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Blind Faith

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Alex Rodriguez is the subject of Scott Price’s SI cover story this week:

Rodriguez, once seen as baseabll’s great clean hope, is now viewed as hopelessly dirty.

Others have come back from such stigma: Mark McGwire is the hitting coach for the Dodgers; Jason Giambi and Andy Pettitte, old teammates and admitted users of PEDS, are treated these days as elder statesmen. Rodriguez figures to be different–and knows it–but last week maintained the front of a blissed-out Candide. He insissted that he doesn’t wonder, Why me?

“I never say that,” Rodriguez said. “But maybe there are a couple of chapters where I can become that person again. I’m not giving up. I have tremendous faith, and hopefully there’s a couple more chapters to this book. And hopefully there’s a happy ending somewhere. I have faith.

And:

Asked, last week, if he understood Cashman’s famously profane rip, Rodriguez shot back, “Do you understand it?”

Yes. Because Cashman knows; Rodriguez’s gift, his unprecedented completeness, was never really his; it’s called a gift for reason. Sports is a collective of time as well as talent. Six generations of baseball players and fans, billions of dollars worth of stadia and TV time, an infinity of minor and major leageurs working for untold lifetimes–all of it combined to create the game, the numbers, the interest and the hothouse environment in which Alex Rodriguez was going to be the best.

People care so much about sports greatness because, deep down, they know that it’s a reflection; something there belongs to them. We gave Rodriguez his chance. We urged him not to waste it. Cashman knows, better than anyone: We hate when we make so big a mistake.

Here’s more from Price at SI.com.

BGS: Fi$hing for Catfi$h

Here’s an Opening Day treat from the late, great, Paul Hemphill. This story was first published in Sport magazine as “The Yankees Fish for a Pennant.” It is featured in the wonderful collection, Too Old to Cry and appears here with permission from Hemphill’s wife, Susan Percy.

“Fi$hing for Catfi$h”

By Paul Hemphill

Ahoskie, North Carolina

There is something in the old baseball scout reminding us of grandfatherly chats, squeaky slippers, soft wine, and a knowledge gained only through experience. They have been there in rickety, skeletal bleachers in small Iowa towns and on grassy knolls at downtown St. Louis playgrounds, witnessing it all—wild-swinging young brutes who would discover the curveball in Class D the year after signing, burly Okies who would turn out to be afraid to pitch in front of crowds; crew-cut shortstops who would invest their eight-thousand-dollar bonus in beer and pool and frowsy blondes in McAlester, Oklahoma—and now the men who discovered stars and signed them up to play professional baseball turn up, graying and sixtyish, wiser than the rest of us. After the frantic years of squinting out into hard-baked, skinned infields, abruptly having to adjust their eyes from deepest center field to the stopwatch in their wrinkled hands, they come down to wearing loose alpaca sweaters and lazily lipping slender cigars and treading gentlemanly in broken-in Hush Puppies and speaking warmly to the parents of the top prospect in town.

Such is George Pratt. It is turning dark on the day after Christmas. Pratt, who got as high as Class AAA as a player and has recently been put out to pasture as a “bird dog” scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates due to heart trouble, is sitting in the lobby of the Tomahawk Motel in Ahoskie, mumbling soft exchanges with a stumpy, aggressive fellow named Dutch Overton, the assistant principal at Ahoskie High, in the barren, swampy stretches of far northeastern North Carolina. They are idly waiting for the Pirates’ hierarchy to fly in the next morning and try to sign the best pitcher ever to have come out of this part of the country: Jim “Catfish” Hunter, a former high school phenomenon who went on to establish himself as genuine Hall of Fame material with the Oakland A’s. These days, after a petulant violation of his contract by A’s owner Charles O. Finley, Hunter trucks into his Ahoskie lawyers’ offices each morning in a gray, mud-spattered Ford pickup with a dog pen in the back. Then Hunter spits tobacco juice into a Styrofoam coffee cup while major league owners and their accountants sit at the other end of a long walnut conference table in a back room, wearing elegant dark suits and rummaging through stacks of tax tables and such, earnestly competing to make him the highest-paid player in the history of baseball. This has been going on for about ten days now and should end in about a week, when all of the clubs not faint of heart have their cards on the table. It is not unlike the auctioning of a prize bull.

“Time flies, all right,” Dutch Overton is saying. “It wasn’t ten, maybe twelve years ago I was assistant baseball coach over at Hertford where Jim was playing. Most times I’d wind up umpiring our games behind the plate. They’d always say, ‘No wonder Jimmy wins. He brings his own personal umpire.’”

“Competitive spirit played a part, too,” says Pratt.

“Say y’all talk with ‘em in the morning?”

“Us in the morning. Cincinnati in the afternoon.”

“Jim’s out hunting if I know him.”

“I would imagine that’s the case, Dutch.”

Pratt is showing off his 1971 World Series ring to a motel guest when Overton asks who he thinks will eventually sign Hunter. “The Yankees,” he says flatly. “Clyde Kluttz is their top scout, and he and Jim go hunting together all the time. Jim could make an awful lot of extra money in New York, too, and don’t overlook that. And the Yankees can start winning pennants again if they get him. If I had to bet on it, I’d say the Yankees.”

When it was announced at a frantic press conference on New Year’s Eve of 1974 in New York that the Yankees had persuaded Jim Hunter to sign what was easily the most awesome contract in the history of major-league baseball—the five-year package came to an estimated $3.75 million, including salary and insurance and deferred bonuses—the whole story read like a novel. It involved a Southern country boy suddenly inspired to give it his best shot in the Big Apple, a club owner forced by the commissioner of baseball to stay out of the negotiations, a general manager putting the finishing touches on what could become another Yankee dynasty, a kindly veteran scout who got the job done through the back door with old-fashioned friendship and trust, a sleepy little tobacco and farming town abruptly basking in national prominence, a mercurial sports entrepreneur finally letting his arrogance and stubbornness get the best of him, a generous portion of vindictiveness from several sides, and, less pronounced, a general restlessness over the traditional notion that a player is a slave until proved otherwise. The cast:

James Augustus “Catfish” Hunter. Born and reared on a farm near Hertford, some fifty miles from Ahoskie on Albemarle Sound, signed with the then-Kansas City Athletics for a $75,000 bonus in 1964 and is now, at twenty-eight, the premier pitcher in baseball. Because fishing is a passion, he was nicknamed “Catfish” by Finley as a gimmick. Has won 88 games and lost only 35 over the past four seasons, with a career earned-run average of 3.12 (and in 37 World Series innings is 4-0 and 2.19). A country-cool good old boy, devoted to his childhood sweetheart and two children, stays close to home. Salary with the A’s in ’74 was $100,000.

Charles O. Finley. Controversial owner of the Oakland A’s who is always in the spotlight: for proposing orange baseballs; for designing garish, multicolored uniforms; for firing a second baseman who botched a couple of plays in a Series game; for trying to make pitcher Vida Blue change his first name to “True”; for cutting corners on accommodations and salaries in spite of three straight World Series clubs. When he delayed paying Hunter the remaining $50,000 on his ’74 contract, Hunter was declared a free agent by an arbitration panel. After the Yankees signed Hunter, Finley paid the $50,000 and said he would take the matter to the Supreme Court.

The Yankees. Having traded Bobby Murcer even-up to San Francisco for Bobby Bonds in a case of grand larceny at the trading block, the Yankees became a gathering storm in the American League, thanks in large part to the canny purchases and trades of president and general manager Gabe Paul. In the Hunter pursuit the Yankees were driven by revenge as well: toward Finley, for not releasing Dick Williams from a contract with the A’s so he could manage the Yankees; toward commissioner Bowie Kuhn, for not helping them in the Williams tussle and for slapping a two-year suspension on club general partner George Steinbrenner for being indicted on charges of illegal political campaign contributions.

Clyde Kluttz. Originally from the Ahoskie-Hertford area, Kluttz is the scout who first signed Hunter for the Athletics, a decade ago, and is now, at fifty-seven, the Yankees’ superscout. A mediocre catcher for nine seasons with five big league clubs, Kluttz’s top yearly salary was $10,000 (“I deserved every penny of it”). Hunter says, “Clyde never lied to me. He’s my friend. That’s why I signed with the A’s and that’s why I signed with the Yankees.”

The Bit Players. There was pitcher Gaylord Perry, who came from nearby Williamston, trying to talk his old buddy into going with his Cleveland Indians. And the dean of major league managers, saintly Walter Alston, of the Dodgers, who wanted Hunter badly enough to fly coast to coast for a chat. And Gene Autry, the old cowboy movie star and singer who now owns the California Angels, who stood on the streets of Ahoskie handing out autographed Christmas albums he had recorded. And A’s manager AI Dark, who showed up with his wife one night at the Hunter spread, claiming he “just happened to be in the area” for some appearances. And Dick Williams, Hunter’s friend and former A’s manager, now managing the Angels, in Ahoskie also to do some ear-bending. And even attorney Dick Moss, of the Major League Baseball Players Association, instrumental in breaking Finley’s hold on Hunter and, as a result—time will tell—possibly tearing a chink in the historical “reserve clause” binding a player to one club for life unless traded or sold.

Much of the story’s charm lay, of course, in its setting. Hunter lives an hour away, on a 113-acre farm, but when it was determined that he was free to sign with any major league club, Ahoskie was selected as the bargaining table, since that is where Hunter’s lawyers work, out of a quaint, old two-story brick building on Main Street. The second largest town in sparsely populated northeastern North Carolina, Ahoskie (pop. 5500) is a farmer’s delight, with ten churches, a handful of family style restaurants, an ample supply of feed-and-seed stores and tobacco warehouses, and a textile mill that employs nearly four hundred workers. Only twice in memory has the town attracted any sort of national attention: when Lady Bird Johnson made a train stop to promote her national beautification project (the train doesn’t stop there anymore) and when the funeral was held for a native son killed while performing with the Air Force’s acrobatic Blue Angels. It is baseball country, though. From the area over the years have come such major league players as Torn Umphlett, Enos “Country” Slaughter, Stuart Martin, Jim and Gaylord Perry, and now Catfish Hunter.

It was in Hertford (pop. 2023), some fifty miles south of Norfolk, that Jim Hunter was born—the last of four sons—to a tenant farmer and two-dollar-a-day logger named Abbott Hunter. Life wasn’t easy, but when the chores were done Jim found himself competing with his bigger brothers at whatever sport came to mind. He was growing up tough and big and strong—as a freshman at Perquimans High School in Hertford he stood six feet tall and weighed nearly 175 pounds—making him a prep star in football and baseball during his four years. (“He was just a big old country boy who liked it rough,” recalls Bobby Carter, who coached Hunter at Perquimans High and now coaches at Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.) Hunter was a linebacker and offensive end (“He could’ve probably been a pretty good football player at one of the smaller colleges”). But it was in baseball that he began to attract attention. Playing shortstop and batting cleanup when he wasn’t pitching, Hunter would eventually pitch five no-hitters during his high school career—one of them a perfect game, on the day following Easter Sunday of 1963—and bring the major-league scouts flocking to the porch of his father’s farmhouse. This was in 1964, the last year of open bidding for young talent before the free-agent-draft era began, and one night in the living room of the Hunter house young Jim Hunter signed his bonus contract with the Kansas City Athletics and Clyde Kluttz.

Those were the days when bonus babies had to remain with the major league club, rather than being farmed out for nursing in the minors, so Hunter spent the summer of his eighteenth year pitching batting practice and occasionally posing for gimmicky publicity pictures, sitting on the lap of fifty-nine-year-old pitcher Satchel Paige (another Finley stunt and possibly the beginning of Hunter’s long dislike of Finley). During the 1965 and ’66 seasons Hunter won only 17 games and lost 19. But he came forward as a genuine star in 1967, the A’s last year in Kansas City before Finley moved the franchise to Oakland, when his earned run average abruptly dipped to 2.80. In 1968 he became the first American Leaguer to pitch a regular season perfect game in 46 years, and in 1971 he began a string of 20-game seasons that now stood at four straight. Last year, when he finished 25-12 with a 2.49 ERA, he won the Cy Young Award.

But there was bad blood brewing between Hunter and Finley. Who can figure Finley? He gave Hunter $75,000 to sign, $5,000 for pitching his perfect game, another big bonus for winning 21 games in 1971, an investment in 1972 that netted Hunter $15,000 after taxes, and once lent him $150,000 to buy nearly 500 acres adjoining his own 100 in Hertford. That loan from Finley came in 1970, and it was agreed orally that Hunter would pay back at least $20,000 at the end of each season, plus 6-percent interest, until it was all paid off.

“We never had anything down on paper,” Hunter was saying one day at Ahoskie during a lull in negotiations with the various clubs. “I appreciated the loan. I really wanted that land next to my place. I knew I could pay back the money every year, with the kind of money I was making with the A’s. But we got into the season, down into August, and Finley started hounding me about the money. I said, ‘But I’m supposed to pay you when the season’s over,’ and he said, ‘I know, but I’m buying a hockey team and a basketball team and I need the money.’ Well, the worst part was it seemed like he never called me about it except on days when I was going to pitch. I started eight games that August and didn’t have a single win the whole month. I was worried. One time I asked him why he never called except when I was pitching, and he said he didn’t know who was going to pitch then. That’s bull. Charley Finley knows more about that ball club than the manager—whoever the manager might be in a given year.”

That was the beginning of the end of their relationship. Hunter sold off most of the 500-odd acres he had bought with the loan, so he could pay back Finley at the end of the year. From that moment on he simply lay low and tried to forget about everything except getting batters out, which he was now doing masterfully. His tactic worked until he let Finley charm him into a two-year contract calling for $100,000 a year beginning with the 1974 season (“It was the fastest contract I ever signed; I don’t know what got into me”), only to see lesser players take their dealings with Finley to arbitration and, in some cases, win more pay. When Finley piddled around about paying half of last year’s salary to Hunter’s agent in deferred payments, Hunter immediately pounced. This time he contacted Dick Moss, of the Players Association, got the matter before an arbitration board, and became an ex-Oakland A. “I felt like I’d just gotten out of prison,” says Hunter, “even if I did regret how the other players might feel about my leaving the club.” So A’s slugger Reggie Jackson: “With Catfish we were world champions. Without him we have to struggle to win the division.” With Finley pleading that he had never fully understood his obligations in the contract, and vowing there would be hell to pay for anyone who dared sign Hunter, the battle was engaged.

At eight thirty in the morning, three days after Christmas, J. Carlton Cherry—a bulky, balding native who is senior partner of Cherry, Cherry and Flythe, Attorneys—was already in his office, cleaning out wastebaskets from the night before. Cherry and Jim Hunter have been associated since Hunter signed his first contract and “discovered a baseball player needs help on some things.” For better than a week Cherry and his partners and a harried coterie of secretaries had presided over a small mob scene that took place each day, all day. Another delegation of major-league executives would arrive and, for an hour or more, retire to a small conference room with Cherry and Hunter to make its proposition.

Carlton Cherry is no small town hayseed lawyer working from a squeaky swivel chair in front of great granddaddy’s roll top desk. Although this was easily the biggest project he had ever handled, he had methodically gone about his business—making discreet calls to baseball and sports agentry people to get the feel of the new opportunities open to athletes and sitting down with Hunter to put down precisely what was most important to him and his family and, finally, declaring that the store was open for business—and he stood to make enough off the month’s work he was putting in to allow two more generations of Cherrys the best North Carolina can offer. The Tigers, the Orioles, and the Cardinals never entered the bidding for Hunter, for lack of that kind of money and for fear of wrecking “team morale,” but the twenty-one other clubs had been busily exerting every imaginable pressure. Some clubs sent in personal friends of Hunter’s, as the Brewers did in dispatching Mike Hegan, an ex-A’s teammate, to Ahoskie. Other clubs would undermine the Yankees and Mets by using Hunter’s devotion to family (“God, Jim, your wife wouldn’t even dare go to the grocery store in that jungle up there”). “We’re looking for the overall picture,” said Cherry. “The living conditions, whether the club is a contender; the ball park, whether it is a ‘pitcher’s park’; the money, of course, and the security. The total package. We’ve told every club it has an equal opportunity, even Oakland, and that we’ll do no horse trading and make no special deals with any club.”

The Yankees were going after Catfish Hunter with the doggedness that Hunter himself shows when stalking a deer along a somber inlet on Albemarle Sound, and they intended to get him. Their nearness to a string of pennants was a driving force and a bargaining point. The magic of the Yankee name—the Yankees almost never lost when Jim Hunter was growing up—was another asset. And they knew that when it came down to the crunch, they had in their corner a fellow named Clyde Kluttz.

Clyde Franklin Kluttz was reared in the same part of America as Jim Hunter, knew the same baying of dogs and lapping of water and the loose feeling of hanging around the steps of a country store telling lies and enjoying the company of men in no hurry to do anything more than savor life. Ten years ago, scouring the Southeast for prospects in behalf of the Kansas City Athletics, he spent countless afternoons keeping watch over young Jimmy Hunter of Perquimans High, in Hertford, North Carolina, and countless evenings having supper with the possibility of his signing Hunter to an Athletics contract. He, like George Pratt, of the Pittsburgh Pirates, was that grandfatherly sort a farm family and a wide-eyed young prospect from the Southern outback could trust, and when Hunter’s free agency was declared Kluttz knew what to do. He flew to Norfolk, rented a car, drove to Hertford, and checked in for an indefinite stay at a motel twelve miles from Hunter’s home.

While the executives and scouts from the other clubs made their appointments through Carlton Cherry and flashed in on Lear jets for their stiff presentations to Cherry and Hunter, Kluttz sat in his motel room and read papers and watched daytime television. When the day began to close down he got into his car and drove over for a family visit with Hunter. What about living around New York City? Hunter would ask. Look, Kluttz would say, I hated it, too, at first, but people are people. You’ve got good ones and you’ve got bad ones no matter whether it’s Hertford or New York. Hunter would say, But San Diego says they’ll pay me anything I want, and Kluttz would ask how many players from provincial cities like San Diego ever made the Hall of Fame. It was a steady, logical, neighborly, sensible bombardment that Jim Hunter could not resist. When you are talking about three million-plus, what’s a few thousand?

The Yankees had the cash. The Yankees, with him as their ace pitcher, would be in the World Series. There would be all of the endorsements and other side money in New York, money generally unavailable if you play in San Diego or Kansas City or Texas. If eight million people could manage to survive in New York then why couldn’t Jim Hunter and his family? Having the matter boiled down like that, tossing and turning over it in the shank of the night with his childhood girl friend at his side, Jim Hunter could make but one decision: the Yankees, the Big Apple.

There would be the logistics of finalizing the deal. The Yankees could save considerable money on taxes if the contract were signed during 1974. A press conference was called for New Year’s Eve, at the Yankee offices in Flushing. An attorney for the Yankees named Ed Greenwald scribbled out the terms of the contract on ten pages of a yellow legal pad as he flew by private jet to North Carolina. Cherry and Hunter met the jet at a country airport, and the jet then flew on to New York with all three aboard. Limousines were waiting. The group went to the Yankees’ offices, and then there was much merriment, with the press corps furiously recording the occasion. A fishing pole, bought in haste for $13.21 at a sporting goods store that evening, was presented Hunter by an aide to Mayor Abe Beame. Clyde Kluttz was introduced and began to cry. Gabe Paul passed out a statement saying that George Steinbrenner had not been allowed to work actively in the negotiations but had told Paul, “Anytime you have an opportunity to buy the contract of a player for cash, I want you to go ahead whenever, in your judgment, it should be advantageous to the Yankees.” At a bar along Third Avenue, celebrating New Year’s Eve when he heard the news, a fellow said to a Daily News reporter, “What does this mean for the price of hotdogs, peanuts, and beer at the park?”

Yes. Precisely. And along that line, during the weeks following the signing of Catfish Hunter for more than $3 million to pitch baseballs, there were those columnists and commentators who would speak with outrage at the very notion that such amounts of money could fall into the hands of the few—be it Hunter, the president of General Motors, or Nelson Rockefeller—at a time in American history when unemployment and inflation were coupling to make it difficult for millions of Americans to put bread on the table or gas in the car. “How can a nation be in dire financial straits and yet treat its linebackers and pitchers as if they were a great natural, irreplaceable resource like gold or oil?” wrote Jean Shepard in the The New York Times. In spite of the excitement the Hunter contract generated nationally, this aspect of the story was not entirely lost on the citizens of Ahoskie, North Carolina.

Joe Andrusia is not as articulate as, say, Jean Shepard. But during the two weeks of visitations by major league executives and lawyers the imbalance of it all had been gnawing at him. Andrusia, fifty-nine, runs the barber shop in Ahoskie, directly across Main Street from the Cherry law offices, and had himself a ringside seat for the whole affair. Late one morning he sat in one of his barber chairs, wearing his white shirt and Hush Puppies, reading in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot about the death of Jack Benny, listening to gospel music on the radio. It was nearly noon, and there had been only one customer so far. “Kids don’t even get haircuts anymore,” he said, “and the working folks have taken to letting the wife do the job with a pair of scissors to save money.”

“Been quite a show around here,” he was told.

“Lots of famous people dropping in, all right.”

“You gotten any autographs?”

“Ah,” Joe Andrusia said. “I wouldn’t walk across the street to see Gene Autry. Him or any of the rest. All of those people wanting to give one man that kind of money. It’s crazy. Crazy.” Andrusia was bored. He folded the newspaper and walked to the plate glass window and idly slapped his leg with the paper. “Why should I be so excited when this doesn’t put money in my pocket? Hunter’s not from here. All he spends around here is dimes for parking so he can get rich and spend the big money in New York.” There was a swirl around the entrance to the building across the street as reporters and network television crews pounced and bounded after the big league executives as they walked briskly to their limousines. Andrusia shrugged and mounted the barber chair again. “Jack Benny,” he said. “He had a test for cancer just a month ago, and they said it was all gone. He kept complaining, but the doctors said to quit worrying. Then, all of a sudden, he dies from cancer. You’ve got that kind of stuff going on, and people out of work and families starving and that Watergate mess, and now they’re over there across the street trying to give some country boy four million dollars to throw baseballs. Crazy. Something’s wrong somewhere.”

No Foolin’

I was in seventh grade when this story came out and I remember reading it in the school library. For a couple of periods my friends and I were buzzing.  The Mets already had Doc Goodon and now this? Sidd Finch was too good to be true. Sure enough, he was. The story was a dirty trick and even if he was going to be a Met I still felt burned.

Hey, Good Lookin’

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

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

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

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

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

Shall We Dance?

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

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

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

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

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

Bronx Banter Interview: Rob Fleder

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

Rob Fleder at Yankee Stadium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BB: Who were some of those guys?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BB: That’s agonizing but at some point—

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

BB: Was Richard Hoffer one of those guys?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BB: What about Bill James?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BB: Celerino Sanchez.

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

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

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

BB: And Moehringer is a Mets fan.

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

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

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

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

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

BB: This is the book you want to read.

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

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

 

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

Blunted on Reality

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

This One Goes to…

Check out this fine portrait of the 2011 Dodgers by Lee Jenkins in the current issue of Sports Illustrated.

Stow was in a coma. Half his skull had been removed to allow his brain to swell. He required seven forms of medication to limit his seizures. “He came as close to not making it as you can come,” says Dr. Gabriel Zada, Stow’s neurosurgeon at USC. His parents, Dave and Ann, and his sisters, Bonnie and Erin, spent seven hours a day at the hospital. At night they retreated to the downtown Marriott and toasted “the Great Hodge,” a nickname Stow gave himself as a boy. On April 6, a candlelight vigil was held outside the hospital. Hundreds attended, including Dodgers officials and a local talk-show host on KFI 640 AM named Bill Carroll. Ann invited Carroll to Stow’s room. Standing next to the bed, where Stow was covered in tubes and bandages, Carroll decided to make this story his own. He led his show with it most afternoons. He had Zada on as a regular guest. He sometimes took calls for three hours about the case, and when he went off the air, phone lines were still jammed. Everyone seemed to have survived a traumatic ordeal at Dodger Stadium, and they knew just who was responsible. “It was a convergence of two stories,” Carroll says. “People said, ‘I knew this would happen because McCourt let the team go downhill and security do the same.’”

Even after the Dodgers announced, on April 4, a $25,000 reward for information on Stow’s attackers, talk-radio host Tom Leykis pledged $50,000 of his own money in an attempt to embarrass McCourt. Leykis was also harassed at Dodger Stadium, by two fans during a game in 2009, and has not been back since. “I grew up in New York so I’m used to going to Yankee Stadium and seeing drunken louts threaten each other,” Leykis says. “Then I moved to L.A., and it was much different. Dodger Stadium was more like Disneyland. You have fun and feel safe and drift off into this dreamlike world. But now we’ve got this carpetbagger from Boston who never took the time to understand the deep connection of Dodger Stadium to Southern California. I’m not a dramatic person, but it hurts my heart. It kills me.”

Dodgers fans were not the only ones desperate to rid themselves of the carpetbagger. Commissioner Bud Selig told confidants that the Stow beating was “the final straw” for McCourt. By the time the Dodgers returned home from their first road trip, on April 14, Selig had dispatched a six-man task force to Los Angeles, led by MLB executive vice president John McHale Jr., to evaluate stadium security. McCourt’s hold on the franchise he had diminished was slipping.

Jenkins is an excellent reporter with a smooth prose style who has become one of SI’s top talents (he’s got two features this week). This is a long piece but worth reading.

Golden Slumbers

Over at SI, Joe Pos has a piece about Adam Dunn, “The Least Exciting Player Ever.” In it, he mentions former Yankee, Bobby Abreu:

I’m not talking about winning and losing here. I’m not talking about value. I’m talking about excitement. And that’s something different. I’ve often written that Bobby Abreu is the MBGPIBH — Most Boring Good Player In Baseball History. I have immense respect for what he has accomplished as a player, what he continues to accomplish. The guy has a lifetime .400 on-base percentage (and a .400 on-base percentage this year). He’s had two 30-30 seasons. He’s won a Gold Glove, and he really seemed to be an excellent fielder in his younger days. He has scored and driven in 100 five times. I’m assuming he has 21 more home runs in him (though his power has dwindled to almost nothing) and that will make him only the eighth member of the 300-homer, 300-stolen base club. I don’t want to get into it here because this post is already drifting, but it seems every couple of weeks I have a discussion with a friend about Abreu’s Hall of Fame case. I think he’s making a case. I also think he’s headed for the Hall of Not Famous Enough.

Abreu, though, is an agonizing player to watch, at least for me. His at-bats feel like audits. They just go on and on, an endless stream of near strikes called for balls, good pitches spoiled, swings and misses, more near pitches called for balls — he’s doing exactly what he SHOULD be doing. Abreu controls the batter’s box as few ever have. He is an artist at the plate, but an artist in the way that a good auto mechanic is an artist. I admire what he does. I appreciate the value of it. But I wish they would give me a magazine or something to read while he does it.

Excellence and excitement don’t always mix. In Abreu’s case, his lack of flair or visceral artistry will hurt his case for greatness. His artistry is there, as Pos notes, but it is not dynamic. He is a fine player, better than fine, a winning player, but he never put the asses in the seats. But I liked watching him more than Pos does. What makes him different than Hideki Matsui? That Godzilla hit more home runs?

There are thrilling players who have style to burn who aren’t nearly as accomplished as a guy like Abreu or Matsui. Sometimes, you can’t have it all. At least Bobby’s got good teeth and a nice smile.

From Ali to Xena: 13

Up, Down, Up, and Out

By John Schulian

In my mind, it was going to be either a city column at the Evening Sun or a job at SI, and trust me, I campaigned like a mad man to get my foot in SI’s door. The magazine’s Baltimore stringer was a big-hearted, hugely energetic guy named Joe D’Adamo, who ran the backshop at the Evening Sun. Not a writer or editor, but a guy who oversaw the actual physical production of the paper. The editors at SI appreciated Joe because he was a fount of ideas, and Joe liked the way I wrote enough to talk me up to them. When Frank Deford came to town  to promote a novel he’d written, I did a visiting-author story in which I described him as looking like a waterbed salesman. I just couldn’t resist. Frank must have recognized the impulse, because he didn’t hold it against me. The next thing I knew, Joe D’Adamo was telling me that Frank had mentioned me to SI’s editors. Just the same, when Robert Creamer showed up in Baltimore to hustle his Babe Ruth book, I wrote about him, too.

Finally, in 1973, Pat Ryan, SI’s freelance editor-–soon to be known forever in my mind as the wonderful Pat Ryan-–asked me to send her a list of four story ideas. I did, and the one she liked the best was about the boxing promoter on the Block. When I sent in my first draft, Pat asked me to rewrite the ending so it involved a night at the fights. I did, and that was the last change that was made to the piece. Every word that appeared under my first byline in Sports Illustrated was mine. I was amazed, gratified, and filled with bigger dreams than ever.

Pat had a wonderful way with writers, a real gift for nurturing them. Her father, if I recall correctly, was a successful racehorse trainer, and she had started at SI as a secretary and worked her way up to writer and then editor. Nobody had strewn rose petals at her feet, and if she got the idea that you were committed to your work, she would beat the drum for you. She invited me to New York, took me to lunch, introduced me to other key editors, and treated me like I belonged even though I must have seemed like a rube. She kept giving me story assignments, too-–short items for the front of the book as well as longer stuff like the magazine’s first Moses Malone story and a piece on the amateur baseball team in Baltimore that produced Reggie Jackson and Al Kaline.

All the while I was still writing for the Evening Sun. It was a terrific place to work, as I’ve said, and the people I worked with were salt of the earth. They knew and cared about the city, and they were passionate about honest, energetic, imaginative reporting. They also knew how to put on a great ugliest tie contest. No, I never won. I was actually a pretty good dresser. I remember when I went to interview Jerry Lee Lewis, he looked me over with those spooky eyes of his and said, “I like a sharp-dressed man.” What I might have won at the paper was a bad temper award. Just about anything could set me off-–typos in a story I’d written, an inability to get a long-distance line, the list is endless, really. My standard response was to pound my desk or stand up and punch the nearest wall while yelling the obligatory “fuck!” It’s funny how in the 36 years since I left the paper, the legend of my temper has grown. One woman said I broke the window in the managing editor’s office. (Not true.) A guy said I broke a typewriter. (Also not true.) The only thing I might have broken was my hand when I punched a wall. The fact that I didn’t proves that God really does look out for drunks and fools.

By the time 1975 rolled around, I was starting to get antsy. SI didn’t have any openings for writers at my level and wasn’t expecting any. I could have lived with that if I sensed that I was about to be anointed the Jimmy Breslin of Baltimore. Instead, I was told that the managing editor had decided to kill my music column because nobody cared about rock and roll anymore. This, mind you, just as Springsteen was taking flight-–do I need to say more about the thickness of the managing editor’s skull? I was more than pissed off. I was crushed. Looking back, it was a great life lesson, because it was awfully easy to get comfortable at the Evening Sun and in Baltimore, which was just entering its resurgence. But the only way you’re going to get better is by challenging yourself, by going up against writers who are better than you are. If you do that, it’s sink or swim, and that was what I needed if I was going to make anything out of the career that consumed my life.

When I finally got my wits about me, I started plotting my great escape. I figured I could freelance for Sports Illustrated and a new magazine called New Times, which was showcasing up-and-coming writers like Bob Greene (already a star columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times), Frank Rich (in his pre-New York Times days), Paul Hendrickson (later a star in the Washington Post’s Style section), and Robert Ward (a novelist from Baltimore whom I didn’t meet until we both wound up in Hollywood). I was going to wait until my fifth anniversary at the Evening Sun-–September 1975-–and then I’d be gone. I just had to get through the next three months.

So I’m sitting at my desk one afternoon, not really giving a damn about whatever I was supposed to be working on, and my telephone rings.

“Hello?”

“Is John Schulian there?”

“You got him.”

“This is George Solomon, from the Washington Post. How’d you like to make George Allen’s life miserable?”

I’m not making this up. That’s exactly how the conversation went. Solomon was the Post’s new sports editor, and Allen was the Washington Redskins’ head coach and the Richard Nixon of the NFL. And I, as I hastened to point out, was a guy who had never written a sports story for a newspaper. I mean I’d cheated a couple of times and done features about Willie Mays in retirement and a great local playground basketball player, but I’d never written a story about a game. You know, one with a score in it.

So I said, “Are you sure you’ve got the right John Schulian?”

“I’m sure,” Solomon said.

My life had just changed.

Click here for the complete “From Ali to Xena” archives.

Bronx Banter Interview: George Vecsey

photo

We’ve talked about Jack Mann a lot lately (here and here).

Mann was at Sports Illustrated for a brief time in the 1960s. Here is a sampling of his work:

“Just a Guy at Oxford” (Bill Bradley)

“The Great Wall of Boston” (The Green Monster)

“Sam, You Make the Ball too Small” (Sam McDowell)

“The King of the Jungle” (Walter O’Malley)

George Vecsey, right, with his arm around the wonderful Ray Robinson

I recently exchanged e-mails with George Vecsey, the veteran columnist for the New York Times, who started his career at Newsday under Mann.

Here’s our chat. Enjoy:

 

Bronx Banter: When Jack Mann took over the Newsday sports department was he influenced by any sports editors that came before him? I’m thinking of someone like Stanley Woodward.

George Vecsey: I don’t know. He came up through the news department at Newsday, had some college, was well read, surely knew about sports editors, but was so much an outsider that I doubt he would consider himself an acolyte of anybody.

BB: How would you describe to young readers what the climate of the press box was like in 1960? And how did Mann and “his Chipmunks” differ from the older writers?

GV: Well, the dichotomy was not as clear as I guess we would like to have thought. It may have been a function of age. But Isaacs and Len Shecter of the Post and Larry Merchant of the Philly Daily News were not children, and were capable of thinking for themselves, with Jack only part of it. The Chipmunks were young and energetic and brash. The split was probably on the same generational lines of the Kennedy-Nixon election – new vs. old (politics excluded). Even in 1960, some of us (me at least) were anticipating the forces of the mid-60’s in style and music and attitude. But we all were pretty traditional, except in comparison to the older writers, who were often hooked into the free drinks of the press room and the party line of the clubs they covered, or so we thought. Sounds pretty simplistic, looking back.

BB: Who else writing for the New York papers in the early 60s were like-minded? I’m thinking specifically of Shecter at the Post. Who else was part of the new breed?

GV: Len Shecter, Isaacs, Merchant, of course. And Stan Hochman A lot of the younger guys were Chipmunks just because we chattered a lot, and hung out together. Looking back, it would be hard to put one label on me, Steve, Maury Allen, Vic Ziegel, Phil Pepe, Paul Zimmerman, Joe Donnelly, Joe Gergen. We (or at least I did) admired Dick Young, who was no Chipmunk, but I knew him through my dad when I was a little kid, and Dick was very gracious to me when I came along as a young writer. I was friendly with older guys like Harold Rosenthal (more acerbic than any of us) and Barney Kremenko (a kind man, a friend), and I learned a lot from Leonard Koppett, one of the great people of the business, and I adored Jimmy Cannon. I don’t know that Bob Lipsyte considered himself a Chipmunk, but he and I hung out a lot in those days, and his excellent early work as a sports columnist (in his first tour of duty, I emphasize) re-defined the genre. So it’s hard to define Chipmunk, at this late date. Every generation has its new look. When I came back to Sports in 1980, there was Jane Gross, Allen Abel, Michael Farber, Jane Leavy, Phil Hersh, all good pals of mine. New faces.

BB: And now, the climate is different from then.

GV: The one difference between then and now was that everybody talked in the press box. Talked about the game. Argued about politics. Bickered about where we were going to dinner. Nowadays, the kids are all hunched over their machines, with headsets on, tweeting and facebooking and blogging and goodness knows what else. Nobody talks in the press box. I miss arguments. I miss human contact. I think we had more fun than the Thumb Generation. But the output in the New York Times is really good, probably better than ever, which is what matters.

(more…)

From Ali to Xena: 12

The Book of Dreams

By John Schulian

The stars were beginning to align for me even before I headed to Nashville in early 1974. The previous fall, I’d sold my first story to Sports Illustrated, and it ran a month after I scribbled my last notes at the Grand Ole Opry. The story was about a promoter in Baltimore who put on fights at Steelworkers Hall and ran a gym that was above a strip joint on the Block. I don’t think the guy could have existed anywhere else.  The smell of the sausages at Polock Johnny’s across the street drifted into the gym when the windows were open. You could feel the music downstairs coming through the floor. The promoter’s best fighter kept getting the clap from the dancers. And I thought I captured it all perfectly. A fat lot I knew.

I wasn’t given to asking other people their opinion of my work, but this time a voice in my head said I’d better stash my pride. If I screwed up the story, I might never get another shot at SI. So I took my deathless prose to an editor in the Evening Sun’s business department and asked him to read it. He wasn’t a close friend and his conversation usually had an edge to it, but I trusted him to be unsparing. And he was. When he walked up with his verdict, there was a wary little half-smile on his face. “If I was you,” he said, “I’d hit me with a sack of snot for what I’m going to say.” In short, the piece was good enough for the Evening Sun and most any other newspaper, but it wasn’t good enough for Sports Illustrated.

I spent the next couple of nights tearing it apart, reworking the structure and figuring out new transitions. I knew I had a winner as soon as I wrote my first sentence: “Baltimore is a gritty old strumpet of a city where unwritten sociological imperatives require a boxing arena to have Polish bakeries on one side, steel mills on another, and redneck bars all around.”

SI called the story “On the Block — Way of All Flesh,” and it wound up in the old “Best Sports Stories” anthology and put my name in bright lights. Tony Kornheiser told me years later that when he read the piece, he knew there was a new gun in town. He wanted to work at SI as badly as I did, and there were hundreds of other writers out there who had the same dream. SI was the holy grail.

Getting in “Best Sports Stories 1975″ was the first time I felt like I’d really accomplished something professionally. I’d been fascinated with the anthology since I discovered it at Northwestern, mainly because it showcased the kind of writing I wanted to do. There were always big names like Red Smith and Jimmmy Cannon in the book, but the ones who captured my attention were writers from places other than New York who were doing great things: Myron Cope in Pittsburgh, Sandy Grady in Philadelphia, Wells Twombly in Houston and Detroit and San Francisco, even a young Philly basketball writer named Joe McGinniss, who went on to write “The Selling of the President” after he infiltrated Nixon’s 1972 campaign.

When the Evening Sun made me a one-man bureau in Harford County, I checked the public library there and found an even better collection of the “Best Sports Stories” anthologies than Northwestern’s. Every now and then, I’d slip down to the library and grab one. And I wasn’t just reading the stories. I was reading the bios of the authors who wrote them. I wanted to see where they came from and if the path I was on bore any resemblance to the one they had traveled. As soon as my story about the fight promoter ran in SI, I knew I was going to submit it to “Best Sports Stories.” I found out I’d made the book when a copy landed on the front porch of my $155-a-month furnished apartment. I was thrilled, naturally, but there was more to what I was feeling than that. I felt like I’d finally done something that would last longer than a day, something with permanence. Hell, my story was in a book.

It wasn’t that much longer before there was a year when “Best Sports Stories” didn’t come out. The editors had gotten old and one of them had died, and nobody had stepped forward to replace them. I wrote an essay for Inside Sports in which I said goodbye and, lo and behold, someone at the Sporting News read it and jumped in to bring the anthology back to life. It’s long gone now, of course, replaced by Glenn Stout’s more sophisticated and vastly superior “Best American Sports Writing” series, but I’m glad I got to do “Best Sports Stories” a good turn. I owed it.

Click here for the complete “From Ali to Xena” archives.

[Illustrations by David Noyes]

Waiting on a Milestone

Last week, Tom Verducci profiled Derek Jeter in SI:

“In all my years playing with him,” says Paul O’Neill, Jeter’s teammate from 1995 through 2001, “I don’t think I ever heard him have one technical discussion about the mechanics of hitting. He keeps it simple. He just plays. It’s like he’s still playing high school baseball.”

…”I worked on staying inside the ball in the minor leagues and pretty much every offseason in Tampa with [coach] Gary Denbo,” Jeter says. “But he didn’t teach it to me. That’s just how it was: Keep my hands inside the ball. It’s still the same thing. A lot of people stay inside the ball, but I don’t know about to that extreme.”

Jeter’s hands-in approach relies on making contact with the ball so late—farther in its flight path—that he can hit even inside pitches to the opposite field with authority. Entering this season, on pitches he hit to rightfield, Jeter had a .479 average and a .718 slugging percentage.

“All these years he’s stayed true to what he does best,” O’Neill says. “He had a year or two where he started to gain some strength and turned on some balls, but for the most part he is an example of taking something you do that is good and making it great. In a time when there was pressure in baseball to hit more home runs, he never caved in to that.”

It’s a defensive-looking swing. Jeter hasn’t changed his approach all these years and shortly after he returns from the disabled list he’ll reach 3,000 hits. We’ll be there cheering him on.

[Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated]

In Too Deep

I don’t know from hockey but I thoroughly enjoyed this recent bonus piece by Leigh Montville on the Boston Bruins:

The standing ovation was a return to the past. No, not the standing ovation at TD Garden last Friday night, the 10-minute communal fret-celebration at the end of that 1–0, stomach-churning win over the Lightning in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals that sent the Bruins into their best-of-seven transcontinental arm wrestle with the Canucks for the Stanley Cup. No, that was frenzied normality, a universal sports staple, excited people in an exciting moment.

The standing ovation the next afternoon at Pizzeria Regina in the North End was different. That was the way life once was in Boston hockey.

“Milan Lucic came in….” Richie Zapata, manager of the restaurant, reported.

Yes, Milan Lucic. Bruins winger. Still only 22 years old. Fourth year with the team. Six-feet-three, 228 pounds. A fan favorite since he arrived as a 19-year-old, straight from the Vancouver Giants, his junior team. Banger, scrapper, thumper. Yes.

“Johnny Boychuk was with him….”

Yes. Johnny Boychuk. Defenseman. Twenty-seven. Six-feet-two, 225 pounds. Third year with the Bruins. Big-time slap shot from the point. Cannon.

“They were with their girlfriends…. ”

Yes.

“I gave them a booth in the back. They ordered a large pepperoni with peppers and mushrooms. I gave them some extra slices. Took care of it. They were nice. Signed some metal pizza plates for the waitresses. Just nice. Nobody bothered them.”

So when the two Bruins and their girlfriends finished their meal at the original Pizzeria Regina—not one of the other Pizzeria Regina locations around the area, the original, with the familiar red-and-white-checked tablecloths, with the smart-mouth waitresses, with the waiting line that goes out the door most of the time and down the stairs straight onto Thacher Street, when they stood up, well, everyone else in the restaurant also stood up. And started clapping. Just like that.

Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals are tonight in Boston, with the Bruins trailing 3-2.

Big League Dreamer

Here’s Jeff Pearlman on the late Randy “Macho Man” Savage.

New York Times Takedown

Over at the Village Voice, Allen Barra talks Murray Chass and the New York Times.

Compelling.

The Man

Over at SI.com I’ve got a 30-minute podcast interview George Vecsey about his new Stan Musial biography.

Dig it…(There is no direct hyperlink to the interview, just go to May, 2011 and you’ll find it there.)

You Can Say I'm Sorta the Boss So Get Lost

Speaking of the Seventies…how about the Cobra?

Here’s Roy Blount, writing in Sports Illustrated about Parker back in the spring of 1979:

“He’s like the 10th man in Softball out there,” says First Baseman Stargell. “On a ground ball he’s backing up first before I’m there to take the throw. We were both after a foul ball one time with our arms outstretched, and we came together face to face like two big pairs of scissors. It was the only time I ever kissed him. We hit and flew apart by yards and yards.” Parker covers second on infield pop-ups, he gets involved in rundowns between second and third, he is everywhere. Pete Rose may be Charlie Hustle, but Parker hustles just as hard and considerably faster.

On the bases, too, he takes all he can get. Says Parker, “The highlight of the game to me is scoring from first on a double in such a way that people look at me in amazement, as if they’re saying, ‘My, how fast that big man can move.’ ”

Big he is—6’5″, 230 pounds. His legs terminate, after a lengthy run, in an upper body that looks like two Doberman pinschers bound tightly together. In addition to his speed afoot, he has general quickness—hence his nickname, Cobra—and a rifle arm. “He’s one of those rare individuals who come along every 15 or 20 years,” says Stargell. “Rare, and unique, and strong.”

Fun and Gun

Sweet SI cover this week…

Do You Believe in Magic?

Check out this great new site, Sportsfeat.com where vintage sports writing is celebrated. Dig this piece from Sport Magazine on Earl Monroe by the Wood Man:

I didn’t follow basketball until 1967. Baseball, boxing, and the theater provided most of my entertainment. The theater has since become boring and there are no plays approaching the pleasure given by a good sporting event. Even a game against a last-place team holds the possibility of thrills, whereas in the theater all seems relatively predictable. Baseball remains a joy for me, but basketball has emerged as the most beautiful of sports. In basketball, more than in virtually any other sport, personal style shines brightest. It allows for eccentric, individual play.

Give the basketball to such diverse talents as Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Walt Frazier, Rick Barry, George McGinnis, Dave Bing, or Bob McAdoo, to name a tiny fraction, and you get dramatically distinctive styles of dribbling, passing, shooting, and defensive play. There is great room in basketball for demonstrable physical artistry that often can be compared to serious dance.

So there I was in 1967 leafing through the sports section of a newspaper one day (I still read that section first) when I came across the name Earl Monroe. I had never heard of Monroe, knew nothing of his daily rookie brilliance nor ever heard of his astounding feats at Winston-Salem. I just liked the name, free-floating, three syllables, and euphonious to me. Earl Monroe. The name worked. (Years later, when I did a film called Sleeper, I named myself Miles Monroe. On me it was kind of a funny name.) I came across Monroe’s name again every few days as I glanced over the basketball box scores in a casual, disinterested way and noticed that he invariably led the scoring column.

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