[Picture by Bags]
Last week I had a piece on George Kimball and “At the Fights” in Sports Illustrated. First time I’ver ever made the magazine.
I’m bursting with pride about it, man, I won’t lie.
And in the latest edition of the New York Times Magazine, Pat Jordan takes on Philadelphia’s four aces:
Mike Schmidt was standing behind a batting cage, still as trim as during his playing days. A handsome, middle-aged man with swept-back, silvery hair and a thick mustache. I asked him what he thought of the four Phillies pitchers.
“Well,” he said, “now when the Phillies come to town, the other team knows they’re being challenged by four No. 1 pitchers. They have to amp up their mental game. I used to see my at-bats the night before a game when I laid my head down on the pillow. Gibson, Seaver, Ryan. I had to have a plan. When I went to Houston, they had three good pitchers. The fourth was Nolan Ryan. I could go to sleep with the other three, but Ryan kept me awake. Ryan! Ryan! Ryan! My plan was, don’t miss his fastball if he threw it over the plate. If he got two strikes on me, I’d have to face his curveball.” He turned and looked at me with his small blue eyes, which had fear in them. “Ryan was scary!” he said. He shook his head, as if seeing Ryan on the mound. Ryan began his motion and fired the ball at his head. Schmidt had a split second to make a decision. Was it a 100 m.p.h. fastball that could kill him if it hit him in the head, or was it that wicked curveball? If he dove away from the plate and the pitch was a curveball that broke over the plate, he’d look like a fool and a coward. But if it wasn’t a curveball, if it was that 100 m.p.h. fastball, and he didn’t dive away from the plate . . . well, he didn’t even want to think about that.
“Ryan, Gibson, Seaver, they made you defensive,” he said. “Does that make sense? You were afraid of the ball. There’s no fear of the ball today with cutters, splitters and changeups.”
“What about the Phillies’ four pitchers?” I said.
“They’re not scary,” he said. “Even if they all win 20 games, the Phillies don’t have a pitcher who strikes fear in a hitter.”
Two very different takes on “the best rotation in baseball” from two very different writers.
And while we are talking pitching, here’s Steve Rushin’s piece on the Braves’ five aces from the 1993 SI Baseball Preview.
George Plimpton once wrote, “The smaller the ball used in the sport, the better the book.” But this doesn’t account for boxing, a sport that word-for-word has produced more great writing than any other. For hard evidence, look no further than “At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing,” an outstanding new collection edited by George Kimball and John Schulian.
All of the heavyweights are here–from Jack London, James Baldwin and Norman Mailer, to A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon. And that’s just for starters. How about Gay Talese, Pete Hamill, George Plimpton, Pete Dexter, David Remnick and Mark Kriegel, not to mention the veterans of the boxing scene like Larry Merchant, Mark Kram, Vic Ziegel, Pat Putnam and Richard Hoffer.
I’m not a huge boxing fan but I adore boxing writing and this is the finest anthology I’ve ever come across.
The wonder shouldn’t be that there are two Liebling pieces, but that there are only two. (He and Schulberg have the only double-barreled entries in the anthology.) If I’d been compiling that list, The Sweet Science would be No.1, and A Neutral Corner, Liebling’s other collection of (mostly) New Yorker pieces No. 2.
Putting At the Fights together was a painstaking, year-long process that was often like a jigsaw puzzle, because sometimes the decision to include a par- ticular piece would, due to subject matter or tone or approach, displace others. John and I made a conscious decision early on to hold Liebling in reserve. We knew whichever of his pieces we wound up using, they were going to work. Our initial inclination, for instance, had been to include Liebling’s terrific account of his visit to Sonny Liston’s training camp, but if we’d used that we probably wouldn’t have been able to include Joe Flaherty’s wonderful “Amen to Sonny,” and if we hadn’t used Liebling’s “Kearns by a Knockout” we’d probably have had to find two more pieces to adequately address Doc Kearns and Sugar Ray Robinson. It was sometimes like playing Whack-A-Mole, because every time you’d hammer one down, three more would pop up somewhere else. But in that respect Liebling was a constant security blanket, our wild-card, because of our unshaken confidence that whatever we wound up using was going to be great.
Anyone who has written about boxing for the last fifty years owes a great debt of gratitude to Joe Liebling, so yes, his influence has been both pervasive and profound, but woe be unto the conscious imitator. Any writer who sets out trying to write his own “Liebling piece”—and there have been a few—is inex- orably doomed to fall flat on his face.
It’s too much to say that the best boxing stories are about losers. That argument is contradicted time and again throughout the book. But losers and eccentrics and guys who never quite made it to the mountaintop have inspired some classic writing. You want to weep for Primo Carnera after read- ing what Paul Gallico had to say about the way he was used as a patsy and a stooge and a pretend heavyweight champion. And then you have Stanley Ketchel and Bummy Davis, two crazy-tough fighters who would have been swallowed by the mists of time if it weren’t for the stories written about them. Was John Lardner’s piece on Ketchel better than the fighter himself? Absolutely. And Bill Heinz’s on Davis? Without a doubt. And the amazing thing is that Lardner and Heinz never met their subjects, both of whom were prematurely dispatched from this life by gunshot. But Lardner and Heinz were intrepid reporters as well as stunning writers, and they proved it with their renderings of the two fighters’ hearts and souls.
Click here for an excerpt.
Don’t sleep, pound-for-pound, this will be the most rewarding book–never mind sports book–you’ll buy this spring.
Big weekend for college hoops, so here are two related pieces for you:
Calipari’s detractors delight in noting that he has always left town one step ahead of the sheriff, even if he was cleared by the NCAA of any personal culpability in the UMass and Memphis messes. And what do the message-board cynics make of his $1 million donation last June to Streets Ministries of Memphis, or his washing of poor kids’ feet in Port-au-Prince and Detroit last year, or his organizing a January 2010 telethon that raised $1.3 million for Haiti’s earthquake victims? They cite ESPN analyst Bob Knight, who in December 2009 called Calipari the embodiment of the sport’s ills. “Integrity is really lacking [in college basketball],” Knight said in a speech in Indianapolis. “We’ve got a coach at Kentucky who put two schools on probation, and he’s still coaching. I really don’t understand that.”
Never mind that the General, no pillar of rectitude himself, had his facts wrong: Only Memphis went on probation. Knight is the bulldog eyeing the cat as it lands, again, on its feet, and he’s not the only one perplexed. Calipari once declared that rather than competition or education, “everything in this game is marketing,” and it’s a constant struggle for rivals and the hoops commentariat to decide where his sell begins and ends. “John’s out there,” says Larry Brown, one of his coaching mentors. “The way he dresses, the way he talks nonstop. A lot of people look at that shtick and say, That guy is not real.”
Even while he was still at Duncanville High School in suburban Dallas, the Web sites that track such things had already projected Jones as a lottery pick — one of the first 14 players selected — in the 2011 N.B.A. draft. A couple of the more authoritative ones predicted that he could be the No. 1 pick in the entire draft — the best player available from the college ranks and from the ever-deeper pools of international basketball talent. “Devastating first step . . . ability to beat most big men off the dribble with ease,” is how the Web site DraftExpress described him in a recent evaluation. “Potential superstar,” the Hoop Doctors said, speculating that he could be “the next Tracy McGrady.” HoopsHype said that the “upside he possesses is unparalleled at the college level.” The respected ESPN.com analyst Chad Ford has had him at or near the top of his mock draft from the start of the season.
The paradoxical thing, though, about Jones’s status is that he was never a truly great high-school player, certainly not a dominant one or one who scored a lot of points. But just about everyone assumes that he will be a one-and-done player at Baylor, a pure rental who stays for a single season. That has become the norm for top college players. In fact, in some projections, as many as six of the top 10 picks in this spring’s N.B.A. draft are college freshmen. The trend has changed the college game: teams with top talent do not stay together long enough to cohere, sometimes leaving opportunities for less-talented but more-experienced teams, like Butler last season and George Mason in 2006, to advance to the Final Four. And it has changed the N.B.A., making it, at times, utterly unwatchable, because the rosters are stocked with too many players who were never fully taught the game and are learning on the job. (Players can no longer enter the N.B.A. straight out of high school, as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and many others did.)
[Photo Credit: AJC.com]
A few months before I was born, two previously undefeated boxers, Muhammad Ali (31-0)and Joe Frazier (26-0) fought for the heavyweight title in the so-called “Fight of the Century” at Madison Square Garden. That was forty years ago today. It was not their greatest fight–that would be the Thrilla in Manila–but it was possibly the biggest spectacle in boxing history.
Here is our man John Schulian, writing for the Library of America’s website:
The two of them had been friends before their violent Garden party. When Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship in 1967 for refusing induction into the military and found himself wandering the college lecture circuit, Frazier loaned him money. It was a fitting gesture, for Frazier now wore the crown that had been Ali’s. But he vowed he would give the deposed champ a chance to win it back, and when Ali was allowed to return to the ring in 1970, Frazier did something that isn’t standard practice in the cutthroat world of boxing. He kept his word.
They would each make $2.5 million and fight in front of a Garden crowd that overflowed with celebrities. Burt Lancaster, Sinatra’s co-star in From Here to Eternity, did the radio commentary. But the only thing that really mattered was the hatred that had erupted when Ali called Frazier an Uncle Tom and a tool of good-old-boy sheriffs and Ku Klux Klansmen. In a lifetime filled with kindness as well as greatness, it was a low moment for Ali. He knew full well that Frazier, the thirteenth child born to a one-armed North Carolina sharecropper, had traveled a far harder road than he had. By comparison, Ali was a child of privilege, raised in relative comfort in Louisville, his boxing career bankrolled by local white businessmen. But he got away with it because he was handsome, charming, funny, all the things Frazier was not.
And here’s Mark Kram from his book “Ghosts of Manila”:
Ali was the first in the ring, in a red velvet robe with matching trunks, and white shoes with red tassels. He glided in a circle to a crush of sound, a strand of blown grass. Whatever you might have thought of him then, you were forced to look at him with honest, lingering eyes, for there might never be his like again. Assessed by ring demands–punch, size, speed, intelligence, command, and imagination–he was an action poet, the equal of the best painting you could find or a Mozart who failed to die too early. If that is an overstatement, disfiguring the finer arts by association with a brute game, consider the mudslide of purple that attaches to his creative lessers in other fields, past and present; Ali was physical art, belonged alone in a museum of his own. I was extremely fond of him, of his work, of the decent side of his nature, and jaundiced on his cultish servility, his termopolitical combustions that tried to twist adversaries into grotesque shapes. It never worked, excerpt perhaps on Liston, who came to think that he was clinically insane. It did work on himself, shaped the fear for his face and general well-being into a positive force, a psychological war dance that blew up the dam and released his flood of talent. The trouble was that, like Kandinsky’s doubled-sided painting of chaos and calm, it became increasingly difficult for him to find his way back from one side to the other.
In a green and gold brocade robe with matching trunks, Joe Frazier almost seemed insectile next to Ali in the ring, and he was made more so as Ali waltzed by him, bumped him and said: “Chum!” Far from that slur, Joe was a gladiator right smack to the root conjurings of the title, to the clank of armor he seemed to emit. Work within his perimeter, and you courted what fighters used to call “the black spot,” the flash knockout. He was a figher that could be hit with abandon, but if you didn’t get him out of there his drilling aggression, his marked taste for pursuit and threshing-blade punches could overwhelm you; as one military enthusiast in his camp siad, “like the Wehrmacht crossing into Russia.” I was drawn to the honesty of his work, the joy he derived from inexorable assault, yet had a cool neutrality to his presence. In truth, with a jewel in each hand, i didn’t want to part with either of them, thus making me pitifully objective, a captial sinner in the most subjective and impressionistic of all athletic conflicts.
Frazier won the fight, of course, in front of a celebrity-studded crowd. Dali, Elvis, Woody and the Beatles were there. Burt Lancaster did the color for the closed-circut broadcast and Frank Sinatra was there taking pictures for Life Magazine.
In the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, Richard Hoffer has a nice little piece on the fight:
While it promised sufficient sporting spectacle and mystery (could Ali reclaim the grace of his youth and now, nearing 30, reclaim the title that many thought was still rightfully his?), the fight also operated as a social ballot box. Ali, who’d been a sort of political prisoner, commanded the support of every freethinker in the country and beyond, striking his revolutionary stance. In addition, he somehow cast a fight between two black men as a racial referendum, a puzzled and comically outraged Frazier now a stand-in for the status quo and the white man as well.
All this was accomplished with the primitive promotional platforms at hand: newspapers, radio and talk shows. The intrigue was still enough to make the fight the hottest ticket of a lifetime, possibly the most glamour-struck event ever. The excitement was overwhelming, even far beyond the Garden, but can you imagine what it might have been like if Ali, the ultimate pitchman, had, say, a Facebook page? If we’re so eager to exploit celebrity that a semifamous athlete like Chad Ochocinco has his own reality show, then you can be certain Ali would have had his own network long before Oprah.
Then again, how could our digital applications improve upon the analog beauty of their struggles that night, an eye-popping brutality that Frazier narrowly won, a contest of such evenly matched wills, such equal desperation that the words Ali-Frazier have come to signify a kind of ruinous self-sacrifice? The old ways are not necessarily the best, but once a generation, anyway, they’re good enough.
Ali taunted and humilated Frazer time and again in the press and Frazier has never forgiven him for it. From Bill Nack’s great 1996 piece on Smokin’ Joe:
He has known for years of Frazier’s anger and bitterness toward him, but he knows nothing of the venom that coursed through Frazier’s recent autobiography, Smokin’ Joe. Of Ali, Frazier wrote, “Truth is, I’d like to rumble with that sucker again—beat him up piece by piece and mail him back to Jesus…. Now people ask me if I feel bad for him, now that things aren’t going so well for him. Nope. I don’t. Fact is, I don’t give a damn. They want me to love him, but I’ll open up the graveyard and bury his ass when the Lord chooses to take him.”
Nor does Ali know what Frazier said after watching him, with his trembling arm, light the Olympic flame: “It would have been a good thing if he would have lit the torch and fallen in. If I had the chance, I would have pushed him in.”
Nor does Ali know of Frazier’s rambling diatribe against him at a July 30 press conference in Atlanta, where Frazier attacked the choice of Ali, the Olympic light heavyweight gold medalist in 1960 and a three-time heavyweight champion of the world, as the final bearer of the torch. He called Ali a “dodge drafter,” implied that Ali was a racist (“He didn’t like his white brothers,” said Frazier) and suggested that he himself—also an Olympic champion, as a heavyweight, in 1964—would have made a better choice to light the flame: “Why not? I’m a good American…. A champion is more than making noise. I could have run up there. I’m in shape.”
And while Frazier asserts at one turn that he sees “the hand of the Lord” in Ali’s Parkinson’s syndrome (a set of symptoms that include tremors and a masklike face), he also takes an eerily mean-spirited pride in the role he believes he played in causing Ali’s condition. Indeed, the Parkinson’s most likely traces to the repealed blows Ali took to the head as a boxer—traumas that ravaged the colony of dopamine-producing cells in his brain—and no man struck Ali’s head harder and more repeatedly than Frazier.
“He’s got Joe Frazier-itis,” Frazier said of Ali one day recently, flexing his left arm. “He’s got left-hook-itis.”
Check out this cool photo gallery of “The Fight of the Century” over at Life.com.
One last word on football. If you’ve got the time, do yourself a favor and check out Scott Price’s excellent bonus piece on Aliquippa, P.A.
[Photo Credit: LIFE]
Rogin doesn’t pull any punches:
Unawed by reputation, Mr. Rogin assesses sportswriters with cool objectivity. “Frank Deford was very good, but not as great as he thought he was,” he said of the 1999 National Magazine Award winner, a fixture on NPR. “You’d ask for 3,000 words and get 5,000, all of them, according to Frank, ‘imperishable.’ In profiles, he’d pick out a psychological trait and use it like a magic brick to build a house. His stories were well thought out, but artificial.”
Mr. Rogin’s favorite sportswriter was George Plimpton, whose breezy copy required no editing. He also enjoyed Jimmy Breslin. He once bellied up to a bar with the tabloid fabulist after a prizefight in Las Vegas, and Mr. Breslin showed him his account of the match. Mr. Rogin scanned the first paragraph and said, “Jimmy, this never happened.” Mr. Breslin said nothing.
Mr. Rogin scanned the second graph and said, “Jimmy, this never happened, either.”
Mr. Breslin stared at him wearily and said, “Yeah, but how does it read?”
Ron Fimrite, one of the signature voices at Sports Illustrated (he was at the magazine for more than thirty years) passed away late last week of pancreatic cancer. He was 79. Fimrite worked the baseball beat for SI as well as anyone ever has, and from what I understand he was an old smoothie to boot, a real stand-up guy.
Here’s a short selection of some of his memorable work at SI:
On Pete Rose.
On Jackie Jensen.
And finally, peep this bonus piece on Harry Caray:
In the face of…adulation, Harry exhibits a generosity of spirit common only to those who know they deserve the best. He stops to chat and sign autographs. His manner is engaging, familiar: “Hiya, sweetheart…. Whaddya say, pal?” Earlier in the evening, Harry had hit a couple of spots, and in each he was accorded the sort of welcome John Travolta might receive should he appear in the girls’ locker room of a small-town junior high school. “Hey, Harry!” “You’re the greatest, Harry.” “Hey, Harry, say hello to the people of the world.” This had been a day like any other in his life, which is to say, utterly chaotic, a continuing test of his pluck and durability.
Harry had arisen brightly that morning after a revivifying four hours of sleep. He placed a call to Jon Matlack, the Texas Ranger pitcher, identifying himself as Brad Corbett to the hotel operator when informed that Mr. Matlack was not in his room. It is Harry’s conviction that even baseball players will return telephone calls if the caller is someone of recognizable financial clout, and Corbett is the principal owner of the Texas baseball team. Harry wanted to discuss with Matlack some intemperate remarks the pitcher had made to the press, to the effect that Harry should be “killed” or, at minimum, have “his lights punched out” for saying on the air that the tumultuous booing Matlack’s teammate, Richie Zisk, had received from Chicago fans was richly merited.
Zisk, a White Sox player last year, had himself been critical of Chicago fans, a sin in Harry’s eyes comparable to denouncing the game itself. Matlack returned the call and Harry said he would see him in the visitors’ clubhouse at Comiskey Park that evening. There Harry found Matlack to be more contrite than murderous. Zisk was less conciliatory, but he concluded a protracted harangue ambiguously by insisting, “You say anything you want, Harry. O.K.?” Harry, ever unflappable, agreed he would do just that. When the crowd booed Zisk even more ferociously that night, Harry apologized, in a way. “There must be something wrong with your television sets,” he advised his listeners.
“They blame me,” Yawkey says, ‘and I’m not even a Southerner. I’m from Detroit.” Yawkey remains on his South Carolina fief until May because Boston weather before then is too much for his sensitive sinuses. “I have no feeling against colored people,” he says. “I employ a lot of them in the South. But they are clannish, and when that story got around that we didn’t want Negroes they all decided to sign with some other club. Actually, we scouted them right along, but we didn’t want one because he was a Negro. We wanted a ballplayer.”
But then comes the first of two smoking guns: “But they are clannish,” Mann quotes Yawkey as saying of African Americans, “and when that story got around that we didn’t want Negroes they all decided to sign with some other club.”
No single sentence could be more revealing – or more pathetic. First Yawkey offers that all African Americans share the same characteristics – in this case, being “clannish.” That kind of stereotyping is damning enough, but when he states that “when that story got around that we didn’t want Negroes they all decided to sign with some other club,” he fantasy land. Yawkey is making the claim that the reason the Red Sox remained white is the fault of the black ballplayers themselves. He is saying nothing less than “African Americans erroneously thought we were racist so therefore they refused to sign with us.”
Over at SI.com, Kevin Armstrong has a glowing profile of the Boston Globe’s glory days covering sports in the 1970s. It is a snap shot of a lost era and the piece comes at a good time, with the newspaper industry in peril.
The Globe featured such talents as Bud Collins, Ray Fitzgerald, Leigh Montville, Leslie Visser, Bob Ryan and Peter Gammons. Armstrong details how Ryan and Gammons, both locals, were sports-mad, how they were enthusiastic, competitive reporters, and how, in some cases, they had cozy relationships with the teams they covered–Gammons shagged flies with the Red Sox and even “held a locker in the Sox clubhouse.”
Talk about a time gone by.
Yet the article left me feeling unsettled. For instance, Armstrong writes, “The pieces all came together in 1975. As politicians tip-toed around Boston’s tinderbox of busing-related racial issues, the Globe prepared for an unprecedented run.” According to Howard Bryant’s book about racism and Boston sports, Shut Out, the Globe did plenty of tip-toeing around racial issues as well. Armstrong writes about Will McDonough, “a tough-talking Irishman,” with affection, but does not call into question McDonough’s attitudes on race (detailed here in an article by Glenn Stout). “McDonough wrote for all fan bases,” reports Armstrong. I don’t know if the brothers from Roxbury would agree.
But my biggest gripe with the piece is the lack of historical context. If the Globe was, as Armstrong contends, arguably the best sports department ever–and perhaps it was–who else is in the conversation? For some perspective, I e-mailed John Schulian, a former sports columnist with an encyclopedic knowledge of the great newspaper sports departments.
Here is Schulians’s reply:
Call me a cranky old man if you must, but I think the piece is missing something very important — the names of all the great sports sections that are legitimate challengers to the Globe’s alleged omnipotence. Where’s Stanley Woodward’s New York Herald Tribune? What about the two glorious eras that the L.A. Times enjoyed? What about the wars in Philadelphia between the Bulletin and the Daily News? Just for the hell of it, I might even throw in Newsday when Jack Mann was preaching anarchy on Long Island and the irreverent New York Post of the Sixties and Seventies. And what, pray tell, about the staff that Blackie Sherrod put together at the Fort Worth Press when Eisenhower was in the White House?
If those sections don’t get at least a tip of the hat, Mr. Armstrong has written in a vacuum. Worse yet, he has failed to provide some much needed perspective. The Globe was splendid, all right, but part of the reason it scaled the heights it did was because it was pushed by the competition, in Boston and nationally.
I loved the Globe that Mr. Armstrong extols at marathon length, and I’m an enthusiastic admirer of any number of its writers for both their intrepid reporting and dextrous prose. But I think it’s fair to say that none of them ever matched the Herald Trib’s Red Smith and Joe Palmer word for word. (If Woodward had succeeded in hiring John Lardner to write a column, too, it would have put this best-section-ever nonsense to rest for eternity.) The rest of the roster wasn’t bad, either: Jess Abramson on boxing and track and field and college football, and Tommy Holmes on baseball, and Al Laney writing features, and the boss, Stanley Woodward, kicking ass whenever he found time to write a column. Roger Kahn, Jerry Izenberg, Jack Mann and Pete Axthelm came along later, as if the Trib’s literary needed more gloss. Think they could play in the same league as the Globe? I do.
There must be a lot of old Philly guys who think they could have held their own in that fight, too. At the Bulletin 30 and 40 and — it doesn’t seem possible — 50 years ago, you had true giants like Sandy Grady and George Kiseda working wonders with the language and investing their stories with social consciousness. Every kid the Bulletin hired learned by their example, from Ray Didinger and Mark Heisler to Alan Richman, Jim Barniak and Joe McGinniss. They had to hustle, though, because Larry Merchant was sports editor at the Daily News and he was bent on giving the paper a reputation for more than stories about pretty girls cut in half on vacant lots. He brought Grady and Kiseda to Philly, saw them defect to the Bulletin and responded by hiring away Bill Conlin. He found Stan Hochman in San Bernadino. And he had a beautiful madman named Jack McKinney writing boxing. By the time Merchant decamped for New York in the mid-Sixites, he had established a tradition that would last for decades more. Think of this, if you will: When I worked at the Daily News, from 1984 to 1986, my fellow columnists were Hochman, Didinger and Mark Whicker — any one of us by himself would have been enough for most papers — and we had Conlin on baseball, Hoops Weiss on college basketball, Phil Jasner on the 76ers, Jay Greenburg on the Flyers and Paul Domowitch on the Eagles. When the subject of the Globe came up, we always said they had the best Sunday section going. But that was only because we didn’t publish on Sundays. The other six days of the week, we thought we were as good as anybody. Yes, even the Globe.
Forgive me for rattling on this way, but I want to make sure Mr. Armstrong realizes that history is littered with sports sections that could have given the Globe a run for its reputation. They didn’t always have a lot of money for travel, and they didn’t always have staffs that were two deep, but they were smart and inventive and indefatigable. They were also good. Think of how Jack Mann wove Newsday a world-class staff out of old-timers like Bob Waters, the boozy, eloquent boxing writer, and hot young kids like George Vecsey and Steve Jacobson. (Tony Kornheiser came later — and he was something special.) They were so good that Newsweek did a feature on them at a time when most managing editors were almost ashamed to admit their papers had sports sections. At the New York Post, meanwhile, Milton Gross — called “the Eleanor Roosevelt of the sports pages” by the Village Voice’s Joe Flaherty — was always catching a ride home with Floyd Patterson or Don Newcombe after they’d lost ingloriously. Leonard Shecter wrote a vinegary column, and when he moved in, Merchant took his place. Paul Zimmerman covered pro football and Vic Ziegel covered baseball and boxing and wrote slyly funny columns. Even Murray Kempton came down from Olympus to write a classic piece about Sal Maglie after he’d been done in by Don Larsen’s perfect game.
Meanwhile, out in the hinterlands, there were more sports sections catching fire. In Fort Worth, Blackie Sherrod found three kids — Dan Jenkins, Bud Shrake and Gary Cartwright — who were as irreverent as they were gifted and he turned them loose on the world. There was a fourth, Jerre Todd, who is said to have been every bit their equal, but he left the business to make a fortune in advertising. So it goes. But remember this: On a lot of days, the best writer in the joint was still Sherrod.
I can understand, however, why his Press gets forgotten. Hell, there was hardly anybody buying it when it was in business. Not so the L.A. Times, which had two eras in which it could hold its own against any sports section in the business. Indeed, it was the only one that had the space and manpower and budget to compete with the Globe. The Times’ first golden era was in the Seventies when Jim Murray was at the height of his powers as a columnist. But there was lots more to read after you finished his 900-word epistle, great long rambling stories by Jeff Prugh and Dwight Chapin and Ron Rapoport and solid beat reporting by Mal Florence and Ross Newhan and Ted Green. Hard as it is to believe, the Times was even better in its second dalliance with glory. Get a load of the talent they had in the Eighties: Rick Reilly, Richard Hoffer, Mike Littwin, Alan Greenburg, Randy Harvey, Mark Heisler, Scott Ostler, Bill Christine and . . . I know I’m forgetting somebody. Talk about an abundance of talent. When Reilly left for Sports Illustrated, the Times went out and hired Mike Downey, who was as good a columnist as there was. And the section never missed a beat.
You know what? I haven’t mentioned the Washington Post and the reign of George Solomon. I know George wouldn’t appreciate that. I was there in his early days as sports editor, when he was getting it past repeated ass-kickings by the Washington Daily News (Jack Mann again, and Andy Beyer) and the Washington Star (my old friend David Israel was its rowdy young columnist). George could wear you out with his boundless energy, but damn, did he have a great eye for talent. Not just prize imports like Kornheiser, Dave Kindred and Michael Wilbon, but discoveries like Tom Boswell and David Remnick and John Ed Bradley. And, really, how many other sports editors can say that the editor of the New Yorker once covered boxing for them?
Certainly nobody at the Boston Globe.
For another take on the history of sports writing, check out this piece, originally written for GQ, by Alan Richman.
The past 10 days have seen an immense range of stories leapfrog to the forefront of New York sports fans’ collective consciousness. In no particular order, with some analysis and commentary mixed in…
• The Yankees slashed prices for the primo seats, an altruistic move that still leaves many of us thinking, “You know, you have your own network, and it’s on my cable system. I’ll contribute to your bottom line that way and I won’t feel like I got stabbed in the wallet.”
• Alex Rodriguez did everything necessary in extended spring training and returned to the lineup Friday. He punctuated the return with a home run on the first pitch he saw, thus fulfilling his job as the media-anointed savior of the team’s season. He proceeded to go 1-for-10 with two strikeouts in the remainder of the series, and perhaps fearing aggravating the hip injury, didn’t hustle down the line to run out a ground ball, thus reclaiming his role as the team’s most prominent punching bag.
• The Yankees lost two straight to the Red Sox at home and have lost the first five meetings of the season. (Sound the alarms! Head for the hills! There’s no way the Yankees can win the division without beating the Red Sox! Except that they can, and they have. In 2004, the Yankees went 1-6 in their first seven games against the BoSox, ended up losing the season series 8-11 and still finished 101-61 to win the American League East by three games.)
• Joba Chamberlain 1: His mother was arrested for allegedly selling crystal meth to an undercover officer. Following Chamberlain’s own brushes with the law during the offseason, it stood to reason that the tabloids attacked this story like starving coyotes. It’s remarkable that he was able to pitch at all given the negative attention he received.
• Joba Chamberlain 2: Flash back to Aug. 13, 2007. Chamberlain struck out Orioles first baseman Aubrey Huff in a crucial late-inning at-bat to end the inning and in the heat of the moment pumped his fist in exultation. Yesterday, following a three-run home run in the first inning that gave the O’s a 3-1 lead, Huff mocked Chamberlain’s emotional outburst with his own fist pump, first while rounding first base, and again when crossing home plate. Apparently, Mr. Huff holds grudges. Thanks to the New York Daily News’s headline, “MOCKING BIRD” with a photo of the home-plate celebration, this story will have wings when Baltimore comes to the Bronx next week. Even better, as it currently stands, Chamberlain is due to start in the series finale on Thursday the 21st. Get ready for a rash of redux stories leading up to that game.
• Mariano Rivera surrendered back-to-back home runs for the first time in his career last Wednesday night, a clear signal that something is wrong. Maybe.
• The team as a whole. The Yankees are 15-16 through 31 games, and some rabid fans (the “Spoiled Set,” as Michael Kay likes to call them; the group of fans between ages 18-30 that only knows first-place finishes for the Yankees) are calling for Joe Girardi’s head. As in the above note on the Red Sox, some context is required. The Yankees’ records through 31 games this decade:
2000: 22-9 (finished 87-74, won AL East)
2001: 18-13 (finished 95-65, won AL East)
2002: 18-13 (finished 103-58, won AL East)
2003: 23-8 (finished 101-61, won AL East)
2004: 18-13 (finished 101-61, won AL East)
2005: 12-19 (finished 95-67, won AL East)
2006: 19-12 (finished 97-65, won AL East)
2007: 15-16 (finished 94-68, won AL Wild Card)
2008: 15-16 (finished 89-73, missed playoffs)
2009: 15-16 (finish TBD)
No one is going to make excuses for the team with the billion dollar stadium and the highest payroll, least of all your trusted scribes here at the Banter. Looking at the last three years — including 2009 — it should be noted that similar issues of injury, age, and woes throughout the pitching staff have befallen the Yankees.
Relax, all right? Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring. Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls – it’s more democratic.
Of course Greg Maddux is retiring tenth on the all-time strikeout list (3371). Still, when I think back on Maddux in twenty, thirty years from now, my guess is what I’ll remember the most about him is a dinky ground ball to second base. That was the signature out of his prime, a crappy grounder, a squibber that rolled harmlessly to a waiting infielder. Or maybe a little jam shot pop-fly. Or yeah, even a strikeout, the late-breaking fastball tailing back over the plate leaving hitters with their asses out, hands up and bats still on their shoulder.
In his prime, you rarely saw good swings or heard solid contact against Maddux.
There will be a host of tributes to Maddux this week. Here are the early birds.
I never presumed to think with Maddux or have a deeper understanding of why he was so good. I just loved watching him pitch, loved the whole scene, loved seeing the frustration batters would show, loved the way umpires over the course of a game became willing co-coconspirators, loved the way catchers would just let the ball tumble into the glove without moving, loved the way Maddux would fidget when he didn’t have all of his stuff working, loved it all. He was Mozart, I was Salieri, and no I couldn’t reproduce it, no I couldn’t get close to it, but I felt like I could hear the music.
Over at SI.com, Tom Verducci writes:
The magic show is over. I dislike absolutes, but of this I am sure: Greg Maddux is the most fascinating interview, the smartest baseball player and the most highly formed baseball player I have encountered in 27 years covering major league baseball. There is no one alive who ever practiced the craft of pitching better than Maddux.
…I will miss watching him pitch. In his prime, Maddux never received enough credit for the quality of his stuff. Too many people equate power with stuff, but Maddux’s fastball, at least back when he was throwing 90 mph, had ridiculous movement — late, large movement. Think about this: he dominated hitters with no splitter and a curveball that was no better than high-school quality.
That’s how good were his fastball and changeup. It wasn’t just location.
Here is Verducci’s 1995 feature profile on Maddux for SI.
One of the most exciting events of the spring has been the recent launching of the SI Vault. Talk about an embarassment of riches. Dag. To my dismay, the site does not offer anything close to a complete author index, making finding stuff a frustrating experience at best. I can only hope that this is a temporary problem, because it would be a real shame for something as rich and varied as the SI archives to be needlessly difficult to navigate.
Still, here are a couple of gems for you as we wait for today’s game. No telling if the rain will mess with things this afternoon. It’s warm and foggy this morning and the sun is even shinning here and there in the Bronx. I’m gunna throw up this game thread now cause I won’t be around for the start of the game. If they get it in, Andy Pettitte will make his first start of the year. If there is a delay, grab another bowl of soup, and consider the following bag o treats from the SI vault.
Come Down Selector:
A Diamond in the Ashes: Robert Lipsyte’s highly critical take on the rennovated Yankee Stadium (April, 1976).
The Play that Beat the Bums: Ron Fimrite’s look back at the Mickey Owens game and the 1941 season (October, 1997).
Mickey Mantle: Richard Hoffer’s piece on the legacy of the last great player on the last great team (August, 1995).
A Real Rap Session: Peter Gammons talks hitting with Ted Williams, Don Mattingly and Wade Boggs from the Baseball Preivew issue (April, 1986).
Yogi: Roy Blount’s takeout piece on the Yankee legend (April, 1984).
No Place in the Shade: Mark Kram considered this portrait of Cool Papa Bell to be his finest work for SI (August, 1973). And while we’re on Kram, check out A Wink at a Homely Girl, his wonderful piece about his hometown Baltimore that appeared on the eve of the ’66 World Serious (October, 1966).
Laughing on the Outside: John Schulian’s fine appreciation of the great Josh Gibson (June, 2000).
And finally, He Does it By the Numbers: Dan Okrent’s landmark essay, you know, the one that “discovered” Bill James (March, 1981).
There, that should keep you busy for more than a minute.
From time to time here at Bronx Banter, we talk about what kind of impact coaches have on a team, particularly the pitching and hitting coaches. I got to thinking about what a pitching coach brings to a team after running across a nice, long quote from the legendary pitching coach Johnny Sain in a 1973 Sports Illustrated article by Pat Jordan (“A Jouster with Windmills”):
“To become a pitching coach you have to start all over again. You have to get outside of yourself. You might have done things a certain way when you pitched but that doesn’t mean it will be natural to someone else. For example, I threw a lot of sliders and off-speed pitches because I wasn’t very fast. But that’s me. I could also pitch with only two days’ rest (he once pitched nine complete games in 29 days) whereas most pitchers need three and four, although I think they shouldn’t. And I never believed much in running pitchers to keep them in shape. I’ve always felt a lot of pitching coaches made a living out of running pitchers so they wouldn’t have to spend that same time teaching them how to pitch, something they were unsure of. It would be better to have those pitchers throw on the sidelines every day, than run. Things like this I learned on my own. I picked up everything by observation, which is the best teacher. Nothing came easy to me. I had to think things over and over more than guys with natural ability did. Maybe this has made it easier for me to get my ideas across to pitchers. It isn’t that I’m so smart, because I know I’m not very smart at all. I don’t know any answers. I don’t give pitchers answers. I try to stimulate their thinking, to present alternatives and let them choose. I remind them every day of things they already know but tend to forget. I repeat things a lot, partly for them but also for my own thinking, to make sure what I’m saying makes senes…I don’t make anyone like Johnny Sain. I want them to do what’s natural for them. I adjust to their style, both as pitchers and people. I find some common ground outside of baseball that’ll make it easier for us to communicate in general. I used to talk flying with Denny McClain all the time. Once you can communicate with a pitcher it’s easier to make him listen to you about pitching. You know him better, too. You know when to lay off him, when to minimize his tensions, and also when to inspire him. That’s why you’ve got to know him. Pitching coaches don’t change pitchers, we just stimulate their thinking. We teach their subconscious mind so that when they get on the mound and a situation arises it triggers an automatic physcial reaction that they might even be aware of.”
“Pitching coaches don’t change pitchers, we just stimuate their thinking.” I’d be curious to know how Ron Guidry feels about his first year as the Yankees’ pitching coach, and how his pitchers feel about him.