, was they not?P
He got trimmed a couple o’ times, right on his own club, too. But when they seen what kind of a ball player he was goin’ to be, they decided they’d better not kill him. It’s just as well for ‘em they didn’t. I’d like to know where their club would of ﬁnished—in 1907 and 1908, for instance—if it hadn’t of been for him. It was nobody but him that beat us out in 1908. I’ll tell you about it later on.P
I says to him one day not long ago, I says:P
“You wasn’t very strong with the boys when you ﬁrst come up. What was the trouble?”P
“Well,” he says, “I didn’t understand what was comin’ off . I guess they meant it all right, but nobody’d tipped me that a busher’s supposed to be picked on. They were hazin’ me; that’s what they were doin’, hazin’ me. I argued with ‘em because I didn’t know better.”P
“You learned, though, didn’t you?” I says.P
“Oh, yes,” says Ty, “I learned all right.”P
“Maybe you paid for your lessons, too,” I says.P
“Maybe I did,” he says.P
“Well,” I says, “would you act just the same way if you had it to do over again?”P
“I reckon so,” he says.P
And he would, too, because if he was a diff ‘rent kind o’ guy, he wouldn’t be the ball player he is.P
Say, maybe you think I didn’t hate him when I was playin’ ball. I didn’t know him very well, see? But I hated him on general principles. And I never hated him more’n I did in 1908. That was the year they beat us out o’ the big dough the last day o’ the season, and it come at a time when I needed that old dough, because I knowed darn well that I wasn’t goin’ to last no ten years more or nothin’ like that.P
You look over the records now, and you’ll see that the Detroit club and us just about broke even on the year’s serious agin each other. I don’t know now if it was exactly even or not, or, if it wasn’t, which club had the best of it. But I do know one thing, and that is that they beat us ﬁve games that we’d ought to of copped from ‘em easy and they beat us them games for no other reason than that they had this here Georgia Peach.P
The records don’t show no stuff like that, but I can remember most o’ them games as if they was played yesterday; that is, Cobb’s part in ‘em. In them days, they had Crawford hittin’ third and Cobb fourth and Rossman ﬁ fth. Well, one day we had ‘em licked by three runs in the seventh innin’. Old Nick was pitchin’ for us and Sully was catchin’. Tannehill was at third base and Hahn was switched from right to left ﬁeld because they was somethin’ the matter with Dougherty. Well, this seventh innin’ come, as I was sayin’, and we was three runs to the good. Crawford gets on someway and Cobb singles. Jones thought Nick was slippin’, so he hollered for Smitty. Smitty comes in and pitches to big Rossman and the big guy hits one back at him. Smitty had the easiest kind of a double play starin’ him in the face—a force play on Crawford at third and then the rest of it on Rossman, who wasn’t no speed marvel. But he makes a bad peg to Tannie and the ball gets by him. It didn’t look like as if Crawford could score, and I guess he was goin’ to stop at third.P
But Tyrus didn’t pay no attention to Crawford. He’d saw the wild peg and he was bound to keep right on comin’. So Crawford’s got to start home to keep from gettin’ run over. Hahn had come in to get the ball and when he seen Crawford startin’ home, he cut loose a wild peg that went clear to the bench. Crawford and Cobb both scored, o’ course, and what does Ty do but yell at Rossman to follow ‘em in, though it looked like sure death. Sully has the ball by that time, but it’s just our luck that he has to peg wild too. The ball sailed over Smitty, who’d came up to cover the plate. The score’s tied and for no reason but that Tyrus had made everybody run. The next three was easy outs, but they went on and licked us in extra innin’s.P
Well, they was another game, in that same serious I think it was, when Big Ed had ‘em stopped dead to rights. They hadn’t no more business scorin’ off ‘n him than a rabbit. I don’t think they hit two balls hard all day. We wasn’t the best hittin’ club in the world, but we managed to get one run for the Big Moose in the ﬁ rst innin’ and that had ought to of been a-plenty.P
Up comes Cobb in the fourth and hits one that goes in two bounds to Davis or whoever was playin’ short. If he could of took his time, they’d of been nothin’ to it. But he has to hurry the play because it’s Cobb runnin’, and he pegs low. Izzy gets the ball off ‘n the ground all right, but juggles it, and then Ty’s safe.P
They was nobody out, so Rossman bunts. He’s throwed out a mile at ﬁ rst base, but Ty goes all the way to third. Then the next guy hits a ﬂy ball to Hahn that wouldn’t of been worth a nickel if Cobb’d of went only to second on the sacriﬁce, like a human bein’. He’s on third, though, and he scores on the ﬂy ball. The next guy takes three swings and the side’s out, but we’re tied up.P
Then we go along to the ninth innin’ and it don’t look like they’d score agin on Big Ed if they played till Easter. But Cobb’s up in the ninth with one out. He gets the one real healthy hit that they’d made all day. He singled to right ﬁeld. I say he singled, because a single’s what anybody else would of been satisﬁed with on the ball he hit. But Ty didn’t stop at ﬁrst base. He lights out for second and whoever was in right ﬁeld made a good peg. The ball’s there waitin’ for Ty, but he slides away from it. Jake thought he had him, but the umps called him safe. Well, Jake gets mad and starts to kick. They ain’t no time called or nothin’. The umps turns away and Jake slams the ball on the ground and before anybody could get to it, Cobb’s on third. We all hollered murder, but it done us no good. Rossman then hit a ﬂy ball and the game’s over.P
I remember another two to one game that he win from us. I don’t recall who was pitchin’—one o’ the left-handers, I guess. Whoever it was had big Rossman on his staff that day. He whiffed him twicet and made him pop out another time. They was one out in the eighth when Cobb beats out a bunt. We was leadin’ by one run at the time, so naturally we wanted to keep him on ﬁrst base. Well, whoever it was pitchin’ wasted three balls tryin’ to outguess Tyrus, and he still stood there on ﬁrst base, laughin’ at us. Rossman takes one strike and the pitcher put the next one right over and took a chancet, instead o’ runnin’ the risk o’ walkin’ him. Rossman has a toe-hold and he meets the ball square and knocks it clear out o’ the park. We’re shut out in the ninth and they’ve trimmed us. You’ll say, maybe, it was Rossman that beat us. It was his wallop all right, but our pitcher wouldn’t of wasted all them balls and got himself in the hole if anybody but Cobb’d of been on ﬁrst base.P
One day we’re tied in the ninth, four to four, or somethin’ like that. Cobb doubled and Rossman walked after two was out. Jones pulled Smitty out o’ the game and put in Big Ed. Now, nobody was lookin’ for Ty to steal third with two out. It’s a rotten play when anybody else does it. This ain’t no double steal, because Rossman never moved off ‘n ﬁrst base. Cobb stole third all right and then, on the next pitch, Rossman starts to steal second. Our catcher oughtn’t to of paid no attention to him because Walsh probably could of got the batter and retired the side. It wasn’t Sully catchin’ or you can bet no play’d of been made. But this catcher couldn’t see nobody run without peggin’, so he cut loose. Rossman stopped and started back for ﬁrst base. The shortstop ﬁred the ball back home, but he was just too late. Cobb was acrost already and it was over. Now in that case, our catcher’d ought to of been killed, but if Tyrus hadn’t did that fool stunt o’ stealin’ third with two out, they’d of been no chancet for the catcher to pull the boner.P
How many did I say he beat us out of? Five? Oh, yes, I remember another one. I can make it short because they wasn’t much to it. It was another one o’ them tied up affairs, and both pitchers was goin’ good. It was Smitty for us and, I think, Donovan for them. Cobb gets on with two down in the tenth or ‘leventh and steals second while Smitty stands there with the ball in his hand. Then Rossman hits a harmless lookin’ ground ball to the shortstop. Cobb runs down the line and stops right in front o’ where the ball was comin’, so’s to bother him. But Ty pretends that he’s afraid the ball’s goin’ to hit him. It worked all right. The shortstop got worried and juggled the ball till it was too late to make a play for Rossman. But Cobb’s been monkeyin’ so long that he ain’t nowheres near third base and when the shortstop ﬁ nally picks up the ball and pegs there, Cobb turns back. Well, they’d got him between ‘em and they’re tryin’ to drive him back toward second. Somebody butts in with a muff and he goes to third base. And when Smitty starts to pitch agin, he steals home just as clean as a whistle.P
The last game o’ the season settled the race, you know. I can’t say that Tyrus won that one for ‘em. They all was due to hit and they sure did hit. Cobb and Crawford both murdered the ball in the ﬁ rst innin’ and won the game right there, because Donovan was so good we didn’t have no chancet. But if he hadn’t of stole them other games off ‘n us, this last one wouldn’t of did ‘em no good. We could of let our young fellas play that one while we rested up for the world’s serious.P
I don’t say our club had a license to be champions that year. We was weak in spots. But we’d of got the big dough if it hadn’t of been for Tyrus. You can bet your life on that.P
You can easy see why I didn’t have no love for him in them days. And I’ll bet the fellas that was on the Ath-a-letics in 1907 felt the same toward him, because he was what kept ‘em from coppin’ that year. I ain’t takin’ nothin’ away from Jennin’s and Crawford and Donovan and Bush and Mullin and McIntire and Rossman and the rest of ‘em. I ain’t tryin’ to tell you that them fellas ain’t all had somethin’ to do with Detroit’s winnin’ in diff ‘rent years. Jennin’s has kept ‘em ﬁ ghtin’ right along, and they’s few guys more valuable to their club than Crawford. He busted up a lot o’ games for ‘em in their big years and he’s doin’ it yet. And I consider Bush one o’ the best inﬁ elders I ever see. The others was all right, too. They all helped. But this guy I’m tellin’ you about knocked us out o’ the money by them stunts of his that nobody else can get by with.P
It’s all foolishness to hate a fella because he’s a good ball player, though. I realize that now that I’m out of it. I can go and watch Tyrus and enjoy watchin’ him, but in them days it was just like pullin’ teeth whenever he come up to the plate or got on the bases. He was reachin’ right down in my pocket and takin’ my money. So it’s no wonder I was sore on him.P
If I’d of been on the same club with him, though, I wouldn’t never of got sore at him no matter how fresh he was. I’d of been afraid that he might get so sore at me that he’d quit the club. He could of called me anything he wanted to and got away with it or he could have took me acrost his knee and spanked me eighty times a day, just so’s he kept on puttin’ money in my kick instead o’ beatin’ me out of it.P
As I was sayin’, I enjoy seein’ him play now. If the game’s rotten or not, it don’t make no diff’rence, and it don’t make a whole lot even if he’s havin’ a bad day. They’s somethin’ fascinatin’ in just lookin’ at the baby.P
I ain’t alone in thinkin’ that, neither. I don’t know how many people he draws to the ball parks in a year, but it’s enough to start a big manufacturin’ town and a few suburbs. You heard about the crowd that was out to the Sox park the Sunday they was two rival attractions in town? It was in the spring, before you come. Well, it was some crowd. Now, o’ course, the Sox draw good at home on any decent Sunday, but I’m tellin’ you they was a few thousands out there that’d of been somewheres else if Cobb had of stayed in Georgia.P
I was in Boston two or three years ago this summer and the Tigers come along there for a serious o’ ﬁ ve games, includin’ a double-header. The Detroit club wasn’t in the race and neither was the Red Sox. Well, sir, I seen every game and I bet they was seventy thousand others that seen ‘em, or better’n ﬁfteen thousand a day for four days. They was some that was there because they liked baseball. They was others that was stuck on the Red Sox. They was still others that was strong for the Detroit club. And they was about twenty-ﬁve or thirty thousand that didn’t have no reason for comin’ except this guy I’m tellin’ you about. You can’t blame him for holdin’ out oncet in awhile for a little more money. You can’t blame the club for slippin’ it to him, neither.P
They’s a funny thing I’ve noticed about him and the crowds. The fans in the diff’rent towns hates him because he’s beat their own team out o’ so many games. They hiss him when he pulls off somethin’ that looks like dirty ball to ‘em. Sometimes they get so mad at him that you think they’re goin’ to tear him to pieces. They holler like a bunch of Indians when some pitcher’s good enough or lucky enough to strike him out. And at the same time, right down in their hearts, they’re disappointed because he did strike out.P
How do I know that? Well, kid, I’ve felt it myself, even when I was pullin’ agin Detroit. I’ve talked to other people and they’ve told me they felt the same way. When they come out to see him, they expect to see him do somethin’. They’re glad if he does and glad if he don’t. They’re sore at him if he don’t beat their team and they’re sore if he does. It’s a funny thing and I ain’t goin’ to sit here all night tryin’ to explain it.P
But, say, I wisht I was the ball player he is. They could throw pop bottles and these here bumbs at me, and I wouldn’t kick. They could call me names from the stand, but I wouldn’t care. If the whole population o’ the United States hated me like they think they hate him, I wouldn’t mind, so long’s I could just get back in that old game and play the ball he plays. But if I could, kid, I wouldn’t have no time to be talkin’ to you.P
The other day, I says to Callahan:P
“What do you think of him?”P
“Think of him!” says Cal. “What could anybody think of him? I think enough of him to wish he’d go and break a leg. And I’m not sore on him personally at that.”P
“Don’t you like to see him play ball?” I says.P
“I’d love to watch him,” says Cal, “if I could just watch him when he was playin’ Philadelphia or Washington or any club but mine.”P
“I guess you’d like to have him, wouldn’t you?” I says.P
“Me?” says Cal. “All I’d give for him is my right eye.”P
“But,” I says, “he must keep a manager worried some, in one way and another; you’d always be afraid he was goin’ to break his own neck or cut somebody else’s legs off or jump to the Fed’rals or somethin’.”P
“I’d take my chances,” says Cal. “I believe I could even stand the worry for a few days.”P
I seen in the papers where McGraw says Eddie Collins is the greatest ball player in the world. I ain’t goin’ to argue with him about it, because I got nothin’ but admiration for Collins. He’s a bear. But, kid, I wisht McGraw had to play twenty-two games a year agin this Royston Romper. No, I don’t, neither. McGraw never done nothin’ to me.
For a taste of Lenny Shecter’s no-bullshit, take-no-prisoners style, check out this excerpt from “The Flower of America” chapter of his 1969 book of essays, The Jocks.
By Leonard Shecter
There are famous Yankee players whose public images bear little relation to the kind of men they actually are—Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle, to name three.
Suave, sure, husband of Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio holds a unique place in Americana. He is super-hero. Sixteen years after he completed his remarkable feat of hitting in 56 straight games he was immortalized (if a god can obtain new immortalization) by Simon and Garfunkel in “Mrs. Robinson.”
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
In fact, the nation has not turned its lonely eyes to Joe DiMaggio. As Gay Talese showed in a remarkable article in Esquire in 1966, DiMaggio is a vain, lonely man, who is a tyrant to the sycophants who surround him. Wrote Talese. “His friends [know] . . . that should they inadvertently betray a confidence . . . [he] will never speak to them again.” Talese then described a scene in a restaurant called Reno’s in San Francisco which DiMaggio would often drop into.
They may wait for hours sometimes, waiting and knowing he may wish to be alone; but it does not seem to matter, they are endlessly awed by him, moved by the mystique, he is a kind of male Garbo. They know he can be warm and loyal if they are sensitive to his wishes, but they must never be late for an appointment to meet him. One man, unable to find a parking space, arrived a half-hour late once and DiMaggio didn’t talk to him again for three months. They know, too, when dining at night with DiMaggio, that he generally prefers male companions and occasionally one or two young women, but never wives; wives gossip, wives are trouble, and men wishing to remain close to DiMaggio must keep their wives at home.
His friends fawn on him, call him “Clipper” (one must wonder why a grown man would tolerate that), introduce him to mindless young women and pick up his tabs. At her death he turned a marriage to Marilyn Monroe that didn’t work (she complained that all he wanted to do was watch television) into a maudlin lost love. He held a permanent grudge against Robert Kennedy because he once spent a lot of time at a party dancing with Marilyn. This was aftertheir marriage had disintegrated.
And in the end he took a coaching job—not a managing job, a coaching job—with Charles O. Finley, the erratic owner of the Oakland Athletics. It was the act of a lonely, probably bitter man. No one had offered him a job as manager. In the fall of 1968 Joe DiMaggio was in Japan to teach the batters there how to hit. One suspects he had no more difficulty communicating with them than he did with American batters.
Yogi Berra is a particularly glowing example of an image which has outstripped the man. Of course, it is not his fault. It is not his fault that he is not a lovable gnome bubbling over withbon mots. Nor is it his fault that he is a narrow, suspicious man, jealous of the man other people supposed him to be and which he knew he was not. He was supposed to be a humorist because he said things like “Bill Dickey learned me all his experiences,” and “I want to thank you for making this award necessary.” In fact, there is severe doubt that Yogi Berra ever said anything intentionally funny in his life. The late Tom Meany used to tell this possibly apocryphal story about Berra which, at the least, illustrates the breadth of his knowledge. Berra was introduced to Ernest Hemingway at a party in a restaurant. When he returned to his table, he was asked what he thought of him. Said Berra: “He’s quite a character. What does he do?”
Well, he’s a writer.
“Yeah? What paper?”
After a while Berra and his wife, Carmen, came to believe that he was indeed something of a man of the world, raconteur, sophisticate. After all, weren’t they rich? (Berra has had enormous financial luck. He sold his interests in a bowling emporium at a great profit shortly before the bottom dropped out of the bowling business. And he took a block of stock in return for endorsing a little-known chocolate ”drink”-which means no milk and very little chocolate: the stock sky-rocketed.
There was an autobiography called Yogi. It was a typical baseball autobiography, all shiny and bright for the kiddies, naturally written by somebody else, a man who could have done better. But by the time the world was ready for a book about Berra, the Bern1s were not interested in reality. They wanted the book to be about Berra as they would have liked him to be. So it turned out to be a terrible book, cheap and phony and transparent I reviewed it that way.
It was a lovely spring day in St. Petersburg. The palm trees waved shiny green against the high blue sky. Yogi Berra saw me as soon as I arrived.
“You son of a bitch,” Berra said. “You cocksucker.”
He never said that in Yogi.
But that is not what I remember about him most. I remember most that the other ball players always complained that Yogi Berra would stand naked at the clubhouse buffet and scratch his genitals over the cold cuts.
Mickey Mantle is a quite different man. He was never shoe-horned into a role which, like Berra, he was unprepared by nature and intellect to play. Mantle was a country boy, ill-educated, frightened, convinced at an early age by a series of deaths in his family that he was doomed to live only a short life.
He was simple, naive and, at the very first, trusting. It did not take him long to misplace his trust. He soon found that he was trusting the wrong people and, when this cost him money, it made him withdrawn and sullen, as well as poor. Fortified by Yankee tradition—watch out for outsiders-Mantle was soon responding only to his teammates and the glad-handers and celebrity fuckers who flocked around him. (Mantle is almost universally liked by his teammates because he goes out of his way to be outgoing and friendly with them. He vigorously denies that he decided to behave that way after he, as a rookie, was ignored by the aloof, morose DiMaggio, but a young ball player I trust swears Mantle told him this and I have no reason to disbelieve him.) Pretty soon, as his skills blossomed, it became Mantle and his hedonistic enclave against the world.
And obviously the world didn’t count. The world was made up of crowds of sweaty, smelly little kids who demanded autographs and smeared ice cream on your new stantung suit, middle-aged slobs who accosted you in restaurants in ·mid-forkful to simper about getting an autograph for their little kiddies at home, and cloddish newspaper and magazine people who never got anything right and only wanted to hurt you anyway. When he was playing poorly or when he was especially plagued by one of his numerous injuries, Mantle would become particularly withdrawn and sulky, turn his back even on well-wishers. A great deal of this was sheer self-protection. For Mantle always doubted himself and, most of all, his knowledge of the game.
He had reason to. Mantle was never much of a student of baseball. Born with marvelous skills, he played it intuitively, never having to pay much attention to what was going on. More than once I heard him ask a teammate about a rival pitcher, “What’s he throw?” This is not an unusual question around a ball club-except if the pitcher had been in the league five years and pitched against the Yankees maybe 30 times.
It is possible that Mantle was incapable of even the minimum amount of concentration the finer points of baseball require. Certainly he refused to work on his own physical conditioning during the off-season, a refusal which, if it not actually shorten his career, obviously did nothing to prevent the pulled muscles in legs and groin which plagued him during almost every season. Year after year Mantle was told to go home and lift weights with his legs. He was begged to keep in good enough physical condition so that he would at least not disarrange a hamstring, as he did so often, in the opening days of spring training. But Mantle’s idea of keeping fit was to have an active social life and play golf out of an electric cart which was outfitted with a bar. He had fun. He also had pulled muscles.
It has become a cliche to wonder how great Mantle would have been had he been physically healthy during his career. What I wonder is how great he might have been had he even tried to keep physically healthy.
In the early years of his career Mantle was booed by the fans because he refused to live up to his promise. Later on the boos turned to cheers as he became known as a man who made a gallant effort despite enormous physical pain. I’m not sure the fans weren’t right in the first place.
Here’s my Introduction to Southwest Passage: The Yanks in the Pacific, available now.
When he went off to cover the war in the Pacific in January 1943, John Lardner was twenty-nine years old and, thanks to his weekly column in Newsweek, already a major figure in sportswriting. Nothing at Madison Square Garden or Yankee Stadium, however, could match the lure of what awaited him overseas. “The war was everything,” he said. “I was glad to be in it, speeding along with it.”
Lardner’s first stops were Australia and New Guinea, and what he wrote there became the backbone of the book you hold in your hands, Southwest Passage: The Yanks in the Pacific. Originally published seventy years ago, this was a buried treasure in Lardner’s considerable body of work as a reporter during World War II. It’s blessed with Lardner’s unmistakable humor, and it captures the immediacy of what was then, to Americans, a new theater of war.
“There was more to be seen, heard, and felt in this war, of course, than the fighting of it,” he wrote. “It took Americans to a strange world, with a strange flavor, and gave many of them a long time to look around between bullets.”
Lardner crisscrossed Australia for four months, piling up ten thousand miles as he filed dispatches for the North American Newspaper Alliance and Newsweek. A lesser writer may have sought to dramatize what he saw, but Lardner pared away the extraneous with impeccable reporting. In the opening chapter, Lardner writes, “I want to tell the story with as few profundities and earth-shaking conclusions as possible.” It’s this unpretentious approach to reportage that keeps Southwest Passage fresh for us today.
Shortly after he arrived, Lardner observed an American soldier opening diplomatic relations with an Australian in a bar in Sydney.
“Well, boy,” said the American, “you can relax now. We’re here to save you.”
“Ow is that? I thought you were a fugitive from Pearl Harbor.”
About the locals, he wrote: “There can hardly be people in the world more fiercely and fanatically independent than Australians. The notion that the Yanks had come to ‘save Australia’—well, some of us had it, sure enough, and there was no quicker way of tasting the quick mettle and genial scorn of the fellow we came to save.”
No wonder Orville Prescott of the New York Times called Southwest Passage “as personal, informal and chatty a book of war correspondence as has yet come along. Mr. Lardner has the happy faculty of taking the war seriously without taking himself seriously.”
Lardner’s equanimity came naturally. He was, after all, the son of Ring Lardner, who was America’s most famous sportswriter before he became its most famous literary wit. Like his father, the son was serious about writing. As he said in a letter home: “It seems pretty plain that the best thing to do during the war is to work hard at whatever work you have to do, wherever it may be. Working is the only way I’ve ever found of being happy in a bad time.”
Lardner had been witness to the pitfalls of being labeled a sportswriter. His father never fully escaped being typecast as just a sportswriter. But John wasn’t just a sportswriter; he was one of the best. His reputation was cemented when he began a True magazine piece about a hell-bent prizefighter with these words: “Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.” Lardner’s fellow sportswriting legend Red Smith called it the “greatest novel ever written in one sentence.”
Like his contemporaries W. C. Heinz and A.J. Liebling, Lardner was a war correspondent, and if he didn’t enjoy their longevity or the lasting renown of Smith or Jimmy Cannon, he was every bit their equal. Heinz, in fact, is on record as calling Lardner “the best.”
“Time has a way of dimming the memory and achievements of writers who wrote, essentially, for the moment, as writers writing for journals must do,” Ira Berkow, a longtime columnist of the New York Times, told me. “But the best shouldn’t be lost in the haze of history and John Lardner was a brilliant writer—which means, in my view, that he was insightful, irreverent, wry and a master of English prose.”
John was born in 1912, the first of Ring and Ellis Lardner’s four boys. Their father was a study in reserve, a poker-faced observer of human folly who ushered his sons into the family business, although not by design. When his third son, Ring Jr., sold his first magazine piece, the father said, “Good God, isn’t any one of you going to turn out to be anything but a writer?”
The Lardners moved to the East Coast from Chicago in the fall of 1919. Early on, they lived in Great Neck, Long Island, the model for the fictional West Egg in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (for a time, Fitzgerald was one of Ring’s closest friends). Another friend was Grantland Rice, who succeeded Lardner as the most celebrated sportswriter in the country. Whenever Ring took his sons to Yankee Stadium, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig always came by to pay their respects.
In his memoir, The Lardners: My Family Remembered, Ring Jr. wrote about the striking similarities he and his brothers shared with their father: “Intellectual curiosity with a distinctly verbal orientation, taciturnity, a lack of emotional display, an appreciation of the ridiculous. It was a matter of course that you mastered the fundamentals of reading and writing at the age of four, and by six reading books was practically a full-time occupation.”
John was all of ten when he broke into print with this ditty for the New York World:
Babe Ruth and old Jack Dempsey,
Both sultans of the swat One hits where other people are,
The other where they’re not.
Ring Jr. claimed that John, more than any of his brothers, patterned his life on his father’s. John was bright and restless, and perhaps he pushed himself because he didn’t want to be known only as Ring’s son. He wasn’t given to talking about his motivations, but it is no stretch to assume that his father’s considerable talent gave him something to shoot for.
“John grew up in the shadow of a father who was a great writer,” Liebling wrote. “This is a handicap shared by only an infinitesimal portion of any given generation, but it did not intimidate him.”
As for himself, John wrote, “In the interests of learning to read and cipher, I made the rounds at a number of schools, my tour culminating in Phillips Academy, Andover, and Harvard University (one year), where I picked up the word ‘culminating.”‘
He went to Paris for another year to study at the Sorbonne, worked for a few months in Paris on the International Herald Tribune, then returned to New York in 1931 and landed a job with the New York Herald Tribune. He covered local news and quickly earned bylines—no small achievement at what was considered the city’s best-written paper. “We are all swollen up like my ankles,” his father boasted.
At twenty-one, John left the Herald Tribune to write a column for the North American Newspaper Alliance. It was the Depression, and he was pulling down an impressive $100 a week, but his father would not live long enough to see him cash any paychecks. Ring died in 1933 after suffering for years from tuberculosis and alcoholism. He was forty-eight.
In the late ’30s, John began his transition to magazine writing. He published a story for the Saturday Evening Post on the Black Sox scandal and launched the Newsweek sports column that would run for eighteen years and establish his reputation. And yet, for all of that, the rumblings of the coming war were impossible to ignore.
Finally, in 1940, he wrote a letter to John Wheeler, his boss at NANA:
A year or so ago you suggested—not at all in a definitive way, but simply as something to think about—that in case of real action abroad, perhaps involving this country, you might consider sending me to do some work there instead of, or in addition to, the people that usually do the stuff of that kind for you and the Times. The idea stuck in my mind, naturally, but I haven’t given it any serious thought until recently. I think I can do other work as well as or better than most newspaper men and writers, and that a time may be coming shortly when that work will be more important and valuable to both you and me. This sounds swellheaded—but if I didn’t feel the way I do about writing, I wouldn’t give a damn about being a writer.
John got his wish not long after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. During his voyage to Australia he wrote to his wife, Hazel: “I have now stated for the 143rd time that I don’t think Billy Conn can beat Joe Louis. This opinion is not censorable, and I will pass it along to you, too, for what it is worth, though you probably knew it all the time.”
Lardner traveled with four other American reporters during his twelve weeks in Australia. All proved more than happy to break up their considerable downtime by arguing about the following: “Food; Russia; women; the Louis-Schemling fights; the art of Michelangelo; the Civil War; religion; the Newspaper Guild; Cornelia Otis Skinner; tattooing; the best place to live in New England; William Randolph Hearst; war production; venereal disease; the Pyramids; walking-sticks; dining out as opposed to dining home; the private life of Hedy Lamarr; marriage; For Whom the Bell Tolls; prizefight managers; education for children; Enzo Fiermonte; Paris; this war and all others; Leopold and Loeb; San Francisco restaurants; Greek and Roman architecture; Seabiscuit; the comparative merits of Cleopatra and Mary Queen of Scots. And several hundred others.”
As consistently amusing as Lardner is in Southwest Passage, he strives for more than comic effect in his dispatches. Take his description of Darwin, the ghost town “at the topmost pole of the dusty road across Australia, brooding over its scars”; or his account of the nurses who survived brutal air raids in the Philippines with “their hard-bought shell of resistance.” Nothing showy, nothing fancy—just a world-class observer at work, as Lardner was when he encountered a swing band performing for a U.S. Army outfit near Darwin a few days after Easter. “The night, following a day without bombs, was moonlit, and the Southern Cross blazed above. The musicians brought their guns as well as their instruments.”
Lardner downplayed any personal jeopardy he faced, but as Liebling said, “John was naturally brave. When he saw blinding bomb flashes by night, he used to move toward them to see better.” Lardner himself might have chalked that up to poor eyesight, but his courage is evidenced by his trip through hostile waters to Port Moresby on a freighter dubbed the “Floating Firecracker,” whose cargo consisted of bombs and drums of gasoline. On another occasion, after successfully bombing their target off the north coast of New Guinea, the plane Lardner was aboard stopped to refuel at a barren little base. The men ate bread and marmalade in the mess shack while Lardner talked to one of the soldiers about the ice hockey playoffs for the Stanley Cup.
We got our last thrill of the day then, thrown in for good measure and absolutely unsolicited. Doggedly the Zeros [Japanese fighter planes] had trailed us south, and with them carne bombers. The alarm sounded, and the crews on the ground beelined for their planes, for there is nothing more humiliating, useless, and downright impractical than to be caught on the ground, in the open, with your aeronautical pants down.
There is nothing more scary, I should add, because something always goes a little wrong when you try to take off under the condition known as “or else.” One of the engines missed. Then the door failed to shut tight . . . but we did get off, after sitting there for what seemed like a couple of minutes longer than forever.
Given his natural reticence, there is little to be found in Lardner’s papers revealing his feelings about Southwest Passage. In letters home he didn’t much talk about himself or the content of his work, just the conditions under which he produced it. “As far as I know the stories I’ve been writing have not been done by others,” he wrote to his wife. “The main trouble with being frontward and one of the reasons I’ll have to spend more time here is communications and censorship. You can’t be sure how fast your stuff is getting to headquarters and clearing from there, and you have no way of knowing what’s being taken out of stories. It’s like writing in a void.”
Lardner came home to resume his sports column in the summer of 1942, but by the end of the year he was a war correspondent again. His first stops were North Africa and Italy, then it was back to the Pacific, where he went ashore at Iwo Jima only a few hours after the first wave of marines. By the time he covered the invasion of Okinawa, now also writing for the New Yorker, he was haunted by the deaths of two of his brothers: Jim was the last American volunteer to die in the Spanish Civil War, in 1938, and David was killed in 1944 by a landmine in France. You can practically feel the shadow of mortality on him in the letter he wrote to his wife after filing his dispatch from Okinawa: “That was the last one, baby. During the last few days I was there, I got one or two small and gentle hints, much more gentle than the one at Iwo Jima, that my luck was beginning to run out and I had better quit while I was still in one handsome, symmetrical piece. By the time I get home it will be practically three and a half years since I started covering the war which I guess will be enough.”
Like his father, John had considerable health problems for much of his adult life: TB, heart disease, and multiple sclerosis. Undeterred, he worked hard and steadily as he gave up his syndicated newspaper column to write long magazine pieces for True and Sport as well as the New Yorker. Along the way he published two collections of his columns, It Beats Working and Strong Cigars and Lovely Women, and a history of the golden age of boxing called White Hopes and Other Tigers.
A certain mystique rose up around Lardner. He was forever described as someone who could stay at the bar all evening, nursing a Scotch, smoking, and scarcely saying a word. “He was as easy to like as he was hard to know,” said Liebling. And yet he was far from morose. “I’d like to fend off at least a few tragic overtones in the account of John Lardner,” his daughter Susan once wrote. “Those of us who knew my father . . . remember him as a song-singing, piano-playing, butter pecan ice cream-eating cat rancher and driver of Buick convertibles, who drank more milk than whisky and who often and rightly referred to himself as Handsome Jack.”
John had always told friends he wouldn’t outlive his old man, and he was right. He died of a heart attack in 1960 six weeks before his forty-eighth birthday. That day, he was writing an obituary for an old family friend, Franklin P. Adams. “F.P.A. was always a poor poker player and often a bore,” he wrote before collapsing with chest pains. When the family doctor arrived, he took Lardner in his arms and said, “John, you can’t die. John, you’re a noble human being.” Lardner looked at him and said, “Oh Lou, that sounds like a quotation.”
In September of 1943, Lardner sat down in a stone house in southern Italy to compose his latest dispatch from the war. He had written in less commodious surroundings as he bounced from Australia to New Guinea to North Africa, but he neither complained about them nor reveled in this rare taste of comfort. Usually he was glad for mail call, too, even if it came in midsentence. But not this day.
Lardner was hoping for a letter from his wife and instead received a legal notice from the midwestern law firm of Duffy, Claffy, Igoe & McCorkindale. The letter concerned a column he had written about a former outfielder from St. Louis named Bohnsack, who seemed not to have been memorable except that he once threw an umpire off a moving train. Lardner, who knew something worth writing about when he saw it, happily included the incident in his column. Now Bohnsack’s lawyers were claiming the anecdote was “false and misleading,” and they urged Lardner to settle out of court. Then as now, there was nothing like a little moola to ease a fellow’s “grievous social and mental damage.”
Lardner seethed: “Bohnsack annoyed me because he showed me that his world, which had also been my world, had great vitality, and that it took considerably more than a global battle to kill its self-preoccupation,” he wrote. It wasn’t just that Bohnsack had told Lardner personally that he’d thrown the umpire off a train, or that the first piece of mail he had received in the battle zone was not from his wife. “It was most of all that now, in the midst of the great and bloody planetary adventure of war, these barristers chose callously to call me back to the world of petulant outfielders and remind me that I was a sports writer.”
In fact, Lardner wrote about a variety of topics: lexicography, jury service, and New York history; for the New Yorker he contributed occasional film, theater, and book reviews and in the last three and a half years of his life wrote a column for the magazine on TV and radio. “Sportswriter” was a label that he, like his father, would never escape. This slim volume of his war reportage proves that Lardner was a quick-witted and assured writer no matter the subject. As Stanley Walker, the Herald Tribune’s city editor, said, Lardner “came close to being the perfect all-around journalist.” Never were those skills put to a stiffer test than on the battlefields in Europe and the Pacific. In the thickest drama, the unflappable man remained unflappable, at his best writing what Red Smith called novels in a single sentence.
You should’ve seen my father’s arms. He didn’t lift weights or do push-ups or exercise them in any way, and yet they were packed tight with muscle. When I was a boy and he lifted his high-ball in the evening for a sip, a round knot the size of a softball came up under the skin and slowly flattened out when he lowered the glass back down. I loved his arms so much that I memorized every vein, sinew, and golden hair. I knew the wrinkles of his elbows.
In the summer, when he worked for the city’s recreation department, supervising the baseball program at the park, Daddy liked to come home for lunch and a nap. He had lemonade and a BLT, then he had me lie close to him on the sofa, and he draped an arm around me. “One … two … three … ” he’d count in a whisper, and then he was out, sleeping that easily.
I lay there wondering if I’d ever have arms like his. I needed both hands to travel the distance around his wrist, the tips of my thumbs and fingers barely touching. I felt the hardness of his forearm. I saw how his wedding band fit him like a strand of barbed wire on a tree whose bark had grown around it. He smelled of the grass and the sun, of green and gold days that started early and ended late.
“Were you a good player?” I asked him once as he was coming awake.
“Was I what?”
“A good player.”
“You want to know if I was a good player?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“I don’t know. Did they run your name in the paper a lot?”
He looked at me in a way that let me know he wanted my attention. “None of it matters, John Ed. Was I a good teammate? Did I do my best and give everything I had to help the team? These are the questions you need to be asking.”
I wondered how to answer them, these questions he found of such importance. Many years would have to pass before I was old enough to join a team. He pulled me close again, as if he’d just remembered something. “John Ed?”
“Always be humble.”
The rest of the year he worked as a civics teacher and coach at the high school in town. The town was Opelousas, on the road between Alexandria and Lafayette, and it was just small enough, at about twenty thousand, to be excluded from Louisiana state maps when TV weathermen gave their forecasts in the evening. In the morning, my father left home wearing coach’s slacks with sharp creases and a polo shirt with a Tiger emblem and the words OHS FOOTBALL printed in Halloween orange on the left breast, the lettering melted from too much time in the dryer. A whistle hung from a nylon cord around his neck. It was still hanging there when he returned at night and sat down to a cold supper—the same meal Mama had served her children hours earlier. “You don’t want me to warm it for you, Johnny?”
“No, baby. That’s okay.”
Sometimes in the afternoon, Mama drove me out to the school. She parked under the oak tree by the gymnasium, pointed to where she wanted me to go, and I walked out past a gate in a hurricane fence to the field where my father and the other coaches were holding practice. Four years old, I wore the same crew cut that my father wore. I stumbled through tall grass and out past the red clay track that encircled the field. At home, my father didn’t raise his voice, but here he seemed to shout with every breath. A team manager took me by the hand and led me to a long pine bench on the sideline. I sat among metal coolers, spare shoulder pads and toolboxes crammed with first aid supplies. I waited until the last drill had ended and the players came one after another to the coolers for water the same temperature as the day, drunk in single gulps from paper cups shaped like cones. The players took turns giving the top of my head a mussing. “You gonna play football when you grow up?”
“I don’t know.”
“You gonna be a coach like your daddy?”
“I want to.”
Already I was certain that no one mattered more than a coach. I would trade any day to come for a chance to be that boy again, understanding for the first time who his father was. Give me August and two-a-days and a group of teenagers who are now old men, their uniforms stained green from the grass and black with Louisiana loam. Give me my father’s voice as he shouts to them, pushing them harder than they believe they can go, willing them to be better. Give me my father when practice is over and he walks to where I’m sitting and reaches his arms out to hold me.
[Photo Credit: Mark Reis]
Here’s a Father’s Day treat from the late, great Paul Hemphill.
ICC is a-checkin on down the line,
Well, I’m a little overweight
And my log book’s way behind;
Nothin’ bothers me tonight,
I can dodge all the scales all right;
Six days on the road
And I’m a-gonna make it home tonight . . .
During the week, when he would be on the road somewhere, the days at home began with the muffled slapping of screen doors and the dull starting of cars and I could look through the living-room window and see the same thing happening up and down the block: the other men, wearing drab blue factory uniforms or plain gray suits, carrying lunch pails or briefcases, going off to shuffle somebody’s papers or stand in somebody’s production line, a stolid army of beaten men moving out under the orders of fate to absorb whatever the world had to dump on them today. And when I saw them return in the late afternoon, their lunch pails empty and their chalky faces more pinched than ever now, my throat would_tighten and I would think, in the manner of a 12-year- old boy: My old man is better. Because I could not imagine then, nor can I imagine now, how a kid could get excited about a father like one of those; a father who wasn’t visible, a father who merely functioned. And because I knew that during the same day, in that nine hours between the going out and the coming back of the other men of the neighborhood, my old man had been Out There—Ohio, Kansas, California? Outwitting the Interstate Commerce Commission? Saving a life on the highway? Overtaking a Greyhound?—a mechanized Don Quixote challenging the world, spitting into its face the juice of a Dutch Masters Belvedere cigar, giving it a choice of weapons and then beating it at its own game. And, too, because I was faintly aware that a snarling four-ton Dodge pulling a sleek aluminum trailer was, unlike the portfolio of the insurance agent or the samples of the salesman, something a kid could sink his teeth into.
Then, on a Friday afternoon, my mother would be standing at the kitchen sink and suddenly say, with a slight inward smile I did not yet know, “Your daddy ought to be home soon.” And I would go out into the front yard, and shortly a mud-spattered red behemoth would top the long hill above the house, a clattering silver warehouse dragging behind, air brakes sneezing and air horns blasting at the wide-eyed kids gamboling on the sidewalks and the stunned old ladies swinging on their porches, the excitement swelling in my bony young chest until finally there was one final burp on the horns—for me—before the belching engine gasped and the whole rig shuddered to rest at the curb beside the house. “How-dee, I’m just so proud to be hyar,” he would yelp, Minnie Pearl at the Opry, swinging down from the cab like a Tom Mix dismounting—sunburned face, grimy hands, squinty piercing pale blue eyes, greasy overalls and pirate boots, a half-chewed cigar jammed in the corner of the mouth—the leathery adventurer, King of the Road, home from the wars. Neighborhood kids crowding around, daring to touch the simmering tires, while my old man digs through dirty socks and Cleveland newspapers and kitchen matches to produce a novelty-shop key to the City of Akron for me. A kiss for Mama and a hug for Sis, cowering, at the age of eight, in his presence. An hour in the vacant lot across the street, hitting mile-high pop flies until dusk over complaints from his wife (“Thirty-seven years old, acting like a boy”). Over supper, the stories of bad wrecks and truck stops and icy roads and outrunning the law and pulling the Appalachians at night, a born liar refining his art: “That fog was so bad I had to get out and feel that sign,” and “They got watermelons in Texas grow so fast the bottoms wear off before they can pick ‘em,” and “She had a face so ugly it wore out two bodies.” And afterward, a session at the old black upright piano in the living room, a self-taught Hoagy Carmichael: “I’d o’ learned to play with the left hand, too, but before they could mail me my second lesson the Injuns shot the Pony Express.” And finally to bed. Five days on the road, Birmingham to Akron and back, and he had made it home again tonight. He was my first hero and, the way things have been going lately, quite possibly the last.
So why, I am asking myself now, of all the good times we had together, why should I remember a bad one? The details are fuzzy. I must have been 18 or so. He came in off the road, but something was wrong. There was shouting. He talked about taking off again right after supper. My mother found a pint of booze in his overnight bag and, with hell-fire finality, flushed the contents down the toilet. He left. She and my sister were hysterical. It’s the son’s place to go find him and talk to him. Bewildered, I got into the car and raced into town, to the lot cluttered with tires and rusty engines and oil pans. I could see him sitting all alone in a dark corner of the cab, swigging from a pint, and when I pulled up and parked in the gravel beside the truck we tried not to look at each other. Blue lights laid a scary blanket over the lot. There was the desperate choking putt-putt-putt of a refrigerated trailer somewhere, broken by the occasional wail of a far-off train whistle, and after an interminable pause I heard myself say, “They’re crying.”
A gurgle, a cough. “Thought I’d get started early.”
“How come you did it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Made ‘em cry.”
“What’d you come down here for?”
“Mama said. I don’t know.”
“She shouldn’t o’ done that.”
“Well, she told me.”
He tilted back his head and began draining the bottle, his Adam’s apple quivering and some of the whiskey dribbling off to the side of his face, and his eyes looked like deep swollen ponds. I looked down and toed the gravel with my shoe while he finished. He sniffed and cleared his throat and then spoke in a frightened, vulnerable voice, a voice I had never heard come out of hun before. I’m not running anywhere, son. There’s a lot a boy don’t know. I don’t mean to make your mother cry, but sometimes a man’s, a man’s—” His voice had broken and when I dared look up at his face, bleached white by the pale lights on the lot, I saw that my old man, too, was crying.
Growing up is, of course, in line with the prevailing notion, a terrifying experience. But contrary to that notion, it is not accomplished in one giant symbolic leap, to the accompaniment of a dozen violins turning up full volume and the sudden brilliant dawning of a new and better day. Boys are not miraculously transformed into men through the first brutal sweaty defloration of a writhing rose in the back seat of a car, nor through the quaffing of eight beers without throwing up, nor by the stunning conquest of the neighborhood bully in defense of thy mother’s good name—although all of those events play a part in the transformation, however exaggerated their importance later becomes. No, growing up isn’t that simple. It may begin with a single pivotal moment, yes, but that moment is more likely to be one of defeat than of victory. In short, we must first discover that we do not know a goddamned thing and then take it from there. This has been known to take years.
Philosophically, theoretically, there is no good reason why it should take so long. Maybe one day we will become so sophisticated that we will modernize the whole system of maturing, organize it into an orderly program whereby young boys are weaned away from their childhood fantasies and patiently taught the mechanics of coping and therefore gently delivered into manhood as the grooming of young baseball players for the major leagues is done these days; you know, daily classes on Growing Up, regular weekly seminars with the old man where he speaks with candor about the times he screwed up and how it could have been avoided, and, finally, that ceremonial day of graduation into manhood just like the African tribes in television documentaries.
Maybe there are some fathers already doing that, but I doubt it. Because it is the nature of fathers to protect the old image, to set themselves up as infallible, and the nature of sons to swallow every bit of it. So growing up must begin with the shattering discovery that one’s father is not perfect, a knowledge not easily extracted or believed; and then you have to learn why he is not perfect; and, finally, you are getting somewhere when you determine how he has managed to compensate for this pitiable shortcoming.
That night in the lot haunted me for a long time. It isn’t easy to look on and see your father brought to his knees by mysterious devils. There was, indeed, “a lot a boy don’t know.” To this day—since it was a moment that embarrassed us both, we have never discussed it—I don’t know who the devils were. That would have been around 1954, when he was 43: about the time the Teamsters were beginning to make it difficult for independent, free-wheeling “lease operators” of his breed to make it; about the time more money was needed for us than ever before, my having attained college age; about the time a woman’s natural instincts for “respectability” were causing my mother to hack away at such issues as church and example-setting and a nicer house in a subdivision and a more secure job like driving a bus.
But the larger point is that I had seen him running scared, and it brought me to the first vague stirrings that life was not going to be easy or even fun; that life could be a bitch not above kicking you in the groin if you so much as winked at her; that there would be some terrible scars before it was done; that one day there would be a young boy looking up at me, wanting answers, and about all I might be able to give him in the way of solid advice would be to suggest he go into a clinch when they started working on the head. Here we had been working on the theory that he was unbeaten and untied, the last of the indomitable heroes, and now I knew differently and he knew I knew differently. From there, we began.
He has always seemed to treat everything that happened before he went into trucking as a prologue, which could explain why I have never been able to get much more than fragments about his growing up. I do know that he was born in 1911 at a tiny community in upper East Tennessee called Robbins, a then-prosperous but isolated mining and lumbering town that sat on a branch of the Southern Railroad between the birthplace of Sgt. Alvin York and the inaugural dam on the Tennessee Valley Authority system. Left fatherless at the age of eight, he got on a tram seven years later with his ailing mother and a sister and they went to live with relatives in Birmingham, never to return to the hills. He lacked a semester of English to graduate from high school, but instead of returning to finish—he has said he was a good student and could have gene to college if the money had been there, borne out every time I see him arrogantly complete the Sunday crossword of The New York Times with a ballpoint pen—he cut out for the Midwest to work at hard labor on the Rock Island Line. After a year or two he went back to Birmingham and married Velma Nelson, one of a husky coal miner’s six children, whom he had met one night while hanging around the steps of a Baptist church.
The Depression had hit rock bottom by then, and it was a scramble to stay alive. For a while he and a Greek named Mike Manos set up a news-butch operation on the daily excursion train running between Birmingham and Chattanooga—splitting $50 a week from the proceeds of newspapers, soft drinks and snacks at a time when most men felt lucky to earn $15—and later on he established a back-breaking one-man coal-mining business. I have heard some of the stories: how he and my mother won a drawing that gave them a free wedding on the stage of the Ritz Theater and a night in the honeymoon suite of the Thomas Jefferson Hotel, how she would get up well before dawn to make sandwiches to be sold on the train, how he painted the doctor’s house to pay for my birthing in 1936. I am sure that much of what he is today was shaped by those times, which is true with the great bulk of Americans who went through the Depression, but he is served well by a faulty memory of the whole thing.
Then, on a March morning in 1941, I awoke to the sounds of fierce sawing and hammering in the backyard. He was building wooden sideboards for a borrowed trailer and converting his dump truck to pull it, and with a war coming on he was announcing plans to go into trucking. “There’s gonna be a lot of stuff needs haulin’,” he said, “and I’m gonna help ‘em.”
It was the beginning, in a true sense, of his real life. He was born to drive a truck on the open road—a hard worker, a gambler, a fast talker, an adventurer with the eagle eyes and razor instincts and idiotic courage of a moonshine runner—and over the next 20 years he was to become something of a legend in that grim outback underworld of truck stops and loading docks and ICC checkpoints and cut-rate gas stations. Having a mountaineer’s inbred distrust of big companies and organized labor, preferring to make or break on his own merits, he set himself up as a “lease operator.” This meant he was a hired gun, a freelance trucker not on salary but on commission. The company, thus free of responsibility, couldn’t care less if he was overloaded or otherwise illegal in the eyes of the ICC; if he got caught, that was his problem. Just deliver the stuff by Tuesday morning.
You can see, then, how quickly my old man learned the location of every weight station on the continent, not to mention the sleeping habits and personal financial conditions of the men who ran them. He would stand there at the dock and tell them to fill ‘er up until she was bulging—with steel, tires, explosives, helmets, uniforms, whatever—and take off in the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness, like a bootlegger off on another run, twice as heavy as some states allowed but also twice as hungry. He knew every road in America by heart, and where to find the good coffee and the cheap gas, and how to make a gentleman’s arrangement at a truck stop in regard to somewhat clandestine cargo; and it seemed to be about all a man had to know. By the time the war had blown over, he had paid cash for a three-bedroom house and a ’46 Dodge automobile (“The 78th Dodge bought in Birmingham after the war”), started taking us on summer vacations to Florida and hired a driver to run a second rig. Those were the days of unblinking idolatry: that glorious time of puberty when I tried to wear my cap like his, and affected his hillbilly twang, and wondered what it took to be able to smoke and chew a cigar at the same time, and marveled at his ability to back a heaving trailer into the tightest hole. On summer evenings, at dusk, there was the great excitement of stuffing fresh socks and underwear into a bag and waiting impatiently for him to announce it was time to be going. “Now, Paul, I don’t want him growing up to be a truck driver,” my mother would say. “It’s good enough for me,” he would snap, “and I notice you ain’t starving.”
And a large part of growing up would begin to take place as we hit the open road, father and son, discovering the world and discovering each other together. Sleeping all day in the simmering Southern heat and riding all night to the songs of the whistling tires and the all-night country radio stations (“Ol’ Ernest Tubb sings like a bulldog, don’t he?”). Seeing the big tankers parked at the Mobile docks, the traffic in Atlanta, the tarpaper shacks in Mississippi, the cattle in Texas and the mist along the Blue Ridge. The truck stops at 3 o’clock in the morning, with bug-eyed truckers so high on bennies they couldn’t feed the pinball machines fast enough. “Your boy there looks just like you, Paul,” and, in response, “Well, the kid can’t help it.” Donora, Pennsylvania, where Stan Musial was raised. Nashville, where the Opry was. Pittsburgh, where the Pirates played. Blowing past a Greyhound on a straightaway, walking around a curve to see if the scales were open, standing on the running board to relieve ourselves while crawling up the Smokies, the jouncing of the cab and the pinup overhead bringing a curious new sensation to the groin. The mysterious hand signals exchanged with passing truckers, the wrecks and near-wrecks, the Cardinals game from St. Louis broadcast by Harry Caray, the black laborers begging to help unload at the docks at New Orleans. “Naw, ain’t got but a partial load o’ tires on,” to the ICC inspector and, a quarter-mile down the road, grabbing another gear, “Them boys just don’t take their work serious enough.” We had that to hold us together, and baseball—more than once we stood through Sunday doubleheaders to watch the Birmingham Barons play, then rushed home to work on my fielding until dark—and it seemed like a dream that would never end.
The breaking away began, of course, with that confusing night when I found him with his defenses down. W e didn’thave the trips together or the baseball any more—l had been jolted awake to the fact that I would never make it to the major leagues when I lasted only five days m spring training with a pathetic Class D club—and now I was cutting the umbilical, going off to college. In the college atmosphere, lost in a crowd of people whose fathers were doctors and architects and owners of legitimate businesses, I began to develop the notion that my old man was somebody to be ashamed of. It struck me for the first time that there had never been a book around our house, that my old man’s English was atrocious and that his business associates tended to be unlettered itinerants spending their dim lives driving other people’s trucks from one warehouse to another. I painfully learned that he, being a man of instinct rather than intellect, had been incapable of instructing me in any of the social graces now facing me, including sex. It occurred to me that while my friends were being staked to automobiles and off-campus apartments and fraternity initiation fees, I was having to serve up chow in a series of dining halls and work at summer jobs simply to stay in school. This was, remember, the 1950s, when we of the Silent Generation were in college for girls, football, parties and secure positions with big companies. Now my old man was no longer a character or a folk hero or even a champion to me; he was, as we say, tacky.
Which is not to say I had not been reminded of this before. He had always been the maverick in that great sprawling body on my mother’s side referred to as The Family. One uncle sold insurance. Another was a career man with Internal Revenue. Another was a mechanic. The other uncle was, the best I could determine, a freelance inventor; but then, his wife hadn’t let him out in years. It was a huge family, one that had in the early years knelt at the feet of my maternal grandfather—an imposing white-haired patriarch who reminded me of John L. Lewis and was respectfully called “Daddy Nelson”—and my old man had set the ground rules very soon after his marriage into The Family by refusing to cater to “the old man,” as he doggedly called him. His irreverence on that score, and on dozens of others, had made him an outcast, a role he seemed to relish. He drank. He didn’t believe in church. He talked loud and told blue jokes. He stated that the inventor had more brains than anybody in the bunch, he implied that being a deacon in the church was as good a way as any to sell insurance policies, and he was unable to fulfill his duties as a pallbearer at one relative’s funeral when he warmed up to the task with a few snorts of bourbon on an empty stomach. He worked with his hands, often outside the law, and to a group bent on attaining respectability—garden clubs, Sunday school, college, newer cars and bigger houses—he was, more often than not, a pain in the ass.
Meantime, I had finished school, gotten married, begun to write sports and to understand that I hadn’t seen much of the world at all. I had hitchhiked around a lot in pursuit of baseball clubs needing second basemen and I had covered a lot of miles in a truck with my old man, but it had been like running in place. After spending a year in France with an Air National Guard unit during John Kennedy’s “Berlin Crisis,” a year of enforced leisure in which I introduced myself to literature and found that a lot had happened in the world in 1946 besides the Cardinals’ winning of the World Series, I returned knowing that I had to do two things: quit writing about games, and get the hell out of Birmingham. By 1965 I found myself a daily columnist on The Atlanta Journal, featured prominently on the second page and free to write about anything—politics, Vietnam, sports, strippers—a sort of Jimmy Breslin, Dixie branch. But the real issue then was, of course, civil rights, and I found I was poorly equipped to handle it. I didn’t have the education or experience or, most important of all, the personal association with black people.
I had been raised by a Negro maid named Louvenia, never thinking to ask why she took her lunch on the back porch, and had grown up throwing rocks and jeering at a lanky fellow known as Nigger Charles as he ran from school to the shantytown that sat on a pile of scarred red dirt beyond our shaded neighborhood in Birmingham. My old man had always said they were shiftless and smelled bad and were not to be associated with, but the only opportunity I had to investigate that was when I played semipro baseball in Kansas with a dusky little local outfielder named Hank Scott; he turned out to be energetic, bright, deodorized and, to my astonishment, more of a soul brother to me than some of the white teammates from places like Chicago and St. Louis.
No, Louvenia and Nigger Charles and Hank Scott represented the only connections I had in what they were beginning to call the black community, unless you want to throw in the swarthy laborers who had always met my old man at the docks to help unload, and I had some homework to do. Not that I was alone in the South. Maybe the kids who grew up on a farm where there was nobody else to play ball with except the sharecroppers sons had prior relationships with the Negro, but most of my friends had never faced anything like that. We had blindly accepted the proposition that Negroes were inferior and should therefore be kept in their place—the back of the bus, the balcony of the theater, the “nigger bleachers” at the ballpark, and in their own churches and schools and restaurants—and now we had to make a decision: fight desegregation or work for it.
I must say that my old man made it easy for me. During the time I was living under his roof he had seldom felt it necessary to comment on the balance of the races, but the sight of those uppity folks actually demanding service in white Southern restaurants during the early 1960s drove him into a frenzy. This wasn’t my old man. It was somebody else. An autographed 8 x 10 of George Wallace showed up on the family piano. He quit hiring blacks to help him unload—at his age rolling into his trailer tires that sometimes weighed 500 pounds. He applauded the Birmingham Barons’ decision to drop out of the Southern Association rather than play integrated baseball. He talked about reactivating his father’s old squirrel rifle, which hadn’t been fired in at least 40 years. He discussed moving out of the old neighborhood. Once, on a visit with me when I was temporarily separated from my wife, he raved on and on about Communists and niggers and Catholics and Jews without addressing himself to my anguish. A trip to visit the folks in Birmingham invariably developed into an incredible one-way conversation: “This old boy out in Texas was telling me all about Jackie and those Secret Service agents . . . That’s all right, I know old Rastus McGill won’t let y’all say anything when you get out of Atlanta, but everybody knows he’s getting paid by Moscow . . . You talkin’ ’bout Martin Luther Coon? . . . Now that Strom Thurmond, that’s a man for you . . .” Ralph McGill paid from Moscow? Jackie Kennedy pleasuring the Secret Service? I mean, there are times when it doesn’t take an expert to sort out the truth. I became a liberal, through the back door.
During the last of the 1960s, then, our relationship, what there was left of it, caved in from what should have been peripheral pressures. He became just as convinced I was a freaky Communist as I was certain he was the last of the great racists, and one thing I did that I regret was to say it in my column. Not because I consider it an especially cheap shot to talk about your father like that in print or because it might have disturbed him, but because it made him polarize even further. Funny things were happening in The Family. After being bombarded by Freedom Riders and Martin Luther King and church bombers and police dogs, it seemed as though everybody in Birmingham was preparing to give the world 24 hours to get out of town. There had been a time when my old man’s audacious verbosity made him tacky, but now The Family was rallying around him as though he were some kind of proletarian prophet. “Well, now, Paul was telling me he heard over in Louisiana the other day how the nigras are being paid, yes paid, to, ah, go looking for young white girls and, ah . . . ,” said with some authority because my old man was, after all, as everybody knew, the one in The Family who traveled a lot and talked to different people.
Birmingham became a nice place for me to stay away from, what with one cousin being promoted to an executive position with the John Birch Society and my sister’s husband building a house on an elevated cul-de-sac and actually saying, if I remember correctly, that he would be.better able to “get a bead on ‘em when they start coming. Jesus. How the hell do you talk with them, reason with them,when their nostrils are flaring and their mouths are clucking while we all sit around the color television watching Daley’s cops riot in Chicago at the convention?Communists, everyone of ‘em. Enraged: Hell, they’re just kids. Calmly, smugly: Prove they ain’t Communists, then maybe I’ll believe it. Somebody, help.
“. . . never even a book in our house when I was growing up, and Auburn was better known then for its football players .and engineers than for its writers and thinkers. So I feel, in a sense, the Nieman program was made for somebody like me. I feel I can come to a better understanding of the South and people like my father by spending a year away from it all, in the academic atmosphere of Harvard . . .”
Each year a dozen newspapermen from all over the country are selected as Nieman Fellows, to spend a school year doing whatever they want to do at Harvard: reading, attending lectures, sleeping, drinking. The year is intended to put a spit-shine on promising young journalists, and it can be a good year if you handle it right. I mean, you don’t have to lift a finger for a whole year. At the suggestion of Dan Wakefield, the writer, who had been a Nieman once, I started filling out applications in the spring of 1968. I had the vague notion that maybe a year away from the South and The Family would help me put some things into perspective—”Give ‘em some of that poor-Southern-boy stuff and you’re in,” I was advised—but mainly I was running from the writing of six 1,000-word columns a week. I mentioned the possibility of a year at Harvard to my old man once, and all I got was a knowing smile. Then a wire came, saying I had been one of those picked, and I called Birmingham with the great news. “Mama, I won that fellowship,” I yelled over the phone. ‘What school did you say that was?” she replied. “Harvard, Mama.” In the background I could hear my old man’s response, and it didn’t take much imagination to guess what he might be saying. Went ahead and joined the damned Party, didn’t he? As far as he knew, the Nieman Fellows was an organization of Communist fags.
The joke was, as it turned out, on both of us. The atmosphere at Harvard was so academic it was overwhelming, eventually sending me into a shell I was unable to come out of. Among my fellow Niemans were two Moscow correspondents, a former Pulitzer reporter and a fellow who had once run errands for Scotty Reston at The New York Times. While many of the others had been fighting in the trenches of the civil rights push five years earlier, I had been picking up ten bucks a game as official scorer for the Augusta Yankees of the Class AA Sally League. Talk about your cultural shock. I was pretty good at drinking beer at Cronin’s, but when they broke out the sherry at the Faculty Club and Galbraith started in on the industrial state I began getting a headache.
But there was more. It dawned on me, after too many boring cocktail parties with too many terribly proper New Englanders, that what I was really missing at Harvard was the sweaty passion for life I had always taken for granted while growing up in the South. There was a superficiality, a sterility, in Cambridge—even among most of the Southern kids I met, who were, after all, from a different South than I—which was neatly packaged for me by a lady at one of those parties who told me, straining to be sympathetic, that she had been to the South and found it to be not nearly as bad as everybody thought: she and her husband had spent the night in Atlanta on the way to Miami Beach, and found the South to be altogether delightful. So I was able to develop a handy catch-all theory about life: that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who live life and those who ponder it. And I learned that a good way to break the routine at the parties was to get off in a corner and regale them with highly embellished stories about my old man and Junior Johnson and Roy Acuff—How quaint. Tell us about Johnny Cash’s years in prison—and the time to go back home didn’t come soon enough. The year at Harvard was the most profitable year I ever spent, for the wrong reasons.
Going back, then, I had a new frame of reference within which to view my old man. I had taken some 15 years to finally accept him for what he was—to discover why he wasn’t perfect and then to determine how he made up for not being perfect. I knew, now, that I had to overlook his racial hangups—we would just have to ride that one out, It being too late for him to be changed—and search for the larger truths he had left me: an involvement with and a passion for life, a willingness to take on the world If necessary, the courage to endure. That’s the word—endure—a word not so fashionable as it once was. Instead of bending or running when the blows came pouring down on his head—his wife harping on security and respectability, his children acting ashamed of him, the unions killing his way of life—he stood and fought and, if forced to retreat, was still standing there, bloody, throwing rocks and cussing, when they found him. About all a man should be asked to do, when it comes to raising sons, is somehow to see that there is a slight improvement in the species. It’s a hell of a burden.
He is 62 now, and those riotous days and nights of scrambling on the open road are faint memories. In the mid-1950s he chose to make it on his own rather than join a union or go with a big company, and by 1961 the unions were so strong that it was all over for the independent. Today he does some driving and bidding and odd jobs—”nigger work,” he calls it—for a Syrian in Birmingham who owns a surplus tire company, lives in an $80,000 house and can’t begin to understand what makes my old man tick. He and, my mother live serenely in a comfortable brick house where there is an expensive organ for him to play, as well as a piano; they have plenty of friends their age, and they go to Florida several times a year to inspect the converted swampland they plan to retire to in two or three years. Not everything is right with him—his job is dull, and his wife makes more money working at the Social Security office than he ever made trucking—but he manages to keep up a facade.
Two weeks before the 30th anniversary of his entry into trucking, we took a trip together. A fellow in Louisville was selling out his tire business and my old man was going up to take the rest of the tires off his hands. On a Saturday afternoon we left in a pitiful faded red truck—no fuel gauge, leaky heater, bad brakes, no radio, dusty lopsided trailer behind—and for a while, chugging up the trough into Middle Tennessee, both of us were trying to pretend it was the same. “Call that Jew Overdrive,” he cracked, cutting the engine to coast down a hill. We stopped off to watch the Opry from backstage—”Sure wish that pretty Jean Shepard ['A Dear John Letter'] was here”—before plugging on toward Louisville. From eight in the morning until two. Sunday afternoon he loaded huge surplus aircraft tires into the trailer, in the rain, with the help of a couple of white boys and an aging Negro named Clem Miller (“Yessuh, yo’ Daddy can go almost as hard as I can”), and after some sleep at a cheap motel across the river in Indiana we got up around two o’clock in the morning and headed back.
It wasn’t really the same anymore. All I had to do was look at the truck he was driving, to observe the meaningless work he was doing, to see that. I noticed, when we stopped for breakfast at an obscure roadside diner, that he had trouble reading the menu. But we tried, passing a bottle of Scotch back and forth, laughing at the stories, creaking through Nashville as the streets jammed with Monday morning traffic: “Yeah, that time there was this fellow just handed me $150 cash up in Delaware and told me where to deliver these aircraft parts in Atlanta. Saved him some money, made me some . . . At least two and a half million miles without an accident chargeable to me . . . Hell, if you’re driving a Greyhound they can fire you just because some little old lady didn’t like your looks . . . I was representing all 82 of the drivers at Alabama Highway, see, and when I told this union organizer we didn’t want to join up, he just looked at me real cold and said, ‘Well, we can’t be responsible,’ and I said, ‘For what?’ and he said, ‘If you get a brick through your windshield somewhere.’” And about the time the ICC almost nailed him in California, where he had some unpaid fines hanging: “Didn’t want ‘em to know my name, so I told ‘em I didn’t even have a license, was just helping out my buddy there who had passed out in the truck after drinking all night. ‘Yeah, I’m from Tennessee, just came along to see California, can’t get back home fast enough,’ I told ‘em. Never bothered to look in the truck. Think he just got tired of hearin’ me talk.” And disgust for the new breed of trucker: “Some of ‘em been to college. Got credit cards now, company rigs, and if they break down they just call collect and have ‘em send somebody out to fix it.”
We got back into Birmingham in the afternoon, dropped off the load of old tires and went by the house. While we waited for my mother to come home from work, we sat alone in the cool, darkened living room that I have never known and he sipped a beer and entertained me at the organ. Mama’s taking lessons,” he said, “and I just watch and do what she does. Teacher says he’s gonna start chargin’ double. Then I said something about how it sure wasn’t like it used to be, his work and his life, not knowing how he would take it, and he quit playing and slowly turned around on the bench . . . “If something was to happen to your mother, I’d be back out on the road in a minute,” he said. “There’s days I’ll be sitting on the yard downtown, nothing to do but drink bourbon and chase it with a six-pack, and out on the expressway I’ll hear some old boy in a rig whistle and get another gear, and it gets to me. Hell, yes, I miss it. It’s the only thing I ever wanted to do. Tell your boy, David, he better hurry if he wants to ride with me.”
The late Paul Hemphill was often called the Jimmy Breslin of the South but that doesn’t do him justice. He wasn’t just a brilliant columnist. His first book, “The Nashville Sound” remains one of the great books ever written about country music. And his baseball novel, “Long Gone,”later made into a fun and now over-looked movie (it was shown on HBO the year before “Bull Durham” came out), is a treat. Do yourself a favor and read Hemphill’s classic piece,“Quitting the Paper,” and then pick up one of his collections. This story comes from “The Good Old Boys” and is reprinted here with permission from Hemphill’s wife, Susan Percy.
Red Smith is the most respected sports columnist we’ve ever had. In his prime, Jimmy Cannon, Smith’s friendly rival, was certainly as well-known. Cannon, the Voice of New York, was an emotional, colloquial writer whose reputation, unfortunately, has faded. But Smith endures. What is it about his writing that ages so well?
“It’s the same reason Shakespeare ages well,” Dave Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist told me recently. “He wrote beautifully, it’s as simple as that.”
The Library of America presents Smith’s finest work in the new collection, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith. It is available now and a must-read for all sports fans, young and old (and an ideal gift for Father’s Day). This week, with permission from Smith’s family, we’ll reprint a Red Smith column every day to offer you a sample of what he was all about. Today’s column is “A Little Greedy, and Exactly Right” which ran on June 11, 1973 the day after Secretariat won the Triple Crown.
So, enjoy, and for more on Smith, check outthis oral history from Jerome Holtzman’s classic, No Cheering in the Press Box; this excerpt from Stanley Woodward’s memoir, Paper Tiger; a nice tribute by his son, Terrance Smith; and this excerpt from Dan Okrent’s introduction to American Pastimes.Course it goes without saying that if you want to know from Red Smith you need to go find a copy of Ira Berkow’s excellent biography, Red.
“A Little Greedy, and Exactly Right”
By Red Smith
Belmont, N.Y., June 11, 1973
The thing to remember is that the horse that finished last had broken the Kentucky Derby record. If there were no colt named Secretariat, then Sham would have gone into the Belmont Stakes Saturday honored as the finest three-year-old in America, an eight-length winner of the Kentucky Derby where he went the mile and a quarter faster than any winner in ninety-eight years and an eight-length winner of the Preakness. There is, however, a colt named Secretariat. In the Derby he overtook Sham and beat him by two and a half lengths. In the Preakness he held Sham off by two and a half lengths. This time he and Sham dueled for the lead, and he beat Sham by more than a sixteenth of a mile. There is no better way to measure the class of the gorgeous red colt that owns the Triple Crown. Turning into the homestretch at Belmont Park, Ron Turcotte glanced back under an arm to find his pursuit. He saw nothing, and while he peeked, his mount took off.
Secretariat had already run a mile in one minute, 34 1/5 seconds. Up to three weeks ago, no horse in Belmont history had run a mile in less than 1:34 2/5. He had run a mile and a quarter in 1:59, two-fifths of a second faster than the Derby record he had set five weeks earlier. Now he went after the Belmont record of 2:26 3/5 for a mile and a half, which was also an American record when Gallant Man established it sixteen years ago. With no pursuit to urge him on, without a tap from Turcotte’s whip, he smashed the track record by two and three-fifth seconds, cracked the American record by two and a fifth, and if Turcotte had asked him he could have broken the world record. If he had been running against Gallant Man, the fastest Belmont winner in 104 years, he would have won by thirteen lengths. Unless the competition spurred him to greater speed.
“It seems a little greedy to win by thirty-one lengths,” said Mrs. John Tweedy, the owner, and then repeated the rider’s story of how he saw the fractional times blinking on the tote board, realized there was a record in the making, and went after it in the final sixteenth.
It is hard to imagine what a thirty-one-length margin looks like, because you never see one, but Secretariat lacked eight panels of fence—eighty feet—of beating Twice a Prince by a sixteenth of a mile. This was the classic case of “Eclipse first, the rest nowhere.”
The colt was entitled to his margin and his record. At the Derby he drew a record crowd that broke all Churchill Downs’ betting records and he set a track record. He set attendance and betting records at the Preakness and may have broken the stakes record, but if he did discrepancies in the clocking denied him that credit. Last Saturday belonged to him.
Indeed, Belmont was kinder to the Meadow Stable than Pimlico had been, in more ways than one. On Preakness day, while the Tweedy party lunched in the Pimlico Hotel near the track, a parking lot attendant smashed up their car. They walked to the clubhouse gate, found they hadn’t brought credentials, and paid their way in. While the horses were being saddled in the infield, somebody in the crowd accidentally pressed a lighted cigarette against Mrs. Tweedy’s arm. On his way back to his seat, John Tweedy had his pocket picked.
“Boy,” he said after that race, “we needed to win this one today, just to get even.”
At Belmont there were the few scattered boos that most odds-on favorites receive here, but the prevailing attitude was close to idolatry. Well, perhaps that isn’t the best word because it suggests a cathedral restraint. Idols are remotely chilly. This congregation was warm. Horseplayers passing the Tweedy box raised friendly voices:
“Mrs. Tweedy, good luck.”
The voices followed her to the paddock where her colt was cheered all around the walking ring. They followed as she returned to the clubhouse.
“Mrs. Tweedy, good luck.”
Secretariat was cheered in the post parade, cheered as he entered the gate, and when he caught and passed Sham on the backstretch the exultant thunders raised gooseflesh. At the finish the crowd surged toward the winner’s circle, fists brandished high. After twenty-five years, America’s racing fans had a sovereign to wear the Triple Crown.
Parallels are striking between this one and his predecessor, Citation. Both colts raced nine times as two-year-olds and finished first eight times. At three, each lost once en route to the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont. Both made each event in the Triple Crown easier than the last. After the Belmont, Citation won his next ten starts for a streak of sixteen straight. Secretariat’s stud duties won’t permit that. Love will rear its pretty, tousled head.
Red Smith is the most respected sports columnist we’ve ever had. In his prime, Jimmy Cannon, Smith’s friendly rival, was certainly as well-known. Cannon, the Voice of New York, was an emotional, colloquial writer whose reputation, unfortunately, has faded. But Smith endures. What is it about his writing that ages so well?
“It’s the same reason Shakespeare ages well,” Dave Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist told me recently. “He wrote beautifully, it’s as simple as that.”
The Library of America presents Smith’s finest work in the new collection, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith. It is available now and a must-read for all sports fans, young and old (and an ideal gift for Father’s Day). This week, with permission from Smith’s family, we’ll reprint a Red Smith column every day to offer you a sample of what he was all about. Today’s column is “Night for Joe Louis” which ran on October 19,1968 the day after Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and gave a Black Power salute at the summer Olympics.
So, enjoy, and for more on Smith, check out this oral history from Jerome Holtzman’s classic, No Cheering in the Press Box; this excerpt from Stanley Woodward’s memoir, Paper Tiger; a nice tribute by his son, Terrance Smith; and this excerpt from Dan Okrent’s introduction to American Pastimes. Course it goes without saying that if you want to know from Red Smith you need to go find a copy of Ira Berkow’s excellent biography, Red.
“The Black Berets”
By Red Smith
Mexico City, Mexico, October 19, 1968
The four-hundred-meter race was over and in the catacombs of Estadio Olimpico Doug Roby, president of the United States Olympic Committee, was telling newspapermen that he had warned America’s runners against making any demonstration if they should get to the victory stand. A fanfare of trumpets interrupted him.
In stiff single file, the three black Americans marched across the track. All of them—Lee Evans, the winner; Larry James, second, and Ron Freeman, third—had broken the recognized world record. Rain had fallen after the finish and, although it was abating now, the runners wore the official sweatsuits of the United States team, plus unofficial black berets which may or may not have been symbolic.
Each stopped to enable John J. Garland, an American member of the International Olympic Committee, to hang the medal about his neck. Then each straightened and waved a clenched fist aloft. It wasn’t quite the same gesture meaning, “We shall overcome,” which Tommie Smith and John Carlos had employed on the same stand after the two-hundred-meter final.
Lord David Burghley, the Marquis of Exeter who is president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, shook hands with each, and they removed the berets, standing at attention facing the flagpole as the colors ascended and the band played the Star-Spangled Banner. Smith and Carlos had refused to look at the flag, standing with heads bowed and black-gloved fists upraised.
Evans, James, and Freeman stepped down, and out from under every stuffed shirt in the Olympic organization whistled a mighty sigh of relief. The waxworks had been spared from compounding the boobery which had created the biggest, most avoidable flap in these quadrennial muscle dances since Eleanor Holm was flung off the 1936 swimming team for guzzling champagne aboard ship.
The four-hundred-meter race was run Friday, about forty-eight hours after Smith and Carlos put on their act and 1.2 hours after the United States officials lent significance to their performance by firing them from the team. The simple little demonstration by Smith and Carlos had been a protest of the sort every black man in the United States had a right to make. It was intended to call attention to the inequities the Negro suffers, and without the aid of the Olympic brass might have done this in a small way.
By throwing a fit over the incident, suspending the young men and ordering them out of Mexico, the badgers multiplied the impact of the protest a hundredfold. They added dignity to the protestants and made boobies of themselves.
“One of the basic principles of the Olympic games,” read the first flatulent communiqué from on high, “is that politics play no part whatsoever in them. . . . Yesterday United States athletes in a victory ceremony deliberately violated this universally accepted principle by using the occasion to advertise their domestic political views.”
Not content with this confession that they can’t distinguish between human rights and politics, the playground directors put their pointed heads together and came up with this gem:
“The discourtesy displayed violated the standards of sportsmanship and good manners. . . . We feel it was an isolated incident, but any further repetition of such incidents would be a willful disregard of Olympic principles and would be met with severest penalties.”
The action, Roby said, was demanded by the International Olympic Committee, including Avery Brundage, president, and by the Mexican Organizing Committee. They are, as Mark Antony observed on another occasion, all honorable men who consider children’s games more sacred than human decency.
Soon after the committee acted, a bedsheet was hung from a sixth-floor window of the apartment house in Olympic Village where Carlos has been living. On it were the letters: “Down with Brundage.”
There were, of course, mixed feelings on the United States team. Lee Evans was especially upset, but when asked whether he intended to run as scheduled, he would only reply, “Wait and see.”
“I had no intention of running this race,” he said over the air after taking the four-hundred, “but this morning Carlos asked me to run and win.”
Said Carlos: “The next man that puts a camera in my face, I’ll stomp him.”
Red Smith is the most respected sports columnist we’ve ever had. In his prime, Jimmy Cannon, Smith’s friendly rival, was certainly as well-known. Cannon, the Voice of New York, was an emotional, colloquial writer whose reputation, unfortunately, has faded. But Smith endures. What is it about his writing that ages so well?
“It’s the same reason Shakespeare ages well,” Dave Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist told me recently. “He wrote beautifully, it’s as simple as that.”
The Library of America presents Smith’s finest work in the new collection, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith. It is available now and a must-read for all sports fans, young and old (and an ideal gift for Father’s Day). This week, with permission from Smith’s family, we’ll reprint a Red Smith column every day to offer you a sample of what he was all about. Today’s column is “Night for Joe Louis” which ran on October 27, 1951, the day after 27-year old Rocky Marciano knocked out 37-year old Louis.
So, enjoy, and for more on Smith, check out this oral history from Jerome Holtzman’s classic, No Cheering in the Press Box; this excerpt from Stanley Woodward’s memoir, Paper Tiger; a nice tribute by his son, Terrance Smith; and this excerpt from Dan Okrent’s introduction to American Pastimes. Course it goes without saying that if you want to know from Red Smith you need to go find a copy of Ira Berkow’s excellent biography, Red.
“Night for Joe Louis”
by Red Smith
Joe Louis lay on his stomach on a rubbing table with his right ear pillowed on a folded towel, his left hand in a bucket of ice on the floor. A handler massaged his left ear with ice. Joe still wore his old dressing-gown of blue and red—for the first time, one was aware of how the colors had faded—and a raincoat had been spread on top of that.
This was an hour before midnight of October 26, 1951. It was the evening of a day that dawned July 4, 1934, when Joe Louis became a professional fist fighter and knocked out Jack Kracken in Chicago for a fifty-dollar purse. The night was a long time on the way, but it had to come.
Ordinarily, small space is reserved here for sentimentality about professional fighters. For seventeen years, three months, and twenty-two days Louis fought for money. He collected millions. Now the punch that was launched seventeen years ago had landed. A young man, Rocky Marciano, had knocked the old man out. The story was ended. That was all except—
Well, except that this time he was lying down in his dressing-room in the catacombs of Madison Square Garden. Memory retains scores of pictures of Joe in his dressing room, always sitting up, relaxed, answering questions in his slow, thoughtful way. This time only, he was down.
His face was squashed against the padding of the rubbing table, mulling his words. Newspapermen had to kneel on the floor like supplicants in a tight little semicircle and bring their heads close to his lips to hear him. They heard him say that Marciano was a good puncher, that the best man had won, that he wouldn’t know until Monday whether this had been his last fight.
He said he never lost consciousness when Marciano knocked him through the ropes and Ruby Goldstein, the referee, stopped the fight. He said that if he’d fallen in mid-ring he might have got up inside ten seconds, but he doubted that he could have got back through the ropes in time.
They asked whether Marciano punched harder than Max Schmeling did fifteen years ago, on the only other night when Louis was stopped.
“This kid,” Joe said, “knocked me out with what? Two punches. Schmeling knocked me out with—musta been a hunderd [sic] punches. But,” Joe said, “I was twenty-two years old. You can take more then than later on.”
“Did age count tonight, Joe?”
Joe’s eyes got sleepy. “Ugh,” he said, and bobbed his head.
The fight mob was filling the room. “How did you feel tonight?” Ezzard Charles was asked. Joe Louis was the hero of Charles’ boyhood. Ezzard never wanted to fight Joe, but finally he did and won. Then and thereafter Louis became just another opponent who sometimes disparaged Charles as a champion.
“Uh,” Charles said, hesitating. “Good fight.”
“You didn’t feel sorry, Ezzard?”
“No,” he said, with a kind of apologetic smile that explained this was just a prize fight in which one man knocked out an opponent.
“How did you feel?” Ray Arcel was asked. For years and years Arcel trained opponents for Joe and tried to help them whip him, and in a decade and a half he dug tons of inert meat out of the resin.
“I felt very bad,” Ray said.
It wasn’t necessary to ask how Marciano felt. He is young and strong and undefeated. He is rather clumsy and probably always will be, because he has had the finest of teachers, Charley Goldman, and Charley hasn’t been able to teach him skill. But he can punch. He can take a punch. It is difficult to see how he can be stopped this side of the heavyweight championship.
It is easy to say, and it will be said, that it wouldn’t have been like this with the Louis of ten years ago. It isn’t a surpassingly bright thing to say, though, because this isn’t ten years ago. The Joe Louis of October 26, 1951, couldn’t whip Rocky Marciano, and that’s the only Joe Louis there was in the Garden.
That one was going to lose on points in a dreary fight that would have left everything at loose ends. It would have been a clear victory for Marciano, but not conclusive. Joe might not have been convinced.
Then Rocky hit Joe a left hook and knocked him down. Then Rocky hit him another hook and knocked him out. A right to the neck followed that knocked him out of the ring. And out of the fight business. The last wasn’t necessary, but it was neat. It wrapped the package, neat and tidy.
An old man’s dream ended. A young man’s vision of the future opened wide. Young men have visions, old men have dreams. But the place for old men to dream is beside the fire.
The Library of America presents Smith’s finest work in the new collection, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith. It is available now and a must-read for all sports fans, young and old (and an ideal gift for Father’s Day). This week, with permission from Smith’s family, we’ll reprint a Red Smith column every day to offer you a sample of what he was all about. Today’s column is “Miracle Of Coogan’s Bluff,” which ran on October 4, 1951, the day after Bobby Thomson sent the New York Giants to the World Series with his historic Shot Heard ‘Round the World.
So, enjoy, and for more on Smith, check out this oral history from Jerome Holtzman’s classic, No Cheering in the Press Box; this excerpt from Stanley Woodward’s memoir, Paper Tiger; a nice tribute by his son, Terrance Smith; and this excerpt from Dan Okrent’s introduction to American Pastimes. Course it goes without saying that if you want to know from Red Smith you need to go find a copy of Ira Berkow’s excellent biography, Red.
“Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff”
By Red Smith
Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.
Down on the green and white and earth-brown geometry of the playing field, a drunk tries to break through the ranks of ushers marshaled along the foul lines to keep profane feet off the diamond. The ushers thrust him back and he lunges at them, struggling in the clutch of two or three men. He breaks free, and four or five tackle him. He shakes them off, bursts through the line, runs head-on into a special park cop, who brings him down with a flying tackle.
Here comes a whole platoon of ushers. They lift the man and haul him, twisting and kicking, back across the first-base line. Again he shakes loose and crashes the line. He is through. He is away, weaving out toward center field, where cheering thousands are jammed beneath the windows of the Giants’ clubhouse.
At heart, our man is a Giant, too. He never gave up.
From center field comes burst upon burst of cheering. Pennants are waving, uplifted fists are brandished, hats are flying. Again and again the dark clubhouse windows blaze with the light of photographers’ flash bulbs. Here comes that same drunk out of the mob, back across the green turf to the infield. Coattails flying, he runs the bases, slides into third. Nobody bothers him now.
And the story remains to be told, the story of how the Giants won the 1951 pennant in the National League. The tale of their barreling run through August and September and into October. . . . Of the final day of the season, when they won the championship and started home with it from Boston, to hear on the train how the dead, defeated Dodgers had risen from the ashes in the Philadelphia twilight. . . . Of the three-game playoff in which they won, and lost, and were losing again with one out in the ninth inning yesterday when—Oh, why bother?
Maybe this is the way to tell it: Bobby Thomson, a young Scot from Staten Island, delivered a timely hit yesterday in the ninth inning of an enjoyable game of baseball before 34,320 witnesses in the Polo Grounds. . . . Or perhaps this is better:
“Well!” said Whitey Lockman, standing on second base in the second inning of yesterday’s playoff game between the Giants and Dodgers.
“Ah, there,” said Bobby Thomson, pulling into the same station after hitting a ball to left field. “How’ve you been?”
“Fancy,” Lockman said, “meeting you here!”
“Ooops!” Thomson said. “Sorry.”
And the Giants’ first chance for a big inning against Don Newcombe disappeared as they tagged Thomson out. Up in the press section, the voice of Willie Goodrich came over the amplifiers announcing a macabre statistic: “Thomson has now hit safely in fifteen consecutive games.” Just then the floodlights were turned on, enabling the Giants to see and count their runners on each base.
It wasn’t funny, though, because it seemed for so long that the Giants weren’t going to get another chance like the one Thomson squandered by trying to take second base with a playmate already there. They couldn’t hit Newcombe, and the Dodgers couldn’t do anything wrong. Sal Maglie’s most splendrous pitching would avail nothing unless New York could match the run Brooklyn had scored in the first inning.
The story was winding up, and it wasn’t the happy ending that such a tale demands. Poetic justice was a phrase without meaning.
Now it was the seventh inning and Thomson was up, with runners on first and third base, none out. Pitching a shutout in Philadelphia last Saturday night, pitching again in Philadelphia on Sunday, holding the Giants scoreless this far, Newcombe had now gone twenty-one innings without allowing a run.
He threw four strikes to Thomson. Two were fouled off out of play. Then he threw a fifth. Thomson’s fly scored Monte Irvin. The score was tied. It was a new ballgame.
Wait a moment, though. Here’s Pee Wee Reese hitting safely in the eighth. Here’s Duke Snider singling Reese to third. Here’s Maglie wild-pitching a run home. Here’s Andy Pafko slashing a hit through Thomson for another score. Here’s Billy Cox batting still another home. Where does his hit go? Where else? Through Thomson at third.
So it was the Dodgers’ ballgame, 4 to 1, and the Dodgers’ pennant. So all right. Better get started and beat the crowd home. That stuff in the ninth inning? That didn’t mean anything.
A single by Al Dark. A single by Don Mueller. Irvin’s pop-up, Lockman’s one-run double. Now the corniest possible sort of Hollywood schmaltz-stretcher-bearers plodding away with an injured Mueller between them, symbolic of the Giants themselves.
There went Newcombe and here came Ralph Branca. Who’s at bat? Thomson again? He beat Branca with a home run the other day. Would Charley Dressen order him walked, putting the winning run on base, to pitch to the dead-end kids at the bottom of the batting order? No, Branca’s first pitch was a called strike.
The second pitch—well, when Thomson reached first base he turned and looked toward the left-field stands. Then he started jumping straight in the air, again and again. Then he trotted around the bases, taking his time.
Ralph Branca turned and started for the clubhouse. The number on his uniform looked huge. Thirteen.
Over a three-year period in the early 1970s, Chicago newspaperman Jerome Holtzman interviewed 18 sportswriters. These were men from the previous couple of generations, and they’d devoted their lives to covering sports: Fred Lib, Dan Daniel, John Drebinger, Paul Gallico, Shirley Povich, Jimmy Cannon, and Red Smith, among others. Holtzman recorded and transcribed over 900,000 words, about 10 percent of which became his outstanding oral history, No Cheering in the Press Box.
No Cheering is on the short list of great sports books, the ideal companion in any home library to Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of their Times. Yet, inexcusably, No Cheering has somehow managed to fall out of print. Let’s hope that doesn’t remain the case for long (hello, University of Chicago Press; ahem, University of Nebraska Press). In the meantime, look out for it in a used bookstore or track it down online. You won’t be sorry.
Next week, in celebration of the Library of America’s new compilation, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith, we are going to reprint a Red Smith gem each day. But first, we’ve been given permission by Holtzman’s widow, the ever-gracious Marilyn Holtzman, to excerpt the Red Smith interview from No Cheering.
Without further preamble from me, here’s Red Smith.
I never felt that I was a bug-eyed fan as such. I wasn’t one of those who dreamed of being a sportswriter and going around the country traveling with ball players and getting into the games free and, oh, dear diary, what a break. I’m not pretending that I haven’t enjoyed this hugely. I have. I’ve loved it. But I never had any soaring ambition to be a sportswriter, per se. I wanted to be a newspaperman, and came to realize I didn’t really care which side of the paper I worked on.
I’m too lazy to change over now, to start something new at this stage. I just got so comfortable in so many years in sports. But otherwise I still feel that way. I never cared. When I went to Philadelphia I didn’t know what side of the paper I’d be on. I had done three or four years of rewrite and general reporting in St. Louis when I accepted the offer in Philadelphia. I knew how many dollars a week I was going to get. That was the essential thing. I never asked what they wanted me to do.
The guy I admire most in the world is a good reporter. I respect a good reporter, and I’d like to be called that. I’d like to be considered good and honest and reasonably accurate. The reporter has one of the toughest jobs in the world—getting as near the truth as possible is a terribly tough job. I was a local side reporter in St. Louis and Milwaukee. I wasn’t as good as some. I wasn’t one of those who could go out and find the kidnapper and the child. But I got my facts straight and did a thorough job.
I like to report on the scene around me, on the little piece of the world as I see it, as it is in my time. And I like to do it in a way that gives the reader a little pleasure, a little entertainment. I’ve always had the notion that people go to spectator sports to have fun and then they grab the paper to read about it and have fun again.
I’ve always tried to remember—and this is an old line—that sports isn’t Armageddon. These are just little games that little boys can play, and it really isn’t important to the future of civilization whether the Athletics or the Browns win. If you can accept it as entertainment, and write it as entertainment, then I think that’s what spectator sports are meant to be.
I’ve been having fun doing this seminar at Yale, once a week. They call it Sports in American Society. I don’t know what that name means, but obviously it’s a big, broad topic and I have got guys up to help me. It’s a round-table discussion, eighteen students, but usually there are a couple missing so it’s about fifteen. We bat around everything from the reserve system to amateurism and professionalism, and yesterday they wanted to talk about sports journalism, a subject I have been avoiding because I wanted them to do the talking. As a rule, I fire out a subject and say, “What do you think about this?” and they kick it around. I like that better. I knew that if I was alone I’d do all the talking so I got Leonard Koppett of the Times up there to help. And Koppett said that generally speaking sportswriters aren’t the most brilliant people in the world because really smart people do something else besides traveling with a ball club for twenty-five years. I don’t know. Did you ever feel discontented, feel the need to do something that other people would say was more important?
During the war, World War II, I was of draft age. By that I mean I hadn’t yet gotten to be thirty-eight. I was registered for the draft, but I had a family and didn’t think I could afford to be a private in the army and I didn’t want to go looking for one of those phony public relations commissions. So I just kept traveling with the last-place Philadelphia Athletics and, oh boy, more than once I thought, “What the hell am I doing here?” But that was during the war. Outside of that I never felt any prodding need to solve the problems of the world. You can help a little by writing about games, especially if you’re writing a column.
Oh, I don’t know if I’ve ever helped, but I have tried to stay aware of the world outside, beyond the fences, outside the playing field, and to let that awareness creep into the column sometimes. Occasionally, I’ve thrown a line about a Spiro Agnew or a Richard Nixon into a piece. I wouldn’t imagine I had any effect, excepting to make an occasional reader write and say, “Stick to sports, you bum. What do you know about politics?”
Sure, I respect the Tom Wickers. He’s certainly more effective. But somehow I have felt that my time wasn’t altogether wasted. I haven’t been ashamed of what I’ve done. I seem to be making apologies for it. I don’t mean to, because I feel keeping the public informed in any area is a perfectly worthwhile way to spend your life. I think sports constitute a valid part of our culture, our civilization, and keeping the public informed and, if possible, a little entertained about sports is not an entirely useless thing.
I did get a kick out of covering an occasional political convention, but even then my approach to it was as a sportswriter viewing a very popular spectator sport, and I tried to have fun with it. I did the presidential conventions in ’56 and again in ’68. The 1956 Democratic convention in Chicago was a pretty good one. Happy Chandler was a candidate for the presidential nomination. They finally nominated Adlai Stevenson and almost nominated John Kennedy for Vice-President. Kennedy was in the Stockyard Inn writing his acceptance speech when they decided to go for Coonskin Cap—Kefauver. Anyway, there was Happy Chandler. He was a good, soft touch for one column. There was Governor Clements of Tennessee. He made one of the great cornball keynote addresses of our time, and he was good for another column. Let me see, what else? Oh, yes, Truman came on. He looked like the old champ, trying to make a comeback, like Dempsey. Truman wasn’t running for reelection, but he showed up at the convention and made for lively copy. On the whole I just felt loose and easy and free to write what I pleased, and it seemed to come off well.
Over the years people have said to me, “Isn’t it dull covering baseball every day?” My answer used to be “It becomes dull only to dull minds.” Today’s game is always different from yesterday’s game. If you have the perception and the interest to see it, and the wit to express it, your story is always different from yesterday’s story. I thoroughly enjoyed covering baseball daily.
I still think every game is different, not that some of them aren’t dull, but it’s a rare person who lives his life without encountering dull spots. It’s up to the writer to take a lively interest and see the difference. Of course most of my years I was with a club to which a pennant race was only a rumor—the Philadelphia Athletics. I did ten years with them. They were always last.
I don’t agree with him, but yesterday, at Yale, Leonard Koppett said one of the great untrue cliches in sports is that the legs go first. He said that’s not true. He insists that the enthusiasm, the desire go first. And he said this is generally true of the athlete and, of course, when the athlete gets above thirty-five or forty he just can’t go on.
He’s physically unable to. The writer can go on, he is able to physically, but Leonard believes writers lose their enthusiasm, too. He thinks very few writers of forty-five have had the enthusiasm of their youth for the job. He said he didn’t know how writers of sixty-five felt, and I said, “Neither do I, but I don’t think I’ve lost my enthusiasm.” If I did, I’d want to quit.
My enthusiasm is self-generating, self-renewing. My life, the way it’s been going now, I see very few baseball games in the summer. I’ll start with the opening of the season. I’ll see the games then, but things like the Kentucky Derby and Preakness get in the way, and lately we’ve had a home up in Martha’s Vineyard, where I like to spend as much of the summer as I can, working from there. By the time the World Series comes along I may feel that I’ve had very little baseball for the year. But I find that old enthusiasm renewing itself when I sit there at the playoffs.
I don’t enjoy the actual labor of writing. I love my job, but I find one of the disadvantages is the several hours at the typewriter each day. That’s how I pay for this nice job. And I pay pretty dearly. I sweat. I bleed. I’m a slow writer. Once, through necessity, I was a fast rewrite man, when I had to be. I had no choice.
But when I began doing a column, which is a much more personal thing, I found it wasn’t something that I could rip off the top of my head. I had to do it painstakingly. I’m always unhappy, very unhappy, at anything that takes less than two hours. I can do it in two hours, if I must. But my usual answer to the question “How long does it take to write a column?” is “How much time do I have?” If I have six hours, I take it. I wish I could say that the ones that take six hours turn out better. Not necessarily. But I will say this: I do think that, over three hundred days, effort pays off. If you do the best you can every day, taking as much time as necessary, or as much time as you have, then it’s going to be better than if you brushed it off.
It’s not very often that I feel gratified with a piece I’ve just written. Very often I feel, “Well, this one is okay.” Or “This one will get by.” The next day when I read it in print, clean and in two-column measure, it often looks better. But sometimes I’m disappointed. If I think I’ve written a clinker, I’m terribly depressed for twenty-four hours. But when you write a good one, you feel set up, the adrenalin is flowing.
Arthur Daley once told me that Paul Gallico asked him, “How many good columns do you strive for?”
Arthur said, “One every day.”
And Gallico said, “I’ll settle for two a week.”
In my later years I have sought to become simpler, straighter, and purer in my handling of the language. I’ve had many writing heroes, writers who have influenced me. Of the ones still alive, I can think of E. B. White. I certainly admire the pure, crystal stream of his prose. When I was very young as a sportswriter I knowingly and unashamedly imitated others. I had a series of heroes who would delight me for a while and I’d imitate them—Damon Runyon, Westbrook Pegler, Joe Williams. This may surprise you, but at the top of his game I thought Joe Williams was pretty good.
I think you pick up something from this guy and something from that. I know that I deliberately imitated those three guys, one by one, never together. I’d read one daily, faithfully, and be delighted by him and imitate him. Then someone else would catch my fancy. That’s a shameful admission. But slowly, by what process I have no idea, your own writing tends to crystallize, to take shape. Yet you have learned some moves from all these guys and they are somehow incorporated into your own style. Pretty soon you’re not imitating any longer.
I was a very shy, timid kid. Going to Notre Dame and living for four years with guys—no girls, of course, were around—was good for me. It gave me a feeling of comfort mixing with my peers, a sense of comfort I didn’t have in grade school or in high school. But my defense mechanism has been at work so long I still find myself talking too much at parties, things like that. I know this is a defense to cover shyness. I often hear myself babbling on and wish I’d shut up. I know it’s because I’m shy. It’s a defensive mechanism that has developed and operated over the years.
I’m not a psychologist, but I do know, for example, that a fellow like Howard Cosell is the braggart that he is because of a massive insecurity. He has to be told every couple minutes how great he is because he’s so insecure. And if you don’t tell him, he tells you. He can’t help this.
I was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin. My father, Walter P. Smith, was the third generation in a family business—wholesale produce and retail groceries. My mother was born and grew up in New York. Her name was Ida Richardson. On vacation one time, visiting a friend out in Green Bay, she met my father and they got married. She spent the rest of her life in Green Bay, virtually all of it. My great-grandfather had come out from New Jersey and cleared a cedar swamp and started truck gardens. They raised garden truck and bought from farmers around there and shipped to northern Wisconsin and the northern peninsula of Michigan. They supplied hotels, restaurants, and grocery stores and they ran a grocery store in Green Bay. They went broke during the Depression.
There were three kids. I was the second son. My brother, Art, is still alive. He lives in the Bronx, and I guess he is retired. My brother never went to college. He had fun in high school, dating the French teacher and that sort of thing, and didn’t bother reading any books. So eventually, well, my father said, “Look, for gosh sakes, either you do something or you go to work.” So Art went to work on the hometown newspaper. He was a newspaperman all of his life. He was essentially a rewrite man and worked all the papers—Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis, and New York. In New York he did rod and gun for the Daily News and for the Herald Tribune. That was his last newspaper job. He is a bit more than a year older than I am. We had a little sister, Catherine. She died of tuberculosis at about nineteen, while I was in college.
My parents read all the time. They weren’t scholars or anything, but they were literate and there were books in the house. I remember bookcases with the glass doors in front. I read everything in the house. Corny 1910 romances entitled The Long Straight Road, and When Knighthood Was in Flower. Everything that was there, I read.
I was a real dedicated small-boy baseball fan up to World War I. Let’s see, I was nine when World War I started and the Wisconsin-Illinois League folded about that time. For years I tried never to miss a game when the Green Bay team played at home. Casey Stengel won the batting championship that year. He played for Aurora, Illinois. I don’t remember Stengel, but I can still almost recite the lineup of the Green Bay team of 1912 or 1914, whatever year Casey won the championship. I remember George Mollwitz, the Green Bay first baseman. I met him many years later in Bradenton, Florida. Somehow, all old ball players go to Bradenton. Mollwitz had a cup of coffee with the Cincinnati Reds, so he’d be in the record books.
And, of course, I played all sports. Everybody did. We played football and baseball on our lawn and we tried to take a clothes pole and vault, the way all kids do. But I never had any proficiency in sports. I learned to swim and loved it. Pretty early in life I learned to enjoy fishing, which is still my dodge. If I’m a participant in any recreation, it’s fishing.
I was always out in the woods, just a kid playing along the creek. I remember meeting a young man who was fly-casting. I had never seen a fly rod before, or anyone casting flies. He was about five years older and turned out to be a very amiable guy. He taught me how to cut a willow branch and make a very poor fly rod out of it and cast for chubs and minnows in the stream. He became a hero of mine. His name was Vince Engel. He was going to Notre Dame, studying journalism, and therefore I felt it was necessary for me to do the same. That was great. I’d be like him. And of course, later I realized that sitting on my duff pounding a typewriter was a pretty easy way to make a living. It seemed very attractive, a lot better than lifting things.
I remember one day in high school I had a Notre Dame catalogue which I was studying, and a senior who was going to go to Notre Dame borrowed it from me. This was Jimmy Crowley, the left halfback on the Four Horsemen. He was a year ahead of me and a big football star, and I remember him borrowing it. He didn’t need a catalogue because some old Notre Damer was sending him to Rockne. But he was interested in looking at it.
I stayed out of school for one year—between high school and college—simply to get a few hundred bucks because we had no money. I was an order clerk, filled orders for the Morley-Murphy-Olfell Hardware Company in Green Bay, not a very responsible job. I scuffled my way through Notre Dame. I got a job waiting on tables in a restaurant in South Bend. I borrowed money from a cousin. I contrived this and that. I got involved in class politics and, by chance, belonged to the winning party which elected the class president, and so on. As a reward for my political activities I got elected editor of the Dome and that was worth five hundred bucks.
I took a general arts course with a major in journalism. The journalism school consisted of one man, a darling old guy, Dr. John Cooney. I hadn’t written very much. I did write an essay in high school, when I was a senior, that was published in the annual, some silly little thing. If I remember correctly, and I do, it was about the debating team. It was supposed to be a humorous sketch. God, I’d hate to read that today. Then I worked a little bit on what they called the Notre Dame Daily, which came out two or three times a week. I probably did fragments of news. But I didn’t work there very long, because it was a dull operation.
I knew Rockne, of course, but whether he knew me I don’t know. I tried to run on his track team. He was the track coach as well as the football coach. He coached pretty near everything when I was at Notre Dame.
In order to graduate we were supposed to have one credit in physical education, which really meant that once or twice a week you went to gym class and took calisthenics unless you did something else. And that something else could be participation in any sport. You were excused from gym class for the season of your sport, if you participated.
I loathed this gym class and didn’t like the instructor. He was a senior trackman who just said, “Up, down! Up, down! C’mon there, Smith, get the lead out!” and so I signed up for freshman track. I don’t think I had any misconceptions about my speed. I tried to run the mile because I knew I couldn’t run very fast. I thought maybe I could run long. But I was mistaken about that, too. For just a few weeks I trained with the track team. I remember the freshman-varsity handicap meet came along, starting the indoor season, and I finished last in the mile, that’s last among many. Paul Kennedy, who was an upperclassman and the star miler, went in 4:21, which sounds slow, but this was a dirt track, twelve laps to the mile, and 4:21 was a fast mile in that day, on that track. I was many laps behind. I never did any sportswriting at Notre Dame, not even in the annual where you sum up the football season and so on.
When I finished at Notre Dame I wrote about—now I say a hundred—but maybe it was only fifty letters to newspapers I got out of the Ayers Directory. I got my first job on the Milwaukee Sentinel. That was in the summer of ’27. I was a cub reporter, chasing fire engines. I didn’t do much. I was mostly being used to cover conventions, speeches, luncheons, and dinners. Every once in a while I’d be the ninth guy covering a murder investigation and it was pretty exciting. It was a morning paper and I’d be up all night. I didn’t get off until midnight. These were Prohibition times, and I’d go down into the Italian ward where they had speakeasies and nightclubs with three-piece combos and canaries. Those were the people I knew. And I thought it was the most exciting thing in the world.
I was being promised raises but still getting twenty-four dollars a week, and then I moved to St. Louis. A guy who had been on the Sentinel had gone to the St. Louis Star, and he wrote a letter back to the makeup editor at the Sentinel which said, “Come on down, they’re looking for people.” He was really looking for friends to join him. The makeup editor had a divorce case coming up and couldn’t leave the state, so he showed me the letter. And I wired the Star, faking it, advertising myself as an all-around newspaperman with complete experience—and got an offer of forty dollars a week on the copy desk. I was terrified but I took it.
That fall the managing editor, a man named Frank Taylor, fired two guys in the sports department, and he came over to me on the copy desk and he said, “Did you ever work in sports?”
And I said, “No.”
“Do you know anything about sports?”
And I said, “Just what the average fan knows.”
“They tell me you’re very good on football.”
“Well, if you say so.”
And he said, “Are you honest? If a fight promoter offered you ten dollars would you take it?”
I said, “Ten dollars is a lot of money.”
And he said, “Report to the sports editor Monday.”
I stayed in sports about four years. Then I moved back to the local side, doing rewrite and general reporting. This was an exciting time. A lot of things were happening in St. Louis. Roosevelt had been elected and in his first message to Congress he said, “Bring back beer” and they brought it back, in about June. For months I wrote nothing but beer. It was a running story.
Beer was one of the big industries in St. Louis. I was always interviewing Gus Busch and Alvin Griesedick. I lived in the breweries in those days, doing stories such as should the alcohol content of beer be 3.2 by volume or by weight? Anheuser-Busch is almost a city by itself down in South St. Louis. The night beer came back—you wouldn’t believe it. Several hundred guests were invited to the bottling plant which had a big bar, a rathskeller sort of place. Thousands of St. Louisans jammed the streets, dancing and singing and celebrating the end of Prohibition. At 12:01 the first bottle came down the conveyor and everybody got Gussie Busch to autograph the label.
I had been Walter W. Smith in the sports department, but I was anonymous ninety-nine percent of the time on the news side. Everybody was, except Harry T. Brundage, our star reporter. He was the crime chaser and glamor boy. If Frank Taylor, the managing editor, felt very indulgent he might give you an occasional by-line. I remember seeing a note he wrote to the city desk, advising that I be sent to interview George M. Cohan, and it said, “If he writes a good story give him a by-line.”
One time Taylor called me over and said, “I want you to go out in the sticks and get some old lady, some old doll who has never been to a city, who has never seen an electric light. Bring her to town as our guest. Get an old guy if you have to, but preferably get a woman.”
I had just read a story about a strike of tiffminers in a place called Old Mines, Missouri, in the foothills of the Ozarks. This was an area settled by the French at about the same time the fur traders were coming up from New Orleans and settling St. Louis. These tiffminers were completely isolated—only I had read a travel piece about how the hard road had just come into Old Mines.
My wife and I drove to Old Mines. It wasn’t more than seventy-five miles out of St. Louis. I went to strike headquarters there and told the guys what I wanted, and they said I should go see old Lady Tygert, in Callico Creek Hollow. Susan Tygert. I found this old lady smoking a corncob pipe and wearing a black sunbonnet and living in a one-room shack with her husband, John. She was seventy-nine or eighty, at the least, and had never been out of Callico Creek Hollow. She had never ridden in an automobile, never turned on an electric light, had never used the telephone.
I had a hell of a time getting her to come to St. Louis. She liked my wife, and besides, I promised she could ride on a Mississippi riverboat. She wasn’t in St. Louis more than four or five days, and every day I wrote a story about her. I took her to the zoo and to places like the Statler Roof, where there was dancing and a show. She was charming and colorful, smoking that corncob pipe and wearing that black sunbonnet. Everybody was daffy about her. The stories got a warm response.
But O. K. Bovard, who was the managing editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—the rival paper—read them and said, “It’s a movie scenario.” Bovard simply decided I was a faker, had faked the whole thing.
A little while after that Ed Wray, the sports editor of the Post-Dispatch, made me an offer. But first I had to go see Bovard and he wouldn’t see me. I could have gone to work there, anyway, but I decided even if I could beat down his resistance it would be unwise to be working for a managing editor who was convinced I was a faker.
I went to the Philadelphia Record instead and stayed there ten years, all in sports, covering the Phillies and Connie Mack’s A’s.
In those days New York dominated the newspaper business, far more than it does today. The big papers were all here, the headquarters of the syndicates, the magazines, the book publishers, everybody so far as paper and ink was concerned. I had to take my shot at it. It was the pure ham in me, I guess. It was like playing the Palace.
I got my shot on V-J Day. I had heard Stanley Woodward was after me—he was the sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune. Early in 1945, during the first few weeks of the baseball season, an old friend of mine, Garry Schumacher, a New York baseball writer, said to me, “Have you heard from Stanley Woodward?”
I said he had called the other day, but I was out and when I called back he was out. I thought he wanted to know how old Connie Mack was, or something, you know, for a story. And Garry said, “Well, get plenty. He’s coming after you.”
I waited all summer and I never heard a sound out of Stanley, and I was dying. Finally, the morning after V-J Day, he called. We dickered and then we made a deal. It wasn’t to write a column. He just hired me to work in the sports department, to take assignments, but he told me later he hoped I would wind up doing a column. I came over on September 24, 1945, one day before my fortieth birthday. Stanley lied to the Tribune about my age. He told them I was in my early thirties.
When I first knew Stanley as a casual press box acquaintance, I guess I resented him a little bit. He was an iconoclast. He was never one to accept the handout. He wanted to know himself. Also, during the war he was dead against sports. He felt games were nonessential and that we all should be fighting the war, that there shouldn’t be a sports page, no baseball or horse racing, not even football—and he loved football. Well, of course, there shouldn’t be necktie salesmen or florists or any of the nonessential industries, if you’re fighting an all-out, one hundred percent war. I disagreed with him. I felt there was some morale value to games.
He was perhaps the most thoroughly competent, all-around newspaperman I’ve known, a fine reporter, a great editor, a man who could do anything on the paper. He would have been a great managing editor. But he was impolitic and absolutely refused to compromise. He got fired for telling Mrs. Reid that she didn’t know anything about running a newspaper.
Soon after he hired me there was an economy wave on the paper and he was ordered to cut two people from his staff, two older men who were near retirement. He said, “Give me some time and I’ll arrange their retirement and we won’t fire anybody.”
But they said, “No, you’ve got to do it right now.”
He refused. He lost his temper and said, “All right then, fire Smith and Woodward.”
In those days they had all sorts of forms for the personnel department—added to payroll, substratcted [sic] from payroll, and so on. He got one of these payroll forms, for dismissal, listing reasons from one to ten and he wrote “Incompetence” and sent it through and that night, down in the office saloon, he told me, with great glee, what he had done.
The last straw was the silliest thing in the world. The New York Times, which in those days had an awful lot of space, had a banner on one of the inside pages on a women’s golf tournament in Westchester. It wasn’t of interest to anybody but the players, but some of Mrs. Reid’s Westchester friends were offended because the Tribune didn’t carry anything about the tournament, and she raised cain.
So Stanley investigated, found it was a weekly tournament and would require so much space to publish the results. He wrote a very snotty memo to this effect to Mrs. Reid and said if she insisted on him wasting space and effort on this tripe he wanted two additional columns of space for the sports section. He also told her he wouldn’t insult one of his staff members by sending him on such an assignment. He would send a copyboy. She lost her temper and had him fired.
Stanley was a great man, and a great newspaperman and was always trying to put out the best section possible. Once, after he had left the paper, I tried to explain this to Mrs. Reid. I told her, “Didn’t you understand, he was fighting with you to help improve your paper?”
But she simply fluttered. She just said something fluttery. I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about.
Unlike the normal pattern, I know I have grown more liberal as I’ve grown older. I have become more convinced that there is room for improvement in the world. I seem to be finding this a much less pretty world than it seemed when I was younger, and I feel things should be done about it and that sports are part of this world. Maybe I’m sounding too damn profound or maybe I’m taking bows when I shouldn’t. I truly don’t know. But I do know I am more liberal and probably one of the reasons is that I married not only Phyllis, who is younger and more of today than I was, but I married five stepchildren who are very much of the current generation. They are very good friends and very articulate, and I think that this association has helped me to have a younger and fresher view.
My sympathies almost always have been on the side of the underdog, or the guy I think is the underdog. There was a time when I was more inclined to go along with the establishment. It may be because I’m no longer traveling with a baseball club and no longer exposed to the establishment day in and day out. I supported the players this past season when they went on that historic thirteen-day strike. Now that I do a column, I can stand there, a little removed, and look at what the Charlie Finleys and Bowie Kuhns are doing.
When I first heard about Marvin Miller—the players’ man—I didn’t hear anything favorable. I heard complaints from owners and club executives about how these ball players were putting themselves into the hands of a bloody labor organizer, a steel mill guy. I remember hearing one player, Dick Groat, saying he was in Pittsburgh and how he saw some of the results of union operations and that he wasn’t in favor of it. He voted against employing Miller, as some other ball players did.
Then I began to hear that Miller is a pretty smart guy, seems like a very nice guy. The owners and the hierarchy, like the league presidents and such, were beginning to be very discreet in their remarks about Marvin. I had never met him until the winter baseball meetings in Mexico City, in 1968. I introduced myself. Since then, when there has been a newsworthy dispute in baseball—and there have been a lot of them—I have found I get straighter answers from Marvin than from anyone else I know in baseball. I have yet to find any trace of evidence that he’s ever told me an untruth.
There have been times when he has said, “I think I had better not talk about that now,” which is understandable. I don’t doubt for a moment that he knows he’s talking for publication and he’s going to tell me what he thinks will look good on his side of the argument. But as far as I know, it’s the absolute truth. More honest than most. Sports promoters find lying to the press is part of their business. They have no hesitation at all about it.
This generally applies across the board. I was going to say it also includes league presidents, but I would hate to think of Chub Feeney lying. I think Joe Cronin would avoid a fact now and then, or evade one. As for the present commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, he doesn’t tell you anything so I don’t know whether he lies or not. But the sportswriter learns to adjust, to make allowances. When you’re listening to these people, who are serving special interests, you simply adjust by taking a little off the top.
Over the years, of course, all sportswriters, especially those assigned to and traveling with ball clubs, have difficulties with a ball player, or ball players. I never had anything as crucial as an actual fist fight, but I did have some differences with Bill Werber. This was when I was in Philadelphia and when he was traded or sold. The A’s sent him to the Cincinnati Reds, and when the deal was announced I think I probably wrote something to the general effect of “Good riddance.” I’m not sure. I didn’t care deeply for Bill. I thought he paraded his formal education. He was out of Duke, you know, and he used to correct the grammar of other ball players. There were things about Bill that didn’t enchant me.
In 1939 the Reds were in the World Series—that was the year the Yankees won in four straight and when big Ernie Lombardi wound up sprawled out at the plate. When we got to Cincinnati for the third game I went down to the bench before the game, and my old friend Paul Derringer said, “Hello, Red, you know Bill Werber, don’t you?”
And Werber said, “Yes, I know the sonofabitch.”
It went on, a tiny few exchanges like that, and then he said, “Get off this bench! Get out of the dugout!”
I said, “No, I’m a guest here.”
And he got up and shouldered me out of the dugout, just kind of strongarmed me out. I had my portable and I was strongly tempted to let him have it—with the typewriter. But I somehow didn’t feel like doing that on the field before the first World Series game in Cincinnati and so I left.
I remember Charlie Dexter coming along behind me and he said, “What are you going to do? Are you going to protest to the Baseball Writers Association?”
And I said, “No, Charlie, the player doesn’t like me.”
I didn’t speak to him again. And then one day I was in Washington, in the National Press Building. I was on the elevator going to the Press Club and a most successful-looking insurance salesman carrying a briefcase, well dressed, got aboard and said, “Hello, Susie,” to the elevator operator.
And I said, “Hello, Bill,” and we shook hands. It had been at least ten years.
When Curt Flood sued baseball, Bill wrote me a letter. He was absolutely against Flood’s suit and wrote disagreeing with something I had written in a column. Bill said that Curt Flood, with his limited education, was doing better than he had any right to expect.
I wrote back one letter saying that Flood had more ability and character than a great many educated men. I was trying to put Bill down. But he quickly responded with further argument which I didn’t bother to answer. I didn’t want to become his pen pal.
I won’t deny that the heavy majority of sportswriters, myself included, have been and still are guilty of puffing up the people they write about. I remember one time when Stanley Woodward, my beloved leader, was on the point of sending me a wire during spring training, saying, “Will you stop Godding up those ball players?” I didn’t realize what I had been doing. I thought I had been writing pleasant little spring training columns about ball players.
If we’ve made heroes out of them, and we have, then we must also lay a whole set of false values at the doorsteps of historians and biographers. Not only has the athlete been blown up larger than life, but so have the politicians and celebrities in all fields, including rock singers and movie stars.
When you go through Westminster Abbey you’ll find that excepting for that little Poets’ Corner almost all of the statues and memorials are to killers. To generals and admirals who won battles, whose specialty was human slaughter. I don’t think they’re such glorious heroes.
I’ve tried not to exaggerate the glory of athletes. I’d rather, if I could, preserve a sense of proportion, to write about them as excellent ball players, first-rate players. But I’m sure I have contributed to false values—as Stanley Woodward said, “Godding up those ball players.”
Hot off the presses comes Allen Barra’s new book, on sale today.
Here’s an exclusive excerpt from Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age.
By Allen Barra
I don’t know that anyone’s ever calculated this, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, in that order, are the two most written-about players in baseball history, or at least two of the top three, along with Babe Ruth. The year 2010 saw the publication of a thick and well-researched biography of Willie, Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend, by James Hirsch, and there are countless shorter lives of Willie, several autobiographies and memoirs, and a superb life-and-times account, Willie’s Time, by Charles Einstein that, in my opinion, stands as the best thing ever written about him. Also published in 2010 was Jane Leavy’s Mantle biography, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, the most detailed of the nine versions of his life.
There are also six volumes of autobiography, memoirs, and recollections, as well as numerous books by fans and collections of letters to and from Mickey, that have been published since his death. And yet, it seems to me that there has always been one major element missing from the many books on Mantle or Mays: each other. Though they are and always will be linked in the minds of millions, I don’t think it’s ever been noted exactly how much they had in common and how each man’s image reflected the other. The similarities in their lives were uncanny. Both were children of the Great Depression, born in 1931. They were almost the same size (about five-foot-eleven and 185 pounds, at least early in their careers); Mantle had a bit more muscle, and for most of his playing career probably outweighed Willie by five to ten pounds.
Both were heralded as phenoms when they arrived in New York in 1951 after brief but legendary minor league careers. (If integration had come along a couple of years earlier, they probably would have played against each other as minor leaguers.) Both started out playing for Hall of Fame managers, Mantle for Casey Stengel and Willie for Leo Durocher. Both played stickball in the streets of New York with kids (though only Willie was lucky enough to have TV cameras record the games). The burden of expectation caused each of them to break down in tears before his first season was over. Mickey exploded on the national scene in 1953 when he hit the first “tape measure” home run, and Willie the next year when he made the most famous catch in World Series and probably baseball history. In 1958 and 1959, they barnstormed against each other with specially selected All-Star teams.
Together they defined baseball in the 1950s and through the mid-1960s. Both made the covers of Time and Life, and they were the subjects of popular songs. In the 1960s, they were often pictured together on the covers of baseball magazines, including some devoted entirely to them. They were paired off on television on the popular show Home Run Derby, did commercials and endorsements together, and appeared together on numerous TV shows. Together they created nostalgia and the autograph and memorabilia craze. Finally, in the early 1980s, they were both banned from baseball by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for doing public relations work for Atlantic City casinos.
They had exactly the same talents—everyone who saw them observed that no other players in the big leagues possessed their astonishing combinations of power and speed. And despite Willie’s far greater durability, they were, in terms of effectiveness on the field, remarkably similar. Both batted over .300 ten times and hit over 50 home runs in a season twice. Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball ranks Mays as the best player in the NL from 1954, the year he returned from the Army, through 1965, except 1959, when he ranked fourth. (For the 1956 and 1961 seasons, he shared the top spot with Henry Aaron.)
Mantle was Total Baseball’s best player in the AL every year from 1955 through 1962; he was also ranked second in 1952 and fourth in 1954. (Mantle was surely poised to top Total Baseball’s ranking in 1963, when he batted .314 but was limited to just sixty-five games by injuries.) In every season from 1954 through 1965, Mickey and Willie were selected for the All-Star teams. From 1951 through 1964, the Yankees or the Giants were in every World Series except in 1959. Their fortunes in the World Series and All-Star Games contrasted oddly. Mays was the ultimate All-Star, hitting .307 in twenty-four games, producing 29 RBIs and runs scored, while Mantle hit just .233 in sixteen All-Star Games without a single home run. But in twenty World Series games, Mays managed just .239 without a single home run; in sixty-five games, Mantle set the all-time World Series home run mark with 18.
That Mickey and Willie were the most dominant players of that period isn’t simply a myth built up by worshipful New York sportswriters—it’s a fact. The ultimate question isn’t “Were they the greatest of their time?” but “Which of them was the greatest?” (That’s a subject I explore in detail in Appendix A.)
Both were consummate all-around athletes who excelled at basketball and football in high school. Reversing the stereotype, Willie was a great passing quarterback at Fairfield Industrial High School in Westfield, Alabama; at the same time, Mickey was a dazzling running back at Commerce High in Commerce, Oklahoma. If circumstances had been different, they might have ended up playing for the two greatest college football coaches of their era: Willie for Bear Bryant, then at Kentucky—Bryant had been hugely impressed when he saw Willie play baseball for the Black Barons at Rickwood Field—and Mickey for Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma.
They were both natural center fielders, but both played other positions when they were young. Mantle spent more time at shortstop than Willie, but neither of them ever quite got the hang of it. Willie began his rookie season in center field; Mickey began his rookie year in right field while Joe DiMaggio struggled through his final season, and in 1952 Mickey became the Yankees’ starting center fielder. Both had great throwing arms and were told during their early careers that they had a shot to make it as a pitcher. Mickey and Willie both idolized Joe DiMaggio. Both loved Westerns and, as boys, dreamed of growing up to be cowboys.
Their lives were dominated by their fathers, who saw baseball as a way for their sons to escape a life of brutal manual labor. For Cat Mays it was the steel mills, for Mutt Mantle the hellish zinc mines. By the time Mickey and Willie graduated from high school, both their mothers had almost disappeared from the narratives of their lives. It was often said of both that they were “born to play ball.” Whether or not that was true, they were certainly bred to the game. Cat began rolling a ball to his son while Willie was still an infant. Mutt began to throw to his son as soon as Mickey could hold a broom handle.
Both men were southerners. (New York sportswriters were fond of labeling Mickey a cowboy, a westerner—he did, after all, once ride a horse to school—but Mickey regarded himself as a southerner and often said so.) The Mantles and the Mayses were living, breathing Americana. The Mantles were what John Steinbeck’s Joad family might have been had they chosen to stay and scrape a living out of the harsh Oklahoma earth rather than emigrate to California. Willie’s folks were the country cousins of the Younger family in Lorraine Hansberry’s great play, A Raisin in the Sun; they resisted the lure of northern cities like Chicago and stayed near their roots.
They were both the products of two generations of ball-playing men, and both honed their skills through competition with industrial leaguers. Though neither of them was actually a member of an industrial league team, their fathers, uncles, and close friends played industrial ball, and Mickey and Willie played with and against them. Mantle and Mays were probably the last products of the great age of industrial league baseball that died out a few years after World War II. Neither man ever truly understood how to manage money. Mantle envied Willie’s salary; Willie was notoriously jealous of Mantle’s income from commercials and endorsements.
Needless to say, in spite of all these similarities, there were enormous cultural differences. Mickey grew up listening to country stars such as Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys; his favorite singer was Hank Williams. Willie and his family listened to country blues singers like Amos Millburn, the more sophisticated R&B sounds of Louis Jordan, and even jazz artists like Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole. The one singer both men enjoyed was Bing Crosby. The Mantle clan was large and closely knit; Mays came from a broken home. Mickey’s father drove him relentlessly toward baseball; Willie’s father helped him along and let him find the way to baseball on his own.
Mickey drank prodigiously and recklessly from an early age; Willie got sick on his first taste of alcohol and never touched it again. Mantle, though he remained married to his high school sweetheart for decades, led a sex life that was an unreported scandal. Mays, in contrast, was never the subject of rumors of promiscuity; his first marriage, to an older, more sophisticated woman, went badly. He had no biological children and, if the journalists who knew him are to be trusted, seldom saw his adopted son after his divorce.
One Mantle biographer, writing seven years after his death, concluded that “Mickey Mantle, like most heroes, was a construction; he was not real. He was all that America wanted itself to be, and he was also all that America feared it could never be.” Surely, it would be no stretch to say the same thing of Willie Mays. In his mammoth one-volume history of the decade, The Fifties, David Halberstam wrote that “Willie Mays seemed to be the model for the new supremely gifted black athlete. . . . He showed that the new-age black athlete had both power and speed. . . . [Mays was] a new kind of athlete being showcased, a player who, in contrast to most white superstars of the past, was both powerful and fast.” At the same time Mays was at his peak, there was a supremely gifted white athlete named Mantle who had at least as much power and speed. Bob Costas says, “There was one thing about Mantle that screamed out ‘The Natural.’ He was a God-made ballplayer.” Surely the same God made Willie Mays.
“Today,” Arnold Hano, one of Willie’s first biographers, wrote in 1965, “players are as skilled as most stars of the past, but something is lacking. Call it color, call it magic, but you call for it in vain. Except for Willie Mays. Oh, there are a few others. Mickey Mantle has always brought his own sense of excitement to the game.” He most certainly did, and who, at their peak, could have denied that Mantle’s “own sense of excitement” was a brand quite similar to Willie’s?
Though their names are melded in the minds of three generations of American sports fans and their careers ran along uncannily parallel lines, they are still, oddly, segregated. Indeed, for most of their playing careers the realities of American life dictated that they be segregated. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that they could meet together at restaurants and nightclubs in most parts of the country, and even then not in the Deep South. And it wasn’t until the 1970s that they began to appear together regularly at card shows, in commercials, and on television shows. Mantle and Mays were friends, probably as close as it was possible for a white man and a black man to be at that time.
In any event, their work schedules didn’t allow them to see each other more than a couple of times a year. Always, the newspapers kept one apprised of what the other was doing. “We kept an eye on each other, Willie and me. I was always aware of him,” Mantle remarked. “I’d go long periods without seeing him,” Mays said after Mantle died, “but I couldn’t go for two days without hearing about him. It was like we were never far apart.” Mickey and Willie—they were given boys’ names that they never grew out of. The private lives of both men revealed that they were ill equipped for life after baseball, a fact that those of us who loved them found almost impossible to understand. How, though, could we have understood? From our perspective, what could have been better than being Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays? Even after baseball, what better life could a fan imagine than being Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays?
“In some ways,” Roger Kahn told me, “I believe they knew each other better than anyone else knew them. They were the only two men in America who understood the experience they had both been through.”
Reprinted from Mickey and Willie by Allen Barra. Copyright © May 2013. Published by Crown Archetype, a division of Random House, Inc.
From the Library of America’s site, check out this Red Smith column from the forthcoming American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith.
Here’s Dennis Eckesley:
People say baseball players should go out and have fun. No way. To me, baseball is pressure. I always feel it. This is work. The fun is afterwards, when you shake hands.
When I was a rookie I’d tear stuff up. Now I keep it in. What good is smashing a light on the way up the tunnel? But I still can’t sleep at night if I stink. I’ve always tried to change that and act like a normal guy when I got home. “Hi, honey, what’s happening?” I can’t. It’s there. It doesn’t go away. But maybe that’s why I’ve been successful in my career, because I care. I don’t have fun. I pitch scared. That’s what makes me go. Nothing wrong with being scared if you can channel it.
I used to hide behind my cockiness. Don’t let the other team know you’re scared. I got crazy on the mound. Strike a guy out, throw my fist around—”Yeah!” Not real classy, but I was a raw kid. I didn’t care. It wasn’t fake. It was me. This wasn’t taken very kindly by a lot of people. They couldn’t wait to light me up. That’s the price you pay.
I wish I was a little happier in this game. What is so great about this shit? You get the money, and then you’re used to the money. You start making half a million a year, next thing you know you need half a million a year. And the heat is on!
Used to be neat to just be a big-league ballplayer, but that wore off. I’m still proud, but I don’t want people to bother me about it. I wish my personality with people was better. I find myself becoming short with people. Going to the store. Getting gas.
If you’re not happy with when you’re doing lousy, then not happy when you’re doing well, when the hell are you going to be happy? This game will humble you in a heartbeat. Soon as you starting getting happy Boom! For the fans—and this is just a guess—they think the money takes out the feeling. I may be wrong but I think they think, “What the hell is he worrying about? He’s still getting’ paid.” There may be a few players who don’t give 100 percent, but I always thought if you were good enough to make that kind of money, you’d have enough pride to play like that, wouldn’t you think? You don’t just turn it on-or off.
If you are a certain age and grew up in New York the name Pete Fornatale means Rock n Roll on FM radio. Fornatale passed away last year but he wasn’t just a legendary DJ, he was a writer, too. His final book is on the Stones, an entertaining oral history, combining original interviews with previously published material.
Here’s an excerpt, concerning a pivotal moment in the group’s evolution.
Check it out, enjoy, and then go pick up the book.
From 50 Licks
By Pete Fornatale
At the start of 1968, the Stones were a group in turmoil, coming off what was mostly a lost year. The rift between Brian and the rest of the band was deepening. Brian had been abusive to his girlfriend of two years, Anita Pallenberg, and she ended up leaving him for Keith. Did Keith feel guilty about this?
KEITH RICHARDS: Brian, in many ways, was a right cunt. He was a bastard. Up to a point, you could put up with it. In the last year or so, when Brian was almost totally incapacitated all of the time, he became a joke to the band. It was the only way we could deal with it without getting mad at him. So then it became that very cruel, piss-taking thing behind his back all the time . . .
Things only got worse after Jones’s second bust for marijuana possession in May. Now, not only was Brian in danger of no-showing gigs in the UK, but his legal problems might prevent him from joining the band if and when they decided to return to America.
Keith Richards: There was no immediate necessity to go through the drama of replacing Brian because no gigs were lined up. We first had to recognize the fact that we needed to make a really good album. After Satanic Majesties we wanted to make a STONES album.
And that’s where Jimmy Miller came in.
GLYN JOHNS: Jagger came to me after Satanic Majesties and said, “We’re going to get a new producer, an American.” I thought, “Oh my God, that’s all I need. I don’t think my ego can stand having some bloody Yankee coming in here and start telling me what sort of sound to get with the Rolling Stones.” So I said, “I know somebody! I know there’s one in England already and he’s fantastic,” and he’d just done the Traffic album: Jimmy Miller. And it was a remarkably good record he made, the first record he made with Traffic. I said, “He’s a really nice guy.” I’d met him, he’d been in the next studio room and I said, “I’m sure he’d be fantastic.” Anything but some strange lunatic drug addict from Los Angeles. So . . . Jagger actually took the bait and off he went, met Jimmy Miller and gave him the job. And the first thing Jimmy Miller did (laughs) was fire ME. ’Cause he’d been using Eddie Kramer as an engineer. And so, naturally, quite obviously, he wanted to use his own engineer, the guy he knew.
Miller was exactly what they needed at that time. His roots-based approach allowed the Stones to do what they did best.
ANDY JOHNS: Jimmy Miller made the Stones into the band they should have always been, and tried to be in the beginning.
BILLY ALTMAN: He was a tremendous producer. Mick especially was very impressed with the last Spencer Davis album and that first Traffic album that he had done. He was able to get them a very big sound that they had never really managed to have prior to that. I don’t know how much of that was attributable to Andy Oldham nominally being their producer up until then, but I think on a sonic basis, Miller really got to the heart of what they sounded like as a band, really honing in on Keith’s guitar and Charlie Watts’s drumming.
EDDIE KRAMER: I think they’d had enough at that point. Thank God they found Jimmy Miller. Certainly Mick and Keith and the boys had heard what we’d done with Traffic. And it was amazing. When you put Dear Mr. Fantasy up against Satanic Majesties it completely blows that away. So the Stones probably think, “Who is this guy Jimmy Miller?”
If not for him, I don’t think the Stones would be in the place they are today. Because what he did is that he went to the heart and soul of where they came from. And he was so adept at milking the inner psyche of the band. And he was so clever at production. And he’s the guy I’ve always modeled myself after in terms of how to get a session going, how to make the artists really get excited about what they’re playing. Even to the point where Charlie couldn’t play the drum part the way he was hearing it, he would go and sit in on the drums.
ANDY JOHNS: Jimmy was an extremely talented man. His main gift I think was his ability to get grooves. Which for a band like the Stones is very important. Look at the difference between Beggars Banquet and Satanic Majesties. He put them right back on the rail. So he was quite influential then and came up with all sorts of lovely ideas for them. In fact that’s him playing the cowbell at the beginning of “Honky Tonk Women.” He sets it up.
ROBERT GREENFIELD: Jimmy Miller was a lovely guy. He had this great disposition. And if you want to talk about his greatness as a producer, look at his Traffic albums. What Jimmy brought to the Stones was groove. Jimmy gave them a soul groove, a rhythm groove that they never had before.
JIMMY MILLER: Musically they were just coming out of their psychedelic period, which hadn’t been too successful for them, and I think that was lucky for me, because I didn’t insist that they change direction but they were ready to do so, as was evident from the new songs that they played me. What they had written was rock ’n’ roll, yet I subsequently received a lot of credit for getting them back on course, so I benefited a lot from being in the right place at the right time. There again, I think it’s fair to say that being American also helped, because—as was the case with many successful British bands during that era—they had been raised on American records. As things turned out, it was not always easy—they could take a long time over certain things—but it was always a pleasure, especially when they’d eventually hit those magic moments as they inevitably seemed to do. The first of those just happened to be on the very first track that I produced for them, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
KEITH TALKS “JUMPIN JACK FLASH”
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was released as a single in 1968 and remains one of the Stones’ most identifiable songs. It’s also significant in that it essentially kicks off the next period in the band’s existence, Rolling Stones “Mach Two,” as Keith has called it. In Life, Keith tells the story of how the tune got its name:
KEITH RICHARDS: Mick and I had been up all night, it was raining outside and there was the sound of these heavy stomping rubber boots near the window, belonging to my gardener, Jack Dyer, a real country man from Sussex. It woke Mick up. He said, “What’s that?” I said, “Oh, that’s Jack. That’s jumping Jack.” I started to work around the phrase on the guitar, which was in open tuning, singing the phrase “Jumping Jack.” Mick said, “Flash,” and suddenly we had this phrase with a great rhythm and ring to it. So we got to work on it and wrote it.
Keith gives himself some of the credit for the reinvention of the Stones’ sound as well.
KEITH RICHARDS: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Street Fighting Man” came about because I had become fascinated by the possibilities of playing an acoustic guitar through a cassette recorder, using it as a pick up, really, so that I could still get the crispness of an acoustic—which you can never get off an electric guitar—but overloading this tiny little machine so the effect was that it sounded both acoustic and electric. Technology was starting to increase in sophistication, but I just wanted to reduce it back to basics. I bought one of the first cassette machines—a must for a budding songwriter—and then day in, day out recorded on it. Then I began to get interested in the actual sound of the machine, how close you could put the microphone to the guitar and what effect you could get out of it . . . When we were in the studio I would bring in that little Philips cassette recorder, get a wooden extension speaker, plug that into the back of the recorder, shove a microphone in front of the speaker in the middle of the studio and record it. We would all sit back and watch this little microphone record the cassette machine in the middle of the studio at Olympic, which was the size of Sadler’s Wells. Then we’d go back, listen to it, play over it, mash it up, and there was the track.
EDDIE KRAMER: We used Jimmy Miller’s Wollensak—a cassette machine with a microphone in it. We put it on the floor of the studio and we recorded Keith’s guitar, and I believe Charlie was just using a brush or a stick on the snare for the backbeat. After we cut the track on the cassette machine, we played it back on a little speaker, then rerecorded that on one track of a four-track machine. That was the guide track, then everybody overdubbed to that. When you hear the beginning of the song, you can hear the amount of wow—on a cassette machine when you play the straight chord you hear “bo-wow wowwow” because the movement of the tape against the pinch wheel was never very steady. It wasn’t a professional machine . . . You hear the movement of the pitch, which is the reason that it has this funky sound which everyone dug at that time.
The resulting album would go on to be one of the Stones’ collective favorites. Its back-to-basics approach was natural for them.
BILL WYMAN: It’s probably because we listened to and played so much early blues material. Musically, it was very simple, so you had to put a lot of feeling into it to make it work. Whenever we rehearse and learn new numbers, every other thing we play is a jam on an old Elmore James or Muddy Waters or Chuck Berry thing. I know a lot of people say, “What are you playing that old stuff for?” But we’re not doing it for sentimental reasons, we’re doing it to retain the feeling of those blues and R&B things.
You can’t have everybody flying off everywhere and showing off your chops. Besides, our chops aren’t always that good! I think the great thing about the Stones is the simplicity of it—that slightly ragged rhythm that sounds like it might fall apart by the next bar but never does. We always have scrappy endings; we play with kind of a pulse that fluctuates between being slightly behind and slightly in front of the beat but it swings like that. And it works for us. I hate bands that play on eighths or sixteenths, there’s no feel there, nothing seems to be coming from inside them.
On the contrary, the bluesy feel of Beggars Banquet still resonates. One album track that stands out is “No Expectations.”
BILLY ALTMAN: “No Expectations” to me is one of the great Stones songs in their entire body of work. And it really stands out to me because it’s one of the last things of substance that Brian Jones was able to contribute to the band, his slide playing on there. It’s Robert Johnson, it’s Delta blues, it’s everything about their connection to the American blues. For me, that remains one of the high points of the album.
MICK JAGGER: That’s Brian playing [slide guitar]. We were sitting around in a circle on the floor, singing and playing, recording with open mics. That was the last time I remember Brian really being totally involved in something that was really worth doing. He was there with everyone else. It’s funny how you remember—but that was the last moment I remember him doing that, because he had just lost interest in everything.
BILLY ALTMAN: Even though Brian was already out the door, there’s more of him on there than he’s usually given credit for. His spots are few, but they are significant. In addition to his work on “No Expectations,” his sitar on “Street Fighting Man” and his harmonica on “Prodigal Son” give him a real presence.
With Brian fading toward the background, other musicians stepped up as well.
BILLY ALTMAN: Nicky Hopkins added a tremendous amount to Beggars Banquet. I’m not sure how much of this was Jimmy Miller, but it seems like someone realized that they need some other voice instrumentally besides Keith’s guitar, and Nicky Hopkins is the secret weapon of Beggars Banquet and then again on Let It Bleed. He is really one of the great unsung heroes of British rock during that period. And the combination of Nicky Hopkins and Ian Stewart during that period works wonderfully and adds dimension because Stewart is such a good boogie-woogie blues pianist.
ANDY JOHNS: Nicky is on everything. He was the best and the greatest. God bless Nicky Hopkins. He added so much to that band. Sometimes you wouldn’t really notice it. But if you take the piano out then the house of cards collapses a bit. He was always coming up with gorgeous little melodies. Earlier, “She’s a Rainbow.” That’s Nicky. Of course he was doing a lot of things like that. Plus he was extremely rhythmic. People don’t remember him for being rhythmic. But he was.
When people think of Nicky Hopkins they think of his right hand. But he would make the groove happen sometimes. If you took him out, it’s “Oh, what happened here?” Which is normal. If they are listening to him they are gonna play around him. Or with him. And if you take one of those elements out: “What happened here?” It’s music. See. That’s how it works.
The album’s focal point became one of the Stones’ most famous songs, “Sympathy for the Devil.”
CHARLIE WATTS: “Sympathy for the Devil” was tried six different ways. I don’t mean at once. It was all night doing it one way, then another full night trying it another way, and we just could not get it right. It would never fit a regular rhythm. I first heard Mick play that one on the steps of my house on an acoustic guitar. The first time I heard it, it was really light and had a kind of Brazilian sound. Then when we got in the studio we poured things on it, and it was something different. I could never get a rhythm for it, except one, which is like a samba on the snare drum. It was always a bit like a dance band until we got Rocky Dijon in, playing the congas. By messing about with that, we got the thing done.
Beggars Banquet also featured another new, rootsy element for the Stones: country music.
KEITH RICHARDS: It is the other side of rock ’n’ roll. Rock ’n’ roll, basically, is blues, and then put in a little bit of white hillbilly melody. It’s that lovely coming together of one culture hitting another which is what music’s always about. What I’ve always loved about rock ’n’ roll is that it’s a beautiful synthesis of white music and black music. It’s a beautiful cauldron to mix things up in.
Keith’s budding friendship with Gram Parsons was the inspiration.
KEITH RICHARDS: I first met Gram in 1968, when the Byrds were appearing in London . . . I knew the Byrds from Mr. Tambourine Man on . . . But when I saw them with Gram, I could see this was a radical turn. I went backstage, and we hooked up. Then the Byrds came through London again, on their way to South Africa. I was like, “Man, we don’t go there.” The sanctions and the embargo were on. So he quit the Byrds, right there and then. Of course, he’s got nowhere to stay, so he moved in with me.
Others, notably Chris Hillman of the Byrds, have doubted that apartheid had anything to do with Parsons’s decision to leave the band. Hillman went so far as to suggest that Parsons was a Rolling Stones groupie. A friend of Parsons and employee of the Stones from that time refutes this idea:
PHIL KAUFMAN: Nothing could be further from the truth. Gram was one of the only guys in the world who hung out with famous people like the Stones and who carried his own weight. If anything, Keith was the “groupie” of Gram. Gram was teaching the Rolling Stones country music. Quite often we’d just sit around the house—Gram, Mick, Keith, and I. They had been to Ace Records and bought every country album they could find: George Jones, Merle Haggard, Dave Dudley, Ernest Tubb—you name it. Gram would say, “Here is an example of this,” and he’d tell me which record he wanted and I’d play the record. They’d listen to it, tap their toes to it, listen to the chords, and then Gram had me play George Jones, . . . That was what Gram was doing. I recorded Gram and Keith singing together, but sadly those tapes are long gone.
Here’s Mick’s take on the Stones first foray into country:
MICK JAGGER: As far as country music was concerned, we used to play country songs, but we’d never record them—or we recorded them but never released them. Keith and I had been playing Johnny Cash records and listening to the Everly Brothers—who were SO country—since we were kids. I used to love country music even before I met Keith. I loved George Jones and really fast, shit-kicking country music, though I didn’t really like the maudlin songs too much . . . The country songs, like “Factory Girl” or “Dear Doctor,” on Beggars Banquet were really pastiche. There’s a sense of humor in country music anyway, a way of looking at life in a humorous kind of way— and I think we were just acknowledging that element of the music.
BILLY ALTMAN: There is a lot of humor in the country songs on Beggars Banquet. At the time, I’m not sure how much of it any of us got. Back then, with everything that was going on with the tensions of 1968, they just seemed kind of weird. But listening now, “Dear Doctor” and “Factory Girl” are a lot of fun. And I think that’s one of the nice things about the album. They provide a balance against things like “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fighting Man.”
One critic correctly identified a source of inspiration for “Sympathy for the Devil —the Stones’ own blues roots.
MICK FARREN: One of the major devices used by the Stones (and a lot of blues singers—Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins) to accentuate the shock of their music is consistent use of first person involvement in their lyrics. Jagger doesn’t sing about the Devil, he sings about being the Devil.
KEITH RICHARDS: “Sympathy” is quite an uplifting song. It’s just a matter of looking [the Devil] in the face. He’s there all the time. I’ve had very close contact with Lucifer—I’ve met him several times. Evil people tend to bury it and hope it sorts itself out and doesn’t rear its ugly head. “Sympathy for the Devil” is just as appropriate now, with 9/11. There it is again, big time. When that song was written, it was a time of turmoil. It was the first sort of international chaos since World War II. And confusion is not the ally of peace and love. You want to think the world is perfect. Everybody gets sucked into that. And as America has found out to its dismay, you can’t hide. You might as well accept the fact that evil is there and deal with it any way you can. “Sympathy for the Devil” is a song that says, “Don’t forget him.” If you confront him, then he’s out of a job.
UNDERCOVER OF THE NIGHT
Both Decca in the UK and London Records in the US rejected the planned album cover for Beggars Banquet.
CHARLIE WATTS: The toilet one. The graffiti one around the toilet, which they used in an ad later. That was the first one and they refused to put it out.
MICK JAGGER: We really have tried to keep the album within the bounds of good taste. I mean we haven’t shown the whole lavatory. That would have been rude. We’ve only shown the top half! Two people at the record company have told us that the sleeve is “terribly offensive.” Apart from them we have been unable to find anyone else who it offends. I asked one person to pick out something that offended him and he quite seriously picked out “Bob Dylan.” Apparently “Bob Dylan’s Dream” on the wall offends him . . . We’ve gone as far as we can in terms of concessions over the release of this sleeve. I even suggested that they put it in a brown paper bag with “Unfit for Children” and the title of the album on the outside. But no, they wouldn’t have it. They stuck to their guns . . . It was simply an idea that had not been done before and we chose to put the writing on a lavatory wall because that’s where you see most writings on walls. There’s really nothing obscene there except in people’s own minds . . . We’ll get this album distributed somehow even if I have to go down the end of Greek Street and Carlisle Street at two o’clock on Saturday morning and sell them myself.
In the end, Mick’s guerrilla marketing strategy wasn’t necessary. After several months of delay, the record was released with an album that looked like a wedding invite, complete with the letters RSVP.
[Photo Credit: Tim Kelley Collection; Photofest; Ira Korman Collection; poster by David Edward Byrd]
The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones is Stanley Booth’s account of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 US tour. Keith Richards said, “Stanley Booth’s book is the only one I can read and say, ‘Yeah, that’s how it was.’ Stanley is a lovely guy–he’s got an eye. That book took longer to write than the Bible.”
We’ve got a Stanley Booth two-fer today, starting with this excerpt from The True Adventures. Here’s Booth on the Stones at Madison Square Garden.
I went down the hall to the Stones’ dressing room, where for a moment I was alone with the concrete block walls and hard benches. I heard voices and in came the Stones with Jimi Hendrix. They were followed by the Maysles brothers, tape and film rolling.
Jagger took off his shirt and walked around; Albert followed him, filming. Mick Taylor and I sat on a bench with Hendrix, who seemed subdued but pleasant. I told him about seeing Little Richard, and he said, smiling as if it cheered him up to think about it, that once when he was with Richard, he and the bass player bought ruffled shirts to wear onstage, and Richard made them change: “I am the beauty! Nobody spoze to wear ruffles but Richard!”
Mick Taylor handed his guitar to Hendrix and asked him to play. “Oh, I can’t,” he said. “I have to string it different.” Hendrix was left-handed, but he went ahead and played the guitar upside down, a wizard he was.
As Hendrix played I went into the bathroom, where Jagger was putting mascara on his lashes. Hendrix had tried to take Marianne Faithfull away from Mick, who wasn’t about to stand around and listen to him play, upside-down or sideways. I told him about my afternoon with Wexler. He seemed distracted, I figured because he was about to go onstage. I didn’t know that in the distance a black girl was telling him she was going to have his baby, and a blond girl (who two weeks ago had been threatening to join the tour) was telling him goodbye. Back at the Plaza in a few hours, Jo would write in her notebook, “Tried talk Mick imposs—concert fantastic—Mick better but must keep his mind on necessary things.” He listened politely, or appeared to, till I finished talking about Atlantic and the Magrittes; then, with the Stones changing into their stage drag, I went out to see the show.
In the hall I saw another of the next year’s ghosts, Janis Joplin, heading for the Stones’ dressing room. Because I’d heard that something I had written about her had made her angry, I avoided her. The next day, when I came into the Garden for the afternoon show, Bill Belmont told me that Janis, being stopped at the Stones’ door—because, as nobody got a chance to tell her, they were mostly naked—stuck her head in and gave the middle-finger salute to what must have been a surprised bunch of Rolling Stones. I think she was drunk, not an unusual state for her. Later tonight, when Jagger, onstage, sang “Don’t you want to live with me?” Janis would yell, “You don’t have the balls!”
It was cold in the Garden, under the high arches and giant mushroom spines. Terry Reid and B. B. King had already played and Tina Turner was onstage singing the Otis Redding song, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” her sleek red beauty shimmering in a black dress, back arched, legs bowed, one arm thrust out, testifying as she had been for years to drunks in juke joints and cuttin’ parlors. Ike was standing back from the spotlight, small and black and nasty, eyeballs glowing under his shiny processed Beatie cut, chopping chords as if in anger. This afternoon Wexler, who often saw the Turners when they were in New York, said, “He’s really got the fear of God in her.” As you watched them, you couldn’t help wondering if Mother Nature were married to the Devil.
Tina sang “Respect” and “Come Together,” eyes bleached out in the spotlight, her pupils swimming white slits. When the band geared up for “Land of 1000 Dances,” Janis Joplin stepped onto the rear of the stage, stomping with delight, and Tina called her to the front.
Janis looked for once in her life completely happy; it was plain that she would love to nose around in Tina’s crotch all night long. “Roll over on your back—y’know I like it like that,” they sang together, Ike’s guitar whipping them, and Janis pulled off her little crocheted cap and threw it into the air.
After Tina and Janis finished there was a delay during which the audience had contact flashes from what they had seen and the recording equipment was prepared for the Stones. How can they follow this, I asked myself, as I did at almost every show. After watching Tina in Oakland, Mick had said that he wasn’t cocky anymore; but he was still following her. I went backstage, and Mick was wandering among the Coke bottles and folding chairs, looking rather lost and forlorn. The others kept their distance. He was about to be consumed, and there was a reverent silence between them. With his blue-beaded moccasins and black pants with silver leg buttons (only back here you can see they’re not silver, just shiny in the spotlight), little black jersey, his scarf dragging, hair hanging limp, chin slumped over gold-medallioned choker, Uncle Sam hat in hand, Mick seemed not bored but not comfortable, making little sounds under his breath as if to say, What a dumb thing this is, waiting.
As time passed and nothing happened, I went out front again into the smoky darkness. No one seemed to mind the wait. “Ain’t nothin’ any good without it has some grease on it,” Tina (the former Annie Mae Bullock, of Brownsville, Tennessee) had said, and she and Janis had left the audience greased and pleased. There were guards, but they weren’t wearing togas, and the few police didn’t seem intent on ruining a good time. The atmosphere was, if not relaxed, at least secure-perhaps because we were on an island in a giant tin can, concrete and metal shell, and no apparent threat to anybody.
Stu, walking across the stage to check a microphone, dressed in his pale-yellow tuxedo with shiny satin lapels, caused a ripple of applause, which he answered with a V-sign—very satirical, Stu. Then the stage was deserted and out of the stillness a disembodied cockney voice mused, “Everyone seems to be ready, are you ready?”
Yesss, the crowd answered in a snow-slide’s whisper-roar, Yesss.
“For the first time in three years,” Sam Cutler said, getting louder, “the greatest rock and roll band in the world, the Rolling Stones!”
The big yellow-blue-white spot bleached out Jagger as he came onstage, twirling overhead his Uncle Sam hat, not smiling, gaze fixed on fate. In a breathless rush of silence the Stones came out, Charlie settling onto the drums, the others, quick and businesslike, plugging their guitars into the amplifiers, twisting dials, setting levels, until Keith hit the opening chords of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Mick started to howl about being born in a crossfire hurricane, and the kids all stood up and screamed. Glyn Johns stopped me in the corridor at the Plaza the next day to say that he had been backstage in a sound truck and the truck was jumping on its springs. “So I got out to see who was shaking it—I thought there might be some kids on top of it—but there was nobody there, the truck was just picking up the vibrations from the house, the whole bloody building was shaking.”
As “Jack Flash” ended, Mick, buttoning his trousers, said by way of greeting, “Think I busted a button on me trousers, hope they don’t fall down. You don’t want me trousers to fall down, now do ya?”
Yesss, the crowd answered, as Keith started “Carol,” standing beside Mick in the spotlight, surrounded by a glimmering halo of rhinestones on his Nudie shirt.
“We are making our own statement,” Brian had said in one of the interviews the publicity office arranged to keep him from feeling left out. “Others are making more intellectual ones.”
What message would you get if you were fifteen years old, standing in a cloud of marijuana smoke inside a crowded, cavernous hall, face reflecting the red and blue and yellow lights, watching Charlie hit the drums as hard as he was able, Bill slide his tiny hands over the skinny neck of his erect light-blue bass causing a sound like booming thunder, little Mick stare with wide eyes as if he were hearing an earthquake’s faint premonitory quiverings, Keith bend over his guitar like a bird of prey, Jagger swoop and glide like some faggot vampire banshee, all of them elevated and illuminated and larger and louder than life? A few years later, a New Yorker writer would observe, “The Stones present a theatrical-musical performance that has no equal in our culture. Thousands and thousands of people go into a room and focus energy on one point and something happens. The group’s musicianship is of a high order, but listening to Mick Jagger is not like listening to Jascha Heifetz. Mick Jagger is coming in on more circuits than Jascha Heifetz. He is dealing in total, undefined sensual experience of the most ecstatic sort.”
By the time that was written, Mick had sung “Midnight Rambler” in pink top hat and tails; after Altamont, the Stones would for reasons of self-preservation turn toward comedy. But in 1969, few people at Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving Day thought that what the Stones were doing was a performance.
The Stones had first come to the United States in 1964, fewer than six years before. They had done five U.S. tours in three years, then were stopped for almost three years. Since then they had become world-famous idols, outlaws, legends, relics, and one was now a corpse. They had been more than lucky to find a guitarist who was docile and played, though not as Brian once had, excellent bottleneck. One problem they’d had preparing to tour was choosing songs that Keith and Mick Taylor could play. Hence “Carol” and “Little Queenie,” Keith’s Chuck Berry specialties, and hence the difficulty Jagger had mentioned of getting the old things together. The old things had featured, as Stu said, “two guitar players that were like somebody’s right and left hand.”
The people inside Madison Square Garden on this Thanksgiving had, most of them, lived through a time of cold war, hot war, race riots, student riots, police riots, assassinations, rapes, murders, trials, waking nightmares. But Keith, Mick, Charlie, Bill, and the new guitar player were impersonating the Rolling Stones, and the audience were impersonating their audience, both of them at the moment a great success. Dancing under the circumstances (“Oh, Carol! Don’t ever steal your heart away—I’m gonna learn to dance if it takes me all night and day!”) seemed to have a transcendent value. Many people thought then that dancing and music could have a major role in changing the structure of society. They may have been naive, but they were much more interesting than the sensible people who came along later. The Stones would tour the United States every three years for a long time to come, and the value of dancing would never be less than transcendent, but at Woodstock, only a few months before and a few miles away, music had seemed to create an actual community. There was—at this time, for many members of this generation—a sense of power, of possibility, that after Altamont would not return.
Here’s a nice piece on Booth by John Scanlan (which features a link to this excellent article on Booth’s career by James Calemine).
Books by Stanley Booth:
The author pictured with Keith Richards.
Bronx Banter Excerpt
Please enjoy this essay by Carlo Rotella, featured in his new collection, Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, And Other True Stories.
By Carlo Rotella
I was in a city far from home, working on a magazine story. I spent the day and evening going around asking questions, watching people do what they do, filling up a couple of pocket notebooks. Among other places, I visited the dog pound, a place of grimness even though—or because—the people who worked there seemed gentle and well-intentioned. All those pit bulls, muscled up with nowhere to go, flexing as we walked past on the other side of the bars. They were desperate and accommodating, and they knew that something was wrong. They could smell all the dogs that came before them. Where had they gone?
Around midnight I retired to the dingy motel where I’d been put by the magazine that sent me out to do the story. In an effort to cut down on expenses, its travel offi ce had found me a place where if you wanted to line up some crack or a prostitute all you had to do was hang out for a while in the parking lot. It had been a long day and evening, with drinking at the end of it. The pit bulls were on my mind. I don’t have much use for dogs but I kept coming back to the sight of the animals lined up in their cages, going all rigid and alert and eager to please when visitors came by. They had thought something was going to happen, even if they didn’t know what it might be, but it didn’t happen. Life would go on like that for a while until, I guessed, some were adopted and some were taken out and killed, and then other dogs would take their place, and soon it would be the new dogs’ turn to win the lottery or die.
One thing to do in a dingy motel is to watch dingy TV. There was lots of it—tedious sports shows and talk shows, unfunny comedies, dumbass celebrity updates, bad movies of the ’80s, a charnel house of shitty writing and stale ideas. I ran aground for a while on an offbrand show or movie about the crew of a rocket ship who go around fighting space vampires. The heroes dashed from here to there shouting fakey jargon and toting futuristic weapons that looked like the weapons we have now with nonfunctional molded-plastic appendages glued to them. The vampires glowered, hissed, and suppurated. It kind of ruins the space-opera magic to wonder what the actors’ parents think when they see them on the screen, but that’s what I usually wonder about. The talented darling who starred in school plays and expectant local fantasies back in Elk Grove Village or Mamaroneck or wherever is now wearing fangs and slathered in gory makeup and being blown unconvincingly in half by a plasmoid megablaster. I picture the parents thinking, “Well, at least he is on TV.”
The lameness of it all caught me just right—in that end-of-day, far-from-home, buzzed-from-work mood—and laid me low. Deep gloom descended. I went through the channels a few more times, only growing more despondent, until I happened upon round one of the middleweight title fight between Marvin Hagler and John Mugabi—held 22 years before, almost to the day. Hagler had his hands full, but he knew what to do about it. He was settling in to cope with Mugabi’s strength and power by taking him deep into the fight, wearing him out over the long haul and fi nishing him late. Mugabi, a blowout artist, had gone ten rounds just once and six only twice in his twenty-five fights, all wins. The turning point would come in the sixth round, when Hagler, having blunted the force of Mugabi’s early-round assault, would take over the fight by giving his man a spine-jellying pounding, then settle in to finish him inside the distance, KO’ing him in the eleventh.
All of a sudden I felt a lot better. I turned down the sound and put out the light. On the screen, Goody Petronelli, Hagler’s trainer, radiated calm and ease as he talked to his fighter between rounds. Everything was going to be fine; Petronelli’s every gesture said as much.His main task was to create a recurring pocket of serenity to which Hagler could retreat between hard-fought rounds for rest and reflection. Demonstrating a for-example combination he wanted Hagler to throw, Petronelli moved his own hands as if arranging flowers. Let’s just fix a couple of little mechanical things, he was saying, and it’s your fight. Doesn’t matter how strong the other guy is. Doesn’t matter what he’s done before this or who he’s done it to. We know how to beat him. We know how to beat everybody. Hagler wasn’t exactly looking at his trainer and he didn’t exactly nod, but he heard him. I took off my glasses and put them on the cigarette-stained bedside table, put my head down on the pillow, and was dreamlessly asleep before either fighter struck a blow in the next round.
Reprinted with permission from Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories, by Carlo Rotella, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2012 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
Carlo Rotella is the author of Good with Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt; October Cities: The Redevelopment of Urban Literature; and Cut Time: An Education at the Fights, the last also published by the University of Chicago Press. He writes regularly for the New York Times Magazine, Washington Post Magazine, and Boston Globe, and he is a commentator for WGBH FM in Boston.
[Featured Image: Motel Room by Greg Watts]
At the Fights is now out in paperback. It’s a must-have for any self-respecting sports fan.
Over at the Library of America’s terrific Story of the Week site, check out John Schulian’s wonderful story, “Nowhere to Run.”
You can order the paperback here.