"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Great Sports Books

Hurts So Good

“Sometimes you only get to win one championship.” –Leonard Gardner

Did you ever rent a movie and then return it without watching it?


I’ve rented John Huston’s Fat City at least twice in my life but never watched it. I can’t explain why. Chalk it up to my mood at the time. After all, Huston is one of my favorite directors and Jeff Bridges one of my favorite actors.

Fat City is based on Leonard Gardner’s novel of the same name. The book is less than 200 pages long, and the story is almost unbearably grim. It is about boxing and drinking in Stockton, California. It is about losers losing. And although the prose is lean and clear, it is also dense–you can almost feel how much effort went into making it so direct and spare.

It was a tough book for me to get through, even though it wasn’t long. I read it because I thought it would be good for me not because I enjoyed it. I admired the artistry–the writing was superb, but I found the story bleak and depressing. When I finished it, I thought, Now, there is a world I don’t need to visit again. No wonder I never watched the movie.


I felt compelled to read the book because Huston’s movie started a two-week run at the Film Forum last night. George Kimball and Pete Hamill introduced the movie and then stuck around to answer questions when it was over. Hamill said that Gardner’s novel is one of the three best boxing novels ever written, along with The Professional by W.C. Heinz, and The Harder they Fall by Budd Schulberg. Kimball who is a walking encyclopedia of boxing knowledge talked about how Huston cast boxers and non-actors in the movie, how he insisted that it be shot in Stockton to preserve the book’s authenticity, how the producer Ray Stark wanted to fire the DP, the great Conrad Hall, because the scenes inside the bars were so dark.

Kimball also tried to explain the biggest question about Gardner (one that Gardner is probably asked daily)–why was Fat City the only book he ever wrote? Gardner continued to write short stories and journalism–I remember reading a piece he did for Inside Sports on the first Leonard-Duran fight–and eventually went to Hollywood to write for television. David Milch taught Fat City when he was at Yale and got Gardner work on NYPD Blue, which proves that Milch isn’t all bad (although he famously ripped-off Pete Dexter’s novel Deadwood for his TV series).

Kimball didn’t know the exact reason why Gardner has never written another book. He said Gardner’s never offered a reason and he’s never  pressed him for one. Kimball’s guess is that Gardner wrote such a perfectly realized book in Fat City that he figured could never reach that height again. So why bother trying?  Kimball said that Fat City was 400 pages long and Gardner kept honing it, pairing it down, like a master chef making a reduction.

Whatever the reason, it is easy to see why Huston was attracted to the story.  Hamill said that Huston spent his life making one movie for the studio and then one for himself. And this was one of his personal movies. He has great affection for the characters and the place and while he captures the unhappiness of Gardner’s book, I think the movie is has far more humor. There was some funny banter in the book but it didn’t come across as amusing to me. But the moment we see Nicholas Colasanto (better known to my generation as Coach from Cheers), the sound of his voice is warming, and cuts into the despair. So does the soundtrack.


Huston’s directorial style is also an ideal fit for Gardner’s prose. I remember once reading an article about Huston in American Film when he was making his final film, The Dead (another personal project). His son Tony was surprised at how skilled his father’s camera technique was.  And the old man said, “It’s what I do best, yet no critic has ever remarked on it. That’s exactly as it should be. If they noticed it, it wouldn’t be any good.”

In Huston’s movies–The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra MadrePrizzi’s Honor–you don’t notice the style, you follow the story. Gardner, who wrote the screenplay with Huston, was blessed to have this man in his corner. The boxing scenes are strong. You feel close to the action, but nothing is forced or stylistic–it’s not like the Rocky movies or Raging Bull. In fact, you can see the ropes in the frame often, putting us just outside of the ring. The boxers sometimes look clunky but since they aren’t supposed to be great fighters, it works. And in Keach’s big fight scene you can feel the fighter’s exhaustion, their bodies getting heavy, by the second round.


Stacey Keach and Jeff Bridges are terrific (so when is Bridges not terrific?). There is a dignity to the characters, no matter how laid-out they are.  There is a tremendous shot, a long take, when Keach and his trainers and their wives leave the arena after a fight, followed by a broken-down Mexican fighter that illustrates this beautifully.

Keach wears a silver braclet in the movie that was exactly like the kind my father wore during that period, when I was a young kid. But my old man was a middle-class drunk, so the comparisons end there. However, the bar scenes, the life of drunks, rang true and reminded me of my father’s alcoholism.  There is a lot of drinking during the day, and Kimball remarked on the blinding light that greets you once you stumble out into the daylight. Like when you come out of a movie theater in the middle of the day–but more woozy and disorienting.

It is that kind of touch that makes Huston’s movie effective. Nothing much happens in the story. But it feels authentic, taking the essence of Gardner’s book and making it into a story for the screen.

Yanks Finally Beat Sox in Soporific Slugfest


Boxing metaphors are easy to come by when the Yanks play the Sox and I had boxing on the brain today for a couple of reasons: the writer Budd Schulberg died, and Muhammad Ali was honored before the game at Yankee Stadium.

My grandfather the head of public relations at the Anti-Defamantion League from 1946-71 (the year I was born), and helped prepare Schulberg’s statement before HUAC during the communist witch hunt after World War II–he also helped the actor John Garfield with his statement.

I remember seeing a worn copy of Schulberg’s The Disenchanted on my grandfather’s bookshelf; I think my aunt has his signed copy of Waterfront, the book that was the basis of On The Waterfront. Schulberg’s most enduring work is What Makes Sammy Run? a cynical novel about show biz.


Over at  The Sweet Science, George Kimball remembers Schulberg:

He straddled the worlds of literature and pugilism throughout his life, but unlike some of his more boastful contemporaries he was not a dilettante when it came to either. He sparred regularly with Mushy Callahan well beyond middle age. The night of the Frazier-Ali fight of the century Budd started to the arena in Muhammad Ali’s limousine, and then when the traffic got heavy, got out and walked to Madison Square Garden with Ali. A year before Jose Torres died, Budd and Betsy flew to Puerto Rico and spent several days with Jose and Ramona at their home in Ponce. Art Aragon was the best man at his wedding. And when push came to shove, he put on the gloves with both Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer and kicked both of their asses, though not, as some would now claim, on the same night.

And from an interview with Schulberg earlier this year in The Independent:

No writer has ever been closer to Muhammad Ali. Schulberg travelled in Ali’s car on the way to fights, sat in his dressing-room even after defeats, and was at the epicentre of some of the bizarre social situations the Louisville fighter liked to engineer. He was at the Hotel Concord in upstate New York when Ali was training for his third fight against Ken Norton. Schulberg was with his third wife, the actress Geraldine Brooks. “Ali,” Schulberg recalls, “asked Geraldine for an acting lesson. She improvised a scene in which he’d be provoked into anger.” After two unconvincing attempts, “She whispered in his ear, with utter conviction: ‘I hate to tell you this, but everybody here except you appears to know that your wife is having an affair with one of your sparring partners.’ I watched Ali’s eyes. Rage.”

Then, he recalls, Ali had another idea. “‘Let’s go to the middle of the hotel lobby. You turn on me and, in a loud voice, call me ‘nigger’.” Once in the foyer, crowded with Ali’s entourage, “Gerry dropped it on him. ‘You know what you are? You’re just a goddamn lying nigger.’ Schulberg recalls how Ali waited, restraining his advancing minders at the very last minute; a characteristic sense of timing that allowed his white guests, if only for a moment, to experience the emotions generated by the prospect of imminent lynching, yet live to tell the story.

The stars were out at the Stadium to see Ali and the Yanks: Bruce Willis, Paul Simon, Kate Hudson, and Hall of Famer, Eddie Murray. Ali was wearing a powder blue shirt and dark sunglasses; he slumped forward, a hulking man, surrounded by young, fit athletes and middle-aged executives. The moon was yellow and almost full. The stands were packed (49,005, the biggest crowd all year) as this was the most talked-about game to date in the new park.


Trudy, A Message to You


Glenn Stout, a longtime favorite here at Bronx Banter, is most famous around these parts for his historical writing, particularly Yankee Century and Red Sox Century. Stout also serves as the series editor for The Best American Sports Writing; his oral history Nine Months at Ground Zero is one of the most fascinating and devastating things I’ve ever read about 9.11.

Stout has a website as well as a blog, and his latest book, Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World,  may be the most interesting project of his career. It is the story of Trudy Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel (read an excerpt here).

I had the chance to talk to Stout about the book. Here is our conversation. Enjoy.
Bronx Banter: I know you are comfortable writing about history, especially in the first part of the 20th century.  What drew you to Ederle?

Glenn Stout: Her story is seminal, as central to the story of American sports in this century as that of Red Grange, Babe Ruth, Jack Johnson or Jackie Robinson, yet to most people Trudy, aka Gertrude Ederle, is unknown.  I wanted to change that. In many ways she was both the first modern female athlete and one of America’s first celebrities.  Had she not done what she had done, which is not only to become the first woman to swim the English Channel, but in the process to beat the existing men’s record by nearly two hours, the entire history of women’s sports would be radically different.  You can, I think, break down the history of women’s sports in this country into “Before Trudy” and “After Trudy.”   Before Trudy female athletes were anomalies, and their accomplishments, with just a few exceptions, primarily took place out of the public eye.  Many early female athletes, like Eleanora Sears, and Annette Kellerman, were sometimes seen as publicity hounds who performed stunts, and not serious athletes.  The question of whether or not women were either psychologically or physically capable of being athletes was still a topic of debate – at least by the men who ran sports.  Although there would still be some who would stubbornly cling to that belief, by swimming the English Channel and shattering the existing men’s record, Trudy answered that question quite definitively.

She was the answer.  One can argue that had it not been for her women would not have been allowed to compete in track and field and many other sports as early as they did – women competed in track events for the first time at the Olympics in 1928.  It may have been another generation – until after World War II – before there was any acceptance of female athletes.  I am old enough to remember when women could not play little league, or run marathons, and when school sports were pretty much limited to gymnastics and basketball.  Now of course, women can and do play everything.  Without Trudy that happens much later than it did.

Trudy also has a compelling personal story that I think resonates with any reader.  She grew up in New York, the daughter of German immigrants and overcame anti-German prejudice in the wake of World War I to become arguably the most famous woman in the world.  At the same time, she was partially deaf, and was able to overcome that challenge.  Swimming the English Channel, while perceived to be somewhat commonplace today, is still extremely difficult – it was the first “extreme” sport.  More people have climbed Mount Everest than have swum the Channel, and most of those who try to swim the Channel fail.  In most years more people will succeed in climbing Everest than in swimming the Channel.   When I first began to research the book, that really, really surprised me, and made Trudy’s story even more compelling.


BB: Why isn’t Ederle remembered like Grange, Thorpe, Ruth and the other greats of the first great era of sports? For someone who had such a profound impact, why has her legacy faded?

GS:  Hopefully, my book will help rectify that, but there are several reasons.  Trudy herself soon discovered she just wasn’t cut out for the spotlight.  Within 48 hours of her return to the United States, where New York gave her an enormous ticker tape parade, she was in the fetal position in her bedroom, completely overwhelmed.  She was both slow and reluctant to “cash in” on her achievement.  Her attorney mis-managed her career, turning down easy money for a grueling vaudeville tour.  By the time that got going a male swimmer had broken her record, and a second female swam the Channel, which stole some of her thunder – the public began to think that swimming the Channel was far easier than it is, something that holds true today.  She also had increasing trouble with her hearing – she was partially deaf since a bout with the measles as a child, and that made her less comfortable in the public eye.  And few years after the swim she fell and was virtually bed-ridden for a time. And let’s face it, swimming simply isn’t a big spectator sport like football or baseball.

BB:  What is Ederle’s reputation in the world of women’s swimming? Is she properly recognized?

GS: Swimming historians certainly recognize her as one of the all-time greats, but in a sport like swimming, records have been broken so many times that it is difficult for any swimmer from her era to remain in the public eye.  Her only contemporary recognized b y the public today is Johnny Weissmuller, and that’s because of the Tarzan films.  But in the world of swimming, she has to rank as one of the top seven or eight swimmers of all-time.  No one else combined her success at shorter distances with open water success, and in the world of open water swimming, I think she’s right at the top.  Anyone who has ever swum the Channel, or thought about it, knows about her.

BB:  How did Ederle manage to beat the existing time of swimming the channel by such a great margin? That seems almost inconceivable.

GS:  There are a couple of reasons.  For one, she used a stroke known then as the “American Crawl” essentially what most people recognize as the “freestyle” today.  Her coach with the Women’s Swimming Association was one of the strokes pioneers and its greatest advocate. And although it had been used for about two decades, no one believed it could be used for long distance swimming – it was thought to be too demanding, physically.  Long distance swimmers usually used the breast stroke at the time, with occasional use of the side-stroke and trudgeon.  The crawl was much faster, and Handley recognized that women in general, and Trudy in particular, although not as strong as a man, had just as much stamina.  She was the first swimmer to use the stroke in the Channel, and proved the superiority of the stroke.  Secondly, her trainer for the Channel swim, William Burgess, was a real student of the Channel currents and tides, and he found a somewhat new route across that was something of a breakthrough.  Also, before Trudy most of the people who tried to swim the Channel simply were not great swimmers.  They had great stamina, and desire, but as swimmers were rather pedestrian.  Trudy was world class at every distance from fifty yards on up.  She was simply a far, far, far better swimmer than anyone else who had swam the Channel before.  For a swimmer of her ability to take on the Channel would be the equivalent of Michael Phelps to do so today – if he had her stamina.  And lastly, while Trudy was growing up she spent summers in Highlands, New Jersey, where she spent hours and hours swimming in the ocean.  She developed a very special relationship with the water, once saying “To me, the sea is like a person – like a child that I’ve known a long time. It sounds crazy, I know, but when I swim in the sea I talk to it. I never feel alone when I’m out there.”  When she was swimming, she was in her place, right where she wanted to be, and where others found only torture, she found joy, and when you love what you do, well, there are no limits.



Dip Dip Dive

Another old friend of Bronx Banter, poet, historian, and editor, Glenn Stout, has just started a blog. Glenn’s new book, Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World, the story of the first woman to swim the English Channel, is due out this summer. I’m in the middle of reading it. Did you know that women were not allowed to swim during the Victorian Age? Thinking about it now, it makes sense, but man, I never knew that. Terrific book, by the way, and not just for young women. I’ll get together with Glenn to talk about it as the release date approaches.

For now, bookmark Glenn’s blog, Verb Plow. He’s sure to fill it with thought-provoking goodies.

Two Giants and Four Kings

Last Friday night, I had the pleasure of listening to George Kimball read from his new book at Gelf Magazine’s Varsity Letters reading series.  (Here are two video links: One and Two.) The book,Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran and the Last Great Era of Boxing is a must for anyone interested in the fight game.  


Kimball was there for it all and conveys the excitement these four champions brought to the game in this expertly reported book that is written in pleasing, straight-forward prose.

For a sampling of Kimball’s work, check out his archive at The Sweet Science.  For example, here is his story on the Hagler-Hearns brawl

Nearly a quarter century later it remains a high point of boxing in the latter half of the twentieth century. Some knowledgeable experts have described it as the greatest fight in boxing history – which it probably wasn’t, if only due to its brevity. But its ferocious first round, which to this day remains the standard against which all others are measured, was undoubtedly the most exciting in middleweight annals, and one of the two or three best opening stanzas of all time.

What did Bob Arum know that the rest of us did not? Already in the midst of an age in which it had already become obligatory to sell every big fight – and many smaller ones – with a catchy slogan, the promoter who had already staged (with Don King) the Thrilla in Manila, as well as served as the impresario for Evel Knievel’s ill-fated attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon, christened the 1985 matchup between Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns simply “The Fight.”

This Friday, Kimball will be interviewed by none other than Pete Hamill (who wrote the foreword for the book) at the  Barnes and Noble in Tribeca (97 Warren street).  7 pm, ya heard? 

Again, anyone with a remote interest in boxing should brave the cold and check out what promises to be a riveting chat.


Baltimore Orioles VI: The Final Series Edition

The just-completed series against the White Sox had some interest beyond the impending closing of Yankee Stadium thanks to Chicago’s fight for the AL Central, Mike Mussina’s still-active quest for 20 wins, the return of Phil Hughes to the Yankee rotation, and the major league debuts of three Yankee prospects last night. This weekend’s series against the Orioles has none of that. These last three games will be about Yankee Stadium and nothing else. With that in mind, here are the three other opening and closing dates in the Stadium’s 86-year history:

April 18, 1923 – the first game at Yankee Stadium, Yankees beat the Red Sox 4-1 behind Bob Shawkey, who scored the first run at the new park on a single by third baseman Joe Dugan in the fourth inning. Ruth followed Dugan with a three-run homer, the Stadium’s first. Second baseman Aaron Ward had picked up the park’s first hit in the previous inning.

Sept. 30, 1973 – the final game at the original Stadium, Yankees lost to the Tigers 8-5 as Fritz Peterson and Lindy McDaniel combined to allow six runs in the eighth inning. Backup catcher Duke Sims, in his only start of the year, hits the last home run at the old park in the seventh. Winning pitcher John Hiller gets first baseman Mike Hegan to fly out to center fielder Mickey Stanley to end the game.

April 15, 1976 – the first game at the renovated Stadium, Yankees beat the Twins 11-4 with Dick Tidrow picking up the win with five shoutout innings in relief of Rudy May and Sparky Lyle getting the save. May gave up the first hit and home run in the remodeled Stadium to Disco Dan Ford in the top of the first. Twins second baseman Jerry Terrell, who led of the game with a walk, scored the first run ahead of Ford. The first Yankee hit was delivered by Mickey Rivers in the bottom of the first. The first Yankee home run at the redone park would come off the bat of Thurman Munson two days later.

Untitled The relocated St. Louis Browns first played at the Stadium as the Baltimore Orioles on May 5 and 6 of 1954, losing to Eddie Lopat and Allie Reynolds by scores of 4-2 and 9-0. The O’s first visit to the renovated stadium came in a three-game weekend series starting on May 14, 1976. The O’s took two of three in that series, beating Catfish Hunter in the opener. The first batter in that game was Ken Singleton, who struck out looking, but the next six Orioles delivered hits off Hunter, among them a two-run homer by O’s center fielder Reggie Jackson (!) as the O’s cruised to a 6-2 win behind Ross Grimsley.

For the curious, the action depicted in the Merv Rettenmund card pictured here occurred on August 9, 1970 in the seventh inning of the first game of a Sunday doubleheader. With the O’s leading 1-0 behind Jim Palmer, Rettenmund led off the seventh with a double off Fritz Peterson. Andy Etchebarren then hit a hot shot to third base that Jerry Kenney either booted or bobbled, allowing Etchebarren to reach and Rettenmund to advance. The photo on the card freezes the action as Kenney, ball in hand, checks Rettenmund at third base. The O’s would go on to score three unearned runs in that inning, but the Yanks got two in the eighth and two in the ninth to tie it, the latter two on a single by Roy White after Earl Weaver had replaced Palmer with Pete Richert. White would later end the game in the 11th with one out and Horace Clarke on first base by homering off Dick Hall to give the Yankees a 6-4 win.

Finally, here’s an account of the last game at the original Stadium from Glenn Stout’s outstanding Yankees Century:

The Yankees ended the season on September 30, closing down old Yankee Stadium to accommodate the scheduled renovation. In the final week of the season, the Hall of Fame hauled away a ticket booth, a turnstile, and other memorabilia. Anticipating souvenir takers, the club had already removed the center-field monuments and a hoard of equipment scheduled to follow the Yankees to Queens.

The club hired extra security to head off bad behavior, but the crowd of 32,328 arrived at the Stadium in an ugly mood and packing wrecking tools. Disappointed at the late season collapse, banners urging the Yankees to fire [manager Ralph] Houk ringed the park.

The game was only a few innings old when it became clear that souvenir hunters weren’t going to wait. In the outfield and the bleachers fans turned their backs on the game and started demolishing the park. The Yankees took the lead over Detroit but lost it in the fifth [sic]. When Houk came to the mound to change pitchers, exuberant fans waived parts of seats over their heads like the angry they had become.

As soon as Mike Hegan flied out to end the 8-5 loss, 20,000 fans swamped security forces and stormed the field. The Yanks had plans for objects like the bases, but the mob had other ideas. First-base coach Elston Howard scooped up the bag for a scheduled presentation to Mrs. Lou Gehrig, but he had to fight his way off the field, clutching the base like a fullback plowing through the line. Cops stood guard at home plate to make sure it went to Claire Ruth, but a fan stole second base, and third was nabbed by Detroit third baseman Ike Brown. Some 10,000 seats ended up being pulled loose.


The Professional

Eliot was one of the great characters in baseball.
–Jim Bouton

 Eliot Asinof, the accomplished author most famous in baseball circles for Eight Men Out, his classic narrative of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, passed away yesterday at the age of 88. Asinof enjoyed a long, varied career, that saw him through the dark days of the blacklist, and later found him flourishing as a screen writer, journalist–he was a frequent contributor to the New York Times magazine in the late ’60s and also wrote for Sports Illustrated–and author (he wrote about civil rights in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, the television industry as well as many novels).

One of his novels, The Fox is Crazy Too, about a con man/master criminal who pretends to be insane to escape responsibility for his crimes, was found alongside a handful of books and a postcard addressed to Jodie Foster in John Hinckley Jr’s hotel room the day Hinckley shot President Ronald Reagan. Asinof was once married to Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s sister, and he also dated Rita Moreno.

This morning, I received the following e-mail from Roger Kahn:

Eliot was a fine and gifted friend, with a remarkable work ethic and an enduring anger at what he perceived to be injustice. Aside from his writing, quite an aside, he was a good ball player, a good carpenter, a good chef, and an excellent pianist.

He was an Army lieutenant during World War II, sent to lead a platoon on Adak Island. Since a Japanese invasion of the Aleutians seemed imminent, this was not exactly a plum assignment. "You’ll love it on Adak," his colonel told him. "There’s a beautiful woman behind every tree."

As Eliot told me more than once, "When I got there, I found there are no trees on Adak Island."

Ralph Blumenfeld, writing in the New York Post, once described Asinof as "balding and muscular, a cross between Ben Hogan and Leo Durocher on looks." After graduating from Swarthmore college in 1940, Asinof played in the Phillies farm system for a few years before being drafted. "My bonus was a box of cigars," Asnioff told Blumenfeld, "and I didn’t smoke."

In 1955, Asinof published a baseball novel, "Man on Spikes," roughly based on the career of a friend as well as his own stint in pro ball. In a recent e-mail, John Schulian told me: 

You could smell the sweat of honest labor on Asinof’s work.  If you’ve read "Eight Men Out," you know what I mean.  But there’s something about "Man on Spikes" that touches me even more profoundly, for here was a guy who’d kicked around in the bushes describing just how back-breaking and heartbreaking that life can be.  I never met Asinof, but I like to think that he carried what baseball taught him to his grave.

In the original New York Times review, John Lardner wrote:

Eliot Asinof, in giving his reasons for writing "Man on Spikes," says, "The folklore and flavor of baseball fascinated me then [when he was playing ball in the Philadelphia Phillies’ farm system, some years ago], and it still does today." That sounds a little ominous; but Mr. Asinof, I’m gald to say, has not let his sense of the game’s folk-meaning involve him in a Bunyaneque or a comic-Faustian or a dream-symbol treatment of baseball. "Man on Spikes" is a plain and honest book, the first realistic baseball novel I can remember having read."

Years later, in a piece on the All-Star team of baseball fiction, Daniel Okrent wrote (also in the Times):

In print for about an hour and a half in the middle 50s, Asinof’s book is about a young man of endeniable talent, whose career is thwarted and eventually destroyed by the arrogance of the men who ran baseball back then, and the servitude players were forced to live in. It is a harsh book, unsettling and, finally, depressing. It is also perhaps the truest baseball novel ever written.


Sounds Great from a Distance

My cousin Jonah is an avid Met fan. He and his wife live in Brooklyn and they are great movie-lovers too. But they do not have cable TV, so Jonah listens to virtually every game on a small, old-fashioned transistor radio. When he’s out and about, he has a small, white earphone plugged into one ear to keep up on the action. When I’ve asked why he doesn’t just get cable like every other “normal” person he says that he doesn’t like the idea of being held captive in front of the television. The thought of it is oppresive to him, even in the age of Tivo.

He can do as he pleases and take the radio with him. I admire him for this quality. I can’t imagine doing such a thing, not with Lord Sterling as the Yankee play-by-play announcer–that would be too much to bear. Still, baseball on the radio can be a wonderful experience for the listener and many of my favorite childhood baseball memories are made up of evenings secretly listening to the Yankee broadcast while I was supposed to be asleep.

I got to thinking about all of this when I read a short essay, “Recalling the Joy of Watching Baseball on the Radio,” which is featured in the collection Diamond: The Baseball Writings of Mark Harris. Most famous for his Henry Wiggens trilogy, Harris doesn’t argue that radio is superior to television, just that they each offer distinct pleasures:

Radio left things to the brain, to the imagination, and to fantasy. On radio we saw the whole baseball field because we saw it in our minds through wide-agnled fantasy. We knew no limits upon our vision. We were our own camera. Pictures arose in our imaginations from the merest hints of things. Our minds were tubes that seldom blew.

This is not to say that radio was better than television, or that one age of mankind was better than another. But that radio was significantly different from televsion, and not always less efficient, cannot be denied. Radio was awe. The awe produced by remoteness…Television reduces awe.

The last bit reminded me of Nicholas Dawidoff’s new memoir, The Crowd Sounds Happy. In it, Dawidoff describes following the Red Sox of his childhood on the radio. Just yesterday, Dawidoff had a compelling piece in the latest edition of Play:

Recently I turned 45, which I think of as a mortal age for a baseball fan; by now, with the rarest exceptions, you are older than every major leaguer. What I notice at midlife is that the passion doesn’t abate; it simply changes. Thinking of the Red Sox as heroes was an innocent fantasy and, for that reason, a seductive one, but adulthood meant finally coming to terms with ballplayers as real people. That wasn’t so difficult in our time of heightened public scrutiny. We wanted to know them, and now we know them too well. Much of it is the money, the millions they earn while most of us are struggling with the rent. Our pastime is a big, mercenary business, and we’ve learned that players will deform themselves with steroids, cheating mortality and their opponents in an effort to stay forever young and powerful. Those of us who are offended by steroids may feel that what’s most unpleasant is that we can’t look at a juiced physique and still think, That could be me.

Athletes are often amazingly unformed as people, and much as I retain the naïve, nostalgic longing for them to be good in all ways, when they aren’t it helps to exercise a little circumspection. I can do that, because the older I get, the more I see that the fun of it is not the results but the process. What’s magical now about baseball is the continuity of having these splendid performers there for me month after month, year after year. I didn’t savor the Red Sox’ long-awaited World Series victory as much as I enjoyed the growing possibility that they could win. These days, I try not to know too much about the players. I want to care — and by being more distanced, I find I still feel close to them.

I recall having a conversation a few years ago with a couple of Baseball Prospectus writers. They wanted to know as little as possible about big leaguers, at least about their personal lives, because they didn’t want that to get in the way of what they were watching on the field. I can appreciate that. Having worked in the movie business, and to a lesser degree, in the world of sports, I understand what it is like to be meet a favorite actor or director only to find that they are lacking (or worse). I think it is critical to separate the artist (or the athlete) from their art. At the same time, I have a curiosity bordering on desire to not only want to know more about my favorite jocks and artists but also a childlike need to like them, to know that they are good people. As if their personality has anything to do with their gift.

Deeper into Baseball Books

My favorite part about asking people for their list of ten essential baseball books was not learning that "Ball Four" or "Glory of Their Times" are so popular. We already knew that. What really turned me on were the titles I had never of like Man on Spikes, or the ones that I knew precious little about like The Celebrant and The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book. I was over at Jay Jaffe’s new crib in Brooklyn last Friday and he showed me his copy of the card book which looks like terrific fun.  Dig this:


"Earl Torgeson’s two favorite activities were fist-fighting and breaking his shoulder, both of which he did whenever he got the chance. On the back of this card it says, "Torgy likes a good practical joke" – which is the biog writer’s subtle way of suggesting that he enjoyed knocking people’s teeth out. He is probably also the only left-handed hitting first baseman over 6’2" who ever stole 20 bases in one season."

 Brendan C Boyd and Fred C. Harris.



Essential Baseball Books: The Ballots (Part II)

 More voting…(S-W)


Essential Baseball Books: The Ballots


 Here’s the voting, in alphabetical order: A-R (S-Z to follow)


Ten Essential Baseball Books

Last month I received an e-mail from Chris Illuminati, the content editor of Phillyburbs.com. He told me he was asking different people for one baseball book that they’d consider essential. I picked "No Cheering From the Press Box," Jerome Holtzman’s wonderful collection of interviews with old time sports writers, but sent Chris a list of ten essential books just for the fun of it. Shortly after the story ran I thought it’d be fun to ask a group of seamheads–historians, biographers, columnists, beat writers, screenwriters, novelists–for a list of their ten essential baseball books. Not the ten best books or even the ten most essential books just ten essential ones.

I deliberately rigged the question because there are more than just ten essential books in any self-respecting baseball libray. But I was more interested in lists that would reveal the quirks and personal tastes of each individual rather than trying to assemble an authoratative or comprehensive poll. 

The top vote getters are interesting–though not particularly surprising–and because the lists are so subjective there are no consensus selections. "Ball Four" and "The Glory of Their Times" and "The Bill James Historical Abstract" were the top picks, though some people distinctly went with the original Historical Abstract while others chose the new one.  Bill James got more votes than any individual writer followed by Roger Angell (the most common difficulty for the contributors seemed to be which Angell compilation to go with).

I heard back from 55 people via e-mail and even trooped to the far reaches of the upper east side to visit Ray Robinson and get his list (I also had some partial responses and decided not to include them). A total of 168 different books were selected.  Here are the results.  Tomorrow, I’ll post the individual ballots.

Table 1: Here are the top 15 (7 or more votes):

Rank Title Author Total
1 Ball Four, by Jim Bouton Jim Bouton and Leonard Schecter 35
2 The Glory of Their Times Lawrence Ritter 29
3 The Bill James Historical Abstract Bill James 27
4 Boys of Summer Roger Kahn 20
4 Moneyball Michael Lewis 20
6 Veeck as in Wreck Bill Veeck and Ed Linn 16
7 Babe Robert Cremer 15
7 Lords of the Realm John Heylar 15
9 The Summer Game Roger Angell 14
10 Eight Men Out Eliott Asnoff 13
11 A False Spring Pat Jordan 10
12 The Summer of ’49 David Halberstam 9
12 The Natural Bernard Malamud 9
14 Baseball’s Great Experiment Jules Tygiel 8
15 Dollar Sign on the Muscle Kevin Kerrane 7


Wick Wick Wack

Unlike many of my colleagues I did not grow up reading the Bill James Abstracts. I wasn’t interested in numbers (I was given a copy of The Hidden Game of Baseball for my birthday when I was ten or eleven and didn’t open the book until I was over thirty). I didn’t read Bill James until about eight years ago when I inherited my cousin’s collection of the Abstracts. I still wasn’t especially interested in numbers (though is arguments were appealing), but I found James to be a wonderful critic and lucid writer (hey, I used to read Ruth Reichl’s restaurant reviews all the time even though I never intended to go to any of the places she wrote about, I just liked reading her). In fact, the first post ever here at Bronx Banter was about the Red Sox hiring of James.

Which brings me to the 60 Minutes segment on James that was aired this past Sunday. Anyone catch it? I thought it was superficial at best. The worst part about it was that it divided baseball people into two groups–stat heads and the people who go by their “gut,” by what their eyes tell them. In other words, the same, tired, old song. You would figure that 60 Minutes would be above this uninspired kind of journalism, even though they are a populist program. Billy Beane was mentioned as the man who brought sabermetrics to organized baseball. Nevermind Sandy Alderson, or Branch Rickey. Forget about Allan Roth. I guess it didn’t fit their narrow profile, which didn’t shed much light on the Red Sox or James.

Joe Posnanski has a good blog entry about the 60 Minutes piece over at his blog:

There were numerous silly moments, my favorite being when Morley Safer — whose first piece for 60 Minutes was, I believe, on Napoleon — made his statement about how Bill said there’s no such thing as a clutch hitter, and Red Sox Manager Terry Francona replied, “I’ve heard him say that (ed. note: very doubtful) but then I’d want him to be introduced to David Ortiz.”

Really? Does Francona really think Bill James is somehow unaware of David Ortiz?I’m always baffled when people say goofy stuff like this — when they go up to coaches and say, “Have you guys thought about playing zone?”* To me, this is a lot like hearing that a doctor has come up with a new method to perform a heart transplant, and saying, “Yeah, but have you tried that like thing where you have people open their mouths and stick tongue depressors on their tongues and stuff?”

*Roy Williams always had a classic Roy Williams-like answer whenever anyone came up to him with the “Have you thought of this” type suggestion. He would say, “No offense, but believe me, we’ve thought of it. Anything you have thought of, we’ve thought of. It’s our frickin’ job.”


Veteran scribe Peter Golenbock is writing a book on George Steinbrenner. Peter asked if I’d be kind enough to post the following request. Here goes:

Dear Yankee fans, I am researching a book on the life and times of George Steinbrenner. If any of you have any interesting stories about him, as fans, employees, or recipients of his generosity, I would love to hear them. Send them to petergolenb@yahoo.com. Please include your address and telephone number.

Yanks, Jays take two tonight…


I saw my favorite bus driver this morning. I went to visit my brother and his family. I take the BX7 bus which picks me up on 236th street and Riverdale Avenue and lets me off on 207th street and Broadway, just a few blocks from their apartment. The trip takes between 15-25 minutes, depending on traffic.

The bus stops directly across the street from where I live so pretty much as soon as I walk out my door I know whether I can make a bus or not. I know exactly how much time it takes if I break out and haul ass in a sprint. Today, I started the sprint but didn’t have a chance and missed the bus by a wide margin. Buddy, a fit, old wise guy that lives in my building–he’s always out walking his little venomous dog–watched me sprint and then let up in defeat. I caught his eye and he laughed at me.

Took more than ten minutes for the next bus to show up. But when it did I saw that it was being driven by my man, Bobby Riggs. Bobby Riggs is a pale, lean man in his late fifites with glasses and pockmarked skin. He has a thick New York accent and a friendly disposition. Straight forward, open. But not soft. He’s been driving long enough to have seniority and he only likes to work the 7 line. The first time we met we got to talking sports, cause I brought it up, but he didn’t really care about sports. Somehow we got to tennis and the Billie Jean King celebrity match against…what was that guy’s name again? When I left the bus that day, neither of us could remember the stupid guy’s name.

Couple of hours after I left him that day, it hit me. And the next time I saw the guy, I was ready to pounce. He opens the door and points at me and goes, “Hey, Bobby Riggs.” So we’ve always called each other Bobby Riggs ever since. He’s a real good guy. Lives with his mother. She’s 91 and has alzheimer’s but he’ll never turn her over to a home or an institution.

He was actually getting off the bus himself at 215th street, a shift-change stop for drivers. Time for lunch-o. Before he got off he turned to me and said, “By the way, my name is Paul.”


I’m Ready for my Close Up

Been enjoying poking my nose through my baseball library and selecting some cherce quotes, so here’s another one for ya. This one if from Foul Ball: Five Years in the American League, by Alison Gordon, who covered the Blue Jays from 1979-83. Gordon describes herself as “a socialist, feminist, hedonist with roots in the sixties, a woman who had marched against the bomb, done drugs, and never, ever even wanted to date the head jock at school, had nothing in common with these children of Ozzie and Harriet, locked in a fifties timewarp.” Some combination, huh? I enjoyed her take on Mr. October:

Undeniably a star with an extraordinary sense of the moment, Jackson was one of the most fascinating, but unpleasant, characters I encountered in baseball. It’s only a fluke I feel that way. There were some reporters I respect whom he liked and who assured me that Jackson was a sensitive and intelligent man, unfairly at the mercy of the sharks that surrounded him. It could be. I wouldn’t know because he thought I had a fin on my back, too. He was a bit like Billy Martin in that way. If you encountered either one on a good day you came away thinking he was a prince. On a bad day there were jerks. I never hit a good day with either one.

Had I not been a print reporter it would have been a different matter. Jackson loved television interviewers once the camera was turned on because this was an image he could control. He was wonderful in front of the cameras, self-effacing and God-fearing, all “Hi, Mom” and five-dollar words. Out of their range, he was completely unpredictable.

Being a reporter from the boonies didn’t help either. What importance could a reporter from Toronto have in the world of baseball, for heaven’s sake? I wasn’t Peter Gammons of the Boston Globe or Tom Boswell of the Washington Post, so why bother? I didn’t cover the Yankees or the Angels when he played for those teams. I wasn’t in the inner circle.

On the fringe, I wastched as he manipulated my colleagues, who practically tugged their forelocks in deference. He sighed at what he considered dumb questions while winking at the reporters who covered him daily, exempting them from his scorn. They ate it up. Then he would turn and snarl at the offender, asking him exactly what he meant by his question. He reduced the meek to jelly and enjoyed it. It made me ashamed of my profession to be reduced to acting a role in Jackson’ drama of the moment. The man was only a ballplayer, after all, whatever inflated importance he placed on it, and not that great a ballplayer either, day in and day out.

That these men are perceived to be more important than doctors or scientists or firemen or teachers, on the evidence of what they are paid, struck me often, but the disproportion never seemed greater than when I dealt with Jackson. Here was a supreme egotist with one skill, the ability to hit a baseball out of any park in the major leagues when the game was on the line, and for that he was deified by the fans…He exemplified none of the greater virtues of sport, team play and sportsmanship, but he was a greater hero than those who did.

And yet there was another side to him. He was kind to young players, dispensing bits of himself to star-struck rookies and making them feel at home on his turf. Once, in 1979, in Toronto, he was walked by Phil Huffman. He yelled at the young pitcher all the way to first base, accusing him of not having the guts to throw him a pitch he could hit. Huffman, cocky himself, yelled right back. A week later, in New York, in the last game Huffman would pitch in the major leagues, in his eighteenth loss of the season, Huffman struck Jackson out. When the game was over and Huffman was packing up his stuff, the clubhouse attendant walked up to him at his locker and handed him a baseball. It was inscribed “To Phil—I admire your toughness. Reggie Jackson.”

I admired the gesture, which meant a lot to Huffman, but I also saw it as an extraordinarily condescending thing to do to a player who was, after all, a fellow major leaguer, not a beseeching twelve-year-old fan. But I’m sure that baseball now holds a place of pride among Huffman’s souvenirs.



Pat Jordan was a bonus baby for the Braves in the late ’50s and early ’60s. He threw gas, but never made it to the majors; eventually, he became an accomplished journalist. His first memoir, “A False Spring” is considered a baseball classic. I think that the sequel, “A Nice Tuesday,” is a better book, even if it is more about Jordan’s personal life than it is about baseball.

Jordan still writes for The New York Times magazine, and it is always a treat to read his work, especially if it is about a pitcher. Before “A False Spring” was released in 1974, Jordan published a collection of stories he had written for Sports Illustrated called, “The Suitors of Spring.” All of the articles in this collection are about pitchers, including the likes of Tom Seaver, Bo Belinksky, Bruce Kison, Steve Dalkowski and Sudden Sam McDowell.

I buried myelf in the book last night after suffering through the Yankees game, hoping to take my mind off the pain of the here-and-now. Jordan describes McDowell and Dalkowski as young men who were possessed by their talented; Seaver, on the other hand, was a late-bloomer with less natural talent. Of course, Seaver became on the great pitchers of all time. Dalkowski never made it passed triple A and McDowell never became the great pitcher he was expected to become.

Here is a healthy excerpt from the article on Sudden Sam, “A Talent for Refusing Greatness:”

Like many extremely talented people, Sam McDowell does not judge his accomplishments by conventional standards. His challenges, and their eventual resolution, are very private affairs independent of either the approval or disapproval of anyone else.

…”The only thing I get satisfaction from,” he says, “is accomplishing something I’m not supposed to be able to do. I live for challenges, and once I overcome them I have to go on to something new.”

…It is obvious that McDowell takes great delight in watching his pitches behave even when he’s only warming up. And he admits to often concentrating so much on his individual pitches and their perfection that he loses sight of everything else. His individual pitches then become his goal rather than simply the means of attaining some larger goal–a victory, for instance.

“I try and break things down to their simplest element,” he says, “and sometimes I guess I do it to an extreme. For instance, a game to me is just a series of individual challenges–Me against Reggie Jackson or Me againt Don Mincher. If I find I can get a guy out with a fastball it takes all the challenge away, so next time I throw him all curveballs. If I don’t have a challenge I create one. It makes the game interesting.”

…”No, I wouldn’t say Sudden is the toughest pitcher I ever faced,” says Reggie Jackson. “Now, don’t get me wrong. I like Sudden and I think he’s got the greatest fastball, curveball, slider and change-up of any pitcher I ever saw. I call him ‘Instant Heat.’ But still, I don’t mind facing him. That’s not because I hit him so easy, either, because I don’t. It’s just that Sudden simplifies things out there. He makes it like it used to be when we were kids. You know he’s going to challenge you, his strength against yours, and either you beat him or he beats you. And if you do beat him with a home run or something, hell, it don’t bother him that much. He’s not greedy. He lets you have a little, too. And he won’t throw at you, either, because he’s too nice a guy. He knows that with his fastball he could kill you if he ever hit you. You see, baseball’s still a game to Sudden, the way it should be to all of us. Hell, I’d pay to see him pitch because I know he enjoys himself so much. Do you know he’s got 12 differenet moves to first base? That’s a fact! When he was going for his 1500th strikeout he was trying so hard he fell down on a pitch to me. I took it for a third strike. I loved that, though. That’s why I look forward to facing him even if I don’t hit him a helluva lot. But someday I will. Me and Sudden will be around for a long time, and one of these days I’m going to connect with one of his sudden pitches and watch out! But still, I have to say that Sam McDowell isn’t the toughest pitcher I ever faced. As a matter of fact, I think he’d be tougher if he had less ability. Sounds crazy, huh? But it’s true. Sudden’s just go too much stuff.”

I don’t think that Jeff Weaver is nearly as gifted as McDowell was, and perhaps he isn’t even as interesting a person. But I thought about Weaver after reading this article last night, because he’s a pitcher with great stuff who hasn’t been able to put it together. Of course, you can replace Jeff Weaver with your favorite talent who hasn’t lived up to expectations. The point is, all the talent in the world doesn’t mean spit if you don’t thrive as a competitor.

Anyhow, there isn’t a baseball writer I enjoy more than Pat Jordan. Next time you happen upon one of his books, pick it up and give him a try.

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