"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Writers

Bronx Banter Interview: John Schulian

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Today marks the publication of the Library of America’s latest sports anthology—Football: Great Writing about the National Sport. It’s edited by our old chum John Schulian.

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The book is terrific and I recently had a chance to chat with John about football writing and how he approached putting this collection together.

Dig in.

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Alex Belth: When you read boxing or baseball anthologies, there’s usually a lot of material written before WWII. I noticed less material from the early decades of the last century here. What is it about the more old-timey football writing that makes it uninteresting?

John Schulian: I know how it must look: the old-timers don’t seem to get much love even though I’m an old-timer myself. What you have to realize is that football before World War II, and even for more than a decade after it, was hardly the cultural and economic behemoth it is today. Baseball, boxing, and horse racing ruled the sports pages and the nation’s imagination. Football had to be content with harbingers of a better tomorrow—Jim Thorpe and Bronko Nagurski running wild, Slingin’ Sammy Baugh uncorking touchdown passes, George Halas and his fellow dreamers laying the foundation for the National Football League. It was swell that Fitzgerald and Irwin Shaw found inspiration in the games that gave old alums in raccoon coats a reason to howl, but the truth was still the truth: Football had some serious catching-up to do.

Beyond that, the writing it inspired was generally pretty dreary unless you have a high tolerance for adjectives, mixed metaphors, and stories dashed off by scribes who nipped from their flasks for four quarters. You’ll notice, for instance, that I made a point of not including Grantland Rice’s oft-reprinted paean to the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. To do so would have meant wading in the sludge of old Granny’s hyperbole, and I wasn’t about to risk scaring off readers that way. Instead, I went with an excerpt from his memoir about how he came to write the piece and, ever since, I’ve wondered how different it would be if Rice had been able to avail himself of today’s press-box replays and the locker-room interviews that were so scarce when he walked the earth.

Football is hard to cover under the best of circumstances, and the old-timers clearly suffered because of the primitive conditions under which they worked. I like to think that’s why I came up empty when I looked for compelling pieces by Heywood Broun and Damon Runyon. Both were memorable writers and, yet, when I read what they had to say about the sport, it seemed strained, uninformed, almost naïve—in other words, it was a lot like everything I ever wrote about hockey. I thought I would do better with Stanley Woodward, an ex-college lineman whose greatest achievements were as the no-guff, no-pandering sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune. I even knew a line from the Woodward story I hoped to use. When an inconsequential gaffe made a University of Michigan lineman the villain of a major upset, Woodward wrote: “Attributing that catastrophe to such a cause was like blaming the Johnstown flood on a leaky toilet in Altoona, Pennsylvania.” Let’s just say the line may have seemed so memorable because everything Woodward wrote before and after it was so forgettable.

Now I stand before you grateful that I was able to find what I did from football’s Pleistocene era. Grateful for W.C. Heinz’s visit with Red Grange, the first of the great broken-field runners, and for Myron Cope’s hilarious yet compelling interview with the self-named Johnny Blood, a vagabond as both a player and a coach. Grateful for Shirley Povich’s generosity when covering a football slaughter, and for the hat President Truman lost after an Army-Navy game, as if he knew Red Smith was looking for a way into a column. And if someone were to step forward now with a sheaf of the kind of pieces I couldn’t find, I’d be grateful for that, too. But it wouldn’t have changed football’s status as a stepchild in those early days, and if it pains you to read that, just hold on. Things got better in a hurry.

AB: I loved the Myron Cope piece. I know he’s best remembered as a broadcaster in Pittsburgh, but he had serious chops as a writer. He’s my favorite of the Sport magazine freelancers from the ’60s.

Myron Cope And Terrible Towel 1979 

JS: Cope was an absolute joy to read whether it was in Sport or Sports Illustrated or even True, which in the Fifties and Sixties was always showcasing sports writing heavyweights like W.C. Heinz and John Lardner and stars in the making like Jimmy Breslin, Dave Anderson, and Jerry Izenberg. Cope fit right in thanks to his sly wit and affinity for exotic characters. One month he’d be writing about Bo Belinksy, Muhammad Ali, or a self-promoting football scout named Fido Murphy, and the next month he’d be telling the sad tale of the Steelers team that sobered up for a showdown with the Giants and got hammered in a non-alcoholic way. But mention his name in Pittsburgh these days and the Cope the locals remember wasn’t just the Steelers’ funny, passionate, idiosyncratic play-by-play man, he was the inventor of the Terrible Towel, which for hardcore fans puts him in the same category as Jonas Salk.

Myself, I’m a lot more impressed by a collection of his best magazine work called Broken Cigars, and I’ve never been able to understand why someone hasn’t reprinted it. But having said that, I’m here to tell you Cope’s greatest achievement was as an oral historian. Sports Illustrated sent him out to track down the seminal figures of pro football’s early days, and he came back in 1970 with the makings for The Game That Was, which did for the sport what Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times did for baseball. The Library of America didn’t want a lot of book excerpts in Football, but I never doubted for a minute that Cope’s interview with a free spirit—wild man, actually—named John McNally would make the cut. While he was migrating from one college to another, he and a teammate wanted to earn some pocket money by playing semipro on the side. They couldn’t use their real names, of course, so they searched and searched and finally found just what they needed on a poster for a swashbuckler movie called Blood and Sand. All the man who became Johnny Blood had to do after that was wait for Cope to show up.

AB: Beyond Red Smith and Shirley Povich, I awas taken with the column on Jim Brown by Jimmy Cannon. Those are not a pair I would have put together. I knew there’d be a Jim Brown story in this collection—how could there not be?—but I wouldn’t have expected one from Cannon. I know Cannon was a great columnist in his prime but his reputation has faded through the years. Were you looking for a Cannon piece specifically?

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JS: I’ve been campaigning to put together a collection of Cannon’s greatest hits for the past few years, and though I’ve yet to find a taker, I always bring up his Jim Brown column when I’m bending someone’s ear. This is Cannon at his absolute best, spending the afternoon watching Brown trample the Giants and then taking what he saw in a direction that never would have occurred to another writer. Who else would have made the leap from a game that big to a recollection of the day he first heard Enrique Caruso, the great opera singer? Who else would have used the occasion to wax nostalgic about “the old neighborhood” and a barbershop run by a guy named—stop it, you’re killing me—Joe? But somehow Cannon makes it work with the magic he had when the stars were aligned and the wind was at his back. He was always stretching, always straining to out-write everyone, and a lot of times you could hear him grunting and groaning from the effort. This time, however, his words take flight, and the greatness on display is his as much as it is Brown’s and Caruso’s.

If you’re surprised to find Cannon writing about Brown, don’t be. The year was 1963 and Brown, to the best of my knowledge, had yet to rough up his first lady friend. Later, of course, it would become a recurring theme in his life, one I suspect Cannon, imbued with dry-drunk gallantry, would have used as a reason to tee off on him, disdain him, or both. But in or out of trouble, no one ever denied that Brown is a fascinating and complex character—perhaps the greatest running back ever, a movie star of some significance, a mentor for kids swept up in L.A. thug life. His name echoes through any number of the pieces in the book, and if I’d had more pages to work with, there would likely be one or two others devoted solely to him. God knows they’re out there, splendid work by splendid writers. But when I could only choose one, Cannon made it easy for me.

AB: What stuff did you include from the ’60s?

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JS: Myron Cope would have been an obvious choice, but he was already in the book. The same with Bill Heinz, whose Run to Daylight! was the first great look at the brilliance and indomitability of Vince Lombardi. I had already committed to Heinz on Red Grange, though, and I never regretted it because St. Vincent inspired so much compelling writing. Leonard Shecter stirred things up with a profile of Vince Lombardi for Esquire that was so mean it made Mrs. Lombardi cry; I loved it in my Young Turk days, but when I gave it a second look all these years later, it seemed gratuitously cruel and, much as I admire Shecter, riddled with buncombe. Sorry, no sale. On the other hand, there was the Jerry Kramer-Dick Schaap collaboration, Instant Replay, the chronicle of the Packers’ 1967 season that ruled the bestseller lists and begat a stampede of as-told-to books. We’re talking about work done nearly half a century ago, and it holds up because of the authors’ commitment to the truth. Nor does it hurt that Lombardi endures as a subject to this day. David Maraniss, the superb Bill Clinton biographer, seized on the old boy’s staying power and delivered a state-of-the-art study of Lombardi. If I’d failed to include something from it, I’d be guilty of dereliction of duty.

I feel the same about the excerpt from Paper Lion, George Plimpton’s chronicle of his training-camp exploits as the Lions’ last-string quarterback. The grace and self-deprecating wit in Plimpton’s prose always reminds me of Cary Grant’s acting. But even without my confession that I’m a sucker for it, any literate football fan should see the Plimpton excerpt coming. I hope I’ve thrown readers a curve—pardon my mixed sports metaphors—by mixing in two looks back at the Sixties by writers from other precincts. First is Baltimore boy Frank Deford, the star in SI’s crown for so many years, lifting a glass to the city’s beloved Johnny Unitas. Then there’s Jennifer Allen recreating a New Year’s Eve with her father, George Allen, after he’d been fired as the Los Angeles Rams’ head coach on Christmas Eve. Happy holidays, huh? It felt good to include the excerpt from Jennifer’s book Fifth Quarter for a couple of reasons. One, she’s an incisive and fearless writer. Two, I was able to make amends in some small way for the many times I described George as the NFL’s answer to Richard Nixon. Yes, he could be pretty crazy, loving ice cream because he didn’t have to waste time chewing and writing me off as a Baltimore fan on first meeting simply because I’d worked on a newspaper there. But there was never any doubting his genius for defense or his love for the beat-up old pros who populated his roster. And here’s what should have convinced me that my opinion of George needed an overhaul long ago: Those old pros loved him back.

Jimmy Breslin, the ultimate New York columnist, loved old pros, too. I get the feeling from his piece on Y.A. Tittle’s last stand that he may have loved them most when they lost. They didn’t whine or bitch, they just picked themselves up and moved on because they knew they had done everything they could. It wasn’t enough, but it was all they had, and there was something noble about taking satisfaction in that, the way Tittle does when he can’t quarterback the Giants past the Browns.

Breslin, like Bill Heinz before him, knew the losers’ locker room was fertile ground for great stories. But every time he looked around before he began covering the city at large, he found more young scribes in there with him. It was all part of the seismic change that the Sixties brought to sports writing. The best of them threw off the shackles of clichés and rah-rah coverage and started serving up humor and social commentary. If they could work in a song lyric by the Grateful Dead or something Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, so much the better. On the East Coast, there was Larry Merchant, who had made irreverence and unblinking insight his stock in trade first as sports editor of the Philadelphia Daily News and, by the end of the decade, as a columnist at the New York Post. He knew something about football, too, having been a schoolboy star in New York and a self-described “last-string halfback” on Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma powerhouses in the Fifties. What Merchant knew even more about, however, was the cultural significance of Broadway Joe Namath. I think you’ll see what I mean in the excerpt I pulled from his book … And Every Day You Take Another Bite.

At the same time, on the other side of the country, Jim Murray was playing his Los Angeles Times sports column for laughs with a mix of joy and intelligence that hadn’t been seen since Ring Lardner and his son John were running amok. Murray looked at sports in a funhouse mirror, delivering lines that are still quoted in press boxes and around breakfast tables half a century later. And oh, did he have fun when the Jets upset the Colts in the Super Bowl: “The missionaries ate the cannibals.” You know that one’s in the book.

What you may have realized by now is that none of the writers representing the Sixties were hard-nosed, watch-every-practice, grill-every-source beat reporters. The guys who fit that description best were Paul Zimmerman, who made his bones at the pre-Murdoch New York Post and later moved to Sports Illustrated, and Will McDonough, the Boston Globe enforcer who punched out a Patriots defensive back. I suppose I should mention Tex Maule, too, because it was his story in SI about Unitas leading the Colts over the Giants in overtime that bore the headline “The Greatest Game Ever Played” even though he never used those words himself. Maule was a reformed trapeze artist and former public-relations man who became a tool of the NFL in its war with the ragtag but thoroughly enjoyable American Football League. (Enjoyable, that is, to those of us enthralled with 57-56 scores and old goats like George Blanda and Tobin Rote.) But Maule’s greatest sin in the context of this book was that he was a ham-fisted writer, which disqualified him from inclusion. Alas, Zimmerman and McDonough had similar artistic deficiencies, so their prose didn’t make the cut, either, and that’s unfortunate. Without the digging they did—Zim on the intricacies of the game, McDonough on front-office shenanigans—the stylists who followed them never would have had such a well-lit path to travel.

AB: Of course, a certain amount of the material in a book like this is going to be personality-driven. Were there any specific players or coaches you wanted to feature?

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JS: It would have been a fool’s mission to try to make room for all the players who’ve been anointed as superstars and all the coaches who’ve been praised as smarter than Einstein. And big games? The nation turns its lonely eyes to them every weekend, in every NFL division and college conference. Biggest game of the season, biggest of the century, no matter how many times we’ve heard it, we still love to fall for it. Everything is outsized—the players, the coaches’ egos, the alumni pressure, the TV money—and the book could easily have wound up looking like it was on steroids. But I didn’t want to scare off people by turning it into a doorstop.

The best solution I could come up with was to select pieces that were, for lack of a better word, emblematic. You want quarterbacks, you’ve got Deford on Unitas and the pluperfect Charlie Pierce on Peyton and Archie Manning, which I like to think covers a lot of territory historically. You want linebackers, you’ve got Arthur Kretchmer on Dick Butkus, and while Kretchmer was no sports writer, I admire the way he parked himself next to Butkus and hung on for dear life. on the sideline and zeroed in on the guts of the game. You want coaching legends, you’ve got the street-smart novelist Richard Price putting his Bronx accent up against Bear Bryant’s tobacco-cured mumble and Gary Cartwright, a Texas legend, deciphering what went on under that hat Tom Landry wore. We’re talking about big names here—icons, if you believe in that sort of thing—but each piece reveals its subject as a human being. With all the blather and blare surrounding football, we need to be reminded of that occasionally.

It would seem more difficult to provide that kind of perspective in a game story—twenty-two large gentlemen in the equivalent of one freeway pile-up after another—but the beauty of the best game stories is they tap into narratives as unique as snowflakes. Of course, I can’t give you every great one ever written, but you’ll certainly get the feel of them when you read Dan Jenkins merrily tweaking Notre Dame for playing for a tie against Michigan State, and Leigh Montville hanging onto his hat after Doug Flutie’s magic act against Miami. And don’t let me forget Pat Forde weaving together the many themes of Boise State’s otherworldly Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma—the trick play, the running back’s marriage proposal, the idea that a team from a state famous for potatoes could fly so high. It was one of those stories Americans love, the underdog triumphant, but in college football’s latest realignment, the power conferences have done their utmost to make sure you’ll never see anything quite like it again.

So if you don’t mind, I’m going to revel in my own favorite upset for a moment. There’s no story about it in the book, but there isn’t a red-blooded University of Utah graduate who doesn’t get all puffed up every time he thinks of it. I say this in full confidence because I happen to be one. Anyway, there the Utes were in the Sugar Bowl, the undefeated champions of the Mountain West Conference, whatever that was worth, and it certainly didn’t seem like much to mighty Alabama on January 1, 2009. The Crimson Tide strutted into the Superdome in New Orleans as if they were about to be served a tray of red velvet cupcakes, and the Utes bitch-slapped them with 14 fast, furious points. That’s right, Nick Saban: all those blue chippers of yours got bitch-slapped. They tried mightily to come back, and, brother, every Ute fan had seen that movie before. Start like your ass is on fire, go toes up before halftime. But not these Utes. Somebody else could roll over and play dead. They were going to knock the snot out of Alabama. Final score: 31–17. I’m not counting on a repeat performance any time soon now that the Utes are in the Pac-12 and praying they can break .500 someday. But I’ve still got my memories of that sweet, sweet Sugar Bowl. Damn, Nick Saban looked good with his tail between his legs.

AB: I like how you included profiles of icons like Butkus and Bryant that were written by non-football writers. The Price story, in particular, is such an odd pairing of writer and subject and yet the reader comes away with a vivid picture of Bryant. What is it about being an outsider that can make the writing and reporting so sharp?

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JS: First, you’ve got to imagine the plight of the harried soul on the football beat whether for a newspaper or website. He or she has a million things to worry about—trades, roster moves, rumors, next week’s big game, players’ injuries, coaches’ lies, news stories, features, sidebars, blogs, tweets—and I haven’t even mentioned the editors who are constantly crying out for more, faster. My head hurts just thinking about it. I know there are some hardy souls out there who thrive on such pressure, but sooner or later it’s got to diminish either the desire or the time and freedom it takes to write something that’s both stylish and insightful. They reach a point where the job is as much about survival as ir ia anything else. Their eyes glaze over, and when that happens, they just want to see the finish line.

Not so Richard Price and Arthur Kretchmer.  Price was a young literary lion when Playboy enlisted him to profile Bryant and Kretchmer was the magazine’s editorial director who may have used his clout to get the Butkus assignment. They could stroll in, hang out, and look around until they seized on things a weary beat writer, even in the days before the, might have taken for granted. These outsiders had landed on what might as well have been the moon, and thanks to their cushy magazine deadlines, they could revel in the newness and the strangeness of it all.

After reading what the two of them wrote, I gather that Kretchmer was less an outsider primarily—most likely solely—because of the friendship he seems to have struck up with Butkus. And if they weren’t friends, Butkus certainly didn’t mind his company. It wasn’t just that they had lunch together, it was that Butkus gave him the gift of blunt honesty, and got him on the sidelines for a Bears game, too. That way, Kretchmer could calculate the seismic force of each play, hear the cracks and the thuds and the grunts and the sound of a Packers defensive end telling the Bear across from him, “I’m going to kill you.”

Unfortunately, the Bears were dreadful in their patented way—a constipated offense and a defense that took solace for defeat in the number of bruises and broken bones they meted out. In the midst of such inferiority, there was Butkus with his unsurpassed genius for violence, playing on a knee that was essentially a garbage pail, trying to defy futility. Kretchmer was moved to ask him why he kept beating his head against the wall that way. It was a question the daily press corps had undoubtedly asked, too, but sometimes it’s the outsider, the guy who’s not part of the daily inquisition, who gets the best answer. So it was when Butkus told Kretchmer, “That’s like asking a guy why he fucks.”

Price never pried as pithy an answer out of Bryant during the week he spent in Tuscaloosa. Or if he did, he didn’t understand what the Bear was saying in that unfiltered-Chesterfield voice of his. But it all played perfectly into the pose Price adopted for the story. It was 1979, after he’d scored big with The Wanderers and before he scored bigger with Clockers and Freedomland. He went to Alabama as the ultimate fish out of water, a New York wisenheimer thrust into the land of Ku Klux Klansmen and Freedom Riders. He had an earring and the longest hair this side of Duane Allman, and he was intent on milking everything he could from the reverse of stereotypical urban paranoia.

Mercifully, the piece doesn’t come off as an attack on the South unless you’re sensitive to the mileage Price gets from his failure to understand a joke Bryant tells. “I guess that ain’t funny to you,” Bear says, scowling. No way Price can make himself confess that Bryant might as well have told the joke in Urdu. Price simply tacks his discomfort onto everything else he has felt during his visit to this strange land, and, wonder of wonders, he gets away with it. True, he doesn’t break any new ground on Bryant, but that’s not the point. He’s goofing on the Bear, albeit with a healthy dose of respect. But he’s also goofing on himself, and he obviously enjoys it, even revels in it. He might not have seemed very bright to Bryant, but he was smart enough to get out of Tuscaloosa in one piece.

AB: My favorite game story in the book is Tom Archdeacon’s column on Jackie Smith. The media crush that Smith faced after that game seemed relentless according to Archdeacon’s piece and yet he was probably the only one to notice and incorporate Smith’s son into his story. There were so many columns written about that game. What made Archdeacon’s stand out?

JS: It’s a masterful example of what a true craftsman could do in the days of p.m. newspapers if he kept his eyes and ears open. While the morning-paper scribes from the East Coast were racing to make, say, a 9 p.m. deadline, Archdeacon might not have had to file for the Miami News, may it rest in peace, until 4 or 5 a.m. If he was like a lot of us who had that luxury at some point in our careers, he used every minute of it. It’s obvious he stayed in the Cowboys’ locker room to the very end—it’s how he gets rich, novelistic details like a writer stepping on Jackie Smith’s towel and another one accidentally leaving a line of ink on Smith’s shoulder blade.

The most impressive move Archdeacon made, however, was to zero in on Smith’s teenaged son, who had come to see his father’s hour of glory in the Super Bowl and instead witnessed an admirable display of courage and grace in the wake of that dropped pass. Not every athlete handles a situation like this as well as Smith did, believe me. Some get nasty, some hide in the trainer’s room, some vamoose. But the good ones will stand there and face wave after wave of reporters, just the way they would if they were the hero instead of the goat. Smith was obviously one of the good ones. But a lot of writers were going to say that the next day. Archdeacon needed something that would separate him from their number, and young Darrell Smith, son of Jackie, was it. His presence provided a new dimension to the scene in the locker room and set the stage for his father as a sympathetic figure. I don’t recall if any other writer bothered to talk to the boy, but I covered that game and I know I didn’t. I caved in to my a.m. deadline and belabored the obvious by writing about Terry Bradshaw. When I read Archdeacon’s column the next day, I gave myself a 15-yard penalty for lack of imagination.

It wasn’t guilt or shame that moved me to include Archdeacon in the book, however. I was just seeking an ounce of justice. I’m not sure how many people read what he wrote when it ran—the Miami News’ circulation was pitiful—and here was a chance to give it a second life. Archdeacon was someone whose work I had admired instantly, and I always thought he deserved a wider audience. I can certainly think of a lot of magazines over the years that could have benefited from his prose. But he stayed with the News until it sank, and then moved to the Dayton Daily News, his hometown paper, where he’s still writing better than a lot of bigger names with bigger paychecks in bigger cities. In a way, I suppose, he’s like Jackie Smith, more of a nobleman than you ever expected to find in his calling.

AB: I also loved the John Ed Bradley piece because it talks about the game from the inside. I’m crazy about John Ed’s writing, though, so I’m biased. When you were putting together this book, did you know that you’d include one of his stories?

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JS: Not only did I know John Ed would have a piece in the book, I knew which piece it would be. He’s written a multitude of keepers in his career, but he soared highest when he dug into his self-imposed exile from the LSU football program he had graced as a player and that haunted him for years afterward. Once his soulful, painful reminiscence ran in Sports Illustrated, it was obvious that John Ed had much more to say, and he said it in his memoir It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium. It’s labeled as a book about football, naturally, but it’s really about a young man’s struggle to come to grips with who he is. It’s about the human condition, which is what the best sports writing is always about.

The fact of the matter is, I don’t think of John Ed as a sportswriter, and I haven’t since the first time I read him in, I’m guessing, the early ’80s. It was a piece he wrote when he was at the Washington Post, and it began with him and LSU’s starting quarterback sitting on a hill on campus, drinking a few beers and wondering what the future held. The Post’s sports staff was brimming with talent then, the way it usually is, so finding terrific stories and columns was hardly a surprise, but this was so far beyond the norm that I was gobsmacked. Here was a guy who should have been taking baby steps at a powerhouse newspaper and he was producing work that fairly shouted he had books in him, serious books. That hardly qualifies me as a literary talent scout. There were lots of other people saying the same thing. But I’m still proud to have been there at the beginning.

AB: Did you make a conscious effort to include football stories from all levels of competition—high school, college, the pros—or did you just select what you thought was the best writing?

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JS: A book like this is first of all about the writing, but it’s also about the voices of both writer and subject, and the players and coaches who are emblematic of something larger, an era, perhaps, or a signature style of play. Whether the writing came from newspapers, magazines, or books didn’t really concern me. Naturally, magazine pieces, crafted in relative leisure, are going to be more polished than newspaper pieces, which are often written in a race against deadline that leaves no time smooth out their rough edges. But sometimes those ragged edges give the newspaper pieces the immediacy and passion that makes them memorable, even collectible.

I knew from the outset that the pros and the colleges were going to dominate the book. After all, what’s football without domination even when we’re just talking about its literary side? But I wanted high school football in the mix, too, because it’s so deeply ingrained in popular culture. (It’s also deeply ingrained in me—I read everything I can find about my old school’s team.) The obvious book to turn to was Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, which is nothing less than a masterpiece. It not only reminds readers of the joy and pain of high school football—and of adolescence—it explores the otherworldly nuttiness that envelops the sport in Texas. So, mission accomplished, right?

Not so fast, buckaroo. The next thing I knew, I found “Friday Night Tykes,” a smart, insightful look at preteen tackle football in the age of concussions. Naturally, it was set in Texas, too. Bryan Curtis wrote it for Texas Monthly, which by now should have retired the trophy for the country’s best regional magazine, and he did it without getting up on a soap box or passing judgment or any of the other traps a lesser talent might have walked into. He just laid his story out there and let the reader make up his own mind. By the time I finished reading it, all I could do was borrow a figure of speech from the kids Curtis had written about: he was so beast.

AB: Football isn’t really considered a writer’s sport, at least not in the way baseball or boxing is. You edited a collection of great boxing writing for the Library of America. Did you worry that you wouldn’t enough great material to chose from?

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JS: I was too dumb to be scared that I might not find enough first-rate material to fill a book. I’ve been reading great football writing since I decided I wanted to make a living playing with words in press boxes, and I knew it was out there. But I wouldn’t be foolish enough to tell you that football is a writer’s sport the way baseball used to be and boxing will be until they throw the last shovel of dirt on its coffin. There’s always been secrecy and paranoia in football, but it’s gotten worse over time. The evidence is right there in Roy Blount Jr.’s elegy to the freedom he had when he wrote . . . About Three Bricks Shy of a Load. Everywhere Blount goes on a visit to the Steelers, the team whose illustrious predecessors were at the heart of his book, he’s stymied by rules and badgered by nattering PR honks who would have been used for crow bait back in the day. And that’s no way to find out anything about anybody.

Great players can drift through their careers today as relative strangers to the people who cheer for them, worship them, maybe even want to be them. The coaches have always been on the secretive side—not enough prunes in their diet, I think—but writers could work around that. They learned to roll with coaches’ bland pronouncements and shameless prevarication because there were always players and assistant coaches who would tell them the truth or at least nudge them toward it. But for me, the real satisfaction in writing about football didn’t come from dissecting injury reports, and I sure as hell never wanted to loot a head coach’s office in search of a game plan. I probably wouldn’t have understood it anyway.

My aim was to find out what made the players tick. If I sat down with them—the good ones anyway, the ones who responded to thoughtful questions—I knew the odds of succeeding were in my favor. A lot of the guys I interviewed were incredibly bright and articulate, or they were blessed with wit and the kind of go-to-hell attitude that made them savor the massive collisions that happen on every play. If a writer can get 20 minutes with someone who fits either of those descriptions, he has a fighting chance to turn out something worth reading, at least for purposes of a newspaper piece or its Internet equivalent. For something longer, of course, a writer needs even more access. How much? Well, read Al Silverman on Gale Sayers coming back from a brutal knee injury or Michael Lewis on the high-wire lives of placekickers. Those weren’t done in a day, my friend.

The problem now as I see it—and I admit that I’m looking at it from a great distance—is that writers don’t have the kind of access my generation did. It’s that way in big league baseball, too, but football is the mother of managed media access. You’ve got staged press conferences, and only the head coach and a limited number of players are trotted out for them. Worse yet, everybody seems to be sticking to a script. Working the locker room seems to be a lost art, if indeed writers are even allowed inside. The best, or at least the most colorful, way to fight that is to do what T.J. Simers, the erstwhile L.A. Times columnist, used to do, and walk in anyway. He’d tell anyone who tried to stop him that he had a job to do, and he wasn’t about to be stopped. I confess I was never a fan of T.J.’s work once he left the football beat, but his balls belong in the hall of fame.

Much as I admire writers who aren’t afraid to tilt with the NFL’s windmills, I’m just as impressed by those who refuse to be fazed by the climate of secrecy. They’re scattered around the country, looking at football from fresh angles, turning out pieces so smart and well-reported and beautifully written that geezers like me are forced to admit that sports writing didn’t begin and end with us. Bryan Curtis, whom I mentioned earlier, is right there with the best of them. Wright Thompson, whose ode to Southern football is one of the book’s highlights, looks like he can do anything he sets his mind to as long as he isn’t writing about Elaine’s, the old New York literary saloon. (Save your tears, buddy. It was a dump whose time had long passed before you walked through the door.) Some day there will be another book like mine, and it will be brimming with memorable pieces by Thompson and Curtis as well as the young Turks I couldn’t squeeze into my collection. The bylines I’ve embraced will fall by the wayside, and time will march on. That’s the way it usually works, isn’t it?

AB: Speaking of the NFL, you covered the league when you were a columnist in the late Seventies and early Eighties. What was it like writing about pro football compared with the other sports?

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JS: I was never a beat reporter, though that’s what the Washington Post hired me to be in 1975. I was supposed to back up the intrepid Leonard Shapiro, who I’m sure had years taken off his life by his constant battle to get to the truth about the Redskins. But I soon proved myself to be ill equipped for the job. Short attention span, easily bored, something like that. So I wound up doing mostly features, and most of the contact I had with the Redskins was when I wrote sidebars after big games, and of course every game they played was a big one in that town. Even their damn practices were big.

My first day at the Post—Labor Day, or close to it—the boss tells me I can meet the staff and find out where the men’s room is later. He needs me to cover the Redskins’ practice. I haul ass to Redskin Park, out by Dulles Airport, and start poking around for something to write about a team I may know less about than anyone in the District of Columbia and its surrounding suburbs. I look at the bright side, though. At least I’ll meet George Allen, the ’Skins’ coach. He’s been called the Richard Nixon of the NFL, and since the real Nixon is long gone—he lost one too many in ’73, I’m told—I might as well put myself on Allen’s radar.

I seize a moment after his press conference and introduce myself. He squints at me curiously, a John Wayne kind of thing.

“Where are you from?” he asks.

“Baltimore.”

I’m about to tell him I worked on a paper there for the past five years, but he cuts me short.

“A Colts fan, huh?” he says, turning on his heel and walking away.

From that day forward, I’m convinced he thought of me as a spy, if indeed he thought of me at all.

It was no easy thing being around the Redskins, even in a limited capacity, and I’m sure it skewed my view of the NFL. Not that I didn’t encounter good men running other teams—Jim Finks and Ernie Accorsi were class acts—but the league wanted to control everything, including the media. When I became a columnist in Chicago, I went out of my way to make sure the league knew there would be no controlling me. If George Halas deserved to be smacked around—and he did, that churlish old tightwad—I was pleased to do the smacking. Was I always fair to him? No. But I was fair to his players and his coaches, and they mattered more to me than Halas did, even when I was roughing them up in print. Everybody else got it with both barrels.

That must have stunned whoever was keeping track of the press at NFL headquarters. The league was clearly on the rise, and first-rate writers—men and women I respected as professionals and valued as friends—were writing for its sanctioned Game Day program or working on telecasts that were filling the NFL’s coffers. The logical thing would have been for me to jump on board, but I’ve rarely been called logical. So a rosy-cheeked NFL factotum pulled me aside in the press box one Sunday afternoon and told me very solemnly, “You know, you’re not a friend of the league.” There was no fooling him.

AB: Concussions have become a critical part of the discussion when it comes to pro sports, and in recent years there have been several good profiles on the subject. Was it difficult to select just one?

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JS: Granted, there’s only one piece born solely of the concussion epidemic that the NFL could no longer ignore, but pain—the physical kind, the kind that hits you like lightning—is a constant presence in story after story. The one that comes closest to predicting how concussions would become an issue is Mark Kram’s relentless “No Pain, No Gain.” I remember reading it when it first appeared in Esquire in 1992 and flinching at Ronnie Lott’s description of tackling someone so hard that snot sprayed out of his own nose. And then there were the after effects—the ringing ears, the brain that went blank, the breath he fought to take. We call it entertainment.

NFL players are our gladiators, and though we gasp at the collisions, cheer them, and cry out for more, I don’t think many of us realized what we were really watching until the New York Times and SI and all the rest of them started hammering away at the issue. The players accepted the likelihood that they would pay physically for offering up their bodies this way, but even they didn’t seem to grasp the extent of the wreckage inside their heads until it became an issue. Once upon a time, they could joke about the wear and tear the way Dan Hampton, a hall of fame defensive end for the Bears, did when he heard that a teammate was being forced to retire because of a horrific spinal injury. “That’s how I want to go out,” Hampton told me. “With a real showstopper.”

Then the showstopper became the brain damage that was ignored all those times some wobbly behemoth was told to shake it off and get back out there and kick ass. It was the football way. You had to be tougher than the other guy. You had to want it more, “it” being the victory that the team could cash in on, maybe even point to as a reason for raising ticket prices, while the poor son of a bitch with the addled brain just hoped he could hang on for another year or two. You know, so he could set something aside for a retirement that would make it all worthwhile.

Funny how it so rarely works out that way for old pro footballers. They figured they might not be able to play tennis or even walk up the stairs when they were 50; they didn’t think their heads would be so screwed up they’d want to kill themselves. But that’s life and death in the National Concussion League, and I suppose I could have included a half-dozen stories on it. I would have been wrong if I had, though, just as I would have been wrong if I hadn’t included any. So I went with the one that spoke loudest to me, Paul Solotaroff’s searing look at Dave Duerson’s suicide. I remembered Duerson when he was fresh out of Notre Dame and making his presence known in the Bears’ secondary, but I didn’t realize he had been so successful in business. He was one of the smart ones, a mover and shaker who was proud of his brain even when it was damaged and driving him out of his mind. That’s why he didn’t blow his head off when he pulled the trigger. He shot himself in the heart instead, so his brain would be intact for doctors to examine. I doubt the NFL will ever salute him as a hero, but that’s what he is.

 

AB: What I noticed about this collection is that so many of the pieces reveal a nice pairing of subject and writer. We talked about the outsiders like Price, and to my mind one of the most true and beautiful stories in this collection comes from another outsider, Jeanne Marie Laskas on the Ben-Gals cheerleaders. It is written with such empathy and humor and understanding. Even though it’s tangentially about football, it is about football culture. How did you first come to read the story?

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JS: I first heard about Jeanne Marie Laskas’ story from my old pal Bill Nack. It was the year he was guest editor of Best American Sports Writing, and he raved about it. No one I know has better taste or higher standards than Bill, so I tracked the piece down in GQ, read it, and immediately started adding my praise to his whenever I bumped into someone I thought might like it. Was it a slam dunk for my book? What do you think?

The thing about Jeanne Marie is that she isn’t a sportswriter or, from what I gather, even a sports fan. She’s a reformed advice columnist and practicing academic who has the gift of being able to tap into whatever world her freelance magazine assignments happen to take her to. She has written about coal miners and migrant workers and hit men, so the NFL wasn’t going to be a problem. She left the winners and losers, stats, and college draft to the true believers whose lives revolve around them, and then she focused on the league’s concussion-damaged warriors for a series of pieces for GQ. Just when it looked like she was going to deliver yet another withering dispatch, she changed pace and wrote about Cincinnati’s Ben-Gals in a way that humanized them, understood them, and actually respected them.

There isn’t a red-blooded male writer who could have come close to accomplishing what Jeanne Marie did. Allow me use myself as Exhibit A for the prosecution. When Debbie Does Dallas – a classic cheerleader move, I’m sure you’ll agree – opened in Chicago, I felt it was my duty to review it. It probably broke my colleague Roger Ebert’s heart to give up the assignment, but he recognized the connection between Debbie and the sports page and graciously stepped aside. I don’t recall how high I stacked the praise in my review, but it was enough to get DePaul University’s basketball team, famed famed for its appreciation of high-class cinema, out to see the movie en masse. The next time I stopped by DePaul, the kids delivered rave reviews and couldn’t thank me enough for broadening their cultural horizons.

The last thing the Ben-Gals needed was to have a dirty old man like me snooping around in their lives. What they needed—what they deserved—was Jeanne Marie serving as a big sister and a sympathetic ear as they unburdened themselves of problems far more serious that lost hair gel. The stories they told her will touch even the sleaziest horndog’s heart and leave you rooting for them to catch the breaks they need and bask in the glow of the spotlight that tells them they have found safe harbor. If there’s a piece in the book I love more than this one, I’ve yet to find it.

AB: These days sports writing is more about data and analysis than prose. Is there’s still good writing about football to be found?

JS: The key to great football writing—to great writing of any kind, really—is people. Say all you want about the Packer Sweep and the Bears’ 46 defense and whatever the Harbaugh brothers are up to, it still wouldn’t register with us if human beings weren’t bringing them to life. And these aren’t just any human beings, either. They’re at the peak of their physical powers but even the best of them had failings and frailties they have to get past. Some respond to a pat on the back, others to the lash. That’s where the drama that makes for great writing is found. There’s no drama in computer printouts unless your computer freezes or your printer craps out. The drama is out there on the field when an aging quarterback remembers his greatness long enough to drive his team 97 yards with a minute to go, or some rookie kamikaze on the kickoff team, s guy you’ve never heard of before, gets stretchered off to what may be a future as a paraplegic.

What makes the writer’s task more difficult than ever is that TV has seized on the human dimension, too. Its technical brilliance was never in question. All the cameras, all the angles—I don’t know why anyone wants to watch a game in person when they can see it so much better at home. Actually, I do. They go for the tailgating and the camaraderie, the cheerleaders and the chance to be on camera with their shirts off when the thermometer nosedives below freezing. Most of all, they go for the tribal passion that sent football rushing into America’s bloodstream in the first place.

When the sport’s popularity soared, TV coverage got smarter, and it keeps doing so, especially on cable, where the cameras take fans places they thought they’d never see. The leader in all this, of course, is NFL Films, which has always been so inventive and imaginative. In my case, I was hooked for life the first time I saw Gale Sayers’ velvet runs set to jazz. Nothing about this violent game has ever been more artistic, more perfect. Every time it crosses my mind, I think of Ed and Steve Sabol, the father-son team that created NFL Films and nurtured it to brilliance. Someone should put up statues of them even if they never took my suggestion to hire Tina Turner as their public voice when John Facenda died.

On top of TV’s brilliance, there are a shrinking number of outlets for writers who aspire to use football as a means of examining the human condition. The report I just read in the New York Times about the shadow of doom hanging over newspapers and magazines sent me into a tailspin. I’ve always assumed that the Internet would provide a safe harbor for writers—you know, places like Deadspin and Grantland and SB Nation—all of which champion narrative one way or another. But this thing about online analysis getting in the way of literacy baffles me. Analysis is easy. It’s knowing what you’re talking about that’s hard.

Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It wouldn’t be the first time. But I’m sure of this much: Writers will keep writing about football. They’re stubborn that way. It’s why they sit in lonely rooms or crowded coffee shops every day and hammer away at their computers, trying to capture in words what they’ve seen and whom they’ve talked to and what they’re feeling. They’re doing what the writers in the book I’ve put together did going back nearly a century. I like to think that a century from now, there will still be writers writing about whatever football has become and how it fits into the society that has emerged by then. Maybe someone will even stumble across a copy of this book of mine. I hope they think kindly of it, but if they give it the same short shrift I gave the old-timers, I’ll understand. What goes around comes around, right?

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[Photo Credit: Bronko (Pro football Hall of Fame0; Cope (AP); Jim Brown (Inside Sports); Plimpton, Butkus (SI); Richard Price (Sara Krulwich/N.Y. Times); Wright Thompson (Neiman Storyboard); George Allen (SI); Dave Duerson (Jonathan Daniel/Getty); Jeanne Marie Laskas (via her website); NFL Films]

The Sure Thing

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Pat Jordan doesn’t like Derek Jeter, but:

I have to admit that if I was a major league pitcher today, and Jeter was at the peak of his game, Derek Jeter would be the one shortstop I’d want to play behind me. Why? Simple. Jeter’s always caught the ball. J.J. Hardy, the Orioles’ Gold Glove shortstop told me the cardinal rule of playing shortstop is, “You can’t throw the ball if you don’t catch it.”

[Photo Via: Bleeding Yankee Blue]

BGS: Magnum P(retty) I(indecisive)

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Here’s more baseball-related fun for you, Pat Jordan’s 1989 GQ profile of Tom Selleck.

Dig in.

Tom Selleck is faced with a dilemma. He is being forced to make a decision that will annoy at least one of three people.

“Well, I don’t know, Esme. What do you think?”

His publicist, Esme Chandlee, who is seated beside Selleck on a sofa in his office at Universal Studios, folds her arms and says, “If it’s what you want, Thomas!”

“We could maybe try it, Esme,” Selleck says.

“I don’t know why,” she says. “I’m not bothering anyone.”

Selleck now looks beseechingly at me. “What do you think? Esme really hasn’t interfered.”

“It inhibits me,” I say. “I’ve never interviewed someone with their publicist sitting in.”

Selleck now looks beseechingly at Chandlee. “Gee, I feel comfortable with him, Esme. Maybe we could try it. Just him and me.” Chandlee stands up and glares at me. Selleck adds quickly, “If you don’t mind?”

“All right, Thomas,” she says. “If that’s the way you want it! But give him just ten more minutes. Do you hear Thomas?” Selleck nods like a chastised youngster as Chandlee leaves the room.

“Gee, l hope I didn’t offend her,” he says. “That’s the way she’s always done it with me.”

Esme Chandlee is in her late sixties. A savvy, schoolmarmish woman with rust-colored hair. She has been a Hollywood publicist for more than thirty years. She remembers Ava Gardner as a teenager in a halter top and tight shorts. “She breezed into the studio without makeup or shoes,” says Chandlee, “and every head turned.”

That was a time in Hollywood when actors were not actors, but stars. The stars deferred to their publicists, who kept a tight rein on their careers and lives. They built their stars’ careers less upon acting talent than on a distinctive, unwavering persona that satisfied their fans’ needs. These fans went to the movies to see John Wayne play John Wayne, not some fictional character.

It was also the publicist’s job to make sure that the John Wayne seen in the movies was consistent with the John Wayne seen in the press. Publicists often selected the magazines their stars would appear in, even setting the scene where an interview would take place (“Thomas will take batting practice with the Dodgers this afternoon,” says Chandlee. “You can watch.”) and writing the script (“Tom always hits a few home runs in batting practice,” she adds). When the scene didn’t quite play as written (Selleck swings through the first twenty pitches thrown him, hangs his head and says, “This is humiliating!”), they simply stuck to their script (“Thomas! What are you talking about? You hit some good ones.”).

They also determined the questions to be asked and not asked, and just to make sure their rules were followed, they sat in on each interview, nodding, smiling, frowning, pointing a long finger at the reporter’s notebook (“Come on! Come on! We don’t have all day!” says Chandlee) and even, on occasion, interrupted their star with a clarification (“l don’t think Tom said he was opposed to abortion. Did you Thomas?”).

Most of Esme Chandlee’s stars are now dead, like John Cassavetes, or semiretired, like Vera Miles. She still has Selleck, though, and, to a lesser extent, Sam Elliott. Her boys. She fusses over their careers, both of which were based more on masculine images than on acting ability and were established in television rather than in feature films. Television is the last bastion of the old star system. Careers are founded there—stars are made there—by forging a captivating persona that never wavers from week to week. TV stars are so closely identified with their characters (Magnum, Rockford, J.R., Alexis) that fans often refer to them by those names.

Which is fine for TV stars as long as they remain on TV, as Tom Selleck did with Magnum, P.l. for eight years. But Magnum is gone now, at Selleck’s request, and he is trying to build a film career from his new home near L.A.

“L.A. has changed a lot in the eight years I was in Hawaii,” says Selleck. “L.A. jokes are more valid now. There are a lot more people full of shit here. I don’t mean to get into L.A.-bashing, but I was lucky to be isolated in Hawaii. It was the most wonderful experience of my life. I just worked.”

As a TV actor in the hinterland, Selleck was removed from the pressures and critical scrutiny of Hollywood. Television also afforded him the luxury of not needing the press, since his face appeared onscreen weekly rather than in a movie once a year. “In films, you can get a career-ending momentum from one film,” he says. Which is why movie actors make themselves accessible to the press: to keep their public presence alive in between screen appearances. Now that Selleck is solely doing films, he finds himself in the same position. “It’s new to me,” he says. “In-depth interviews. I don’t know how to do them yet.”

Selleck’s success in film has been limited. Of his nine movies, only Three Men and a Baby, in which he shared the spotlight with Ted Danson and Steve Guttenherg, was a critical and financial hit. Much of the criticism leveled at the failures (Her Alibi, Lassiter, Runaway, High Road to China) centered upon Selleck’s insistence on playing himself, or, rather, the self he had created with Magnum. Amiable. Jocky. Bumbling. Insecure. Unthreatening (to men and women). And disbelieving of his very substantial physical charms.

The problem is that Selleck’s characters in Lassiter and High Road were each supposed to have had a certain hard edge: In High Road, for instance, Patrick O’Malley was a drunken, conniving mercenary who exploits women in a way not dissimilar to that of Burt Reynolds’s film persona. (Burt and Tom are good friends. Selleck is listed as executive producer of Reynolds’s ABC-TV series, B. L. Stryker, and he is probably the only actor alive who will lower his eyes modestly and say “Thank you“ when compared to Reynolds as an actor.) But Selleck didn’t totally mask his Magnum amiability in those roles. Like Reynolds, Selleck is of the acting school that insists that no matter what character he portrays onscreen, he must never let the audience forget the image he has off-screen. “I think it’s a compliment if the audience only sees me,” he says.

It just goes against Selleck’s nature not to be amiable. “I don’t see any reason not to be nice,” he says. “It can be one way, and an effective one, of achieving certain ends. Still, it bothers me when people equate niceness with being dull and wishy-washy. It makes me sound like a wuss.”

Even the success of Three Men and a Baby was predicated on his playing… an amiable, bumbling, love-struck architect—the one twist being that rather than a 25-year-old female in a bikini his love interest was a 6-month-old female in diapers.

The Boston Globe once wrote that Selleck was the only actor who appeared big on the small screen and small on the big screen. Actors who get away with playing the same character type in movie after movie (Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford) do so because they have developed compelling personas that are bigger than life, which is what moviegoers demand. More intense, passionate, mysterious, heroic, screwy, even threatening. It was precisely Ford’s nutty quirks that elevated the seemingly normal professor into the obsessed adventurer Indiana Jones. Selleck, originally offered that part, had to turn it down because of Magnum commitments.)

But Tom Selleck is mercilessly normal, either unable or unwilling to take the risk not to be. For a human being, that’s admirable. For an actor, it can be fatal. TV viewers are drawn to the normal for their heroes (Selleck/Magnum, Cosby/Huxtable) because it reassures them about their own everyday lives. TV heroes are comforting because they are not bigger than life, which is why TV actors often have difficulty taking the leap to film. Those who do either create memorable characters, like Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry,” or simply learn how to act, like Steve McQueen and James Garner.

In his new movie, An Innocent Man, Selleck is still playing “normal,” an ordinary guy wrongly accused and imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.

“As an actor, Tom’s underrated,” says Bess Armstrong, his costar in High Road to China. “l don’t feel the material he’s chosen is up to his ability. I believe there’s a lot of potential there that hasn’t been tapped. Maybe he’s biding his time. Tom is aware of every step, aware of staying in power. He’s very savvy. Tom always has a plan.”

* * *

Tom Selleck’s dilemma, then, is obvious. How far would he distance himself from Magnum—at the risk of losing his fans—in order to succeed in film? Rather than make that painful decision, Selleck is doing what he usually does. He is trying to maintain a precarious balance.

“My biggest fear,” he says, “is not to be wanted. I don’t know if I’ll want to act in five or ten years, but I’d really like for people to want me to work. You can be loyal to your fans without pandering to them. But you also can’t take them for granted. I’ve always felt it was easier to get women fans than men. But you have to have the guys to be successful. I’ve never liked guys who pandered to women fans.”

Many women swoon over Selleck/Magnum’s good looks and nonthreatening sensitivity, while others echo the sentiments of one of his leading ladies, who says, “What was lacking for me was a certain messiness, a certain passion. Everything with Tom is in its box.” It was Magnum’s male viewers who made the show a success; they identified with Magnum’s flaws, not his strengths. It was significant that the red Ferrari he drove was his boss’s, not his own. What was even more significant was that Magnum’s pursuits of beautiful women more often than not ended in failure, just like those of his male viewers. Selleck sustained an eight-year TV run out of those weaknesses, ultimately earning almost $5 million a year, and he is loath to lose that career now.

“Every actor gets put in a box,” Selleck says. “It’s not a curse if you’re working. If it’s a small box, though, I don’t think you can buck it. I’d just like to make my box a little bigger. I try not to approach my career as if I’m some mythical personality; because that personality changes with people’s perceptions of it.

“I like to think that every film part of mine has been a stretch. I’m very happy with them. No matter how safe people thought my choices were, they were a big risk for me. I just have to balance those stretches with my limitations. I can’t ever play Quasimodo just to prove something, but I can push my parameters or else there will be a sameness to my work. I have to be willing to fail. You can’t have it both ways. Still, I can’t do a movie without thinking of my career. I wish I could, but I can’t. That’s the trap. When you start calling what you do ’a career,’ that’s when you start feeling the pressure.”

Selleck relies a lot on Chandlee to protect his career. He is loyal to her, he says, because she did a lot of free work for him thirteen years ago, when he was a struggling actor known more for his modeling (Salem cigarettes, Chaz cologne) than for his thespian exploits (he played a corpse in the film Coma). Selleck is ashamed of his modeling past and tries to distance himself from it by denigrating talk of his being a sex symbol. “I hate that!” he says. “I hate to work out with weights just to stay in shape. I never did like to throw it around. Too much muscle takes away from your character onscreen.”

Like many actors, Selleck is more than a little embarrassed by what he does for a living. He considers it unmanly. “It’s easy to stare someone down with a gun when you know that after they shoot you dead you can get up again. Now, a big left-handed pitcher throwing me curveballs, ouch! That’s real!”

Selleck, at six feet four, 210 pounds and 44 years of age, is proud of his athletic ability. He is an Olympic-caliber volleyball player and claims his greatest achievement was recently being named to an all-American team for men 35 to 45. He also likes to talk about his college basketball days, and how he could really leap. “l didn’t have white man’s disease,” he says. “In one episode of Magnum, we ended the show with me dunking a basketball. It was really important for me to do that without camera tricks.”

It’s important, too, for Selleck to take batting practice at least once a year with a major league team. He has done so with the Orioles (“l hit a few out at Memorial Stadium“) and with the Tigers (“A few players were screwing around in the outfield. When I hit one between them, they just looked.”) and, this past season, with the Dodgers. This time, it did not go well.

Selleck stood behind the batting cage with the pitchers, waiting to take his swings against the easy lobs of one of the team’s older coaches. The pitchers kidded around, occasionally including Selleck in their jokes. He laughed nervously. This was obviously an important moment for him. He had spent the previous day at a batting range in preparation and did not want to look foolish.

Steve Garvey, the former Dodgers first baseman, walked onto the field accompanied by his latest wife, a striking cotton-candy blonde. Garvey, dressed in a navy blazer and tan trousers, looked less like a ballplayer than an actor. One of the Dodgers said to another, “Who’s that with Garv?”

“His new wife.”

“How do you know?”

“She’s the one who’s not pregnant.”

Selleck went over to talk to Garvey. They chatted under a bright sun, two men who have embellished their careers by being “nice.” Finally, it was Selleck’s turn to hit. For the next hour he struggled, sweating and lunging, foul-tipping or just missing pitch after pitch. There was a lightness to his swing. He didn’t attack the ball, driving toward it with his shoulders, but swung only with his arms.

“You swing pretty good,” said one pitcher, “…for an actor.”

Selleck tried to smile.

When batting practice was over, Selleck heard a stern voice calling him from the seats behind home plate, “Thomas! Thomas!” He went over to Chandlee, who was seated alongside Selleck’s elder brother, Bob.

“That was humiliating!” Selleck said.

“Oh, Thomas!” Chandlee said. “That pitcher was throwing hard.”

“He was,” Selleck said. “Wasn’t he?”

“Pretty hard,” said Bob, who had been a pitcher in the Dodgers organization years ago. Bob is a boyishly tousled, Alan Alda sort of guy, who stands almost six feet six. Selleck is close to his brother, and to all of his family, whom he refers to as his best friends. He also has a younger brother and a sister; they, along with their father, Bob Sr., and mother, Martha, make a strikingly beautiful family. “Heads just turn when they all enter a room,” says Chandlee.

* * *

Born in Detroit, Selleck moved with his family to Sherman Oaks, California, when he was 4. His father was a real estate executive and president of the Little League. His mother was a den mother for the Cub Scouts and Brownies. There was a tradition in the family that if the children did not drink, smoke or swear until the age of 21, they would be given a gold watch. Selleck got his, although he claims he did lapse a few times.

Selleck excelled in sports and won a basketball scholarship to USC. He mostly sat on the bench, but when Pepsi was looking for a basketball player for an ad, he landed his first modeling job. He began pursuing acting after that, doing a little modeling on the side, until he received his draft notice. This was in 1967—the height of the Vietnam war. After taking his physical, Selleck was told that within three months he’d probably be sent overseas. Although Selleck “firmly believed in my military obligation,” he wanted to continue acting. So his father helped him get into the National Guard. He claims it was a very scary time to be in the Guard, given all the student riots across the country. Meanwhile, he appeared on the TV program The Dating Game twice. He wasn’t chosen either time, but he was noticed by executives at Twentieth Century Fox and given a studio contract. The rest is history. Salem. Chaz. Magnum. An Emmy. People’s Choice Award for favorite male TV performer, four times. A film price that is now in the millions. In 1986, his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And in August, a multi-picture deal with Disney similar to those of Bette Midler, Tom Hanks and Goldie Hawn.

It is not clear whether Selleck truly defers to Chandlee in decisions about his career or just wants to give the impression that he does. When Chandlee sits in on interviews, Selleck insists it’s her demand, not his. Yet when he did a Playboy interview some years ago, he told the reporter that a CBS publicist had to sit in because the network insisted. He didn’t want to offend them, Selleck said, because they had been so nice to him. Afterward, he called the writer a number of times to clarify a few points he had made. Selleck likes to make these personal follow-up calls. It’s his way of softening his various refusals to writers during interviews. No mention of his family. No talks with his wife. No visits to his home. No questions about his salary.

Such passive aggressiveness seems to be the way he conducts every facet of his life. “Eventually, l guess l got to know Tom,” says Laila Robins, who plays his wife in An Innocent Man. “I just didn’t feel he wanted to schmooze with me. I felt bad, because I’m a professional and know enough not to cross that personal line. He just didn’t trust me enough to let me not cross that line on my own. He always had people around to protect him, to serve as buffers. I’d go our to dinner with him and his makeup man and driver/bodyguard. I never felt they shut me out. It wasn’t that blatant. I just felt there was a point when he didn’t want to go that extra step.”

“Actors need buffers,” says Selleck. “We need people to say no for us.” Chandlee says no a lot for Selleck. It takes the burden off him so he won’t have to sully his image not being “nice.” Then, too, Tom Selleck is truly a “nice“ man who does have trouble saying no to people. Even when he does, he will do it in a way that appears so painful for him, it doesn’t really seem like a no. Back in the late Seventies, as his marriage of ten years to Jacquelyn Ray was collapsing, he couldn’t bear to go through with the actual divorce for four years. “It’s one of the great sorrows of my life that we won’t be together,” he said at the time. “We’ve worked out an agreement to live separately, but we haven’t made any moves toward divorce.”

When Selleck goes out to dinner with his second wife, actress Jillie Mack (they’ve a 10-month-old daughter, Hannah Margaret Mack), he refuses to sign autographs while eating. But he takes great care to explain to his fans his reasons for saying, “Sometimes, it would just be easier to sign them,” he says. “Then when they left, I wouldn’t feel guilty.”

Selleck also felt guilty when he announced he was leaving Magnum after his seventh year. He felt he, personally, was pulling the plug on his crew’s careers. So he signed for an eighth and final season (at a considerable salary increase) just to give the crew one last big paycheck, and to give himself peace of mind.

Selleck loves to smoke cigars. “Obscenely large ones from Cuba,” he says. His favorite poem, by Rudyard Kipling, tells the story of a man forced to choose between the two great loves of his life: his fiancee, Maggie, and the beloved cigars Maggie demands that he give up. He wavers, debating the pros and cons of each love, until finally he makes his choice:

And a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a Smoke.

Light me another Cuba—I hold to my first-born vows,

If Maggie will have no rival, I’ll have no Maggie for Spouse!

It is ironic that Selleck’s favorite poem is about a man who makes a painful decision in a decisive way. Despite his own love of cigars, Selleck won’t smoke them in public for fear of offending his fans. When he is offered a cigar while seated in the crowded Dodgers bleachers, where no one has recognized him, he looks around quickly before saying, “I’d better not.”

In his political convictions, Selleck is equally equivocal, though they are of a conservative bent. He believes that socialism is a failed economic concept that limits wealth, while capitalism breeds it. “I benefit a lot of people by making a lot of money,” he says. “It doesn’t make me feel guilty. I can afford to be principled now because of my wealth. If you’re struggling with a family and you sell out, it’s understandable, but if you have wealth and you sell out, there’s something wrong.”

Selleck feels that women’s lib is “just an excuse for women to get even” and that abortion is not only a woman’s issue but a man’s, too. “It takes two people to have a baby,” he says. “And since there’s been no national consensus on it, one way or another, l don’t think the federal government should fund abortions. I would never encourage anyone to have an abortion, but you won’t see me pounding the streets one way or another about it. I don’t think I belong out there just because I did Magnum for eight years.”

Selleck also resents the fact that white Americans are often given the blanket label of racist, held responsible for sins committed 200 years ago. “I’m not responsible for slavery,” he says. “When that poor girl was raped in Central Park this year, Cardinal O’Connor said we were all responsible. I’m not. O’Connor said that God forgave those kids who raped the girl. God might have forgiven them, but I don’t think He forgave them right away.”

When Robert Bork was rejected by the Senate in his attempt to become a Supreme Court justice, Selleck thought it such an outrage that he sent a letter to each of the congressmen who had voted against Bork. Selleck never made that letter public, for the same reason he refuses to campaign for conservative political candidates. As he once said, “Flat out from a business point of view, I don’t think it’s a good idea to get involved. Yet at the same time you don’t want to compromise.”

* * *

It is the seventh inning of the game at Dodger Stadium, and Selleck has yet to be recognized as he sits in the home plate bleachers. It has been a rare treat for him to watch a game without fans assailing him for autographs. The last time he went to the stadium, he sat down below and was immediately spotted. He had to sign so many autographs that he never saw the game. He debated this time whether he should sit in the Stadium Club, where his privacy would be respected. But he rejected that possibility because looking through a glass partition is not like “really being at a game.”

“I’ve always been a private person in a public job,” he says now. “If I give all my privacy away to the public, l won’t have any left as an actor. l won’t have anything to show in my work. Still, I want to be able to do normal things, or else you get isolated and lose touch with reality. I miss all the rudimentary things other people do, like going to the beach and reading a book. I force myself to do these things sometimes, like this game. If I don’t, then privacy becomes the ability to lock yourself in your home, and you’ll never experience reality.”

Suddenly he stops talking and taps me on the shoulder. “Hey, look at that girl!” He points down below to a beautiful girl in a tight sweater returning to her seat behind home plate and whistles like a schoolboy. “That’s all right!” he says. There is something of the schoolboy about Selleck when he talks about women. He claims he is “painfully shy with girls“ and often had to be set up on blind dates. When he asked Jillie out for the first time, he sat in an upstairs bedroom, sweating and hesitating before finally mustering the nerve to dial her number. He was so tongue-tied that eventually she had to say, “Do you want to ask me out?”

“Gee, I hope she gets up again to go for popcorn,” Selleck says, still staring down at the girl. Then he catches himself. “Isn’t that silly?” Despite his adolescent ogling, Selleck is almost prudish about sex. When he’s told that one of his favorite actresses, Kim Basinger, gave a magazine interview recently in which she talked brazenly about wearing a see-through skirt without underwear, Selleck just shakes his head. “That’s too bad,” he says. When his brother Bob tells him an off-color joke that ends in oral sex between two men, Selleck slinks down in his seat, scrunches up his features and mutters, “Yuck!”

The ultimate impression Selleck gives is of a man either physically unable to let himself go or of a man hiding some terrible secret. In either case, he’s still so nice that it seems a waste of his energy to be so protective. He’s the kind of guy who would probably be even nicer if he just stopped acting that way and let himself be naturally so.

Selleck sits back now to enjoy the rest of the game. He looks around. It dawns on him that the fans’ attention is glued to the action on the field. “Hey, this is great!” he says. “Nobody asked me for an autograph. I’m escaping…. Oh, my God! Maybe they forgot me already! Maybe I should stand up or something. Turn around, let them see me.”

He laughs, only half-kidding.

The Man in Me

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Arizona Diamondbacks

Pat Jordan’s latest for Sports on Earth is a profile of Rays’ pitcher, Chris Archer:

I met Chris Archer for dinner at the Outback Steakhouse on my first night in North Carolina. He showed up with a handsome black man in his 40s, whom he introduced as “Ron Walker, my mentor.” The hostess led us to a booth in the far corner of the room. As we sat down, Archer said, “Wow! This is the same table where I met my father last February.” He meant his biological father, Magnum. Walker had helped facilitate that first-ever meeting between father and son. It did not go well. Archer peppered his father with questions. Why had he never tried to contact his son? That sort of thing. Archer did not like the answers.

By the time his father had left, Archer said, he had already decided, “I had no intention of ever seeing him again. The type of person he was. He had three children with three different women. Zero of which he is in their lives. He couldn’t tell what school his kids went to. I had no intention of trying to change a grown man who didn’t want to be in my life.”

I told Archer that I hadn’t planned to ask him about his biological parents until tomorrow, after we’d gotten to know each other a bit. He smiled and said, “Yeah, I came out throwin’ heat right off the bat.”

When the waiter came to take our order, Archer discussed with Walker what he should eat. Walker suggested fish and steamed broccoli, nothing fried or with butter. One night, before Archer was to pitch a minor league game, he had called Walker and told him he was eating a pizza. Walker said, “You’re eating what? Don’t put that in your body. Spend $30 on something healthy.”

Now, at Outback, Archer said, “He didn’t want me to put regular gas in my high-performance engine. We talk all the time.”

“We always dialogue back and forth,” said Walker. “It’s a wonderful thing.”

“He’s like my brother,” said Archer.

Walker looked at him sternly and said, “Uncle.”

[Photo credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports]

Royko: Stacked

Royko

Yesterday, I brought my Stacks show on the road to The Daily Beast. I’ll have a reprint there each weekend. First up, John Schulian’s great Mike Royko profile.

Dig:

They were drinking their dinner in a joint outside Chicago. It was just Mike Royko and his pal, Big Shack, and whatever their bleary musings happened to be that night three years ago. They probably never even gave a thought to the fact that they were in Niles, Illinois, which qualifies as a suburb and therefore should have been treated by Royko as if it were jock itch. But Niles is where a lot of the Milwaukee Avenue Poles he grew up with fled when they started finding themselves living next door to neighbors named Willie and Jose. So this was shot-and-a-beer territory after all. The only thing it lacked was a DO NOT DISTURB sign.

“Hey, you’re Mike Royko!”

It happens to him all the time even though newspaper guys are supposed to be bylines, not recognizable faces with bald heads, crooked smiles and ski-jump noses. How Royko, who is a baggy-pants character no matter what he wears, cracked the celebrity lineup is no mystery, though. Nor is it a tribute to the tiny picture of him that has decorated his column in each of the three Chicago papers he has worked for. The secret is words. The words that in 1971 paid off with a Pulitzer Prize for his newspaper commentary and a best-selling book called Boss, in which he dissected Mayor Richard J. Daley. The words that now appear, via syndication, in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Daily News, and 223 other papers. The words that always have originated in his hometown, Chicago, five times a week, year after year after year.

“I’ve read you all my life.”

Royko’s admirer was male, white, crowding 40, with a pretty wife who quickly made it known that she was a more voracious reader than her husband. Soon the three of them were so wrapped up in one another that they failed to notice Big Shack, all 220 pounds of him, lumber off to the can. But Big Shack is important to this story, first, because he is the source of it, and second, because he returned just in time to save Royko.

“The guy was choking Mike,” Big Shack says. “I guess his wife had gotten a little too friendly, and Mike, well, you know Mike. So there I was, peeling the guy’s fingers off Mike’s throat one at a time.”

Big Shack can laugh about it now.

“What can I tell you? In ten minutes Mike went from hero to bad guy.”

It wasn’t his maiden voyage.

Dumb and Dumber

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That’d be Tom Seaver and Pat Jordan. Head on over to Sports on Earth and check out Jordan’s nice, long profile on Seaver:

We walked between the rows of vines, up and down the steep terraces in the hot sun. Tom’s three Labrador Retrievers romped around us. Big, playful, doofus dogs with their tongues hanging out. He told me their names. “Major, Bandy, Bricks.” I said, “Bricks, like in chimney bricks?” He said, “No, Brix.” I said, “Bricks?” He said, “No, Brix.” I said, “Who’s on first?” He didn’t get it, so I said, “Spell it.” He spelled, “B-R-I-X. It’s French for the sugar content in grapes.”

We stopped at a vine drooping with clusters of grapes. He snipped off a cluster and handed it to me. I held it over my head, like in one of those old paintings of Roman orgies, and ate the small, black, sweet grapes off the cluster. “Delicious,” I said. Tom explained that each variety of grapes had different characteristics that you could only tell by tasting them. That’s why each row was numbered.

I said, “Very good, Thomas. You always did explain things precise.”

“Ly,” he said. “Precise-ly. You’re supposed to be the fucking writer, and you don’t know your grammar.”

“OK. Precise-ly.”

“Thank you very much. You know I got a journalism degree from USC.” Irony of ironies! Tom Seaver, trying to impress me.

I said, “Yeah, and I had a better fastball than you.”

But he went on. “I was always like that about pitching. I had to be precise. I couldn’t just mail it in!” Then he began to explain more about his vines, about the cordon and proper height for each vine. I tuned him out and ate my grapes, the juices running down my sweatshirt. He looked at me, annoyed, and said, “Pay attention. I’m gonna give you a fucking lesson.”

“I don’t want a fucking lesson.”

“That doesn’t matter. I’m giving you one. Now, if the secondary fruit grows too high, you have to snip it off or else they’ll take energy from the vines.”

I feigned interest. “How high?”

“Each row has to be only to a height of 14.”

“Fourteen what? Inches, feet?”

“I don’t know. It’s just a standard height. Stop asking questions and just listen. This is important, for Chrissakes. If you didn’t talk so much you might learn something. If the vines are too high, you have to trim them.” He reached up with his snips and trimmed a vine.

“Oh, I see. The height of each vine is a template for the row. Your job is to go down the row trimming the tops, to make them conform to the template. I can see how the monotony of this appeals to your precise, fucking methodical nature. It’s therapy for you.”

“Bullshit. You think too much. You always did.”

“I had a better fastball than you.”

“In your dreams.”

“I did.”

“Yeah, and between us we won 311 major league games.”

“Abso-fucking-lutely! I tell everybody that!”

I asked him if he’d still have his vineyards if he hadn’t missed out on today’s big baseball paydays. Tom made more than a million dollars a year only twice in his career. If he were pitching in his prime today, he’d be making $30 million a year.

“I started to lose interest,” he said. “I wanted to go home. I couldn’t do it anymore. I never was pissed I missed the big paydays. Be careful what you wish for, you might get it. If I’d made that $30 million a year, maybe I’d just have bought that huge, finished vineyard and let others do it all. I’d have missed out on the pleasure of being in the vineyards every day. My pleasure has always been in the work, not the ego.”

The Power and the Gory

Here’s a powerful story from my pal Paul Solotaroff. It originally appeared in the Village Voice (1990) and it is presented here with the author’s permission.

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“The Power and the Gory”

By Paul Solotaroff

Half the world was in mortal terror of him. He had a sixty-inch chest, twenty-three-inch arms, and when the Anadrol and Bolasterone backed up in his bloodstream, his eyes went as red as the laser scope on an Uzi. He threw people through windows, and chased them madly down Hempstead Turnpike when they had the temerity to cut him off. And in the gym he owned in Farmingdale, the notorious Mr. America’s, if he caught you looking at him while he trained, you generally woke up, bleeding, on the pavement outside. Half out of his mind on androgens and horse steroids, he had this idea that being looked at robbed him of energy, energy that he needed to leg-press two thousand pounds. Nonetheless, one day a kid walked up to him between sets and said, “I want to be just like you, Steve Michalik. I want to be Mr. America and Mr. Universe.”

“Yeah?” said Michalik in thick contempt. “How bad do you think you want it?”

“Worse than anything in the world,” said the kid, a scrawny seven-teen-year-old with more balls than biceps. “I can honestly say that I would die for a body like yours.”

“Well, then you probably will,” snorted Michalik. “Meet me down at the beach tomorrow at six A.M. sharp. And if you’re like even half a minute late …”

The kid was there at six A.M. pronto, freezing his ass off in a raggedy hood and sweats. “What do we do first?” he asked.

“Swim,” grunted Michalik, dragging him into the ocean. Twenty yards out, Michalik suddenly seized the kid by his scalp and pushed him under a wave. The kid flailed punily, wriggling like a speared eel. A half minute, maybe forty-five seconds, passed before Michalik let the kid up, sobbing out sea water. He gave the kid a breath, then shoved him down again, holding him under this time until the air bubbles stopped, whereupon he dragged him out by the hood and threw him, gasping, on the beach.

“When you want the title as bad as you wanted that last fucking breath,” sneered Michalik, “then and only then can you come talk to me.”

For himself, Michalik only wanted two things anymore. He wanted to walk on stage at the Beacon Theater on November 15, 1986, professional bodybuilding’s Night of Champions, and just turn the joint out with his 260 pounds of ripped, stripped, and shrink-wrapped muscle. And then, God help him, he wanted to die. Right there, in front of everybody, with all the flashbulbs popping, be wanted to drop dead huge and hard at the age of thirty-nine, and leave a spectacular corpse behind.

The pain, you see, had become just unendurable. Ten years of shot-gunning steroids had turned his joints into fish jelly and spiked his blood pressure so high he had to pack his nose to stop the bleeding. He’d been pissing blood for months, and what was coming out of him now was brown, pure protoplasm that his engorged liver hadn’t the wherewithal to break down. And when he came home from the gym at night, his whole body was in spasm. His eight-year-old boy, Steve Junior, had to pack his skull in ice, trying to take the top 10 percent off his perpetual migraine.

“I knew it was all over for me,” Michalik says. “Every system in my body was shot, my testicles had shrunk to the size of cocktail peanuts. It was only a question of which organ was going to explode on me first.

“See, we’d all of us [professional bodybuilders] been way over the line for years, and it was like, suddenly, all the bills were coming in. Victor Faizowitz took so much shit that his brain exploded. The Aldactazone [a diuretic] sent his body temperature up to one hundred twelve degrees, and he literally melted to death. Another guy, an Egyptian bodybuilder training for the Mr. Universe contest, went the same way, a massive hemorrhage from head to toe—died bleeding out of every orifice. And Tommy Sansone, a former Mr. America who’d been my very first mentor in the gym, blew out his immune system on Anadrol and D-ball [Dianabol], and died of tumors all over his body.

“As for me, I couldn’t wait to join ‘em. I had so much evil in me from all the drugs I was taking that I’d go home at night and ask God why be hadn’t killed me yet. And then, in the next breath, I’d say, ‘Please, I know I’ve done a lot of terrible things—sold steroids to kids, beaten the shit out of strangers—but please don’t let me go out like a sucker, God. Please let me die hitting that last pose at the Beacon, with the crowd on its feet for a second standing O.’”

Michalik’s prayers might better have been addressed to a liver specialist. Two weeks before the show, he woke up the house at four in the morning with an excruciating pain beneath his rib cage. His wife, Thomasina, long since practiced at such emergencies, ran off to fetch some ice.

“Fuck the ice,” he groaned. “Call Dr. Ludwig.”

Dr. Arthur Ludwig, a prominent endocrinologist who had been treating Michalik on and off for a number of years, was saddened but unsurprised by the call. “Frankly,” he told Michalik, “I’ve been expecting it now for ages. Your friends have been telling me lately how bad you’ve been abusing the stuff, especially for the last five years.”

That he certainly had. Instead of cycling on and off of steroids, giving his body here and there a couple months’ recuperation, Michalik had been juicing pretty much constantly since 1976, shooting himself with fourteen different drugs and swallowing copious amounts of six or seven others. Then there was all the speed he was gulping—bennies, black beauties—to get through his seven-hour workouts, and the handful of downs at night to catch four hours of tortuous sleep.

There, at any rate, Michalik was, doubled over in bed at four in the morning, his right side screaming like a bomb had gone off in it.

“You’d better get him to New York Hospital as fast as you can,” Ludwig told Michalik’s wife over the phone. “They’ve got the best liver specialist on the East Coast there. I’ll meet you in his office in an hour.”

At the hospital, they pumped Michalik full of morphine and took a hasty sonogram upstairs. The liver specialist, a brusque Puritan who’d been apprised of Michalik’s steroid usage, called him into his office.

“See this?” he pointed to the sonogram, scarcely concealing a sneer. “This is what’s left of your liver, Mr. Michalik. And these”—indicating the four lumps grouped inside it, one of them the size of a ripe grapefruit—”these are hepatic tumors. You have advanced liver cancer, sir.”

“I do?” grinned Michalik, practically hugging himself for joy. “How long you think I’ve got?”

“Mr. Michalik, do you understand what I’m telling you?” snapped the doctor, apparently miffed that his news hadn’t elicited operatic grief. “You have cancer, and will be dead within weeks or days if I don’t operate immediately. And frankly, your chances of surviving surgery are—”

“Surgery!” blurted Michalik, looking at the man as if he were bonkers. “You’re not coming near me with a knife. That would leave a scar.” The doctor was with perfect justice about to order Michalik out of his office when Ludwig walked in. He took a long look at the sonogram and announced that surgery was out of the question. Michalik’s liver was so compromised, he would undoubtedly die on the table. Besides, Ludwig adjudged, those weren’t tumors at all. They were something rarer by far but no less deadly: steroid-induced cysts, or thick sacs of blood and muscle, that were full to bursting—and growing.

He ordered Michalik strapped down—the least movement now could perforate the cysts—and wheeled upstairs to intensive care. The next twenty-four hours, he declared, would tell the tale. If, deprived of steroids, the cysts stopped growing, there was a small chance that Michalik might come out of this. If, on the other hand, they fed on whatever junk he’d injected the last couple of days—well, he’d get his wish, at any rate, to die huge.

Michalik knew it was the liver, of course. He might have been heedless, but he was hardly uninformed. In fact, he knew so much about steroids that he’d written a manual on their use, and gone on the Today show to debate doctors about their efficacy. Like the steroid gurus of southern California, Michalik was a self-taught sorcerer whose laboratory was his body. From the age of eleven, he’d read voraciously in biochemistry, obsessed about finding out what made people big. He walked the streets of Brooklyn as a teenager, knocking on physicians’ doors, begging to be made enlightened about protein synthesis. And years later he scoured the Physicians’ Desk Reference from cover to cover, searching not for steroids but for other classes of drugs whose secondary function was to grow muscle.

Steroids, Michalik knew, were a kind of God’s play, a way of rewriting his own DNA. He’d grown up skinny and hating himself to his very cell level. According to Michalik, his father, a despotic drunk with enormous forearms, beat him with whatever was close to hand, and smashed his face, for fun, into a plate of mashed potatoes.

“I was small and weak, and my brother Anthony was big and graceful, and my old man made no bones about loving him and hating me,” Michalik recalls. “The minute I walked in from school, it was, ‘You worthless little shit, what are you doing home so early?’ His favorite way to torture me was to tell me he was going to put me in a home. We’d be driving along in Brooklyn somewhere, and we’d pass a building with iron bars on the windows, and he’d stop the car and say to me, ‘Get out. This is the home we’re putting you in.’ I’d be standing there, sobbing on the curb—I was maybe eight or nine at the time—and after a while he’d let me get back into the car and drive off laughing at his little joke.”

Fearful and friendless throughout childhood—even his brother was leery of being seen with him—Michalik hid out in comic books and Steve Reeves movies, burning to become huge and invulnerable. At thirteen, he scrubbed toilets in a Vic Tanny spa just to be in the presence of that first generation of iron giants—Eddie Juliani and Leroy Colbert, among others. At twenty, stationed at an Air Force base in Southeast Asia, he ignored sniper fire and the 120-degree heat to bench-press a cinder-block barbell in an open clearing, telling the corps psychiatrist that he couldn’t be killed because it was his destiny to become Mr. America. And at thirty-four, years after he’d forgotten where be put all his trophies, he was still crawling out of bed at two in the morning to eat his eighth meal of the day because he still wasn’t big enough. As always, there was that fugitive inch or two missing, that final heft without which he wouldn’t even take his shirt off on the beach—for fear that everyone would laugh.

And so, of course, there were steroids. They’d been around since at least the mid-1930s, when Hitler had them administered to his SS thugs to spike their bloodlust. By the fifties, the eastern bloc nations were feeding them to school kids, creating a generation of bioengineered athletes. And in the late sixties, anabolics hit the beaches of California, as U.S. drug companies discovered that there was a vast new market out there of kids who’d swallow anything to double their pecs and their pleasure.
The dynamics of anabolic steroids have been pretty well understood for years. Synthetic variations of the male hormone testosterone, they enter the bloodstream as chemical messengers and attach themselves to muscle cells. Once attached to these cells, they deliver their twofold message: grow, and increase endurance.

Steroids accomplish the first task by increasing the synthesis of protein. In sufficient quantities, they turn the body into a kind of fusion engine, converting everything, including fat, into mass and energy. A chemical bodybuilder can put on fifty pounds of muscle in six months because most of the 6,000 to 10,000 calories he eats a day are incorporated, not excreted.

The second task—increasing endurance—is achieved by stimulating the synthesis of a molecule called creatine phosphate, or CP. CP is essentially hydraulic fluid for muscles, allowing them to do more than just a few seconds’ work. The more CP you have in your tank, the more power you generate. Olympic weightlifters and defensive linemen have huge stockpiles of CP, some portion of which is undoubtedly genetic. The better part of it, though, probably comes out of a bottle of Anadrol, a popular oral steroid that makes you big, strong, and savage—and not necessarily in that order.

Over the course of eleven years, Michalik had taken ungodly amounts of Anadrol. If his buddies were taking two 50 mg tablets a day, he took four. Six weeks later, when he started to plateau, he jacked the ante to eight. So, too, with Dianabol, another brutal oral steroid. Where once a single 5 mg pill sufficed, inevitably he was gulping ten or twelve of them a day, in conjunction with the Anadrol.

The obstacle here was his immune system, which was stubbornly going on about its business, neutralizing these poisons with antibodies and shutting down receptor sites on the muscle cells. No matter. Michalik, upping the dosage, simply overwhelmed his immune system, and further addled it by flooding his bloodstream with other drugs.

All the while, of course, he was cognizant of the damage done. He knew, for instance, that Anadrol, like all oral steroids, was utter hell on the liver. An alkylated molecule with a short carbon chain, it had to be hydralized, or broken down, within twenty-four hours. This put enormous stress on his liver, which had thousands of other chemical transactions to carry out every day, not the least of which was processing the waste from his fifty pounds of new muscle. The Physicians’ Desk Reference cautions that the smallest amounts of Anadrol may be toxic to the liver, even in patients taking it for only a couple of months for anemia:

WARNING: MAY CAUSE PELIOSIS HEPATIS, A CONDITION IN WHICH LIVER TISSUE IS REPLACED WITH BLOOD-FILLED CYSTS, OFTEN CAUSING LIVER FAILURE. . . . OFTEN NOT RECOGNIZED UNTIL LIFE-THREATENING LIVER FAILURE OR INTRA-ABDOMINAL HEMORRHAGE OCCURS. . . . FATAL MALIGNANT LIVER TUMORS ARE ALSO REPORTED.

As lethal as it was, however, Anadrol was like a baby food compared to some of the other stuff Michalik was taking. On the bodybuilding black market, where extraordinary things are still available, Michalik and some of his buddies bought the skulls of dead monkeys. Cracking them open with their bare hands, they drank the hormone-rich fluid that poured out of the hypothalamus gland. They filled enormous syringes with a French supplement called Triacana and, aiming for the elusive thyroid gland, shot it right into their necks. They took so much Ritalin before workouts to psych themselves up that one of Michalik’s training partners, a former Mr. Eastern USA, ran out of the gym convinced that he could stop a car with his bare hands. He stood in the passing lane of the Hempstead Turnpike, his feet spread shoulder-width apart, bracing for the moment of impact—and got run over like a dog by a Buick Skylark, both his legs and arms badly broken.

Why, knowing what he knew about these poisons, did Michalik continue taking them? Because he, as well as his buddies and so many thousands of other bodybuilders and football players, were fiercely and progressively addicted to steroids. The American medical community is currently divided about whether or not the stuff is addictive. These are the same people who declared, after years of thorough study, that steroids do not grow muscle. Bodybuilders are still splitting their sides over that howler. Michalik, however, is unamused.

“First, those morons at the AMA say that steroids don’t work, which anyone who’s ever been inside a gym knows is bullshit,” he snorts. “Then, ten years later, they tell us they’re deadly. Oh, now they’re deadly? Shit, that was like the FDA seal of approval for steroids. C’mon, everybody, they must be good for you—the AMA says they’ll kill you!

“Somehow, I don’t know how, I escaped getting addicted to them the first time, when I was training for the Mr. America in 1972. Maybe it was because I was on them for such a short stretch, and went relatively light on the stuff. Mostly, all it amounted to was a shot in the ass once a week from a doctor in Roslyn. I never found out what was in that shot, but Jesus, did it make me crazy. Here I was, a churchgoing, gentle Catholic, and suddenly I was pulling people out of restaurant booths and threatening to kill them just because there were no other tables open. I picked up a three-hundred-pound railroad tie and caved in the side of some guy’s truck with it because I thought he’d insulted my wife. I was a nut, a psycho, constantly out of control—and then, thank God, the contest came, and I won it and got off the juice, and suddenly became human again. I retired, and devoted myself entirely to my wife for all the hell I’d put her through, and swore I’d never go near that shit again!”

A couple of years later, however, something happened that sent him back to the juice, and this time there was no getting off it. “I’d bought Thomasina a big house in Farmingdale, and filled it with beautiful things , and was happier than I’d ever been in my life. And then one day I found out she’d been having an affair. I was worse than wiped out, my soul was ripped open. It had taken me all those years to finally feel like I was a man, to get over all the things my father had done to me … and she cut my fucking heart out.”

Michalik went back to the gym, where he’d always solved all his problems, and started seeing someone we’ll call Dr. X. A physician and insider in the subculture, for two decades Dr. X had been supplying bodybuilders with all manner of steroids in exchange for sexual favors. Michalik hit him up for a stack of prescriptions, but made it clear that he couldn’t accommodate the doctor sexually, to the latter’s keen disappointment. The two, however, worked out a satisfactory compromise. Michalik, the champion bodybuilder who was constantly being consulted by young wannabes, directed some of them posthaste to the tender governance of Dr. X.

“They had to find out sooner or later that the road to the title went through Dr. X’s office,” Michalik shrugs. “Nobody on this coast was gonna get to be competition size unless they put out for him—that, or they had a daddy in the pharmaceutical business. The night Dr. X first tried to seduce me, he showed me pictures of five different champions that he said he’d had sex with. I checked it out later and found out it was all true. Nice business, isn’t it, professional bodybuilding? More pimps and whores than Hollywood.”

Michalik didn’t care about any of that, however. Nor did he care if he went crazy or got addicted to steroids. “I didn’t care if I fucking died from ‘em. All I cared about was getting my body back. I was down to one hundred fifty pounds, which was my natural body weight, and no one in the gym even knew who I was. Big guys were screaming at me, ‘Get off that bench, you little punk, I wanna use it!’ Three months later, I’m two hundred pounds and bench-pressing four hundred, and the same guys are coming over to me, going, ‘Hey, aren’t you Steve Michalik? When did you get here?’ And I’d tell ‘em, ‘I’ve been here for the last three months, motherfucker. I’m the guy you pushed offa that bench over there, remember?’”

By that third month, he recalls, he was hopelessly hooked on steroids, unable to leave the house without “gulping three of something, and taking a shot of something else. I’d get out of bed in the morning feeling weak and sick, and stagger around, going, ‘Where’s my shit?’ I was a junkie and I knew it and I hated myself for it. But what I hated much, much more was not getting to Dr. X’s office. He had the real hot shit—Primobolan, Parabolin—that you couldn’t get anywhere else. They were so powerful you felt them immediately in your muscles, and tasted them for hours on your lips. My heart would start pounding, and the blood would come pouring out of my nose, but he’d just pack it with cotton and send me on my way.

“Suddenly, all I was doing was living and dying for those shots. I was totally obsessed about seeing him, I’d have terrible panic attacks on the subway, my brain would be racing—was I going to make it up to his office before I fell down? I was throwing people out of my way, shoving ‘em into poles, practically knocking the door down before we pulled into the station.

“Understand, there was no justification for the things I did; not my wife’s affair, not what had happened to me as a kid—nothing. I was an adult, I knew what I was doing, at least at the beginning, and when you add it all up, I deserve to have died from it.

“But I want you to understand what it’s like to just completely lose yourself. To get buried in something so deep that you think the only way out is to die. Those ten years, it was like I was trapped inside a robot body, watching myself do horrible things, and yelling, ‘Stop! Stop!’ but I couldn’t even slow down. It was always more drugs, and more side effects, and more drugs for the side effects. For ten years, I was just an animal on stimulus-response.”

He flew to London in the fall of 1975 for the Mr. Universe show, already so sick from the steroids and the eight meals a day that he could scarcely make it up the stairs to the stage. “I had a cholesterol level of over 400, my blood pressure was 240 over 110—but, Jesus Christ, I was a great-looking corpse. No one had ever seen anything like me on stage before, I had absolutely perfect symmetry: nineteen-inch arms, nineteen-inch calves, and a fifty-four-inch chest that was exactly twice the size of my thighs. The crowd went bazongo, the judges all loved me—and none of it, not even the title, meant shit to me. Joy, pride, any sense of satisfaction—the drugs wiped all of that out of me. The only feeling I was capable of anymore was deep, deep hatred.”

Michalik went home, threw his trophy into a closet, and began training maniacally for the Mr. Olympia show, bodybuilding’s most prestigious event. He’d invented a training regimen called “Intensity/Insanity,” which called for seventy sets per body part instead of the customary ten. This entailed a seven-hour workout and excruciating pain, but the steroids, he found, turned that pain into pleasure, “a huge release of all the pressure built up inside me, the rage and the energy.”

And with whatever rage and energy he had left, he ran his wife’s panicked lover out of town, and completed his revenge by impregnating her “so that there’d be two Steve Michalik’s in the world to oppress her.” Spotlessly faithful to her for the first ten years of their marriage, he began nailing everyone he could get his hands on now, thanks in no small part to his daily dosage of Halotestin, a steroid whose chief side effect was a constant—and conspicuous—erection. He was also throwing down great heaps of Clomid and HCG, two fertility drugs for women that, in men, stimulate the production of testosterone.

“Bottom line, I was insatiable, and acting it out all over the place. I had girlfriends in five different towns in Long Island, and one day I was so hormone-crazed I fucked ‘em all, one right after the other. Suddenly, I saw why there was so much rampant sex in this business, why the elite bodybuilders always had two or three girls in their hotel room, or were making thousands of dollars a weekend at private gay parties. In fact, one of my friends in the business, a former Mr. America, used to get so horny on tour that he’d fuck the Coke machine in his hotel. Swear to God, he’d stick his dick right in the change slot and bang it for all he was worth. I’m telling you, my wife saw him do this, she can vouch for it. He fucked those machines from coast to coast, and even had ratings for them. I seem to remember the Chicago Hyatt’s being pretty high up there on the list.”

Hot, in any event, off his win in the Mr. Universe, and absolutely galactic now at 250 pounds, he was the consensus pick among his peers to put an end to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reign as Mr. Olympia and begin a five- or six-year run of his own. He had even prepped himself to follow Ahnuld into show business, taking two years of acting lessons and a year of speech at Weiss-Baron Studios in Manhattan. One of the networks approached him about hosting a science show. George Butler and Charles Gaines filmed him extensively for Pumping Iron, the definitive bodybuilding flick that put Schwarzenegger on the map in Hollywood.

And then, driving himself to the airport for the Mr. Olympia show that November, Michalik suddenly ran into something bigger than steroids. A tractor-trailer driver, neglecting to check his mirror, veered into Michalik’s lane on Route 109 and ran right over the hood of his Mustang. Michalik was dragged twenty yards into an embankment; the Mustang crumpled up around him. When they finally sawed him out of it two hours later, he had four cracked discs and a torn sciatic nerve, and was completely paralyzed from the waist down.

The bad news, said the surgeon after a battery of X-rays, was that Michalik would never walk again. The good news was that with a couple of operations, the pain could be substantially mitigated. Michalik told him to get the fuck out of his room. For months he lay in traction, refusing medication, and with his free arm went on injecting himself with testosterone, which had with him in a black bag at the time of the accident, and which the hospital had so thoughtfully put on his bedside table.

“It was hilarious. The idiot doctors kept coming in and going. ‘Gee, your blood pressure seems awfully high, Mr. Michalik,’ and I’d just lay there with a straight face and go, ‘Well, I have been very tense, you know, since the accident’

“Meanwhile, for the one and only time in my life, the steroids were actually helping me. They speeded up the healing, which is actually their medical purpose, and kept enough size on me so that the nurses used to fight over who was supposed to wash me every day. I started getting a little sensation back in my right leg, enough so that when the doctor told me he’d send me home if I could stand up, I managed to fake it by standing on one leg.”

There, however, the progress halted, and Michalik, unspeakably depressed, lay in bed for a year, bloating on steroids and chocolate chip cookies. He got a call from the TV people, telling him that they’d hired Leonard Nimoy to replace him on the science show. He got another one from the producers of Pumping Iron, informing him that he’d been all but cut out of the film. Worst of all, his friends and training partners jumped ship on him, neither calling nor coming by to see him.

“So typical of bodybuilders,” he sneers. “‘Hey, Michalik’s crippled, I gotta go see him—nah, it’s Tuesday, chest-and-back day. Fuck him.’ But the real reason, I think, was they couldn’t stand to see one of their own hurt. In order to keep on doing what they’re doing—the drugs, the binge eating, the sex-for-money—they’ve gotta keep lying to themselves, saying, ‘I can’t be hurt, I can’t get sick. I’m Superman. Cancer is afraid to live in my body.’”

About the only person who didn’t abandon him was his kid brother, Paulie, an adopted eight-year-old who utterly worshipped Michalik. “He used to come into my room every day and massage my legs, going, ‘You feel anything yet? You feel it?’ He’s stubborn like me. He just refused to give up, he kept saying, ‘You’re a champion, Steve, you’re my hero, you’re gonna be back.’

“And then one day we’re watching TV, and a pro bodybuilding show comes on. This was 1978, and the networks had started up a Grand Prix tour to cash in on the fad after Pumping Iron. I’m watching all the guys and just going crazy, wishing I could just get up on stage against ‘em one more time, and Paulie goes, ‘You can do it, Steve. You can come back and whip those guys. I’ll help you in the gym.’”

Aroused, Michalik called an old friend, Julie Levine, and begged him for the keys to his new gym in Amityville. The next night, he got out of bed at 2 A.M. and scuttled to the window, where Paulie assisted him over the sash. Crawling across the lawn to his wife’s car, Michalik got in the driver’s seat and pushed his dead legs back, making room for his little brother beneath the steering wheel. As he steered, Paulie worked the gas and brake pedals with his hands, and in this manner they accomplished the ten miles to Amityville.

In the gym, Paulie dragged him from machine to machine, helping him push the weight stacks up. Michalik’s upper body responded quickly—muscle had remarkable memory—but his legs, particularly the left one, lay there limp as old celery. After several months, however, the pain started up in them. Sharp and searing, it was as if someone had stuck a fork in his sciatic nerve. Michalik, a self-made master of pain couldn’t have been happier if he’d hit the lottery.

“The doctors all told me it would be ten years, if ever, for the nerve to come back, and here it was howling like a monster. I kicked up the dosages of all the stuff I was taking, and started attacking the weights instead of just lifting ‘em. Six months later, the pain was so bad I still could barely straighten up—but I was leg-pressing seven hundred and eight hundred pounds, and my thighs were as big as a bear’s.”

And a year after that, he walked on stage in Florida, an unadvertised guest poser at the end of a Grand Prix show. The crowd, recognizing a miracle when it saw one, went berserk as Michalik modeled those thirty-four-inch thighs, each of which was considerably wider than his twenty-seven-inch waist. Schwarzenegger, in the broadcast booth doing color for ABC, was overwhelmed. “I don’t believe what I am seeing,” he gasped. “It’s Steve Michalik, the phantom bodybuilder!”

There Michalik should have left it. He was alive, and ambulatory, and his cult status was set. Thanks to Arnie, he would be forever known as the Phantom Bodybuilder, a tag he could have turned into a merchandising gold mine, and retired.

But like a lot of other steroid casualties, Michalik couldn’t stop pushing his luck. He had to keep going, had to keep growing, testing the limits of his skeleton and the lining of his liver. If he’d gotten galactic, he figured, on last year’s drugs, there was no telling how big he could get on this year’s crop. A new line of killer juice was coming out of southern California—Hexalone, Bolasterone, Dehydralone—preposterously toxic compounds that sent the liver into warp drive but which grew hard, mature muscle right before your very eyes. Sexier still, there was that new darling of the pro circuit, human growth hormone, and who knew where the ceiling even began on that stuff?

Instead of pulling over, then, Michalik put the hammer down. He joined the Grand Prix tour immediately after the show in Florida and began the brutal grind of doing twelve shows annually. Before the tour, top bodybuilders did five shows a year, tops—the Mr. Olympia, the Night of Champions, and two or three others in Europe—which gave them several months to recuperate from the drugs and heavy training. Now, thanks to TV, they had to do a show a month. The pace was quite literally murderous.

“Not only did guys have to peak every month, they had to keep getting better as the year went on. No downtime, no rest from the binging and fasting—you could see guys turning green from all the shit in their systems. As you might expect, some of them were falling by the wayside, one guy from arrhythmia, another guy from heart attacks.

“As for me, all I knew was that I was spending every dime I had on drugs. It cost me $25,000 that first year just to keep up, and that was without human growth hormone, which I couldn’t even afford. The sport had become like an arms race now. If you heard that some guy was using Finajet, then you had to have it, no matter what it cost or where you had to go to get it. It actually paid to fly back and forth to France every couple of months, where you could buy the crap off the shelves of some country pharmacy and save yourself thousands of bucks.

“Needless to say, those five years on the tour were the most whacked-out of my life. My cognitive mind went on like a permanent stroll, and I became an enormous, lethal caveman. The only reason I didn’t spend most of that time in jail was because two thirds of the cops in town were customers of mine. They belonged to my gym, and bought their steroids from me, and when I got into a little beef, which was practically every other day, they took care of it on the QT for me.

“Once I was on Hempstead Turnpike, on my way to the gym, when some guy in a pickup gave me the finger. That’s it, lights out. I chased him doing ninety in my new Corvette, and did a three-sixty in heavy traffic right in front of him. I jumped out, ripped the door off his truck, and caved in his face with one punch. The other guy in the cab, who had done nothing to me, jumps out and starts running down the divider to get away from me. I chased him on foot and was pounding the shit out of him on the side of the road when the cops pulled up in two cruisers. ‘Michalik, get outta here, ya crazy fuck,’ they go, ‘this is the last goddamn time we’re lettin’ you slide.’”

Word quickly got around town that Michalik was to be avoided at all costs. That went double for the wild-style gym he opened, which did everything but hang a sign out saying, STEROIDS FOR SALE HERE. There were plaques on the walls that proclaimed, UP THE DOSAGE! and pictures not of stars but of twenty-gauge syringes.

As for the clientele, it ran heavily toward the highly crazed. There was the seven-foot juice freak who stomped around muttering, “I’ll kill you all. I’ll rip your guts out and eat them right here.” There was the mob hit man who drove up in a limo every day and checked his automatic weapons at the door. There was the herpetologist who came in with a python wrapped around him, trailing a huge sea turtle, for good measure, on a leash. There was the former Mr. America who was so distraught when his dog died that he had it stuffed, and dragged it around the gym from station to station.

“I had every freak and psycho within a 300-mile radius,” Michalik recalls. “At night, there’d be all these animals hanging around outside my gym, slurping protein shakes and twirling biker chains—and every single one of ‘em was afraid of me. That was the only way I kept ‘em in line. As crazy as they all were, they knew I was crazier, and that I’d just as soon kill ‘em as re-enroll ‘em.”

If that sounds like dubious business practice, consider that a year after opening, Michalik was so successful that he had to move to a location twice the size. But for all the money he was making, and for all the scams he was running—selling “Banana Packs,” a worthless mixture of rotten bananas and egg powder, as his “secret muscle formula” for $25 a pop; passing himself off as a veterinarian to get cases of human growth hormone at wholesale for his “clinical experiments”—he was still being bankrupted by his skyrocketing drug bills.

The federal heat had begun to come down on the steroid racket, closing out the pill-mill pharmacies where Michalik was filling his ’scrips. The national demand, moreover, for the high-octane stuff—Hexalone, Bolasterone, etc.—was going through the roof, which meant that Michalik, like everybody else, had to get on line, and pay astronomical prices for his monthly package from Los Angeles.

Constantly broke, and going nowhere fast on the Grand Prix tour—”where in the beginning I’d been finishing third or fourth in the shows, by 1983 I was coming in like eleventh or twelfth”—Michalik began caving in emotionally and physically. He’d come home from the gym at night, dead-limbed and nauseous, and suddenly burst into tears without warning. Cut off from everyone, even the stouthearted Thomasina, who had finally thrown up her hands and stopped caring what he did to himself, he sat alone in a dark room, hearing his joints howl, and dreamed about killing himself.

“I was just lost, gone, in a constant state of male PMS—the hormones flying around inside, my mood going yoyo. I just wanted an end to it; an end to all the pain I was in, and to the pain I was causing others.

“I mean, of course I had tried to get off the drugs, and always it just got worse. The depression got deeper, the craving was incredible, and those last couple of years, I was worse than any crackhead. As crazed as I was, l’d have killed to keep on going, to get my hands on that next shipment of Deca or Maxibolin.”

As for his body, it was finally capitulating to all the accumulated toxins. By 1983, he was bleeding from everywhere: his gums, kidneys, colon, and sinuses. The headaches started up, so piercing and obdurate that he developed separate addictions to Percodan and Demerol. And worst of all (by Michalik’s lights), his muscles suddenly went soft on him. No matter how he worked them or what he shot into them, they lost their gleaming, osmotic hardness, and began to pooch out like $20 whitewalls.

His last two years on the tour were a run-on nightmare. He almost dropped dead at a show in Toronto, collapsing on stage in head-to-toe convulsions; the promoters, disgraced, hauled him off by the ankles. There was a desperate attempt in 1985, after his cholesterol hit 500, to wean himself from steroids once and for all. His testosterone level plummeted, however, his sperm count went to zero, and all the estrogen in his body, which had been accruing for years, turned his pecs into soft, doughy breasts. Such friends as he still had pointed out that his ass was plumping like a woman’s, and tweaked him for his sexy new hip-swishing walk.

He ran to one endocrinologist after another, begging them for something to reverse the condition. To a man, each pointed to Michalik’s liver reading and showed him out of his office. Leaving, he had the distinct feeling that they were laughing at him.

And so, after weighing his options—a bleak, emasculated life off steroids or a slam-bang, macho death on them—Michalik emphatically chose the latter. He packed a bag, grabbed his weight belt, and caught a plane for L.A., winding up for nine months in the valley, where all the chemical studs were training.

Just up the freeway, a cartel of former med students were minting drugs so new they scarcely had names for them yet. The stuff ran $250, $300 a bottle, but pumped you up like an air hose and kept you that way. It also made you violently sick to your stomach, but Michalik didn’t have time to worry about that. He simply ran to the bathroom to heave up his guts, then came back and ripped off another thirty sets.

His hair fell out in heavy clumps; a dry cough emanated from his liver, wracking him. Every joint was inflamed; it was excruciating even to walk now. But at night, in bed and in too much pain to sleep, it cheered him to think that he would finally be dead soon, and that it would take eight men to carry his casket.

He came back to New York in the fall of 1986, on his last legs but enormous and golden brown. All along, he’d targeted the Night of Champions, to be held that November at the Beacon Theater, as his swan song. It was the Academy Awards show of bodybuilding. Everyone would be there, all the stars and cognoscenti, and it would consolidate his legend to show up one last time, coming out of a coffin to the tune of Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend.” Of course, it would really help matters if he could drop dead on stage, but that seemed too much to hope for. All that mattered, finally, was that he go out with twenty-five hundred people thundering their approval, drowning out, once and for all, his old man’s malediction that he’d never amount to shit.

And then, two weeks before the show, he woke up at four in the morning with his liver on fire, and that was the end of all that.

Happily afloat on morphine and Nembutol, Michalik drifted for seventy-two hours, dreaming that he was dead. In the course of those three days, however, his extraordinary luck held up. The huge cysts in his liver stabilized and began to shrink, though they’d so eviscerated the organ already that there was practically nothing left of it. Short of a transplant, it would be months before he could so much as sit up and take nourishment. His bodybuilding career, in any case, was finished.

When Michalik awoke in intensive care, he was inconsolable. Not only was he still unaccountably alive, his beautiful body was dissolving and going away from him. His muscles, bereft of steroids and the five pounds of chicken he ate a day, decomposed and flowed into his bloodstream as waste. In three weeks, he lost more than 100 pounds, literally pissing himself down to 147 from a steady weight of 255.

Predictably, his kidneys began to fail, functioning at 60 percent, then 40, then 20. His black hair turned gray, and the skin hung off him in folds. His father came in and told him, with all his customary tact, that he looked like an eighty-five-year-old man.

In the few hours a day that he was lucid, Michalik wept uncontrollably. Out of the unlikeliest materials—bad genes, a small bone structure, and a thoroughly degraded ego—he had assembled this utterly remarkable thing, a body that no less than Arnold Schwarzenegger once venerated as the very best in the world. Now he was too weak to lift his head off the pillow. He lay there inert for months and months, the very image, it seemed to him, of his old man’s foretelling.

“I was just like Lyle Alzado, who I went to high school in Brooklyn with: weak and broken-down, leaning on my wife to keep me alive. She came and fed me every day through a straw, and swiped the huge bunch of pills I was saving to kill myself. To thank her for still being there after everything, I sold the gym and gave her all the money from it. I didn’t want any of it, I didn’t want anything. I just wanted to lie in bed and be miserable by myself. I was so depressed I could hardly move my jaws to speak.”

Finally, by the spring of 1988, he’d recovered sufficiently to get out of bed for short stretches. Possessed by the sudden urge to atone for his sins, Michalik called every promoter he knew, begging them to let him go on stage in his condition and dramatize the wages of steroids. Surprisingly, several of them agreed to the idea. They brought Michalik out, a bag of bones in a black shirt, and let him turn the place into a graveyard for ten minutes.

“All these twenty-year-olds would be staring up at me with their jaws hanging open, and I’d get on the mike and say, ‘You think this can’t happen to you, tough guy? You think you know more about steroids than I do? Well, I wrote the book on ‘em, buddy, and they still ate me up. I’m forty years old and I’m finished. Dead.”

The former proselytizer for steroids got some grim satisfaction out of spreading the gospel against them. He dragged himself out to high schools and hard-core juice gyms, using himself as a walking cautionary tale. But whatever his good works were doing for his soul, they weren’t doing a damn thing for his body. He still woke up sick in every cell, poisoned by the residue of all the drugs. The liver cysts, shrunk to the size of golf balls but no further, sapped his strength and forced him to eat like a sparrow, subsisting on farina and chicken soup. His hormones were wildly scrambled—a blood test revealed he had the testosterone level of a twelve-year-old girl—and it had been two years since he’d had even a twinge of an erection. Indeed, his moods were so erratic that he had his wife commit him to a stretch in a Long Island nut bin.

“I wasn’t crazy, but I didn’t know what else to do. All day long I just sat there, consumed with self-hatred: ‘Why did you do this? Why did you do that?’ I mean, even when I was huge, I never had what you would call the greatest relationship with myself, but now it was, ‘You’re weak! You’re tiny! You’re stupid! You’re worthless!’—and what the hell was I going to say to shut it up? The only thing I’d ever valued about myself was my body, and I’d totally, systematically fucked it up. My life, as you can probably guess, was intolerable.”

It was here, however, that fate stepped in and cut Michalik a whopping break. Halfway across the world, an Australian rugby player named Joe Reesh somehow heard about Michalik’s plight and called to tell him about a powerful new detox program. It was a brutally arduous deal—an hour of running, then five hours straight in a 180-degree sauna, for a minimum of twenty-one days—but infallibly, it leeched the poisons out of your fat cells, where they’d otherwise sit, crystallized, for the rest of your life.

Utterly desperate, Michalik gave it a shot. He could scarcely jog around the block that first day, but in the sauna, it all started coming out of him: a viscous, green paste that oozed out of his eyes and nostrils. By the end of the first week, he reports, he was running two miles; by the end of the second, his ex-wife verifies, his gray hair had turned black again. And when he stepped out of the sauna after the twenty-third and final day, his skin was as pink and snug as a teenager’s. Liver and kidney tests confirmed the wildly improbable: he was perfectly healthy again.

“Everything came back to me: my sense of humor, my lust for life—hell, my lust, period. Don’t forget, it’d been almost three years since l’d gotten it up—I had some serious business to take care of. But the greatest thing by far was what wasn’t there anymore. All the biochemical hatred I’d been walking around with for twelve years, it was like that all bled out of me with the green stuff, and I had this overpowering need to be with people again, especially my son, Stevie. I had tons of making up to do with him, and I’ve loved every minute of it. It kills me that I could’ve let myself get so sick that I was ready to die and leave him.”

Michalik went to his wife and told her he was going back to bodybuilding. It was his life, his art, he couldn’t leave it alone—only this time, he swore on heaven, he was going to do it clean. She understood, or at least tried to, but said she couldn’t go through with it again: the 2 A.M. feedings, the $500-a-week grocery bills. They parted amicably, and Michalik returned to the gym, as zealous and single-minded as a monk. In the last two years he’s put on 60 pounds, and looks dense and
powerful at 225, though he’s sober about the realities.

“There are nineteen-year-olds clocking in now at two sixty-five,” he says, shaking his head. “The synthetic HGH [human growth hormone] has evolved a new species in five years. By the end of the decade, the standard will be three-hundred-pounders, with twenty-three-inch necks that are almost as big as their waists.

“But all around the country, kids’ll be dropping dead from the stuff, and getting diabetes because it burns out their pancreas. I don’t care what those assholes in California say, there’s no such thing in the world as a ‘good’ drug. There’s only bad drugs and sick bastards who want to sell them to you.”

Someone ought to post those words in every high school in the country. The latest estimate from a USA Today report is that there are half a million teenagers on juice these days, almost half of whom, according to a University of Kentucky study, are so naive they think that steroids without exercise will build muscle. In this second stone age, the America of Schwarzkopf and Schwarzenegger, someone needs to tell them that bigger isn’t necessarily better. Sometimes, bigger is deader.

 

BSG: Summer’s End Recalls Memory of a Faded Dream

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Excerpted from From Black Sox to Three-Peats: A Century of Chicago’s Best Sports Writing (University of Chicago Press), edited by Ron Rapoport and featuring stories from the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Daily News, and the Chicago Defender, among other papers.

Today gives John Schulian’s column from the Sept. 24, 1983, Sun-Times.

“Summer’s End Recalls Memory of a Faded Dream”

By John Schulian

Up ahead, you could see a full moon sandwiched by thick, wet clouds. Beneath them glowed the lights of Chicago, turning the soggy heavens red-orange and proving that this ribbon of highway actually led somewhere.

Another country radio station faded into oblivion inside the car, so you pressed a button and came across the White Sox, summer’s golden children at play on a night made for antifreeze.

Their presence should have been a comfort at 70 miles an hour, just as it had been since they used June as their launching pad to glory. But now the Sox were bidding adieu to their regular season at home. They weren’t going to return to Comiskey Park until October’s playoffs, and the thought left you feeling as empty as a farewell at a train station. Summer was over.

All you could do about it was punch another button on the car’s radio, punch another button and hope you would hear the Police singing “Every Breath You Take.” For that was the song that provided the background music for the last three months, lingering in your mind whether you were mowing the lawn or trying to describe the cosmic significance of the infield fly rule. The melody haunted you, the lyrics left you wondering about the residue of your own tilling and threshing. And, like a lot of other things this summer, that hadn’t happened for a while.

Maybe you have to go back as far as the days before baseball finally defeated you, days of keg parties and a curveball pitcher who lay down next to a stereo speaker filled with the Rolling Stones’ voices and begged his kid brother to turn the music louder. The season was over by then and the unraked diamonds had started turning hard under the fading sun. Every morning, the chill sunk a little deeper and lasted a little longer, and you began to realize how impossible it is to hang on to summer and all the things it represents.

No team you played on would ever be the same, no chance for a professional contract ever as good, no friendships ever so unencumbered. And that was what mattered to a catcher with a strong arm and a weak bat, a kid who hid inside a game and thought it would always sustain him.

Even on the night he graduated from high school, he tried to flee what scared him most for the safety that the Salt Lake Bees provided. But before he got to his $1.50 seat, before he even got out of the auditorium where he had received his diploma, there was lipstick on his cheek and a pretty girl saying, “Now you can go.”

Funny how long a kiss can last. Ask the man who got it now and he will tell you that summers should have such staying power. For he would think about it from time to time, smile and wonder about the girl who didn’t dance off into that happy night before she had made sure he was remembered. And when it came time for the 20th reunion this summer, when he flew back to the place that used to be home, he wondered if she would remember her own kindness. He looked for her and found only a mutual friend with bad news: “She’s very sick. I understand it’s terminal.”

What do you do then? Do you write a letter, or do you pray? Do you retreat into the silence that has become your comfortable enemy, or do you hope that the next knock on your door brings a smiling face and laughter that tinkles like chimes in an ocean breeze? Do you see your own life reduced to what the poet Yeats called “day’s vanity and night’s remorse,” or do you borrow from Tom T. Hall, the hillbilly songwriter, and tell someone dear, “You love everybody but you”?

The questions pile up, but there are never enough answers to clear them all away. Ten years ago, you couldn’t have imagined such a predicament. You knew everything then—knew it and said you knew it and expected the world to know you knew it. Perhaps it is only age that brings stupidity.

Summer certainly suggested as much. Whether you were gazing out at Lake Michigan or laboring over your prose, your mind kept drifting away from the business at hand. For too many hours, neither the splendor of Floyd Bannister’s left arm nor the foot in Dallas Green’s mouth held the appeal of life’s complexities. It was time to consider what you had let get away from you, and how, and why. The process was as unsettling as the gray taking over your beard and the lines growing deeper around your eyes.

“I don’t know,” you kept saying. “I just don’t know.” It was an all-purpose reply for a summer that raised new questions almost daily. It could also, however, be tiresome. “This is the place for you,” a friend said, passing a senior citizens’ center. And you couldn’t keep from laughing. You feigned anger, too. But down deep, you thanked God there was someone who cared enough to remind you that the sun always comes up in the morning.

It shows its face later and later now, though. You can’t ignore that. The leaves on the trees have already started to turn, and even if the White Sox go on to win the World Series, there won’t be many more trips to Comiskey Park. The days are growing short, and more and more you cling to the brightness that Ron Kittle, the rookie free spirit, brings to them. “Here’s my bat,” he said to a team trainer after two hitless nights. “Take its temperature.” What a pleasure to find someone who knows where to get answers.

But when they aren’t to your questions, the answers are only for enjoyment, not enlightenment. They serve the same function summer did this year as you spun your wheels for week after week, searching for something you hesitate to define and eventually heading back to the garage empty-handed. The answers made you forget the storm front, but by the time you got home it was starting to rain again.

 

John Schulian was a sports columnist for the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Philadelphia Daily News before moving to Hollywood, where he wrote for a number of television shows and was the co-creator of Xena: Warrior Princess. His work has been collected in several books, including Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us. With George Kimball, he edited At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing for the Library of America. 

[Photo Credit: Sarah Elston and Paolo Di Lucente via MPD]

The Problem

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Is Bud writes Glenn Stout:

Measured only by the dollar, Selig’s tenure has been a success. However, by almost any other method, it has been a failure, for during his tenure whatever special place baseball still held in American society and culture has irreparably eroded. More than that however, baseball used to matter. Now, despite its financial health, the game is in many ways like an invalid living on an old fortune, wealthy but sequestered, important only to those who still need to keep the old boy alive to live off the crumbs that drop from his lap.

…At the same time, under Selig, the credibility of the game has been shredded. Under his limited sense of leadership, the game chose not just to ignore PEDs, but to revel in their impact, to juice the game artificially after a period of labor strife. Did they plan this? No. Did they see it happen and get all goose-bumpy, and start drooling at the financial rewards? Absolutely. As long as the checks cleared it mattered not that a host of records essentially became meaningless, that history was devalued, or that fully two decades of seasonal results are suspect (including Boston’s long awaited world championships in 2004 and 2007). All in the name of short-term gain, baseball under Selig chose to insult the intelligence of several generations of fans in favor of those who came to the game, not as fans, but as corporate guests.

Baseball has always been a business, but for years its success depended, at least in part, on the ease with which it was easy to forget that. All pretense of that is gone now. Baseball is only business, and business is the only measure that matters. Witness the changes to the All-Star game, the playoffs, the escalating cost of watching the game, in person, on TV, or the Internet. If there is a National Pastime anymore, it is the ATM.

And let’s not forget drug testing.

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Million Dollar Movie

Or: “How Hollywood Ruined Our Best Football Novel”

By John Schulian

Long before he established himself as the Ring Lardner of the Pepsi generation, Dan Jenkins wrote about sports for the blighted Fort Worth Press. He had to rise at 4 every morning to put out the paper’s first edition, and the indignity of that, he claims with typical reckless abandon, made his hair hurt.

Twenty years later, Jenkins has yet to describe the pain of seeing what Hollywood did to Semi-Tough, his best-selling bellylaugh about professional football. He tried to say something not long ago in Sports Illustrated, the magazine where his typing skills came to light, but the most emotion he could muster was mild bemusement. The possibility exits, however, that he didn’t do any better because he was in shock.

You will know the feeling if you read the book and see the movie, which will descend on Chicago this Christmas season like a curse from King Herod. Billy Clyde Puckett, the halfback hero of Semi-Tough, would probably want to know where Herod played his college ball, but there are more important questions to be asked about the cinematic mutation Michael Ritchie, a certified hot-shot director, has given us. The biggest one is: Why did he bother saying he was making a movie of Jenkins’ novel?

Just about the only thing left from it are the title, the diary Billy Clyde is keeping during Super Bowl week, and the fact that he is forever being interrupted by his podnuh, Marvin (Shake) Tiller, the mystic wide receiver, and their mutual playmate, Barbara Jane Bookman. Out of a book that ran better than 200 pages in hardback, that is not what anybody in his right mind would call a whole lot.

Ritchie’s explanation is that he was intrigued by the conclusion of the book, which found Shake doing a fly pattern all the way to India, where he could commune with his guru and ride elephants. Because of that, Ritchie would up putting Burt (Billy Clyde) Reynolds and Kris (Shake) Kristofferson in a movie about the consciousness movement. If you aren’t familiar with the consciousness movement, the premise on which it is built is that nobody’s hemorrhoids are more important than yours.

Such thinking is very big in California, which leads the universe in sun-baked brains. Everywhere else, people who become that bewitched, bothered and bewildered are called “tutti-fruttis.” Indeed, that is how Ritchie depicts them despite his West Coast ties. The irreverence is not unusual, for he has thrown darts at politics in The Candidate, at beauty contests in Smile, and at Little League baseball in The Bad News Bears. But he is so obsessed with puncturing the inherent silliness of the me-firsters that he has forgotten that Semi-Tough is supposed to be about the NFL’s inherent silliness.

In the process, some of Jenkins’ finest ideas ended up on the floor of Ritchie’s birdcage. There is no mention of how Pete Rozelle used the commissionership as a springboard to the U.S. Senate. T.J. Lambert, the flatulent defensive end, is never shown making a sandwich of six Dallas policemen. “The Giants and the Cowboys got together and kept our arrest quiet,” said Billy Clyde, who watched the proceedings in amazement. “We got to play in the game. I think the Giants had to give up a high draft choice to the Cowboys when it was over.”

Nor did Ritchie try to stage the outlandish halftime show Jenkins imagined, the one in which “several hundred trained birds—painted red, white and blue—would fly over the coliseum in formation of an American flag” while Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck sang “God Bless America.”

Even when the director relied on the author, he managed to foul things up. One wonderful scene has the drunken Lambert dangling a 20th Century fox over a terrace railing by the heels because she looked askance at his idea of how well they should get to know each other. In the book, Barbara Jane Bookman talks Lambert out of mayhem; she can’t do the same in the movie because it would rob Shake Tiller of a chance to display his new-found calm. Apparently Ritchie isn’t so iconoclastic that he would try to level the consciousness movement and machismo with the same swing.

If Jenkins should take offense to anything, however, it is what Ritchie did to his rating system for feminine pulchritude. Originally, the system went from 10—which was, you should pardon the expression, “a Healing Scab”—to 1, and of course there never was a 1. For the pure Hollywood hell of it, Ritchie completely reversed the ratings. If he had left them the way they were, Jill Clayburgh, who plays Barbara Jane, would have been a lot closer to the truth when she insists, “I’m a 10.”

She is, however, just one of Ritchie’s casting mistakes. Kristofferson wanders through his role as Shake in such a daze that he must have been handed a fistful of Valium instead of the usual NFL Sunday afternoon supply of greenies. As Barbara Jane’s father, a pinko-hating oil baron, Robert Preston appears to be a Communist plot himself. Only Reynolds, as Billy Clyde, is palatable, if you don’t mind watching him portray Burt Reynolds. And just in case you don’t, remember that he had a stand-in for most of his rib-cracking football scenes. No premiums are paid for acting with pain.

As it turns out, the audience does all the suffering, which is no small achievement for a movie that Ritchie calls “a racy comedy.” His choice of words may be the funniest thing about Semi-Tough. When it was a book, it was enjoyably bawdy, almost “Tom Jones with a Jockstrap.” Ritchie’s adaptation, however, is merely smarmy, filled with the kind of double entendres that aren’t even good enough for TV.

Naturally, that won’t stop TV from buying this worthless hunk of celluloid. If you are smart, you will wait until then instead of wasting your money on it in a theater. When it comes to passing judgement on Semi-Tough, you see, there is no semi about it. It is totally terrible.

John Schulian is a former syndicated sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. His work has appeared in GQSports IllustratedInside Sports, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. He also wrote for the TV shows Miami ViceL.A. Law, and co-created Xena: Princess Warrior. He is the author of Twilight of the Long-ball Gods and Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand, and co-editor of At The Fights.

BGS: Battling Siki

More from John Lardner. Originally published in 1949 in the New Yorker and reprinted here with permission of Susan Lardner.

“The Battling Siki”

By John Lardner

Hell’s Kitchen, the region west of Eighth Avenue around the Forties, won its name many years ago and continued to deserve it until about the time the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed. Things are different there now. So its residents will tell you, and so you can see for yourself if, having known the neighborhood a little during Prohibition, you visit it even briefly today. Once it was carpeted, for nearly all its length and breadth, with low, swarthy brick tenement houses containing a warren of flats, speak-easies, six-table cellar “cabarets,” hole-in-the-wall stores and restaurants, back-room stills, and “social clubs,” where a portion of the manhood of the district stored guns and ammunition and planned stick-ups and highjackings. Right along the equator of Hell’s Kitchen ran the Ninth Avenue “L” tracks, throwing a grim, significant shadow by day and night. Other parts of town had clip joints, or “buckets of blood,” scattered through them, but the Kitchen, as a detective friend of mine used to say, was one big bucket of blood. Nowadays the Kitchen is a bit more shiny and much more respectable. Neon lights and modern shops and garages have pushed their way into it. The McGraw-Hill Building has gouged out half of what was considered one of the hottest blocks in Hell’s Kitchen in the nineteen twenties—the block bounded by Eighth and Ninth Avenues and Forty-first and Forty-second streets. The Lincoln Tunnel approaches have formed an asphalt plaza west of Ninth Avenue. The sleek New Jersey buses and automobiles bound for and away from the West Side Highway plow across the old badlands in steady procession. The retail liquor traffic thereabouts has become negligible; the city’s center of gravity of crime has shifted elsewhere, perhaps to Brooklyn. Broadly speaking, Hell’s Kitchen is not a frontier community any more but a sort of vehicular gateway to the heart of Manhattan. However, if you want to conjure up the atmosphere of earlier times, you can still find islands of squat tenement houses here and there to help you, many of them boarded up and condemned, and the empty shells of many basement grogshops. In the unlikely event that you want to visit the scene of the murder, twenty-four years ago, of a man called Battling Siki, which is what I did one day recently for no useful reason, you will come across a few surviving landmarks. You can pace off distances in the same gutter and seamy street—Forty-first—down which Siki crawled forty feet west toward Ninth Avenue, with two bullets in his body, before he collapsed and died. He crawled in the direction of the “L,” the cave of shadows that no longer is there. His killer threw away the gun in front of a grimy old house that is now gone; the McGraw-Hill Building is there instead. These changes make the setting less sinister than it used to be, but even now there’s plenty to show that it was a drab and lonesome place to die.

Siki who held the light-heavyweight boxing championship of the world for six months in 1922 and 1923, was born in Senegal, in French West Africa, in 1897 and was killed in Hell’s Kitchen twenty-eight years later, in 1925. He was the Kitchen’s most turbulent citizen in the short time he lived there. He was thought by neighbors who knew him to have an honest heart and a generous soul, but when he drank the newly cooked liquor of the parish, as he often did, the cab drivers, cops, bartenders, and hoodlums whom he chose, with impeccable lack of judgment, to knock around, found it hard to take him philosophically. Rear-line observers, on the other hand were usually able to be philosophical about Siki. During the three years of his life in which he received international publicity—the last three—he was referred to repeatedly as a “child of nature,” a “natural man ” and a “jungle child,” and at least once as “the black Candide.” After his murder, the New York World said editorially, “What is all this [Siki's physical strength, his brawling and dissipation] but the sulks and tempers of Achilles, the prank of Siegfried and the boars, the strutting of Beowulf, the armours of Lemminkaïnen? We have had a walking image of our beginnings among us and did not know it. . . . He had, it is true, the mentality of a backward toad… But he had the soul of a god.”

It strikes me that tributes paid by civilized people to a “natural man,” especially one who has walked among us, are apt to sound either patronizing, like the World’s, or uneasy, like some delivered by American correspondents when Siki won his boxing championship in Paris in 1922 and was first interviewed. After praising Siki’s strength and simplicity, one reporter wrote apprehensively, “He is very black and very ugly.” Siki’s manager at the time, a M. Hellers, was quoted as saying that Siki was a fine lad but “just a little bit crazy.” I can discover no support among those who were acquainted with Siki in America later on for the idea that he was crazy, except when he drank, or the idea that he was mentally toadlike. He was illiterate, never having been to school, but he could make himself understood in several languages including English, French, Spanish, Dutch, and German. As far as Candide is concerned, Siki resembled Voltaire’s hero in that he had a sheltered boyhood, was thrown suddenly into the thick of the best of all possible worlds, and found society both violent and larcenous. At seventeen, he was involved in a civilized world war. At twenty-five, he was permitted to box a champion on the condition that he lose the match. Having ignored the condition and won the championship, he insured his loss of that title, in all innocence, by fighting an Irishman in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day. He entered American life in the heyday of the Volstead act. He could not master the strong waters or the social customs of the West Side of New York City. He was killed by gunfire, after surviving a stabbing earlier in the same year. It may seem, offhand, that Hell’s Kitchen was a curious place for the curtain to fall on a twenty-eight-year-old Mohammedan born in St. Louis de Senegal on the fringe of the Sahara Desert, but Voltaire has shown that when civilization gets its hands on one of these natural men, it pushes him about at random from curious place to curious place. Candide was lucky to wind up safely cultivating his garden. He came close to meeting his end in an auto-da-fé in Portugal and, another time, on a roasting spit in Paraguay. Siki’s story is perhaps more realistic. He failed to last out the course.

The newspaper writers of the 1920s were merely being wishful when they called Siki a jungle child. St. Louis, his African home, is a seaport ten miles above the mouth of the Senegal River, on a bare plain that marks the Sahara’s southwesternmost edge. It’s doubtful whether anyone in Europe or America today knows what Siki’s real name was. Legend has it that when he was ten or twelve years old, a French actress touring the colonies saw him in St. Louis, was impressed by his appearance, and took him into her personal service, giving him, for reasons based on classical Greek, the name of Louis Phal. Whatever its origin, this, Anglicized as Louis Fall, was his legal name when he was married, and when he was murdered, in America. He did not become known as Battling Siki until he began to box professionally, in 1913; apparently the word “Siki” was coined or borrowed by French fight promoters, to whom it had vague “native” or colonial connotations. The tale about the actress was told widely in Paris in the days of Siki’s first fame, when he knocked out the celebrated Georges Carpentier, but it was never, so far as I know, closely checked up on. It accounts, plausibly enough, for the abrupt shift of Siki from dusty African streets to the perils of Western civilization. The lady is said to have taken him to her villa on the French Riviera and dressed him in a page boy’s uniform of bottle green. Subsequently, he worked in one town and another as a bus boy. He was fifteen when he started boxing.

Siki had just time for a handful of fights, most of which he won, before the war of 1914-18 broke out and he was conscripted into the 8th Colonial Infantry Regiment of the French Army. His war record was distinguished; in fact, he is reported to have been the bravest soldier in his outfit which saw action on several fronts and gave a strong performance generally. For heroism under fire, Siki won not only the Croix de Guerre but the Médaille Militaire. After demobilization, he could have had his choice of a variety of ordinary civilian jobs; his record guaranteed him that. However, he went back to the prize ring, where the rewards were intermittent but came in good-sized pieces when they came. He barnstormed in France, North Africa, Spain, Belgium, and Holland. From a tour of Holland in 1921 he returned to Paris, where he lived with a Dutch girl who was thought to be his wife and by whom he later had a child. Siki did not work especially hard at his trade. He fought once or twice a month, which is not often for a “club,” or journeyman, fighter, and, while he usually won, he beat nobody of major importance. Between bouts he drank more absinthe than is normal in the profession. American critics were to speak of him three or four years later as a fighter of considerable natural ability who might have been much better than he was. Weighing about a hundred and seventy-five pounds, the maximum for light heavyweights, and standing five feet eleven inches tall, he was a well-muscled young man with a leaping, bounding, lunging style from which he got slapstick effects that amused the galleries, and himself as well. In the early months of 1922, he happened to defeat a couple of men of some slight reputation and thus came to the notice of François Descamps, then the most influential and artful character in French boxing. Descamps offered him a bout for the world’s light-heavyweight championship with Carpentier, whom Descamps managed.

The prizefight business in Continental Europe in those days was an odd blend of laissez faire and team play—laissez faire being understood to mean “Let Descamps do it his way,” and “team play” to mean that all hands share in the spoils. Descamps owned a large stable of fighters and also, it was commonly believed in Paris, a large stable of sports writers. Some of the latter were growing restive in 1922, possibly because of a failure in the team-play system as administered by Descamps. When the Carpentier-Siki match was announced, certain journalists expressed a distrust of it. They suggested that, in Siki, Descamps had laid hold of a small-time, happy-go-lucky trouper with no ambitions beyond getting all the absinthe he could consume, who would be glad to bolster Carpentier’s fortunes—Carpentier had not fought for really big money since his knockout by Jack Dempsey in New Jersey, fourteen months before—without making too much trouble for the champion in the ring. Their hints were undoubtedly read by the public. Carpentier was a war hero, the toast of the boulevards, a boxer still regarded, in spite of his defeat by Dempsey, as peerless in Europe, but though the crowd of 55,000 that came to the new Buffalo Velodrome in Paris on the afternoon of September 24, 1922, to see him fight Siki was the largest in European boxing history, it showed before the day was over that it was on the alert for signs of skulduggery. Its suspicions were inflamed during the preliminary bouts by the work of Harry Bernstein, a referee charged by sports writers with occupying a special compartment in the hip pocket of M. Descamps. In one preliminary, the opponent of a Descamps featherweight named Fritsch was disqualified by Bernstein for hitting too low; in another, the opponent of a Descamps heavyweight named Ledoux was disqualified by Bernstein for not fighting hard enough. Bernstein’s rulings brought a volley of coups de sifflet from the customers, particularly those in the seven-franc seats, who had mustered their sous at a sacrifice and wished for their money’s worth of equality and justice.

The main bout was scheduled for twenty rounds. Carpentier, pale and blond, weighed 173 1/2 pounds, Siki 174. In the first round, Siki fought cautiously and less acrobatically than usual; Carpentier jabbed at him with his left hand. Once, hit lightly, Siki dropped to one knee; Bernstein, who was refereeing this bout, too, did not bother to count. “Get up, Siki, you’re not hurt,” he said. After the round, ringside spectators saw Carpentier smile broadly and heard him say, “I’ll get him whenever I want to.” The champion, boxing easily, won the first two rounds. In the third, Carpentier sent a right-hand blow to Siki’s jaw, and Siki dropped to his knee again, this time taking a count of seven. When he got up, he rushed at Carpentier and hit him violently in the body with a left and a right. Carpentier, looking startled as well as hurt, went down for four seconds. The rest of the fight was all Siki’s. Siki battered Carpentier about the ring in the fourth round while Carpentier hung on to Siki’s arms whenever he could and tried to pinion them with his own. In the fifth, Carpentier fell against the ropes. Siki leaned over him (“I whispered to him to quit,” Siki said later), and Carpentier, pushing himself up, butted angrily at Siki’s belly. Carpentier could hardly stand when the sixth round began. Siki hit him at will. A right uppercut followed by a shower of right and left swings sent Carpentier to the floor unconscious one minute and ten seconds after the start of the round. As he fell, one of his feet became tangled between Siki’s, assisting the fall.

It was plain that Carpentier was completely knocked out, but at that point Bernstein ruled that Siki had lost the fight by tripping his opponent illegally. The third disqualification of the day was more than the crowd was prepared to stomach. It pushed its way to the ring from all quarters of the stadium and stormed around it, yelling furiously. Police were called up to protect Bernstein. Descamps, meanwhile, for whose blood the demonstrators were also shouting, slipped out of the arena behind a couple of gendarmes. Three judges—Victor Breyer, Jean Pujol, and an Englishman, Tom Bannison—who, before the fight, had been appointed by the French Boxing Federation to make a decision in case there was no knockout were now appealed to. After conferring briefly with Federation officials, they announced that they would give a final and formal verdict either supporting or overruling Bernstein’s. They deliberated for three quarters of an hour while Bernstein stood in one comer of the ring among his police guards and practically no one in the audience went home, or even stopped talking unkindly to the referee. The judges, willingly or not, at last did what the crowd wanted: they declared Siki the winner by a knockout and, in the name of the Federation, awarded him the light-heavyweight championship of the world, plus a subsidiary title of Carpentier’s—the heavyweight championship of Europe. Siki said to Hellers, his manager, “Tell America I am ready for Dempsey,” and repaired in triumph to his dressing room. The crowd disbanded. The police saw Bernstein safely to the door of his dressing room.

Siki never got a match with Dempsey, but some offers of lesser opportunities did come to him from America. He was lavishly feted in Pans during the first two days after his victory, and after public enthusiasm subsided, his own continued to run high, especially in the Montmartre neighborhood. “No more absinthe. I will train and fight hard as champion,” Siki had told a gathering outside the office of the newspaper Echo des Sports on the twenty-fifth, the day following the fight. Later that evening, he took a few glasses of champagne, and on touring Montmartre in a rented car with a chauffeur, he reverted to absinthe wholeheartedly at every stop he made. After another week or so he acquired, probably as gifts from fellow colonials, a monkey, which he carried everywhere on his shoulder, and a lion cub, which he led about on a leash. Carpentier was still lying in bed suffering from a sprained ankle, two broken hands, and an unsightly swelling of his nose and lips. Most of the Parisian sporting press was sympathetic toward him but nastily jubilant about Descamps, who, it was implied, had overreached himself and been double-crossed. Rumors to the same effect circulated through Paris for the next several weeks. In early December, the French Boxing Federation precipitated the publication of what was very likely the true story of the fight by suspending Siki—it was charged that while seconding another fighter in the ring, he had struck the manager of his man’s opponent. Siki, deprived of a chance to make a living in France, went for help to M. Diagne, the representative for Senegal in the French Chamber of Deputies. Diagne asserted before the Chamber that the Boxing Federation was discriminating against colonials in favor of Parisian city slickers who wanted Siki out of the way, and in support of this theory he gave the deputies the account of the Carpentier bout that Siki had given him. When the Chamber appeared unwilling to take any action, Diagne called a press conference and had Siki repeat his story to reporters. It ran as follows: A fix had been arranged fifteen days before the bout took place, with Descamps dictating procedure to Siki’s manager. As a sign of good faith, Siki was to take a short count in the first round and another count in the third. He was to get himself knocked out early in the fourth. Siki followed the scenario through the third-round knockdown—”I stayed down for seven the first time Carpentier hit me hard enough to give me an excuse,” he said—but as he knelt on the floor at that point, he decided not to go through with the frameup. It was his pride, he said, and his loyalty to the public that made him change his mind. When he got up, he began to fight in earnest. He ignored a sharp reminder from his manager, between the third and fourth rounds, that his end was expected momentarily. (This detail in Siki’s narrative gave Hellers a clean bill of health, in a left-handed way; Descamps had been so suspicious of treachery by Hellers that he quarreled with him in public after the bout.) Siki surprised Carpentier with his counterattack and soon demolished him.

When Siki’s story was done, M. Diagne explained to the press what it meant: A simple, uneducated man had defended himself and all underprivileged peoples against exploitation by a predatory society. Siki, who was always emotional, wept freely at these words. His tears and his deputy’s arguments got him nowhere. Neither did a court of inquiry appointed by the Boxing Federation to investigate Siki’s statement. The court, with a flashy display of ingenuity, hired two deaf-mutes to watch the motion pictures of the fight and see if they could lip-read certain remarks delivered excitedly by Descamps to Hellers in Siki’s corner during “a critical phase of the battle,” after Siki had begun to knock Carpentier around. The experiment (unique, I think, in boxing history) was later described by the court as “successful,” but Siki remained suspended. He never fought in France again until after he had lost his championships elsewhere. My own opinion is that being champion constituted Siki’s chief sin in the eyes of the Federation. Also, I believe his story of the Carpentier match was substantially correct. A “sign of good faith”—a preliminary fall, or lapse of some other kind, by the loser—is a standard device in the plotting of sports frameups. Eddie Cicotte, a Chicago baseball player, hit the first batter he faced with a pitched ball in the crooked World Series of 1919, as a signal to gamblers that the fix was in. Siki’s tale confirmed the rumors that were current before and after the fight; it was in keeping with the character of Descamps and of Continental boxing methods in 1922, and it is believed by every European and American I know who was familiar in any degree with the time, the place, and the actors.

As it turned out, the Carpentier bout was the only one of importance in Siki’s professional career, except for the next one. The next one was weak and anticlimactic as a show, but it did involve a world’s championship, and it demonstrated in a special way how complicated the civilization of the West can be for an unlettered Moslem with no grounding in our rituals and customs. A fairly good light heavyweight from County Clare in Ireland named Michael Francis McTigue happened to pass through Paris with his staff during Siki’s suspension. Finding Siki idle and nearly broke, the visitors proposed a match between him and McTigue for the title. (The world’s light-heavyweight championship was the one that interested them; the heavyweight championship of Europe had no value in the world market, and has been recognized only sporadically since the day Carpentier lost it.) They spoke of Dublin as a pleasant spot for the Siki-McTigue bout. They mentioned March 17, 1923, as an open date in their engagement book. Siki fell in with these suggestions and met McTigue in the ring in the Irish capital on Saint Patrick’s Day. The operation for the removal of his crown was painless. The decision went to McTigue on points. There was nothing particularly wrong with this verdict, I am told by a neutral eyewitness, except that McTigue did not make the efforts or take the risks that are commonly expected of a challenger for a world’s championship. There was no need to. In the circumstances, nothing less than a knockout could have beaten him, and he avoided that possibility by boxing at long range throughout.

One device by which a civilized man can avoid a predicament like Siki’s in Dublin was illustrated by McTigue himself later in the same year. He went to Columbus, Georgia, to fight a Georgian named Young Stribling before a crowd that was strongly and ostentatiously in favor of his opponent. There was almost no way McTigue could avoid losing within the Georgia state limits, so, to protect his planetary interests, he took along a referee from the North. The referee called the bout a draw. Then, yielding to the howls of protest, he announced that he would deputize the local promoter to give the decision. The promoter called Stribling the winner. The referee, on his way back North by train with McTigue and McTigue’s manager, signed an affidavit that his own true and considered verdict was for a draw. That is how the result has been listed in the record books ever since.

Siki had only two more European fights, both in Paris, after he lost his titles. The last two years of his life he spent in America, disintegrating with headlong speed on bootleg gin and whiskey but nearly always able to make money in the ring when he needed it. When he first arrived in New York, in September 1923, his name had a certain value here, based on curiosity, which it no longer had abroad. He signed on with the stable of a veteran New York manager, Robert (Pa) Levy (Hellers appears to have discarded Siki at the time of his suspension in France), and his first fight in this country was a serious one with a respectable opponent, Kid Norfolk, who beat him in fifteen rounds at Madison Square Garden. From then on, American fight fans were not disposed to think of Siki as a boxer of the top rank, but they liked to watch him. His style was eccentric and funny. He was strong and fast enough to knock out most of the palookas he met, when he felt like it. He was booked as far west as California and as far south as New Orleans, and he earned, according to a fairly reliable estimate I have heard, nearly a hundred thousand dollars between November 1923 and November 1925. He was one of the best spenders, in proportion to income, that the United States has ever seen. In restaurants and speakeasies he sometimes tipped five or ten times the amount of the check. Once, having made five thousand dollars from a fight in New York on a Friday, he was turned out of his rooming house the following Monday for nonpayment of rent. Another time he gave away all the money in his pockets to passengers on a Lackawanna Railroad ferryboat on which he was returning from a fight in New Jersey. Scolded for this by his manager, Siki wept. Most of his cash, however, continued to be spent on gifts, liquor, and clothes. In clothes, Siki’s taste was unusual but rich. In the first part of his New York residence, when he lived and roamed mainly in the Times Square area, he almost always wore full dress when he went out at night. By day, ordinarily, he appeared in a high hat, a frock coat, red ascot tie, striped trousers, spatted shoes, and a monocle, and he carried a gold-headed cane. From time to time he gave away all the stylish clothes he had on and went home by cab in his underwear. He was particularly open-handed with his high hats. One of these, Siki’s gift to the management, hung on a peg in a West Side saloon I used to visit until a few years ago, when the place closed up.

Siki’s New York life was divided into two roughly equal periods, the second of which he passed largely in Hell’s Kitchen. He had been married in the summer of 1924, at the Municipal Building, to a woman from Memphis named Lillian Werner. The event attracted just enough attention to stimulate newspaper inquiries in Paris, where neighbors of the Dutch girl with whom he had lived in the suburb of Lanves said she was still there and was still thought to be his wife. She herself was not interviewed or quoted to that effect then or afterward, so far as I know. Siki and his American bride moved into a flat at 361 West Forty-second Street early in 1925. Siki had begun to go downhill physically and professionally by then. His bookings for fights were fewer than they had been, and he did not fulfill all those he made. He got into trouble, almost simultaneously, with the United States Immigration Service and the boxing commissioners of New York State. Siki had come to America on a short-term permit. In July 1925 he was arrested for felonious assault after slashing at a policeman with a knife, at which the Government began deportation proceedings. In August the Boxing Commission, annoyed by a facetious exhibition Siki had given at a small New York Cityfight club, summoned him and Levy to its office, suspended Siki, and told Levy to make sure that the fighter was somewhere beyond the three-mile limit within thirty days. The order may seem to have been a usurpation of Federal powers, but it coincided with the Government’s view. At this point, France told the United States that it would refuse to receive Siki if he were deported. Siki, who had wept in the Boxing Commission office when he heard the order to his manager, now took advantage of the stalemate and, in November, filed application for his first citizenship papers. Government decision on his deportation case was still pending when he died.

Siki had the reputation in Hell’s Kitchen in 1925 of being dangerous when drunk, mild and affable when sober. As he drank more heavily and fought less in the ring, he fought more in the street, and his opponents were a rough and active group of men. He was known for his favorite joke of hailing a cab, taking a ride, and then challenging the driver to fight for the fare. Occasionally, too, he would invade the Times Square station of the I.R.T. in the early morning in search of amateur boxing engagements. It is characteristic of many boxers that as they lose their ability in the ring they swing their fists more frequently outside it, as a sort of blurred insistence on the claim that they are as good as ever. That, along with the drinks Siki bought or charged up in the bars of the West Side, may account for his pugnacity in his last months. The only instance of Siki’s using a knife that I have found was the time he was arrested for drawing one on a policeman. His wife went to night court to plead for him on that occasion. She made a good impression and got him off with a five-dollar fine. Though he was stabbed in the back himself in August, not long after he had smashed up a speak-easy in the West Forties and spent a few days in the French Hospital on West Thirtieth Street as a consequence, Siki went on using his fists—and now and then a piece of furniture—in nearly all his brawls. He was fined another five dollars on December 6 for slapping a patrolman at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street.

At about seven o’clock in the evening on Monday, December 14, Siki’s wife met him on the stairs to their flat on West Forty-second Street. The house they lived in still stands, a house of dingy brick with ten walk-up apartments, two on each of its five floors. Siki told Mrs. Siki he was going “out with the boys” and would be back in time to help her pack for a trip they were making next day to Washington, where Siki was to appear in a theater. Shortly after midnight on the morning of the fifteenth, Patrolman John J. Meehan, of the West Thirtieth Street station, walking his beat along Ninth Avenue, had a brief encounter with Siki, whom he knew by sight. Siki, wobbling a little as he turned under the “L” tracks from Forty-first Street, called to Meehan that he was on his way home. The patrolman told him to keep going that way. At 4:15 A.M., Meehan walked past the intersection of Forty-first Street and Ninth Avenue again and saw a body lying about a hundred feet east of the corner in the gutter in front of 350 West Forty-first. Approaching it, he recognized Siki. The body was taken to Meehan’s station house where a doctor pronounced the fighter recently dead from internal hemorrhage caused by two bullet wounds. Detectives examined the deserted block of Forty-first between Eighth and Ninth avenues. In front of No. 346, some forty feet east of where Siki had died, they found a pool of blood on the sidewalk. It seemed to them that Siki might have been trying to crawl home after he was shot. They could not tell just where the shooting had taken place. The gun, a vest-pocket .32-caliber pistol, was lying in front of No. 333, on the other side of the street. Only two bullets had been fired from it. An autopsy showed that these had entered Siki from behind, one penetrating his left lung and the other his kidneys. The autopsy showed something else which surprised Siki’s neighbors a good deal when they heard of it: he had suffered from an anemic condition.

At his wife’s request; Siki was given a Christian funeral service at the Harlem funeral parlors of Effie A. Miller. The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell delivered a eulogy. However, seven Mohammedan pallbearers in turbans carried his body to the hearse, chanting prayers as they did so, while a crowd of three thousand people looked on. The body was clothed in evening dress, as Siki would undoubtedly have wished. His estate, estimated at six hundred dollars, was awarded to his wife in Surrogate’s Court after Levy made out an affidavit in her favor. The words of the affidavit while perhaps not strictly accurate in point of fact told the broad truth about Siki’s place in the world better, I think, than the editorial that spoke of Achilles, Siegfried, and “natural man.” To the best of his knowledge, Levy said, Siki left surviving “no child or children, no father, mother, brother, or sister, or child or children of a deceased brother or sister.” He lived as a man without kin or country, roots or guides, and that, it seems to me, is a hard way to do it.

Siki’s murder was never solved. There was an abundance of suspects, but none of them suited the police at all until one day in March 1926 a young man of eighteen who lived a block or two from Siki’s house was arrested and booked on a homicide charge in connection with the killing. Detectives disguised as truck drivers had heard him making incriminating remarks, they said, over a telephone in a bootleggers’ hangout at Tenth Avenue and Fortieth Street. On being arrested, he allegedly signed two statements which gave two different accounts of the crime. One said that Siki had staggered into a coffee pot at Eighth Avenue and Fortieth Street in the early morning of December 15 and had thrown a chair at the eight men, including the deponent, who were gathered there. Deponent ran out of the place in alarm and heard shots fired in the restaurant behind him. The other statement, which fitted the physical facts of the killing a little better, said that a short while after the throwing of the chair, he, the young man under arrest, lured Siki to Eighth Avenue and Forty-first Street on the promise of buying him a drink. At the corner they were joined by two other men, one of whom, as the party walked west on Forty-first, shot Siki in the back. The young man was held in the Tombs for eight months, until the fall of 1926, and then was released by the court without trial, presumably because the state was not satisfied with its case. I might add that in May 1927 this same young man got five to ten years for second-degree robbery, committed in April in the vicinity of Ninth Avenue and Forty-second Street against a tourist from another state. That was clearly the wrong part of town for a tourist to go to.

Joe Blanton Would Be Proud

Pat Jordan’s latest for SB Nation Longform:

I had the stuff. I just didn’t have the heart. Or, more precisely, I always had the stuff, which was why I never had the heart. I didn’t need it. Then, in the arrogance of youth, with those early years of effortless success in Little League, American Legion, and high school, all the no-hitters and one-hitters and bushels of strikeouts, I felt indomitable. Eventually, however, when it all went south in my 20s, it dawned on me, dimly, that maybe my stuff wasn’t enough, that I lacked something.

I tried to find it, too late, without a clue as to what it was. I looked for something outside myself, a new pitch, a new motion, when I should have been looking elsewhere, inside myself for that “thing” beyond just “stuff” that every great pitcher has. Some not-so-great pitchers have it , too, the workmanlike plodders, the serviceable, fourth or fifth starters on a staff of superstars, the Joe Blantons grinding it out in the shadows of bigger names, Doc Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, his teammates when he was with the Phillies.

Pitchers like Blanton are good enough to go six innings on their good days, give up maybe nine hits and three earned runs, just enough to keep their team in the game, with a chance to win it in the eighth or ninth inning. I always liked guys like that, with mediocre stuff at best, who persevered, and survived 12, or 14 years, with a record of something like 102-103, and an ERA of 4.59. They pitched into their late ‘30s, maybe made a lone All-Star appearance the year they had a good first half and finished 13-11, then retired with a few big contracts under their belt, perhaps enough to buy a small farm in the Piedmont of North Carolina.

Of course, I also admired great pitchers with the big stuff: Warren Spahn, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver, and Justin Verlander. I admired, too, the very good pitchers with nice stuff: Vic Raschi, Bob Lemon, Robin Roberts, C.C. Sabathia, James Shields, and my old minor league teammate, Phil Niekro. But over the years, I have most learned to appreciate the Joe Blantons of baseball, the bricklayers of their craft like Livan Hernandez, Mark Buehrle, and Tony Cloninger, my minor league teammate. I had better stuff than all of them put together, except for Tony, yet I lasted only three years in the minors, while they all pitched successfully in the major leagues for years.

What did they have that I lacked? Fifty years after my failure, I’m still searching for the answer to that question.

[Photo Credit: Chris Daines]

BGS: An Interview with Roger Angell

You’ll enjoy this, Jared Haynes’ interview with Roger Angell. I came across this when I was at the baseball Hall of Fame doing research eight years ago. Found it in Angell’s file and think it’s just great.

Originally published in the fall 1992 edition of Writing on the Edge and reprinted here with permission.


Roger Angell has been a fiction editor for The New Yorker since 1956 and has contributed to the magazine for close to fifty years. He is best known for his pieces on baseball, written for the magazine’s “The Sporting Scene” section. Many of these pieces have been gathered into collections (The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings, Season Ticket).

Every time I read one of Angell’s articles, I come away with a deeper appreciation and understanding of baseball. His year-end roundups sift through the minutiae of the long season to see what, at the end, really mattered, what was startling and unexpected, and what came to nothing. Other pieces investigate the skills and knowledge that players need to play their positions; or illustrate the swings in momentum within an at-bat, a game, a series, or a season; or tease apart the conflicts between differing factions—owners, management, players, and, most forgotten of all, the fans.

I talked with Roger Angell early in July in his office at The New Yorker. The day was hot and muggy, and because of a traffic jam, I arrived late and anxious. Angell greeted me graciously and gave me a glass of water and time to wind down. We then spent a pleasant hour and a half talking about writing and baseball, while the faint street sounds of New York wafted up from seventeen stories below.

WOE: When did you first start to consider yourself a writer?

ANGELL: The wish to be a writer was built into me very early, because of my family background. My mother was connected with The New Yorker from the second year of its existence, in 1926. And then my stepfather, E. B. White, was a writer. So I was attracted to that. My father was a lawyer; he wrote a couple of books, but he was a lawyer primarily. I was not attracted to the law, but that was not a vote against him. He was always completely supportive of whatever I chose to do.

I was a kid writer in school and editor of the school paper. I knew I would end up in publishing somewhere, editing or publishing, and I’ve been both an editor and a writer all my life. During the war I became managing editor of a GI magazine in the Pacific called Brief, which was the only weekly slick-paper, coated-stock, enlisted-man’s publication in that war. That was great practice. We covered all of the central Pacific, something like 2 million square miles. I had to write every week and help get the thing together. It’s not bad; I’ve gone back and looked at it and we did a pretty good job.

WOE: Would you say that the influence of your mother and stepfather was fairly direct? I don’t mean that they taught you, but did they give advice?

ANGELL: It was more from watching, but, sure, their influence was important. It mattered for me in psychological terms, because my parents were divorced when I was about eight years old and I ended up with my father, which was not the best arrangement. I saw a lot of my mother, but she was away. I was young and I yearned for her, so what she did, working forThe New Yorker, was of great significance to me. And what Andy White, my stepfather, did was attractive to me. My mother always supported my wishes to be a writer, my baby efforts. I had a first contribution to the famous Franklin P. Adams column, “The Conning Tower,” when I was about nine years old. I dashed it off and my stepfather picked it up and sent it in and it got published.

And, of course, when I got older, I realized that Andy White was a wonderful model. He was there at hand, and he wrote so well. I learned things from him, the main one being to try to write simply and directly and to try to make it sound easy. Be clear, be unaffected if you can, and try to arrive at a tone that is your own tone, not somebody else’s. It takes a while for you to recognize what your own tone is. I also learned how hard writing is. He made it look easy, and anybody reading E. B. White thinks, Well, this was a snap, this was a cinch for him. Of course it wasn’t. He suffered the way all writers suffer. I remember summers in North Brooklin, Maine, when he was writing “Comment”he wrote that first page of The New Yorker for years. He’d write on Tuesdays, as I recall, when he’d close himself in his study all day. He’d come out for lunch looking pale, and he wouldn’t speak. Then he’d go back in there. He’d mail it off in the late afternoon, and then, half the time, he’d try to get it back because he thought it wasn’t good enough. Of course, it was good enough, but I recognize the impulse. Every writer understands that. Writing is hard; it’s really hard. Maybe he should have told me to turn back before it was too late!

Most writers are made at an early age. I don’t think many people come to it as a late idea. But there are always people who think, “Say, maybe I could become a writer!” I’ve heard people say, “Oh, you’re a writer. Isn’t that interesting. Someday I’m going to sit down and write a book.” You try not to laugh or scream. A writer named Roger Burlingamesomeone my father’s agehad this happen years ago. Someone came up to him at a party and said this. So Burlingame asked him, “What’s your line of work?” and the man answered, “Well, I’m a civil engineer.” “That’s amazing,” Burlingame said. “You know, you won’t believe this, but all these years I’ve told myself that someday I’m going to sit down and build a bridge.”

When I talk to groups of young writers, I sometimes ask them, “Do you really want to do this?” I have cautionary tales about how tough it is, and how it doesn’t get any easier. They think that once they get the hang of it, the difficulty will go away, and of course it’s not true. Back in the mid-seventies, I was writing a piece about the Super Bowl, of all thingsa “Sporting Scene” piece. The Super Bowl is two weeks of hype followed by two hours of football. I was there for a full week of the hype and I got to know the other writers. Just after the game we were in the pressroom eating a sandwich, and I said, “Now the hard part comes, we gotta write this stuff.” And a writer next to mel was older than he was by about fifteen or twenty yearsactually turned pale, and said, “You mean, it’s still hard for you?” and I said, “Yeah.” I understood his problem and I said, “I’m sorry, but it’s never going to get any easier.”

WOE: Did you have any worthwhile writing instruction in school or college?

ANGELL: When I was a freshman at Harvard, they had some remarkable instructors in composition. Wallace Stegner was there and Mark Schorercelebrated teachers of writing. They were all in their late twenties. There were five or six sections that were all top-class. We had to write every week, which was good practice. But there isn’t much to say in a classroom about writing. You can talk endlessly about a piece of copy, or a paragraph or a sentence, and to some effect, but in general terms you can’t go much beyond “Show them, don’t tell them,” “Keep it direct,” “Be effective,” “Don’t be pompous”all the standard things.

In those days, the great influence, the great exemplar, was Hemingway. I remember in that course at Harvard, we used to get our themes back in sort of a mail-box, with pigeon-holes, and of course you’d pick out other people’s stories and read them. Whenever I did this, I realized that every one of us was writing like Hemingway. I still remember the first sentence of one of my classmates’ stories I’d picked up: “Eddie stank of squirrel guts.”

WOE: Your first published works were short stories.

ANGELL: I wrote those pieces when I was in my twenties and thirties. I was just trying to become some kind of a writer. There were a couple of them that were OK, I guess. I really didn’t decide to stop; I just didn’t have a lot more stories to tell.

Of course in my work as an editor, I’ve been aware of most of the reigning influences in the short story.

WOE: Who have those been?

ANGELL: Oh, Raymond Carver was a very powerful influence. Donald Barthelme, back before him. Salinger to an extraordinary degree. Before that, Cheever and John O’Hara. Updike has been an influence all along, and a very strong one, but he’s difficult for students. His flavor is distinct, but not perceptible sentence by sentence. Barthelme was almost overpowering as an influence for a while because that quirky, pasted-together style looked easy, and of course it wasn’t. There was only one Donald. When he’d been going a few years, his brother Frederick BarthelmeRick Barthelmebegan sending us stuff that was exactly like Donald’s. I had to tell him, through Don at first, because I didn’t know him, that we already had one of these, we couldn’t use two. But then in time he arrived at his own way, his own approach to writing, which was entirely different, and we published a great many of his stories. I don’t think there is a dominant short-story model now. It’s strange. I don’t think there’s any meaning to it. It just doesn’t happen at the moment that there is a model. I can’t think of any.

WOE: How did you come to start writing about baseball?

ANGELL: William Shawn, then the editor [of The New Yorker], wanted to have more sports in the magazine. I had written a piece for the magazine about hockey I’d been a hockey fan. But he was wary because he understood the difficulties of writing about sports. He didn’t want us to be cynical, he didn’t want us to be too knowing, and he didn’t want us to be sentimental. He said, “Why don’t you go down to spring training and see what happens?” I went to Florida in the spring of ’62, I guess, and wrote that first baseball piece, and I just kept going after that. I had no idea it would go on this long. It was never planned that this would become such a specialty of mine, a considerable part of a career. I just went on from year to year because I always found something else I wanted to write about. It seemed to be a good fit.

WOE: How did you envision that first assignment when you went down to Florida?

ANGELL: What I did was write about baseball from the fans’ point of view. I was in my fortiesI was forty-oneand I knew enough to know that I didn’t know a great deal about baseball, even though I was a true-blue fan. I’d followed baseball all my life. But I was wary of talking to players; I felt very nervous about that. So I sat in the stands and reported on what that was like. The piece was called “The Old Folks Behind Home.” It was about old men and women watching spring training. The great preponderance of fans in ’62 were old folks.

And also, although it was not a conscious plan, I wrote about myself, because I was a fan. It set a pattern for me. I am a fan, I refer to myself as a fan, and I report about my feelings as a fan, and nobody else, to my knowledge, does that. It’s no great thing, but those old restrictions on reporting seemed to say that you can’t put yourself in the piece and you can’t betray emotion. It’s funny, because most of the beat writers have this surface objectivity and toughness, but underneath it all, I’ve noticed, they are just as much fans as the rest of us, or more so. If you sat up there and didn’t care about baseball in some personal way, it would be a deadly assignment, I think, year after year. Some of them are fans of other teams, not the team they’re covering. But if it comes down late in the season, to the last week or the last weekend, and your team still has a chance to get into the playoffs, you look around in the pressbox and everybody up there is pulling for them, and an occasional hopeful yell escapes their lips, even though no cheering in the pressbox is the absolute rule.

WOE: Has your vision of the assignment changed over the years?

ANGELL: Sure it’s changed. I eventually came to know more about baseball. I came to know some players and I began to feel free about going onto the field and into the clubhouse and talking to some players. And then, I guess in the seventies and early eighties, I began to realize that there was a great deal about the game I didn’t understand, and that many people didn’t understand. I still feel that way. That’s one of the reasons I’m still doing this. Baseball is intensely complicated, beautifully complicated. If you can get the players talking about what they do, it can make for interesting pieces. The best defense against partisanship is expertise, because the game is too painful otherwise. Year after year, it hurts to be a fan. There is much more losing than winning in baseball, if you think about itin all sports, actually. If your hopes have been high, it can be almost unbearable. Sometimes it becomes a long slow ache, if you’ve been a Red Sox fan. Or it can be a sudden shock if you’ve gotten your hopes up for the first time, when your team comes from nowhere and seems to have a shot and then suddenly falls apart before your eyes.

WOE: It seems that you play the oddsyou have three or four favorite teams that you cover.

ANGELL: The day-to-day teams that I follow most have been the Mets and the Red Sox. In 1986 I suddenly had to figure out which of the two I cared more about. It was true act of discovery; this was not contrived at all. Late in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, I suddenly realized the Mets were about to be eliminated and I was downcast. I was surprised. I would have bet the other way, that I cared more about the Red Sox, but I was wrong. So I had to write and confess that there was more Met than Red Sock in me. And my readersI get quite a lot of mail from readers who care about baseballmy New England mail was remarkably forgiving. I thought I would be excoriated.

The other team I’ve followed is the Oakland Athletics. I’ve gotten to know the management well, first from a Profile I wrote about Roy Eisenhardt. I also admire the Haas family, the Levi Strauss people who decided to buy the team in 1980. Walter Haas, Sr. is a true baseball fan, a sports fan. They really wanted to do something for the city of Oakland. They’re liberal multi-millionaires, which is a surprising combination. They’re admirable people. Oakland was a depressed city, a city with a high preponderance of minorities, in very dire straits. They thought it would be good for Oakland to keep a big-league team, and it has been good for Oakland. This sort of concern is very rare among owners. Oakland is among the two or three most admired franchises by the players and by people who really know baseball.

WOE: You mentioned how complicated the game is. One of the pieces I’ve most admired is “In the Fire,” the one about catchers. I think it opened my eyes as a fan to how difficult and complex the game is.

ANGELL: What I learned on that story was how smart catchers have to be. They really do run the game. They see everything out there; they’re the only ones who are looking out at the field, except for the fans. I think that was the first “What do you do?” piece that I wrote. Players I talked to at first couldn’t believe that was all I wanted. They were sort of close-mouthed and thought I was after just another sports story, but I said “No, just tell me what you do.” I think for most reporters that’s probably a pretty good question, because all of us are entranced with what we do, if it’s complicated at all, and love to talk about it. So once they began to talk about it I couldn’t shut them up. There’s a lot about catching I couldn’t get in there. As I said in the piece, this is just beginning to get into what it’s all about.

On these “What do you do?” pieces, I tend to leave out the most obvious or most famous player. I don’t want to go to the top man, because what he does may seem too easy to him. So I didn’t go to Johnny Bench, although he talks about baseball and about catching very well. The people I did go to were great talkers. Of course any reporter knows enough to go to a good talker. You remember who talks wellwho talks in sentences and now and then even in paragraphs. There are several Hall of Fame talkers in that same piece.

WOE: What goes into researching and writing a piece on baseball?

ANGELL: It depends on the piece. The big fall roundup really requires me to go to games fairly steadily through the summer, to take notes and keep scorecards. I also used to keep enormous stacks of newspapers and clips, The Sporting News, Baseball America, the Times, out of town papers, and last year, The National. I’d have stacks and stacks of stuff like that around here and at the end of the year I’d have to try to make some sense out of it. The biggest question, first of all, is what to leave out. There’s far more material than I can deal with. If you get a brilliant World Series like the one last fall, between the Braves and the Twins, that’s easy, because you know you’re going to hurry to the World Series in the piece. And the playoffs were just as good. You want to go back and recreate the feeling of those very close, low-scoring games, when most of us were just getting to know these young players. We didn’t know them well at all because they were both last place teams the year before. As I wrote, a great many fans said, “Who are these guys? I don’t care about these guys.” And then of course they played so well, it was like discovering baseball for the first time. I’d come in and people around here would say, “Wow! I’m worn out.” They were terrific games. It was like a World Series that was nothing but one long ninth inning.

There’s a lot to organize for those pieces in the fall. This year I’m going to try to do a shorter piece about the World Series, if I can break the habit.

When I go to games, I take a lot of notes. I take a standard, three-subject school notebook like this [picks it up off his desk], and I write all the way through games. This is a piece I’m working on, getting ready to write right now, about Class A baseball, the lowest level of organized ball, up in Oneonta, New York. I was up there last week. People who have known me in various pressboxes around the league know that I write a lot during the games. It’s a kind of jokeall the notes I take. But the reason is that I’m going to write much later than anybody else. I may be at a game in July and the chances are I won’t use any part of it in an autumn piece, but you never know. You don’t know when you’re watching a game if this is going to fit into something else that happens in September and something else that happens in October, or some recurrent theme I want to pick up on, or something about this particular player that I’m going to see later on. Well, I can’t remember what happened at this at-bat back in June. I can’t suddenly pull this out of the air. It’s got to be down on paper.

WOE: Do the notes allow you to revisualize the play?

ANGELL: Yes, if the notes are okay. I sometimes write down little things, how someone looks standing up at bat, what the pitcher’s mannerisms are up on the mound, or even what happened on a particular play, if it’s unusual. Baseball is a sport uniquely suited to writing, because you can go back and reconstruct a game from fairly simple notes and from a scorecard. You can bring back a moment, or even the pattern of the game. When something started to happen, if there was a game with a shift in it, a hinge in it. Then you can say this is why this game started this way and went that way. It all moves at a pace that allows you to write it down and watch it beginning to happen. Usually if there’s a shift in the game you can go back and say, “Well, actually this began the inning before or the inning before that.” You can do it in some detail. I don’t think anybody does it in more detail than I do. I’ve been laughed at sometimes for this, but I think fans like it. Baseball is really a writer’s game. All those idle moments at the ballpark where you look around and enjoy the day or the evening and another peanut, and now and then a thought actually comes, or even an idea crosses your mind. That doesn’t happen much in basketball or hockey because too many things are happening. And in football you can’t tell what’s happening. In baseball, you can. It’s very rare that something happens where people will say, “What was that?”

WOE: Do you tend to write in complete sentences in your notebooks?

ANGELL: I don’t think so. These notebooks [on Class A baseball] are different because I wasn’t doing very careful stuff about these games themselves. I was doing it about the setting. No, these aren’t sentences. These are quotes in some cases. But in my game notebooks I sometimes have something drawn. I make a little rough sketch of what someone looks like. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched Will Clark, who has this elegant, beautiful swing. It’s such a wonderful thing to watch. I would begin to watch how he’d do this and I’d make a drawing of that column made by his front leg and the fulcrum as he twists his body around.

WOE: What is most difficult for you in writing?

ANGELL: Starting a piece seems to be extremely difficult for me. It always has been. People around here are used to my cries of rage and woe, because I can’t get cranked up. Once I start to write, I’m pretty quick. But starting is a terrible block for me. Perhaps the reason is that good writing is based on clear thinking, which is the hardest thing we have to do. It’s as plain as that. It’s hard to start to write because what you have to do is to start to think. And not just think with the easy, up front part of your brain but with the deeper, back parts of the unconscious. The unconscious comes into writing in a powerful way. When I was writing weekly piecesand I think daily writers feel this as wellif I am having a hard time I can go to bed at night and say, “When I wake up I’m going to have the lead.” And you do. You can train your mind to do that. Some part of you is sitting there hunched over, under a light, looking over possibilities.

I think part of my problem is that I don’t write regularly. I’m not just a writer, I’m an editormy full time job is an editorso I write something and then I stop. Then I may not write again for a month or two or even three or four months. And when that happens, you’ve got to remember what writing is. You have to teach yourself all over again. It doesn’t come naturally. Whenever I’ve been in the situation where I had to write every weekI did the movies for the magazine for six months onceit was a cinch. I knew I came in on Tuesdays and I was going to write the piece. By the end of the day the piece would be done. That’s no problem. But if you’re going to write five thousand or ten thousand or even a fifteen thousand words, and you haven’t done anything of the sort for a good many weeks, it’s hard to get it right. But I think all this time I’m basically sorting out the material, mostly unconsciously; I’m getting ready to decide where to put the emphasis.

I think I’m also hampered a little bit by the feeling that I’m probably competing with myself, although I try to combat this. I don’t feel a need to write a better piece each time I go out, but l know that I’ve got something of a reputation and I don’t want to write a bad piece, I really don’t. I don’t want to let down the sideby which I mean I don’t want to let myself down. I recognize this feeling among ballplayers because the great motivating factor for every major-league athlete, anybody who’s been an athlete for a long time, is that you don’t want to look bad out there. People say players today are out there thinking about money, but the truth is, they want to do well. That’s why they’re there. There’s another connection between sports and writingall writers want to do well. It’s one of the reasons why it’s so damned hard.

WOE: I remember your quoting one player who asked his teammates, “Please tell me when I need to retire.”

ANGELL: I think that was Bob Boone. Actually he’d said it the other way around. He was still playing and he was forty-three years old. He’d played more games than any other catcher. And now that Carlton Fisk has been injured all this year it looks as if he’ll keep that record. I was a friend of Bob Boone’s and I asked him once, “How do you keep going?” He said, “I never think about my age. Never. If I go into a slump, I don’t ask myself ‘Is this because I’m old?’” Because it’s tough enough without that. And then he said, “They’ll tell me when I’m too old to play. They’ll come take the uniform away and say, ‘You can’t play any more.’ I’m not going to tell myself that.”

WOE: When you go to do a piece on, say, Class A baseball, do you go with a specific purpose in mind? Do you know ahead of time what you want to get out of it? Or do you just go to watch the games and see what happens?

ANGELL: Well, I’m doing the piece on Class A baseball right now because Major League baseball is such a pain in the ass. We are burdened by front-office news and issues of money, with these squabbles with the commissionerleague rearrangements, expansion franchises, and all the rest of itand it’s hard to remember what we came for, which is to watch baseball. I think all of us in the stands, not just writers but all of us, feel farther away from the game than we used to. It requires enormous effort to remember that we go to the park to have fun.

I don’t want to whine here, because I think I’ve become used to most of the terrific changes, the amazing changes in the game. They’re not amazing, they’re depressing. There have been significant changes in the apparatus of baseball since I began watching it. Diamond Vision is a huge change. Everything that happens out there is replayed up on that huge board. There is rock music between the innings and even during the innings sometimes. There is organized cheering in some ballparks. The Nipponization of sports is beginning to take hold here. And of course we’re all distracted by the publicity, the fame, and we don’t really identify with those players now. With all the blather and noise and distraction of big-time sportswhich is very much the same sort of stuff that’s going on in America itselfit’s hard to remember why we were drawn to this in the first place.

I went back to Class A ball and up to Oneonta because I’d heard that this was a delightful small ballpark, with a president-owner who had been there for almost thirty years now. It’s a Yankee franchise. It’s short season Class A league, where the teams are made up of players just out of college. They’re new draftees. I watched them play a Red Sox team and then a Houston team and then I went over to Pittsfield and watched them play a Mets team. It’s nice. It’s small town baseball, the trees are very close, you’re within five yards of first base, you can smell the grass, the kids are young, and the stands are full of parents and babies. It’s the way spring training used to be. It’s a lot of fun and that’s all I’m going to try to say in the piece. I don’t have anything more to say than that.

WOE: What about revising pieces? When you get to the point where it’s “done,” do you give it to somebody else to look at?

ANGELL: I don’t do a lot of revising. I work at a typewriter. Writer friends keep telling me I should move to a word processor. Every interviewer comes in here, particularly younger ones, and sees this old Olympia, and the first thing they write in their notes is “Still writes on funky upright typewriter.” I don’t do a lot of drafts. I don’t rewrite big sections. I do the editing while I’m writing. I might rewrite a page or so. I write and I “x” out, I write and I “x” out some more. When I’m done, what I have is a great untidy stack of manuscript, a lot of which is held together with Scotch tape. But by the time I’m done, it’s pretty well the way it’s going to be. I sometimes might go back and add somethinga thought, or a little theme, a couple of extra pages that I didn’t have the first time. And sometimes I’ll take out something that’s repetitious. But by the time I’ve gone through the process, it’s about ready to go to type.

I also have an editor here whom I rely on to tell me when I’ve been foolish or repetitious or boring, and I count on that. All New Yorker writers do that. The mark of a professional, or a veteran anyway, is that you know you’re going to make mistakes. You need somebody there to tell you that. My editor is now Chip McGrath, who is the managing editor here. My editor before that was Gardner Botsford, who is now retired. These are terrific editors. Gardner would sometimes cut a few lines and I wouldn’t even notice it. Reading the galleys I’d say, “Didn’t I have something else in here?” He’d be very pleased when I finally realized it, because he’d been so deft that there was no scar left.

WOE: That need for outside help is hard to get across to students when we’re teaching them writing.

ANGELL: Absolutely. A lot of my work as an editor involves young writers, and new writers tend to feel that the way they wrote it is the way it’s meant to be. Once you see your stuff in type you think you wrote every one of those words without crossing out a line. It’s an illusion that we all have, to some extent. And the truth of the matter is that any piece of writing is just the last proof; it’s the one we had to let go of because the deadline is here.

This [indicating a sheaf of pages on his desk] is a page proof of a new John Updike story. It’s very short, just five pages. These are some corrections from our copy desk, some suggestions on grammar and usage, whatever. But we’ve already sent him the author’s proof, which had a lot more on it—factual queries from the “checking department, little things he might want to consider. All that’s gone off to him and he has answered them, and his corrections are in this page proof. I’ve sent up the page proofs already by overnight mail. I’ll talk to him tomorrow morning and we’ll go over these possible fixes. He will answer those questions, and meantime he will have some changes of his own. He rewrites on the author’s proof, but he also rewrites on page proof. He may have four or five sentences he’ll want to handle differentlyrephrasing, new sentencesand sometimes he’ll ask me “What do you think? Is this better than that?” He’s open to my opinion because that’s what I’m here for. I’m not trying to rewrite John Updike, but to say “Why don’t you try it this way?”

WOE: And you find veteran writers more receptive to this?

ANGELL: Sure. And some very well known writers require quite a lot of editing. I don’t think it makes them lesser writers; it’s just what they are. Then there are some writers who are famously clean and write finished copy from the beginning. Updike is like that. With Donald Barthelme, you hardly had to do anything, but he still counted on me as an editor. I remember he said once, “I count on you to get the hay out.” And I count on my editors in turn when I’m writing.

WOE: I get the impression when reading your pieces that you are working on several ideas at once, some that you may not use until later. For example, the piece on catchers. You worked on it the season before but didn’t really get around to writing it until later. Do you consciously have several projects going on in your mind at once?

ANGELL: I wish I had more things going on. But, sure, the catching piece contained a lot of material and I wanted more time to get around and talk to more people. I don’t always have all that much time to get away from my desk and go out reporting. I wrote that piece in the winter. I started in spring training the previous year and finished writing it in the winter.

Right now I’ve got some notes on coaching from my spring-training travels that I haven’t used yet. I’m not sure there’s enough there, or that I understand enough yet.

WOE: You frequently mention the linearity of baseball in your pieces.

ANGELL: Well, watching a ball game is something like reading. Something happens and then something else happens, and something else happens after that. As I said before, you can go back in your mind and see which events or characters mattered during those early boring but necessary chapters. You have to pay attention because you don’t know what kind of a book or what kind of a game it’s going to turn out to be. You won’t know until you get on toward the end. Sometimes the whole thing goes flat. Sometimes it’s promising and then disappointing. Sometimes there are continuous themes, sometimes there are sudden changes. Now and then you realize that you’re reading a classic.

WOE: I’m curious as to how you envision your audience. How do you think about your reader?

ANGELL: I don’t have anybody in particular in mind. The person is probably me or somebody like me. I know a lot about my readers because I get mail from them right through the year. I think this is because baseball means a lot to people and perhaps also because I write about myself in my baseball pieces. One of the great privileges for me is that I’ve been able to say “I” a lot. I can cut directly to things I feel strongly about. Since I write personally, and since baseball seems to mean a lot to real fans, then they feel I’m writing to them and they write back. They write me not just about baseball, but about their lives. Floods of mail, or what seems like floods. I’m always behind. This winter, I wrote a piece about my baseball beginnings as a boy fan, and I’ve had well over two hundred letters, maybe three hundred letters, from people writing about their own baseball beginnings. And they’re not all old geezers like me. Whatever their age, they all seem to remember going with their father to the park for the first time, and when they first saw this team or that player.

We write because we want a response. Writing is a lonely occupation, but I think all writers are writing to somebody. As long as you remember that, you’re not going to go too far astray. You can’t write and then put it away. That’s what Salinger has been doing all these years, and it’s a shame, because I can’t believe that it’s going to be any good. He has had his own reasons, to be sure.

When you’re writing, you have to think about the person who’s going to be reading this, every moment. This is what I say to young writers I deal with. What will the reader think? What will the reader think? We are doing this very complicated thing in concert with the person who is going to read this. You have signed an invisible compact that promises that you are not going to let this guy down. You’re not going to play tricks on him, you are not going to lead him up this way and then turn on him and do something else.

Whenever I get the feeling that I’m writing well, it’s because in some way I can intuit or imagine what a reader is thinking. I think this must be true for most writers. It certainly is for me. You can set up things that are going to work later on in a piece. You prepare a reader almost unconsciously, and then something happens later on that connects with that earlier passage. The reader is pleased or saddened or whatever, sometimes not quite knowing why, butyou know why. This is the part of writing that is deeply pleasing if you can do it right. It’s another reason why it’s so hard. It’s never just you and the page. It’s you and the page and the person who is going to consume this object at the other end.

WOE: That idea of preparing the reader reminds me of your piece on Dan Quisenberry. Reading that, I feel he’s such an artist and such an interesting person. Then toward the end, you talk about how his pitching starts to fall apart, and his bewilderment about what went wrong is very sad.

ANGELL: Sure. And there’s another example of difficulty. This is another connection between baseball and writing. They are both intensely difficult. They look easy, but they’re hard.

WOE: Let me ask you about your style. It’s a very literate style. As I read through Season Ticket, I picked out just a couple of the many metaphors or allusions you made: a piece on the Detroit ball club of 1984 is called “Tiger, Tiger”; two women behind you in the stands are a Euripidean chorus; a particular player’s stance is like limeflower tea to your memory. These are things that the average reader of a newspaper sports section is not going to latch onto at all.

ANGELL: I hope I don’t do this in an affected way. I worry about this because I don’t want to use references that my readers are unable to follow. I think in The New Yorker you find an audience that is ready for this sort of thing. The references are ones that come readily to my mind while I’m writing, and if they’re literary, it’s because I’ve read a lot. But I also have a lot of very commonplace figures, a lot of jokes, slang, movie references, because this is also what I am. I’m an informal sort of a guy.

WOE: Is there any precedent for that kind of writing in sports? Where did it come from? Is it natural for you?

ANGELL: I think it’s natural for me. There are people in sports who have written this way. A great model for me was Red Smith, who was a model for almost every sportswriter. The great thing about Red Smith was that he sounded like himself. His attitude about sports was always clear. He felt himself enormously lucky to be there in the pressbox. He was not in favor of glorifying the players too muchGodding up the players, in Stanley Woodward’s phrase. But he was Red Smith in every line. You knew what he had read and what his influences were.

I don’t try to be a literate sportswriter; I try to be myself. It’s as simple as that. Everybody’s got to find what their voice is. You’ve got to end up sounding like yourself if you’re going to write in a way that’s going to reward you when you’re done. If you end up sounding like somebody else, you’re not going to be any good. You won’t get anywhere. Readers are smart. They will pick up whether the tone is genuine or not. Tone is the ultimate thing writers have to think about. You could write on a given subjecta ball game or a national crisis or a family crisisin twenty or thirty different ways. You only have to pick what you want people to make of this.

Sometimes when you’re writing, you find that your own feelings are quite different from what you thought they would be, and then you have to go with that. Sometimes there are complex things happening that you have to go along with. I wrote a piece which meant a lot to me, called “In the Country,” about a semi-pro ball player and his girlfriend, Ron Goble and Linda Kittle. He was playing semi-pro ball, she was a would-be poet, and they were living together. Baseball meant a lot to them. They took me into their lives and basically told me everything about themselvesan amazing thing to do. I went up to Vermont to write about baseball and ended up writing about them. I was very moved, because they trusted me. They said, “We’ve given you our lives.” A lot of emotion went into that piece that I didn’t really anticipate when I first went out to do it.

WOE: That was a wonderful piecevery respectful of their feelings, their ups and downs.

ANGELL: You have to respect your subject. If you’re writing about professional athletes, respect is a crucial ingredient. You can’t patronize these guys. There are many ballplayers who are less educated than the people writing about them. Many of them find it difficult to talk and it’s a big problem. If you put down exactly what they sayparticularly Hispanic ballplayersit sounds as if you’re patronizing. If their English isn’t good, you have to be very selective and suggest in a minimal sort of way that some of this is being delivered in an accent. But underneath this, you can’t laugh at these guys. You know that sometimes ballplayers can be laughable when they are talking about what they’ve done, or maybe just pretentious, too full of themselves. If you want to say they are too full of themselves, you have to say it, you can’t suggest it. I remember a couple of times I had what I thought was first-class stuff about a player, or a lively anecdote, but I didn’t use it because I couldn’t get it right. I couldn’t write it without sounding as if I were inviting the audience to feel superior.

Sometimes I don’t mind. If it was Reggie Jackson, I did sometimes try to suggest that he’s full of himself. But in the next minute, he would astound you with a line or an idea. He was always very aware of what he was doing, talking to writers. He was trying to use me and I was trying to use him. Every writer had that experience with Reggie.

WOE: Are there recurring themes in baseball you tend to come back to?

ANGELL: Difficulty is one. And heartbreak is an innate part of the game. Aging is very much a part of it, because if there’s any subtext to sports that really holds up over a long period of time it is that in a rather short span of years, you can watch an athlete go through a lifetime, so to speak. You watch him be born as a rookie, come to young manhood, and then to middle age; you see him begin to slow down, begin to worry, try to remember what it was he used to do so easily and effortlessly, and then fade away and die, in effect, all in the space of ten years. Even kids sense that. I remember seeing DiMaggio slow down. I was in my twenties then and I’d picked up on him when I was twelve years old. This is sad stuff. The last few seasons of Willie Mays were heartbreaking. You didn’t want it to happen.

WOE: I felt the same about Mickey Mantle.

ANGELL: I try never to go to Old-Timers games. They say, “Come back and see these wonderful guys.” I don’t want to see these wonderful guys. It’s hard enough for the rest of us to get old. I can look in a mirror, but what’s the fun of that? I want to remember these guys and what they looked like when they were at their best.

I try to stay away from the deeper meanings in sports. If they’re there, they’ll come through. You sense what they are. Sports are about us as a species. We want to see how people respond under conditions of enormous stress, however artificially prepared. We want to see how they perform when they fail and we want to see how they perform when they succeed. Then we want to see them go and do it again. That’s what makes you a pro. Some pitcher said years ago, “That’s the difference. People say to you, ‘You were great today, now go out and be great again tomorrow.”‘ That’s what separates us from them.

WOE: I have the impression that your writing has become more personal and contemplative about sports over the years, more about baseball the game than about the individual games that you’ve gone to see.

ANGELL: I guess so. It’s not a plan. I’m the age that I am and I have a different outlook on this than I did in my forties. People at my age become more contemplative. If it makes you any wiser, I don’t know. It’s a natural stage of things.

Your memory of things in the distant past becomes remarkably sharp. You remember things from thirty years ago, forty years ago with little effort, sometimes more clearly than what happened last week.

I want to keep fresh. I think if I become too distanced from baseball or too much seeing the larger picture, it’ll be time to stop, because this is a game played by young men. It’s very hard for me to talk to ballplayers now, because when they start calling you “Sir” you’re in big trouble as a reporter. They’re terrifically young. It’s harder for all baseball writers now because access is very difficult; they don’t want to talk to you. They make so much money and they see themselves as public figures, as television stars, once they’re on their way. The players don’t talk about baseball as much as they used to. The last great daily talker about baseball was Keith Hernandez, who played wonderful first base for the Metsthe best defensive first baseman I ever saw. When the game was over he’d sit down and have a couple of beers and several cigarettes and talk about the game with all comers. It was great stuff. There was always a crowd of writers around him, finding out what really happened. There aren’t many players like that around now.

Very few players think about the fans. They glance up there, and once in a while you will hear them say that the fans have been great, “the tenth player,” but that’s all by rote. The only player who surprised me about this was Willie McCovey, in San Francisco in the early seventies, when the Giants in mid-September were suddenly in first place or close to it. They had just lost a couple in a row and eventually they dropped back to third place, but ten days before the end of the season, they had a real shot. I was talking with McCovey and he understood how rare this chance was because he’d played in the World Series, in ’62, but not since then. He knew how rare it was for a player. I said, “Willie, the fans here are dying. Do you ever think about this? They’re really suffering.” And he looked up in the stands and said, “Yes, I know. When you step up to bat, you’re all they’ve got. If you fail, they fail.” Of all the players I’ve talked to, he’s the only person who saw that connection.

WOE: How has television affected the way fans see the game?

ANGELL: TV has made us all much more expert as fans. We know these games much better than we did, because we’ve seen so many of them. But this is an enormous subject. The biggest change in America in my lifetime has been television. I just went to my fiftieth reunion at Harvard, where I was on a panel discussing journalism and our times, or something like that. Tom Winship, the former editor of the Boston Globe, called me up a few weeks before and asked, “What are we going to talk about? What’s the biggest change in our life?” I said, “Television,” and he agreed. So we talked about television. It was gloomy stuff.

Television has totally altered the nature of sports. It’s made it a permanent all-star attraction. It’s all about winning, it’s nothing about losinglosing is pushed away. And more and more about money, of course. What it’s done to amateur sports is disastrous. Most college sports are corrupt now, and we know it. We have these mercenaries we pay to see, in many cases at very high prices to their lives. We watch these young men play basketball in the Final Four during the last couple of weeks of the basketball season and we know that very few of them are students. We know it, but we don’t remind ourselves, because if we did we’d be ashamed to be paying attention. Basketball is now seen as the quickest way out of the inner city for young blacks, which is heartbreaking because so few of them are going to make it. The money distorts everything.

WOE: What sort of advice would you give someone who wanted to go into sports writing? How would they would get into it and how would they learn the craft?

ANGELL: I think the usual way is to model ourselves on somebody in the field. If you’re young, you do this naturally There’s nothing wrong with this. I once heard Borges say that when he was young, he could write Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson better than they could. He told me, “I finally got over that, but it got me going.”

But I’m not sure I would encourage people to go into sports writing right now. Television has taken over so much of the reporting. That’s where the action is. It’s not as if you can’t get good sports writing jobs if you’re talented, but it’s a more limited profession than it used to be, or more challenging. The basic level of sports writing is higher than it was when I started. Writers are better educated; there are more smart, thoughtful, enterprising writers. With the structure of modern sport, you have to be more energetic to go out and do a good reporting job every day. I admire beat writers. It’s a difficult job to travel with a team every day, to really say what’s going on, and to report on the tone of the team, as well as to say who won or lost, and not to get jaded or begin to dislike the players. You have to be critical and also to be able to get along with the players so that you can get them to talk to you. It’s tough.

WOE: Especially if you’ve just written something unfavorable about the team.

ANGELL: Absolutely. But if you’re going to go into writing at any point, it always looks as if there’s too much talent around. The odds are always hopelessly loaded against you. But that’s true in most professions. You think, “I could never succeed in that.” Maybe you won’t, but you’ve got to try. If you want to do it, you will try. The figures are never as bad as they look, because a lot of the competition will turn out not to have much talent or won’t stick with it. If you’re going to do it, do it. But as I’ve been saying right along, writing is hard.

Number One with a Bullet

Here’s Pat Jordan on why women rule the rifle range:

Early one morning in March, Caitlin Morrissey showed me around the blindingly lit white range. She is 21, built strong with long blonde hair and blue eyes. She is pretty and perfectly made-up. “My ritual,” she said. “Shower, hair, make-up every morning. I’m very organized.” There is no artifice about her. She looked directly at me when she spoke. It was disconcerting. She stood at her locker, painstakingly putting on her uniform: shoes, a sling for her left arm, her gloves. “Everything’s so our muscles will not be used,” she said. She walked penguin-style to the firing line. She put on her granny glasses with blinders, and a third blinder over her left eye. “I don’t like to shut my left eye,” Caitlin said. “The exertion causes face fatigue. I took out my contacts too, so they won’t move around.” A lot of shooters wear glasses. Exceptional vision is overrated in shooting, they claim.She stood at the firing line, her body sideways to the distant target. She assumed a model’s slouchy pose, legs spread, loose-hipped, her left hip cocked higher than her right. She turned her head and shoulders toward the target, aimed her rifle, her left hand under the barrel, cradling the rifle very gently, her left elbow propped against her left hip for support.

“Girls are better shooters than boys ‘cause we have hips,” Caitlin said. No smile, a fact. She pressed her cheek against her rifle, whispered something to it, and aimed. She exhaled, her body relaxed, got still. She held this pose for a few minutes, and then put her finger on the delicate trigger. It takes 1½ ounces of pressure to depress that trigger. Most firearms require 5 – 12 pounds of pressure. Caitlin stopped breathing, “ping”, took a breath and said, “9.8. Anything less than 10.0 is a failure. I haven’t settled into my position yet.” She aimed again. Two, three minutes went by, and then she fired. “A 10.6,” she said. “10.9 is perfect. See? My body’s settling in.” She aimed again, “ping” and a 9.8. “I could feel it was a 9 when I broke the shot. I wasn’t smooth pulling the trigger; I jerked it,” she said. She shot again (10.4), again, (10.6) again (10.8). I asked Caitlin if shooting a 10.9 was thrilling. She lowered her rifle and looked at me. “I wouldn’t call it thrilling,” she said. ”Rewarding maybe.”

…As a young girl in Topeka she played all the sports against boys. When she was 7 years old, her father took her to a shooting club. By 9, she was beating all the boys. That was her main motivation, she said, but that didn’t last. Beating boys was no big deal. Beating girls, however, was something else. At first, boys were fascinated by the girl with the gun. By the eighth grade that was just her persona. That was when she learned that Margaret Murdock lived nearby. She went to visit her and wrote a story about the woman who’d won an Olympic gold medal in rifle shooting, and then had it taken away in favor of a man. Caitlin called her essay, a mini-book, really, “The Life of a Champion”, author: Caitlin Morrissey, Copyright: 2003, Publisher: Morrissey Publishing.
Maybe that’s still in the back of her mind, she said, because, “It’s still fun to beat boys. It’s an accepted fact that girls are better. Girls know how to calm themselves down, relax, focus on one thing. Boys get distracted. They don’t have our attention span. When we find something we like, we latch on to it. Ninety percent of shooting is mental toughness. We calm ourselves down after a bad shot, and not relax too much after a good shot.” She said that what gratifies her most about shooting is that it taught her how to calm herself in life. “It’s a monotonous sport,” she said. “You have to be self-motivating. You’re in the practice range for three hours every day. Your body is locked in a cramped position. Boys build muscle for movement. Girls build muscle for stability. We do neck and trapezius work” because that’s where all a shooter’s tension is. “What do I do to relax?” she said, smiling for the first time. “I go shopping. Or organize things, like our graduation party.”
Caitlin’s boyfriend is a hunter. “I could never be with a guy who didn’t like guns,” she said. “I’ve never hunted, but I might one day. I don’t have a Bambi Complex. But I don’t like to point my gun at anything I don’t intend to shoot. It’s a tool, like a baseball bat, never a weapon. I could never be a sniper. You should talk to Jaime. She’s a hunter. She’s in ROTC. She could be a sniper.”

[Image Via: Roopstigo]

A Glove Story

 

Over at Verb Plow, Glenn Stout tells “A Glove Story.”

BGS: Thin Mountain Air

This profile of Steve Carlton “Thin Mountain Air” was written by our man Pat Jordan. It originally appeared in Philadelphia magazine in April, 1994 and appears here with the author’s permission.

Durango, Colorado, is a cold mountain community 6,506 feet above sea level. It is known for its thin air, which can make residents light-headed, disoriented. It is surrounded by the La Plata mountain range. Built into the foothills of those mountains is a domed concrete house covered with snow and dirt. No one but its owner can explain what he was seeking with that house.


“I came to Durango in 1989 to get away from society,” he says. He is a big man, 6–5, 225 pounds, dressed in a Western shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. He is standing beside his truck in the thick snow that covers the land around his bunker and rests gently on the branches of the low-lying piñon trees that dot his 400 acres. It is a few days before Christmas.

“I don’t like it where there are too many people,” he says. “I like it here because the people are spiritually tuned in.” He glances sideways, out of the corner of his eyes. “They know where the lies fall.”

He makes a sweeping gesture with a long arm, encompassing his bunker, his barn with its turkey, pheasants and horses, and more than 160 fruit trees he has planted. “This is sacred land,” he says. “We’re self-sufficient here. There’s no one around us. We grow our own food.”

He points to sliding glass doors that lead inside his bunker to the greenhouse off his bedroom. “We have our own well,” he says. “And 16 solar batteries for heat and electricity.”

Even his telephone works on cellular microwave transmitters. That way no one can tap his wires.

“The house is built with over 300 yards of concrete,” he says. “Three-feet-thick walls covered by another three feet of earth.” Why? He looks startled, like a huge bird. His small eyes blink once, twice, and then he says, “So the gamma rays won’t penetrate the walls.”

Built under the house is a 7,000-foot storage cellar. He’s stocked it with canned foods, bottled water, weapons. “Do you know if you store guns in PVC pipe, they can last forever underground without rusting?” he says.

He glanced sideways again. “The Revolution is definitely coming.” He believes in the Revolution, only he isn’t precisely sure which of a myriad of conspiratorial groups will begin it. Possibly, he says, it will be started by the Skull and Bones Society of Yale University. Or maybe the International Monetary Fund. Or the World Health Organization. There are so many conspiracies, and so little time. Sometimes all those conspiracies confuse him and he contradicts himself. One minute he’ll say, “The Russian and U.S. governments fill the air with low-frequency sound waves meant to control us,” and the next he’ll say, “The Elders of Zion rule the world,” and then, “The British MI-5 and-6 intelligence agencies have ruled the world since 1812,” and, “Twelve Jewish bankers meeting in Switzerland rule the world,” and, “The world is controlled by a committee of 300 which meets at a roundtable in Rome.” The subterfuge starts early. Like the plot by the National Education Association to subvert American children with false teachings. “Don’t tell me that two plus two equals four,” he once said. “How do you know that two is two? That’s the real question.”

He believes that the last eight U.S. presidents have been guilty of treason, that President Clinton “has a black son” he won’t acknowledge and that his wife, Hillary, “is a dyke,” and that the AIDS virus was created at a secret Maryland biological warfare laboratory “to get rid of gays and blacks, and now they have a strain of the virus that can live ten days in the air or on a plate of food, because you know who most of the waiters are,” and finally, that most of the mass murderers in this country who open fire indiscriminately in fast-food restaurants “are hypnotized to kill those people and then themselves immediately afterwards,” as in the movie The Manchurian Candidate. He blinks once, twice, and says, “Who hypnotizes them? They do!”

Maybe he isn’t really contradicting himself. Maybe he is just one of those people who read into the simplest things a cosmic significance they may or may not have. Conspiracies everywhere to explain things he cannot fathom. The refuge of a limited mind. “The mind is its own place,” John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost. “And in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

Steven Norman Carlton, “Lefty,” discovered his first conspiracy in 1988, when he was forced to leave baseball prematurely and against his will, he says—after a 24-year-major-league pitching career of such excellence that he was an almost-unanimous selection for baseball’s Hall of Fame on his first try, this past January. He received 96 percent of all baseball writers’ votes, the second-highest percentage ever received by a pitcher (after Tom Seaver’s 98 percent) and the fifth-highest of all time.

Carlton, who pitched for the Phillies from 1972 to 1986, after seven years with the St. Louis Cardinals, has—after the Braves’ Warren Spahn—the most wins of any left-handed pitcher. Carlton won 329 games and lost 244 during his career. Six times he won 20 games or more in a season, and he was voted his league’s Cy Young Award a record four times. His most phenomenal season, one of the greatest seasons a pitcher has ever had, came in his first year with the Phillies: Carlton won 27 games, lost only ten, and fashioned a 1.98 ERA for a last-place team that won only 59 games all season. In other words, he earned almost half of his team’s victories, the highest such percentage ever. For almost 20 years, he was the pitcher against which all others were judged.

The secrets to his success were many. Talent. An uncanny ability to reduce pitching to its simplest terms. An unorthodox, yet rigorous, training regimen. A fierce stubbornness and an even fiercer arrogance. All contributed to his success on the mound and, later, to his inability to adjust to the complexities of life off the mound.

As a pitcher, Carlton knew his limitations. A mind easily baffled by intricacies. There were so many batters. Their strengths and weaknesses confused him, so he refused to go over batters’ tendencies in pregame meetings. He blocked them out of his consciousness and reduced pitching to a mere game of toss between pitcher and catcher—his personal catcher, Tim McCarver. He used only two pitches: an explosive fastball and an equally explosive, biting slider. He just threw one of the two pitches to his catcher’s glove. Fastball up and in; slider low and away.

He worked very hard to let nothing intrude upon his concentration. Once the third baseman fired a ball that hit him in the head. He blinked, waved off the players rushing to his aid, picked up the ball, toed the rubber and faced his next batter. His parents, Joe and Anne Carlton, claim they’ve never seen their son cry.

It was not always easy for him to be so singularly focused while pitching.

“Concentration on the mound is a battle,” he says. “Things creep into your mind. Your mind is always chattering.”

To prevent any “chattering” before a start, he had the Phillies build him a $15,000 “mood behavior” room next to the clubhouse. It was soundproof, with dark blue carpet on the floor, walls, and ceiling. He’d sit there for hours in an easy chair, staring at a painting of ocean waves rushing against the shore. A disembodied voice intoned “I am courageous, calm, confident, and relaxed … I can control my destiny.”

Carlton, said teammate Dal Maxvill, lived in “a little dark room of his mind.” His training routine was just as unorthodox. He hated to run wind sprints, so instead he stuck his arm in a garbage pail filled with brown rice and rotated it 49 times, for the 49 years that Kwan Gung, a Chinese martial-arts hero, lived. By then, Lefty himself was a martial-arts expert.

He performed the slow, ritualized movements in his clubhouse before each game. He also extensively read Eastern theology and philosophy. Those texts discussed the mysteries of life, the unknowable and how a man should confront them. Silence, stoicism, and simplicity. Those tenets struck a chord in him because, increasingly, his life off the mound was becoming more complex than a game of catch. People constantly clamored for his autograph. Waitresses messed up his order in restaurants, so he tore up their menus. Reporters began to ask him questions he didn’t like, or didn’t understand, or maybe he just thought were trivial. They even had the effrontery to question him about his failures.

“People are always throwing variables at you,” he said in disgust, and refused to talk anymore. The press called it “the Big Silence.” From 1974 to 1988, Carlton wouldn’t speak to the media. (It wasn’t just Daily News sportswriter Bill Conlin’s stories, as many assumed, but a series of articles, Carlton says now, that drove him to withdraw.) One sportswriter said there would come a time when Lefty would “wish he’d been a good guy when he’d had the chance.” But he didn’t have to be a good guy. He wasn’t interested in the fame being a good guy would bring him. He wanted only to perfect his craft, which he did, and to become rich.

Over the last ten years of his career, Carlton earned close to $10 million, almost all of it in salary because he didn’t want the annoyance of doing endorsements. It was demeaning, he thought, for him to hawk peoples’ wares. Then again, thanks to the Big Silence, there weren’t a lot of sponsors beating down his door. He already had a reputation for sullen arrogance. When he went to New York City once to discuss a contract for a book about his life, he told the editors he really didn’t care about the book, that he was just doing it for the money and because his wife, Beverly, thought it was a good idea. The editors beat a hasty retreat.

Carlton didn’t need a publisher’s money, or a sponsor’s, because he had a personal agent who promised to make him so rich that when he retired he could do nothing but fish and hunt. He had his salary checks sent directly to the agent, David Landfield, who invested them in oil and gas leases, car dealerships and Florida swampland. Since Carlton couldn’t be bothered with the checks and often had no idea exactly how big they were, Landfield simply sent him a monthly allowance, as if he were a child. These monthly allotments would be all Carlton would ever see out of his $10 million. Not one of Landfield’s investments for him ever made a cent. By 1983, all the money was gone.

During the nine years that Landfield worked for him, Carlton’s friends tried to warn him off the agent. Bill Giles, the Phillies’ owner, and Mike Schmidt, Lefty’s teammate, pleaded with him to drop Landfield. But he wouldn’t listen. One time, he even got in a fight with Schmidt in the clubhouse because of Landfield, and the two, formerly close friends, stopped speaking. Carlton said it was because he was loyal to Landfield, whom he trusted. Others said he was just being stubborn and arrogant because his success on the mound had led him to believe he was invincible off it. McCarver once said that Lefty “always had an irascible contempt for being human. He thinks he’s superhuman.”

When the truth of what Landfield had done with his money finally intruded into Carlton’s psyche, it was too late. He went through the motions of suing Landfield in 1983, but by then Landfield had declared bankruptcy. Worse, Carlton never had a chance to recoup his money, because only a few years later his career was on the downswing and those big paychecks were a thing of the past. He began to lose the bite on his slider in ’85, and people told him he should try to pick up another pitch. But he refused. He continued to throw the only way he knew how.

Fastball up and in, slider low and away.

Between 1986 and 1988, Carlton was traded or released five times, until finally, after being cut by the Minnesota Twins, no club would sign him—even for the $100,000 league minimum. Carlton was furious. At 43 he insisted he could still pitch. That’s when he uncovered his first conspiracy.

“The Twins set me up to release me by not pitching me,” he says today. “And other owners were told to keep their hands off. Other teams wouldn’t even talk to me. I don’t understand it.” To understand it, all Carlton has to do is look at his pitching record from 1985 to 1988: 16 wins, 37 losses and an ERA of more than five runs per game. It was a reality he didn’t want to face. So, sullen and hurt, Carlton decided to punish those who had hurt him. He retreated to Durango and soon afterward began building his mountain bunker, turning his back on the game and the real world that had betrayed him.

Steve Carlton, 49, dressed in a T-shirt and gym shorts, is standing on his head in the mirrored exercise room, performing his daily three hours of yoga.

“I don’t even feel any weight above my neck,” he says, upside down. Just then a screaming flock of children runs into the room with their female yoga instructor, who is dressed in black tights. Immediately, Carlton takes out two earplugs and sticks them in his ears.

“It takes the bite off the high-end notes,” he says, smiling. He is still a handsome man, his face relatively unlined. His is a typically American handsomeness, perfect features without idiosyncrasies. Except for his eyes. They are small and hazel and show very little.

“I spend my summers riding motorcycles and dirt bikes,” he says. “I work around the house. It’s taken us three years and we’re still not finished. (It is rumored that he doesn’t have the money to do so.) In the winter I ski and read books, Eastern metaphysical stuff. All about the power within. Oneness with the universe. I want to tap into my own mind to know what God knows.” He rights himself, sits cross-legged on a mat and begins contorting into another yoga position, the ankle of his left leg somewhere behind his ear.

“You ought to try,” he says. “Yoga for three hours a day. And skiing, too.” He says this with absolute conviction, as if it has never crossed his mind that there are those who do not have three hours in the morning to spare for yoga, and three more hours in the afternoon to ski. In fact, Durango seems to be the kind of town where people have unlimited leisure time. At 10:30 on a weekday morning, the health club is packed. Durango is one of those faux-Western towns whose women dress in dirndl skirts and cowboy boots and whose men, their faces adorned with elaborately waxed 1890s handlebar mustaches, wear plaid work shirts rolled up to the elbows. It has a lot of “saloons”—not bars—with clever names, like Father Murphy’s, that have walls adorned with old guns, specialize in a variety of cappuccinos and frown upon cigar smoking. Clean air is an important subject in Durango. When the town’s only tobacco shop wanted to hold a cigar smoker, its two owners were afraid it would be disrupted by protesters chaining themselves to their shop door. It’s a town for people who cannot countenance the idiosyncrasies of their fellow man. So they come to this clean, thin mountain air where they can breathe without being contaminated by the foulness of the rest of the world.

Carlton believes he is in better physical shape now than when he left baseball six years ago. “In a month I could be throwing in the 80s [miles per hour] and win,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I was labeled ‘too old.’ But you can still pitch in your 50s. It’s not for money but for pride, proving you can perform. That’s the beauty of it. Then to be cut off … It’s disheartening. If only they let you tell them when you know you’re done. It hurts. But I haven’t looked back. No thought of what I should have done. Maybe I should have learned a circle change up in my later years. But I didn’t think I needed a change.”

Most great pitchers intuit the loss of their power pitches before it actually happens. Warren Spahn, for example. He could see, in his early 30s, a time when his high, leg-kicking fastball would no longer be adequate. So he began to perfect an off-speed screwball and a slow curve. By the time Spahn lost his fastball, he had perfected his off-speed pitches, and his string of 20-victory seasons continued unbroken into his late 30s and early 40s. But Carlton was both luckier than Spahn and less fortunate. Because he did not lose his power pitches until late into his 30s, he was deluded into thinking he would never lose them, and so didn’t develop any off-speed pitches.

Carlton, lying on his back now, pulls one leg underneath himself and stretches it. “Baseball was fun,” he says. “But I have no regrets. Competition is the ultimate level of insecurity, having to beat someone. I don’t miss baseball. I never look back. You turn the page. Eternity lies in the here and now. If you live in the past, you accelerate the death process. Your being is your substance.”

As a player, Carlton was known for his conviviality with his teammates. He spent a lot of his off-hours drinking with them, and there were hints in the press, most notably by Bill Conlin, that his drinking contributed to some of his disastrous years, such as the 13–20 ’73 season. After he left baseball, Carlton, who used to be a wine connoisseur, with a million-dollar cellar, gave up drinking.

“I had nobody to go drinking with anymore,” he says. “Now when I see old baseball players, I have nothing to talk to them about. All that old-time bullshit. It bores me. I live in the here and now. I’d be intellectually starved in the game today.” Still, Carlton would like to get back into it. He sees himself as a pitching coach in spring training.

“I’d like to teach young pitchers the mental aspect of the game,” he says. “Teach them wisdom, which is different than knowledge. Champions think a certain way. To a higher level. They create their future. The body is just a vehicle for the mind and spirit. Champions will themselves to win. They know they’re gonna win. Others hope they’ll win. The mind gives you what it asks for. That’s its God.”

Then he relates a story about a friend in Durango, who, years ago, didn’t want to play on his high school basketball team because he knew it was going to have a losing season. Before the season began, the friend was hit by a car, destroying his knee.

“See,” says Carlton, as if he’s just proved a point. “If you have an accident, you create it in your mind. That’s a fact. The mind is the conscious architect of your success. What you hold consciously in your mind becomes your reality.”

If this is so, then Carlton must have willed his own failure in the twilight of his career. When such a possibility is broached to him, he looks up, terrified. He blinks once, in shock, and a second time to banish the thought from his psyche. “Why do you ask such questions?” he says shrilly. He has so carefully crafted his philosophies that he can become completely disoriented when they are challenged. That’s why Carlton has withdrawn from the world into the security of his bunker.

There he is left alone with only his thoughts, his dictums, his conspiracies, with no one to question them. Such questions strike fear in Carlton. And above all else, Steve Carlton is a fearful man.

“Fear dictates our lives,” he has said. “Fear is a tremendous energy that must be banished. Fear makes our own prisons. It’s instilled in us by our government and the Church. They control fear. It’s the Great Lie. But don’t get me started on that.” For a man who, for 15 years, was known for his silences, Carlton now talks a lot. In fact, he can’t stop himself. When he was voted into the Hall of Fame this past January, he held a press conference. At the end of its scheduled 45 minutes, the sportswriters got up to leave. Carlton called them back to talk some more.

“I don’t mind,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”When he is inducted, with Phil Rizzuto, into the Hall in late July before the assembled national press, it will be interesting to see if he will still be so loquacious.

A lot of people are suspicious of his motives for talking so much. Carlton claims, “It’s all Bev’s idea.” He says his wife wants him to get back into the world. For years, Beverly Carlton ran interference for her husband during “the Big Silence.” After Carlton won his 300th game, in 1983, he surrounded himself with a police escort and fled the clubhouse to avoid reporters. He left it to Bev to talk to the press.

“Steve would like to play another ten years,” she told them. “He just might. Baseball’s been great to us.”Then, to humanize her distant husband, she revealed a little intimacy. “Well,” she said, “he likes Ukrainian food.”

In Carlton’s final season, when he began to rethink his silence, he said it was because “my wife convinced me that if I want to find a job after I’m through playing, having my name in the paper doesn’t hurt.” Even today, Bev Carlton schedules her husband’s interviews. (He no longer has an agent.) When reporters show up in Durango, Carlton will feign surprise at their presence.

“I didn’t know you were coming,” he says. When told that his wife said she confirmed the interview with him, he blinks, once, twice, and says, “I didn’t pay any attention.”

In this way, he can lay off the distasteful prospect of being interviewed on his wife. He can maintain, in his mind’s eye, the lofty arrogance of “the Big Silence” while no longer adhering to it. (“Bev likes to read about me,” he says.) It is likely that Carlton is talking now because he needs money, looking to reassert his presence in the public’s consciousness so he can do endorsements.

“We’ll probably do some of that stuff in the coming years,” he says. It’s a distasteful position his old agent put him in, and one he doesn’t like to be reminded of. “It’s one of life’s little lessons,” Carlton says of David Landfield. “I don’t want to talk about it. I no longer live in the past.”

Then, after a moment of silence, he adds, “It all came down to trust. You’re most vulnerable there. When your trust is breached, it affects you.”

Most of Carlton’s money for the past few years has come from his two businesses. He claims he is a sports agent, but won’t mention the names of his clients. (It is hard to imagine anyone, even a ballplayer, entrusting his money to a man who lost millions of his own.) The bulk of his money, a reported $100,000 or so per year, comes from autograph shows and the Home Shopping Network, where he peddles his own wares. Caps, cards, T-shirts, little plaster figurines of himself as a pitcher—all emblazoned with the number 329, his career victory total. He sells these objects by mail, too, out of a tiny, cluttered office in a nondescript, wooden building a few miles from town. A sign out front lists the building’s occupants, lawyers and such. But there is no mention of Carlton’s enterprise, Game Winner Sports Management, and he likes it that way.

“We didn’t want a sign up so people would know where we are,” he says, smiling. In fact, even the occupants of the building aren’t sure where “the baseball player’s” office is.

“We have a toll-free number [1-800-72LEFTY],” he says. “We accept VISA and checks. Just send me a check and don’t bother me.” Now as Carlton finishes with his yoga, the instructor in the black tights ushers one of the children over to him. The teacher is smiling, giggly, blushing, a vaguely attractive woman who seems to have a crush on Carlton. She leans close to him and says, “I have someone who wants to meet you.” Carlton shrinks back from her even as she urges the uncomprehending child toward him.

“Go ahead,” she says. The child looks up at the towering man and says, “Happy birthday.” Carlton blinks, confused.

“I don’t celebrate birthdays,” he says.

At the foot of a steep, winding dirt road rutted with snow, Steve Carlton stops his truck and gets out to engage its four-wheel drive. When he gets back in and begins driving carefully up the path, he says, “I’ve been lucky. I’ve had teachers in my life. One guy began writing me letters, four or five a week, in 1970. That’s the year I won 20 games with the Cardinals. He told me where the power and energy comes from. He was a night watchman. We talked on the phone a few times and met a couple times. He was a very spiritual guy. All I knew about him was that his name was Mr. Briggs. Then he was gone as quickly as he came into my life. It was a gift.”

When he reaches his bunker, at twilight, he stops and gets out. He looks out over his land and says, “There’s nothing like being by yourself. I’m reclusive. I want to get in touch with myself.” He glances sideways, and adds, “But society is coming.”

That’s why he is preparing by being self-sufficient. He is not so self-sufficient, however, that he’s ever mustered the courage to butcher his animals for food. But, that’s a moot point now. All his chickens were killed by raccoons last winter.

It’s late. Carlton has a dinner appointment. But he’s not sure what time it is now, because he doesn’t wear a watch. “I never know what time it is,” he says. “Or what day it is. Time is stress. Pressure melts away if you don’t deal with time. I don’t believe in birthdays, either. Or anniversaries. I don’t watch television. We don’t read newspapers. We don’t even have a Christmas tree. Those things hold vibrations of the past, and I exist only in the now. Bev is even more into it that I am.”

He trudges through the snow to the side door of his odd, domed bunker. Inside, he puts the flat of one palm against the concrete and says, “I’m waiting for the coldness to come out of the walls.” Bev is waiting for him in the living room. She is a small, sweet, nervous woman, sitting in a chair by a space heater. She used to bleach her hair blonde, but now her short cut is its natural brown. She smiles as her husband sits down across from her. She hugs herself from the cold, and then drags on a cigarette.

Their home is starkly furnished, not out of design but necessity. A few wooden tables, a bookcase filled with Carlton’s Eastern metaphysical books, a patterned sofa and easy chair, hand-me-downs from their son Scott, 25, a bartender in St. Louis. Their other son, Steven, 27, lives in Washington State, where he writes children’s songs.

Carlton doesn’t like to talk about his kids. “Why do you have to know about them?” he says plaintively. He doesn’t talk much about his parents, either, whom he rarely sees or speaks to. They, it seems, are another part of Carlton’s past that he has cut out of his life.

“The correspondence lacks,” admits Joe Carlton, 87 and blind. “We don’t hear from him much. It’s okay, though.”

“We keep up with him in the newspapers,” says Anne Carlton, who says of her age, “It’s nobody’s damned business.”

The elder Carltons are sitting in the shadowed, musty living room of their small, concrete house in North Miami, where they raised their son and two daughters, Christina and Joanne. From the outside, it looks uninhabited. The drab house paint is peeling, and the yards out front and back, dotted with Joe’s many fruit trees, are overgrown, rotted fruit littering the tall grass.

Inside, the furniture is old and worn, and thick dust coats the television screen. Even the many photographs and newspaper articles on the walls are faded and dusty, like old tintypes. The photos are mostly of their son in various baseball uniforms. As a teenager—gawky, with a faint, distant smile, posing with his teammates, the Lions. With the Cardinals, his hair fashionably long, back in the ’60s. Then with the Phillies, posing with Mike Schmidt, captioned MVP AND CY YOUNG.

“No, I haven’t heard from him,” says Joe, a former maintenance man with Pan Am. He is sitting on an ottoman, staring straight ahead through thick glasses. “I can’t see you, except as a shadow,” he says, staring out the window. He is a thin man, almost gaunt, with long silvery swept-back hair. He is wearing a faded Hawaiian shirt.

“It’s no special reason,” says Anne, sitting in her easy chair. “He just doesn’t call me anymore.”

“He called when Anne’s mother died, at 101,” says Joe. Then he begins to talk about his son as a child. How Joe used to go hunting with him in the Everglades. “We used to shoot light bulbs,” he says.

“Steve was a natural-born hunter,” says Anne. “Tell what kind of animals you hunted in the Everglades.”

“Lions and tigers.”

“Oh, you didn’t. There are no lions and tigers in the Everglades. Tell what kind of animals.”

Joe, confused, says, “There were lots of animals.” Anne shakes her head. “Steve was always quiet,” adds Joe, trying to remember. “He wasn’t very talkative around the house when he was a boy.” He fetches an old scrapbook and opens a page to a newspaper photograph of his son in a Phillies cap. There is a zipper where his mouth should be.

“Can I bum a cigarette off you?” Anne says to their guest. “Oh, you don’t have any. Too bad.”

“The last time we saw Steve was five years ago,” says Joe.

“It wasn’t that long ago.”

“Yes, it was. Time flies.”

“It was only four years.”

“He never told us about his house.”

“We don’t even know where Durango is. I never heard of it. Have you seen his house? Really, it’s built into a mountain?”

“Steve got an interest in his philosophies when he got hold of one of my books when he was in high school,” says Joe.

“He doesn’t believe in Christmas trees anymore?” asks Anne. “We always had a Christmas tree. Bev liked Christmas trees. No, we never asked him for any money,” Anne continues. “He would have given it to us if we asked, though.”

“He never helped us financially. I didn’t need it.” Joe, who is also hard of hearing, cups a hand around an ear. “What? His sons? You mean Steve’s sons? No, we never hear from them, either.”

“Our daughters call, though,” says Anne.

“They came down for my 85th birthday,” says Joe. “They gave me a surprise party. Steve didn’t come.”

Joe gets up and goes into a small guest room where, on a desk, dresser, and two twin beds, he has laid out mementos of his son’s career. A photograph of a plaster impression of Steve’s hand when he was a boy. A high school graduation photo of Steve with a flattop haircut.

“Steve doesn’t collect this stuff,” says Joe. “He’s too busy. Here’s another picture of Steve. I got pictures all over. I got another picture here, somewhere, when we took Steve to St. Augustine, where Anne is from. It’s a picture of Steve in the oldest fort in America. He’s behind bars.”

Joe rummages around for the photo, disturbing dust, but he can’t find it. He leafs through one last scrapbook; on its final page is a photograph of a burial mound of skulls and bones, thousands of them, piled in a heap. Joe looks at it and says, “We took it in Cuba. See here what I wrote at the bottom: The end.”

There are no photographs of Joe and Anne in their son’s living room. No photos of his and Bev’s children. No photos of themselves when younger. No wedding photos of smiling bride and bridegroom. No photos of Carlton in a Phillies uniform or on a hunting trip. There are no keepsakes of their past. No prints on the wall. No Christmas tree, no presents, nestled in cotton snow. There is nothing in that huge, high, concave, whitewashed concrete room except the few pieces of nondescript furniture and the space heater. Bev and her husband seem dwarfed by the cave like room. They huddle around the space heater like a 20th-century version of the clan in the movie Quest for Fire. Mere survival seems their only joy, their only beauty, except for the view through the sliding-glass living room doors of the La Plata mountain range, all white and purple and rose in the setting sun, which Beverly has turned her back on.

Bev tries to make small talk as she drags on her cigarette. Curiously, her husband no longer hates cigarette smoke as he once did as a ballplayer, when he claimed he could taste it on his wineglass if someone in the room was smoking. Of course, in those days he didn’t eat red meat either because of the blood. His thinking has changed now, he has said, because he realizes “that the juice of anything is its blood, that the juice of a carrot is the carrot’s blood.”

Bev is talking about the time she and other Phillies’ wives met Ted Turner. “Oh, yes,” she says, “he kept putting his hands on the behinds of the wives.”

“He was crude and vulgar,” says Carlton. “What’s wrong with America?” He shakes his head in disgust and begins a long monologue on the unfairness of the American government, primarily because it won’t allow its citizens to walk around armed. Bev listens patiently smiling her thin smile, her head nodding like a small bird sipping water. Her husband is right. She is a lot like him. Frightened. When it is time to meet their guests for dinner, Carlton stands up. Bev remains seated hugging herself against the cold.

“Oh, I’m not going to dinner,” she says without explanation. “Just Steve.”

It’s confusing to their guest, until he remembers Carlton’s words: “Bev wants me to get out into the world,” Carlton had said. Which is what she is doing now: sending him out into that fearful world in order to make a living for them. It’s something she knows he has to do on his own if they are going to survive, like a mother bundling her tiny child off the school for the first time. Meanwhile she sits at home in their stark bunker huddled close to the space heater for warmth, worrying about him out there, alone and scared, in the real world he shunned for so many years.


Postscript

Pat Jordan (as told to Alex Belth): I did Steve Carlton for Philly Magazine, which was the most controversial thing I did other than the Inside Sports piece on Steve and Cyndi Garvey.

The Carlton story is a riot. So I’m working for my friend Elliot Kaplan in Philadelphia and I wasn’t getting paid a lot. I’d known Eliot for years and done a lot of work for him when he was at GQ. Carlton was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame and he had been a Philly guy.

I had one rule with Eliot. I said, “As long as you pay me what you pay your other writers, I don’t care. But if I ever find out that you were paying me less because of our friendship, I’ll be really annoyed.” He wasn’t paying much but I’d do whatever I could for him.

He wanted me to do Steve Carlton, but he didn’t have the budget to fly me to Durango, Colorado, which is an expensive flight. L.A. would be a cheap flight from Fort Lauderdale, where I lived at the time. New York is a cheap flight. Durango is not.

Now, I had an assignment to do Brian Boitano for the L.A. Times Magazine, so I booked a triangle flight: Ft. Lauderdale, San Francisco, did Boitano, took a puddle-jumper to Denver, rented a car, and drove to Durango. My wife Susan went with me and we got to Denver in the middle of a snow storm. We get on this puddle-jumper plane and they are de-icing the wings to go fly over the Rocky fucking Mountains. I hate to fly and I said, “Oh shit, this is how I’m going to die? I’m going down for friendship, for Eliot? I’m going to die in the fucking mountains for Steve Carlton, who I didn’t want to do anyway?”

I knew nothing about Carlton other than he hated to talk to the press. But he was going to the Hall of Fame and he wanted to capitalize on it. So I get there. I’m supposed to meet him the next morning at a gym, at 10. Susie and I got up at 6 or 7 and it’s freezing in Durango. We drive and I find the gym so I know where it is. Before we go to breakfast I drive back to the airport to make sure I can find my way back there. On the way, we get a flat tire on the highway. It’s so cold my hands are sticking to the lug nuts. I change the tire. Now, I’m in a panic to get back to Carlton, and I’m going to get back just in time. I get back to the gym, he’s doing yoga or something, there’s women running around, kids, and we start talking. I wasn’t tape-recording because there was too much noise.

Carlton was odd. He told me, “I’m up here because I wanted to be secluded because of what America’s becoming,” or something like that. So I changed the subject and told him about a new gun I had bought. I’m into guns. For some reason, I knew that would perk him up. So I mentioned that I had gotten a Czechoslovakian military pistol, a CZ 85.

He said: “Oh yeah, that’s a great gun. You know you’d better bury that in PVC pipes because the UN is coming in black helicopters to confiscate all of our guns.”

I said, “Oh, really?”

He said, “Yeah, it’s a world organization that’s dictated by the Elders of Zion, the twelve Jews in Switzerland who control the world.”

At this point, I just let him go. We went from the gym to his office where he was selling all of his tchotchkes, figurines of him pitching, autographs. This is how he thought he was going to make a living, ’cause he was almost broke at the time. He had lost a fortune because of his agent.

So we talked in his office and then I went out to his house, which is like a concrete bunker. And he was really weird. I called Eliot and said: “Eliot, this guy’s crazy. He’s the kind of guy who should not be allowed to read a book. He believes everything in the last book he read. Like the whole Elders of Zion thing. He told me he had read that in a book.” Well, shit, there are other books than that.

So I wrote the story and it caused a big stink. The Today Show came down to interview me. Now, after the story came out, everybody started defending Steve. Tim McCarver, Jim Kaat, all these guys who were in the fraternity of ex-athletes. Even though they knew I had written the truth, I was not in the fraternity. I was the outsider, the outlaw freelance writer living in Florida. The guy you can’t trust. So the papers are running pieces about what a hatchet job I did on poor Steve Carlton.


Eliot Kaplan (via email): I had recently moved to Philadelphia Magazine as editor-in-chief after several years as the deputy at GQ. Pat had done some fantastic stories for us at GQ, everything from Greg Louganis and Pete Rose Jr. to Marilyn Chambers and Traci Lords. When I got to Philly, he was kind enough to agree to write for me, more out of friendship than money. We paid him whatever our top rate was then, probably $2,000-2,500. Including travel expenses!

Steve Carlton had not talked to any media in almost 20 years but was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame and agreed to be interviewed. I think both Pat and I were expecting a rather bland, clipped interview but figured Pat could make something out of it, as he always does. Pat ended up flying over a winter holiday, through a bumpy blizzard, into Colorado.

He called me that night. I remember leaving a holiday dinner and him telling me, “He’s nuts. Carlton is nuts,” and proceeding to describe the bunker-type residence, Carlton’s vast conspiracy theories, his almost survivalist mentality.

Pat got great stuff and wrote a spectacular piece.

It came out in the April issue and then … nothing. Not a peep in the media.

Two reasons come to mind. First, Philly can be a weird place. The newspapers and Philadelphia Magazine were always competitive and antagonistic toward each other, so they weren’t going to talk up the piece. And remember, this was before the internet or magazines having publicists.

But more importantly, the same issue featured a very juicy story in which the popular mayor, Ed Rendell, was quoted making extremely saucy, suggestive comments to reporter Lisa DePaulo. THAT story was the one that grabbed the headlines, including a few front days of the Philly Daily News.

It wasn’t until about a week later when my friend, the writer and Philadelphia native Joe Queenan, was on a New York radio show and mentioned the Carlton piece, that it suddenly exploded, with the New York media being the ones driving it and the Philadelphia media then forced to react. I don’t think it affected sales of the magazine by that point but it definitely got a lot of chatter and reaction from Phillies PR, who denied everything. You can look up a Tim McCarver interview in Times that basically said, Yeah, Carlton is kinda nuts but not an anti-Semite (which I believe, but the Elders of Zion thing was easy for people to pick up on). Thought I came up with a good line to one reporter: “Carlton was always known for his slider. Turns out screwball is more like it.”


[Photo Credit: Martina Lindqvist; Tabitha Soren]

Tryout and Fallout

Here’s Glenn Stout on Race, Jackie Robinson and the Red Sox:

At approximately 10:30 in the morning on Monday, April 16, 1945, Boston city Councilman Isadore Muchnick and sportswriter Wendell Smith and three African-American baseball players from the Negro leagues arrived at Boston’s Fenway Park. One month earlier the Red Sox reluctantly agreed to hold a tryout for African American ballplayers. Shortstop Jackie Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs, second baseman Marvin Williams of the Philadelphia Stars and outfielder Sam Jethroe of the Cleveland Buckeyes came to Boston nearly a week earlier in anticipation of the tryout.

The audition of the three players took a little over one year to arrange and lasted only ninety minutes. Yet the fallout from that day echoes through Red Sox history almost to the present as an example of the institutional racism practiced by the ballclub under the tenure of Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey. Only in the last few seasons, at the conclusion of the Yawkey era, did the ballclub begin to shed a reputation for racism that many trace to that April morning.

Still shrouded by significant misconceptions and errors of fact, that day deserves examination. Not only do the facts of the tryout deserve explication, but the manner in which both the press and the ballclub reacted to the episode and portrayed it since then is telling. By calling into question the details of the event the defenders of Yawkey and the Red Sox attempted to use it to absolve the ballclub, the owner, and by extension, the city of Boston for any racial liability, perverting the significance of the tryout.

The Man for the Job

And here’s Pat Jordan on Joe Maddon:

Maddon likes to do what he calls “theme road trips.” There was the pajama road trip, the nerd road trip. For the nerd one, he had the players pose for a photo outside their chartered flight dressed in high-water pants, bow ties, and suspenders. “Some guys won’t do it,” Maddon says. “They think it’s not big-league. They can’t laugh at themselves.” David Price, the Rays’ Cy Young Award-winning left-hander, says, “He asks us for theme ideas. Once, we dressed as cowboys. It’s fun.” Ben Zobrist, a utility player for the Rays, adds, “Joe wants us to do one wearing skinny jeans. Never gonna happen.”

“You couldn’t do theme days with Alex Rodriguez,” I say.

Maddon shakes his head. “I dunno. I hope I could convince A-Rod to wear onesies. He’s not a bad guy.” He looks over at me. “I hear a lot of Yankees like him better than Jeter.”

Maddon says the most important thing he has to do as manager is listen to the players. “I coached for a manager once who told his guys, ‘There’s 25 of you and one of me, so you have to adjust to me.’ I hope I’m never like that guy. The days of dictatorial managers are over.”

When I tell him the hotdogging and emotional outbursts of B.J. Upton (the former Rays center fielder, now with the Atlanta Braves) offend my sense of the way the game should be played, Maddon says, “Aw, he’s a good kid. He was brought to the big leagues too soon. He had to make his mistakes in front of a lot of people and the media. He’s learning mental stuff he should have learned in the minors.”

[Photo Credit: Associated Press]

Now What Was I To Do?

Over at Roopstigo, here’s the latest from Pat Jordan:

Vito Frabizio is 23 now. In 2009, when he was 19, the Baltimore Orioles signed him to a $130,000 bonus. “I was the best pitcher in the Orioles’ minor leagues,” he says. “Scotty McGregor (former O’s pitcher) told me I’d win the Cy Young Award one day.” He looks around, and then back at me, adding, “I’d always been in the right place at the right time. Now I’m here, the lowest of the low.”

Vito is sitting behind bars in the visiting room of the Yaphank, Long Island, minimum security prison on a fall day. The visiting room is crowded with men in green prison jumpsuits talking to women, some of them in low-cut blouses, who lean over to remind their men of what waits for them when they get out. The guards have put Vito in the far corner of the room so he can talk to me with a little privacy through the bars. He grips the bars with both hands and says, “The other prisoners can’t believe it. ‘You played baseball and robbed banks? Why?’” Actually, Vito robbed three banks to support his 20-bag, $200-a-day heroin habit.

Even in his prison-issued jumpsuit, with white socks and flip-flops that slapped against the floor when he walked toward me with that slouching, hangdog shuffle of prison cons, Vito is still a good-looking man. Just not that good-looking anymore. He has a jailhouse pallor — he’s been incarcerated for two years at this point — with the blemished skin of a needle junkie and tattoos, which can be seen in his police mug shots. There’s a naked woman in flames on his upper left arm. A heart and a cross adorn his upper right (throwing) arm. A Burmese python suffocates a tiger on his stomach. The word “Hollywood” is scrawled across his upper back. “I always had to be the center of attention,” he tells me. “The most popular. Class clown. Even in here I make people laugh so the time goes easier.” He also amuses them with glimpses of his pitching prowess of two years ago. He wets paper, molds it into a ball, and puts a sock over it, then shows his fellow cons his pitching motion. “Until the guards take the ball away,” he says. “Then I make another.”

[Photo Credit: David Bauman]

Sometimes Love Don’t Feel Like it Should

Over at SB Nation’s Longform, here’s Pat Jordan’s latest–The Pain and Pleasure of Spring Training:

That spring, I was assigned to the Boise club in the Class C Pioneer League. It might not have seemed like much of a jump from my Class D stint in McCook, Neb., the previous year, but Boise was one of the Braves’ elite minor league teams for its top prospects, especially pitchers. The Braves stacked Boise with so many great hitters that it was impossible for Boise pitchers to have losing records, even if their earned run averages were above five per game. The Braves thought that young pitchers needed confidence in their ability to win games and a stint at Boise would give it to them.

I threw well that spring, maybe 95-98 mph (there were no radar guns then) with a devastating overhand curveball that my teammates called “the unfair one.” I coasted through the first half of spring training with great anticipation for the start of the season, until one day, during a stint pitching batting practice, when my arm felt weak. I knew it was just a spring training sore arm, nothing serious, and it just needed rest, but I was too foolish to tell my manager, a redneck Southerner named Billy Smith. I wasn’t able to put much on the ball during my batting practice and my teammates complained to my catcher, Joe Torre. Torre kept shouting at me to throw harder, but I couldn’t. Finally, after one pitch, he walked halfway out to the mound and fired the ball at me. When he turned back around, I fired the ball at his head. It hit his mask, sent it spinning off his head, and the next instant we were both wrestling in the red dirt until our teammates pulled us apart.

The next morning I was assigned to a Class D team, Quad Cities, in the Midwest League. Billy Smith had told the Braves’ farm director, John Mullen, he didn’t want “no red-ass guinea” on his team. When I heard that, I wondered why I was the “red-ass guinea” and not Torre.

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