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.
The good folks at Deadspin have this excerpt from Frank Deford’s new memoir. It concerns Granny Rice.
Have at it.
Bronx Banter Book Excerpt
From Harvey Araton’s entertaining new book,”Driving Mr. Yogi” (which can be purchased at Amazon) here’s an excerpt to make you smile:
The first harbinger of spring — or spring training — at the home of Ron and Bonnie Guidry was a telephone call from Yogi Berra.
“You get the frog legs yet?” Berra would ask.
“Yog,” Ron Guidry would say, “it’s freaking January.”
Too late, Berra was already in serious countdown mode for the next Guidry frog fry extravaganza. It seemed like only yesterday that Berra had looked askance at Guidry’s beloved delicacy, like it was tofu wrapped in seaweed. It had actually been years since Mel Stottlemyre had bragged one spring training day about hunting frogs in the Northwest and cooking them himself. Guidry, with all due respect, was obliged to inform him that he hadn’t really experienced frog legs until he’d had them Cajun-style, or straight from the Guidry family cookbook.
Guidry returned to his apartment that evening, fried up a fresh batch, and the next day passed them around the coaches’ room. He offered one to Berra, who immediately made a face.
“Come on,” Guidry said. “You’ll like ’em.”
Stottlemyre, munching nearby, couldn’t disagree. But still Berra demurred.
“Yogi, I’ll tell you what, if you don’t try one, we’re not going to supper tonight,” Guidry said.
Was he serious? Probably not, but if Berra knew one thing about Guidry, it was that he was proud of his Cajun culture and cuisine.
Yogi wondered if he was in some way hurting his friend’s feelings. So he finally gave in, picked one off the plate, and gave it a nibble. Lo and behold, it was delicious. He wanted another, and as the years rolled by, he would continue to fi nd a place in his diet for something no conscientious doctor would have ordered for a man in his eighties.
Following treatment in the seventies for an arrhythmia, Berra assiduously watched what he ate. He avoided cholesterol-heavy breakfasts, pushed away most desserts with a dismissive “too fattening,” and made sure that the Progresso soup prepared for him at his museum almost daily and specifically at noon by the museum’s faithful business manager Bettylou O’Dell was low in sodium.
He had even long ago disassociated himself from the Yoo-hoo soft drink that he had made famous in the fifties and sixties (by chiming in a commercial, “Me-he for Yoo-hoo!”) because he objected to the preservatives that had changed the drink’s texture and flavor. If he relaxed his calorie counting, it was usually at dinner, especially at big family dinners, where everyone down to the youngest of the Berras was taught that the heels of the long Italian bread were reserved for Grandpa. Berra’s favorite dish was tripe — the stomach tissue of cows and a peasant staple in the old country — but he enjoyed a fairly wide range of gastronomic fare that occasionally didn’t agree with him.
For instance, he liked to munch on hot peppers right out of the jar. It was another habit that Carmen wanted him to break — except it turned out that Guidry, who used peppers to spice up his Cajun cooking, was Berra’s main supplier.
“I’d have them with me in spring training, and then when he’d go back to New Jersey, he’d tell me to send him a batch when I got back to Louisiana,” Guidry said. When Guidry would comply, he would get a call from Carmen asking that he stop sending the peppers. When he didn’t send them the next time Yogi asked, he’d get a call wanting to know where the peppers were. “Either way, I had one of them fussin’ about the damn peppers,” he said with mock resignation.
After so many years of sitting across the table from him at one Tampa establishment or another, Guidry could probably expound on Berra’s culinary preferences better than anyone but Carmen. At the very least, he could discuss them like a comedian working his monologue.
“When we go to the Rusty Pelican, that’s a seafood place and they have swordfish, which he loves, so he gets that all the time there,” Guidry said. “When we go to the Bahama Breeze, he likes the black bean soup, and with that he’ll have the seafood paella or the barbecued ribs. Four times out of five, he’ll have the seafood, but let’s say we have been to the Pelican the night before, well, that means he’s already had seafood, so he’ll get the ribs.
“Now Fleming’s is the steakhouse, so that’s what he gets there, and then at the Bonefish he has to have the sea bass. Then after he moved into the Residence Inn, he went one night to eat with Carmen at Lee Roy Selmon’s, which is right next door. So he tells me the next day, ‘Hey, it’s not bad.’ The guy recognized him, sat him at a nice table, everything was fine. OK, so now we got to go to Selmon’s, and there he gets the meatloaf. But since he’s been at the Residence Inn, where they put out a spread in the evening, he also keeps a list on the door of his refrigerator that tells him what they’ll be serving. If he likes something he’s had before, he’ll say, ‘On Tuesday, I’m going to eat in the hotel.’ ‘OK, that’s good, Yog.’ ”
No Tampa meal, however, was as anticipated and as fussed over as Guidry and Berra’s “Frog Legs Night,” which by the end of Berra’s first decade back with the Yankees had taken on the ritualistic weight of Old-Timers’ Day.
Before leaving for Tampa every spring, and after being badgered by Berra, Guidry would pack about two hundred legs into the truck, having purchased them inexpensively (about $200 for a hundred pounds) in Lafayette, where they are plentiful and sold year-round.
From the same vendor, he would buy a mixture of fl our and cornmeal seasoning in a gallon jar.
“They’re so simple to fix,” Guidry said. “You got the egg batter, the fry mix, dip ’em in the batter, throw ’em in the frying pan.” From the frying pan, the frog legs would be transferred to paper towels, to soak up some of the grease. It took about ten minutes to cook up a batch of forty legs.
Guidry would ration his supply so that it would last throughout spring training. He would prepare some for the more adventurous players looking for a break from the standard clubhouse fare. Jorge Posada was a longtime fan. CC Sabathia joined the club when he came on board in 2009. Guidry would also invite two or three buddies over on one of his first nights in town and playfully have Goose Gossage dial New Jersey to let Berra know what was on the menu that night.
“Yogi, we’re over here at Gator’s, and we’re eating all the frog legs,” Gossage would say.
That was enough to set Berra off. “There’d better be some goddamn legs left when I get down there,” he’d growl.
Excerpted from DRIVING MR. YOGI: Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry, and Baseball’s Greatest Gift. Copyright © 2012 by Harvey Araton. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
[Photo Credit: Edward Linsmier for The New York Times, Saed Hindash/N.J.com]
I have been in New York for 18 years. Every time I have gone to Yankee Stadium with my two sons and my daughter, I am somehow brought back to my boyhood. Perhaps it is because baseball is so very different from anything I grew up with.
The subway journey out. The hustlers, the bustlers, the bored cops. The jostle at the turnstiles. Up the ramps. Through the shadows. The huge swell of diamond green. The crackle. The billboards. The slight air of the unreal. The guilt when standing for another nation’s national anthem. The hot dogs. The bad beer. The catcalls. Siddown. Shaddup. Fuhgeddaboudit.
Learning baseball is learning to love what is left behind also. The world drifts away for a few hours. We can rediscover what it means to be lost. The world is full, once again, of surprise. We go back to who we were.
I slipped into America via baseball. The language intrigued me. The squeeze plays, the fungoes, the bean balls, the curveballs, the steals. The showboating. The pageantry. The lyrical cursing that unfolded across the bleachers.
[Photo Credit: N.Y. Daily News]
Here’s another excerpt from “Damn Yankees.” Over at Deadspin, check out Dan Okrent’s piece on the famous Peterson Kekich wife swap:
In the late 1970s, on my very first assignment as a baseball writer, I found myself in the press box at the Yankees’ spring training home in Fort Lauderdale. On one side of me sat Murray Chass of the New York Times, fairly early in his own career as the most prolific and most boring baseball writer in the paper’s (maybe any paper’s) history. On the other side my seatmate was Maury Allen of the New York Post.
It was only an exhibition game, but I had never been paid to watch baseball before, and even the cramped little press box in Lauderdale seemed like some sort of heaven to me. I gurgled something about this being my first professional gig as a sportswriter, and Chass looked at me briefly, emitted a noise composed entirely of consonants, and went back to his crossword puzzle. Allen was friendlier. He introduced himself, shook my hand, wished me luck, and spent the first couple innings chatting amiably about his life as a sportswriter. Around the top of the third, he paused in mid-anecdote, looked at the field briefly, and tapped a pencil on the arm of his chair. “I love everything about the job,” he said, “except the fucking games.” Then he got up and left.
It would be cheap to contradict the defenseless Allen, who died in 2010, and point out that his role in what was almost precisely a fucking game may have been the most exciting moment in his career. In the summer of 1972, the biggest trade in Yankees history originated at a party at Allen’s house in Westchester County, when pitcher Mike Kekich drove home with the wife of pitcher Fritz Peterson, and Peterson drove home with Mrs. Kekich.
The inquiry arrived via e-mail with a note of urgency from my publisher: You might want to take a look at this. Mrs. Frank Sullivan had just received a condolence call from a dear friend who had learned of her husband’s death on page 162 of The Last Boy, my 2010 biography of Mickey Mantle. Mrs. Frank Sullivan was upset. She was also surprised because her husband, an All-Star pitcher for the 1950s Red Sox, was sitting beside her on their porch in Kauai watching the sunset and sipping his favorite wine from a box. Mrs. Frank Sullivan wished to know how soon I might declare him undead.
I was appropriately mortified. Mickey murdered the ball, sure, but I had killed Frank. My apology was prompt and profuse. I had tried to find Frank Sullivan, honest. Two former teammates (at least!) and one heretofore unimpeachable online source had reported that Frank was putting on his pants one leg at a time in a better world.
I had grieved for him and, truth to tell, for myself because Frank wasn’t just another dead ballplayer. He was responsible for the best line ever uttered about Mantle, maybe the best line ever uttered by a major league pitcher. Asked how he pitched to the Mick, Frank answered on behalf of the 548 menaced hurlers who faced Mantle over 18 years: “With tears in my eyes.”
I had to use it. So I put Frank in the past tense.
The “late” Frank Sullivan e-mailed the next day:
Dear Jane, it would distress me big time if you were to lose a minute’s sleep over this. I know I haven’t. And besides, you’re probably not off by much.
Check it out.
Bronx Banter Book Except
The following is from Pete Dexter’s essay in “Damn Yankees.” Dig in.
“The Error of Our Ways”
By Pete Dexter
A sheltie is a medium-size breed of canine that walks around with a nest of shit in its pants. In his own circles this earthiness makes him fascinating company and kind of a celebrity at the off-leash park, although the same earthy quality is worrisome to families with toddlers who, being toddlers, hug dogs without caring much which end they are hugging. Aroma-wise, there isn’t much to choose from, one end or the other.
Shelties also bring to the playground a tradition of nipping. A sheltie is born to herd sheep, after all, a species nobody has accused of being too smart for its own good, and the herding of which amounts essentially to creating and then organizing panic, which means taking little bites of ankles and feet, and there are times, in spite of countless reminders, when old habits take over and a sheltie just has to have the feel of live flesh in his teeth. The sheltie himself is close to blameless. You are, after all, who you are. We should keep that in mind.
The sheltie who nipped the author last Christmas belongs to his daughter and answers—well, doesn’t actually answer, but some- times looks up—to the name Jonesy, and until the baby showed up no dog ever had it more his own way. In fact, until the baby showed up the dog himself had been the baby—doting parents, daily brushing, special food, a park next door, maintenance ap- pointments to keep his nails clipped and the gunk off his teeth, endless toys—the salad days.
Naturally enough, the baby’s arrival left the dog suffering from a lack of his normal attention and so, upset and confused, Jonesy went back to what works and bit the first stranger through the door. The resulting infection put the author in the hospital for ten weeks and very nearly finished him off. If the animal had sat on the author’s foot after he’d nipped it, the author would not be here to tell the story.
Which probably would have been fine with Chuck Knoblauch.
But bygones are bygones, and things were not so easy for the dog, either. Once the baby showed up, barking in the night and herding humans, which had been baby-talk scolding offenses before, were suddenly federal cases, and in the way these things sometimes go, after his mistake—and it was a mistake, you could see the surprise on the animal’s face as he sat on the floor with the author’s ankle still in his maw along with the bitter mingle of human sweat and human blood, looking up and wondering how this could have happened—after that mistake, Jonesy was driven out one Saturday afternoon to the rural setting where he now resides, with afternoon naps under the porch and chickens to herd and no toddlers to clutch him from behind, and he is free to come and go as he likes and to bark in the night (the new owners are getting on in years and take out the hearing aids after the eleven o’clock news).
Which is as close as you get to a happy ending with dogs, but not so happy when you’re talking about second basemen.
We are speaking now of Edward Charles Knoblauch who, like Jonesy, had a good thing going and then fucked the rooster. A colloquialism they use quite a bit out on the farm.
What the farmer and his missus are referring to when they say “fucked the rooster” is a class of mistakes that by their very nature are hard to forget. That happen in a moment of carelessness or bad luck and are as good as tattooed across your face for the duration of your life. That become so closely associated with your idiot self that later on when another idiot does exactly the same thing, your wife gets mad at you all over again.
The author speaks from experience here, having once made such a mistake—a miscalculation of the goodness of human nature in a not especially human precinct of Philadelphia—and the incident follows him to this day. Not just the memory of the night—which is kept in easy reach of the author’s wife (who regular readers call “poor Mrs. Dexter”), handy as her purse any time the author, like Jonesy, feels his breeding and the undeniable itch to do what an author’s got to do—but the myth of that night, which has a life of its own.
For example, about three years ago, twenty-five years after the fact, one of the weekly papers in Philadelphia heard a new version of the evening in question and flew a reporter to Seattle with the idea of going through the details with the author all over again.
The author was just finishing his seventh novel—we’re talking about writing, not reading—and for unknown reasons concluded that the request for such an early interview was a signal that he had finally written a book that was exactly right, and he vividly remembers the feeling—dead bats dropping off the walls of his stomach into a river of bile—as he realized that what the reporter wanted to talk about wasn’t the new book but a twenty-five-year- old street brawl the author had been trying to live down ever since it happened.
Which we suppose could be how the eventual subject of this essay, Chuck Knoblauch, feels when somebody comes poking around to ask about some night he, too, would prefer to forget. The difference being that Knoblauch has the good sense not to talk to any of them—or at least not talk to the author, who should have seen it coming, having gone through several hundred pages of material to write a sensitive appreciation of the psychological abnormality that affected him (known variously as Steve Blass Disease, Steve Sax Disease, and Chuck Knoblauch Syndrome, among other things)—and in all those pages found only one true- sounding, consequential remark by Knoblauch over the last dozen years: Don’t tell anybody where I live.
So the author came to this exercise suspecting he was not in friendly territory and that there was an excellent chance Chuck Knoblauch didn’t care if he appreciated his syndrome or not. That it was possible Knoblauch had had as much appreciation as he could stand.
Still, the author wanted to be part of this book and felt like he had something to contribute. Meaning that even if his insight into the game was a slim volume indeed, he did, as it happens, know quite a bit about fucking the rooster. So apologies to Mr. Knoblauch for the intrusion, but we are who we are and we do what we do. Ask Jonesy.
“The Errors of Our Ways” is from “Damn Yankees: Twenty-Four Major-League Writers on the World’s Most Loved (and Hated) Team,” edited by Rob Fleder, and published by Harper Collins/Ecco.
The Yankee cards among my tired collection are like mug-shot exhibits, prepared for presentation to the Court of the Beleaguered. From Jake Gibbs, catcher without bat, to Walt Williams, outfielder without neck, they confirm my childhood status as underdog. Here is Bill Robinson, one would-be phenom, batting .196; here is Steve Whitaker, another, batting little better. Here is first baseman Joe Pepitone, sporting his game-day toupee. Here is second baseman Horace Clarke, who so disliked body contact that he often failed to make the relay to first on potential double plays.
Here are Roger Repoz and Ruben Amaro, Andy Kosco and Charley Smith, Fred Talbot and Hal Reniff, Frank Tepedino and Gene Michael and Joe Verbanic and Thad Tillotson and Johnny Callison and Danny Cater and Curt Blefary and Jerry Kenney and Jimmy Lyttle and Celerino Sanchez, poor Celerino Sanchez, and so many others you do not remember, probably by choice.
As hollow as it might sound, though, these were my heroes. I ached and rooted for every one of them as they failed daily on baseball’s Broadway stage, Yankee Stadium, facing two opponents every time they stepped onto the field: the American League team of the moment and the Yankees teams of the past. My father’s Yankees.
Stanley Woodward is best remembered today for a wire he almost sent to Red Smith. Woodward was the sports editor for the New York Herald Tribune and Smith was his star columnist. One spring, according to “Red: A Biography of Red Smith,” By Ira Berkow, “Woodward had been upset with the general sweet fare of columns” Smith had written. “Stanley was about to send a wire saying, ‘Will you stop Godding up those ball players?”
Woodward did not send the wire but Smith never forgot the sentiment. He repeated the story in Jerome Holtzman’s terrific oral history, “No Cheering in the Press Box.”
Woodward ran perhaps the finest sports section in New York after WWII. His Tribune staff included Smith, Al Laney, Jesse Abramson and Joe Palmer.
“Paper Tiger” is Woodward’s classic memoir. Fortunately for us, the good people at the University of Nebraska Press reissued the book not long ago (and it features an introduction from our man Schulian). Woodward’s gem is in print and it is essential reading. (Check out the “Paper Tiger” page at the University of Nebraska Press website.)
Please enjoy this excerpt. Woodward writes about bringing Smith, and Palmer–a writer who is also criminally overlooked these days–to the paper.
From “Paper Tiger,” by Stanley Woodward
Mrs. Helen Rogers Reid blew hot and cold on me at various times during my prewar and wartime career with the New York Herald Tribune. When I came back from the Pacific I felt I was in high favor. Not only had I written reams of copy about the nether side of the war but I worked largely by mail and so had not run up the hideous radio and cable bills the lady was used to receiving for war correspondence.
Mrs. Reid was extremely active in running the paper. She was the actual head of the Advertising Department but in the late stages of Ogden’s life she played a role of increasing importance in the Editorial Department. He started to fail in 1945, and his death occurred on January 3, 1947.
My first day in the office after getting back from the Pacific theater, Mrs. Reid invited me to her office and asked me what I would like to do for the paper. I believe I could have had any job I named at the time. But I asked merely to be returned to the Sports Department which needed reorganization. I asked to go back as sports editor on the theory, held by myself at any rate, that I would be moved out of Sports after the department had been put on its feet.
The first move I made was to install Arthur Glass as head of the copy desk. Our selection of news had been poor during the war and our choice of pictures was abysmal. Glass improved the paper the first day he worked in the slot, which was September 4, 1945.
At this time Al Laney was the columnist and didn’t like the job. He much preferred to handle assignments or to get up a feature series as he had in the case of “The Forgotten Men” before the war.
The first move I made was to attempt to get John Lardner to write our column. The first time we discussed it we renewed the old crap game argument and got nowhere. The second time I took along our publisher, Bill Robinson, and the talk was more businesslike. We met Lardner several other times but couldn’t come to terms with him. The fact was he didn’t want to write a newspaper column and kept making difficulties. So we dropped him, reluctantly.
Even before we talked to Lardner I had been scouting a little guy on the Philadelphia Record whose name was Walter Wellesley Smith. This character was a complete newspaper man. He had been through the mill and had come out with a high polish. In Philadelphia he was being hideously overworked. Not only did he write the column for the Record but he covered the ball games and took most other important assignments.
We scouted him in our usual way. For a month Verna Reamer, Sports Department secretary, bought the Record at the out-of-town newsstand in Times Square. She clipped all of Smith’s writings and pasted them in a blank book. At the end of the month she left the book on my desk and I read a month’s work by Smith at one sitting. I found I could get a better impression of a man’s general ability and style by reading a large amount of his stuff at one time.
There was no doubt in my mind that Smith was a man we must have. After I’d read half his stuff I decided he had more class than any writer in the newspaper business.
At first I didn’t think of him as a substitute for Lardner. Rather I wanted to get them both. When dealings with Lardner came to a stop I was afraid I would have to go back to writing a daily column myself, which I dreaded. I thought of myself at this time as an organizer rather than a writer, but Laney was anxious to have a leave of absence to finish the book he was writing (Paris Herald).
I telephoned Smith and asked him if he could come to New York and talk with me. We set a date and he arrived one morning with his wife Kay. She and Ricie paired off for much of the day while Smith and I discussed business.
It must be said that I was making this move without full approval of the management. George Cornish, our managing editor, knew I was looking for a man but was hard to convince when higher salaries were involved.
It is very strange to me that there was no competition in New York for Smith’s services. He was making ninety dollars a week in Philadelphia with a small extra fee for use of his material in the Camden paper, also operated by J. David Stern. Nobody in New York had approached Smith in several years. In fact, he never had had a decent offer from any New York paper. I opened the conversation with Smith as follows—
“You are the best newspaper writer in the country and I can’t understand why you are stuck in Philadelphia. I can’t pay you what you’re worth, but I’m very anxious to have you come here with us. I think that you will ultimately be our sports columnist but all I can offer you at the start is a job on the staff. Are you interested?”
“I sure am if the money is right,” said Red.
We adjourned for lunch and I told him about the paper and what I hoped to make of the Sports Department. I told him that I had lost all interest in sports during the war but now I was determined to make our department the best in the country.
“I can’t do this without you, Red,” I told him.
I left Smith parked in Bleeck’s and went upstairs to talk to George Cornish. With him it was a question of money and he blanched when I told him how much I wanted to pay Smith. I got a halfhearted go-ahead from George, but still I didn’t dare make the offer to Smith.
He owned a house in the Philadelphia suburbs and would be under great expense until he could sell it and move his family to New York. I suggested that we would perhaps be able to pay him an “equalization fee” until he moved his wife and children into Herald Tribune territory.
I went back to see Cornish and broached this subject. No one can say George wasn’t careful with the company’s money. He argued for a while but finally agreed that if we were to bring Smith to New York, it would be fair to save him from penury during his first weeks with us.
I was able to go back to Bleeck’s and make a pretty good offer to Red. I explained to him that his salary would be cut back after his family moved.
“But don’t worry,” I added. “You’ll be making five times that in three years.”
Of course, it turned out that way. As our columnist, Red was immediately syndicated. His salary was boosted within a couple of months and his income from outside papers equaled his new salary. Before anyone knew it he was making telephone numbers—and he deserved it.
I am unable to account for the fact that none of the evening papers of New York grabbed him. He could have been had, in all probability, for five dollars more a week than we gave him.
With him in hand I was able to let Laney take a few months off to finish his book while I slaved at the column, in addition to other duties. I didn’t want to put Red in too quickly. I wanted him to get the feel of the town first, and also I needed some of his writing in the paper to convince the bigwigs that he was as good as I claimed.
After Smith had been with us a month or so, I talked to Bill Robinson about making him our columnist. I wanted Bill to talk to Mrs. Reid about Smith so that Red would get away from the gate in good order. Bill had been reading him and was enthusiastic about his work. So not long after Smith had shifted his family to Malverne, Long Island, having sold his house, I told him that he was the columnist until further notice.
“I think that means forever, Red. And I’ll go right upstairs and see if I can get you more money.”
As a columnist Smith made an immediate hit and it wasn’t long before the Hearst people were showing interest in him. I told Bill Robinson it was silly not to have a contract with Smith. He agreed and it was drawn up at once. It gave him a large increase in salary and half the returns from his syndicate, which was growing fast. It now includes about one hundred papers.
I’d like to go back to the question of why Smith wasn’t hired by somebody else. My conclusion is that most writing sports editors don’t want a man around who is obviously better than they. I took the opposite view on this question. I wanted no writer on the staff who couldn’t beat me or at least compete with me. This was a question of policy.
I was trying to make a strong Sports Department and it was impossible to do this with the dreadful mediocrity I saw around me on the other New York papers.
The week the Smiths moved from the Main Line to Malverne was memorable. The kids, Kitty and Terry, were dropped off at our farm for a few days so that the parental Smiths could move in peace. I think the kids had a good time playing with our little girls.
Terry, who is now a bright young reporter and a graduate of Notre Dame and the army, was satisfied to sit on the tractor for hours at a time. To be safe I blocked the wheels with logs of wood and took off the distributor cap. The tractor had a self-starter.
With the Smiths established in Malverne, the next move was to get a racing writer. I wrote about twenty-five letters to people in racing—horse owners, promoters, trainers, jockeys, concessionaires, and gamblers. I asked each one whom he considered to be the best racing writer available to the New York Herald Tribune. The response was nearly 100 percent unanimous: “Joe Palmer.”
I asked Smith if he knew Joe Palmer. He said, “Yes, and he’s a hell of a writer.”
I found that Joe had a regular job on the Blood Horse of Lexington, Kentucky, that he was also secretary of the Trainers’ Association and was currently in New York tending to the trainers’ business.
I got hold of Bob Kelley, my old Poughkeepsie associate, and asked him if he would make an appointment for Palmer to meet for lunch in Bleeck’s restaurant at his convenience. Kelley had left the Times and had become public relations counsel for the New York race track. He got hold of Palmer and conveyed my message. Palmer answered as follows, “Tell that son of a bitch I won’t have lunch with him, and if I see him on the street I’ll kick him in the shins.”
I told Kelley that his answer was highly unsatisfactory and sent him back to talk further with Palmer. This time Joe came into Bleeck’s with his guard up. What he didn’t like about me was that I made a specialty of panning horse-racing. But once we got together we were friends in no time.
Joe liked the idea of working for the Herald Tribune. We came to terms quickly. It was agreed that he should go to work for us on the opening day at Hialeah, some months away. He needed the intervening time to finish his annual edition of American Race Horses.
I didn’t know at this time what a remarkable performer I had hired. Palmer turned out to be a writer of the Smith stripe, and his Monday morning column, frequently devoted to subjects other than racing, became one of the Herald Tribune’s most valuable features.
I was misguided in the way I handled Palmer. I should never have tied him down with daily racing coverage. He would have been more valuable to us if I had turned him loose to write a daily column of features and notes as Tom O’Reilly did for us much later. But Joe was effective whatever he wrote. He even did a good job on a fight in Florida one winter, though he hated boxing.
He and Smith were at Saratoga during one August meeting, and Smith persuaded him to go to some amateur bouts, conducted for stable boys and grooms. On their way home Palmer panned the show.
“I’d rather see a chicken fight,” he said.
“Why?” said Smith, outraged. “Chicken fighting is inhuman.”
“Well,” said Joe, “what we just saw was unchicken.”
Palmer was a big man physically and as thoroughly educated as John Kieran. Joe had earned his master’s degree in English in Kentucky and had taught there and at the University of Michigan where he studied for his Ph.D. He could speak Anglo-Saxon. His knowledge of music was stupendous and he would have made a good drama critic for any newspaper.
He had started his thesis at Michigan when he discontinued his education and went to work for the Blood Horse.
He first attracted my attention with a St. Patrick’s Day story in which he revealed that the patron saint’s greatest gift to the Irish was the invention of the wheelbarrow, which taught them to walk on their hind lefts.
Joe, himself, was of Irish decent and was brought up a Catholic. When he moved into a house in Malverne near the Smiths, he didn’t like the public education and sent his children to the parochial school. He decided on this course after a long talk with the mother superior. She asked him if he wanted his children instructed in religion and he said he did.
One day Steve and young Joe were learning the catechism. One of the questions was, “How Many Gods Are There?”
“That’s an important question and I want you to be sure to give the sister the right answer,” said Joe. “Now say this after me: ‘There is but one God and Mohammed is his prophet.’”
The story ends there. Nobody ever found out whether the boys told the sister what Joe told them. It’s a safe bet, though, that their mother, Mary Cole Palmer, touted them off Mohammed.
A few days before Palmer came to work for us, we carried a special story by him explaining his credo of racing and a four-column race-track drawing by the distinguished artist, Lee Townsend. The main point of Joe’s story was, “Horse-racing is an athletic contest between horses.”
He was not interested in betting or the coarser skullduggery that goes on around a race track. For a long time he wouldn’t put the payoff in his racing story.
“Why should I do that?” he asked Smith.
“Because if you don’t, the desk will write it in and probably get it in the wrong place.”
A few days before Joe went to work for us, Tom O’Reilly, another great horse writer, heard about it. He said, or so it was reported to me, “Holy smokes! Those guys will be hiring Thomas A. Edison to turn off the lights.”
Excerpted from PAPER TIGER by Stanley Woodward. Copyright © 1962 by Stanley Woodward. Originally published by Atheneum, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
You can order “Paper Tiger” here.
And read this about Joe Palmer: blood horse.
(Thanks once again to Dina C. for her expert transcription.)
Here’s something to keep you warm on a cold winter day, the late George Kimball’s essay from our book “Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories.” It’s all about the old ballpark, Billy Martin, finks and phonies, brawling, and, of course, drinking with Bill Lee.
By George Kimball
There are things you learned about the old Yankee Stadium once it became your place of work that never would have occurred to you as a kid going to watch a game there. Making your way from the visiting- to the home-team dugout, or to the pressroom where they fed us and the adjacent quarters where we wrote our stories after games, involved negotiating an elaborate system of labyrinthine tunnels that could have been a large-scale Skinner box. A dim-witted scribe could spend hours trying to find his way around down there, but once he did figure it out, he’d be rewarded with supper, or maybe a beer after the game.
And since we only made two or three trips a year to New York, we were always making wrong turns, ones that inevitably brought us face-to-face with one of New York’s finest on a security detail. Some of the cops had been drawing this plum assignment for years. Others, newer to the job, couldn’t tell you how to get from A to B any better than another sportswriter could. They should have handed out road maps with the press credentials.
But the overriding memory of all those hours spent wandering around beneath the House That Ruth Built remains the smell. If you grew up in suburbia, it wouldn’t have meant much to you at all, but if you’d spent much time in a big-city tenement or in the stockroom of a grocery store or ever wandered beneath street level in a restaurant that abuts a subway line, the permeating odor of Decon, the rat poison, would have been familiar.
My friend, John Schulian, must have recognized that smell too, because at some point in the late 1970s, he came up with a description of Billy Martin so apt that it should have been chiseled on Billy’s gravestone: A rat studying to be a mouse.
The funny part of it was that, while Martin had carefully cultivated an image of a guy ready to fight at the drop of a hat, he wasn’t actually very good at it. If you look at the fights he won, they were usually against marshmallow salesmen or mental cripples (Jimmy Piersall was just months away from the loony bin when Martin beat him up under the stands at Fenway in 1952) or a guy who was even drunker than he was (Dave Boswell at the Lindell AC in 1969). Sometimes he’d gain the advantage with a well-timed sucker punch, and sometimes he’d just think he had the advantage, as was the case in St. Louis in 1953, when he picked a fight with a short guy wearing glasses. (The guy, Clint “Scrap-Iron” Courtney, turned out to run against stereotype.)
If you watched him carefully over the years, he was careful to pick his spots. When Martin went at it with somebody bigger or tougher than he was, it was usually in a setting where he knew it would get broken up right away. In fair fights—and there weren’t many of them—he almost always got his ass kicked. (See: Martin vs. Ed Whitson at the Cross Keys Inn, Baltimore, 1985.)
I’d been at Yankee Stadium the night Thad Tillotson bounced a pitch off Joe Foy’s helmet in 1967. “Watch this,” I told my then-wife when Tillotson came to bat a couple of innings later. Sure enough, Jim Lonborg drilled him in the back, both benches emptied, and when they finally pulled them apart, there were Joe Pepitone and Rico Petrocelli rolling around in the dirt.
I was also at Fenway Park the day in 1973 when Stick Michael missed a bunt on a suicide squeeze. With Thurman Munson barreling in from third toward Carlton Fisk, whom he didn’t like much anyway, the result was somewhat predictable. Both benches emptied after the collision, and even as they dragged Munson away, Fisk and Michael were going at it. Boston lefty Bill “Spaceman” Lee said the whole thing looked like a bunch of hookers swinging their purses at each other. Everyone save Thurman Munson thought that was pretty funny.
So, by the time Billy Martin came back to manage his old team, Red Sox–Yankee rhubarbs were nothing new. Their history long predated the return of Number One. I’d seen them start for good reasons and for bad reasons, and sometimes they’d started just because they were Yankees and Red Sox. So, when another one broke out on May 20, 1976, I wasn’t surprised. You could see this one coming a mile down the road. It was like watching a fight develop in slow motion.
Lee had a 1–0 lead with two out in the bottom of the sixth. Lou Piniella, at second, represented the tying run; Graig Nettles was on first. With the count 2–1 on Otto Velez, Spaceman threw a sinker on the outside of the plate, and Velez stroked it into the opposite field. It was hit so hard that when Dwight Evans grabbed it on one hop, it briefly crossed my mind that he might even have a play on Nettles at second. That’s when I looked down and saw Piniella rounding third, and he didn’t seem to be slowing down.
Evans may have had the best arm in the American League back then, and not even a good base runner would have challenged him in this situation, but Piniella was, at this point, committed and kept on coming. Evans threw in one fluid motion, a strike to the plate, and had him by at least ten feet. If it had somehow been a closer play, maybe what happened next wouldn’t have happened at all, but now it was inevitable. Out by a mile, Piniella’s only chance was to run right over Fisk, barreling into him so hard that he might dislodge the ball. Fisk, aware of this, was determined to make the experience painful enough that Lou would think twice before he ever tried it again.
As tags go, it was pretty aggressive. Fisk may even have tried to tag him in the nuts—and with his fist, not his glove, holding the ball. Naturally, Lou came up swinging, and in what seemed barely an instant, there were fifty or sixty guys in uniform going at it in the middle of the infield. Or that’s the way it seemed. Actually, some of them took a bit longer getting there than others. Traditional baseball protocol in these situations calls for the occupants of both bullpens, even the ones intent on serving as peacemakers, to make a mad dash all the way to the infield, where they are to then grab one of their opposite numbers and wrestle for a while until the smoke clears.
Logic would suggest that it would be a lot simpler to just pair off out in the bullpen, particularly since, in its new configuration, Yankee Stadium’s bullpens shared a common gate. So, when the fight started, everybody from both bullpens jumped up simultaneously to race in to where the action was. Tom House, then a Boston reliever, told me that when he got to the gate, Catfish Hunter was gallantly holding it open for him.
“See ya in there, kid,” said Catfish as House trotted past.
Fisk and Piniella were rolling around on the ground following the collision when Lee, who’d been backing up the plate on the play, spotted Velez trying to be third man in.
The first guy to hit Lee was actually Mickey Rivers, who must have been taking boxing lessons from Billy Martin. Mick was running up and down behind the scrum, looking like a guy playing Whack-A-Mole as he lashed out at the back of every Boston cap he could spot. (Somebody watching on television later told me that Ken Harrelson, in his blow-by-blow call on a Boston station, said “Rivers is just basically just running around sucker-punching everybody!”)
The next thing I saw was Nettles grabbing Spaceman from behind, seemingly lifting him over his head, and body-slamming him. I don’t know for a fact that he was trying to throw Lee on his left shoulder, but that’s how he landed. (Nettles claimed later that he was just trying to drag Lee off Velez, since Rivers’ punch hadn’t done the job.) Lee was 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, almost the exact dimensions of Muhammad Ali, but truth be told, he couldn’t fight any better than Billy Martin could, even though he did have an impressive one-punch KO on his résumé.
That had occurred in a winter league game down in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, several years earlier. When Eliseo Rodriguez charged the mound, Lee reflexively stuck his hand out in self-defense and, to his own surprise, knocked Rodriguez cold. Only when he read the next morning’s papers did he realize that he’d knocked out the island’s former Golden Gloves light-heavyweight champion.
The return bout took place in Caguas a week later. Rodriguez and two of his relatives were waiting when Spaceman got off the team bus. They beat him up and rammed his face into a light pole for good measure.
“I did get a nice new set of teeth out of the deal,” said Spaceman.
With Lee now apparently out of commission, Fisk and Piniella separated and Rivers dragged away by several Yankees, things seemed to calm down in a hurry. That’s when Lee made the mistake of getting up.
In his college days at USC, Bill had played summer ball for the Alaska Goldpanners with Nettles’ brother. Until a few moments earlier, he had considered Graig a friend. Now, he was screaming incomprehensibly as he staggered toward the New York third baseman.
“I think,” Lee said later, “it might have been the word ‘asshole’ that set him off.”
In Nettles’ defense, what he probably saw was just a crazy man charging at him. In any case, when Lee got close enough, Nettles cut loose with a right cross, and when Lee tried to block it with his left, he discovered that he couldn’t lift his arm above his waist. The punch caught Spaceman flush in the face and dropped him in his tracks.
A few months later, Ali and Ken Norton fought in almost exactly the same spot, and in fifteen rounds neither one of them landed a punch as hard as that one.
Oddly, I don’t remember Billy Martin throwing a single punch in that brawl. Maybe he found Don Zimmer and the two of them sat it out.
Once order was restored, both Nettles and Lee were ejected. (Neither Fisk nor Piniella were.) In Lee’s case, it was somewhat moot. Before the Red Sox finished batting in the next inning, he was on his way to the hospital.
He would later describe the episode by saying “I was attacked by Billy Martin’s brown shirts.”
There was clearly no love lost between the dope-smoking Spaceman and the whiskey-swilling Fiery Genius. There were unconfirmed rumors, before and since, that Martin had personally placed a bounty on Lee, but there were enough Yankees players who intensely disliked Lee that they probably didn’t need any encouragement from Billy Martin.
Obviously, the fight hadn’t been started just to get at him, said Lee, “but once it did start, it sure seemed like there were a lot of guys in pinstripes trying to find me.”
It might be noted here that, going into that game, Lee ranked as the number three Yankee-killer of all time, with a lifetime percentage against the Bronx Bombers bettered only by those of Babe Ruth and Dickie Kerr. Ruth, of course, had stopped pitching even before Harry Frazee sold his contract to Colonel Ruppert, and Kerr, pointed out Lee, may have accomplished the greatest pitching feat of all time—winning two games in the 1919 World Series with five guys playing behind him who were trying to lose.
Bill Lee’s career didn’t end that night, but it’s fair to say he was never the same pitcher again. He had won seventeen games in each of the previous three years, but he never won as many in a season again. He had torn ligaments and a separated left shoulder, and nearly two months would go by before he pitched again. Between 1973 and 1975 Lee had thrown fifty-one complete games. In 1976 he would throw just one.
Nobody knew this that night at that ballpark, of course. All we knew was that Lee had been taken away in an ambulance, but when the team bus pulled up in front of the New York Sheraton an hour and a half after the last out, there was Spaceman, waiting in the lobby.
Since I was then writing for a weekly and didn’t face a postgame deadline, Lee and I had earlier made plans to terrorize a saloon or two in Greenwich Village that night, and now, with his arm and a sling and sporting a black eye, he was determined to keep the appointment.
“Come on,” he said. “We’re still going to the Lion’s Head, aren’t we?”
Stan Williams, the Red Sox’s pitching coach, had other ideas. “Come on, big boy,” he said to Lee as he grabbed his good arm. “No curfew for you tonight.”
So, with Stanley as our tour guide, we went bouncing on the Upper East Side. I vaguely remember visiting a gin mill with a hospital motif—the ER? the Recovery Room?—where the waitresses were all dressed like nurses, or dressed like nurses wearing white miniskirts, anyway.
Either the sight of a bona fide patient had scared all the nurses away or we’d moved on to another joint. Thirty-three years later, all I can swear to is that, a bit after 3 AM, we were the last three customers in the bar, and Lee had been chasing shots of VO with the Demerol they’d given him in the real hospital, or maybe it was the other way around, but anyway, just then the saloon door swings open and who comes walking in but—think about the odds of this for a moment—Lou Piniella, all by himself.
As soon as he saw us he was all over Lee like a long-lost brother: “Gee, Bill, I’m so sorry. If I’d ever known this was going to happen . . .” I think tears may even have welled up in his eyes. And, of course, he bought us all a drink, and then another one.
The sun was coming up by the time we left, Sweet Lou in one direction, and Bill, Stan, and I back to the hotel. In the cab, I remarked to Lee that Piniella was a pretty nice guy after all, and that he had seemed properly contrite over the outcome of the affair he’d initiated at home plate that night.
“What else was he going to say?” Spaceman sighed wearily.
“There were three of us and one of him.”
Out on an early morning foraging run, a solitary rat darted across the sidewalk. We all saw him, but nobody said a word.
When he was twelve-years-old, Scott Raab saw the Cleveland Browns win the championship game. He was there, in person. No Cleveland team has won a title since, and Raab’s new book, “The Whore of Akron: One Man’s Search for the Soul of Lebron James,” is partly about being a Jew and a Clevelander and it is about noble suffering.
This is a good bit:
I know: it’s only a game. But what a game. The Colts were 7-point favorites, on the road. Coached by thirty-four-year-old Don Shula–drafted by the Browns after going to college in Cleveland–they boasted the league’s best offense, with six future Hall of Famers, led by Johnny U at quarterback–and the NFL’s best defense. But Unitas threw two picks into the wind. Dr. Ryan tossed three TDs, and Jim Brown gained 114 yards. The Browns won, 27-0.
The official attendance that day was 79, 544, and not one of them would’ve believed that he’d never live to see another Cleveland team win a championship.
The Cuyahoga River catching fire?
Fish by the thousands washing up dead on Lake Erie’s shore?
Cleveland a national joke?
Not bloody likely.
But the notion that generation after generation of Cleveland fans could be born and grown old and die without celebrating a title?
Get the fuck outta here.
I was there. I saw it happen. It gave me an abiding sense of faith–in my town and its teams–that will never fade, that no amount of hurt and heartbreak can destroy. All those fucking Yankees fans are absolutely right. Flags fly forever. Forever.
[Photo Credit: baseballoogie]
My grandmother on my mother’s side had dementia and spent the last years of her life in a home. I was told that she liked to bite people. I never saw her during that time–she was in Belgium, I was here in New York–but hers is the only experience I have with Alzheimer’s. I got to thinking about her as I read Charlie Pierce’s beautiful memoir about the disease, his family curse, which claimed his father and four uncles, and which may eventually claim him, as well.
Here is an excerpt:
The waking dream is of a dead city.
There was a great fire and the city died in it. I am sure of that. I can see the smoldering skyline, smoke rising from faceless buildings, flattening into dark and lowering clouds. I can hear the sharp keening of the scavenger birds. I can smell fire on damp wood, far away. I can feel the gritty wind in my eyes. I can taste the sour rain.
The waking dream comes upon me when I forget where the car is parked, or when I buy milk but forget the bread, or when I call my son by my daughter’s name. Wide awake but dreaming still, I walk through the ruined city.
When it happens, I remember. I remember everything. I remember anything. For years, I have been a walking trove of random knowledge, but I’ve come not to believe in the concept of trivia. I do not believe that anything you remember can be truly useless because I have seen memory go cold and dead.
“Why do you know stuff like that? people ask.
I smile and shrug. I do not tell them about the relief I find in remembering that Leon Czolgosz shot President McKinley. Not to remember Leon Czolgosz is to realize that one day you may not remember your son. Leon Czolgosz goes first, and then your children. Not to remember is to realize that the day will come when you cannot find your way back home, that the day will come when you cannot find the way back to yourself. Not to remember is to begin to die, piecemeal, one fact at a time. It is to drift, aimlessly, deep into the ruined city, and never return.
…There’s a game I play now, when the waking dream comes. I make a deal with the disease. All right, I say. I will allow you to have some of my memories. You can have my first polio shot, all the lyrics to “American Woman,” two votes for Bill Clinton, and both Reagan administrations.
Leave me my children’s names.
Let me know them, and you can have all four Marx Brothers.
This is not clinical. I know the disease does not work this way. But sometimes, when the waking dream comes and I can feel the wind all gritty on my skin, I play this game anyway, and I am very good at it. I was born to play it. I was raised to believe that truth is malleable, and that you can bend it so that even its darkest part can be shaped into the familiar and the commonplace. I can play this game. I can play it well.
Makes you appreciate the moment, this moment, for what we have.
You can order Hard to Forget: An Alzheimer’s Story, here.
Over at Esquire, you’ll find an excerpt from Scott Raab’s new book about Lebron James:
It turns out the Heat have printed three covers of tonight’s program — one with Wade, one with Bosh, one with James. I take one of each.
On his cover, LeBron glares into the camera, head lowered, eyes hooded, tight-lipped, his thick white headband riding ever higher on his forehead as his hairline approaches oblivion. He stands with his hands on his hips, with his shoulders thrust forward, the visual embodiment of his summertime tweet:
“Don’t think for one min that I haven’t been taking mental notes of everyone taking shots at me this summer. And I mean everyone!”
He’s ready to wreak havoc upon the NBA. No prisoners. Blood on the hardwood. Mano a mano. If your name’s on Bron-Bron’s list, you’re going down hard as a motherfucker.
That’s the pose. I think back to a game his rookie season, against the Indiana Pacers, when NBA tough guy Ron Artest was mugging James as he fought for position to take an inbounds pass. Artest had an arm across LeBron’s upper chest and neck and a leg planted between James’s knees bowing him forward. Paul Silas was coaching the Cavs, and Silas came up off the bench screaming — first at the nearest referee for not calling a foul on Artest, and then at LeBron for letting Artest unman him.
James has grown stronger and smarter over his seven seasons in the league, but he still tries to finesse defenders like Artest. His game has never hungered for a battle, much less marked him as the cruel-eyed enforcer who glares out from the program’s cover.
You can pre-order “The Whore of Akron,” here.
The Best American Sports Writing 2011 is out. Good news for us. This year’s edition of BASW is edited by Jane Leavy and features excellent work from the likes of S.L. Price, Sally Jenkins, Wright Thompson, Nancy Hass, Chris Jones, and Paul Solotraoff.
Here’s a sample of one of the best stories in the collection, a bonus piece by Mark Kram Jr. for the Philly Daily News:
CHICAGO – Quietly, Sonia Rodriguez got out of bed and padded into the other room, where the evening before she had laid out her clothes for work. It was Wednesday, 6:30 a.m., and her husband Paco was still asleep, the gray light of a cold Chicago dawn beginning to seep through the windows of the small house that the couple and their baby daughter shared with his parents. Sonia slipped into the outfit that she had picked out, brushed her hair and stopped back in the bedroom to look in on Ginette, who slept in the crib that was wedged against the wall. Sweeping up her purse, she glanced over at Paco and told herself she would phone him when he arrived later that day in Philadelphia. But as she stepped out the door he called to her.
“Oh?” he said, blinking the sleep from his eyes. “Are you leaving?”
She looked over her shoulder and said softly, “Yeah.”
“Come here,” Paco told her. Sonia walked over and sat on the edge of the bed. He reached up, drew her into his arms and said, “I want to say goodbye.”
Goodbyes were not easy for them. In the 5 years they had been together, they seldom had been apart. Even when they were still dating, he would stop by and see her at the end of the day, if only for an hour or so just to talk. But Sonia had not chosen to accompany her 25-year-old husband to Philadelphia, where that Friday evening Paco had a 12-round bout scheduled at the Blue Horizon with Teon Kennedy for the vacant United States Boxing Association super bantamweight crown. Boxing had become a sport that Sonia looked upon with equal portions of acceptance and disdain. She accepted it because of the passion Paco had for it, and even now says that boxing was who he was. And yet part of her held it in disdain and she had stopped attending his bouts because of it, unable to cope with the queasiness that would send her fleeing from her ringside seat whenever Paco would engage an opponent in a toe-to-toe exchange. So when he asked her if she would like to come along to Philadelphia, he was not surprised when she smiled and told him, “No, you go. But hurry back to me.” And he told her he would, adding as always, “I promise you.”
And here’s a bit from Howard Bryant’s profile of Dusty Baker:
CINCINNATI — “Light a candle,” Dusty Baker says, his lone voice softly skimming the looming silence of the empty church. “I’m sure there’s someone out there you want to pray for.”
He lights a candle, points the flickering matchstick downward in his large hands, the athlete’s hands, dousing it into the cool sand. It is here in the solitude of St. Peter in Chains Cathedral — funded by Ohio Catholics who donated 12 cents per month toward its construction in 1841 — where Johnnie B. Baker, born Baptist in California, raised in the traditions of the southern black church, kneels alone among the long pews and nourishes his spirituality.
After several moments of prayer, he rises and walks gingerly toward the altar, marveling at the Greek architecture, the Corinthian columns and stained glass mosaics, comforted, despite its bruises, by the sanctuary and the ritual of the church.
“I come in here before homestands, sometimes a couple of times a week during the season,” said Baker. “I pray for my family, for my team, and for Barack Obama, because I’ve never seen people try to take a president down like this, never seen such anger. I mean, what did he do to anybody?”
THE MUSTANG HAS eyes that are large and dark and betray his mood. His coat is bright bay, which is to say he’s a rich red, with black running down his knees and hocks. He has a white star the size of a silver dollar on his forehead and a freeze mark on his neck. He cranks his head high as a rider approaches, shaking out a rope from a large gray gelding. The mustang does not know what is to come. His name is Cheatgrass, and he’s six years old. In May he was as wild as a songbird.
The little horse belongs to Teryn Lee Muench, a 27-year-old son of the Big Bend who grew up in Brewster and Presidio counties. Teryn Lee is tall, blue-eyed, and long-limbed. He wears his shirts buttoned all the way to the neck and custom spurs that bear his name. He never rolls up his sleeves. A turkey feather is jammed in his hatband, and he’s prone to saying things like “I was out yesterday and it came a downpour,” or, speaking of a hardheaded horse, “He’s a sorry, counterfeit son of a gun.” Horse training is the only job he has ever had.
Teryn Lee was among 130 people who signed up this spring for the Supreme Extreme Mustang Makeover, a contest in which trainers are given one hundred days to take feral horses from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), gentle these creatures, and teach them to accept grooming, leading, saddling, and riding. Don’t let the silliness of the contest’s name distract from the difficulty of the challenge. Domestic horses can be taught to walk, trot, and lope under saddle in one hundred days; it’s called being green-broke. But domestic horses are usually familiar with people. The mustangs in the Makeover have lived on the range for years without human interaction, surviving drought, brutal winters, and trolling mountain lions. The only connection they have to people is fear. Age presents another challenge. A domestic horse is broke to saddle at about age two, when it’s a gawky teenager. The contest mustangs are opinionated and mature. The culmination of the contest is a two-day event in Fort Worth in August, where the horses are judged on their level of training and responsiveness. The top twenty teams make the finals. The winner takes home $50,000.
For Teryn Lee, however, there’s more at stake than money. Most of his clients bring him horses that buck or bully, horses that have developed bad habits that stymie or even frighten their owners. Teryn Lee enjoys this work, but his goal is to become a well-known trainer and clinician who rides in top reined cow horse and cutting horse competitions. To step up to that level, he’ll have to do something dramatic. Transforming a scruffy, feral mustang that no one wanted into a handsome, gentle, willing riding horse would make people take notice. Winning would get his name out there, he says.
[Featured image photo credit via My Modern Met]
Bronx Banter Book Excerpt
Here is Part Two of Evel Knievel’s Snake River Canyon Jump from Leigh Montville’s new book, “Evel:The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend.”
Ten . . .
The time was 3:36 in the afternoon of September 8, 1974. The numbers came through the radio in the pilot helmet clamped tight over the man of the moment’s troubled head. No stopping now. He was going to travel over Snake River Canyon in this bucket of previously used bolts. Or not.
There was no turning back now. He was strapped into this compartment in the front end of this retread airplane fuel tank that had been salvaged from a government junkyard, one of those fuel tanks you see on the wingtips of fi ghter planes or private jets, a fuel tank that cost no more than $100 as scrap metal. He waited to be blasted into the sky. Maybe blasted to smithereens. Blasted in some manner or shape or form. That was for sure.
The fuel tank, which was supposed to be a rocket of course, had been altered, painted, given some kind of “jet propulsion” system, a set of surplus helicopter fi ns had been stuck on the side, and some corporate logos had been added to complete the red-white-and-blue American commercial package, but truth was truth: he was riding a homemade piece of shit. Three smart kids with an Encyclopedia Brittanica and a whole lot of spare time could have made this thing. Shot it off from their backyard.
Nine . . .
The sense of doom that had been an undigested worry in his stomach for the longest time had grown and grown in the past months, days, hours, and now, in the fi nal minutes and seconds, it filled his entire body, gushed out, covered his every word and action. He was a dead man. He had talked so much about the risk, the peril involved, while selling this event, this stunt, this whatever it was across the country, that he had convinced himself. He was a goner. He had created his own demise, built it from scratch, from an idea in his head to a public extravaganza televised around the world. “Man Kills Himself.” Come on, folks. Get your money up. Bring the wife and kids. “Right now I don’t think I’ve got better than a fifty-fifty chance of making it,” he had told Robert Boyle of Sports Illustrated. “It’s an awful feeling. I can’t sleep nights. I toss and turn, and all I can see is that big ugly hole in the ground grinning up at me like a death’s head. You know, I’ve always been concerned about kids—not just my own three, but all kids— what kind of an image I’m providing for them, what kind of an inspiration. I don’t know now. Maybe I’m leading them down a path to self-destruction. Our house in Butte is surrounded night and day by people wanting to take a look at me, to take something as a souvenir. And that damn little Robbie of mine, the 11-year-old, you know what he’s gone and done, He has got a big old sign out in front that says ‘SEE EVEL JR JUMP—25 CENTS.’ It’s not a good thing.”
Eight . . .
Push the button. That was all he had to do. Push the button and away he went. He had little control over what happened next. He had no steering wheel. He had no gears to shift. Nothing. He was so cramped he couldn’t put his arms out and attempt to fl y as a last gasp if trouble arose. The last- resort personal parachute hanging from his chest was nuisance rather than comfort. He had his hand on the lever for the drogue shoot, that was it. Wait ten seconds after liftoff and let it go. It would work without him if he passed out. He really was a passenger, not a driver. When he pushed that one button in front of him, the plug would be pulled on the seventy-seven- gallon boiler underneath, the water inside superheated in the past fourteen hours to 475 degrees, and 5,000 pounds of steam pressure would be released. The old airplane fuel tank . . . okay, the rocket . . .the rocket would be traveling at 200 miles per hour by the time it reached the end of the 108- foot ramp into the sky, traveling as fast as 400 miles per hour when it hit the height of its arc, 2,000 feet in the air. (Plus the 540- foot drop into the canyon. That meant he would be almost half a mile off the ground.) If all went well, the drogue parachute and then the big parachute would deploy from the back of the rocket, and he would slow down as he reached the other side. He would be traveling no more than fifteen miles per hour when a pointed shock absorber, sort of a pogo stick on the front of the rocket, would cushion the landing on the moonscape on the other side.
This, of course, was all hypothesis. No one ever had done this.
Bronx Banter Book Excerpt
Here’s a smile for you. From Leigh Montville’s terrific new book, “Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel:American Showman, Daredevil and Legend.” I reviewed the book in SI last week and can’t recommend it enough.
“Most of us think of what we do as writing,” said William Nack. “But Leigh Montville sits down and says, ‘Why don’t I tell you all a story?’ ”
“My philosophy has always been that sports should be fun—a thing of joy,” Montville once told SI. “I don’t get up a whole lot of outrage; I’d rather laugh. What I really like to do is take something and stand it on its head, look at it that way, from a different perspective.”
Montville is one of our best pure storyteller’s and he’s perfectly suited to tell the tale tale of Evel Knievel. Here’s the first of two-part excerpt detailing Knievel’s most infamous stunt–Snake River Canyon.
The man of the moment made the moment a family affair. If this was going to be his last day on earth, then he would go out looking like a church deacon. Linda and the three kids would be there. His mother would be there from Reno. His father had been there all week. (“Bob always had to have a challenge,” his dad said at a press conference, sounding a bit like Ward Cleaver. “I tried to discourage him for years for fear of injury.”) His eighty-one-year-old grandmother, Emma, would be there. His half-sisters would be there from both sides of the family tree. His cousin, Father Jerry Sullivan, a Catholic priest from Carroll College in Helena, Montana, would give the benediction before liftoff.
His lawyers, accountants, bartenders, friends, and fellow reprobates from long ago had appeared already at the site. Bus trips had gone down from Butte. There had been a mass migration from the city, people driving the 364 miles in five, six, seven hours, depending on speed. The Butte High band had gone down to play the National Anthem. Everyone had assembled, former promoters, fans, everyone . . . Ray Gunn, his first assistant from Moses Lake in the early days, had returned for the show, friends again, signed up now to watch the jump from a helicopter and carry a bottle of Wild Turkey to the other side for an instant celebration.
The day would be part wake, part wedding reception, an all-time Humpty Dumpty experience. The broken pieces of Robert Craig Knievel’s life would be put together for this one time as they never had been put together, not once, in all of his years.
He would fly from Butte in the Lear in the morning with his family. Watcha would be at the controls and would buzz the crowd at the canyon, a dramatic touch. Watcha and everybody else would switch to a helicopter at the Twin Falls City-County Airport, arrive at the site to great applause, and the man of the moment would put on the flight suit in his trailer, and the show would begin.
Unless, of course, he canceled the show. “I have two demands that if you don’t meet I’ll cancel the show,”
Knievel said in an early morning phone call to Bob Arum from Butte. Arum prepared for the worst.
“First,” Knievel said, “I want to have all the press meet my helicopter when it lands. I want to make a statement.”
Arum said that would be impossible. Moving the entire press corps through the crowd could start a riot. (Another riot.) What he could do was bring Knievel to the press tent. That was possible. Knievel could make his statement that way. Same result.
Knievel agreed. “Second,” he said. “I want you to bring your two sons to my trailer before the jump. I want to say some words to them before the jump because people are going to blame you for my death and I want them to know it was my idea. And I want them to sit with my family at the jump.”
“Done,” Arum said, figuring that the two boys, ages eleven and nine, would do what he told them. “I’ll get them there.”
Knievel seemed sentimental in everything he did that morning. He seemed to be turning off the lights, locking all the doors. Just in case. He had a picture of the canyon, just the canyon, no Skycycle or ramp, that he secretly signed, “Linda, I love you,” across the blue sky. He told Kelly, his oldest son, last thing before everybody left Butte for the jump, to pretend to go back into the house for his shaving kit and hang the picture on the bedroom wall. He wanted that waiting for his wife if somehow the results turned out badly.
Even when he arrived at the site—plane flight, helicopter, there—he was sentimental. Even when he talked to the press.
“When I weighed last night all the good things and the bad things that were said, it came out a million to three for the good,” he told the press after he landed in Watcha’s helicopter. “So I hope all your landings in life are happy ones—and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”