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Tag: Allen Barra

Phantom Punch

Guest Columnist

Allen Barra

Of all the ledes in all the stories inspired by the Ali-Liston “Phantom Punch” fight, I liked best the one by my late friend Barbara Long wrote for The Village Voice fifty years ago this week, “I loved the minute of it!”

Her timing, though, was a little off. It was at precisely 1:44 that the Phantom Punch either did or didn’t land and Sonny Liston went down. At 1:56 he got up, at which point Ali began bombarding him with punches, and it was 2:12 when the referee, former heavyweight champ Jersey Joe Walcott, stepped in to inform the participants that the fight was actually over 16 or 17 seconds earlier.

If you think that’s confusing, then you know how everyone in the crowd of 4,000 (the smallest ever to witness a heavyweight title fight) felt. Watch the fight and judge for yourself.

Three days after the fight, the cover of Life magazine hit the stands with Neil Leifer’s famous photograph on the cover. A defiant Ali stands over a down and dazed Liston. It’s probably the most instantly recognizable photo in boxing history and may well be the most famous single shot in all of sports.


For many, Ali’s pose seemed staged, adding fuel to the rampant rumors that the fight was fixed. Liston had been one of the most fearsome champions the heavyweight division had ever seen; he had never been knocked down and most members of the old boxing establishment simply refused to believe that Ali could have knocked him out so easily.

Leifer’s picture, therefore, came to symbolize the fight itself. Or as Kelefa Sanneh wrote in last week’s (May 25) New Yorker: “The famous 1965 photograph of Muhammad Ali shouting at the limp body of Sonny Liston records not a great triumph but a great fiasco: the fight, hurriedly staged in a hockey rink in Lewiston, Maine, ended with a first round knockout that many still believe was fraudulent – the result of a ‘phantom punch’ and evidence, purportedly, that Liston had been paid to lose.”

Indeed, there were many rumors that Sonny was paid to take a dive, though everyone seemed to have a different theory as to who paid him and why. (You can hear several of the conspiracy theories on YouTube.) But no one has ever been able to explain why it would be worth a lot of money for anyone to pay Liston to lose, or, if he was intimidated by some of the angry black Muslims that surrounded Ali, why he couldn’t have used his well-known mob connections for protections.

In their first fight, Liston was a huge favorite, and anyone who bet on Cassius Clay cleaned up. But in the second fight, the odds were a slim 6-to-5 favor Liston, so there was no big money to be made betting. The real money was in having the heavyweight title or in owning the man who held it. How much money could Liston possibly been paid to throw away the most valuable prize in sports? And who would have paid him since what the mob surely wanted was for Liston to win back the title?

At the risk of destroying boxing’s most cherished conspiracy theories, it’s time to put to rest the notion that either fight represented anything but total domination by Muhammad Ali. Ali went on to become the greatest heavyweight of all time, and Sonny Liston, who was likely much older than the 31 years he claimed – some said as old as 38 — suddenly got much older when facing the fastest heavyweight who ever lived. As the late, great Ring and Boxing Illustrated editor Burt Randolph Sugar put it, “At his best, Sonny couldn’t have hit Clay with a handful of stones.”

What happened in their second fight is that Liston walked right into a punch – two punches really. And the recent spate of Phantom Punch anniversary stories have left out one key fact: not everyone who saw the fight agreed that there was no punch.

In a story in Slate on May 22, Dave Mondy wrote that Leifer’s photo “was actually preceded by the puniest of blows, a ‘phantom punch’ as it would later be known – a wispy, theoretical mini-hook that none in attendance even observed.”

A piece I wrote for The New York Times in 2000 on the 35th anniversary of the fight has been quoted by writers on several sites, but, interestingly, no one has the people I talked who did see the Punch. For instance, the Village Voice’s Barbara Long, who was seated behind Ali’s corner and told me that Liston, when hit, had reacted “Like a man on a bicycle hitting a low-lying branch.”

In a column printed two days after the fight, The Los Angeles Times’ Jim Murray, probably the most respected sportswriter in the country at the time, wrote, “I’ll tell you what happened. Sonny Liston got the hell beat out of him is what happened. This time I was looking for it and I saw it: an old man groping his way into a speedy insolent reckless kid … Cassius could have beaten him in high heels.”

Former heavyweight champ and future New York State Athletic Commissioner Floyd Patterson was the man Liston had beat to win the title. Like Long and Murray, he was seated to Ali’s back when the punch was thrown. In an interview for a book several years later, he told me, “Liston got hit hard … Liston was leaning toward him and about to throw a left jab. Suddenly Clay threw a short right hand that I thought hit Liston on the chin. Liston was rocked. And when he started to get up, he was bewildered. I could see it in his eyes.”

The best analysis of the knockout was offered by Tex Maule in the June 7, 1965, issue of Sports Illustrated: “Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, retained the heavyweight championship of the world by knocking out Sonny Liston with a perfectly valid, stunning, right-hand punch to the side of the head. And he won without benefit of a fix.

“Although it is impossible ever to discount the possibility of a fix because of boxing’s still-too intimate connection with the underworld, there is no shred of evidence or plausibility to support the suggestion that this was anything but an honest fight, as was the previous Clay-Liston fight in Miami Beach …

“The knockout punch itself was thrown with the amazing speed that differentiates Clay” – interesting that both Murray and Maule, two of the leading sportswriters of their day, were still referring to Ali by the name he had discarded – “from any other heavyweight. He leaned away from one of Liston’s ponderous, pawing left jabs, planted his left foot solidly and whipped his right hand over Liston’s left arm and into the side of Liston’s jaw.”

Let’s do a forensic examination of the evidence and see if, fifty years after the fact, we can reach a conclusion.

If you watched the fight at regular speed, try looking at the knockout in slow motion.

In slow-mo, it’s easy to see the impact of the punch: Liston’s head shakes like a bobble head doll’s. So much for the “wispy, theoretical mini-hook.”

In their fight issue, SI ran a four picture sequence of the punch, noting that “The blow had so much force it lifted Liston’s left foot, upon which most of his weight was resting, well off the canvas.” You can even see the shadow of Liston’s left shoe on the canvas.

Simply put, Liston walked – lunged, actually – right into it, doubling the force of the blow.

And yet, that might not have been the punch responsible for Liston’s destruction. Watch the fight one more time. At a little more than a minute, 1:07 after the bell by my count, Ali connects a short chopping right directly to Sonny’s jaw. The punch is almost identical to the “Phantom Punch,” which comes about thirty seconds later. If that first punch doesn’t look so hard, look at it from another angle, the one on the cover of the June 7 SI:


From this angle, Liston looks as if he’s just taken a two-by-four to the face. Such blows landed early in a bout, before a boxer gets untracked, can scramble his senses, leaving him dazed though still standing. The first right was a set-up; you can see it because of the angle it’s thrown. The second was the coup de gras which couldn’t be seen clearly because Liston’s body obstructed the only camera angle.

Today, there would be three or four different angles and no mystery about the punch. Ali’s right was on target, but even The Greatest couldn’t KO a myth. No doubt we’ll be going all this again in another fifty years.

[Photo Credit: Neil Leifer]

Million Dollar Movie


Allen Barra on the Duke. 

Million Dollar Movie

Scouting New York does The Warriors: Part One and Part Two.

Bronx Banter Book Excerpt: Mickey and Willie

Hot off the presses comes Allen Barra’s new book, on sale today.

Here’s an exclusive excerpt from Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age.

Dig in.

Mickey and Willie

By Allen Barra

I don’t know that anyone’s ever calculated this, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, in that order, are the two most written-about players in baseball history, or at least two of the top three, along with Babe Ruth. The year 2010 saw the publication of a thick and well-researched biography of Willie, Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend, by James Hirsch, and there are countless shorter lives of Willie, several autobiographies and memoirs, and a superb life-and-times account, Willie’s Time, by Charles Einstein that, in my opinion, stands as the best thing ever written about him. Also published in 2010 was Jane Leavy’s Mantle biography, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, the most detailed of the nine versions of his life.

There are also six volumes of autobiography, memoirs, and recollections, as well as numerous books by fans and collections of letters to and from Mickey, that have been published since his death. And yet, it seems to me that there has always been one major element missing from the many books on Mantle or Mays: each other. Though they are and always will be linked in the minds of millions, I don’t think it’s ever been noted exactly how much they had in common and how each man’s image reflected the other. The similarities in their lives were uncanny. Both were children of the Great Depression, born in 1931. They were almost the same size (about five-foot-eleven and 185 pounds, at least early in their careers); Mantle had a bit more muscle, and for most of his playing career probably outweighed Willie by five to ten pounds.

Both were heralded as phenoms when they arrived in New York in 1951 after brief but legendary minor league careers. (If integration had come along a couple of years earlier, they probably would have played against each other as minor leaguers.) Both started out playing for Hall of Fame managers, Mantle for Casey Stengel and Willie for Leo Durocher. Both played stickball in the streets of New York with kids (though only Willie was lucky enough to have TV cameras record the games). The burden of expectation caused each of them to break down in tears before his first season was over. Mickey exploded on the national scene in 1953 when he hit the first “tape measure” home run, and Willie the next year when he made the most famous catch in World Series and probably baseball history. In 1958 and 1959, they barnstormed against each other with specially selected All-Star teams.

Together they defined baseball in the 1950s and through the mid-1960s. Both made the covers of Time and Life, and they were the subjects of popular songs. In the 1960s, they were often pictured together on the covers of baseball magazines, including some devoted entirely to them. They were paired off on television on the popular show Home Run Derby, did commercials and endorsements together, and appeared together on numerous TV shows. Together they created nostalgia and the autograph and memorabilia craze. Finally, in the early 1980s, they were both banned from baseball by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for doing public relations work for Atlantic City casinos.

They had exactly the same talents—everyone who saw them observed that no other players in the big leagues possessed their astonishing combinations of power and speed. And despite Willie’s far greater durability, they were, in terms of effectiveness on the field, remarkably similar. Both batted over .300 ten times and hit over 50 home runs in a season twice. Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball ranks Mays as the best player in the NL from 1954, the year he returned from the Army, through 1965, except 1959, when he ranked fourth. (For the 1956 and 1961 seasons, he shared the top spot with Henry Aaron.)

Mantle was Total Baseball’s best player in the AL every year from 1955 through 1962; he was also ranked second in 1952 and fourth in 1954. (Mantle was surely poised to top Total Baseball’s ranking in 1963, when he batted .314 but was limited to just sixty-five games by injuries.) In every season from 1954 through 1965, Mickey and Willie were selected for the All-Star teams. From 1951 through 1964, the Yankees or the Giants were in every World Series except in 1959. Their fortunes in the World Series and All-Star Games contrasted oddly. Mays was the ultimate All-Star, hitting .307 in twenty-four games, producing 29 RBIs and runs scored, while Mantle hit just .233 in sixteen All-Star Games without a single home run. But in twenty World Series games, Mays managed just .239 without a single home run; in sixty-five games, Mantle set the all-time World Series home run mark with 18.

That Mickey and Willie were the most dominant players of that period isn’t simply a myth built up by worshipful New York sportswriters—it’s a fact. The ultimate question isn’t “Were they the greatest of their time?” but “Which of them was the greatest?” (That’s a subject I explore in detail in Appendix A.)

Both were consummate all-around athletes who excelled at basketball and football in high school. Reversing the stereotype, Willie was a great passing quarterback at Fairfield Industrial High School in Westfield, Alabama; at the same time, Mickey was a dazzling running back at Commerce High in Commerce, Oklahoma. If circumstances had been different, they might have ended up playing for the two greatest college football coaches of their era: Willie for Bear Bryant, then at Kentucky—Bryant had been hugely impressed when he saw Willie play baseball for the Black Barons at Rickwood Field—and Mickey for Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma.

They were both natural center fielders, but both played other positions when they were young. Mantle spent more time at shortstop than Willie, but neither of them ever quite got the hang of it. Willie began his rookie season in center field; Mickey began his rookie year in right field while Joe DiMaggio struggled through his final season, and in 1952 Mickey became the Yankees’ starting center fielder. Both had great throwing arms and were told during their early careers that they had a shot to make it as a pitcher. Mickey and Willie both idolized Joe DiMaggio. Both loved Westerns and, as boys, dreamed of growing up to be cowboys.

Their lives were dominated by their fathers, who saw baseball as a way for their sons to escape a life of brutal manual labor. For Cat Mays it was the steel mills, for Mutt Mantle the hellish zinc mines. By the time Mickey and Willie graduated from high school, both their mothers had almost disappeared from the narratives of their lives. It was often said of both that they were “born to play ball.” Whether or not that was true, they were certainly bred to the game. Cat began rolling a ball to his son while Willie was still an infant. Mutt began to throw to his son as soon as Mickey could hold a broom handle.

Both men were southerners. (New York sportswriters were fond of labeling Mickey a cowboy, a westerner—he did, after all, once ride a horse to school—but Mickey regarded himself as a southerner and often said so.) The Mantles and the Mayses were living, breathing Americana. The Mantles were what John Steinbeck’s Joad family might have been had they chosen to stay and scrape a living out of the harsh Oklahoma earth rather than emigrate to California. Willie’s folks were the country cousins of the Younger family in Lorraine Hansberry’s great play, A Raisin in the Sun; they resisted the lure of northern cities like Chicago and stayed near their roots.

They were both the products of two generations of ball-playing men, and both honed their skills through competition with industrial leaguers. Though neither of them was actually a member of an industrial league team, their fathers, uncles, and close friends played industrial ball, and Mickey and Willie played with and against them. Mantle and Mays were probably the last products of the great age of industrial league baseball that died out a few years after World War II. Neither man ever truly understood how to manage money. Mantle envied Willie’s salary; Willie was notoriously jealous of Mantle’s income from commercials and endorsements.

Needless to say, in spite of all these similarities, there were enormous cultural differences. Mickey grew up listening to country stars such as Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys; his favorite singer was Hank Williams. Willie and his family listened to country blues singers like Amos Millburn, the more sophisticated R&B sounds of Louis Jordan, and even jazz artists like Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole. The one singer both men enjoyed was Bing Crosby. The Mantle clan was large and closely knit; Mays came from a broken home. Mickey’s father drove him relentlessly toward baseball; Willie’s father helped him along and let him find the way to baseball on his own.

Mickey drank prodigiously and recklessly from an early age; Willie got sick on his first taste of alcohol and never touched it again. Mantle, though he remained married to his high school sweetheart for decades, led a sex life that was an unreported scandal. Mays, in contrast, was never the subject of rumors of promiscuity; his first marriage, to an older, more sophisticated woman, went badly. He had no biological children and, if the journalists who knew him are to be trusted, seldom saw his adopted son after his divorce.

One Mantle biographer, writing seven years after his death, concluded that “Mickey Mantle, like most heroes, was a construction; he was not real. He was all that America wanted itself to be, and he was also all that America feared it could never be.” Surely, it would be no stretch to say the same thing of Willie Mays. In his mammoth one-volume history of the decade, The Fifties, David Halberstam wrote that “Willie Mays seemed to be the model for the new supremely gifted black athlete. . . . He showed that the new-age black athlete had both power and speed. . . . [Mays was] a new kind of athlete being showcased, a player who, in contrast to most white superstars of the past, was both powerful and fast.” At the same time Mays was at his peak, there was a supremely gifted white athlete named Mantle who had at least as much power and speed. Bob Costas says, “There was one thing about Mantle that screamed out ‘The Natural.’ He was a God-made ballplayer.” Surely the same God made Willie Mays.

“Today,” Arnold Hano, one of Willie’s first biographers, wrote in 1965, “players are as skilled as most stars of the past, but something is lacking. Call it color, call it magic, but you call for it in vain. Except for Willie Mays. Oh, there are a few others. Mickey Mantle has always brought his own sense of excitement to the game.” He most certainly did, and who, at their peak, could have denied that Mantle’s “own sense of excitement” was a brand quite similar to Willie’s?

Though their names are melded in the minds of three generations of American sports fans and their careers ran along uncannily parallel lines, they are still, oddly, segregated. Indeed, for most of their playing careers the realities of American life dictated that they be segregated. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that they could meet together at restaurants and nightclubs in most parts of the country, and even then not in the Deep South. And it wasn’t until the 1970s that they began to appear together regularly at card shows, in commercials, and on television shows. Mantle and Mays were friends, probably as close as it was possible for a white man and a black man to be at that time.

In any event, their work schedules didn’t allow them to see each other more than a couple of times a year. Always, the newspapers kept one apprised of what the other was doing. “We kept an eye on each other, Willie and me. I was always aware of him,” Mantle remarked. “I’d go long periods without seeing him,” Mays said after Mantle died, “but I couldn’t go for two days without hearing about him. It was like we were never far apart.” Mickey and Willie—they were given boys’ names that they never grew out of. The private lives of both men revealed that they were ill equipped for life after baseball, a fact that those of us who loved them found almost impossible to understand. How, though, could we have understood? From our perspective, what could have been better than being Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays? Even after baseball, what better life could a fan imagine than being Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays?

“In some ways,” Roger Kahn told me, “I believe they knew each other better than anyone else knew them. They were the only two men in America who understood the experience they had both been through.”

Reprinted from Mickey and Willie by Allen Barra. Copyright © May 2013. Published by Crown Archetype, a division of Random House, Inc.

Million Dollar Movie

Here’s Allen Barra and Rob Neyer on 42.

Million Dollar Movie

Is Ben Affleck the new Clint Eastwood? Over at Salon.com, Allen Barra gets into it.

Million Dollar Movie

Phillip Kaufman has a new movie out–on HBO. Allen Barra profiled Kaufman, one of our finest directors, for the Wall Street Journal last week. And Barra reviewed the movie for the Daily Beast here.

Beane Counter

Read anything about “Moneyball” lately?

I haven’t seen the movie yet but I did read this article on Billy Beane in the New York Times Magazine.

And over at The Atlantic, Allen Barra has a critical essay on Michael Lewis’ book.

Big is Beautiful

When hearing tales of Bubba Smith
You wonder if he’s man or myth.
He’s like a hoodoo, like a hex,
He’s like Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Few manage to topple in a tussle
Three hundred pounds of hustle and muscle.
He won’t complain if double-teamed;
It isn’t Bubba who gets creamed.

What gained this pair of underminers?
Only four Forty-niner shiners.

Ogden Nash, 1969

If you missed Allen Barra’s tribute to Bubba Smith last week, do check it out.

Mr Big Stuff

Allen Barra on James Rodney Richard:

You’ve heard stories about how great J.R. Richard was at his best, and they are all true. What the stories don’t tell you is how thrilling it was to watch him on the mound on a good day. He was the scariest pitcher I’ve ever seen. He was 6’-8 ½”, and his three-quarters side arm fastball sometimes made it to 100 mph. Imagine a right-handed Randy Johnson with 30 more pounds of muscle, and you’ll get some idea of how terrifying he was.

I don’t think he was a great pitcher—great in the sense of being the best in the league for a couple of seasons—and it’s true that he had an advantage when pitching in the Astrodome, the best hitter’s park in the game back then. But midway through the 1980 season, Sports Illustrated’s William Nack called him “the best right-hander in baseball,” and that was probably true.

By 1980, at the age of 30, he was certainly on the verge of greatness. From 1976-1979 he won 74 games, completing 62 of them and averaging 260 strikeouts per season. He had over 300 strikeouts in both 1978 and 1979. As he got older, he seemed to be getting better and smarter, with a change that startled some hitters. (Of course, when you consistently throw everything, including your slider, in the high 90s, a changeup is going to be even more devastating.)

New York Times Takedown

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


Revisionist History

Robert Lipsyte thinks that Roger Maris should be in the Hall of Fame. Allen Barra does not agree.

I just don’t see a strong case for Maris, do you?

Har Har Hardy Har Har

My old man used to drink at The Ginger Man, a restaurant near Lincoln Center. The place was named after the play based on J.P. Donleavy’s novel. Patrick O’Neal, one of the owners, had stared in the short-lived play. The novel, was reissued not long ago, and over at The Daily Beast, Allen Barra calls it “the funniest novel in the English language since Evelyn Waugh.”

Dig the review.

No One Ever Booed Robin Roberts

By Allen Barra


It’s a shame that Robin Evan Roberts couldn’t have picked a more fortunate day to die. His passing on May 6 Thursday was lost in the media swirl surrounding the arrest of former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor on rape charges and the speculation over whether Lebron James would be playing next season in Cleveland or New York. Before his memory fades entirely, a few things about his life and career should be remarked on.

Roberts pitched in relative obscurity for most of his 19 big league seasons, and his death at age 83 was relegated to the status of second-tier news. Now, after some reflection, we can put his career in perspective: he was baseball’s greatest pitcher since World War II and one of the most important men in baseball history.

He was also scandalously unappreciated. In 1960 the Associated Press conducted a survey of “164 Top-Flight Sportswriters” and “76 Nationally-Known Public Figures” to determine “The All-Star Team of the Past Decade.” Roberts didn’t make the team. He finished second to the Yankees’ Allie Reynolds. Allie had a fine career, but he was only great after coming to the Yankees in 1947. He won 131 games over the next eight seasons, and that was pitching for the New York Yankees, who won six World Series over that span.

Pitching in seven seasons from 1948-1954, Robin Roberts won 137 games, and that was while pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies, who won one National League pennant in that time. For most of those season, the Phillies were the worst team in their league, or at least would have been if it hadn’t been for Robin Roberts. From 1952-1954, Roberts won 74 games and lead his league in victories each year. (He also lead the league in 1955.)

Three decades after the AP’s poll, I talked to Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who had voted for Reynolds over Roberts, and asked him why. He told me that he had voted for Reynolds mainly because he had beat Roberts in Game Two of the 1950 World Series (2-1 in 10 innings on a Joe DiMaggio home run.)

In 1976 Roberts was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his fourth year of eligibility. Whitey Ford, practically his exact contemporary, retired a year after Roberts and was elected in 1974 in his second year of eligibility. Mr. Ford, an undeniably great pitcher, won 236 games in his career, 50 fewer than Roberts. Needless to say, Mr. Ford pitched for the Yankees.

Rich Ashburn, the only other Phillies player of note during the 1950s and later a popular sportscaster in Philadelphia, once asked me rhetorically, “With all due respect to Whitey, if he had pitched for the Phillies and Robin had pitched for the Yankees, who do you think would have made it to the Hall of Fame first?”

The Yankees, always the Yankees. After Roberts was passed over in the 1974 HOF voting, novelist James Michener wrote in the New York Times, “If he [Roberts] had pitched for the Yankees, he would have won 350 games.” I wrote pretty much the same thing in my 2004 book, Brushbacks and Knockdowns, except I projected 340, which would have made Roberts one of the seven winningest pitchers in baseball since 1901 and one of the four winningest since 1945.

But James Michener and I were both wrong. If Roberts had pitched for the Yankees, he would never have won that many games. For the best team in baseball, the Casey Stengel era Yankees had very few 20 game winners; Stengel seldom went with a regular rotation and often held his best pitchers out for important games. (There was also a rumor that the Yankees front office liked to limit the win totals of their starters so they could hold their salaries down.)

If, however, Roberts had pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers of his era, that would have been a different matter. “Robin Roberts on the mound,” says Roger Kahn, author of the definitive book on the Brooklyn Dodgers, The Boys of Summer, “Forget it. Backed by Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges? Put Robin Roberts on those Dodgers teams and they’d have been the New York Yankees.”

Not that Roberts had anything to be embarassed about. He won more than 20 games six times, including going 28-7 in 1952 for a Phillies team that played under .500 ball when he wasn’t on the mound. He lead the National League for five consecutive seasons in innings pitched and complete games. And, amazingly, he is only in the record book now for allowing the most home runs (505) of any pitcher and for having the lowest batting average (.167) of anyone with more than 1500 at-bats.

His greatest contribution to baseball, though, came off the field in 1966 when he helped recruit a former economist for the steelworkers union named Marvin Miller as executive director of the players union. “I don’t think any former ballplayer,” says Mr. Miller, “with the possible exception of Jackie Robinson, had the respect and gratitude of more players.”

In the end, Roberts had no regrets. He once told me, “I had a tremendous career, and I pitched for a whole decade in front of some great fans.” Surely he is the only player in baseball history to accuse the Phillies fans of the era of being great. “Let me tell you,” Mr. Ashburn said. “The Phillies fans in that time were the booingest bunch in the major leagues. But they never booed Robin Roberts.”

Allen Barra’s latest book, Rickwood Field: A Century in America’s Oldest Ballpark (Norton), will be published  in June.

Built to Last

Good long piece by Hillel Italie in the Huffington Post on Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and cooperative biogrpahies:

“Before I got to Aaron, the best advice I got was from David Halberstam, who wrote a book on Michael Jordan without getting Jordan and a book about Bill Clinton without getting Clinton,” [Howard] Bryant said of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist.

“He said to me, `The strategy was very simple – for every day they didn’t talk to me, make three phone calls to other people.’ You have to work around obstacles. It was the best piece of advice anyone’s given me.”

After Bonds overtook Aaron, in 2007, Aaron opened up to Bryant.

“When Henry and I finally spoke, he was tremendous, he was unbelievably gracious,” Bryant said. “He was even somewhat embarrassed someone was taking an interest. He didn’t ask for any money. He didn’t ask for any review copy of the book. He could have made the one phone call that every author dreads – which is to call all of his people and say, `Hey, this guy is writing a book about me. Don’t talk to him.'”

Earlier this week, Allen Barra gave his take on Bryant’s book:

Just when it seemed as if all the great baseball subjects had been done, Howard Bryant checks in with this biography of Henry Aaron, which, amazingly, Mr. Aaron had to wait 34 years to get.

Mr. Bryant, author of “Shutout,” the definitive study of race in baseball, and “Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball,” is a great writer for a great subject. Mr. Aaron’s story is the epic baseball tale of the second half of the 20th century, in many ways the equal to Jackie Robinson’s.

And in the Village Voice, Barra praises Bryant’s frank handling of the relationship between Aaron and Mays:

Bryant argues that “so much of the relationship between Mays and Aaron was perceived, often rightly, as tense if not acrimonious, stemmed from their personalities — the self-centered Mays and the diplomatic Aaron.”

There’s no doubt, says Bryant, that “Mays exemplified the rare combination of physical, athletic genius, and a showman’s gift for timing. What went less reported and, as the years passed, became an uncomfortable, common lament was just how cruel and self-absorbed Mays could be.”

…Bryant cites a first-hand account from 1957, a United Press/Movietone News reporter named Reese Schoenfeld, that Mays ragged on Aaron from the sidelines while Henry was being interviewed in front of a TV camera: “How much they paying you, Hank? They ain’t payin’ you at all, Hank? Don’t you know we all get paid for this? You ruin it for the rest of us, Hank! You just fall off the turnip truck?”

While Aaron became more and more agitated, Mays laid it on thick: “You showin’ ’em how you swing? We get paid three to four hundred dollars for this. You one dumb nigger!”

According to Bryant, “Henry’s reaction for the next fifty years — to diffuse, while not forgetting, the original offense — would be consistent with the shrewd but stern way Henry Aaron dealt with uncomfortable issues. The world did not need to know Henry’s feelings towards Mays, but Henry was not fooled by his adversary. Mays committed one of the great offenses against a person as proud as Henry: he insulted him, embarrassed him in front of other people, and did not treat him with respect.”

Say Hey: fight, fight!

One last thing about the Aaron book that’s interesting to me is that it was written by a black man. So many sports biographies of black and Latin players, from David Maraniss and Larry Tye, to James Hirsch and Brad Snyder, are written by white guys. That’s not a knock just a fact. And it’s not to say that race is enough to judge the merit of the final product. Reporting and writing is what makes a great book no matter if the author is white or black, man or woman. Bryant wasn’t magically granted access to Aaron’s inner circle because he’s black, he did so because he’s an ace reporter who has paid his dues.

Still, I can’t help but wonder what kind of sensitivity and empathy he brings to the subject that a white writer might not. For instance, when I was writing about Curt Flood, I had to imagine what it was like to be a black kid playing ball in the deep south in the mid-1950s. I was earnest, no doubt, but it was largely an intellectual excercise, one where, through reporting and research, I attempted to intuite something beyond my experience. That’s a distance Bryant doesn’t have to cover. It doesn’t necessarily mean his writing will be better, but it’s sure to be palpably different.

Moreover, I think great biographies often tell the story of the subject and in some way, even if it is largely subconscious, the story of the author as well. My Flood book was no great biography, it was a first book, but when I look back on it, I see that I was drawn to it for several personal reasons too. The first was to learn more about Flood (and to learn how to write a book) and share his story with a YA audience.  But I think my attraction to him had everything to do with my relationship with my father. Flood was talented and troubled, alcoholic. My need to find out more about him, to appreciate his accomplishments, and forgive his failings, was directly related to how I felt about my Old Man.

[The Tortoise and the Hare picture by Esoule]

Barra Talks Berra

Bronx Banter Interview


Our old pal Allen Barra sat down with me recently to talk about his new book, Yogi: Eternal Yankee.

Bronx Banter: You make the argument that Yogi was a better catcher than Johnny Bench. How close was Roy Campanella to Yogi during the Fifties? Was there any catcher even close to these two at the time?

Allen Barra: In Rio Bravo, Walter Brennan asks John Wayne if Ricky Nelson is faster than Dean Martin. “I’d hate to have to live on the difference,” says Duke. The real truth is that if you take Campanella at this peak, there’s probably very little difference between Berra, Bench and Campy. The only thing I might add to that is that it’s possible that, if given the same material to work with, Johnny and Roy could have gotten as much out of as many mediocre pitchers as well as Yogi did. But Yogi did do it, and that has to give him the edge.

BB: Did Yogi really deserve the 1954 and ‘55 MVP awards? In ‘54 the Indians won and Bobby Avila had a big year, also playing a key defensive position, and Mickey Mantle had a monstrous year. And in ’55 Mantle again had another ridiculous year.

AB: That’s a tough question. I don’t know if anyone’s done a “Value over Replacement Factor” kind of analysis for those years, but it’s arguable that Yogi might have had the highest value over anyone who could have replaced him at that position. In 1954 my guess is that the difference between Mantle and Berra wasn’t that great. Avila played a key defensive position, but not more key than Yogi’s. It probably should have been Mantle in ’55, but then I think there’s an equally good case that it probably should have been Yogi in 1950 instead of Phil Rizzuto. What’s interesting is that so many people thought that it should have been Yogi those years. I think that tells us something very important about him.

BB. Was there any year that Yogi should have won an MVP when he didn’t?

AB: Well, as I just mentioned, there was 1950. And you could turn the ’54 argument on its head and ask why Al Rosen, an Indian, wins the MVP [in 1953] when Yogi’s team won the pennant. I’m not saying Rosen didn’t deserve it, I’m just saying that if Yogi had won it, nobody would have gone to the barricades to say he didn’t deserve it, and I’d argue that he was also one of the top five players in the league in 1952. It’s more difficult to figure the value of a top-flight catcher. He did so many things to hold his pitching staffs together back then, I just don’t know if you can figure his worth compared to payers at other positions.

BB: It ‘s well known that Yogi helped Elston Howard when he joined the team but did Yogi ever question or go on the record about the Yankees’ institutional racism?

AB: No, I’m not aware that anyone in that period did. For one thing, when you talked to the players of that era, they all say, “Well, every year we heard that they were brining black players up through the minor league system, and we thought each year would be the next year.” I think there’s something to that – Gil McDougald told me something to that effect. I mean, the Yankee players were ready for it. They had no objections at all to integrating the team. It was only after a few seasons of George Weiss signing a black player for the minor league system and then trading him that they began to catch on. I’d have to say, though, that while the Yankees front office was as racist in its policies as the Boston Red Sox, the Yankees themselves got good marks from Elston and Arlene Howard and Larry Doby for their overall attitudes. Both the Howards and Doby put Yogi at the top of their list of good guys. Arlene Howard told me that Yogi and Elston “hit it off right away.”

BB. I know that walk rates were up in the Fifties and comparatively Yogi didn’t walk that much. But he was contact hitter and it’s hard to point this out as a major flaw. That said, were there any noticeable holes in his game, either offensively or in the field?

AB: No, none, and it ought to be mentioned that though Yogi didn’t walk that much, his on-base average was actually six points better than Johnny Bench’s in about the same number of games, and that’s what’s important. No, Yogi had no flaws. We all know he wasn’t much of a catcher until Bill Dickey learned him all of his experience, but by 1949 he was a very good catcher, and by 1950 the Yankee staff was pretty much relying on him to call their pitches. Or rather, he knew them well enough to call their pitches for them – did I just make some kind of Yogiism? Anyway, all that crap in David Halberstam’s The Summer of ’49 about Allie [Reynolds] and Yogi not getting along is fiction. All the Yankees told me so.


Yankee Panky: Paralysis By Analysis?

The past 10 days have seen an immense range of stories leapfrog to the forefront of New York sports fans’ collective consciousness. In no particular order, with some analysis and commentary mixed in…

• The Yankees slashed prices for the primo seats, an altruistic move that still leaves many of us thinking, “You know, you have your own network, and it’s on my cable system. I’ll contribute to your bottom line that way and I won’t feel like I got stabbed in the wallet.”

• Alex Rodriguez did everything necessary in extended spring training and returned to the lineup Friday. He punctuated the return with a home run on the first pitch he saw, thus fulfilling his job as the media-anointed savior of the team’s season. He proceeded to go 1-for-10 with two strikeouts in the remainder of the series, and perhaps fearing aggravating the hip injury, didn’t hustle down the line to run out a ground ball, thus reclaiming his role as the team’s most prominent punching bag.

• The Yankees lost two straight to the Red Sox at home and have lost the first five meetings of the season. (Sound the alarms! Head for the hills! There’s no way the Yankees can win the division without beating the Red Sox! Except that they can, and they have. In 2004, the Yankees went 1-6 in their first seven games against the BoSox, ended up losing the season series 8-11 and still finished 101-61 to win the American League East by three games.)

• Joba Chamberlain 1: His mother was arrested for allegedly selling crystal meth to an undercover officer. Following Chamberlain’s own brushes with the law during the offseason, it stood to reason that the tabloids attacked this story like starving coyotes. It’s remarkable that he was able to pitch at all given the negative attention he received.

• Joba Chamberlain 2: Flash back to Aug. 13, 2007. Chamberlain struck out Orioles first baseman Aubrey Huff in a crucial late-inning at-bat to end the inning and in the heat of the moment pumped his fist in exultation. Yesterday, following a three-run home run in the first inning that gave the O’s a 3-1 lead, Huff mocked Chamberlain’s emotional outburst with his own fist pump, first while rounding first base, and again when crossing home plate. Apparently, Mr. Huff holds grudges. Thanks to the New York Daily News’s headline, “MOCKING BIRD” with a photo of the home-plate celebration, this story will have wings when Baltimore comes to the Bronx next week. Even better, as it currently stands, Chamberlain is due to start in the series finale on Thursday the 21st. Get ready for a rash of redux stories leading up to that game.

• Mariano Rivera surrendered back-to-back home runs for the first time in his career last Wednesday night, a clear signal that something is wrong. Maybe.

• The team as a whole. The Yankees are 15-16 through 31 games, and some rabid fans (the “Spoiled Set,” as Michael Kay likes to call them; the group of fans between ages 18-30 that only knows first-place finishes for the Yankees) are calling for Joe Girardi’s head. As in the above note on the Red Sox, some context is required. The Yankees’ records through 31 games this decade:

2000: 22-9 (finished 87-74, won AL East)
2001: 18-13 (finished 95-65, won AL East)
2002: 18-13 (finished 103-58, won AL East)
2003: 23-8 (finished 101-61, won AL East)
2004: 18-13 (finished 101-61, won AL East)
2005: 12-19 (finished 95-67, won AL East)
2006: 19-12 (finished 97-65, won AL East)
2007: 15-16 (finished 94-68, won AL Wild Card)
2008: 15-16 (finished 89-73, missed playoffs)
2009: 15-16 (finish TBD)

No one is going to make excuses for the team with the billion dollar stadium and the highest payroll, least of all your trusted scribes here at the Banter. Looking at the last three years — including 2009 — it should be noted that similar issues of injury, age, and woes throughout the pitching staff have befallen the Yankees.


Captain Clutch: You Could Look it Up

Bronx Banter Book Excerpt

Everybody Loves Yogi


One of the most anticipated baseball books of the spring is Allen Barra’s biography on Yogi Berra: Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee (W.W. Norton).  Yogi is perhaps the most beloved Yankee of them all but he is also one of the most underrated great players of all time.   In his enthusiastic and provocative manner, Barra makes the case for the unadulterated greatness of Yogi.

Here is an exclusive excerpt.


By Allen Barra

He was the guy who made the Yankees seem almost human.

—Mickey Mantle

Sometime in the summer of 1941, two of the great legends of baseball narrowly missed making a connection that would have radically altered baseball. Some historians place the date in 1942, but the two men with reason to remember it best, Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola, say, and I have taken their word, it was ­1941.

Lawrence Peter Berra, a then somewhat stocky, ungainly looking ­sixteen-­year-­old Italian-American kid from the “Dago Hill” area of St. Louis, had attracted the attention of the best organization in the National League for a tryout in Sportsman’s Park. Jack Maguire, a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals, told his boss, general manager Branch Rickey, that Berra had a powerful left-­handed swing, a great arm, and heaps of potential. Rickey wasn’t sure; he was more interested in another kid from the Hill, Joseph Henry Garagiola, a year younger than Berra. Garagiola was thought by Rickey to be faster, smoother, and more polished. Dee Walsh, another Cardinals scout, talked Rickey into signing Garagiola with a $500 bonus, but Rickey was skeptical about offering anything at all to ­Berra.

Rickey had been getting reports on both boys all summer, not just from his scouts but also from two of his outfielders, Enos Slaughter and Terry Moore, who occasionally showed up to give pointers at the WPA baseball school at Sherman’s Park. Rickey’s initial offer to young Berra was a contract—but no bonus. To a boy that age, a professional baseball contract, even without a bonus, was nothing to be scorned. But Lawrence, displaying the kind of stubborn integrity that would, in just a few years, stymie the most powerful organization in sports, balked. “In the first place,” he would tell sportswriter Ed Fitzgerald nearly two decades later, “I knew it was going to be tough enough to convince Mom and Pop that they ought to let me go away. But if Joey was getting $500 for it and I wasn’t getting anything, they would be sure to think it was a waste of time for me.”


Hedging, Rickey offered $250. Branch Rickey was the most influential executive in baseball—by the end of the decade, it was estimated that nearly 37 percent of all big league players had been developed in one of his farm systems—and Larry’s brash reply took him aback: “No, I want the same as Joey’s getting.”2 Rickey did not mention to Berra how much a month he would be earning under the contract, and Berra never asked. “That didn’t matter to me. I would have taken anything. All I was interested in was that if Garagiola was getting $500, I wanted $500, too.” Yogi would later take pains to emphasize that he wasn’t jealous of his pal, but he was convinced, from years of sandlot and street games, that he was as good a ballplayer as Joe. Garagiola disagreed. “Yogi wasn’t better than me,” recalls Joe. “He was much better. There were a lot of good ballplayers on the Hill at that time, and ‘Lawdy’—as his friends called him, echoing his mother, who couldn’t pronounce ‘Larry’—was the best. You know how kids choose up sides with a bat, one hand on top of the other until you reach the end of the handle? When the last hand got to the top, the first thing said was ‘We want Lawdy.’ ”



Mike Lupica and Allen Barra, an incongruous couple if I’ve ever heard of one, both mention W.C. Heinz this week. Barra has a tribute to Heinz in today’s Wall Street Journal:

Perhaps the lasting legacy of Bill Heinz is something he told me in a phone interview 15 years ago. What, I asked him, was the greatest lesson he had learned in nearly half a century of sportswriting? His answer was surprising. “In the end, all of us — fans, writers, coaches, athletes — have something in common: We’re all losers. Everybody is a loser, let’s face it. None of us wins all the time, in games or in life, not Joe DiMaggio, not Muhammad Ali. And none of us is going to live forever.”

Not even Roger Clemens…

This reminded me of what Roger Angell once said about failure, and why, when he started writing about baseball, he was drawn to the Mets and not the Yankees because, he contended, there is more Mets than Yankees in most of us. Most of us can generally relate more to failure than success. Pat Jordan was a failure as a pitcher and then made a career out of profiling so-called “failures” (though he writes just as convincingly about success stories). Check out Jordan’s latest, from last weekend’s Play magazine, on two young golfers.

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