I met Chris Archer for dinner at the Outback Steakhouse on my first night in North Carolina. He showed up with a handsome black man in his 40s, whom he introduced as “Ron Walker, my mentor.” The hostess led us to a booth in the far corner of the room. As we sat down, Archer said, “Wow! This is the same table where I met my father last February.” He meant his biological father, Magnum. Walker had helped facilitate that first-ever meeting between father and son. It did not go well. Archer peppered his father with questions. Why had he never tried to contact his son? That sort of thing. Archer did not like the answers.
By the time his father had left, Archer said, he had already decided, “I had no intention of ever seeing him again. The type of person he was. He had three children with three different women. Zero of which he is in their lives. He couldn’t tell what school his kids went to. I had no intention of trying to change a grown man who didn’t want to be in my life.”
I told Archer that I hadn’t planned to ask him about his biological parents until tomorrow, after we’d gotten to know each other a bit. He smiled and said, “Yeah, I came out throwin’ heat right off the bat.”
When the waiter came to take our order, Archer discussed with Walker what he should eat. Walker suggested fish and steamed broccoli, nothing fried or with butter. One night, before Archer was to pitch a minor league game, he had called Walker and told him he was eating a pizza. Walker said, “You’re eating what? Don’t put that in your body. Spend $30 on something healthy.”
Now, at Outback, Archer said, “He didn’t want me to put regular gas in my high-performance engine. We talk all the time.”
“We always dialogue back and forth,” said Walker. “It’s a wonderful thing.”
We walked between the rows of vines, up and down the steep terraces in the hot sun. Tom’s three Labrador Retrievers romped around us. Big, playful, doofus dogs with their tongues hanging out. He told me their names. “Major, Bandy, Bricks.” I said, “Bricks, like in chimney bricks?” He said, “No, Brix.” I said, “Bricks?” He said, “No, Brix.” I said, “Who’s on first?” He didn’t get it, so I said, “Spell it.” He spelled, “B-R-I-X. It’s French for the sugar content in grapes.”
We stopped at a vine drooping with clusters of grapes. He snipped off a cluster and handed it to me. I held it over my head, like in one of those old paintings of Roman orgies, and ate the small, black, sweet grapes off the cluster. “Delicious,” I said. Tom explained that each variety of grapes had different characteristics that you could only tell by tasting them. That’s why each row was numbered.
I said, “Very good, Thomas. You always did explain things precise.”
“Ly,” he said. “Precise-ly. You’re supposed to be the fucking writer, and you don’t know your grammar.”
“Thank you very much. You know I got a journalism degree from USC.” Irony of ironies! Tom Seaver, trying to impress me.
I said, “Yeah, and I had a better fastball than you.”
But he went on. “I was always like that about pitching. I had to be precise. I couldn’t just mail it in!” Then he began to explain more about his vines, about the cordon and proper height for each vine. I tuned him out and ate my grapes, the juices running down my sweatshirt. He looked at me, annoyed, and said, “Pay attention. I’m gonna give you a fucking lesson.”
“I don’t want a fucking lesson.”
“That doesn’t matter. I’m giving you one. Now, if the secondary fruit grows too high, you have to snip it off or else they’ll take energy from the vines.”
I feigned interest. “How high?”
“Each row has to be only to a height of 14.”
“Fourteen what? Inches, feet?”
“I don’t know. It’s just a standard height. Stop asking questions and just listen. This is important, for Chrissakes. If you didn’t talk so much you might learn something. If the vines are too high, you have to trim them.” He reached up with his snips and trimmed a vine.
“Oh, I see. The height of each vine is a template for the row. Your job is to go down the row trimming the tops, to make them conform to the template. I can see how the monotony of this appeals to your precise, fucking methodical nature. It’s therapy for you.”
“Bullshit. You think too much. You always did.”
“I had a better fastball than you.”
“In your dreams.”
“Yeah, and between us we won 311 major league games.”
“Abso-fucking-lutely! I tell everybody that!”
I asked him if he’d still have his vineyards if he hadn’t missed out on today’s big baseball paydays. Tom made more than a million dollars a year only twice in his career. If he were pitching in his prime today, he’d be making $30 million a year.
“I started to lose interest,” he said. “I wanted to go home. I couldn’t do it anymore. I never was pissed I missed the big paydays. Be careful what you wish for, you might get it. If I’d made that $30 million a year, maybe I’d just have bought that huge, finished vineyard and let others do it all. I’d have missed out on the pleasure of being in the vineyards every day. My pleasure has always been in the work, not the ego.”
Since his character is part of the story, Rodriguez wanted me to talk to a character witness, and his choice was an odd one: Cynthia, his ex-wife. “You’re going to love her. She’s an amazing lady. I love her to pieces,” he said, “and she’s one of my best friends.”
Cynthia met me in a café in Coconut Grove and then a second time in the elegant though hardly ostentatious home she designed on Biscayne Bay. She’s not just toned but muscular, an attractive, petite blonde with smooth skin and piercing eyes and two bright diamond earrings. She met Rodriguez when he was 21 and she was 22. She wasn’t a sports fan. He told her he played baseball. “That’s great, but what do you really do?” she’d said. Cynthia is a traditional girl from a close-knit, religious family who lived a few blocks from her parents for a time—and she was a college graduate, which impressed Rodriguez. She’d earned a master’s degree in psychology and had practiced as a therapist.
She had every reason in the world to dislike Rodriguez. He’d humiliated her in the press; there were reports of Madonna and Rodriguez together shortly after the birth of their second child. But five years later—they divorced in 2008—she simply said, “I was disappointed.” She still esteems him. In the aftermath of the separation, he was generous and thoughtful. “He really made sure that everything was taken care of,” she told me. “It was a very nurturing process.” For her, that wasn’t an exception. “I saw something in him that I still see in him, and what I see is still very good.”
But she also sees damage. She spooled out the now-familiar story as to its causes. His father left the family when Alex was 10; he lived with his mother and lost touch with his father. The absence of a father made him the man of the house, big pressure for a teenager. “I was in a full sprint to make sure my mother never worked again,” he said.
Rodriguez’s success added to the emotional distortion. “Everything was about growing him as a baseball player,” Cynthia said. “He wasn’t learning anything but how to hit the fastball.
“What happens to everything else? It’s stunted, completely.” Without an authority figure, he listened willy-nilly to the advice of whoever was with him at the time.
“I used to say to Alex, ‘Don’t you just know what to do? Don’t you just have that voice in your head that tells you?’ He said, ‘No. I don’t.’ I think, looking back, he was probably uncomfortable with his place in the world.”
Later, when their marriage was crumbling, Cynthia thought a lot about Rodriguez’s issues. One day, she ran into Cal Ripken, one of his baseball heroes and a friend.
“What is it about Alex that I’m not seeing?” she asked Ripken. “What is it that I don’t get?”
“Cynthia, let me tell you the problem,” he said, and told her a story. “I might be wearing a suit, and Alex will see me and say, ‘Cal, I love your suit. Where did you get that suit?’ Then somebody else might walk in the locker room, and they have a completely different kind of suit on. And Alex might say, ‘Hey, I love your suit.’
“Cynthia, he tries to please everyone. That’s the problem.”
Rodriguez would often be charged with insincerity, but Cynthia didn’t see it that way. “He’s trying to say the right thing, trying to fit in. I would say immature, not insincere.”
Originally published in the May 17, 1987, edition of The Washington Post Magazine. Republished here with the author’s permission. His postscript follows. For more on Hagler-Leonard, check out Grantland’s oral history.
I’d never been to Las Vegas. Politicans, civil rights leaders, and thinkers, the people I usually write about, don’t often stop there. But it is the perfect place for a big fight, a town that reeks of dominance—rich over poor, white over black, male over female. White men with money come to Las Vegas to show that they have the power and the wealth that make losing a few grand over the weekend “no big deal.” They can buy the prettiest woman, the thickest steak and the biggest diamond ring. They can also buy two men to fight on a stage for their evening’s entertainment. Tonight it will be Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard.
When I was a little boy, the one event I dreamed of seeing in person was a big prizefight. Other sports were on television or available to a kid who wanted to sell Cokes. The big fights were in exotic places like Zaire, the Philippines and Las Vegas. They were held in different time zones and came over the late-night radio as wire service reports at the end of each round. The late hour, the distant locale, the million-dollar prizes and my desire to be seen as sexually powerful—a man able to dominate another man as a cocky, proud prizefighter does in the ring—combined to transport me to a mythic place in my mind. Only prize-fighting could do that for me.
And only prize-fighting salved my most basic fear—the fear of being beaten bloody. A prizefighter confronts this fear like no one else. It’s him alone, trapped in an elevated place, above the crowd and under hot lights. It’s him against another man who seeks to demolish him, and the judgment is absolute. Who is the better man? Fight fans. and fighters use that phrase repeatedly: “The better man.” As in: “Leonard will try to outsmart Hagler but he won’t try to show he’s the better man.” The better man is the fighter who is the aggressor, who menaces his opponent and finally and conclusively batters him. Dominates him. Knocks him out. He can leave him unconscious, legs quivering, eyes rolling back. He can kill him. That is the better man.
If I saw boxing for what it really is—just a business—I wouldn’t be interested. The passion is what captures me; the passion coupled with the risk of defeat and failure as two men fight for all they are worth. Marvin Hagler of Newark and Sugar Ray Leonard of Palmer Park know the importance of looking tough, of appearing dominant and keeping that reputation. To Hagler and Leonard it matters that they be known as “the better man.”
For me, a skinny boy growing up in a violent. poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. to be “the better man” had real meaning. You had to fight. More than that, you had to be ready to fight. Walking down the street, in the schoolyard, on the basketball court, going to the store with your mother’s money—you had to be ready. I have a spot in my eye from a punch thrown by a big ninth-grader when I was in the seventh grade. On the handball court he told me to go get his ball and I wouldn’t. I never saw the punch. He didn’t knock me out or down, but I couldn’t see. I did manage to pick up the ball and windmill my arm as if I were throwing it back at him. When he ducked, I kicked him in the face and ran. I remember being a second-grader walking past a bunch of shrieking kids surrounding two third-graders who were fighting. The terror on the fighters’ faces heightened the fear in me. I didn’t want to be caught in that circle of howling, stupid people who wanted to see blood, to see one person reduced to tears or unconsciousness.
At night when my mother made me take the garbage down the hallway to the trash room, I worried about someone attacking me. The trash room was next to the stairwell, where high school guys hung out, smoked and did drugs. Often the light bulb would be out—broken by someone who had been waiting to mug somebody. I was always scared and ready to fight. I didn’t want to fight. I made friends with Chuck, a fat but strong boy who was a feared street-fighter. Since Chuck and I were friends. I had an insurance policy, a personal bodyguard. My best friend, James, didn’t like to fight either. When he did fight, he usually lost. But because he would fight—and never backed down from a fight—he had a reputation as a tough guy and had fewer fights. I learned from his example.
The prospect of fighting for me is still an emotional risk, though I’m middle-class now and have a family and a job, and getting beat up does not hold the threat of defining me as an absolute loser. But fighting still has a hold on my primitive self and my emotions. If I have to fight, will I be the “better man,” and if I lose, what does that mean? Am I the lesser man? Do other people see me as shamed by submission, by the loss of face? Will women know? Would they want a lesser man? These doubts attack my pride and unsettle my confidence, my sense of who l am—”the better man.” A professional fight stirs these feelings in me.
Do you remember Tommy Hearns after his fight with Marvin Hagler? A beaten man, he could get back to his feet only by hanging onto his trainers and his friends. He was dazed, his long arms hanging like spaghetti, his neck so limp that his head dangled. His eyes did not dilate. Finally, one of his friends picked him up and carried him like a father carries a baby. That was defeat—total physical wreckage. Worse, it was emotional wreckage. Hagler ran around the ring celebrating, thrusting his hands up, grabbing his crotch, smiling. His emotions were pumped. After fights, I’ve seen some winning fighters stand on the ropes, making themselves taller, and scream—a throaty, visceral roar. They are alive. They are dominant. They are emotionally whole. The loser has no voice. This is a refinement over the street fight. Then when a man is down, while he’s out, the winner could kill him, sexually abuse him, take his woman, his possessions. That is emotional rape. Who will rape and who will be raped—emotionally—is the risk of fighting.
My father trained fighters, men named Kid Chocolate and Finnegan who were the lightweight champions of South America. My father never fought professionally, but he was a fighter, too. He is a very handsome man with dazzling black eyes and a thick, long scar that cuts across his chest. The scar came from a knife. He was fighting a guy on the street and stepped back, away from a looping right hand. The punch missed. But my father felt a stinging sensation across his chest. The other guy had a knife in his fist with the blade sticking out. My father had other fights. He fought for money and food on board Navy ships that would pass through the Panama Canal. When he was in his forties he married my mother and began working as an accountant during the day for steady income. What defined him, however, was that he trained fighters. His picture would be on the sports pages of the papers as a fight trainer. His words were quoted. He rarely came home, but when he did, it was often with his fighters so they could eat my mother’s cooking.
In one of the earliest pictures of me, I am standing in diapers, no shirt on, fists cocked. Across the way is my father in a fighting stance, crouched, on his toes, showing me the right way to get off a punch. He’s wearing baggy pants and two-tone brown-and-white shoes. My mother tells me he would take me, at age 2, on training runs with his fighters. His favorite game with me when I was a baby was shadow-boxing. I was just 3 when my mother took me, my sister and my brother to Brooklyn. She worked in a sweatshop in the garment district in Manhattan, sewing dresses, while my father would send money to help out. My boxing lessons didn’t resume until he came to Brooklyn when I was about 10. He was never home much, but sometimes he’d show me combinations: how to slide and jab, how to get out of a corner. As I remember, we would do this in the mornings, and he wouldn’t have shaved yet. His beard would rake my face in the clinches. I would swoon when he butted me. And even with my guard up, the force of his punches would make them slide off my hands and land against my face. I hated getting hit in the face. I stopped asking him to show me moves. The lessons ended.
Still, my love of boxing grew stronger. Muhammad Ali’s aura, his style, his poetry, his political activism drew me to him and the sport. The taunting of Frazier, the mugging with Howard Cosell (grabbing his toupee)—Ali was the greatest. When I was in college, I’d go into Philadelphia once in a while to watch Monday night fights at the Spectrum. I’d go alone. Those bouts were savage experiences, club fights pitting black against white, Cuban against Mexican, Boston against Philadelphia—inexpert boxers, many who had taken too many punches going at it for $100. They exchanged roundhouse rights until one man fell. I had to get what I could from the papers about more skillful fighters. I tried to catch the good Saturday afternoon bouts on television, but there weren’t many good ones. Then Sugar Ray Leonard became popular. I’d go out to the Capital Centre to watch his fights on the big screen. Once a guy took a swing at me when he heard me say Duran was winning the fight in Montreal. My friend Vernon decked him. I was getting closer but close wasn’t enough. I wanted to see the real thing up close—a true prizefight.
Inside the Bally Grand Hotel in Las Vegas is a huge mirrored wall. Plastered on the mirror are 20-foot-high profiles of Leonard and Hagler, their heads and chests almost touching. These profiles have no eyes, no expression, and the men are face to face as if ready to explode into combat. Hanging above the clatter and bells of the vast casino floor are big purple gloves with the fighters’ names written in fancy script. On the wide-screen television sets in the bar, they’re showing reruns of previous fights. The big-time fight hoopla doesn’t go past the bar. It does not intrude on the green felt of the gambling tables. There’s no talk of boxing here. The fight is kept out of the restaurant, too. People are absent-mindedly eating while circling 15 numbers on a sheet of paper to play a game called keno. They hand the paper with the 15 numbers to women who walk around in miniskirts and high heels. Then they gaze at the wall to see which 15 numbers appear; they’re looking for a winner.
The scene at Bally’s is muted compared with the neighboring bazaar—Caesars Palace. Here the dominance is as unrestrained as a fight between a pit bull and a toy poodle.
Several hundred people wait by the main entrance to Caesars. They stand in tribute, day and night, to America’s winners—any arriving celebrity. Climbing out of the Mercedes-Benzes, limousines, Jaguars and Porsches (which are all parked in ostentatious glory near the entrance), the celebrities take only a moment to acknowledge the riffraff. The crowd parts quickly at the ominous sight of Wilt Chamberlain. People push forward for a glance at the bejeweled Joan Collins. Inside the hotel, body builders, oiled and pumped, carry a beautiful Egyptian queen in costume on their shoulders while other women wave palms to cool her. Really.
At Caesars Palace, the gamblers are white men over 40. In Caesars Palace they are Caesar’s court. Some dress in country-club pastels, others in tuxedos, and ever so casually flash $700 fight tickets stamped “compliments of the casino.” One man told me he was sent the tickets because he has a standing $50,000 line of credit with Caesars. He had just come away from the baccarat table where $10,000 to $20,000 passes in a flash. He had to walk past two steely-eyed guards who nodded at him and the other white men but remained grim to every other passerby, openly antagonistic to blacks and women. This is the place for the fight—a place of power and dominance.
The fight will be held in an open-air stadium set up in the Caesars Palace parking lot. Past the casino, and past the pool that no one swims in, are three or four chain-link gates—entrances to an arena that holds 15,000 people. There’s a boxing ring in the middle surrounded by a few rows of press tables. Then a dozen rows of plastic bucket seats. Behind those seats, on all sides, rise grandstands with flat blue plastic planks set on metal girders. The scene is surprisingly Spartan, dominated by the wire fences, the criss-crossed bare metal poles that support the grandstands and the plain plastic seats.
Past the small stadium is a one-story, plain metal building housing a section of bleachers and a bare, wooden stage. This is where the fighters’ weigh-in will be held, a theater where the champion traditionally enters last to signify his superiority. He is weighed last and remains on the stage after the challenger leaves. The champion is dominant. But it is a place for both fighters to strut and preen. The fighters know this is play-acting, but they also know it is really the fight’s opening round. They don’t want to lose in any arena to a man they will soon have to fight; they want to keep the psychological advantage.
Leonard appears first. He wears a white T -shirt, slacks and black leather boots. He appears as royalty amid many courtiers. His aides, his trainers, his bodyguards, his son and home-town television types like Glenn Brenner and Frank Herzog chatter, point and wave as they form a moving colony around him. In their midst is this little brown man, not very muscular, but regal. His bearing is formal. He keeps his eyes forward, never turning to talk or to acknowledge anyone. He doesn’t react when the cheering for his appearance is overwhelmed by booing from the packed bleachers. Only Leonard and his trainers are allowed past the security guards and onto the stage. A bald, husky-voiced old guy, waving a cigar, has warned a moment before that he “don’t mean to offend anyone, but no hangers-on” will be allowed on the stage, “no aunts, no uncles, no best friends, no nobody…”
Now on the stage, Leonard begins to untie his leather boots. He does it slowly, then slides each foot out, deliberately and neatly taking off each sock. An aide rushes to take away the shoes the instant he is done. Then he stands and pulls down his pants, finally sitting to slip the legs over his feet. He has on black bikini underwear. With his T-shirt still on he walks over to the scales and mounts them, erect and expressionless. Several functionaries in three-piece suits rush over, bending to look at the numbers on the scale. Then they go away. Leonard remains, glorying in the reverence of his audience.
Suddenly there is a roar. Hagler’s troops have emerged from behind the grandstand. In place of Leonard’s black bodyguards in sunglasses, Hagler has old white men in white sweaters next to him—his trainers. He walks quickly. And he looks like a bad dude: shaved head, scars on his face, dark sunglasses. He bounds up the steps to the stage. His shoes are white high-topped sneakers with Velcro wraps around the ankles. He pulls off his sneakers roughly, stands and strips off his pants, then pulls the zipper on his sweat jacket and throws it off.
Now the psychological game is in bloom. I’ve seen it on the streets, in bars, in office politics. Dominance can be established by the man who struts and commands all attention for himself. He takes his power from the obeisance of sycophants. He takes power from staring at his opponent until the opponent looks away. He takes power at a bar by simply pushing his whiskey glass toward the other man, claiming turf at the other man’s expense. This, then, is really the opening round of the Leonard-Hagler fight.
Leonard, who had taken his seat while Hagler marched onstage, now remounts the scale and his weight is formally announced. Standing on the scale, he radiates calm and confidence. He raises his bands in victory. The cheers float over him. Hagler silences them. He steps in front of Leonard and flexes. His stomach and chest muscles move in a majestic symphony, his stomach muscles, especially, protruding in waves of defiant strength. Hagler—muscular, nude but for his bikini underwear—contrasts sharply with Leonard: flat, firm with few obvious muscles, his shirt on.
The brazen intimidation intended by Hagler’s posturing brings raucous remarks from the crowd. Leonard gets off the scale. Hagler rushes to get on. In his hurt he forgets that he has left his socks on. An official asks him to take them off. It slows the bull’s charge. Hagler rips the socks off, flinging them away. On the scale Hagler looks over at Leonard and gives a thumbs-down signal. Leonard is dressing as Hagler lingers, on the scale. Hagler turns to him and stares. Leonard is by then bent down to pull his shoes on. Hagler continues staring, even pointing at Leonard as he walks away from the scale. Leonard stares back, but there still is no expression to his face.
Round one to Hagler. He is the crowd’s favorite and has dominated the weigh-in ceremony. If this were the street, he would be “fronting,” sticking out his chest, swaggering and talking trash, insulting Leonard’s mother. But enough of the street. This is Las Vegas. This is Sugar Ray and Marvelous Marvin. We’re talking about tens of millions of dollars here, a boxing ring, a referee, judges and viewers worldwide. These men are professionals doing a job.
No—these are two men out to dominate. One will dominate and one will be dominated.
When Hagler was deciding whether to retire or fight Leonard, he said his wife told him, “Why don’t you go ahead and get that little skinny bastard out of the way.” Leonard has had his passionate words, too. While Hagler walked around Las Vegas in a black hat with the word “War” on it, Leonard told reporters he was not going to war to beat Hagler. “I see it as a battle of will and wit,” said Leonard with a smile that made it clear that Hagler is a dummy. “He gets mad …,” Leonard explained to reporters. “Little things make him fed up …. He gets frustrated.” A dumb animal to be contained.
After Hagler disappears from the weigh-in, a black man from Los Angeles wearing a gold-and-white sweat suit with red-and-white Fila athletic shoes and thick gold chains walks over to me. “Yeah, bro, it’s over,” he says. “You’ve seen my man’s body—he’s going to kill that little Leonard. Sure enough going to detach that eye, maybe pop the whole thing out.” He says he knows people in Hagler’s camp, and they are joking about letting Leonard have a bigger ring (20 feet instead of 18) and letting Leonard set the bout at a 12-round limit. “There won’t be no 12th round,” he says. “Ray will be lucky if there’s a second round.”
The conversation stirs me. There is heat in his words. I have the desire to have intense moments like these fighters will have tonight, moments that inspire heat in other men’s words. Tonight the fighters’ world will be totally focused. Their minds and energies will be limited to that ring, to dominating the other man, to controlling their emotions. their fears. angers and desires, until the job is done. Today will be spent in pure anticipation of that moment. Today the fighters do nothing but wait; they have gone without sex for weeks. They go without sex today. They lie in bed, watch TV, talk to no one. Hagler will eat two meals—first meatballs and spaghetti and then, in the afternoon, fish and salad. Leonard will eat one meal—chicken, corn bread and greens. Food doesn’t matter. Sex doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. They are waiting for their moment. One moment. The fight.
This fight means more to the fighters than mere money. If Hagler wins he can claim to be the greatest middleweight. He has not been beaten in 37 fights over 11 years. If Leonard wins, he will go down in history as a fighter like no other, a welterweight and junior middleweight champion who came back after a three-year hiatus and beat the most ferocious middleweight of his day. The loser will still be able to say he was good, but the winner of this fight becomes a legend. In the language of the streets, he will become, for all time, a bad mother.
In the restaurants. shapely women model tight sweater-skirt outfits, walking from table to table. Like automatons they repeat the name of the clothing, designer, the fabric and the colors available at a nearby shop. In the bars near-naked women serve drinks to tables crowded with men. Even outside, the streets are littered with ads for call-girls, pictures of practically nude women who for $150 will come to your hotel room.
The casinos seem a blur. The dizzy spinning roulette wheel; the rich men signaling for a light on thick cigars; the gilded baubles on display at Gucci (which is conveniently located a few feet from the casino); the paintings in the coffee shop of black slaves serving overripe fruit. There are no politics in Las Vegas, just people luxuriating in acceptance of a world where the rich are the righteous, celebrity is a must, women are sex objects, and blacks are the gladiators. Those who are not beautiful or strong enough serve drinks, deal cards, tote luggage and eventually get out of town.
All Monday, Las Vegas is frenzied. On the automatic walkway leading to Caesars Palace, a blonde Texan wearing red toenail polish under plastic high heels drops her highball and vomits. Baseball fans begin pushing and shoving as they stand in line for Willie Mays’ autograph. Bo Derek, Tony Danza, John Thompson, Telly Savalas, Timothy Hutton, Mark Gastineau, Gene Hackman—the sight of them sets off a rash of flashing bulbs outside the arena in the hour before the fight. Inside, a seating section to the right of the ring is reserved for celebrities only. The crowd is thick. The aisles of this small stadium cannot hold them. People are crushed together, moving a step at a time. The women are dressed for a White House dinner. They wear evening gowns and designer leather and big, shiny jewels. There are even some furs on this 50-degree night. But you’ve got to be dressed tonight. This is it. A big-time fight. I can’t believe I’m really here. I feel the terror, the butterflies, the urge to hit, the sexual, primitive response to threat.
Leonard comes out first. He is wearing a white satin jacket, with vents, an elastic band holding it snug to his waist. He dances around. He waits. Three minutes. Then the song “War” comes over the loudspeakers. Marvelous Mavin Hagler in black robe, hood up, marches through the arena and into the ring. High atop Caesars Palace an American flag begins to explode in a fireworks display. The flag starts coming apart. The exploding, crumbling flag, with its threat of starting a fire, is an excess on top of the excesses of Las Vegas, and it fascinates the crowd. Necks crane toward the flag. Meanwhile. Leonard dances over toward Hagler’s comer. It looks like a taunt. He is purposely riling Hagler. It is part of his fight plan. He comes back to Hagler’s comer once again and this time does a lightning-fast spin. Hagler watches. A jaguar watching a deer, waiting for him to come too close. The anthem is sung. The Pointer Sisters get out of the ring. The fight begins. Finally.
Hagler smacks his red gloves against his bald head and stomps into the middle of the ring. For the first minute he stays there, Leonard circling him, throwing a few quick combinations. Hagler doesn’t throw a punch. Finally he punches at Leonard, who is immediately off at a run, pursued by Hagler. This exchange sets the style of the fight: Leonard running, Hagler pursuing, and occasionally catching Leonard on the ropes for a few quick seconds (to the delight of the crowd) before Leonard again slides off the ropes and resumes his run. As the round ends, Leonard, on the ropes, throws a flurry of punches at Hagler. This too becomes a pattern Leonard will follow throughout the fight. At every round’s end, he throws punches, flashy quick punches to Hagler’s head. My father once told me that in boxing it’s important to always get in the last punch. Your opponent will remember it, and the judges will have it in their minds as they score the round.
Leonard looks incredibly sharp for a man who was knocked down in his last fight three years ago by a mediocre fighter named Kevin Howard. Leonard is spinning off the ropes, his legs look good and his combinations are crisp. And because Hagler is chasing him. Leonard is dictating the pace of the fight.
The most important thing going on in these early rounds follows the rule from every bar-room fight—control your fear. Leonard is controlling his fear by controlling his opponent. He sets up Hagler. Hagler never sets up Leonard. Leonard can predict where Hagler will be—right in front of him. Hagler never knows where Leonard will be. Leonard’s fear, his uncertainty—all the talk he has heard about being out of the ring too long—is burning itself out. If he can control the other guy, there is no need to be scared; there is no reason to have fear.
Even while Leonard is fighting his fear, Hagler is fighting his anxiety. He wants to fight, slug it out, man-to-man with Leonard. But he knows Leonard’s reputation as a cunning opponent who sets traps for bigger, stronger, meaner fighters. Hagler does not want to fall into one of Leonard’s traps. So he waits in the center of the ring in the early minutes of the fight. He fights his impulse to bombard the slimmer Leonard. He doesn’t want to get tired before Leonard does. Leonard is gaining confidence by the moment. He sticks his chin out at Hagler. At the end of the fourth round he hits Hagler on the top of his bald head, leaving the judges with the memory of a flurry of punches.
Leonard’s control of the early rounds infuriates Hagler. Talking trash is part of street-fighting. So it is in the ring. Anger your opponent, and he begins to flail, stops thinking. Leonard calls Hagler a sissy. He pushes Leonard into the ropes. He’s shouting, come on and fight me. This is Hagler’s game—anger, rage, fury.
But even when Hagler backs him into the ropes, Leonard is in control, setting up Hagler. He continues to land his punches before Hagler can get going. Coming off the ropes. he’ll clamp Hagler’s right fist under his left arm and then walk into Hagler. Referee Richard Steele is slow to break them. Hagler isn’t complaining and he isn’t pushing Leonard off; he’s stupidly pleased to have Leonard in one place, finally standing still, and now he’s trying to hit him. But the short shots have no leverage, and since Leonard is pushing him backward, there’s all the less power in the punches.
In the streets, there is no benefit to dancing around your opponent unless you can hit him often enough to make him give up, quit. In the ring, the judges award points for dancing, for blows to the head, chest, stomach and kidneys. It really doesn’t matter how hard the punches are, just that they connect. No one can really tell how hard a punch is unless the fighter who gets hit reacts—that is, gets knocked down or gets knocked out. In the first four rounds Leonard simply out-points Hagler. He isn’t trying to knock him out, just to hit him, keep a glove in his face, frustrate him, while showing the judges that he can hit Hagler.
My father once told me that fighting a bigger boy is like playing with fire. Fire, he said, can cook your dinner, light your home, warm you at night. It can also burn your house down and kill you. The key to controlling the fire is understanding its nature and working within that nature to achieve what you want to achieve. Leonard is handling Hagler like fire—being very careful not to get burned while using Hagler’s heat, his aggressive nature and bull-ahead charging tactics to defeat him. Can he do it for 12 rounds?
Hagler’s anxiety is growing. He wants to knock Leonard around, but he doesn’t want to fall into a trap. His indecision has cost him the first four rounds of the fight. In the fifth Hagler drops all pretense of strategy and begins an aggressive assault. Now Leonard is on the defensive. Hagler is crowding him, firing good body shots. Some miss, some hit, but more hit than ever before. At the round’s end Sugar Ray’s flurry isn’t there. Instead he is against the ropes trading punches with Hagler. A jab, then an uppercut catch Leonard. The crowd roars. Leonard counters, softly, and doesn’t move off the ropes. The bell rings. Leonard stumbles across the ring to get back to his comer. Hagler’s fire has been turned up and Leonard looks singed. The roar of the crowd says it smells knockout. “That’s it, next round he’s gone.” the man in front of me is screaming.
Pain is a distraction. It clouds the mind. It invites confusion and, worse—it invites fear. Leonard has had his fear under control. Now, for the first time, Leonard’s handlers look concerned. Leonard’s eyes are far away as he sits on his stool. If he forgets his plan—if he’s hurt and unable to move, if he decides he has to prove himself by slugging it out with Hagler—this will be a short night. Angelo Dundee, Leonard’s trainer, is in his face, spittle flying, shouting through the haze. Stick and run, keep him punching at the angles, this is your night Ray, you’re winning Ray, you’re winning. Leonard is up before the bell and across the ring waiting for Hagler.
In Round 6, Hagler’s aggression returns. And so does Leonard’s fear. It never overwhelms him, though. At the round’s end Hagler has Leonard on the ropes, but he and Leonard are trading body shots. Leonard isn’t connecting with any power, though, and is busy fighting to stay on top of Hagler’s aggression. Some of Leonard’s movements look herky-jerky. But he still has his growing fear under control. The punch to the top of Hagler’s head at the end of the round is evidence that Leonard is in charge.
Leonard’s behavior reminds me of the words of comedian Billy Crystal on “Saturday Night Live.” It’s not how you feel—it’s how you look. And Ray looks marvelous. Inside his head, he is fighting increasing fear and pain. But neither Hagler nor the judges see it. Leonard’s theatrical ability and will to win are keeping him alive. What a boxer!
By the ninth round, Hagler senses this fight has gone on too long. His corner looks panicky. They want him to take Leonard out—go to him and get him now. Hagler catches him against the ropes early on and looks to connect with the jab—the set-up for the bomb. He’s hitting Leonard but Leonard is keeping himself moving, twisting his body, moving his head and counter-punching. Hagler keeps coming. Against the ropes again, Leonard is hit with a good Hagler combination to the body. But he responds with a flurry of punches and, surprisingly, dances away. The crowd is roaring. This is the fight they came to see.
Leonard’s face reveals a new thought as he sits in his comer at the end of the ninth. This fight has only three rounds to go. Leonard’s will is amazing. He’s tired. Hagler’s fire is coming on stronger. But from his heart, Leonard is working, continuing to fire combinations that have no power but nonetheless land, scoring punches. Leonard continues to keep his body at angles, thwarting the power of Hagler’s punches.
Then, in a show of bravado that brings us back to “it’s not how how you feel, it’s how you look,” Leonard turns and postures with a bolo punch, taunting Hagler. Leonard is winning the fight of images. Even as the strength is draining from his body he is concealing his fear and exhaustion. Most important, Hagler, who clearly looks stronger and less fatigued, doesn’t sense Leonard’s fear and that increases his feeling of frustration at not having nailed him. Now Hagler begins to throw wild punches. Leonard catches him with a combination to the body.
In the final round, Leonard continues to showboat. He comes off his stool with his hands raised in victory. He beckons for Hagler to come to the middle of the ring. He waves to the crowd, asking them to cheer him on. They do. He is controlling Hagler and the crowd. At the end he hits Hagler on the head. This round is Leonard’s, for mental and emotional strength.
My score card shows Leonard a winner, seven rounds to five, He found a strategy to beat Hagler, he found the skill to execute it and the mental strength to keep to it. If a man makes his world, then Leonard made this fight follow his script, and he put on a classic boxing show. That brilliance was also in a sense the fight’s flaw. By the law of the streets a fight should scream violence—two men throwing their bodies at each other and the stronger, meaner man winning. In the street Leonard would not have been able to rely on a 12-round limit or the judge’s scoring. He would do better to talk his way out of a disagreement with Mr. Hagler. By that standard this fight was polite, bloodless, a delight for the cognoscenti. It was evidence that brains and strategy can defeat brawn.
As the final bell rings, Leonard raises his arms and walks around the ring. He understands that the fight is not over until he exults, shows he feels he has won. Then he falls to his knees in collapse. He is that tired. Hagler remains in his comer, his face cold and expressionless.
I am standing with two other reporters. One has the fight dead even—a draw. The other has it as a win for Leonard. I do, too. A fan, a guy from San Antonio, walks over to me, asks me how I scored the fight. He says Leonard has not beaten Hagler badly enough to take away the title. All Leonard did was survive, hold and run and survive, he says. I agree. But I say my score card shows Leonard the winner of seven rounds of a 12-round fight.
The ring announcer comes to the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “we have a split decision. Judge Dave Moretti scores it 115-113 Hagler. Judge Lou Filippo scores it 115-113 Leonard. And Judge Jo-Jo Guerra scores it 118-110. The new …”
At the sound of the word “new,” the arena explodes. Leonard jumps around the ring, waving his arms, shaking his fists.
But the fight isn’t over yet. In my neighborhood the fight itself was not as important as what people Had to say afterward. If the crowd believed the cops showed up too early, or somebody got a knife from one of his boys, then the decision could go either way. If the loser was robbed, he might as well be the winner.
There is no doubt tonight. The talk is of Leonard’s “great performance” and “his strategy.” In the press room. Prentice Bird, who handles fighters, including Tommy Hearns, for the Kronk gym in Detroit, says Hagler is too old, his legs are “gone.” Jesse Jackson comes over to me and compares Leonard to Ali.
Suddenly Leonard appears. He stands by the microphone, a sly grin on his face, and holds up a piece of paper. He reads off the names of sportswriters, all of whom had picked Hagler to win, then drops the paper; Hagler called him names, Leonard says, shaking his head as a father does when disappointed with a child, but he knew Hagler was in trouble because Hagler gave away the first five rounds and would have had to get a knockout to win it. With the wave of an aristocrat, a man who has proven himself in some real, unquestionable way, he says, “No more questions … I have no more to say, gentlemen,” turns and leaves. His wife, Juanita, comes forward. She is wearing the green leather championship belt like a sash, slung over her shoulder, across her chest, the gold buckle lying between her breasts. She seems in a daze. She stands there as if she is the trophy. There she is—the winner’s woman.
Half an hour later, Hagler unexpectedly walks out and sits in a chair on the stage. Usually, the losers disappear in emotional disrepair. Hagler hardly looks upset—he looks angry. “They took it away from me and gave it to Sugar Ray of all people,” he says. Boxing is politics and the people who run boxing don’t want him to retire as he had planned to do. The boxing money-men wanted Sugar Ray to win and it left him with a “bitter taste” in his mouth. He was the aggressor the whole fight—”You saw it”—and the bell saved Leonard three or four times. “He fought like a girl in there,” he says, waving his hand and insisting Leonard never hurt him. Pointing to the reporters, he says Leonard “told me himself—he said, ‘You beat me.’”
Still Hagler keeps talking. He says he can’t believe he lost. He says when he wakes up in the morning, he’ll have to check to make sure this really happened. Hagler wants to talk more, but Bob Arum, the promoter, ends the press conference.
I find one of Leonard’s entourage and ask if what Hagler said was true. He laughs. Leonard told Hagler, he says, that Hagler was still the middleweight champion. Ray doesn’t want to be the middleweight champion. He doesn’t want the belt, he says. “Hagler can be the champion—Ray is the superstar.”
I feel sorry for Marvelous Marvin. He didn’t understand. Leonard made a passing comment and in his embarrassment Hagler has seized on it, even repeated it to the press, without understanding it. Leonard humiliated him. In the terms of a Brooklyn schoolyard fight, Leonard had “busted that mother.” Now the fight was really over. And it wasn’t even close.
I’m a fight fan and I suggested doing the story for the Washington Post‘s Sunday magazine. It was a pleasure to write because I didn’t have to report the news, there was no hard deadline. I could take my time and explore my personal history with fighting. My father trained boxers. There’s a strange picture of me when I was young on the balcony in Panama. I’m in white shoes, my fists cocked. That’s an odd thing for a father to do to a toddler but I think he was imparting what he knew to me. It’s not that he expected me to be a boxer.
When I was four, my mother took my two siblings and me from Colon, Panama, to New York and my father didn’t join us until I was 10. A few years later I went away to prep school so there were large gaps in my childhood when he wasn’t present. My brother and sister were 8 and 10 years older. We lived in the Ebbets Field Houses in Brooklyn—section 8 housing. I was the little guy, left behind, sitting alone on the stoop. I didn’t have neighborhood protection until later when I proved that I was good at basketball.
Where I grew up fighting was a survival thing. I wasn’t a fighter by nature. Fear was the driving instinct, and fighting was about learning how to manage the fear. I just didn’t want to be crushed but I didn’t have the desire to dominate someone else. Getting hit when you practice had no appeal for me. Getting hit in the face even when head gear protects your skin from being torn is still getting hit in the face. It’s an unpleasant experience. As I wrote in this piece my father told me that fighting a bigger boy is like playing with fire. The crucial part is to control the fire and learn how to use it to your advantage.
Which is partly why I identified with Leonard. Also, he was from the D.C. area, that’s where I was working, so he was a hometown guy. The central point of that fight, the heart and soul of the fight, was that Leonard had an effective strategy for fighting Hagler and Hagler had no strategy other than to knock Leonard out. He was the raging bull. It was the lion vs. an antelope.
The perception of the fight may have changed over time but not in my mind. I don’t recall anyone saying at the time that Hagler got robbed. I can only see that being the case because Hagler was the aggressor and some people may feel that the one who was hitting harder should have won. But if you appreciate the beauty of the sport—who controls the fight—there is no question, at the end particularly, that Leonard was in control of the ring and of the fight.
Juan Williams was a longtime reporter and columnist at The Washington Post. He is now a political analyst for Fox News.
Another gem. Originally published in the June 1989 issue of Esquire. Republished here with the permission of the late author’s son, Mark Kram Jr., a wonderful storyteller in his own right. His postscript follows. For a contemporary, but very different, glimpse of Ali, check out Davis Miller’s story about his day with the champ.
Great Men Die Twice
By Mark Kram
There is the feel of a cold offshore mist to the hospital room, a life-is-a-bitch feel, made sharp by the hostile ganglia of medical technology, plasma bags dripping, vile tubing snaking in and out of the body, blinking monitors leveling illusion, muffling existence down to a sort of digital bingo. The Champ, Muhammad Ali, lies there now, propped up slightly, a skim of sweat on his lips and forehead, eyes closed, an almost imperceptible tremor to his arms and head. For all his claims to the contrary, his surface romance with immortality, Ali had a spooky bead on his future; he never saw it sweeping grandly toward him but bellying quietly along the jungle floor. “We just flies in a room,” he liked to say, moving quickly across the ruins of daily life, plane crashes, train wrecks, matricide, infanticide; then after swatting half of humanity, he’d lower his voice and whisper, as if imparting a secret, “We just flies, that’s all. Got nowhere to fly, do we?”
Images and echoes fill the room, diffuse and speeding, shot through with ineluctable light and the mythopoeic for so long, the glass darkened to a degree no one thought possible; his immense talent, his ring wisdom, his antipathy for chemicals, argued against destructibility; all he would ever do is grow old. For twenty years, while he turned the porno shop of sports into international theater, attention was paid in a way it never was before or has been since. The crowds were a wonder to behold. Kids scaled the wings of jets to get a glimpse of him; thousands, young and old, tailed him in masses during his roadwork. World leaders marveled at the spell he cast over the crowds. “If you were a Filipino,” joked Ferdinand Marcos, “I’d have to shoot you.” The pope asked for his autograph; Sure, he said, pointing to a picture, but why ain’t Jesus black? A young Libyan student in London sat on his bed, kept him up half the night with dithyrambic visions of Muslim revolution. “Watch, one day you will see,” said Muammar Qaddafi. Half asleep, Ali said: “Sheeeet, you crazy.” Leonid Brezhnev once dispatched a note to an official at Izvestia: “I would like to see more on Muhammad Ali. Who is this man?”
The Ali Watch: how absurd that it would one day drop down here on a little hospital on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. The nurse dabs his face dry. What is he thinking? Never has his favorite phrase sounded so dismally precise: My, my, ain’t the world strange. If he could root back through the maze of moment and incident, would he find premonitory signs sticking out like dire figurations of chicken entrails? Does he remember King Levinsky, one of the many heavy bags for Joe Louis, in the corridor after the Miami Beach weigh-in? Boldly colored ties draped Levinsky’s neck (he sold them on the street), his synapses now like two eggs over-light, in permanent sizzle, as he tried to move into stride with a young Cassius Clay. Over and over, like a one-man Greek chorus, Levinsky croaked, eyes spinning, spittle bubbling from his lips: “He’s gonna take you, kid. Liston’s gonna take you, make you a guy sellin’ ties… Partners with me kid, ya kin be partners with me.” Does he remember a shadowed evening in his hotel room a day or so after the third Joe Frazier fight, moving to the window, his body still on fire from the assault? He stood there watching the bloodred sun drop into Manila Bay, then took a visitor’s hand and guided it over his forehead, each bump sending a vague dread through the fingers. “Why I do this?” he said softly. Does he remember the Bahamian cowbell tinkling the end of his final, pathetic fight, a derisive goodbye sound stark with omen? What is he thinking?
Ali poses a question, his eyes closed, his lips parting as if he were sliding open manhole covers. “You die here…. they take you home?” he asks. The nurses roll their eyes and smile, struck by his innocence; it has nothing to do, they know, with morbidity. He is not joking either. The practical aftermath of death seems to stimulate his curiosity these days; nothing urgent, mind you, just something that begins to get into your mind when you’re watching blood move in and out of your body for half the day. Though he is very much a mystic, there is a part of Ali that has always found security and a skewed understanding of life in the quantifiable: amounts, calibrated outcomes, the creaking, reassuring machinery of living. The night before in the hotel lounge, with his wife, Lonnie, beside him, bemusedly aghast, he grilled a pleasant waitress until he knew how many tips she got each week, how many children she had, the frequency of men hitting on her, and the general contour of her reality. “She have a sad life,” he said later. The nurse now cracks with a deadpan expression: “You die, we take you home, Muhammad.
Still, a certain chiaroscuro grimness attaches to their surreal exchange and cries out for some brainless, comic intervention. He himself had long been a specialist in such relief when he would instantly brighten faces during his favorite tours of prisons, orphanages, and nursing homes. When down himself (very seldom), he could count on a pratfall from his hysterical shaman, Drew “Bundini” Brown, on the latest bizarre news from his scheming court, maybe a straight line from some reporter that he would turn into a ricocheting soliloquy on, say, the disgusting aesthetics of dining on pig. No laughs today, though.
“Don’t make him laugh,” a nurse insisted when leading a writer and a photographer into the room. “Laughing shakes the tubing loose.” The photographer is Howard Bingham, Ali’s closest friend; he’s been with the Champ from the start, in the face of much abuse from the Black Muslims. Ali calls him “the enemy” or “the nonbeliever.” His natural instinct is to make Ali laugh; today he has to settle for biting his lower lip and gazing warily back and forth between Ali and his nurses. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands. Ali had requested that he leave his cameras outside; just one shot of this scene, of Ali on his back, the forbidding purge in progress, of fame and mystique splayed raw, would bring Bingham a minor fortune. “He doesn’t want the world to see him like this,” says Howard. “I wouldn’t take the picture for a million dollars.”
The process is called plasmapheresis. It lasts five hours and is being conducted by Dr. Rajko Medenica. The procedure, popular in Europe, is a cleansing of the blood. Ali is hooked up to an electrocardiograph and a blood-pressure monitor; there is always some risk when blood is not making its customary passage. But the procedure is not dangerous and he is in no pain, we are told. Two things, though, that he surely can’t abide about the treatment: the injection of those big needles and the ceaseless tedium. When he was a young fighter, a doctor had to chase him around a desk to give him a shot, and chaotic mobility to him is at least as important as breathing. Bingham can’t take his eyes off Ali; the still life of his friend, tethered so completely, seems as incomprehensible to him as it would to others who followed the radiated glow of Ali’s invulnerability. The nurses cast an eye at his blood pressure and look at each other. His pressure once jumped twelve points while he watched a TV report on Mike Tyson’s street fight with Mitch Green in Harlem. It’s rising a bit now, and the nurses think he has to urinate. He can’t bear relieving himself in the presence of women; he resists, and his anxiety climbs.
“Ali,” one of them calls. His eyes remain closed, his breathing is hardly audible. The nurse calls to him again; no response. “Come on now, Ali,” she complains, knowing that he likes to feign death. “Now, stop it, Ali.” He doesn’t move, then suddenly his head gives a small jerk forward and his eyes buck wide open, the way they used to when he’d make some incoherent claim to lineage to the gods. The nurses flinch, or are they in on the joke, too? Eyes still wide, with a growing smile, he says to the writer, weakly: “You thought I dead, tell the truth. You the only one ever here to see this and I die for ya. You git some scoop, big news round the whole world, won’t it be?” He leans his head back on the pillow, saying: “Got no funny people round me anymore. Have to make myself laugh.” The nurse wants to know if he has to urinate. “No,” he says with a trace of irritation. “Yes, you do,” the nurse says. “Your pressure…” Ali looks over at Lonnie with mischievous eyes. “I just thinkin’ ’bout a pretty woman.” The nurse asks him what he’d like for lunch. “Give him some pork,” cracks Bingham. Ali censures the heretic with a playful stare. Ali requests chicken and some cherry pie with “two scoops of ice cream.” He turns to the writer again: “Abraham Lincoln went on a three-day drunk, and you know what he say when he wake up?” He waits for a beat, then says: “I freed whooooooo?” His body starts to shake with laughter. The nurse yells: “Stop it, Muhammad! You’ll drive the needles through your veins.” His calms down, rasps, “I’ll never grow up, will I? I’ll be fifty in three years. Old age just make you ugly, that’s all.”
Not all, exactly; getting old is the last display for the bread-and-circuses culture. Legends must suffer for all the gifts and luck and privilege given to them. Great men, it’s been noted, die twice—once as great, and once as men. With grace, preferably, which adds an uplifting, stirring, Homeric touch. If the fall is too messy, the national psyche will rush toward it, then recoil; there is no suspense, no example in the mundane. The captivating, aspiring sociopath Sonny Liston had a primitive hold on the equation of greatness. “Clay (he never called him Ali) beeeg now,” Sonny once said while gnawing on some ribs. “He flyin’ high now. Like an eagle. So high. Where he gonna land, how he gonna land? He gonna have any wings? I wanna see.” Sonny, of course, never made it for the final show. Soon after, he checked out in Vegas, the suspicion of murder hovering over the coroner’s report.
Who wanted to ask the question back then, or even be allowed to examine in depth its many possibilities? It was too serious for the carnival, immediately at odds with the cartoon bombast that swirled around Ali, the unassailable appeal of the phenomenon, the breathtaking climb of the arc. Before him, the ring, if not moribund, had been a dark, somber corner of sports, best described by the passing sight of then-middleweight-king Dick Tiger, leaving his beat-up hotel wearing a roomy black homburg and a long pawnshop overcoat, a black satchel in his hand, heading for the subway and a title fight at the Garden. But the heavyweight champions—as they always will—illuminated the image sent out to the public. There was the stoic, mute Joe Louis, with his cruising menace; street fighter Rocky Marciano, with his trade-unionist obedience; the arresting and dogged Floyd Patterson, who would bare his soul to a telephone pole at the sight of a pencil; all unfrivolous men who left no doubt as to the nature of their work.
With the emergence of Muhammad Ali, no one would ever see the ring the same way again, not even the fighters themselves; a TV go, a purse, and sheared lip would never be enough; and a title was just a belt unless you did something with it. A fighter had to be; a product, an event, transcendental. Ali and the new age met stern, early resistance. He was the demon loose at a holy rite. With his preening narcissism, braggart mouth, and stylistic quirks, he was viewed as a vandal of ring tenets and etiquette. Besides, they said, he couldn’t punch, did not like to get hit, and seemed to lack a sufficient amount of killer adrenaline. True, on the latter two counts. “I git no pleasure from hurtin’ another human bein’,” he used to say. “I do what I gotta do, nothin’ more, nothin’ less.” As far as eating punches, he said, “Only a fool wanna be hit. Boxin’ just today, my face is forever.” Others saw much more. The ballet master Balanchine, for one, showed up at a workout and gazed in wonder. “My God,” he said, “he fights with his legs, he actually fights with his legs. What an astonishing creature.” Ali’s jab (more like a straight left of jolting electricity) came in triplets, each a thousandth of a second in execution. He’d double up cruelly with a left hook (rarely seen) and razor in a right—and then he’d be gone. Even so, it took many years for Ali to ascend to a preeminent light in the national consciousness. In the Sixties, as a converted Black Muslim, he vilified white people as blond, blue-eyed devils. His position on Vietnam—”I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong, anyway. They never called me nigger”—was innocent at first, but then taken up as if he were the provocateur of a national crisis. The politicians, promoters, and sweeping sentiment converged to conspire against his constitutional right to work; states barred him from fighting. He resisted the draft and drifted into exile. Three years later he returned, heavier, slower, but with a new kind of fire in his belly. Though he had defeated heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and defended his title nine times, Ali had never had a dramatic constituency before. Now a huge one awaited him, liberals looking for expression, eager literati to put it into scripture, worn-out hippies, anyone who wanted to see right done for once. The rest is history: the two symphonic conflicts with Joe Frazier; the tingling walk with him into the darkness of George Foreman. Then, the Hegelian “bad infinite” of repeating diminishing cycles: retiring, unretiring, the torture of losing weight, the oiling of mushy reflexes. The margins of dominance compressed perilously, and the head shots (negligible before exile) mounted.
Greatness trickled from the corpus of his image, his career now like a gutshot that was going to take its time before killing. His signing to fight Larry Holmes, after retiring a second time, provoked worried comment. After watching some of Ali’s films, a London neurologist said that he was convinced Ali had brain damage. Diagnosis by long distance, the promoters scoffed. Yet among those in his camp, the few who cared, there was an edginess. They approached Holmes, saying, “Don’t hurt him, Larry.” Moved, Holmes replied: “No way. I love Ali.” With compassion, he then took Ali apart with the studied carefulness of a diamond cutter; still, not enough to mask the winces at ringside. Ali failed to go the route for the first time in his career. Incredibly, fourteen months later, in 1981, his ego goaded him to the Bahamas and another fight, the fat jellied on his middle, his hand-speed sighing and wheezing like a busted old fan; tropic rot on the trade winds. Trevor Berbick, an earnest pug, outpointed him easily. Afterward, Angelo Dundee, who had trained Ali from the start and had to be talked into showing up for this one, watched him slumped in the dressing room, then turned away and rubbed his eyes as certain people tried to convince Ali that he had been robbed and that a fourth title was still possible.
The public prefers, indeed seems to insist on, the precedent set by Rocky Marciano, who quit undefeated, kept self-delusion at bay. Ali knew the importance of a clean farewell, not only as a health measure but as good commercial sense. His ring classicism had always argued so persuasively against excessive physical harm, his pride was beyond anything but a regal exit. But his prolonged decline had been nasty, unseemly. Who or what pressured him to continue on? Some blamed his manager, Herbert Muhammad, who had made millions with Ali. Herbert said that his influence wasn’t that strong.
Two years after that last fight, Ali seemed as mystified as everyone else as to why he hadn’t ended his career earlier. His was living with his third wife, the ice goddess Veronica, in an L.A. mansion, surrounded by the gifts of a lifetime—a six-foot hand carved tiger given to him by Teng Hsiao-ping, a robe given to him by Elvis Presley. Fatigued, his hands tremoring badly, he sat in front of the fire and could only say: “Everybody git lost in life. I just git lost, that’s all.”
Now, five years later, the question why still lingers, along with the warning of the old aphorism that “we live beyond what we enact.” The resuscitation of Ali’s image has been a sporadic exercise for a long time now, some of it coming from friends who have experienced heartfelt pain over his illness. Others seem to be trying to assuage a guilt known only to themselves, and a few are out to keep Ali a player, a lure to those who might want to use his name in business; though the marketplace turns away from billboards in decline. Not long ago, a piece in The New York Times Magazine pronounced him the Ali of old, just about terminally perky. Then, Ali surfaced in a front-page telephone interview in The Washington Post. He appeared to have a hard grasp on politics, current states’ rights issues, and federal judgeships being contested—a scenario that had seemed as likely as the fusillade of laser fire Ali said Muslim spaceships would one day loose on the white devils.
Noses began to twitch. What and who was behind the new Ali, the wily Washington lobbyist who had the ear of everyone from Strom Thurmond to Orrin Hatch? The wife of Senator Arlen Specter even baked Ali a double-chocolate-mousse pie. For a good while, most of these senators, and others, knew only the voice of Ali on the phone. Dave Kindred, a columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who has known Ali since his Louisville days, concluded that it was most likely Ali’s attorney, Richard Hirschfeld, widely regarded as a brilliant impersonator of Ali, who had made the calls. (Hirschfeld has refused to comment on whether or not he did so.) Hirschfeld and Ali had cut up a lot of money over the years on numerous enterprises (funded by other people), from hotels to cars, most of them failing. Ali’s lobbying seemed to center on a federal judgeship for a Hirschfeld friend, and a federal lawsuit in which Ali sought $50 million in damages from his “wrongful conviction in the 1967 draft evasion case.” He lost the suit but succeeded in getting Senator Hatch and others to explore a loophole that might remedy the verdict. Ali eventually had to materialize (with Hirschfeld hard by his side), and many on Capitol Hill were unable to match the man with the voice. One of Sam Nunn’s aides, noting Ali’s listlessness and Hirschfeld’s aggressive quizzing, wondered: “Is Ali being carted around like a puppet?” Certainly a serpentine tale; but had Ali been a collaborator all along?
At his farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan, Ali sits at the end of a table in the living room. The 247 pounds of weight have made him a bit short of breath. He’s battled his appetite (two, three desserts, meals back to back) and sedentary lapses for years. Several months before, he had been almost sleek, thanks to fourteen-mile walks and his wife’s efforts to police him at the table. But what is disturbing is the general profile of his condition.
For a long time now, he had appeared indifferent to the ravages of his problem. But he dispels that notion when asked how seriously he considered a dangerous brain operation in Mexico before his family talked him out of it. “Scale of ten,” he says, “a six.” The answer reflects the terrible frustration that must exist within him, the daily, fierce struggle with a body and mind that will not capitulate to his bidding. He sits there, his hands shaking, his movements robotic, the look on his face similar to what the Marines call a thousand-yard stare.
Why is it, do you think, that after all these years, the dominant sound around Ali is silence? Look at the cataract of noise caught by TV sound men, look at the verbosity that snared some novelists into thinking he was a primitive intelligence capable of Ciceronian insight. Part of the fever of the times; if the Black Panther Huey Newton, posing with a rifle and spear, could be written up as a theoretical genius, and his partner, Bobby Seale, interpreted as a tactical wizard, then how much a symbol was Ali, the first to tap and manifest glinting black pride, to dispute with vigor erosive self-laceration.
The fact was that he was not cerebral; he was a reflex of confusing emotions and instant passions. He did have street cunning, most of it aimed at keeping himself a mystery. “People like mystery,” he used to say. “Who is he? What’s he all about? Who’s he gonna be tomorrow?” To that end, he tossed the media rabble dripping hunks of redundant, rote monologue; his loudness provided a great show and diverted probing questions. By nature, he was gentle, sensitive man, and even in the throes of angry threats against whites it was hard to hide a smile, for he loved what the blacks call “selling wolf tickets,” tricking people into fear. The Black Panthers used that gambit well, and the TV crews followed their presence. Thinking of all of this, how could someone so alien to ideas, and thought, who communicated privately, in scraps and remote silences, be capable of fooling Washington politicians? Absurd, of course, but then the question emerges: Did he allow himself to be used?
“How about all those phone calls,” he is asked.
“What calls?” he responds, vacantly.
“To politicians, this past summer.”
“You can’t believe that,” he says. “Man wrote that, he’s cracker from way back in Louisville. Always hated blacks.”
“I’m signin’ my autographs now,” he says. “This is the only important thing in my life. Keepin’ in touch with the people.”
“Were you used?”
“Spend a hundred dollars on stamps every week. Give ‘em all my autograph that write me.”
“Were you used?”
“To influence your lawsuit.”
“I ain’t worried about money,” he says.
“Maybe you just want to be big again. Remember what you told Elvis. ‘Elvis, you have to keep singin’ or die to stay big. I’m gonna be big forever.’”
He smiles thinly: “I say anything shock the world.”
“You like politics now?”
“Politics put me to sleep.”
“You were at the Republican National Convention.”
“You borin’ me, putting me to sleep.”
“Reagan, Hatch, Quayle, they would’ve clapped you in jail in the old days.”
His eyes widen slightly: “That right?” He adds: “I’m tired. You better than a sleepin’ pill.”
But don’t let the exchange mislead. Ali is not up to repartee these days, never was, really, unless he was in the mood, and then he’d fade you with one of his standard lines (“You not as dumb as you look”). He speaks very, very slowly, and you have to lean in to hear him. It takes nearly as hour to negotiate the course of a conversation. Typically, he hadn’t been enlightening on the Capitol Hill scam. Over the years, he has been easily led, told by any number of rogues what his best interests were. If the advisors were friends who appealed to his instinct to help them move up a rung, he was even more of a setup. Later, Bingham says: “Ali was pissed about that impersonation stuff. He had no idea.” Why didn’t he just say that he didn’t make the calls? “You know him,” he says. “He’ll never betray who he thinks has tried to help him. The idea that people will think less of him now bothers him a lot.”
If there was ever any doubt about the staying power of Ali, it is swept aside when you travel with him. His favorite place in the world—next to his worktable at his farm—is an airport. So he should be in high spirits now; he’ll be in three airports before the day’s over. But he’s a bit petulant with Lonnie, who aims to see that he keeps his date at Hilton Head Island. He can’t stand hospitals. They get in the way of life. He found it hard to ever visit his old sidekick Bundini when he was dying. Paralyzed from the next down, Bundini could only move his eyes. Ali bent down close to his ear and whispered: “You in pain?” The eyes signaled “yes.” Ali turned his head away, then came back to those eyes, saying: “We had some good times, didn’t we?” Bundini’s eyes went up and down. Ali talks about this in the Chicago airport. He’s calmed down now, sits off by himself, ramrod-straight and waiting. He wears a pinstripe suit, red tie, and next to him is his black magician’s bag; he never lets it out of his sight. The bag is filled with religious tracts already autographed; which is the first thing he does every day at 6:00 a.m., when he gets up. All he has to do is fill in the person’s name.
His autograph ritual and travel are his consuming interests. He’ll go anywhere at the ring of a phone, and he spends much time on the road. Perhaps the travel buoys him; he certainly gets an energy charge from people. Soon they begin to drop like birds to his side. “You see,” he says, “all I gotta do is sit here. Somethin’, ain’t it? Why they like me?” He is not trying to be humble, he is genuinely perplexed by the chemistry that exists between himself and other people. “Maybe they just like celebrities,” he says. Maybe, he’s told, he’s much more than a celebrity. He ponders that for a moment, and says: “That right?” By now, a hundred people have lined up in front of him, and a security guard begins to keep them in line. Ali asks them his name, writes, then gives them his autographed tracts. Some ask him to pose for pictures, others kid him about unretiring. “Kong (Mike Tyson), I’m comin’ after you.” Near the end, he does a magic trick for a lady, using a fake thumb. “Where you going, Muhammad?” she asks. He thinks, and then leans over to the writer and asks: “Where we going?” The lady’s eyes fill, she hugs him and says: “We love you so much.” What is it that so movingly draws so many people—his innocent, childlike way, the stony visual he projects, set off against his highly visible symptoms?
That night over dinner, Ali’s eyes open and close between courses. He fades in and out of the conversation, has a hint of trouble lifting the fork to his mouth. His days includes periods like this, he’s in and out like a faraway signal. Sometimes he’s full of play. He likes to swing his long arm near a person’s ear, then create a friction with thumb and forefinger to produce a cricket effect in the ear. Then the play is gone, and so is he. “One day,” Lonnie is saying, “I want someone to catch his soul, to show what a fine human being he is.” Ali says, head down: “Nobody know me. I fool ‘em all.” Lonnie is Ali’s fourth wife. She was a little girl who lived across from Ali’s old Louisville home when he was at the top. She is a woman of wit and intelligence, with a master’s degree in business administration. She plans his trips, is the tough cop with him and his medicine, and generally seems to brighten his life. Ice cream dribbles down Ali’s chin. “Now, Muhammad,” she says, wiping it away. “You’re a big baby.” He orders another dessert, then says: “Where are we?” A blade of silence cuts across the table.
Bingham says: “Hilton Head Island.”
Ali says: “Ya ever wake up and don’t know where you are?” Sure, he is told, steady travel can make a person feel like that for an instant; yet it is obvious that short term-memory for him is like a labyrinth.
Ali’s day at the hospital is nearly over. He will soon be counting down the minutes. Right now, he’s in high spirits. A nurse has secretly slipped him some strips of paper. He has a complete piece of paper in his hands. He crumples the paper, pretends to put it in his mouth, then billows his cheeks until he regurgitates tiny pieces all over his chest. “Ain’t magic a happy thing,” he says, trying to contain his giggling. When Dr. Medenica comes, Ali jokes with him. The doctor goes about examining the day’s results. He looks at the bags of plasma: 15,000 cc’s have been moved through Ali. Floyd Patterson has expressed dismay over the current treatment. “No brain damage?” Floyd has said. “Next you’ll be hearing he was bit by a cockroach. He’s gonna kill Clay…. He’ll drop dead in a year.” Medenica bridles at the comment. “He’s rather ignorant. I’m going to have to call that man.” Ali wants to know what Patterson said. Nobody wants to tell him. “Tell me,” says Ali. Everyone looks at each other, and someone finally says: “Floyd says you’ll drop dead in a year.” Ali shrugs it off: “Floyd mean well.”
It is Medenica’s contention that Ali suffers from pesticide poisoning. Though his work has met with some skepticism in the medical community, Medenica is respected in South Carolina. His desk is rimmed with pictures of prominent people—a senator, a Saudi prince, an ambassador—patients for whom he has retarded death by cancer. He is supposed to have done wonders for Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia. Tito was so grateful, he arranged funding for Medenica’s clinic in Switzerland. When he died, the funds were cut off and Medenica was left with bills and criminal indictment by the Yugoslavians and the Swiss. “Don’t ask how Ali got the pesticides,” Medenica says.
Plasmapheresis is a solid treatment for pesticide poisoning, which occurs more than ever these days. The blood cleaning removes the immune complex, which in turns removes toxins. But how can Medenica be so sure that Ali’s problem is not brain damage? Dr. Dennis Cope, of UCLA, has said that Ali is a victim of “Parkinson’s syndrome secondary to pugilistic brain syndrome.” In short, he took too many head shots. Medenica, though, is a confident man.
He predicts Ali will be completely recovered. “I find absolutely no brain damage. The magnetic resonator tests show no damage. Before I took him as a patient, I watched many of his fight films. He did not take many head blows.”
Is he kidding?
“No, I do not see any head blows. When he came this summer, he was in bad shape. Poor gait. Difficult speech. Vocal cord syndrome, extended and inflamed. He is much better. His problem is he misses taking his medicine, and he travels too much. He should be here once a month.”
Finally, Ali is helped out of his medical harness. He dresses slowly. Then, ready to go out, he puts that famous upper-teeth clamp on his bottom lip to show determination and circles the doctor with a cocked right fist. His next stop is for an interferon shot. It is used to stimulate the white blood cells. Afterward, he is weak, and there is a certain sadness in his eyes. On the way to the car, he is asked if the treatment helps. He says: “Sheeeet, nothin’ help.”
The Lincoln Town Car moves through the night. Bingham, who is driving, fumbles with the tape player. Earlier in the day, he had searched anxiously for a tape of Whitney Houston doing “The Greatest Love of All,” a song written especially for Ali years ago. He had sensed that Ali would be quite low when the day was over, and he wanted something to pick him up. The words, beautiful and haunting, fill the car.
Everybody’s searching for a hero,
People need someone
To look up to,
I never found anyone who
Fulfilled that need;
A lonely place to be,
So learned to depend on me.
I decided long ago
Never to walk in anyone’s shadow;
If I fail, if I succeed
At least I lived as I believe,
And no matter what
They take from me,
They can’t take away my dignity;
Because the greatest love of all
Is happening to me
I found the greatest love of all
Inside of me.
The greatest love of all is easy
Learning to love yourself
It is the greatest love of all.
“You hear that,” Bingham says, his voice cracking. “Everything’s gonna be just fine, Ali.”
The dark trees spin by. There is no answer. What is he thinking?
This 1989 Esquire piece by father on Ali in decline is one of my personal favorites. I am not exactly sure what he thought of it; he was the last person to go to for an opinion on any of his work. But I like it immensely. It blends his characteristic impressionistic style with exquisite reporting, grim humor and an undercurrent of compassion born of their long years together. Although my father took some swipes at Ali in his 2001 book, Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, I think he comes at his subject in this piece with his lance sheathed. He had always told me he had been of fond Ali personally and I think that comes across here. It is a tender glimpse at a once extraordinary athlete who has been thrust by age and illness into a state of sad fragility.
Mark Kram covered much of Ali’s career for Sports Illustrated, including all three of his bouts with Joe Frazier. He began his 40 year writing career as sports columnist as The Baltimore Sun in 1959. He spent 13 years at SI (1964-1977), during which he became one of the signature voices of the magazine. He later contributed pieces to Playboy, Esquire, and GQ. Ghosts of Manila, his book on the Ali-Frazier rivalry, was published by HarperCollins in 2001. He died in 2002.
Sit down here a while, kid, and I’ll give you the dope on this guy. You say you didn’t see him do nothin’ wonderful? But you only seen him in one serious. Wait till you been in the league more’n a week or two before you go judgin’ ball players. He may of been sick when you played agin him. Even when he’s sick, though, he’s got everybody I ever seen skun, and I’ve saw all the best of ‘em.P
Say, he ain’t worth nothin’ to that club; no, nothin’! I don’t know what pay he’s gettin’, but whatever it is, it ain’t enough. If they’d split the receipts ﬁfty-ﬁfty with that bird, they wouldn’t be gettin’ none the worst of it. That bunch could get along just as well without him as a train could without no engine.P
He’s twicet the ball player now that he was when he come up. He didn’t seem to have no sense when he broke in; he run bases like a fool and was a mark for a good pitcher or catcher. They used to just lay for him when he got on. Sully used to tell the pitchers to do nothin’ but waste balls when he was on ﬁrst or second base. It was pretty near always good dope, too, because they’d generally nail him off one base or the other, or catch him tryin’ to go to the next one. But Sully had to make perfect pegs to get him even when he knowed beforehand that he was goin’. Sully was the boy that could make them perfect pegs, too. Don’t forget that.P
Cobb seemed to think they was only one rule in the book, and that was a rule providin’ that nobody could stay on one base more’n one second. They tell me that before he got into the South Atlantic League he was with a club down there in Georgia called the Royston Rompers. Maybe he thought he had to keep on rompin’ up here.P
Another thing was that he couldn’t hit a left-hander very good. Doc W’ite used to make him look like a sucker. Doc was a fox to begin with, and he always give you just what you wasn’t lookin’ for. And then, his curve ball was somethin’ Ty hadn’t never saw before and it certainly did fool him. He’d hand Cobb a couple o’ curves and the baby’d miss ‘em a foot. Then, when he was expectin’ another one, Doc’d shoot his fast one right past his chin and make a monkey out of him.P
That was when he ﬁrst come up here. But Ty ain’t the guy that’s goin’ to stay fooled all the time. When he wises up that somebody’s got somethin’ on him, he don’t sleep nor do nothin’ till he ﬁgures out a way to get even. It’s a good thing Doc had his chancet to laugh when he did, because Cobb did most o’ the laughin’ after a couple o’ seasons of it. He seen he couldn’t hit the curve when it was breakin’, so he stood way back in the box and waited till it’d broke. Then he nailed it. When Ty’d learned that trick, Doc got so’s he was well pleased when the balls this guy hit off’n him stayed in the park.P
It was the same way with every pitcher that had his number when he ﬁrst busted in. He got to ‘em in short order and, before long, nobody was foolin’ him so’s you could notice it. Right now he’s as good agin left-handers as he is agin regular fellas. And if they’s any pitcher in baseball that’s got him fooled, he’s keepin’ the fact well concealed.P
I was tellin’ you what a wild base-runner he was at ﬁrst. Well, he’s still takin’ chances that nobody else takes, but he’s usin’ judgment with it. He don’t run no more just for the sake o’ runnin’. They was a time when the guy on the base ahead of him was afraid all the time that he’d get spiked in the heels. But no more o’ that. They’s no more danger of him causin’ a rear end collision, providin’ the guy ahead don’t blockade the right o’ way too long.P
You may not believe it, but I’ll bet most o’ these here catchers would rather have somebody on second base when Ty’s on ﬁrst base than to have him on ﬁrst base alone. They know he ain’t goin’ to pull no John Anderson and they feel pretty safe when he can’t steal without bumpin’ into one of his own teammates. But when the track’s all clear, look out!P
All my life I been hearin’ about the slow, easy-goin’ Southerner. Well, Ty’s easy-goin’ all right—like a million-dollar tourin’ car. But if Southerners is slow, he must be kiddin’ us when he says he was born down South. He must of came from up there where Doc Cook pretty near got to.P
You say you’ve heard ball players talk about how lucky he was. Yes, he is lucky. But it’s because he makes his own luck. If he’s got horseshoes, he’s his own blacksmith. You got to have the ability ﬁrst, and the luck’ll string along with you. Look at Connie Mack and John D. and some o’ them fellas.P
You know I ain’t played no ball for the last few years, but I seen a lot of it played. And I don’t overlook no chancet to watch this here Tyrus. I’ve saw him agin every club in the American League and I’ve saw him pull more stuff than any other guy ever dreamed of. Lots o’ times, after seein’ him get away with somethin’, I’ve said to myself: “Gosh, he’s a lucky stiff !” But right afterward, I’ve thought: “Yes, and why don’t nobody else have that luck? Because they don’t go out and get it.”P
I remember one time in Chi, a year or two ago. The Sox was two to the bad and it was the ninth innin’. They was two men down. Bodie was on second base and somebody hits a single to center ﬁeld. Bodie tries to score. It wasn’t good baseball to take the chancet, because that run wasn’t goin’ to do no good without another one to put with it. Cobb pegs to the plate and the umps calls Bodie out, though it looked to everybody like he was safe. Well, it was a bad play of Bodie’s, wasn’t it? Yes. Well then, it was a bad play o’ Cobb’s to make the throw. If Detroit hadn’t of got the best o’ that decision, the peg home would of let the man that hit the ball go to second and be planted there in position to score the tyin’ run on another base hit. Where if Ty had of played it safe, like almost anybody would, the batter’d of been held on ﬁrst base where it would take two base hits or a good long wallop to score him. It was lucky for Ty that the umps happened to guess wrong. But say, I think that guy’s pretty near smart enough to know when a umpire’s goin’ to make a rotten decision.P
O’ course you know that Ty gets to ﬁrst base more’n anybody in the world. In the ﬁrst place, he always manages to hit better’n anybody. And when he don’t hit safe, but just bounds one to some inﬁelder, the bettin’s 2 to 1 that the ball will be booted or throwed wild. That’s his luck, is it? No, sir. It’s no such a thing. It’s his speed. The inﬁelder knows he ain’t got no time to spare. He’s got to make the play faster’n he would for anybody else, and the result is that he balls it all up. He tries to throw to ﬁrst base before he’s got the pill to throw, or else he hurries the throw so much that he don’t have no time to aim. Some o’ the ball players round the league says that the scorers favor Ty and give him a base hit on almost anything. Well, I think they ought to. I don’t believe in handin’ a error to a fella when he’s hurried and worried to death. If you tried to make the play like you do for other guys, Ty’d beat the ball to ﬁrst base and then you’d get a hot call from the bench for loaﬁn’.P
If you’d saw him play as much baseball as I have, you wouldn’t be claimin’ he was overrated. I ain’t goin to come right out and say he’s the best ever, because they was some old-timers I never seen. (Comiskey, though, who’s saw ‘em all, slips it to him.) I just want to tell you some o’ the things he’s did, and if you can show me his equal, lead me to him and I’ll take off my hat.P
Detroit was playin’ the Ath-a-letics oncet. You know they ain’t no club that the Tigers looks better agin than the Atha-letics, and Cobb’s more of a devil in Philly than anywheres else. Well, this was when he was battin’ fourth and Jim Delahanty was followin’ him. Ty singles and Del slips him the hit and run sign on the ﬁrst ball. The ball was pitched a little outside, and Del cuts it down past Harry Davis for a single to right ﬁeld. Do you know what Cobb done? He scored; that’s all. And they wasn’t no boot made, neither. Danny Murphy picked the ball up clean and pegged it to Davis and Davis relays it straight home to Ira Thomas. Ty was there ahead of it. If I hadn’t o’ been watchin’ close, I’d o’ thought he forgot to touch two or three bases. But, no, sir. He didn’t miss none of ‘em. They may be other guys that could do that if they tried, but the diff ‘rence between them and Cobb is that he done it and they didn’t. Oh, I guess other fellas has scored from ﬁrst base on a long single in the hit and run, but not when the ball was handled perfectly clean like this one.P
Well, here’s another one: I forget the exact details, except that the game was between the White Sox and Detroit and that Tannehill was playin’ third base at the time, and that the score was tied when Cobb pulled it. It was the eighth innin’. He was on ﬁrst base. The next guy hits a single to left ﬁeld. Ty, o’ course, rounds second and starts for third. The left ﬁelder makes a rotten peg and the pill comes rollin’ in. Ty has the play beat a mile and they ain’t no occasion for him to slide. But he slid, and do you know what he done? He took a healthy kick at that rollin’ ball and sent it clear over to the grand stand. Then he jumped to his feet and kept on goin’. He was acrost the plate with the winnin’ run before nobody’d realized what he’d did. It’s agin the rules, o’ course, to kick the ball a-purpose, but how could the umps prove that this wasn’t a accident? Ty could of told him that he thought the play was goin’ to be close and he’d better slide. I might o’ thought it was a accident, too, if that had of been the only time I seen him do it. I can’t tell you how many times he’s pulled it, but it’s grew to be a habit with him. When it comes to scorin’ on kicks, he’s got this here What’s-His-Name—Brickley—tied.P
I’ve saw him score from second base on a ﬂ y ball, too; a ﬂy ball that was catched. Others has did it, but not as regular as this guy. He come awful near gettin’ away with it agin a little while ago, in Chi. They was also somebody on third when the ball was hit. The guy on third started home the minute Bodie catched the ball and Ping seen they was no chancet to get him. So he pegs toward Weaver, who’s down near third base. Cobb’s at third before the ball gets to the inﬁeld. He don’t never hesitate. He keeps right on goin’ for the plate. Now, if Weaver’d of been able to of intercepted the ball, Ty’d of been out thirty feet. But the throw goes clear through to the third baseman. Then it’s relayed home. The gang sittin’ with me all thought Ty was safe. I don’t know about it, but anyway, he was called out. It just goes to show you what this guy’s liable to do. You can’t take no afternoon nap when he’s around. They’s lots of other fast guys, but while they’re thinkin’ about what they’re goin’ to do, he’s did it. He’s ﬁgurin’ two or three bases ahead all the while. So, as I say, you don’t get no sleep with him in the game.P
Fielder Jones used to tell us: “When that bird’s runnin’, throw the ball somewheres just’s soon as you get a-hold of it. I don’t care where you throw it, but throw it somewheres. Don’t hold onto it.”P
I seen where the papers says the other day that you outguessed him. I wasn’t out to that game. I guess you got away with somethin’ all right, but don’t feel too good about it. You’re worse off now than you was before you done it because he won’t never rest till he shows you up. You stopped him oncet, and just for that he’ll make you look like a rummy next time he plays agin you. And after he’s did it oncet and got even, he’ll do it agin. And then he’ll do it agin. They’s a lot o’ fellas round this league that’s put over a smart play on Tyrus and most of ‘em has since wished they hadn’t. It’s just like as if I’d go out and lick a policeman. I’d live to regret it.P
We had a young fella oncet, a catcher, that nailed him ﬂatfooted off ‘n ﬁrst base one day. It was in the ﬁrst game of a serious. Ty didn’t get on no more that day, but he walked the ﬁrst time up the followin’ afternoon. They was two out. He takes a big lead and the young fella pegs for him agin. But Tyrus was off like a streak when the ball was throwed, and about the time the ﬁrst baseman was catchin’ it, he was slidin’ into second. Then he gets a big lead off ‘n second and the young catcher takes a shot for him there. But he throws clear to center ﬁeld and Ty scores. The next guy whiffs, so they wouldn’t of been no run if the young guy hadn’t of got so chesty over the precedin’ day’s work. I’m tellin’ you this so’s you won’t feel too good.P
They’s times when a guy does try to pull something on this Cobb, and is made to look like a sucker without deservin’ it. I guess that’s because the Lord is for them that helps themselves and don’t like to see nobody try to show ‘em up.P
I was sittin’ up in the stand in Cleveland one day. Ty was on second base when somebody hits a ﬂy ball, way out, to Birmingham. At that time, Joe had the best throwin’ arm you ever see. He could shoot like a riﬂe. Cobb knowed that, o’ course, and didn’t feel like takin’ no chancet, even though Joe was pretty far out there. Ty waits till the ball’s catched and then makes a bluff to go to third, thinkin’ Birmy’d throw and that the ball might get away. Well, Joe knows that Cobb knows what kind of arm he’s got and ﬁ gures that the start from second is just a bluff ; that he ain’t really got no intention o’ goin’. So, instead o’ peggin’ to third, he takes a quick shot for second, hopin’ to nail Cobb before he can get back. The throw’s perfect and Cobb sees where he’s trapped. So he hikes for third. And the second sacker—I don’t think the big Frenchman was playin’ that day—drops the ball. If he’d of held it, he’d of had plenty of time to relay to third and nail Ty by a block. But no. He drops the ball. See? Birmy’d outguessed Ty, but all it done for him was to make him look bad and make Ty look good.P
Another time, a long while ago, Detroit needed a run to win from the Sox. Ty gets to ﬁ rst base with one out. Sully was catchin’. Sully signs for a pitch-out and then snaps the ball to ﬁrst base. Ty wasn’t lookin’ for it and he was caught clean. He couldn’t get back to ﬁ rst base, so he goes for second. Big Anderson was playin’ ﬁrst base and he makes a bum peg. The ball hits Cobb on the shoulder and bounds so far out in left center that he didn’t even have to run to get home. You see, Sully’d outguessed Ty and had pulled a play that ought to of saved the game. Instead o’ that, it give the game to Detroit. That’s what hurts and discourages a fella from tryin’ to pull anything on him.P
Sometimes I pretty near think they’s nothin’ he couldn’t do if he really set out to do it. Before you joined the club, some o’ the boys was kiddin’ him over to Detroit. Callahan was tellin’ me about it. Cobb hadn’t started hittin’. One o’ the players clipped the averages out o’ the paper and took ‘em to the park. He showed the clippin’ to Ty.P
“You’re some battin’ champ, Ty,” he says. “Goin’ at a .225 clip, eh?”P
Tyrus just laughed at him. “I been playin’ I was one o’ you White Sox,” he says. “But wait till a week from to-day. It’ll be .325 then.”P
Well, it wasn’t. No, sir! It was .326.P
One time, in 1912 I think it was, I happened to be goin’ East, lookin’ for a job of umpirin’, and I rode on the train with the Tigers. I and Cobb et breakfast together. I had a Sunday paper with me and was givin’ the averages the oncet over.P
“Read ‘em to me,” says Ty.P
“You don’t want ‘em all, do you?” I says.P
“No, no. Just the ﬁrst three of us,” he says. “I know about where I’m at, but not exactly.”P
So I read it to him:P
“Jackson’s ﬁrst with .412. Speaker’s second with .400. You’re third with .386.”P
“Well,” says Ty, “I reckon the old boy’d better get busy. Watch me this trip!”P
I watched him, through the papers. In the next twenty-one times at bat, he gets exactly seventeen hits, and when the next averages was printed, he was out in front. He stayed there, too.P
So I don’t know, but I believe that if Jackson and Speaker and Collins and Lajoie and Crawford was to go crazy and hit .999, this Cobb would come out on top with 1,000 even.P
He’s got a pretty good opinion of himself, but he ain’t no guy to really brag. He’s just full o’ the old conﬁdence. He thinks Cobb’s a good ball player, and a guy’s got to think that way about himself if he wants to get anywheres. I know a lot o’ ball players that gets throwed out o’ the league because they think the league’s too fast for ‘em. It’s diff ‘rent with Tyrus. If they was a league just three times as fast as the one he’s in and if he was sold up there, he’d go believin’ he could lead it in battin’. And he’d lead it too!P
Yes, sir, he’s full o’ that old stuff , and the result is that lots o’ people that don’t know him think he’s a swell-head, and don’t like him. But I’m tellin’ you that he’s a pretty good guy now, and the rest o’ the Tigers is strong for him, which is more’n they used to be. He busted in with a chip on his shoulder, and he soon become just as popular as the itch. Everybody played him for a busher and started takin’ liberties with him. He was a busher, too, but he was one o’ the kind that can’t take a joke. You know how they’s young fellas that won’t stand for nothin’. Then they’s them that stands for too much. Then they’s the kind that’s just about half way. You can go a little ways with ‘em, but not too far. That’s the kind that’s popular.P
Cobb wouldn’t stand for nothin’. If somebody poured ketchup in his coffee, he was liable to pick up the cup and throw it at the guy nearest to him. If you’d stepped on his shine, he’d of probably took the other foot and aimed it at you like he does now at the ball when it’s lyin’ loose on the ground. If you’d called him some name on the ﬁeld, he’d of walloped you with a bat, even if you was his pal. So they was all stuck on him, was they not?P
He got trimmed a couple o’ times, right on his own club, too. But when they seen what kind of a ball player he was goin’ to be, they decided they’d better not kill him. It’s just as well for ‘em they didn’t. I’d like to know where their club would of ﬁnished—in 1907 and 1908, for instance—if it hadn’t of been for him. It was nobody but him that beat us out in 1908. I’ll tell you about it later on.P
I says to him one day not long ago, I says:P
“You wasn’t very strong with the boys when you ﬁrst come up. What was the trouble?”P
“Well,” he says, “I didn’t understand what was comin’ off . I guess they meant it all right, but nobody’d tipped me that a busher’s supposed to be picked on. They were hazin’ me; that’s what they were doin’, hazin’ me. I argued with ‘em because I didn’t know better.”P
“You learned, though, didn’t you?” I says.P
“Oh, yes,” says Ty, “I learned all right.”P
“Maybe you paid for your lessons, too,” I says.P
“Maybe I did,” he says.P
“Well,” I says, “would you act just the same way if you had it to do over again?”P
“I reckon so,” he says.P
And he would, too, because if he was a diff ‘rent kind o’ guy, he wouldn’t be the ball player he is.P
Say, maybe you think I didn’t hate him when I was playin’ ball. I didn’t know him very well, see? But I hated him on general principles. And I never hated him more’n I did in 1908. That was the year they beat us out o’ the big dough the last day o’ the season, and it come at a time when I needed that old dough, because I knowed darn well that I wasn’t goin’ to last no ten years more or nothin’ like that.P
You look over the records now, and you’ll see that the Detroit club and us just about broke even on the year’s serious agin each other. I don’t know now if it was exactly even or not, or, if it wasn’t, which club had the best of it. But I do know one thing, and that is that they beat us ﬁve games that we’d ought to of copped from ‘em easy and they beat us them games for no other reason than that they had this here Georgia Peach.P
The records don’t show no stuff like that, but I can remember most o’ them games as if they was played yesterday; that is, Cobb’s part in ‘em. In them days, they had Crawford hittin’ third and Cobb fourth and Rossman ﬁ fth. Well, one day we had ‘em licked by three runs in the seventh innin’. Old Nick was pitchin’ for us and Sully was catchin’. Tannehill was at third base and Hahn was switched from right to left ﬁeld because they was somethin’ the matter with Dougherty. Well, this seventh innin’ come, as I was sayin’, and we was three runs to the good. Crawford gets on someway and Cobb singles. Jones thought Nick was slippin’, so he hollered for Smitty. Smitty comes in and pitches to big Rossman and the big guy hits one back at him. Smitty had the easiest kind of a double play starin’ him in the face—a force play on Crawford at third and then the rest of it on Rossman, who wasn’t no speed marvel. But he makes a bad peg to Tannie and the ball gets by him. It didn’t look like as if Crawford could score, and I guess he was goin’ to stop at third.P
But Tyrus didn’t pay no attention to Crawford. He’d saw the wild peg and he was bound to keep right on comin’. So Crawford’s got to start home to keep from gettin’ run over. Hahn had come in to get the ball and when he seen Crawford startin’ home, he cut loose a wild peg that went clear to the bench. Crawford and Cobb both scored, o’ course, and what does Ty do but yell at Rossman to follow ‘em in, though it looked like sure death. Sully has the ball by that time, but it’s just our luck that he has to peg wild too. The ball sailed over Smitty, who’d came up to cover the plate. The score’s tied and for no reason but that Tyrus had made everybody run. The next three was easy outs, but they went on and licked us in extra innin’s.P
Well, they was another game, in that same serious I think it was, when Big Ed had ‘em stopped dead to rights. They hadn’t no more business scorin’ off ‘n him than a rabbit. I don’t think they hit two balls hard all day. We wasn’t the best hittin’ club in the world, but we managed to get one run for the Big Moose in the ﬁ rst innin’ and that had ought to of been a-plenty.P
Up comes Cobb in the fourth and hits one that goes in two bounds to Davis or whoever was playin’ short. If he could of took his time, they’d of been nothin’ to it. But he has to hurry the play because it’s Cobb runnin’, and he pegs low. Izzy gets the ball off ‘n the ground all right, but juggles it, and then Ty’s safe.P
They was nobody out, so Rossman bunts. He’s throwed out a mile at ﬁ rst base, but Ty goes all the way to third. Then the next guy hits a ﬂy ball to Hahn that wouldn’t of been worth a nickel if Cobb’d of went only to second on the sacriﬁce, like a human bein’. He’s on third, though, and he scores on the ﬂy ball. The next guy takes three swings and the side’s out, but we’re tied up.P
Then we go along to the ninth innin’ and it don’t look like they’d score agin on Big Ed if they played till Easter. But Cobb’s up in the ninth with one out. He gets the one real healthy hit that they’d made all day. He singled to right ﬁeld. I say he singled, because a single’s what anybody else would of been satisﬁed with on the ball he hit. But Ty didn’t stop at ﬁrst base. He lights out for second and whoever was in right ﬁeld made a good peg. The ball’s there waitin’ for Ty, but he slides away from it. Jake thought he had him, but the umps called him safe. Well, Jake gets mad and starts to kick. They ain’t no time called or nothin’. The umps turns away and Jake slams the ball on the ground and before anybody could get to it, Cobb’s on third. We all hollered murder, but it done us no good. Rossman then hit a ﬂy ball and the game’s over.P
I remember another two to one game that he win from us. I don’t recall who was pitchin’—one o’ the left-handers, I guess. Whoever it was had big Rossman on his staff that day. He whiffed him twicet and made him pop out another time. They was one out in the eighth when Cobb beats out a bunt. We was leadin’ by one run at the time, so naturally we wanted to keep him on ﬁrst base. Well, whoever it was pitchin’ wasted three balls tryin’ to outguess Tyrus, and he still stood there on ﬁrst base, laughin’ at us. Rossman takes one strike and the pitcher put the next one right over and took a chancet, instead o’ runnin’ the risk o’ walkin’ him. Rossman has a toe-hold and he meets the ball square and knocks it clear out o’ the park. We’re shut out in the ninth and they’ve trimmed us. You’ll say, maybe, it was Rossman that beat us. It was his wallop all right, but our pitcher wouldn’t of wasted all them balls and got himself in the hole if anybody but Cobb’d of been on ﬁrst base.P
One day we’re tied in the ninth, four to four, or somethin’ like that. Cobb doubled and Rossman walked after two was out. Jones pulled Smitty out o’ the game and put in Big Ed. Now, nobody was lookin’ for Ty to steal third with two out. It’s a rotten play when anybody else does it. This ain’t no double steal, because Rossman never moved off ‘n ﬁrst base. Cobb stole third all right and then, on the next pitch, Rossman starts to steal second. Our catcher oughtn’t to of paid no attention to him because Walsh probably could of got the batter and retired the side. It wasn’t Sully catchin’ or you can bet no play’d of been made. But this catcher couldn’t see nobody run without peggin’, so he cut loose. Rossman stopped and started back for ﬁrst base. The shortstop ﬁred the ball back home, but he was just too late. Cobb was acrost already and it was over. Now in that case, our catcher’d ought to of been killed, but if Tyrus hadn’t did that fool stunt o’ stealin’ third with two out, they’d of been no chancet for the catcher to pull the boner.P
How many did I say he beat us out of? Five? Oh, yes, I remember another one. I can make it short because they wasn’t much to it. It was another one o’ them tied up affairs, and both pitchers was goin’ good. It was Smitty for us and, I think, Donovan for them. Cobb gets on with two down in the tenth or ‘leventh and steals second while Smitty stands there with the ball in his hand. Then Rossman hits a harmless lookin’ ground ball to the shortstop. Cobb runs down the line and stops right in front o’ where the ball was comin’, so’s to bother him. But Ty pretends that he’s afraid the ball’s goin’ to hit him. It worked all right. The shortstop got worried and juggled the ball till it was too late to make a play for Rossman. But Cobb’s been monkeyin’ so long that he ain’t nowheres near third base and when the shortstop ﬁ nally picks up the ball and pegs there, Cobb turns back. Well, they’d got him between ‘em and they’re tryin’ to drive him back toward second. Somebody butts in with a muff and he goes to third base. And when Smitty starts to pitch agin, he steals home just as clean as a whistle.P
The last game o’ the season settled the race, you know. I can’t say that Tyrus won that one for ‘em. They all was due to hit and they sure did hit. Cobb and Crawford both murdered the ball in the ﬁ rst innin’ and won the game right there, because Donovan was so good we didn’t have no chancet. But if he hadn’t of stole them other games off ‘n us, this last one wouldn’t of did ‘em no good. We could of let our young fellas play that one while we rested up for the world’s serious.P
I don’t say our club had a license to be champions that year. We was weak in spots. But we’d of got the big dough if it hadn’t of been for Tyrus. You can bet your life on that.P
You can easy see why I didn’t have no love for him in them days. And I’ll bet the fellas that was on the Ath-a-letics in 1907 felt the same toward him, because he was what kept ‘em from coppin’ that year. I ain’t takin’ nothin’ away from Jennin’s and Crawford and Donovan and Bush and Mullin and McIntire and Rossman and the rest of ‘em. I ain’t tryin’ to tell you that them fellas ain’t all had somethin’ to do with Detroit’s winnin’ in diff ‘rent years. Jennin’s has kept ‘em ﬁ ghtin’ right along, and they’s few guys more valuable to their club than Crawford. He busted up a lot o’ games for ‘em in their big years and he’s doin’ it yet. And I consider Bush one o’ the best inﬁ elders I ever see. The others was all right, too. They all helped. But this guy I’m tellin’ you about knocked us out o’ the money by them stunts of his that nobody else can get by with.P
It’s all foolishness to hate a fella because he’s a good ball player, though. I realize that now that I’m out of it. I can go and watch Tyrus and enjoy watchin’ him, but in them days it was just like pullin’ teeth whenever he come up to the plate or got on the bases. He was reachin’ right down in my pocket and takin’ my money. So it’s no wonder I was sore on him.P
If I’d of been on the same club with him, though, I wouldn’t never of got sore at him no matter how fresh he was. I’d of been afraid that he might get so sore at me that he’d quit the club. He could of called me anything he wanted to and got away with it or he could have took me acrost his knee and spanked me eighty times a day, just so’s he kept on puttin’ money in my kick instead o’ beatin’ me out of it.P
As I was sayin’, I enjoy seein’ him play now. If the game’s rotten or not, it don’t make no diff’rence, and it don’t make a whole lot even if he’s havin’ a bad day. They’s somethin’ fascinatin’ in just lookin’ at the baby.P
I ain’t alone in thinkin’ that, neither. I don’t know how many people he draws to the ball parks in a year, but it’s enough to start a big manufacturin’ town and a few suburbs. You heard about the crowd that was out to the Sox park the Sunday they was two rival attractions in town? It was in the spring, before you come. Well, it was some crowd. Now, o’ course, the Sox draw good at home on any decent Sunday, but I’m tellin’ you they was a few thousands out there that’d of been somewheres else if Cobb had of stayed in Georgia.P
I was in Boston two or three years ago this summer and the Tigers come along there for a serious o’ ﬁ ve games, includin’ a double-header. The Detroit club wasn’t in the race and neither was the Red Sox. Well, sir, I seen every game and I bet they was seventy thousand others that seen ‘em, or better’n ﬁfteen thousand a day for four days. They was some that was there because they liked baseball. They was others that was stuck on the Red Sox. They was still others that was strong for the Detroit club. And they was about twenty-ﬁve or thirty thousand that didn’t have no reason for comin’ except this guy I’m tellin’ you about. You can’t blame him for holdin’ out oncet in awhile for a little more money. You can’t blame the club for slippin’ it to him, neither.P
They’s a funny thing I’ve noticed about him and the crowds. The fans in the diff’rent towns hates him because he’s beat their own team out o’ so many games. They hiss him when he pulls off somethin’ that looks like dirty ball to ‘em. Sometimes they get so mad at him that you think they’re goin’ to tear him to pieces. They holler like a bunch of Indians when some pitcher’s good enough or lucky enough to strike him out. And at the same time, right down in their hearts, they’re disappointed because he did strike out.P
How do I know that? Well, kid, I’ve felt it myself, even when I was pullin’ agin Detroit. I’ve talked to other people and they’ve told me they felt the same way. When they come out to see him, they expect to see him do somethin’. They’re glad if he does and glad if he don’t. They’re sore at him if he don’t beat their team and they’re sore if he does. It’s a funny thing and I ain’t goin’ to sit here all night tryin’ to explain it.P
But, say, I wisht I was the ball player he is. They could throw pop bottles and these here bumbs at me, and I wouldn’t kick. They could call me names from the stand, but I wouldn’t care. If the whole population o’ the United States hated me like they think they hate him, I wouldn’t mind, so long’s I could just get back in that old game and play the ball he plays. But if I could, kid, I wouldn’t have no time to be talkin’ to you.P
The other day, I says to Callahan:P
“What do you think of him?”P
“Think of him!” says Cal. “What could anybody think of him? I think enough of him to wish he’d go and break a leg. And I’m not sore on him personally at that.”P
“Don’t you like to see him play ball?” I says.P
“I’d love to watch him,” says Cal, “if I could just watch him when he was playin’ Philadelphia or Washington or any club but mine.”P
“I guess you’d like to have him, wouldn’t you?” I says.P
“Me?” says Cal. “All I’d give for him is my right eye.”P
“But,” I says, “he must keep a manager worried some, in one way and another; you’d always be afraid he was goin’ to break his own neck or cut somebody else’s legs off or jump to the Fed’rals or somethin’.”P
“I’d take my chances,” says Cal. “I believe I could even stand the worry for a few days.”P
I seen in the papers where McGraw says Eddie Collins is the greatest ball player in the world. I ain’t goin’ to argue with him about it, because I got nothin’ but admiration for Collins. He’s a bear. But, kid, I wisht McGraw had to play twenty-two games a year agin this Royston Romper. No, I don’t, neither. McGraw never done nothin’ to me.
Here’s a keeper from Gay Talese. Originally published in the March 1964 issue of Esquire.Reprinted here with the author’s permission.
At the foot of a mountain in upstate New York, about 60 miles from Manhattan, there is an abandoned country clubhouse with a dusty dance floor, upturned barstools and an untuned piano; and the only sounds heard around the place at night come from the big white house behind it—the clanging sounds of garbage cans being toppled by raccoons, skunks and stray cats making their nocturnal raids down from the mountain.
The white house seems deserted, too; but occasionally, when the animals become too clamorous, a light will flash on, a window will open, and a Coke bottle will come flying through the darkness and smash against the cans. But mostly the animals are undisturbed until daybreak, when the rear door of the white house swings open and a broad-shouldered Negro appears in gray sweat clothes with a white towel around his neck.
He runs down the steps, quickly passes the garbage cans and proceeds at a trot down the dirt road beyond the country club toward the highway. Sometimes he stops along the road and throws a flurry of punches at imaginary foes, each jab punctuated by hard gasps of his breathing—“hegh-hegh-hegh”—and then, reaching the highway, he turns and soon disappears up the mountain.
At this time of morning, farm trucks are on the road, and the drivers wave at the runner. And later in the morning, other motorists see him, and a few stop suddenly at the curb and ask:
“Say, aren’t you Floyd Patterson?”
“No,” says Floyd Patterson, “I’m his brother, Raymond.”
The motorists move on, but recently a man on foot, a disheveled man who seemed to have spent the night outdoors, staggered behind the runner along the road and yelled, “Hey, Floyd Patterson!”
“No, I’m his brother, Raymond.”
“Don’t tell me you’re not Floyd Patterson. I know what Floyd Patterson looks like.”
“Okay,” Patterson said, shrugging, “if you want me to be Floyd Patterson, I’ll be Floyd Patterson.”
“So let me have your autograph,” said the man, handing him a rumpled piece of paper and a pencil.
He signed it—”Raymond Patterson.”
One hour later Floyd Patterson was jogging his way back down the dirt path toward the white house, the towel over his head absorbing the sweat from his brow. He lives alone in a two-room apartment in the rear of the house, and has remained there in almost complete seclusion since getting knocked out a second time by Sonny Liston.
In the smaller room is a large bed he makes up himself, several record albums he rarely plays, a telephone that seldom rings. The larger room has a kitchen on one side and, on the other, adjacent to a sofa, is a fireplace from which are hung boxing trunks and T-shirts to dry, and a photograph of him when he was the champion, and also a television set. The set is usually on except when Patterson is sleeping, or when he is sparring across the road inside the clubhouse (the ring is rigged over what was once the dance floor), or when, in a rare moment of painful honesty, he reveals to a visitor what it is like to be the loser.
“Oh, I would give up anything to just be able to work with Liston, to box with him somewhere where nobody would see us, and to see if I could get past three minutes with him,” Patterson was saying, wiping his face with the towel, pacing slowly around the room near the sofa. “Iknow I can do better. . . . Oh, I’m not talking about a rematch. Who would pay a nickel for another Patterson-Liston fight? I know I wouldn’t. . . . But all I want to do is get past the first round.”
Then he said, “You have no idea how it is in the first round. You’re out there with all those people around you, and those cameras, and the whole world looking in, and all that movement, that excitement, and ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and the whole nation hoping you’ll win, including the President. And do you know what all this does? It blinds you, just blinds you. And then the bell rings, and you go at Liston and he’s coming at you, and you’re not even aware that there’s a referee in the ring with you.
“. . . Then you can’t remember much of the rest, because you don’t want to. . . . All you recall is, all of a sudden you’re getting up, and the referee is saying, ‘You all right?’ and you say, ‘Ofcourse I’m all right,’ and he says, ‘What’s your name?’ and you say, ‘Patterson.’
“And then, suddenly, with all this screaming around you, you’re down again, and you know you have to get up, but you’re extremely groggy, and the referee is pushing you back, and your trainer is in there with a towel, and people are all standing up, and your eyes focus directly at no one person—you’re sort of floating.
“It is not a bad feeling when you’re knocked out,” he said. “It’s a good feeling, actually. It’s not painful, just a sharp grogginess. You don’t see angels or start; you’re on a pleasant cloud. After Liston hit me in Nevada, I felt, for about four or five seconds, that everybody in the arena was actually in the ring with me, circled around me like a family, and you feel warmth toward all the people in the arena after you’re knocked out. You feel lovable to all the people. And you want to reach out and kiss everybody—men and women—and after the Liston fight, somebody told me I actually blew a kiss to the crowd from the ring. I don’t remember that. But I guess it’s true because that’s the way you feel during the four or five seconds after a knockout. . . .
“But then,” Patterson went on, still pacing, “this good feeling leaves you. You realize where you are, and what you’re doing there, and what has just happened to you. And what follows is a hurt, a confused hurt—not a physical hurt—it’s a hurt combined with anger; it’s a what-will-people-think hurt; it’s an ashamed-of-my-own-ability hurt. . . . And all you want then is a hatch door in the middle of the ring—a hatch door that will open and let you fall through and land in your dressing room instead of having to get out of the ring and face those people. The worst thing about losing is having to walk out of the ring and face those people. . . .”
Then Patterson walked over to the stove and put on the kettle for tea. He remained silent for a few moments. Through the walls could be heard the footsteps and voices of the sparring partners and the trainer who live in the front of the house. Soon they would be in the clubhouse getting things ready should Patterson wish to spar. In two days he was scheduled to fly to Stockholm and fight an Italian named Amonti, Patterson’s first appearance in the ring since the last Liston fight.
Next he hoped to get a fight in London against Henry Cooper. Then, if his confidence was restored, his reflexes reacting, Patterson hoped to start back up the ladder in this country, fighting all the leading contenders, fighting often, and not waiting so long between each fight as he had done when he was a champion in the 90-percent tax bracket.
His wife, whom he finds little time to see, and most of his friends think he should quit. They point out that he does not need the money. Even he admits that, from investments alone on his $8,000,000 gross earning, he should have an annual income of about $35,000 for the next 25 years. But Patterson, who is only 29 years old and barely scratched, cannot believe that he is finished. He cannot help but think that it was something more than Liston that destroyed him—a strange, psychological force was also involved, and unless he can fully understand what it was, and learn to deal with it in the boxing ring, he may never be able to live peacefully anywhere but under this mountain. Nor will he ever be able to discard the false whiskers and moustache that, ever since Johansson beat him in 1959, he has carried with him in a small attache case into each fight so he can slip out of the stadium unrecognized should he lose.
“I often wonder what other fighters feel, and what goes through their minds when they lose,” Patterson said, placing the cups of tea on the table. “I’ve wanted so much to talk to another fighter about all this, to compare thoughts, to see if he feels some of the same things I’ve felt. But who can you talk to? Most fighters don’t talk much anyway. And I can’t even look another fighter in the eye at a weigh-in, for some reason.
“At the Liston weigh-in, the sports writers noticed this, and said it showed I was afraid. But that’s not it. I can never look any fighter in the eye because . . . well, because we’re going to fight, which isn’t a nice thing, and because . . . well, once I actually did look a fighter in the eye. It was a long, long time ago. I must have been in the amateurs then. And when I looked at this fighter, I saw he had such a nice face . . . and then he looked at me . . . and smiled at me . . . and I smiled back! It was strange, very strange. When a guy can look at another guy and smile like that, I don’t think they have any business fighting.
“I don’t remember what happened in that fight, and I don’t remember what the guy’s name was. I only remember that, ever since, I have never looked another fighter in the eye.”
The telephone rang in the bedroom. Patterson got up to answer it. It was his wife, Sandra. So he excused himself, shutting the bedroom door behind him.
Sandra Patterson and their four children live in a $100,000 home in an upper-middle-class white neighborhood in Scarsdale, New York. Floyd Patterson feels uncomfortable in this home surrounded by a manicured lawn and stuffed with furniture, and, since losing his title to Liston, he has preferred living full time at his camp, which his children have come to know as “Daddy’s house.” The children, the eldest of whom is a daughter named Jeannie now seven years old, do not know exactly what their father does for a living. But Jeannie, who watched the last Liston-Patterson fight on closed-circuit television, accepted the explanation that her father performs in a kind of game where the men take turns pushing one another down; he had his turn pushing them down, and now it is their turn.
The bedroom door opened again, and Floyd Patterson shaking his head, was very angry and nervous.
“I’m not going to work out today,” he said. “I’m going to fly down to Scarsdale. These boys are picking on Jeannie again. She’s the only Negro in this school, and the older kids give her a rough time, and some of the older boys tease her and lift up her dress all the time. Yesterday she went home crying, and so today I’m going down there and plan to wait outside the school for those boys to come out, and . . .”
“How old are they?” he was asked.
“Teen-agers,” he said. “Old enough for a left hook.”
Patterson telephoned his pilot friend, Ted Hanson, who stays at the camp and does public-relations work for him, and has helped teach Patterson to fly. Five minutes later Hanson, a lean white man with a crew cut and glasses, was knocking on the door; and 10 minutes later both were in the car that Patterson was driving almost recklessly over the narrow, winding country roads toward the airport, about six miles from the camp.
“Sandra is afraid I’ll cause trouble; she’s worried about what I’ll do to those boys, she doesn’t want trouble!” Patterson snapped, swerving around a hill and giving his car more gas. “She’s just not firm enough! She’s afraid . . . she was afraid to tell me about that groceryman who’s been making passes at her. It took her a long time before she told me about that dishwasher repairman who comes over and calls her ‘baby.’ They all know I’m away so much. And that dishwasher repairman has been to my home about four five times this month already. That machine breaks down every week. I guess he fixes it so it breaks down every week. Last time, I laid a trap. I waited forty-five minutes for him to come, but then he didn’t show up. I was going to grab him and say, ‘How would you like it If I called your wife baby? You’d feel like punching me in the nose, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s what I’m going to do—if you ever call her babyagain. You call her Mrs. Patterson; or Sandra, if you know her. But you don’t know her, so call her Mrs. Patterson.’ And then I told Sandra that these men, this type of white man, he just wants to have some fun with colored women. He’ll never marry a colored woman, just wants to have some fun. . . .”
Now he was driving into the airport’s parking lot. Directly ahead, roped to the grass airstrip, was the single-engine green Cessna that Patterson bought and learned to fly before the second Liston fight. Flying was a thing Patterson had always feared—a fear shared, maybe inherited from, his manager, Cus D’Amato, who still will not fly.
D’Amato, who took over training Patterson when the fighter was 17 or 18 years old and exerted a tremendous influence over his psyche, is a strange but fascinating man of 56 who is addicted to Spartanism and self-denial and is possessed by suspicion and fear; he avoids subways because he fears someone might push him onto the tracks; never has married; never reveals his home address.
“I must keep my enemies confused,” D’Amato once explained. “When they are confused, then I can do a job for my fighters. What I do not want in life, however, is a sense of security; the moment a person knows security, his senses are dulled—and he begins to die. I also do not want many pleasures in life; I believe the more pleasure you get out of living, the more fear you have of dying.”
Until a few years ago, D’Amato did most of Patterson’s talking, and ran things like an Italianpadrone. But later Patterson, the maturing son, rebelled against the Father Image. After losing to Sonny Liston the first time—a fight D’Amato had urged Patterson to resist—Patterson took flying lessons. And before the second Liston fight, Patterson had conquered his fear of height, was master at the controls, was filled with renewed confidence—and knew, too, that, even if he lost, he at least possessed a vehicle that could get him out of town fast.
But it didn’t. After the fight, the little Cessna, weighed down by too much luggage, became overheated 90 miles outside of Las Vegas. Patterson and his pilot companion, having no choice but to turn back, radioed the airfield and arranged for the rental of a larger plane. When they landed, the Vegas air terminal was filled with people leaving town after the fight. Patterson hid in the shadow behind a hangar. His beard was packed in the trunk. But nobody saw him.
Later the pilot flew Patterson’s Cessna back to New York alone. And Patterson flew in the larger, rented plane. He was accompanied on this flight by Hanson, a friendly, 42-year-old, thrice divorced Nevadan who once was a crop duster, a bartender and a cabaret hoofer; later he became a pilot instructor in Las Vegas, and it was there that he met Patterson. The two became good friends. And when Patterson asked Hanson to help fly the rented plane back to New York, Hanson did not hesitate, even though he had a slight hangover that night—partly due to being depressed by Liston’s victory, partly due to being slugged in a bar by a drunk after objecting to some unflattering things the drunk had said about the fight.
Once in the airplane, however, Ted Hanson became very alert; He had to, because, after the plane had cruised a while at 10,000 feet, Floyd Patterson’s mind seemed to wander back to the ring, and the plane would drift off course, and Hanson would say, “Floyd, Floyd, how’s about getting back on course?” and then Patterson’s head would snap up and his eyes would flash toward the dials. And everything would be all right for a while. But then he was back in the arena, reliving the fight, hardly believing that it had really happened. . . .
“… And I kept thinking, as I flew out of Vegas that night, of all those months of training before the fight, all the roadwork, all the sparring, all the months away from Sandra. . . . thinking of the time in camp when I wanted to stay up until eleven-fifteen P.M. to watch a certain movie on “The Late Show.” But I didn’t because I had roadwork the next morning. . . .
“… And I was thinking about how good I’d felt before the fight, as I lay on the table in the dressing room. I remember thinking, ‘You’re in excellent physical condition, you’re in good mental condition—but are you vicious?’ But you tell yourself, ‘Viciousness is not important now, don’t think about it now; a championship fight’s at stake, and that’s important enough and, who knows? maybe you’ll get vicious once the bell rings.’
“… And so you lay there trying to get a little sleep . . . but you’re only in a twilight zone, half asleep, and you’re interrupted every once in a while by voices out in the hall, some guy’s yelling ‘Hey, Jack,’ or ‘Hey, Al,’ or ‘Hey, get those four-rounders into the ring.’ And when you hear that, you think, They’re not ready for you yet. So you lay there . . . and wonder, Where will I be tomorrow? Where will I be three hours from now? Oh, you think all kinds of thoughts, some thoughts completely unrelated to the fight . . . you wonder whether you ever paid your mother-in-law back for all those stamps she bought a year ago . . . and you remember that time at two A.M. when Sandra tripped on the steps while bringing a bottle up to the baby . . . and then you get mad and ask: What am I thinking about these things for? . . . and you try to sleep . . . but then the door opens and somebody says to somebody else, ‘Hey, is somebody gonna go to Liston’s dressing room to watch ‘em bandage up?’
“… And so then you know it’s about time to get ready. . . . You open your eyes. You get off the table. You glove up, you loosen up. Then Liston’s trainer walks in. He looks at you, he smiles. He feels the bandages and later he says, ‘Good luck, Floyd,’ and you think, He didn’t have to say that, he must be a nice guy.
“. . . And then you go out, and it’s the long walk, always a long walk, and you think, What am I gonna be when I come back this way? Then you climb into the ring. You notice Billy Eckstine at ringside leaning over to talk to somebody, and you see the reporters—some you like, some you don’t like—and then it’s ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and the cameras are rolling, and the bell rings. . . .
“… How could the same thing happen twice? How? That’s all I kept thinking after the knockout. . . . Was I fooling these people all these years? . . . Was I ever the champion? . . . And then they lead you out of the ring . . . and up the aisle you go, past those people, and all you want is to get to your dressing room, fast . . . but the trouble was in Las Vegas they made a wrong turn along the aisle, and when we got to the end, there was no dressing room there . . . and we had to walk all the way back down the aisle, past the same people, and they must have been thinking, Patterson’s not only knocked out, but he can’t even find his dressing room. . . .
“… In the dressing room I had a headache. Liston didn’t hurt me physically—a few days later I only felt a twitching nerve in my teeth—it was nothing like some fights I’ve had: like that Dick Wagner fight in ’53 when he beat my body so bad I was urinating blood for days. After the Liston fight, I just went into the bathroom, shut the door behind me and looked at myself in the mirror. I just looked at myself, and asked, What happened? and then they started pounding on the door, and saying ‘Com’on out, Floyd, Com’on out; the press is here, Gus is here, com’on out, Floyd. . . .”
“… And so I went out, and they asked questions, but what can you say? What you’re thinking about is all those months of training, all the conditioning, all the depriving; and you think, I didn’t have to run that extra mile, didn’t have to spar that day, I could have stayed up that night in camp and watched ‘The Late Show’. . . . I could have fought this fight tonight in no condition. . . .”
“Floyd, Floyd,” Hanson had said, “let’s get back on course. . . .”
Again Patterson would snap out of his reverie, and refocus on the omniscope, and get his flying under control. After landing in New Mexico, and then in Ohio, Floyd Patterson and Ted Hanson brought the little plane into the New York airstrip near the fight camp. The green Cessna that had been flown back by the other pilot was already there, roped to the grass at precisely the same spot it was on this day five months later when Floyd Patterson was planning to fly it toward perhaps another fight—this time a fight with some schoolboys in Scarsdale who had been lifting up his little daughter’s dress.
Patterson and Ted Hanson untied the plane, and Patterson got a rag and wiped from the windshield the splotches of insects. Then he walked around behind the plane, inspected the tail, checked under the fuselage, then peered down between the wing and the flaps to make sure all the screws were tight. He seemed suspicious of something. D’Amato would have been pleased.
“If a guy wants to get rid of you,” Patterson explained, “all he has to do is remove these little screws here. Then, when you try to come in for a landing, the flaps fall off, and you crash.”
Then Patterson got into the cockpit and started the engine. A few moments later, with Hanson beside him, Patterson was racing the little plane over the grassy field, then soaring over the weeds, then flying high above the gentle hills and trees. It was a nice takeoff.
Since it was only a 40-minute flight to the Westchester airport, where Sandra Patterson would be waiting with a car, Floyd Patterson did all the flying. The trip was uneventful until, suddenly behind a cloud, he flew into heavy smoke that hovered above a forest fire. His visibility gone, he was forced to the instruments. And at this precise moment, a fly that had been buzzing in the back of the cockpit flew up front and landed on the instrument panel in front of Patterson. He glared at the fly, watched it crawl slowly up the windshield, then shot a quick smash with his palm against the glass. He missed. The fly buzzed safely past Patterson’s ear, bounced off the back of the cockpit, circled around.
He flew easily for a few moments. Then the fly buzzed to the front again, zigzagging before Patterson’s face, landed on the panel and proceeded to crawl across it. Patterson watched it, squinted. Then he slammed down at it with a quick right hand. Missed.
Ten minutes later, his nerves still on edge, Patterson began the descent. He picked up the radio microphone—”Westchester tower . . . Cessna 2729 uniform . . . three miles northwest . . . land in one-six on final . . .” —and then, after an easy landing, he climbed quickly out of the cockpit and strode toward his wife’s station wagon outside the terminal.
But along the way a small man smoking a cigar turned toward Patterson, waved at him and said, “Say, excuse me, but aren’t you . . . aren’t you . . . Sonny Liston?”
Patterson stopped. He glared at the man, bewildered. He wasn’t sure whether it was a joke or an insult, and he really did not know what to do.
“Aren’t you Sonny Liston?” the man repeated, quite serious.
“No,” Patterson said, quickly passing by the man. “I’m his brother.”
When he reached Mrs. Patterson’s car, he asked, “How much time till school lets out?”
“About fifteen minutes,” she said, starting up the engine. Then she said, “Oh, Floyd, I just should have told Sister, I shouldn’t have. . .”
“You tell Sister; I’ll tell the boys. . . .”
Mrs. Patterson drove as quickly as she could into Scarsdale, with Patterson shaking his head and telling Ted Hanson in the back, “Really can’t understand these school kids. This is a religious school, and they want $20,000 for a glass window—and yet, some of them carry these racial prejudices, and it’s mostly the Jews who are shoulder to shoulder with us, and . . .”
“Oh, Floyd,” cried his wife, “Floyd, I have to get along here . . . you’re not here, you don’t live here, I . . .”
She arrived at the school just as the bell began to ring. It was a modern building at the top of a hill, and on the lawn was the statue of a saint and, behind it, a large white cross. “There’s Jeannie,” said Mrs. Patterson.
“Hurry, call her over here,” Patterson said.
“Jeannie! Come over here, honey.”
The little girl, wearing a blue school uniform and cap, and clasping books in front of her, came running down the path toward the station wagon.
“Jeannie,” Floyd Patterson said, rolling down his window, “point out the boys who lifted your dress.”
Jeannie turned and watched as several students came down the path; then she pointed to a tall, thin, curly-haired boy walking with four other boys, all about 12 to 14 years of age.
“Hey,” Patterson called to him, “can I see you for a minute?”
All five boys came to the side of the car. They looked Patterson directly in the eye. They seemed not at all intimidated by him.
“You the one that’s been lifting up my daughter’s dress?” Patterson asked the boy who had been singled out.
“Nope,” the boy said, casually.
“Nope?” Patterson said, caught off guard by the reply.
“Wasn’t him, Mister,” said another boy. “Probably was his little brother.”
Patterson looked at Jeannie. But she was speechless, uncertain. The five boys remained there, waiting for Patterson to do something.
“Well, er, where’s your little brother?” Patterson asked.
“Hey, kid!” one of the boys yelled. “Come over here.”
A boy walked toward them. He resembled his older brother; he had freckles on his small, upturned nose, had blue eyes, dark curly hair and, as he approached the station wagon, he seemed equally unintimidated by Patterson.
“You been lifting up my daughter’s dress?”
“Nope,” the boy said.
“Nope!” Patterson repeated, frustrated.
“Nope, I wasn’t lifting it. I was just touching it a little . . .”
The other boys stood around the car looking down at Patterson, and other students crowded behind them, and nearby Patterson saw several white parents standing next to their parked cars; he became self-conscious, began to tap nervously with his fingers against the dashboard. He could not raise his voice without creating an unpleasant scene, yet he could not retreat gracefully; so his voice went soft, and he said, finally:
“Look, boy, I want you to stop it. I won’t tell your mother—that might get you in trouble—but don’t do it again, okay?”
The boys calmly turned and walked, in a group, up the street. Sandra Patterson said nothing. Jeannie opened the door, sat in the front seat next to her father, and took out a small blue piece of paper that a nun had given her and handed it across to Mrs. Patterson. But Floyd Patterson snatched it. He read it. Then he paused, put the paper down, and quietly announced, dragging out the words, “She didn’t do her religion. . . .”
Patterson now wanted to get out of Scarsdale. He wanted to return to camp. After stopping at the Patterson home in Scarsdale and picking up Floyd Patterson, Jr., who is three, Mrs. Patterson drove them all back to the airport. Jeannie and Floyd, Jr., were seated in the back of the plane, and then Mrs. Patterson drove the station wagon alone up to camp, planning to return to Scarsdale that evening with the children.
It was 4 P.M. when Floyd Patterson got back to the camp, and the shadows were falling on the clubhouse, and on the tennis court routed by weeds, and on the big white house in front of which not a single automobile was parked. All was deserted and quiet; it was a loser’s camp.
The children ran to play inside the clubhouse; Patterson walked slowly toward his apartment to dress for the workout.
“What could I do with those schoolboys?” he asked. “What can you do to kids of that age?”
It still seemed to bother him—the effrontery of the boys, the realization that he had somehow failed, the probability that, had those same boys heckled someone in Liston’s family, the schoolyard would have been littered with limbs.
While Patterson and Liston both are products of the slum, and while both began as thieves, Patterson had been tamed in a special school with help from a gentle Negro spinster; later he became a Catholic convert, and learned not to hate. Still later he bought a dictionary, adding to his vocabulary such words as “vicissitude” and “enigma.” And when he regained his championship from Johansson, he became the Great Black Hope of the Urban League.
He proved that it is not only possible to rise out of a Negro slum and succeed as a sportsman, but also to develop into an intelligent, sensitive, law-abiding citizen. In proving this, however, and in taking pride in it, Patterson seemed to lose part of himself. He lost part of his hunger, his anger—and as he walked up the steps into his apartment, he was saying, “I became the good guy. . . . After Liston won the title, I kept hoping that he would change into a good guy, too. That would have relieved me of the responsibility, and maybe I could have been more of the bad guy. But he didn’t. . . . It’s okay to be the good guy when you’re winning. But when you’re losing, it is no good being the good guy.”
Patterson took off his shirt and trousers and, moving some books on the bureau to one side, put down his watch, his cuff links and a clip of bills.
“Do you do much reading?” he was asked.
“No,” he said. “In fact, you know I’ve never finished reading a book in my whole life? I don’t know why. I just feel that no writer today has anything for me; I mean, none of them has felt any more deeply than I have, and I have nothing to learn from them. Although Baldwin to me seems different from the rest. What’s Baldwin doing these days?”
“He’s writing a play. Anthony Quinn is supposed to have a part in it.”
“Quinn?” Patterson asked.
“Quinn doesn’t like me.”
“I read or heard it somewhere; Quinn had been quoted as saying that my fight was disgraceful against Liston, and Quinn said something to the effect that he could have done better. People often say that—they could have done better! Well, I think that if they had to fight, they couldn’t even go through the experience of waiting for the fight to begin. They’d be up the whole night before, and would be drinking, or taking drugs. They’d probably get a heart attack. I’m sure that if I was in the ring with Anthony Quinn, I could wear him out without even touching him. I would do nothing but pressure him, I’d stalk him, I’d stand close to him. I wouldn’t touch him, but I’d wear him out and he’d collapse. But Anthony Quinn’s an old man, isn’t he?”
“In his forties.”
“Well, anyway,” Patterson said, “getting back to Baldwin, he seems like a wonderful guy. I’ve seen him on television, and, before the Liston fight in Chicago, he came by my camp. You meet Baldwin on the street and you say, ‘Who’s this poor slob?’—he seems just like another guy; and this is the same impression I give people when they don’t know me. But I think Baldwin and me, we have much in common, and someday I’d just like to sit somewhere for a long time and talk to him. . . .”
Patterson, his trunks and sweat pants on, bent over to tie his shoelaces, and then, from a bureau drawer, took out a T-shirt across which was printed “Deauville.” He has several T-shirts bearing the same name. He takes good care of them. They are souvenirs from the high point of his life. They are from the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach, which is where he trained for the third Ingemar Johansson match in March of 1961.
Never was Floyd Patterson more popular, more admired than during that winter. He had visited President Kennedy; he had been given a $35,000 jeweled crown by his manager; his greatness was conceded by sports writers—and nobody had any idea that Patterson, secretly, was in possession of a false moustache and dark glasses that he intended to wear out of Miami Beach should he lose the third fight to Johansson.
It was after being knocked out by Johansson in their first fight that Patterson, deep in depression, hiding in humiliation for months in a remote Connecticut lodge, decided he could not face the public again if he lost. So he bought false whiskers and a moustache, and planned to wear them out of his dressing room after a defeat. He had also planned, in leaving his dressing room, to linger momentarily within the crowd and perhaps complain out loud about the fight. Then he would slip undiscovered through the night and into a waiting automobile.
Although there proved to be no need for bringing disguise into the second or third Johansson fights, or into a subsequent bout in Toronto against an obscure heavyweight named Tom McNeeley, Patterson brought it anyway; and, after the first Liston fight, he not only wore it during his 30-hour automobile ride from Chicago to New York, but he also wore it while in an airliner bound for Spain.
“As I got onto this plane, you’d never have recognized me,” he said. “I had on this beard, moustache, glasses and hat—and I also limped, to make myself look older. I was alone. I didn’t care what plane I boarded; I just looked up and saw this sign at the terminal reading ‘Madrid,’ and so I got on that flight after buying a ticket.
“When I got to Madrid I registered at a hotel under the name ‘Aaron Watson.’ I stayed in Madrid about four or five days. In the daytime I wandered around to the poorer sections of the city, limping, looking at the people, and the people stared back at me and must have thought I was crazy because I was moving so slow and looked the way I did. I ate food in my hotel room. Although once I went to a restaurant and ordered soup. I hate soup. But I thought it was what old people would order. So I ate it. And after a week of this, I began to actually think I was somebody else. I began to believe it. And it is nice, every once in a while, being somebody else.”
Patterson would not elaborate on how he managed to register under a name that did not correspond to his passport; he merely explained, “With money, you can do anything.”
Now, walking slowly around the room, his black silk robe over his sweat clothes, Patterson said, “You must wonder what makes a man do things like this. Well, I wonder, too. And the answer is, I don’t know . . . but I think that within me, within every human being, there is a certain weakness. It is a weakness that exposes itself more when you’re alone. And I have figured out that part of the reason I do the things I do, and cannot seem to conquer that one word—myself—is because . . . I am a coward. . . .”
He stopped. He stood very still in the middle of the room, thinking about what he had just said, probably wondering whether he should have said it.
“I am a coward,” he then repeated, softly. “My fighting has little to do with that fact, though. I mean you can be a fighter—and a winning fighter—and still be a coward. I was probably a coward on the night I won the championship back from Ingemar. And I remember another night, long ago, back when I was in the amateurs, fighting this big, tremendous man named Julius Griffin. I was only a hundred fifty-three pounds. I was petrified. It was all I could do to cross the ring. And then he came at me, and moved close to me . . . and from then on I don’t know anything. I have no idea what happened. Only thing I know is, I saw him on the floor. And later somebody said, ‘Man, I never saw anything like it. You just jumped up in the air, and threw thirty different punches. . . .’”
“When did you first think you were a coward?” he was asked.
“It was after the first Ingemar fight.”
“How does one see this cowardice you speak of?”
“You see it when a fighter loses. Ingemar, for instance, is not a coward. ‘When he lost the third fight in Miami, he was at a party later at the Fontainebleau. Had I lost, I couldn’t have gone to that party. And I don’t see how he did. . . .”
“Could Liston be a coward?”
“That remains to be seen,” Patterson said. “We’ll find out what he’s like after somebody beats him, how he takes it. It’s easy to do anything in victory. It’s in defeat that a man reveals himself. In defeat I can’t face people. I haven’t the strength to say to people, ‘I did my best, I’m sorry, and what not.’”
“Have you no hate left?”
“I have hated only one fighter,” Patterson said. “And that was Ingemar in the second fight. I had been hating him for a whole year before that—not because he beat me in the first fight, but because of what he did after. It was all that boasting in public, and his showing off his right-hand punch on television, his thundering right, his ‘toonder and lightning.’ And I’d be home watching him on television, and hating him. It is a miserable feeling, hate. When a man hates, he can’t have any peace of mind. And for one solid year I hated him because, after he took everything away from me, deprived me of everything I was, he rubbed it in. On the night of the second fight, in the dressing room, I couldn’t wait until I got into the ring. When he was a little late getting into the ring, I thought, He’s holding me up; he’s trying to unsettle me—well, I’ll get him!”
“Why couldn’t you hate Liston in the second match?”
Patterson thought for a moment, then said, “Look, if Sonny Liston walked into this room now and slapped me in the face, then you’d see a fight. You’d see the fight of our life because, then, a principle would be involved. I’d forget he was a human being. I’d forget I was a human being. And I’d fight accordingly.”
“Could it be, Floyd, that you made a mistake in becoming a prizefighter?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you say you’re a coward; you say you have little capacity for hate; and you seemed to lose your nerve against those schoolboys in Scarsdale this afternoon. Don’t you think you might have been better suited for some other kind of work? Perhaps a social worker, or . . .”
“Are you asking why I continue to fight?”
“Well,” he said, not irritated by the question, “first of all, I love boxing. Boxing has been good to me. And I might just as well ask you the question: ‘Why do you write?’ Or, ‘Do you retire from writing every time you write a bad story?’ And as to whether I should have become a fighter in the first place, well, let’s see how I can explain it. . . . Look, let’s say you’re a man who has been in an empty room for days and days without food . . . and then they take you out of that room and put you into another room where there’s food hanging all over the place . . . and the first thing you reach for, you eat. When you’re hungry, you’re not choosy, and so I chose the thing that was closest to me. That was boxing. One day I just wandered into a gymnasium and boxed a boy. And I beat him. Then I boxed another boy. I beat him, too. Then I kept boxing. And winning. And I said, ‘Here, finally, is something I can do!’
“Now I wasn’t a sadist,” he quickly added. “But I liked beating people because it was the only thing I could do. And whether boxing was a sport or not, I wanted to make it a sport because it was a thing I could succeed at. And what were the requirements? Sacrifice. That’s all. To anybody who comes from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, sacrifice comes easy. And so I kept fighting, and one day I became heavyweight champion, and I got to know people like you. And you wonder how I can sacrifice, how I can deprive myself so much? You just don’t realize where I’ve come from. You don’t understand where I was when it began for me.
“In those days, when I was about eight years old, everything I got—I stole. I stole to survive, and I did survive, but I seemed to hate myself. My mother told me I used to point to a photograph of myself hanging in the bedroom and say, ‘I don’t like that boy!’ One day my mother found three large X’s scratched with a nail or something over that photograph of me. I don’t remember doing it. But I do remember feeling like a parasite at home. I remember how awful I used to feel at night when my father, a longshoreman, would come home so tired that, as my mother fixed food before him, he would fall asleep at the table because he was that tired. I would always take his shoes off and clean his feet. That was my job. And I felt so bad because here I was, not going to school, doing nothing, just watching my father come home; and on Friday nights it was even worse. He would come home with his pay, and he’d put every nickel of It on the table so my mother could buy food for all the children. I never wanted to be around to see that. I’d run and hide. And then I decided to leave home and start stealing—and I did. And I would never come home unless I brought something that I had stolen. Once I remember I broke into a dress store and stole a whole mound of dresses, at two A.M., and here I was, this little kid, carrying all those dresses over the wall, thinking they were all the same size, my mother’s size, and thinking the cops would never notice me walking down the street with all those dresses piled over my head. They did, of course. . . . I went to the Youth House. . . .”
Floyd Patterson’s children, who had been playing outside all this time around the country club, now became restless and began to call him, and Jeannie started to pound on his door. So Patterson picked up his leather bag, which contained his gloves, his mouthpiece and adhesive tape, and walked with the children across the path toward the clubhouse.
He flicked on the light switches behind the stage near the piano. Beams of amber streaked through the dimly lit room and flashed onto the ring. He took off his robe, shuffled his feet in the rosin, skipped rope, and then began to shadowbox in front of the spit-stained mirror, throwing out quick combinations of lefts, rights, lefts, rights, each jab followed by a “hegh-hegh-hegh-hegh.” Then, his gloves on, he moved to the punching bag in the far corner, and soon the room reverberated to his rhythmic beat against the bobbling bag—rat-tat-tat-tetteta, rat-tat-tat-tetteta-rat-tat-tat-tetteta-rat-tat-tetteta!
The children, sitting on pink leather chairs, moved from the bar to the fringe of the ring, watched him in awe, sometimes flinching at the force of his pounding against the leather bag.
And this is how they would probably remember him years from now: a dark, solitary, glistening figure punching in the corner of a forlorn spot at the bottom of a mountain where people once came to have fun—until the clubhouse because unfashionable, the paint began to peel, and Negroes were allowed in.
As Floyd Patterson continued to bang away with lefts and rights, his gloves a brown blur against the bag, his daughter slipped quietly off her chair and wandered past the ring into the other room. There, on the other side of the bar and beyond a dozen round tables, was the stage. She climbed onto the stage and stood behind a microphone, long dead, and cried out, imitating a ring announcer, “Ladieeees and gentlemen . . . tonight we present . . .”
She looked around, puzzled. Then, seeing that her little brother had followed her, she waved him up to the stage and began again: “Ladiees and gentlemen . . . tonight we present . . .Floydie Patterson. . . .”
Suddenly, the pounding against the bag in the other room stopped. There was silence for a moment. Then Jeannie, still behind the microphone and looking down at her brother, said, “Floydie, come up here!”
“No,” he said.
“Oh, come up here!”
“No,” he cried.
Then Floyd Patterson’s voice, from the other room, called: “Cut it out . . . I’ll take you both for a walk in a minute.”
He resumed punching—rat-tat-tat-tetteta—and they returned to his side. But Jeannie interrupted, asking, “Daddy, how come you sweating?”
“Water fell on me,” he said, still pounding.
“Daddy,” asked Floyd, Jr., “how come you spit water on the floor before?”
“To get it out of my mouth.”
He was about to move over to the heavier punching bag when the sound of Mrs. Patterson’s station wagon could be heard moving up the road.
Soon she was in Patterson’s apartment cleaning up a bit, patting the pillows, washing the teacups that had been left in the sink. One hour later the family was having dinner together. They were together for two mere hours; then, at 10 P.M., Mrs. Patterson washed and dried all of the dishes, and put the garbage out in the can—where it would remain until the raccoons and skunks got to it.
And then, after helping the children with their coats and walking out to the station wagon and kissing her husband good-bye, Mrs. Patterson began the drive down the dirt road toward the highway. Patterson waved once, and stood for a moment watching the taillights go, and then he turned and walked slowly back toward the house.
I had the chance to talk with Stephen about the book recently. Here’s our conversation:
Q: As a magazine writer you are used to dropping in on a subject and then you’re out. What was it like having to live with this material for a long period of time?
SR: Well, for my sanity and finances I kept my hand in the magazine game writing three or four pieces a year while reporting the book. That gave me some much-needed distance from all the heaviness that permeates the book. I remember I was writing the chapter on re-creating my dad’s accident and was sinking into the pit of despair, and next thing I knew I was in Malibu with Rick Rubin as he dodged the pot smoke from the guitarist of System of the Down and brought his own eggs to a restaurant before going to work out with the cranky doctor guy from Scrubs. The same thing with the Lindsay Lohan/Canyons story, I just returned from the Gulf where Tupper was struggling through his last cruise and we watched Iranian ‘fishing’ boats shadow the USS Lincoln’s moves through the Gulf. I flew off back through the protests in Bahrain and a few weeks later I’m in the back of Lohan’s Porsche as she flips off the paparazzi in Santa Monica. They were nice Fellini moments to break up trying to decipher the precise speed that my dad’s plane hit the water before disintegrating.
Q: Were there any memoirs that you read, and particularly liked, before writing yours?
SR: I was drawn to James Salter’s Burning the Days because he was a combat pilot back in the 1950s and wrote beautifully about the flying life. On the flip side, Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia is a novel that reads like a memoir and I’ve read that a half-dozen times. The two couldn’t be more different, but they both share a certain simplicity in the language that I loved.
Q: Have you always felt that this was the story one day you were destined to tell?
SR: I don’t know if I felt I was destined to write it, but it had been gnawing at me for years and i just didn’t feel I had the emotional strength to write it in the way I knew I wanted to do it. The final kick in the ass, was VAQ-135, my Dad’s old squadron, was phasing out the Prowler, his old plane, and I knew it was now or never if I wanted to follow his old squadron flying his old plane. They even got me up in a flight, which was one of the most frightening and meaningful moments of my life even if I did boot a spectacular yellow fluid into my barf bag.
Q: How did you arrive at the narrative structure for the story, shifting between your story from childhood through the present, with that of Tupper and the current Navy?
SR: It just sort of happened naturally, I’m not a big outliner, but I knew the chapters I wanted to write and they somehow clicked into place. I know I wanted to start at both of our points of entry: For me, the day my father was killed marked an obvious demarcation in my life. For Tupper, it was the day that he took command. From there, things sort of tumbled out naturally going back and forth between my journey and Tupper’s. I was hoping the reader would be able to see what life was like from the two perspectives: The son left behind and the father trying to do his job.
Q: Early in the story you talk about being described as “the magical stranger” by a friend who says that you have this remarkable ability to adapt to social situations and put people at ease.
SR: Yeah, as a magazine writer, you’re always the new kid, you don’t know where the bathrooms are etc. I don’t put on a persona when I go and talk with people; I’m just me, just a paying more attention me. With very few exceptions, I’ve been blessed to write about men and women I find fascinating so I don’t have to fake it.
Q: As a military kid you moved around a lot, always being the new kid. Is that charm, for lack of a better word, the ability to get people to feel comfortable, something that’s conscious?
A: That’s a really good question. Is it a nature or nurture thing? I was always the smartass from the start, but I don’t know if it was just the nature of my personality or part of always being the new kid and realizing that the best way to ingratiate yourself is to get people either laughing with you or laughing at you, whichever one doesn’t really matter.
Q: Has it ever gotten in the way of you forming intimate relationships–not with subjects so much, as friends, family?
SR: I’m not sure. There’s a restless nature in me that doesn’t always mesh with every-day life. I think the key is finding like-minded people who understand that and still love you anyway. I think one of the great things about doing the book was finding out that my purportedly straight-arrow dad was a troublemaker in his younger days. I’d always felt with my personality that I was an alien in my own family and a massive disappointment. I found a diary he kept when he was thirteen, the age I was when he was killed. And sure, he’s serving mass and getting scholarships, but he’s also getting called a punk by the nuns and hitchhiking throughout New England as an eighth grader. I went to his 50th high school reunion and a friend of his told me: The stuff Pete cared about, he was the best and smartest kid I ever knew, the stuff Pete didn’t care about he didn’t give a damn about and he’d stare out the window for the entire class. And that was gratifying to me because I’m sort of the same way. I found a precious connection that I never knew was there and eased my burden of never feeling like I could measure up to him. It’s like he was a statue on a pedestal that magically walked off it and put his arm around me and said, “Son don’t sweat it, I’ve done some dubious things. It’s ok.” There’s never been a man more excited that his dad was a teen fuck-up than me.
Q: You also say that it was your father who was really the magical stranger. How did you fantasize how things would have turned out had he not been killed?
SR: Well, there’s the fantasy and the reality. The fantasy is he would of came home and we would have probably moved to DC and he would have kicked me into shape and I would have ended up at Georgetown or one of the Ivies and gone on to be president of the United States. The reality is he was a devout Catholic while I was distancing myself from Catholicism quickly before I hit twenty. We probably would have fought over that. So, you just never know how it could have been. But I’d pay any price to have the chance to find out.
Q: You’re tough on yourself when you describe yourself as a kid. Now that the book is finished, have you let go of any of the harsh judgment?
SR: Ha! I wish. I think it’s hard to shake a childhood where everyone is constantly disappointed in you. Whether it’s a priest—later busted for pedophilia—telling you that “you’re the man of the house,” and then not stepping up or entering high school with one of the highest board scores and the vice principal telling your Mom at graduation that “Steve was the student with the most potential who did the least with it.” (Thanks Ms. King!). It’s hard to shake that even after having success as an adult. I still see myself as inherently lazy while my wife sees me as a workaholic. But I’m trying to give myself more of a break. Sometimes, I tell myself, Hey, you lost your Dad at thirteen when you needed him most and you might have stumbled, but you didn’t fall. You still turned out ok. You’re a man your father would be proud of. (Well, he wouldn’t be proud that I hate the Red Sox, but most things). I try to own that as much as I can.
Q: Did you emphasize your difficulties in the book for the sake of a dramatic arc?
SR: Nope. The one thing I wanted to do with my story and my family story and Tupper’s story was to keep it simple: This how this happened. This is how we dealt with it. One thing I can say is I lived this life, not just my own but Tupper’s life for three years. You can criticize my approach as artless, but I’ve never had much time for grandiose set-ups, faux Faulkner hand wringing, or 2000 words of throat clearing before you get down to the task at hand. To me, this is what my life and the life of the others I wrote about really were like, good and bad, dangerous and idiotic.
Q: I was compelled by how your family dealt with things by not dealing with them—the Rodrick way. When you approached your mom to talk about your father you discovered that you’d both avoided it in order to spare the other person’s feelings. Yet your mom seemed willing, appreciative even, to share her memories. Has your relationship for the better?
SR: It has. We sort of had this standoff for decades where she thought I didn’t want to talk about my father and she thought I didn’t want to talk about him. It really took me writing the book for us to breakthrough that wall. So thank you to the publishing world.
Q: How did she like the book?
SR: Funny story. My mom is the only person in the book that I let read it in galleys. I went to see visit her in Michigan and stayed with my sister about 20 miles away. After she had the book for a few days, she told me she had read it and told me to come over for lunch and we could talk about it. I arrived, very nervous and sweaty. But she told me she liked it and that she was very proud. I was so relieved; we watched the Lions lose, had lunch and took her dog for a walk. It was perfect. I drove back to my sister’s and spent about 24 hours in a state of euphoria, blasting their stereo and dancing around in my boxers. But then my sister came up for work and just shook her head at me and said, “You’ve got to go and talk to mom again, she’s bitching about the book all over town.” (Mind you, all over town would be maybe five people).
I drove back over to her house with a single Xanax in my jean pocket not sure if it was for her or me. She let me in and said, “I don’t want to rain on your parade, but I come across as a bit of a bitch in the book.” I told that wasn’t other people’s take, but she said “It’s not anything you say isn’t true, but there’s no mention that even in the worst of the times, I kept you fed, washed your clothes, and car-pooled us all over town.” And she was absolutely right; I’d fallen into a somewhat myopic well on that subject. I was happy to add a few lines to the book to make it clear, it was the least I could do. My mom is a sweetheart who was left with three kids at 36, one who was a constant pain in the ass—that would be me. She did the best she could and none of her children were lost. We’re all doing pretty well and that’s a testament to her.
Q: I think you’re fair to your mom. What I found moving was that she apologized to you for being so hard on you back when you were a kid. To me that’s the real takeaway—parents do the best that they can.
SR: That’s it exactly. The Go-Betweens have a song called “Devil’s Eye” that has a line that goes “Sometimes, we don’t come through, sometimes we just get by,” and that. I think, is pretty true of the human condition. Saying you’re sorry and forgiving make the world go round. And Chipotle.
Q: You don’t really mention it in the book but did you seek out father figures, mentors, or just older men to hang out with as you’ve grown up?
SR: No, not really, probably to my own detriment. I know this sounds like something out of a cheddar voiceover in a Western, but I’ve always found more comfort in the company of women than men. Maybe it’s not surprising since I grew up with my mom and two sisters, but there it is. Not having a mentor professionally probably has hurt me at different points, but it’s also saved me from idol worship, which might be an even tradeoff.
Loudon Wainwright has a great song “One Man Guy,” that his own children, Rufus and Martha, sing probably to taunt him a bit. (My ex-wife hated that I loved it.)
The solo life that Loudon’s raves about as a young man comes across as sad in middle-age so I’ve made an effort to reach out and make more dude friends. But they’re all equals–Fed Ex delivery guys, Navy pilots, book editors–no one that I put on a pedestal as a mentor. I think part of that is because I always had my father on that pedestal, there wasn’t room for anyone else.
Q: It makes sense about being more comfortable around women, and not having room for mentors with your father looming so large. Have there been other magazine writers that, if you haven’t worshipped, then admired? Both in creatively and just how they conduct themselves?
SR: I fell in love with magazines as a kid reading Sports Illustrated, all those bonus pieces week-after-week. Frank Deford’s byline is the first one I distinctly remember. That’s not a bad one. His pieces are not-flashy, but funny and human. That’s something to shoot for.
Someone gave me Pat Jordan’s first memoir, A False Spring, and I’ve read it many times. I finally met him a few years back when I was in Florida on a spring training story and a friend suggested I meet Pat so he could finally tell me the difference between a curve and a slider.
I went to his house in Fort Lauderdale. We had a drink and either he or his wife was packing heat. There were dogs and birds screeching and Jordan kept telling me, “Get out of New York, move to Florida, you can live on 65 grand here, make 65, you’ve made your nut.” I was like “What is this nut you so speaketh about?” We went out for dinner and I think New York Magazine ended up buying a take-out steak for their dogs. And I thought, Now, here is a guy I can look up to.
Q: That’s great. In the book, you talk about sports and politics being a big deal for you as a kid but only touch on how music impacted your life. When did it become a major part of who you were?
SR: I’ve got a big weakness for the line of tart, clever British songwriters from Ray Davies to Paul Weller, to Damon Albarn, to Pete Doherty. Oh The Beatles aren’t so bad. My love of music started as a kid listening to transistor radio on my back delivering newspapers. I remember hearing Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home” at 12 or 13 and going ‘oh wow, this song isn’t a happy one. Guy’s talking about being the joke of the neighborhood, what he could have done with a little more time, and that his wife thinks he’s gone insane. And that was a Top 40 song! I loved that you could tell a story in three to five minutes. I love the economy of language you need to write a great pop song.
The older I get the more I listen to it as I write to set a mood, if I need little anger/outrage I go with The Stones’ “Monkey Man” because of the great marimbas at the beginning, the swaggering guitars, and the bad/sublime lyrics: “I’m a flea bit peanut monkey, all my friends are junkies. That’s not really true. I’m a cold Italian pizza I could use a lemon squeezer.” He’s an animal an unreliable narrator, and then pens worst line ever. Genius!
Q: “Monkey Man” is one of my all-time favorites. What were you listening to while you wrote the book?
SR:Half the World Away by Oasis. ‘So here I go, still scratching around in the same old hole, my body feels young, but my mind is very old,’ was sort of my personal motto for the book along with another line, “I’ve been lost, I’ve been found, but I don’t feel down.” ITunes says I listened to the song 397 times. Perhaps that is too much.
Q: What was the reaction from the military guys you hung with after the book came out?
SR: I’d say 99% of them loved it and loved the Catch-22 tales I tell of squadron life. Of course, they’re human and they all wish I’d left the story about the time they buzzed Midway Island causing an ecological furor or sprinted across an Army base in Japan just in a kimono hoping to thank the base CO for his hospitality at 4am in the morning out of the book. But they’ve been so supportive, I consider myself lucky to have these nuts in my life.
Q: Beyond that, what has been the response from military families that you don’t know to the book?
SR: I’ve got some great notes on my website and people coming up to me at readings and saying, ‘I lost my dad in a helo crash when I was twelve and your book said all the things I couldn’t say.’ That means more to me than I can say.
Q: How do you feel—exhilaration, relief, let down?—now that it’s done?
SR: Well, like most of life it has been alternately spectacular and heartbreaking. The friends and family that have come up to me at readings and written to be about my Dad makes me feel closer to him than I ever felt possible. But there is a bit of postpartum depression that sets in when your book is done. Should I have spent another year on it? Should I have spent a year less on it? They’re no greater second guessers than authors. Well, except for Stephen A. Smith. I love that guy.
SR: There’s not a lot you can do about it: She said it, it exploded, and the rest of the story has sort of have been forgotten. That happens, but it’s frustrating because I think there’s a lot of stuff in the story that paints her as a real, live human trying to figure life out. But that’s the nature of the business. It’s all the nature of modern life if you search my name on Nexis—not that I would do such a narcissistic thing!—you’ll find eighty or ninety mentions of the Serena and Lohan pieces, and maybe five or six on my book. But hey, THAT’S SHOW BUSINESS.
SR: That’s a simple one: unless I can get enough to spend enough time to write about anyone—navy pilot, tennis player, independent film festival guy– where I feel like I have a sense of who they are, then I’ll pass on the story. I’ve only done two or three profiles based on a single sit-down interview and I hated it. I know there’s a whole genre of magazine profile writing where the guy–and it’s always a guy–tap dances for 2000 words before you get a snippet of the guy he’s writing about. It’s like a 30-second commercial where you don’t know what the hell they’re selling until the tag line at the end. I’ll tell my editor to cut the story from 4,500 to 2,500 words just so I don’t have to play Three Card Monte for half the piece. I want to write ‘this is what the person was like from observing him and watching him in action not ‘this is what the person is like in my fantasy relating to my childhood in the coalfields of West Virginia.
Q: Last one. I wonder, do you still feel the same restlessness now that you did when you were a kid or even in your 20s?
SR: I do, but in a different way. Now I just want to have two residences, down from the four or five of a decade ago. I’d love someday to own a summer place up in Anacortes, Washington where the book is largely set. It is so goddamned beautiful and it’s 58 degrees and misty which is my kind of weather. It’s strange, I only lived there from seven to thirteen, but I feel that place is home deep down in my bones. I remember being in Dublin once and I heard some teen buskers playing this beautiful song “Learn to Be Still” and I was struck: That’s exactly what I need to do: Learn to be still. I gave them money and had them play it again. A little later, I found out it was an Eagles song. I took that as an ominous sign and kept moving.
For a taste of Lenny Shecter’s no-bullshit, take-no-prisoners style, check out this excerpt from “The Flower of America” chapter of his 1969 book of essays, The Jocks.
By Leonard Shecter
There are famous Yankee players whose public images bear little relation to the kind of men they actually are—Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle, to name three.
Suave, sure, husband of Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio holds a unique place in Americana. He is super-hero. Sixteen years after he completed his remarkable feat of hitting in 56 straight games he was immortalized (if a god can obtain new immortalization) by Simon and Garfunkel in “Mrs. Robinson.”
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
In fact, the nation has not turned its lonely eyes to Joe DiMaggio. As Gay Talese showed in a remarkable article in Esquire in 1966, DiMaggio is a vain, lonely man, who is a tyrant to the sycophants who surround him. Wrote Talese. “His friends [know] . . . that should they inadvertently betray a confidence . . . [he] will never speak to them again.” Talese then described a scene in a restaurant called Reno’s in San Francisco which DiMaggio would often drop into.
They may wait for hours sometimes, waiting and knowing he may wish to be alone; but it does not seem to matter, they are endlessly awed by him, moved by the mystique, he is a kind of male Garbo. They know he can be warm and loyal if they are sensitive to his wishes, but they must never be late for an appointment to meet him. One man, unable to find a parking space, arrived a half-hour late once and DiMaggio didn’t talk to him again for three months. They know, too, when dining at night with DiMaggio, that he generally prefers male companions and occasionally one or two young women, but never wives; wives gossip, wives are trouble, and men wishing to remain close to DiMaggio must keep their wives at home.
His friends fawn on him, call him “Clipper” (one must wonder why a grown man would tolerate that), introduce him to mindless young women and pick up his tabs. At her death he turned a marriage to Marilyn Monroe that didn’t work (she complained that all he wanted to do was watch television) into a maudlin lost love. He held a permanent grudge against Robert Kennedy because he once spent a lot of time at a party dancing with Marilyn. This was aftertheir marriage had disintegrated.
And in the end he took a coaching job—not a managing job, a coaching job—with Charles O. Finley, the erratic owner of the Oakland Athletics. It was the act of a lonely, probably bitter man. No one had offered him a job as manager. In the fall of 1968 Joe DiMaggio was in Japan to teach the batters there how to hit. One suspects he had no more difficulty communicating with them than he did with American batters.
Yogi Berra is a particularly glowing example of an image which has outstripped the man. Of course, it is not his fault. It is not his fault that he is not a lovable gnome bubbling over withbon mots. Nor is it his fault that he is a narrow, suspicious man, jealous of the man other people supposed him to be and which he knew he was not. He was supposed to be a humorist because he said things like “Bill Dickey learned me all his experiences,” and “I want to thank you for making this award necessary.” In fact, there is severe doubt that Yogi Berra ever said anything intentionally funny in his life. The late Tom Meany used to tell this possibly apocryphal story about Berra which, at the least, illustrates the breadth of his knowledge. Berra was introduced to Ernest Hemingway at a party in a restaurant. When he returned to his table, he was asked what he thought of him. Said Berra: “He’s quite a character. What does he do?”
Well, he’s a writer.
“Yeah? What paper?”
After a while Berra and his wife, Carmen, came to believe that he was indeed something of a man of the world, raconteur, sophisticate. After all, weren’t they rich? (Berra has had enormous financial luck. He sold his interests in a bowling emporium at a great profit shortly before the bottom dropped out of the bowling business. And he took a block of stock in return for endorsing a little-known chocolate ”drink”-which means no milk and very little chocolate: the stock sky-rocketed.
There was an autobiography called Yogi. It was a typical baseball autobiography, all shiny and bright for the kiddies, naturally written by somebody else, a man who could have done better. But by the time the world was ready for a book about Berra, the Bern1s were not interested in reality. They wanted the book to be about Berra as they would have liked him to be. So it turned out to be a terrible book, cheap and phony and transparent I reviewed it that way.
It was a lovely spring day in St. Petersburg. The palm trees waved shiny green against the high blue sky. Yogi Berra saw me as soon as I arrived.
“You son of a bitch,” Berra said. “You cocksucker.”
He never said that in Yogi.
But that is not what I remember about him most. I remember most that the other ball players always complained that Yogi Berra would stand naked at the clubhouse buffet and scratch his genitals over the cold cuts.
Mickey Mantle is a quite different man. He was never shoe-horned into a role which, like Berra, he was unprepared by nature and intellect to play. Mantle was a country boy, ill-educated, frightened, convinced at an early age by a series of deaths in his family that he was doomed to live only a short life.
He was simple, naive and, at the very first, trusting. It did not take him long to misplace his trust. He soon found that he was trusting the wrong people and, when this cost him money, it made him withdrawn and sullen, as well as poor. Fortified by Yankee tradition—watch out for outsiders-Mantle was soon responding only to his teammates and the glad-handers and celebrity fuckers who flocked around him. (Mantle is almost universally liked by his teammates because he goes out of his way to be outgoing and friendly with them. He vigorously denies that he decided to behave that way after he, as a rookie, was ignored by the aloof, morose DiMaggio, but a young ball player I trust swears Mantle told him this and I have no reason to disbelieve him.) Pretty soon, as his skills blossomed, it became Mantle and his hedonistic enclave against the world.
And obviously the world didn’t count. The world was made up of crowds of sweaty, smelly little kids who demanded autographs and smeared ice cream on your new stantung suit, middle-aged slobs who accosted you in restaurants in ·mid-forkful to simper about getting an autograph for their little kiddies at home, and cloddish newspaper and magazine people who never got anything right and only wanted to hurt you anyway. When he was playing poorly or when he was especially plagued by one of his numerous injuries, Mantle would become particularly withdrawn and sulky, turn his back even on well-wishers. A great deal of this was sheer self-protection. For Mantle always doubted himself and, most of all, his knowledge of the game.
He had reason to. Mantle was never much of a student of baseball. Born with marvelous skills, he played it intuitively, never having to pay much attention to what was going on. More than once I heard him ask a teammate about a rival pitcher, “What’s he throw?” This is not an unusual question around a ball club-except if the pitcher had been in the league five years and pitched against the Yankees maybe 30 times.
It is possible that Mantle was incapable of even the minimum amount of concentration the finer points of baseball require. Certainly he refused to work on his own physical conditioning during the off-season, a refusal which, if it not actually shorten his career, obviously did nothing to prevent the pulled muscles in legs and groin which plagued him during almost every season. Year after year Mantle was told to go home and lift weights with his legs. He was begged to keep in good enough physical condition so that he would at least not disarrange a hamstring, as he did so often, in the opening days of spring training. But Mantle’s idea of keeping fit was to have an active social life and play golf out of an electric cart which was outfitted with a bar. He had fun. He also had pulled muscles.
It has become a cliche to wonder how great Mantle would have been had he been physically healthy during his career. What I wonder is how great he might have been had he even tried to keep physically healthy.
In the early years of his career Mantle was booed by the fans because he refused to live up to his promise. Later on the boos turned to cheers as he became known as a man who made a gallant effort despite enormous physical pain. I’m not sure the fans weren’t right in the first place.
More from John Lardner. Originally published in 1949 in the New Yorker and reprinted here with permission of Susan Lardner.
“The Battling Siki”
By John Lardner
Hell’s Kitchen, the region west of Eighth Avenue around the Forties, won its name many years ago and continued to deserve it until about the time the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed. Things are different there now. So its residents will tell you, and so you can see for yourself if, having known the neighborhood a little during Prohibition, you visit it even briefly today. Once it was carpeted, for nearly all its length and breadth, with low, swarthy brick tenement houses containing a warren of flats, speak-easies, six-table cellar “cabarets,” hole-in-the-wall stores and restaurants, back-room stills, and “social clubs,” where a portion of the manhood of the district stored guns and ammunition and planned stick-ups and highjackings. Right along the equator of Hell’s Kitchen ran the Ninth Avenue “L” tracks, throwing a grim, significant shadow by day and night. Other parts of town had clip joints, or “buckets of blood,” scattered through them, but the Kitchen, as a detective friend of mine used to say, was one big bucket of blood. Nowadays the Kitchen is a bit more shiny and much more respectable. Neon lights and modern shops and garages have pushed their way into it. The McGraw-Hill Building has gouged out half of what was considered one of the hottest blocks in Hell’s Kitchen in the nineteen twenties—the block bounded by Eighth and Ninth Avenues and Forty-first and Forty-second streets. The Lincoln Tunnel approaches have formed an asphalt plaza west of Ninth Avenue. The sleek New Jersey buses and automobiles bound for and away from the West Side Highway plow across the old badlands in steady procession. The retail liquor traffic thereabouts has become negligible; the city’s center of gravity of crime has shifted elsewhere, perhaps to Brooklyn. Broadly speaking, Hell’s Kitchen is not a frontier community any more but a sort of vehicular gateway to the heart of Manhattan. However, if you want to conjure up the atmosphere of earlier times, you can still find islands of squat tenement houses here and there to help you, many of them boarded up and condemned, and the empty shells of many basement grogshops. In the unlikely event that you want to visit the scene of the murder, twenty-four years ago, of a man called Battling Siki, which is what I did one day recently for no useful reason, you will come across a few surviving landmarks. You can pace off distances in the same gutter and seamy street—Forty-first—down which Siki crawled forty feet west toward Ninth Avenue, with two bullets in his body, before he collapsed and died. He crawled in the direction of the “L,” the cave of shadows that no longer is there. His killer threw away the gun in front of a grimy old house that is now gone; the McGraw-Hill Building is there instead. These changes make the setting less sinister than it used to be, but even now there’s plenty to show that it was a drab and lonesome place to die.
Siki who held the light-heavyweight boxing championship of the world for six months in 1922 and 1923, was born in Senegal, in French West Africa, in 1897 and was killed in Hell’s Kitchen twenty-eight years later, in 1925. He was the Kitchen’s most turbulent citizen in the short time he lived there. He was thought by neighbors who knew him to have an honest heart and a generous soul, but when he drank the newly cooked liquor of the parish, as he often did, the cab drivers, cops, bartenders, and hoodlums whom he chose, with impeccable lack of judgment, to knock around, found it hard to take him philosophically. Rear-line observers, on the other hand were usually able to be philosophical about Siki. During the three years of his life in which he received international publicity—the last three—he was referred to repeatedly as a “child of nature,” a “natural man ” and a “jungle child,” and at least once as “the black Candide.” After his murder, the New York World said editorially, “What is all this [Siki's physical strength, his brawling and dissipation] but the sulks and tempers of Achilles, the prank of Siegfried and the boars, the strutting of Beowulf, the armours of Lemminkaïnen? We have had a walking image of our beginnings among us and did not know it. . . . He had, it is true, the mentality of a backward toad… But he had the soul of a god.”
It strikes me that tributes paid by civilized people to a “natural man,” especially one who has walked among us, are apt to sound either patronizing, like the World’s, or uneasy, like some delivered by American correspondents when Siki won his boxing championship in Paris in 1922 and was first interviewed. After praising Siki’s strength and simplicity, one reporter wrote apprehensively, “He is very black and very ugly.” Siki’s manager at the time, a M. Hellers, was quoted as saying that Siki was a fine lad but “just a little bit crazy.” I can discover no support among those who were acquainted with Siki in America later on for the idea that he was crazy, except when he drank, or the idea that he was mentally toadlike. He was illiterate, never having been to school, but he could make himself understood in several languages including English, French, Spanish, Dutch, and German. As far as Candide is concerned, Siki resembled Voltaire’s hero in that he had a sheltered boyhood, was thrown suddenly into the thick of the best of all possible worlds, and found society both violent and larcenous. At seventeen, he was involved in a civilized world war. At twenty-five, he was permitted to box a champion on the condition that he lose the match. Having ignored the condition and won the championship, he insured his loss of that title, in all innocence, by fighting an Irishman in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day. He entered American life in the heyday of the Volstead act. He could not master the strong waters or the social customs of the West Side of New York City. He was killed by gunfire, after surviving a stabbing earlier in the same year. It may seem, offhand, that Hell’s Kitchen was a curious place for the curtain to fall on a twenty-eight-year-old Mohammedan born in St. Louis de Senegal on the fringe of the Sahara Desert, but Voltaire has shown that when civilization gets its hands on one of these natural men, it pushes him about at random from curious place to curious place. Candide was lucky to wind up safely cultivating his garden. He came close to meeting his end in an auto-da-fé in Portugal and, another time, on a roasting spit in Paraguay. Siki’s story is perhaps more realistic. He failed to last out the course.
The newspaper writers of the 1920s were merely being wishful when they called Siki a jungle child. St. Louis, his African home, is a seaport ten miles above the mouth of the Senegal River, on a bare plain that marks the Sahara’s southwesternmost edge. It’s doubtful whether anyone in Europe or America today knows what Siki’s real name was. Legend has it that when he was ten or twelve years old, a French actress touring the colonies saw him in St. Louis, was impressed by his appearance, and took him into her personal service, giving him, for reasons based on classical Greek, the name of Louis Phal. Whatever its origin, this, Anglicized as Louis Fall, was his legal name when he was married, and when he was murdered, in America. He did not become known as Battling Siki until he began to box professionally, in 1913; apparently the word “Siki” was coined or borrowed by French fight promoters, to whom it had vague “native” or colonial connotations. The tale about the actress was told widely in Paris in the days of Siki’s first fame, when he knocked out the celebrated Georges Carpentier, but it was never, so far as I know, closely checked up on. It accounts, plausibly enough, for the abrupt shift of Siki from dusty African streets to the perils of Western civilization. The lady is said to have taken him to her villa on the French Riviera and dressed him in a page boy’s uniform of bottle green. Subsequently, he worked in one town and another as a bus boy. He was fifteen when he started boxing.
Siki had just time for a handful of fights, most of which he won, before the war of 1914-18 broke out and he was conscripted into the 8th Colonial Infantry Regiment of the French Army. His war record was distinguished; in fact, he is reported to have been the bravest soldier in his outfit which saw action on several fronts and gave a strong performance generally. For heroism under fire, Siki won not only the Croix de Guerre but the Médaille Militaire. After demobilization, he could have had his choice of a variety of ordinary civilian jobs; his record guaranteed him that. However, he went back to the prize ring, where the rewards were intermittent but came in good-sized pieces when they came. He barnstormed in France, North Africa, Spain, Belgium, and Holland. From a tour of Holland in 1921 he returned to Paris, where he lived with a Dutch girl who was thought to be his wife and by whom he later had a child. Siki did not work especially hard at his trade. He fought once or twice a month, which is not often for a “club,” or journeyman, fighter, and, while he usually won, he beat nobody of major importance. Between bouts he drank more absinthe than is normal in the profession. American critics were to speak of him three or four years later as a fighter of considerable natural ability who might have been much better than he was. Weighing about a hundred and seventy-five pounds, the maximum for light heavyweights, and standing five feet eleven inches tall, he was a well-muscled young man with a leaping, bounding, lunging style from which he got slapstick effects that amused the galleries, and himself as well. In the early months of 1922, he happened to defeat a couple of men of some slight reputation and thus came to the notice of François Descamps, then the most influential and artful character in French boxing. Descamps offered him a bout for the world’s light-heavyweight championship with Carpentier, whom Descamps managed.
The prizefight business in Continental Europe in those days was an odd blend of laissez faire and team play—laissez faire being understood to mean “Let Descamps do it his way,” and “team play” to mean that all hands share in the spoils. Descamps owned a large stable of fighters and also, it was commonly believed in Paris, a large stable of sports writers. Some of the latter were growing restive in 1922, possibly because of a failure in the team-play system as administered by Descamps. When the Carpentier-Siki match was announced, certain journalists expressed a distrust of it. They suggested that, in Siki, Descamps had laid hold of a small-time, happy-go-lucky trouper with no ambitions beyond getting all the absinthe he could consume, who would be glad to bolster Carpentier’s fortunes—Carpentier had not fought for really big money since his knockout by Jack Dempsey in New Jersey, fourteen months before—without making too much trouble for the champion in the ring. Their hints were undoubtedly read by the public. Carpentier was a war hero, the toast of the boulevards, a boxer still regarded, in spite of his defeat by Dempsey, as peerless in Europe, but though the crowd of 55,000 that came to the new Buffalo Velodrome in Paris on the afternoon of September 24, 1922, to see him fight Siki was the largest in European boxing history, it showed before the day was over that it was on the alert for signs of skulduggery. Its suspicions were inflamed during the preliminary bouts by the work of Harry Bernstein, a referee charged by sports writers with occupying a special compartment in the hip pocket of M. Descamps. In one preliminary, the opponent of a Descamps featherweight named Fritsch was disqualified by Bernstein for hitting too low; in another, the opponent of a Descamps heavyweight named Ledoux was disqualified by Bernstein for not fighting hard enough. Bernstein’s rulings brought a volley of coups de sifflet from the customers, particularly those in the seven-franc seats, who had mustered their sous at a sacrifice and wished for their money’s worth of equality and justice.
The main bout was scheduled for twenty rounds. Carpentier, pale and blond, weighed 173 1/2 pounds, Siki 174. In the first round, Siki fought cautiously and less acrobatically than usual; Carpentier jabbed at him with his left hand. Once, hit lightly, Siki dropped to one knee; Bernstein, who was refereeing this bout, too, did not bother to count. “Get up, Siki, you’re not hurt,” he said. After the round, ringside spectators saw Carpentier smile broadly and heard him say, “I’ll get him whenever I want to.” The champion, boxing easily, won the first two rounds. In the third, Carpentier sent a right-hand blow to Siki’s jaw, and Siki dropped to his knee again, this time taking a count of seven. When he got up, he rushed at Carpentier and hit him violently in the body with a left and a right. Carpentier, looking startled as well as hurt, went down for four seconds. The rest of the fight was all Siki’s. Siki battered Carpentier about the ring in the fourth round while Carpentier hung on to Siki’s arms whenever he could and tried to pinion them with his own. In the fifth, Carpentier fell against the ropes. Siki leaned over him (“I whispered to him to quit,” Siki said later), and Carpentier, pushing himself up, butted angrily at Siki’s belly. Carpentier could hardly stand when the sixth round began. Siki hit him at will. A right uppercut followed by a shower of right and left swings sent Carpentier to the floor unconscious one minute and ten seconds after the start of the round. As he fell, one of his feet became tangled between Siki’s, assisting the fall.
It was plain that Carpentier was completely knocked out, but at that point Bernstein ruled that Siki had lost the fight by tripping his opponent illegally. The third disqualification of the day was more than the crowd was prepared to stomach. It pushed its way to the ring from all quarters of the stadium and stormed around it, yelling furiously. Police were called up to protect Bernstein. Descamps, meanwhile, for whose blood the demonstrators were also shouting, slipped out of the arena behind a couple of gendarmes. Three judges—Victor Breyer, Jean Pujol, and an Englishman, Tom Bannison—who, before the fight, had been appointed by the French Boxing Federation to make a decision in case there was no knockout were now appealed to. After conferring briefly with Federation officials, they announced that they would give a final and formal verdict either supporting or overruling Bernstein’s. They deliberated for three quarters of an hour while Bernstein stood in one comer of the ring among his police guards and practically no one in the audience went home, or even stopped talking unkindly to the referee. The judges, willingly or not, at last did what the crowd wanted: they declared Siki the winner by a knockout and, in the name of the Federation, awarded him the light-heavyweight championship of the world, plus a subsidiary title of Carpentier’s—the heavyweight championship of Europe. Siki said to Hellers, his manager, “Tell America I am ready for Dempsey,” and repaired in triumph to his dressing room. The crowd disbanded. The police saw Bernstein safely to the door of his dressing room.
Siki never got a match with Dempsey, but some offers of lesser opportunities did come to him from America. He was lavishly feted in Pans during the first two days after his victory, and after public enthusiasm subsided, his own continued to run high, especially in the Montmartre neighborhood. “No more absinthe. I will train and fight hard as champion,” Siki had told a gathering outside the office of the newspaper Echo des Sports on the twenty-fifth, the day following the fight. Later that evening, he took a few glasses of champagne, and on touring Montmartre in a rented car with a chauffeur, he reverted to absinthe wholeheartedly at every stop he made. After another week or so he acquired, probably as gifts from fellow colonials, a monkey, which he carried everywhere on his shoulder, and a lion cub, which he led about on a leash. Carpentier was still lying in bed suffering from a sprained ankle, two broken hands, and an unsightly swelling of his nose and lips. Most of the Parisian sporting press was sympathetic toward him but nastily jubilant about Descamps, who, it was implied, had overreached himself and been double-crossed. Rumors to the same effect circulated through Paris for the next several weeks. In early December, the French Boxing Federation precipitated the publication of what was very likely the true story of the fight by suspending Siki—it was charged that while seconding another fighter in the ring, he had struck the manager of his man’s opponent. Siki, deprived of a chance to make a living in France, went for help to M. Diagne, the representative for Senegal in the French Chamber of Deputies. Diagne asserted before the Chamber that the Boxing Federation was discriminating against colonials in favor of Parisian city slickers who wanted Siki out of the way, and in support of this theory he gave the deputies the account of the Carpentier bout that Siki had given him. When the Chamber appeared unwilling to take any action, Diagne called a press conference and had Siki repeat his story to reporters. It ran as follows: A fix had been arranged fifteen days before the bout took place, with Descamps dictating procedure to Siki’s manager. As a sign of good faith, Siki was to take a short count in the first round and another count in the third. He was to get himself knocked out early in the fourth. Siki followed the scenario through the third-round knockdown—”I stayed down for seven the first time Carpentier hit me hard enough to give me an excuse,” he said—but as he knelt on the floor at that point, he decided not to go through with the frameup. It was his pride, he said, and his loyalty to the public that made him change his mind. When he got up, he began to fight in earnest. He ignored a sharp reminder from his manager, between the third and fourth rounds, that his end was expected momentarily. (This detail in Siki’s narrative gave Hellers a clean bill of health, in a left-handed way; Descamps had been so suspicious of treachery by Hellers that he quarreled with him in public after the bout.) Siki surprised Carpentier with his counterattack and soon demolished him.
When Siki’s story was done, M. Diagne explained to the press what it meant: A simple, uneducated man had defended himself and all underprivileged peoples against exploitation by a predatory society. Siki, who was always emotional, wept freely at these words. His tears and his deputy’s arguments got him nowhere. Neither did a court of inquiry appointed by the Boxing Federation to investigate Siki’s statement. The court, with a flashy display of ingenuity, hired two deaf-mutes to watch the motion pictures of the fight and see if they could lip-read certain remarks delivered excitedly by Descamps to Hellers in Siki’s corner during “a critical phase of the battle,” after Siki had begun to knock Carpentier around. The experiment (unique, I think, in boxing history) was later described by the court as “successful,” but Siki remained suspended. He never fought in France again until after he had lost his championships elsewhere. My own opinion is that being champion constituted Siki’s chief sin in the eyes of the Federation. Also, I believe his story of the Carpentier match was substantially correct. A “sign of good faith”—a preliminary fall, or lapse of some other kind, by the loser—is a standard device in the plotting of sports frameups. Eddie Cicotte, a Chicago baseball player, hit the first batter he faced with a pitched ball in the crooked World Series of 1919, as a signal to gamblers that the fix was in. Siki’s tale confirmed the rumors that were current before and after the fight; it was in keeping with the character of Descamps and of Continental boxing methods in 1922, and it is believed by every European and American I know who was familiar in any degree with the time, the place, and the actors.
As it turned out, the Carpentier bout was the only one of importance in Siki’s professional career, except for the next one. The next one was weak and anticlimactic as a show, but it did involve a world’s championship, and it demonstrated in a special way how complicated the civilization of the West can be for an unlettered Moslem with no grounding in our rituals and customs. A fairly good light heavyweight from County Clare in Ireland named Michael Francis McTigue happened to pass through Paris with his staff during Siki’s suspension. Finding Siki idle and nearly broke, the visitors proposed a match between him and McTigue for the title. (The world’s light-heavyweight championship was the one that interested them; the heavyweight championship of Europe had no value in the world market, and has been recognized only sporadically since the day Carpentier lost it.) They spoke of Dublin as a pleasant spot for the Siki-McTigue bout. They mentioned March 17, 1923, as an open date in their engagement book. Siki fell in with these suggestions and met McTigue in the ring in the Irish capital on Saint Patrick’s Day. The operation for the removal of his crown was painless. The decision went to McTigue on points. There was nothing particularly wrong with this verdict, I am told by a neutral eyewitness, except that McTigue did not make the efforts or take the risks that are commonly expected of a challenger for a world’s championship. There was no need to. In the circumstances, nothing less than a knockout could have beaten him, and he avoided that possibility by boxing at long range throughout.
One device by which a civilized man can avoid a predicament like Siki’s in Dublin was illustrated by McTigue himself later in the same year. He went to Columbus, Georgia, to fight a Georgian named Young Stribling before a crowd that was strongly and ostentatiously in favor of his opponent. There was almost no way McTigue could avoid losing within the Georgia state limits, so, to protect his planetary interests, he took along a referee from the North. The referee called the bout a draw. Then, yielding to the howls of protest, he announced that he would deputize the local promoter to give the decision. The promoter called Stribling the winner. The referee, on his way back North by train with McTigue and McTigue’s manager, signed an affidavit that his own true and considered verdict was for a draw. That is how the result has been listed in the record books ever since.
Siki had only two more European fights, both in Paris, after he lost his titles. The last two years of his life he spent in America, disintegrating with headlong speed on bootleg gin and whiskey but nearly always able to make money in the ring when he needed it. When he first arrived in New York, in September 1923, his name had a certain value here, based on curiosity, which it no longer had abroad. He signed on with the stable of a veteran New York manager, Robert (Pa) Levy (Hellers appears to have discarded Siki at the time of his suspension in France), and his first fight in this country was a serious one with a respectable opponent, Kid Norfolk, who beat him in fifteen rounds at Madison Square Garden. From then on, American fight fans were not disposed to think of Siki as a boxer of the top rank, but they liked to watch him. His style was eccentric and funny. He was strong and fast enough to knock out most of the palookas he met, when he felt like it. He was booked as far west as California and as far south as New Orleans, and he earned, according to a fairly reliable estimate I have heard, nearly a hundred thousand dollars between November 1923 and November 1925. He was one of the best spenders, in proportion to income, that the United States has ever seen. In restaurants and speakeasies he sometimes tipped five or ten times the amount of the check. Once, having made five thousand dollars from a fight in New York on a Friday, he was turned out of his rooming house the following Monday for nonpayment of rent. Another time he gave away all the money in his pockets to passengers on a Lackawanna Railroad ferryboat on which he was returning from a fight in New Jersey. Scolded for this by his manager, Siki wept. Most of his cash, however, continued to be spent on gifts, liquor, and clothes. In clothes, Siki’s taste was unusual but rich. In the first part of his New York residence, when he lived and roamed mainly in the Times Square area, he almost always wore full dress when he went out at night. By day, ordinarily, he appeared in a high hat, a frock coat, red ascot tie, striped trousers, spatted shoes, and a monocle, and he carried a gold-headed cane. From time to time he gave away all the stylish clothes he had on and went home by cab in his underwear. He was particularly open-handed with his high hats. One of these, Siki’s gift to the management, hung on a peg in a West Side saloon I used to visit until a few years ago, when the place closed up.
Siki’s New York life was divided into two roughly equal periods, the second of which he passed largely in Hell’s Kitchen. He had been married in the summer of 1924, at the Municipal Building, to a woman from Memphis named Lillian Werner. The event attracted just enough attention to stimulate newspaper inquiries in Paris, where neighbors of the Dutch girl with whom he had lived in the suburb of Lanves said she was still there and was still thought to be his wife. She herself was not interviewed or quoted to that effect then or afterward, so far as I know. Siki and his American bride moved into a flat at 361 West Forty-second Street early in 1925. Siki had begun to go downhill physically and professionally by then. His bookings for fights were fewer than they had been, and he did not fulfill all those he made. He got into trouble, almost simultaneously, with the United States Immigration Service and the boxing commissioners of New York State. Siki had come to America on a short-term permit. In July 1925 he was arrested for felonious assault after slashing at a policeman with a knife, at which the Government began deportation proceedings. In August the Boxing Commission, annoyed by a facetious exhibition Siki had given at a small New York Cityfight club, summoned him and Levy to its office, suspended Siki, and told Levy to make sure that the fighter was somewhere beyond the three-mile limit within thirty days. The order may seem to have been a usurpation of Federal powers, but it coincided with the Government’s view. At this point, France told the United States that it would refuse to receive Siki if he were deported. Siki, who had wept in the Boxing Commission office when he heard the order to his manager, now took advantage of the stalemate and, in November, filed application for his first citizenship papers. Government decision on his deportation case was still pending when he died.
Siki had the reputation in Hell’s Kitchen in 1925 of being dangerous when drunk, mild and affable when sober. As he drank more heavily and fought less in the ring, he fought more in the street, and his opponents were a rough and active group of men. He was known for his favorite joke of hailing a cab, taking a ride, and then challenging the driver to fight for the fare. Occasionally, too, he would invade the Times Square station of the I.R.T. in the early morning in search of amateur boxing engagements. It is characteristic of many boxers that as they lose their ability in the ring they swing their fists more frequently outside it, as a sort of blurred insistence on the claim that they are as good as ever. That, along with the drinks Siki bought or charged up in the bars of the West Side, may account for his pugnacity in his last months. The only instance of Siki’s using a knife that I have found was the time he was arrested for drawing one on a policeman. His wife went to night court to plead for him on that occasion. She made a good impression and got him off with a five-dollar fine. Though he was stabbed in the back himself in August, not long after he had smashed up a speak-easy in the West Forties and spent a few days in the French Hospital on West Thirtieth Street as a consequence, Siki went on using his fists—and now and then a piece of furniture—in nearly all his brawls. He was fined another five dollars on December 6 for slapping a patrolman at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street.
At about seven o’clock in the evening on Monday, December 14, Siki’s wife met him on the stairs to their flat on West Forty-second Street. The house they lived in still stands, a house of dingy brick with ten walk-up apartments, two on each of its five floors. Siki told Mrs. Siki he was going “out with the boys” and would be back in time to help her pack for a trip they were making next day to Washington, where Siki was to appear in a theater. Shortly after midnight on the morning of the fifteenth, Patrolman John J. Meehan, of the West Thirtieth Street station, walking his beat along Ninth Avenue, had a brief encounter with Siki, whom he knew by sight. Siki, wobbling a little as he turned under the “L” tracks from Forty-first Street, called to Meehan that he was on his way home. The patrolman told him to keep going that way. At 4:15 A.M., Meehan walked past the intersection of Forty-first Street and Ninth Avenue again and saw a body lying about a hundred feet east of the corner in the gutter in front of 350 West Forty-first. Approaching it, he recognized Siki. The body was taken to Meehan’s station house where a doctor pronounced the fighter recently dead from internal hemorrhage caused by two bullet wounds. Detectives examined the deserted block of Forty-first between Eighth and Ninth avenues. In front of No. 346, some forty feet east of where Siki had died, they found a pool of blood on the sidewalk. It seemed to them that Siki might have been trying to crawl home after he was shot. They could not tell just where the shooting had taken place. The gun, a vest-pocket .32-caliber pistol, was lying in front of No. 333, on the other side of the street. Only two bullets had been fired from it. An autopsy showed that these had entered Siki from behind, one penetrating his left lung and the other his kidneys. The autopsy showed something else which surprised Siki’s neighbors a good deal when they heard of it: he had suffered from an anemic condition.
At his wife’s request; Siki was given a Christian funeral service at the Harlem funeral parlors of Effie A. Miller. The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell delivered a eulogy. However, seven Mohammedan pallbearers in turbans carried his body to the hearse, chanting prayers as they did so, while a crowd of three thousand people looked on. The body was clothed in evening dress, as Siki would undoubtedly have wished. His estate, estimated at six hundred dollars, was awarded to his wife in Surrogate’s Court after Levy made out an affidavit in her favor. The words of the affidavit while perhaps not strictly accurate in point of fact told the broad truth about Siki’s place in the world better, I think, than the editorial that spoke of Achilles, Siegfried, and “natural man.” To the best of his knowledge, Levy said, Siki left surviving “no child or children, no father, mother, brother, or sister, or child or children of a deceased brother or sister.” He lived as a man without kin or country, roots or guides, and that, it seems to me, is a hard way to do it.
Siki’s murder was never solved. There was an abundance of suspects, but none of them suited the police at all until one day in March 1926 a young man of eighteen who lived a block or two from Siki’s house was arrested and booked on a homicide charge in connection with the killing. Detectives disguised as truck drivers had heard him making incriminating remarks, they said, over a telephone in a bootleggers’ hangout at Tenth Avenue and Fortieth Street. On being arrested, he allegedly signed two statements which gave two different accounts of the crime. One said that Siki had staggered into a coffee pot at Eighth Avenue and Fortieth Street in the early morning of December 15 and had thrown a chair at the eight men, including the deponent, who were gathered there. Deponent ran out of the place in alarm and heard shots fired in the restaurant behind him. The other statement, which fitted the physical facts of the killing a little better, said that a short while after the throwing of the chair, he, the young man under arrest, lured Siki to Eighth Avenue and Forty-first Street on the promise of buying him a drink. At the corner they were joined by two other men, one of whom, as the party walked west on Forty-first, shot Siki in the back. The young man was held in the Tombs for eight months, until the fall of 1926, and then was released by the court without trial, presumably because the state was not satisfied with its case. I might add that in May 1927 this same young man got five to ten years for second-degree robbery, committed in April in the vicinity of Ninth Avenue and Forty-second Street against a tourist from another state. That was clearly the wrong part of town for a tourist to go to.
When he went off to cover the war in the Pacific in January 1943, John Lardner was twenty-nine years old and, thanks to his weekly column in Newsweek, already a major figure in sportswriting. Nothing at Madison Square Garden or Yankee Stadium, however, could match the lure of what awaited him overseas. “The war was everything,” he said. “I was glad to be in it, speeding along with it.”
Lardner’s first stops were Australia and New Guinea, and what he wrote there became the backbone of the book you hold in your hands, Southwest Passage: The Yanks in the Pacific. Originally published seventy years ago, this was a buried treasure in Lardner’s considerable body of work as a reporter during World War II. It’s blessed with Lardner’s unmistakable humor, and it captures the immediacy of what was then, to Americans, a new theater of war.
“There was more to be seen, heard, and felt in this war, of course, than the fighting of it,” he wrote. “It took Americans to a strange world, with a strange flavor, and gave many of them a long time to look around between bullets.”
Lardner crisscrossed Australia for four months, piling up ten thousand miles as he filed dispatches for the North American Newspaper Alliance and Newsweek. A lesser writer may have sought to dramatize what he saw, but Lardner pared away the extraneous with impeccable reporting. In the opening chapter, Lardner writes, “I want to tell the story with as few profundities and earth-shaking conclusions as possible.” It’s this unpretentious approach to reportage that keeps Southwest Passage fresh for us today.
Shortly after he arrived, Lardner observed an American soldier opening diplomatic relations with an Australian in a bar in Sydney.
“Well, boy,” said the American, “you can relax now. We’re here to save you.”
“Ow is that? I thought you were a fugitive from Pearl Harbor.”
About the locals, he wrote: “There can hardly be people in the world more fiercely and fanatically independent than Australians. The notion that the Yanks had come to ‘save Australia’—well, some of us had it, sure enough, and there was no quicker way of tasting the quick mettle and genial scorn of the fellow we came to save.”
No wonder Orville Prescott of the New York Times called Southwest Passage “as personal, informal and chatty a book of war correspondence as has yet come along. Mr. Lardner has the happy faculty of taking the war seriously without taking himself seriously.”
Lardner’s equanimity came naturally. He was, after all, the son of Ring Lardner, who was America’s most famous sportswriter before he became its most famous literary wit. Like his father, the son was serious about writing. As he said in a letter home: “It seems pretty plain that the best thing to do during the war is to work hard at whatever work you have to do, wherever it may be. Working is the only way I’ve ever found of being happy in a bad time.”
Lardner had been witness to the pitfalls of being labeled a sportswriter. His father never fully escaped being typecast as just a sportswriter. But John wasn’t just a sportswriter; he was one of the best. His reputation was cemented when he began a True magazine piece about a hell-bent prizefighter with these words: “Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.” Lardner’s fellow sportswriting legend Red Smith called it the “greatest novel ever written in one sentence.”
Like his contemporaries W. C. Heinz and A.J. Liebling, Lardner was a war correspondent, and if he didn’t enjoy their longevity or the lasting renown of Smith or Jimmy Cannon, he was every bit their equal. Heinz, in fact, is on record as calling Lardner “the best.”
“Time has a way of dimming the memory and achievements of writers who wrote, essentially, for the moment, as writers writing for journals must do,” Ira Berkow, a longtime columnist of the New York Times, told me. “But the best shouldn’t be lost in the haze of history and John Lardner was a brilliant writer—which means, in my view, that he was insightful, irreverent, wry and a master of English prose.”
John was born in 1912, the first of Ring and Ellis Lardner’s four boys. Their father was a study in reserve, a poker-faced observer of human folly who ushered his sons into the family business, although not by design. When his third son, Ring Jr., sold his first magazine piece, the father said, “Good God, isn’t any one of you going to turn out to be anything but a writer?”
The Lardners moved to the East Coast from Chicago in the fall of 1919. Early on, they lived in Great Neck, Long Island, the model for the fictional West Egg in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (for a time, Fitzgerald was one of Ring’s closest friends). Another friend was Grantland Rice, who succeeded Lardner as the most celebrated sportswriter in the country. Whenever Ring took his sons to Yankee Stadium, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig always came by to pay their respects.
In his memoir, The Lardners: My Family Remembered, Ring Jr. wrote about the striking similarities he and his brothers shared with their father: “Intellectual curiosity with a distinctly verbal orientation, taciturnity, a lack of emotional display, an appreciation of the ridiculous. It was a matter of course that you mastered the fundamentals of reading and writing at the age of four, and by six reading books was practically a full-time occupation.”
John was all of ten when he broke into print with this ditty for the New York World:
Babe Ruth and old Jack Dempsey,
Both sultans of the swatOne hits where other people are,
The other where they’re not.
Ring Jr. claimed that John, more than any of his brothers, patterned his life on his father’s. John was bright and restless, and perhaps he pushed himself because he didn’t want to be known only as Ring’s son. He wasn’t given to talking about his motivations, but it is no stretch to assume that his father’s considerable talent gave him something to shoot for.
“John grew up in the shadow of a father who was a great writer,” Liebling wrote. “This is a handicap shared by only an infinitesimal portion of any given generation, but it did not intimidate him.”
As for himself, John wrote, “In the interests of learning to read and cipher, I made the rounds at a number of schools, my tour culminating in Phillips Academy, Andover, and Harvard University (one year), where I picked up the word ‘culminating.”‘
He went to Paris for another year to study at the Sorbonne, worked for a few months in Paris on the International Herald Tribune, then returned to New York in 1931 and landed a job with the New York Herald Tribune. He covered local news and quickly earned bylines—no small achievement at what was considered the city’s best-written paper. “We are all swollen up like my ankles,” his father boasted.
At twenty-one, John left the Herald Tribune to write a column for the North American Newspaper Alliance. It was the Depression, and he was pulling down an impressive $100 a week, but his father would not live long enough to see him cash any paychecks. Ring died in 1933 after suffering for years from tuberculosis and alcoholism. He was forty-eight.
In the late ’30s, John began his transition to magazine writing. He published a story for the Saturday Evening Post on the Black Sox scandal and launched the Newsweek sports column that would run for eighteen years and establish his reputation. And yet, for all of that, the rumblings of the coming war were impossible to ignore.
Finally, in 1940, he wrote a letter to John Wheeler, his boss at NANA:
A year or so ago you suggested—not at all in a definitive way, but simply as something to think about—that in case of real action abroad, perhaps involving this country, you might consider sending me to do some work there instead of, or in addition to, the people that usually do the stuff of that kind for you and the Times. The idea stuck in my mind, naturally, but I haven’t given it any serious thought until recently. I think I can do other work as well as or better than most newspaper men and writers, and that a time may be coming shortly when that work will be more important and valuable to both you and me. This sounds swellheaded—but if I didn’t feel the way I do about writing, I wouldn’t give a damn about being a writer.
John got his wish not long after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. During his voyage to Australia he wrote to his wife, Hazel: “I have now stated for the 143rd time that I don’t think Billy Conn can beat Joe Louis. This opinion is not censorable, and I will pass it along to you, too, for what it is worth, though you probably knew it all the time.”
Lardner traveled with four other American reporters during his twelve weeks in Australia. All proved more than happy to break up their considerable downtime by arguing about the following: “Food; Russia; women; the Louis-Schemling fights; the art of Michelangelo; the Civil War; religion; the Newspaper Guild; Cornelia Otis Skinner; tattooing; the best place to live in New England; William Randolph Hearst; war production; venereal disease; the Pyramids; walking-sticks; dining out as opposed to dining home; the private life of Hedy Lamarr; marriage; For Whom the Bell Tolls; prizefight managers; education for children; Enzo Fiermonte; Paris; this war and all others; Leopold and Loeb; San Francisco restaurants; Greek and Roman architecture; Seabiscuit; the comparative merits of Cleopatra and Mary Queen of Scots. And several hundred others.”
As consistently amusing as Lardner is in Southwest Passage, he strives for more than comic effect in his dispatches. Take his description of Darwin, the ghost town “at the topmost pole of the dusty road across Australia, brooding over its scars”; or his account of the nurses who survived brutal air raids in the Philippines with “their hard-bought shell of resistance.” Nothing showy, nothing fancy—just a world-class observer at work, as Lardner was when he encountered a swing band performing for a U.S. Army outfit near Darwin a few days after Easter. “The night, following a day without bombs, was moonlit, and the Southern Cross blazed above. The musicians brought their guns as well as their instruments.”
Lardner downplayed any personal jeopardy he faced, but as Liebling said, “John was naturally brave. When he saw blinding bomb flashes by night, he used to move toward them to see better.” Lardner himself might have chalked that up to poor eyesight, but his courage is evidenced by his trip through hostile waters to Port Moresby on a freighter dubbed the “Floating Firecracker,” whose cargo consisted of bombs and drums of gasoline. On another occasion, after successfully bombing their target off the north coast of New Guinea, the plane Lardner was aboard stopped to refuel at a barren little base. The men ate bread and marmalade in the mess shack while Lardner talked to one of the soldiers about the ice hockey playoffs for the Stanley Cup.
We got our last thrill of the day then, thrown in for good measure and absolutely unsolicited. Doggedly the Zeros [Japanese fighter planes] had trailed us south, and with them carne bombers. The alarm sounded, and the crews on the ground beelined for their planes, for there is nothing more humiliating, useless, and downright impractical than to be caught on the ground, in the open, with your aeronautical pants down.
There is nothing more scary, I should add, because something always goes a little wrong when you try to take off under the condition known as “or else.” One of the engines missed. Then the door failed to shut tight . . . but we did get off, after sitting there for what seemed like a couple of minutes longer than forever.
Given his natural reticence, there is little to be found in Lardner’s papers revealing his feelings about Southwest Passage. In letters home he didn’t much talk about himself or the content of his work, just the conditions under which he produced it. “As far as I know the stories I’ve been writing have not been done by others,” he wrote to his wife. “The main trouble with being frontward and one of the reasons I’ll have to spend more time here is communications and censorship. You can’t be sure how fast your stuff is getting to headquarters and clearing from there, and you have no way of knowing what’s being taken out of stories. It’s like writing in a void.”
Lardner came home to resume his sports column in the summer of 1942, but by the end of the year he was a war correspondent again. His first stops were North Africa and Italy, then it was back to the Pacific, where he went ashore at Iwo Jima only a few hours after the first wave of marines. By the time he covered the invasion of Okinawa, now also writing for the New Yorker, he was haunted by the deaths of two of his brothers: Jim was the last American volunteer to die in the Spanish Civil War, in 1938, and David was killed in 1944 by a landmine in France. You can practically feel the shadow of mortality on him in the letter he wrote to his wife after filing his dispatch from Okinawa: “That was the last one, baby. During the last few days I was there, I got one or two small and gentle hints, much more gentle than the one at Iwo Jima, that my luck was beginning to run out and I had better quit while I was still in one handsome, symmetrical piece. By the time I get home it will be practically three and a half years since I started covering the war which I guess will be enough.”
Like his father, John had considerable health problems for much of his adult life: TB, heart disease, and multiple sclerosis. Undeterred, he worked hard and steadily as he gave up his syndicated newspaper column to write long magazine pieces for True and Sport as well as the New Yorker. Along the way he published two collections of his columns, It Beats Working and Strong Cigars and Lovely Women, and a history of the golden age of boxing called White Hopes and Other Tigers.
A certain mystique rose up around Lardner. He was forever described as someone who could stay at the bar all evening, nursing a Scotch, smoking, and scarcely saying a word. “He was as easy to like as he was hard to know,” said Liebling. And yet he was far from morose. “I’d like to fend off at least a few tragic overtones in the account of John Lardner,” his daughter Susan once wrote. “Those of us who knew my father . . . remember him as a song-singing, piano-playing, butter pecan ice cream-eating cat rancher and driver of Buick convertibles, who drank more milk than whisky and who often and rightly referred to himself as Handsome Jack.”
John had always told friends he wouldn’t outlive his old man, and he was right. He died of a heart attack in 1960 six weeks before his forty-eighth birthday. That day, he was writing an obituary for an old family friend, Franklin P. Adams. “F.P.A. was always a poor poker player and often a bore,” he wrote before collapsing with chest pains. When the family doctor arrived, he took Lardner in his arms and said, “John, you can’t die. John, you’re a noble human being.” Lardner looked at him and said, “Oh Lou, that sounds like a quotation.”
In September of 1943, Lardner sat down in a stone house in southern Italy to compose his latest dispatch from the war. He had written in less commodious surroundings as he bounced from Australia to New Guinea to North Africa, but he neither complained about them nor reveled in this rare taste of comfort. Usually he was glad for mail call, too, even if it came in midsentence. But not this day.
Lardner was hoping for a letter from his wife and instead received a legal notice from the midwestern law firm of Duffy, Claffy, Igoe & McCorkindale. The letter concerned a column he had written about a former outfielder from St. Louis named Bohnsack, who seemed not to have been memorable except that he once threw an umpire off a moving train. Lardner, who knew something worth writing about when he saw it, happily included the incident in his column. Now Bohnsack’s lawyers were claiming the anecdote was “false and misleading,” and they urged Lardner to settle out of court. Then as now, there was nothing like a little moola to ease a fellow’s “grievous social and mental damage.”
Lardner seethed: “Bohnsack annoyed me because he showed me that his world, which had also been my world, had great vitality, and that it took considerably more than a global battle to kill its self-preoccupation,” he wrote. It wasn’t just that Bohnsack had told Lardner personally that he’d thrown the umpire off a train, or that the first piece of mail he had received in the battle zone was not from his wife. “It was most of all that now, in the midst of the great and bloody planetary adventure of war, these barristers chose callously to call me back to the world of petulant outfielders and remind me that I was a sports writer.”
In fact, Lardner wrote about a variety of topics: lexicography, jury service, and New York history; for the New Yorker he contributed occasional film, theater, and book reviews and in the last three and a half years of his life wrote a column for the magazine on TV and radio. “Sportswriter” was a label that he, like his father, would never escape. This slim volume of his war reportage proves that Lardner was a quick-witted and assured writer no matter the subject. As Stanley Walker, the Herald Tribune’s city editor, said, Lardner “came close to being the perfect all-around journalist.” Never were those skills put to a stiffer test than on the battlefields in Europe and the Pacific. In the thickest drama, the unflappable man remained unflappable, at his best writing what Red Smith called novels in a single sentence.
Ten years ago my cousin, known round these parts as edoubletrouble, gave me a thoughtful birthday gift: Dispatches from the Sporting Life, a collection of Mordecai Richler’s sports writing. It’s a terrific book and a fine introduction to Richler, born and raised in Montreal, who was one of Canada’s premier novelists, essayists, and satirists. His most famous books are The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Barney’s Version, both made into feature films, though this generation may know him more for the Jacob Two-Two series of children’s stories. Richler died on July 3, 2001.
This here piece we bring to you cause the Stanley Cup Finals begin tonight. Originally published in Inside Sports in January 1981.
What Hockey Needs is More Violence”
By Mordecai Richler
Nudging 50, I find it increasingly difficult to cope with a changing world. Raised to be a saver, for instance, I now find myself enjoined by the most knowledgeable economists to fork out faster than I can earn, borrowing whenever possible. But the rate they are encouraging me to borrow at from my friendly bank manager is what I once understood to be usury. In the kitchen of my boyhood my mother cooked on a wood fire, because we couldn’t afford better, but now that I’ve grown up to heat my country home with oil, I am scorned by modish neighbors, many of whom are rich enough to re-equip with antique stoves, burning wood again. A couple of years ago, after taking in a World Series game at Yankee Stadium with author Wilfrid Sheed, the two of us found ourselves in midtown Manhattan, looking for a friendly bar where we could round off an enjoyable evening. As we passed a celebrated boîte on Second Avenue, I said, “Why don’t we go in there?”
“You don’t understand,” Sheed admonished me, a visitor from Montreal. “If we go in there, two men together, they’ll put us in the roped-off section for gays.”
A year earlier a militant feminist press in Canada had published a hockey book titled She Shoots! She Scores! It turned out to be very topical stuff, because an irate Ontario father later sued a bantam hockey league for not allowing his daughter to play, thereby depriving her of the possibility of growing up to be taken into the boards, as it were, by Dave Schultz or Paul Holmgren. A mind-boggling thought. Since then, we’ve had Scoring, The Art of Hockey, by Hugh Hood, with images by Seymour Segal. It is the book serious students of the game have been waiting for, the one that dares to ask, “Which came first, the penis or the puck?” Scoring offers the definitive answer to why so many American fans can’t follow the puck on TV. It isn’t because they lack puck sense. Rather, the psychologically informed Hood writes, “this seems a clear instance of sublimated sexual anxiety. Where is the little fellow?” Furthermore, the reasonable author observes, “one wants to know where the puck is at all times,” and then he throws in the kicker, “especially if one is a goalie, who occupies the most womanly position in contact sport.”
Obviously, there’s a whole new world out there. Me, I’m not only dizzy, I’m also resentful, if only because in confusing times sports used to be a consolation. An unchanging vista, its values constant. From the time I saw my first baseball game until now, the distance from home plate to first base has measured 90 feet. Though most of us can no longer afford it, a championship boxing match is still scheduled for 15 rounds. To win a hockey game you still have to score more goals than the opposition, but, alas, just about everything else in the game has changed.
Major league hockey, the game I grew up with during its vintage years, used to be played in six cities: Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Boston and New York. The 50-game season began in November, and the playoffs, involving the top four teams, were done with in March, when there was still snow on the streets of Montreal. Violence was an intrinsic part of the game, and any player over 16 who still had his front teeth in place was adjudged a sissy. One night Dick Irvin, who took over as coach of the Montreal Canadiens in 1940, rejuvenating a team that had failed to win the Stanley Cup for nine years, looked down his bench and said, ” I know what’s wrong here. Your faces are unmarked. I don’t see any stitches. I don’t see any shiners.”
It was Conn Smythe, owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who made the immortal pronouncement, “If you can’t beat ‘em in the alley, you can’t beat ‘em in the rink.” Smythe, who died at the age of 85 in November, bought the Toronto St. Patricks in 1927, changing their name to the Maple Leafs, providing at once both a challenge to the Canadiens and philologists. Recalling the legendary owner, Dink Carroll of the Montreal Gazette observed, “You know that pro hockey was so rough back in the early ’20s that it kept Smythe away for years? Hockey was the very end back then. The players were considered just a cut above bank robbers. When they came down the street people would cross over to avoid them. But when Smythe finally got into it, he eliminated a lot of woodchopping and got them good sweaters and made them comb their hair.
“It makes me laugh when they talk about violence in hockey today. You may not believe me but guys like Newsy Lalonde and Mean Joe Hall and Sprague Cleghorn and Lionel Hitchman were out to kill each other. Ching Johnson of the Rangers had a smile on his face the whole game, smashing everybody he could get close to with his stick.
“When they weren’t on the ice, they were in court half the time, for breaking up bars and fighting. I guess you could say there was a pioneer spirit in hockey back then.”
In the ’40s, when I first warmed to the game, goalies had yet to be pronounced womanly. Even later, none of us dreamed of a date with Gump Worsley, however cuddly he appeared between the pipes. In those days goalies did not look like witch doctors and you could read their faces when they stood to counter a three-on-one. During the offseason the players nursed their cracked ribs and scarred faces while driving beer trucks, helping to bring in the wheat on the family farm or working in the mines. A players’ union? Doug Harvey, the greatest defenseman ever to wear a Canadien sweater, began to make dissident noises about a players’ union and was condemned to the NHL’s Gulag the following season. He wore a Ranger uniform in 1961. Harvey, who now sharpens skates in his brother’s Montreal sports shop on weekends, never had a salary of more than $21,500 a year as a Canadien.
Today so-called major league hockey is played in 21 cities, the 80-game season begins early in October, before the World Series starts, and the playoffs, involving 16 teams, end in May, long after the next baseball season has begun. Salaries are prodigious. Marcel Dionne has signed a new contract with Los Angeles for $600,000 a year. Wayne Gretzky’s escalating contract with oil-rich Edmonton calls for millions over the next 20 years. If you talk to the players they will, understandably, tell you the game is burgeoning. So will NHL officials. But among the fans complaints abound:
1) The season is too long.
2) Frenetic expansion has led to too many yawners. Obvious mismatches.
3) There’s too much violence in the game.
Happily, I can report that these complaints originate either with Canadian soreheads who feel that the vile Americans, to whom we have already yielded Paul Anka, snowmobiles and the RCAF exercise book, have now also pilfered our national game, vulgarizing it in the hope of appealing to yahoos everywhere. Or with sexually sublimated Americans who obviously suffer from puck-envy. A post-Freudian malaise rampant in expansion cities. The truth is that far from there being too much violence in hockey, there is not enough anymore. But to deal with these ill-informed complaints in order:
1) The familiar argument proffered by ignorant fans runs that it is somewhat silly to play a total of 840 games, which settle nothing, and then embark on a round of playoffs that call for 16 of 21 teams to fight it out for the Stanley Cup. At least one owner, Howard Baldwin of the Hartford Whalers, also suffers from a short attention span. “I think,” he said recently, “we should condense the season and start on November 1, ending on March 30 but still playing 80 games. The playoffs should end by May 1, no later, and only 12 teams, not 16, should qualify.”
What Baldwin and many fans fail to grasp is that the season, far from being too long, is now too short. The so-called regular season, properly looked at, is no more than an endless exhibition series, which brings something reminiscent of real hockey to such hitherto deprived outposts as Washington, St. Louis, Calgary and Denver. Over the long wintry haul, the bored and jet-weary players only go all out in short spurts, usually when they are hoping to renegotiate a contract they pronounced binding only the year before. Who cares, who even remembers, who won the Norris or Smythe Division titles in 1976? The real season, the one that counts, the battle for the Stanley Cup, begins in April. Starting this second season in the spring provides jaded players with the novel opportunity to fight it out in fog, as in Buffalo in 1975, or at least on such soft slushy ice as to reduce the flying Canadiens to slow slithering idiots. With further expansion, a game which owes something to lacrosse will inevitably acknowledge its debt to water polo.
2) It’s true that expansion to 21 teams has made for a number of uneven contests, but this has not gone undetected by those purists who unfailingly put the fan’s interest before the owner’s profit, namely the savants who comprise the NHL Board of Governors. These skilled observers have noted that when the Winnipeg Jets (one win in their first 28 games) play Montreal or the Islanders they seldom get to touch the puck, never mind slip it into the net, and so, if only to accommodate this disability, there will be a rule change next season. Remember, you read it here first. Next season in certain games between unevenly matched teams there will be no puck whatsoever put into play, allowing the sportsmen on both sides to have a go at each other without unnecessary distractions. This will enable Winnipeg right wing James Edward Mann, who scored all of three goals and five assists last season, but led the league in penalty minutes (287), to prove that behemoths belong.
3) Which brings us to the question of violence.
When we talk about violence in the NHL today, one team immediately springs to mind. The Philadelphia Flyers, a.k.a. the Broad Street Bullies, whose aggregation, even without the fabled talents of Dave Schultz, still hold the following records:
Most penalty minutes, one team, one game: 194, the Flyers, March 11, 1979, at Philadelphia against the Kings. The Flyers received seven minors, eight majors, six 10-minute misconducts and eight game misconducts.
Most penalties, one team, one period: 31, the Flyers, February 22, 1980, at Vancouver, third period. The Flyers received 12 minors, 10 majors, one 10-minute misconduct and eight game misconducts.
Most minor penalties, 1979-80: 499, the Flyers again.
But the Broad Street Bullies had the most points in the regular season last year. And when they won Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975, they led the league in penalty minutes each season.
Item: In the most thrilling hockey event most Canadians can remember, the series that pitched Team Canada against the Soviets in 1972, Bobby Clarke grasped that there was no legitimate way of stopping the superb Valery Kharlamov, and so he did the next best thing: He whacked him over the ankles with his stick, taking him out of the game. “I realized,” Clarke said, “I had to do anything to win.” Put plainly, violence pays, and in the case of Clarke, it also shows what a patriotic Canadian boy is made of. Or does it?
Because the question we must now ask ourselves is: Is it violence? Or sexual abandon? Or, God help us, even attempted rape? Which brings me back to the burning question posed by Hugh Hood: “Which comes first, the penis or the puck?”
Hood replies: “In a general way, mind you, without making a mystery of it, we guess that the penis came first, and continues to come first in the sense that it directs the occasions of fecundity. If it—or something like it—doesn’t go in, no goal, no baby. The race is continued by sperm and egg, not the conjunction of that black rubber disk and the space enclosed by the Art Ross Safety Net.”
The difficulty inherent in writing this piece for fans who haven’t read Scoring is akin to addressing a group of scientists who are as yet unaware that the atom has been split, its energy harnessed. After Scoring, nothing will ever be the same again. Hockey is no longer seen through a glass darkly. Instead, its very essence has been illuminated.
Consider, for instance, what the uninformed once took to be a rink, and no more. “Looking down at the ice surface from a height,” Hood writes, “what you see is a human body, admittedly without head or arms or legs. A torso. The space, 200 feet by 85, has about the same proportions as a human trunk, with nipples marked on it and a navel—the point where the action always begins. . . . The spectators form a body, and the players seem more like blood in a torso than anything else, eternally circulating as red or white corpuscles wearing contrasting jerseys. The body is the name of the game.”
Conversely, of course, our bodies are filled with jerseyed red and white draft choices, some of them dandy playmakers. Our chests, properly considered, boast two faceoff circles. Which is to say, within every one of us there is a hockey league, eternally circulating. Cut yourself, and the good corpuscles clear the bench and rush to defend the infected area. It thenfollows, logically, that violence is no more than a healthy body defending itself. Against infection here, Paul Holmgren there.
Hood is especially rewarding on the sexual nature of the game. “There may be people to whom sex is a metaphor for hockey, an outer appearance containing a real inner struggle. Making love, such people, usually male, imagine themselves faking to their left, circling the goal, persuading the goalie to go down, then slipping it in on their backhand.” Astutely, Hood points out what should have been obvious to us before. The Art Ross Safety Net, only adopted by the NHL in 1936, is an image of the female body.
Or, put another way, Gordie Howe, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer, was a satyr. Constantly thrusting at the opposition nets, Phil Esposito, Bobby Hull and Maurice Richard were also sex-crazed, though we didn’t understand it at the time. Furthermore, once we have accepted the image of the goalie as womanly, we can understand that certain defensemen, traditionally pronounced unnecessarily violent, are actually gallant defenders of their goalperson’s virtue. Standing tall at the blue line, swinging their sticks with abandon, all to defend Chico Resch or Rogie Vachon from assault by Guy Lafleur, Mike Bossy or Marcel Dionne. It also follows that some of the game’s low-scoring forwards, players we took to be inept, are actually well brought up kids, too nice to go the limit—that is to say, slip the puck into the net—with some 16,000 howling fans (or voyeurs) cheering them on.
Properly understood, what today’s game needs is less blatant sex or scoring, more manly fighting spirit. What’s called for is more forechecking, less foreplay.
Mind you, this is not to suggest that so-called hockey violence can only be defended on grounds of sexual propriety on ice. The new rule designed to cut down on bench-clearing brawls, the rule that calls for a game misconduct for the third man into a fight, is (a) bound to even further limit the possibility of an American network contract for hockey and (b) especially directed against one team, the Montreal Canadiens.
If Americans, new to the game, can’t follow the puck on TV, they can certainly follow and identify with flying fists. More bench-clearing brawls, on a medium already attuned to violence, could only lead to popularity for a grand game.
Of course, we will have to get rid of the spoilsport—the referees—who tend to wrestle players to the ice just as their punches are beginning to tell. An obvious refinement of the curved-stick blade would be one sharpened to come to a point. It also would be exhilarating if fights could be continued in the penalty box and players were allowed to pursue taunting fans into the stands, with rows one to 10 being declared a free fire zone.
Older fans will remember that a minor penalty once lasted two minutes, no matter how many goals the team with the manpower advantage scored. But in the 1950s, the Montreal power-play (Beliveau, Richard, Geoffrion. Olmstead, Moore) proved so overwhelming, sometimes scoring three times in two minutes. that the rule was revised in 1956 to allow the penalized player to return after only one goal had been scored. Similarly, it is now common knowledge that a Canadien rookie is fortunate indeed to get on ice for more than a shift a game. His only other opportunity to stretch his legs during a game is a bench-clearing fight. The new rule is obviously calculated to render him sedentary and therefore a diminishing threat in his sophomore year.
Finally, I’m surprised that sociologists have failed to notice the obvious correlation between violence on the ice and the safety of Canadian streets. While muggers proliferate on the streets of Detroit, New York and Boston, prowling the streets after dark, nobody feels threatened in Montreal, Toronto or Calgary, even if tempted to take a 1 a.m. stroll downtown. This is because we have cunningly put our potential muggers into team sweaters, shoving them out on the ice, paying then handsomely to spear, slash and high stick or whatever.
Even our judiciary is aware or the Canadian solution and reacts accordingly. When Wayne Maki of the St. Louis Blues was brought before an Ottawa judge in 1970, charged with assault causing bodily harm for using his stick to fracture the skull of Boston’s Ted Green during an exhibition game, he was acquitted. Judge M.J. Fitzpatrick later found Green not guilty as well. “When a player enters an arena,” he decreed, “he is consenting to a great number of what otherwise might be regarded as assaults. The game of hockey could not possibly be played unless those engaging in it were willing to accept these assaults.”
I had the stuff. I just didn’t have the heart. Or, more precisely, I always had the stuff, which was why I never had the heart. I didn’t need it. Then, in the arrogance of youth, with those early years of effortless success in Little League, American Legion, and high school, all the no-hitters and one-hitters and bushels of strikeouts, I felt indomitable. Eventually, however, when it all went south in my 20s, it dawned on me, dimly, that maybe my stuff wasn’t enough, that I lacked something.
I tried to find it, too late, without a clue as to what it was. I looked for something outside myself, a new pitch, a new motion, when I should have been looking elsewhere, inside myself for that “thing” beyond just “stuff” that every great pitcher has. Some not-so-great pitchers have it , too, the workmanlike plodders, the serviceable, fourth or fifth starters on a staff of superstars, the Joe Blantons grinding it out in the shadows of bigger names, Doc Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, his teammates when he was with the Phillies.
Pitchers like Blanton are good enough to go six innings on their good days, give up maybe nine hits and three earned runs, just enough to keep their team in the game, with a chance to win it in the eighth or ninth inning. I always liked guys like that, with mediocre stuff at best, who persevered, and survived 12, or 14 years, with a record of something like 102-103, and an ERA of 4.59. They pitched into their late ‘30s, maybe made a lone All-Star appearance the year they had a good first half and finished 13-11, then retired with a few big contracts under their belt, perhaps enough to buy a small farm in the Piedmont of North Carolina.
Of course, I also admired great pitchers with the big stuff: Warren Spahn, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver, and Justin Verlander. I admired, too, the very good pitchers with nice stuff: Vic Raschi, Bob Lemon, Robin Roberts, C.C. Sabathia, James Shields, and my old minor league teammate, Phil Niekro. But over the years, I have most learned to appreciate the Joe Blantons of baseball, the bricklayers of their craft like Livan Hernandez, Mark Buehrle, and Tony Cloninger, my minor league teammate. I had better stuff than all of them put together, except for Tony, yet I lasted only three years in the minors, while they all pitched successfully in the major leagues for years.
What did they have that I lacked? Fifty years after my failure, I’m still searching for the answer to that question.
A treat from Mark Jacobson. Originally published in Esquire in 1984 and anthologized in Teenage Hipster in the Modern World, a stellar collection of Jacobson’s non-fiction. Reprinted here with the author’s permission.
Michael Jordan is certainly the greatest basketball player of all time, but Julius Erving, the incomparable Doctor J, is my all-time favorite. No one ever gave me as much pleasure watching any kind of game. Since his retirement, Julius has been the subject of a number of distressing headlines, exactly the sort of stuff he sought to avoid during his career. He acknowledged the tennis player Alexandria Stevenson to be his out-of-wedlock daughter. Later, his son Cory drove his car into a lake in Florida and drowned. These are unfortunate, sad events, but even more so when connected to someone like Julius, who was once so effortlessly perfect. I’ve written numerous articles on sports figures, most of them basketball players, but Julius remains my number one. The fact that he used to pick me up at the Philadelphia train station in his Maserati, nearly unthinkable for a current-day player, is still one of highlights of my career. From Esquire, 1984.
I went for a ride through downtown Philadelphia with Julius Erving in his Maserati the other day, and with each passing block it became more apparent: Julius cannot drive very well. It wasn’t a question of reckless speed or ignored signals. Rather, he seemed unsure, tentative. His huge, famous hands clutched the steering wheel a bit too tightly, his large head craned uncomfortably toward the slope of the windshield. He accelerated with a lurch; there was no smooth rush of power. Obvious openings in the flow of traffic went unseen or untried. All in all, it reflected a total absence of feel.
This struck me as amusing—Julius Erving, the fabulous Doctor of the court, driving a Maserati with an automatic transmission.
Just an hour before, I’d compared the act of seeing Julius play basketball to Saint Francis watching birds in flight. It was my Ultimate Compliment. When a reporter with pretensions meets an Official Legend, especially a Sports Legend, it is mandatory to concoct the Ultimate Compliment, something beyond a plebeian “gee whiz.” Something along the lines of the august Mailer’s referring to Ali as a Prince of Heaven, whose very gaze caused men to look down. Or, perhaps, Liebling’s mentioning that Sugar Ray Robinson had “slumberland in either hand.” Saint Francis was what I’d come up with.
Viewing Doctor J move to the hoop inspired what I imagined to be an awe similar to what Saint Francis felt sitting in a field with the sparrows buzzing overhead, I told Julius. It was as if a curtain had been parted, affording a peek into the Realm of the Extraordinary, a marvelous communication that ennobled both the watcher and the watched equally. What wonders there are in the Kingdom of God! How glorious they are to behold!
“What you do affirms the supremacy of all beings,” I told Julius as we sat in the offices of the Erving Group, a holding company designed to spread around the wads of capital Julius has accumulated during his career as Doctor J. Large gold-leaf plaques calling Julius things like TASTEE CAKE PLAYER OF THE YEAR dot the walls. “Seeing you play basketball has enriched my life,” I finished.
“Thanks, thanks a lot,” Julius said politely. Then again, Julius is always polite. It was obvious, my Ultimate Compliment clearly did not knock his socks off. It was as if he were saying, “Funny thing, you’re the third guy who’s told me that today.”
Every serious hoop fan remembers the first time he saw Julius Erving play basketball. My grandfather, a great New York Giants baseball fan, probably had the same feeling the first time he ever saw Willie Mays go back on a fly ball. There was Julius, mad-haired and scowl-faced, doing what everyone else did, rebounding, scoring, passing, but doing it with the accents shifted from the accepted but now totally humdrum position to a new, infinitely more thrilling somewhere else. Who was this man with two Jewish names who came from parts unknown with powers far greater than the mortal Trailblazer?
Flat out, there was nothing like him. No one had ever taken off from the foul line as if on a dare, cradled the ball above his head, and not come down until he crashed it through the hoop. Not like that, anyway. Julius acknowledges a debt to Elgin Baylor, whom he calls “the biggest gazelle, the first of the gliders,” but, to the stunned observer, the Doctor seemed to arrive from outside the boundaries of the game itself. His body, streamlined like none before him, festooned by arms longer and hands bigger, soared with an athletic ferocity matched only by the mystical, unprecedented catapult of Bob Beamon down the Mexico City runway, or by the screaming flight of Bruce Lee.
Has any other individual in team sports radically altered the idea of how his particular game should be played to the degree Julius has? Jackie Robinson? Babe Ruth? Jim Brown? A more instructive comparison would be someone like Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio was impeccable, the nonpareil. He was simply better. Yet there is something hermetic about Joe DiMaggio. He did what everyone else did, but with incomparable excellence. Joe’s exemplariness is to be admired, but it doesn’t offer a whole program of reform. His greatness is a dead end, specific to Joe and Joe alone. Julius, on the other hand, may not have invented the slam dunk, the finger roll, or the hanging rebound—the entire airborne game in general. But he certainly popularized it, and by doing so he announced that others could follow in his footsteps, even surpass him. Seeing Julius fly to the hoop spread the news: it can be done, so do it. Nine years ago Julius appeared alone in his ability to go pyrotechnic at any time. This past year, however, lined up against a gaggle of his poetic offspring, “human highlight film” youngbloods like Dominique Wilkins and Larry Nance, Julius was content to make his final attempt a running foul-line takeoff: the “classical” dunk, a bit of archaeology demonstrated by the father of the form.
Befitting the matter-of-factness of a legend discussing his craft, Julius is not falsely modest about his contributions to the game. In the clinical fashion he employs when delineating the x’sand o’s of his profession, he says, “I’d say I’ve had an effect in three main areas. First, I have taken a smaller man’s game, ball-handling, passing, and the like, and brought it to the front court. Second, I’ve taken the big man’s game, rebounding, shot-blocking, and been able to execute that even though I’m only six-foot-six. What I’ve tried to do is merge those two types of games, which were considered to be separate—for instance, Bill Russell does the rebounding, Cousy handles the ball—and combine them into the same player. This has more or less changed the definition of what’s called the small forward position, and it creates a lot more flexibility for the individual player, and, of course, creates a lot more opportunities for the whole team. The third thing I’ve tried to do, and this is the most important thing, is to make this kind of basketball a winning kind of basketball, taking into account a degree of showmanship that gets people excited. My overall goal is to give people the feeling they are being entertained by an artist—and to win.”
Then Julius laughs and says, “You know, the playground game … refined.”
In Roosevelt, New York, the lower-middle-class, largely black Long Island community where he grew up, there is a playground with a sign that says THIS IS WHERE JULIUS ERVING LEARNED THE GAME OF BASKETBALL. Herein lies Julius’s triumph. He successfully transmuted the black playground game and brought that cutthroat urban staple to its most sumptuous fruition. He, once and for all, no turning back, blackified pro basketball.
He did it by forcing the comparatively staid, grind-it-out, coach-dominated NBA to merge with the old ABA, a semi-outlaw league that played the run-till-you-drop “black” playground game with a garish red, white, and blue ball. Julius was in the ABA, and the older, more established NBA could not allow a phenomenon like Doctor J to exist outside its borders. Most observers feel the NBA absorbed the whole funky ABA, with its three-point shots and idiotic mascots, just to get Julius. Once they did, the entire product of pro basketball was refocused. Surprise! The ABA, comprising many performers from Podunk Junior College and some who never went to any college, had a lot more than Julius Erving. Many players long scorned by the NBA brass became stars, the incandescent “Ice,” George Gervin, and Moses Malone among them. And there was a lot more running. Before the merger there was only one consistent fast-break team in the NBA, the Celtics. Now, with the ABA people around, it seemed as if the whole league was running, playing the playground game, Julius’s game.
This is not to say Larry Bird isn’t great, no matter where the game is, on the back lawn of Buckingham Palace or up in Harlem, but blackification was inevitable. No one will really deny that the majority of black players jump higher and run faster than the majority of white players, and that’s what pro ball, as it’s currently constituted, is all about—running and jumping with finesse.
Many people have wondered if all this running is such a good thing. Since the merger and the takeover by the “black” game, the pro sport has suffered reversals. Attendance is uneven and TV ratings are down; rumors of widespread social evils among the players abound. It is difficult to have any in-depth conversation about the status of the league without coming up against the Problem. A league official says, “It’s race, pure and simple. No major sport comes up against it the way we do. It’s just difficult to get a lot of people to watch huge, intelligent, millionaire black people on television.”
When presented with the notion that by elevating his art he may have served to narrow its appeal, Julius says, “It’s unfortunate, but what can be done about what is?” Well, at least the onset of the playground game has exploded several pernicious myths. If there is one thing Julius and his followers (Magic Johnson comes to mind) have proved without a doubt, it’s that just because you play “flashy” doesn’t mean you’re not a team player. No longer is it assumed that the spectacular is really, at its root, just mindless showboating easily thwarted, in the crunch times, by the cunning of a small man chewing a cigar on the coaching lines. Julius’s teams have always won.
For the hoop fan, though, likely the most treasured item concerning Julius Erving remains in that first cataclysmic moment of discovery, that first peek into the Realm of the Extraordinary. This has to do with the nature of the fan, the hoop fan in particular. All team sports have their cognoscenti, gamblers poring over the injury lists, nine-year-old boys with batting averages memorized, but somehow the variety of fan attracted to pro basketball is in a slightly more obsessive class, sweatier, seedier perhaps, but absolutely committed. This type of hoop fan I’m talking about isn’t much different from the jazz buffs of the 1940s and 1950s, white people digging on an essentially black world.
How Julius, the Official Legend, comes into this is that he approached the beady consciousness as Rumor. He was a secret. He wasn’t a well-publicized high school star like Kareem; he went to the University of Massachusetts (a school with no basketball reputation) and then played two years at one of the ABA’s most remote outposts, the Virginia Squires. There was no hoopla surrounding him, no Brent Musburger hyping the size of his smile. The Doctor was something for the grapevine.
It cuts both ways. Probably, by somehow staying out of the limelight (that was easier in 1970) and by choosing not to go to a “big program” school where a crusty Adolph Rupp might have made it a principle to correct all that boy’s strange habits, Julius was left alone to create his wholly new thing. And by virtue of this anonymity, the hoop fan was able to come upon Julius as a wondrous found object.
Magic Johnson, Sugar Ray Leonard—no one is knocking their talents, but they arrived on the scene tied in a bow, sold to anyone within eyeshot of a TV. They will always carry that stigma. Julius, however, remains eternally cool. You had to work to see Julius, seek him out. There wasn’t any cable; maybe you could catch him on an independent station that had been hustled into picking up one of the numerous ABA All-Star games. Even after he came from the Squires to the Nets, then the ABA New York entry, the hoop fan had to ply the forlorn parkways to the Nassau Coliseum to sit with four thousand dour faces expressing regret that they weren’t viewing a hockey game. You had to go out of your way to see Julius. But it was worth it. When you saw that Rumor was Fact, and a far more remarkable Fact than imagined, then you felt like you had your little bond with Julius, that he was in your heart.
That Julius has maintained the quality of play this long is gravy. How do you measure the benefit one gets from seeing beautiful things happen? Sometimes I find myself idly replaying some of Julius’s more astounding moves inside my head. The one against the Lakers in the championship a few years back, the one where he goes behind the backboard and comes around for the reverse layup? Ones like that bring tears to my eyes. Really.
Of course, it can’t last. Last season Julius’s club, the Philadelphia 76ers, for whom he’s played since the league merger in 1976, were mangled by the bedraggled New Jersey Nets, transplanted to the Garden State from Uniondale, New York. It was an upset. The year before the Sixers won the title in a near walkover. Of the thirteen games they played in the championship rounds, they won twelve. The Sixers didn’t come close to repeating. Julius did not have a particularly good series. There were several reasons. For one, it had been a grueling season for the Doc. Numerous Sixer injuries forced him to play many more minutes than he might have wanted to at his age. He responded with perhaps his best year in the past three and had his backers for league MVP. By the playoffs, however, he was weary, worn out. In the last moments of the deciding game he made repeated turnovers and missed key shots. Had a b-ball cognoscenti arrived from Mars right then, dumb to the history of the past fifteen years, he could have watched Julius’s play and pronounced it “ordinary.”
So it goes. Athletes get old, and soon they’re too old to play. In the variety of pro basketball Julius helped create, it happens even quicker. There is no DH in the NBA, and right now Julius, at thirty-four, is among the fifteen oldest guys in the league. If he stays another couple of seasons, as he hints he might, he could be the oldest. His Afro, once wild as a Rorschach blot and seemingly a foot high, is now demurely trimmed and flecked with gray. So it goes: a million dudes with the hot hand down in the schoolyard waiting for the Doctor to roll over so they can get their shot. No tears over that. But it’s this driving that’s upsetting, the way Julius is driving this Maserati with the automatic transmission. It’s all so ordinary, how Julius is driving.
“Don’t ask me any questions or I’ll miss my turn,” Julius says, smiling, as if to comment on his competence.
Then he makes this flabby, too-wide turn off Broad Street. What a deal: soon enough Julius is going to retire from basketball, but likely he’ll be driving that Maserati with the automatic transmission for years to come.
“As it came it can go, as it came it most definitely will go,” he says cheerfully, unaffected by his companion’s gloom. “It won’t really be that big a change for me,” Julius says. “I’ve always thought of myself as a very ordinary guy.”
This is a little tough to swallow, the Doctor an ordinary guy. This is not to say Julius Erving is not a regular guy. Sports-page “class”—Julius is the embodiment of it. Probably no athlete still playing has signed more autographs. His marathon sessions are spoken of with awe. Talking about it, Julius gives a look that asks, “Weren’t you ever a kid?” and says, “Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Should I accommodate today, or go straight ahead?’ and I usually find myself accommodating.” There is a limit, however. Walking through the icebound streets of Milwaukee, a fat guy accosted Julius, screaming, “Doc! Doc! Where’s the other shoe?” Julius frowned. “I gave that guy one of my sneakers three years ago,” he says, “and now, every time we go there, he asks for the other one. Some people are never satisfied.”
As far as hoop reporters are concerned, Julius is the best. “There is no second place,” says a Philly writer. This means that when deadlines are approaching and sweat is popping out on foreheads, Julius can be counted on to produce the proper verbiage, a smooth rap that, without much time-consuming translation, can be plugged into hastily written stories as “game quotes.” It is something Julius works on, like any part of what he calls “my basketball function.” He knows what reporters need and tries to give it to them.
“A courtesy,” Julius says. Ask the right questions (nothing controversial, if you please!) and Julius will, in a voice that makes Frankie Crocker sound shrill, calmly assess the team’s mood for you. He’ll also say that Denver’s Calvin Natt is among the toughest for him to score against, and that it is difficult to play Dallas’s Mark Aguirre because “his butt is so big you can’t get close to him,” and that George Gervin is his favorite player, and that the Knicks’ Bernard King, considered by many the best forward in the league, “will never get up to the level of the real all-timers like, say, Kareem, or myself, because he looks like he’s working too hard. When you reach a level of greatness, there’s a certain added element that goes into making it look easy.”
Mainly, Julius keeps a low profile. He will often make inquiries about jazz—more out of educational desire than passion, for he prefers fusion. You could call him elegantly laid-back, stylish, though certainly you’d never confuse him with Walt Frazier. He is always the clean-living family man and, while sharp, displays little outward flash. He leaves the five-pound jewelry to the Darryl Dawkinses of the world, although he appears to cop no attitude toward the more flamboyant displays, sartorial or otherwise, of his fellows. He has, after all, been around, and not much raises the Doctor’s eyebrow.
In Milwaukee, however, one John Matuszak, late of the Oakland Raiders football team and the movie North Dallas Forty, came close. The Tooz, as he has been known to call himself, appeared unannounced in the Sixers’ locker room, and he was calling some attention to himself. Even in a world of large men, the Tooz stands out. He goes six-foot-eight, about three hundred pounds. In addition, he sports a mug that resembles the sort of hood ornament Screamin’ Jay Hawkins might have mounted on his ’55 DeSoto to ward off unfriendly spirits. This is not to mention his dress on this particular night, which included a black silk coat, tuxedo pants, patent leather shoes, and a white satin tie over a leopard skin print shirt. He was also affecting a manner that would put him right up there for the Bluto part, should a remake of Animal Housebe made anytime soon.
It was the Tooz’s sworn purpose to have both Julius and Moses Malone, the Sixers’ famously intimidating center, join him at one of Milwaukee’s more stylish wateringholes.
First he invited Moses. “Gonna win this year, Moses?” was Tooz’s opener. Moses, no midget himself, was sitting on a stool stark naked. “Yeah, we’re gonna win, ” said Moses, laying on his usual Sonny Liston-style bale.
Then, like a shot, the Tooz was down on one knee. He clasped his palms together and drove them like a hammer into Moses’ thigh. “Don’t say we’re gonna win. Say we gotta win, Moses!!” the Tooz shouted, startling the few stragglers in the locker room. “Come on, Moses,” the Tooz continued, “repeat after me: WE GOTTA WIN!” And, to the amazement of onlookers, Moses, who had not uttered a word in public since telling Philly reporters, “I’ll be making no further comment for the rest of the season,” repeated this after the Tooz. Moses, however, steadfastly refused to have a drink with the former lineman.
Thwarted, the Tooz went looking for Julius, who was in the midst of taking a shower. Unmindful of the water splashing everywhere, the Tooz confided to Julius how much he loved him. “I love you, Doctor!” the Tooz bellowed. Then he said, “Come on, Doctor. The Doctor and the Tooz must have a drink together. I got some friends, it’ll be a party!”
Julius, never rude, thanked the Tooz for his offer but expressed his regrets, citing a 5 a.m. wake-up call the next morning.
“If you’re worried about people hassling you, forget about it,” the Tooz said with understanding. “No one will mess with you if you’re with the Tooz!”
The football player had now stepped over the edge of the shower, his long hair dripping down over his drenched suit.
Backing into the stall, Julius, seemingly unrattled, said. “You’re getting wet, you know that?”
“A drink, that’s all I’m asking,” Tooz repeated, reaching out to wrap his arms around the Doctor. “People love you, man,” the Tooz said with sincerity, “people live to see you do your thing.” Then, clearly disappointed, the Tooz left.
Several moments of silence ensued, during which Julius began to dress and Moses picked tape off his leg. Then Moses looked at Julius sleepily and said, “See those shoes?”
“What about the tie?” Julius said back.
Later Julius smiled and said, sure, it seemed like the Tooz was something of a boor, but you really had to get to know him better before you could say that unequivocally. After all, The Doc is not what you would call judgmental.
Teammates speak of him with healthy degrees of awe and camaraderie. Marc Iavaroni, a marginal forward cut by a couple of lesser NBA clubs before catching on as a “role player” in the Sixers’ system, says, “Playing with the Doc? Don’t pinch me, please. He looks for me. On and off the court. Can you imagine that! Doctor J looking to pass off to Marc Iavaroni? Know how that makes me feel?”
Nearly everyone close enough to Julius to have personal dealings speaks of some small kindness, a birthday remembered, an appreciated pep talk, a good laugh. League officials, always aware of the “image problem” of the sport, tell you how many young players Julius has done right by, how his example is primarily responsible for the “rehabilitation” of Chicago’s troubled Quintin Dailey. Julius’s community awards appear endless. Last year he got the Father Flanagan Award for Service to Youth at Boys Town; previous recipients include Mother Teresa, Danny Thomas, and Spencer Tracy’s wife. The list of charities supported, youth groups spoken to (he read Peter and the Wolf at a special children’s show of the Youth Orchestra of Greater Philadelphia), and hospital wards visited goes on and on.
“All part of my ‘nice-guy image,”‘ Julius says with a wink. He is aware that all these good vibes add up under the economic heading of “Doctor J”: is proud that the Q ratings of his numerous commercial endorsements show him rating higher in “believability” than in “popularity.” “But really,” he says, “I just try to be decent. I try to do the decent thing in the circumstances. Right now I happen to be a well-known professional athlete, so I attempt to be decent within that context. Being nice is pretty normal, I think. If someone was drowning in the river, you’d assume most people would throw them a life preserver. You’d figure most people would do that, under those circumstances. That would be the normal thing to do. That’s what I like to believe I’d do, being a normal person.”
This led to Julius’s further insistence that, really, he was a very ordinary guy. An ordinary guy dealing with extraordinary circumstances, perhaps, but ordinary nevertheless.
“I’ve never felt particularly unique,” Julius says. “Even within the context of basketball, I honestly never imagined myself as anything special. I remember, back home, when I first started playing. At nine, ten, I had a two-hand shot. Then by twelve and a half, thirteen, I got a one-hand shot. Always went to the basket, that pattern was set by then. Actually, I don’t think I’ve changed much as a player since then. Back then, before I was physically able, I felt these different things within me, certain moves, ways to dunk. It sounds strange, being five feet tall, thinking about dunking in a clinical way, but that’s how I was. I realized all I had to do was be patient and they would come. So I wasn’t surprised when they did, they were part of me for so long. But I didn’t find anything particularly special about it. I assumed everyone could do these things if they tried.”
Julius claims the idea of being a professional basketball player didn’t occur to him until he was among the country’s leaders in both scoring and rebounding at UMass. He wanted to be a doctor. That’s the source of his unbeatable nickname. In grammar school when the kids got up to say what they wanted to be when they grew up, Julius said, “A doctor.” “Doctor!” the kids shouted, and it stuck. Later, when playing in the Rucker League, the deejay types “announcing” games were calling him the Claw, a moniker based on his large hands. Julius, always sharp to the distasteful, objected and, when asked for a substitute, said, “Oh, why don’t you just call me Doctor.” Doctors, after all, Julius felt, were white-haired men with soothing voices, who surrounded themselves with a great air of dignity. They also made a lot of money. These were Julius’s two main concerns at the time. His father had left his mother and brother early on and wound up being run down by a car when Julius was eleven.
“I never really had a father,” Julius says, “but then the possibility that I ever would was removed.”
After that, security, financial and otherwise, became obsessional with Julius. Even today, with a contract that pays him more than a million each year and other lucrative interests (he refers to basketball as “my main business application”), Julius is notoriously parsimonious. Do not expect him to pick up the check. It was this desire for himself and his family (there are four children now, three boys and a girl, living in a mansion on 2.8 acres on the Main Line) that made Julius think of playing ball for money.
“That’s when I started hearing all these people talking about how different I was supposed to be,” Julius recounts. “When a hundred people, then a thousand people tell you you’re different, you just say to yourself, ‘Okay, I’m different. … Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. I liked what it got me. I was a young player, I was doing what came easy to me, I was having a good time, so I accepted it as a fact of life.” It was only during the stresses caused by his leaving the Nets (in a protracted contract battle), the subsequent league merger, and his arrival in Philadelphia to less than knock-out notices when Julius began to ponder, “Why am I different? Why, with all these great players all around, guys who play as hard as I do, guys who want to win as badly as I do, why am I Doctor J?”
Quite a picture: the angst-ridden superstar, his piston legs rocketing from the pinewood floor into the glare of the houselights, his seemingly inexorable gaze transfixed on the orange ring, yet, in reality, his leap goes nowhere, for he is lost.
That’s the way Julius paints it. During his first years in Philly it became commonplace to downrate the Doc. In the ABA he’d scored 28.7 points a game and nabbed nearly a thousand rebounds each season; now he was getting 21, 22, and his ‘bounds were way down. Some nodded and said it was true what they said about the old league; it was a circus, after all. In 1978 an unnamed coach was quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying, “[Julius] has been on vacation for three years.”
For his part, Julius complained that his knees were killing him (he has had a tendinitis condition for some time) and that he’d purposely hidden away much of the spectacular side of the Doctor, so as to better mesh with then-teammate George McGinnis, another ABA scorer not noted for his passing skills. Yet, it wasn’t fun. None of it. He let it slip that more than likely he’d be retiring when his contract ran out in 1982. Now, though, Julius says his main problem was a spiritual, not a physical, one. “I felt totally hollow,” he says. “It was eating at me. I started off asking, ‘Who is Doctor J? How did I get to be him? What does being Doctor J mean?’ … then it came down to asking, ‘Who, really, am I?’ I became very frightened when I began to sense that I really had no idea.”
One can imagine the terror Julius felt. He seems a very methodical person, someone who likes everything in its place, not one to rush into things. Perhaps due to his longtime regimen as an athlete, where every day the practice is set for a certain amount of time and the bus leaves at such-and-such o’clock, he is given to compartmentalizing his life and talking of it in terms of small, constantly repeated activities. “I admit to liking the feel of things being in context,” Julius says, “the sense of the familiar waters.” This extends even to the court. Julius contends, “Out of one hundred moves I make in a game, I’ve made ninety-nine before, at one time or another. Sure, that one new one gives me a hit, but actually I get as much or more out of doing the other ninety-nine, because when I do something I’ve done before it means that I’ve compiled this information in my mind and selected the right action for the proper situation. That gives me a lot of pleasure.
“Back then, though,” Julius adds, “I felt completely alone at times. Often, after a game and a late dinner, in one of those cities, I’d be sitting up, three o’clock, four o’clock, after eating a big steak, just watching that TV, with all the phones turned off. I never felt like that before.
“It was finding my faith that pulled me through,” Julius says, leaning back from the desk in his Philadelphia office. In front of him is a rectangular paperweight you’d figure would be made of copper or brass and say, in embossed letters, something like JULIUS WINFIELD ERVING JR., PRESIDENT. But it is wooden and appears to have been made in a junior high school shop class. It says JESUS.
Julius’s conversion occurred during the summer of 1978, at a family get-together in South Carolina. The previous season had been his worst yet. Julius had played poorly, and he was suffering from numerous injuries. The flak was getting intense. “I was feeling a little sorry for myself,” Julius says, “but when I got down there and saw all those people, people I didn’t know, some of whom I didn’t even know existed, yet people who were connected to me in some way, it was really something. Because I was well known, everyone sort of used me as a lightning rod, a common denominator. They used me to get closer to each other. And I felt all that love passing through me. It was a very strange and wonderful feeling.”
At the meeting Julius encountered an uncle of his, Alfonso, a preacher. He told Julius about a blessing that had been laid on the family that, Alfonso said, was now being manifested through Julius. “After that,” Julius says, “things fell into place for me.”
When the subject of Julius-as-Christian comes up, a good portion of the cognoscenti express surprise (it is not well known) and then shake their heads. However, to the reporter with pretensions, it seemed a great boon, a fabulous opportunity. This isn’t to say Julius won’t go Jaycee on you at any moment; no doubt his “Dare to Be Great” speech ranks with the best. He is also given to saying things like “Did I want to open the doors to essential knowledge or did I want to remain on the merry-go-round of nondiscovery?” Primarily, though, here was an intelligent, observant man, who by the vehicle of a mysterious “blessing” had been thrust into the Realm of the Extraordinary. The hope was that he would have the presence of mind to keep his eyes and ears open while in this marvelous land, and that hope was rewarded. I mean, you could enter into a metaphysical dialogue with this man!
On a Milwaukee street we mulled over the notion of the Divine Call. On a bus in Detroit we beat around the dichotomy of true Needs and venal Wants. In a Madison Square Garden locker room we pierced the outskirts of the Spirit of Giving. But it wasn’t until our discussion in his office, during a laborious spiel of mine concerning the duty of the seeker to examine the varieties of religious experience, that Julius began to get pissed.
“I just can’t agree,” he said, “because even if you do manage to synthesize all these systems, what good is it going to do you? Even if you’re the smartest man on earth, even if you’re Albert Einstein, you’ll still only have a thimbleful of all the knowledge in the world. Where does that lead you? Digging and grinding on this unbelievable quest? Is there happiness in that? So it comes down to making concessions … down to knowing you’re not the wisest or the smartest, not the ultimate of anything, but knowing too that you have this powerful need to grasp something meaningful, something purposeful … you want a way, a way that makes sense for you, that you can embrace.”
It was clear what Julius was getting at. After all, he is a black guy in America, the son of a very religious church lady mother. He reached out to what was available to him, and it worked. He found himself capable of faith. But really, was there any other solution for the intelligent, humble man with the nice-guy image? Doctor J has not simply been a great player, he has been the epitome of a player, God’s own fantasy of a player. If Julius meant to “deal with logic, infused by faith,” as he says is his bent, was there any other conclusion but to accept the notion of the involved, controlling presence of a Higher Power? There seemed a profound sanity in Julius’s belief, and the reporter with pretension found it very satisfying.
Julius says he has no fear of life A.B. (After Basketball). “The thing that frightens me is what I heard about spiritual casualties. A spiritual casualty is someone … say a well-known athlete who takes a spiritual stand, and then the focus shifts from looking at that person as an athlete to something else. Suddenly there are all these people who want to put this athlete in the forefront because they assume he can be as significant spiritually as he was athletically. Then this famous athlete uses this forum to talk about what he feels about this new field he’s entered … and he doesn’t know what he’s talking about … like, say, someone might say, ‘Kareem, he’s a superstar ballplayer, so he should be a superstar Muslim.’ A spiritual casualty is someone who falls for that.”
Julius shivers at the mention of Eldridge Cleaver, who did much to make a mockery of himself in his post-Panther days, showing up on The Hour of Power one minute and modeling codpiece trousers the next. Julius is well aware of what went into the creation and maintenance of Doctor J, and he will do almost anything to keep that image from being defiled. “The last thing I want to be perceived as is a flake,” he says warily.
Some suggest that Julius might be a little less cautious. There have been intimations that by stressing his “Christian umbrella,” Julius has demonstrated a degree of naïveté concerning day-to-day life in lower-rent districts. This talk became increasingly intense after Julius’s no-profile stance in the recent Philly mayoral election, which pitted liberal black W. Wilson Goode against neo-Neanderthal Frank Rizzo. Hearing this, Julius gets as close as he does to bristling. “I’m very sensitive to this type of criticism,” he says, “but I’m not going to be pressured by it. My track record in the black community speaks for itself. You know, I’m not blind, I understand how things are. I remember what it was like growing up, and when we go to Boston and Chicago, there’s racism there. We hear what people shout, you know. I understand the danger of getting so far from a situation that you fool yourself and say it doesn’t exist, or get the illusion that because you’re a well-known ballplayer it doesn’t apply to me. I’m not living in a dream world, but I’ll tell you I’d be a fool not to use the advantages I’ve earned through playing in behalf of my family. But I’m not going to invite a potentially hostile situation into my life, into the lives of my wife and children, for just anyone’s idea of solidarity. If I can afford an extra layer of protection, I will exercise it.
“I’ve never been a political person. I’ve never backed a political candidate in my life. When I was with the Nets, a picture came out of me in the newspaper with a local candidate. It was just some function for the team, but this guy was there and he was running for some office, and then all these people were asking me why I was supporting the Republican candidate. I don’t want that to happen again. It would threaten my livelihood. If I backed the Democratic candidate, I’d run the risk of alienating half my public, and the other way around.
“But mostly it comes down to: I’ve played basketball for twenty-five years, almost every situation that can come up has come up. Therefore I’m qualified to sit here and talk to you about basketball. I don’t have those sort of memory cells concerning other areas.”
So, Julius says, he will enter the realm of the ordinary as a businessman. “An entrepreneur,” he says, professing to have always had “a deep yearning” to be such a person. Typically enough, most of his investments have reflected a stolid, blue-chippy side. He is a large stockholder in the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of New York. He makes earnest use of the products he endorses, which have included Coke, Converse, Spalding, and Chap Stick.
Don’t look for Julius dancing in the back row of a Bally’s Park Place Hotel Casino commercial, or any Doc’s Dunkshot Bar opening in the East Sixties. Julius does, however, keep some mad money around for what he calls “risk capital ventures.” One of these ventures was the now-defunct Doctor’s Shoe Salon, a chic fulfillment of one of Julius’s long-cherished fantasies. Throughout his life, especially since he got rich, Julius found it galling that he could not find high-fashion shoes to wrap around his size fifteens. The Doctor’s Shoe Salon assumed there were many others in the same boat and sought to fill that need by offering a wide selection for the hard-to-fit dog, mostly in the two-hundred-dollar range. The shop, poshly appointed and located on Philly’s South Second Street, was slated to be the prototype for a far-flung chain that would eventually take in all the NBA cities. It was not a success. “It caused me untold duress and aggravation,” Julius says sheepishly. “A lot of people expected, because my name was involved, that I’d be there all the time. When I wasn’t, they got mad. And when I was, I couldn’t concentrate on the business. I got bombarded with all kinds of questions, basketball stuff, A to Z. Plus we had a lot of trouble with kids who thought it was a sneaker store.” Kind of humorous—the great Doctor as the harried shoe salesman. But never let anyone say Doc doesn’t learn from experience. Currently his “risk” project is REACH, a camp for gifted and highly motivated children. Nowhere on the brochure will you find the name Julius Erving.
Basically, though, Julius says, his business goal is “to work four hours and rest twenty, as opposed to now, when I’ve got to work twenty hours to rest four.” Until he gets there he has other things to think about. The end of all those hotel rooms and 5 a.m. flights to the next city will mean a lot more time at home, a lot more time.
“One hundred and thirty to 140 more nights,” Julius relates, admitting some anxiety about this. Now, Julius, his wife Turquoise, and their four children (Cheo, Julius III, Jazmin, and Cory) are pretty much your all-American family, as was witnessed at last season’s dunk contest, during which the kids told Dad which shots to make. But 130, 140 nights. “A lot of nights,” Julius predicts, “they’re gonna be saying, ‘Him? Again?”‘ Then he laughs and says, “This is all first-generation problems for all of us, my wife and I, dealing with the circumstances we find ourselves in. There’s going to be a lot of trial and error, that’s for sure.” Then he says he’s thinking of calling up John Havlicek, Jerry West, “some old-timers, people on my level,” to get some pointers on the life ahead. Somehow, you figure, he’ll get over.
Mark Jacobson is a writer and journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. He is known for his explorations of the seamy side of urban life, both here and abroad, and for his offbeat and witty take on popular culture.His 2000 profile of Frank Lucas formed the basis for the Ridley Scott film American Gangster. He is the author of The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans; 12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time: A Semi-Dysfunctional Family Circumnavigates the Globe; and the novels Gojiro and Everyone and No One. He has been a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Esquire, and New York. You can find more at his website.
Three months into his final season, Rivera’s hagiography is already being written. He has, for seventeen years, been the Yankees’ closer, the specialist who arrives in the ninth inning to protect a tight lead, and at this he is better than anyone else who has ever played the game. With 21 saves so far this season, he is pitching as well as he ever has, at an age when other ballplayers have long since withered, and after a long winter recovering from surgery for a torn ACL, an injury that cut short his 2012 season and has ruined many players much younger than he. His teammates speak of him as a giant, and they express gratitude for the privilege of merely being able to walk in the clubhouse where he has walked; atop the Yankees’ Olympus, populated by Ruth, DiMaggio, Gehrig, and Mantle, there’s already a name tag on Rivera’s throne. Sportswriters see him as a mystery, for while other closers have had brilliant seasons, even stretches of three or four, no one else has ever been as good for as long, not nearly. In trying to explain his unprecedented and ruthless two decades of dominance, they’ll cite Rivera’s natural athleticism and the simplicity of his mechanics and they’ll mention the advantages of having been tutored and coddled during his long career by the rich, paternalistic Yankees organization. Rivera acknowledges these things with gratitude—all true, he says. But in his view, his greatness has no earthly source.
“Everything I have and everything I became is because of the strength of the Lord, and through him I have accomplished everything,” he tells me as we sit shoulder to shoulder in the Yankees dugout on a temperate, breezy spring day last month. “Not because of my strength. Only by his love, his mercy, and his strength.” It is the first of several conversations about God I have with Rivera, over several weeks, and in each meeting I find myself struck by how eager he is to put baseball aside and speak openly, and at length, about his faith. Even as Rivera denies that his talent belongs to him, I steal a look at his magic right arm. “You don’t own your gifts like a pair of jeans,” he says.
By that reasoning, I venture, you might say that even the cutter doesn’t belong to you.
“It doesn’t,” he answers, nodding emphatically. “It doesn’t. He could give it to anyone he wants, but you know what? He put it in me. He put it in me, for me to use it. To bring glory, not to Mariano Rivera, but to the Lord.”
Otis Crater was late for the fanciers’ organizational meeting at the Cherokee Lounge for good reason. He had just stabbed a U-TOTE-M attendant following a discussion of the economic impact of a five-cent price increase on a six-pack of beer.
Crater kicked open the lounge door and bounced off the wall, scattering a table of Arabs who had made the mistake of thinking the Cherokee was a hangout for University of Texas exchange students. Crater carried the remnants of a six-pack under one arm and cradled his baby pit bulldog, Princess, under the other. He looked like a crazed, bloody scarecrow.
“That sorry bastard started it,” Crater told those already gathered for the meeting. “I had turned my back to leave when he came at me with a butcher knife. He tore open my right side. Daddy was out in the truck with Princess and a load of cedar. I said, ‘Don’t ask me why right now, just give me your knife.’”
“Did you kill the sorry bastard?” Stout asked.
“I don’t know,” Crater said, as though he hadn’t considered the question until now. “I ‘spect I made him a Christian. Daddy told me, ‘You’re a goddamn fool springing a knife on a man when you can’t even see straight. You’re liable to cut yourself as him.’ I think I got myself in the thigh.”
Crater and his family are cedar choppers, a profession they have followed for a hundred years or longer. Cedar chopper has become a generic term, like redneck, almost without precise meaning. But there are still real people out among the evergreen hills, spring-fed creeks, and wild backroads west of Austin who earn their keep by clearing stands of scrub cedar for land developers. Their wages are the wood they cut in a day. They drive broken-down pickup trucks, deal in cash, preach self-reliance, and maintain a fundamental faith in the use of physical force.
Thus, an increase in the price of a six-pack is of genuine concern. One could well imagine Crater’s old daddy embellishing the story for the domino players, who would nod approval and observe that Otis was a good boy, if inclined to be a little hotheaded on occasion. “Heh, heh,” his daddy would say, “I taught him better. First slash, he missed by eight inches and cut his ownself in the leg.”
Stout, a telephone company lineman, had summoned the fanciers to call to their attention an ad in Pit Dog Report, an earthy, nearly illiterate “Mag. of reading and not to many picturs” published in Mesquite and circulated nationally.
The ad read:
OPEN TO MATCH
any time … any where
BULLY, male, 54 lb.
A DEAD GAME DOG!
Parties interested could contact Mr. Maynard at a post office box in Phoenix, Arizona. It wasn’t necessary to mention that challengers lacking the proper securities need not respond. They had all heard of Mr. Maynard and his legendary beast, Bully. Mr. Maynard was the Max Hirsch of pit bulldog breeding, and Bully was Man o’ War. Bully had every quality a fighting dog can have—gameness, biting power, talent, stamina, bloodline. As the saying goes, a dead game dog.
‘We’re gonna get it on!” Stout declared, cackling and slamming the magazine on the table.
“He’s crazy as a mudsucking hen,” Crater said, addressing the table. J.K., a professional breeder who works with his daddy, ran the tip of a frog sticker under his walnut-colored fingernails and said nothing. Annabelle, a girl with an Oklahoma Dust Bowl face who lives with J.K., was practically sitting in J.K.’s lap, which was as far away as she could get from Stout.
“I got fifteen hundred bucks,” Stout said. “That leaves fifteen hundred for the rest of you.”
Crater looked down at Princess, who was chewing on his foot. “What are we gonna use for a dog?” he inquired. “I’m afraid Princess here is a shade might young. Boudreaux’s dead … Tombstone’s dead … and that dark brindle of J.K.’s wouldn’t make a good lunch for a beast like Bully.”
“Tell him,” Stout said. Then J.K. related what fate had brought their way.
It seemed that J.K.’s daddy knew a driver who knew a dispatcher who had a brother in El Paso who had a dog named Leroy. Leroy was so god-awful bad nobody in El Paso would speak his name, but for a price his owner was willing to loan him out. J.K. and his daddy had taken a pretty game dog named Romeo out to El Paso where Leroy had had him for high tea.
But that wasn’t all. J.K.’s daddy noticed that one of Leroy’s toes had been cut off-cut clean, not like in a fight, but like a man had taken a chisel and cleaved the toe with a blow from a mallet.
Crater looked around the Cherokee and whistled. Stout yelled for some beer. They had all heard the story, how you never saw a genuine Maynard dog with a full set of toes. This was the result of a legendary training technique peculiar to the Maynard kennel. On a pup’s first birthday, Mr. Maynard drops him in the pit with an older, experienced dog. As soon as the animals hit in the center of the pit and get a good hold, Mr. Maynard cleaves off one of the pup’s toes. If the pup lets go his hold, if he loses heart and whines and slobbers, Maynard cleaves open his head and goes about his business. But if the pup holds on, if he keeps on fighting, Maynard has found a new beast to ward off the wolves of his trade. Anytime you see a three-toed dog, move over.
“You trying to tell us Leroy is one of old man Maynard’s stock?” Crater asked.
“I’m trying to tell you Leroy is the son of Bully!” Stout cackled, banging his giant fist on the table. “Only the sainted Doctor Maynard don’t know it. He thinks Leroy is dead somewhere out in California.”
“He won’t for long,” Crater said. “Don’t you think old man Maynard won’t recognize his own work?”
“Me and daddy cut off a toe on his other foot,” J.K. admitted. “Then I dyed him brindle.”
“Hell,” Stout said. “You seen a thousand pit bulls. After a few fights, who knows the difference?”
Crater had to laugh. Leroy, son of Bully. Even his own daddy wouldn’t know him.
“That’s still a lot of money,” he said, tumbling Princess with his other boot. “How do we know he can take him?”
“That’s just a chance we have to take,” Annabelle said. flinching as Stout grabbed her knee. Stout was leaning forward, grinning like a berserk grizzly bear. His shirttail was out, and you could see the bulge of a .38 Super pushed down into his jeans.
Pit bulldogs. Killers, yes. For two thousand years or longer, pit bulldogs have been bred for a single purpose—to fight. To fight to the death, if necessary. To attack anything with four legs. They do not defend, understand. They are worthless as watchdogs unless the intruder happens to be another dog, or a lion, or an elephant. No, they attack. That’s their only number. They were bred that way—short neck, tremendously powerful body and legs, an undershot jaw capable of applying 740 pounds of pressure per square inch (compared to a German shepherd’s 45 or 50), a nose set back so they can hang on and breathe at the same time. The symbol of Winston Churchill and the English-speaking race.
The American Kennel Club refuses to register the breed. In its well-stocked library in New York, which includes such titles as The Dog in Action, Spine of the Dog, and Canine Madness, there are few references to the pit bulldog, or American pit bull terrier as they call it, careful to distinguish this nondog from such registered breeds as the ordinary bull terrier or the Staffordshire bull terrier.
Pure pit bulldogs are descendants of the old English mastiff, which Caesar greatly admired and brought back to Rome after his invasion of England in 55 B.C. Years before the Roman invasion, peasants kept mastiffs, or tiedogs as they were called—after the Anglo-Saxon practice of keeping mastiffs tied by day and letting them run loose at night. It was a practical method of regulating populations of wolves and other predators. Nobility, clergy, and other public-spirited citizens enjoyed dog fights and bequeathed legacies so that the common folk might be entertained on holidays.
Common folk are still entertained by the sport, especially throughout the South, the Southwest, and Southern and Central California, but also in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, and most likely everywhere else. Fanciers, as they call themselves after the old English tradition, gather on Sunday mornings, in the thickets or bayous, along river bottoms or arroyos, in grape arbors, in junk yards, under railroad trestles. They bring their dogs and their wages and plenty of wine and beer and knives and guns, and they have one hell of a time.
Until recently, the fanciers bothered no one except each other, which was by free choice. Then, in the post-Watergate doldrums, newspapers in Dallas, Fort Worth, San Diego, and Chicago joined forces with the New York Times in exposing and deploring the sport, which they customarily refer to as a “practice.” Boxing and auto racing are sport.
“This metropolitan area has more active dog fighting than any other region nationally,” an investigative reporter wrote in the Dallas Morning News. Not only that, the story continued, but prostitutes and gamblers are rumored to congregate around the pits.
Almost every state has a law against dog fighting, but the sport is so clandestine that enforcement is nearly impossible. A vice squad detective for the Los Angeles sheriff’s department told the New York Times that his department knew when and where the fights were held, but they couldn’t get on the property to obtain evidence. Dog fighting is a Class A misdemeanor in Texas and can cost you two thousand dollars and a year in jail; the catch is you can’t prosecute without a witness. There’s not a pit bulldog breeder alive willing to testify against a fellow fancier.
But now that pit bulldog fighting has become an issue, all that may change. The Dallas Morning News (which supports the death penalty and Manifest Destiny and longs to invade Indochina) published an editorial titled “Despicable ‘Game,’” the final paragraph of which I quote: “Every effort should be made to stop these fights. Quite simply, they are inhumane and appalling to any thinking citizen. Such senseless mayhem should not be tolerated in our midst.”
Noble sentiments, but if history has taught us anything, it’s that one man’s mayhem, senseless or otherwise, is certain to be another’s calling. Fanciers—like other individualists or subcultures—consider themselves to be a special breed, a class apart from what, to their point of view, are the drones of mainstream society. Fanciers care for their animals fanatically, certainly as conscientiously as most football coaches or generals treat their charges. Preservation of the bloodline is every fancier’s solemn duty and privilege. When an insurance man advertised “White Cavalier (Pit) Bull Terriers” in the Austin American-Statesman, Crater and Stout called on the gentleman, pointing out that he was attempting to pass off lemons as oranges and promising to break his spinal column if the ad ever reappeared, which it did not. The American Kennel Club should take note, if not of the method, at least of the diligence.
Otis Crater’s jaded old daddy had reached an age where he’d lost interest in most dog fights, but he couldn’t resist this one; there he was in Stout’s house trailer, spitting Garrett’s snuff juice into a paper cup and recalling the morning in Dripping Springs when the legendary Black Jack Jr. went nearly two hours before turning Marvin Tilford’s Big Red.
The match ended when Marvin Tilford’s dog turned, or gave up. Big Red knew when he’d had enough, but Marvin was so humiliated (and broke) that he didn’t show up for a year. Big Red was later drowned by a boar coon who got him by the back of the neck in the South San Gabriel River.
“He should of never gone in water,” Crater’s old daddy pontificated as he rocked slowly and watched Princess chew on his boot. “Men and dogs belong on ground. Birds belong in air. Fish belong in water. When a creation starts believing they invented how things are, they forgot how things are.”
“Hey, daddy,” Crater interrupted, “tell ‘em about the deputy sheriff.”
“That’s another story,” the old man snorted, dabbing his gums with a frayed matchstick. ‘We was going pretty good when the deputy called and asked me how things was going. ‘Pretty good,’ I said. ‘The dogs been fighting twenty minutes and the people seventeen.’”
Watching Princess tumble around the floor of Stout’s trailer, you wouldn’t take her for a killer. She’s no larger than a football, this furry little alligator with sad eyes and a wrinkled face, chewing mindlessly, somehow reminiscent of J. Edgar Hoover. According to procedure, Crater had already clipped her ears, which now looked like two raw navels. They were adequate for hearing but impossible to bite down on.
Princess was fun to play with—the trouble was she didn’t like to stop. She was playing with a big black poodle one afternoon when someone noticed that the poodle was no longer playing, or moving: the illusion of movement was caused by the steady jerking motion of Princess’s head. Shortly following life’s final measure of response, Princess dropped the black curly mess on the lawn and trotted over to examine a rosebush.
Before he got Princess, Crater traveled with a big brindle pit bulldog named Boudreaux. Crater was managing an Austin tavern when Boudreaux tore into a German shepherd three times his size. In the ten seconds or so it took Crater to separate them with his hickory wedge, Boudreaux ripped out the shepherd’s chest.
You could already hear the yelps and groans of men and animals down at the creek bottom when Stout arrived, carrying a package wrapped in brown paper.
“I guess you heard Claxon got stabbed,” Stout said.
“I heard he got some new marks,” Crater said. “What happened?”
“In the bathroom at the Cherokee. Claxon called this dude a Meskin. The dude was a Indian. Hell, I could tell right away he wasn’t no Meskin.”
“How’s he doing?”
“He’s about half dead and half proud,” Stout said, and his laugh sounded over-oiled, hollow, and obligatory. He tore away the brown paper and held up a framed, hand-lettered scroll. There were tears in his eyes. The scroll was a poem, written by his mama, Toots; her first poem since Stout’s daddy was shot to death by three blacks who hijacked his tiny grocery and market. Toots watched her husband die as she fired off several rounds at the fleeing killers. Austin police captured two of the hijackers, and the third, so it’s said, was captured by Stout’s vigilantes and is now fertilizing a worthy crop in a cedar chopper’s garden. Who knows?
Stout turned his head so that the others wouldn’t see the tears, and he looked for a place to hang the scroll. He selected a spot on the wall next to a poster of Pancho Villa enjoying a smoke under a mesquite tree.
Toots’s poem went like this:
The clock of life is
wound but once
And no man has the power
to tell just when the hands will stop.
At late or early hour.
Now is the only time we own,
live, love, toil with a mill;
Place no faith
in tomorrow for
The clock may then
There was silence throughout the trailer as Otis Crater read the words of Toots’s poem aloud, but Stout excused himself and slipped outside. He kept his back to the trailer and his head down, following the fossilized debris of an ancient riverbed. He stopped in front of an oak almost as wide as himself and took something from a homemade cabinet nailed to the tree trunk. It was a package of sunflower seeds. His short, knotted arms stretched for a low-hanging branch, and he filled a bird feeder with sunflower seeds.
Judging from the license plates of the campers and trucks scattered throughout the woods, the fanciers had come from as far away as California, Mexico, Florida, and even Canada. It was a young crowd, mostly in their twenties and thirties, a mixed bag of longhairs, cedar choppers, and high-risk investors, with a few blacks and Chicanos and some transients from a Houston motorcycle gang thrown in.
There were some women and enough children to make it look like a club picnic. A skinny kid named Tarlton, who stole ten-speed bikes for a living, passed out beer in paper cups. Tarlton wore a homemade T-shirt with a picture of Snoopy dragging a dead cat by the tail. There was no mistaking Mr. Maynard. He was the tall, lean, silver-haired man in a blue jump-suit and wraparound shades standing by his Winnebago talking to J.K.’s daddy. You’d figure him for a bomber pilot in World War II, but he was just another dog soldier a long way from home. The cold scars in Maynard’s eyes reached back to quarrels too horrible to translate: it had been a long time since he found it necessary to look tough or talk big.
There were a dozen bulldogs chained to heavy iron stakes around the perimeter of the clearing, but there was also no mistaking which one was Bully. While the other beasts were whimpering and sniffing blood and straining at their chains for some action, Bully relaxed on his haunches, observing the scene with sad, patient eyes.
Mr. Maynard and J.K.’s daddy talked and shared a drink, not at all interested in the fight in progress or the other fanciers clumped around the hay bales that formed the pit walls. A spotted cur owned by two black kids was trying to survive the jaws of one of Marvin Tilford’s pups. The match was hopelessly one-sided, which meant there was hardly any betting, and the crowd was restless.
“Why don’t you do the fair thing and give that leopard of yours a rest,” Marvin told the black kids. They conferred in whispers, then picked up their pet and paid off. The bet was fifty dollars.
That’s how most dog fights end, with a humiliated owner “doing the fair thing,” picking up and paying off. Dogs are frequently wounded and occasionally killed, but only in serious challenges where the stakes are high and the owners’ reputations well traveled. Even then an owner will usually do the fair thing when his beast is clearly outclassed, greatly preferring a healthy animal to an over-exercised ego.
“Dogs that are the best performers aren’t necessarily the best dogs,” Mr. Maynard told me as we drank scotch in his Winnebago. He knew that I was a writer. He even helped me with my notes, spelling out names, and carefully considering dates. He was only anxious that the sport not get a bad name.
“People talk about pure Maynards as they do about Picassos,” I observed.
“It’s an art,” he said.
“How do you do it7 What’s your secret?”
“No secret,” he smiled. “I just breed best to best. Now, knowing what is best, that’s a gift. I can’t tell you about that any more than Sugar Ray could tell you how he boxed. The best performers aren’t necessarily the best dogs, that’s just one quality. You look for everything from performance to pedigree to conformation to the way a dog holds his head when he pees. ‘Course, gameness is everything in a fighting dog, and you’re not gonna know that until you see him scratch for the first time. I’ve heard it said that if fanciers had millions of dollars like horse people we could come up with the perfect fighting dog, but I haven’t heard anyone claim they’ve come up with the perfect racehorse yet.”
I asked him about the familiar story, how he tested a pup by cleaving off one of its toes, then cleaved its head if the dog wasn’t game enough to suit Maynard standards.
“Naw,” he said, pouring two more drinks. “That’s an old story. I did it once or twice when I was getting started. I’m a businessman. A man growing corn doesn’t burn his fields because a few ears aren’t sweet. I raise dogs, I don’t kill them. Best to best, that’s the secret of a Maynard dog.”
“Some people think this is a cruel sport,” I said, understating the position as much as I dared.
“I guess it’s cruel as anything else in life,” he said, after considering the question from all sides. “These dogs only have one purpose in life, that’s to fight.” Fanciers are not long on philosophy. They accept what they do with the same lack of introspection that they accept war and General Motors. Their sport is part of their life.
The October sun came through the Winnebago window, overexposing the pastiche of fanciers around the hay bales. From the swell of the crowd it sounded like a hell of a fight. Then I realized it was Crater and Stout doing the cat number.
The cat number is traditional at dog fights, much like clowns at a circus or halftime bands at football games. What they do is throw live cats—which they buy for fifty cents a head from the city pound—to assorted dogs who aren’t fighting that day but who need exercise, self-confidence, and a show of affection. J.K. and his daddy use cats for training. Some handlers claim you shouldn’t run a dog, but J.K.’s daddy runs all of his beasts, using a homemade device consisting of an axle and a crosspole on which he can leash one dog and one cat. The leashes are measured so the dog can chase the cat till doomsday and never catch up, which he usually will attempt to do. If a dog has worked well, J.K.’s daddy will toss him a reward—the cat of his recent ordeal. A cat who has had a run-in with a pit bulldog is something out of a wax museum—a statue frozen in terror, eyes wide with disbelief, front claws arched, fangs bared in a silly, final grin.
Several wax museum cats lay in the grass around the hay bales. Marvin Tilford’s little boy walked by, swinging a dead cat by the tail.
It was a few minutes after 2 p.m. when Stout and Annabelle brought Leroy down from the trailer. They had changed his name to Tag. If he made it through the day, he would be Leroy again. He would return triumphantly to El Paso, but for now he was Tag, a dog with no past and an unenviable future. Tag looked more like a walking anthill of petrified Jell-O than any animal that might come to mind. He had so much scar tissue that you couldn’t tell what part was the original dog. J.K.’s dye job was blatantly atrocious; it looked as if Leroy had been tie-dyed.
“He wants Cajun rules,” J.K.’s daddy told Marvin Tilford, who by previous agreement would referee the match.
“Yessir,” Marvin said.
“He says, if you see a turn, call it. But let them maneuver. Don’t let the handlers push their dogs out of corner. Check the handlers … make ‘em roll up both sleeves, and make sure they taste their dogs’ drinks. No sponges … no towels … all the handler can take in the pit is his dog’s drink and a fan to fan him.”
“Yessir,” Marvin said.
When the handlers had carried the dogs to the pit, Mr. Maynard walked over and examined Leroy’s teeth.
“Nice animal,” he said. “Good head.” If he thought the markings curious, or observed the stubs of two toes, one so recently cleaved that the skin hadn’t grown back, he didn’t let on.
“Let’s roll,” he told Marvin.
Both dogs scratched hard out of their corners, and Bully took the lead, going low, forcing Leroy to bite around the nubs of gristle that had once been ears. Christ, he was strong. But there was no doubt Leroy was his daddy’s boy; he just kept coming. “It’s gonna be a long afternoon,” Crater said. Unless you have more money than you can possibly afford riding on the outcome, a dog fight is about as interesting as a college wrestling match: the beasts hit, lock on, and hold fast, in endless repetition. The fight quickly settles into a test of strength, endurance, and gameness. Even the blood takes on a surrealistic quality after a while, like ghost shadows in a hall of mirrors.
After forty-five minutes—when Marvin Tilford called the first pick-up and broke the dogs apart by forcing his hickory wedge between their jaws and twisting counterclockwise—it was still impossible to say who was top dog.
While the handlers were cooling off their animals, Crater and I walked down by the old Indian mound. You could feel the excitement bouncing off the limestone walls of the creekbed: it wasn’t watching the dogs that did it, it was being there, experiencing an almost-vanished culture of blood rites and a close familiarity with death.
Then we caught sight of Annabelle, coming out from behind some bushes, buttoning her pants.
“Damn,” she said, ‘Tm so nervous I almost wet my britches.”
“You think Mr. Maynard knows something?”
She shook her head. “I’d hate to find out. Old men like him can be real bad customers.”
“He didn’t say nothing when he looked at Leroy’s teeth.”
“That’s not what worries me,” Annabelle said. ‘Wait till his beast gets off on the acid.”
“What’s that suppose to mean?” Crater asked, squinting into the sun.
“I’m asking you.”
“We rubbed Leroy’s chest with acid,” Annabelle said. “Very shortly now Leroy’s daddy’s gonna take his first trip on LSD.”
Crater watched the light hit and fracture off the creek walls.
“Oh, me,” he sighed. “I get this awful feeling the center’s not holding.” Crater walked to his truck and got his gun. One of the fascinating things about Crater and his friends is the way they use the language. They are not educated, but they are amazingly literate.
At the second pick-up an hour later, both dogs were bloody but strong. Bully’s handler whispered something to Mr. Maynard, but Mr. Maynard shook his head and the handler told Marvin: “Let ‘em roll.” Leroy was bleeding from the chest and from the stifle of his left rear leg.
The battle was into its third hour when J.K. told his daddy: “His leg is starting to pump blood.”
“I can’t help that,” his daddy said.
“He’s making you like it, Leroy. You better eat!” Annabelle hollered out suddenly. At the name Leroy, both Stout and Crater felt for their guns, but Mr. Maynard didn’t blink.
“Work him, Tag!” J.K. yelled.
Bully was clearly the top dog now. Leroy was losing blood and weakening noticeably, but Bully was zonked far past the fatigue and mere dogdom. The ploy of the LSD was backfiring. The hair and blood in Bully’s mouth told him that he was a sixty-ton gorilla at the Captain’s Table reciting compound fractions in a tongue not previously heard on this planet. “Stand back,” he said in his strange tongue. “This one will be for keeps.” He took Leroy down by the front leg and chewed on the stifle, shaking hard, lifting Leroy off the ground and working him against the pit wall.
“Goddamn it, Marvin,” Stout hollered, “keep ‘em off the wall!” Marvin moved in with his hickory wedge, but before he could break the beasts Bully shook Leroy so hard he snapped off his hold and flew halfway across the pit. Then, by God, Leroy was on him, tearing at the soft part of his throat. This time Marvin called a pick-up, which was the proper thing to do. Marvin had to help the handler restrain Bully and drag him back to his corner.
“Jesus, he’s pumping,” said Tarlton, the bicycle thief. “Don’t let ‘em roll again.”
Marvin looked at Mr. Maynard, then at J.K. “You want to roll again?” he asked. J.K. answered by releasing his beast, who lunged straight at Bully and got him by the eye.
“No more pick-ups,” Mr. Maynard said quietly. “Let ‘em roll.”
“Let ‘em roll,” J.K. agreed.
So that would be it—one of the dogs would have to die or quit, and it wasn’t difficult to project which alternative would prevail.
Three hours and fifty-eight minutes into the match, it happened. Bully was going for the chest, boring in like a jackhammer, when suddenly Leroy got a leg and flipped him easy as you turn a pancake. There was a wailing sound like echoes colliding, then Bully’s eyes froze over. He lay still as Leroy tore out his throat. Leroy relaxed his hold, sniffed his dead opponent, then limped over and licked J.K.’s hand.
“If that don’t beat all!” Otis Crater’s old daddy said as they stood over the corpse of the late, great Bully. “It’s like his old heart just give out on him.”
J.K.’s daddy nodded. “Looks like he busted apart inside.”
“If that don’t beat all!” Otis Crater’s old daddy said again.
Mr. Maynard walked over to his Winnebago and returned with a .44 Magnum and a sheaf of hundred-dollar bills. “Here’s what I owe you,” he told J.K.’s daddy.
Mr. Maynard turned the cold scars of his eyes on Stout, then on the others, taking his time.
“I don’t know what you little bastards did to my dog,” he said, “but you’re the ones that have to live with it.”
He walked over to Leroy, patted Leroy’s head, then raised his .44 Magnum to Leroy’s head and blew it off. No one moved or spoke a word.
“If you boys ever get to Phoenix,” he said, looking each of them over one more time, “look me up.”
Postscript (from 1982)
This is my all-time favorite story, maybe because it was turned down by nearly every magazine in the country. Rolling Stone, Esquire, Playboy, Sports Illustrated, they all had a shot at the story and rejected it. It wasn’t just a judgment call; they truly hated the story. “Good Lord, dogs killing dogs,” Sports Illustrated editor Ray Cave (now editor of Time) told me. “My wife would never speak to me again if I printed that.” The story touched some primordial sense of revulsion in all these editors; people were killing people daily, by the hundreds of thousands, but there was something about dogs that was too much for their sensibilities. I had to beg Texas Monthly editor Bill Broyles to accept the story, though he loved it once he saw it in print. Everyone did. Not long after publication I received a call from Esquire editor Geoffrey Norman, who had rejected the piece when he was still articles editor at Playboy, but apparently didn’t remember. Norman wanted to know why I never sent any really good pieces like this to him.
People still ask me if this really happened. It did, though I changed the names and combined several dog fights into a single big event. It’s interesting to note the blow-by-blow account of the fight, a holdover from my sportswriting days, no doubt: a fascination with the ritual itself. But more than that, it shares a fascination with the almost-vanished “sub-culture of blood rites and a close familiarity with death.” I remember Broyles asking if Crater really said “the center’s not holding”; that seemed a little esoteric for a mere cedar chopper, but then that’s what I was trying to show. These guys read books, too.
As Margaret Mead so eloquently phrased it: “I don’t judge ‘em, I just write down what happened.”
Gary Cartwright has had a distinguished career as a newspaper reporter and as a freelance writer, contributing stories to such national publications as Harper’s, Life, and Esquire. He was a senior editor at Texas Monthly for 25 years until his retirement in 2010 at age 76. He has written several books, including Confessions of a Washed-up Sportswriter, which grew out of an essay he wrote forHarper’s. He has co-written three movie scripts, J. W. Coop (Columbia, 1972); A Pair of Aces (CBS-TV, 1990), which he also co-produced; and Pancho, Billy and Esmerelda, which he co-produced for his own production company in 1994. In addition, he co-produced Another Pair of Aces for CBS. Blood Will Tell was filmed by CBS-TV as a four-hour miniseries in 1994. In 1998 his book, HeartWiseGuy, was published.
You’ll enjoy this, Jared Haynes’ interview with Roger Angell. I came across this when I was at the baseball Hall of Fame doing research eight years ago. Found it in Angell’s file and think it’s just great.
Originally published in the fall 1992 edition ofWriting on the Edge and reprinted here with permission.
Roger Angell has been a fiction editor for The New Yorker since 1956 and has contributed to the magazine for close to fifty years. He is best known for his pieces on baseball, written for the magazine’s “The Sporting Scene” section. Many of these pieces have been gathered into collections (The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings, Season Ticket).
Every time I read one of Angell’s articles, I come away with a deeper appreciation and understanding of baseball. His year-end roundups sift through the minutiae of the long season to see what, at the end, really mattered, what was startling and unexpected, and what came to nothing. Other pieces investigate the skills and knowledge that players need to play their positions; or illustrate the swings in momentum within an at-bat, a game, a series, or a season; or tease apart the conflicts between differing factions—owners, management, players, and, most forgotten of all, the fans.
I talked with Roger Angell early in July in his office at The New Yorker. The day was hot and muggy, and because of a traffic jam, I arrived late and anxious. Angell greeted me graciously and gave me a glass of water and time to wind down. We then spent a pleasant hour and a half talking about writing and baseball, while the faint street sounds of New York wafted up from seventeen stories below.
WOE: When did you first start to consider yourself a writer?
ANGELL: The wish to be a writer was built into me very early, because of my family background. My mother was connected with The New Yorker from the second year of its existence, in 1926. And then my stepfather, E. B. White, was a writer. So I was attracted to that. My father was a lawyer; he wrote a couple of books, but he was a lawyer primarily. I was not attracted to the law, but that was not a vote against him. He was always completely supportive of whatever I chose to do.
I was a kid writer in school and editor of the school paper. I knew I would end up in publishing somewhere, editing or publishing, and I’ve been both an editor and a writer all my life. During the war I became managing editor of a GI magazine in the Pacific called Brief, which was the only weekly slick-paper, coated-stock, enlisted-man’s publication in that war. That was great practice. We covered all of the central Pacific, something like 2 million square miles. I had to write every week and help get the thing together. It’s not bad; I’ve gone back and looked at it and we did a pretty good job.
WOE: Would you say that the influence of your mother and stepfather was fairly direct? I don’t mean that they taught you, but did they give advice?
ANGELL: It was more from watching, but, sure, their influence was important. It mattered for me in psychological terms, because my parents were divorced when I was about eight years old and I ended up with my father, which was not the best arrangement. I saw a lot of my mother, but she was away. I was young and I yearned for her, so what she did, working forThe New Yorker, was of great significance to me. And what Andy White, my stepfather, did was attractive to me. My mother always supported my wishes to be a writer, my baby efforts. I had a first contribution to the famous Franklin P. Adams column, “The Conning Tower,” when I was about nine years old. I dashed it off and my stepfather picked it up and sent it in and it got published.
And, of course, when I got older, I realized that Andy White was a wonderful model. He was there at hand, and he wrote so well. I learned things from him, the main one being to try to write simply and directly and to try to make it sound easy. Be clear, be unaffected if you can, and try to arrive at a tone that is your own tone, not somebody else’s. It takes a while for you to recognize what your own tone is. I also learned how hard writing is. He made it look easy, and anybody reading E. B. White thinks, Well, this was a snap, this was a cinch for him. Of course it wasn’t. He suffered the way all writers suffer. I remember summers in North Brooklin, Maine, when he was writing “Comment”—he wrote that first page of The New Yorker for years. He’d write on Tuesdays, as I recall, when he’d close himself in his study all day. He’d come out for lunch looking pale, and he wouldn’t speak. Then he’d go back in there. He’d mail it off in the late afternoon, and then, half the time, he’d try to get it back because he thought it wasn’t good enough. Of course, it was good enough, but I recognize the impulse. Every writer understands that. Writing is hard; it’s really hard. Maybe he should have told me to turn back before it was too late!
Most writers are made at an early age. I don’t think many people come to it as a late idea. But there are always people who think, “Say, maybe I could become a writer!” I’ve heard people say, “Oh, you’re a writer. Isn’t that interesting. Someday I’m going to sit down and write a book.” You try not to laugh or scream. A writer named Roger Burlingame—someone my father’s age—had this happen years ago. Someone came up to him at a party and said this. So Burlingame asked him, “What’s your line of work?” and the man answered, “Well, I’m a civil engineer.” “That’s amazing,” Burlingame said. “You know, you won’t believe this, but all these years I’ve told myself that someday I’m going to sit down and build a bridge.”
When I talk to groups of young writers, I sometimes ask them, “Do you really want to do this?” I have cautionary tales about how tough it is, and how it doesn’t get any easier. They think that once they get the hang of it, the difficulty will go away, and of course it’s not true. Back in the mid-seventies, I was writing a piece about the Super Bowl, of all things—a “Sporting Scene” piece. The Super Bowl is two weeks of hype followed by two hours of football. I was there for a full week of the hype and I got to know the other writers. Just after the game we were in the pressroom eating a sandwich, and I said, “Now the hard part comes, we gotta write this stuff.” And a writer next to me—l was older than he was by about fifteen or twenty years—actually turned pale, and said, “You mean, it’s still hard for you?” and I said, “Yeah.” I understood his problem and I said, “I’m sorry, but it’s never going to get any easier.”
WOE: Did you have any worthwhile writing instruction in school or college?
ANGELL: When I was a freshman at Harvard, they had some remarkable instructors in composition. Wallace Stegner was there and Mark Schorer—celebrated teachers of writing. They were all in their late twenties. There were five or six sections that were all top-class. We had to write every week, which was good practice. But there isn’t much to say in a classroom about writing. You can talk endlessly about a piece of copy, or a paragraph or a sentence, and to some effect, but in general terms you can’t go much beyond “Show them, don’t tell them,” “Keep it direct,” “Be effective,” “Don’t be pompous”—all the standard things.
In those days, the great influence, the great exemplar, was Hemingway. I remember in that course at Harvard, we used to get our themes back in sort of a mail-box, with pigeon-holes, and of course you’d pick out other people’s stories and read them. Whenever I did this, I realized that every one of us was writing like Hemingway. I still remember the first sentence of one of my classmates’ stories I’d picked up: “Eddie stank of squirrel guts.”
WOE: Your first published works were short stories.
ANGELL: I wrote those pieces when I was in my twenties and thirties. I was just trying to become some kind of a writer. There were a couple of them that were OK, I guess. I really didn’t decide to stop; I just didn’t have a lot more stories to tell.
Of course in my work as an editor, I’ve been aware of most of the reigning influences in the short story.
WOE: Who have those been?
ANGELL: Oh, Raymond Carver was a very powerful influence. Donald Barthelme, back before him. Salinger to an extraordinary degree. Before that, Cheever and John O’Hara. Updike has been an influence all along, and a very strong one, but he’s difficult for students. His flavor is distinct, but not perceptible sentence by sentence. Barthelme was almost overpowering as an influence for a while because that quirky, pasted-together style looked easy, and of course it wasn’t. There was only one Donald. When he’d been going a few years, his brother Frederick Barthelme—Rick Barthelme—began sending us stuff that was exactly like Donald’s. I had to tell him, through Don at first, because I didn’t know him, that we already had one of these, we couldn’t use two. But then in time he arrived at his own way, his own approach to writing, which was entirely different, and we published a great many of his stories. I don’t think there is a dominant short-story model now. It’s strange. I don’t think there’s any meaning to it. It just doesn’t happen at the moment that there is a model. I can’t think of any.
WOE: How did you come to start writing about baseball?
ANGELL: William Shawn, then the editor [of The New Yorker], wanted to have more sports in the magazine. I had written a piece for the magazine about hockey— I’d been a hockey fan. But he was wary because he understood the difficulties of writing about sports. He didn’t want us to be cynical, he didn’t want us to be too knowing, and he didn’t want us to be sentimental. He said, “Why don’t you go down to spring training and see what happens?” I went to Florida in the spring of ’62, I guess, and wrote that first baseball piece, and I just kept going after that. I had no idea it would go on this long. It was never planned that this would become such a specialty of mine, a considerable part of a career. I just went on from year to year because I always found something else I wanted to write about. It seemed to be a good fit.
WOE: How did you envision that first assignment when you went down to Florida?
ANGELL: What I did was write about baseball from the fans’ point of view. I was in my forties—I was forty-one—and I knew enough to know that I didn’t know a great deal about baseball, even though I was a true-blue fan. I’d followed baseball all my life. But I was wary of talking to players; I felt very nervous about that. So I sat in the stands and reported on what that was like. The piece was called “The Old Folks Behind Home.” It was about old men and women watching spring training. The great preponderance of fans in ’62 were old folks.
And also, although it was not a conscious plan, I wrote about myself, because I was a fan. It set a pattern for me. I am a fan, I refer to myself as a fan, and I report about my feelings as a fan, and nobody else, to my knowledge, does that. It’s no great thing, but those old restrictions on reporting seemed to say that you can’t put yourself in the piece and you can’t betray emotion. It’s funny, because most of the beat writers have this surface objectivity and toughness, but underneath it all, I’ve noticed, they are just as much fans as the rest of us, or more so. If you sat up there and didn’t care about baseball in some personal way, it would be a deadly assignment, I think, year after year. Some of them are fans of other teams, not the team they’re covering. But if it comes down late in the season, to the last week or the last weekend, and your team still has a chance to get into the playoffs, you look around in the pressbox and everybody up there is pulling for them, and an occasional hopeful yell escapes their lips, even though no cheering in the pressbox is the absolute rule.
WOE: Has your vision of the assignment changed over the years?
ANGELL: Sure it’s changed. I eventually came to know more about baseball. I came to know some players and I began to feel free about going onto the field and into the clubhouse and talking to some players. And then, I guess in the seventies and early eighties, I began to realize that there was a great deal about the game I didn’t understand, and that many people didn’t understand. I still feel that way. That’s one of the reasons I’m still doing this. Baseball is intensely complicated, beautifully complicated. If you can get the players talking about what they do, it can make for interesting pieces. The best defense against partisanship is expertise, because the game is too painful otherwise. Year after year, it hurts to be a fan. There is much more losing than winning in baseball, if you think about it—in all sports, actually. If your hopes have been high, it can be almost unbearable. Sometimes it becomes a long slow ache, if you’ve been a Red Sox fan. Or it can be a sudden shock if you’ve gotten your hopes up for the first time, when your team comes from nowhere and seems to have a shot and then suddenly falls apart before your eyes.
WOE: It seems that you play the odds—you have three or four favorite teams that you cover.
ANGELL: The day-to-day teams that I follow most have been the Mets and the Red Sox. In 1986 I suddenly had to figure out which of the two I cared more about. It was true act of discovery; this was not contrived at all. Late in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, I suddenly realized the Mets were about to be eliminated and I was downcast. I was surprised. I would have bet the other way, that I cared more about the Red Sox, but I was wrong. So I had to write and confess that there was more Met than Red Sock in me. And my readers—I get quite a lot of mail from readers who care about baseball—my New England mail was remarkably forgiving. I thought I would be excoriated.
The other team I’ve followed is the Oakland Athletics. I’ve gotten to know the management well, first from a Profile I wrote about Roy Eisenhardt. I also admire the Haas family, the Levi Strauss people who decided to buy the team in 1980. Walter Haas, Sr. is a true baseball fan, a sports fan. They really wanted to do something for the city of Oakland. They’re liberal multi-millionaires, which is a surprising combination. They’re admirable people. Oakland was a depressed city, a city with a high preponderance of minorities, in very dire straits. They thought it would be good for Oakland to keep a big-league team, and it has been good for Oakland. This sort of concern is very rare among owners. Oakland is among the two or three most admired franchises by the players and by people who really know baseball.
WOE: You mentioned how complicated the game is. One of the pieces I’ve most admired is “In the Fire,” the one about catchers. I think it opened my eyes as a fan to how difficult and complex the game is.
ANGELL: What I learned on that story was how smart catchers have to be. They really do run the game. They see everything out there; they’re the only ones who are looking out at the field, except for the fans. I think that was the first “What do you do?” piece that I wrote. Players I talked to at first couldn’t believe that was all I wanted. They were sort of close-mouthed and thought I was after just another sports story, but I said “No, just tell me what you do.” I think for most reporters that’s probably a pretty good question, because all of us are entranced with what we do, if it’s complicated at all, and love to talk about it. So once they began to talk about it I couldn’t shut them up. There’s a lot about catching I couldn’t get in there. As I said in the piece, this is just beginning to get into what it’s all about.
On these “What do you do?” pieces, I tend to leave out the most obvious or most famous player. I don’t want to go to the top man, because what he does may seem too easy to him. So I didn’t go to Johnny Bench, although he talks about baseball and about catching very well. The people I did go to were great talkers. Of course any reporter knows enough to go to a good talker. You remember who talks well—who talks in sentences and now and then even in paragraphs. There are several Hall of Fame talkers in that same piece.
WOE: What goes into researching and writing a piece on baseball?
ANGELL: It depends on the piece. The big fall roundup really requires me to go to games fairly steadily through the summer, to take notes and keep scorecards. I also used to keep enormous stacks of newspapers and clips, The Sporting News, Baseball America, the Times, out of town papers, and last year, The National. I’d have stacks and stacks of stuff like that around here and at the end of the year I’d have to try to make some sense out of it. The biggest question, first of all, is what to leave out. There’s far more material than I can deal with. If you get a brilliant World Series like the one last fall, between the Braves and the Twins, that’s easy, because you know you’re going to hurry to the World Series in the piece. And the playoffs were just as good. You want to go back and recreate the feeling of those very close, low-scoring games, when most of us were just getting to know these young players. We didn’t know them well at all because they were both last place teams the year before. As I wrote, a great many fans said, “Who are these guys? I don’t care about these guys.” And then of course they played so well, it was like discovering baseball for the first time. I’d come in and people around here would say, “Wow! I’m worn out.” They were terrific games. It was like a World Series that was nothing but one long ninth inning.
There’s a lot to organize for those pieces in the fall. This year I’m going to try to do a shorter piece about the World Series, if I can break the habit.
When I go to games, I take a lot of notes. I take a standard, three-subject school notebook like this [picks it up off his desk], and I write all the way through games. This is a piece I’m working on, getting ready to write right now, about Class A baseball, the lowest level of organized ball, up in Oneonta, New York. I was up there last week. People who have known me in various pressboxes around the league know that I write a lot during the games. It’s a kind of joke—all the notes I take. But the reason is that I’m going to write much later than anybody else. I may be at a game in July and the chances are I won’t use any part of it in an autumn piece, but you never know. You don’t know when you’re watching a game if this is going to fit into something else that happens in September and something else that happens in October, or some recurrent theme I want to pick up on, or something about this particular player that I’m going to see later on. Well, I can’t remember what happened at this at-bat back in June. I can’t suddenly pull this out of the air. It’s got to be down on paper.
WOE: Do the notes allow you to revisualize the play?
ANGELL: Yes, if the notes are okay. I sometimes write down little things, how someone looks standing up at bat, what the pitcher’s mannerisms are up on the mound, or even what happened on a particular play, if it’s unusual. Baseball is a sport uniquely suited to writing, because you can go back and reconstruct a game from fairly simple notes and from a scorecard. You can bring back a moment, or even the pattern of the game. When something started to happen, if there was a game with a shift in it, a hinge in it. Then you can say this is why this game started this way and went that way. It all moves at a pace that allows you to write it down and watch it beginning to happen. Usually if there’s a shift in the game you can go back and say, “Well, actually this began the inning before or the inning before that.” You can do it in some detail. I don’t think anybody does it in more detail than I do. I’ve been laughed at sometimes for this, but I think fans like it. Baseball is really a writer’s game. All those idle moments at the ballpark where you look around and enjoy the day or the evening and another peanut, and now and then a thought actually comes, or even an idea crosses your mind. That doesn’t happen much in basketball or hockey because too many things are happening. And in football you can’t tell what’s happening. In baseball, you can. It’s very rare that something happens where people will say, “What was that?”
WOE: Do you tend to write in complete sentences in your notebooks?
ANGELL: I don’t think so. These notebooks [on Class A baseball] are different because I wasn’t doing very careful stuff about these games themselves. I was doing it about the setting. No, these aren’t sentences. These are quotes in some cases. But in my game notebooks I sometimes have something drawn. I make a little rough sketch of what someone looks like. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched Will Clark, who has this elegant, beautiful swing. It’s such a wonderful thing to watch. I would begin to watch how he’d do this and I’d make a drawing of that column made by his front leg and the fulcrum as he twists his body around.
WOE: What is most difficult for you in writing?
ANGELL: Starting a piece seems to be extremely difficult for me. It always has been. People around here are used to my cries of rage and woe, because I can’t get cranked up. Once I start to write, I’m pretty quick. But starting is a terrible block for me. Perhaps the reason is that good writing is based on clear thinking, which is the hardest thing we have to do. It’s as plain as that. It’s hard to start to write because what you have to do is to start to think. And not just think with the easy, up front part of your brain but with the deeper, back parts of the unconscious. The unconscious comes into writing in a powerful way. When I was writing weekly pieces—and I think daily writers feel this as well—if I am having a hard time I can go to bed at night and say, “When I wake up I’m going to have the lead.” And you do. You can train your mind to do that. Some part of you is sitting there hunched over, under a light, looking over possibilities.
I think part of my problem is that I don’t write regularly. I’m not just a writer, I’m an editor—my full time job is an editor—so I write something and then I stop. Then I may not write again for a month or two or even three or four months. And when that happens, you’ve got to remember what writing is. You have to teach yourself all over again. It doesn’t come naturally. Whenever I’ve been in the situation where I had to write every week—I did the movies for the magazine for six months once—it was a cinch. I knew I came in on Tuesdays and I was going to write the piece. By the end of the day the piece would be done. That’s no problem. But if you’re going to write five thousand or ten thousand or even a fifteen thousand words, and you haven’t done anything of the sort for a good many weeks, it’s hard to get it right. But I think all this time I’m basically sorting out the material, mostly unconsciously; I’m getting ready to decide where to put the emphasis.
I think I’m also hampered a little bit by the feeling that I’m probably competing with myself, although I try to combat this. I don’t feel a need to write a better piece each time I go out, but l know that I’ve got something of a reputation and I don’t want to write a bad piece, I really don’t. I don’t want to let down the side—by which I mean I don’t want to let myself down. I recognize this feeling among ballplayers because the great motivating factor for every major-league athlete, anybody who’s been an athlete for a long time, is that you don’t want to look bad out there. People say players today are out there thinking about money, but the truth is, they want to do well. That’s why they’re there. There’s another connection between sports and writing—all writers want to do well. It’s one of the reasons why it’s so damned hard.
WOE: I remember your quoting one player who asked his teammates, “Please tell me when I need to retire.”
ANGELL: I think that was Bob Boone. Actually he’d said it the other way around. He was still playing and he was forty-three years old. He’d played more games than any other catcher. And now that Carlton Fisk has been injured all this year it looks as if he’ll keep that record. I was a friend of Bob Boone’s and I asked him once, “How do you keep going?” He said, “I never think about my age. Never. If I go into a slump, I don’t ask myself ‘Is this because I’m old?’” Because it’s tough enough without that. And then he said, “They’ll tell me when I’m too old to play. They’ll come take the uniform away and say, ‘You can’t play any more.’ I’m not going to tell myself that.”
WOE: When you go to do a piece on, say, Class A baseball, do you go with a specific purpose in mind? Do you know ahead of time what you want to get out of it? Or do you just go to watch the games and see what happens?
ANGELL: Well, I’m doing the piece on Class A baseball right now because Major League baseball is such a pain in the ass. We are burdened by front-office news and issues of money, with these squabbles with the commissioner—league rearrangements, expansion franchises, and all the rest of it—and it’s hard to remember what we came for, which is to watch baseball. I think all of us in the stands, not just writers but all of us, feel farther away from the game than we used to. It requires enormous effort to remember that we go to the park to have fun.
I don’t want to whine here, because I think I’ve become used to most of the terrific changes, the amazing changes in the game. They’re not amazing, they’re depressing. There have been significant changes in the apparatus of baseball since I began watching it. Diamond Vision is a huge change. Everything that happens out there is replayed up on that huge board. There is rock music between the innings and even during the innings sometimes. There is organized cheering in some ballparks. The Nipponization of sports is beginning to take hold here. And of course we’re all distracted by the publicity, the fame, and we don’t really identify with those players now. With all the blather and noise and distraction of big-time sports—which is very much the same sort of stuff that’s going on in America itself—it’s hard to remember why we were drawn to this in the first place.
I went back to Class A ball and up to Oneonta because I’d heard that this was a delightful small ballpark, with a president-owner who had been there for almost thirty years now. It’s a Yankee franchise. It’s short season Class A league, where the teams are made up of players just out of college. They’re new draftees. I watched them play a Red Sox team and then a Houston team and then I went over to Pittsfield and watched them play a Mets team. It’s nice. It’s small town baseball, the trees are very close, you’re within five yards of first base, you can smell the grass, the kids are young, and the stands are full of parents and babies. It’s the way spring training used to be. It’s a lot of fun and that’s all I’m going to try to say in the piece. I don’t have anything more to say than that.
WOE: What about revising pieces? When you get to the point where it’s “done,” do you give it to somebody else to look at?
ANGELL: I don’t do a lot of revising. I work at a typewriter. Writer friends keep telling me I should move to a word processor. Every interviewer comes in here, particularly younger ones, and sees this old Olympia, and the first thing they write in their notes is “Still writes on funky upright typewriter.” I don’t do a lot of drafts. I don’t rewrite big sections. I do the editing while I’m writing. I might rewrite a page or so. I write and I “x” out, I write and I “x” out some more. When I’m done, what I have is a great untidy stack of manuscript, a lot of which is held together with Scotch tape. But by the time I’m done, it’s pretty well the way it’s going to be. I sometimes might go back and add something—a thought, or a little theme, a couple of extra pages that I didn’t have the first time. And sometimes I’ll take out something that’s repetitious. But by the time I’ve gone through the process, it’s about ready to go to type.
I also have an editor here whom I rely on to tell me when I’ve been foolish or repetitious or boring, and I count on that. All New Yorker writers do that. The mark of a professional, or a veteran anyway, is that you know you’re going to make mistakes. You need somebody there to tell you that. My editor is now Chip McGrath, who is the managing editor here. My editor before that was Gardner Botsford, who is now retired. These are terrific editors. Gardner would sometimes cut a few lines and I wouldn’t even notice it. Reading the galleys I’d say, “Didn’t I have something else in here?” He’d be very pleased when I finally realized it, because he’d been so deft that there was no scar left.
WOE: That need for outside help is hard to get across to students when we’re teaching them writing.
ANGELL: Absolutely. A lot of my work as an editor involves young writers, and new writers tend to feel that the way they wrote it is the way it’s meant to be. Once you see your stuff in type you think you wrote every one of those words without crossing out a line. It’s an illusion that we all have, to some extent. And the truth of the matter is that any piece of writing is just the last proof; it’s the one we had to let go of because the deadline is here.
This [indicating a sheaf of pages on his desk] is a page proof of a new John Updike story. It’s very short, just five pages. These are some corrections from our copy desk, some suggestions on grammar and usage, whatever. But we’ve already sent him the author’s proof, which had a lot more on it—factual queries from the “checking department, little things he might want to consider. All that’s gone off to him and he has answered them, and his corrections are in this page proof. I’ve sent up the page proofs already by overnight mail. I’ll talk to him tomorrow morning and we’ll go over these possible fixes. He will answer those questions, and meantime he will have some changes of his own. He rewrites on the author’s proof, but he also rewrites on page proof. He may have four or five sentences he’ll want to handle differently—rephrasing, new sentences—and sometimes he’ll ask me “What do you think? Is this better than that?” He’s open to my opinion because that’s what I’m here for. I’m not trying to rewrite John Updike, but to say “Why don’t you try it this way?”
WOE: And you find veteran writers more receptive to this?
ANGELL: Sure. And some very well known writers require quite a lot of editing. I don’t think it makes them lesser writers; it’s just what they are. Then there are some writers who are famously clean and write finished copy from the beginning. Updike is like that. With Donald Barthelme, you hardly had to do anything, but he still counted on me as an editor. I remember he said once, “I count on you to get the hay out.” And I count on my editors in turn when I’m writing.
WOE: I get the impression when reading your pieces that you are working on several ideas at once, some that you may not use until later. For example, the piece on catchers. You worked on it the season before but didn’t really get around to writing it until later. Do you consciously have several projects going on in your mind at once?
ANGELL: I wish I had more things going on. But, sure, the catching piece contained a lot of material and I wanted more time to get around and talk to more people. I don’t always have all that much time to get away from my desk and go out reporting. I wrote that piece in the winter. I started in spring training the previous year and finished writing it in the winter.
Right now I’ve got some notes on coaching from my spring-training travels that I haven’t used yet. I’m not sure there’s enough there, or that I understand enough yet.
WOE: You frequently mention the linearity of baseball in your pieces.
ANGELL: Well, watching a ball game is something like reading. Something happens and then something else happens, and something else happens after that. As I said before, you can go back in your mind and see which events or characters mattered during those early boring but necessary chapters. You have to pay attention because you don’t know what kind of a book or what kind of a game it’s going to turn out to be. You won’t know until you get on toward the end. Sometimes the whole thing goes flat. Sometimes it’s promising and then disappointing. Sometimes there are continuous themes, sometimes there are sudden changes. Now and then you realize that you’re reading a classic.
WOE: I’m curious as to how you envision your audience. How do you think about your reader?
ANGELL: I don’t have anybody in particular in mind. The person is probably me or somebody like me. I know a lot about my readers because I get mail from them right through the year. I think this is because baseball means a lot to people and perhaps also because I write about myself in my baseball pieces. One of the great privileges for me is that I’ve been able to say “I” a lot. I can cut directly to things I feel strongly about. Since I write personally, and since baseball seems to mean a lot to real fans, then they feel I’m writing to them and they write back. They write me not just about baseball, but about their lives. Floods of mail, or what seems like floods. I’m always behind. This winter, I wrote a piece about my baseball beginnings as a boy fan, and I’ve had well over two hundred letters, maybe three hundred letters, from people writing about their own baseball beginnings. And they’re not all old geezers like me. Whatever their age, they all seem to remember going with their father to the park for the first time, and when they first saw this team or that player.
We write because we want a response. Writing is a lonely occupation, but I think all writers are writing to somebody. As long as you remember that, you’re not going to go too far astray. You can’t write and then put it away. That’s what Salinger has been doing all these years, and it’s a shame, because I can’t believe that it’s going to be any good. He has had his own reasons, to be sure.
When you’re writing, you have to think about the person who’s going to be reading this, every moment. This is what I say to young writers I deal with. What will the reader think? What will the reader think? We are doing this very complicated thing in concert with the person who is going to read this. You have signed an invisible compact that promises that you are not going to let this guy down. You’re not going to play tricks on him, you are not going to lead him up this way and then turn on him and do something else.
Whenever I get the feeling that I’m writing well, it’s because in some way I can intuit or imagine what a reader is thinking. I think this must be true for most writers. It certainly is for me. You can set up things that are going to work later on in a piece. You prepare a reader almost unconsciously, and then something happens later on that connects with that earlier passage. The reader is pleased or saddened or whatever, sometimes not quite knowing why, butyou know why. This is the part of writing that is deeply pleasing if you can do it right. It’s another reason why it’s so hard. It’s never just you and the page. It’s you and the page and the person who is going to consume this object at the other end.
WOE: That idea of preparing the reader reminds me of your piece on Dan Quisenberry. Reading that, I feel he’s such an artist and such an interesting person. Then toward the end, you talk about how his pitching starts to fall apart, and his bewilderment about what went wrong is very sad.
ANGELL: Sure. And there’s another example of difficulty. This is another connection between baseball and writing. They are both intensely difficult. They look easy, but they’re hard.
WOE: Let me ask you about your style. It’s a very literate style. As I read through Season Ticket, I picked out just a couple of the many metaphors or allusions you made: a piece on the Detroit ball club of 1984 is called “Tiger, Tiger”; two women behind you in the stands are a Euripidean chorus; a particular player’s stance is like limeflower tea to your memory. These are things that the average reader of a newspaper sports section is not going to latch onto at all.
ANGELL: I hope I don’t do this in an affected way. I worry about this because I don’t want to use references that my readers are unable to follow. I think in The New Yorker you find an audience that is ready for this sort of thing. The references are ones that come readily to my mind while I’m writing, and if they’re literary, it’s because I’ve read a lot. But I also have a lot of very commonplace figures, a lot of jokes, slang, movie references, because this is also what I am. I’m an informal sort of a guy.
WOE: Is there any precedent for that kind of writing in sports? Where did it come from? Is it natural for you?
ANGELL: I think it’s natural for me. There are people in sports who have written this way. A great model for me was Red Smith, who was a model for almost every sportswriter. The great thing about Red Smith was that he sounded like himself. His attitude about sports was always clear. He felt himself enormously lucky to be there in the pressbox. He was not in favor of glorifying the players too much—Godding up the players, in Stanley Woodward’s phrase. But he was Red Smith in every line. You knew what he had read and what his influences were.
I don’t try to be a literate sportswriter; I try to be myself. It’s as simple as that. Everybody’s got to find what their voice is. You’ve got to end up sounding like yourself if you’re going to write in a way that’s going to reward you when you’re done. If you end up sounding like somebody else, you’re not going to be any good. You won’t get anywhere. Readers are smart. They will pick up whether the tone is genuine or not. Tone is the ultimate thing writers have to think about. You could write on a given subject—a ball game or a national crisis or a family crisis—in twenty or thirty different ways. You only have to pick what you want people to make of this.
Sometimes when you’re writing, you find that your own feelings are quite different from what you thought they would be, and then you have to go with that. Sometimes there are complex things happening that you have to go along with. I wrote a piece which meant a lot to me, called “In the Country,” about a semi-pro ball player and his girlfriend, Ron Goble and Linda Kittle. He was playing semi-pro ball, she was a would-be poet, and they were living together. Baseball meant a lot to them. They took me into their lives and basically told me everything about themselves—an amazing thing to do. I went up to Vermont to write about baseball and ended up writing about them. I was very moved, because they trusted me. They said, “We’ve given you our lives.” A lot of emotion went into that piece that I didn’t really anticipate when I first went out to do it.
WOE: That was a wonderful piece—very respectful of their feelings, their ups and downs.
ANGELL: You have to respect your subject. If you’re writing about professional athletes, respect is a crucial ingredient. You can’t patronize these guys. There are many ballplayers who are less educated than the people writing about them. Many of them find it difficult to talk and it’s a big problem. If you put down exactly what they say—particularly Hispanic ballplayers—it sounds as if you’re patronizing. If their English isn’t good, you have to be very selective and suggest in a minimal sort of way that some of this is being delivered in an accent. But underneath this, you can’t laugh at these guys. You know that sometimes ballplayers can be laughable when they are talking about what they’ve done, or maybe just pretentious, too full of themselves. If you want to say they are too full of themselves, you have to say it, you can’t suggest it. I remember a couple of times I had what I thought was first-class stuff about a player, or a lively anecdote, but I didn’t use it because I couldn’t get it right. I couldn’t write it without sounding as if I were inviting the audience to feel superior.
Sometimes I don’t mind. If it was Reggie Jackson, I did sometimes try to suggest that he’s full of himself. But in the next minute, he would astound you with a line or an idea. He was always very aware of what he was doing, talking to writers. He was trying to use me and I was trying to use him. Every writer had that experience with Reggie.
WOE: Are there recurring themes in baseball you tend to come back to?
ANGELL: Difficulty is one. And heartbreak is an innate part of the game. Aging is very much a part of it, because if there’s any subtext to sports that really holds up over a long period of time it is that in a rather short span of years, you can watch an athlete go through a lifetime, so to speak. You watch him be born as a rookie, come to young manhood, and then to middle age; you see him begin to slow down, begin to worry, try to remember what it was he used to do so easily and effortlessly, and then fade away and die, in effect, all in the space of ten years. Even kids sense that. I remember seeing DiMaggio slow down. I was in my twenties then and I’d picked up on him when I was twelve years old. This is sad stuff. The last few seasons of Willie Mays were heartbreaking. You didn’t want it to happen.
WOE: I felt the same about Mickey Mantle.
ANGELL: I try never to go to Old-Timers games. They say, “Come back and see these wonderful guys.” I don’t want to see these wonderful guys. It’s hard enough for the rest of us to get old. I can look in a mirror, but what’s the fun of that? I want to remember these guys and what they looked like when they were at their best.
I try to stay away from the deeper meanings in sports. If they’re there, they’ll come through. You sense what they are. Sports are about us as a species. We want to see how people respond under conditions of enormous stress, however artificially prepared. We want to see how they perform when they fail and we want to see how they perform when they succeed. Then we want to see them go and do it again. That’s what makes you a pro. Some pitcher said years ago, “That’s the difference. People say to you, ‘You were great today, now go out and be great again tomorrow.”‘ That’s what separates us from them.
WOE: I have the impression that your writing has become more personal and contemplative about sports over the years, more about baseball the game than about the individual games that you’ve gone to see.
ANGELL: I guess so. It’s not a plan. I’m the age that I am and I have a different outlook on this than I did in my forties. People at my age become more contemplative. If it makes you any wiser, I don’t know. It’s a natural stage of things.
Your memory of things in the distant past becomes remarkably sharp. You remember things from thirty years ago, forty years ago with little effort, sometimes more clearly than what happened last week.
I want to keep fresh. I think if I become too distanced from baseball or too much seeing the larger picture, it’ll be time to stop, because this is a game played by young men. It’s very hard for me to talk to ballplayers now, because when they start calling you “Sir” you’re in big trouble as a reporter. They’re terrifically young. It’s harder for all baseball writers now because access is very difficult; they don’t want to talk to you. They make so much money and they see themselves as public figures, as television stars, once they’re on their way. The players don’t talk about baseball as much as they used to. The last great daily talker about baseball was Keith Hernandez, who played wonderful first base for the Mets—the best defensive first baseman I ever saw. When the game was over he’d sit down and have a couple of beers and several cigarettes and talk about the game with all comers. It was great stuff. There was always a crowd of writers around him, finding out what really happened. There aren’t many players like that around now.
Very few players think about the fans. They glance up there, and once in a while you will hear them say that the fans have been great, “the tenth player,” but that’s all by rote. The only player who surprised me about this was Willie McCovey, in San Francisco in the early seventies, when the Giants in mid-September were suddenly in first place or close to it. They had just lost a couple in a row and eventually they dropped back to third place, but ten days before the end of the season, they had a real shot. I was talking with McCovey and he understood how rare this chance was because he’d played in the World Series, in ’62, but not since then. He knew how rare it was for a player. I said, “Willie, the fans here are dying. Do you ever think about this? They’re really suffering.” And he looked up in the stands and said, “Yes, I know. When you step up to bat, you’re all they’ve got. If you fail, they fail.” Of all the players I’ve talked to, he’s the only person who saw that connection.
WOE: How has television affected the way fans see the game?
ANGELL: TV has made us all much more expert as fans. We know these games much better than we did, because we’ve seen so many of them. But this is an enormous subject. The biggest change in America in my lifetime has been television. I just went to my fiftieth reunion at Harvard, where I was on a panel discussing journalism and our times, or something like that. Tom Winship, the former editor of the Boston Globe, called me up a few weeks before and asked, “What are we going to talk about? What’s the biggest change in our life?” I said, “Television,” and he agreed. So we talked about television. It was gloomy stuff.
Television has totally altered the nature of sports. It’s made it a permanent all-star attraction. It’s all about winning, it’s nothing about losing—losing is pushed away. And more and more about money, of course. What it’s done to amateur sports is disastrous. Most college sports are corrupt now, and we know it. We have these mercenaries we pay to see, in many cases at very high prices to their lives. We watch these young men play basketball in the Final Four during the last couple of weeks of the basketball season and we know that very few of them are students. We know it, but we don’t remind ourselves, because if we did we’d be ashamed to be paying attention. Basketball is now seen as the quickest way out of the inner city for young blacks, which is heartbreaking because so few of them are going to make it. The money distorts everything.
WOE: What sort of advice would you give someone who wanted to go into sports writing? How would they would get into it and how would they learn the craft?
ANGELL: I think the usual way is to model ourselves on somebody in the field. If you’re young, you do this naturally There’s nothing wrong with this. I once heard Borges say that when he was young, he could write Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson better than they could. He told me, “I finally got over that, but it got me going.”
But I’m not sure I would encourage people to go into sports writing right now. Television has taken over so much of the reporting. That’s where the action is. It’s not as if you can’t get good sports writing jobs if you’re talented, but it’s a more limited profession than it used to be, or more challenging. The basic level of sports writing is higher than it was when I started. Writers are better educated; there are more smart, thoughtful, enterprising writers. With the structure of modern sport, you have to be more energetic to go out and do a good reporting job every day. I admire beat writers. It’s a difficult job to travel with a team every day, to really say what’s going on, and to report on the tone of the team, as well as to say who won or lost, and not to get jaded or begin to dislike the players. You have to be critical and also to be able to get along with the players so that you can get them to talk to you. It’s tough.
WOE: Especially if you’ve just written something unfavorable about the team.
ANGELL: Absolutely. But if you’re going to go into writing at any point, it always looks as if there’s too much talent around. The odds are always hopelessly loaded against you. But that’s true in most professions. You think, “I could never succeed in that.” Maybe you won’t, but you’ve got to try. If you want to do it, you will try. The figures are never as bad as they look, because a lot of the competition will turn out not to have much talent or won’t stick with it. If you’re going to do it, do it. But as I’ve been saying right along, writing is hard.
Early one morning in March, Caitlin Morrissey showed me around the blindingly lit white range. She is 21, built strong with long blonde hair and blue eyes. She is pretty and perfectly made-up. “My ritual,” she said. “Shower, hair, make-up every morning. I’m very organized.” There is no artifice about her. She looked directly at me when she spoke. It was disconcerting. She stood at her locker, painstakingly putting on her uniform: shoes, a sling for her left arm, her gloves. “Everything’s so our muscles will not be used,” she said. She walked penguin-style to the firing line. She put on her granny glasses with blinders, and a third blinder over her left eye. “I don’t like to shut my left eye,” Caitlin said. “The exertion causes face fatigue. I took out my contacts too, so they won’t move around.” A lot of shooters wear glasses. Exceptional vision is overrated in shooting, they claim.She stood at the firing line, her body sideways to the distant target. She assumed a model’s slouchy pose, legs spread, loose-hipped, her left hip cocked higher than her right. She turned her head and shoulders toward the target, aimed her rifle, her left hand under the barrel, cradling the rifle very gently, her left elbow propped against her left hip for support.
“Girls are better shooters than boys ‘cause we have hips,” Caitlin said. No smile, a fact. She pressed her cheek against her rifle, whispered something to it, and aimed. She exhaled, her body relaxed, got still. She held this pose for a few minutes, and then put her finger on the delicate trigger. It takes 1½ ounces of pressure to depress that trigger. Most firearms require 5 – 12 pounds of pressure. Caitlin stopped breathing, “ping”, took a breath and said, “9.8. Anything less than 10.0 is a failure. I haven’t settled into my position yet.” She aimed again. Two, three minutes went by, and then she fired. “A 10.6,” she said. “10.9 is perfect. See? My body’s settling in.” She aimed again, “ping” and a 9.8. “I could feel it was a 9 when I broke the shot. I wasn’t smooth pulling the trigger; I jerked it,” she said. She shot again (10.4), again, (10.6) again (10.8). I asked Caitlin if shooting a 10.9 was thrilling. She lowered her rifle and looked at me. “I wouldn’t call it thrilling,” she said. ”Rewarding maybe.”
…As a young girl in Topeka she played all the sports against boys. When she was 7 years old, her father took her to a shooting club. By 9, she was beating all the boys. That was her main motivation, she said, but that didn’t last. Beating boys was no big deal. Beating girls, however, was something else. At first, boys were fascinated by the girl with the gun. By the eighth grade that was just her persona. That was when she learned that Margaret Murdock lived nearby. She went to visit her and wrote a story about the woman who’d won an Olympic gold medal in rifle shooting, and then had it taken away in favor of a man. Caitlin called her essay, a mini-book, really, “The Life of a Champion”, author: Caitlin Morrissey, Copyright: 2003, Publisher: Morrissey Publishing.
Maybe that’s still in the back of her mind, she said, because, “It’s still fun to beat boys. It’s an accepted fact that girls are better. Girls know how to calm themselves down, relax, focus on one thing. Boys get distracted. They don’t have our attention span. When we find something we like, we latch on to it. Ninety percent of shooting is mental toughness. We calm ourselves down after a bad shot, and not relax too much after a good shot.” She said that what gratifies her most about shooting is that it taught her how to calm herself in life. “It’s a monotonous sport,” she said. “You have to be self-motivating. You’re in the practice range for three hours every day. Your body is locked in a cramped position. Boys build muscle for movement. Girls build muscle for stability. We do neck and trapezius work” because that’s where all a shooter’s tension is. “What do I do to relax?” she said, smiling for the first time. “I go shopping. Or organize things, like our graduation party.”
Caitlin’s boyfriend is a hunter. “I could never be with a guy who didn’t like guns,” she said. “I’ve never hunted, but I might one day. I don’t have a Bambi Complex. But I don’t like to point my gun at anything I don’t intend to shoot. It’s a tool, like a baseball bat, never a weapon. I could never be a sniper. You should talk to Jaime. She’s a hunter. She’s in ROTC. She could be a sniper.”
(Originally published in the October 1982 issue of Inside Sports.)
The game is over and the baseball player sits in the hotel lobby, his eyes fixed on nothing. He thinks his secret is safe but he is never quite sure, so at midnight in the lobby it is always best to avoid the other eyes. He neither hears the jokes nor notices that a few teammates are starting to wear towels around their waists in the locker room. He does not want to hear or see or know, and neither do they.
The baseball player waits until the lobby empties of teammates and coaches. Some are in the bar, some out on the town, some in their rooms. Some, of course, have found women. He walks briskly out the door toward the taxicab, never turning his head to look back. He mutters an address to the driver and has one foot in the cab. …
“Hey, where you going, man? You said you were staying in tonight.”
The baseball player feels his lie running up the back of his neck. “Changed my mind.”
“Can I come with you? I got nothing going tonight.”
The baseball player pauses. “You don’t want to go where I’m going,” he says at last. He is leaving a crack there, in case this teammate knows the secret and really would like to go with him.
“Okay—have it your way.”
The baseball player is in the back seat, the door slams, his heart slams, the cab is pulling away. Fifteen minutes later it stops a block from the place the passenger actually intends to go. He pays the driver. Did the driver look at him sort of funny?
The baseball player steps out and walks back a block, his face turned 90 degrees to his left shoulder, away from the traffic, just in case. What if he meets someone he knows there tonight? There was the ballplayer’s brother the one night and the son of.a major league manager another. Man, they have to know, don’t they? And if he is recognized tonight, should he pretend he is someone else?
Suddenly he is pulling open the door and the men inside smile and the music swallows him and for a few hours in the bar the baseball player does not feel so alone.
At age 22, Glenn Burke was a sexual blank. He grew up attending church six times a week. singing in two choirs and serving as an usher. He bathed two or three times a day and still he never felt clean. He grew up with no father. He grew up with no sex.
He diverted the tension into sports, and there was the scent of animal energy in the way he ran a fastbreak, the way he circled the bases, the way he flogged a line drive. Once, he hit three home runs and two singles in one game, just two days after joining the Merritt College team in midseason. He was 5-11, 193 pounds, he could run 100 yards in 9.7 seconds and bench-press 350 pounds. UCLA and Nevada and Cal all wanted to get him on a basketball court; the Los Angeles Dodgers wanted him to play baseball.
He took the $5,000 Dodger signing bonus and after three seasons as an outfielder in the minors, his combined average was .303. Three times he led his league in stolen bases.
Still there was a need for more. When NCAA eligibility rules were relaxed, he agreed to play basketball at Nevada in the offseason. He averaged 16 points in six games and then twisted a knee spinning for a layup. The Dodgers said No More and Glenn Burke came home. The void was becoming difficult to ignore. At last, the lidded tension burst.
His younger sister told him that a high school teacher of his had asked how he was doing. Something inside him went click. The man had been one of Burke’s favorite teachers, so Burke went over to school to see him. He was feeling loose, open. Maybe it was the basketball thing coming to an end, suddenly seeing life as more than just sports.
“The minute he spoke, l knew. I know it sounds a little crazy. Here I was, 22, no sexual experience, nothing. Yet I felt something I’d never felt before, something deep. We went to his place. Funny, he must have known me better than I knew myself. We didn’t say much. He fixed dinner and afterwards we lay by the fire and got close. I stayed the night. When I got home the next day, I went into the bathroom and cried. This was who I was, the whole me at last.”
He was happy, and yet he felt he was sneaking. He felt guilty. He knew he never would be accepted in sports. In a profession in which every contest, every movement, every attitude seemed a reassertion of virility, Glenn Burke realized he was gay.
The most famous gay community in the world is a 75-cent bridge toll and a 20-minute freeway ride away from the streets of Oakland where Glenn Burke grew up. In his sexual naiveté, he had never known that. He had never known there were bars and entire neighborhoods for homosexuals.
A week after his first experience, he and some friends went to a straight bar in San Francisco. One of the friends pointed to a girl. “Look at that fox. ” he said. “Look at her boyfriend.” Burke thought. They went over to talk and asked if the couple knew a place where they could go dancing. “Try the Cabaret.” the girl said, “but watch out—gays go there, too.” A place for gays? Burke went there and couldn’t believe it.
It was a new world and he explored it enthusiastically. He walked Castro Street in San Francisco and felt pulled in two directions. Sports had taught him to keep the fists up and the soft side down and the pants tailor-made and the shirt silk and the walk a powerful strut. This new world was Levi’s, and Docksides shoes and Lacoste shirts and handkerchiefs. He wondered if he could be masculine and gay, a baseball player and gay, Glenn Burke and gay.
A few weeks later, he met a man in a bar and the next day he was hanging his clothes in the closet of his first live-in lover. A few more weeks passed and it was time for spring training, time to try to begin living the great untruth.
The trouble with going underground was Burke’s personality. He was the guy doing Richard Pryor imitations, the guy leading bench cheers, the guy fiddling with the music box and dancing in the locker room. After games, the guys all wanted to take the party from the locker room to the disco. Burke, the life of the team, started saying no. To explain why not, he had to tame the nervousness in his voice and the muscle formations of his face. These were difficult things for an extrovert to do.
Double A in Waterbury, Connecticut, 1975, was not a good place for a metamorphosis. His friends wanted to share an apartment with him and he groped for an appropriate reason to say no. He ended up rooming at the local YMCA, so they would stop asking. There was one gay bar, but a black man in a small New England town can feel the eyeballs everywhere he walks. He tried not to go, and went anyway. Sometimes in the bar he would be asked if he had been at the game that night. The team’s leading basestealer and home-run hitter would shake his head no. One night he glimpsed a member of the club’s front office at the bar. He walked past him and out the door and prayed the man would be too frightened to admit having been there to see him. On the long road trips, he could feel the wall of space he had created between himself and his friends.
He hit .270 and when the season ended, he headed back to San Francisco. “It was great being back, being myself,” he said. “Straight people cannot know what it’s like to feel one way and pretend to be another. To watch what you say, how you act, who you’re checking out. In San Francisco I opened up again. But I still wasn’t sure if I could be gay without being a sissy.”
In 1976 the Dodgers summoned him up to play the first and last months of the season. In between, he hit .300 with 63 stolen bases at Albuquerque, but in the major leagues he struggled with the curveball and batted .239 in 46 at-bats. The Dodgers still saw enough to congratulate themselves.
“Unlimited potential,” said second baseman Davey Lopes.
“Once we get him cooled down a little bit,” said the late Junior Gilliam, then Dodger coach, “frankly, we think he’s going to be another Willie Mays.”
The stakes were growing higher now. It was easier to lose himself in the big cities on major league road trips, but in Los Angeles he was becoming a face on sports pages and a name on the radio. He wanted success, yet he feared it. Half of him wanted to hit .300 and become a superstar and a commodity and then if the secret leaked maybe he could tell them all to go to hell, and half of him said maybe a nice, inconspicuous number like .250 would be better because then he could guard his privacy and they might not find out at all.
He met Dave Kopay, the former 49er and Redskin running back whose book on his homosexuality had become a bestseller. The two compared anguish. “He was very nervous about who and what he was,” remembers Kopay. “I had compensated for my gayness by going from a player who did not like contact in college to being a super-aggressive player in the pros, as a disguise. It’s common among gay athletes, overcompensating for one’s sexuality. Glenn might have been doing the same thing, but it doesn’t work in baseball. There, you have to be relaxed, not overaggressive. I couldn’t really advise him, except to tell him to follow his instincts.
“There is really no one to talk to in sports when you are gay. Who can you really trust? There are so many insecurities, it’s tragic. Almost all of them that I know in sports are married and have deep problems. Many of them are heavily into alcohol and drugs.”
Burke played on, refusing the ruse of an occasional girlfriend. He caught hepatitis playing winter ball in Mexico and missed most of spring training in 1977. The Dodgers sent him to Albuquerque to open the season and he hit .309. He learned that the Dodgers were recalling him, and that night in his last Albuquerque game, with two outs, runners on first and third with a one-run lead in the ninth inning, he backpedaled to the warning track for a fly ball, switched his glove from his left hand to his right—and squeezed the last out. If there was a metaphor there, the manager was in no mood to admire it. Jim Williams waited for him on the dugout steps, glaring. “If you ever do that again …”
“I’m leaving, skip,” chirped Burke. “Now you’ll have something to talk about when I’m gone.”
He was irrepressible. He bought his first car and celebrated by having his astrological sign, Scorpio, tattooed on his forearm. Within a few months he was stomping into Tommy Lasorda’s office, amidst the Hollywood stars who gathered there before games, fixing himself a sandwich from the deli tray and shouting, “Hi, Tommy!” He was not a model bench-sitter. He prowled the dugout with a caged hyperactivity, and when a teammate belted a home run he would tweak Lasorda by butting in front of him to be first to hug the returning hero. He would walk back to the dugout imitating Lasorda’s big-bellied, bowlegged gait and his teammates would howl.
One day in 1977, a teammate homered and in the heat of his enthusiasm Burke extended his arm and invented a sports ritual. He delivered the first high-five. “Most people think I started it,” said leftfielder Dusty Baker. “But it wasn’t me. I saw Glenn doing it first, and then I started.”
On a team preoccupied with presenting the clean-shaven, Dodger-blue front, the street kid from Oakland became one of the behind-the-scenes catalysts. “He always had the music blasting and was saying something silly to keep the team laughing,” said Baker. “He’d be playing cards and all of a sudden you would hear this loud voice scream, ‘Rack ‘em, Hoss, the poor boy’s just lost!’ and then there’d be that crazy laugh of his again.”
Burke made them laugh and he made them squirm. In an argument he would swing first and negotiate later. A fastball in a teammate’s ear would bring him out of the dugout first. Everybody wanted to keep “Burkey” giggling because when his eyes clouded you could suddenly sense the violence. He wanted that machismo right out there on his skin; it made him feel safer.
“I was like Lou Ferrigno, who kept wanting to get bigger and badder than anybody because he had a speech impediment,” Burke said. “I had 17-inch biceps and I made sure everybody knew I wasn’t afraid to use them. I wanted to establish that if you found out I was gay, you might not want to start hassling me about it, because I could still kick your ass.”
The Dodgers. meanwhile, were in a pennant chase and the double life was becoming more difficult to lead. He was handsome and personable and there was a glut of girls who wanted to walk into a disco next to him. Some nights they grew so insistent he would tell the switchboard operator to reject all calls to his room. He’d go out with girls occasionally, but it would never involve sex. He didn’t want to mislead them.
His teammates noticed. In baseball, even married men can be made to feel isolated if they do not join the woman-hunt on the road. “There is a tendency,” said A’s pitcher Matt Keough, “to achieve the success off the field that you are not achieving on it.”
“I had a really cute cousin that I tried to set up with Glenn,” Baker said. “He just ignored her. He’d say, ‘Too fat, too ugly.’ I’d say, ‘Wait a minute. I know that one ain’t ugly.’”
Without Burke realizing it, word began to seep. “I was eating at a restaurant when someone told me,” remembered Lopes, then a teammate on the Dodgers. “I think some girl from his neighborhood in Oakland had told someone on the team. My fork dropped out of my mouth. He was one of the last guys you would have thought was gay. I still liked him. I don’t know how other ballplayers feel, but I believe a man has a right to choose any lifestyle as long as it doesn’t infringe on others. It never infringed with Glenn.”
“The guys didn’t want to believe it,” Baker said. “He was built like King Kong. There was no femininity in his voice or his walk. But it all made sense when I thought about it. When we’d go on the road he always went to the YMCA to work out. And he’d never let us take him home. He’d say he had a friend coming later to pick him up and he’d wait at the far end of the parking lot.
“I just made the situation invisible, but some guys began to make jokes. Stuff like, ‘Is Glenn waiting in the parking lot for his girlfriend?’ and ‘Don’t bend over in the shower when he’s around.’ I know a couple of guys felt uncomfortable in the shower. A few wore towels on their way back and forth in the locker room.
“If you had a team made up of guys from California and New York, I don’t think it would bother them as much as guys from the country and small towns. I’m from California and I can get along with priests, prostitutes, pimps and pushers, as long as they don’t try to push nothing on me.”
Burke didn’t push it, as much out of respect as fear of detection. “I was attracted occasionally by other players,” he said. “but didn’t mix business with pleasure. I respected their space. Besides, I always preferred more mature men.”
He was a simple man leading a complicated life. and slowly the strain began to break him. He kept one eye on the door when he went in gay bars. He worried about getting in a fight or getting caught drunk there. There were times he thought the front office had someone following him. He was afraid everybody was whispering about him.
He’d have to plan everything. He’d think, “If they see me leaving the hotel, I’ll say I was going to take a walk or to get something to eat.” He was always telling white lies.
Some days he’d sit in a mall and try to meet people, sometimes he would call a friend and ask him to check his directory on where the gay bars were in town. His mind was never clear. Some nights he’d come back to his room sad and smoke a little grass.
The high only interrupted the fears. The Dodgers did a lot of hugging and Burke always worried that they had found out about him and would think he was making a pass. He worried constantly about being blackmailed. The only reason he wasn’t, he believed, was that he had gay friends who warned anybody who started to talk too much. He saw a palm reader and she said that he had something inside him that he should let out, or he might have a heart attack in two or three years.
He couldn’t sort it all out. “I couldn’t understand why people said gays were sick. I wasn’t some dizzy queen out trying to make everybody all the time. The bottom line was, I was a man.”
There were the good memories mixed with the miseries. There was the night Baker became the fourth Dodger to hit 30 home runs in one season, a major league record, and Burke, the on-deck batter met him at the plate with a walloping high-five as the people stood and roared, and then before they even had a chance to sit Burke was driving another white speck into the blackness and the festival in the stands went on and on.
He finished the 1977 season hitting .254 in 169 at-bats, the Dodgers made the World Series and his face was on TV screens across the country. He went 1-for-5 in the three game he played packed after the Yankees had won and headed back for Castro Street. He walked into a gay bar the first night there and was greeted by a party celebrating his World Series appearance.
“I walked out,” Burke said. “They weren’t my friends there, they were mostly people just making a big deal because I was a gay baseball player.”
His insecurity ran rampant. In one world he feared they would not like him only because he was gay, and in the other he feared they did like him only because he was gay. For the first time since he had picked up a baseball bat, Glenn Burke considered quitting.
“By 1978,” said Davey Lopes, “I think everybody knew.”
They knew the way parents know their 16-year-old is drinking beer but don’t say anything until the bottles are rolling across the floor of the family car. As long as Burke’s homosexuality was not official, no one felt compelled to react.
“Then Al Campanis [Dodger vice-president] called me into his office ” Burke recalled. “I really liked Al, he was always very nice to me. The whole organization was, for the most part. But Al said. ‘Everybody on the team is married but you, Glenn. When players get married on the Dodgers, we help them out financially. We can help you so you can go out and have a real nice honeymoon.’
“l said, ‘Al, I don’t think I’ll be getting married no time soon.’”
The Dodgers, in the words of Junior Gilliam, could not “cool him down.” He burned for more playing time and when he did not get it, he did not keep it to himself. “They couldn’t con me,” he said. “Lasorda would bark an order and I was supposed to jump like some little kid, grateful for the attention. It bothered him too that I was popular with the guys on the team. Once he got ticked off at some laugh I’d gotten and he said, ‘Burke, if I was your age, I’d take you in the bathroom right now and kick your ass.’ At first I thought he was kidding, then I realized he wasn’t. I think he was trying to get me to explode.
“With one out in the ninth, he’d pull Rick Monday and trot me out to the outfield for the last two outs. I’d stand there waiting for the game to end. Then I’d trot back to the dugout where all the guys are supposed to tell you how great you played. Only I hadn’t, and I’d feel like a fool.
“One night I was really ticked and I stared a hole through Lasorda. He took me in the locker room and, in front of Junior Gilliam and Preston Gomez, cussed me to filth. Every other word in his vocabulary was ‘mother.’ It hurt. Deeply. I didn’t really dislike the man, it was just the situation. We probably should have gotten along—we’re both hardheaded.”
On May 16, 1978, with Glenn Burke in centerfield as the last out was recorded, Vin Scully announced that Burke had been traded to the Oakland A’s for Bill North. North had led the American League twice in stolen bases, the last time in 1976, and now he was 30 and his average had dropped 64 points in those two years.
“Lasorda told me, ‘We’re tired of you walking back and forth in the dugout like a mad tiger in a cage. We’re sending you to Oakland, where you can play more.’ He was nice about it but he was detached. It was as if they couldn’t wait for me to leave, but they were being careful so there wouldn’t be a scene. I walked out of his office and the whole locker room was dead. Steve Garvey and Don Sutton, two of my best friends on the team, had tears in their eyes. Garvey and me had always gotten along great. He taught me how to tie a tie, he gave me hats and T-shirts, he sat next to me on the team plane and he made me promise to play for him if he ever had a football team.
“Leaving those guys, I was in shock. Players don’t come and go on the Dodgers the way they do on other clubs.”
Lopes remembers picking up the newspaper the next day and reading a quote from a scout. “I believe it was an American League scout at the Angel game in Anaheim that night,” Lopes said. “The guy said, ‘Wait until the A’s find out what they really got in Glenn Burke.’”
The locker room was still silent the next day, and Lopes’ reaction was quoted in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. “I knew something was missing when I came in today. It will probably remain like this until somebody comes along with a personality like Glenn’s. And I don’t think that’s going to happen. I’ve heard a lot of adverse things about him from people, but they didn’t know him. He was the life of the team, on the bases, in the clubhouse, everywhere. All of us will miss him.”
One Dodger angrily went to the front office and demanded an explanation. Dusty Baker didn’t need to go that far. “I was talking with our trainer, Bill Buhler. I said, ‘Bill, why’d they trade Glenn? He was one of our top prospects. ‘ He said, ‘They don’t want any gays on the team.’ I said, ‘The organization knows?’ He said, ‘Everybody knows.”
Burke sprayed three hits the first night with the A’s, and then felt himself becoming absorbed by the damp misery of Charlie Finley’s last years in baseball. The Dodgers had not played him as much as he felt he deserved, but the organization had always gone first class. The A’s in the late 1970s were a dead thing looking for a box to lie still in. Finley was cutting expenses and players, lopping off fans with them. A man with peace of mind could play on. Glenn Burke could not. In the hush of a baseball stadium with 3,000 people, he could hear a voice urging him to leave and stop living a lie.
Four years of life as a sexual fugitive had passed and his self-esteem was fraying. By now his family had pieced the evidence together and guessed. They still accepted him, removing one weight from his mind, but the weight at the stadium showed no sign of relenting. One day he was playing centerfield in Comiskey Park, and a fan called him a faggot. His first thought was “Damn, if they know, everybody else must know.” They probably said it to lots of outfielders, but he didn’t think that then. He went to the dugout at the end of the inning and got a felt-tip pen from the trainer. Next inning he went back out and stuck a piece of paper in the back of his pants. It said, “Screw you.”
He finished the 1978 season hitting .235. Early in the 1979 season, he was sitting in the A’s clubhouse, chatting with outfielder Mitchell Page, a good friend. “Suddenly he got quiet,” Burke said. “He said this scout from Pittsburgh—he came up in the Pirate system. and they were interested in me—had come right out and asked him if I was bisexual. Bisexual. Me, who’d never been with a woman. They couldn’t say gay, I guess. It was tough on Mitchell, talking to me like this. I didn’t say much and he ended up telling the scout, ‘Glenn Burke’s sex life is Glenn Burke’s business. And if it’s any of your business, he’s my friend and I’d go anywhere with him.’
“But at that moment, when Mitchell told me, everything stopped. If some joker in Pittsburgh knew, so did a few others. I realized it had all come to an end. They’d stripped me of my inner-most thoughts.”
Page remembered it as a writer from Oakland who had asked him (Burke still insists it was a scout from Pittsburgh). “The guy told me the word was out,” Page said, “and that he didn’t know if Glenn would be here next season. I felt I should let Glenn know instead of talking behind his back like the other players were. The guys on the A’s never bothered him about it because of the way he handled it. Besides, they were afraid to say anything to his face.
“I liked Glenn, but if I’d seen him walking around making it obvious, I wouldn’t have had anything to do with him. I don’t want to be labeled and have my career damaged. You make sure you point out that I’m not gay, okay?”
“I roomed with him,” said A’s pitcher Mike Norris. “Sure, I was worried at first. You came back to your hotel room at midnight, sat around and listened to music, and you wondered if he’d make a move. After awhile you realized he wouldn’t, and it wasn’t a big problem. Guys would watch out for him but it wasn’t a completely uncomfortable feeling. If it had been out in the open, though, there would have been all kinds of problems. We’re all macho, we’re all men. Just make sure you put in there that I ain’t gay, man.”
The walls were beginning to close in. A gay friend, eager to advance the homosexual movement, kept insisting that Burke come out of the closet and tried to arrange a luncheon appointment with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. Burke refused to attend, but Caen wrote that there was a rumor out that a local professional ballplayer could be found on Castro Street.
Midway through the 1979 season, Finley learned that Burke was refusing to take a cortisone shot for a pinched neck nerve. “I feel an injury should heal on its own,” Burke said. “Once you take the first shot, you take another and another. Charlie came to talk to me on the field before a game. I said no. They sat me for two weeks. Finally, I told them I needed a voluntary retirement and walked out. The whole operation was minor league, with Finley calling the dugout making lineup changes. I probably wouldn’t have left if there hadn’t been the other problem, the gay thing, but put it all together and it was too much.”
It was not that simple to walk away. Baseball had often tortured him, but it still owned a part of him. He returned next spring, attracted by the idea of playing for new manager Billy Martin.
Burke ripped knee cartilage that spring and was sidelined a month. The A’s requested he return to the minor leagues, in Ogden, Utah, and Burke reluctantly agreed. To avoid the small-town stares, he drove 56 miles round-trip so he could live in Salt Lake City. He stopped now, and mulled the absurdity of his life. He was 27, getting no closer to the superstar role he knew he must have to declare his homosexuality and knowing that even if he did achieve it, he would likely be afraid to. He was still dodging management, lying to teammates, and now even ducking Mormons, too. Quietly, with the sports world focused on more important things, Glenn Burke quit baseball for good.
“I had finally gotten to the point,” he said, “where it was more important to be myself than a baseball player.”
Sunshine and shade share the seats in Dodger Stadium and the steady crack of batting practice echoes off the empty concrete. The game is still three hours away. Tommy Lasorda, chipper on this first evening back from the All-Star break, stands in foul territory watching his players re-tune their rhythm at the plate.
A visitor informs him that Glenn Burke is openly discussing his homosexuality. Lasorda’s eyes narrow. “He’s admitting it?” he says. “I have no comment.”
Did he know Burke was gay when he played here? Did it have a bearing on the trade? “I didn’t make that trade,” Lasorda says. “Go talk to the man who made it. I have no more comment.”
The man who made it is just arriving in his office from a trip to assess minor league talent in Hawaii. Al Campanis stands over his desk, looking down at the stack of message slips that has gathered during his absence. He is asked if everybody knew, as Lopes has said, and his eyes stay on his desk, until the length of the silence suggests he is waiting for the subject to crawl out of the room. It does not.
“Quote Davey Lopes then,” he says.
He is pressed on the subject. Long pause. “We traded him because of other situations,” he says. “We didn’t trade him for that. He wasn’t hitting enough, and things of that nature. We didn’t even know … ”
An organization as sharp as the Dodgers did not know? “We thought some things were odd,” he allows. “But we didn’t know. We never saw him with a girl, and when we called his home number a man usually answered. The man said he was his carpenter. But you hear a lot of rumors about players, and just because you see these things, that doesn’t mean a guy’s a fairy, or gay.
“We’re not a watchdog organization, and we’re not like an ostrich with our head in the sand. But he was not traded on suspicion. He was traded because we needed a lefthanded hitter in the outfield. One we thought would help us win the pennant. Glenn had problems with the curveball and his attitude was argumentative, but I always liked him. Sure, some people got mad about the trade; one player came to me all worked up, but were they right? Glenn didn’t do anything after he left here, did he?”
And what of the offer of financial help if Burke had married?
“That dates way back,” he says. “The Dodgers have traditionally liked our players to be married. The player has a wife, children, he gets more serious and settles down. We like our young men to have some responsibilities.”
He is reminded that Dodger rightfielder Pedro Guerrero was married in October, 1980, and received no bonus. Campanis bristles.
“A completely different situation,” he says. “Pedro had an agent, he was settled, he was like my son. We treat situations differently. You have to, in this position. The thing with Glenn Burke wasn’t a bribe. It was a helpful gesture. ”
The baseball player swings and meets the ball just beyond the sweet inches of the bat and still he sends the rightfielder staggering up the hill in front of the wire-mesh fence. The ball clears the fence and the baseball player circles the bases with a home plate-sized grin. All his teammates spring from the bench, forming a line to congratulate him.
A few months away from his 30th birthday, Glenn Burke is one of the stars of the Gay Softball League.
There are perhaps 50 people watching from wooden seats that cry for a carpenter. The atmosphere is carefree. A woman in her 50s lifts her blouse to reveal her “Pendulum Pirates” T-shirt and yells, “Take this!” The fans take it, without looking twice.
Burke goes 4-for-4 but bobbles a grounder in the third inning. Disgusted, he straddles the ball with both feet and jumps, launching it up to his hand. The opposing team’s fans taunt him good-naturedly. “Queeeeeen!” they shout in chorus.
Burke’s team, the Pirates, remains undefeated with a 16-4 victory over On The Mark. The Pirates gather in a huddle at the end and chant, “Two-four-six-eight, who do we appreciate’! On The Mark! On The Mark!” On The Mark reciprocates, and both teams stream to their cars for the postgame ritual. The first hour after the game is always spent at the sponsoring bar of the losing team and then all move on to the winner’s bar for the rest of the afternoon.
At Stables, the bar that sponsors On The Mark, Burke walks out to the sunshine of the patio, where there is enough quiet to reflect. “People say I should still be playing,” he says. “But I didn’t want to make other people uncomfortable, so I faded away. My teammates’ wives might have been threatened by a gay man in the locker room. I could have been a superstar but I was too worried about protecting everybody else from knowing. If I thought I could be accepted, I’d be there now. It is the first thing in my life I ever backed down from. No, I’m not disappointed in myself, I’m disappointed in the system. Your sex should be private, and I always kept it that way. Deep inside, I know the Dodgers traded me because I was gay.
“It’s harder to be a gay in sports than anywhere else, except maybe president. Baseball is probably the hardest sport of all. Every man in America wants his son to be a baseball player. The first thing every father buy for his son is a ball and glove. It’s all-American. Only a superstar could come out and admit he was gay and hope to stay around, and still the fans probably would call the stadium and say they weren’t going to bring their kids. Instead of understanding, they blackball you.
“Sure, there are other gays in baseball, the same per cent as there are in society. Word travels fast in baseball. Guys come home from road trips and tell their wives and they tell other players’ wives. As soon as a player comes to bat, you’ll hear a biography of him in the dugout. I’ve never heard anybody verbally get on a player from the bench about being gay, though.”
He does not want to name names. The relationships, he says, are never between two baseball players. That would be too dangerous.
“There are even more gays in football,” he says. “In football they are like a family, there is so much closeness down there in the trenches, and they can really get off on the body chemistry. But most of the gays I know of in sports fake it. They go out with girls and they get married, so their careers won’t get ruined. They suffer even more than I did.”
Glenn Burke still searches for himself. He plays in five softball leagues and has not worked regularly since leaving baseball. He hopes to finish his college education and become a high school basketball coach, and he hopes that speaking out on the issue will begin to chip at the barriers that marooned him between two cultures. He participates in BWMT (Black and White Men Together), a group fighting racial discrimination within the gay community. “I feel like a representative of the community,” he says. “If I can make friends honestly, it may be a step toward gays and straight people understanding each other. Maybe they’ll say, ‘He’s all right, there’s got to be a few more all right.’ Maybe it will begin to make it easier for other young gays to go into sports.”
As he talks, muscles move on both sides of his forehead, and one can sense that half of his energies still seethe in a person just beneath the skin. It may be a different half there now, but it is still a half.
“Sure, I miss baseball,” he says, “but I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s been a test and it has made me mentally stronger.”
It has created a hollowness and a happiness and an image that lingers, of Glenn Burke walking a gauntlet of high-fives after his home run over the wire-mesh fence and laughing that crazy laugh once again. There might have been more, there might have been cash and fame, but there is none of this now.
There is instead the legacy of two men’s hands touching, high above their heads.
At the time of this story’s publication, Michael J. Smith was the editor of BWMT Quarterly. Glenn Burke died in 1995 of complications from AIDS. He was 42.
[Featured Illustration: Bruce Hutchison for ESPN The Magazine]