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Tag: book excerpt

I Gotta See a Joker and I’ll Be Right Back

 Here’s an excerpt from James Wolcott’s new memoir about New York back in the ’70s:

How lucky I was, arriving in New York just as everything was about to go to hell. I had no idea how fortunate I was at the time, eaten up as I was by my own present-tense concerns and taking for granted the lively decay, the intense dissonance, that seemed like normality. Only F. Scott Fitzgerald characters (those charmed particles) feel the warm gold of nostalgia even while something’s unfolding before their enraptured doll eyes. For the rest of us, it’s only later, when the haze burns off, that you can look back and see what you were handed, the opportunities hidden like Easter eggs that are no longer there for anybody, completely trampled. To start out as a writer then was to set out under a higher, wider, filthier, more window-lit sky. A writer could still dream of climbing to the top, or at least getting close enough to the top to see who was up there enjoying themselves.

[Photograph's via Only NY Lives]

Profile in Courage

Bronx Banter Book Excerpt

Last week, I got a copy of Neil Lanctot’s new book, “Campy,” a biography of Roy Campanella. I was duly impressed by Lanctot’s previous effort, a meticulously researched book about the Negro Leagues and so I opened his new book book with considerable anticipation. The prologue was so striking, and so fitting for this space, that I immediately contacted Simon and Schuster for an excerpt. They generously agreed, so here is the prologue to “Campy.”

Please enjoy and then go to Amazon to buy the book. Looks like a keeper.

From “Campy,”

By Neil Lanctot

FOR SOME CITIES, a World Series game is an all too rare event to be savored and debated for years afterward. But for a New Yorker in 1958, the Fall Classic was a predictable part of the October calendar, as humdrum as a Columbus Day sale at Macy’s or candy apples at a neighborhood Halloween party.

The great catcher Roy Campanella was a veteran of the October baseball wars. Between 1949 and 1956, his Brooklyn Dodgers had taken on the New York Yankees five times, coming up empty all but once. On Saturday, October 4, Campy was returning to Yankee Stadium for yet another Series game, but everything had changed since the last time he’d set foot in the House That Ruth Built. The Dodgers no longer played in their cozy ballpark in Flatbush but in a monstrosity known as the Coliseum a continent away. And Campy no longer played baseball at all because a January automobile accident had left him a quadriplegic. For the past five months, he had doggedly worked with the staff and physicians at the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation on Thirty-fourth Street in Manhattan to learn how to function in a wheelchair. He had now sufficiently progressed to leave the hospital on weekends.

His doctors had encouraged him to accept Yankee co-owner Del Webb’s invitation to attend Saturday’s game at the Stadium, although Campy was initially not so sure. He had not appeared in public since his accident, nor had he sat on anything except a wheelchair. Nevertheless, he set aside any lingering anxiety to make the early-afternoon car ride to the Bronx, where box seats behind the Yankee dugout had already been set aside for Roy, his wife, two of his children, and a male attendant.

When the family station wagon arrived at Yankee Stadium, Campy could not help but think of the times he had suited up in the locker room in the past. He had never liked hitting at the Stadium, but he had enjoyed his fair share of glory there, whacking a key single in the deciding game of the Negro National League championship game as a teenager in 1939 and a more crucial double in game seven of the World Series in 1955, the year the Dodgers finally bested the Yanks. Today, he would just be another fan.

Campy soon discovered his wheelchair was too wide for the Stadium’s narrow aisles. He had no choice but to be bodily carried by his attendant, two firemen, and a policeman. “I felt like some sad freak,” he later recalled. “It was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me. I felt ashamed.”

But the fans whose glances he so desperately wanted to avoid soon began to shout out encouragement. “Hi, Slugger!” one greeted him. “Attaboy, Campy!” yelled another. “Stay in there, Campy, you got it licked.” Before long, virtually every one of the 71,566 present realized that the fellow with the neck brace and “tan Bebop cap” being carried to his seat was three-time MVP Roy Campanella. “By some sort of mental telepathy thousands in the great three-tiered horse-shoe were on their feet and when the applause moved, like wind through wheat from row to row, I doubt if there were many there who didn’t know what had happened,” wrote Bill Corum of the Journal-American. “It was a sad thing. Yet it was a great thing too, in the meaning of humanity. No word was spoke that anybody will know. Yet it had the same effect as that moment when a dying Lou Gehrig stood on this same Yankee diamond and said … ‘I’m the luckiest man in the world.’”

Down on the field, the top half of the second inning took a backseat to the heartfelt hoopla in the stands. With the count 1-1 on Milwaukee’s Frank Torre, Yankee pitcher Don Larsen stepped off the mound as the players in both dugouts craned their necks to see what was causing the commotion and then began to join in the ovation themselves. Upon spotting Campy only a few yards away, Yankee catcher Yogi Berra flipped his mask and waved, while home plate umpire Tom Gorman offered “a clenched fist in a ‘keep-fighting’ gesture.”

Campanella, who had vowed beforehand that he “wasn’t going to cry,” struggled to keep his emotions in check. He smiled back at Yogi (who “kept looking back and hardly could resist the temptation to run over and shake Campy’s hand,” said one reporter) and winked at the mob of photographers who gathered at his seat. For the rest of that warm October afternoon, he tried to focus on the game, even trying to eat a hot dog without success, but he could not stop thinking about the outpouring of love he had just experienced. “It’s hard to explain the feeling that came over me. I don’t believe any home run I ever hit was greeted by so much cheering,” Campanella said later.

It was the first time he had received such applause in a wheelchair, but it would not be the last. For the rest of his life, his presence, whether in a major league ballpark or in front of a Manhattan deli, would evoke similar responses. He was no longer just a ballplayer but a symbol of something much more.

© 2011 Neil Lanctot

Book Excerpt: Spooner

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We’re proud to present the following excerpt from Pete Dexter’s new book–his seventh novel–Spooner. This section picks up the story when Spooner is in high school. We just got through Spooner’s adventures on the football team where a sadistic coach named Tinker terrorized a fat kid, Lemonkatz. Spooner’s mother, Lily, is furious with the coach, as she is with many things in life, especially those things that are Republican. Then, young Spooner turns to baseball.

From Spooner:

By Pete Dexter.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Later that year Spooner began his career in organized baseball. The coach of the baseball team was Evelyn Tinker, who in addition to being held almost blameless in the Lemonkatz boy’s injury was now rumored to be collecting sixty bucks a week for the newspaper column, this in spite of Lily’s public campaign to have him fired, and being as Spooner was not old enough yet to have voted for Richard Nixon, this joining of Tinker’s team constituted the single most disloyal thing a child of Lily Whitlowe Ottosson’s had ever done.

How could he?

The question hung in the air at 308 Shabbona Drive, unspoken, like another dead father.

The answer—not that the answer mattered—was that Spooner had stopped at the baseball diamond on the way to the shopping center after school, and watched through the fence as Russell Hodge pitched four innings of a practice game against Crete-Monee, striking out twelve of the thirteen batters he faced. It was a tiny school, Crete-Monee, six hundred students, kindergarten through twelfth grade, and two of the players were only thirteen years old. The smallest one—who wore number thirteen, and was the only batter Russell Hodge did not strike out—was plunked between the shoulder blades as he turned away from an inside fastball, and cried.

Half a dozen times Spooner started to leave but couldn’t, waitingaround to see one more pitch, and in the end hung on the wire fence more than an hour, leaving diamond-shaped imprints on the underside of his forearms, wrists to elbows, taking the measure of Russell Hodge’s throws.

It came to him as he watched that Russell Hodge pitched in much the way he played linebacker, which is to say blind with rage. But it was more difficult in baseball, a game that had very little maiming, to sustain a murderous rage than it was in football, even for Russell Hodge, and after an inning or two Spooner thought he saw him working to conjure it up, sucking from the air every bit of resentment he could find. Giving Russell Hodge his due, even in a practice game against little Crete-Monee, he brought himself again and again to a state just short of foaming at the mouth—furious at the batter, at his own catcher, the umpire, who, behind the mask and protective vest was only Mr. Kopex the math teacher, furious even at the ball itself—and by the end appeared to have lost all his stuff.

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Boricua, Baby

“Clemente,” the new book by pulitizer prize-winning author, David Maraniss, hits the shelves today. It is a fine appreciation of Roberto Clemente, who is undoubtedly one of the most charasmatic players of the post-War era. Although Clemente was a key member of two World Championship teams, he played in relative obscurity in Pittsburgh during the 1950s and ’60s, and was overlooked for his much of his career. Until, of course, his monumental performance in the 1971 Serious, and his untimely death in December of 1972. His legend and reputation have grown ever since.

As my pal Steve Treder put it to me in an e-mail recently:

Clemente was actually slightly underrated until the late ’60s, and especially during the 1971 World Series when he suddenly got noticed by the national media. At that point they all suddenly seemed to think he was better than he actually was, after years of being overlooked. His early tragic death soon afterward froze his image in time. Had he lived, and had a few years of decline phase at the end of his career, his reputation probably would have balanced out about right. As it is, many casual fans seem to think he was the equal of Mays/Aaron/Robinson/Mantle, when in fact he wasn’t nearly as good as any of them.

It is no insult to say that Clemente wasn’t as great as Mays, Aaron, Robinson or Mantle. They are all legends. Fortunately for Maraniss, off-the-field, Clemente was more interesting than most. And between the lines, Maraniss points out, Clemente had a terrific, inimitable style.

There was something about Clemente that surpassed statistics, then and always. Some baseball mavens love the sport precisely because of its numbers. They can take the mathematics of a box score and of a year’s worth of statistics and calculate the case for players they consider underrated or overrated and declare who has the most real value to a team. To some skilled practitioners of this science, Clemente comes out very good but not the greatest; he walks too seldom, has too few home runs, steals too few bases. Their perspective is legitimate, but to people who appreciate Clemente this is like chemists trying to explain Van Gogh by analyzing the ingredients of his paint. Clemente was art, not science. Every time he strolled slowly to the batter’s box or trotted out to right field, he seized the scene like a great actor. It was hard to take one’s eyes off him, because he could do anything on a baseball field and carried himself with such nobility. “The rest of us were just players,” Steve Blass would say. “Clemente was a prince.”

Thanks to Mr. Maraniss and the good people at Simon and Schuster, here is an excerpt from “Clemente.” This section is less about Clemente specifically and more about the conditions that Black and latin players encountered in the early 1960s. But it establishes the backdrop that is essential to understanding Clemente’s story. Enjoy!

BOOK EXCERPT: From “Clemente”

By David Maraniss

“Pride and Prejudice”

[Clemente] arrived at Pirates camp to train for the 1961 season on March 2, a day late. He and Tite Arroyo had been delayed entry from Puerto Rico to Florida until tests came back proving they did not have the bubonic plague, a few cases of which had broken out in Venezuela during the tournament.

On the day he reached Fort Myers, free from the plague, a story ran on the front page of the New York Times under the headline: NEGROES SAY CONDITIONS IN U.S. EXPLAIN NATIONALIST’S MILITANCY. One of the key figures quoted in the story was Malcolm X, the Black Muslim leader, who in the Times account was referred to as Minister Malcolm. Interviewed at a Muslim-run restaurant on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, Malcolm X said the only answer to America’s racial dilemma was for blacks to segregate themselves, by their own choice, with their own land and financial reparations due them from centuries of slavery. He dismissed the tactics of the civil rights movement as humiliating, especially the lunch-counter sit-ins that were taking place throughout the South. “To beg a white man to let you into his restaurant feeds his ego,” Minister Malcolm told the newspaper.

This was fourteen years after Jackie Robinson broke the major league color line, seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the separate-but-equal doctrine of segregated schools, five years after Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. led the bus boycott in Montgomery, four years after the Little Rock Nine desegregated Central High School in the capital of Arkansas, one year after the first lunch-counter sit-in in Greensboro. Year by year, the issue of race was becoming more urgent. The momentum was on the side of change, but the questions were how and how fast. In baseball, where once there had been no black ballplayers, now there were a hundred competing for major league jobs, and along with numbers came enormous talent, with ten past and future most valuable players among them. Yet every black player who reported to training camp in Florida that spring of 1961 still had to confront Jim Crow segregation. Even if their private emotions were sympathetic to Malcolm X’s rage at having to beg a white man to let you into his restaurant, the issue in baseball was necessarily shaped by its own history. Having moved away from the professional Negro Leagues and busted through the twentieth century’s racial barrier, black players did not view voluntary resegregation as an option, and separate and unequal off the field was no longer tolerable.

Wendell Smith, the influential black sportswriter who still had a column in the weekly Pittsburgh Courier but wrote daily now for the white-owned newspaper Chicago’s American, began a concerted campaign against training camp segregation that year. On January 23, a month before the spring camps opened, Smith wrote a seminal article that appeared on the top of the front page of Chicago’s American headlined negro ball players want rights in south. “Beneath the apparently tranquil surface of baseball there is a growing feeling of resentment among Negro major leaguers who still experience embarrassment, humiliation, and even indignities during spring training in the south,” Smith wrote. “The Negro player who is accepted as a first class citizen in the regular season is tired of being a second class citizen in spring training.” Smith added that leading black players were “moving cautiously and were anxious to avert becoming engulfed in fiery debate over civil rights,” but nonetheless were preparing to meet with club owners and league executives to talk about the problem and make it a front-burner issue for the players association.

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