Bronx Banter Interview
“The truest thing in the world was that you showed who you were writing a column. He said that at his lectures, and they always took that to mean politics or how you feel about the death penalty. Which had nothing to do with it. There were as many dick shrivelers that wanted to ban nuclear sites and love their brother as there were that wanted to bomb Russia. It was almost incidental, what you had for issues. But how you saw things, how physical things went into your eyes and what your brain took and what it threw back, that told who you were.”
—From Pete Dexter’s first novel, God’s Pocket (1983)
Our man Dexter was a legendary newspaper columnist in Philadelphia and then in Sacramento from the late 1970s through the mid-’80s, but unless you lived in those towns at the time or unless you hung out in the microfilm room of your local library, it was nearly impossible to track down his work. Dexter has written seven novels—the third one, Paris Trout, won the National Book Award—and they are all in print. But until Dexter’s old friend, Rob Fleder, a longtime magazine (Esquire, Playboy, Sports Illustrated) and book editor, had the notion to compile Dexter’s journalism, some of his greatest work remained unavailable to us.
First published in 2007, Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage gives us what we want—a sampling of Dexter’s work as a columnist. The good people at Ecco Press have now published a paperback edition, thus giving me an excuse to call up Pete and get him talking about his days in the newspaper business.
I got to know Pete when his last book, Spooner, was published, and I interviewed him then as part of a long-running Bronx Banter Interview series. (Last year, I interviewed Fleder for a collection he put together for Ecco, Damn Yankees. And here is an excerpt from an essay Pete wrote in that book about Chuck Knoblauch.)
What follows was put together from several recent phone conversations with Pete.
Bronx Banter: What kind of reporter were you when you began?
Pete Dexter: I didn’t have a specialty or anything. I was kind of looked on as a guy who could write. I was a careful writer and a careless reporter. Reporting is a talent but it’s also just a matter of rolling up your sleeves. A guy like Bob Woodward didn’t get where he is by being charming or having a way with people I don’t think. He just did it by following all the rules and taking things as far as they could be humanly taken. That wasn’t what I wanted to do. I knew that early on. I didn’t get any satisfaction out of breaking a story. It just didn’t appeal to me.
BB: You started in the Watergate Era when Woodward and Bernstein made the whole idea of being a reporter something else, a star.
PD: Yeah, all of a sudden kids were going to journalism school so they could take down a president. It was a passing fad, I guess, but it lasted ten years anyway. You used to call them “serious young journalists.” You sign up for that, and…if you don’t have your heart in it, if that’s not compulsive in you, if you don’t feel like you have to do it, you’re probably not going to be much of a reporter. Early on I recognized that I was going to have to come from some other direction. On the other hand, I loved being part of the newspaper, I loved that feeling when big stories were breaking, though it wasn’t me that broke them.
BB: And you didn’t have a need to be that guy.
PD: No, I never wanted to be Hoag Levins, who worked for the Philadelphia Daily News. Hoag would put on black face and army fatigues and crawl up to Mayor Rizzo’s house and come away with how much the doorknobs cost and then try to figure how a guy who’d made a living as a police chief and mayor could afford an expensive house. He was wildly ambitious and he was a really good guy. But eventually he made a couple of mistakes and then something got him tripped up—I can’t even remember what it was now—some story he got wrong. They had to fire him. And that would not have been done easily cause you couldn’t help but like him and admire his energy.
BB: Was there a part of reporting, even before you had the column, the part where you’d just go out and talk to people, that you liked? Were you interested in people?
PD: Yeah, not so much for the newspaper. I used to drive around a lot in this old Jeep and I’d see somebody doing something interesting and I’d always pull off the road and go talk to them. That’s been something I’ve always done. And sometimes you hear some real strange stuff. Other times people just won’t talk to you, and that’s OK.
BB: So your natural curiosity helped you.
PD: It wasn’t a conscious thing. I’ve always loved stories. If you’re patient enough there are more people than you’d ever guess that have stories. It wasn’t deliberate but that’s what my stuff’s always been about: It’s about stories.
BB: Had you thought about wanting to have a column even before Gil Spencer arrived at the paper?
PD: That had been in my head. It was the only job outside of running the paper that I wanted. And they were not going to let me run the paper, that was pretty obvious.
BB: Did you get along with your editors?
PD: All the problems I’ve had with management, and they have been legion, were with people that feel the necessity to control you or put their two cents in. This started when I was a reporter. There’s that city editor, assistant city editor, sometimes the managing editor, that certain class of people, as part of their job they feel an obligation to change things just so that they have their own imprint on it somehow. And that’s where the rub comes because if you say, “That’s silly, that doesn’t make sense and here’s why…” you are no longer questioning their editing but you’ve confronted their power, their position. And once that starts, once you let them know you’re not just on their side, that’s where the problems always come from. At least with me. I never enjoyed the confrontations, certainly not as much as I’ve been given credit for, but that’s what it always was about. Power. My thought was you can be the nighttime assistant city editor for the rest of your life and I don’t care, you don’t have anything I want, just leave me alone.
BB: They weren’t about making the piece better necessarily.
PD: I never worked for anybody I looked up to as a writer but I worked for a lot of people that I looked up to as a newspaper guy, and if those people said something, I listened. But the ones who knew what they were doing knew enough to leave me alone in what I did, and if I stepped over a line in their world then not only was I glad for the criticism—if they’d caught some mistake that kept me from being embarrassed again—I was always grateful for that. I didn’t have a sense that if I wrote it it has to be right.
BB: Before you started a column, what columnists did you read, either in Philadelphia or around the country? Not so much that you wanted to emulate them necessarily but who got you interested in the form.
PD: This is hard to explain but when I came to Philly I was in my early thirties. I came out of Florida and had been in the newspaper business on-and-off for about two years and I didn’t know what a newspaper column was. I hadn’t read Breslin or Pete Hamill or Mike Royko. I didn’t know what they did. There were two columnists at the News when I got here, Tom Fox who wrote a column on Page Two, and Larry McMullen, who recently died. McMullen would go out in the street, hear these stories, and write them. He was from South Philadelphia and he was of that time and of that place and of that paper and I’ve never seen a better fit for a paper. When I saw that he was writing stories, that’s when I wanted to do it. He was writing five times a week and when I started I was doing that too—went to four and then to three.
BB: Did you get to know McMullen well?
PD: Oh, yeah, McMullen and I were old friends. I never felt any rivalry. The other guy, Tom Fox, was one of these little guys who walks around … someone called him the best columnist in the country—someone is always saying something like that about you—and he believed it. He’d write about some shooting and he was throwing in tough guy talk like, “He blew the faggot away.” I remember someone wrote a letter to the editor and said, “Who’s really the faggot?” And some criticism of Fox came in that letter. He was just outraged. That was pretty funny to see, at least to me. Those are two perfect examples for someone who wanted to be a columnist—I saw exactly the kind of columnist I wanted to be and the kind I didn’t want to be. It’s good to have one of each.
BB: Did Spencer give you the columnist job or did you have a test run, first?
PD: There was a little time there that I wrote one or two a week when I was still a reporter. That was a short period of time, I can’t tell you how long, a couple of months. But once he gave me a taste of it I was even harder to deal with on the city desk. There was this guy Zach Stalberg who later ran the paper and who is really a good guy, the kind of guy you’d want running your newspaper if you couldn’t have Spencer. Gil made Stalberg the city editor and a couple of months later he became the managing editor. But his present to Stalberg was giving me the column so I was no longer his responsibility. When I started the column if anyone had any problems with me they went straight to Spencer and that was good for everybody. Yeah, I think everybody was happy the way that worked out.
BB: Was it a big transition for you?
PD: It was an avalanche of sudden work. You go from the city desk where someone tells you, “Go interview the widow of this guy who just got shot,” and so you go to the movies and come back and say, “She wasn’t there,” to having to do a story every day. It was more than a small change. If you are a reporter and you’re not a good reporter there are places to hide. You can do all kinds of stuff to avoid producing. But if that column space is yours and you’ve got to fill it by definition you’ve got to fill it. That was good for everybody, too. First of all, it made me a better reporter.
BB: How so?
PD: You come to realize when you’re writing a column that the best columns—the very best ones come off your head—but if you are going to do it three times a week, some of those days you go talk to real people and by the time you get back the column writes itself. I’m thinking about that column in the book [Paper Trails] about the guy in Camden who found the head in the bag. You drive 10 minutes over to Camden, talk to this guy for half an hour, and yeah, I got lucky that day, but that was exactly what a newspaper column is supposed to be. And it was just handed to you. By that time I could write well enough the words were just there, the story was there. And that sort of thing, when it worked, was what a column was about. Most of my better columns were about that, going to actually talk to somebody.
BB: The great sport columnist Red Smith didn’t think of himself as a columnist but as a reporter.
PD: Yeah, that’s right.
BB: You said earlier that you’d drive around, stop the car, and talk to a guy. When you were doing the column, did you force yourself even more to do that because you thought, hey, I’ve got to have something to write about today?
PD: When you’re writing a column, your first question when you look at things are: Is this a column? But if I saw something interesting I’d still want to go ask about it. I’m still like that. I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve talked to who are on skateboards. Just ask them how they do what they’re doing and stuff like that. In a way, I kind of believe that thing of, there are no stupid questions, although God knows I get asked a lot of them. But to me, if you don’t know something and you’ve wondered about it, why not find out?
BB: Did you ever come across something that you found interesting but felt was too big to be a column?
PD: Yeah, but you could usually turn it into a three-part column or write about the same thing for three days. Sometimes that couldn’t be done and yeah it’d be a size you couldn’t handle.
BB: Did you talk to Spencer or anyone else about what you were going to write about beforehand?
PD: No. Good Christ. No.
BB: Did you ever junk one? Or just go with something you didn’t think was that good?
PD: You can write a letters column, you can find something else to do when it’s not going your way but that didn’t happen very often. What you really need is your voice being there three times a week.
BB: How long did it take to develop your voice or style?
PD: The voice was there from the get-go. That goes back to basic writing. If you’re thinking about developing your voice you’re thinking about the wrong things. That should just be—
BB: Like your speaking voice—
PD: You don’t want to be conscious of it. It just happens, at least that’s the way I think. Jeez, I’m looking at my dog outside and he’s taking like the third crap of the last two hours. … Probably shouldn’t have given him that pork chop. We have a rule against giving them pork. Shit.
BB: Kosher, huh?
BB: What about subject matter? Did you ever think, Oh, I’ve written three heavy pieces so far this week; I want to change it up with something light?
PD: No. Whatever came. Once, early on in my column writing, I wrote a piece, I can’t remember what it was about exactly, a guy’d lost his cat and I talked to him for a little while. A guy from one of the neighborhoods. When you write a column you get your detractors. And I got a letter from someone who said that I ripped off a Hemingway short story, where that was a line, something “and the fact that cats that can take care of themselves was all he had.” And I had. Christ knows it wasn’t conscious. I went back and looked at the story. It absolutely looked intentional and it wasn’t. It wasn’t enough on the nose where anyone could say it was plagiarism or anything but the idea of it, I sure could see why the guy said what he said. That’s the only time something like that ever happened to me. And I don’t to this day know … I know that it wasn’t intentional. I really can’t say much more about it but it was there and the idea was behind a short story that Hemingway had written and one that I’d read in college.
BB: Did you write back to the guy?
PD: Probably talked to him. I called people, I didn’t write letters much. There wasn’t much to say, really. But he did have a point. So when years later I heard that Doris Kearns Goodwin was accused of plagiarism … I guess all I’m saying is that I’ve got some sympathy. When you’re writing enough, when you’re writing everyday something like that can creep into your stuff without knowing you’re really doing it. I know it was only once and nobody ever mentioned anything else. But it bothered me.
BB: Did you read the letters that were sent to you by readers?
PD: Read them? Sure.
BB: Did you enjoy them?
PD: Eh, when they were funny. Twenty a day was a big day, six letters a day was predictable. Some were funny. Sometimes they had stories and that could be valuable. But most of the time they were either agreeing with you and disagreeing with you and who cares?
BB: You ever wake up and say, “I got nothing?”
PD: No. There’s always something. I took it fairly seriously but I was always doing enough stuff. If something funny wasn’t going on or something interesting wasn’t going on I could usually do something bad enough that I could write about it the next day.
BB: In your own life?
PD: Yeah. I ended up with an FBI guy at a bar one night and I bet him that I could throw a case of beer across Pine Street. The cops showed up. So you had the cops and the FBI guy and me and everyone from Dirty Frank’s out there in the street and it looked like a riot … and that makes a nice little column.
BB: You said earlier that other than running the paper writing a column was the only job you wanted. After two or three years of doing the column, did you feel like you’d found your calling, were you happy with it?
PD: Yeah, I was happy but I didn’t feel like that was it. I would have been probably a lot better off, if you call what I did a career—whatever this is—if I’d devoted myself entirely to that space in the Philly Daily News or gone to New York or stayed with newspapers. I would have definitely been a better newspaper columnist. And who knows, you have to do what makes you happy at the time. I don’t regret any of that. I don’t regret not being in newspapers but there are sure days when I miss it.
BB: The immediacy of it?
PD: I don’t know. I just liked being in the city room, I liked the people I worked with—some of them anyway. It was just nice. You’re—
BB: Part of something.
PD: And an important part of it and that makes a difference.
BB: Writing a column sounds a whole less solitary than writing novels.
PD: Oh, yeah. There’s no comparison.
BB: Did you write the column at home or go in to the paper?
PD: No, I went into the paper every day. If I didn’t have a column the next day, I went in anyway just to see what was going on.
BB: So it was a social thing, then.
PD: Oh, yeah. I couldn’t help it.
BB: Was it like a locker room?
PD: Yeah. I was always kind of working. I mean, I didn’t write a column every day but I always went in to see what’s going on and that’s work in a way. Yeah, I just liked being around those people, I liked to see what people were doing. Some of them I still think about to this day and wish I had contact with. There were a bunch of real good reporters.
BB: Do you keep in touch with any of them?
PD: There was a guy named Bob Fowler at the Inky [the Philadelphia Inquirer] that I still talk to once in a while and when I go back there I look up a guy named Gehringer, Dan Gehringer, he’s a real good writer, who I knew from back in Florida. But for the most part, no. No, I really don’t, that’s the truth.
BB: Did you hang out and have drinks with copy editors and reporters?
PD: Eh, not too much. Once in a while, a drink with somebody. For most of that time I wasn’t in the bars at all once that thing happened in South Philadelphia, that’s when I started writing novels and I didn’t have the time or inclination for the bars anymore.
BB: When you were doing the column did you then start to read other guys like Breslin or Hamill?
PD: I’d see Breslin’s stuff and Hamill’s stuff once in awhile. A guy like Breslin, he was a columnist. And that was in spite of the The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. That’s what he was. And he never was much good at anything else that I know of.
BB: You’ve said before that you never had ambition to write novels, but after the first three, you were still writing the column. Did writing fiction inform the nature of how you wrote the column?
PD: No, I don’t think so. I’d just sort of get up and do what was in front of me that day.
BB: Did you ever go to the office to work on a novel?
PD: No, I couldn’t do that there. That’s a separate deal. I was never conscious of anything going on intentionally. It’s a funny thing to say. Every place I ever went I stumbled into accidentally. Maybe one thing led to another but not intentionally.
BB: So you didn’t have a grand plan?
PD: At some point I decided I was done with newspapers but …
BB: Yeah, before that: What was it like leaving Philly and going to the Sacramento Bee?
PD: Oh, fuck, it was the worst thing I ever did professionally. I went there because the guy that ran the paper was an old friend of mine. I’d rather not get into that, but the whole place smacked of an office environment, a business environment. I wasn’t there that long, but when I left they asked me to continue to write up in Washington State where I lived but you can’t be a local columnist and not be local. And the truth is when you’re writing well, the only columnists are local columnists. National columnists are something different. There aren’t as many stories. It’s more reports and views. Where the best columns are just there, they’re just stories. For me, anyway.
BB: In order to be a good columnist to you need to have a basic sense of outrage about things?
PD: I think different guys do it different ways. It’d just wear me out to go in the office every day outraged. And you shouldn’t do that now that I think about it because that ruins the taste for when something real comes along. You can’t go at it like one of these television guys who every night has some breaking news about how bad Obama’s fucked up or something. When you’re always outraged, it’s like the boy that cried wolf and it’s too much. It can be entertaining for someone who is reading the paper for the first time but if all you get from that space is outrage pretty soon nobody believes it, I don’t think. And if it does it appeals to people who are outraged by nature and want to be outraged more.
BB: So everything changed for you as a columnist once you Philly.
PD: It was never the same. I mean, Philadelphia is probably the best place of them all to write a newspaper column. The place is so rich. I missed that. And the paper was so open to what I had to offer, way more than any other paper in the country would have been. And Spencer was such a good guy about it. I don’t think there was a better place to work than the Philadelphia Daily News. And I left it … for reasons that don’t make any sense to me now. I left it ’cause it was time to do something else, I guess. But if I was going to stay in newspapers I’d made a terrible mistake.
BB: You were a columnist for about a decade. Are there guys that get better after 15 years or do they create a persona and then there’s a cap for how far you can go?
PD: Oh, no, you can get better. If you have initiative, if your interest is in the paper and the stories themselves, if you’re a newspaperman in your heart, you continue to get better and love it. I think at the center of things, as much fun as it was for me, I wanted to do something else.
BB: Why does it sound like you have regret about it?
PD: I’m just sorry because it was so much fun. There’s good things and bad things about anywhere but there was an awful lot of good things about that place, Philadelphia. And in that way I’m sorry we left.
BB: When you go back, is it a different place?
PD: No. The paper’s not the same, I’ll tell you.
BB: It’s funny, you could have stayed at the paper and then you’d be going through all these cutbacks and changes.
PD: Oh, I’d be way more unhappy. I mean I get sad about it, I get melancholy about it, but don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t go back and change it.
PD: Not really. That’s an awful lot of writing for—it was an awful lot of work and in the end all you have is a magazine story. As much as I like stopping along the road and talking to somebody I don’t like invading their lives, which is what you need to do. You have to spend a couple of weeks around Jim Brown to begin to get anything. I’ve been on the other side of it, having a guy hanging around me taking notes, and I don’t like it. And I don’t like doing it to someone else for that reason.
BB: How is newspaper reporting different?
PD: You can’t hang around them at all, really. I mean, Christ, I don’t know how many columns I wrote about Randall Cobb and his quest to be the champion of the world but Cobb and I would have been friends anyway. That was a sure-fire column at least once a month, sometimes more than that.
BB: There’s a funny Cobb story about a rental car in Paper Trails. The four columns you wrote on Cobb during the week he fought Larry Holmes in Houston for the heavyweight championship aren’t in the book but I really like them. They were so emotional.
PD: Yeah, it was a sad time.
BB: Because of the Holmes fight?
PD: Yeah, it’s hard to watch somebody realize the dream of his life is never going to happen and he’s doing everything he can and it’s … you know, you really have to set your mind to do something like that. In the first place, you have to lie to yourself all the time. And then to see it all spilled out in front of you like it was, that it wasn’t going to happen … it was sad. He really tried hard.
BB: Did you feel guilty at all?
PD: No. Why?
BB: Because he’d broken his arm in the bar fight you’d been in together the previous winter in South Philly.
PD: No, that went beyond … that wasn’t guilty. I felt bad about it but he and I’d been through so much other stuff, and it just, um, what was going on between me and Randall was a lot closer to—I don’t want to say brotherhood, exactly—but we’d been … no, I didn’t feel guilty about it. But I wasn’t one of the guys … I mean, there was 5,000 people in Philadelphia thinking they’re Randall Cobb’s best friend. Because he was nice to everybody and he would tell people stuff and they would go around thinking that he’d told them something real. But he and I were friends in a different way than that. I understood and he understood exactly what happened that night.
BB: What exactly was that?
PD: No, it’s too complicated. I can’t go into that anymore than I already have 2,000 times because there’s something at the bottom of it between Cobb and me, something that if I tried to go back and explain it, it all just washes over me again. He’s just so … like I said, those were such sad times in the way that I mentioned. What you’re asking about is going into a place that I don’t talk about with anybody. It’s private in some way between me and Cobb in a way that probably doesn’t lend itself very well to words.
BB: Shit, I’m sorry if I made you uneasy even asking about it.
PD: No, it’s alright. I’d gotten hit that night in the bar and I was unconscious. It’s just … that moment when I wake up and Cobb was the only guy there and I wanted to get him—something happened there between us that I’ve not, something I can’t revisit easily, let’s put it that way. But don’t feel bad about asking me, that’s what you’re supposed to do.
BB: Did you guys stay close after the Holmes fight?
PD: Yeah. I mean, he’d started moving away before he fought Holmes. About a month before he fought Holmes he disappeared for a while. I don’t know where he was training but I couldn’t get through to him. He got rid of his manager and his trainer and showed up with a different guy at the fight. And those people were … I mean, everybody was after Cobb as a meal ticket. Money was what they all wanted. He’d been carrying a hundred people around on his back forever, y’know, being everybody’s best friend. If he had $10 and somebody asked him for it, he gave it to them. Whatever he had they could have and he was always like that. And it finally, I think it got to be too much. Christ, he didn’t care what he signed, contracts and shit like that, he never paid any attention to that. He and I kind of lost touch for a while but you don’t give up what you feel about somebody like that.
BB: So when you and Rob Fleder went through the material for Paper Trails did you read tons of columns that you’d forgotten about?
PD: Oh sure. And I’m sure there were tons more than Fleder passed on I still haven’t seen or remember. You got to remember it’s more than a thousand columns, at least. It’s kind of like finding an old diary or something.
BB: Did you enjoy reading through them?
PD: Uh, sort of. Fleder did the work. Fleder’s the guy that read them all. He’s the reason the book is there. He’s absolutely as much a reason that book exists as I am. It’s a funny thing that makes you smile when you look at it. It was such a nice thing for him to do. It wasn’t like we were going to get rich or anything. God, it’s just the nicest thing you can do for somebody in a way. When I look back on the book, I think about Fleder and what a great thing that was to do for me.
BB: In Yiddish they call that a Mitzvah. A blessing.
BB: A nice thing to do.
PD: And that’s what this is, I guess. A mitz-vah.
You can buy Paper Trails here or download it for to your phone or tablet here. Source photo by Marion Ettlinger, from the back cover of Dexter’s fourth novel, Brotherly Love. Background photo via Getty.
And so, here is the fourth of Pete Dexter’s columns on the Cobb-Holmes fight. It appears here with the author’s permission.
“An Advanced Game of Tag”
By Pete Dexter
Monday, November 29, 1982
HOUSTON – The tap on the door came at 6 o’clock in the morning. I knew it was 6 o’clock because there was a clock on the dresser, next to a copy of the Bible, and I’d been lying in bed since 2 o’clock looking at it.
The phone had rung all night, friends from Philly and Montana and Tennessee telling me that Howard Cosell had painted Randall Cobb as some kind of a freak of nature on national television.
I didn’t know what to say, except it would catch up with Howard later. I did mention that it was a measure of Howard’s depth that he has no trouble enunciating the bravery of television actors who compete, despite pulled muscles, in a tug of war in ” Battle of the Network Stars,” and couldn’t see any of that in staying in the ring with Larry Holmes for 15 rounds.
Yes, Randall took a pounding.
No, he didn’t quit. The only other man Holmes has failed to knock out since he became champion was Trevor Berbick, but – as Holmes would tell me later in the day – Berbick wasn’t fighting, he was just trying to survive. “Fifteen rounds, after all the shots,” Holmes would say, sounding like he was remembering it from a long time ago, “Cobb was still tryin’ to win the fight. He fought me harder than anybody. ”
I got up off the bed and opened the door. “I knew an ambitious young businessman like yourself would be an early riser,” he said, coming in. “All of us are early risers.” One of his eyes was swollen half shut, there were six small stitches in the lid of the other one. He sat down on the bed and looked out the window at the Astrodome. It was still raining in Houston, as far as I knew it always had been.
“Are you hurt?” I said. I’d walked with him back to the dressing room after the fight, but I left when he and his trainer George Benton started talking about the next one. I think a lot of George Benton, but I didn’t want to hear about any more fighting then.
“It looks a lot worse than it is,” he said. “I don’t know why, usually it’s worse than it looks. No, I’m fine, except my ears. “Randall always gets an ear infection after a fight. He hit himself on the side of his head, like a kid who has been in a swimming pool.
I said, “If something comes dripping out of there I’m going to lock myself in the bathroom.”
He smiled and looked at the television. I’d left it on, trying to sleep. It was a Kung Fu rerun, David Carradine remembering the advice of his old dime- eyed teacher on how to disarm a troop of drunk and insensitive American cavalry troops. “You must listen to the color of the sky,” he said,” and see the sound of the hummingbird’s wing. ”
“You think I need a blind trainer?” he said.
“He did have a right hand,” I said, meaning Holmes.
“I didn’t think it was that fast,” he said. He looked out the window again. “I didn’t think he was that good. It was like an advanced game of tag in there. “And then a few minutes later, “Larry is a bad bitch in a game of tag.”
There was a tiny, unstitched cut about an inch under his left eye, where so many of the right hands had landed, and as he spoke it leaked watery blood down his cheek. The cut must have gone all the way into a tear duct, and his face, on that side, was streaked with two long, bloody tears.
“Did I tell you about Hagerman, New Mexico?” he said. “Me and my brother Marty dug ditches there for the high school gymnasium one summer. The dirt was so hard you couldn’t dig it without a pick, the hottest dirt in the world. You couldn’t walk on it with bare feet. I know, I tried and Marty had to come save me, pick me up.
“And every morning three members of the city council were out there, looking down into the ditch where me and Marty were digging. It would be 102 degrees by 8 o’clock, going to 114. And the first one would always say, ‘Hot enough for you?’ and the second one would say, ‘Whatchu doin’? ‘
“And me and Marty were so competitive, we’d stand out there all day, tryin’ to see who could shovel more dirt, watchin’ each other so you could say, ‘Ha! I shoveled four of these while you only shoveled three. ‘And the water had the worst taste of anyplace I ever been. It was something in the ground, gave everybody in town gas. You can imagine what the town smelled like.
“And when me and Marty complained about the water, they always said, ‘You keep diggin’, and it’ll taste good.’” He dabbed at the blood on his face. ” The city council’s probably still there,” he said. “Gettin’ together right now over at the gym, and one of them says, ‘Hot enough for you?’ and the other one says, ‘Whatchu doin’?’ And they all stand around, passing the worst gas in North America, wondering how come the town doesn’t grow. ”
He looked back out the window again. I got some coffee and Cokes from room service, and we sat like that in the room until noon, talking about Larry Holmes’ right hand and Hagerson, New Mexico, and what could have been underneath it to make the dirt so hot and the water so bad.
At noon I had to leave to get a plane back to Philly. He said he was thinking of taking a look at Australia.
“Are you hurt?” I said.
He shook his head no. “It was just an advanced game of tag,” he said, “and Larry won.” A fresh bloody tear came out of the cut underneath his eye and worked its way down his face.
He said, “Damn, I wish he’d wanted to fight.”
From the Library of America’s site, check out this Red Smith column from the forthcoming American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith.
By Pete Dexter
Friday, November 26, 1982
HOUSTON – Howard Cosell came through the hotel lobby yesterday morning, complaining about being away from his family at Thanksgiving. Randall Cobb’s fight with Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship of the world was clearly an inconvenience.
The news of Howard’s inconvenience was relayed to Randall through one of the national reporters also here to cover the fight. “Howard’s upset to be away from his family,” one of them said.
Randall looked up from under the hood of his boxing robe and nodded. “I know,” he said,” I got a thank-you note from his wife this morning. ”
That night, one of those reporters came to me in the hotel bar and asked when Randall was going to get serious. “He’s funny,” the reporter said,” everybody loves him, but when does he get ready? That’s Larry Holmes he’s got to fight, and Larry’s serious…”
Randall is serious.
He is as solid as I’ve ever seen him before a fight. There are no questions left in him, about himself or Holmes, and a kind of peace has set in that lets him smile at the distractions.
And the distractions aren’t just the prospects of fighting Larry Holmes. As Randall has become more valuable, more and more people have become interested in guiding his career.
As far as I know, there are two basic factions trying to eliminate each other from his affections, and factions within the factions trying to eliminate each other too. There are rumors of bugged rooms and spies and thieves.
The thieves, of course, are not rumors, they are facts.
There is serious trouble with the contract, which promoter Don King has amended because Randall showed up in Houston a week late – not for the fight, for publicity. King, of course, has been concerned enough about publicity to spend, oh, $20 on promotion, and allow the month of November to start without having set a final date for the fight.
His amendment is going to cost Randall several hundred thousand dollars.
Then there are reporters and television interviews and hundreds of people who want to touch Randall, or tell him something, or take pictures of their 3- year-old sons sitting on his lap. Everybody wants something.
And Randall sits alone and holds babies and signs autographs – and no matter how many times the people around him say, “We’re ready,” or ” We’re going to kill Holmes,” Randall is still going to step into the ring by himself – and he handles it.
Yes, he is serious.
And watching it happen, it occurs to me that I want something, too. I keep going back to the mornings at Mickey Rosati’s gym. Two or three mornings a week, Randall and I and Arthur Bourgeau used to meet there, and Randall would work three or four rounds with Arthur and then three or four rounds with me.
Work may be a little strong. He’d play with both of us, keeping enough pressure on to make it serious. In the end, I’d be too tired to take my own gloves off.
He’d wait until I felt better, and then we’d go over to the little coffee shop at 18th and McKean and read the newspapers or talk with Mickey, and for an hour or two nobody wanted anything from us. For an hour or two, it was peaceful.
And after that, everything else seemed easier. It was like a fresh start.
And sitting here on a rainy Thanksgiving Day in a hotel across the street from the Astrodome, I could use a fresh start. It’s all slow- motion now.
The old men and the sparring partners are always in the lobby, waiting forever. The line of people following Randall into the weigh-in seems longer than it was when he came in for interviews yesterday afternoon, more reporters come in by the hour. And across the street, the Astrodome is as gray as the sky, and it seems to hover there, always on the edge of your vision, like the fight itself.
And I wish that somehow we could go to Mickey Rosati’s gym tomorrow morning, and afterwards to the coffee shop, and sit there for an hour or two reading the papers, and have nobody wanting anything from any of us again.
And maybe then I could tell him what I have on my mind, that it doesn’t matter what happens against Larry Holmes, that the people who care for him don’t depend on him or what he does for who they are.
He already knows that, of course, but I wish I could say it anyway – not blurt it out, but just sit around until it came out – and let him know once, before it all changes, how happy it made me, the way it was.
[Photo Credit: Marco Rubio Jr.]
Here’s the second of four columns by Pete Dexter on Randall Cobb’s championship fight against Larry Holmes. (The first one is here.) Reprinted with the author’s permission…
“Gifts Aren’t Everything”
By Pete Dexter
Wednesday, November 24, 1982
HOUSTON – On the last day of work before he meets Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship of the world, Randall Cobb sparred three rounds with a light heavyweight named Charlie Singleton and then spent 10 or 15 minutes jumping rope.
I can’t tell you exactly how long because Randall jumping rope is something I can’t make myself watch. I don’t know why, but rope doesn’t fit under his feet.
As Charlie Singleton says, “Maybe Tex don’t have all the natural gifts. He didn’t get no fast left hand like Larry, he didn’t get no bouncy legs. ”
But as Charlie Singleton also says, “Maybe he got some gifts that was more subtle, and maybe he got some gifts that he give himself.”
For natural gifts, all you have to do is look at the undercard for Friday’s fight. Greg Page versus James “Quick” Tillis. Leg speed, hand speed, reflexes. You can’t help thinking of the destruction Randall could do with that stuff. Tillis, as a matter of fact, not only jumps rope, he does rope tricks. In fact right after the workout, he lassoed Randall’s trainer and then Inquirer sports writer Thom Greer.
Quick Tillis always carries a pink lasso.
But impressive as that is, Quick Tillis gave away his shot against WBA heavyweight champion Mike Weaver last year when he got in the ring and refused to get close enough to Weaver to throw punches.
And Page took himself out of consideration for a championship fight about the same time, saying he wasn’t ready, and then proved it by losing to a Canadian named Trevor Berbick on the undercard of the Holmes/Gerry Cooney fight earlier this year.
Berbick doesn’t have even as many natural gifts as Randall.
So in boxing, like anyplace else, gifts aren’t everything, and the kind you give yourself are the ones that matter most, at least at this level.
Which is not to say Randall Cobb doesn’t have physical tools. He does, but – as Charlie Singleton puts it – they’re subtle. He is stronger than any heavyweight in the top 10, and he may have the best chin in the history of boxing. And while he doen’t have a single big punch, he is what is called heavy handed.
“Sometime you box with him a round or two, the punches don’t stun you,” Charlie said,” they just feel heavy. I mean like somebody put a weight on you every time they land. It don’t matter if it’s on the arm or the shoulder, it still has that weight.
“And you don’t think he’s hurt you, and then after ’bout four rounds, suddenly you can’t move no more. He throws that nice relaxed way, it don’t look like nothin’, and then suddenly it’s broke you up inside. ”
The reason Randall is fighting Larry Holmes, though, isn’t his chin and it isn’t his strength. He’s gotten where he is because he tries. “He got that heart,” Charlie said.
Holmes has some of that too. And one of the best jabs in history, and a good right hand. He doesn’t have anything that can take Randall out, though, and Randall won’t be waiting for him to set up and throw his punches. And Holmes has always needed time to set up.
And in the end that’s what it will come down to. Time and heart. And those aren’t things that you’re given, they are things that you make for yourself.
Holmes doesn’t believe Randall can throw 100 punches a round for more than four rounds.
Randall does believe it. And that is something he has given himself too. He believes he will win this fight, and he believes in things harder than other people do. I have known him a long time, and that’s the way he is.
He believes it now, and he will believe it going into the 10th round, or the 12th, or however long the fight goes. By that time Larry Holmes will have hit him with everything he can hit him with, he will have tried every trick he knows, and most of them will have worked.
And someplace in the fight – maybe deep into the fight – Holmes will begin to feel the weight of that belief, and finally, as Mr. Singleton says, he will realize he’s broke up inside.
And someplace in the fight, Larry Holmes will come to believe it too.
We’ve got a special week of Dexter for you–four columns he wrote about his friend Randall “Tex” Cobb when Cobb fought against Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship. Each day for the rest of the week we’ll feature a column and next Monday there’ll be a long Q&A with Pete to celebrate the paperback edition of his non-fiction collection, Paper Trails.
Originally published in The Philadelphia Daily News this piece appears here with the author’s permission.
“Cobb Refuses to be the Retiring Kind”
By Pete Dexter
Tuesday, November 23, 1982
The first time I ever brought up the subject of retirement, Randall Cobb had just stopped Earnie Shavers in the eighth round of a fight that ruined appetites all over Detroit. He’d broken Shavers’s jaw with a short left uppercut, but before that happened he and Earnie had stood in the middle of the ring 7 1/2 rounds throwing punches. There could have been six or seven that missed, but I didn’t see them.
We were sitting in the dressing room; Randall was sucking down Coca-Colas. His face looked exactly the way a face is supposed to look after Earnie Shavers has been beating on it half the night, and the sound of the inevitable throwing up afterward still hung in the air.
The dressing rooms in Detroit have the best acoustics in the world.
He looked over at me with that one eye he could still look out of and said, “You feeling better now?” And, while I’m admitting here that it wasn’t Randall who threw up, I would also like to point out that it wasn’t Randall who had to watch the fight.
His body was rope-burned and turning black and blue, and the end of his nose was red like he was four days into a bad cold. I said, “I wish you wouldn’t fight Earnie Shavers anymore.”
“I absolutely promise,” he said.
But I meant more than Earnie Shavers, and later that night, back at the hotel, he tried to relieve me of my obligations. He said, ” I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but if you can’t watch it, then don’t.”
I took that the wrong way, of course. I’d only known Randall a year then, but it could have just as soon been my own brother in there, as far as not watching went. He said he understood that. “I know it isn’t easy watching somebody you love fight Earnie Shavers,” he said.
I said, “It’d be a damn sight easier if somebody would keep his hands up.”
And that’s as much talking we did then about retiring. Randall had made $75,000 or $80,000 for that fight, and he was on the way up. He’d taken Shavers on short notice after Gerry Cooney had backed out of the fight – if Cooney hadn’t backed out, by the way, he never would have ended up in the ring with Larry Holmes earlier this year for $10 million. A lot of people saw Randall that night, and liked what they saw.
And a lot of people didn’t.
In the bars, they told me Randall couldn’t fight at all. Guys still bragging about five amateur fights 20 years ago went out of their way to tell me all the things Randall couldn’t do. They said any decent South Philly street fighter would kill him, they said he better get a job driving a truck while he still could.
I never said much back. When they talked about him getting hurt, I thought about it. The difference was, they didn’t care.
The first fight he lost was against Ken Norton, a split decision in San Antonio, Texas. He walked into the hardest single punch I’ve ever seen that night, a straight right hand that Norton threw from the bottom of his heart.
I can close my eyes and still see Randall’s face in the half-second after it landed. For that little time, he was lost. He was coming forward when it hit him, and for half a second he stopped.
Then he went back to work, and in the dressing room afterward I heard Norton tell him, “You beat the bleep out of me, man.” Norton had fought his best fight since the night he lost his title to Larry Holmes. He’d been braver and stronger than he’d been in four years.
It had been that way with Shavers, too, and later it would be that way against Bernardo Mercardo. I have seen Mercardo quit in his corner when he was winning, but against Randall he stayed there 10 rounds, taking one of the worst body beatings I’ve ever seen.
We talked about that after every one of them. After Mercardo I said, “You know, you’re giving them something out there. You spend the whole round proving they can’t hurt you, you throw 150 punches to their 25, and then at the end of the round, just when they’re sure you’re not human, you pat them on the ass and give them something to come out with in the next round. You’re taking away their fear. ”
“It’s a bad habit, all right,” he said. And in his next fight, at the bell ending the fourth round against Jeff Shelburg earlier this year – a round in which he landed at least 100 punches – I heard him say this: ” Hang in there, Jeff. After this is over we’re going to go out and get drunk. ”
Between Mercardo and Shelburg, of course, there was supposed to be a fight with WBA heavyweight champion Mike Weaver. That fell through in December, when a kid with a tire iron broke his arm. He was standing over my body at the time, fighting off a lot of kids with tire irons and baseball bats.
I was already unconscious – hit five or six times square in the head – and it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what would have happened if he’d left me. And it doesn’t matter how good you are in a fight, if you see 25 or 30 people coming at you with bats and crowbars and reinforced iron, you’ve got to think about leaving.
When I woke up he was shouting, “If he’s dead, every one of you is dead, too.” And it must have scared them off – it scared me – because the next thing I knew he was picking me up.
He said, “Pete?”
I said, “Any time you’re ready to leave . . .” They’d broken one of my hips and the leg attached to it wouldn’t move. I said, “Randall, this leg won’t move.”
He said, “We don’t have time for that leg not to move.” And somehow he got me in the truck and drove me to the hospital. He never said anything about his arm.
On the way, we talked things over. There was blood and swelling everywhere. It was a lot like a dressing room. I said, “You know, we could of planned this better.”
He said that Gen. George Pickett had planned it better at Gettysburg.
There is one other thing he said that night that stays in my mind. It was when the place was filling up with baseball bats and tire irons, and all of a sudden you could see how many of them there were, and what they meant to do, and how bad the night was going to turn out.
He leaned over to me and said, “I hope that’s the softball team.”
He lost his first chance with Weaver over that, and his second chance when Weaver hurt his back, and his third chance when he got cut in training a few days before the fight.
And I was sure he would beat Weaver, but the fight scared me. I was in Knoxville the night Weaver took the title from John Tate, and 10 minutes after Weaver had knocked him out, they brought Tate out of the ring, hidden in the middle of 10 or 15 of his people.
Tate’s eyes were open, he seemed to be talking, but then I looked down and saw the toes of his shoes dragging along the floor. John Tate was never the same after that fight, and I wasn’t interested in seeing Randall prove he could take the same shots and beat Weaver anyway. And that’s what he would have done.
And that’s what he’ll do against Holmes. He’ll take the jabs and the right hands, and then he’ll throw jabs and right hands back, mostly to the body. Two and three punches to one. And in the eighth or ninth round, I think Larry Holmes will lose his title.
And Randall probably will be cut, and I’ll be throwing up in the dressing room, and the guys still bragging about five amateur fights from 20 years ago will turn away from the television set at the bar and tell each other he still can’t fight.
I guess it doesn’t need to be pointed out here that the damage a punch does comes partly when it lands and partly later, when it accumulates with the other punches. The accumulation goes on as long as you keep getting hit, and sometimes it catches up with you and sometimes it doesn’t.
I don’t want to be there if it ever catches up with Randall Cobb. I remember that fractured moment when he was lost after Norton hit him with the right hand, and the only thing that saves me from that moment is remembering that half a second later he was all right.
I don’t want to be there to see him lost again, but I will be if it happens. As long as he wants to fight, I’ll be there. Not because he didn’t leave me one night last December, not because he needs me there – he doesn’t.
I’ll be there because it can’t be as bad watching him fight as it would be, being too afraid to watch.
[Photo Via: The Minimalisto]
In 1972, Ron Rapoport interviewed Jackie Robinson:
“I couldn’t care less if someone is out there wearing 42,” he said. “It is an honor, but I get more of a thrill knowing there are people in baseball who believe in advancement based on ability. I’m more concerned about what I think about myself than what other people think. I think if you look back at why people think of me the way they do it’s because white America doesn’t like a black guy who stands up for what he believes. I don’t feel baseball owes me a thing and I don’t owe baseball a thing. I am glad I haven’t had to go to baseball on my knees.”
Stan Isaacs, the acerbic, funny, and bright newspaper columnist, died on Tuesday. He was 83.
I met Stan at a session of The New York (baseball) Giants Nostalgia Society in the Bronx close to ten years ago. We exchanged e-mails periodically and he was terse and amusing. I’m proud to offer you, with Stan’s permission, two columns that he wrote in the 1960s. It will give you a small taste of his fine work.
In the meantime, our thoughts go to his family, friends, and colleagues. May he rest in peace.
By Stan Isaacs
That’s a love affair flowering between the Met fans and Marv Throneberry. It’s not quite apparent right now because Throneberry is the only Met player the fans at the Polo Grounds boo regularly. The perceptive mind, however, can read beyond mere outward appearances. Just as love and hate are the opposite sides of the same coin, so is this passion for Throneberry building up among Met rooters. At the rate he was booed on the last home stand, he may turn out to be one of the most popular athletes New York ever had.
Right now, the love affair is in the stage where the lovers snap at each other. They already suspect they might be liking each other and that intensifies the bickering—until the whole thing flowers into true love. I have already moved to be one of the first on the bandwagon by forming a press box chapter of the “I Love Marv Throneberry Club.” I am not disturbed that only one other has agreed to join—as membership secretary, because there would be no work. I can see other potential members whose expressions of exasperation with Marv’s work indicate that they are potentially fervent club members.
A prime recruit would be the reporter who used the name, “Marvelous Marv,” by which Throneberry is known in the press box, as a form of scorn throughout a story about a game in which Throneberry figured prominently: Marv forgot to touch third base on a triple and he made a costly interference error.
Met clubhouse man Herb Norman took that as a cue and substituted the sobriquet, “Marvelous Marv,” for “Throneberry” on the namecard above Throneberry’s locker. “Other players might not go for that,” Norman said. “But I can do it with Marv, because he has a good sense of humor.”
Marv appreciated the gag. He even pointed the sign out to the man who wrote the story and told him before a doubleheader: “Hey, I’ve got good news for you—I’m playing in only one of the games today.”
Marv is too big a man to be upset by bad writeups. “You once wrote something bad about me,” he said to the president of his fan club, “but I never said anything, did I?” He didn’t. The piece, which the president is sorry for because it kicked a man when he was down, knocked Throneberry for his seeming lack of spirited movement.
It is that lack of outward hustle and bustle that makes Throneberry a target for boos. Of course, his fielding and hitting failures have helped, but other Mets err and hit badly without becoming such a target. “These are my natural movements,” Throneberry said. “If I were to start dashing about like little Elio Chacon just to look as if I were hustling, it would be phony.”
Marv says, “They’re not going to run me out of New York the way they did Norm Siebern.” He points out that Mickey Mantle used to be booed. He is also able to comfort himself that some of the boos are directed at him because he plays instead of the No. 1 Met love, Gil Hodges.
The other day he even twitted Casey Stengel for going out to the mound to take out pitchers. “Every time you go out there, they start booing you. Are you trying to take away my fans?” Marv promises that one of these days, when the time is right, “I’m going to surprise them; I’m going to doff my cap to them in a big way, the way Stengel does.”
If he does it at the right time, he should wow them. There have been some hints already of what will happen when the love affair does turn into the mad thing it is destined to be. The other day Throneberry ran a long way for a foul pop, then caught it with a deft stab just as he almost hit the field boxes. An ovation followed, and it seemed then that the time was ripe for Marv. All he had to do was make another good play or two, hit a few homers, and he would have them eating out of his glove.
Alas, he missed that chance. Shortly afterward, he not only fumbled a grounder, but then, as the pitcher came to take his toss, he threw an underhanded lob that went over the pitcher’s head. “Gene Conley (a six-foot, eight-inch pitcher) would have had it,” was the remark of one potential member of the fan club. This was the same chap who refused to admit that Marv made a good play on the foul pop-up, saying he had overrun the ball. Which just goes to show how much this bloke is going to love Throneberry when the time comes.
People react negatively to Marv because they regard him as the prototype of the “losing ballplayer.” Marv has been with the Yankees, Athletics, and Orioles so far and hasn’t realized his slugging potential. Aware of the rap against him, Mary says: “So far I have never had a real chance. Wherever I have been, I have played behind an established first baseman. I feel that this is the first time I’m getting a full chance.
“I think I wasn’t nearly ready to play when I first came to the Mets. I had not played in so long, I was defensive at the plate and not sharp in the field. I’m beginning to feel like an offensive hitter now. And I think my fielding will get better as I play more.”
Those of us whose eyes are ready to see the glory of the coming of Marv Throneberry are aware that the marriage of Marvelous Marv and the Met fans was made a long time ago; the initials of Marvin Eugene Throneberry read M-E-T.
“He Made The Mets Fun”
By Stan Isaacs
The time of Casey Stengel as manager of the Mets has come to an end. While it lasted, wasn’t that a time? Wasn’t that a wonderful time?
By his own lights, Casey Stengel failed as manager of the Mets. He had hoped to build a young, promising team, leaving a legacy that would soon be translated into stirring deeds on the ball field. He left no such team. At best there are half-a-dozen shining prizes of the youth of America on the team, and greatness is nowhere in sight.
But Stengel, of course, didn’t fail. He brought the greatness of his own spirit to the Mets. He made them something bigger than the ordinary story of the won-lost standings. He made the Mets fun—a slice of the humor of American life.
Stengel, as a baseball figure, has been bigger than life, a man larger than the arena in which he operated. There are only a few people in this world who attain that stature. They say of people like this that they walk with kings. Stengel could walk with kings and give them a wink along the way.
When Winston Churchill died, somebody commented that one of the outstanding things about the man was that he spanned so many eras. Churchill was a dynamic figure in the Boer War at the turn of the century and still right in the thick of things during the post-World War II era. In baseball terms, Stengel was that kind of figure, a man whose phenomenal memory enabled him to talk with the same glibness about the old Washington Park in Brooklyn as he did about new fashions in the cut of baseball uniforms.
In the time that Casey Stengel has been managing baseball teams there have been seven Presidents of the United States. In the time since he broke into baseball in 1910, there have been 10 Presidents.
It was possible to shoot almost any topic at Stengel and be confident he would relate some experience to it. When there was a Maine Day celebration at Shea Stadium for Met pitcher Carl Willey, a Maine native, Stengel reached into his background for entertaining stories about Maine that nobody had ever heard him tell before. He cited a ball player named Chief Sockalexis as a Maine native, and sure enough, everything Stengel said about him was true. He so often astounded people with his recollections it was perhaps inevitable that he would adopt the phrase “You could look it up.”
Casey Stengei is too big for any one essay. There is a need here, though, to say that to be around him has been to bask in him, to experience an exaltation of the spirit. The feeling of joy captured in the last scene of the movie Zorba the Greek—when Anthony Quinn leads the young poet in a dance of exultation on the beach—is the kind of ecstatic warmth generated by Stengel at his best.
I would daresay that if somebody set out to make a good movie about Casey Stengel, Anthony Quinn would be a wonderful person to play this craggy-faced minstrel of joy and unflagging hope. At first, it might seem an unlikely casting, but perhaps not if you chew on it for a moment.
Stengel’s departure at the hotel press conference yesterday was sad. The old man came into the room limping on his cane, nervous and misty-eyed. He brightened later when he could talk about the team and when he could answer questions with a touch of his old finger-pumping belligerence. But it still wasn’t vintage Stengel.
His last press conference as a Yankee, when they fired him, was better. He went out kicking and screaming that day, and you had fair reason to believe he would return someday, if you were inclined to want to reason that way.
When somebody asked him yesterday to select which of his tenures in New York he enjoyed the most (he played for the New York Giants, and managed the Brooklyns, Yankees and Mets) it seemed as if he would have liked to cite the Mets, but couldn’t because he didn’t succeed at what he set out to do with them. “Well, you’d have to say,” he started out, then switched his thought in midsentence by adding, “You couldn’t feel good if you are losing.”
He would rather be remembered for his success as manager of the Yankees, when he won 10 pennants in 12 years and astounded baseball people with his unorthodox moves. Of course, he had the material then—his years with the Mets showed he couldn’t do anything without the material—but he nevertheless made revolutionary moves with the Yanks that influenced the new generation of managers.
Age showed on the thinking of the Connie Macks and Jimmy Dykes and Charley Dressens; Stengel commanded respect of his peers to the end. “He still can beat you from the dugout,” a young lion like Gene Mauch would say.
A comic definition of the difference between a master and a grand master in chess captures for me the Stengel managerial genius.
“A master,” said chessman Arthur Bisguier, “cogitates carefully, perhaps a half-hour, on a move. Finally, he chooses the correct square for the correct piece and places it there. A grand master is much more skillful. He hardly thinks at all. He throws the piece into the air and it just falls on the right square.”
Here is a gem from Tony Kornheiser, a long piece on George Steinbrenner. It originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine on April 9, 1978 at is featured here with the author’s permission.
You’re going to dig this one.
“That Damn Yankee”
By Tony Kornheiser
THE OLD MAN WAS rigid. Dinner was at 5:45 each evening, and it was “Please, sir” and “Thank you, sir” and “May I be excused, sir?” He was a perfectionist. He was an intercollegiate hurdles champion, and he had the kid running hurdles at age 12. If the kid ran three races and won two and finished second in the third, the old man wasn’t completely satisfied; he’d come down from the stands asking, “What the hell happened? How’d you let that guy beat you?” The old man thrived on work. He told the kid, “Always work as hard as, or harder than anyone who works for you.”
The old man owned a shipping company.
He planned that someday the kid would take it over. The kid did even better than that. Now the kid is 47 years old, and he’s chairman of the board of The American Ship Building Company, which is expected to do $180 million worth of sales in 1978. And he’s principal owner of the New York Yankees, the most famous sports franchise in the world, which brings its World Series championship team back to Yankee Stadium this week. And he owns a thoroughbred farm, a hotel and a lot of real estate on the booming west coast of Florida. And he has a piece of the Chicago Bulls basketball team. He has Kinsman Shipping, the family company he bought from his father, and has extensive holdings in land and banking operations. The kid say is a multimillionaire; the multis may well be approaching triple figures.
The kid says it’s lonely at the top, it’s the loneliest place in the world.
But every day he thanks the old man. “You never really appreciated him or liked him as a young person,” he says. “But you appreciated him more as every day of your life went on. I can’t give enough credit to my dad. Anything I ever accomplish I owe to him.”
The father is German. From the father, the kid says he learned to be tough, to drive and succeed, to win; he doesn’t believe in entering a contest just to compete. He believes in keeping score; he doesn’t mess around with No. 2. The mother is Irish. From the mother, the kid says he learned compassion, a feel for the underdog, the desire to help those less fortunate, less blessed. The kid has sent some 75 people through college; he serves on charitable committees; he chairs philanthropic foundations. His closest friends say he’s a soft touch.
But the thesis-antithesis-synthesis doesn’t compute. Something got lost in the mix, an overload of thesis perhaps. The kid is hard on his people. Like the secretary he once fired for failing to get him an airline reservation; he fired her from the airport, over the telephone, when the ticket he went to pick up wasn’t there.
“Clear out your desk,” he said, “you’re through.”
She didn’t budge. Maybe she knew the man.
The next day the kid went to see her in the office.
“I’ve made arrangements to send your son to camp this summer,” he told her; that was how the kid said he was sorry.
“I know I’m tough,” he says. “But I try to make it up to my people in other ways. I don’t like to hurt people. Sometimes I just. . . . Well, I guess I can’t help it.”
George Steinbrenner is charming, generous, philanthropic, well-connected, wealthy, energetic and a delight to be with. He is also imperious, tyrannical, impatient, tough, nasty and almost impossible to work for. If he has to pick a label to hang his psyche on, he picks none of the above.
He picks misunderstood.
“No one has been able to capture the real me, how I feel,” he says. “But I guess it’s tough. It’s hard for me to convey what I really feel. It’s not something I can easily say.”
He lists among his friends such people as Senator Edward Kennedy; Thomas P. O’Neill, better known as Tip, the Speaker of the House of Representatives; Cary Grant, the legend, and Barbara Walters, a close personal friend of Anwar el-Sadat. He lists among his prominent positions, spots on the boards of trustees at the University of Tampa. the Culver Educational Foundation, the University of South Florida Foundation. He is the Florida state chairman of the American Cancer Society. He lists among his accomplishments, assistant varsity football coach at both Northwestern and Purdue, chairman of the Democratic Party fund raising effort in 1969 and 1970, all sorts of charitable work for poverty foundations and sports-for-youth federations and co-producer of such award-winning Broadway shows as “Seesaw” and “Applause.” Oh, and he brought the Yankees back from comatose to champions in five years.
Yet what people remember him for most are his felony conviction for election-campaign fraud in the time of Watergate, and the weekly reports of his threats to fire Billy Martin, the manager of the Yankees, a 49-year-old Fonzie who has been described by John Schulian of The Chicago Sun-Times as “a mouse studying to be a rat.”
George Steinbrenner, who very much would like to be a man of the people, a working-class hero, hasn’t a shot. He takes his satisfactions privately; he gets his beatings publicly.
“I’m the heavy,” he says. “I don’t like it, but I don’t know how to change it.”
“TWO THINGSS ARE important to George,” says a close friend who believes he needs anonymity on this one to stay close. “Two things—winning and power.”
Steinbrenner does not dispute the former; he pleads guilty, with an explanation, to the latter.
“Only if I can use it for good, to help those less fortunate than me,” he says. He is sitting in the restaurant in his Tampa hotel, the Bay Harbor Inn. He puts his elbows on the table and leans forward: This one is coming from the heart.
“I’ll tell you when I really bristle,” he says. “I’ll be sitting at some board meeting, and I’ll hear some big shot say—’Look at those people.’ And you’ll know exactly which people he’s talking about. ‘All they want is their unemployment checks.’ Well, let me tell you something. I’ve been to the South Bronx; how many of those big shots have been to the South Bronx? You gonna tell me that’s all that guy wants in life? No way. . . . If he had the opportunity that I had, God knows he might be a better man than all of us.
“Now look, I’m no crusader, I don’t want it to sound like that. I’m no Robin Hood. I just like to help people, that’s my bag. They call me a flaming liberal; guess I am.”
The little guy, Steinbrenner claims kinship with the little guy. The cabby who has to fight the traffic every day, the bartender, the hotel worker, that’s his cast of characters; he talks about them so often you’d think he did his senior thesis at Williams College on Damon Runyon instead of on the heroines in Thomas Hardy’s novels. His favorite little guy is the one who stops him on the street and thanks him for bringing the Yankees back. He makes it seem there are a legion of little guys out there on the streets of New York, patrolling every comer just waiting to spot him and shake his hand.
“Class,” he says. “What class they have.”
“I wish I had class like that,” he says. “I wish I had the class to go up to a stranger and thank him for something. I don’t.”
Now it may be a bit hard to swallow that, to fully swallow how a man who likes the feel of a chauffeured limousine can claim this spiritual tie to the little guy. Especially since he’s so hard with his own little people, his secretaries and his office personnel. Especially since he stays at the Hotel Carlyle and wears $40 shirts and sits fifth-row center at the theater, house seats.
But down deep, even if he knows it isn’t readily visible, George Steinbrenner feels like one of the guys. Down deep, he’s at a fraternity party. All his life, through military school and through board meetings, he acted one way and coveted another, and down deep, he wants to be one of the common people, if only for a handshake. Of course his hero is the cabby. The common denominator in New York City is the traffic; Steinbrenner sees it even through the window of his chauffeured limo, he feels it, he sits in it. When you’re stuck on 37th Street, it doesn’t matter if you’re stuck in a cab, or a bus or a limo. You’re all alike. For maybe the only time in his life, he’s down with the people.
“I’ve always kept my emotions inside me,” he says. “They tell me I don’t let myself go, and that’s true. It’s a mark of strength among Germans, you know. . . . it isn’t that frequent that I really enjoy myself. It’s hard to explain, but the feeling I got after winning a World Series wasn’t what I thought it’d be. I remember saying to myself—I wonder why I’m not more excited? But then I saw the happiness I got was seeing happiness in others, and when that cabby comes up to me and says, ‘Thanks for bringing the Yankees back,’ even if it’s just ‘Thanks for spending your money,’ it’s unreal. I feel so good about winning one for New York. This is the greatest city in the world and its people are the greatest people in the world. And I just hope they like me.”
The New York Yankees won the World Series last season.
It should have been some party.
All season long the Yankees played “West Side Story” in dugouts and locker rooms throughout the country, and when they closed the curtain—when “Bernardo” Jackson hit his three homers and “Riff” Munson caught his last ball and “Tony” Martin got his contract extended and “Officer Krupke” Steinbrenner made nicey-nice and bought them all championship rings—the cast was too drained to dance. Even with Steinbrenner insisting that months of intramural feuding had forced them to acquire “the mental toughness necessary to win,” the Yankees could only ride their World Series high for one week or so before deflating like a hot-air balloon. The stars of the show needed time to recuperate.
Jackson went to the West Coast, where he apparently took a vow of silence, licked his wounds and rented all the king’s horses and all the king’s men to help put his psyche together again.
Martin, the darling of the fans, seemed to disappear completely. Steinbrenner did the banquet circuit. He made so many speeches and received so many awards that he was to the sports testimonial circuit what Charo is to talk shows.
Only Munson simmered publicly. For someone who rates reporters lower than the lowest, Munson attempted major league manipulation of the press. From his home in Canton, Ohio, he regularly demanded to be traded to the Cleveland Indians, threatened to quit baseball if he wasn’t, and accused Steinbrenner of stiffing him out of some verbal contractual promises. Steinbrenner seemed somewhat amused by Munson’s bluster; he could afford to be. He had Munson’s signature on a contract.
All things considered, not a bad winter at all.
And through it all, the Yankees sold tickets. There was just enough controversy, just enough bad blood to keep them cards and letters coming in. Steinbrenner is theatrical enough to know that controversy sells.
This winter, the Yankees got box office performances by Gabe Paul and Mike Torrez—who departed; Rich Gossage, Rawly Eastwick, Jim Spencer, Andy Messersmith and Al Rosen—who arrived—and Jackson, Munson and Sparky Lyle, the Three Stooges of spring training.
Behind it all—rather, above it all—moving the strings that make the puppets dance, George Steinbrenner’s hands were clearly visible.
Make no mistake, he is the New York Yankees.
Gabe Paul’s departure was at least gracious. He quit as president and general manager and signed on with the Indians. Paul didn’t say anything bad about Steinbrenner publicly, but if he’d had anything good to say he wouldn’t have left. As easily as changing a flat tire, Steinbrenner immediately installed Al Rosen in Paul’s place, as president in charge of explanations.
In Rosen, Steinbrenner has a good and true friend, the devoted ally he never had in Paul. Rosen’s presence is a sure sign that Steinbrenner will be calling all the shots; Steinbrenner believes that winning the championship last season vindicated the moves he made, and this season he will run his team as if it were one of his Great Lakes tankers. This time, if Steinbrenner wants Martin out, no one will be there to block the move; Martin will see Al Rosen opening the exit door as soon as Steinbrenner points to it, and Steinbrenner’s assistant, first base coach Gene Michael, will be walking in before Martin is halfway down the hall.
Torrez’s departure was noisier. He was the Yankees’ best pitcher in the playoff and Series, but Steinbrenner—through Paul—never seriously negotiated to keep him; Torrez was a rent-an-arm, that’s all. After signing as a free agent with Boston, Torrez was quoted as saying, “The Yankees will have just as much trouble next season because Munson and Nettles hate Jackson.” The only thing that surprised Torrez was that more people didn’t know it.
Again, Steinbrenner went the free agent route to improve his Yankees. He signed Rich Gossage, the best available relief pitcher, and Rawly Eastwick, the second-best available relief pitcher. In Gossage and Sparky Lyle, Steinbrenner has the best righty-lefty bullpen duo in baseball. If all this fast relief works out, Steinbrenner could put Alka-Seltzer out of business. Gossage’s presence infuriated Lyle enough to ask to be traded to a team where he’ll pitch more and earn more. Consider that Lyle was the best pitcher in the American League last season, and now he wants out. Could you ask for a better controversy?
Steinbrenner made one cosmetic attempt to trade Lyle, but found it easy to turn down a deal sending Lyle and Chris Chambliss to Texas for Claudell Washington and Paul Lindblad.
The next day Steinbrenner told the press that Lyle wasn’t going anywhere. Then, just to let Lyle stew in his own juices, Steinbrenner said, “Like I told Sparky, ‘How much market value is there for a 34-year-old reliever?’” It may not be great public relations, but it made a striking headline.
Oh, and Munson’s still here.
“You really didn’t think he’d quit?” Steinbrenner asks, doing a strut with his voice.
Some people take refuge in being the underdog; with his money, Steinbrenner is forced to be the overdog. The mistake is in thinking that the overdog won’t bite. New York City is making that mistake in its recent complaint about the size of the bone that Steinbrenner has buried in his tenant’s contract at Yankee Stadium with the city. Suddenly, after the Yankees won the World Series and made a $12 million profit in 1977, the city started crying about the contract it had negotiated with the Yankees even before Steinbrenner purchased the team in 1973. It seems that the contract—assumed by Steinbrenner, but signed by CBS, the previous Yankee owner—allows the Yankees to deduct maintenance costs before paying tenant taxes. That clause—perhaps it should be called “the insanity clause” in honor of the city lawyers who agreed to it—allowed the Yankees to pay only $150,000 to the city last year, less even than Ron Guidry makes for pitching for the Yankees. Now the city wants to renegotiate. You could hardly blame Steinbrenner for telling the city exactly where to file that request. Especially considering that the Mets’ contract at Shea Stadium with the city is even more of a sweetheart deal. Steinbrenner’s overdog philosophy is that he is being picked on just because he’s winning; As The Worm Turns in The Big Apple, on your soap opera digest.
“I’ll meet with the Mayor,” Steinbrenner says. “He’s the leader of the city.”
A simple one-on-one. Dueling egos. Bet on George.
IT IS EARLY IN spring training and Steinbrenner is sitting comfortably in the Yankee dugout in Fort Lauderdale watching his players work out. As usual, he is wearing blue. Normalcy, such as it is, is alive and well on the Yankees.
Martin is out of Steinbrenner’s sight; Munson is avoiding reporters; Jackson is entertaining them. There is the sound of baseballs hitting bats, then skimming the grass, then slapping into gloves. Players are making fun of other players. Steinbrenner seems pleased.
He seems to be holding court from his dugout seat, greeting his players with a pleasant one-liner, then sending them on their way with a smile. This is his element, the throne room of spring training. From here he dispenses his medicines, always a first name, always a smile, always a gentle prodding to improve oneself. This will be a crucial season, he says. If it were breakfast time, he would insist this would be a crucial breakfast.
“Lou,” he says to outfielder Lou Piniella, “that hat’s too small.”
Piniella is wearing a size 3 cap on a size 7 head. “I need some sun, George,” Piniella says.
“Oh, you Spaniards all tan quick,” Steinbrenner says.
Surely, this must be the most fun of all for Steinbrenner. The jock chatter. He is in his dugout and all’s right with the world.
“Things are going just great,” he says, “Sure, we have problems, but every team has problems. The thing is that this year it will be so much easier. The players understand each other and they understand what Billy and I want. They went through hell last year, but they all were toughened by the experience.”
On another side of the field, Martin is answering questions about spring training and the upcoming season. Each time he is asked about Lyle, about Jackson-Munson, about Jackson-Martin, even about Steinbrenner-Martin, his answer is basically the same.
“Everything is beautiful,” Martin is saying. It sounds robotomized, something out of the closing scenes of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
It will be the Yankees’ slogan this year.
Everything Is Beautiful.
At least until the first blowup of the season, which ought to happen no later than next week, and possibly as soon as today.
The press corps that covers the Yankees is leery of Steinbrenner. It sees his charm, appreciates his availability and distrusts his sincerity. One reporter calls Steinbrenner, “the Queen of Hearts—he’s always one second away from shouting, ‘Off with their heads.’” Reporters think he starts controversies for the sheer sake of action. They think he’s very theatrical with them and very demeaning with his employees.
Worst of all, they think he lies.
More than anything else, Steinbrenner resents being called a liar. Specifics, he demands specifics. It has been alleged that the night before the final papers were to be signed—Steinbrenner instructed Joe Garagiola Jr.—then Yankee counsel, to write some clauses in Reggie Jackson’s contract in 1977, to deliberately attempt to substantially alter the oral agreement.
“An outright lie,” says Steinbrenner. “Boy, that bums me. I want you to call Steve Kaye, in Oakland, he’s Reggie’s attorney, and ask him about his dealings with me. Wait, here’s his private number. Call him.”
The call was made, and Kaye characterized the allegation as “ridiculous.” Kaye said Steinbrenner was “completely honorable in our dealings. Yes, there were some slight adjustments we made in the final contract, but that’s normal. George was eminently fair with us.”
It has been suggested that Steinbrenner, in 1976, had his employees’ office telephones tapped.
“Never,” says Steinbrenner. “We thought that our phones might have been bugged, so we had the telephone company sweep my office to see—just my office; they told us the lines were clean.”
New York Telephone Company records show that in 1976 the Yankees reported trouble with their phone lines. An inspection revealed no tapping, but a circuit problem; anyone calling in could patch into even the most private conversations. It was fixed.
Most of the allegations against Steinbrenner are groundless, apparently carried on the wings of distrust.
Others are not.
Steinbrenner did lie about the nature of an injury to Mickey Klutts, a shortstop; Steinbrenner concealed that Klutts had a broken hand, telling the press he had only a sprained thumb. He did so to prevent the Yankees—who were trying to trade for Bucky Dent—from being put in a compromising position on the deal.
“It will never happen again,” said Steinbrenner at that time. Last month, he said he had to do it to prevent another team from taking advantage of his Yankees.
Another alleged lie concerns Thurman Munson. It is alleged—publicly by Munson—that Steinbrenner reneged on certain verbal promises to Munson after making them to induce him to sign his contract in 1977. Munson has let people know that Steinbrenner promised him that he would be the highest paid Yankee, except for Catfish Hunter but including Reggie Jackson. The story that Steinbrenner put out is that the promise was based on annual salary, not total value of contract including deferred compensation.
“Go ask Thurman about it,” says Steinbrenner.
Munson will not comment.
“It’s just a misunderstanding,” says Steinbrenner. “Misunderstandings happen in business; they are not lies.”
Semantics, perhaps. But crucial to Steinbrenner’s character. He does not lie, he says. He demands loyalty, and he gives loyalty. He demands hard work, and he gives hard work. Uppermost is the belief in the system.
This leads to a personal theory about George Steinbrenner.
It is the Blue Spotlight Theory.
It holds that newspapers are printed in black and white, and black is a hard and fast color. George Steinbrenner does not photograph well in black and white. Blue is his favorite color, his best color. It is said that under a soft blue light a Phyllis Diller can look like a Phyllis George.
Steinbrenner carries a metaphorical soft blue spotlight around with him, and plugs it in and shines it on himself when the questions get hotter than he cares for. Half the time he shines it on himself on the record. Half the time he shines it on himself off the record, not for print. This system gives him the upper hand; he controls the rules. His sides of the stories are fascinating. They are also unprintable. The reporter deals in black and white; Steinbrenner speaks fluent blue.
“He’s a man of his word,” says Catfish Hunter, whose guaranteed contract makes him immune from retaliation. “Even though a lot of times you have to get it in writing to make sure of it.”
GEORGE STEINBRENNER STUDIED voice for three years and was the president of the Williams Glee Club; he attends the opera and ballet; he knows the difference between arabesque and changement de pieds, and how many people in baseball, he wants to know, know that?
Yet his favorite television program is “The Gong Show.” Obviously, a man of great width.
Most of his players couldn’t care less that Steinbrenner is familiar with the fifth position in ballet; they like his money.
He is generous with it. He pays his players as much as any team in baseball. He buys them free suits, gives them bonuses at All Star time, picks up their tabs in certain hotels and restaurants, notably in the Theatrical in Cleveland, gives them cab fare home so their wives won’t have to pick them up when the Yankee charter lands late at night. Steinbrenner’s players go only one way—first class. He rewards excellence just as he punishes incompetence; if you put out, he puts up.
The crown jewel in Steinbrenner’s holdings is the Yankees. Although Steinbrenner says his favorite businesses are still his shipping companies it’s because he has a sentimental tie with the industry that goes back 100 years in his family. It is the Yankees that afford him the most visibility and celebrity.
“The Yankees are a great, great vehicle,” Steinbrenner says.
His eyes twinkle.
He is now the majority owner of the team. In 1973, when he put together the team that purchased the team from CBS, Steinbrenner owned some 20 percent of the ball club. But in the past five years he has personally bought out such original partners as Jess Bell, Marvin Warner—now United States Ambassador to Switzerland—Ed Ginsberg, Sheldon Guren, Nelson Bunker Hunt, Edward Greeenwald and Thomas W. Evans, increasing his ownership to some 55 percent of the team. The Yankees are now valued at about $25 million, a 150 percent increase over the sale price in 1973.
“George is an empire builder,” says Patrick Shields, a close friend. “The only trouble is that he was born a little too late. Most of the world has already been parceled out.”
The Yankees are much more than just another company to Steinbrenner, they are an image and an obsession. He claims to still “well up” every time he sees Gary Cooper portray Lou Gehrig on film. Steinbrenner, who was born on the Fourth of July and who considers himself a patriot above all, truly believes that the Yankees are important to this country, that if they are strong, then the country is strong, that if they are neat and clean, then they serve as shining examples to the youth of this country. You cannot shake him from that tree.
“The Yankees are apple pie and hot dogs,” he says.
“You know that he bought the rights to ‘George M.’ when the Broadway show lost millions,” says Tip O’Neill. “You know that George put that show in every city in the country, not so much to make money, but to get people waving the flag again. He did it right after Vietnam. That tell you something about George?”
Steinbrenner wears Bill Blass shirts, primarily because Blass is an American designer. Steinbrenner’s favorite writers are Melville, James Fenimore Cooper and John Greenleaf Whittier. Americans all. He even refuses to buy foreign automobiles.
“I have a Rolls Royce,” says Reggie Jackson. This is obvious. It’s a silver and blue Corniche, the kind that retails for almost $80,000; it doesn’t wholesale. One day Jackson discovered some nicks on the passenger side and treated the discovery as if he had been told he had leukemia. If he didn’t want dents, he should have bought an anti-personnel tank.
“So George and I are having dinner one night,” Jackson says, “and I say to him, ‘Boss, when are you gonna get a real car? When are you gonna quit that Cad you been driving and get a Rolls? C’mon big man, get the kind of car you rate.’”
“‘I believe in America,” George says.
“‘So, if it’s not made with American Steel, I don’t buy it.’”
Al Rosen says that Steinbrenner would have been comfortable with men like John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould, empire builders. History has called these men “ruthless.” Rosen does not like the sound of that word; he prefers tough, but fair. Steinbrenner never minds when people call him tough, but fair. He believes in winning. (“He’s the kind of owner,” says Piniella, “who likes a 163-game lead with 162 games left.” The baseball season, you should know, lasts 162 games.) He believes that if you win, it means you have done things right. Some people say that sounds like “The end justifies the means,” they say it sounds Machiavellian. Steinbrenner could share a chocolate sundae with Mr. Machiavelli.
Growing up in Cleveland, Steinbrenner was the kind of guy who was in bed by 10:30 every night of the year except on New Year’s Eve, when he was in by 11. But if he was a rooster in Cleveland, he is an owl in New York, and he has made the transition easily, remarkably easily, as if he had always known that he was born to run on the other side of midnight. If there is a term that applies to those people born west of the Hudson River who are convinced that they belong on Fifth Avenue, it might be “Neo-Yorker.”
In the history of this country, there are, arguably, a number of American myths that define who we are as a people. One is the Frontier. One is the New England town meeting. One is New Orleans jazz. Another is the New York Yankees.
The Yankees were up for sale and down in the standings. Steinbrenner saw himself as the person with cash, drive and vision enough to restore them to their proper position; more importantly, he recognized what that position was. Now, here was the Yankee club, a fallen idol in need of restoration. Like him, an inheritance to be claimed. Like him, a proud history. Like him, a need to be No. 1.
He came in shooting his mouth off about how he would make the Yankees world champions in five years–and he delivered. “Look, when I came here four years ago,” says Piniella, “all you ever heard about was the Mets. Now all you hear is the Yankees. That’s George.” He came in walking the walk and talking the talk of a native New Yorker, the ones he’d seen all those years on the Johnny Carson show. He seemed to be a boulevardier, but they were long gone since the days of Jimmy Walker, so now we’d call him a beautiful person. Think of the in-spots in New York—”21,” Le Club, Elaine’s, Jimmy Weston’s, Mike Manuche’s, P.J. Clarke’s—the spots where the sporting crowd, the literary crowd and the political crowd overlap, then look for George, the man in blue at the head of the featured table.
It is almost a secret that he is married and has four children, and that home is in Tampa. They are all shielded from the public eye that Steinbrenner seems to crave so much that you’d think he was born with an asbestos cornea. In Tampa and Cleveland he is still the same old George he always was. It is only in New York that he jumps from his base at the Carlyle to the opera, to the theater, to the ballet, to the ball park, as if he had stuffed chili peppers in his Gucci loafers.
Steinbrenner is very big on crowds. He seems to need them and feed off them. He has his walking around guys; the total effect is that of a permanent floating crap game. Some people who know him suggest that he is scared of the intimacy of one-on-one personal relationships, and, if it’s valid, that could be because he is, at his core, an insecure man, a man who has been able to win at almost everything he competed in but who never really found happiness in the winning. Look closely at George Steinbrenner and you’ll see that he is always running that third hurdles race and listening for his father’s approval. Look closely and you’ll see that his football background and his military school background and his business background have taught him that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Look closely and you’ll see a winner—even if he doesn’t. The shame of it is that he’s never satisfied. The one thing he didn’t count on when he counted on New York was that he couldn’t run away from himself.
There are some players who surmise that Steinbrenner, jocko that he is, bought the Yankees to be a Yankee. There is something to that. Steinbrenner likes to wander the locker room, although he does it less than before. The lesson was learned last season on a bus ride in Texas. The bus driver was hopelessly lost, driving the bus in circles around the Dallas airport. Almost two hours went by; the players were annoyed. As usual.
“I guess we’re just going out to do another favor for Steinbrenner’s daughter,” someone yelled out. In spring training Steinbrenner had the Yankees play an exhibition game at the University of North Carolina, where Steinbrenner’s oldest daughter attends college.
Steinbrenner heard the comment and foam formed on his lips.
“Who said that?” he demanded.
” Who said that?” the veins stood in his neck like chicken bones.
Graig Nettles—”cowering,” Steinbrenner says—said he did.
“Well, don’t you ever say another goddamned thing about my daughter again,” Steinbrenner said, making fists with his voice.
The next morning, at breakfast, Gene Michael, a former player and now an assistant to Steinbrenner, took his boss aside and told him if he wanted to ride the bus with the players, he’d have to learn to accept a certain amount of locker room humor—the kind of humor where a man with acne is called “Pizza Face.”
“George,” Michael said, “they wouldn’t kid you if they didn’t at least like you.”
“Gene,” Steinbrenner said,” I shouldn’t have been on the bus.”
Some of the tenseness still lingers. Steinbrenner recognizes it, and tries to laugh it off; he’s got a terrific sense of humor really. Much of it with himself as the target.
Just the other week, driving from the Fort Lauderdale airport to his hotel, Steinbrenner noticed a hang glider soaring over the beach. Turning to the driver, Steinbrenner said, “You wouldn’t get me up on one of those for all the money in the world.”
“It’s just a ride,” the man said. “The guy is being towed by a boat. It’s nothing scary.”
“Don’t kid me,” Steinbrenner said. “I’ll tell you what. I bet you could get every guy on the team to put up $1,000 each just to get me up there, and then one of them would stand there with a rifle and—bang—shoot the glider.”
Steinbrenner howled with laughter.
FLORIDA DOWNS IS A small thoroughbred track near Tampa. Steinbrenner has a filly running in the ninth, and he wants to watch her, and he brings guests, a young couple from Long Island on vacation in Florida. He knows the filly is over her head in a stakes race, but he’s hoping she’ll place in the top three; he plans to retire her and make her a brood mare, and placing in a stakes race will up the ante.
Before pulling out, Steinbrenner combs his hair. His hair is scientifically exceptional; it never ruffles in the wind. Some people have accused him of wearing a toupee, but he doesn’t. He just has obedient hair. Perhaps he has threatened to fire it. After starting the car, Steinbrenner puts in a cassette of disco music. He loves disco music. The story is told that Steinbrenner once berated the Yankee Stadium electrician for testing out the sound system—at 11 A.M. with no one in the park, mind you—with a record that was not a disco record. Some stories are too good to try to confirm.
The track has a country fair feel. Hialeah it ain’t. In the infield there is what appears to be a swamp. Steinbrenner moves to the Turf Club. None of the little people on his way recognize him although he is wearing his championship ring with its diamond-studded “NY” logo the size of Venezuela. Are there no cabbies in West Florida?
Steinbrenner has been in horses for about seven years. Prior to that he didn’t know a hoof from a flank. But he is a quick study. Now he’s expert on bloodlines and configurations. He starts talking about forelocks and fetlocks and possibly warlocks. He has the seventh doped in minutes. It is, he says, a question of breeding. He likes 7-4-2 in the perfecta; the sires impress him.
“What do you like?” he asks the Long Island girl.
“I bet numbers and colors.”
“And what do you like?” Steinbrenner asks her husband.
“I bet names.”
“Yeah. I like First of Dawn.”
First of Dawn went wire-to-wire in mud, paying $25.60.
“Unreal,” Steinbrenner said.
Next race, the wife liked Purple Britches, and the husband liked a horse trained by someone named A. Fink. Steinbrenner bet the quinella, that the horses would finish one-two.
“The true test of a champion is to repeat,” he told the husband.
“Get a bushel basket for the winnings,” the husband said.
Purple Britches ran first, followed by Beta Broker, trained by A. Fink. The quinella paid $34.
On his way to the paddock. Steinbrenner passed a frozen custard stand. Ice cream, especially chocolate, is his weakness. He tells people that he loses control of his car within one mile of a Dairy Queen. “They go there on their own,” he says. “I can’t stop them. Automatic steering.” Steinbrenner carries about 12 pounds more than he ought to around his belt line.
They decide to get some ice cream after Steinbrenner’s horse finishes. In the program morning line she’s 20-1; she may not finish for days.
Over the public address system comes the announcement. “In the ninth race, Jenny’s Lady, three pounds over. Jenny’s Lady!’
Steinbrenner winces. His blue eyes ice over; it appears to be smoke coming out of his left ear.
“That’s no good,” he says.
Jenny’s Lady is his horse. She’s overmatched anyway. She’s a come-from-behind horse, and the track is muddy so she might not even want to run. Now, instead of carrying 119 pounds, she has to carry 122 because her jockey is three pounds over. Steinbrenner thinks it will cost him at least one length. He slams his program at a wall.
“Trainer’s fault. Sure, the boy should come in at weight, but it’s the trainer’s fault for not knowing about it.”
There is a Steinbrenner story that has him firing a trainer after an incident at this very track when the trainer told Steinbrenner that his horse would win, and it finished last. Steinbrenner didn’t like being lied to. If the horse is a mutt, he wants it straight.
The jocks come out to claim their mounts. The one wearing the blue and brown of Kinsman Stud Farm looks as if he’d just got off a police lineup.
“That yours, George?”
“He’s the one. I wanted him because he’s a veteran, and I thought this little girl needed a veteran.”
Steinbrenner glared at the little man. “He’ll never ride for me again.”
Jenny’s Lady went off at 60-1 and deserved it. She finished next to last.
On the way out of the track Steinbrenner passed the frozen custard stand. It was closed.
“I HAVE SHORTCOMINGS too, but I am the boss,” Steinbrenner says.
Reggie Jackson certifies it by calling Steinbrenner “Boss.” He wouldn’t call Steinbrenner “Boss” unless he meant it respectfully and affectionately.
“A wheeler-dealer,” Jackson says, smiling. They like each other. Steinbrenner stood with Jackson last season when Billy Martin tried to humiliate him; Steinbrenner identifies with his player. They share the pursuit of excellence and celebrity. They understand that controversy fills the seats. “That’s what it’s all about,” as Steinbrenner says. They also share a spirit; neither was born in New York City, and neither flourished until getting here. New York is a spotlight city. Each discovered that he liked it.
“An action guy, he needs a lot of action going to keep his interest. He bores easily. He likes his chauffeured limos and his night life; he likes to roll the dice,” Jackson says. He pauses. “I’ll say this, and I won’t apologize for it later—if George Steinbrenner were a ballplayer, he’d be like Reggie Jackson.”
Negatives are suggested; Jackson listens attentively as the list is recited: Steinbrenner goes through secretaries the way some men go through martinis. Steinbrenner sets people up to take a fall for him. Steinbrenner drives a hard bargain, and you wouldn’t want to get on his bad side because he never forgets and he can do to a man in public what some people wouldn’t even dream of doing in private.
Ruthless? No, Jackson says. A good businessman. Acute.
“But no matter what’s said about the man,” Jackson says, “George Steinbrenner brought pride back to this city. He foot the tab. That was his neck stuck all the way out there, not mine, not yours. So, it’s his party.”
Pep talks are part of the party. Steinbrenner believes in pep talks. “Once you’ve heard the first one or two, you can almost sleep through the others,” says Catfish Hunter. “He means well, but they always sound the same. It’s always how we’re embarrassing ourselves and embarrassing New York and baseball and the country. George tells us how he was a football coach, and how he was in locker rooms before we were born. It’s always, ‘I, this’ and ‘I, that.’ The way he talks, you think he thinks he could do a better job than the manager. He tells us that he never makes a mistake, and that we can’t either; he tells us that if he made mistakes, he wouldn’t be as successful in business as he is—hell, even he makes mistakes.”
At least two.
At least one monster.
The first was in Cleveland, in the early 60′s, when he went down the chute with the Cleveland Pipers of the old American Basketball League. The team won, but it didn’t draw. Steinbrenner, turning on that little blue spotlight, says that he was 10 years ahead of his time with pro basketball in Cleveland. He lost about $400,000 and was advised to go into bankruptcy, but didn’t. What he did do proved to be the single smartest business decision he ever made. Instead of taking his partners down with him, he paid off all nine of them and then worked to pay off every creditor the Pipers owed. That made his reputation as a businessman of his word.
“Now,” says Walter Knapp, president of Tampa Ship Repair, a subsidiary of American Ship Building, “George’s word is so good that if he said he needed $10 million to make a deal tomorrow, he’d have 10 guys with a million each lined up tonight.”
But Watergate was a loss, a total loss.
He tries shining the blue spotlight on it, but he doesn’t have enough amps.
Although he was the Democrats’ chief fund-raiser in 1969 and ’70, he played footsie with the Committee to Re-Elect the President in 1972. Steinbrenner’s businesses weren’t growing the way he felt they should; the Internal Revenue Service was doing an audit; Government contracts were being stalled. Steinbrenner reasoned that he was being targeted by Nixon’s men, so he decided it would be good business to do some business with the Republicans. He agreed to give $75,000 of his own money to the Nixon people, and he decided to give $25,000 of other people’s money to the Nixon people. What he did was give his employees bonuses, then instruct them to give those bonuses to the Nixon people.
“My lawyers told me it was perfectly legal. They gave me written and oral permission to do it,” Steinbrenner says.
It wasn’t legal.
One of his lawyers was John Melcher Jr. Melcher has since resigned from the bar as a result of “this mess,” as he calls it. Watergate, he says, was “a nightmare.” He says, “George wants someone to blame this thing on.”
Why did Steinbrenner get involved with the Committee to Re-Elect the President? “I wanted to do things that I thought were needed for the Great Lakes, for Cleveland, and I knew if I had some pop, or whatever you want to call it, I could do the things that I knew had to be done for the people, and that’s the truth,” Steinbrenner says.
On April 5, 1974—opening day of the baseball season—Steinbrenner was indicted on 14 counts of illegal actions pertaining to election fraud.
On April 19, he pleaded not guilty.
On Aug. 23, some time after retaining the legal counsel of Edward Bennett Williams, Steinbrenner pleaded guilty to one count of illegal campaign contributions and one count of aiding and abetting obstruction of an investigation. Through plea bargaining, Williams succeeded in getting the other counts dismissed. Steinbrenner paid a $15,000 fine for his felony conviction, and to this day he cannot vote.
Most of the other corporate heads caught in the Watergate slime got off with misdemeanors. Steinbrenner got the felony, he thinks, because he didn’t come in voluntarily. One might disagree. One might reason that he drew the felony because he obstructed the investigation. Although Steinbrenner insists that he never asked his employees to lie about their part in the contributions—maybe he didn’t; maybe they were just so scared that when he “remembered” what happened in one way, they found it easy to “remember” it the same way—there is sworn testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee that Steinbrenner called his employees together and urged them to misrepresent what really happened. That sworn testimony was given by his employees.
“Under extreme pressure by the prosecutors.” says Steinbrenner, who doesn’t like to talk about what he calls “the election incident.”
Further, before sentencing, Tom McBride, the assistant special prosecutor—”an honorable man,” says Steinbrenner—told the Federal judge that Steinbrenner knowingly and continually urged his employees to lie even after receiving advice from counsel that such action was illegal.
“I never asked them to lie,” Steinbrenner says to a reporter just before he tells the reporter to turn off his tape recorder. Steinbrenner’s version, the soft blue spotlighted version, is off the record.
Steinbrenner has come to cast himself in the good soldier perspective. That posture suggests that he took the heat for his friends, presumably some high-level political friends who couldn’t afford to have their soiled linen laundered in open court. Some prominent Democrats—some very prominent Democrats—will agree. Not that Steinbrenner has forgotten his conviction. On the contrary, he wears it tattooed on his psyche just as he wears his World Championship ring on his finger. He does not need to be reminded that he is a felon.
To be sure, there are those who say he look the heat only after running out of people to lay it off on, and that a corporate head’s most deadly sin is not having enough lay-off guys when the seat heats.
Perhaps what happened to Steinbrenner is that he followed his own personal business law until it conflicted with the rule of law—and then followed it some more. The rules of law are, arguably, constructed to blunt the “laws” of business. Steinbrenner has his legal advice neatly arranged in signed affidavits. He also has his conviction. It is written in black and while, which are not his shades, not at all.
ANOTHER PERSONAL THEORY: Numbers Count, Make It Big.
Like many businessmen, Steinbrenner speaks in numbers. He uses them to make points, which are numbers too.
He is fond of saying that 50 people per week stop him on the street and thank him for bringing the Yankees back. He is fond of saying that the Yankees were the first American League club in the 76-year history or the league to draw two million in home attendance and another two million in road attendance. He tells you that while the Yankees receive only one-26th of the revenue from major league baseball properties—balls, balls, T-shirts, etc.—the Yankees account for 17 percent of all sales. That live televised baseball has been bought by the Japanese this year under the stipulation that 16 of the 22 televised games feature the New York Yankees.
This strategy, when abused, leads to the indefensible posture that if you pour three quarts of béarnaise sauce on a quarter pounder, you will think you are eating chateau briand.
George Steinbrenner is a generous man. He has, in fact, done more things, spent more money, given more time to youth sports projects in New York City than any other sports executive in this city.
But it is a quality of Steinbrenner’s that he goes for superlatives where ordinarys will suffice. Every game is crucial. Every series is crucial. Good things are super or unreal. Catch him at a bad time, and he says it is positively the worst time.
“If something goes wrong,” says an employee, “you never get the chance to give the full explanation of why it went went wrong because you’re stupid. And what’s worse is that he says it in front of other people.”
In a recent week, Steinbrenner was in Tampa on a Monday, in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, in Cincinnati on Wednesday, in Boston on Thursday, in Miami on Friday and in New York on Sunday. On Saturday, even Steinbrenner doesn’t remember where he was.
“It’s such a rat race for the guy,” says Catfish Hunter. “He can’t even take a vacation. People like that never have any fun.”
IN HIS OFFICE AT Yankee Stadium, Steinbrenner has a large, round wooden table. His chair is the only one with a high back, like a throne. He’ll call a meeting and his staff will give reports. Brief reports. Steinbrenner has no patience with rambling.
“O.K., that’s enough,” he’ll say. “That’s a red flag area. Get me a memo on it. Next.”
Red-flag areas produce rules: Employees are to be at their desks for 30 minutes after a night game, back at work at 9:30 a.m.; employees must sign out for lunch and leave a telephone number.
“He treats his employees like they’re in elementary school,” a former employee says. “He treated Gabe Paul like a secretary.”
Gabe Paul, the former Yankee president, a man Steinbrenner described as “brilliant” last Oct. 17, is with the Cleveland Indians now.
The story of Gabe Paul is an example of how rough Steinbrenner can be. On the record, Steinbrenner praised him, gave him credit for putting the Yankees together, credit for keeping relative peace among Jackson, Munson, Martin and even Steinbrenner. Off the record, Steinbrenner told reporters that Paul’s health was failing, that he didn’t understand what Steinbrenner was trying to do with the team, that he did not really put the team together, that he—Steinbrenner—assisted on all trades, that he—Steinbrenner—kept the peace. Steinbrenner dangled Paul’s authority all season long, insisting that Paul would make the final decision on the hiring or firing of Martin, thus insuring a lay-off guy if needed. There were times when Paul was seen crying in his office from the strain that Steinbrenner put on him.
“I don’t mind Gabe leaving with his image intact,” Steinbrenner said this spring in Fort Lauderdale. “But he was in baseball for 40 years, 25 as a general manager, and did he ever win a pennant before? You think he made all those moves with this team himself? You think all of a sudden he got brilliant?”
When Steinbrenner was reminded that “brilliant” was the precise word he had used not six months before to describe Paul, he changed course and flipped on something soft and blue.
“A brilliant baseball man, yes,” Steinbrenner said. “But he was getting old. Look, let him have his image if he wants it. I won’t say anything bad about Gabe. Maybe I was too hard on him. Maybe I hurt him. If I did, I’m sorry.”
Shoot first, apologize later.
Steinbrenner calls this tendency a dent in his armor.
What’s next for Steinbrenner?
Some of his close friends say he wants a Kentucky Derby winner real bad, that he’ll spend progressively more time with his horses, and back off the Yankees. But Steinbrenner devotes only about 25 percent of his time now to the Yankees, and he is unlikely to give up his main source of celebrity. The Yankees are still “a challenge” to him. Rich people use that word, “challenge.” Little guys, when they switch jobs, say, from the phone company to selling insurance, say they did it for “money.”
George Steinbrenner wants to be the most powerful man in baseball. Not the commissioner, mind you, just the most powerful. An example of that want lies in what he said when he planned to raise his minor league players’ salaries high above the minimum allowed, just to provide them with what he called “a decent standard of living, to show them we care.”
“The rule says you’re paying too much,” his farm director told Steinbrenner.
“Screw the rule.” Steinbrenner said. “We’ll make a new rule.”
One last story:
Twice in the last five minutes Steinbrenner had picked up the phone in his spring training office expecting to hear Ted Turner’s voice on the other end. Twice, the line had gone dead.
Steinbrenner buzzed the secretary in charge of telephones.
The secretary, mindful—ever mindful—that Steinbrenner is not a patient man, apologized.
He was waiting for Turner because Turner owns the Atlanta Braves, and Steinbrenner wanted Turner as a signatory on a letter he was drafting, a letter supporting the Commissioner of Baseball. In recent weeks, a small group of owners—notably Ray Kroc of San Diego and Brad Corbett of Texas—were trying to get Bowie Kuhn ousted as commissioner. Steinbrenner considered the move “ill-conceived.”
There arc two significant groups of baseball owners. One is the Young Turks. This coterie has been formed primarily by Steinbrenner and includes Ruly Carpenter of Philadelphia, Bob Lurie of San Francisco, Bud Selig of Milwaukee, Peter O’Malley of Los Angeles, Clark Griffith of Minnesota and Dan Galbreath of Pittsburgh. Significantly, O’Malley, Griffith and Galbreath are sons of owners who might logically be called the Old Turks. The Young Turks claim to stand for constructive change in baseball; the Old Turks basically stand for the National Anthem. Included among the Old Turks are such owners as Gussie Busch or St. Louis, M. Donald Grant of the Mets and Jerry Hoffberger of Baltimore. With Tom Yawkey of Boston and Phil Wrigley of Chicago now deceased, the Old Turks have lost significant power. They depend on such maverick owners as Bill Veeck of the While Sox, Brad Corbett of Texas and Ray Kroc of San Diego to blunt the Steinbrenner group, but Steinbrenner & Company seem to hold the trump cards now. Steinbrenner and Turner, who once tampered with another team’s player prior to a free agent draft, are the only owners Kuhn has ever suspended. Neither figures to support him; Kuhn would be well advised to bring a food taster should he go to dinner with Steinbrenner and Turner.
“Mr. Steinbrenner,” the secretary said, “Mr. Turner on 22.”
With considerable skepticism, Steinbrenner pushed the button.
“Ted, old guy, how are you?”
There followed a remarkable conversation, which clearly demonstrated Steinbrenner’s fund-raising capability. Within 10 minutes, Steinbrenner had persuaded Turner to become a signatory. He assured Turner that the letter in no way supported Kuhn personally, but supported the Office of Commissioner, which should be safe from attack. He congratulated Turner on his America’s Cup triumph, throwing in a few “supers” and a few “unreals” as he marveled at Turner’s ability to turn a yawner of a boat race into front page news worldwide. He reminded Turner he had lobbied for his reinstatement to full ownership privileges at the recent major league meetings. He told Turner that he was the kind of owner baseball needed; he said the Young Turks of baseball ownership really liked him and he could count on their continued support. He even told Turner that late at night, at his home in Tampa, he can get Turner’s Atlanta television station.
“Those are great ads you’ve got on for the Braves. Ted, I swear I saw them. Last night, when you were running that movie. ‘Mister Roberts’ with Jimmy Cagney. I saw it. Honest to God.”
By the end of their conversation Turner would have made out a blank check payable to Kuhn and had Steinbrenner fill in the amount.
“We needed him on that letter, you know,” Steinbrenner said to his visitor after the call. “The other guys knew it, but they were afraid to ask for his support. Not me.”
Steinbrenner leaned back and smiled. In the back of the room, a soft, blue spotlight was shining.
In 1993, the acclaimed novelist Richard Ford wrote a piece for the New York Times called “Stop Blaming Baseball.”
Check it out:
Sometimes I think it might be instructive just to turn my fan’s back on the game, vote with my feet, find new books to read, go hunting in October, fishing in April, let baseball crash and burn and see what comes up from the ashes. That’s the American way, too: chop down all the trees, kill the animals, pollute the rivers, then try to figure out what to do with the real estate. (It may be happening anyway.)
Or less severely, I’ve thought we could just call baseball off for a year or two. Take a breather. Clear our heads of all the clatter and clack. Fewer of us than we suppose might mind — mostly the writers would mind.
But finally it’s not even that important to me. I would feel silly acting betrayed, as some do, and taking extreme measures just because my national pastime won’t allow me the precise same pleasures it always has. And so, in a purely self-serving way, I have declared myself willing to reorder my priorities (you have to work earnestly for your illusions). And excepting for my own list of suggested alterations, I’m willing to use my imagination to believe that baseball will stay enough the same for me to go on liking it as it faces the difficult challenges of coming into a new century unexempt from antitrust, sharing its precious revenues, paying its players more but making them not that much happier and somehow resisting the urge to become more and more like jai alai. I still sincerely wish somebody would get rid of the goddamn mascots, and I wish ballplayers, especially those who’re making unusually large sums but for some reason “are not seeing the ball well enough this year,” would quit telling me that they’re out there to have fun when they don’t seem to be having that much and when I don’t really care to begin with.
The Boston Phoenix, the once-great alternative newspaper is gone. Over at Grantland, Charlie Pierce remembers the old days:
I mean. Jesus Mary, where do you start with the newspaper at which you grew so much, and learned so much, and came to respect the craft of journalism with a fervor that edged pretty damn close to the religious? What memories have pride of place now? The fact that T.A. Frail, now at Smithsonian, suggested you might just like Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy and it wound up changing your life? The day that Doug Simmons, now at Bloomberg News, snuck up behind you and stuck a pair of earphones on your head, cranked Black Flag’s “Six Pack” up to 11, and taught you that rock and roll had not calcified when you graduated from college? What’s the song that plays when you realize that you’re young when you thought you were growing old? What’s the prayer of thanksgiving for a hundred days of fellowship, drunk on words, all of us, as though there were nothing more beyond the next word, the next sentence, the next paragraph locked into place? Please say that the muse is something beyond the balance sheet, something beyond technology. Tell me that she’s alive the way she once was when you’d feel her on your shoulder as one word slammed into the other, and the story got itself told, and you came to end and realized, with wonderment and awe, that the story existed out beyond you, and that it had chosen you, and you were its vehicle, and the grinning muse had the last laugh after all.
God, it was a carnival. I saw the publisher twice get into punch-ups, once with a staffer and the next time with a janitor. And, in both cases, it was at a Christmas party. We never got paid much, but we did get paid, and we were able to write about what we wanted to write the way we wanted to write it. We were a legitimate institution of Boston eccentricity, and we were proud of the fact that we were recognized for being that very thing. In 1982, when the 76ers beat the Celtics, and the Garden erupted into a chant of “Beat L.A.!,” the great Bob Ryan interviewed Darryl Dawkins and found Michael Gee, then covering the game for us. You have to have this quote, Ryan told him, because we can’t use it. Ryan had asked Dawkins what he felt like when he heard that chant from a Boston crowd.
“Man,” Dawkins said, “when I heard that, my dick got stiff.”
If I recall correctly, that was Gee’s lead.
Another beaut from our man Dexter. This one originally appeared in the Philly Daily News on June 2, 1980. It is collected in Paper Trails, a must-read if there ever was one, and is featured here with the author’s permission.
“Dead Dogs and Manhood”
By Pete Dexter
The year I turned 5 my family moved to a little town in central Georgia called Milledgeville where my father taught physics at the military college. Our house was on a red clay road, next to a pine woods and a saw mill. The plums came off the trees hot from the sun, and I had a cocker spaniel puppy that followed me everywhere I went. And nobody wore shoes all summer long, except to Sunday school.
The puppy was almost grown when he was killed. A city garbage truck hit him and left him where he stopped rolling, beside the road on a hill half a mile from the house. I heard about it from a kid named Kenny Durkin, who was the kind of kid who would spend half the afternoon looking for you to be the one to tell you your dog was dead.
He is probably working for a newspaper now.
Anyway, Kenny found me down at the saw mill, walking around the inside edge of a round cement building where they burned scrap wood. The building had a clay floor, dug out into a pit, and if you fell off the edge that’s where you ended up, in there burning with the wood.
My friends and I went there once or twice a week and waited for the watchman to chase us out. We wanted to see it when he fell off the edge.
Kenny Durkin stuck his head into the open door and yelled at me. “Peter,” he said, “the city truck done run over yer dog and kilt him dead.”
We ran from the saw mill to the hill where the city truck had left my dog, stopping every now and then for Kenny Durkin to get his breath. I was scared and excited at the same time – I’d never seen a dead dog before.
By the time we got to place on the hill, the sun had baked one side of the dog’s coat so hot you could hardly touch him. The flies were all over his ears and eyes, and I brushed them away and picked him up. He had never seemed so heavy before. I told Kenny Durkin to go away.
I carried the puppy up the hill, stumbling under the weight. I fell in some stones, and he rolled into the ditch. I pulled him out by a leg, and there was a trail of blood and bubbles where his mouth had slid along the ground. It was cool in the ditch and I thought about leaving him there, but there was something worse in that than in what had already happened.
I picked him up and started for home again. I moved him from one shoulder to the other, trying to get rid of the ache in the muscles. But the ache got worse and worse and the next time I fell I couldn’t pick him up again, so I
dragged him home by the leg.
And I was crying as much from the ache as for the dog.
A neighbor woman came out from behind her screen door and told me to leave the puppy out in the street. “Come on in and have some ice tea,” she said.
“Your daddy’ll be by directly.”
But I was dizzy from the heat by that time, watching my feet move, one in front of the other against the red Georgia dirt, and I didn’t answer.
I didn’t have anything to say, and I had something to do. And a long time went by before I got the puppy home.
I remembered all that last week. I was driving some back roads near Elmer, N.J., when I came on a kid carrying a dead dog.
He was older than I had been – he might have been 9 or 10 – but you don’t pick the times you grow up, they pick you. The dog was a mongrel, maybe 35 pounds, and the kid was trying to balance it in front of him on the frame of his bicycle.
He’d pedal a few yards, then the handle bars would get away from him. He’d reach up to steady himself and the dog would fall off onto the road. I stopped the car behind him and asked what had happened.
“He got run over,” he said. The dog was lying at his feet and boy couldn’t control his voice any more than the handle bars. Everything was falling apart all at once.
I said, “Maybe I can help you get him home.”
He said, “I can do it.” He picked up the dog and lay him across the bicycle. The eyes swung in the air. The boy got back on the bicycle and tried again, the dog fell off again. “Oh, Goldie,” he said.
“How far do you live?”
The kid kept his face away when he answered, so you couldn’t see him crying.
“Just a little bit up the road. I can do it.”
“Close enough to walk? ” He nodded, still keeping his face away. I said, “Then hold her on the bicycle and walk her home.”
The kid put his dog across the bicycle, held her there with one hand and began to walk toward a red and white farm house a long ways down the road. From the back you could see the crying take over his body. Maybe if I’d asked him again, he would have let me drive him home.
But I didn’t ask.
He was finding out about himself, and tonight, after the dog was buried, that would be all he would have to take her place.
[Photo Credit: Sally Mann]
More baseball. This here beaut by Pete Richmond was a “Main Event” takeout for The National Sports Daily back on August 30, 1990. It appears here with the author’s permission.
“The Sports Fan”
By Peter Richmond
The first time I called Bill Murray to see if he wanted to watch some Cubs games he insisted on reading me the Recipe of the Month from the Cubs newsletter, which was Ryne and Cindy Sandberg’s recipe for Chicken Parmesan. It didn’t sound particularly appetizing. We never found out what it tasted like, even though we did end up in Chicago, and we did end up eating a lot. We just never ate any of Ryne and Cindy Sandberg’s Chicken Parmesan. We did eat Diana Ditka’s chicken, which wasn’t anything special, especially after Bill picked up this kid who wanted an autograph and lowered his head until it was a few inches from the mashed potatoes. We also ate lamb chops with an orange sauce at a cocktail party for some of the Cubs in a men’s store that sold ties for $200, but there was nowhere to put the bones except in the pockets of the silk jackets. We also had eggs Benedict with fresh tomato slices, and some pretty good swordfish, but the most appetizing dish by far was the fruit bowl that looked like a Dutch still life in Mick Fleetwood’s hotel suite on the forty first floor. Unfortunately, he never offered us any, even though Bill was polite enough to read aloud from the unpublished science fiction manuscript written by Mick’s dad, the late Wing Commander Fleetwood of the RAF, at 3 A.M., while the rest of Fleetwood Mac drank pear brandy down at the bar.
And, of course, we ate Polish Sausages. We ate a lot of Polish sausages. In fact, the first thing Bill said when he reached our seats behind home plate in Wrigley Field during the national anthem for a 7:35 start against the Expos was, “I brought you a Polish,” and he held up a brown paper bag. He was wearing a baseball cap with the insignia of the Salt Lake Trappers on the crest. He was wearing baggy bluejeans and a black Adidas jacket with Cyrillic writing on it. Holding the bag in his left hand and his ticket stub in the right, with the brim of the cap pulled down, Bill had moved through the crowd without causing a ripple. He seems to fit in Wrigley Field the way something fits in your glove compartment that’s always there, where it belongs.
“Beer?” said the vendor who always brings her coldest case to where Bill’s sitting.
“That’s what we’re here for,” Bill said. He was right. We drank Old Style, and kept score, and talked about the 1957 Braves. The day they clinched the pennant, Bill’s dad—a lumber salesman, father of nine—drove the family up to Milwaukee and they cruised the streets in celebration, even though they were Cubs fans. He can still recite their starting lineup.
Since then, Bill has spent a lot of time in baseball parks. He had two at bats with the Grays Harbor Loggers. Now he owns part of the Trappers, the Charleston (S.C.) Rainbows, the Williamsport (Pa.) Bills and the Pompano Beach (Fla.) Miracle, which he recently visited on Gaelic night, and when he was presented with a baked potato, plain, he ate it so as not to offend his hosts.
But you’re likely to see him just about anywhere. Last autumn, for instance, in the middle of a pennant race, he leaned over the lip of the Cubs dugout in Shea Stadium in the late innings and
tried to hand a Heineken and some Cajun fries to Rick Sutcliffe, who pitches for the Cubs. Sutcliffe tried not to panic. His manager, Don Zimmer, had turned the color of a cherry tomato. “At least take the fries,” Bill said, hanging upside down. Sutcliffe didn’t even take the fries. Bill ate them. The Cubs won the division.
Bill had remembered to put everything on the Polish dogs, including jalapeños and celery salt. The girl at the Polish place on Waveland Avenue invariably gives him the best Polishes on the grill. Bill isn’t very comfortable with being treated specially, but a good Polish and a cold Old Style are two of the perks he’d be foolish to spurn, especially considering all of the drawbacks to trying to watch a Cubs game if you’re Bill, which are considerable. In Wrigley Field, for instance, he is seldom granted more than four seconds to himself, which grows quickly annoying to a man who is far more than a casual fan. (How many people do you know who know that Lloyd McLendon once hit five home runs in five at bats in Little League?)
“Are you Bill Murray or a lookalike?” said a doughy man in the bottom of the second as he walked in front of our seats. Marvel Wynne had just singled. “Are you Duffy Dougherty?” said Bill. He was trying to watch Wynne’s lead off first.
Then a guy with maximum security prison tattoos came up and said, “I know I shouldn’t bother you, so I’m going to. Bill looked at him the wav you’d look at a dead fish on the beach. The man left.
Another man came over and shoved a program in his face. “If I miss one pitch, I’m going to kill you,” Bill said. The man laughed. “I mean it,” Bill said. The man left.
“Hey Bill, l think it’s great how you support Chicago sports,” said someone else.
“I can’t do anything else,” Bill said.
Mostly Bill didn’t seem to mind, if it was between innings. When a teenage girl skipped in front of us and almost kicked over our beers, he said, “Hey, get those big feet outta here,” and when she turned around, blushing, he smiled, and she smiled back and sort of melted right there into a pink puddle. Another girl leaned over in the middle of an inning and he signed her program in mock exasperation.
“I’m only doing this because I like the way you look,” he said. She laughed. He was telling the truth. In fact, he was in a particularly good mood. A few days earlier he’d taken batting practice with the Trappers and put a few on the track, and the day before, the Miracle had taken part in the amateur draft and had picked up a couple of definite prospects. Also, Dwight Smith hit a home run in the fifth, and now Wynne hit one in the sixth—”He hit it!” Bill said, shooting to his feet, watching the arc of the ball over the ivy. But he regretted having made himself so conspicuous, for the Expos soon knocked Shawn Boskie out and took a considerable lead, and the crowd started paying more attention to Bill than to the Cubs. A woman tried to pass him a love note on an All-Star ballot, and a man handed him a cellular telephone and said loudly, “Talk to my wife.” Bill did. Faceless fans kept sending us beers, even though he kept refusing them. “You can’t get too relaxed in a military situation,” he said, and he was right: we were under siege.
“Dogs and cats, living together!” wailed someone a few rows back.
“This Ghostbusters thing is not going to go away until someone kills themselves with one of the toys,” Bill said.
In the middle innings, Mark Grace, who was suffering through a terrible slump, walked into the on-deck circle. Bill stood up and shouted “I can swing that bat!” so loudly that Grace had to turn around to see what kind of demented loon was sitting in the fifth row, and when he saw it was Bill, he couldn’t keep himself from smiling, all the while motioning frantically for him to sit back down before everyone got in trouble. I think Bill was trying to help him out of the slump, but he grounded to first base.
Finally, Nelson Santovenia hit a home run for the Expos.
“Nelson Santovenia?” Bill said softly.
It was all over but the shouting, of which there was a lot, so we ducked out a side door and went downtown for dinner.
As we drove down Lake Shore Drive in my rented Geo, Bill said, “The Cubs seemed sort of cranky.”
They had, too.
We found a restaurant that had the White Sox-Angels game from Anaheim on the television. As we found a table, Sammy Sosa threw an Angel out at the plate. It was a good sign. Bill never likes to stray too far from baseball. He keeps close tabs on the game and has many interesting theories about sports in general. One is his Civic Metropolitan Trauma Theory, whereby cities undergoing disasters and strife are likelier to be blessed with sports championships. It is not statistically verifiable, however.
Also, his theory about the National League East this year is that the team that eats the most protein will win. “That bodes well for the Mets,” he says, “because in New York, they eat their own, whereas in Pittsburgh they eat pure anthracite.”
Bill ordered the swordfish. I had the crab.
“You mind if I smoke?” he asked me. Your mother would like Bill. He has these manners. “Manners are the only thing left,” Bill said to me.
We tried to watch the White Sox game but people kept appearing from the dimness. The closer they got to the table, the more they all took on the look of subjects in a Diane Arbus photograph, or a Fellini film cast by Woody Allen.
“I want to talk to you about this idea I have for a theme restaurant—you and Belushi,” said a man waving a cigar the size of the Graf Zeppelin. (This is a recurring theme; in Pompano Beach, a woman who wanted Bill to ride on her Harley asked him. “How’s Belushi?” “He’s dead,” said Bill. “Yeah, I know,” she said, shaking her head.)
The man with the cigar kept trying to buy us drinks, although Bill was just drinking La Croix water, because it’s bottled in La Cross, Wisconsin, and they just turned it into French to sell it. Bill will drink anything made in Wisconsin.
Then another man left his woman friend at the bar to sidle up to Bill and introduce himself as a producer. He had something to do with the camera angles at Wrigley Field. About ten minutes later, when she realized that the man had no intention of summoning her, the woman sidled over, too. She was dressed in a black leotard top, and she had black hair and dark eyes and very white skin. She told us she didn’t like baseball as much as she liked hockey, which she said she liked because the athletes beat each other up. Bill and I exchanged glances.
“Are you out on the coast most of the time?” said the producer. “Yeah,” Bill said, “the East Coast.”
“Really?” said the man.
“I like the air,” Bill said.
“Yeah, but what about the females on the West Coast?” the man said, and he actually winked like Eric Idle used to in Monty Python skits.
“Well, I like to talk to the women I meet,” Bill said. The man didn’t get it. Bill was trying to watch the White Sox Angels game.
“Did you know,” he finally said to the man, “that one out of ten people comes from California? Is that frightening, or what?” The man left. Another one took his place, a much older man. “I used to know Georg’e Raft,” he said.
“I dated George Raft,” Bill said.
A woman came over to tell Bill that he didn’t seem very animated.
“I’m emotionally down because the Cubs lost,” he said. “If they’d won I’d be out ripping the antennas off cars.”
A woman came over with a glass full of clear liquor. Her eyes swam in her head the way the ice cubes swam in her glass. It apparently hadn’t been her first drink. She said she worked for the Illinois secretary of state.
“You look like the kind of person I could go on a kill spree with,” Bill said. “Knock over a few gas stations, kill a few people.” She did, too.
“Listen—I’ve struggled, darling,” she said as if she were on stage. People tend to approach Bill as if they were auditioning for really bad parts in life.
As we left the restaurant, the cigar man tried to pay the check.
Bill wouldn’t let him. As we left the guy was yelling, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” as if we’d insulted him or something.
On the street, a man in a wheelchair told Bill he’d been shot in the back because he refused to join a street gang. He asked Bill for enough money to stay in the Y. He had an upper body like Lawrence Taylor’s.
“I gotta think you could be applying yourself more, Roger,” Bill said, and Roger didn’t seem to disagree. Then Bill gave him more than enough money to stay for a night at the Y, and said that he hoped he wouldn’t see him back at the same spot on the street later that night. “I mean it,” Bill said, and judging from the expression on Roger’s face, I don’t imagine he’s returned to the spot yet.
Back at the bar in Bill’s hotel, Fleetwood Mac had a bodyguard named Roman who looked as if he’d sprung from the cellar of David Lynch’s imagination. He had a smile like he was being
shocked by electrodes. Bill asked the bartender for an aquavit. Everyone in Fleetwood Mac immediately asked for an aquavit. They were wearing a lot of silver jewelry and black clothes. Every few minutes one of them invited Bill to accompany them on their jet the next night to Columbus, Ohio. Bill smiled politely a lot. Mick Fleetwood drank everyone’s aquavit before they could, and kept saying profound things in an elegant voice. Then he invited Bill up to his suite to listen to his late father’s poetry. Bill could tell it meant a lot to Mick, so he agreed. Besides which, the band’s conversation had reached the level of chatter between tree slugs.
The poetry was pretty good. It was on a cassette. There were a couple of dozen beers arranged on ice in a huge silver bowl, like shrimp cocktails, only they were beer bottles. Mick offered us beers but none of the fruit.
Bill had an 8:30 radio appearance the next morning, so we left at 3: 15. As Mick saw us to the door, he asked me what he’d said that I’d written down on the corner of my Cubs program while we were at the bar, and so I read it.
“The English, the English,” I quoted. “The English are the hushpuppy brigade continuing to trample the world in disgrace.”
“You’re the only one who has that,” Mick Fleetwood said, nodding, with a smile. He’s right. I am.
Down on Michigan Avenue, Bill and I were the only people on the street. A very warm wind was buffeting the buildings. For some reason, it carried the scent of newly mowed grass, We agreed to meet on the same corner the next morning. Mike Harkey was starting for the Cubs, and we had good seats again.
On the radio show, someone from Elgin called in to ask him about his movie. Among other things, Elgin houses the Elgin Mental Health Center.
“Did you escape?” Bill said, “Are you one of those guys who climbs the sidewalk and kills people in his car?” The man didn’t laugh. The radio host asked Bill about the Cubs.
“I think they need a few laughs,” Bill said.
I met him on the street corner. He had a white T-shirt and a blue sweater under his arm. The cabdriver said he’d had a bad day. Bill asked him if he was the kind of cabdriver who said he’d had a bad day to get a big tip. The man insisted he’d had a bad day. Bill gave him grief most of the way. When we reached Wrigley, Bill tipped him $20 and told the man to spend it on an activity that family newspapers are reluctant to talk about, although it’s legal between consenting adults in most states.
Then we got more Polish sausage on Waveland Avenue.
A girl in a tank top with a Felix the Cat tattoo on the back of her left shoulder tried to sell him a Bart Simpson T-shirt. We were both feeling the effects of not getting much sleep, and the girl asked him why he was so crabby. I think he resisted the impulse to plant her upside down in one of the bushes. Instead he said, “That’s a nice tattoo. I bet you got one somewhere else.” If she did, she didn’t show us.
The Cubs had given us good seats again, but the team wasn’t playing any better. Our vendor wasn’t working, and the beer was never cold. In the top of the sixth the Expos scored three runs. A woman from a television network who had an anchor apprentice smile asked him to come watch her team play softball that weekend.
“Well,” Bill said, “maybe I’ll come by and insult you.”
“That’d be great,” she said.
A teenage girl asked him for an autograph.
“This girl smells really nice,” he said to me.
“Thank you,” she said. “You’re very sweet.”
“She really smelled good,” he said after she left. Another one took her place. She said her name was Jennifer.
“Jennifer, you’re a total babe,” he said. “Now go on. Get out of here.”
To a lot of people who kept coming up, he said, “You don’t understand. There’s a baseball game going on.” Once he said, “Hey! There’s a two-and-one count here!”
It was a strange game that afternoon, error-filled and back-and-forth. Bill likes games with errors. “A rally of a double and an error and another double, that’s somehow more exciting to me,” he said. “That’s the real game. Human error.”
In the bottom of the eighth it was tied. Bill had to do Siskel live in twenty minutes, back downtown. We decided to stay anyway. But then Jerry Goff hit a home run for the Expos in the top of
“Jerry Goff?” Bill said softly.
We found a cab and Bill said to the driver, “Can you get us to the CBS studios in eight minutes?”
“Sure,” the driver said, and I think he thought he was in a movie. He screeched the tires and missed a baby carriage by a foot and a half. We headed down Lake Shore Drive like one of those cars in a video driving game. The driver literally screeched up to the curb at CBS. A woman was holding the doors open, looking at her watch. Bill said, “Excuse me,” and ducked into the men’s room. He came out a moment later wearing the clean T-shirt and the blue sweater. He’d stuck his head under the sink and combed all his hair straight back. Siskel was wearing clothes that looked like he’d stepped out of a Brooks Brothers catalogue six minutes ago. The anchor people segued into Siskel and Bill.
“Bill Murray’s movies,” Siskel said, by way of introducing Bill, “average one hundred million dollars gross,” as if it had anything to do with anything. Bill didn’t get animated until Siskel asked him about the Cubs. When Siskel asked him how the studio had come to let him direct his latest film, Bill said. “Sometimes when it’s three-and-oh, they let you swing away.”
Outside the studio, back on the street, Bill’s studio’s publicist had produced a limousine the size of a stretch DC-9. He’d been trying to get Bill to ride in limos for two~days. This time Bill acquiesced, as a favor to the publicist, who belongs to the age when publicists knew how to publicize, but liked nothing more than making their stars feel like stars. He’d say things to Bill like, “Need anything? Plane tickets? Money?” And Bill~would say, “No thanks.” In the back of the limo, the publicist had Paris on the car phone, and so Bill talked to Paris for a minute. There were crystal glasses in the bar, but there wasn’t any time to use them because the hotel was about six blocks from the CBS studio. In fact, the limo was so big we probably could have gotten in one end at the studio and gotten out the other at the hotel without the car actually moving.
Bill’s hotel room was on the forty-fourth floor, facing north. You could see Greenland. A basketball sat in a window sill, looking north up the shore of the lake like someone pining away for something.
Bill changed into a purple shirt and blue jeans and we crossed the street to the cocktail party introducing the Chicago Cubs calendar. Jerome Walton was wearing enough jewelry to anchor a Japanese supertanker. We took some vodka-and-tonics off the trays that kept arriving on the arms of tuxedoed young men, and lamb chops with orange sauce. I put my bones in mv pocket, in
Mark Grace introduced Bill to a guy with long hair and a cowboy hat. He was the lead singer of a band called Restless Heart. They are apparently very big in white baseball circles. The Cubs all seemed relieved to have Bill to talk to, instead of having to talk to the other guests at the party, who clearly did their shopping at this store, but were not acting as cool as you’re supposed to act when your shirt costs $190. They clotted around Bill so that eventually he had to stand behind the sales counter. A man in a $6,000 suit—I’d guess—asked him what his plans were.
“I’m supposed to be making a movie in the fall,” Bill said, “but I’m going to try and get out of it.”
“Oh,” the man said, and went to look for the bar, which was up near the neckties.
We took a cab to Ditka’s. At a stoplight we stopped next to a Mercedes painted the color of mold, driven by a woman in dark glasses with a scarf over her hair. Bill leaned out the window.
“Nice color!” he said. “Hey, I’ll bet $10 you just quit smoking and drinking!”
When the light changed, she didn’t move. She looked as if someone had just hit her with a cattle prod.
We joined Grace and Sutcliffe and Steve Wilson and the lead singer of Restless Heart at a table in the Hall of Fame Room, where a man played lounge songs on an electric piano with a plaque that read “Myles Green at The Piano.” Myles was exactly like the lounge singers Bill used to imitate, and by the size of his smile when he recognized Bill, you’d have thought he sensed the irony of it all, but judging by the music he played, he apparently didn’t.
There were about thirty-five televisions up on the walls, all showing a Giants Cardinals game. Every time Will Clark came up, Mark Grace watched very intently. The Cubs asked Bill about his movies.
Bill steered the conversation back to baseball. He told them they’d probably turn it around on the West Coast trip.
“I’m going to give you guys a joke book,” Bill said. He was convinced they weren’t having enough fun this year. He was right. “We need it,” Grace said.
“We need something,” Sutcliffe said.
Bill ordered Diana Ditka’s chicken. It had a sauce with a lot of peas in it. When the kid showed up asking for an autograph, Bill shot out of his chair, grabbed the kid by the lapels of his shirt, picked him up two feet in the air and lowered him onto the table a few inches from Diana Ditka’s peas, and shook him in mock anger. The kid was laughing. Bill let him up and signed the autograph. Then, just when the kid thought he was safe, Bill grabbed him and did it again. The Cubs were more or less falling out of their chairs.
I think Bill was doing it for the Cubs, so they’d start winning.
Then a woman with white-blonde hair in a black leather skirt, black halter top, exposed midriff, and a lot of S&M jewelry came over and handed Bill a piece of paper to sign.
He wrote, “Judy: Don’t Let Them Behead Us. Bill.”
“What does it say?” she said, peering at it closely. He read it aloud. She left.
On the walk back to the hotel, Bill found a baseball hat with elephants on it in the window of a tie store. He wanted to buy it for Jerome Walton, but the place was closed. It started to rain and we ducked into a piano bar in the lobby of a nice hotel. We each had a Pernod and water. No one recognized him. The pianist was much better than Myles, but since he hadn’t pasted a plaque with his name to the piano, we never found out who it was.
Back at Bill’s hotel, no one was in the bar. Fleetwood Mac had gone to Columbus, but Bill’s family had arrived in the RV. It was one of the great trades of all time.
At breakfast the next morning, Bill’ son Homer brought a baseball to the table and tried to cut it with a knife and fork while we were waiting for the eggs to come. Homer is a catcher. He once started a triple play with the bases loaded by grabbing a bunt, stepping on home, and throwing to first, where the first baseman threw on to third. He’s such a catcher that the thing he loves most is blocking the plate and getting run into and holding on to the ball, and he’s only eight. Luke, who is five, had the glove he’d given Bill for Father’s Day. It was a beautiful glove. They were all en route to a vacation. But there was one more Cubs game to go to.
We took the Geo to Wrigley, up Lake Shore Drive, past picnics and beachgoers, and got a good parking place in the lot across the street. Before the game Bill hung out with Zimmer in his office while Grace got bubble gum for Homer and Luke. In the Cubs weight room, Sutcliffe told us Cubs stories. Sutcliffe asked where the seats were, and Bill said,”Up among the weird and the damned.”
But on this day, the crowd was soft and comfortable, and it was a fine day for a baseball game. Someone gave Bill a Twizzler and didn’t ask for anything in return, and he took it. All afternoon, Luke’s green eyes lit up the whole ballpark, and after he saw everyone asking Bill for autographs, he handed his baseball to Bill, and Bill signed it “Dad” and gave it back to him, and Luke tucked it into the pocket of his glove.
Bill’s putting the kid in Diana Ditka’s peas to make the Cubs laugh had worked, because on this afternoon, Grace broke out of his slump, and Sandberg hit two home runs—two!—and Jeff Pico won easily. The vendor with the nice smile was back, and all of her beer was cold enough to freeze the roof of your mouth.
In the seventh, Larry Walker hit a home run for the Expos.
Bill said, “Larry Walker?” in a soft voice.
But the Cubs won easily.
Outside in the parking lot we made plans to see the Miracle. Then he went on vacation and I went to Wyoming. On the plane I read a magazine with Bill on the cover. At the beginning of the story about Bill, the writer said that Bill seems like the kind of guy you think you can go to baseball games with, but you can’t.
He was wrong. You can. You should try. Really. For one thing, you get the coldest beers.
When Merchant was 50 years younger, he was sports editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. He was taking names and kicking ass, surrounded by a posse he had hired, hard-driving guys with similar inclinations.
He’d yanked me out of San Bernardino, Calif., and told me where to park near Connie Mack Stadium so I’d find my hubcaps intact after games. And then he told me what we owed our readers.
“Inform ‘em, entertain ‘em, and every so often surprise ‘em,” Merchant said. He wrote incisive essays about pro football. He called his column “Fun and Games” as a stark contrast to life and death. And he’d open his occasional notes columns with “Some questions answered, some answers questioned.”
Merchant informed, entertained, shocked. We were tabloid and proud of it. Not that everyone loved our swagger, our persistence.
There was that night in 1962 on the Phillies’ charter flight, Merchant in an aisle seat, typing away. The catcher, Sammy White, peered over Larry’s shoulder, unhappy with what he read.
“He yanked at the copy paper,” Merchant recalled, “and it stuck. He wound up throwing my Olivetti [typewriter] down the aisle. I went to get it and some of the keys were twisted and some vital parts scattered.
“That night, I dictated a story that said it was the best throw he’d made all season. About a month later, the Phillies sent me an invoice, paying for a replacement and indicating it had been deducted from White’s salary.”
Here’s another sure shot from our pal Dexter.
This one is from August 16, 2002 when he remembered his mentor and friend, Jack McKinney. (The piece appears here with the author’s permission.)
“Pete Dexter Recalls Jack McKinney”
By Pete Dexter
There are a thousand stories about Jack McKinney, and as it happens I was there for a few of them, enough at least to know that the rest are probably true.
I will tell you one no one has ever heard before in a minute, but first let me just make the observation that when you think of the people Jack McKinney knew over the years, the things he saw and did, the chances he took, you realize that even if you were McKinney’s friend, you probably never glimpsed a tenth of the whole picture.
A trusted friend of Sonny Liston, attacked physically by Norman Mailer for ironing Mailer’s wife’s hair in the kitchen during a party–what boundaries could there be?
He was also for years the best boxing writer in America and the loudest tenor in the history of late-night Center City. He fought for his cause in Northern Ireland, at least helped to invent modern talk radio, read four and five newspapers a day, and often ate a gallon of ice cream at a sitting. I could go on like this for an hour. The legend is endless.
But let me push all that aside for the moment and start with this: Jack McKinney, it seems to me, was led his whole life by three driving, and occasionally competing, forces. His intellect, his compassion and, of course, testosterone. These were not whims, blowing him gently from one place to another, they were gales. Huge impulses that he seemed helpless to resist, even when he knew there would be consequences. Jackpots, he called them.
The last time I spoke to him, I’d been sitting around thinking about one of my own jackpots, the very public thumping I took in Devil’s Pocket 20 years ago, something that I suppose I will always find myself sitting around thinking about. In the aftermath I was lying in the hospital when McKinney walked in and stood for a while at the end of the bed, looking me over.
“Well,” he said, “the first thing is, it was stupid to go over there.”
I guess that I ought to explain that when I came to Philadelphia I didn’t know anything or anybody, and Jack took me under his arm as much as anyone ever has and educated me in the ways of night life and the city. For a long time, I considered myself Jack’s apprentice.
I was lying on my pillow that day, trying not to move anything, 150 stitches in my head, a broken femur, a broken vertebra, nerve damage and half my teeth sheared to the gum line by a crowbar.
I said, “You think so, Jack?”
He closed the door and had a seat and talked to me for most of an hour, lecturing, I guess, but not scolding, just someone who had been in a few spots of his own, who had also been hurt. He told me that what had happened was going to follow me around a long time, which it did, and that I was in the process of finding out some things I needed to know. Which I was. He said these things in a kind way, somehow acknowledging that I was still someone he took seriously. It was always important to me, what Jack thought.
So the last time I spoke to him, it was a spur of the moment thing, I wanted to thank him for that hospital visit 20 years ago, for that kindness, to say that I didn’t think he ever knew how much it meant to me when he did it. And once the awkward silence that declaration provoked was out of the way, we talked about our families and kids. About the old days, the Daily News and the jackpots we got into, about the night he lent a company car to a woman with tattoos who told him she had to go buy baby formula. The woman, as I remember, did not return the car. Another night, the police stopped us at 2 o’clock on Walnut Street because Jack was singing too loud, and Jack spent 20 minutes trying to explain the beauty and passion of opera to these two very patient officers, making them promise finally that they would give it a try. Earlier that same night a drunk had pulled a knife on us and Jack, enjoying it hugely, told me to fan out, and I did everything but crawl into his back pocket.
The night I want to tell you about, though, never came up between us. I never talked about it to anybody. We’d been at the Pen and Pencil Club until 3 o’clock in the morning, Jack ranking all the tenors since Caruso between rounds of head-butting with an infamous Irish burglar who had a head the size of a mailbox. Jack was losing his toupee, and so he took it off – something he would never do in public – and handed it to me each time he went back to butt heads again. He also wanted me to stand in back of him in case the infamous Irish burglar butted him unconscious. “Just don’t let me drop,” he said. “Just stand there and catch me if I drop.”
I woke up the next morning still hearing the deep, hollow sound of heads colliding, wondering how McKinney’s was feeling. My own head wasn’t anything to brag about, and things did not improve when I got in the car to drive into work. How do I put this? There was a dead squirrel in the front seat. At least I thought so for a long moment, and then I leaned over and saw it more clearly, and in that same instant saw the complications lying out there ahead of me like 200 hundred miles of Mexican Highway.
First of all, I could not imagine myself walking into the office holding Jack McKinney’s hair. I could also not imagine sticking it in my pocket. I couldn’t imagine calling him at home, telling him I’d found it in my front seat. I couldn’t imagine approaching him with it in the office. I didn’t even know to a certainty–and still don’t–that it was Jack’s hair. The color seemed a little off, and stranger things than finding a toupee in the company car happened in those days on a fairly regular basis.
So I put it off, sticking the hair in the glove compartment, waiting for the right place and time to give it back, but it never came. I could never pull the trigger. And I could never quite throw it away. Jack was sensitive about his hair. The next time I saw him, up in the office, he was sitting beneath some hair that looked like his regular hair, working on his column. So, who knows?
But even if I can’t say definitively that it was Jack’s hair in my glove compartment, I can tell you the reason I never offered to give it back. I could never figure out how to do it without embarrassing him.
The truth is, this man who climbed in the ring as Bobo McKinney and knocked out a professional middleweight boxer, who would get into screaming political arguments and didn’t care who was there to hear it; this iconoclast, this idealist, this very bad tenor and legendary brawler, this friend of mine, I wouldn’t have hurt his feelings for the world.
It’s hard to imagine Jack’s candle burned out so fast, it feels like a whole species went extinct overnight. I stagger to think of the archives he took with him.
Originally published in the Post (April 8, 1969) and reprinted here with permission from the author, he’s a keeper for the Yankee fans out there.
“Something To Do With Heroes”
by Larry Merchant
Paul Simon, the Simon of Simon and Garfunkel, was invited to Yankee Stadium yesterday to throw out the first ball, to see a ballgame, to revisit his childhood fantasy land, to show the youth of America that baseball swings, and to explain what the Joe DiMaggio thing is all about.
Paul Simon writes the songs, Art Garfunkel accompanies him. They are the Ruth and Gehrig of modern music, two kids from Queens hitting back-to-back home runs with records. They are best known for “Mrs. Robinson” and the haunting line, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” Joe DiMaggio and 100 million others have tried in vain to solve its poetic ambiguity.
Is it a plaintive wail for youth, when jockos made voyeurs of us all and baseball was boss? “It means,” said Paul Simon, “whatever you want it to.”
“I wrote that line and really didn’t know what I was writing,” he said. “My style is to write phonetically and with free association, and very often it comes out all right. But as soon as I said the line I said to myself that’s a great line, that line touches me.”
It has a nice touch of nostalgia to it. It’s interesting. It could be interpreted in many ways. “It has something to do with heroes. People who are all good and no bad in them at all.That’s the way I always saw Joe DiMaggio. And Mickey Mantle.”
It is not surprising, then, that Paul Simon wrote the line. He is a lifelong Yankee fan and once upon a boy, he admitted sheepishly, he ran onto their hallowed soil after a game and raced around the bases.
“I’m a Yankee fan because my father was,” he said. “I went to Ebbets Field once and wore a mask because I didn’t want people to know I went to see the Dodgers. The kids in my neighborhood were divided equally between Yankee and Dodger fans. There was just one Giant fan. To show how stupid that was I pointed out that the Yankees had the Y over the N on their caps, while the Giants had the N over the Y. I just knew the Y should go over the N.”
There was a Phillies fan too—Art Garfunkel. “I liked their pinstriped uniforms,” he said. “And they were underdogs. And there were no other Phillie fans. Paul liked the Yankees because they weren’t proletarian.”
“I choose not to reveal in my neuroses through the Yankees,” said Simon, who was much more the serious young baseball sophisticate. “For years I wouldn’t read the back page of the Post when they lost. The Yankees had great players, players you could like. They gave me a sense of superiority. I can remember in the sixth grade arguments raging in the halls in school on who was better, Berra or Campanella, Snider or MantIe. I felt there was enough suffering in real life, why suffer with your team? What did the suffering do for Dodger fans? O’Malley moved the team anyway.”
Simon and Garfunkel are both twenty-seven years old. Simon’s love affair with baseball is that of the classic big city street urchin. “I oiled my glove and wrapped it around a baseball in the winter and slept with it under my bed,” he said. “I can still remember my first pack of baseball cards. Eddie Yost was on top. I was disappointed it wasn’t a Yankee, but I liked him because he had the same birthday as me, October 13. So do Eddie Mathews and Lenny Bruce. Mickey Mantle is October 20.”
Simon played the outfield for Forest Hills High, where he threw out the first ball of the season last year. Yesterday, after fretting that photographers might make him look like he has “a chicken arm,” he fired the opening ball straight and true to Jake Gibbs.
Then Simon and Garfunkel and Sam Susser, coach of the Sultans, Simon’s sandlot team of yesteryear, watched the Yankees beat the Senators 8-4 with some Yankee home runs, one by Bobby Murcer, the new kid in town. “I yearned for Mickey Mantle,” Paul Simon said. “But there’s something about that Murcer. . . .”
The conventional wisdom is that there are no more heroes who “are all good and no bad.” Overexposure by the demystifying media is said to be the main cause. Much as I’d like to, I can’t accept that flattery. Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey were seen as antiheroes by many adults, as are Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath, but young fans always seem to make up their own minds.
Is it time for pitchers and catchers yet? Almost. In the meantime, dig this:
“Jim Bouton, Reliever”
Washington Daily News, 1969
Jim Bouton pitched an inning of relief for the Seattle Pilots Friday night, and two innings Saturday afternoon. That’s the way it is these days for Jim Bouton, 30, who started 37 games for the Yankees in 1964.
They were three pretty good innings for a guy who throws only one pitch. Bouton got almost everybody out and he got Frank Howard, on a one-two pitch, to pop up.
The trouble with Howard is that some of his pop-ups land in places where nobody can catch them. This one landed in the bullpen when it came off the wall That wasn’t bad.
What was bad was that Bouton’s hat never fell off. It hasn’t fallen off for a long time. It probably never will again.
The hat fell off when he labored in the vineyards of Auburn and Kearney and Greensboro and Amarillo. He is not a very big man, so he had to throw very hard to throw very fast. He knew he had to make it as a fastball pitcher or not at all.
Bouton came right over the top with the ball and the maximum effort made the fingertips of his right hand touch the ground as he followed thru. He needed all of it, all the time.
And the hat fell off. lt was still falling off when he won 21 games for the Yankees in 1963, and won half enough games to win the World Series in 1964.
Then he lost the fastball. Nobody believed he had lost it in 1965, when he went 4-15. He was lousy, but so, suddenly, were the Yankees.
By opening day, 1966, at Minneapolis, the truth was evident. He threw three consecutive change ups to Jim Kaat, a pitcher, and the third one beat him.
“I couldn’t throw the curve,” Bouton said yesterday. What he meant was that he could throw it, but unaccompanied by that fastball that hummed and darted, it didn’t fool anybody. He was Jim Bouton, fastball pitcher, and he had lost his fastball.
Two years ago the Yankees tentatively gave up on him and for the rest of the year, Bouton got knocked around in Syracuse. Last year they gave up on him unqualifiedly and shipped him to Seattle, which was still minor league.
Bouton didn’t give up. “I thought about quitting,” he said. “We talked about it a lot, but my wife is great. She just said, ‘Whatever you want to do.’”
Bouton wanted to pitch. He began throwing knuckle halls. “What could I lose? I was 0-7 in a minor league. I had thrown a knuckler as a kid, and I found out I could still throw it. After a while, I was getting it over.”
After a while he was 4-7. Maybe, he feels, he can still make it for a few years as a knuckleballer. And if he can’t, he feels, it’s no great tragedy. “I guess I’d sell real estate, or something,” he said. “I know I won’t work in an office. I’ll have to combine something to make a living, with something I really want to do.”
There are other things to think about. There is Kyong Jo Cho.
“Oh, sure,” Bouton said, “we could have had more children. But with the population situation what it is, I don’t think anybody has the right to have as many children as they can, where there are already so many children in the world that nobody is taking care of.”
Michael Bouton will soon be six and Laurie is almost four. For the past year, suburban New Jersey has been getting used to the fact that they have a middle brother named Kyong. “His mother was Korean,” Bouton explained. “His father was an American soldier. It’s not an advantage to have white blood in Korea.”
The Koreans, after several centuries of being whipping boys for the Japanese—being given in Japan the menial equivalent of Negroes in the American South—have finally found somebody of their own to be prejudiced against.
“We didn’t specify a Korean kid,” Bouton said. “We just told them we wanted a boy, and the age, and one with an aggressive personality.
“We did say we didn’t want a child with a Negro background. You know I don’t have anything against Negroes, but my wife and I had doubts about what kind of America it’s going to be 10 years from now.”
He had doubts about what kind of America it is right now. When Bouton came to the Yankees in 1962, he was brainwashed like all young Yankees about what not to say to newspapermen. He decided to make up his own mind and found that he even liked some of them. He horrified the senior Yankees by socializing with reporters.
He learned from the experience of a reporter his own age that adopting a Negro orphan could lead to unforeseen heartbreak and be a failure.
Kyong Jo Cho was on the way, so Jim Bouton went to Berlitz. “I learned how to ask him if he wanted a cab to his hotel,” Bouton said, “but I didn’t learn how to ask him, ‘Where does it hurt?’ So I took a cram course, and now a lot of kids in the neighborhood know how to say, ‘Where did he go?’ in Korean.”
It was, in a sense, a waste of time. Kyong has steadfastly refused to speak a word of Korean. He came to Bouton a few weeks ago and complained that all the kids were calling him Kyong.
“He said he wanted an American name,” Bouton said. “I asked what he thought about David. My wife and I had thought about that and we were hoping he would ask. He said that would be fine.”
David Bouton is a lucky kid.
he snow burst through the trees with no warning but a last-second whoosh of sound, a two-story wall of white and Chris Rudolph’s piercing cry: “Avalanche! Elyse!”
The very thing the 16 skiers and snowboarders had sought — fresh, soft snow — instantly became the enemy. Somewhere above, a pristine meadow cracked in the shape of a lightning bolt, slicing a slab nearly 200 feet across and 3 feet deep. Gravity did the rest.
Snow shattered and spilled down the slope. Within seconds, the avalanche was the size of more than a thousand cars barreling down the mountain and weighed millions of pounds. Moving about 7o miles per hour, it crashed through the sturdy old-growth trees, snapping their limbs and shredding bark from their trunks.
The avalanche, in Washington’s Cascades in February, slid past some trees and rocks, like ocean swells around a ship’s prow. Others it captured and added to its violent load.
Somewhere inside, it also carried people. How many, no one knew.
[Photo Via: Mr Freakz]