Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.
That was in 1910. Up to 1907 the world at large had never heard of Ketchel. In the three years between his first fame and his murder, he made an impression on the public mind such as few men before or after him have made. When he died, he was already a folk hero and a legend. At once, his friends, followers, and biographers began to speak of his squalid end, not as a shooting or a killing, but as an assassination — as though Ketchel were Lincoln. The thought is blasphemous, maybe, but not entirely cockeyed. The crude, brawling, low-living, wild-eyed, sentimental, dissipated, almost illiterate hobo, who broke every Commandment at his disposal, had this in common with a handful of presidents, generals, athletes, and soul-savers, as well as with fabled characters like Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed: he was the stuff of myth. He entered mythology at a younger age than most of the others, and he still holds stoutly to his place there.
I look in the mirror and see the faces I have worn. I see the kid with a baseball cap snugged on his head, and the newspaper reporter who grew a beard to look older, and the TV writer who shaved his beard to look younger. The only face I don’t see – the only face I refuse to see – is the one on my driver’s license. I look like someone Winslow Homer might have painted. Though I insist it is nothing more than the product of a bad day at the DMV, I know I will see that face in the mirror, too. But not just yet. Not as long as writing can arm me with a crucifix to ward off the vampire that is old age.
I won’t be so bold as to say writing keeps me young. If it did, I wouldn’t curse technology or struggle to remember the names of new bands or look away in embarrassment when I’m caught staring at women one-third my age. But writing gives me purpose and fills my head with the notion that there are still things to be accomplished: essays and short stories, one novel completed, another taking shape in my imagination alongside a screenplay. Somewhere around here I’ve even got a verse and a chorus written for a country song. Maybe I’ll take my guitar down from the wall and finish it someday. It will be just three chords, but what was good enough for Hank Williams is good enough for me.
This is how I always imagined life on the other side of the rainbow. Writers don’t throw retirement parties. They write, and hope their words find their way before the public. Some will, some won’t. I understand the vagaries of the process. I just need to score often enough to let whoever is out there counting know that I’m still kicking. Otherwise, I might have to answer in the affirmative the next time someone asks if I’m retired. For the moment, however, I’m proud to say hell no.
I may have lost a step or two, but that’s far different than being ready for a sedate game of shuffleboard before I sit down to the early bird special. It’s those codgers I see at the doctor’s office who are retired. I’m just a lad of 66. When Red Smith was this age, he was reviving his career at the New York Times and five years away from winning a Pulitzer Prize. Red wanted to die at his typewriter, the way his hero Grantland Rice did, and damned if he didn’t come within three days of doing it.
I wouldn’t consider changing my position on retirement unless I knew I could go out with the high style that Sheik Caputo did at the railroad. The Sheik has been part of my life since I was 13, as a neighbor, a baseball coach, a proponent of pepperoni and cold beer, and, most of all, a cherished friend. He worked as a Union Pacific machinist for 30 years, crawling inside filthy steam engines and never making as much as two bucks an hour. The day he turned 60, he showed up at the Salt Lake City yards at 7 a.m., just like always, and the foreman said, “Hey, Caputo, you’re eligible to retire.”
“Yeah, if you want to.”
“Goodbye,” Sheik Caputo said, and headed for the golf course.
But there is only one Sheik, and he is 96 and still getting mileage out of that story. I’m happy just to pass it along, which probably underscores the difference between the way he and I look at retirement. He was ready for it, maybe beyond ready, because he had a job he hated. I, on the other hand, am one of the lucky ones. I love my life as a writer, so why would I want to put it behind me? Writing is the one thing I could do with any success. I couldn’t pound a nail straight or sell you a pair of shoes, and I never wanted to revisit a job I had sweeping out a ballpark after the crowd was gone, wading through peanut shells and hotdog wrappers and breathing the smell of spilled beer. I was spared the heartbreak of trying to teach kids who didn’t love reading as much as I do for the deceptively simple reason that I could write a story, be it fact or fiction. Because people would pay me for those stories, I never was a high school coach beset by parents who make more of their kids than they are. I knew the life I wanted, and I got to live it.
Now I am in the process of seeing out what else is out there. I began my search in earnest when I wrote the first two sentences of a hard-boiled novel that had been in my mind for years: “Too bad Barry was from Santa Barbara. Suki would have told him her real name if he’d been local.” Barry is a wandering husband who’s too slick for his own good and Suki is working her way through college in L.A.’s sex trade. In time they will cross paths with a boxer whose career went sideways when he killed a man in the ring. He cares about nothing, least of all his life, until he meets the girl, and then he cares too much, in the way only a noir hero can. Someone out there might be aware of all that if my novel, “A Better Goodbye,” had been published. But the manuscript languishes beside a tall stack of rejection letters.
Still, I reveled in everything about the process from the three-page-a-day discipline to the constant rewriting, and I cling to the hope that my novel will yet be published. A small press has made noises about it, but whether that happens or not, I have another novel in mind and I don’t think I can stop myself from writing it. It’s as if I’m trying to live the life of a starving writer without the risk of going hungry.
I write my fiction in bursts in a time when most literary agents will tell you fiction isn’t selling. But I am fueled by blind faith and the confidence I’ve gained from having two short stories published, one in the Prague Revue (yes, that Prague), the other on a now-defunct website called Thuglit.com. Neither paid anything, but I did receive a Thuglit T-shirt that I treasure too highly to wear. More important I gained just enough swagger to wonder why the hell my best short story has yet to be published. Nothing to do but keep sending it out, I guess.
I beat my head against a different kind of wall when I taught for a semester at my alma mater, the University of Utah, in fall 2004. The wall was constructed in part of the innocence and naivete that reminded me of myself at that age, but there was something more than that at work. There was an unsettling preoccupation with getting a degree instead of an education and, even worse, a lack of basic writing skill. One class in particular – Literary Journalism, of all things – was a wasteland that symbolized for me the parlous state of the language in this age of email happy faces and LOLs. If it weren’t for the hungry minds who made my Art of Storytelling class a joy, I might have staggered off the academic battlefield jabbering like a chimp. Of course my young scholars might tell you I was too demanding. They thought my “Always honest, seldom kind” policy was hilarious only when it didn’t apply to them. Since then, I’ve apologized to the Humanities Department’s guiding lights for being too tough only to be told I should have been tougher. I assume they would have established a bail fund for me.
If I have done anything right as I adapt to geezerhood, it is put books together. Two are collections of my sportswriting, “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods,” and I will leave it to someone else to speak good or ill of them. But you will find pieces of my heart in the other three books that bear my name. When I edited “The John Lardner Reader,” I was doing more than reviving the work of a brilliant and acerbically funny sportswriter out of print for half a century. I was thanking him and all the other press box legends whose work I’d studied – Red Smith, W.C. Heinz, and Jimmy Cannon in particular – for lighting the way for me.
Editing “At the Fights,” a collection of classic boxing writing, proved even more personal because I was working with George Kimball, who stared death in the eye every step of the way. He was as heroic as any prizefighter memorialized in either that book or “The Fighter Still Remains,” the slender volume of boxing poetry and song lyrics that we spun out of it. There were many things that helped keep George alive so he could feel the love and admiration wash over him at the publication party in New York, but I’ll never stop believing it was “At the Fights” itself that gave him the will to battle cancer for the full 12 rounds. Not once did I hear him complain or wallow in self-pity. The book was always foremost in his mind, just the way George is now in mine, four months after his death at 67.
I wish he’d been here the other day when the cable guy walked into my office and saw a blow-up of the cover for “At the Fights.” “I read that book,” he said, and proceeded to tell me what is in it. It was one of those moments that prove both the breadth of the book’s appeal and the populist nature of sportswriting in general. It was, in other words, what George and I hoped for all along. I even know the song that should have been playing in the background. It’s “Too Many Memories,” by the late Stephen Bruton, and there’s a line in it that says: “What makes you grow old is replacing hope with regret.” I think about those lyrics a lot, their wisdom and humanity and how right they are for me at this time of life. I think about them especially now, as I tell you this: Goodbye but don’t call me gone.
Arts Fuse: A. J. Liebling is generally considered by critics to be the best American writer on boxing. If he is at the top, who are the runners-up and why?
Kimball: Not Mailer and not Hemingway, although they’d probably think they were. Just off the top of my head, the worthy contenders would include Budd Schulberg and W.C. Heinz for certain, but also Mark Kram and Pat Putnam from SI, Ralph Wiley, all of whom really understood the sport in addition to being wonderful writers.
AF: There are some really rare finds here — for example, pieces by Richard Wright and Sherwood Anderson on Joe Louis. How difficult was the research for the anthology? What are some of your favorite pieces?
Kimball: I wouldn’t describe the research as “difficult,” because it was such a pleasure. We probably read a half-dozen really good pieces for every one that wound up in the anthology. We read some pretty awful ones, too, mostly when we’d been touted by someone who should have known better.
…I’ve been asked that question by several people over the past couple of months and usually manage to duck it by saying “Which of your children is your favorite?” But I will say that John Lardner’s masterpiece on Stanley Ketchel, “Down Great Purple Valleys,” is sort of the cornerstone of the whole book. With all the other changes we went through in compiling At the Fights, that was the one, indispensable story if only because it so exemplified what we wanted to do with the rest of the book –- and that was setting the bar pretty high.
Man, Ralph Wiley is overlooked these days, isn’t he? And since George mentioned “Down Great Purple Valleys,” here again, is one of the greatest openings in the history of American journalism:
“Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.”
From a John Lardner column for Newsweek, “The World’s Richest Problem Child”:
The St. Louis Browns have hired a professional pyschologist for the spring training season to currycomb their inferiority complex. The Boston Red Sox, on the other hand, have chosen a simpler way of treating their own pyschological problem, who goes by the name of Theodore S. Williams.
I am taking the word of certain experts for it that Williams has, or is, a psychological problem. Around the American League the pitchers tell you that if anything is wrong with Williams, they can only pray that it’s not catching. Give three or four other batsmen Theodore’s disease and the pitching profession will be totally wrecked.
However, as I say, many students of human mentality (most of them play the same instrument that I do, the typewriter, and have learned psychology by close observation of the bartender at the water hole around the corner from the office) have been saying for years that Mr. Williams has a complex. They watch him with honest pity as he gropes his way through the shadowland between .340 and .406. They agree with a sigh that he is the strongest left-hand-hitting neurotic they have ever seen.
A few weeks ago Thomas A. Yawkey, the Red Sox owner, took cognizance of Ted’s condition and tried the cure I spoke of above. It is a form of shock treatment. The subject is pelted softly but firmly with handfuls of green banknotes in large denominations. The size of the dose varies with the individual. Mr. Yawkey might still be showering his patient with engravings of General Grant had not Williams, rising from the couch when the total reached $125,000, remarked, by way of small talk, that he was satisfied.
“John grew up in the shadow of a father who was a great writer,” said A. J. Liebling. “This is a handicap shared by only an infinitesimal portion of any given generation, but it did not intimidate him.”
When John Lardner was ten-years old, he wrote a short verse that appeared in a F.P.A column:
Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey,
Both sultans of the swat.
One hits where other people are,
The other where they’re not.
John Lardner was born in Chicago but raised mostly on the east coast. He went to the Phillips Academy in Andover (his three brothers would follow), spent a year at Harvard and another at the Sorbonne, before he returned to New York and got a job at the New York Herald Tribune in 1931. He was nineteen-years-old. His father, Ring, who was already ill with the tuberculosis and heart diesee that would kill him a few years later, sent a note to Stanley Walker, a Texan who’d made the Tribune into the best writer’s paper in New York.
“You will find him a little reticent at times, but personally I never felt this was a handicap.” Walker later said that John “came close to being the perfect all-around journalist.”
John worked at the Tribune until 1933, the year his father died. The two men were close in Ring’s final years and the old man was proud of his son’s early achievements. “We are all swollen up like my ankles,” Ring wrote in a letter to his nephew, Richard Tobin. John was offered a syndicated sports column when he was twenty-one for the North American Newspaper Alliance. Carried locally by the N.Y. Post, Lardner wrote about sports, and then the war, for NANA until 1948.
Sure, Jimmy Cannon is overlooked these days and he was a legend during his time; Joe H. Palmer was on his way to a PHD in English Literature when he became a full-time chronicler of horse racing–which he did as well as anyone ever has–but he died young and his name is lost; and Lenny Shecter was a funny, irascible talent, the patron saint of cynicism and snarki, and he’s sadly known as just the “co-writer” of “Ball Four.” Shecter also died young.
John Lardner was painting a prose portrait of a legendary con man when he wrote: “On a small scale, Titanic Thompson is an American legend. I say on a small scale, because an overpowering majority of the public has never heard of him. That is the way Titanic likes it. He is a professional gambler. He has sometimes been called the gambler’s gambler.”
Lardner might well have been writing about himself, although calling him a writer’s writer is too limiting, not to mention entirely inadequate. In a career that spanned three decades, the ’30s through the ’50s, he wrote for The New Yorker about everything from movies and TV, to the invasions of Normandy and Iwo Jima. But it was as a sports columnist for Newsweek that Lardner left his deepest footprint, and he underscored it with long, brilliant pieces for magazines like True and Sport. His trademark, as Stan Isaacs, the former Newsday sports columnist recently pointed out, was a “droll touch — precise, detached.”
“Time has a way of dimming the memory and achievements of writers who wrote, essentially, for the moment, as writers writing for journals must do,” Ira Berkow, the longtime columnist of the New York Times, told me recently. “But the best shouldn’t be lost in the haze of history and John Lardner was a brilliant writer — which means, in my view, that he was insightful, irreverent, wry and a master of English prose.”
Al Silverman, who ran Sport magazine in the Sixties, edited Lardner’s once-a-month sports column in True for a year-and-a-half in the early ’50s. “We never did meet but talked over the phone about his piece every month,” said Silverman. “I don’t remember ever saying, ‘You made a little grammatical error here, John.’ Always it was me saying, ‘Another great one, John.’ And they all were wonderful.”
In the epilogue to a posthumous collection “The World of John Lardner” (1961), his friend Roger Kahn wrote, “Although most perceptive sports writers accepted him as matchless, sports writing was not the craft of John Lardner. Nor was it profile writing, nor column writing. After the painstaking business of reportage, his craft was purely writing: writing the English sentence, fusing sound and meaning, matching the precision of the word with the rhythm of the phrase. It is a pursuit which is unfailing demanding, and Lardner met it with unfailing mastery.”
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.”
It was only a moment, sliding past the eyes like the sudden shifting of light and shadow, but long years from now, it will remain a pure and moving glimpse of hard reality, and if Muhammad Ali could have turned his eyes upon himself, what first and final truth would he have seen? He had been led up the winding, red-carpeted staircase by Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines, as the guest of honor at the Malacañang Palace. Soft music drifted in from the terrace as the beautiful Imelda guided the massive and still heavyweight champion of the world to the long buffet ornamented by huge candelabra. The two whispered, and then she stopped and filled his plate, and as he waited the candles threw an eerie light across the face of a man who only a few hours before had survived the ultimate inquisition of himself and his art.