Thinking about Frazier this morning I wished there was some way to remember him without bringing Ali into the conversation. As a final tribute to Frazier. But I don’t think it can be done. Still, let’s turn to Rick Hoffer, for clarity.
Thinking about Frazier this morning I wished there was some way to remember him without bringing Ali into the conversation. As a final tribute to Frazier. But I don’t think it can be done. Still, let’s turn to Rick Hoffer, for clarity.
By John Schulian
I never wrote as a fan. To civilians, especially every Cubs fan who ever told me to go back to the South Side because I’d written a column on the White Sox, that may seem a startling confession, but there’s no getting away from the truth. I wrote sports because I yearned to be a writer and the sports page provided a laboratory where I could conduct my experiments with words. When I was breaking into the newspaper racket, there was a freedom of style in sports that couldn’t be found anywhere else. Contrary to what I see too often now, when most every columnist seems to be shouting ceaselessly, I could do a character sketch, attempt whimsy, review a book, and rant and rave about whatever was vexing me all in the same week. The idea was to entertain my readers, but the truth is, I was trying to entertain myself, too.
On the days I succeeded, it was often because I had written about a boxer with a hard past or a ballplayer who had more stories than base hits. I was never a funny writer, the way Jim Murray, Leigh Montville, and Mike Downey were, but I embraced characters who could make me and my readers laugh. And yet there was a melancholy streak in my work, too–the athletes who died young, the broken-down gyms where fighters chased their dreams, the hardscrabble playgrounds where basketball looked like the only alternative to drugs and gangs. Those were the pieces that put sports in perspective, though people never seemed to react to them the way they did when I was cutting someone up in print. When I die, if anybody bothers to write my obituary, I fully expect to be identified as the columnist who called Billy Martin “a mouse studying to be a rat.”
The important thing, if you cared about your craft, was that you had to be good a lot more often than you were bad or the competition would bury you. I’m talking about the years between, say, 1960, when sportswriting’s Chipmunks started nibbling away at sacred cows, and the mid-90s, when the sports page was finally overwhelmed by the screeching talk-radio mentality that continues to assault us.
In the beginning, Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon were still around to remind the new wave of what true greatness was. As good as we were – and I think we represented the golden era of sportswriting–none of us ever reached the heights they did. And there were plenty of other writers, younger than Red and Jimmy but older than we were, whose very presence gave us a sense of perspective: Murray in L.A., Edwin Pope in Miami, Furman Bisher in Atlanta, and Blackie Sherrod, who, before he conquered Dallas, made Fort Worth the launching pad for Dan Jenkins, Bud Shrake, and Gary Cartwright. Then there was Ray Fitzgerald, Montville’s stable mate in Boston, and Wells Twombly, a world-class columnist wherever he traveled, and he traveled a lot before landing in San Francsico. And a pox on my house if I neglect to mention Vic Ziegel, Ira Berkow, Sandy Grady, Stan Hochman, and Larry Merchant, whose wry, cerebral column influenced more young writers than anyone will ever know.
They cleared the beach for the wave of columnists I rode in with: Montville, Dave Kindred, Mike Lupica, David Israel, Bill Nack at Newsday, Joe Soucheray in Minneapolis, Scott Ostler in L.A., Skip Bayless in Dallas, Ray Didinger in Philadelphia, and, begging his forgiveness for putting him last in this sentence, Tony Kornheiser. I always thought that Tony’s true genius lay in long newspaper features and magazine work–his profile of tragedy-stricken Bob Lemon will tear your heart out–but he tripped the light fantastic as a columnist, too. While Tony worked in New York and Washington, D.C., on papers where the spotlight was automatically his, Tom Archdeacon was lost in the shadows. You had to go out of your way to track down his evocative prose in the tattered Miami News, but it was always worth the trouble. Likewise, you had to keep an eye on Detroit, where Mike Downey’s star shined brightly and Shelby Strother and Mitch Albom found their way to town by the light it gave off. The auto industry was going to hell, but Detroit could claim a procession of wonderful sports columnists. And Elmore Leonard, too.
I read them all every chance I got. When I was at the Washington Post, still dreaming of becoming a columnist, there was a wall in a corner of the newsroom stacked with out-of-town papers, and I used to plow through it seeking out the bylines of old heroes and new competition. I still remember how good Lupica was when the New York Post let him have a two-week summer fling at writing a column. I’d just met him at the 1976 NBA finals, this baby-faced kid who looked like he’d fit in your pocket, and here he was writing with verve and moxie that left me wilted with envy.
There was a lesson there, just as when I started reading Kindred regularly and realized that he had studied the cadences of Red Smith’s sentences as religiously as I had. If I was going to be anything better than ordinary as a columnist, I would have to work my ass off, and it wouldn’t hurt if I wrote about things that appealed to my writerly instincts as often as I could. There were days when I couldn’t ignore the news–the big trade, big firing, big game–but when I was left to my own devices, I went where my heart took me.
For me, the best sports to write about were baseball and boxing. I felt as though I understood baseball in a way I never would football or basketball or, God help me, hockey. Baseball was still producing characters then, and better still, I was well versed in its history. But the truth of the matter was that the game still fell short of boxing when came to material that made for memorable writing. There were characters and shenanigans and life and death. I mean death literally. I saw it happen in Montreal, where a fighter named Cleveland Denny was fatally injured on the undercard of Leonard-Duran I. In the very next fight, Big John Tate, an Olympic heavyweight who was supposed to have a solid gold future, got knocked out and one of his legs started twitching uncontrollably. All I could think was, Jesus Christ, two in two fights? Tate lived, though. Cleveland Denny didn’t.
I can gin up a defense of boxing if I’m cornered, but I’d rather just tell you that I realize what a dreadful sport it can be and I love it just the same. I love the stink of the old gyms, and the fighters with their dreams that are almost sure to go bust, and the crotchety ancients who untangle their fighters’ feet and tend to their wounds and offer up wisdom written in the blood of those who didn’t heed them. Sometimes I even stop hating promoters and managers, though never long enough to think of them as anything except potential thieves. But it is the fighters I always come back to, the guys who step into the ring knowing they may die in it.
In a sport filled with liars–charming, quotable liars, but liars just the same–there is an open-book honesty about the fighters that could disarm the most resolute cynic. Want to know why a fighter ended up in jail? Want to know how it feels to fight with broken ribs? Want to know how desperately he craves a woman after going without during training? They would tell it all to you, and then invite you to a party after the fight, the way a Baltimore brawler named Wild Bill Hardney did one night. “Party at Loretta’s,” he said, which sounded great until Wild Bill’s wife read about it in the next day’s paper and asked him ever so sweetly just who the hell Loretta was.
A few months before I was born, two previously undefeated boxers, Muhammad Ali (31-0)and Joe Frazier (26-0) fought for the heavyweight title in the so-called “Fight of the Century” at Madison Square Garden. That was forty years ago today. It was not their greatest fight–that would be the Thrilla in Manila–but it was possibly the biggest spectacle in boxing history.
Here is our man John Schulian, writing for the Library of America’s website:
The two of them had been friends before their violent Garden party. When Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship in 1967 for refusing induction into the military and found himself wandering the college lecture circuit, Frazier loaned him money. It was a fitting gesture, for Frazier now wore the crown that had been Ali’s. But he vowed he would give the deposed champ a chance to win it back, and when Ali was allowed to return to the ring in 1970, Frazier did something that isn’t standard practice in the cutthroat world of boxing. He kept his word.
They would each make $2.5 million and fight in front of a Garden crowd that overflowed with celebrities. Burt Lancaster, Sinatra’s co-star in From Here to Eternity, did the radio commentary. But the only thing that really mattered was the hatred that had erupted when Ali called Frazier an Uncle Tom and a tool of good-old-boy sheriffs and Ku Klux Klansmen. In a lifetime filled with kindness as well as greatness, it was a low moment for Ali. He knew full well that Frazier, the thirteenth child born to a one-armed North Carolina sharecropper, had traveled a far harder road than he had. By comparison, Ali was a child of privilege, raised in relative comfort in Louisville, his boxing career bankrolled by local white businessmen. But he got away with it because he was handsome, charming, funny, all the things Frazier was not.
And here’s Mark Kram from his book “Ghosts of Manila”:
Ali was the first in the ring, in a red velvet robe with matching trunks, and white shoes with red tassels. He glided in a circle to a crush of sound, a strand of blown grass. Whatever you might have thought of him then, you were forced to look at him with honest, lingering eyes, for there might never be his like again. Assessed by ring demands–punch, size, speed, intelligence, command, and imagination–he was an action poet, the equal of the best painting you could find or a Mozart who failed to die too early. If that is an overstatement, disfiguring the finer arts by association with a brute game, consider the mudslide of purple that attaches to his creative lessers in other fields, past and present; Ali was physical art, belonged alone in a museum of his own. I was extremely fond of him, of his work, of the decent side of his nature, and jaundiced on his cultish servility, his termopolitical combustions that tried to twist adversaries into grotesque shapes. It never worked, excerpt perhaps on Liston, who came to think that he was clinically insane. It did work on himself, shaped the fear for his face and general well-being into a positive force, a psychological war dance that blew up the dam and released his flood of talent. The trouble was that, like Kandinsky’s doubled-sided painting of chaos and calm, it became increasingly difficult for him to find his way back from one side to the other.
In a green and gold brocade robe with matching trunks, Joe Frazier almost seemed insectile next to Ali in the ring, and he was made more so as Ali waltzed by him, bumped him and said: “Chum!” Far from that slur, Joe was a gladiator right smack to the root conjurings of the title, to the clank of armor he seemed to emit. Work within his perimeter, and you courted what fighters used to call “the black spot,” the flash knockout. He was a figher that could be hit with abandon, but if you didn’t get him out of there his drilling aggression, his marked taste for pursuit and threshing-blade punches could overwhelm you; as one military enthusiast in his camp siad, “like the Wehrmacht crossing into Russia.” I was drawn to the honesty of his work, the joy he derived from inexorable assault, yet had a cool neutrality to his presence. In truth, with a jewel in each hand, i didn’t want to part with either of them, thus making me pitifully objective, a captial sinner in the most subjective and impressionistic of all athletic conflicts.
Frazier won the fight, of course, in front of a celebrity-studded crowd. Dali, Elvis, Woody and the Beatles were there. Burt Lancaster did the color for the closed-circut broadcast and Frank Sinatra was there taking pictures for Life Magazine.
In the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, Richard Hoffer has a nice little piece on the fight:
While it promised sufficient sporting spectacle and mystery (could Ali reclaim the grace of his youth and now, nearing 30, reclaim the title that many thought was still rightfully his?), the fight also operated as a social ballot box. Ali, who’d been a sort of political prisoner, commanded the support of every freethinker in the country and beyond, striking his revolutionary stance. In addition, he somehow cast a fight between two black men as a racial referendum, a puzzled and comically outraged Frazier now a stand-in for the status quo and the white man as well.
All this was accomplished with the primitive promotional platforms at hand: newspapers, radio and talk shows. The intrigue was still enough to make the fight the hottest ticket of a lifetime, possibly the most glamour-struck event ever. The excitement was overwhelming, even far beyond the Garden, but can you imagine what it might have been like if Ali, the ultimate pitchman, had, say, a Facebook page? If we’re so eager to exploit celebrity that a semifamous athlete like Chad Ochocinco has his own reality show, then you can be certain Ali would have had his own network long before Oprah.
Then again, how could our digital applications improve upon the analog beauty of their struggles that night, an eye-popping brutality that Frazier narrowly won, a contest of such evenly matched wills, such equal desperation that the words Ali-Frazier have come to signify a kind of ruinous self-sacrifice? The old ways are not necessarily the best, but once a generation, anyway, they’re good enough.
Ali taunted and humilated Frazer time and again in the press and Frazier has never forgiven him for it. From Bill Nack’s great 1996 piece on Smokin’ Joe:
He has known for years of Frazier’s anger and bitterness toward him, but he knows nothing of the venom that coursed through Frazier’s recent autobiography, Smokin’ Joe. Of Ali, Frazier wrote, “Truth is, I’d like to rumble with that sucker again—beat him up piece by piece and mail him back to Jesus…. Now people ask me if I feel bad for him, now that things aren’t going so well for him. Nope. I don’t. Fact is, I don’t give a damn. They want me to love him, but I’ll open up the graveyard and bury his ass when the Lord chooses to take him.”
Nor does Ali know what Frazier said after watching him, with his trembling arm, light the Olympic flame: “It would have been a good thing if he would have lit the torch and fallen in. If I had the chance, I would have pushed him in.”
Nor does Ali know of Frazier’s rambling diatribe against him at a July 30 press conference in Atlanta, where Frazier attacked the choice of Ali, the Olympic light heavyweight gold medalist in 1960 and a three-time heavyweight champion of the world, as the final bearer of the torch. He called Ali a “dodge drafter,” implied that Ali was a racist (“He didn’t like his white brothers,” said Frazier) and suggested that he himself—also an Olympic champion, as a heavyweight, in 1964—would have made a better choice to light the flame: “Why not? I’m a good American…. A champion is more than making noise. I could have run up there. I’m in shape.”
And while Frazier asserts at one turn that he sees “the hand of the Lord” in Ali’s Parkinson’s syndrome (a set of symptoms that include tremors and a masklike face), he also takes an eerily mean-spirited pride in the role he believes he played in causing Ali’s condition. Indeed, the Parkinson’s most likely traces to the repealed blows Ali took to the head as a boxer—traumas that ravaged the colony of dopamine-producing cells in his brain—and no man struck Ali’s head harder and more repeatedly than Frazier.
“He’s got Joe Frazier-itis,” Frazier said of Ali one day recently, flexing his left arm. “He’s got left-hook-itis.”
Check out this cool photo gallery of “The Fight of the Century” over at Life.com.
Roger Ebert gives us another loving tribute to his old friend, the great take-out writer, Bill Nack. If you’ve never read Nack’s book, “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion”, do yourself a favor–it’s a classic.
Two two chums got together recently and Nack told Ebert stories about perhaps the greatest champion of them all:
Here is Nack’s wonderful story, “Pure Heart,” on the death of Secretariat (Sports Illustrated, 1990):
Just before noon the horse was led haltingly into a van next to the stallion barn, and there a concentrated barbiturate was injected into his jugular. Forty-five seconds later there was a crash as the stallion collapsed. His body was trucked immediately to Lexington, Kentucky, where Dr. Thomas Swerczek, a professor of veterinary science at the University of Kentucky, performed the necropsy. All of the horse’s vital organs were normal in size except for the heart.
“We were all shocked,” Swerczek said. “I’ve seen and done thousands of autopsies on horses, and nothing I’d ever seen compared to it. The heart of the average horse weighs about nine pounds. This was almost twice the average size, and a third larger than any equine heart I’d ever seen. And it wasn’t pathologically enlarged. All the chambers and the valves were normal. It was just larger. I think it told us why he was able to do what he did.”
Since we’s talkin literature and all that…Check this out, via Roger Ebert: Bill Nack recites the ending of “The Great Gatsby”:
Check out Susan Bell’s essential, “The Artful Edit” for a fascinating look at the relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor, Maxwell Perkins. If you don’t have Bell’s helpful volume, please consider it. It sits on my shelf next to “The Elements of Style,” and has provided guidance and inspiration for me time and time again.
Here’s Gary Cartwright, one of the great Texas sports writers, rising to the occasion after Don Meredith failed to do so for the Dallas Cowboys:
Outlined against a blue-gray November sky, the Four Horsemenn rode again: Pestilence, Death, Famine, and Meredith.
The great Jim Murray on the Indy 500:
Gentlemen, start your coffins.
Vic Ziegel, on the facts of life:
The game is never over until the last man is out, the New York Post learned late last night.
John Updike on Ted Williams’ final game:
Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark.
How about another John Lardner classic:
When Ezzard Charles won the heavyweight championship by licking J.J. Walcott, two years ago, Ezzard’s manager, Jake (Madman) Mintz, passed out in the ring. Last July when Walcott won the title, it was Charles who fell, while Jake remained on his feet throughout That is my idea of a perfect partnership — always one man conscious, to count the house.
Dig Murray Kempton on Willie Mays:
There was this moment when Willie Mays caught the last ball hit in the National League in 1962 and turned and laughed and threw it at the right-field foul pole. It was his ball and he could do what he pleased with it.
All of a sudden, you remembered all the promises the rich have made to the poor for the last 13 years and the only one that was kept was the promise about Willie Mays. They told us then that he would be the greatest baseball player we would ever see, and he was.
Here’s how Jimmy Cannon said goodbye to Doc Kearns, who managed Jack Dempsey and broke four banks in Shelby, Montana, with a single fight:
It took him 80 years, but Doc Kearns, who died yesterday, finally proved he was right. Daytime’s for sleeping. Nights are for laughs. The working day is nine to five. Doc never played a hand in that game.
And here’s one of my absolute favorites, from WC Heinz’s classic story, The Brownsville Bum
It’s a funny thing about people. People will hate a guy all his life for what he is, but the minute he dies for it they make him out a hero and they go around saying that maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all because he sure was willing to go the distance for whatever he believed or whatever he was.
That’s the way it was with Bummy Davis. The night Bummy fought Fritzie Zivic in the Garden and Zivic started giving him the business and Bummy hit Zivic low maybe 30 times and kicked the referee, they wanted to hang him for it. The night those four guys came into Dudy’s bar and tried the same thing, only with rods, Bummy went nuts again. He flattened the first one and then they shot him, and when everybody read about it, and how Bummy fought guns with only his left hook and died lying in the rain in front of the place, they all said he was really something and you sure had to give him credit at that.
“So you’re Al Davis?” one of the hoods said. “Why you punch-drunk bum.”
And you can’t beat that with a stickball bat.
Looking for that ideal last-minute holiday gift for the sports fan in your life? Look no further than The Best American Sportswriting of 2008, edited by Bill Nack, who is one of the finest sports writers we have.
Nack is a first-rate reporter, a dedicated craftsman, and a true storyteller. He came up with Newsday in the late Sixties and wrote about horse racing. His experience in the field culminated in the seminal book, Secretariat: The Making of a Champion. In 1979, Nack joined Sports Illustrated where he excelled at the bonus, or take-out piece, writing beautifully about Willie Shoemaker, Keith Hernandez, Rick Pitino, Bobby Fischer, Rocky Marciano, and, of course, Secretariat, to name just a few. (Nack’s best work is compiled in the stellar collection, My Turf.)
Nack now works for ESPN.com. Roger Ebert, who has been friends with Nack since they went to college together, wrote a wonderful essay about his friend last week. If you love words, and care about language, you must check this out. It could be the highlight of your week.
I recently caught up with Bill recently to chat about The Best American Sports Writing 2008.
Bronx Banter: As a writer, how do you approach a project like this?
Bill Nack: I just look for the stuff that I liked the most. The stuff that I thought was the best written and best told stories. I read 70-80 stories that Glenn Stout sent me. I got it down to 35-40 and then it became really tough to pair it down. The last ten were very difficult.
BB: Did you work with Glenn or alone?
BN: I did it on my own. There were a couple of pieces that I had questions about but not many. He left it up to me totally. I trusted him to give me what he thought were the 70 best and after that I felt it was up to me to find the ones that I thought were the best. And occasionally, I’d call him up and say, “What do you think of this one?” Some to me were slam dunks, in fact most of them were. Jeanne Marie Laskas, SL Price. The only problem that I had was in trying to get a mix–of traditional sports with obscure sports. And I was very conscious of the mix.
BB: Did you also want to mix-up bonus pieces and newspaper stuff?
BN: Yeah I did actually. I wanted to make sure there was an adequate representation of newspaper columns which are a dying species. And when I read Rick Telander’s piece on Doug Atkins that was a no-brainer. Same thing on Rick Reilly’s piece. The piece on Bo Jackson, by Joe Posnanski, that was kind of a column, that to me was an easy one. That raised a problem because I wondered if we should have two Bo Jackson stories in one book. And I really liked the ESPN.com piece by Michael Weinreb. I loved both of them. And what I liked about them together is that they were completely different takes on the same guy. I think I did consult with Glenn on that one. I said, “Do you mind if we have two Bo Jackson stories?” And he said, “No, no, they are both very different.”
BB: I actually like having them back-to-back for just that reason.
BN: The one thing that I noticed in the first batch of stories that Glenn sent me was that there was no humor. It was very serious. The poor woman who was lost in the wilderness and saved by her dog, the Terry Fox run across Canada, the world’s tallest tree, Scott Price’s piece on the poor coach who died from a foul ball. And I looked at it and thought, “God, some of this stuff is really gloomy.” I happened to be a subscriber to Golf Digest and Dan Jenkins is a regular contributor. I started looking through my old issues and ran across Dan’s piece about trying to play golf as you grow old. I started laughing as I read it, because he’s one of the funniest writers that’s ever written about sports. I finished it and thought this has got to go in there. So that’s the one humorous piece that I found. I also liked it because I’m 67 and play golf. And there are a lot of older men who still play, so I thought it had a wider appeal. It was not just funny, which I needed, but it was something that a lot of guys could relate to. You don’t have to be 67, all you have to do is be 50.
BB: Was there a sense with the Tom Boswell column on Clemens and the Hank Aaron story that you wanted to get in pieces that were timely?
BN: Oh, definitely. I did think of that. I thought people would like Tom Boswell’s piece because it is a comment on Clemens.
BB: I thought the Aaron piece was phenomenal.
BN: I showed some of the pieces around before I made my final choices. Some people loved the Tommy Craggs thing and other people said, “You can’t put this in there. Who is this guy?” I just laughed. But they were bent out-of-shape because Craggs is criticizing the press in his piece. Who is this guy to criticize the press? I said, “I have no idea and I don’t care who he is.” I thought he had a very interesting, sharp take. And when I read it I thought, you know there is a lot of truth in this. I might not agree with everything, but I thought there was a lot of truth in it. I had friends in the piece that he criticized but I ran it anyway.
BB: The collection has some good young talent, like Wright Thompson, who has made the series several times now.
BN: I thought that was a terrific piece he did on Beijing. Really well done. Almost personal in a way. He didn’t just write a piece. He got you into it with vivid imagery. I’ve never met Wright Thompson, I’ve only read a little bit by him but I thought, this is really good. I didn’t know anything about him, but like Tommy, I liked his work and was happy to put it in this book. If you want to know the bottom line, I didn’t consider personalities, I didn’t consider names, I just put in people who contributed to making this the best possible anthology I could put together.
One of the most exciting events of the spring has been the recent launching of the SI Vault. Talk about an embarassment of riches. Dag. To my dismay, the site does not offer anything close to a complete author index, making finding stuff a frustrating experience at best. I can only hope that this is a temporary problem, because it would be a real shame for something as rich and varied as the SI archives to be needlessly difficult to navigate.
Still, here are a couple of gems for you as we wait for today’s game. No telling if the rain will mess with things this afternoon. It’s warm and foggy this morning and the sun is even shinning here and there in the Bronx. I’m gunna throw up this game thread now cause I won’t be around for the start of the game. If they get it in, Andy Pettitte will make his first start of the year. If there is a delay, grab another bowl of soup, and consider the following bag o treats from the SI vault.
Come Down Selector:
A Diamond in the Ashes: Robert Lipsyte’s highly critical take on the rennovated Yankee Stadium (April, 1976).
The Play that Beat the Bums: Ron Fimrite’s look back at the Mickey Owens game and the 1941 season (October, 1997).
Mickey Mantle: Richard Hoffer’s piece on the legacy of the last great player on the last great team (August, 1995).
A Real Rap Session: Peter Gammons talks hitting with Ted Williams, Don Mattingly and Wade Boggs from the Baseball Preivew issue (April, 1986).
Yogi: Roy Blount’s takeout piece on the Yankee legend (April, 1984).
No Place in the Shade: Mark Kram considered this portrait of Cool Papa Bell to be his finest work for SI (August, 1973). And while we’re on Kram, check out A Wink at a Homely Girl, his wonderful piece about his hometown Baltimore that appeared on the eve of the ’66 World Serious (October, 1966).
Laughing on the Outside: John Schulian’s fine appreciation of the great Josh Gibson (June, 2000).
And finally, He Does it By the Numbers: Dan Okrent’s landmark essay, you know, the one that “discovered” Bill James (March, 1981).
There, that should keep you busy for more than a minute.