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Category: Magazine Writers

The Banter Gold Standard: L.T. and the Home Team

John Ed Bradley played football at LSU and was a rising star at the Washington Post in the 1980’s before he left the newspaper business left to write novels. He’s written some fine ones too, including Tupelo Nights, Smoke, Restoration and My Juliet. He also wrote It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium, a wonderful memoir about playing ball at LSU.  In the meantime, he’s been a first-rate magazine writer, notably for Esquire and Sports Illustrated.

Here’s one of his best Esquire stories, first published in December 1985, and reprinted here with the author’s permission.


“L.T. and the Home Team”

By John Ed Bradley

Out one night last summer in Williamsburg, Virginia—a night that started warm and breezy but quickly turned as hot and rank as old meat—D’Fellas quit talking about local trim for a minute and somebody started on God. Eric Stone, gazing cow-eyed at a sky only half as big as his dreams started on God but soon let Pritchett figure it out. Pritchett was smart and he thought he could figure everything out. Even that outsize belly of his—brought on, everybody said, by the wife’s collard greens and smothered pork chops and whatever fruit pie happened to be in the cupboard—Pritchett liked to figure the extra girth was really only a stretch of “clogged tool,” and he told D’Fellas so. He patted his big gut and hiked up his britches and let his chin multiply into a fleshy mosaic.

“Preacher man,” Lawrence.Taylor had told Dylan Pritchett earlier in the day, “you’re fatter’n Fat Albert…. How much is it you been weighin’ these days?”

And Pritchett had said, “I’m tellin’ you it ain’t fat. It’s an extension of something else. Backed way up my belly…. I’m a gigolo, man.”

Now, at about 1:00 in the morning or a little after, Taylor was working a shaggy pinch of long-cut between cheek and gum, looking off in the direction of town. He started, “You’re just bogartin’ again, Pritchett, Preacher Pritchett runnin’ his head”—and saw it coming, growing way off in the distance, moving at a ridiculously happy clip. There was a single white eye in the head of the machine, a light more yellow, really, than white. Arid the sound was of wild unrest, of steel on steel, dark and real and terrible.

Cosmo, who sometimes went by the name of Glenn Carter, pulled his hand off his crotch, where he’d been working an itch, and pointed for everyone to see. He said, “A coal train, boys. Look at that damn thing.”

And someone else, probably L.T., who had returned home to see D’Fellas and spend one last night on the town before his fifth season with the New York Giants took him away for at least six months, said, “It’s magic, I’m telling you, fellas. It’s like every old thing that ever used to be.”

Besides the single white beacon from the engine, there was another wash of lights, this from D’Fellas’ party van parked in the middle of the dead-end road, and you saw how Taylor stood in it. Farm-boys big at six feet three and 250 pounds, the best player in football wore tight gray gym shorts that made his butt look like two great humps of meat grafted onto legs that can cover forty yards in 4.5 seconds. He wore a white straw hat with an olive-colored linen band, the brim tipped down low over the eyes, and his shirt was cut loose around the belly, giving him room to breathe.

“This is nice,” Taylor suddenly felt inclined to say. “I mean, this is really nice. All it was ever supposed to be.”

Then, with his eyes on nothing at all, down on the pea gravel at his feet: “So many things, mostly the good ones, D’Fellas were part of. It never goes away, either. That feeling, l mean, of being together again. You see that train, and you see all of us, standing here again. l’in telling you, it never goes away.”

L.T.—THERE HE WAS, SAME OLD BOY, running with the same old boys he had run with since second grade—had come home again. hardly seemed to matter that he’d moved way the hell up north and made something of himself, earning in the neighborhood of $1 million a year. He might take home about $85,000 a game, as one of his defensive mates once figured out on a pocket calculator, but after watching him break through a double-team block and dump a quarterback in a great, whining heap, or intercept a pass and take it down the pasture for a touchdown, it was never hard to understand why even his enemies said he was worth every damn penny.

During Taylor’s NFL career more than a couple of coaches have wondered aloud how someone playing on the buck-ass end of the defensive line can so dominate a game. As an outside linebacker, Taylor has been known to chase down running backs, fleeing in the opposite direction, like some hard dog after his own tail. He has put the fear of permanent disfigurement in all offensive people who look too good and smell too sweet, winking at them as he often does from across the line of scrimmage, seconds before the snap of the ball. They have called his game make-do and creative, mainly because he behaves as he pleases out there, sometimes forsaking the coach’s music he picked up in camp for the primal song that makes him go. Coming from the “weak” or “blind” side of the line, he often emerges on quarterbacks preparing to pass like some awful wave of terror. He seems to focus on a point two feet behind his target, blow right through what meat, bone, and heart stand in the way, and come out screaming on the other side.

“We don’t know the difference in L.T.,” Pritchett once professed. “We see a good tackle and it’s a good tackle. But whether he plays well or not, we’re there. We’re still his brothers, man. We’re blood, you know.”

Taylor, D’Fellas back home always said, never forgot where he came from, even though he kept a fancy place in a subdivision in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, a big two-story brick house with a lawn that was more garden than yard, and a gold Mercedes-Benz parked out front. He kept the house, his wife, Linda, said, but you could never keep him in it, not even during the off-season, when he liked to shoot hoops in the sun and play a little golf and take an occasional trip south to Williamsburg, in the southeastern heel of the state, to visit the boys.

There were only six of them in the whole world—D’Fellas—and each founding member owned a plaque proving it. Only three, Cosmo, Pritchett, and Stoney, still lived in the town where they grew up. The one Taylor seemed to miss and admire most, John (J.D.) Morning, managed a seafood place in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Eric (Doc) Pruden earned his living making Busch beer in Virginia Beach.

Earlier, driving around with no place in particular to go, somebody had said it felt as if every clock and calendar in the Virginia countryside had been turned over on its face, as if time no longer mattered. Having drunk more than a few bottle of beer at the Green Leafe Café near the campus of William and Mary, even L.T. owned up to finding himself overcome by a flood of lost time. So they had taken a craze of narrow back roads to a place on the edge of town, where a bridge made of creosoted railroad ties had once crossed a great divide and where a freight train still passed every few hours, whining like a pack of rabid wolf-hounds hot for the kill.

The old Mooretown Bridge, directly above, had barely been wide enough for two small cars to pass. D’Fellas had called it the Motown Bridge, because they had come time and again to lean against its rickety railings and sing the blues and talk about God. And about women and football Friday nights at Cooley Stadium and about what it meant to be young and alive and in no great hurry to grow up.

Now, on a rag-ass Sunday night that lent more moon than stars, Taylor stood behind the hurricane fence and heavy iron rail sealing off the short stretch of blacktop that had once led to the treacherous expanse of warped and buckling boards, and remembered the night the bridge burned. Stoney, who works at:the firehouse, had driven out with the water trucks and seen it engulfed in flames. Little orange chips of wood and ash had climbed in the night air, and no one but D’Fellas figured it was a bad thing. Too many people had died on the bridge or thereabouts. And Taylor, who rarely looked back on his days with D’Fellas except to laugh, saw this: the time an old drunk had tried to walk across the bridge with his eyes closed, nursing a bottle of cough syrup. The man had said he was Jesus Christ come down to save tile world. Then, not five minutes after announcing that he could walk on water, the man had lost his footing and fallen. He had fallen all the way down to the tracks and lain there in a silent, unmoving heap.

Taylor told the boys, “Crazy nigger thought he could walk on water. He couldn’t even walk straight.”

And who, L.T. said he wondered, could figure how many people had died trying·to negotiate the curve leading up to the bridge? Seemed like every Friday and Saturday night somebody missed the turn and drove clear into the void. L.T. once joked and said the Motown Bridge killed more poor colored folks than the Klan ever did. But there was good about it, too.

There was this to look back on: that one impossibly cold night when he and D’Fellas stood in the middle of the expanse, huddled against the snow that fell in hard, white sheets. The headlight of a train had appeared up ahead, moving in the direction of the pottery factory. As it drew near, you could see the dark chunks of coal in the open-top cars. dusted over with snow. There was a fabulous blue winter light that seemed to come from no particular source. Years later Stoney would pick a little fleck of something off the tip of his tongue and ask if anything on this earth had ever looked as pretty.

That night, the cold had made their lips feel useless and rubbery; their lungs burned, but they had sung their songs anyway, until about 6:00 in the morning. Taylor provided bass, deep as grubworms in a canna bed, and Stoney was static. He sounded like nails on a chalkboard, and everyone looked for Doc and J. D. to make pretty as choirboys at Sunday service. Sometimes Cosmo got so high, the boys said, he could do it better than a castrated man, but you tried not to hear Pritchett, who this night was moaning like a sick calf on the way to the sale barn. One blow, a pretty one that applied, went:

Gawnna leave all the crowds
Climb to the clouds
Anna look at life the way we use’a doo

Now Taylor wanted to know, “Who was it that pissed on the train as it went by that time it snowed so damn much?” But you could barely make out his voice over the thunder of the train down below.

“This is some serious memories,” Pritchett said. “Some serious memories. I used to ride my bike all around here. I remember how the bridge smelled. It ain’t the same. I’m used to feeling it under me.”

“Was it you that pissed?” Taylor asked no one in particular.

And Stoney started, “You can’t reach out and touch it anymore. There was only four or five feet between the bottom of the bridge and the top of the train cars. You could remember the feeling in your feet—that feeling that what you stood on wouldn’t be there very long and when it went, it would take you with it. And you went to bed at night feeling that feeling, wondering at it like some kind of mystery.”

Then Cosmo, half shouting atTaylor, let on, “I remember how you’d climb down to the tracks and say you were going to stop the train. We believed you could stop it, L.T. ‘That train ain’t nothin’,’ you’d say. And it would get pretty close before you jumped off the tracks. Then we’d all take turns, climbing down the rocks and standing on the tracks. ‘That train ain’t nothin’,’ you’d say. And Pritchett went, ‘Go on and stop it then, Cosmo.’ And I told him, ‘Who do you think I am? I ain’t no L.T.'”

“It might have been me that pissed,” Stoney said finally. “Hey, Taylor. I think it was me that pissed.”

Then Pritchett figured, “It wasn’t only you, man. It was all of us. It was Taylor, too. Shit, it was all D’Fellas. We did everything together.”

D’FELLAS ALWAYS caught L.T.’s games on television when the Giants went national, and the made it up north to New Jersey and the Meadowlands three or four times a year to watch their old friend perform in person, before great crowds that sometimes chanted, “Elllteee! Ellltee! Eltee!” when number 56 came up with a big hit. He always put D’Fellas up at home, in his house, and on Saturday nights before the games, when he had to turn in early, he gave Linda some money and the car keys and insisted she drive the gang to New York, where there were things to do.

The boys flew out to Hawaii for the 1985 Pro Bowl, and L.T., who had been a unanimous all-NFL selection since the Giants chose him first in the 1981 draft, put them up in individual hotel suites with king-size beds, living rooms, and private liquor cabinets. He took care of their expenses and introduced them to strangers on the beach as teammates. Even Stoney, who was built like a tired old catcher’s mitt, signed a round or two of autographs.

D’Fellas were proud of L.T.’s success and read countless reports saying he had emerged as the most dominant player in professional football, if not the very best, but they preferred to remember him as the wild-eyed boy who worked at the Dairy Queen in the summer when he was seventeen, eating all those free sundaes and Dilly Bars and going home to Iris, his beautiful, picture-book mama, and asking what’s for supper. He was just that way when he was growing up: eat anything. As a high school junior he stood only five feet ten and weighed 180 pounds. But coming into his senior year, he grew more than five inches in three months and grew mean in a way that would make him rich and famous and, arguably, the finest linebacker ever to play in the National Football League.

D’Fellas preferred to remember him the night they were going down Richmond Road in Pritchett’s car, Pritchett driving the limit if not a hair more. It was broad daylight when the good preacher man—who really wasn’t a preacher at all, but a supervisor of the black-history program at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation—ran head on into a pair of German shepherds copulating in the middle of the road. Both dogs, worked up, as they were, in primal heat, died on the spot. But what you remembered was Pritchett driving off as if nothing happened and thinking that Taylor, if provoked, could hit you just as hard. He’d take your damned head off, everybody said. He’d take your damned head off and spit in your neck. Then, if further provoked, he’d crawl down what was left of your throat and do a little tap dance on your tonsils.

While at the University of North Carolina, one of only two schools to recruit him out of high school, Taylor spent more than a few nights terrorizing frat boys. He liked to go downtown, into Chapel Hill, and pick fights with people who didn’t look right. He took to chewing tobacco and spitting a lot. He cut classes and hid out in the student union, shooting pool until he ran out of quarters or out of luck, whichever, came first. He once said, “I’m the kind of person who refuses to allow any damn good thing in life to pass me by.”

But during his junior year in college something changed him. The boys said it all started when he met Linda. She was so beautiful, you imagined her picture on some neon board above the city, wearing silk, wearing velvet, and holding a silver goblet to her lips. Looking the way she did, you imagined her drinking a mint julep and saying something like, “Goes down good,” to a world gone bad.

She asked Taylor, “Why do you keep pushing people around?” Then she called him a monster and a bully.

It was not hard to figure why the young man, then only twenty, became love-sick so bad. More than one night, he had sat alone in his dormitory room, waiting for the telephone to ring; the girl on the other end to speak his name. Hi there, baby. Something had changed him, all right. Something had tamed him too. L.T. discovered that the best way to earn someone’s respect was out on the pasture, on the football field, where playing the hoodlum had its rewards. His coaches, aware of his enormous potential as.an outside linebacker, decided to turn him loose. They let him rely on instinct more than any hardline technique that might have come up during a head session, and their thinking paid off.

His junior year, Taylor made eighty solo tackles and caused seven fumbles. The next year, 1980, he made fifty-five solo hits and accounted for sixteen quarterback sacks on his way to winning honors as the outstanding player in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He made all-American, easy, and was the second player chosen in the draft, after Heisman Trophy-winner George Rogers of the University of South Carolina.

As a rookie in the NFL, Taylor was so impressive people started comparing him to the finest defensive players in the history of the game, linebackers such as Dick Butkus, Sam Huff, and Ray Nitschke. His contribution on the field was so significant, he helped lead the Giants to the play-offs, their first such trip in almost twenty years. Back home in Williamsburg, D’Fellas had no trouble taking L.T.’s good story in stride. They knew Taylor was bad, but it had always been good to be bad when they were coming up. They liked to remember what L.T. did that day to poor old Nathan Merritt, who might have become one of D’Fellas had he not died in a car crash out on Longhill Road, on the way to school.

It was just something that happened at Lafayette High School one morning, back when D’Fellas indulged in a lawless game of rough-and-tumble called Chester. The way it worked, you walked around campus with your chest exposed, and one of the boys, by right of charter membership in D’Fellas, could lay a hard right hand into your open titty. Whenever the aggressor landed a big hit, he was supposed to say, “Chester’s back in town,” and clear out as quickly as possible, before his victim was able to regain his senses and take retaliatory measures. One day poor old Nathan Merritt opened up on Eric Stone, then only a freshman, and hit him way below the breastbone, nearly knocking him unconscious. L.T., who saw the cheap lick and came running, pinned old Nathan Merritt to a run of lockers and tried to press him through the slats in the louvered door. There was a storm of fussing in the hall, and L.T. started shouting, “Who the hell you think you are, shithead, hittin’ my friend so goddamned hard?”

Taylor was just that way: good to the people he loved and hard on those he didn’t. The kind of love that made him and the boys different, it was fierce and final. They had a time saying it, but D’Fellas were family in a way that ran deeper than any old blood, in a way that would last the sum of six separate lifetimes, and not a day longer. It was forever, but only for now. They often said their children would carry on the line and form their own little clique, the second generation of D’Fellas, but they said this with little conviction. Their children, growing up in different parts of the country, would probably never know how it feL.T. to be shoulder-to-shoulder in somebody’s living room on Saturday night, playing a hand of spades by lamplight and sharing the same tall quart of Miller beer. D’Fellas had created a separate kinship, a new order, and it was a whole lot more than just six good men running the streets together.

“I know a few things,” Taylor often told the boys, “but D’Fellas’ honor is the greatest thing I know.”

Theirs was a democracy, and there were rules. Once, at about 3:00 in the morning, D’Fellas went to the drive-in window at an all-night burger place and ordered twelve dollars’ worth of food. All Taylor wanted was fries, a Coke, and a plain burger, with nothing on it. D’Fellas in the van heard him tell the girl who was working the register that he would not tolerate a burger with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mayonnaise, ketchup, or mustard and she assured him that she would handle it, there was no reason to worry. L.T. paid for everything, then told Eric Stone, who was driving, to head out for the bridge, he wanted to flush out the silt in his pipes and sing some Motown.

They were less than a mile down the road when Taylor discovered lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mayonnaise, ketchup, and mustard on his burger. He said, “Turn the hell around. i want my food right.” But Stoney said, “I ain’t turning around, home. You should have looked your thing over at the place.”

Taylor felt wounded, then angry. He had told the girl exactly what he wanted and she had said not to worry, she would take care of it for him. She had looked him in the eyes and told him that everything would be okay. Didn’t she know who he was? Shouldn’t she know? He was Lawrence Taylor—L.T., goddammit, the best player in football.

“I can’t eat this shit,” he said. Then he screamed out the window, “and i won’t eat this shit.”

“That’s too bad, home,” Stoney said, digging into a bag of fries.

“If I can’t eat,” Taylor said, “nobody eats,” and took all the food, stuffed it back into the paper sack, and threw it out the window, into the wide, empty street. Some of D’Fellas turned around and watched their supper disappear to the back window. The soft-drink cups rolled down into the gutter, but the burgers looked as if they’ve been blasted by a cherry bomb. Only Eric Stone had managed to save a cup of Coke, and he was sucking it down with a straw. Taylor said, “Excuse me, home,” grabbed the drink from his friend’s hand, and threw it out into the night.

“If I don’t drink,” he said, “not a damn one of us drinks.”

BEFORE L.T. was born, his old man, Clarence Taylor Sr., Worked as a janitor at the college in town. After that played out, he got on as a trucker in the Newport News shipyards, about 40 minutes away, and was on the road each morning by 5:30, glancing back at the place and the people he loved in his rearview mirror. Some days he didn’t return home until after the late-night news, when his three sons had already gone to bed and his wife had cleared the kitchen. Clarence and Iris Taylor had had married in their teens—”too darn young,” he said—and the boys had come one right after the other, quickly filling up their little frame house set off Highway 60. They lived in just another one of those places you see out in the country, with a big, beat-to-hell sign standing on the front edge of the property celebrating the grand opening of some new chicken shack in town, and with moonvine choking every last inch of earth not already occupied by a chinaball tree.

“In those days, you never caught us talking about money,” Mr. Taylor like to say. “Mainly because there was never any money to talk about.”

L.T., muleheaded as he was, always said there had to be a better way. One morning, watching his old man drive off in the half-light of another cheap dawn, he promised his mother he’d be a millionaire before he turned twenty-one and vaguely smiled when she said, “Go on, boy.” To make money, he bought cinnamon toothpicks and packs of Juicy Fruit at Happy Stout’s grocery, then turned around and sold his goods to schoolmates for a big profit.

His father said, “If you want to see the boy do something, tell him he can’t do it.”

When it finally happened, when he made his first million, he was 22. “So what?” He told the folks at home. “I said 21. My timing was a little off. ”

Two years ago Taylor signed a six-year contract with the Giants worth $6.5 million, but only after becoming embroiled in a nasty dispute with club management. Taylor was the most visible and outstanding player on the team, but he was sick of losing; he wanted more money or he wanted out. In 1982 and 1983, his second and third years in the league, the Giants went 4–5 and 3–12–1. Taylor grew sullen and, at times, obstinate. He refused to talk to reporters. Before practice, he spent hours at his locker, mumbling things like, “Get me out of here,” and hiding his face under a cowboy hat. Tired of carrying the load for a team that couldn’t wait, he committed himself to play for the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League. Donald Trump, the generals owner, offered to pay him $3.2 million over four years, starting in 1988, when his option year with the Giants expired. Trump also threw in a $1 million loan, interest free. But when the Giants came back with an even better offer, Taylor asked to be released from his contract with the Generals. After two weeks of negotiations, Trump gave in and Taylor agreed to return the loan, with a $10,000 interest charge tacked on. The settlement also call for Taylor to pay back $750,000 over the next five years.

“The money,” Taylor said, “I need lots of money. But I’ve also got lots of people hitting me up for it, people I hardly know, some I haven’t seen in years. D’Fellas, they know they can get any damed thing they want from me, and yet they never ask. When I want to give, I’ve almost got to force it on them. You say, ‘Here, home, take this crap. Take it, I said. Take it. Take it because I love you and because if you don’t take it, I’ll break your damn face.'”

L.T. bought his parents house not long after signing with the Giants in 1981. He took great pleasure in knowing it was the biggest house on the street, with a two-car garage, fenced-in piece of backyard for the dogs, “Florida room,” so named by his father, who dressed it up with rose-colored shag carpet and rose-colored blinds and rose-colored bottles of liquor set on glass shelves. You could bet your life savings nobody else in Williamsburg, Virginia, owned the room like it. On top of that, there were plenty of extra bedrooms upstairs for L.T.’s wife and two little babies, and the grass stayed green even in winter, which really tickled Mr. Taylor, who enjoyed pushing a mower.

When L.T. came home last summer, he spent only an hour or so with the new house before borrowing his father’s party van and rounding up D’Fellas. There was so much to come back to, and the last thing he wanted to make sure and see before calling it a night was the crib off Highway 60, the old place. It amounted to only three acres set hard by the road, but a real estate man in town had thrown a money figure at his folks, hoping they’d bite and turn it over for development as a housing subdivision. L.T. asked his parents to hang on to the property; he figured $20,000 or $25,000 would be enough to fix it up. And money, hell, he had plenty of that.

There was a greasy, iron dark about that night when the boys finally rode down the driveway to the old house, running clean over a little chicken tree just setting roots, and around potholes full of mud that looked white against their headlights. Taylor rounded the corner of the house and parked in front of two old heaps, a light blue Maverick with a Mr. Peabody air-freshener hanging from the rearview and a two-tone pickup with four flat tires. D’Fellas, in a hurry to turn the woods into their private latrine, wrestled getting out of the van, and Taylor let the lights wash over the whole back lot, which was overgrown with knapweed and baby sycamores.

“Some serious memories,” Dylan Pritchett said, pulling on the fleshy folds under his chin. “This is some serious damn memories.”

Taylor pushed the brim of his straw hat out of his eyes and ran his hands over the roof of the old Maverick, tearing at the rot of a million leaves. Both headlamps on the car appeared to have been shot out by a pellet gun, and the hood latch was stuck. “If this bitch could talk,” L.T. said, pointing at the car, “we’d all be in trouble.”

Stoney said, “What was the dogs name? You had a dog.”

“It was Kojak,” Cosmos said.

“He lived to be fifteen,” Taylor said. “When I bought Mama and Daddy the new house, he moved to the subdivision and thought he had a big dick. Old Kojak was all right.”

Stoney said, “I remember when those old boys from New Kent—they thought they could shoot hoops with D’Fellas—used to come out here and we’d kick ass all over the place. Everybody used to come. Like I said, we were bad.”

“See that big tree over there?” Taylor said, nodding his head at a brace of giant hardwoods. “I remember when it was little. That one there. Looked like a twig in the ground.”

“Kojak,”, Cosmo said, “he’d bark and never bite. The dog thought he was human. And shit, he was like everybody else. He thought he had what it takes to be one of D’Fellas.”

“I remember that tree and that tree and that tree,” L.T. said. “I even remember that one over there.”

“Goddamn, “Pritchett said. “This is some real shit. I mean, this brings it all back. Brings it all back home.”

“I remember all these trees,” Lawrence Taylor said. “I remember every last one of them.”

[Images Via: Garmonique; fuck yeah freight trainsBevin; Charlie Simokaitis; Sports Illustrated]

The Banter Gold Standard: Thieves of Time

The following piece was written by one of our best, Charlie Pierce (Esquire, Grantland). It originally appeared in The National (May 10, 1990) and can also be found in Pierce’s excellent collection Sports Guy.

“Thieves of Time”

By Charlie Pierce

The press conference was over, and two men from New Castle, Pa., named Robert Retort and Ed Grybowski had been charged with interstate transportation of stolen property, which is a federal felony. In the conference room of the FBI field office in Pittsburgh, an agent named Bob Reutter was looking over the stolen property, examining it, not with a G-man’s eyes, but with those of a fan. There were baseball uniforms—thick, heavy flannel things with the names of the great, lost teams on them. The Memphis Red Sox. The Kansas City Monarchs. There were autographed baseballs, and old, sepia-shrouded pictures of young men wearing the heavy flannel uniforms of the great, lost teams. Looking at them, you could see back through time, all the way to the outskirts of town. Bob Reutter spent a long time looking.

It all belonged to an 86-year-old former security guard at the St. Louis City Hall named James Bell. In 1922, when he and the world were young, James Bell was pitching one hot day for the St. Louis Stars in the Negro League. It was late in the game, and there were men on base, and at the plate was a signifying hitter named Oscar Charleston. If the Negro League had a Babe Ruth, it was Oscar Charleston. The 19-year-old pitcher stared down the alley, and struck Oscar Charleston out of there, saving the game.

Lord, the other Stars thought, that young man is cool. So that’s what they called him. Cool Bell. But Manager Bill Gatewood thought the nickname lacked sufficient dignity for the grave young man man with the thoughtful eyes. He’s older than that, thought Gatewood. Cool Papa, that’s who he is.

Cool Papa Bell.

The man had style. Anyone could see that. In the Negro League, the wardrobes always cut like knives. A player named Country Jake Stevens cold Donn Rogosin, the author of Invisible Men, that he knew he’d made the big club when the owner took him out and bought him three new suits and two new Stetson hats. Even in this company, Cool Papa was sharp. When he walked through Compton Hill in St. Louis, children danced in his wake.

He played for 29 years and for seven different teams. He was the fastest man anywhere in baseball, so swift and deft on the basepaths that, when it looked like Jackie Robinson was going to be chosen to shatter the segregation of the major leagues, Cool Papa once ran wild just to show the young shortstop what kind of play he could expect when and if Robinson were called up. Jimmy Crutchfield once told a baseball historian named Robert Peterson that, when Cool Papa hit one back to the pitcher, everybody else in the field yelled, “Hurry!” Satchel Paige claimed that Cool Pap could hit the light switch in the hotel room, and that he’d be in bed before the room got dark. That was the story they always cold about Cool Papa Bell. They even told it when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.

He is old now, and half-blind. For years, he held court in his house on what is now Cool Papa Bell Avenue in St. Louis. He would tell stories, and sign autographs, and he would show the curious everything he had saved from his playing days. The uniforms. The programs. The pictures. He always was an obliging man, was Cool Papa Bell. Even when his health began to fail, he always was that.

“He always had all of this memorabilia,” says Norman Seay, Bell’s nephew and an administrator at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. “People came from everywhere, from Timbuktu, to get autographs from Uncle Bell. It was a normal occurrence around that house.”

The, on March 22, all that changed. Bell was visited by Grybowski and Retort, who had driven 17 hours to St. Louis from New Castle, where Retort owns a company called R.D. Retort Enterprises. It operates within the bull market in what are called baseball collectibles. By all accounts, Retort is an aggressive collector. “He called here a lot, and you couldn’t get him off the phone,” says a source at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. “He never quite made it clear what the purpose of his research was, but he made a lot of requests for uniform numbers, and for what teams certain players played for. He didn’t seem to have much of a working knowledge of baseball history, but he kept us on the phone a half-hour at a time.”

Retort has declined comment on the specifics of the case against him, but does say that “when it all comes out, you’ll see there’s one huge world of difference between what I’ve been charged with, and what really happened. It’s a situation where, basically, I was there to get autographs from a Hall of Famer, and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

It is possible that Retort and Grybowski were invited to come to St. Louis by Bell, who rarely turned down such a request. The two spent several days there. Bell signed a lot of autographs, but it was a slow process. The FBI says that Retort paid Bell $100 for the various autographed items. That is all that Retort says he did there. The FBI does not agree.

According to investigators, Retort and Grybowski returned on March 25, and began to remove from the Bells’ house several cardboard boxes filled with the paraphernalia Cool Papa had collected over the course of his career. Bell and his wife, Clarabelle, told both the local police and the FBI that they had felt “trapped” by the two men, and that they were too intimidated to try and stop them. In fact, the Bells said, they were so intimidated that they didn’t even report the incident until their daughter, Connie Brooks, discovered what had happened a week later.

Retort, 38, and Grybowski, 65, were arrested on April 9. Both are free now, Retort on $25,000 bond and Grybowski on $10,000. They will stand trial this summer in St. Louis. Most of the memorabilia was recovered. Connie Brooks has flown in from New York, and she has spent a month helping investigators identify some of the articles. It is a federal offense to take more the [sic] $5,000 worth of stolen merchandise across state lines. The estimated value of everything that was taken from Cool Papa Bell’s house is $300,000, which has flatly flabbergasted some people who are close to him.

“I couldn’t believe it when they said that,” says Norman Seay. “I mean, a half-a-million dollars? To me, he was just my Uncle Bell, and all that stuff he had, I thought its real value was an internal kind of thing, that its value was intrinsic to him.”

But that is not the way the world is today. There are people who would call $300,000 a modest price for what was taken from Cool Papa Bell. These are people who understand a new and unsettlingly volatile marketplace in which the past is raw currency, and what energizes that marketplace is that same feeling that came over Bob Reutter, when he looked into the FBI’s conference room and saw an exposed vein of pure history stretched across its walls.

“I have to admit that I’m a fan, and I looked the stuff over,” admits the agent with a chuckle. “I saw those uniforms and I thought, ‘How did they ever play in those heavy things?’ It was all really interesting to me.”

Perhaps the Fourth Lateran Council had the right idea after all. In the 13th century, the Roman Catholic Church was awash in very pricey relics, including not only the purported heads of various saints, but also enough alleged pieces of the True Cross to build duplex homes for half the yeomanry in Western Europe. Embarrassed by this unbridled profiteering in the sacred, the church called the Council, which forbade the practice in 1215, whereupon the price of a saint’s head crashed all over Christendom.

That sort of naked interference in the free marketplace would not be tolerated today. We live in an acquisitive age, a trend encouraged from the very top of the political and cultural elite for more than a decade now. It manifests itself in everything from the leveraged buyout to the current desire of every cherubic four-year old to surround himself with replicas of pizza-chomping, Hey-Dude amphibians who are built like Ben Johnson. Indeed, today we have collectibles the instantly accrued value of which almost totally rests with the immediate demand for them. How much more, then, must genuine relics be worth?

It hit the art world first. In his book, Circus of Ambition, journalist John Taylor describes the rise of what he calls “the collecting class.” Taylor writes that, in the 1980s, “Collectors were returning in droves. One reason was the huge surge in income enjoyed by the individuals in the higher income brackets.” In one telling anecdote, Taylor overhears a rich young couple at an art auction. The husband complains that, “We’re unhappy with the Cezanne.” His wife responds, cheerily, “That’s OK because we’re going to trade up!”

Substitute “Pete Rose” for Cezanne in that conversation, and you’ve pretty much got what happened when this dynamic hit sports, the only difference being, of course, that, unlike Rose, Cezanne wasn’t around to pitch his own paintings on the Home Shopping Network. It is estimated that the trade in sports collectibles has become a $200 million industry in this country. It is manifested best by all those things that give the willies to the baseball purists. These include card shows—and the almost universally condemned notion of the $15 autograph—as well as the public auction of old baseball equipment.

When Taylor writes that, “Many of these collectors were frankly more interested in art as an investment than as a means of cultural certification,” it’s hard not to hear the complaint that echoes across the land every time another one of yesterday’s heroes starts peddling his memories. It’s hard not to hear the guy at Cooperstown saying that Robert Retort’s “working knowledge of baseball” was lacking.

As is the case with any good capitalist enterprise, if you push it far enough you find yourself passing through greed and moving all the way into the criminal. The case of Pete Rose is instructive here. First came the reports that there were several bats in circulation that were purported to be the one that Rose used to break Ty Cobb’s record on Sept. 11, 1985. Now, accounts of that historic at-bat indicate that Rose used only one bat. Where the other three (or four, or eight, or 12) came from remains a mystery, especially to the gullible people who bought them. In this, Pete Rose was lucky he only had to face the late Bart Giamatti. The Fourth Lateran Council would’ve had him in thumbscrews.

Now, however, it’s been revealed that Rose failed to declare to the Internal Revenue Service the cash income that he made at card shows, and in the sale of various memorabilia. There is some symmetry, at least, in the fact that, in the same week, Pete Rose and Michael Milken, symbols of their age, both faced a federal judge.

Nor is Rose the only criminal case in which baseball collectibles figure prominently. We have the odd affair involving National League umpire Bob Engel, who is alleged to have attempted to steal 4,180 baseball cards from a store in Bakersfield, CA. And, believing that his bats were being lifted by enterprisingly larcenous clubhouse personnel, at least one American League superstar has taken the radical step of having the bats sent directly to his hotel rather than to the ball park.

But the case of Cool Papa Bell is far more serious than either of these other two. After all, it involves the alleged intimidation of an 87-year old, half-blind, sickly man, and it also involves a federal felony even more serious than the one committed by Pete Rose. There would have to be a huge payoff involved for Retort to have risked such a crime. Experts say that there was, and that it has everything to do with the nature of the memorabilia itself.

In the first place, there is a finite number of Negro League collectibles available. When Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers, the Negro League essentially collapsed. Therefore, there’s no futures market in Negro League memorabilia.

In addition, the people who played in the Negro League are mainly quite old now—Bell is about the average age for a Negro League veteran—and there are not many left who even played back then. That means there are only limited prospects for the lucrative trade in replicas, in which a retired player will authorize (and autograph) things like duplicate bats and uniforms. The FBI charges that Retort and Grybowski forced Bell to sign a letter authorizing such replicas. Retort denies the charge.

Because Negro League memorabilia is so passing rare, there is no established price scale for any of it. Thus, traders are free to ask whatever price they want because there are no benchmarks by which that price can be measured. “If I saw a ball signed by the 1919 Black Sox, I’d know what that was worth,” says Alan Rosen, a New Jersey entrepreneur who’s known among memorabilia collectors as Mr. Mint. “But if I saw a ball signed by the original winners of the Black World Series, I wouldn’t know how to authenticate the signatures. I wouldn’t know how to price the thing.”

This is not an insignificant admission. Mr. Mint has been known to show up in the living rooms of baseball-card collectors with a briefcase full of cash. Indeed, if you were to skulk around Colin Cliveishly and dig up Christy Mathewson, Mr. Mint probably could price the bones for you. Nevertheless, Negro League memorabilia has brought top dollar at a number of auctions. An authentic poster advertising a Fourth ofJuly doubleheader featuring Satchel Paige once sold for $2,400. A program from an exhibition game between a Negro League All-Star team and Dizzy Dean’s barnstorming club went for $700. Intact tickets from the Negro World Series, or from the annual East-West All-Star game have fetched up to $500 apiece, and an autographed ball from the 1940 East-West game was sold to a collector for $850. A man named George Lyons even got $1,500 for an authenticated contract between a Cuban League team and one James Bell of St. Louis.

“Nobody really has any independent judgment regarding what to pay for something,” explains Herman Kaufman, a collector and auctioneer who specializes in Negro League memorabilia. “I’d say that 99 percent of collecting is pure enjoyment, but that the other one percent is knowing that you have something that nobody else has.”

Which brings up the question of how far a collector is willing to go to get what nobody else has. Investigators probing the recent massive art theft at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum say privately that, while they’re confident that they will apprehend the thieves, most of the actual paintings are probably gone forever, quietly sold to collectors and now hanging in someone’s library.

Kaufman dismisses the idea of a memorabilia underground—”Why buy something if you can never show it?” he asks—but others in the field are not as sanguine about the possibility. They think Cool Papa’s lucky that the FBI got most of his things back.

“If you’re asking if sometimes guys’ll come to me and say, ‘Look, I got this scuff here, and keep it between me and you where you got it,’ and that’s the deal, I’d have to say, yes that happens, says Joe Esposito of B&E Collectibles in New York. “You have to remember that you’re dealing with collectors. They’ll do anything.”


Cool Papa was hospitalized shortly after the incident with Retort and Grybowski. “He’s at the point of death,” says his wife. He’s at home now, but other family members wonder whether or not it’s time for him to leave the house on Cool Papa Bell Avenue and live out his days in a retirement home. They doubt whether Clarabelle can adequately care for him anymore.

“He’s very fragile and he’s very weak; ‘ says Norman Seay. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. You know, it’s funny, all those years growing up next door to him, I didn’t realize that he was a celebrity. He was just Uncle Bell. I never realized how great he really was. You know, as an African-American athlete, he never got the respect he should have. It was kind of a second-class identity for him.”

That, perhaps, is the real crime here. It’s more than a simple threat. It’s a kind of crime against history. Because of the entrenched racism of major league baseball, Cool Papa Bell never was able to profit fully from his enormous skills. At the very least, then, he ought to be able to profit fully from the accoutrements of that talent, or he ought to be able to leave it alone, snug in boxes in the basement. If what the FBI says is true, then that is the real crime here, not the mere pilfering of things to meet the demands of a marketplace gone dotty, or to satisfy an acquisitive age. *It is the further robbing of a man who’s already had too much of his self stolen.

There’s a man named Tweed Webb who knows what the crime is. He is the unofficial historian for the Negro League in St. Louis, and he is a friend of Cool Papa Bell’s. “I go back to about 1910,” he says. “I kept all my records because if you don’t have records, you can’t prove nothing happened. It’s like nothing ever did happen, if you don’t have records.

“Cool Papa, he’s been sick for 18 or 19 years, but we talk, you know? He told me about what happened right when it happened.

The FBI come out here to talk to me because, you know, I got valuable stuff myself. I got all my records, all my scorecards. Certain people’d love to get their hands on the stuff I got. But I don’t sell none of it. I pass along learning to people, but the records are priceless. At least, they’re priceless to me.”

Oddly enough, both the investigators and the defendant express concern for Bell’s health. “I did a lot of work on this out of loyalty to Cool Papa,” says Bob Reutter, G-man and baseball fan. “I heard that he wasn’t doing too well, and I wanted to get that stuff back for him. I don’t imagine the publicity’s going to help much, either. I mean, it probably isn’t good for him that people know he’s got a quarter-million dollars worth of stuff in his basement.”

“I’m worried about what all this will do to his health,” says Robert Retort. “It’s got to take a toll on the poor man.”

It will come to trial sometime this summer. For now, Connie Brooks stays in St. Louis, identifying pieces of her father’s past for the investigators. And Cool Papa Bell stays at home. He doesn’t get up much any more. In the twilight, Cool Papa Bell is already in bed. Someone else turns out the light.

Nobody was ever convicted of any crime in connection with Cool Papa Bell’s memorabilia. Cool Papa died on March 7, 1991 and he’s buried in Hilldale Cemetery near St. Louis. His fame lives on in the name of a popular Detroit funk band.

[Illustrations by Allan Mardon; Will JohnsonTom Chiarello; Mike Benny; John Wolfe]

The Banter Gold Standard: Brownsville Bum

Here’s what Jimmy Breslin calls the best magazine story ever written:

“Brownsville Bum”

By W.C. Heinz

It’s a funny thing about people. People will hate a guy all his life for what he is, but the minute he dies for it they make him out a hero and they go around saying that maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all because he sure was will- ing to go the distance for whatever he believed or whatever he was.

That’s the way it was with Bummy Davis. The night Bummy fought Fritzie Zivic in the Garden and Zivic started giving him the business and Bummy hit Zivic low maybe 30 times and kicked the referee, they wanted to hang him for it. The night those four guys came into Dudy’s bar and tried the same thing, only with rods, Bummy went nuts again. He flattened the first one and then they shot him, and when everybody read about it, and how Bummy fought guns with only his left hook and died lying in the rain in front of the place, they all said he was really something and you sure had to give him credit at that.

“So you’re AI Davis?” one of the hoods said. “Why you punch-drunk bum.”

What did they expect Bummy to do? What did they expect him to do the night Zivic gave him the thumbs and the laces and walked around the referee and belted Bummy? Bummy could hook too good ever to learn how to hold himself in, if you want the truth of it.

That was really the trouble with Bummy. Bummy blew school too early, and he didn’t know enough words. A lot of guys who fought Zivic used to take it or maybe beef to the referee, but Bummy didn’t know how to do that. A lot of guys looking at four guns would have taken the talk and been think- ing about getting the number off the car when it pulled away, but all Bummy ever had was his hook.

Bummy came out of Brownsville. In the sports pages they are always refer- ring to Brownsville as the fistic incubator of Brooklyn, because they probably mean that a lot of fighters come out of there. Murder, Inc., came out of there, too, and if you don’t believe it ask Bill O’Dwyer. If it wasn’t for Brownsville maybe Bill O’Dwyer wouldn’t have become the mayor of New York.

The peculiar thing about Brownsville is that it doesn’t look so tough. There are trees around there and some vacant lots, and the houses don’t look as bad as they do over on Second Avenue or Ninth Avenue or up in Harlem. Don’t tell Charley Beecher, though, that you don’t think it’s so tough.

“What’s the matter you sold the place?” Froike said to Charley the other day. “It ain’t the same, now you sold it.”

Charley Beecher used to run the poolroom “With the gym behind it on the comer of Georgia and Livonia where Bummy used to train. It was a good little gym with a little dressing room and a shower, and Charley was a pretty good featherweight in the twenties, and his brother Willie, who was even a better fighter, fought Abe Attell and Johnny Dundee and Jack Britton and Leach Cross and Knockout Brown.

“For 17 years I was in business,” Charley said. “Seventeen times they stuck me up.”

He looked at Froike, and then he pointed with his two hands at his mouth and his ears and his eyes.

“I had guns here and here and here,” he said. “All I ever saw was guns.”

The worst part was that Charley knew all the guys. A week after they’d heist him they’d be back for a little contribution, maybe a C note. They’d be getting up bail for one of the boys, and they just wanted Charley to know there were no hard feelings about the heist, and that as long as he kept his dues up they’d still consider him friendly to the club. That’s how tough Brownsville was.

Bummy had two brothers, and they were a big help. They were a lot older than Bummy, and the one they called Little Gangy and the other they called Duff. Right now Gangy is doing 20 to 40, just to give you an idea, and Bummy took a lot of raps for them, too, because there were some people who couldn’t get back at Gangy and Duff so they took it out on the kid.

When Bummy was about seven his father used to run a candy and cigar store and did a little speaking on the side. In other words, he always had a bottle in the place, and he had Bummy hanging around in case anybody should say cop. When the signal would go up Bummy would run behind the counter and grab the bottle, and he was so small nobody could see him over the counter and he’d go out the back.

One day Bummy was going it down the street with the bottle under his coat and some real smart guy stuck out his foot. Bummy tripped and the bottle broke, and Bummy looked at the bottle and the whiskey running on the sidewalk and at the guy and his eyes got big and he started to scream. The guy just laughed and Bummy was lying right on the sidewalk in the whiskey and broken glass, hitting his head on the sidewalk and banging his fists down and screaming. A crowd came around and they watched Bummy, with the guy laughing at him, and they shook their heads and they said this youngest Davidoff kid must be crazy at that.

Davidoff was his straight name. Abraham Davidoff. In Yiddish they made Abraham into Ahvron and then Ahvron they sometimes make Bommy. All his family called him Bommy, so you can see they didn’t mean it as a knock. The one who changed it to Bummy was Johnny Attell.

Johnny Attell used to run the fights at the Ridgewood Grove, a fight club in Brooklyn where some good fighters like Sid Terris and Ruby Goldstein and Tony Canzoneri learned to fight, and Johnny and a nice guy named Lew Burston managed Bummy. When Bummy turned pro and Johnny made up the show card for the fight with Frankie Reese he put the name on it as Al (Bummy) Davis, and when Bummy saw it he went right up to John’s office.

“What are you doing that for?” he hollered at Johnny. “I don’t want to be called Bummy.”

“Take it easy,” Johnny said. “You want to make money fighting, don’t you?”

“People like to come to fights to see guys they think are tough.”

They sure liked to come to see Bummy all right. They sure liked to come to see him get his brains knocked out.

The first time Johnny Attell ever heard of Bummy was one day when Johnny was coming out of the Grove and Froike stopped him. Froike used to run the gym at Beecher’s and handle kids in the amateurs, and he was stand- ing there talking to Johnny under the Myrtle Avenue El.

“Also I got a real good ticket seller for you,” he said to Johnny after a while.

“I could use one,” Johnny said.

“Only I have to have a special for him,” Froike said. “No eliminations.” “What’s his name?” Johnny said.

“Giovanni Pasconi,” Froike said.

“Bring him around,” Johnny said.

The next week Johnny put the kid in with a tough colored boy named Johnny Williams. The kid got the hell punched out of him, but he sold $200 worth of tickets.

“He didn’t do too bad,” Johnny said to Froike after the fight. “I’ll put him back next week.”

“Only this time get him an easier opponent,” Froike said.

“You get him your own opponent,” Johnny said. “As long as he can sell that many tickets I don’t care who he fights.”

The next week Johnny put him back and he licked the guy. After the fight Johnny was walking out and he saw the kid and Froike with about 20 people around them, all of them talking Yiddish.

“Come here, Froike,” Johnny said.

“What’s the matter?” Froike said.

“What is this guy,” Johnny said, “a Wop or aJew?”

“He’s a Jew,” Froike said. “His right name’s Davidoff. He’s only 15, so we borrowed Pasconi’s card.”

“He can sure sell tickets,” Johnny said.

Bummy could sell anything. That’s the way Bummy learned to fight, selling. He used to sell off a pushcart on Blake Avenue. He used to sell berries in the spring and tomatoes and watermelons in the summer and apples in the fall and potatoes and onions and beans in the winter, and there are a lot of pushcarts on Blake Avenue and Bummy used to have a fight to hold his spot.

“I was the best tomato salesman in the world,” Bummy was bragging once.

It was right after he knocked out Bob Montgomery in the Garden. He stiffened him in 63 seconds and he was getting $15,000, and when the sports writers came into his dressing room all he wanted to talk about was how good he could sell tomatoes.

“You go over to Jersey and get them yourself,” he was telling the sports writers. “Then you don’t have to pay the middle guy. You don’t put them in boxes, because when you put them in boxes it looks like you’re getting ready to lam. When you only got a few around it looks like you can’t get rid of them so what you gotta do is pile them all up and holler: ‘I gotta get rid of these. I’m gonna give ’em away!”‘

The sports writers couldn’t get over that. There was a lot they couldn’t get over about Bummy.

When Johnny turned Bummy pro he wasn’t impressed by his fighting, only his following. Every time Bummy fought for Johnny in the Grove he’d bring a couple of hundred guys with him and they’d holler for Bummy. Everybody else would holler for the other guy, because now they knew Bummy was Jewish and the Grove is in a German section of Ridgewood, and this was when Hitler was starting to go good and there was even one of those German beer halls right in the place where the waiters walked around in those short leather pants and wearing fancy vests and funny hats.

The fight that started Bummy was the Friedkin fight. Bummy was just beginning to bang guys out at the Grove and Friedkin was already a hot fighter the Broadway Arena and they lived only blocks apart. Friedkin was a nice about three years older than Bummy, kind of a studious guy they called Schoolboy Friedkin, and there was nothing between him and Bummy except they were both coming up and the neighborhood made the match.

Like one day Bummy was standing in the candy store and a couple of guys told him Friedkin was saying he could stiffen Bummy in two heats. Then they went to Friedkin and said Bummy said Friedkin was afraid to fight. At first this didn’t take, but they kept it up and one day Bummy was standing with a dame on the corner of Blake and Alabama and Friedkin came along.

“So why don’t you two fight?” the dame said.

“Sure, I’ll fight,” Bummy said, spreading his feet.

“Right here?” Friedkin said. “Right now?”

“Sure,” Bummy said.

“I’ll fight whenever my manager makes the match/’ Friedkin said, and he walked away.

Bummy couldn’t understand that, because he liked to fight just to fight. He got right in the subway and went over to see Lew Burston in Lew’s office on Broadway.

“Never mind making that Friedkin match,” he said to Lew.

“Why not?” Lew said.

“Because when I leave here,” Bummy said, “I’m going right around to Friedkin’s house and I’m gonna wait for him to come out, and we’re gonna find out right away if I can lick him or he can lick me.”

“Are you crazy?” Lew said.

By the time Johnny Attell made the fight outdoors for Dexter Park there was really a fire under it. They had show cards advertising it on the pushcarts on Blake Avenue and Friedkin’s old man and Bummy’s old man got into an argument on the street, and everybody was talking about it and betting it big. Then it was rained out five nights and Johnny sold the fight to Mike Ja- cobs and Mike put it into Madison Square Garden.

When Bummy started working for the fight Lew Burston came over to Beecher’s to train him. When Bummy got into his ring clothes they chased everybody out of the gym, and Lew told Bummy to hit the big bag. Bummy walked up to the bag and spread his feet and pulled back his left to start his hook and Lew stopped him.

“Throw that hook away,” Lew said.

“Why?” Bummy said. “What’s wrong with it?”

“Nothing’s wrong with it,” Lew said, “only for this fight you’ll have to lose that hook.”

Before that Bummy was nothing but a hooker, but for weeks Lew kept him banging the big bag with rights. Then the night of the fight after Bummy was all taped and ready, Lew took him into the shower off the dressing room and he talked to Bummy.

“Now remember one thing,” he said to Bummy. “I can tell you exacdy how that other corner is thinking. They’ve got that other guy eating and sleeping with your hook for weeks. I want you to go out there and I don’t want you to throw one right hand until I tell you. If you throw one right before I say so I’ll walk right out on you. Do you understand?”

Bummy understood all right. He was like a kid with a new toy. He was a kid with a secret that only Bummy and Lew knew, and he went out there and did like Lew told him. Friedkin came out with his right glued along the side of his head, and for three rounds Bummy just hooked and hooked and Friedkin blocked, and a lot of people thought Friedkin was winning the fight.

“All right,” Lew said, after the third round. “Now this time go right out and feint with the left, but throw the right and put everything on it.”

“Don’t worry,” Bummy said.

Bummy walked out and they moved around for almost a minute and then Bummy feinted his hook. When he did Friedkin moved over and Bummy threw the right and Friedkin’s head went back and down he went with his legs in the air in his own corner. That was all the fighting there was that night.

Now Bummy was the biggest thing in Brownsville. AI Buck and Hype Igoe and Ed Van Every and Lester Bromberg were writing about him in the New York papers, saying he was the best hooker since Charley White and could also hit with his right, and he had dough for the first time in his life.

He got $14,000 for the Friedkin fight. When he walked down the street the kids followed him, and he bought them leather jackets and baseball gloves and sodas, just to show you what money meant and how he was already looking back at his own life.

When Bummy was a kid nobody bought him anything and he belonged to a gang called the Cowboys. They used to pull small jobs, and the cops could never find them until one night. One night the cops broke into the flat where the kids used to live with some dames, and they got them all except Bummy who was with his mother that night.

Sure, Bummy was what most people call tough, but if he felt sorry for you and figured you needed him be couldn’t do enough. That was the way Bummy met Barbara and fell in love.

Bummy was 19 then and one day he and Shorty were driving around and Shorty said he wanted to go to Kings County Hospital and visit a friend of his who was sick, and there was this girl about 16 years old. They sat around for a while and Shorty did all the talking and then the next time they went to see the girl Shorty was carrying some flowers and he gave them to her.

“From him,” Shorty said, meaning Bummy.

When the girl left the hospital Shorty and Bummy drove her home, and then every day for a couple of weeks they used to take her for a ride and to stop off for sodas. One day the three of them were riding together in the front seat and Bummy wasn’t saying anything.

“Say, Bobby,” Shorty said all of a sudden, “would you like to get married?”

The girl didn’t know what to say. She just looked at Shorty.

“Not to me,” Shorty said. “To him.”

That was the way Bummy got married. That was Bummy’s big romance. After the Friedkin fight Bummy won about three fights quick, and then they made him with Mickey Farber in the St. Nick’s. Farber was out of the East Side and had a good record, and one day when Bummy finished his training at Beecher’s he was sitting in the locker room soaking his left hand in a pail of ice and talking with Charley.

That was an interesting thing about Bummy’s left hand. He used to bang so hard with it that after every fight and after every day he boxed in the gym it used to swell up.

“I think I’ll quit fighting,” Bummy said to Charley.

“You think you’ll quit?” Charley said. “You’re just starting to make dough.”

“They’re making me out a tough guy,” Bummy said. “All the newspapers make me a tough guy and I don’t like it and I think I’ll quit.”

“Forget it,” Charley said.

When Charley walked out Murder, Inc., walked in. They were all there—Happy and Buggsy and Abie and Harry and the Dasher—and they were looking at Bummy soaking his hand in the ice.

“You hurt your hand?” Buggsy said.

“No,” Bummy said. “It’s all right.”

They walked out again, and they must have gone with a bundle on Farber because the day after Bummy licked Farber he was standing under the El in front of the gym and the mob drove up. They stopped the car right in front of him and they piled out.

“What are you, some wise guy?” Buggsy said.

“What’s wrong with you?” Bummy said.

“What’s all this you gave us about you had a bad hand?” Buggsy said.

“I didn’t say I had a bad hand,” Bummy said.

“You did,” Buggsy said.

“Listen,” Bummy said, spreading his feet the way he used to do it, “if you guys want a fight let’s start it.”

Buggsy looked at the others and they looked at him. They they all got in the car and drove off, and if you could have been there and seen that you would have gone for Bummy for it.

That was the bad part about Bummy’s rap. Not enough people knew that part of Bummy until it was too late. The people who go to fights don’t just go to see some guy win, but they go to see some guy get licked, too. All they knew about Bummy was some of the things they read, and he was the guy they always went to see get licked.

Even the mob that followed Bummy when he was a big name didn’t mean anything to him, because he could see through that. He could see they were always grabbing at him for what they could get, and that was the thing he never got over about the time he was training in Billy West’s place up in Woodstock, New York.

Bummy went up there after he came out of the Army,just to take off weight, and there are a lot of artists around there. Artists are different people, because they don’t care what anybody says about a guy and they either like him or they don’t like him for what they think he is. They all liked him up there, and Billy used to say that Bummy could have been Mayor of Woodstock.

Billy had a dog that Bummy never forgot, either. Bummy used to run on the roads in the mornings and Billy’s dog used to run with him. Every morning they’d go out together and one day another dog came out of a yard and went for Bummy and Billy’s dog turned and went after the other dog and chased it off.

“Gee, this dog really likes me,” Bummy said, when he got back to the house, and he said it like he couldn’t believe it. “He’s really my friend.”

The fight that really started everybody hating Bummy, though, was the Canzoneri fight in the Garden. It was a bad match and never should have been made, but they made it and all Bummy did was fight it.

Canzoneri was over the hill, but he had been the featherweight champion and the lightweight champion and he had fought the best of his time and they loved him. When Bummy knocked him out it was the only time Tony was knocked out in 180 fights, and so they booed Bummy for it and they waited for him to get licked.

They didn’t have to wait too long. After he knocked out Tippy Larkin in five they matched him with Lou Ambers. Just after he started training for Ambers he was in the candy store one day when an argument started between. Bummy and a guy named Mersky. Nobody is going to say who started the argument but somebody called Bummy a lousy fighter and it wasn’t Bummy. Somebody flipped a piece of hard candy in Bummy’s face, too, and that wasn’t Bummy either, and after Bummy got done bouncing Mersky up and down Mersky went to the hospital and had some pictures taken and called the cops.

The first Johnny Attell heard about it was the night after it happened. He was walking down Broadway and he met a dick he knew.

“That’s too bad about your fighter,” the cop said.

“What’s the matter with him?” Johnny said.

“What’s the matter with him?” the cop said. “There’s an eight-state alarm out for him. The newspapers are full of it. He damn near killed a guy in a candy store.”

The cops couldn’t find Bummy but Johnny found him. He dug up Gangy, and Gangy drove him around awhile to shake off any cops, and finally Gangy stopped the car in front of an old wooden house and they got out and went in and there was Bummy.

Bummy was sitting in a pair of pajama pants, and that was all he had on. There were four or five other guys there, and they were playing cards.

“Are you crazy?” Johnny said.

“Why?” Bummy said, playing his cards, but looking up.

“If the cops find you here they’ll kill you,” Johnny said. “You better come with me.”

After Johnny talked awhile Bummy got dressed and he went with Johnny. Johnny took him back to New York and got him a haircut and a shave and he called Mike Jacobs. Jacobs told Johnny to take Bummy down to Police Headquarters, and when Johnny did that Sol Strauss, Mike’s lawyer, showed up and he got an adjournment in night court for Bummy until after the Ambers fight.

The night Bummy fought Ambers there was Mersky right at ringside. He had on dark glasses and the photographers were all taking his picture and when Ambers beat the hell out of Bummy the crowd loved it.

The crowd, more than Ambers, hurt Bummy that night. He didn’t like the licking Ambers gave him, but the hardest part was listening to the crowd and the way they enjoyed it and the things they shouted at him when he came down out of the ring.

“I quit,” he said to Johnny in the dressing room. “You know what you can do with fighting?”

Johnny didn’t believe him. Johnny was making matches for Jacobs in the Garden then and he matched Bummy with Tony Marteliano, but Bummy wouldn’t train.

Only Johnny and Gangy knew this, and one day Johnny came out to Bummy’s house and talked with Bummy. When that didn’t do any good Lew Burston came out and he talked for four hours, and when he finished Bummy said the same thing.

“I don’t want to be a fighter,” Bummy said. “I like to fight. I’ll fight Marteliano on the street right now, just for fun, but when I’m a fighter everybody picks on me. I want them to leave me alone. All I wanted was a home for my family and I got that and now I just want to hang around my mob on the street.”

Johnny still didn’t believe it. They put out the show cards, advertising the fight, and one day Bummy saw one of the cards in the window of a bar and he phoned Johnny in Jacobs’ office.

“What are you advertising the fight for?” he said, and he was mad. “I told you I’m not gonna fight.”

Before Johnny could say anything Jacobs took the phone. Johnny hadn’t told him Bummy didn’t want to fight.

“How are you, kid?” Jacobs said. “This is Mike.”

“Listen, you toothless—,” Bummy said. “What are you advertising me for? I’m not gonna fight.”

He hung up. Mike put the phone back and turned around and when he did Bummy was suspended and Johnny was out of the Garden and back in the Ridgewood Grove.

When Bummy heard what had happened to Johnny he went over to the Grove to see him. All the time Johnny was in the Garden Bummy was a little suspicious of him, like he was a capitalist, but now he was different.

“I came over to tell you something,” he said to Johnny. “I’m gonna fight.”

“Forget it,” Johnny said. “You can’t fight.”

“Who says I can’t fight?” Bummy said.

“The New York Boxing Commission,” Johnny said. “You’re suspended.”

“Let’s fight out of town,” Bumrny said. “We’ll fight where I’m not suspended.”

Johnny did it better. He took Bummy back to Mike and Bummy apologized and Bummy fought Marteliano. For nine rounds they were even, and with ten seconds to go in the last round Bummy landed the hook. Marteliano went down and the referee counted nine and the bell rang and it was another big one for Bummy and he was going again.

It was Johnny’s idea to get Marteliano back, but Bummy saw Fritzie Zivic Henry Armstrong for the welterweight title and he wanted Zivic. If you the two guys you knew this was a bad match for Bummy, because he didn’t know how to fight like Zivic.

There were a lot of people, you see, who called Bununy a dirty fighter, but Zivic fight made them wrong. The Zivic fight proved that Bummy didn’t know how to do it.

When he came out of the first clinch Bummy’s eyes were red and he was rubbing them and the crowd started to boo Zivic. In the second clinch it was same thing, and at the end of the round Bummy was roaring.

“He’s trying to blind me,” he kept saying in the comer. “He’s trying to blind me.”

When it started again in the second round Bummy blew. He pushed Zivic off and he dropped his hands and that crazy look came on that wide face of his and they could hear him in the crowd.

“All right, yo—-,” he said, “if you want to fight dirty, okay.”

He walked right into Zivic and he started belting low. There was no trying to hide anything, and the crowd started to roar and before it was over people were on their chairs throwing things and the cops were in the ring and Bummy was fined $2,500 and suspended for life.

They meant it to be for life—which wouldn’t have been very long at that, when you figure Bummy lived to be all of 26—but it didn’t work out that way. About three weeks after the fight Bummy walked into Johnny’s office with Shorty and Mousie, and they sat around for a time and Johnny could see Bummy was lost.

“You know what you ought to do?” Johnny said. “You ought to join the Army for a while until this blows over.”

This was in December of 1940, before we got into the war. For a while Bummy sat there thinking, not saying anything.

“Could my buddies go with me?” he said.

“Sure,” Johnny said.

So Johnny called up the recruiting officer and Bummy and Shorty and Mousie showed up and there were photographers there and it was a big show. Everybody was for it, and Ed Van Every wrote a story in The Sun in which he said this was a great move because the Army would teach Bummy discipline and get him in good physical shape.

That was a laugh. The first thing the Army did was split Bummy and Shorty and Mousie up and send them to different camps.

They sent Bummy to Camp Hulen, Texas, and their idea of discipline was to have Bummy cleaning latrines with a toothbrush.

You got me into this,” Bummy used to write Johnny. “I’m going crazy, so before I slug one of these officers you better get me out.”

Johnny didn’t get him out, but he got Mike Jacobs to get Bummy a leave to fight Zivic in the Polo Grounds for Army Emergency Relief. Bummy used to fight best at about 147 pounds, and when he came back from Texas he weighed close to 200.

“You look sharp in that uniform, AI,” Zivic said to him when they signed for the bout.

“I’m glad you like it,” Bummy said. “You put me in it.”

You can imagine how Bummy was looking to get back at Zivic, but he couldn’t do it. He hadn’t fought for eight months, and Zivic was a real good fighter and he put lumps all over Bummy and in the tenth round the referee stopped it. They had to find Bummy to take him back to camp. They found him with his wife and they shipped him back, but then the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor and the Army decided it had enough trouble without Bummy and they turned him loose.

Bummy fought some of his best fights after that. He couldn’t get his license back in New York but he fought in places like Holyoke and Bridgeport and Washington and Philadelphia and Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Boston. He didn’t like it in those places, but he had to live, and so no matter where he fought he would always drive back to Brownsville after the fight and sometimes it would be four o’clock in the morning before he and Johnny would get in.

It’s something when you think about Bummy and Brownsville, when you think of the money he made, almost a quarter of a million dollars, and the things he had thrown at him and the elegant places he could have gone. It was like what Lew Burston said, though, when he said the Supreme was Bummy’s Opera, and the Supreme is a movie house on Livonia Avenue.

You have to remember, too, that Brownsville is only a subway ride from Broadway, but Bummy had never seen a real Broadway show until Chicky Bogad sent Bummy and Barbara to see Hellzapoppin the night before the second Farber fight.

“How long has this been going on?” Bummy said when they came out.

“How long has what been going on?” Chicky said.

“People like that on a stage,” Bummy said.

“People on a stage?” Chicky said. “For years and years. For long before they had movies.”

“Is that right? I’ll have to see more of that,” Bummy said, but he never did.

All of those fights Bummy had out of town were murders, too, because Bummy wasn’t hard to hit, but the people liked to see him get hit and when the Republicans got back in power in New York, Fritzie Zivic put in a word for Bummy, saying he guessed he had egged the kid on, and Bummy got his license back. That’s when they matched him with Montgomery.

“What you have to do in this one,” they kept telling Bummy, “is walk right out, throw your right, and miss with it. Montgomery will grab your right arm, and that will turn you around southpaw and then you hit him with the hook.”

They knew that was the only chance Bummy had, because if Montgomery got by the first round he figured to move around Bummy and cut him up. They drilled Bummy on it over and over, and they kept talking about it in the dressing room that night.

“Now what are you going to do?” Johnny Attell said to Bummy.

“I’m gonna walk right out and miss with my right,” Bummy said. “He’ll grab my arm and that’ll turn me around southpaw and I’ll throw my hook.”

“Okay,” Johnny said. “I guess you know it.”

Bummy sat down then on one of the benches. He had his gloves on and his robe over him and he was ready to go when there was a knock on the door.

“Don’t come out yet, Davis,” one of the commission guys said through the door. “They’re selling some War Bonds first.”

When Bummy heard that he looked up from where he was sitting and you could see he was sweating, and then he keeled right over on the floor on his face. Johnny and Freddie Brown rushed over and picked him up and they stretched him on the rubbing table and Freddie brought him to, and now they weren’t worried about whether Bummy would do what they told him. All they were worried about was whether they could get him in the ring.

They got him in the ring and Burston had him repeat what he was supposed to do. When the bell rang he walked right out and threw his right and missed around the head. Montgomery grabbed the arm and turned Bummy around, and when he did Bummy threw the hook and Montgomery went down. When he got up Bummy hit him again and that’s all there was to it.

Montgomery was 10 to 1 over Bummy that night and they couldn’t believe it. Bummy got $15,000 for that fight and he borrowed $1,500 from Jacobs and the next day when Mike paid him off he told Bummy to forget the grand and a half.

“Take it out,” Bummy said, throwing the dough on the desk. “You know damn well if he kayoed me like you thought he would you were gonna take it out.”

Bummy thought he’d never be broke again. He got $34,000 the night Beau Jack beat him and $15,000 when Armstrong stopped him. Then somebody sold him the idea of buying that bar and grill and somebody else sold him a couple of race horses and even after Dudy bought the bar and grill from him he was broke.

He should have been in training for Morris Reif the night he was shot. Johnny wanted him to fight Reif, just for the dough and to go as far as he could, but Bummy said that a lot of his friends would bet him and he didn’t think he could beat Reif, so instead he was sitting in the back of Dudy’s drinking beer and singing.

Bummy used to think he could sing like a Jewish cantor. He couldn’t sing, but he was trying that night, sitting with some other guys and a cop who was off duty, when he looked through that lattice work at the bar and he saw the four guys with the guns.

“What the hell is this?” he said.

He got up and walked out and you know what happened. When Bummy stiffened the first guy one of the others fired and the bullet went into Bummy’s neck. Then the three picked up the guy Bummy hit and they ran for the car. One of the guys with Bummy stuffed his handkerchief in the collar of Bummy’s shirt to stop the blood, and Bummy got up and ran for the car. When he did they opened up from the car, and Bummy went flat on his face in the mud.

When the car started to pull away the cop who had been in the back ran out and fired. He hit one guy in d1e spine, and that guy died in Texas, and he hit another in the shoulder. The guy with the slug in his shoulder walked around with it for weeks, afraid to go to a doctor, and then one night a cop in plain clothes heard a couple of guys talking in a bar.

“You know that jerk is still walking around with the bullet in his shoulder?” the one said. “What bullet?” the second one said.

“The Bummy Davis bullet,” the first said.

The cop followed them out, and when they split up he followed the first guy and got it out of him. Then the cops picked up the guy with the bullet and he sang. They picked up the other two in Kansas City and they’re doing 20 to life. They were just punks, and they called themselves the Cowboys, the same as Bununy’s old gang did.

It was a big funeral Bummy had. Johnny and Lew Burston paid for it. The papers had made Bummy a hero, and the newsreels took pictures outside the funeral parlor and at the cemetery. It looked like everybody in Brownsville was there.

This piece originally appeared in True. It is reprinted here with permission of Gayl Heinz.

More Heinz:

One Throw (Short Story)

The Happiest Hooligan of them All (Pepper Martin)

Death of a Racehorse

Speaking of Sports (Howard Cosell)

Maybe Tomorrow, Maybe the Next Day (Jeremy Vernon)

As a bonus, please check out out this terrific introduction to the Heinz collection What A Time It Was:  The Best of W.C. Heinz on Sports.

By Jeff MacGregor

W. C. Heinz is the last surviving member of a golden generation of American writers. A newspaper reporter and columnist, a war correspondent and magazine feature writer, a novelist and short story writer, he was a friend and colleague of Damon Runyon, Grantland Rice, Red Smith, A. J. Liebling, Jimmy Cannon, Frank Graham, and Paul Gallico. At mid-century he was one of the best and most admired writers in America.

Across the arc of a sixty-year career his fiction has been praised by Ernest Hemingway and his combat reportage compared to that of Ernie Pyle. He wrote the book that made Vince Lombardi a sports icon, and co-wrote the classic novel MASH. He wrote about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Selma peace march and about the Allied march into Germany to end the Second World War. He wrote about success and failure, life and death, and all the dire business of humanity in the busiest half-century of mankind’s history. Mostly, though, Bill Heinz wrote about sports.

Wilfred Charles Heinz was born on January 11, 1915, in Mount Vernon, New York. The only child of Elizabeth and Frederick Heinz, he recalls ancient afternoons spent with his friends flipping baseball cards after school—winner takes Cobb, Ruth, or Johnson, Speaker or Frisch, a fortune’s worth now—the pasteboard cards tossed into the air and then gathered up for the breathless run home. Heinz, fine-boned and slender, played hockey all the way up through high school, so he understood athletics as a physical and competitive expression of self. But he was also an avid reader, devouring sets of Tennyson, Twain, Shakespeare, Balzac, and Poe, which introduced him to a world of ideas, and to self-expression of a different sort. For Christmas in 1932 he received the Omnibus of Sport, a sports writing anthology edited by the legendary Grantland Rice. In it, Heinz discovered the intersection of two things he loved: good writing and sports.

In 1937 Heinz graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont, where he had written and edited the sports page of the school newspaper. In that autumn of ’37, he took his first real job as a messenger boy for one of the afternoon papers down in the city, the New York Sun. He was paid fifteen dollars a week to run errands. Soon promoted to copyboy, by 1939 he was working as a cub reporter, covering school board meetings and apartment fires and learning how to write on deadline. He learned to listen to people, to what they said and how they said it and what they really meant. And most importantly, he learned how to tell a story.

For the next four years, Bill Heinz worked as a general assignment reporter at the Sun. He wrote about corrupt politicians and roller coaster trackwalkers, city bond issues and streetcorner shootings. He occasionally covered basketball or wrote a piece on the new winter sensation, parallel skiing, but he felt stuck and unfulfilled and wasn’t sure where or how far his writing could take him. The Second World War changed all that. He became the Sun‘s junior war correspondent in 1943, covering carrier operations in the Atlantic. His early dispatches were crisp and informative, optimistic, and heavy on the upbeat hometown profiles of Your Boys at Sea. By 1944, though, when Heinz started following the ground war across Europe after the Normandy invasion, his work took on a new gravity, the words tempered by the horrible reality of war seen firsthand. What Heinz saw on the push east to Berlin would inform his work from then on. He stripped away the artifice, did away with any writerly “style” until he made himself transparent. This would characterize the best of his work for the rest of his life.

It is this streamlined lyricism and meticulous devotion to detail that marked Heinz’s work after he returned from Europe in the spring of 1945. He was assigned a sports beat, and quickly became one of New York’s most highly regarded writers. (When asked, in 1946, to recommend a writer for an upcoming magazine job, Damon Runyon, unable to speak because of terminal throat cancer, wrote on a cocktail napkin, “W. C. Heinz very good.” He underlined “very good” three times.)

By 1948 Heinz had his own daily sports column in the New York Sun, fittingly positioned in a double truck layout opposite that of his mentor, Grantland Rice. He wrote magazine pieces and fine short stories as well, raising a family and building a national reputation. One of his columns from that year, “Death of a Racehorse,” which is included in this collection, remains, with all due respect to Bill’s good friend Red Smith, perhaps the best piece of daily newspaper writing you’ll ever read. It is a 700-word master class in how to write. It is observant and precise in detail, lyrical and beautifully metered in its language, and, in its final paragraph, piercingly eloquent about futility, about struggle and loss, and about death.

For over two years, five times a week, Heinz wrote his column in the best sports city in the world. New York was a mecca for everything from football and baseball to hockey and track, to harness racing to the dog show to the six-day bicycle races up at the 168th Street Armory. Heinz wrote about all of it exceptionally well. But what Heinz best loved to write about was boxing. It appealed to his storyteller’s sense with its simplicity, its finality, and its colorful—to say nothing of comic—characters; its sleek and shadowy money men with their pneumatic molls, its artful managers and dogged trainers and idiot savant cornermen, its avid fans and its second-generation fighters, young men bootstrapping themselves up from the gutter and into their split-level, wall-to-wall American dream and then back again.

At places like Stillman’s Gym on Eighth Avenue, Heinz spent his afternoons with his sleeves rolled up, his tie loosened, and his elbows propped on the damp canvas, taking notes, listening to the way the boxers and their handlers spoke, watching how they moved and what punches they threw. He was an extraordinary student of the form. He saw in boxing’s regulated savagery the purest expression of man’s endless appetite for combat, which he witnessed repeatedly during the war.

Boxing, to any writer but most especially to Bill Heinz, was a tailor-made meeting of the sacred and profane. It has always exerted an irresistible pull on writers of every generation from Jack London to Ernest Hemingway to Norman Mailer to Joyce Carol Oates. Looking back over the years since 1900, though, the simplest way to catalog the relative accomplishments of writers on the subject of boxing is this: There is W. C. Heinz. There is A. J. Liebling. There is everyone else.

The New York Sun closed its doors in January 1950, an early victim of the declining circulation that would reduce the number of daily papers in New York City from ten to three over the next two decades. By the time of its demise, Bill Heinz had already become a successful freelancer for magazines like Collier’s, Sport, the Saturday Evening Post, Argosy, True, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, and Look. Most of the pieces in this collection come from Bill’s magazine work.

Between 1950 and 1958 when his novel The Professional was published to wide critical acclaim (including an effusive congratulatory telegram from one of his most ardent admirers, Ernest Hemingway, and a fan letter from an earnest young author named Elmore Leonard), W. C. Heinz perfected his signature approach to the craft of storytelling. Like a master mason, Heinz built each of his long-form stories as though he were building a wall of mortarless stone. Every word and phrase was carefully set on the words and phrases that went before them. At his best, he was the equal of a Joseph Mitchell or an E. B. White. What can top the two paragraphs which open “Brownsville Bum”?

Heinz had an ear for dialogue, for the truth of what people said and how to write it. He was a student of the great Frank Graham, another sports columnist who had helped perfect the so-called “conversation piece,” stories built around long blocks of dialogue unbroken by writerly asides or commentary. In the days before the tape recorder (and guarded, litigious athletes), it was still possible to report the spirit, if not the letter, of what your subjects said—especially if you made them sound better, or smarter, or more colorful. In this technique, Heinz was, and remains, unmatched.

Through that decade and into the next, Bill Heinz profiled, it seems, every star athlete in America. Stan Musial and Pete Reiser and Eddie Arcaro and Charlie Conerly and Joe Namath. Boxers from Joe Louis to Carmen Basilio to Floyd Patterson, Sugar Ray Robinson and Ingemar Johannson to Ezzard Charles and the original Rockys, Marciano and Graziano. In every case what characterizes the writing of Bill Heinz is its drive and its deceptive simplicity. Never strident or overwrought, never hagiographic or adulatory, Bill Heinz wrote sports with a gimlet eye.

He also wrote with the same sure voice about the practice of medicine in his novels The Surgeon, Emergency, and MASH, a book he wrote in partnership with Dr. Richard Hornberger under the pseudonym Richard Hooker. This last title offers a rare glimpse into the sly sense of humor for which Heinz is still best known among his friends. And though these books, along with The Professional, American Mirror, and Once They Heard the Cheers were well-wrought and successful, perhaps Heinz’s greatest triumph was Run to Daylight! his week-in-the-life collaboration with the legendary Vince Lombardi. It made Lombardi a household name. Other members of the press eventually chose to make him a household god.

Even Bill Heinz, who should be a role model for gifted young writers everywhere, has suffered at the inconstant hands of history. Most of the publications for which he did his best work have long since ceased to be. Collier’s, Argosy, Look, True, the Sun, and the Saturday Evening Post have all been lost to us. Heinz never had the stable, high-visibility, long-term platform his friend Red Smith did. He is, at least in part, responsible for the careers of New Journalists like Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe and Frank Deford. Pioneering a new voice and a new approach, he created new opportunities for every writer to follow. And with this collection of his best writing on sports, he will no longer be the best kept secret in American literature.

The Banter Gold Standard: Quitting the Paper

“Quitting the Paper”

By Paul Hemphill

On the Kansas City Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and will help him if he gets out of it in time.

—Ernest Hemingway

Late one night in the fall of 1969, with the rain splattering against the front window and the gray light of a television set dancing across the bar, I sat in a booth at Emile’s French Café in downtown Atlanta with a feisty young newspaper reporter named Morris Shelton and methodically proceeded to get paralyzed on Beefeater martinis. By now this had become a daily ritual. I was thirty-three years old. I was the featured columnist for the Atlanta Journal, the largest daily newspaper between Miami and Washington. I had been one of a dozen journalists around the country to be selected to study at Harvard under a Nieman Fellowship the previous year. I fancied myself a sort of Jimmy Breslin of the South, cranking out daily one-thousand-word human dramas on everything from flophouse drunks to Lester Maddox, sufficiently loved and hated by enough people to have that sense of pop celebrity with which most newspapermen delude themselves. I had the most envied newspaper job in Atlanta, if not in the South, and now and then I would see a younger writer in a town like Greensboro or Savannah or Montgomery imitating my style just as I had once stolen from Hemingway and Breslin and too many others to talk about. I had been sloppy and inaccurate, from time to time, but I had also written some good stuff. I had hung around all-night eateries and gone to Vietnam, and hitchhiked and lain around with hookers and shot pool with Minnesota Fats and sat in cool suburban dens with frustrated housewives.

And yet, with the next column due by dawn, I had run out of gas. I don’t know why men make dramatic decisions at the age of thirty-three—change jobs, leave families, kill themselves—but they often do. “You have to remember,” I recalled a friend’s saying as he dumped a secure advertising job and ran off to Hollywood to write scripts, “we are no longer promising young men.” I figured I had written a total of two and a half million words for five newspapers in the previous ten years, at a time when you had to move to another paper and another town for a ten-dollar-a-week raise, and about all I could show for it was bad credit and a drinking problem. Working for the mill, as it were, I was earning from Atlanta Newspapers Inc. a net of $157.03 a week; I was drinking too much, staying out all night, fighting with my wife, and choking on the notion that perhaps it was as a “well-read local columnist” that I had reached my artistic peak.

“No ideas for tomorrow?” Morris Shelton said, once we had run out of fanciful ways to cuss the paper. Morris was about ten years younger than I, an aggressive young Texan who hadn’t yet chased enough ambulances and beat enough deadlines to be weary of it. He was one of the younger ones on the paper who defended me when the old-timers there called me a prima donna and, once I bailed out, much more vigorous stuff.

“Just a title,” I said.

“You always start with the title?”

“This time I do.”


“Something like ‘Quitting the Paper.’ ”

“‘Quitting’? You quitting?”

“You’re my star witness, Morris.”



And so we darted through the rain, up to the fourth floor of the old Atlanta Newspapers building, and while he dabbled around the newsroom I called my wife of the time to tell her the apocalypse had arrived (“Come on home and I’ll have a whole bottle ready”). I turned to my typewriter and rattled a stark memo—“Dear Mac … I’m quitting newspapers because I am sick”—and then we went off to get supremely drunk at Manuel’s Tavern. Manuel Maloof, counselor and padrone to scores of journalists over the years, was at first astounded and then fatherly. “You got a half-million people out there gonna be disappointed,” he said. I said, “Let ’em all chip in a penny a week.” When Shelton allowed as how maybe he ought to quit, too, I told him it wasn’t his turn yet.

Freelancing isn’t recommended for everybody, especially those with mortgages and kids and an attraction for whiskey.

The next morning broke cold and bleak but, somehow, refreshing. There was the feeling that an exorcism had taken place; that I had successfully negotiated the move from one plateau of my life to another; that after ten years of writing magazine pieces and dabbling in nonfiction books, I would then move on to something else, like writing films or novels or both. I heard from Jack Tarver, of Atlanta Newspapers Inc., around ten o’clock, “astonished,” wanting to know if there had been a personality clash—if so, he said, he could switch me over to the Constitution—but I told him the problem was bigger than that, and we quit as friends. By noon I had an agent in New York, by two o’clock I had a bank loan of $2,500, by five o’clock I had a modest office above a tire-recapping place, and by bedtime I had enough insurance—disability, hospitalization, life—to take care of a Marine platoon in combat. At some point during the day I drifted back to the paper to clean out my desk, while the old-timers glared tight-lipped at one with the audacity to quit (“Well,” one was later quoted as saying, “it takes a certain breed of man to be a newspaperman”), and one of the young ones blurted that it “takes a lot of guts to quit like that.” I said, “Christ, it takes a lot of guts to stay. I can steal the kind money they’re paying me.” I thought, filled with myself, it was a Line to Remember Hemphill By.

Freelancing isn’t recommended for everybody, especially those with mortgages and kids and an attraction for whiskey (“Make your wife lock up the liquor cabinet and take the key to work with her,” was the only advice I had for a friend who recently made the move). All of a sudden there is no Big Daddy to make you write, give you a paid vacation, pay your phone bill for business calls, make sure your typewriter is clean and working, let you take the day off, refund your business expenses, give you a Christmas bonus, deduct your taxes, cover your hospital bills, pay your postage, clean the office, or pay you every Friday at noon. You are out there, alone, you against the editors and publishers in New York, and newspapers and advertising agencies all over the country are stocked with people who had once hankered for the day they could “get away and write.” Making it as a free-lance writer requires many things—talent, energy, a financial cushion—but from my experience the most important quality is the motivation to go to the mines and write every day. It’s a pisser. “I can’t say I enjoy writing,” somebody once said. “I much prefer having written.” Your deadlines aren’t at the copy desk anymore. They are at the bank.

Upon making the plunge, I was in better shape than some. My first book was making the rounds in New York, beginning to show promise—meaning they knew me up there and I could wheedle more advance money from my publisher. During the first week my agent got me a snap assignment for a sports piece, which quickly led to an association with Sport magazine. One piece led to another, and in spite of the shrinking magazine market I found I always had a half-dozen pieces to work on. My book got rave reviews, mostly, and it led to other books and other connections. I wrote for Life and Cosmopolitan and Pageant and TV Guide (I once considered printing up calling cards saying I would do “Anything legal or halfway moral”), and the business, as we say, expanded. There are the hairy moments when the checks are slow, and I have been locked in combat with my old nemeses Johnnie Walker, and the old debts from those years of wandering and grubbing along on newspaper pay make it necessary for me to produce better than two thousand dollars a month to stay out of jail. But it occurred to me when I was offered a fat chance to go back to newspaper columnizing, in a big Eastern city, that I am doing precisely what I want to do: writing what I want to write, when and where I want to write it, which ought to be about all a serious writer should expect out of his life. Now and then you have to write a little tripe to pay the insurance premiums (one more piece about country music or one more about minor-league baseball and they will have to come and get me), but it is the price you pay for relative freedom. Marshall Frady, an Atlanta writer who really does talk as expansively as he writes, said it one time in Harper’s: “I think maybe writers ought to be scattered out over the land … [people who] just have this secret eccentricity to write … And all the time, covertly, you’re actually a kind of undercover agent stranded out in the cold, sending dispatches from the dark, brawling outback of life to Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dickens, all the others, letting them know what’s going on now.”

I am convinced that the newspaper is the writer’s boot camp. You learn how to use the language. You learn how to interview people. You learn how to work under pressure.

The temptation is to take out after the Journal and Constitution for their dedication to mediocrity over the years. God knows I’ve got a lot of good stories to tell. Atlanta and the South and the nation are teeming with talented ex-Atlanta newspapermen such as Jack Nelson, one of the country’s most respected investigative reporters (now, alas, with the Los Angeles Times), who would have stayed on with the Constitution in 1964 if he had only been shown a single sign of love. Earning ten thousand a year at the time, Nelson told Tarver he would turn down the Times for something like twenty dollars a week and was accused of using the job offer as a “wedge to get more money.” The paper made famous by Ralph McGill and his early-on pleas for racial moderation suddenly got a craw full of civil-rights coverage (i.e., “nigger news”) and was one of the few of any size in America not to staff the Selma-to-Montgomery march. A star editorial-page columnist there was a retired Marine officer, John Crown, who addressed the Vietnam War with all the compassion and neutrality of a Holmes Alexander. The paper’s best-loved columnist was old Hugh Park, waiting out retirement, who got a lot of laughs out of caricaturing the drunks and niggers and wife-beaters parading before Municipal Court every Monday morning. One of the most lyrical and sensitive writers they ever had was Harold Martin, but he was reduced to writing about squirrels and grandchildren before he quit in a huff when ANI wouldn’t increase his pay from the twenty-five dollars per column he was getting twenty-five years ago. (“Consequently,” he said, “I began writing columns worth twenty-five dollars.”) And there was the night my first wife and I had to break away early from a Christmas bash at the home of my managing editor Bill Fields, because I had to go and take phone calls until three a.m. on high-school football games so we could have some Christmas money. “Why, that’s terrible,” said the wife of the man who had made it all possible. “What a waste of talent.” Yes’m, that’s what me and the little woman was thinking. Bunch of dumb-asses. No wonder the newspaper business is in such a mess. They can’t make up their minds whether they want unionized robots or writers. There have been a lot of good people with the Atlanta newspapers—McGill, Martin, Nelson, Eugene Patterson—and there are good ones now. But seldom have the good ones worked in management. There were too many times, in my day there, when the motto should have been (rather than “Covers Dixie Like the Dew”) something like “No News Is Good News.” If it cost money, or might cause legal trouble, it was likely not to be covered.

But all of that is another story, and from what I hear from others who learned to write on other newspapers, the Atlanta Journal isn’t much different from the rest. A newspaper is (or was, before automation set in) a great place for a Linotype operator but a lousy place for a self-respecting writer to work. It is the first line of news gathering before the glamour boys move in for their glossy “in-depth” pieces and Dan Rather comes along flashing his teeth, and I have the greatest respect and gratitude for the grit and tenacity and dampered fury with which a great one like Jack Nelson firebombs the “public servants” hunkered down behind their stacks of press releases on Capitol Hill. But there aren’t many Jack Nelsons. Most of us are inviting suicide or alcoholism or early senility if we continue to labor for too long at a newspaper, thinking we are going to uncover corruption and change the system, because most newspapers themselves are tidy, model plantations. “Boys,” this beautiful old fellow on the Constitution copy desk would tell us summer interns as we waited for the last edition at one a.m., his voice broken from whiskey and his gnarled fingers yellow from cigarettes, “the newspaper is a monster. You fall in love with it, it’s so big and strong, and you promise you’re gonna feed it every day. But what you feed it is you. Every day you come in and feed it a little more, and then one day you’re out of food. There’s nothing left to feed the monster.” I don’t know whether he did it for emphasis, but he always then broke into a terrible coughing spell that was enough to scare the living hell out of a twenty-year-old journalism major.


What you do, then, is use the paper before it uses you—take what it has to offer about the craft of writing, which is almost everything—and then, as Hemingway learned, “get out in time.” I am convinced that the newspaper is the writer’s boot camp. You learn how to use the language. You learn how to interview people. You learn how to work under pressure. You refine what Hemingway once called a writer’s “built-in shit-detector.” You see things few others see, every day, for as long as you work at it. Unlike magazine writing, with its long time lag, you get an instant reaction to everything you write. But all of these are the fundamentals of good writing, and sooner or later many of us become restless with the discovery that there are the facts and then there is the truth. There isn’t time or space or enough perspective to rush the truth into a newspaper. And so you either stay with the paper and go crazy with that knowledge or you simply thank the paper for its help and move on to places where there is more time to do the job properly. It seems to be an altogether natural progression.

The first full-time boss I had in the newspaper business was Benny Marshall. Benny had grown up in the country outside of Birmingham in Alabama. He attended little Howard College and, during the 1950s, became sports editor and sports columnist for the Birmingham News. A witty gnome who could cry at the sight of a wino passed out in an alley, and then make you cry when he wrote about it, Benny was a one-man show when I joined him as a writer of high-school sports in 1958: absolutely committed to reading, writing, editing, and planning the sports section. He would be in the office making up the paper at six o’clock in the morning, up in the composing room to oversee the makeup, back down to remake the home edition, out to Alabama football practice seventy miles away in Tuscaloosa, and back at his typewriter turning out his daily column as the sun went down. He was like father to me. He boosted my ego and covered up my mistakes and gently showed me the way.

Benny was too good for the Birmingham News or any other newspaper. He was built more along the lines of a novelist, or at least a shimmering magazine writer; instead it was his lot to write two-column forty-two-point Bodoni Bold headlines and interview football players and fight cold wars with fat-bellied compositors. He never said it to me, but I suspect that a sense of dread began to fall over him around the early 1960s, when he turned forty and I left the News to wander. A terrible gambler, drinker, and womanizer—as prolific at each as he was at writing beautiful prose—he was strapped with debts and family obligations and a deteriorating body at a time when, perhaps, if he had gone on to the books and other things, he might have been doing great work. This was not the only cause of Benny Marshall’s demise, but it certainly contributed.

One day in the fall of 1969, just before I was to quit the Atlanta Journal, I went through Birmingham on a column-writing expedition through the South. I hadn’t seen Benny in some time, although I had heard from him now and then (“Fan letter,” he scribbled on the envelope of a note to me in Vietnam, and “To One Who Passed This Way But Wouldn’t Stop” on the flyleaf of a paperback collection of his columns), and I was irked when they said he was in New York accepting some kind of an award. I was sitting at his typewriter, rushing to finish a column on Birmingham before Western Union closed and I would have to drive on down the road to Montgomery, when someone answered a phone and turned to me. “You may have a chance to help out an friend,” I was told. Benny was at the airport, drunk, insisting on coming to the office. Maybe I could take him out for coffee in order to get him out of there. Thirty minutes later the elevator doors opened, and there he was, reeling drunk, waving a cup of coffee at me. “Hemp,” he said, and we embraced.

Suddenly the executive editor of the News, Vincent Townsend, glowered from across the newsroom. Townsend was very good at glowering. He also had a son who floundered through more than one college, flunked the Birmingham News aptitude test, stumbled as a reporter, and finally, as part of his education before ascending to upper management, was put in charge of the paper’s weekly pick-the-winner football contest. (Of course, Vincent Townsend intended to see that the football contest succeeded.)

Mister Marshall,” Townsend boomed.

Benny weaved and spread his hands. “Chief,” he said.

“Have you ever been to Siluria, Mr. Marshall?”

“Shiluria. Sure I been to Shiluria.”

“How would you like to go back to Siluria?”

“Well, sir, I don’t like Shiluria very much.”

A fellow who ran a service station down the road in Siluria had won the week’s football contest, and Townsend wanted Benny and a photographer to drive down that afternoon for a picture and a story. One of the others talked Townsend out of it, saying Benny was tired from his trip and that he would do it instead, and tried to straighten Benny up before driving him home. “You want to go in and watch a real ass-chewing?” Benny said to him. He stumbled out of the car, negotiated the walk to his front door, went straight to the bathroom, shut the door, put a .38 to his head, and pulled the trigger. The News, under Vincent Townsend’s orders, said fine things about Benny in a front-page editorial the next day. I quit newspapering five weeks later.

This story originally appeared in Southern Voices Magazine. You can also find it in the collection, Too Old to Cry.

It is reprinted here with permission from Hemphill’s estate. His wife, Susan Percy, watched the election last night at Manuel’s Tavern, Paul’s favorite hangout even after he quit drinking. “It’s about the only classic old neighborhood bar around,” said Percy. “It’s a great place to watch the election returns, surrounded by writers, lawyers, journalists, cops, city workers, political junkies and other disreputables. They even let the occasional Republican in.”

For more Hemphill, check out his archive at The Stacks Reader.

[Photo Credit: portrait of the author by Louis Favorite for the Atlanta Journal Constitution; Postcards From Here; Jonathan Phillips; Elvishwisdom]

Good as Gold

To celebrate our 10th anniversary I’m proud to announce a new feature called “The Banter Gold Standard.”

Three times a week we’ll reprint classic magazine and newspaper stories that you can’t find on-line. In the coming months you’ll be treated to gems from the likes of Pete Dexter, Luc Sante, Gary Cartwright, Grover Lewis, Charlie Pierce, Paul Solotaroff, Richard Ben Cramer, W.C. Heinz, John Lardner, Dan Jenkins, Pat Jordan, Peter Richmond, John Ed Bradley, Leigh Montville, Ira Berkow, Larry Merchant, Bill Nack, Richard Hoffer, Tom Boswell, Tony Kornheiser, Arnold Hano, Joe Flaherty, and Rich Cohen. And that’s just for starters.

The first piece will be up shortly.

In the meantime, dig these links to reprints we’ve already posted round here:


Richard Ben Cramer

The Ballad of Johnny France

Serious Business (Yankee Stadium)


Pete Dexter

Dying for Art’s Sake (LeRoy Neiman)

No Trespassing (Jim Brown)

The Apprenticeship of Randall Cobb (Tex Cobb)

Two for Toozday (John Matuszak)

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

The Old Man and the River (Norman Maclean)


W.C. Heinz

One Throw (Short Story)

The Happiest Hooligan of them All (Pepper Martin)

Death of a Racehorse

Speaking of Sports (Howard Cosell)

Maybe Tomorrow, Maybe the Next Day (Jeremy Vernon)



Pat Jordan

Trouble in Paradise (Steve and Cyndy Garvey)

Breaking the Wall (Burt Reynolds)

Bad (Rorion Gracie)

The Curious Childhood of an 11-Year Old Beauty Queen

The Horse Lovers (TV movie of the week)

Inside Marilyn Chambers

A Different Drummer

Running Cars

The Haircut

Dad’s Last Visit


George Kimball

Opening Day at Fenway Park

Fighting and Drinking with the Rats at Yankee Stadium


Carlo Rotella

Bedtime Story (Marvin Hagler)


John Schulian

One Night Only (Levon Helm)

My Ears are Bent (Joseph Mitchell)

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

The Professional (George Kimball)

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

Bet a Million (Vic Ziegel)


Robert Ward

Reggie Jackson in No-Man’s Land 

[Photo Via: Creative Flourishes]

Hustler’s Handbook

Here’s Pat Jordan’s 1971 Sports Illustrated pool room story, “A Clutch of Odd Birds”:

Joe McNeill’s mother used to say, there’s a Mort Berger in every town, and she may have been right. But those of us who knew him in the summer of 1962 liked to think she was wrong and secretly hoped he was unique. Berger was the proprietor of the only pool hall I can ever remember seeing in our small town in Fairfield County, Conn. He was a Jew from South Philadelphia who spoke out of the side of his mouth. On windy days he stuck bobby pins in his hair, which was deep reddish brown, the color of an Irish setter’s. But, at 33, he didn’t have much to stick bobby pins in. To compensate, Berger let the little patch of hair at the base of his neck grow until it would reach far down his back if he let it—which he didn’t. Instead, he combed it forward over his brow where he teased it into a tuft like a rooster’s comb. Actually, Berger resembled a rooster more than anything. He had watery blue eyes, a pointy nose and the gently curving, bottom-heavy build of a Rhode Island Red. He waddled.

Berger’s greatest fear was that a strong wind might come along and reveal his artifice. To defend against this possibility he ventured outside the pool hall as infrequently as possible. This tended to make his pale and mottled redhead’s skin so opaque that veins were visible beneath it. Whenever he did appear outside he walked about with his hand flattened over the top of his head like a man who had misplaced a migraine. Finally, in desperation, he had resorted to bobby pins. It was hard for anyone, at first, to talk casually to Berger without breaking up at the sight of the bobby pins, but after a few withering looks one learned to ignore them. The only person I ever heard question Berger about them was a college freshman who wandered into the pool hall one day, challenged Jack the Rat to a game of dollar nine ball and then, pointing to Berger’s hair, asked, “How come you got bobby pins in your head?” The place fell mute. It seemed even the skidding billiard balls froze in midflight. Berger’s face took on the color of his tuft. He fixed a beady-eyed stare on the offender and said in a voice the recollection of which still sends shivers down my spine, “You, my friend, are banished for life.” The humiliation! Worse even than Kant’s categorical imperative! It would have been better for the boob if Berger, yarmulke over his tuft, prayer shawl about his shoulders, had intoned the Hebrew prayers for the dead.

And for more on pool, here’s another gem from Patty, written twenty-four years later, “The Magician”:

At midnight on a bitterly cold January 15 the lobby of the Executive West Hotel near the Louisville, Kentucky, airport was crowded with men and a few women, all waiting anxiously for the guest of honor.

A man in a yellow windbreaker came through the front door and walked toward the registration desk. A murmur rose from the crowd. Everyone stared at him, a small brown man with slitlike eyes, a wispy Fu Manchu moustache, and no front teeth. He wore a soiled T-shirt and wrinkled, baggy jeans. He moved hunched over, his eyes lowered.

People clustered around him. Men flipped open their cell phones and called their friends to say “He’s here!” They introduced him to their girlfriends. The man looked embarrassed. Another man thrust his cell phone at him and said, “Please say hello to my son; he’s been waiting up all night.” The small man mumbled a few words in broken English. Then the hotel clerk asked him his name. He said, “Reyes.” Someone called out, “Just put down ‘the Magician.'”

Efren Reyes, fifty, was born in poverty, the fifth of nine children, in a dusty little town in the Philippines without electricity or running water. When he was five, his parents sent him to live with his uncle, who owned a pool hall in Manila. Efren cleaned up the pool hall and watched. He was fascinated by the way the players made the balls move around the table and fall into pockets—and by the way money changed hands after a game. At night he slept on a pool table and dreamed of combinations. He had mastered the game in his head before he finally picked up a pool cue, at the age of eight. He stood on a pile of Coke crates to shoot, two hours in the morning and two hours at night. At nine he played his first money game, and at twelve he won $100; he sent $90 home to his family. Soon he was the best pool shooter in Manila. His friends would wait for him in the pool hall after school, hand him his cue when he walked in the door, and back him in gambling games. He was the best pool shooter in the Philippines when he quit school, at fifteen. By the time he was in his twenties, no one in the Philippines would play him any longer, so he toured Asia. He wrote down in a notebook the names of the best pool shooters in the world, and proceeded to beat them one by one. He became a legend. People who had seen him play recounted the impossible shots he had made. They called him a genius, the greatest pool shooter who had ever lived. Even people who had never seen him play, including many in the United States, soon heard the legend of Efren Reyes, “the Magician.”

[Photo Credit: Adam Bartos]

I Don’t Feel Funny, but I AM Funny

Head on over to Garden and Gun for Pat Jordan’s latest–this one is on Mike Veeck:

“I know a little bit about anger,” Mike Veeck tells me. “I have a passing acquaintance with anger, too,” I reply. We discuss how anger can be an energy source. Some use it in destructive ways. Beat the wife, the kids, the dog; blow planes out of the sky. Some put it to better use. Throw the money changers out of the temple, demand justice for the weak, write a book, pitch a no-hitter, make people laugh. That last one is Mike Veeck’s cause. He’s demented about making people laugh.

Veeck (as in wreck, as the title of his father’s autobiography puts it) is sixty-one, getting round, with eyes like a ferret, a goatee, and dark hair I know he dyes. He has a limp. Once on the fourteenth fairway, a guy in a golf cart reached for a lighter for his cigar and ran over him. Veeck wrote a column about it for the Lowcountry Sun, a monthly paper distributed around Charleston, South Carolina. He published the guy’s name and phone number so people could berate him for breaking Veeck’s leg. Funny, angry, or both?

We’re sitting under a hot noonday sun in the exposed left-field bleachers of Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park, home of the minor-league Charleston RiverDogs, the single-A affiliate of the New York Yankees of which Veeck is part-owner and president. A groundskeeper manicures the field below. A few kids are tidying up the stadium for a 5:05 p.m. game against the Delmarva Shorebirds. Veeck and I are catching up. We’ve known each other fifteen years but don’t see each other much. He travels a lot, to conventions and conferences, where he makes people laugh.

[Photo Credit: Sully Sullivan]

Bronx Banter Interview: Mickey Herskowitz

Head on over to Sports on Earth and check out my Q&A with Mickey Herskowitz about Jock, his short-lived but wonderful magazine.

Here’s Mickey talking about Woody Allen and Paul Simon:

Q: I like the non-sports-writing celebrities you featured in the magazine, like William F. Buckley and Woody Allen.

A: I called Woody Allen’s agent, [Jack] Rollins and [Charles] Joffe. I don’t know whether I talked to Rollins or Joffe. I told him I was running a magazine called Jock and wanted to know if Woody would be available to write a piece about what it was like growing up playing stickball in New York. He said, “I doubt it, but I promise you I’ll mention it to him.” An hour later I got a call from Rollins or Joffe, and he said, “Yeah, Woody would love to do it. He’s doing a play, ‘Play it Again, Sam,’ and does two shows on Sunday. Come between the matinee and the evening performance, bring a photographer and you can get your story and your pictures.”

Q: So it was ghostwritten by you?

A: No. I went there and Woody dictated it to me, it wasn’t ghostwritten. And he said, “What are you doing to do for photographs?” I told him I thought we’d just take a couple of shots of him there in his dressing room. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he said, “not if you’re doing a story on stickball. I know a perfect brownstone about four or five blocks away, let’s go down there.” So about six of us walked down past Eighth Avenue to this brownstone. I had two of my kids with me, they were like 10 and 11, and two of their friends, and they were the rest of the teams. Woody had a stick and a ball, and one of the kids pitched to him and the others played in the field. And that’s where we got the pictures.

Q: All-schoolyard.

A: Now, we did this shoot before the Mets had won the pennant, and after they won I get a call from one of Woody’s managers. He said, “Woody wanted to know if he could ask you a big favor?” I said, “Sure.” “Can you get him four tickets to the World Series?” Honest to God I had to bite my tongue. Are you kidding me? You don’t think that Woody Allen would mean more to the Mets than Mickey Herskowitz from Houston, Texas? For some reason that didn’t occur to him. So I called the Mets PR guy and got him tickets to every home game. Next week I got a handwritten “thank you” note from Woody.

Q: You also had an encounter with Paul Simon, right?

A: I sure did. I was thinking of stories, and it dawned on me that Rollins and Joffe also managed Paul Simon. “The Graduate” had come out, and the song “Mrs. Robinson” was everywhere. So I called up and asked if they thought Paul would be willing to do a story for me on what it was like growing up as a Yankee fan. And Rollins or Joffe said, “Well, I don’t know. I didn’t think Woody would do a story and he did. We’ll ask Paul.” The next day I’m sitting in my office … the secretary put a call through and the voice said, “Mickey?” I said, “Yeah.”

“This is Paul.”

“Paul, who?”

“Paul Simon.”

I was stunned that Paul Simon called. I said: “Paul, jeez, terrific of you to call, and call back so quickly. And to call back yourself. Everybody usually goes through three or four layers of gatekeepers, I’m really impressed.” He said, “Well don’t be. It’s an everyday courtesy.” He talked about what I had pitched and said, “I think it’s a groovy idea and I’d love to do it.” And so I explained what I wanted but also said I’d love it if he could talk about the Joe DiMaggio line, which everyone was so touched by. It took everybody back to nostalgia in their lives.

Q: What did he say about it?

A: He said the line just came to him. He hadn’t had DiMaggio in mind, but his name came to him; he had to have a long enough name to fit the melody. It was funny because he told me that a month or so after the song hit big he was on a TV show with Mickey Mantle and Mantle said, “How come you used DiMaggio’s name in your song and not mine?” Simon said he had to explain to him that it had to do with the melody and not the name.

Q: That’s funny that Mantle asked him. Because he was also a player of Simon’s generation more than DiMaggio.

A: That’s right. Anyhow, we didn’t talk long, maybe about 10 minutes. I was out of things to say. But I was so flattered and grateful for the call, I felt like I had to say something. So I told him that “Mrs. Robinson” was my favorite song. I made it up; it was such a dumb, bulls— thing to say, but I felt I had to say something complimentary to him for calling. There was a pause on the other line. And the next thing he said was: “You didn’t like ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’?” You talk about the insecurity of an artist?

Q: He was straight, he wasn’t joking?

A: I said, “Oh, no, no, no. ‘Mrs. Robinson’ was my favorite sports song. I love ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters.’” And the truth is, I didn’t know what he was talking about. I had been hearing it for weeks but didn’t know the name of it.

Here’s more on how Jock came to be.

Bronx Banter: Before we get to Jock magazine, let’s talk about your early career in Houston.

Mickey Herskowitz: I don’t need to exaggerate what a sports-nuts state Texas is. In fact, the most famous line I ever wrote was when one of the Super Bowl’s came here, I tried to explain Houston and one of my stories started, “We never knew how important Religion was in Texas until people started comparing it to high school football.”
And so way back, I was with the Houston Post.

BB: This was before Wells Twombly, right?

MH: Well before Wells, about ten years before he came along and then he was at the Houston Chronicle. The funny thing is I hired Wells to write for Jock and then had to renege when we started running out of money. He was really hurt. I couldn’t tell him that we were going broke at the time so I had to make up some sleazy excuse. Years later, he asked me about it and I told him the truth. So anyway, I was at the Houston Post and a couple of guys came to me and wanted to have a magazine about sports in Texas. This was the year Elvin Hayes was leading the University of Houston to prominence in college basketball. So a couple of advertising guys came to me and they had a little bit of money.

BB: You were a columnist at this time for the Post, right?

MH: I was in my twenties but a columnist.

BB: You’re younger than Dan Jenkins then.

MH: I was the next generation. Blackie [Sherrod], Dan, a wonderful writer in Fort-Worth named Jim Trinkle, Orville Henry in Fayetteville and Dave Campbell in Waco, Dan Cook in San Antonio, a named Jack Gallagher in Houston, those were the top-rated writers in the state as far as sports went. Bud Shrake came a little later. Gary Cartwright came after that. I don’t know if I was their mascot but they all looked after me.

BB: And you grew up in Houston?

MH: I was born there in the late 1930s. I remember Blackie never missing a chance to pay me a compliment. And years later when Dan was at Sports Illustrated he actually referred to me in print as the best baseball writer in America. Dan told me that on Mondays or Tuesdays when the out of state newspapers came into the office there’d be a scramble to get the Houston Post to see what my ledes were on the Astros ballgames. He really told me that. They brought me up there and offered me a job and I reluctantly turned it down because I was doing a TV show and a radio show in Houston along with the column and the money couldn’t match the three jobs I had back home. The three jobs in Houston were probably easier to handle than one in New York because of the cost of living.

BB: This was before Jock?

MH: Yes, and getting back to Jock, I had these advertising guys come to me about doing a magazine about sports in Texas and if it made sense to do something about sports anywhere that’s where you would start. It was called Sport Folio. I didn’t have any literary figures but I had all the top sports writers in Houston and Dallas, Austin. It was a monthly.

BB: Did you model it after Sport magazine?

MH: No. I stayed at the Post, this was a part-time job. Truth is, I modeled it after Esquire, which is what I did with Jock, as well. Sport Folio lasted about a year. Par for the course, ran out of money the second year. Then about a year after that I got a call from Chris Schenkel. Some money people out of Dallas were going to put out a magazine out called Chris Schenkel’s Sport Scene. Chris was the Bob Costas of his day, the go-to-anchor of his time. Did the Olympics forever, a lot of golf, was a terrific football play-by-play announcer, basketball too. SI did a great cover story on him. At one time he was the biggest name in sports broadcasting. He was the anti-Cosell. Totally factual, understated, non-dramatic. And a golden voice. So Chris called and asked if I would commute to Dallas an edit the magazine. And I did. I had Blackie and Jenkins and Steve Perkins who was a fine writer from Dallas and been in New Orleans.

BB: SI would let Jenkins moonlight for you?

MH: I say I had Jenkins, he maybe did one story for me on TCU but he did it under the radar. He wasn’t freelancing for anyone else.

BB: Did you have Gary Cartwright?

MH: No. I want to put this the right way so it doesn’t seem like a criticism but at that time Gary was still young and he was fourth or fifth in line behind Dan, Blackie and Bud Shrake. Thing about Gary is that he just got better and better and he’s still around of course. But we only had four or five big stories per issue so I didn’t have a big line up. Sports Scene was in mind a success because it was really classy. The people who owned it put a lot of money into it. It was glossy. We could go anywhere and write about anything. I covered the Olympics for that magazine in ’68. And what happened was an advertising guy in New York saw Sports Scene. Keep in mind New York magazine had just made a big splash and was a big success. There may have been city magazines at the time but they were small. In Houston, you had one that strong-armed ads for dentists and doctors and lawyers. Had little fashion stories, luncheons.

BB: They were provincial.

MH: Right. They were not for reading. They were beautiful and glossy but no content. New York was the first real city magazine unless I’m overlooking something in Boston of Philadelphia. So this advertising guy saw Sport Scene and compared it to New York, which was showing a profit after three years, which if you know magazines, is rare. You are lucky to show a profit after three years, hell, you are lucky to still be in business after three years. The stock market had had a real go-go run from about ’66-’68 and he thought he could take the model of Sport Folio and Sport Scene and get a Wall Street company to back it. And that’s exactly what we did.

BB: Did you move to New York?

MH: I did. Had an apartment in the same building with the mayor though he didn’t live there. John Lindsay played tennis with Hank Greenburg outside my window on Sundays. I was at Sutton Place. Cost me about $295 a month to park my car and a luxury apartment in Houston at the time cost about $350.

BB: Did the deal happen quickly?

MH: I flew to New York and met with their key sales people. It was like Alice in Wonderland. I’m almost embarrassed. It was so easy because so many people love sports. The only people they invited to the business meeting were the ones that were nuts about sports. Why wouldn’t they want to take this company public? I called coach Paul Bear Bryant, Jimmy Demerit, AJ Foyt, Cosell, Curt Gowdy, that was my role.

BB: You wanted them to invest in the magazine?

MH: No, no, they agreed to be on the board of directors and each got 10,000 shares. They did it as a favor, nobody asked for anything. But it was a marquee lineup. We went public in June of 1969, just as the recession began. In July, the Mets were 9 games out of first place. I came up with the idea for the first cover. It would be 4 or 5 Met players raising the flag on Iwo Jima except it was on the pitcher’s mound. That was on the inaugural issue, must be worth a pretty penny today. Cleon Jones, Tom Seaver, Ed Kranepool and those guys.

BB: This was after the Jets had already won the Super Bowl.

MH: The same year. And the Knicks had lost to the Bullets in the playoffs but they won the championship the following season, in June of 1970.

BB: New York hasn’t seen a banner year like that since.

Stayed tuned. All week,  we’ll be featuring a different article from Jock.

Toots Shor Among the Ruins

Joe Flaherty was a wonderful writer. He may be best remembered as Mailer and Breslin’s campaign manager but his work for the Voice, Esquire, Sport and many other magazines holds up today. It is smart, irreverent, and funny. Unfortunately, Flaherty died of cancer in 1983 at the age of 47.

Still, you can’t go wrong with any of his four books:

It’s a shame that much of his magazine work is unavailable on-line, so in an effort to correct that wrong, here is a piece that originally appeared in the October 1974 issue of Esquire. It is reprinted here with Jeanine Flaherty’s permission.


Toots Shor Among the Ruins

By Joe Flaherty


Across the isle of Manhattan these days floats a torch song for the past. The wail seems to be strained through a muted horn or, better yet, siphoned through a derby. What occasions this is the belief that the Apple has turned sour, the Big Town has become just another burg.

The reasons are myriad: political, social, sporting. For a while Lindsay revived some past glories, but his clout was cultural—always a limited bailiwick. Lincoln Center is a haven for scratch hitters, while Jimmy Walker got the kudos of the leather-lunged set in saloons, ball parks, and the Garden. Now City Hall is dwarfed by an accountant.

When future generations walk what was “The Main Stem,” “Dream Street,” “The Great White Way,” they will be as baffled as current-day surveyors of Stonehenge. What do these remains bespeak? Will they believe that such places as the Paramount, the Roxy, the Capitol, the Strand, Lindy’s, Birdland, the Hotel Astor, and Tootsie’s ever existed? Or will they think they were some Runyonesque flight of fancy?

Will they ever believe that Broadway was once a street where a gent sported a derby on his head instead of his lap, and that deep throat was the source of accolades for Ruth, DiMag, Mantle, Mays, Canzoneri, Conn, and Louis rather than the private province of Linda Lovelace?

Contrary to the boast of the Beautiful People, the town has turned tacky. Every freak who scatters glitter on his or her navel and whose sexual persuasion is as dubious as Eisenhower’s syntax (confusion over copulative verbs) is christened a celeb overnight. Even the mob guys have lost their cachet. No more Big Frenchys, Owney Maddens, and “Uncle Frank” Costellos. The current crop, if one is to believe their chroniclers, are Sicilian versions of Robert Young in Father Knows Best.

Sports have seen a better day here. What once passed as a mortal Olympus has been reduced to an anthill. The Dodgers are gone like the trolley; and the Giants, residents of Coogan’s Bluff, went with them westward to California for man’s most expedient reason: the fast buck. The sites where Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds stood are now housing projects, a progression that might brighten the horizons of the Americans for Democratic Action but hardly the hopes of those theologians who thought the teams’ existence in this town was as essential as God or the Devil (depending on your persuasion) and who nightly found biblical or demonic portents in the box scores of the Daily News.

The football Giants are taking it on the lam for New Jersey (the spare-parts capital of the world), so one will feel no longer like a sport on a trek to the Stadium but rather like a penny-conscious housewife on a foray to a suburban shopping mall. The Mets and Jets are sequestered out in Queens, which is as consoling as having a government-in-exile.The Garden is the last real action spot, but most of the championship fights of late have been held out of town or out of the country to beat New York’s huge tax bite.

Of course, there are the Knicks and the Rangers. The Knicks are fine if you can come by the hottest ticket in town and then bear to sit will a collection of unisexuals from Maxwell’s Plum and Thursday’s; while hockey is best left to those whose psyches are haunted by the province of Manitoba and violence on the rocks.

Just pause to think of the glories of another day. During the golden era of sport, the early Twenties through the Fifties, the three New York baseball clubs—the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants—won a combined total of forty-one pennants and twenty-three World Series. There was incestuous joy in those stats. From 1921 to 1956 there were thirteen (!) “Subway Series,” involving the Yankees (participants in all) against either the Dodgers or the Giants. So the navigators of New York knew better than to believe the notion that the world was round. Abundant riches were to be found in the flat shuttling of the subways.

To unearth all these relics, there was only one man to turn to. A man who knew all the bygone haunts, hoods, and heroes. A man who outdrank and outlasted them not because of his spiritual and social worth but through the tenacity of an anointed liver: New York’s premier saloonkeeper, Toots Shor.

If the choice offends contemporary barhoppers, indulge. It’s a forgotten motif we’re seeking. Better yet, try to picture Elaine Kaufman (hostess of the chichi Elaine’s) laying a fin on a down-and-out wino. But like everything that once comprised his world, Shor’s star these days is in descendance. First off, he is a man without a saloon, which to Shor is like being a priest without a pulpit. No longer do the greats serve as acolytes at his boozy altar, accepting both compliment and insult as blessing. In the old days either one sufficed, the only limbo was being ignored. To be called a “creep” or a “crumbum” back them meant you were a member of his liquid church.

Now his only outlet to his world is the telephone on which the congregation call in daily (though check in seems more like it) for a few minutes of patter that has the ancient jocularity of the buck-and-wing. But it is not a one-way street: the voices on both ends of the line seem to need the therapy. So the phone it must be, since Toots is too sick to make house calls.

Shor sits in a small suite in the Hotel Drake, dressed in blue pants and an open-neck shirt. Even the gold wedding band on his finger bows to a more innocent time. The band is a testament to forty years of marriage to the same woman. He is seventy-one, and his once rugged bulk has been whittled away by a combination of age, illness, and nearly a half century of beating the milkman home by an eyelash. Of late, he has suffered two broken hips, has arthritis in his knee, and on this day he is a week away from having a pancreas operation.

But the visitor does not receive a litany of old-age infirmities (that would show “no class” in the Shor cannon). Indeed, his only lamentation is that he has been on the wagon for three weeks on doctor’s orders, and Shor is a man who can make three weeks without sauce sound like the worldly rejection of a Trappist monk.

But to talk of Shor, one must understand a simple fact: a good part of life is the gesture or the front one puts up. Only deadbeats and punks weep about life’s slings and arrows; stand-up guys take it on the chin and order another round, even if they have to put it on the tab. Shor himself was a flat-pocket import from Philadelphia who rose to millionaire status when, in 1958, he sold his fabled spot at Fifty-one West Fifty-first Street to the Zeckendorf real-estate interests for one million, five. But today, his pockets are as close to his ass as the day he blew Philly. His downfall was building his new saloon at Thirty-three West Fifty-second, the site of the old Leon and Eddie’s (where, in his early days, he served as a bouncer) and now Jimmy’s, political drinking trough of former Lindsay aides Dick Aurelio and Sid Davidoff.

Shor took great pride in building his joints from the ground up. He didn’t like taking over someone else’s failed saloon and redecorating it to his taste. The ghosts of someone else’s boozers haunting one of his places would be an unspeakable social breach. Toot’s grounds had to be new and hallowed. After all, you couldn’t 86 some other creep’s ghosts. And besides, he did have a good track record, since the Fifty-first Street place had been a success. But the one-block jump and a few decades’ distance proved a disaster.

His mistakes were many. Adhering to a bygone calendar, he miscalculated the cost of everything from construction to the prices he would have to charge for food and drinks just to keep the place operating. In the Forties he paid off his Fifty-first Street saloon in a year and a half, charging $1.40 for roast beef, with drinks at fifty and sixty cents. Now hooch cost more per shot than the roast beef of decades ago, and steaks were pulling down $7.50. He estimated the construction cost at three million, seven; but according to The Herald Tribune financial page, the actual cost ended up at $7,500,000.

Moreover, when one looks back at the failure of the new Toots Shor’s, it was touchingly human. Shor is not unlike Lear in old age—unable to accept that men can control everything but time. This is hardly a sin, just a pathetic need in all of us to cocoon ourselves between the parentheses of dates. The old Garden on Fiftieth Street was gone, and the new Garden was downtown on Thirty-second Street. No longer could one saunter over to Toots’s, one had to cab it. And when one was forced to wheels, other options opened: Gallagher’s 33, the bars located in the new Garden itself, or the Lion’s Head in the Village.

Granny Rice and Bill Corum were filing from the other side of the void, and the West Coast had lured away many of the New York celebs that made Toots’s Toots’s. And Shor’s proud claim, “I never ran a dame joint,” which had held him in good stead in the past with hale-hearted fellows, was a stigma invisibly painted on his door to a new breed of athlete and sportswriter who, after an evening of sniffing liniment, yearned for some perfume. In the Sixties, passes and runs at ends were being made at Namath’s Bachelors III, and sexual shagging was the sport in Phil Linz’s Mr. Laff’s.

Depending on your perspective, Shor’s opening such a place smacked of arrogance or an heroic effort by a man who would plug the hourglass to his pleasure. Even simple concessions to another era weren’t granted. In the age of the turtleneck, patrons at Shor’s had to wear a tie (Bill Veeck was the only man excepted from this dictate).

But possibly there is a last, more romantic conclusion to be floated. The new Shor’s was cavernous—spacious beyond any functional worth. So indeed, Toots might have known his time had passed, and like Tutankhamen he decided to build a tomb for himself and his memories, with a curse ensconced for all those who in the future dared to violate the place with broads and turtlenecks.

Make no mistake about it, the allusion to a past potentate is not out of joint. Although Shor is a self-confessed “loudmouth” and “just a saloonkeeper,” he commanded curtsies from the mighty far beyond such deprecations. Not only did the jocks and celebs come to the Fifty-first Street Lourdes for the waters, but also Presidents, princes of the church, financiers, a Supreme Court justice, and a bevy of heavy-between-the-ears writers. He had been lionized in biographies by Bob Considine and John Bainbridge of The New Yorker.

“Somebody once said to me,” Toots growled from his chair, “that I was lucky to have a drink with seven different Presidents, and I said they were lucky to have a drink with me.”

Though the food at his joint was rated Cordon Phoo, it was he who was chosen to cater a luncheon for visiting members of the papal court at the Archdiocese of New York, one of the many “proudest moments in my life” he proclaims. Such stars as DiMaggio and Mantle called him at his saloon every day when they were on the road, and the suspicion here is that it was expected.

The devotion he commanded might best be summed up by a story Bainbridge tells: A Shor regular once met DiMag running west on Fifty-second Street and stopped him to inquire about his hurry. The great Joltin’ Joe answered, “I had to eat lunch with the Yankees at ‘21’ and I want to get over and tell Toots before somebody gives him a bad report.”

This kind of toadying usually is rendered to a vindictive aristocracy, not to the saloonkeeper son of immigrant parents.

To trace Shor’s rise to prominence, one has to shun studies of family heraldry and look to plays by Odets or Abraham Polonsky’s movie Body and Soul. His mother Fanny was born in St. Petersburg. His father Abraham came from Leipzig and had attended the university at Munich. They were both Jews.

This fact surprises, since Shor’s lifestyle of bouncing, boozing, and gambling more appropriately describes the Irish Catholic. It would be fair to assume that a goodly number of people, knowing not the man but the legend, would think Shor was spelled Shaw and that the carouser they read about in Earl Wilson’s column was a roaring boyo. Teddy Brenner, the Garden matchmaker, suffers from the same ethnic confusion. After all, it’s common knowledge—right?—that Jews don’t take up the rowdy professions or carry on in public.

But this canard brings us back to Messrs. Odets and Polonsky. The stage, or scene, is set. Shor’s mother, one of thirteen children, had no time for schooling when she arrived in America. She had to go to work in a Philadelphia factory to support her brothers and sisters. Think of strength. Think of Anne Revere.

His father, even with a higher education, was forced into the shirt-making trade in the new, prejudiced land. Think of the kindly, philosophical dreamer. They opened a cigar and candy store to supplement the father’s meager income. Now we have it: egg creams for education. Add Odets’ Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy or Polonsky’s Charlie Davis in Body and Soul, and the scenario fleshes out. Toots is the Jew John Garfield later memorialized on film. In the hostile gentile environs of South Philly he did not have just to learn but also to master the catechism of the gutters if he was going to make his mark.

Soda jerking was for jerks and schooling for the leisure class or dewy-eyed immigrants who would raise their aspirations one generation at a time. So Toots preempted the script of the Ash Can school of art and mastered the cue stick, as Prospero summoned his staff. Moreover, he etched the parameters of the poor—the con and the hustle—into his psyche.

If one listens to Considine tell it, the script sticks. Toots’s mother was the formidable influence (Garfield had waded into hell only to bring back a fur coat for Anne Revere). “My mother was a little woman, but real strong, God bless her,” testified Shor.

His father comes in for praise, but with a disclaimer: “He was a wonderful, educated man, tall and well built, but like a Mr. Milquetoast. My mother ran our family. She taught me the greatest lesson I ever had—she taught me how to fight.”

There are layers in that quote, and one suspects they get darker as they are peeled off. Toots’s beloved mother died in a horrible accident: she was decapitated by a runaway ambulance; his father committed suicide five years later. His father’s act might explain Shor’s later advocacy of “professional illiteracy.” Perhaps culture and learning, no matter how desirable, were anathema to being a “stand-up guy.” And father or no father, one has to believe that suicide, in the Shor canon, bespoke “no class.”

According to Shor, his love affair with New York was instantaneous. He worked as a bouncer and greeter in a couple of joints before he was able to raise a bankroll for his own spot on West Fifty-first. “When I started to meet guys like Crosby and Sinatra and all those ballplayers,” he related, “I knew this was the place for me.” After a while, he claims, the adoration flowed the other way. “The celebs,” he said, “would come to any joint I was working in.”

Why? once again pops up. Here is Shor, a rube who admits he debuted in the Big Town with “brown shoes, for chrissake,” becoming the mountain to the WHO’S WHO lemmings. A good measure of his success is attributable to the columnist Mark Hellinger, who recorded Shor’s exploits in baroque terms and baptized him “the classiest bum in town.” If providence had granted Shor the right to choose an alter ego, Hellinger would have been it. He was an urbane, witty man who spent like a sailor and drank like an eighteenth-century lord. Shor, who didn’t shake hands with the devil till his early twenties, soon made Mark his Mitty—right down to adopting Hellinger’s “class” drink, brandy-and-soda.

The penultimate Hellinger-Shor story dates back to 1947, when Shor and his wife spent a month’s vacation in Hollywood as Hellinger’s guests. Variety’s account of the trip ran under the headline, “100% Sur-Le-Cuff.”:

“After New York restaurateur Toots Shor recently completed a month’s cuffo stay under Mark Hellinger’s aegis on the Coast, the producer-writer arranged for the stewardess on Shor’s return flight to hand him $5 when he boarded the eastbound plane, with a note explaining, ‘Just to make it 100%—in case you have to tip at LaGuardia.’”

When Hellinger died at the age of forty-four, Shor in reverence to his mentor became the quickest arm in the East reaching for the tabs. That, too, touches. In my experience, only those who have known poverty develop into big spenders. It’s as if a childhood of watching one’s family genuflect to the buck in the most miniscule monetary matters predicates that the only way as an adult to rid oneself of such dread is to have an economic exorcism—in short, to “piss it all away.”

This thesis has been borne out in the personal experience among not only the once poor but also the forever rich. I once interviewed a young socialite, who was running for political office, at a downtown saloon where the food dead-heated with what Toots used to serve. When the bill for cheeseburgers and beer came, he informed me that I had ordered a side of home fries and two beers to his one, thus I was liable for the extra $1.35 on the check.But such psychological meandering would be so much crap to the gruff Toots. A shrink once made the public conjecture that he over-tipped to compensate for his insecurity, and Shor replied, “It’s not possible to over-tip.”

This extravagance, this blatant disrespect for the buck in a society that gingerly sniffs it out like a hound in search of the proper johnny pump had to give Shor, the otherwise bumptious South Philly exile, a smattering of élan. Legend has it that Toots’s was the place where those aspiring to greatness, like the late actor Paul Douglas or Jackie Gleason, or a newspaperman who only had another deadline in his future, could “put it on the arm” when flat-pocketed.

One story is that Gleason tabbed for over a year, and that it didn’t disturb Shor in the least until he noticed “the Great One” was adding enormous tips to his bills. When Shor confronted him with this disturbing dichotomy, Gleason, instead of being contrite, became indignant and replied, “What are you trying to do? Make me look like a bum in front of your help?” Shor, the report goes, never brought it up again.

If you’re a man who likes his sauce, finding Toots is similar to finding the proper analyst—the one who agrees with you. The philistines are teetotalers, since the Shor sermon from the mount is that “whiskey helps you when you’re feelin’ good and when you’re feelin’ bad.” Indeed, when Shor lists the accomplishments and social graces of other men, drinking proclivities seem to outweigh all else. He even has his All-Stars. In the actor category Don Ameche wins hands down. Jason Robards and “that limey actor—what’s his name, Peter O’Toole?—are nothing but Eighth Avenue boozers.” What this geographical slur meant missed me, but a shot in the dark is that Eighth Avenue, with its well-known theatrical pubs, is the guzzling ground for fey drinkers. Pubs, pshaw! Shor’s was a saloon.

In sports—even though his records are passé, asterisk or otherwise—there was only one Ruth, according to Shor, when it came to the Sultan of Swill. “We used to call him ‘the Animal,’” Shor said fondly, “there was nobody like him. He was the greatest personality of his time. He dominated everything. He lit up every room he walked into. That’s what we need today, a hero of that stature who kids could look up to. But he’ll never be replaced.”

The amazing thing about Shor is that he professes never to find the dark side of alcohol. This is not meant as a prudish chastisement, since I’ve blown more kisses to “last call” than I care to remember. But all the heavy hitters I have known in life have had their periods of despair. Then again, they waded in the sea of booze because they were out on philosophical fishing expeditions. A whale of an answer was to be found in the sauce.

Shor sees it differently. He says he has lived a life in which every night was New Year’s Eve.Perhaps this can be attributed to the firm belief that the high-living Toots has never found himself at odds with the Lord. Indeed, aside from his gluttonous liquid intake, Shor has raised huge sums of money for religious groups of all dominations. He regally state, with all the pomp of a teetotaling deacon: “I consider myself a very religious man.” In the old days, around Toots the Lord was chummily referred to as “the Big Guy.” A nice stunt if you can carry it off—the sky as a locker room with Vince Lombardi as the honcho. The “boys” or “regular guys” would always be welcome in such a milieu; and if the real truth were known, God is a chap who probably enjoys his glass.

One suspects this is not guesswork by the reporter, since “all the great ones,” according to Toots, were blessed with this failing. Shor even says it wasn’t the booze that did in Hellinger but some vague infection he acquired while he was in the hospital. And when Rags Ragland died, Shor wrote to Bing Crosby: “The ginger ale [booze] ruined him. The doctor said he should have started taking care of himself fifteen years ago. My answer to that is, Look at the fun he would have missed.”

Bygone memories and booze are beyond dispute in the Shor scheme of things. He defiantly stated: “What is this new breed worrying about? The rat bastards ought to realize you have to die from something. And the ones who are gone, well, I don’t see anybody taking their place.”

Shor, to put it mildly, is not hot on the current crop in any field. But this is not a rarity among men who have outlived their times and many of their contemporaries. A swinger such as Namath is a mere Shriner on a toot when compared to Bobby Layne: “Layne drank more booze and had more broads in one season than Namath will have in his career.” And Eddie Arcaro received the accolade of being “the best hangover jockey of all time.” But such stats are difficult to check unless one is privy to the tales of the confession box.

For all his hard-nose, Shor has a disturbing Dink Stover quality. He speaks of Ruth and Dempsey as if their records shouldn’t be in books, but on the Sistine Ceiling. To him, athletes are the ones who have graced this planet. “People in sport,” he tells you, “are the greatest people in the world.”

To illustrate his point, he cited how he attended a prizefight at the Garden with Averell Harriman, Joe DiMaggio, and Ernest Hemingway, and “nobody noticed Hemingway—only DiMaggio.” He would be better off if he remembered Red Smith’s dictum that baseball, after all, is still a game played by little boys.

A basic flaw in Shor (an abundance of grace to his champions) is his sentimentality. But as O’Neill pointed out, this is part of being a boozer. John Barleycorn turns on the sad music in his adherents. Toots has a vehement distaste for all young sportswriters who look at the seamier side of Olympus. “All they write about is money,” he complained. “Who wants to hear about that? They should be writing about the heroes.”

This seems deliberately naïve, since sports have now bypassed whoredom in greed. But then, Shor deals in absolutes. He will bitch about the decline of New York, but during the course of our conversation was on the phone with Giants president Wellington Mara, who is shagging ass to New Jersey, and they sounded like matched turtledoves. And when I asked him about this obvious contradiction, he gave me a conspiratorial wink and said, “I know you’re right, but you don’t tell another guy how to run his store.”

Of the current irreverent sportswriters, Larry Merchant of The New York Post is the target of much of his ire. Merchant wrote of Mara, “How can you trust an Irishman named Wellington?” and pointed out his penchant for the green.

“He’d like to write like Dan Parker, but he doesn’t have the balls,” said Shor.

Merchant, passing off Shor’s venom, touted him thus: “He’s just pissed off because I never went into his fuckin’ joint.”

But the bull’s-eye of Shor’s ire is ex-Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton, the Joe Valachi of the locker room, who wrote Ball Four. “That bum nearly ruined Mickey’s  marriage with his book,” Toots growled.

On the other hand, Shor claims that the young sportswriters “are a bunch of creeps who leave a sporting event and go home and have a milk shake.”

One of them, Vic Ziegel, who also writes for The New York Post and who has been known to curl his fingers around a glass as lovingly as around his typewriter, retorted, “Just tell him I would have been happy to come into his place, but they didn’t even know how to make a good milk shake.”

In a way it’s odd (even conceding old age) that Shor spurns the young, since he sees himself as an all-encompassing father figure. When he speaks of Crosby and Sinatra, he says, “I raised those kids.” And this year, when Mantle and Whitey Ford were inducted into the Hall of Fame, Toots says it was another of his greatest moments. “To see my two kids make it to Cooperstown was the thrill of a lifetime,” he declared. At a party afterward Shor cracked to Mantle that Ford’s pitching arm had added two years to Mantle’s career, and Mantle replied, “You took five years off it.”

That is the nice surrogate-father role, but there also is a tyrannical Big Daddy. Shor proudly related how he “aided” one of the most famous athletes ever to play baseball in New York. The player in question had just been divorced by his first wife. One evening while Shor was attending a prizefight at the Garden, someone told him the player’s ex-wife was flying back to California and taking the couple’s young son with her. Toots immediately left the Garden and cabbed to Idlewild. “I grabbed her at the airport and said, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ and took the kid by the hand and brought him back to his father. The bitch flew to California alone.”

In the Shor canon, this was a consummate act of loyalty; in the legal canon, it might be considered kidnapping.

Yet this, too, must be considered: why Shor commanded power beyond his calling. His daring to act, to be the take-charge guy, to fit Bob Dylan’s memorable phrase “the whole world is looking for a daddy.” Shor served as not only barkeep but marriage broker as well. Infidelity is beyond his scope.

“I can’t understand,” he said, “how a husband and wife could do that to each other.”

But surely, one queried, of the scores of celebs who frequented Shor’s some played around? Big Daddy had a dictate for this, too: “I wouldn’t allow one of my married regulars to come into my joint with another broad on his arm. If he was screwing around, he had better have another guy in his company with the broad to make it look all right.”

Indeed, there were many ways to fall out of Shor’s graces. On a particularly crowded and hot night in Shor’s, the much-lionized Norman Mailer was asked to leave because he took off his jacket. Jimmy Breslin was chastised for his colorful language. And when Charlie Chaplin complained about waiting for a table, Shor told the great comedian to “be funny for about twenty minutes.” The message was that in Shor’s it was Toot’s deck.

If Toots orchestrated the living, he was a maestro over the dead. As a mourner he was (and is) a one-man wailing wall. When a Shor regular died, it was beyond saying that the family would be looked after and the surviving troops commanded by Shor to the bier to assure a classy send-off. When the regular was particularly close to the proprietor, Shor would weep and drink in tandem for weeks. There is an apocryphal story circulated by George Jessel that he once whispered in Shor’s ear, “McKinley died,” and Shor broke out weeping and bought rounds for the house.

So Shor, we have found, is composed of as many ingredients as a complex cocktail: bravado, bathos, loyalty. It is the last that cements his bond with his following.

Red Smith, the dean of New York sportwriters, had this to say: “When I was working in Philadelphia, I once asked Toots what made his place the number-one saloon in the world. You have to remember the old place was more famous than Harry’s Bar in Paris or Shepheard’s in Cairo. Toots simply said, ‘The newspaper guys were always my friends.’ He never realized the place was a mother lode if you were writing a column—a blessed thing to have for material.

“As for Toots, he had an all-embracing affection for the guys who went in there. Bill Veeck once said to me it didn’t matter whether he owned the Cleveland Indians or some bushers in Milwaukee, the treatment he received was always the same.”

Smith recounted a story that highlights Shor’s tenacious loyalty to friends, wherever they might be in the standings: “I was sitting with Toots at a back table on a night that the Yanks won the World Series. That year Joe Page  had had a dismal record. I guess it was a combination of old age and too much partying, or maybe his arm was just tired. Whatever, he didn’t really contribute much to the Yanks’ success, and he felt it. That evening the Yankees were having a victory party somewhere else in town. Suddenly, Toots stood up from our table and said,

‘Excuse me, Joe Page is outside.’

“I sat alone for awhile, then a waiter came up to me and said, ‘The boss just gave Joe Page a hero’s welcome.’”

Smith, who is as nifty with a phrase as a professional gift-wrapper with a bow, tied it up: “As a man, you would have to say Toots was enormously loyal and hideously sentimental.”

To others, the magic of Fifty-one West Fifty-first was a happy marriage of the man, the time, and the place. Louis Sobol, the old Broadway columnist for the now defunct Journal-American, opts for the man: “Toots was the last of the old booming hosts. In those days Billingsley at the Stork Club used gimmicks to attract business. He would give perfume to the women or have things like a ‘Balloon Night.’ The balloons would have gift certificates inside for jewelry, cash, puppies—you name it.” Then he added with legionnaire loyalty, “Toots never needed those things. He gave away nothing but the sheer force of his personality.”

For Whitey Ford, the place was unique for a delectable aspect of human bondage: “You would always run into Ameche or Gleason or Graziano. The real charm of the place was that if you went in there at twelve noon you knew you wouldn’t get out for the day.”

For my own part, I, ruefully, was too young to sample the siren call of West Fifty-first, and I found my visitations to Shor’s Taj Mahal on Fifty-second wanting. On my first visit, after a major fight at the Garden, I was denied entrance because I was wearing a turtleneck (but also, I might add, a sport jacket—I personally thought I looked like Max Beerbohm). On subsequent trips, the joint reminded me of a packed convention hall, emitting a single dull roar. But maybe I should have tried a daytime foray. Ford was right about high-noon drinking. It’s like afternoon moviegoing. There is a clandestine camaraderie to be found in such enterprises: to be at play while the rest of the world is toiling in the fields of the Lord.

But what bothered me most about the new Shor’s was that there was no identifiable stamp on it, it could just as well have been run by Restaurant Associates. Once again, Red Smith offered a capper: “The trouble with that cavernous place was that it engulfed Toot’s personality.”

It was now late afternoon, and after watching me back down the better part of a bottle of his brandy, Shor decided—doctors or no doctors—that three weeks dry was enough for any civilized man. He poured a tumbler and pulled hard, and in the same style that black athletes taffy-pull the word “shit” into “shee-e-e-it,” he announced, “Bee-e-yoo-tiful.”

Two hotel employees came into the room to make minor adjustments on his skitterish TV set; and for three minutes’ work Shor peeled a couple of bills from a wad, snapping the money toward himself Broadway style, and dropped them on the grateful repairmen. An old lifestyle never bows to current economic reality.

Some more booze was dropped, and Shor estimated that for nearly a half century he has done a bottle or two of brandy each day. This is a dubious claim to fame, since alcoholism is now the third largest killer in the United States after heart disease and cancer. TIME magazine has given the subject its cherished cover, and there was a television movie, The Morning After, starring Dick Van Dyke (a recovered alcoholic himself).

Shor had watched the special, and it infuriated him. “I never knew any drunk who carried on like that,” he said. “Beating his wife and losing his job and all that shit. My daughter called me the next day, and I told her I should demand equal time. And she said [he was now chortling] that I would need a twenty-four-hour telethon to respond.”

As we bantered, the phone continued to ring. Well Mara again, and to him Shor dropped a line that truly astounded me. He said that he had talked to Randy and told him he was conducting himself like a man—“Randy” was Randolph Hearst!

Pat O’Brien also checked in from the Coast, and there were many I-love-you-too’s. O’Brien dedicated an entire chapter of his autobiography to Shor; it is titled “A Man Called Toots” and is so sentimental it makes Mother Machree sound like something sinister from Sam Beckett.

The drinking continued, and the phone kept ringing. Shor signed off many calls with his comrades-in-arms, “Give your wife a pat on the fanny for me.” One could hear the sisters marching. But again, Shor would be the first to tell you he never ran a dame joint.

As the booze warmed him, Shor became more expansive and perhaps more trusting of one of the “new breed” seated across from him. Men’s boozing always creates that kind of atmosphere—the recalling of episodes, well-worn stories, which have always made me think saloons are the oldest repertory companies in the world.

There was the night he and Pat O’Brien hired a hansom cab to ferry them around town and at daybreak took the driver upstairs to Toot’s duplex for a nightcap. To his irate wife, Shor proclaimed, “You’re lucky we didn’t bring up the horse.” But this is standard college-boy stuff. Some tales indicate that Shor is not the bellowing boozer he would like everyone to think, but a man of agile wit.

The I.R.S. once challenged his return because he had claimed his tickets to baseball games as legitimate business expenses. When the auditor informed Shor that baseball games were pleasure, Toots snorted, “Pleasure! Did you ever see the St. Louis Browns play?” The audit was dropped.

And when his good boozing companion, Ernest Hemingway, went down in a plane crash in Africa and was reported dead by the press, only to emerge a few days later alive and sporting a jug of gin and a bunch of bananas, Shor cabled him a one-word critique: “Showboat!” Then there was the time an old friend spotted Shor talking to Robert Sherwood in his Fifty-first Street joint; he approached Shor and asked what the hell Toots could be saying to a genius. Shor replied, “I was fading him with grunts.” Hardly the quips of a guy who wears brown shoes.

Shor was now in an amber mood, matching the brandy inside and the setting sun outside, and he conceded that a “modern” jock might once again dominate the town like “the Babe.” The Mets’ right outfielder, Rusty Staub, is his choice. Staub has the Shor credentials for canonization: physical presence, talent, he is a bachelor with a bevy of broads and, of course, a man who can handle his jar. On presence alone “O.J. Simpson might make it,” Shor said. “Clay [Ali] could have done it, but he got into that political crap.” The amber turned burnished red.

What of the political Shor? He says he has been a lifelong Democrat. Did he vote for McGovern? Does the pope keep a copy of Martin Luther’s theses on his night table? “If the election was held over again today, I wouldn’t vote for him.” Nixon then? “That s.o.b is paying seven hundred dollars in taxes, and they busted me for a half million.”

Here Shor was referring to the tax assessment on his duplex apartment at 480 Park Avenue and his saloon, which came to $575,000, left him flat-pocketed, and ultimately cost him both his home and his joint. Hedging like hell, like a man who has made a bad tout and doesn’t want to admit it, he refused to commit himself. The tout here is that Nixon, as he did with most of the nation, foxed Shor with his curvy nickel-and-dime philosophy.

It was time to leave. Shor’s wife entered the room and informed him that his private nurse was waiting for him in the bedroom. Mrs. Shor is a petite, pretty woman and a former show girl, Marian Volk (Hellinger had also married a show girl); her public nickname is “Baby.” But to Toots, she is “Husky.” And he obviously puts some credence in his muscular love name for her, since he blamed the empty jug on me.

Jug gone, day done, I now had to frisk why Toots was the genie of the bottle set. New York spits out saloon-keepers with casual distain. Owners and joints fold more often than they succeed and are never heard from again. So why did Shor become sovereign? Why were his legions so loyal? Indeed, during World War II when he had used up his allotment of meat stamps, and the place had to survive for a long period on a menu of omelets and fish, Jimmy Walker announced that Toots was in trouble, and now everybody had to eat there twice a day.

Also consider this: Shor’s food, when meat was plentiful, was summed up by the late Jimmy Cannon in this bit of Michelinian meanness. One night the lights were dimmed at Shor’s for atmosphere, and Cannon cracked, “Thank God, they’ve executed the chef.” So the answer is not to be found in the menu, but definitely in the man.

In an anchorless world, Shor, whose demeanor (by his own account) resembled a bobbing buoy, was a bulwark against drifting values. He was a family man who had raised four children. He was fast with a buck and yet spurned the fast buck. Even now, in financial bushville, when he was approached by a publisher to do a tattle-tale book for big bread on the night life of the gods he had known, he “threw the bum out.”

Through charity he helped line the pockets of the poor and enrich the coffers of heaven. Right or wrong, he was what the Sixties and Seventies aren’t. Though there would never be a McGovern in his life, it would be unfair to indict him for a Nixon. If Shor dealt a monarchial deck, at least it would be a fair one. And if his failing health can’t be revived by science, it might be by nostalgia. After all, if we can’t stand up and sing The Star-Stangled Banner anymore, some sense of solace could be found standing up in a new Toots.

AN EPILOGUE: Weeks later, I talked with Shor by phone to find out about his operation. “I feel great,” he declared. “I was out of the hospital in eleven days. The doctors tell me it takes you young stiffs three weeks to recover. Earl Wilson called me this morning and asked if I was going to give up drinking now, and I told him that at my age it makes no sense.”

I cautioned him that he should at least get back into training for such a venture, and he replied like a man who had just had his flat-pocket spirits inflated, “I’ve been in training all my life.”

What epitaph can be found for an unrepentant Falstaff?

Joe Flaherty and His Muse

Special thanks to Dina C for her transcription skills.


Robert Creamer died yesterday. He was one of the old school Sports Illustrated writers. Later, he was an editor at the magazine, as well as the author of major biographies on Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel. Creamer was also featured in Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary.

Read this piece on Creamer by Jack McCallum. (The Times doesn’t have an obit posted yet.)

Just last week, I ran across a letter Creamer once wrote to the New York Times concerning John Lardner:

Admirers of fine writing about sports consider John Lardner to be at least the equal and possibly the superior of such masters of the craft as Red Smith and W. C. Heinz. If he had lived longer, there is little doubt that he would have produced more excellent work, but what John Lardner achieved was certainly what his vast talent promised.

Amen, to that.

Dig this 2002 article by David Margolick on a gang of baseball writers–including Lawrence Ritter, Ray Robinson and Creamer–that got together every month to schmooze.

Here’s a sampling of Creamer’s work from SI:

On Ty Cobb;  Yogi; Mickey Mantle; Roger Maris; Al Lopez; Avery Brundage; the greatest Yankee team ever;  autograph hounds; and the unbarnacled truth.

Check out the big excerpt SI ran from his Ruth biography. And while we’re at it, how about another?

Finally, here is a terrific 1964 profile on Vin Scully, “The Transistor Kid.”

Rest in Peace.

[Photo Credit: Georgia Fowler]

Step Right Up

Sorry I’m late in sharing this story about Arnold Hano.

For more on Arnold read Hank Waddles’ two part interview (part one and part two).

[Photo Credit: Scott Smeltzer]

In Living Color

LeRoy Neiman died yesterday. He was 91.

“Dying for Art’s Sake,” is an essay Pete Dexter wrote about Neiman for Esquire in July, 1984. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.

LeRoy Neiman has just been murdered in Milwaukee.

The clipping came in the morning mail—he thinks it was from Milwaukee—a review of his new book of paintings and sketches. “I don’t know why people aren’t nice,” he says. I am talking to him on the phone now. “Are you nice? Listen, there have been thousands of pictures taken of me. I’m a reasonably good-looking human being, aren’t I? Why would an editor want to use a picture where I have an hors d’oeuvre sticking out of my cheek? I wouldn’t do that to him. I always make things look their best…”

“That’s Milwaukee for you,” I admit.

“No, that was a newspaper. The guy in Milwaukee was very clever. He quoted every bad thing anybody ever said about me, but didn’t really say anything himself…Hotel room paintings. What’s wrong with paintings in hotel rooms? A lot of my paintings are in hotel rooms, so what? Art is where you find it. Oh, and they criticized my chin. Did I tell you that? They said I had a weak chin.”

“In Milwaukee?”

“No, in the newspaper. If you’re feeling nice, perhaps it would be amusing to visit, but I don’t need criticism. So if you’re not nice…”

I tell LeRoy I will try to write nice, but I can’t promise. He invites me up to his place in New York anyway. The place in New York is most of the third floor of a large apartment building across the street from Central Park. There is an efficient-looking woman with the purest features I ever saw—one of those noses that looks like somebody took two weeks to get the flare in the nostrils right—who seems to run things for him, jars of paint and brushes all over the place, walls covered with painting and prints and sketches, most of them of athletes. There is a giant oil representation of a Las Vegas crap table learning against the far wall, done almost entirely in red. Floors, background, faces, clothes.

I haven’t done a lot of painting myself, unless you count water towers, but I recognize a work in progress. I figure he does all the blues next, then the yellows or whites. I figure, what he’s got there is a primer coat.

“That’s not finished, is it?” I say.

LeRoy seems pleased I have intuited that.

“No,” he says. “I haven’t decided what to do with it yet.”

“Well,” I say, “I think you’ve about done what you can with the red.”

The phone rings then, and the woman answers it. “LeRoy,” she says, “I’m sorry to interrupt…”

The call is about appearing in a movie. He takes it in the vestibule, but the acoustics in the place are terrific, and I can hear what he says at least as well as whoever is on the other end. Better, probably, because he keeps having to repeat himself for the other end.

“Yes,” he says, “a thousand a day and expenses…”

He wants a thousand dollars a day instead of a straight fee for the job because it might rain wherever the job is, and he doesn’t want to be sitting around somewhere getting wet for nothing.

He comes back into the studio and I compliment his acoustics. “This place is better than Lincoln Center,” I say.

LeRoy looks around the room, probably misunderstanding what I have said. “I’ve got an apartment on the ninth floor too,” he says. “But I never go up there. There’s furniture and a beautiful view, but it depresses me. And I’ve got a house in Great Gorge, New Jersey, but I haven’t been there in four years. I love the place, I just don’t like to be inside it. I have to keep it, though, you’ve got to have a house in the country.”

It is the pictures of the athletes that have made all this possible. They showed up first in Playboy magazine, which started running LeRoy’s stuff back in the Fifties. Then Roone Arledge of ABC Sports put them on television and turned LeRoy’s work into the most recognizable art in this country. Nobody is exactly sure why.

Eventually, of course, LeRoy became as famous as his pictures. He wore his white hats and trained his moustache to grow almost to his ears, and he had fascinating cigars.
I don’t know how he does it, but LeRoy’s cigars are always two minutes old. He carries them in the left side of his mouth, and they are always long and dark with half an inch of cold ash at the end. Then some wiseass editor in Milwaukee runs a picture of him eating hors d’oeuvres.

And you wonder why artists are moody?


“I like being outrageous,” he says. “It is the worst possible thing for my income and standing in the art community, but I don’t care. Why should I behave myself now, after all these years?”

I ask LeRoy what kind of misbehaving he means. Does he give sheep for wedding presents? Has he gotten drunk at parties and tired to deliver babies? He shakes his head no.

“I don’t actually do anything,” he says, “except be conspicuous. It keeps me revved up.”

The phone rings again. The woman answers it. “LeRoy,” she says, “I’m sorry to interrupt…” This time it’s some Brazilians, wanting him to come to a party at Regine’s.

“Everybody always wants things from me,” he says after he has hung up.

The Brazilians, it turns out—at least these Brazilians—are economically advantaged people. LeRoy says they wear the best clothes and drink at the best clubs and introduce all the new trends.

“They amuse me,” he says, “but I am not one of them. I am part of their scene—the same three hundred people show up everywhere around the world—but I’m not a member. I never judge them, I am never shocked by their conduct.” He sees I don’t understand. “A lot of them steal,” he says.

That’s the same way it is with LeRoy and athletes. “I don’t get too close to them personally,” he says. And this reminds him of the safari with Hef.

Hef is Hugh Hefner, who owns Playboy. He is one of the three people LeRoy names when I ask who his friends are. The other two are artists he sees once every two or three years.

“It was while we were in Africa,” he says, “that I noticed the natives were always jumping. Any little noise, they’d jump. They watched each other every minute. Hef and I and four other guys and six chicks went around the world to break in the new plane. You know, a pleasure trip. But in Africa, I saw these jumpy natives and realized that danger makes you aware. That’s how I am, too. Aware, observant. Nothing can sneak up from behind. That allows you to be outrageous.”

“You see, you come to a moment sometimes when you know you shouldn’t do something but you take the chance and do it anyway. The moment occurs in sports, it occurs in art. That’s the moment of creation, taking the chance. And sometimes it comes out fine, and sometimes you get murdered.”

I notice, however, that his paintings aren’t about the moment, they depict the population of a best-possible world.

“I like things to their best,” he says. “I like beautiful things, like chandeliers. But I think, for instance, you can say as much about war by painting the enthusiastic young soldiers marching off as you can by showing the dismembered bodies.”

I ask, “Where is the chance in that?”

LeRoy leans closer. “Have you ever heard of Mad Dog Vachon?” he says. “Andre the Giant? They’re wrestlers. Very big people, and very crude. A person I know called and asked if I would come to Ottawa, Canada, and sketch wrestling. They were doing a telecast, and wanted me at ringside to give it credibility.”

“So I flew to Montreal and we took a limousine—you’ve got to insist on a limo and the best room or else they’ll take advantage of you—and we drove about one hundred miles to the arena. I had a chick with me—a magnificent animal—and they put us right at ringside.

“The man who arranged for me to be there had told me that Mad Dog would point at me and call me names as part of the show. After the wrestlers were introduced, Mad Dog pretended to suddenly notice me sitting there, and he yelled, ‘I want that man removed. I want to see what he’s drawing.’

“I turned to the chick and said, ‘He’s really good.’ Then Mad Dog reached through the ropes and grabbed my leather drawing pad. I take it everywhere, and nobody is allowed to do that. I tried to pull it back. I said, ‘All right, that’s enough. These are my sketches,’ but Mad Dog pulled the pad and me with it right out of my seat, and then he crumpled up all my drawings.”

And you wonder why artists are so moody.

LeRoy says, “I yelled at him then that he had gone too far. He picked me up over his head and began whirling me around and around, the crowd went crazy, and then he finally threw me on the floor. That’s how wrestlers take criticism. I picked up my things and told the woman I was with that they had gone too far. We went back to the dressing room to complain, and after a while Mad Dog came in and said, ‘I didn’t do nothin’.’ Unbelievably crude.

“Then we went back to the limousine and two of the wrestlers followed us out and asked for a ride back to Montreal. One of them sat on the set with us, the other one sat on the jump seat. Huge, bruised men. We got about halfway to Montreal and one of them said, ‘We got to stop and eat.’

“I said I wanted to get back to Montreal. They said no, we had to stop. I refused. They seemed very civilized until we went by the truck stop and one them looked outside and said, ‘You remember the night we cleaned that place out?’…”

LeRoy sits quietly, in the middle of the memory. “I don’t associate with crude people,” he says after a while. “I came from a broken home and poverty, and I don’t want to be around that now. I am a working man’s artist, but I don’t know any working me. I champion their cause, but I don’t have any of them I talk to.”

“Why not?” I ask.

He shakes his head. “I don’t have to,” he says. “I’m an artist, and I can do what I want.”

[Mad Dog Vachon picture by Hieram Weintraub]

Father Knows Best

Chris Jones profiles Bruce Jenner in the latest issue of Esquire:

Bruce Jenner has taken it upon himself to rescue his ridiculous extended clan by doing what none of its other members will ever do: He has elected to lose. The person in the house who has most earned his fame has chosen to accept the least of it. “I’m done with competition,” he says. He says that in response to a question about his helicopters, whether he might fly them in the professional events that have been cropping up around the country, but he means it about everything. Jenner has made decisions, now, here, during his own second life. He has made up his mind once again. His singlet is in storage because he wants it to be. He’s the one who locked his medal away in the safe.

“Going through what I went through,” he says, “being that obsessed, is not what I would consider a good, well-rounded life. You’re selfish with your time. You’re selfish with your thoughts. You don’t have to grow up. All you’re concerned with is scoring points.”

Jenner has learned that perfection comes in many forms. He has learned that a private mastery is just as satisfying as a public one. He has learned that a curse isn’t a curse if it’s a choice. And he has learned that there may be no greater love a father can give his children than to accept that his life really didn’t begin until theirs did.

Reggie Jackson in No-Man’s Land


“Reggie Jackson in No-Man’s Land” is Robert Ward’s celebrated bonus piece on Mr. October. You may have heard of it. Caused a stir when it appeared in the June 1977 issue of Sport. The story is featured in Ward’s entertaining new collection Renegades and is reprinted here for the first time on-line.

Dig in.

By Robert Ward

Reprinted with permission from the author.

The Chosen One


Pat Jordan plays golf with Justin Verlander:

Verlander stops the cart, and we go into the woods to look for his ball. Two egrets, each standing on one leg, point it out. He drives it out of the woods and into a sand trap. We get back into the cart. Frankie ambles by and says, “There’s some pretty flowers in the woods, huh?” I say, “Yeah, Justin’s showing me the whole course — woods, rough, water hazards.” Verlander replies, “I’m just trying to be a good host, show you all aspects of the course.” I say, “Then why don’t ya show me one of the greens?” I pause, and then say, “With your ball near the pin.” Verlander glares at me, and then laughs. “People in real life don’t get ballplayers’ humor, the way we talk in the clubhouse,” he says. In “real life,” people say things they don’t mean. Ballplayers do the opposite. Verlander says, “I’m always hurting someone’s feelings.”

He sprays sand out of the trap, his ball barely reaching the green. Three shots later, we head off toward the next hole. His fastball topped out at 86 mph his senior year of high school, and scouts weren’t interested. So he went to Old Dominion University in Virginia and spent the winter lifting weights. He gained 20 pounds, and by the end of his freshman year, his fastball had been clocked at 96 mph. “All 20 pounds of muscle went to my legs,” he says, which helped him drive toward the batter with his fastball. “Blessed, I guess,” he says. “I was born to be a pitcher.”

[Photo Credit: Ben Walkter/AP]

Hey, Good Lookin’

If you’ve never read “The Boxer and the Blonde” by Frank Deford, well, here’s a reminder. It’s a good one:

The boxer and the blonde are together, downstairs in the club cellar. At some point, club cellars went out, and they became family rooms instead. This is, however, very definitely a club cellar. Why, the grandchildren of the boxer and the blonde could sleep soundly upstairs, clear through the big Christmas party they gave, when everybody came and stayed late and loud down here. The boxer and the blonde are sitting next to each other, laughing about the old times, about when they fell hopelessly in love almost half a century ago in New Jersey, at the beach. Down the Jersey shore is the way everyone in Pennsylvania says it. This club cellar is in Pittsburgh.

The boxer is going on 67, except in The Ring record book, where he is going on 68. But he has all his marbles; and he has his looks (except for the fighter’s mashed nose); and he has the blonde; and they have the same house, the one with the club cellar, that they bought in the summer of 1941. A great deal of this is about that bright ripe summer, the last one before the forlorn simplicity of a Depression was buried in the thick-braided rubble of blood and Spam. What a fight the boxer had that June! It might have been the best in the history of the ring. Certainly, it was the most dramatic, alltime, any way you look at it. The boxer lost, though. Probably he would have won, except for the blonde—whom he loved so much, and wanted so much to make proud of him. And later, it was the blonde’s old man, the boxer’s father-in-law (if you can believe this), who cost him a rematch for the heavyweight championship of the world. Those were some kind of times.

The boxer and the blonde laugh again, together, remembering how they fell in love. “Actually, you sort of forced me into it,” she says.

“I did you a favor,” he snaps back, smirking at his comeback. After a couple of belts, he has been known to confess that although he fought 21 times against world champions, he has never yet won a decision over the blonde—never yet, as they say in boxing, outpointed her. But you can sure see why he keeps on trying. He still has his looks? Hey, you should see her. The blonde is past 60 now, and she’s still cute as a button. Not merely beautiful, you understand, but schoolgirl cute, just like she was when the boxer first flirted with her down the Jersey shore. There is a picture of them on the wall. Pictures cover the walls of the club cellar. This particular picture was featured in a magazine, the boxer and the blonde running, hand in hand, out of the surf. Never in your life did you see two better-looking kids. She was Miss Ocean City, and Alfred Lunt called him “a Celtic god,” and Hollywood had a part for him that Errol Flynn himself wound up with after the boxer said no thanks and went back to Pittsburgh.

Shall We Dance?

Kudos to the Grantland’s “Director’s Cut” series for reprinting this gem by the late Paul Hemphill (may he not be soon forgotten).

Here is “How Jacksonville Earned its Credit Card” (from Sport, June 1970):

It must have been the fall of 1962 when I first met Joe Williams. Most newspapermen, at one point or another, succumb to the illusion of public relations — thinking it is the rainbow leading to money and class and peace of mind — and I had just quit writing sports to become the sports publicist at Florida State University. It was football season all of a sudden and I was buried in brochures and 8-by-10 glossies and travel arrangements when Bud Kennedy, the FSU basketball coach, walked in one day and introduced Joe Williams as the new freshman basketball coach. Even then Williams was not the kind to make dazzling impressions. He was quiet and pleasant, tall and hunched over, a man in his late twenties, who grinned out of the side of his mouth and looked up at you, in spite of being 6-foot-4, through bushy black eyebrows. He was, it seems, sort of a part-time coach while doing graduate study or something.7 Florida State was just beginning to flex its muscles in football then, and so Bud Kennedy (who died recently) and assistant coach Hugh Durham (now the head basketball coach at FSU) and, by all means, Joe Williams sort of hovered about like extra men at a picnic softball game.

Joe did have a beautiful young bride named Dale, whom he had met while he was coaching high-school basketball in Jacksonville.8 But she was the only outwardly outstanding thing about Joe Williams, and they lived in what sounded like a fishing-camp cabin in the swamps outside Tallahassee, and I suppose I had his picture taken for the basketball brochure and I suppose the freshman team played out its season. I just don’t know. I went back to newspapering very shortly, and Joe took an assistant coaching job at Furman University, both of us roughly the same age, both of us just looking for a home, and we went separate ways without looking back.9

Jacksonville’s basketball program was, in those days during the early sixties, almost nonexistent. I had seen them play, against teams like Tampa and Valdosta State and Mercer, and it was a twilight zone of dark and airy gyms, small crowds, travel-by-car and intramural offenses. There was a line in the papers about Joe Williams leaving Furman in 1964 to become head basketball coach at Jacksonville University,10 not the most exciting announcement but at least news about an acquaintance. Jacksonville, you could find out if you bought a Jacksonville paper, got progressively worse — from 15-11 to 8-17 in Joe’s first three seasons — and people like me who had known him however vaguely were wondering whatever in the world possessed him to take a job like that.

Pat and Geno


Here’s Pat Jordan’s piece on Geno Auriemma for Deadspin:

“I don’t coach women,” the coach says. “I coach basketball players.” He tells a story. He was practicing with his team before a game when the opposing team’s female coach came out on the floor. “I’m telling my players how to play man-to-man defense. The other coach says: ‘You can’t say that. It’s person-to-person defense.’ I said, ‘You’re shittin’ me.’ She says, ‘But it’s women playing it.’ I say: ‘Yeah, but it’s man-to-man. They’re just pawns, without gender. I’m a gender-neutral coach.'”

…Geno became a women’s coach by accident. He was 21, without a job. A friend asked him to help out coaching a girls’ high school team. Geno said, “Girls! No way.” Then he thought about it. “I realized it could be pretty cool,” he tells me. “So I gave it a shot. The girls listened to me. They appreciated what I taught them.” His high school job led to an assistant coaching job on the University of Virginia’s women’s team, which led, in 1985, to an interview for the head job at UConn. By then, Geno had decided that he “liked coaching women. But I didn’t view it as coaching women. I was just coaching the game the way it should be played.

When I ask him why UConn hired him, he says: “I have no fucking idea. They wanted a woman. But nobody wanted the job. UConn had had only one winning season in its history. The facilities were lousy, there was no money, the pay was $29,000 a year, but I didn’t give a shit. I wanted to coach. So I lied to them. I told them I’m gonna do this, and this, and this, and they believed me. So I took the job. I figured I’d win a few games then after four years I’d go someplace good, men or women, as long as I could coach on a high level.” Those plans never materialized. His teams became very good, very quickly, and then, as he puts it, “a funny thing happened. After those first winning seasons, nobody called. Nobody gave a shit because I was a guy. The women’s teams didn’t want a guy, and the men’s teams figured if I was coaching women, how good could I be?”

He smiles, the big smile of a guy who’s got the last laugh. “Now nobody wants me because I’m making too much fucking money.”

Bronx Banter Interview: Rob Fleder

“Damn Yankees” is a winning new collection of essays about the Bronx Bombers. Edited by Rob Fleder, it features an All-Star lineup and is a must not just for Yankee fans or baseball fans but anyone who appreciates good writing. I recently talked to Fleder about the project. Here’s our chat. Enjoy.

Rob Fleder at Yankee Stadium

RF: We’ve been catching up the TV series “Friday Night Lights.” I don’t really watch much TV but it’s great, just so well done. If you summarized the plot line, it would sound like cliché after cliché, but that never occurs to you because it’s great story telling, it’s so well executed. It makes me think of Colum McCann’s piece in the book. We’ve all read some version of that story. If you’re a Sports Illustrated editor you’ve seen it a hundred times—and almost none of them have worked. It’s very rare that someone can pull it off, and he did spectacularly. I think it’s a fantastic piece.

BB: It’s the father-and-son piece, the outsider-coming-to-baseball story.

RF: Right, but you don’t even think about reducing it to those terms because it’s so beautifully done.

BB: I think it’s one of the best pieces in the book. Now, when you approached Colum, did you know that was the piece he was going to write?

RF: Yeah. Even before I got in touch with him, I knew from Dan Barry that Colum had a son and that he’d come to baseball through his son. He has lived here for many years but he’s still an Irishman too. His kids have grown up here. I’d read “Let The Great World Spin” and some other things by him and loved his work. I thought if anybody could do this kind of story, it’s him. What’s cool is that because he didn’t grow up in a baseball culture, I think he was more or less oblivious to the fact that he was doing something that many other people have tried, usually without much success.

BB: There is no guile or irony in his story.

RF: That’s right, and it’s an enduring theme in baseball, fathers and sons—except that he does turn the whole thing on its head, in a way. He’s coming to the game through his son, and that process takes him back to his father and grandfather. It’s great when someone is artistic enough to take material is familiar and seems predictable in some ways and does something truly original with it. That’s the magic—to take something that’s right in front of the readers eyes and to dazzle him by revealing something he never saw. That’s what good writing is about to me.

BB: The other piece in the book that I think took a familiar theme and did a nice job making it work is Will Leitch’s essay, which is really a Babe-in-the-Woods story. It’s funny, and I think he really got the tone right.

RF: Very much so. I hadn’t met Will, but he’s a friend of my friend Dave Hirshey, who’d edited him at Harper Collins. So Dave said, let’s go get a drink with Will Leitch. And when I started this whole project, my son, Nick, a deeply knowledgeable sports kid, said, “Oh, you’ve got to get Will Leitch, he’s really funny and a really good writer.” We sat down at a bar and we connected immediately. He had an idea for the book, and I was like, “Yeah, Huckleberry Finn comes to New York, that’s it.” And he ran with it. Again, a hard one to pull off, but he did a great job with it. His piece is laugh-out-loud funny but it’s also sincere. The irony in it doesn’t create distance, it does just the opposite.

BB: Going back for a minute, how did this book begin?

RF: Roy Blount was in some ways the genesis of the whole book. Dave Hirshey reminded me of this, because I’d forgotten. There is a charity dinner I go to every year where Roy is a featured guest, and he’s always hugely entertaining. So I mentioned to Hirshey that I’d been to this dinner and Roy was telling all these great old Yankee war stories from his days writing sports. I don’t know how the subject came up but Roy had all these great stories. I mentioned this to Hirshey in passing and he called me the next day and said, “Do think there’s a book in this? The best writers you can think of, writing about the Yankees?” At the very least, I thought, it’d be a lot of fun to think about, and that’s how the whole thing started.

BB: Did you know what you wanted each writer to do before you approached them or did they have an idea in mind when you first talked to them? Or did you say, I want Leigh Montville, I want Richard Hoffer, and they’ll figure it out?

RF: Some had specific idea, and some didn’t. I tried to have several possible ideas for each writer I called, things I thought might appeal to them and they might be especially good at, but I always wanted to hear the writers’ ideas first—if they had anything specific—before I suggested possible topics for them. But I did want them to be aware of the range of possibilities, so I would tell them the sorts of things other writers were doing.

BB: You do have such a wide range in the book, not only of writers but of takes on the Yankees. I mean, you’ve got Dan Okrent and Frank Deford who are classic Yankee haters.

RF: Plus, there is a little cluster from Boston, Charlie Pierce and Leigh Montville. Montville, of course, had written a big biography of the Babe as well as one of Ted Williams, and Jane Leavy had written about Mickey Mantle. And these are big books—-not just “big” as in best-sellers, but deeply researched, substantial volumes that cover a lot of ground. So I asked, “What’s the best thing that didn’t make the book?” It took Leigh a while and of course he drew on material that he’d used in the book, but his take was new, and I think what bubbled up for him with passage of time was a new perspective, a fresh insight about Ruth. And Jane just went out and did a whole lot of new reporting. She had a situation with Frank Sullivan, the old Red Sox pitcher, where she mistakenly pronounced him dead in her Mantle book. Sullivan contacted her and wondered when she planned to announce his rebirth—or something like that. It was very funny. She was mortified by her mistake, but he had a great sense of humor about it. So she dug into it and—typical of her—she did more reporting and came up with a terrific piece. So sometimes I went to people who’d already written about subjects involving the Yankees and other times I went to people who were just writers I admired who I knew had some feeling for baseball, though I didn’t know what their feelings were about this team.

BB: Who were some of those guys?

RF: I knew our friend Dexter watched every Yankee game. And as much as I’ve talked to him about the Yankees over the years—even gone to Yankee games with him—it’s never clear what Pete’s going to come up with, how he’s going to land on a subject. That’s true with anything that he’s going to write.

BB: Yeah, like that book review he did last year for the Times on the Jim Harrison novel.

RF: The book report, he called it. Exactly. You’ve read his columns and magazine pieces. That’s part of Dexter’s genius—-you never know where he’s going to be coming from on a particular subject, or where he’s going to land.

BB: Were you amused then when in typical Dexter fashion he chose Chuck Knoblauch, of all people, to write about?

RF: Well, Pete had been very sick a few years ago, very nearly died, as he writes about in the piece. Then it took him a long time to come back and there was a stretch where he felt seriously damaged by his illness, where he couldn’t write. And it was awful. And it was during that period when he landed on the idea of Chuck Knoblauch, a guy who had done something as well as anyone in the world, had done it every day of his life, and then woke up one day and suddenly couldn’t do it at all. Pete had a personal connection to that story, something you couldn’t have predicted. I mean, I knew about Pete’s illness and its aftermath, but I never could have predicted that he would connect it to that Yankees by way of Chuck Knoblauch. And you look at it and it’s a brilliant, funny piece about the awful things that went wrong for him and for Knoblauch. Nobody else could have written that piece.

BB: You’ve known and worked with Pete for a long time. You edited “Paper Trails,” his collection of newspaper columns and magazine pieces. How much editing did you do with him on his piece, and with the other writers too, for that matter? Did Pete give you a final draft and that was it or did you actually work on the piece with him? 

RF: It varied with each writer how much editing it took to get from the first draft to the final. In Pete’s case, it’s hard for him to let go of what he’s writing. He’s a perfectionist. He will rewrite everything until you badger him to give you a peek at it. He sent a draft and it was late in the process of the book’s production—meaning I was feeling the crushing weight of a deadline. The piece was brilliant, it was fall-out-of-your-chair funny but he kept working on it. He was just getting back up to speed for himself. A week or so later he sent a draft that was completely different. He tried to come at the same subject from a totally different direction. It was written like a mock children’s book, and it might have been one direction too many. He sent me about half or two-thirds of it. He’d written the whole thing and then lost the original version on his computer— he was having technical difficulties as he sometimes does. It was like “Paris Trout”

BB: Jesus. That’s when he lost more than 100 manuscript pages somewhere in his computer back in the mid-‘80s and then took a baseball bat to the machine and had to start over from the beginning.

RF: Right. The second version of his Yankee piece was still funny but I liked the earlier way he did it better. So he did a third version, which was recreating the first version, different and better. That was classic Dexter.

BB: You talked about Pete not wanting to let things go and being a perfectionist, does there ever come a point where a writer can cross a line and keep hold of something too long?

RF: I think it happens to writers all the time, and usually they know it and can see that they’ve pushed it too far or changed directions once too often, and will go back to the sweet spot that was working before. For instance, Pete bounced the second version of his piece off me, and by the time I got it and read it—we don’t work electronically with Pete, it still comes the old fashioned way, on paper, by Fed Ex—he’d already gone back to his first version, or what he could remember of it, and finished it that way.

BB: Is he the only writer in the collection who works like that?

RF: In technological terms, Frank [Deford] was like that for a long time—he was the last guy I worked with who used a typewriter—but he moved decisively into the electronic mode a long time ago. But there were other writers who were as meticulous as Pete, who worked on things until the last minute and wanted to see every draft, every galley, every version. It’s a matter of style, I think—some writers work one way, some work another. It doesn’t mean that someone like Frank or Jim Surowiecki or Roy Blount, who file pieces that are virtually finished the first time you lay eyes on them, are any less meticulous or aren’t perfectionists. Their process is different—at least, that’s the way it looks from the vantage point of an editor—but I think they’re all trying to make their words as good as they can possibly be, one way or another.

BB: I’m sure for some writers it’s never going to be good enough, even when the book is published they’ll still look at their piece and want to tinker with it.

RF: Yeah, Bruce McCall is a very meticulous writer who found things he wanted to fix in his piece until the very end. And when the book was about to close we shot this little video, and Dan Okrent left the shoot with a copy of the galleys, which were outdated by that point, and by the time I got home from the video shoot I had a message from Dan saying that there were two mistakes in Bruce’s piece. And Bruce is a careful writer. We were able to correct the things Dan found at the last minute, even though the book was already at the printer. I know there will be other things that we missed—it’s inevitable—but you do the best you can in the time that’s allotted.

BB: That’s agonizing but at some point—

RF: You have to let go. And the writers do the same thing. Some writers sent me drafts that were virtually perfect.

BB: Was Richard Hoffer one of those guys?

RF: Actually Rick and I worked on it because he was worried in his first draft of the piece about making it baseball-y enough. I always think of Hoffer as a great essayist. He’s always been one of my favorite SI writers.

BB: So understated and yet he’s not humorless. There’s a strong sense of wit in his writing. It’s just dry.

RF: Very much so. He’s extremely skillful and has a distinctive voice. And he has truly original thoughts in a world that I think is filthy with group-think. A Hoffer piece is never just the same old thing.

BB: And you don’t think of him as a baseball guy especially.

RF: No, but Hoffer’s one of those guys that I want to read on anything. I had an idea that I thought would make a perfect Hoffer essay, but at first he did much more of a narrative history piece without much of the essay component. He said to me as we were working, “I have two gears: this one and the other one.” I told him that I was envisioning a piece that included more of the other one, so he wrote a draft that was almost pure essay and left out much of the great historical narrative, all these great details. So we took both versions and put them together and I think it worked out beautifully. I love the piece. And I think it’s quintessential Hoffer.

BB: You were at Playboy and Esquire and SI as an editor and have worked with many of the writers featured in this collection. How many of the writers had you not worked with before?

RF: I can count them. I didn’t know J.R. Moehringer or Nathanial Rich or Jim Surowiecki. Pretty much everybody else I was at least acquainted with or had worked with directly. I met Will Leitch in the very early stages of the book. I’d been introduced to Colum McCann at Dan Barry’s book party, but that was the extent of it at that point. I’d admired Mike Paterniti’s work for a long time and tried to get him to write for me at one magazine or another, but can’t say I really knew him.

BB: What about Bill James?

RF: Bill James I’ve known since he was sending out his Abstract on mimeograph. I met him when I was a fact checker or a baby editor at Esquire. Okrent introduced Bill to us at Esquire, and in some sense, Esquire introduced him to a wider audience. It was great. Okrent wrote the first big piece about Bill that I remember and I worked on a little piece Bill wrote for an Esquire baseball package one year, and he was obviously an original thinker and, I thought, a terrific writer. I touched base with him every so often over the years and followed his ascension. I’d write to him from SI and say, “I don’t know if you remember who I am but would you be on a panel to pick the greatest all-time team…” or whatever. And he always remembered our connection from way back and was always generous with his time. So I called him for this book. He works with the Red Sox but is still as clear-headed about baseball as anyone I’ve ever read, and he’s a funny, quirky writer. I had no idea what he’d write about and neither did he, as it turns out. One day, late in the process, I got an e-mail from him in which he said, “I’ve been thinking about Yankee catchers….” And he was off and running.

BB: And it’s really a perfect kind of Bill James piece. It’s smart and irreverent.

RF: Analytical and full of all his digressions and humorous asides and deep baseball knowledge.

BB: That’s one of the things I noticed about the book, you’ve gotten kind of a quintessential piece from so many of the contributors.

RF: That’s the ideal—what you dream about as an editor. You pick writers of this quality and then you hope they get into it and just do what they do.

BB: I also like the variety. There are humorous pieces, memoir pieces—Sally Jenkins’s piece that is so evocative of New York City, historical stories, analytical pieces.

RF: I’m glad it hit you that way. My big picture idea was to have a bunch of voices that I really like to hear on the subject of the Yankees, more or less directly. In some cases I had specific topics in mind, like Jane Leavy on Mantle or Tom Verducci on Jeter. I told every writer who some of the other contributors were, so they knew who else was playing, and I just hoped all the writers would bring their game. As it turned out, they did.

BB: I’m forever grateful for Charlie Pierce’s piece if only because he punctured that horseshit Seinfeld routine, which has somehow become celebrated, that rooting for a sports team is like rooting for laundry.

RF: Charlie is another one you can count on to come up with something unpredictable.

BB: Right, because he starts there and shifts gears in the middle of the piece about growing up and what the Yankees meant growing up in Boston.

RF: He does lay waste that whole Seinfeld bit about laundry. But in a much larger context he also writes about what baseball’s tribal experience means to people who come to this country from somewhere else, and he does it in a way that is immediate and on a human scale. Charlie’s piece has a lot of common ground with Column McCann’s, but they are totally different essays.

BB: Taken as a whole were there any surprises in the collection, a theme, or a player who jumped out as somebody that appeared in more than a few of the pieces?

RF: There are some threads that run through the book, yeah. And I was aware of them when I was figuring out the order of the pieces and was conscious of spacing them out so that they didn’t come together too quickly. Catfish Hunter comes up more often than I would’ve anticipated. And he’s the focus for Mike Paterniti, who wrote just a beautiful piece.

BB: The book ends with Steve Rushin talking about Catfish, too.

RF: And I was aware that. I’d really admired Mike’s classic Thurman Munson piece in Esquire. When I spoke to him, he mentioned that he’d seen Catfish Hunter near the end of his life and had written a quick remembrance of him in the early days of Esquire.com. He sent me the little post he’d done and he went back to that and really dug in. So I knew that Mike and Steve were going to touch on some of the same ground, and Rushin wrote a gem of a piece in which he gets the last word in the book, which is fitting. And Catfish also comes up again in Bill Nack’s amazing story about the Bronx Zoo Era Yankees. There’s a different focus and context in each of the three pieces in which Catfish appears.

BB: Also, what a beautiful guy to come up. A guy with a sense of himself and a sense of humor about the Yankees and how crazy George was even though he was the first big free agent. Yankee fans love him but also probably saw himself as being apart from that too.

RF: And there was another surprise in the book. Steinbrenner comes up, obviously, over and over again. But Jim Surowiecki, the financial writer for the New Yorker, who is another really original thinker, did a revisionist analysis of what Steinbrenner did with the team economically—a totally fresh take on Steinbrenner’s ownership .

BB: I also like that there are a few essays on the modern Yankees. Verducci on Jeter but also Steve Wulf on Robinson Cano, which is important I think—to talk about a Latin star.

RF: As the book was taking shape I knew Tom was going to do Jeter but I thought it’d be good to have a piece on a player who represented the future. I think of Steve as the guy who first wrote about Dominican baseball, about Dominican shortstops. I remembered his piece from the ‘80s, and I thought Cano was the guy for this book. He is a monstrously good player and will be the center of gravity when Mariano and Jeter are gone. Steve took it and ran. He’s been an editor at ESPN for a while now, but he was a great baseball writer at SI for a really long time and knows the game as well as anyone. It was a perfect match of writer and subject.

BB: And it’s an important piece because for so many years the Yankees didn’t have Dominican players, certainly not stars, despite playing a stones throw from Washington Heights.

RF: That’s right. Another surprising piece came from Dan Barry.

BB: Which is great because the Mike Burke, CBS years were covered.

RF: The last thing you think of is the Yankees as underdogs.

BB: Celerino Sanchez.

RF: “Poor Celerino Sanchez,” is a little refrain from Dan’s piece, which is both poignant and very funny. And he had a deeper connection to that team than I expected before I talked to him. Then there’s Roy Blount, who I knew had Yankee stories to tell, but the nature of a Blount piece—the beauty of a Blount piece—is that you have no idea how he’s going to get at his subject and can’t possibly predict where he’s going to go with it.

BB: Then you see writers like Moehringer, McCann and Dexter and you think, I wonder what those guys have to say about them?

RF: J.R. Moehringer had an intimate connection with the team through his grandfather, who was a key figure in his life. “The Tender Bar” is J.R.’s great memoir about growing up with an absent father, and his grandfather is in that book. But what J.R. has done here is an element of the story that wasn’t in his book.

BB: And Moehringer is a Mets fan.

RF: I contacted him and he said that he wanted to write about the Yankees from a Mets fan’s point of view. And I already had Nathaniel Rich doing that. In fact, I had Nathaniel’s story already, and it was terrific, extremely amusing. So I told J.R. that I had that piece but that I really wanted him to write for this book. At that point I suggested a couple of topics, but he had something else he wanted to try. And after a while he sent me what he said was a really rough draft of something that was well on its way to being this piece. He’s another one who goes back to his copy over it over and over again, making it better and then going back to it again. It’s a wonderful piece about how he connected with baseball. It’s amazing.

BB: Plus, watching the games on TV and listening to the Scooter. You needed to get the Scooter in there.

RF: Had to. And he’s another thread. He’s also gets a prominent mention in Rushin’s piece.

BB: Yankee fans will obviously be interested in the book but there are enough of the writers in the book who are Yankee-haters that I suspect you want to draw readers that aren’t Yankee fans, too.

RF: Yeah, I think anybody who is interested in reading good writers is the potential audience for the book. The natural audience is Yankee fans, baseball fans. They are a team that people have strong feelings about: people love them and people really love to hate them.

BB: This is the book you want to read.

RF: That was the hope. The plan, insofar as I had one, was to get the writers I want to read on a subject I want to read about. Beyond that I didn’t really know where it would go. I wanted to be surprised and delighted, and by that measure I think the book is a real success.

“Damn Yankees” is available for pre-order at Amazon. It will be published on April 3rd.


[Photographs via N.Y. Daily News, N.Y. Times, ESPN, Corbis, Marisa Kestel, Peter Adams, SI, Illustration by Bruce McCall, photo of Pete Dexter by Stuart Isett]

Blunted on Reality

Chris Ballard has a bonus piece on the fall of Antoine Walker in this week’s SI. Worth a read.

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