I mean. Jesus Mary, where do you start with the newspaper at which you grew so much, and learned so much, and came to respect the craft of journalism with a fervor that edged pretty damn close to the religious? What memories have pride of place now? The fact that T.A. Frail, now at Smithsonian, suggested you might just like Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy and it wound up changing your life? The day that Doug Simmons, now at Bloomberg News, snuck up behind you and stuck a pair of earphones on your head, cranked Black Flag’s “Six Pack” up to 11, and taught you that rock and roll had not calcified when you graduated from college? What’s the song that plays when you realize that you’re young when you thought you were growing old? What’s the prayer of thanksgiving for a hundred days of fellowship, drunk on words, all of us, as though there were nothing more beyond the next word, the next sentence, the next paragraph locked into place? Please say that the muse is something beyond the balance sheet, something beyond technology. Tell me that she’s alive the way she once was when you’d feel her on your shoulder as one word slammed into the other, and the story got itself told, and you came to end and realized, with wonderment and awe, that the story existed out beyond you, and that it had chosen you, and you were its vehicle, and the grinning muse had the last laugh after all.
God, it was a carnival. I saw the publisher twice get into punch-ups, once with a staffer and the next time with a janitor. And, in both cases, it was at a Christmas party. We never got paid much, but we did get paid, and we were able to write about what we wanted to write the way we wanted to write it. We were a legitimate institution of Boston eccentricity, and we were proud of the fact that we were recognized for being that very thing. In 1982, when the 76ers beat the Celtics, and the Garden erupted into a chant of “Beat L.A.!,” the great Bob Ryan interviewed Darryl Dawkins and found Michael Gee, then covering the game for us. You have to have this quote, Ryan told him, because we can’t use it. Ryan had asked Dawkins what he felt like when he heard that chant from a Boston crowd.
“Man,” Dawkins said, “when I heard that, my dick got stiff.”
My neighbor across the road, also a young literary hopeful, felt the same. We talked about every paragraph of “Fat City” one by one and over and over, the way couples sometimes reminisce about each moment of their falling in love.
And like most youngsters in the throes, I assumed I was among the very few humans who’d ever felt this way. In the next few years, studying at the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City, I was astonished every time I met a young writer who could quote esctatically line after line of dialogue from the down-and-out souls of “Fat City,” the men and women seeking love, a bit of comfort, even glory — but never forgiveness — in the heat and dust of central California. Admirers were everywhere.
My friend across the road saw Gardner in a drugstore in California once, recognized him from his jacket photo. He was looking at a boxing magazine. “Are you Leonard Gardner?” my friend asked. “You must be a writer,” Gardner said, and went back to the magazine. I made him tell the story a thousand times.
Years ago—only a few years ago, actually, but still years before the miracle year of 1967 and years before it became chic to root for the Red Sox—the centerfield bleachers at Fenway were traditionally the habitat of the most diehard of Sox aficionados. If the bleacherites weren’t the most knowledgeable fans, they were close to it, and they were certainly the most faithful. I suspect I was exposed to more genuine baseball lore, more understandings of the subtleties and stratagems of the game, and perhaps most importantly, more sheer love for the sport by sitting exclusively in the bleachers from boyhood through my early twenties than I’ve encountered in any reserved seat press box since.
This, of course, was back in the days when the Red Sox were drawing so poorly that they had to schedule night games around the Hatch Shell concerts in the summer and when a gate of 20,000 on Opening Day was considered spectacular. But from April through September the coterie in center field retained fidelity unmatched anywhere else in the American League. And while the businessmen who bought season tickets might sit next to someone in an adjacent box all season long and never exchange six words, there were people out there who’d been friends for twenty-five years yet never seen each other outside Fenway Park.
There were the beaten old men who looked like they’d just panhandled the 50 cent admission price, the retired gentlemen with their transistor radios and the truck drivers who took their shirts off on hot summer days. There were two old ladies from Dorchester, both named Mary, who attended the afternoon games as faithfully as they attended Mass. They left home early in the morning, bringing their Official Big League Scorebook along to Church, and after lunch in Kenmore Square, showed up at the park before batting practice started. They never went to night games, but the Boys from Chelsea did.
The Boys from Chelsea—three of them, Felix, Vinny, and Joe, all cab drivers, I believe, invariably turned up at night, and two or three of their friends often made it—were inveterate gamblers. They came to games weighted down with 50 cent rolls of pennies, and would wager with each other and anyone else on every conceivable facet of the game, from whether the next batter would get a hit (3 to 1 for Mantle or Willams; 6 to 1 for most pitchers) to an error on the next play (usually about 25 to 1, but you could always haggle) to the possibility of Casey Stengel being ejected during the course of the game. (If you got a bet down at the prevailing 7½ to 1 odds on Jackie Jensen hitting into a double play at every available opportunity, you usually made out over the course of a season.)
And there was Fat Howie. Fat Howie was on speaking terms with every centerfielder in the league. He’d sit right next to the rope (the section in straightaway center, directly in the batter’s line of vision, ALWAYS used to be roped off; since the space is needed now, the seats are painted green and the customers are allowed to sit there, provided they wear dark clothing) and carry on a running dialogue. Howie would lean over the wall between innings and yell out to Bob Allison: “Hey, Bob, what’s happening in Cleveland?” (The scoreboard on the left field wall can’t be seen from the bleachers in center.) And Allison would check the score and holler back: “4 to 2 Indians, Howie.” Howie was always there, day or night. I don’t know what he did for a living; maybe he took his summers off.
And, of course, there was the gang I hung out with in college. We’d usually catch about 20 or 30 games a year, always going in a group of four or five and always with a case of beer. Back then there was no hassle about bringing your own beer in to the bleachers; everyone did it, and probably would still be able to except for one particularly raucous occasion in the spring of 1964 when the bleachers were invaded by a few hundred Friday night beer drinkers posing as baseball fans.
Along about the sixth inning they were very drunk and very angry. The Red Sox were being humiliated by the lowly Kansas City Athletics (commonly referred to at the time as the “Kansas City Faggots,” since they wore bright gold suits with green trim, long before mod uniforms became fashionable), and someone heaved an empty beer can in the direction of Jose Tartabull, the A’s centerfielder. An umpire ran out to retrieve it, and was greeted by a fusillade of beer cans. This brought the park police out on the field, and the shelling exploded for real. One cop was cold-cocked by a beer can—a full one—and the barrage continued for about ten minutes, abating not because the park announcer warned that the umpires were threatening to forfeit the game, but only because the assholes ran out of ammunition. After that they started checking you out for beer when you came through the gate, and—at 55 cents a cup—the price of drinking went up considerably in center field.
Besides me, there were 34,516 other paying customers there last week. I hadn’t been to an opener at Fenway for seven years, though I caught a couple at Shea Stadium and K.C. Municipal. I looked around for Howie and the two Mary’s, but I didn’t see them. I suspect they’d be pretty uncomfortable out there these days anyway; the bleachers last Tuesday were packed with a crowd that would’ve been indistinguishable from the occupants of the cheap seats at the Fillmore East: freaks sporting Mao buttons, long-haired college kids, high school hippies, and even teenyboppers, with bells, beads, and blemishes.
Initially, anyway, that was relieving. For several years now I’ve found myself trembling whenever the National Anthem is played at sporting events, not out of patriotic sentiment but of fear that some flag-crazed lunatic sitting in back of me will be overcome by his emotions and seize the opportunity to bludgeon me from behind with his souvenir Louisville Slugger. Since the first ball on Opening Day was thrown out by a Vietnam veteran, a former POW, the new crowd did thus provide at least a reassuring measure of collective security during the pre-game ceremonies, helping to compensate for the nostalgic loss of old ambience.
On the very first play of the game, Yastrzemski made an incredible driving, sliding catch by the left field line off Horace Clarke’s bat, roller over and held the glove aloft. Now in the old days Jimmy Doyle from East Boston would’ve been yelling “Atta boy, Carl, Baby” in his booming foghorn voice, a voice so loud that even in the middle of 35.000 fans Yaz would’ve heard him. But the ovation from the bleachers was only polite applause by comparison. “That was a pretty nice, catch,” commented one of the kids behind me.
Ray Culp retired the Yankees 1-2-3 in the first, but despite two hits the Sox’ half of the first was scarcely more auspicious. Luis Aparicio led off with a smash over third base, which Jerry Kenney backhanded with a superb stab observed by everyone in Fenway Park except Aparicio and first base coach Dan Lenhardt, who waved Luis around toward second—directly into a rundown. Reggie Smith followed with another single but, after Yaz flied out, Reggie, the team’s top base thief, was thrown out trying to steal second.
The Yankees went down in order in each of the next two innings. As the Sox trotted off the field after the third, one of the kids behind me turned to his companion and breathlessly uttered: “He’s pitching a no-hitter!”
Now, according to every sacred tradition of the game’s etiquette, this is something which is never mentioned aloud—particularly after only three innings have been played. I was on the verge of turning around and instructing him on the point when his friend smugly added: “He’s pitching a perfect game.”
Fat Howie would have thrown them both over the wall.
I sat seething as the Red Sox went down 1-2-3 again, and then decided that it was time to make a beer run. “My turn,” I said, and after entrusting my scorecard to the guy sitting next to me, began making my way down the aisle. I paused at the top of the runway just in time to see Thurman Munson chop a slow-roller to the third-base side of the mound.
A pitcher fleeter afoot would have handled it with ease; Sox pitching coach Harvey Haddix, about 50 now, could still have eaten it alive. Culp himself could probably have made the play three times out of four, but as he lumbered off the mound he not only overran the ball but momentarily blocked out Petrocelli racing in from third. Rico barehanded the ball and whipped it to first in one motion, but too late to catch Munson. An infield single; the Yankees had their first hit, and I knew exactly where the blame lay. “Smart-ass punks!” I shook my fist at them as I descended the stairs.
I returned with the beer to find Reggie Smith on second with a double and Yastrzemski coming to bat. Taking my scorecard back, I matter-of-factly threw out “Here comes the first run of the season!”, which would’ve immediately been covered at 7 to 2 by Felix or Vinny. There was no response to the challenge here, though, and naturally Yaz responded with a run-scoring double.
Between innings the guy who’d been keeping my scorecard wanted to know what the funny little illegibly-scrawled notes in the margin were all about. I briefly considered a number of spectacular fabrications, but finally admitted that I wrote for the Phoenix and planned to do a story of some sort about Opening Day.
“Oh yeah?” He eyed me strangely. “If you’re a sportswriter why the fuck are you sittin’ here,” he gestured toward the press box. “Instead of up there?” The fact of the matter was that the Rex Sox had declined to provide the paper with press tickets, but for some reason I mumbled that I liked it better in the bleachers. At one time that would’ve been true; today it made me twice a liar.
The middle innings were largely uneventful, except for Duane Josephson knocking Kenney squarely on his ass while breaking up a double play, and the fact that somebody nearby produced a hash pipe. Since the hash was still being circulated when the time came, the people next to me remained sitting through the seventh inning stretch, yet another tradition shot to hell. We did come up with another run in the seventh anyway. Following two singles, a sacrifice, and an intentional walk to pinchhitter Joe Lahoud, Culp hit a sure double-play ball to short, but John Kennedy, running for Lahoud, bowled over Clarke at second, knocking the ball away and allowing the run to score.
New York led off the eighth with their second and third hits. After an error and two putouts, the bases were loaded, two out, when Clarke stroked a base hit to right apparently certain to score two runs, but Josephson perfectly blocked the plate long enough to get Smith’s throw to home and somehow the tying run was out at the plate. “Perfect throw,” approved one of the morons behind me. Of course it was not a perfect throw; it bounced three times and Scott almost cut it off and the runner had it beaten by at least ten feet had Josephson not had his body in the way.
The Sox scored their third run the way they are supposed to be scored: Yaz singled, went to third on a single by Rico, and came home on Scott’s sacrifice fly. Unspectacular, but it is the sort of thing that games are won by. Just as I’d called Josephson a “mediocre catcher” in print that morning—he came through with three hits and that key play at the plate that afternoon—I also picked the Sox to finish second behind Baltimore. One game does not a season make, but I’m looking forward to having reason to revise both assessments. I’m also looking for a new place to sit.
[This story appears with permission from the late George Kimball; it originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix. The photograph of George was taken by Hal Whalen.]
Bronx Banter: Your father was a career military man and you grew up all over the world. Did you follow boxing at all as a kid?
George Kimball: Aha, so this is going to be one of those psychological-minded interviews. My wife Marge would like that. She’s a shrink and says I’m the least psychological-minded person she knows. Sure, I watched the fights on TV with my father (and with his father) from the mid 50s on. It was a revelation to me at the live readings we did on each coast last year for The Fighter Still Remains to learn how just many of the people involved in that book had initially come to boxing the same way, as a sort of connection to their fathers at a time when there might not have been much else that did connect them.
Beginning in late ’57, which is when we moved to Germany, I followed boxing quite avidly in the papers, or really, paper. (There was an English-language weekly called The Overseas Family that covered our high school games but not much on a global scale.) Stars and Stripes, on the other hand, was a daily that carried pretty extensive coverage of both the important professional bouts (Robinson’s and Patterson’s in particular) as well as the military ones that took place in Europe, which were considered a pretty big deal, particularly as we edged toward the ’60 Olympics, which were going to be in Rome. So I’d have certainly known who all the professional champions and most of the contenders were, as well as the top Europeans (like Laszlo Papp, for instance). I don’t recall that we attended any of the bouts on the bases where we were (my father was stationed at Bamberg and Bayreuth, and I went away to the American school in Nurnberg), none of which harbored any of the really promising service amateurs, but I monitored the progress of “our” boxers – the Army guys stationed elsewhere in Europe – as they all fell by the wayside on the road to Rome with one notable exception, Sgt. Eddie Crook, who wound up being one of three U.S. boxing gold medalists in Rome. (Cassius Clay and Skeeter McClure were the others.) I liked Clay even then, since he was from Louisville, my mother’s hometown.
I don’t know that I regarded it as crushing at the time, but the Rome Olympics actually coincided with our move back to the states. I watched a lot of the Games at the home of one grandparent or another as we spent a few weeks visiting both after having been out of the country for three years. I don’t know that I’d have been able to attend had we stayed in Europe even a few weeks longer, but I had gone to Rome the previous summer, so it wouldn’t have been out of the question.
I played football and basketball at Nurnberg, and ran track in the spring. Summers I played in an AYA baseball league made up of towns that had bases. The football away games were same-day trips, but in basketball every other weekend there’d be a road trip – like you’d play a game in Munich or Heidelberg on Friday night, stay overnight, and then play in Augsburg or Mannheim on Saturday afternoon and bus back to Nurnberg on Saturday night.
The Army also had a really top-flight league of post teams that played a regular schedule, mostly, I think, on Sunday afternoons. The teams were open to everybody stationed there, so what you wound up with at a relatively large post like Bamberg was virtually a college all-star team. Everybody used to turn out to watch the home games, and I watched a lot of those on weekends when I went home. (They even used to broadcast a game of the week on AFN.) Eddie Crook, by the way, was the quarterback for the Berlin team, which was all the more unusual because most of the guys in his huddle would have been officers. He was the first black quarterback I’d ever seen, at any level.
BB: What was it like following sports when you moved around so much?
GK: My father followed the NFL avidly, or at least he did after we came back to the states in 1960 when there was football on television every Sunday no matter where you lived. We were in San Antonio my senior year, and also got the AFL games on TV. My old man had played both football and baseball at UMass (when it was still Mass State) and followed both sports. I remember sitting up with a couple of my classmates in the dorm in Nurnberg, charting the Colts-Giants overtime game off the radio broadcast. That was pretty exciting even on the radio, believe it or not.
Even moving around, you maintained your allegiances. I was a Red Sox and Cardinals fan and religiously followed both teams, even though in some cases the news and box scores were two days old.
That year in San Antonio I was working for nights 75 cents an hour, first sacking groceries and then, once I got my license, delivering prescriptions for a pharmacy, and without telling anyone saved up enough to buy two tickets to the first AFL championship game in Houston. Once the tickets came in the mail I still had a problem, because Houston was three hours away and I needed the family car to drive there with my date. When I finally worked up the nerve to ask my father his solution was that sure, I could borrow his car – as long as he got to use the other ticket. So I ended up at Jeppesen Stadium in Houston watching that game with my father.
BB: Were you tight with your siblings?
GK: Probably less so than would have been the case with an average family, simply because of the circumstances in which I grew up. My brother Tim, who is just a year and a half younger, only spent one year at Nurnberg when I was going there, and apart from my senior year in Texas I really didn’t live year-round with my family after my freshman year in high school. I was quite a bit older – six years older than the next-closest sibling – and my youngest brother wasn’t even born until I was in my second year of college. The age gap tends to shrink with the passage of time, so I’m probably more in contact with, and closer to, most of them now than I was when we were growing up.
BB: Did you read any sports writers as a kid?
GK: I think one of the early sportswriters I read avidly must have been Earl Ruby, of the Louisville Courier Journal. I also came across a collection of Furman Bisher’s pretty early on. I was reading constantly, absolutely haunted the library, but probably didn’t read a hell of a lot of sports books per se, and wasn’t much exposed to the great ones unless they were already dead and collected, like maybe Grantland Rice or Ring Lardner. I couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven when I read a collection of Irvin S. Cobb that my mother owned. But I don’t think I even began to form an idea that great sports writing could also be great writing until I started to pay attention to Sports Illustrated, which would have been the fall of 1960. I don’t know that we ever saw SI in Germany.
BB: Sounds like sports played an important part of your childhood. What about the arts? Was their music in your house as a kid? Movies, radio? What about books?
GK: That was always pretty important to me. When we were in Bayreuth I used to go to the Wagner festival with my mother because my father hated opera. I think my parents liked musicals even as much as I did, so that was there from an early age. I played the trumpet for a while and liked a lot of jazz. My parents had some jazz records, but I was the one, at probably age 15, who brought Charlie Parker into the house, and who introduced them to Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, and Chet Baker. Of course I listened to early rock, as did my contemporaries. Everybody listened to that, but only a few of my contemporaries were as into jazz as I was, and the number that listened to Broadway musical scores was even smaller, so when I listened to Rogers and Hammerstein or Mario Lanza, a lot of times it was alone in my room. Didn’t listen to much radio at all, that I can remember, apart from in the car.
I pretty much lived in the library, even in Germany. I’d even take dates there. No matter what else I was doing I was probably reading at least a couple of books a week for almost as long as I can remember. Movies were important during the years I lived in Germany. The new films would eventually get there, so we didn’t feel cheated that they’d been out for a few months in the states, and I can’t remember whether they cost 15 cents or a quarter, but they were certainly affordable. We had one night a week in Nurnberg where you could sign out for an early film, and then on weekends I’d usually see one too.
BB: I know you are a fan of musicals. I think Kiss Me, Kate was the first long-playing record my dad ever bought—he was six or seven years older than you.
GK: I first saw Kiss Me, Kate performed at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in the Alps, in 1959. Went with my mother because my father didn’t want to go. I think we had all of the early Rogers and Hammerstein cast recordings at the house when I was growing up – Carousel, Oklahoma, South Pacific and The King and I, and I eventually saw all of those done in New York, in London, in regional theatre, what have you. Even saw Kiss Me, Kate on Broadway about ten years ago. I think the Rogers and Hammerstein led me back to their earlier collaborators like Lorenz Hart and Jerome Kern and their spiritual descendants like Lerner and Loewe, or Frank Loesser. I think there was a definable Golden Age that began in the late ‘20s with Show Boat and ended probably fifty years ago which was marked by a greatness that’s never been achieved since, which is why I enjoy the revivals more than most new musicals. I saw the Lincoln Center South Pacific nine times in three years, I think (and a few weeks ago I took Danny Burstein to DiBella’s boxing card at B.B. King’s.). At their best there were others in this era like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin who could be great but I thought both inconsistent. Annie Get Your Gun, for instance, is brilliant (despite a notably dumb book), and right up there with the best of Rogers and Hammerstein, but Berlin wrote some shows I wouldn’t want to even sit through. I think the symbiosis of great lyricists and composers is what defined these. I love West Side Story, for instance, but never warmed to some of Bernstein’s film scores, and I think Sondheim did his best work on that one when he was a lyricist, period. I like some of his stuff, and hope to go see Danny and Bernadette Peters do Follies at the Kennedy Center in May, but I don’t see Sondheim as an heir to the tradition.
BB: What about Gilbert and Sullivan?
GK: Gilbert and Sullivan is an acquired taste I guess I never acquired. It’s cute, but I don’t think especially good musically, and it makes you work to get the lyrics, which isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. I don’t think I’ve ever walked around with a Gilbert and Sullivan song in my head, for instance, but with some of these other classics, especially Rogers and Hammerstein, it happens all the time. Some of the movie recordings of Rogers and Hammerstein were quite good even if the movies themselves weren’t. John Raitt was the original Billy in Carousel, around the time I was born, and I met him years later when I had dinner with him and Bonnie.
Here’s something to keep you warm on a cold winter day, the late George Kimball’s essay from our book “Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories.” It’s all about the old ballpark, Billy Martin, finks and phonies, brawling, and, of course, drinking with Bill Lee.
By George Kimball
There are things you learned about the old Yankee Stadium once it became your place of work that never would have occurred to you as a kid going to watch a game there. Making your way from the visiting- to the home-team dugout, or to the pressroom where they fed us and the adjacent quarters where we wrote our stories after games, involved negotiating an elaborate system of labyrinthine tunnels that could have been a large-scale Skinner box. A dim-witted scribe could spend hours trying to find his way around down there, but once he did figure it out, he’d be rewarded with supper, or maybe a beer after the game.
And since we only made two or three trips a year to New York, we were always making wrong turns, ones that inevitably brought us face-to-face with one of New York’s finest on a security detail. Some of the cops had been drawing this plum assignment for years. Others, newer to the job, couldn’t tell you how to get from A to B any better than another sportswriter could. They should have handed out road maps with the press credentials.
But the overriding memory of all those hours spent wandering around beneath the House That Ruth Built remains the smell. If you grew up in suburbia, it wouldn’t have meant much to you at all, but if you’d spent much time in a big-city tenement or in the stockroom of a grocery store or ever wandered beneath street level in a restaurant that abuts a subway line, the permeating odor of Decon, the rat poison, would have been familiar.
My friend, John Schulian, must have recognized that smell too, because at some point in the late 1970s, he came up with a description of Billy Martin so apt that it should have been chiseled on Billy’s gravestone: A rat studying to be a mouse.
The funny part of it was that, while Martin had carefully cultivated an image of a guy ready to fight at the drop of a hat, he wasn’t actually very good at it. If you look at the fights he won, they were usually against marshmallow salesmen or mental cripples (Jimmy Piersall was just months away from the loony bin when Martin beat him up under the stands at Fenway in 1952) or a guy who was even drunker than he was (Dave Boswell at the Lindell AC in 1969). Sometimes he’d gain the advantage with a well-timed sucker punch, and sometimes he’d just think he had the advantage, as was the case in St. Louis in 1953, when he picked a fight with a short guy wearing glasses. (The guy, Clint “Scrap-Iron” Courtney, turned out to run against stereotype.)
If you watched him carefully over the years, he was careful to pick his spots. When Martin went at it with somebody bigger or tougher than he was, it was usually in a setting where he knew it would get broken up right away. In fair fights—and there weren’t many of them—he almost always got his ass kicked. (See: Martin vs. Ed Whitson at the Cross Keys Inn, Baltimore, 1985.)
I’d been at Yankee Stadium the night Thad Tillotson bounced a pitch off Joe Foy’s helmet in 1967. “Watch this,” I told my then-wife when Tillotson came to bat a couple of innings later. Sure enough, Jim Lonborg drilled him in the back, both benches emptied, and when they finally pulled them apart, there were Joe Pepitone and Rico Petrocelli rolling around in the dirt.
I was also at Fenway Park the day in 1973 when Stick Michael missed a bunt on a suicide squeeze. With Thurman Munson barreling in from third toward Carlton Fisk, whom he didn’t like much anyway, the result was somewhat predictable. Both benches emptied after the collision, and even as they dragged Munson away, Fisk and Michael were going at it. Boston lefty Bill “Spaceman” Lee said the whole thing looked like a bunch of hookers swinging their purses at each other. Everyone save Thurman Munson thought that was pretty funny.
So, by the time Billy Martin came back to manage his old team, Red Sox–Yankee rhubarbs were nothing new. Their history long predated the return of Number One. I’d seen them start for good reasons and for bad reasons, and sometimes they’d started just because they were Yankees and Red Sox. So, when another one broke out on May 20, 1976, I wasn’t surprised. You could see this one coming a mile down the road. It was like watching a fight develop in slow motion.
Lee had a 1–0 lead with two out in the bottom of the sixth. Lou Piniella, at second, represented the tying run; Graig Nettles was on first. With the count 2–1 on Otto Velez, Spaceman threw a sinker on the outside of the plate, and Velez stroked it into the opposite field. It was hit so hard that when Dwight Evans grabbed it on one hop, it briefly crossed my mind that he might even have a play on Nettles at second. That’s when I looked down and saw Piniella rounding third, and he didn’t seem to be slowing down.
Evans may have had the best arm in the American League back then, and not even a good base runner would have challenged him in this situation, but Piniella was, at this point, committed and kept on coming. Evans threw in one fluid motion, a strike to the plate, and had him by at least ten feet. If it had somehow been a closer play, maybe what happened next wouldn’t have happened at all, but now it was inevitable. Out by a mile, Piniella’s only chance was to run right over Fisk, barreling into him so hard that he might dislodge the ball. Fisk, aware of this, was determined to make the experience painful enough that Lou would think twice before he ever tried it again.
As tags go, it was pretty aggressive. Fisk may even have tried to tag him in the nuts—and with his fist, not his glove, holding the ball. Naturally, Lou came up swinging, and in what seemed barely an instant, there were fifty or sixty guys in uniform going at it in the middle of the infield. Or that’s the way it seemed. Actually, some of them took a bit longer getting there than others. Traditional baseball protocol in these situations calls for the occupants of both bullpens, even the ones intent on serving as peacemakers, to make a mad dash all the way to the infield, where they are to then grab one of their opposite numbers and wrestle for a while until the smoke clears.
Logic would suggest that it would be a lot simpler to just pair off out in the bullpen, particularly since, in its new configuration, Yankee Stadium’s bullpens shared a common gate. So, when the fight started, everybody from both bullpens jumped up simultaneously to race in to where the action was. Tom House, then a Boston reliever, told me that when he got to the gate, Catfish Hunter was gallantly holding it open for him.
“See ya in there, kid,” said Catfish as House trotted past.
Fisk and Piniella were rolling around on the ground following the collision when Lee, who’d been backing up the plate on the play, spotted Velez trying to be third man in.
The first guy to hit Lee was actually Mickey Rivers, who must have been taking boxing lessons from Billy Martin. Mick was running up and down behind the scrum, looking like a guy playing Whack-A-Mole as he lashed out at the back of every Boston cap he could spot. (Somebody watching on television later told me that Ken Harrelson, in his blow-by-blow call on a Boston station, said “Rivers is just basically just running around sucker-punching everybody!”)
The next thing I saw was Nettles grabbing Spaceman from behind, seemingly lifting him over his head, and body-slamming him. I don’t know for a fact that he was trying to throw Lee on his left shoulder, but that’s how he landed. (Nettles claimed later that he was just trying to drag Lee off Velez, since Rivers’ punch hadn’t done the job.) Lee was 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, almost the exact dimensions of Muhammad Ali, but truth be told, he couldn’t fight any better than Billy Martin could, even though he did have an impressive one-punch KO on his résumé.
That had occurred in a winter league game down in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, several years earlier. When Eliseo Rodriguez charged the mound, Lee reflexively stuck his hand out in self-defense and, to his own surprise, knocked Rodriguez cold. Only when he read the next morning’s papers did he realize that he’d knocked out the island’s former Golden Gloves light-heavyweight champion.
The return bout took place in Caguas a week later. Rodriguez and two of his relatives were waiting when Spaceman got off the team bus. They beat him up and rammed his face into a light pole for good measure.
“I did get a nice new set of teeth out of the deal,” said Spaceman.
With Lee now apparently out of commission, Fisk and Piniella separated and Rivers dragged away by several Yankees, things seemed to calm down in a hurry. That’s when Lee made the mistake of getting up.
In his college days at USC, Bill had played summer ball for the Alaska Goldpanners with Nettles’ brother. Until a few moments earlier, he had considered Graig a friend. Now, he was screaming incomprehensibly as he staggered toward the New York third baseman.
“I think,” Lee said later, “it might have been the word ‘asshole’ that set him off.”
In Nettles’ defense, what he probably saw was just a crazy man charging at him. In any case, when Lee got close enough, Nettles cut loose with a right cross, and when Lee tried to block it with his left, he discovered that he couldn’t lift his arm above his waist. The punch caught Spaceman flush in the face and dropped him in his tracks.
A few months later, Ali and Ken Norton fought in almost exactly the same spot, and in fifteen rounds neither one of them landed a punch as hard as that one.
Oddly, I don’t remember Billy Martin throwing a single punch in that brawl. Maybe he found Don Zimmer and the two of them sat it out.
Once order was restored, both Nettles and Lee were ejected. (Neither Fisk nor Piniella were.) In Lee’s case, it was somewhat moot. Before the Red Sox finished batting in the next inning, he was on his way to the hospital.
He would later describe the episode by saying “I was attacked by Billy Martin’s brown shirts.”
There was clearly no love lost between the dope-smoking Spaceman and the whiskey-swilling Fiery Genius. There were unconfirmed rumors, before and since, that Martin had personally placed a bounty on Lee, but there were enough Yankees players who intensely disliked Lee that they probably didn’t need any encouragement from Billy Martin.
Obviously, the fight hadn’t been started just to get at him, said Lee, “but once it did start, it sure seemed like there were a lot of guys in pinstripes trying to find me.”
It might be noted here that, going into that game, Lee ranked as the number three Yankee-killer of all time, with a lifetime percentage against the Bronx Bombers bettered only by those of Babe Ruth and Dickie Kerr. Ruth, of course, had stopped pitching even before Harry Frazee sold his contract to Colonel Ruppert, and Kerr, pointed out Lee, may have accomplished the greatest pitching feat of all time—winning two games in the 1919 World Series with five guys playing behind him who were trying to lose.
Bill Lee’s career didn’t end that night, but it’s fair to say he was never the same pitcher again. He had won seventeen games in each of the previous three years, but he never won as many in a season again. He had torn ligaments and a separated left shoulder, and nearly two months would go by before he pitched again. Between 1973 and 1975 Lee had thrown fifty-one complete games. In 1976 he would throw just one.
Nobody knew this that night at that ballpark, of course. All we knew was that Lee had been taken away in an ambulance, but when the team bus pulled up in front of the New York Sheraton an hour and a half after the last out, there was Spaceman, waiting in the lobby.
Since I was then writing for a weekly and didn’t face a postgame deadline, Lee and I had earlier made plans to terrorize a saloon or two in Greenwich Village that night, and now, with his arm and a sling and sporting a black eye, he was determined to keep the appointment.
“Come on,” he said. “We’re still going to the Lion’s Head, aren’t we?”
Stan Williams, the Red Sox’s pitching coach, had other ideas. “Come on, big boy,” he said to Lee as he grabbed his good arm. “No curfew for you tonight.”
So, with Stanley as our tour guide, we went bouncing on the Upper East Side. I vaguely remember visiting a gin mill with a hospital motif—the ER? the Recovery Room?—where the waitresses were all dressed like nurses, or dressed like nurses wearing white miniskirts, anyway.
Either the sight of a bona fide patient had scared all the nurses away or we’d moved on to another joint. Thirty-three years later, all I can swear to is that, a bit after 3 AM, we were the last three customers in the bar, and Lee had been chasing shots of VO with the Demerol they’d given him in the real hospital, or maybe it was the other way around, but anyway, just then the saloon door swings open and who comes walking in but—think about the odds of this for a moment—Lou Piniella, all by himself.
As soon as he saw us he was all over Lee like a long-lost brother: “Gee, Bill, I’m so sorry. If I’d ever known this was going to happen . . .” I think tears may even have welled up in his eyes. And, of course, he bought us all a drink, and then another one.
The sun was coming up by the time we left, Sweet Lou in one direction, and Bill, Stan, and I back to the hotel. In the cab, I remarked to Lee that Piniella was a pretty nice guy after all, and that he had seemed properly contrite over the outcome of the affair he’d initiated at home plate that night.
“What else was he going to say?” Spaceman sighed wearily.
“There were three of us and one of him.”
Out on an early morning foraging run, a solitary rat darted across the sidewalk. We all saw him, but nobody said a word.
George Kimball hung upside down some 70 feet in the cold Manhattan air, still in need of a cigarette. Well, the doctors had said smoking would kill him, hadn’t they? The previous autumn, they had found an inoperable cancerous tumor the size of a golf ball in his throat and given him six months to live. Five months had passed. He’d finished his latest round of chemotherapy, and now George, 62 years old and recently retired from the Boston Herald, was at the Manhattan Center Grand Ballroom in 2006, to cover a night of boxing for a website called The Sweet Science.
He’d never set foot in the place before. He didn’t even know what floor he was on when he went for a smoke between fights. There was a long line at the elevator so he went looking for a backstage exit and stepped out into the winter night, onto a tiny platform seven stories over the sidewalk. And then, as George would later tell the story, he plunged into darkness.
His leg caught between the fire ladder and the wall. He knew right away it was broken. He dangled from the fire escape like a bat—except bats can let go. He tried calling for help but his voice was too weak from the cancer treatments; he could barely whisper. Also, he wanted that fucking cigarette. A security guard, ducking out for his own smoke, found him, and it took another 20 minutes before the paramedics could get George on his feet. They wanted him to go to the hospital for X-rays but George talked them out of it. His wife was a doctor, he explained, and with all the chemo, he had more than enough painkillers at home.
He went back to his seat to watch the last two fights. Afterward, he hobbled to a drug store and bought a knee brace, an ice pack, a large quantity of bandages, and a lighter to replace the Zippo he lost in the fall. Two days later George would go to a hospital to set his broken leg. But that night, he went home. His wife Marge cleaned the scrapes on George’s arms, and he took a big hit of OxyContin. Then he filed his story on the fight.
* * *
George was a large man with one good eye, a red beard, a gap between his two front teeth, and a huge gut. He was a literate, two-fisted drinker who never missed a deadline and never passed up an argument. One night, when he was 21 and partying in Beacon Hill, he was struck on the side of the face with a beer bottle. That’s how George got his glass eye.
It became his favorite prop. “You’d be amazed,” he said, “by how many people ask you to keep an eye on their drink.”
George began his career when Red Smith and Dick Young were the lords of the press box. On the night he fell out of the Manhattan sky, he had been a sports columnist for close to 40 years, “the last of his kind,” according to Michael Katz, the longtime boxing reporter for The New York Times. He drank one-eyed with Pete Hamill and Frank McCourt, smoked dope with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and did with William Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson whatever was in their heads to do at the time. George covered Wimbledon and the Masters, the World Series and the Super Bowl and more than 300 championship fights. He golfed with Michael Jordan and sat in a sauna with Joe DiMaggio. “He’d show up with Neil Young,” Katz said, “and get drugs from the Allman Brothers. Mention a name and he’d somehow know the person.”
Check it out if you get a chance. I’m proud of the effort I put into this one.
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.
George Kimball, far right, with Mike Tyson and Marvin Hagler, mid-'80s
By John Schulian
George Kimball was blessed with the kind of voluble charm you find in an Irish bar, and, brother, let me tell you he’d been in a few. No amount of drink, however, could rein in his galloping intelligence. It was as pure a part of him as his love of the language and good company, and when he spoke, I did what I’ve always done best in the presence of gold-star raconteurs: I listened. Even when we were on the radio hustling our book of great boxing writing, I did little more than provide grace notes. At least that’s the way it worked in the beginning. And then George’s voice began to turn into a sandpapery whisper. It was the chemo, extracting its price for helping to keep him alive.
Now I was the talker, just me by myself, trying to score points with the strangers on the air at the other end of the line. Again and again, I gravitated to the idea that there is something noble about prizefighters in their willingness to accept the fact that every time they set foot in the ring, they may be carried out on their shield. But it was always George I thought of, the truest nobleman of my lifetime.
The cancer doctors gave him six months to live six years ago, and it was as if he said, with characteristic Anglo-Saxon aplomb, “Fuck you, I’m too busy to die.” He went on to write books, essays, poetry, songs, and even a play. He edited books, too, and worked on a documentary. Somehow he also found time to get out to the theater and concerts and dinners. When we were collaborating long-distance – George in New York, me in L.A. – he surprised me more than once with the news that he had just landed in France or Ireland. He wasn’t simply collecting stickers for his suitcase, either. He was savoring the world that was slipping away from him and looking up writers he had always wanted to meet, like J.P. Donleavy and Bill Barich. And he made a point of staying in touch with them, for once he wrapped his arms around someone, he never let go.
It will be that way even now that he has breathed his last, too soon, at 67. Those of us who knew him–probably even those who have only heard about him–will keep the Kimball legend alive with stories about his wild times and all the nights he dropped his glass eye in a drink someone asked him to keep an eye on. There was a look that George used to get when he was on the loose back then, a look that is probably best understood when I tell you I first saw it in the Lion’s Head as he was trying to set a friend’s sport coat on fire. His friend was wearing it.
I went a long time without seeing George, and when we reconnected, he had changed without sacrificing either his relentless view of the world or his ability to laugh at the hash that mankind has made of things. He was like the record producer in Jennifer Egan’s sublime novel “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” who tells a bewildered young man how he survived the self-destructiveness of the rock and roll business: “You grew up, Alex, just like the rest of us.” So it was that George put booze and drugs behind him and let his work take center stage. His unfiltered Lucky Strikes were the only remnant of his old life. “What are they going to do,” he said, “give me cancer?”
The transformation remained a mystery to me until Bill Nack, as treasured a friend as he is a writer, sent word a few years ago that George had esophageal cancer. I wrote George a note of support and got in return the most startling letter I expect I ever will from a sick man. There were no euphemisms, just pure, raw, unadorned honesty. George was going toe-to-toe with death, and he knew that death would win, but he was damned if he wasn’t going to take the fight the full 12 rounds. Never if my life have I seen a greater example of a fighter’s heart, and that includes Ali and Frazier.
George was fighting for the money he would leave his wife and children, and for a body of work that said he counted for something in the world of sportswriting. He wrote incisively, relentlessly, memorably, and he threw himself into the editing of our Library of America anthology, “At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing,” with the same fervor. Here was a book that would give him the spotlight he yearned for. On that March day in 2010 when the bosses at LoA told us it had passed muster, George was so happy it didn’t matter that he was too sick to swallow his soup. He was a champion.
And still George wasn’t done. We had an abundance of fiction we hadn’t been able to squeeze into “At the Fights,” either, unforgettable work by Hemingway, Nelson Algren and Leonard Gardner, to name but a few, and George wasn’t about to let them lie fallow. Back to work we went, each of us digging up new entries along the way, George zeroing in on Walter Mosley, me on Harry Crews. We didn’t have a publisher, of course, not even a nibble, but we had a title, “Sweet Scientists: A Treasury of American Boxing Fiction,” and that was enough to sustain us for the time being.
I mailed everything I found to George, who promised that he would overcome his Oscar Madison tendencies and send me the manuscript in good shape. I shouldn’t have doubted him, but I did. I read the e-mail he sent to the woman who watches over his web site, the one in which he gave specific instructions about what to do after he was gone, and I knew the final grains of sand were going through the hour glass. But on Wednesday, shortly before noon, Federal Express delivered a box to my door, and inside was the manuscript George had promised, looking neat, even pristine. A few hours later, on the other side of the country, he was dead.
Introducing Hamill at a symposium celebrating the publication of Tabloid City a few weeks ago, fellow writer Adam Gopnik alluded to Tabloid City’s “recurrent theme of loneliness”, but he was quickly corrected by Hamill. While most of the novel’s characters do fly solo, some do so by choice.
“I would draw the distinction between loneliness and solitude,” says Hamill. “Many of us, particularly writers and artists, cherish our solitude.” He and Fukiko maintain separate working quarters in their Tribeca loft.
“Many people adjust to being alone by embracing solitude, rather than surrendering to loneliness, and there’s something almost ennobling about that. With a good book in the house, you’re never alone. But since being alone – at least in my opinion – can be most difficult at night, some people fill their nights with work.”
I used to be uncomfortable being alone. Maybe it is because I’m a twin, I don’t know. But I associated being alone with being lonely. Now, I see that solitude is not necessarily depressing or isolating at all. And that is a great relief.
More than any other sport, even baseball or golf, boxing calls forth the muse in writers. It’s no surprise. Where there is risk there is drama, and boxers put more at risk than other athletes. In a single evening, they roll the dice with their health, marketability and sense of identity. When you have a bad night in the ring, you can’t make it up in a double header on Sunday, or on another football field in a week’s time. And after the very last bell, there is seldom a diploma to fall back on, and there sure won’t be any pension checks coming in the mail.
It’s a very hard game — maybe even crazy — but as the affection-filled writers who have attached themselves to these warriors know, the masters of the ring possess a unique nobility. That nobility is perfectly framed in this remarkable volume from the Library of America. The essays here capture every angle of this world, both solemn and comic.
…I would bemoan only one omission, namely, the wise, lustrous pages of F. X. Toole’s introduction to his short-story collection, “Rope Burns.” Though “At the Fights” weighs in at 500-plus pages, it doesn’t contain a single flabby contribution. Over and over again, writers and readers have sought to get behind the eyes of a fighter, to fathom the fighter’s heart. This is as close as you can get without catching a hook to the head.
It’s my favorite book that’s come out this year. Perfect for Father’s Day or any other day you want to be graced by a collection of great writing.
Last night, Jon DeRosa and I went to a book party at the New York Athletic Club for “At the Fights.” It was well attended–contributors like Robert Lipsyte, Thomas Hauser, Larry Merchant and Gay Talese were there. Joe Flaherty’s wife showed up, and so did W.C. Heinz’s daughter. Art Donovan, the football legend whose old man was a great boxing ref, was there too. George Kimball and John Schulian, pictured above, gave lovely speeches.
George talked about the relationship between boxing and writing, about how they are both difficult, solitary experiences. He said, “Writing is hard but editing this book was a complete pleasure.” Sure, the editors had to make agonizing choices–some fine stories like Jack Murphy’s “The Mongoose,” Frank Deford’s “The Boxer and the Blonde,” and J.R. Moehringer’s “Resurrecting the Champ,” didn’t make the final cut–but still, selecting from a wealth of fantastic writing must easier than writing itself.
If you care about good writing, doesn’t matter if you are a boxing fan or not, this is a book to have.
In 1964 my time was not very valuable. I was a utility night rewrite writer and speechwriter at the Times when Sonny Liston fought Cassius Clay for the first time. The Times, in its wisdom, did not feel it was worth the time to send the real boxing writer. So they sent me down to Miami Beach and my instructions were, as soon as I got there, to rent a car and drive back and forth a couple of times between the arena, where the fight was going to be held in a week, and the nearest hospital. They did not want me wasting any deadline time following Cassius Clay into intensive care. I did that—if any of you ever get into trouble in South Beach, call me, I can tell you how to get there. I did it and drove to the Fifth Street Gym where Cassius was training. He was not there yet.
As I walked up the stairs to the gym there was a kind of hubbub behind me. There were these four little guys in terrycloth cabana suits who were being pushed up the stairs by two big security guards. As I found out later, it was a British rock group in America. They had been taken to Sonny Liston for a photo op. He had taken one look at them and said “I’m not posing with those sissies.” Desperately, they brought the group over to Cassius Clay—to at least get a shot with him. They’re being pushed up the stairs, I’m a little ahead of them. When we get to the top of the stairs, Clay’s not there. The leader of the group says, “Let’s get the fuck out of here. “ He turned around, but the cops pushed all five of us into a dressing room and locked the door. That’s how I became the fifth Beatle. [laughter]
They were cursing. They were angry. They were absolutely furious. I introduced myself. John said, “Hi, I’m Ringo.” Ringo said, “Hi, I’m George.” I asked how they thought the fight was going to go. “Oh, he’s going to kill the little wanker,” they said. Then they were cursing, stamping their feet, banging on the door. Suddenly the door bursts open and there is the most beautiful creature any of us had ever seen. Muhammad Ali. Cassius Clay. He glowed. And of course he was much larger than he seemed in photographs—because he was perfect. He leaned in, looked at them and said, “C’mon, let’s go make some money.”
Finally there is George Kimball, a character from journalism as big and colorful and wonderful as any in this book. I have known him since he hired me at the Boston Phoenix a thousand years ago. Now all this time later, he is a fighter himself against illness. Big George keeps coming, keeps writing for the Irish Times, and his own boxing books such as “Four Kings.” All he did on Warren Street was steal the show.
George writes in “At The Fights” about Hagler and Leonard, and his piece includes this line: “It was Leonard who dictated the terms under which the battle was waged.”
In the late rounds he brings those words to his own life. People saw for themselves with George the other night how much he loves the sport, loves this book he worked so tirelessly to assemble, loves good writing most of all. Saw a boxing writer as tough as anybody he ever covered.
Nice job by Lupica. It was a wonderful night and I’m just sorry that it didn’t go on longer. A lot of the men in the audience, and on the panel, talked about how boxing was a common bond between them and their old men. Friday night fights, golden gloves. Kimball said that during the Vietnam War boxing was the only thing he could enjoy with his father, period. The only thing that was missing from the event was a cloud of cigar smoke hanging over the room.
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.”