"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: inside sports

BGS: What Hockey Needs is More Violence

Ten years ago my cousin, known round these parts as edoubletrouble, gave me a thoughtful birthday gift: Dispatches from the Sporting Lifea collection of Mordecai Richler’s sports writing. It’s a terrific book and a fine introduction to Richler, born and raised in Montreal, who was one of Canada’s premier novelists, essayists, and satirists. His most famous books are The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Barney’s Version, both made into feature films, though this generation may know him more for the Jacob Two-Two series of children’s stories.  Richler died on July 3, 2001.

This here piece we bring to you cause the Stanley Cup Finals begin tonight. Originally published in Inside Sports in January 1981.

What Hockey Needs is More Violence”

By Mordecai Richler

Nudging 50, I find it increasingly difficult to cope with a changing world. Raised to be a saver, for instance, I now find myself enjoined by the most knowledgeable economists to fork out faster than I can earn, borrowing whenever possible. But the rate they are encouraging me to borrow at from my friendly bank manager is what I once understood to be usury. In the kitchen of my boyhood my mother cooked on a wood fire, because we couldn’t afford better, but now that I’ve grown up to heat my country home with oil, I am scorned by modish neighbors, many of whom are rich enough to re-equip with antique stoves, burning wood again. A couple of years ago, after taking in a World Series game at Yankee Stadium with author Wilfrid Sheed, the two of us found ourselves in midtown Manhattan, looking for a friendly bar where we could round off an enjoyable evening. As we passed a celebrated boîte on Second Avenue, I said, “Why don’t we go in there?”

“You don’t understand,” Sheed admonished me, a visitor from Montreal. “If we go in there, two men together, they’ll put us in the roped-off section for gays.”

A year earlier a militant feminist press in Canada had published a hockey book titled She Shoots! She Scores! It turned out to be very topical stuff, because an irate Ontario father later sued a bantam hockey league for not allowing his daughter to play, thereby depriving her of the possibility of growing up to be taken into the boards, as it were, by Dave Schultz or Paul Holmgren. A mind-boggling thought. Since then, we’ve had Scoring, The Art of Hockey, by Hugh Hood, with images by Seymour Segal. It is the book serious students of the game have been waiting for, the one that dares to ask, “Which came first, the penis or the puck?” Scoring offers the definitive answer to why so many American fans can’t follow the puck on TV. It isn’t because they lack puck sense. Rather, the psychologically informed Hood writes, “this seems a clear instance of sublimated sexual anxiety. Where is the little fellow?” Furthermore, the reasonable author observes, “one wants to know where the puck is at all times,” and then he throws in the kicker, “especially if one is a goalie, who occupies the most womanly position in contact sport.”

Obviously, there’s a whole new world out there. Me, I’m not only dizzy, I’m also resentful, if only because in confusing times sports used to be a consolation. An unchanging vista, its values constant. From the time I saw my first baseball game until now, the distance from home plate to first base has measured 90 feet. Though most of us can no longer afford it, a championship boxing match is still scheduled for 15 rounds. To win a hockey game you still have to score more goals than the opposition, but, alas, just about everything else in the game has changed.

Major league hockey, the game I grew up with during its vintage years, used to be played in six cities: Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Boston and New York. The 50-game season began in November, and the playoffs, involving the top four teams, were done with in March, when there was still snow on the streets of Montreal. Violence was an intrinsic part of the game, and any player over 16 who still had his front teeth in place was adjudged a sissy. One night Dick Irvin, who took over as coach of the Montreal Canadiens in 1940, rejuvenating a team that had failed to win the Stanley Cup for nine years, looked down his bench and said, ” I know what’s wrong here. Your faces are unmarked. I don’t see any stitches. I don’t see any shiners.”

It was Conn Smythe, owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who made the immortal pronouncement, “If you can’t beat ‘em in the alley, you can’t beat ‘em in the rink.” Smythe, who died at the age of 85 in November, bought the Toronto St. Patricks in 1927, changing their name to the Maple Leafs, providing at once both a challenge to the Canadiens and philologists. Recalling the legendary owner, Dink Carroll of the Montreal Gazette observed, “You know that pro hockey was so rough back in the early ’20s that it kept Smythe away for years? Hockey was the very end back then. The players were considered just a cut above bank robbers. When they came down the street people would cross over to avoid them. But when Smythe finally got into it, he eliminated a lot of woodchopping and got them good sweaters and made them comb their hair.

“It makes me laugh when they talk about violence in hockey today. You may not believe me but guys like Newsy Lalonde and Mean Joe Hall and Sprague Cleghorn and Lionel Hitchman were out to kill each other. Ching Johnson of the Rangers had a smile on his face the whole game, smashing everybody he could get close to with his stick.

“When they weren’t on the ice, they were in court half the time, for breaking up bars and fighting. I guess you could say there was a pioneer spirit in hockey back then.”

In the ’40s, when I first warmed to the game, goalies had yet to be pronounced womanly. Even later, none of us dreamed of a date with Gump Worsley, however cuddly he appeared between the pipes. In those days goalies did not look like witch doctors and you could read their faces when they stood to counter a three-on-one. During the offseason the players nursed their cracked ribs and scarred faces while driving beer trucks, helping to bring in the wheat on the family farm or working in the mines. A players’ union? Doug Harvey, the greatest defenseman ever to wear a Canadien sweater, began to make dissident noises about a players’ union and was condemned to the NHL’s Gulag the following season. He wore a Ranger uniform in 1961. Harvey, who now sharpens skates in his brother’s Montreal sports shop on weekends, never had a salary of more than $21,500 a year as a Canadien.

Today so-called major league hockey is played in 21 cities, the 80-game season begins early in October, before the World Series starts, and the playoffs, involving 16 teams, end in May, long after the next baseball season has begun. Salaries are prodigious. Marcel Dionne has signed a new contract with Los Angeles for $600,000 a year. Wayne Gretzky’s escalating contract with oil-rich Edmonton calls for millions over the next 20 years. If you talk to the players they will, understandably, tell you the game is burgeoning. So will NHL officials. But among the fans complaints abound:

1) The season is too long.

2) Frenetic expansion has led to too many yawners. Obvious mismatches.

3) There’s too much violence in the game.

Happily, I can report that these complaints originate either with Canadian soreheads who feel that the vile Americans, to whom we have already yielded Paul Anka, snowmobiles and the RCAF exercise book, have now also pilfered our national game, vulgarizing it in the hope of appealing to yahoos everywhere. Or with sexually sublimated Americans who obviously suffer from puck-envy. A post-Freudian malaise rampant in expansion cities. The truth is that far from there being too much violence in hockey, there is not enough anymore. But to deal with these ill-informed complaints in order:

1) The familiar argument proffered by ignorant fans runs that it is somewhat silly to play a total of 840 games, which settle nothing, and then embark on a round of playoffs that call for 16 of 21 teams to fight it out for the Stanley Cup. At least one owner, Howard Baldwin of the Hartford Whalers, also suffers from a short attention span. “I think,” he said recently, “we should condense the season and start on November 1, ending on March 30 but still playing 80 games. The playoffs should end by May 1, no later, and only 12 teams, not 16, should qualify.”

What Baldwin and many fans fail to grasp is that the season, far from being too long, is now too short. The so-called regular season, properly looked at, is no more than an endless exhibition series, which brings something reminiscent of real hockey to such hitherto deprived outposts as Washington, St. Louis, Calgary and Denver. Over the long wintry haul, the bored and jet-weary players only go all out in short spurts, usually when they are hoping to renegotiate a contract they pronounced binding only the year before. Who cares, who even remembers, who won the Norris or Smythe Division titles in 1976? The real season, the one that counts, the battle for the Stanley Cup, begins in April. Starting this second season in the spring provides jaded players with the novel opportunity to fight it out in fog, as in Buffalo in 1975, or at least on such soft slushy ice as to reduce the flying Canadiens to slow slithering idiots. With further expansion, a game which owes something to lacrosse will inevitably acknowledge its debt to water polo.

2) It’s true that expansion to 21 teams has made for a number of uneven contests, but this has not gone undetected by those purists who unfailingly put the fan’s interest before the owner’s profit, namely the savants who comprise the NHL Board of Governors. These skilled observers have noted that when the Winnipeg Jets (one win in their first 28 games) play Montreal or the Islanders they seldom get to touch the puck, never mind slip it into the net, and so, if only to accommodate this disability, there will be a rule change next season. Remember, you read it here first. Next season in certain games between unevenly matched teams there will be no puck whatsoever put into play, allowing the sportsmen on both sides to have a go at each other without unnecessary distractions. This will enable Winnipeg right wing James Edward Mann, who scored all of three goals and five assists last season, but led the league in penalty minutes (287), to prove that behemoths belong.

3) Which brings us to the question of violence.

When we talk about violence in the NHL today, one team immediately springs to mind. The Philadelphia Flyers, a.k.a. the Broad Street Bullies, whose aggregation, even without the fabled talents of Dave Schultz, still hold the following records:

  • Most penalty minutes, one team, one game: 194, the Flyers, March 11, 1979, at Philadelphia against the Kings. The Flyers received seven minors, eight majors, six 10-minute misconducts and eight game misconducts.
  • Most penalties, one team, one period: 31, the Flyers, February 22, 1980, at Vancouver, third period. The Flyers received 12 minors, 10 majors, one 10-minute misconduct and eight game misconducts.
  • Most minor penalties, 1979-80: 499, the Flyers again.

But the Broad Street Bullies had the most points in the regular season last year. And when they won Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975, they led the league in penalty minutes each season.

Item: In the most thrilling hockey event most Canadians can remember, the series that pitched Team Canada against the Soviets in 1972, Bobby Clarke grasped that there was no legitimate way of stopping the superb Valery Kharlamov, and so he did the next best thing: He whacked him over the ankles with his stick, taking him out of the game. “I realized,” Clarke said, “I had to do anything to win.” Put plainly, violence pays, and in the case of Clarke, it also shows what a patriotic Canadian boy is made of. Or does it?

Because the question we must now ask ourselves is: Is it violence? Or sexual abandon? Or, God help us, even attempted rape? Which brings me back to the burning question posed by Hugh Hood: “Which comes first, the penis or the puck?”

Hood replies: “In a general way, mind you, without making a mystery of it, we guess that the penis came first, and continues to come first in the sense that it directs the occasions of fecundity. If it—or something like it—doesn’t go in, no goal, no baby. The race is continued by sperm and egg, not the conjunction of that black rubber disk and the space enclosed by the Art Ross Safety Net.”

The difficulty inherent in writing this piece for fans who haven’t read Scoring is akin to addressing a group of scientists who are as yet unaware that the atom has been split, its energy harnessed. After Scoring, nothing will ever be the same again. Hockey is no longer seen through a glass darkly. Instead, its very essence has been illuminated.

Consider, for instance, what the uninformed once took to be a rink, and no more. “Looking down at the ice surface from a height,” Hood writes, “what you see is a human body, admittedly without head or arms or legs. A torso. The space, 200 feet by 85, has about the same proportions as a human trunk, with nipples marked on it and a navel—the point where the action always begins. . . . The spectators form a body, and the players seem more like blood in a torso than anything else, eternally circulating as red or white corpuscles wearing contrasting jerseys. The body is the name of the game.”

Conversely, of course, our bodies are filled with jerseyed red and white draft choices, some of them dandy playmakers. Our chests, properly considered, boast two faceoff circles. Which is to say, within every one of us there is a hockey league, eternally circulating. Cut yourself, and the good corpuscles clear the bench and rush to defend the infected area. It then follows, logically, that violence is no more than a healthy body defending itself. Against infection here, Paul Holmgren there.

Hood is especially rewarding on the sexual nature of the game. “There may be people to whom sex is a metaphor for hockey, an outer appearance containing a real inner struggle. Making love, such people, usually male, imagine themselves faking to their left, circling the goal, persuading the goalie to go down, then slipping it in on their backhand.” Astutely, Hood points out what should have been obvious to us before. The Art Ross Safety Net, only adopted by the NHL in 1936, is an image of the female body.

Or, put another way, Gordie Howe, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer, was a satyr. Constantly thrusting at the opposition nets, Phil Esposito, Bobby Hull and Maurice Richard were also sex-crazed, though we didn’t understand it at the time. Furthermore, once we have accepted the image of the goalie as womanly, we can understand that certain defensemen, traditionally pronounced unnecessarily violent, are actually gallant defenders of their goalperson’s virtue. Standing tall at the blue line, swinging their sticks with abandon, all to defend Chico Resch or Rogie Vachon from assault by Guy Lafleur, Mike Bossy or Marcel Dionne. It also follows that some of the game’s low-scoring forwards, players we took to be inept, are actually well brought up kids, too nice to go the limit—that is to say, slip the puck into the net—with some 16,000 howling fans (or voyeurs) cheering them on.

Properly understood, what today’s game needs is less blatant sex or scoring, more manly fighting spirit. What’s called for is more forechecking, less foreplay.

Mind you, this is not to suggest that so-called hockey violence can only be defended on grounds of sexual propriety on ice. The new rule designed to cut down on bench-clearing brawls, the rule that calls for a game misconduct for the third man into a fight, is (a) bound to even further limit the possibility of an American network contract for hockey and (b) especially directed against one team, the Montreal Canadiens.

If Americans, new to the game, can’t follow the puck on TV, they can certainly follow and identify with flying fists. More bench-clearing brawls, on a medium already attuned to violence, could only lead to popularity for a grand game.

Of course, we will have to get rid of the spoilsport—the referees—who tend to wrestle players to the ice just as their punches are beginning to tell. An obvious refinement of the curved-stick blade would be one sharpened to come to a point. It also would be exhilarating if fights could be continued in the penalty box and players were allowed to pursue taunting fans into the stands, with rows one to 10 being declared a free fire zone.

Older fans will remember that a minor penalty once lasted two minutes, no matter how many goals the team with the manpower advantage scored. But in the 1950s, the Montreal power-play (Beliveau, Richard, Geoffrion. Olmstead, Moore) proved so overwhelming, sometimes scoring three times in two minutes. that the rule was revised in 1956 to allow the penalized player to return after only one goal had been scored. Similarly, it is now common knowledge that a Canadien rookie is fortunate indeed to get on ice for more than a shift a game. His only other opportunity to stretch his legs during a game is a bench-clearing fight. The new rule is obviously calculated to render him sedentary and therefore a diminishing threat in his sophomore year.

Finally, I’m surprised that sociologists have failed to notice the obvious correlation between violence on the ice and the safety of Canadian streets. While muggers proliferate on the streets of Detroit, New York and Boston, prowling the streets after dark, nobody feels threatened in Montreal, Toronto or Calgary, even if tempted to take a 1 a.m. stroll downtown. This is because we have cunningly put our potential muggers into team sweaters, shoving them out on the ice, paying then handsomely to spear, slash and high stick or whatever.

Even our judiciary is aware or the Canadian solution and reacts accordingly. When Wayne Maki of the St. Louis Blues was brought before an Ottawa judge in 1970, charged with assault causing bodily harm for using his stick to fracture the skull of Boston’s Ted Green during an exhibition game, he was acquitted. Judge M.J. Fitzpatrick later found Green not guilty as well. “When a player enters an arena,” he decreed, “he is consenting to a great number of what otherwise might be regarded as assaults. The game of hockey could not possibly be played unless those engaging in it were willing to accept these assaults.”

In the absence of King Solomon, M.J. Fitzpatrick.

 

BGS: The Double Life of a Gay Dodger

“The Double Life of a Gay Dodger”

By Michael J. Smith

(Originally published in the October 1982 issue of Inside Sports.)

The game is over and the baseball player sits in the hotel lobby, his eyes fixed on nothing. He thinks his secret is safe but he is never quite sure, so at midnight in the lobby it is always best to avoid the other eyes. He neither hears the jokes nor notices that a few teammates are starting to wear towels around their waists in the locker room. He does not want to hear or see or know, and neither do they.

The baseball player waits until the lobby empties of teammates and coaches. Some are in the bar, some out on the town, some in their rooms. Some, of course, have found women. He walks briskly out the door toward the taxicab, never turning his head to look back. He mutters an address to the driver and has one foot in the cab. …

“Hey, where you going, man? You said you were staying in tonight.”

The baseball player feels his lie running up the back of his neck. “Changed my mind.”

“Can I come with you? I got nothing going tonight.”

The baseball player pauses. “You don’t want to go where I’m going,” he says at last. He is leaving a crack there, in case this teammate knows the secret and really would like to go with him.

“Okay—have it your way.”

The baseball player is in the back seat, the door slams, his heart slams, the cab is pulling away. Fifteen minutes later it stops a block from the place the passenger actually intends to go. He pays the driver. Did the driver look at him sort of funny?

The baseball player steps out and walks back a block, his face turned 90 degrees to his left shoulder, away from the traffic, just in case. What if he meets someone he knows there tonight? There was the ballplayer’s brother the one night and the son of.a major league manager another. Man, they have to know, don’t they? And if he is recognized tonight, should he pretend he is someone else?

Suddenly he is pulling open the door and the men inside smile and the music swallows him and for a few hours in the bar the baseball player does not feel so alone.


At age 22, Glenn Burke was a sexual blank. He grew up attending church six times a week. singing in two choirs and serving as an usher. He bathed two or three times a day and still he never felt clean. He grew up with no father. He grew up with no sex.

He diverted the tension into sports, and there was the scent of animal energy in the way he ran a fastbreak, the way he circled the bases, the way he flogged a line drive. Once, he hit three home runs and two singles in one game, just two days after joining the Merritt College team in midseason. He was 5-11, 193 pounds, he could run 100 yards in 9.7 seconds and bench-press 350 pounds. UCLA and Nevada and Cal all wanted to get him on a basketball court; the Los Angeles Dodgers wanted him to play baseball.

He took the $5,000 Dodger signing bonus and after three seasons as an outfielder in the minors, his combined average was .303. Three times he led his league in stolen bases.

Still there was a need for more. When NCAA eligibility rules were relaxed, he agreed to play basketball at Nevada in the offseason. He averaged 16 points in six games and then twisted a knee spinning for a layup. The Dodgers said No More and Glenn Burke came home. The void was becoming difficult to ignore. At last, the lidded tension burst.

His younger sister told him that a high school teacher of his had asked how he was doing. Something inside him went click. The man had been one of Burke’s favorite teachers, so Burke went over to school to see him. He was feeling loose, open. Maybe it was the basketball thing coming to an end, suddenly seeing life as more than just sports.

“The minute he spoke, l knew. I know it sounds a little crazy. Here I was, 22, no sexual experience, nothing. Yet I felt something I’d never felt before, something deep. We went to his place. Funny, he must have known me better than I knew myself. We didn’t say much. He fixed dinner and afterwards we lay by the fire and got close. I stayed the night. When I got home the next day, I went into the bathroom and cried. This was who I was, the whole me at last.”

He was happy, and yet he felt he was sneaking. He felt guilty. He knew he never would be accepted in sports. In a profession in which every contest, every movement, every attitude seemed a reassertion of virility, Glenn Burke realized he was gay.


The most famous gay community in the world is a 75-cent bridge toll and a 20-minute freeway ride away from the streets of Oakland where Glenn Burke grew up. In his sexual naiveté, he had never known that. He had never known there were bars and entire neighborhoods for homosexuals.

A week after his first experience, he and some friends went to a straight bar in San Francisco. One of the friends pointed to a girl. “Look at that fox. ” he said. “Look at her boyfriend.” Burke thought. They went over to talk and asked if the couple knew a place where they could go dancing. “Try the Cabaret.” the girl said, “but watch out—gays go there, too.” A place for gays? Burke went there and couldn’t believe it.

It was a new world and he explored it enthusiastically. He walked Castro Street in San Francisco and felt pulled in two directions. Sports had taught him to keep the fists up and the soft side down and the pants tailor-made and the shirt silk and the walk a powerful strut. This new world was Levi’s, and Docksides shoes and Lacoste shirts and handkerchiefs. He wondered if he could be masculine and gay, a baseball player and gay, Glenn Burke and gay.

A few weeks later, he met a man in a bar and the next day he was hanging his clothes in the closet of his first live-in lover. A few more weeks passed and it was time for spring training, time to try to begin living the great untruth.

The trouble with going underground was Burke’s personality. He was the guy doing Richard Pryor imitations, the guy leading bench cheers, the guy fiddling with the music box and dancing in the locker room. After games, the guys all wanted to take the party from the locker room to the disco. Burke, the life of the team, started saying no. To explain why not, he had to tame the nervousness in his voice and the muscle formations of his face. These were difficult things for an extrovert to do.

Double A in Waterbury, Connecticut, 1975, was not a good place for a metamorphosis. His friends wanted to share an apartment with him and he groped for an appropriate reason to say no. He ended up rooming at the local YMCA, so they would stop asking. There was one gay bar, but a black man in a small New England town can feel the eyeballs everywhere he walks. He tried not to go, and went anyway. Sometimes in the bar he would be asked if he had been at the game that night. The team’s leading basestealer and home-run hitter would shake his head no. One night he glimpsed a member of the club’s front office at the bar. He walked past him and out the door and prayed the man would be too frightened to admit having been there to see him. On the long road trips, he could feel the wall of space he had created between himself and his friends.

He hit .270 and when the season ended, he headed back to San Francisco. “It was great being back, being myself,” he said. “Straight people cannot know what it’s like to feel one way and pretend to be another. To watch what you say, how you act, who you’re checking out. In San Francisco I opened up again. But I still wasn’t sure if I could be gay without being a sissy.”

In 1976 the Dodgers summoned him up to play the first and last months of the season. In between, he hit .300 with 63 stolen bases at Albuquerque, but in the major leagues he struggled with the curveball and batted .239 in 46 at-bats. The Dodgers still saw enough to congratulate themselves.

“Unlimited potential,” said second baseman Davey Lopes.

“Once we get him cooled down a little bit,” said the late Junior Gilliam, then Dodger coach, “frankly, we think he’s going to be another Willie Mays.”

The stakes were growing higher now. It was easier to lose himself in the big cities on major league road trips, but in Los Angeles he was becoming a face on sports pages and a name on the radio. He wanted success, yet he feared it. Half of him wanted to hit .300 and become a superstar and a commodity and then if the secret leaked maybe he could tell them all to go to hell, and half of him said maybe a nice, inconspicuous number like .250 would be better because then he could guard his privacy and they might not find out at all.

He met Dave Kopay, the former 49er and Redskin running back whose book on his homosexuality had become a bestseller. The two compared anguish. “He was very nervous about who and what he was,” remembers Kopay. “I had compensated for my gayness by going from a player who did not like contact in college to being a super-aggressive player in the pros, as a disguise. It’s common among gay athletes, overcompensating for one’s sexuality. Glenn might have been doing the same thing, but it doesn’t work in baseball. There, you have to be relaxed, not overaggressive. I couldn’t really advise him, except to tell him to follow his instincts.

“There is really no one to talk to in sports when you are gay. Who can you really trust? There are so many insecurities, it’s tragic. Almost all of them that I know in sports are married and have deep problems. Many of them are heavily into alcohol and drugs.”


Burke played on, refusing the ruse of an occasional girlfriend. He caught hepatitis playing winter ball in Mexico and missed most of spring training in 1977. The Dodgers sent him to Albuquerque to open the season and he hit .309. He learned that the Dodgers were recalling him, and that night in his last Albuquerque game, with two outs, runners on first and third with a one-run lead in the ninth inning, he backpedaled to the warning track for a fly ball, switched his glove from his left hand to his right—and squeezed the last out. If there was a metaphor there, the manager was in no mood to admire it. Jim Williams waited for him on the dugout steps, glaring. “If you ever do that again …”

“I’m leaving, skip,” chirped Burke. “Now you’ll have something to talk about when I’m gone.”

He was irrepressible. He bought his first car and celebrated by having his astrological sign, Scorpio, tattooed on his forearm. Within a few months he was stomping into Tommy Lasorda’s office, amidst the Hollywood stars who gathered there before games, fixing himself a sandwich from the deli tray and shouting, “Hi, Tommy!” He was not a model bench-sitter. He prowled the dugout with a caged hyperactivity, and when a teammate belted a home run he would tweak Lasorda by butting in front of him to be first to hug the returning hero. He would walk back to the dugout imitating Lasorda’s big-bellied, bowlegged gait and his teammates would howl.

One day in 1977, a teammate homered and in the heat of his enthusiasm Burke extended his arm and invented a sports ritual. He delivered the first high-five. “Most people think I started it,” said leftfielder Dusty Baker. “But it wasn’t me. I saw Glenn doing it first, and then I started.”

On a team preoccupied with presenting the clean-shaven, Dodger-blue front, the street kid from Oakland became one of the behind-the-scenes catalysts. “He always had the music blasting and was saying something silly to keep the team laughing,” said Baker. “He’d be playing cards and all of a sudden you would hear this loud voice scream, ‘Rack ‘em, Hoss, the poor boy’s just lost!’ and then there’d be that crazy laugh of his again.”

Burke made them laugh and he made them squirm. In an argument he would swing first and negotiate later. A fastball in a teammate’s ear would bring him out of the dugout first. Everybody wanted to keep “Burkey” giggling because when his eyes clouded you could suddenly sense the violence. He wanted that machismo right out there on his skin; it made him feel safer.

“I was like Lou Ferrigno, who kept wanting to get bigger and badder than anybody because he had a speech impediment,” Burke said. “I had 17-inch biceps and I made sure everybody knew I wasn’t afraid to use them. I wanted to establish that if you found out I was gay, you might not want to start hassling me about it, because I could still kick your ass.”

The Dodgers. meanwhile, were in a pennant chase and the double life was becoming more difficult to lead. He was handsome and personable and there was a glut of girls who wanted to walk into a disco next to him. Some nights they grew so insistent he would tell the switchboard operator to reject all calls to his room. He’d go out with girls occasionally, but it would never involve sex. He didn’t want to mislead them.

His teammates noticed. In baseball, even married men can be made to feel isolated if they do not join the woman-hunt on the road. “There is a tendency,” said A’s pitcher Matt Keough, “to achieve the success off the field that you are not achieving on it.”

“I had a really cute cousin that I tried to set up with Glenn,” Baker said. “He just ignored her. He’d say, ‘Too fat, too ugly.’ I’d say, ‘Wait a minute. I know that one ain’t ugly.’”

Without Burke realizing it, word began to seep. “I was eating at a restaurant when someone told me,” remembered Lopes, then a teammate on the Dodgers. “I think some girl from his neighborhood in Oakland had told someone on the team. My fork dropped out of my mouth. He was one of the last guys you would have thought was gay. I still liked him. I don’t know how other ballplayers feel, but I believe a man has a right to choose any lifestyle as long as it doesn’t infringe on others. It never infringed with Glenn.”

“The guys didn’t want to believe it,” Baker said. “He was built like King Kong. There was no femininity in his voice or his walk. But it all made sense when I thought about it. When we’d go on the road he always went to the YMCA to work out. And he’d never let us take him home. He’d say he had a friend coming later to pick him up and he’d wait at the far end of the parking lot.

“I just made the situation invisible, but some guys began to make jokes. Stuff like, ‘Is Glenn waiting in the parking lot for his girlfriend?’ and ‘Don’t bend over in the shower when he’s around.’ I know a couple of guys felt uncomfortable in the shower. A few wore towels on their way back and forth in the locker room.

“If you had a team made up of guys from California and New York, I don’t think it would bother them as much as guys from the country and small towns. I’m from California and I can get along with priests, prostitutes, pimps and pushers, as long as they don’t try to push nothing on me.”

Burke didn’t push it, as much out of respect as fear of detection. “I was attracted occasionally by other players,” he said. “but didn’t mix business with pleasure. I respected their space. Besides, I always preferred more mature men.”

He was a simple man leading a complicated life. and slowly the strain began to break him. He kept one eye on the door when he went in gay bars. He worried about getting in a fight or getting caught drunk there. There were times he thought the front office had someone following him. He was afraid everybody was whispering about him.

He’d have to plan everything. He’d think, “If they see me leaving the hotel, I’ll say I was going to take a walk or to get something to eat.” He was always telling white lies.

Some days he’d sit in a mall and try to meet people, sometimes he would call a friend and ask him to check his directory on where the gay bars were in town. His mind was never clear. Some nights he’d come back to his room sad and smoke a little grass.

The high only interrupted the fears. The Dodgers did a lot of hugging and Burke always worried that they had found out about him and would think he was making a pass. He worried constantly about being blackmailed. The only reason he wasn’t, he believed, was that he had gay friends who warned anybody who started to talk too much. He saw a palm reader and she said that he had something inside him that he should let out, or he might have a heart attack in two or three years.

He couldn’t sort it all out. “I couldn’t understand why people said gays were sick. I wasn’t some dizzy queen out trying to make everybody all the time. The bottom line was, I was a man.”

There were the good memories mixed with the miseries. There was the night Baker became the fourth Dodger to hit 30 home runs in one season, a major league record, and Burke, the on-deck batter met him at the plate with a walloping high-five as the people stood and roared, and then before they even had a chance to sit Burke was driving another white speck into the blackness and the festival in the stands went on and on.

He finished the 1977 season hitting .254 in 169 at-bats, the Dodgers made the World Series and his face was on TV screens across the country. He went 1-for-5 in the three game he played packed after the Yankees had won and headed back for Castro Street. He walked into a gay bar the first night there and was greeted by a party celebrating his World Series appearance.

“I walked out,” Burke said. “They weren’t my friends there, they were mostly people just making a big deal because I was a gay baseball player.”

His insecurity ran rampant. In one world he feared they would not like him only because he was gay, and in the other he feared they did like him only because he was gay. For the first time since he had picked up a baseball bat, Glenn Burke considered quitting.

 


“By 1978,” said Davey Lopes, “I think everybody knew.”

They knew the way parents know their 16-year-old is drinking beer but don’t say anything until the bottles are rolling across the floor of the family car. As long as Burke’s homosexuality was not official, no one felt compelled to react.

“Then Al Campanis [Dodger vice-president] called me into his office ” Burke recalled. “I really liked Al, he was always very nice to me. The whole organization was, for the most part. But Al said. ‘Everybody on the team is married but you, Glenn. When players get married on the Dodgers, we help them out financially. We can help you so you can go out and have a real nice honeymoon.’

“l said, ‘Al, I don’t think I’ll be getting married no time soon.’”

The Dodgers, in the words of Junior Gilliam, could not “cool him down.” He burned for more playing time and when he did not get it, he did not keep it to himself. “They couldn’t con me,” he said. “Lasorda would bark an order and I was supposed to jump like some little kid, grateful for the attention. It bothered him too that I was popular with the guys on the team. Once he got ticked off at some laugh I’d gotten and he said, ‘Burke, if I was your age, I’d take you in the bathroom right now and kick your ass.’ At first I thought he was kidding, then I realized he wasn’t. I think he was trying to get me to explode.

“With one out in the ninth, he’d pull Rick Monday and trot me out to the outfield for the last two outs. I’d stand there waiting for the game to end. Then I’d trot back to the dugout where all the guys are supposed to tell you how great you played. Only I hadn’t, and I’d feel like a fool.

“One night I was really ticked and I stared a hole through Lasorda. He took me in the locker room and, in front of Junior Gilliam and Preston Gomez, cussed me to filth. Every other word in his vocabulary was ‘mother.’ It hurt. Deeply. I didn’t really dislike the man, it was just the situation. We probably should have gotten along—we’re both hardheaded.”

On May 16, 1978, with Glenn Burke in centerfield as the last out was recorded, Vin Scully announced that Burke had been traded to the Oakland A’s for Bill North. North had led the American League twice in stolen bases, the last time in 1976, and now he was 30 and his average had dropped 64 points in those two years.

“Lasorda told me, ‘We’re tired of you walking back and forth in the dugout like a mad tiger in a cage. We’re sending you to Oakland, where you can play more.’ He was nice about it but he was detached. It was as if they couldn’t wait for me to leave, but they were being careful so there wouldn’t be a scene. I walked out of his office and the whole locker room was dead. Steve Garvey and Don Sutton, two of my best friends on the team, had tears in their eyes. Garvey and me had always gotten along great. He taught me how to tie a tie, he gave me hats and T-shirts, he sat next to me on the team plane and he made me promise to play for him if he ever had a football team.

“Leaving those guys, I was in shock. Players don’t come and go on the Dodgers the way they do on other clubs.”

Lopes remembers picking up the newspaper the next day and reading a quote from a scout. “I believe it was an American League scout at the Angel game in Anaheim that night,” Lopes said. “The guy said, ‘Wait until the A’s find out what they really got in Glenn Burke.’”

The locker room was still silent the next day, and Lopes’ reaction was quoted in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. “I knew something was missing when I came in today. It will probably remain like this until somebody comes along with a personality like Glenn’s. And I don’t think that’s going to happen. I’ve heard a lot of adverse things about him from people, but they didn’t know him. He was the life of the team, on the bases, in the clubhouse, everywhere. All of us will miss him.”

One Dodger angrily went to the front office and demanded an explanation. Dusty Baker didn’t need to go that far. “I was talking with our trainer, Bill Buhler. I said, ‘Bill, why’d they trade Glenn? He was one of our top prospects. ‘ He said, ‘They don’t want any gays on the team.’ I said, ‘The organization knows?’ He said, ‘Everybody knows.”


Burke sprayed three hits the first night with the A’s, and then felt himself becoming absorbed by the damp misery of Charlie Finley’s last years in baseball. The Dodgers had not played him as much as he felt he deserved, but the organization had always gone first class. The A’s in the late 1970s were a dead thing looking for a box to lie still in. Finley was cutting expenses and players, lopping off fans with them. A man with peace of mind could play on. Glenn Burke could not. In the hush of a baseball stadium with 3,000 people, he could hear a voice urging him to leave and stop living a lie.

Four years of life as a sexual fugitive had passed and his self-esteem was fraying. By now his family had pieced the evidence together and guessed. They still accepted him, removing one weight from his mind, but the weight at the stadium showed no sign of relenting. One day he was playing centerfield in Comiskey Park, and a fan called him a faggot. His first thought was “Damn, if they know, everybody else must know.” They probably said it to lots of outfielders, but he didn’t think that then. He went to the dugout at the end of the inning and got a felt-tip pen from the trainer. Next inning he went back out and stuck a piece of paper in the back of his pants. It said, “Screw you.”

He finished the 1978 season hitting .235. Early in the 1979 season, he was sitting in the A’s clubhouse, chatting with outfielder Mitchell Page, a good friend. “Suddenly he got quiet,” Burke said. “He said this scout from Pittsburgh—he came up in the Pirate system. and they were interested in me—had come right out and asked him if I was bisexual. Bisexual. Me, who’d never been with a woman. They couldn’t say gay, I guess. It was tough on Mitchell, talking to me like this. I didn’t say much and he ended up telling the scout, ‘Glenn Burke’s sex life is Glenn Burke’s business. And if it’s any of your business, he’s my friend and I’d go anywhere with him.’

“But at that moment, when Mitchell told me, everything stopped. If some joker in Pittsburgh knew, so did a few others. I realized it had all come to an end. They’d stripped me of my inner-most thoughts.”

Page remembered it as a writer from Oakland who had asked him (Burke still insists it was a scout from Pittsburgh). “The guy told me the word was out,” Page said, “and that he didn’t know if Glenn would be here next season. I felt I should let Glenn know instead of talking behind his back like the other players were. The guys on the A’s never bothered him about it because of the way he handled it. Besides, they were afraid to say anything to his face.

“I liked Glenn, but if I’d seen him walking around making it obvious, I wouldn’t have had anything to do with him. I don’t want to be labeled and have my career damaged. You make sure you point out that I’m not gay, okay?”

“I roomed with him,” said A’s pitcher Mike Norris. “Sure, I was worried at first. You came back to your hotel room at midnight, sat around and listened to music, and you wondered if he’d make a move. After awhile you realized he wouldn’t, and it wasn’t a big problem. Guys would watch out for him but it wasn’t a completely uncomfortable feeling. If it had been out in the open, though, there would have been all kinds of problems. We’re all macho, we’re all men. Just make sure you put in there that I ain’t gay, man.”

The walls were beginning to close in. A gay friend, eager to advance the homosexual movement, kept insisting that Burke come out of the closet and tried to arrange a luncheon appointment with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. Burke refused to attend, but Caen wrote that there was a rumor out that a local professional ballplayer could be found on Castro Street.

Midway through the 1979 season, Finley learned that Burke was refusing to take a cortisone shot for a pinched neck nerve. “I feel an injury should heal on its own,” Burke said. “Once you take the first shot, you take another and another. Charlie came to talk to me on the field before a game. I said no. They sat me for two weeks. Finally, I told them I needed a voluntary retirement and walked out. The whole operation was minor league, with Finley calling the dugout making lineup changes. I probably wouldn’t have left if there hadn’t been the other problem, the gay thing, but put it all together and it was too much.”

It was not that simple to walk away. Baseball had often tortured him, but it still owned a part of him. He returned next spring, attracted by the idea of playing for new manager Billy Martin.

Burke ripped knee cartilage that spring and was sidelined a month. The A’s requested he return to the minor leagues, in Ogden, Utah, and Burke reluctantly agreed. To avoid the small-town stares, he drove 56 miles round-trip so he could live in Salt Lake City. He stopped now, and mulled the absurdity of his life. He was 27, getting no closer to the superstar role he knew he must have to declare his homosexuality and knowing that even if he did achieve it, he would likely be afraid to. He was still dodging management, lying to teammates, and now even ducking Mormons, too. Quietly, with the sports world focused on more important things, Glenn Burke quit baseball for good.

“I had finally gotten to the point,” he said, “where it was more important to be myself than a baseball player.”


Sunshine and shade share the seats in Dodger Stadium and the steady crack of batting practice echoes off the empty concrete. The game is still three hours away. Tommy Lasorda, chipper on this first evening back from the All-Star break, stands in foul territory watching his players re-tune their rhythm at the plate.

A visitor informs him that Glenn Burke is openly discussing his homosexuality. Lasorda’s eyes narrow. “He’s admitting it?” he says. “I have no comment.”

Did he know Burke was gay when he played here? Did it have a bearing on the trade? “I didn’t make that trade,” Lasorda says. “Go talk to the man who made it. I have no more comment.”

The man who made it is just arriving in his office from a trip to assess minor league talent in Hawaii. Al Campanis stands over his desk, looking down at the stack of message slips that has gathered during his absence. He is asked if everybody knew, as Lopes has said, and his eyes stay on his desk, until the length of the silence suggests he is waiting for the subject to crawl out of the room. It does not.

“Quote Davey Lopes then,” he says.

He is pressed on the subject. Long pause. “We traded him because of other situations,” he says. “We didn’t trade him for that. He wasn’t hitting enough, and things of that nature. We didn’t even know … ”

An organization as sharp as the Dodgers did not know? “We thought some things were odd,” he allows. “But we didn’t know. We never saw him with a girl, and when we called his home number a man usually answered. The man said he was his carpenter. But you hear a lot of rumors about players, and just because you see these things, that doesn’t mean a guy’s a fairy, or gay.

“We’re not a watchdog organization, and we’re not like an ostrich with our head in the sand. But he was not traded on suspicion. He was traded because we needed a lefthanded hitter in the outfield. One we thought would help us win the pennant. Glenn had problems with the curveball and his attitude was argumentative, but I always liked him. Sure, some people got mad about the trade; one player came to me all worked up, but were they right? Glenn didn’t do anything after he left here, did he?”

And what of the offer of financial help if Burke had married?

“That dates way back,” he says. “The Dodgers have traditionally liked our players to be married. The player has a wife, children, he gets more serious and settles down. We like our young men to have some responsibilities.”

He is reminded that Dodger rightfielder Pedro Guerrero was married in October, 1980, and received no bonus. Campanis bristles.

“A completely different situation,” he says. “Pedro had an agent, he was settled, he was like my son. We treat situations differently. You have to, in this position. The thing with Glenn Burke wasn’t a bribe. It was a helpful gesture. ”


The baseball player swings and meets the ball just beyond the sweet inches of the bat and still he sends the rightfielder staggering up the hill in front of the wire-mesh fence. The ball clears the fence and the baseball player circles the bases with a home plate-sized grin. All his teammates spring from the bench, forming a line to congratulate him.

A few months away from his 30th birthday, Glenn Burke is one of the stars of the Gay Softball League.

There are perhaps 50 people watching from wooden seats that cry for a carpenter. The atmosphere is carefree. A woman in her 50s lifts her blouse to reveal her “Pendulum Pirates” T-shirt and yells, “Take this!” The fans take it, without looking twice.

Burke goes 4-for-4 but bobbles a grounder in the third inning. Disgusted, he straddles the ball with both feet and jumps, launching it up to his hand. The opposing team’s fans taunt him good-naturedly. “Queeeeeen!” they shout in chorus.

Burke’s team, the Pirates, remains undefeated with a 16-4 victory over On The Mark. The Pirates gather in a huddle at the end and chant, “Two-four-six-eight, who do we appreciate’! On The Mark! On The Mark!” On The Mark reciprocates, and both teams stream to their cars for the postgame ritual. The first hour after the game is always spent at the sponsoring bar of the losing team and then all move on to the winner’s bar for the rest of the afternoon.

At Stables, the bar that sponsors On The Mark, Burke walks out to the sunshine of the patio, where there is enough quiet to reflect. “People say I should still be playing,” he says. “But I didn’t want to make other people uncomfortable, so I faded away. My teammates’ wives might have been threatened by a gay man in the locker room. I could have been a superstar but I was too worried about protecting everybody else from knowing. If I thought I could be accepted, I’d be there now. It is the first thing in my life I ever backed down from. No, I’m not disappointed in myself, I’m disappointed in the system. Your sex should be private, and I always kept it that way. Deep inside, I know the Dodgers traded me because I was gay.

“It’s harder to be a gay in sports than anywhere else, except maybe president. Baseball is probably the hardest sport of all. Every man in America wants his son to be a baseball player. The first thing every father buy for his son is a ball and glove. It’s all-American. Only a superstar could come out and admit he was gay and hope to stay around, and still the fans probably would call the stadium and say they weren’t going to bring their kids. Instead of understanding, they blackball you.

“Sure, there are other gays in baseball, the same per cent as there are in society. Word travels fast in baseball. Guys come home from road trips and tell their wives and they tell other players’ wives. As soon as a player comes to bat, you’ll hear a biography of him in the dugout. I’ve never heard anybody verbally get on a player from the bench about being gay, though.”

He does not want to name names. The relationships, he says, are never between two baseball players. That would be too dangerous.

“There are even more gays in football,” he says. “In football they are like a family, there is so much closeness down there in the trenches, and they can really get off on the body chemistry. But most of the gays I know of in sports fake it. They go out with girls and they get married, so their careers won’t get ruined. They suffer even more than I did.”

Glenn Burke still searches for himself. He plays in five softball leagues and has not worked regularly since leaving baseball. He hopes to finish his college education and become a high school basketball coach, and he hopes that speaking out on the issue will begin to chip at the barriers that marooned him between two cultures. He participates in BWMT (Black and White Men Together), a group fighting racial discrimination within the gay community. “I feel like a representative of the community,” he says. “If I can make friends honestly, it may be a step toward gays and straight people understanding each other. Maybe they’ll say, ‘He’s all right, there’s got to be a few more all right.’ Maybe it will begin to make it easier for other young gays to go into sports.”

As he talks, muscles move on both sides of his forehead, and one can sense that half of his energies still seethe in a person just beneath the skin. It may be a different half there now, but it is still a half.

“Sure, I miss baseball,” he says, “but I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s been a test and it has made me mentally stronger.”

It has created a hollowness and a happiness and an image that lingers, of Glenn Burke walking a gauntlet of high-fives after his home run over the wire-mesh fence and laughing that crazy laugh once again. There might have been more, there might have been cash and fame, but there is none of this now.

There is instead the legacy of two men’s hands touching, high above their heads.

At the time of this story’s publication, Michael J. Smith was the editor of BWMT Quarterly. Glenn Burke died in 1995 of complications from AIDS. He was 42.

[Featured Illustration: Bruce Hutchison for ESPN The Magazine]

The Banter Gold Standard: The Impression

On Monday, we ran Pete Dexter’s Inside Sports piece on Larry Holmes. Here is Dexter’s short article on the Holmes-Ali fight, reprinted here with the author’s permission.

“The Impression”

By Pete Dexter

When I heard Ali had agreed to fight Holmes, the first thought I had was that Ali would be killed. The punch was five years gone, his hand speed had been mediocre over his last half dozen fights, and he’d been getting hit by people like Leon Spinks.

I didn’t see that two years in the pasture could have helped any of that. What figured to be left to him, at almost 39 years old, was the chin. Enough to keep him up a long time after he should go down.

The second thought I had was that I didn’t want to see it happen, and even if there was enough grace in that night to make me wrong once, there was nothing in it to make me wrong twice. And if the talk afterwards’ about thyroid pills and a fight with Mike Weaver is more than talk, I won’t be there. Ali might take the chance again. I won’t.

I couldn’t watch it again. Ali without his talent, growing old in one long night, people everywhere without words, growing old with him. In the casino you see Ray Robinson posing in pictures with people who remember him—you can’t imagine Ali like that.

YOU WOULD not imagine Ali like this either: standing in front of Larry Holmes all night, eyes swollen, throwing no punches and once, after catching a terrible right hand, turning away in the ring.

Holmes had come into the fight in the best shape of his life—maybe he had believed the talk of a miracle a little bit, too. He began with energy and something close to hate, but after the second round he walked back to his comer wearing a different expression. “I knew what that look was,” Richie Giachetti would say later. Giachetti is Holmes’ trainer/manager. “We’d found out he didn’t have nothin’ left, and he was too old, and Larry was askin’ himself, ‘Do I really want this?’ All this time he was talkin’ himself into fightin’ Ali and now it’s here, he knows he’s got it won and the look on his face, it was just no expression at all. Usually he’d be happy or excited or somethin’, but the second round on. it was no nothin’ there.

AFTER THE fifth round, Angelo Dundee threatened to stop the fight. It is the eighth round, though, that keeps coming back. It was like a dream that wouldn’t move. Ali lost in ringside smoke, leaning deep into the ropes, moving his hands in slow motion. The rinse washing out of his hair, going gray in front of my eyes … it seemed to last half an hour. Ali without his speed or a punch or his legs, without his mirrors, clearly without his miracle. Nobody to tell him he was pretty; nobody left to believe it could happen.

Standing because he would not let himself go down.

When Dundee finally stopped it after the tenth, Holmes came across the ring crying and hugged Ali. “I love you,” he ‘said.

An hour later he went to Ali’s suite and found him lying face down on his exercise table. “Please promise me,” Holmes said. “Promise me you won’t fight no more.”

It ‘was quiet, then Ali spoke, “Holmmm-z,” he said, “I want Holmes.”

The next morning Dundee was sitting in his room, answering the phone, drinking coffee. “I didn’t do good business last night. It was a horrible night. I seen an Ali, couldn’t do nothing. He just wasn’t there.”

He shook his head. “I hope he don’t fight again, but you know I don’t tell him what to do. Nobody does.”

In the end you have to admire that. He had an extraordinary talent. He had a talent as rare, in a way, as Robert Frost’s or Picasso’s. And a talent like that, I think, is always ahead of the man who has it. It leads him, it takes him places other people can’t go. And even when he understands what it does, he doesn’t necessarily know what it is.

But he had the courage to use it, to follow it, and when it left him standing in the ring, alone with the best heavyweight fighter in the world, he had courage for that, too. And one way or another—unless you’re Robert Frost or Picasso—that happens, because growing old is losing talent.

For a long time, Larry Holmes didn’t want the fight. Giachetti never wanted it. Don King, who would pick Joe Louis out of his wheelchair and feed him to Roberto Duran if the money were right, talked Holmes into it.

King told Holmes that he had been living in Ali’s shadow too long. Giachetti told him the shadow was there, and as shadows go it wasn’t bad.

“Nobody who really knows Ali can say anything bad about him,” Giachetti said. “Nobody wants to see him hurt. We knock him out, they say he’s an old man. We don’t, Larry’s a bum. It’s a no-win situation.”

Holmes listened to King. And in the way you sometimes do when you’re unsure, Holmes denied the part of himself that said he cared about Ali. And as the fight got closer, he came to believe Ali had taken something from him. “I don’t care. if he gets hurt,” he said. “He been denyin’ me my just dues all this time. The man hypnotizes everybody, he don’t hypnotize me. I know him better than he knows himself. There’ll be no mercy in there for him. He either gets knocked out or he gets hurt.” And there was hate in that.

GIACHETTI FORGOT his reservations and got Holmes ready. “It’s comin’ down to a head job now,” he said. That was two weeks before the fight, and from then until the fight itself he kept Holmes away from Ali. “Nobody beats Ali at talkin’,” Giachetti said. “It’s his game. He says the same old things, but everybody still loves to hear it. It’s like ‘Moon River.’” So he brought Holmes to the weigh-in early. He refused to let his fighter pose with Ali for pictures. But Ali was always there.

After. his afternoon workouts, Holmes would take the microphone and ask the audience to believe he would beat him. “The old man has made a mistake. Porky gone crazy, fightin’ me. I could kick his ass back in 1974 when I was his sparring partner, and he never gave me my just dues….” It would go on too long, get awkward. Holmes being Ali, at the same time saying things from his heart.

“If I lose, I’ll retire. People will say I wasn’t ever nothin’ if this sucker beats me I’d have to go hide.”

On September 15, a kid named Gary Wells tried to jump over the water fountain at Caesars on his motorcycle, the same jump that almost killed Eve! Knievel.

AN HOUR before the jump, Ali was sitting in bed, watching the Holmes-Weaver fight on the Betamax. As it moved into the later rounds Ali walked into a closet. There was a tray there with 30 different kinds of pills—that and a scale. He sorted out eight or 10 to eat with breakfast. He said, “I will tell you something. I believe I am on a mission from God. I pray five times a day, it’s 60 per cent of my power. Holmes out drinkin’ wine, gamblin’, how can he beat me?”

I asked if he had liked Holmes when he was a sparring partner. Ali looked at me to see if I was serious.

“I like him now,” he said.

By the time Ali got out of the closet, Holmes had knocked Weaver out, and Truman Capote was bragging to Phil Donahue that he’d ruined Jack Kerouac’s career. Ali watched a few minutes. “This is a messed up world,” he said.

He stood up and looked out the window. The crowd was already waiting for the kid on the motorcycle. Ali had met him earlier. He had shook the kid’s hand and said, “You crazy.” The kid had liked that. A reporter asked if Ali would watch the jump.

“I don’t want to see nobody get his head ripped off,” he said. “They encourage him, but I know what people want to see when they watch somethin’ like that.”

He looked at himself in the mirror again and then laid down. On some unspoken signal, the old Cuban who rubs him down closed the curtains and the room was as dark as the night, and the reflection—the proof of the miracle—was gone with the sun. “As sure as you hear my voice,” Ali said, “you and l will both die.”

An hour later I was lying in my room when I heard the crowd and knew the kid hadn’t made it. The crowd, then the sirens. I thought of Ali, alone in his room.

The Banter Gold Standard: Seven Scenes From The Life of a Quiet Champ

This week gives Dexter because, well, do we really need an excuse for more Dexter?

Let’s start with this 1980 Inside Sports profile of Larry Holmes written before the Holmes/Ali fight.  It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

“Seven Scenes From The Life of A Quiet Champ”

By Pete Dexter

“I don’t ever want to fight Ali. Ali’s a legend, I’m hoping he retires. It would be a lot of money [for an Ali fight], but money isn’t everything. When Ali dies, people going to remember him being more than a fighter…”

“To me, Ali’s a great man. I can’t say anything bad about him. When I was his sparring partner, he paid me and took me al over the world. I was a kid sparring with Ali in Reading, Pennsylvania, and he gave me a black eye. People tried to put ice on it, but I was going to knock them out. I was proud of it…”

“Ever since people known who I am, they been comparing me to Ali. They say I stole his style. It used to bother me, but now it doesn’t. I just smile and thank them and take it as the compliment it is.”
–Larry Holmes in various 1978 interviews

Easton, Pennsylvania. The sandwich is hurt bad but will not go down. It is a turkey sandwich—turkey and bacon and lettuce with rusty edges, leaking mayonnaise everywhere.

Larry Holmes is having trouble with the style. He checks one side, then the other, cuts off the escape routes with his fingers. He bites down, the meat slides out the back. The champion pulls away, his mouth full of mayonnaise, A terrible welt shows on the sandwich. “God-damn,” he says, “this is the kind of sandwich you think the heavyweight champion of the world be eatin’?”

I have to admit it, no. I’ve seen better looking lettuce coming out of a rabbit. Larry peels back the bread and scrapes the mayonnaise with his straw. “A world champion,” he says, “scrapin’ mayonnaise off his own sandwich.”

A month before the sandwich, there was 254-pound Leroy Jones, who presented the same problem. Too much mayonnaise to find the meat. Jones was Holmes’ 34th win without a loss, his 25th knockout, his sixth straight in defense of his WBC title.

The phone rings. Holmes manages to get it to his ear without using his thumb and first three fingers. It is Charlie Spaziani, his lawyer, with news of a woman in Cleveland who is saying that her four-year-old child has a heavyweight champion of the world for a daddy. The wet fingers wrap around the phone.

“What? In Cleveland? And she just comin’ around now? … Well, I’d like to keep it to maybe two dollars a week, ’cause I don’t know nothin’ about it.”

Holmes hangs up and looks at the sandwich. “I never heard they had sexual intercourse in Cleveland. I’ll tell you the truth, a man can’t win when it comes to the system.” He looks at his watch. “Right now it’s  quarter to one on Wednesday afternoon. If the woman go to the judge and say, ‘Pete got me pregnant at quarter to one, Wednesday afternoon,’ they goin’ to believe her. So you get me and nine witnesses to go down to the court with you, say you was talking to me at quarter to one, and nine times out of ten they ain’t goin’ to believe you anyway.” He thinks it over. “You wasn’t in Cleveland four years ago, were you?”

Which brings the champion’s attention back to the sandwich. He picks it up and decides it isn’t something he wants to eat after all. It isn’t something he wants to look at either. He moves it to a far spot on the desk, covers it with a napkin. In the end, all you can really say about it is that it lasted longer than Leroy Jones.

Larry picks up the rest of the napkin to wipe off his fingers and a cashier’s check for $100,000 comes up off the desk with them. It is the check that he and Richie Giachetti went to New York for the day before. The check that says his schedule fight with Ali will happen.

Ali, the man Holmes had said he never wanted to fight. He had been Ali’s sparring partner, and he had watched him and learned from him. He had called him his idol for the newspapers. He had been on the undercard in Manila, had seen the act of will Ali—who was already beyond his prime—past Joe Frazier. And as Holmes developed and Ali’s skills faded, a point had to come when Holmes knew he was the better fighter. But it was still Ali, and there was still something there that Holmes didn’t have, and never would.

Richie Giachetti is Larry Holmes’ manager and trainer. He is his friend. He has been with the 30-year-old Holmes eight years, and he doesn’t like the Ali fight at all. “I’ll do my job,” he will say later. “It’s $4 million, but anyway you look at it, Ali gets knocked out or hurt. [Don] King keeps talkin’ to Larry about gettin’ out of Ali’s shadow. Did Marciano get out of Joe Louis’ shadow, knockin’ out an old man? The shadow is there, and as shadows go, it’s not too bad….”

The way it comes out all at once, you know it’s something Giachetti has said before, probably to Holmes on the way to New York. Holmes shuts it off.

“Ali was yesterday, I am today. I been in his shadow too long, it’s time to come out. No, the fight don’t bother me. A fight is a fight. I don’t care if he got hurt, I can’t care. You care, that’s when you get hurt your own self.” It is as deep a disagreement as he and Giachetti have had, and something between them now feels wrong and unsettled.

Larry walks the check down to the bank, waving at every other car on the street. A school bus stops and the children pinch the windows down to yell they saw him on Channel 6 last night. Later, in the car, he drives past the project where he grew up, into the part of town he calls high society. He lives there, one of three or four black families in a white neighborhood. He says; “I understand where I’m from, and I wouldn’t live nowhere else.”

The car is a long, white Cadillac with silver buckles over the trunk and a gold-plated nameplate built into the dashboard. Forty-eight thousand dollars list price, but Larry says he got a deal. The tape in the stereo is a song about the champ and it sounds like there must be 40 speakers. “They sendin’ a guy up from Philly to paint my name on the door,” he says.

At the parking lot outside St. Anthony’s Youth Center, where Holmes learned to box and still works out, a middle-aged woman carrying a bag of groceries stands at the window two minutes, taking it all in. “My,” she says. “My, my.” Larry is talking economy to a television cameraman, saying he looked at the car for a year before he bought it, and doesn’t hear what the woman says before she leaves. She says, “That’s real cute.”

In the car again. Larry is talking about the old days, 11 brothers and sisters, no father to support them. He and his friends took gloves into the bars and fought each other so the men there would buy them hamburgers.

He talks about his mother, Flossie, and it makes you remember how deep worries went before you were old enough to understand what they were about, worries you couldn’t talk about then because you didn’t understand, and can’t talk about now because you understand them too well.

“Larry Holmes is a survivor,” he says. “No matter what happen to me, I’ll get by. I go back to work in the steel mills or to Jet Car Wash if I had to, I’d make out. My wife love me, my babies love me—what can happen to that?

“When I was a kid, I wasn’t tight with nobody. I’m still that way. I liked to stay home, just be in the house.

“George Foreman, they say he was scared to be alone in the dark. People say, how could somebody big and strong like that be ‘fraid to stay in his own house with the lights out? I could understand that. I know how it is, you got to have feelings with people.” He looks over and smiles. “I
ain’t scared of the dark….”

And a few minutes later, “I heard George got religion now, bought him his own church.”

Late afternoon. Earnie Shavers has flown into Easton to be part of tomorrow’s second annual “Run With the Champ” five-mile race. Eight years ago, Holmes was Shavers’ sparring partner, and they have been friends through two fights with each other.

Everybody in the Holmes’ camp is wearing Sasson jeans. They are dark jeans with white stitches, officially endorsed by the champion, who can’t wear them because they don’t come with room for his thighs.

They don’t come with room for Earnie’s thighs either.

Giachetti and Holmes and Shavers and two carloads of people—lawyers, trainers, brothers—head over to a shop called New York Tailors to find Earnie a pair of jeans.

“Whatever he wants, put it on my bill,” Larry says.

The shopkeeper shakes hands with Shavers. “You don’t look as big as you do on television,” he says.

Earnie tries on one pair after another, starting with all the 34s, and is working into the 36s now, trying to find something with thigh room. “Try them 38′s,” Larry says. Earnie disappears into a dressing room with a pair of 38s. When he comes out, they are still skin-tight around his legs and he has gathered a handful belt loops at the waist.

“These are close,” he says.

The man from New York Tailors hands him another stack and Earnie goes back into the dressing room. Giachetti says anybody who works out all the time and doesn’t drink can’t expect to fit into clothes. Years before Holmes, he managed Earnie Shavers.

“When me and Earnie was fightin’ last year,” Larry says, Earnie was taken a terrible punishment and I tol’ him, I said, ‘Earnie, Earnie, don’t be takin’ all these shots.’ All says is, “C’mon man, fight.” He had blood comin’ all down his mouth, and I was still thinkin’ about that when he hit me the right hand….”

The right-hand knocked Holmes down it—would have knocked anybody down—and almost ended the fight.

Earnie comes through the curtain carrying a pair that he says fit him. He isn’t the kind to want people waiting.

“Right here, y’all, Earnie Shavers. Come shake the hand that knocked down the champ. Hey, get us a drink. Get everybody a drink….”

Richie Giachetti is standing on a chair at the door of an all-black bar in downtown Easton, pointing at Earnie Shavers’ shining head. Earnie is still dressed in the three-piece suit he was wearing when he got off the plane. Women first, the bar comes over to shake his, touch his arm, ask for autographs. Earnie will spend all night signing autographs.

“The thing is,” Giachetti says, “every fighter comes to the point where he wants to do it all himself. They watch you five or six years and figure they can do the same thing. They all do it, it’s part of boxing.”

It is three or four drinks later, and Earnie and Larry are in the back of the bar, listening to the stories of Easton. Richie blows his nose and says as soon as this fight is over he’s getting his sinus cavities burned out. “They been killin’ me for years,” he says.

“Anyway, a fighter’s got to have somebody to tell him the truth. Larry’ll look bad, he’II line up 15 guys and ask them, ‘How did I look?’ And every one of them will say, ‘Fine, Champ,’ and he’ll look at me and I’ll say, ‘Who do you want to believe? You looked like hell.’ It’s like a marriage. He don’t want to hear that but he knows I’ll tell him the truth. Damn, I got to get my sinuses fixed….”

I say I have heard they do that operation without an anesthetic.

“That’s right, they can’t put you to sleep ’cause they don’t know when to stop burnin’.”

The fighters have worked their way to the front of the bar again, and Holmes hears the last of that. “You need help goin’ to sleep?” he says. “I’ll put you to sleep, Richie, be glad to.”

Giachetti gets back up on the chair and rubs his knuckles into Holmes’ scalp. Holmes says, “He jus’ love to do that to black folks.” Giachetti reaches around Larry’s head and finds his far ear, pulls it until the champ is square in his face. Then be puts a thumb as thick as a farmer’s in Larry’s nose! They look at each other a long minute, Giachetti kisses him on the cheek.

Holmes says, “Earnie, I know why you got rid of him now.”

The thing about Richie, no matter where we go he always takin’ me out to see somethin’.” The party has moved twice and is in a Chinese restaurant now. Richie is standing on a chair near the door, talking to a waitress, Larry is remembering the last time they were in San Francisco.

He says, “All I want to do is stay in the hotel room, but Richie, he says we got to go get somethin’ for his wife. The next thing I know, he got me out on a boat, going’ to Alcatraz prison. It’s cold and rainin’, and he takes me out there, walking all over to show me work Al Capone shit. You believe that? ”

There is a noise from door. Giachetti has grabbed the waitress by the head. “Richie,” she says, “you know how long it took to fix my hair?”

Giachetti speaks to the ceiling, still keeping his hand flat on her hairdo. “Forgive this sinner, O Lord,” he says. “Heal her, cleanse her. A woman weak of the flesh, gone astray, but nonetheless one of Your flock….”

The waitress says, “I’m Jewish, Richie.”

He says, “You? You don’t look circumcised.”

The whole town is out for the race the next morning. Giachetti and his wife and Larry’s wife and brother and Steve Sass, a sometimes cornerman, have all shown up wearing sneakers and Pony jogging suits to watch the race. Larry endorses Pony.

Nancy Giachetti and Diane Holmes are together at the finish line, Nancy holding the baby. Kandy Larie Holmes, seven weeks old, yawns pink. Nancy is hard and soft, a woman whose own kids are almost grown. She misses holding babies, she calls her husband Giachetti.

Giachetti himself is wearing sunglasses and drinking unnatural amounts of coffee. He says he feels fine, and the only consolation in that is it’s exactly what’ he said a few years ago after he’d been stabbed 20~odd times in a street fight in Cleveland, a fight, by the way, that he won. He said he felt fine and then went to sleep on the sidewalk.

The race is five miles, mostly downhill, and about 40 minutes old. The serious runners are already sitting in the grass sipping fruit juice and having their legs rubbed when Larry and Earnie come around the corner and start up the long hill to the finish.

Giachetti watches them finish, and while they sign autographs and pose for pictures he goes back to the Sheraton. Five men, early 20s, come into the lobby behind him. Holmes’ limousine is parked outside and one of them has read the name on the door. Coming in, he says, “Fuck Larry Holmes.”

Giachetti steps in front of them all. “Who said that?”

The biggest one says, “I did.”

Giachetti walks into his chest., The desk clerks have stopped breathing, everyone in the lobby is frozen. “What, you got somethin’ to do with Holmes?”

Giachetti looks up into the man’s face. He says, “I’m his friend:” The man looks at Giachetti, half a foot shorter, twice as wide. A cannon barrel.

“Well, excuse me,”he says. Giachetti keeps staring. “I said excuse me. What else do you want me to do?”

Steve Sass pats him on the ribs then. “C’mon Richie.” And Giachetti lets him go. The clerks are breathe again, people begin to move.

In the elevator, one of the me laughs. “I think he really meant it,” he says. The one who had looked into Richie Giachetti’s face doesn’t laugh. He knows he meant it.

The party after the race is at Jake’s house. Jake is Larry’s brother. Italian food, beer, fried chicken. Richie is holding Kandy Larie, and he and Larry are insulting each other. (Holmes has two other daughters who live in Easton with his first wife.) Nancy and Diane are sitting at the kitchen table. Larry looks at Nancy. “I can’t believe you don’t dye your hair,” he says. “Any woman been married to Richie 18 years got to have a head of gray hair.”

“I never understood it myself,” she says.

He thinks it over. “Richie,” he says, “I ought to kick your ass once for every time you done that woman wrong.”

Giachetti nods to Diane. “I ought to kick your ass for every time you done that woman wrong.”

Nancy and Diane look at each other. “Sounds like a whole lot of kickin’ to me,” Nancy says. Diane guesses about a month’s worth. The house is full of kids and noise. Larry’s brother-in-law is drunk in the corner, showing Earnie Shavers his fist. “When this lands, nobody gets up,” he says.

Earnie smiles, nods. “I can see, man,” he says. That is when Flossie Holmes comes in. She lives in a new house Larry built for her, 200 feet from Jake’s back door.

Giachetti hands Nancy the baby and leads Larry Holmes’ mother into the living room. “Here he is, Flossie,” he says, pointing at Shavers. “Here’s the one that knocked your boy down.”

Earnie puts up his hands. “Wait a minute, lemme explain….”

“He’s the one?” She takes a step toward Shavers.

“That’s right, Flossie, that one right there without any hair.”

Shavers says, “Please, it was just business, lemme explain….”

“You don’t look as big as you do on television,” she says.

The champ is in the kitchen, talking about Ali. “Back when I was sparring with him I thought I could’ve beat him then, but I never tried to hurt him or make him look foolish. Him or Joe [Frazier] either. They was the champions, and I respected them for that. But Ali’s mind made a date now that his body can’t keep.

“It don’t bother me that he’s gettin’ more money, $4 million is enough for me….”

Somebody asks if he thinks Ali will get hurt. Holmes turns loud, the way you sometimes do when you don’t want to hear yourself. “I don’t care,” he, says. “I don’t motherfucking care. I been in the man’s shadow too long, it’s time to come out. I will destroy him, I goin’ out there to take his head off.”

A tiny nephew—four or five years old—stands dead still in the doorway watching.

And out in the living room Earnie Shavers is explaining it again to Flossie Holmes. “It’s nothin’ personal in fightin’,” he says. “It’s just business.”

Business.

Two days later, on a Monday morning in April, Don King and a man named Murad Muhammad, who says he is destined to become the promoting star of the ’80s, sit down in front of 40 photographers to announce the fight. They have rented the Belvedere Suite, 64 floors above Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, and are serving their guests wet eggs and cocktails.

The band arrives in a helicopter.

On either side of the promoters are the fighters. Holmes smiling, uncomfortable Ali looking at the table in front of him, maybe realizing what a bad and dangerous fight this is.

Murad introduces himself as a man about to promote one of the greatest fights of all time. A fight that will “set all kinds of records.” The most money, the most people, the most stadium. It will be the first heavyweight championship fight he and Don King promote together, the first heavyweight championship fight in Brazil. Murad says he has suffered to get where he is, he has toiled in the vineyard. He says the fight will settle one of the great mysteries of our time.

Ali wipes at his forehead.

The kid lasts 10 minutes and hands it to King, who is wearing a mink tie. “These are two great gladiators, as in Rome in their sparkling glory,” he says. “The champion is today, Ali is yesterday. This is the last hurrah, the song is over but the melody lingers on.”

And he says the fight will put the issue of heavyweight fighters to the “quiet solitude of oblivion of which it was to be.”

That’s what he says. Then he gives the microphone to Holmes, who is still thanking people five minutes later when Ali begins to snore. He tries to ignore it, Ali snores louder, pounds the table. “I can’t stand it. I tried to be quiet.” He stands up. “I tried, but you killin’ these people. You borin’ all these smart white folks to death….”

Holmes tries to stay in it. “You sayin’ our people is stupid because you got to be white to be smart.”

And that is all Ali needs. He calls Holmes a peanut. He calls him a silly nigger, he calls him stupid. “I’m your daddy, I created you, I goin’ come out the rockin’ chair and whup your ass. Go whap, whap, whap….” He throws jabs, short right hands into the air.

Holmes says, “What I goin’ to be doin’?”

Ali does an impression of a man being hit on the chin six times.

It goes on too long, and in the end neither of them wants to be there.

A day later it will develop that King and the man destined to become the promoting star of the ’80s have forgotten to tell the talks down in Brazil they are coming. It will develop that a previous contract has been signed for Ali to fight Mike Weaver, who is the WBA champ.

But that’s tomorrow. For now, King and Murad Muhammad stand together, smiling for pictures. “This is what sports is all about,”‘ King says, “one hand helping the other.”

A man as gentle as Earnie Shavers might say it’s just business. But this time it’s more than that.

The promoters won’t understand it, but serious people have made commitments it hurt them to make. Commitments they will live with a long time past July, whether there’s a fight or not.

The promoters won’t understand it—they have no way to—but they are playing around with something that matters.

More Dexter:

Dying for Art’s Sake (LeRoy Neiman)

No Trespassing (Jim Brown)

The Apprenticeship of Randall Cobb (Tex Cobb)

Two for Toozday (John Matuszak)

LeeRoy, He Ain’t Here No More (LeeRoy Yarbrough)

The Old Man and the River (Norman Maclean)

The Banter Gold Standard: Sympathy for the Devil

His was an all-too short career, much of it spent writing about his favorite blood sports, boxing and politics, but it’s most remarkable aspect may have been the improbable sequence of events at its fairytale inception. At age thirty, Joe Flaherty (c. 1936-1983) was still a laborer on the New York waterfront whose unpaid (and often un-bylined) stories occasionally appeared in his Brooklyn community weekly. When the weekly deemed his account of a rowdy police gathering too hot to handle, a friend surreptitiously sent it to The Village Voice. Impressed, the Voice’s editors hired Flaherty to write a follow-up story, an assignment that ended when the fledgling reporter came to blows with one of his subjects. Flaherty’s next piece incensed Pete Hamill, largely because it painted an unflattering picture of a middleweight named Joe Shaw, in whom Hamill, Norman Mailer, and George Plimpton had acquired an interest. The New York Times Magazine then asked Flaherty to write an expanded follow-up about the feuding Brooklynites, thus launching a career that would produce bylines in magazines from the Saturday Review to Playboy, the journalism collected in Chez Joey (1974), the novels Fogarty & Co. (1973) and Tin Wife (1983), and Managing Mailer (1970), an account of his experience as campaign manager for Norman Mailer’s 1969 mayoral run. As Flaherty put it: “A lesson for young journalists: in your early rounds forget the body and go for the head.”

—George Kimball and John Schulian on Flaherty in At the Fights (now out in paperback).

Here’s another good one: Joe Flaherty on Jake LaMotta. This piece originally appeared in the January 1981 issue of Inside Sports. It is reprinted here with permission of Jeanine Flaherty.

“Sympathy For The Devil”

By Joe Flaherty

All lives are failures in some degree or another. Somewhere along the line we fudge the pristine youthful dream. Even when we achieve, the compromises we’ve made, the injuries we’ve inflicted sully the prize. But most of us can live with this, since we deal in minor declinations of the soul.

Not so with Jake LaMotta. LaMotta’s fortunes and misfortunes have been so cosmic they could be considered godlike if it weren’t for the sacrilege implied. The ruin he has heaped on himself, and on many of those who’ve come in contact with him, seems pagan. Those who lament LaMotta would have you believe Attila the Hun would have to move up in class to get it on with Jake.

When you go in search of the good word on LaMotta, no soft, illuminating adjective is forthcoming. Since most of the naysayers are from within boxing, the word is even more damning. The ringed world is awash with evocations of loving motherhood, guiding priests and golden-hearted gladiators. Cauliflower corn pone bows only to the jab as the basic element of boxing.

But when the talk turns to LaMotta’s character (his boxing ferocity is always lauded), the usual benediction of hot water turns to spit. The only bow to grace is that no one wants his quotes attributed, though this “nicety” could be interpreted as fear of retribution, since no one believes the 58- year-old LaMotta has mended his savage ways.

Thus, one of the game’s gentlest promoters calls LaMotta “a reprehensible, obnoxious, despicable sonnuvabitch,” and then apologizes that he has characterized a human being in such a fashion.

To be sure, it’s a tough assessment, but even LaMotta wouldn’t deny he worked like a bull to earn his unsavory rep. Born on the tough Lower East Side of New York, he and his family moved to the Bronx when he was a boy. In that borough of hills (peaks and valleys in psychological jargon), LaMotta’s cyclonic emotions got untracked. Young Jake wasn’t one of those angels with dirty faces, a wayward street urchin with tousled hair who pinched apples from outside, the grocery store and puckishly threw rocks at schoolhouse windows. Jake’s mayhem was main arena, armed robbery, assault, rape.

As a teenager he pummeled the head of the local bookie (whom he liked!) in a robbery attempt and left the man for dead with a crushed skull. Subsequently, the papers falsely reported the bookie’s death and LaMotta did not learn until years later, after he won the middleweight championship, that the bookie, following a hospital stay, had moved to Florida to recuperate. In fairness, LaMotta had ongoing pangs of conscience about “the murder,” but the primal concern of the heart was how best to beat the rap, not the devil.

The horror his early violence wreaked also didn’t stop him, in later years, from battering various wives for “love” and numerous opponents for loot. LaMotta’s Life has been so unappetizingly gamy, so foully unpalatable, it bends the conventional limits of social understanding, as graphically documented in the film of his life, Raging Bull.

Even those who shared the same mean streets can find no sympathy. An Irish trainer from the same boyhood Bronx said, “Look, he just went too far. I grew up there, too. We always hustled a fast buck, put out other guys’ lights in fistfights, and even brawled with cops. Hell, the Irish are great cop-fighters. But we stopped short of some things, the animal stuff. Beating people’s head in with weapons and wife-beating, Christ, that’s as low as you can get.

“Ask anyone. That bastard didn’t even know how to say hello. But don’t take my word for it. The Micks are notorious. for not having a good word for Wops. Go ask his own kind. His own kind hate him because he was a squealer. He even screwed them. You go ask the italians what they think. When your own kind hate you, that tells you something.

Indeed, the “wise guys,” the sharp money guys who always have leeched on the tit of boxing, long ago wrote off LaMotta for his testimony before the Kefauver Committee that he went into the water for the mob when he fought Billy Fox in Madison Square Garden in 1947. But even before that, !he wasn’t acceptable. Hustlers who live off “the edge” dislike dealing with a “crazy” man.

EVEN ITALIAN-AMERICAN  director Martin Scorsese, while creating a technically beautiful film and coaxing marvelous ensemble acting from his cast, was in the moral quandary about what to make of LaMotta the man. If the film had to stand on redeeming social qualities, Raging Bull would have been castrated by the censors. Scorsese, like so my who have faced LaMotta, was overwhelmed with the brutishness of the life and in the end, using Robert DeNiro’s great talents, settled for an exposition of poetic rage. The violence is softened by slow motion and an operatic score. This creates the illusion that one is dealing with a demon.

But the frightening things about LaMotta is that he is very real, and removing him from our orbit with technical skill and art is cleverly slipping the punch. The only way to explore LaMotta’s life is to delve into the festering place in his heart of darkness.

The LaMotta you meet today hardly qualifies for a portrait in ferocity. If it weren’t for his classically failed soufflé of a face and the thickness of his articulate speech, you wouldn’t suspect he had made his living at demolition. His weight is back to the 160-pound middleweight limit, and his manager is deferential. His hands belie their destructive force in that they are small, slim and tapered.

“I should have been an artist, or a fag,” he jokes. But the jibe has insight. They look like the hands of someone who would beat helplessly on the chest of a bully.

ONLY THE eyes give a clue to his former life. They are so sad and placid, they almost look burned out. Twin novas which which didn’t survive the Big Bang, memos to some terrible past.

So you’re not surprised when he responds to a question about his current life, “I’m a recluse. I stay at home and read, play cards, and watch television. And I love to cook. I’m a gourmet cook. It’s a knack.”

His oldest son Jack Jr. (by his second wife, Vikki) concurs: “I’d rather eat at home with him cooking than go out to a fine restaurant.”

LaMotta’s forays outside are restricted to long walks, infrequent trips to an East Side bar to meet Rocky Graziano, who pulled time with him at reform school when they were in their teens, and some evening blackjack games. “I don’t want to go out anymore,” he says. “I seen it all, and I had it all.’ Fame, fortune, Cadillacs. There’s nothing out there for me. Besides, I don’t like the kind of people I attract.”

When asked to elaborate, he has trouble pinning if down. “I don’t know. Other people like to go out. It must be me. I dislike a lot of people.” He amends, “I don’t mean a majority of people. Maybe I’m too cynical. But sometimes I hear the first word out of their mouths, or see a smirk on their faces, and I know they’re not sincere. They’re jealous or something. Jealousy is a word I use a lot, but I think it’s right. Well, I think like that anyway. I guess I attract those kind of people, so I stay home.”

The recluse pose is really nothing new, if one applies it to LaMotta’s inner emotions. In his fighting days, though public, he was notorious for being a loner in the things that mattered. He managed his own career, ostracized the mob until it promised him a shot at the crown for dumping to Fox, and had the intimate counsel of no one. He viewed his wife of that period, Vikki, with insane jealousy and suspicion, and forced his brother Joey, who worked his corner, “to do my bidding.” The adjectives applied to Jake were “suspicious,” “paranoiac.”

Now divorced from his fifth wife, he is even more insular. The film is a hiatus in this isolation. Jack Jr. is up from North Miami Beach on leave from his job to guide his father through the publicity maze connected with the film. Vikki and his five other children also came to New York for the film’s opening and some of the attendant hoopla. But when the stardust settles, he will be back living alone in his Manhattan apartment. The isolation may be complete for a long period if some job offers don’t result from the film since LaMotta, in earnest, declares, “I’m now practicing celibacy,” which could be construed as the last word on the people one attracts.

Jake attributes his decision on unilateral withdrawal to “the failures of my romantic life.” His first marriage broke when he met Vikki, “the love of my life.” Vikki left when LaMotta lost all control of his temper, his calorie­ and alcohol intake, and his ability to find his way home to his wife’s bed after his retirement. “I think I suffered a nervous breakdown during that period,” he says, “and didn’t realize it. I was crazy. I was drinking a bottle or two .a day. I owned my own joint [in Miami Beach], the price was right. Plus, there were a lot of broads. I blacked out a lot and didn’t remember. I really think I was crazy and didn’t it.”

LaMotta seems to be hesitant about going all the way back. His notion is that life would have been fine if he and Vikki could have worked out their problems. If they had been “mature” enough to realize he was going through a bad time after retiring, “the small death” all athletes must face, as the novelist John Updike called it. Similar is the lament that three marriages broke up because finances were tight, and the one thing he regrets is his dump of the Fox fight. The one thing?

LAMOTTA DEALS with his woeful experiences piecemeal, not as the pattern of a life. For LaMotta, to have led a conventional life, it seems he would have had to be born in different circumstances, or somehow been able to overcome the ones he was dealt. The latter is no mean trick. The should is cankered with barnacles of who and what spawned us. Only the imperial George Bernard Shaw had the audacity to state that if he had one thing to change in his life it would have been his parents. And for good reason. There’s a reverberation in that shot that might ricochet back to our own siring.

LaMotta makes some earnest attempts. “You know, I think they brainwashed us. You know, this is your life, you’re poor, and this is the way it’s going to be. I always felt I didn’t deserve good things. I was always guilty. I thought I killed someone, but it was more than that. Years later, I even thought of the way I fought. Letting guys hit me in the face. I didn’t have to do that. I think I was brainwashed to be punished.”

If you want to find the man, it helps to find the boy, and then the father of the boy. LaMotta’s father was an Italian immigrant who beat his kids and beat his wife, and it’s safe to say Jake was tutored in raucous romance early. And even though LaMotta hated the bullying, like so many sons of fathers who beat, drank, molested or committed suicide, he replayed the old man’s aberrations. The psychiatric statistics are too firm in these area to be taken, as happenstance. In dismal surroundings finesse is lost, you take what is offered.

Since the home life was a microcosm of the neighborhood, he had only to expand the MO of violence. In such neighborhoods the glittering prizes of bread, broads and booze wenI to the wise guys. “Artists and fags” (same thing really) need not apply.

To anyone who knows those streets, the real triumph is to make it through time-honored devices in the neighborhood, not in the outside world, There’s a sense of betrayal when one makes it “legit” and moves away. You turn your back on the highest gutter canonization—”a regular guy. It’s not for nothing that artists with such roots can’t completely resist the swagger, highlighting the accent, the tough-guy stance. These are love notes thrown back over the barricades from their now “effete” surroundings. Worldly success is so much manure—the real bones are still made back on he block.

LaMotta only seems an aberration to us because he achieved celebrity and money and didn’t find the happy life. That is the height of anti-Americanism. But to use Willard Motley’s phrase, “Knock on any door,” and you could find countless LaMottas—violent, suspicious, self-destructive, who have left disasters in their wake, but there was nobody there to chronicle them. We prefer happy endings to our social neglect: saccharine Sylvester Stallones. pugs who are pussycats or flower girls who end up at Ascot.

But even in the field of achieving and then destroying celebrity, LaMotta is not unique. Streetwise black, basketball players with fat NBA contracts still get high on more than slam dunks, and up-from-the-pavement union leaders who have had access to the seats of government can’t resist the chance to turn a little change on the side. The outside world might be astonished, but the boy on the block understand all too well. What’s felonious to some is “regular” to others.

When LaMotta got the chance, he didn’t get out. When he made his score in boxing, his first move was to buy an apartment house in the Bronx for his family (parents, brother, sisters). Obviously, to erect a shrine in such heathen lands as the other boroughs never occurred to him, nor should it have. It had to be accessible for worship by those who lay down turf theology.

YEARS LATER, when he was broke and serving time on a Florida chain gang for allowing a teenage prostitute to work his nightclub (he claims innocence about her age and trade), his father sold the apartment house (it was in his name but Jake’s property), deserted his family and moved back to his native Italy alone.That’s the caliber of doublebank that makes street legend.

If one knows the code of the streets, wife-beating is no surprise either. Women (mothers exempted) were only revered as sexual trophies. The language of lovemaking sounded like contracts: “bang,” “screw”—love delivered from a running board. Jealousy is easy to divine, too. You simply ascribed to others the reason you wanted women. If your own intentions were base, so were the world’s.

One has only to remember the photos of Vikki LaMotta then, or to look at her now to realize her erotic worth as a trophy. At age 50, after giving birth to four children (three by Jake and one by a subsequent marriage that also ended in divorce), she still could make a bishop want to break a stained glass.

Vikki realizes the cloud a sexual aura casts. “People see the blonde hair, the beautiful body and look no further. They never search for the dignity. My problem with Jake was that he consumed me. He did it in a very beautiful way, but he consumed me. I was only 15 when we met in June 1946, and we were married in November of the same year. In a way you could say Jake kidnapped me.”

It’s a lovely turn of phrase: “kidnapped me.” It evokes Fay Wray and her rough-hewn suitor. “Our marriage was fine when Jake had control. On the beginning he trained me, molded me to be his kind of woman, but later on when I matured and deviated from what he wanted, he couldn’t handle it. I watched Pygmalion on television the other night, and I saw many similarities.”

LaMotta’s mad jealousy was fueled by the long periods of sexual withdrawal when he was in training. He believed in the old adage that sexual activity sapped strength. “It was a mistake, but in a way it worked. It made me an animal in the ring. Bu now I think I should have had it once in a while.”

Worse, the intensity of training began to render LaMotta impotent when he wanted to perform. For man like LaMotta to fail at all, but especially with his “kidnapped” goddess, was excruciating. So instead of swatting airplanes, Jake disfigured opponents such as Tony Janiro, whom Vikki found handsome; his brother, who had introduced Vikki to Jake, and who made the mistake of kissing her warmly whenever they met; and Vikki herself, for offering her cheek to be peeked by friends.

The beatings were serious enough to require medical attention, and when once Vikki retaliated, she said, “It was a mistake. He reacted like a fighter. He came back at me and nearly killed me.”

Yet for all this, she claims they had glorious times together (rarely shown in the film), and finds her ex-husband spiritual. “Just look into those sad, soft eyes. Whenever I’m sick, Jake is the first at my bedside. What greater love? I love him dearly. No longer in a sexual way, but who knows? That could come back, though I’m frightened to put the heat back into the relationship. It’s so loving and warm now. I just don’t think of him in a sexual way. To be blunt, I have no desire to ball him. He doesn’t like me to say that, but it’s the truth. And I’d need that to get back with him. I’m a woman, and a woman means hot. But love him I do, and who knows what the future will bring? That’s the exciting thing about the future.”

They, have stayed in constant contact 34 years. Jake visits Vikki in North Miami Beach (in the home he bought for her) a few times each year and stays at the house. “Separate bedrooms,” he is quick to add. He talks to her by phone three or four times a week. And he admits that his continuing affection for Vikki hindered his other marriages. “Aw, they knew,” he says. “I’m not smart enough with women to hide anything.”

Of course, LaMotta’s love for Vikki might be heightened by their golden period together. “We had everything,” he says. “Love, home, children, money, the championship, his and hers Cadillac cars.”

Their children hint at more solid stuff. The two boys I met, Jack Jr., 33, and Joe, 32, seem well-adjusted and carry no scars. Neither remembers the parental brawls. Those took place in private, and Vikki says that when she was black and blue she retreated behind her bedroom doors until the damage healed. There is a courageous civility about that.

Jack Jr. is sympathetic about the forces that fashioned his father’s life. “He grew up in the Depression, and everything was struggle. Everything was denial. His generation had to fight to get out. That’s why you don’t see fighters with the ferocity of the ’40s fighters anymore.”

JACK CONCURS. “The fighters today are spoiled. Only Duran and Muhammad Ali could have stood with the greats of the past. You know, we fought every three weeks. When I started to make money, I couldn’t get enough. It was a Depression thing, I’d fight anyone. Then when I made it, I didn’t know how to handle it. After all those years of denying myself, I went crazy with everything from booze to broads.”

Fight everyone, he did. Nobody puts a knock on LaMotta as a fighter. Harry Markson, the retired president of Madison Square Garden boxing, said “Outside Sugar Ray Robinson, he was the greatest middleweight of that era. He fought black fighters, both light-heavyweight and middleweight, that no one else would touch. He was fearless.

Much is made of LaMotta’s dump to Fox, but many forget he was top-ranked for five years without getting a title shot. And going the in the water wasn’t his province alone. It is common knowledge that good black fighters of that era often had to swoon for the mob to get bouts. Robinson was one who refused and had wait until he was 30 to get his crack at the middleweight crown, which, perversely, was granted by LaMotta.

Also, some members of the pious press didn’t seem to have the clout to force legitimate showdowns. This wasn’t for ignorance of fistic worth, but for the most venal of reasons. You still hear gossip about members of the fourth estate who picked up “envelopes” under the guise that they were gifts for their kids’ birthdays, graduations, or some such.

Harry Markson, while making no case for LaMotta’s action (“Robinson never did it”), added that boxing commissions were either nonexistent or had no clout, and that the press and television didn’t have the power they have today. “Let’s just say that in that period there was ample skullduggery.”

LaMotta’s sole defense is that he wanted the crown. “I always hated those creeps and never let them near me. They offered me a hundred thousand to dump, and I refused. I only wanted the title. And even when I went along, I still had to kick back $20,000 under the table to get the fight with Cerdan.”

Jake testified before Kefauver when the statute of limitations ran out. In his original affidavit Jake named Blinky Palermo as the fixer, but later testified he didn’t know who masterminded the dump. “You know who was around in those days. Palermo, Carbo, draw your own conclusions.”

LaMotta, in a way, as like John Dean. He validated the bad news in high places everyone knew about but no one wanted to talk about. Finking no matter how cleansing, is never appreciated. It isn’t strange that LaMotta can recite verbatim Brando’s Terry Malloy speech, “I coulda been somebody …” from On the Waterfront with feeling.

When Jake finished talking about this painful period, Jack Jr. massaged his shoulders into relaxation. “No one knows my father except his family. They only know of him back then. Not what he became. A gentle, sweet man. The ending is the exciting part of his life.”

Jake, grandiose as ever, proclaimed, “Now I have the patience of a saint. You’ll lose your temper before me.”

Joe and Vikki concur. Jake, realizing the “saint” line is as gaudy as his leopard-skin fighter’s robe (the material of macho bathing suits in the ’40s, though LaMotta didn’t add the black slim comb as a final fillip), tempers his canonization: “I still make mistakes, but less and less. Isn’t that what life is about? It has to be less and less, if I am going … going to …” He trails off.

Jack says he finds lessons in his father’s life: “There are deep meanings in dad’s struggle.” LaMotta, where his family is concerned, seems not to have passed on the sins of his father.

MARTIN SCORSESE defends his unrelenting, unprobing film portrait of LaMotta by declaring he didn’t want to apply tired psychology, that he found LaMotta to be an “elemental man.” By which I gather he means a man unfettered by influences. It’s a quaint notion: The Abominable Snowman Comes to Mulberry Street. The director’s peg tells us more about Scorsese than about LaMotta.

Numerous articles have related that Scorsese was sickly child, consumed by movies and movie magazines, looking down from his window on those mean streets below. As a man, the same articles tell us, he is still house bound, running endless private tapes of movies in a more spacious, affluent setting. This sequestered life comes through in all Scorsese’s films, the art of a meticulous voyeur.

Scorsese gets the mannerisms, the speech patterns, the language and the interiors precisely right. What formed the tableau seems beyond him. From a bedroom window—his first viewfinder—barbaric action in the street with an opera record playing in the background might indeed look like the rites of a primal society.

The only way to dispel reverential awe was to know those streets. Saloons and poolrooms were not pagan temples, merely colorful neon way stations in a drab culture. Bright bars were concrete equivalents of the neighborhood’s best painted women, and a rack of pool balls cascading under fluorescent lights transported the shooter into a colorful galaxy. People didn’t die gothic deaths on those streets. Life was drained by the dullness. If LaMotta’s hook were a little slower, his temper a shade less manic, he would have been the Friday night undercard in the local beer joint, not a celebrated “Raging Bull.”

For Scorsese to plumb LaMotta’s psyche he would have to have a narrative curiosity, and that is not the art of a window kid for whom stories take place down below—on the streets. Talk is the province of the comer guys, the verbal spritzers who gaudily throw it around in lieu of money, dreams or hope.

And, of course, narrative is interruptive. It breaks up, sullies the purity of the scene. To visually oriented artists such as as Scorsese, narrative is as sacrilegious as inserting dialogue balloons on a Magritte

So Scorsese too an astringent tone in his film. With Raging Bull, he effectively holds boxing films such as Champion and Body and Soul, which explored Social beginnings, up to ridicule. Through attempts at reason and understanding, these films made overtures to the heart. To Scorsese, obviously, these were cluttered films, weakened by sentiment. So he used his camera as an unsympathetic X-ray machine, the bed boy finally making his bones.

CONTRARY TO stereotypes, “house-grown” kids are often filled with confidence. The doting of parents, the coloring books and ice cream brought to bedside, the extra blanket for the precious body, the music spinning in the background are the trappings of tyke kings. Consequently, they learn to manipulate an audience early. So it’s not surprising Scorsese couldn’t understand LaMotta’s self-loathing and lack of confidence. LaMotta was only one of the litter.

Also, LaMotta feared and hated priests early. When Scorsese made a bow to such emotion in his Mean Streets, he had Harvey Keitel sacrilegiously bless his whiskey glass, evoking Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The Jakes and Studs Lonigans of he world took damnation seriously, not as baroque artistic fodder. To LaMotta, the fear of immolating fire was never aesthetic, it was real: “I felt for some reason my opponent had a right to destroy me.”

Since street kids get by with hustle, not substance, they always doubt themselves. The leopard skin was worn to keep outside tribes at bay. Street kids feel con, not concreteness, is their deliverance. When you work with con and swagger the final damnation is going to be your unmasking in the larger world.

When I was first published at age 30, after working the docks for most of my life, I was terrified instead of being elated. When I was at a social function with my betters, Norman Mailer, Robert Lowell, Arthur Miller, I laced myself with booze against the impending mass denunciation I felt would expose me as a cultural bodysnatcher. This dread was fortified by the oppressive Catholicism of the ’40s and ’50s. The most deeply felt commandment was that earthly glitter was suspect; it was tawdry, whorish rouge on both your religion and your roots. God, like the old gang, only dug regular guys.

An operatic score is much too florid for LaMotta’s life. It is a cultural pretension, akin to the canard that all the Irish are familiar with Yeats. For LaMotta’s odyssey of self-loathing, the Catholic hymn; “Lord I Am Not Worthy,” would have come closer.

Indeed, it is because LaMotta is not “elemental man” that he survived and softened his life. LaMotta is what he is today because he has made intellectual decisions, no visceral ones. Through reading, self-hypnotism and study of various religions, through studying acting and grooming himself as a lecturer—all things foreign to him *and elemental man)—he has found some grace in life.

These are disciplines of the mind, and LaMotta knows his is a life that has to be sentried. He carries this over to his physical well-being by dieting and shunning booze. His decision to be reclusive and his acquiring the domestic arts of cooking and cleaning are further monitors. In the future, he wants to talk to kids about violence and alcoholism (“I think they’ll listen to me”) and do charity work in hospitals. “You know, tell people stories, do some recitals from my stage and nightclub act Make people laugh.”

He’s a man who declares, “I love to do things. To keep busy. That’s why I love Vikki and the kids with me now. I cook every meal. I won’t let any of them touch a dish. I love projects.” Projects are the Dobermans that prowl his darker impulses. He is still a man who suspects before he greets. In frustration, Graziano says, “He’s very complex, very deep.

I tell him to relax, but he can’t. I introduce him to someone, and he says, ‘Who is he? ‘What does he do? What does he want?’ He can’t realize it’s someone who just wants to meet him; He just don’t know. I say hello to the world . He just don’t know.”

Even now, when someone greets Vikki in public with a kiss, he looks on with distrust, but he doesn’t act. Reason has brought him to that simple point. He mistrusts success, as well he should. Every high point in his life has been followed by a crash. The title “nobody is going to take from me” was gone 20 months later, lost to Robinson. From the crown, he went on to divorce, alcoholism and conviction on morals charges. He says now, “I can’t be happy, everything is going so well.”

Not quite that well. Again, success has a rectal side. The IRS has leaned on him for money accrued from the movie, his fifth wife is suing for an alimony settlement and his brother is suing the entire movie production staff, including Jake for their portrayal of him. In his most emotional statement, Jake declares, “Aw, that’s nothing. It’s part of living in this vicious, fuckin’, mixed-ups, sick world.”

To LaMotta’s credit, he keeps such dark rage on a tight leash these days. He has learned the elemental lesson of those streets. You can’t go back because some unhealed part never leaves. In this world our initial address, like tragedy, forever haunts.

For more Flaherty, check out “Toots Shor Among the Ruins.”

Trouble in Paradise

From the vaults here’s Pat Jordan’s profile of Steve and Cyndy Garvey. The piece caused a stir when it was published and the Garveys filed a suit against Newsweek, Inside Sports and Pat Jordan. The case never made it to trial and was eventually settled out-of-court. Soon after, Steve and yindy Garvey separated.

The following is Jordan’s original manuscript–featured in “The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan.” I’ve reprinted it here, with permission from the author, as an example of the kind of lengthy magazine writing that was fashionable at the time.

“Trouble in Paradise” is far from Jordan’s best work, but it captured a time and a place well and offered a candid look at the difficulties of celebrity marriage.

Enjoy.

Trouble in Paradise

This is a story about Southern California, and baseball, and sex, and fame, and wealth, and beauty, and the American Dream. It is a story about a famous athlete and his beautiful wife and the life they live in that rarefied atmosphere that few of us will ever breathe. And yet, despite its uncommon trappings, it is not an uncommon story. It is simply a love story about men and women who marry when young, when they are merely tintypes of one another and their lives together are spread out before them like some preordained feast. It is a story about husbands who go off to work, and wives who become mothers, and the ordinary lives they slip into along the way—lives that are satisfyingly simple when they are young. It is a story about people who change over the years, who grow older in different ways, who become different people from who they once were, and how this is really no one’s fault. Finally, this is a story about people who have slept together in a familiar bed for so many years that it is a profound shock to them when they wake one morning to discover they are sleeping in a strange bed alongside of someone they no longer recognize.

THE HOUSE

The house is decorated in a style common to people who have the resources for instant gratification, but who have yet to grow into a style of their own. The young wife did not have the style, or the patience, to coordinate every detail (the plaid wallpaper with the print sofa), which might have taken years, and so she merely hired the right decorator to whom she could entrust the ten-room house while she and her husband were away. When they returned, the empty house had been filled with things. There was a color television set in every room, and two in the family room. There were eleven LeRoy Neiman prints on the wall of the library. There was a pool table in the den, a few balls scattered across the felt as if to imply a game in progress. There were plants everywhere: hanging-plants in hand-painted pots, floor-plants in wicker baskets, wall plants in elephant horns, plants with spidery tendrils, plants with cactus-like trunks, and plants with rubbery-looking leaves as large as the blade of a shovel. There were three bars done in a Mediterranean style, but no liquor bottles, since neither the wife nor the husband drinks. There were four bathrooms done in Italian marble, with gold-plated fixtures, and a toilet, which, when flushed, spewed forth royal blue Sani-Flush. There was an art book or a high-end magazine in every bathroom, and on every coffee table and end table in the house (Architectural Digest, Paintings by Norman Rockwell, Paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Celebrity Houses), and there were three such books on the massive glass-and-chrome coffee table in the living room, each book arranged casually atop the other, just a bit off-center. There were oriental rugs, too, and inlaid tiles, and matching white linen sofas, and a brick fireplace with a large gold fan in front of it. The fan was so large, in fact, that it obscured the fireplace it was meant to adorn. There was a cut glass sherry decanter ringed by tulip-shaped, long-stemmed glasses on a silver tray on the bar in the library. The decanter was a third filled with an amber liquid, and it was arranged on the bar in such a way that, on sunny days, the light through the window would reflect off the cut-glass in a rainbow of colors. Soft music floated through the house from unseen speakers.

The children’s bedroom overflowed with stuffed animals of every pastel hue. Pinks and yellows and baby blues littered the beds, spilled onto the floor, rose, in a miasma of color, to the ceiling. The master bedroom was done entirely in white. There was a telephone in each of the dressing rooms off the master bath. There was a sauna. There were photographs in the bedroom hallway. Photographs of husband and wife and children. Photographs of the husband and wife. Photographs of the children, two young girls with windblown hair—one blonde, one dark. Photographs of the blonde daughter, laughing, with an upraised can of soda. There were more photographs downstairs: The husband in a baseball uniform, holding two small American flags in each hand and smiling at the camera. The wife in profile, her blonde hair as unreal in its perfection as that of a Breck girl. The wife getting out of a car. Posed getting out of a car, the car door opened, the wife smiling as she points one leg out of the car, her silky dress hiked past her thigh. The husband in uniform again, the wife beside him, holding a baby in her arms, the microphone, home plate, and, unseen, thousands of adoring fans. There were dozens of such photographs, and more. Photographs of the husband swinging a bat, throwing a ball, sliding into home plate, posing with other baseball stars, posing with actors, actresses, politicians, and presidents. All the photographs were the same. Stylized. Posed. Perfect exposures without a blemish. They were the photographs of an unseen portrait photographer, who had spent weeks following the family, taking snaps, developing them at his studio, discarding hundreds of possibilities before, finally, selecting those snaps from which he would let the wife choose.

There were mementoes, too. In glass cases. World Series rings. Golden Gloves. Bronzed spikes. Metal sculptures. Framed magazine covers. Civic awards from the Israeli government. From the Junior Chamber of Commerce. From charities. The husband contributed his time and energy to this charity and that. The husband was one of the ten outstanding young men in America in 1977. The husband was a Guardian of Freedom.

All the mementoes were the same. Recent. Expensive-looking. Freshly-minted reminders of the husband’s past, as if, for this family, there was no past worth recalling other than the husband’s, and no past more distant than that of a few years ago.

Everything in this house looked the same. Unblemished. Freshly minted. Disposable. Objects with no real past. Objects that could be replaced instantly with enough money. There were no rotting, gray, baby shoes of a revered grandmother. There were no brown-tinted photographs of some stern great uncle in a high-button collar, his slicked down hair parted in the middle. There were no off-focus photographs, poorly but lovingly taken by a young husband with his first Polaroid camera. There was none of that faintly shabby, comfortably worn feel of a house filled up in stages over the years as the family prospered and grew. This was a house in which most of its objects seemed to have been purchased at once, and, if they are replaced, it was not because they had been broken, but because someone had had a whim, to change a mood, to redecorate. This house was stuffed with such things. There was no unused space. It was as if, for this family, all these expensive-looking objects were needed to fill in the gaps in their unformed natures. Outside, the house and its surroundings are typical of a certain kind of affluent Southern California architecture and landscaping. Stucco walls. Orange Mission tile roof. Greenhouse plants and flowers. Grass the color of forest green and laid down in sod strips that could be rolled up like a carpet and replaced when the strips died in the Southern California heat. There is the obligatory swimming pool, reached through sliding glass doors in the den. There are floodlights aimed at the house. And a sprinkler system. The sprinklers are aimed at the house, too, not at the grass, because this is the San Fernando Valley, the land of brush fires, a land without trees, with only tall, dried grasses that flame up in the summer, a land once so uninhabitable that only coyotes and rabbits and rattlesnakes thrived.

The house sits at the end of a dead-end street on a bluff overlooking the valley and the community of Calabasas Park. Below in the valley lies a spotless, geometrically laid-out community of similar houses, of streets with vaguely European names (Park Capri, Park Siena, Park Vicente), of schools and shopping centers and country clubs and a man-made lake. All of it looks as if it sprang up, full-blown, only yesterday, without the benefit of a past, a real past, a past more distant than a few years ago. It is not the kind of community in which people go from birth to death without leaving. People move into Calabasas when they become suddenly affluent, and then, after a few years and an amicable divorce, they move back to Los Angeles, thirty miles to the south.

THE WIFE

The Wife is thirty-years-old. She is tall and thin. She has long blonde hair. She is pretty. Conventionally pretty. Pretty in the manner of a Miss America contestant. Undistinguished. Lacquered. She embellishes that look to give it distinction—bleached hair, heavy make-up—but her efforts only underline its lack of distinction. It is a look thought glamorous in certain regions of this country, and despite her protestations to the contrary (“I don’t try to look this way. I just always was glamorous.”), it is not a look acquired without effort. She claims her looks are a burden. “As a kid, they made me shy. People reacted to me in a negative way because of them. I always wanted my personality to overcome my looks, but it was difficult for people to get past them.” Her ambivalence is not uncommon among women who have been pretty all their lives. They have taken satisfaction from their looks for so long that, even when they wish to break the habit, it is not easy. “Men bother me on planes,” she says. “Businessmen. Sometimes, I leave first class and go back to coach to read in peace. Sometimes, though, if they’re only trying to be polite, if they say something like they like my profile, well, then I have to stay and talk to them.”

She was born in Detroit of Czechoslovakian ancestry. Her father was an Air Force colonel who dragged his family back and forth across the country. She attended more grammar schools than she can remember, and four high schools before she finally graduated from one in Washington State. She learned early how to forgo a social life in favor of academic achievement. She learned also, how to be alone. “I’m still not comfortable in group situations,” she says. She describes her parents as “harmonious opposites.” Her father was very strict with her, more strict than he was with her two brothers. “Still, I loved him,” she says. “But I identified with my mother. She kept the family together. She made a home wherever we were. And even though she taught me domestic skills, I’ve always felt she wanted me to be something. To achieve. She was not a career woman herself. She could have been, I think, if she hadn’t followed my father all over. When I was a little girl, I told my father I would never marry a man who was gone all the time.”

She met her husband at a dance at Michigan State, where she was a freshman, he a sophomore and a professional baseball player. Although he was then in the minor leagues, he was one of those golden youths for whom major league stardom had already been predicted. It was merely a matter of time.

“He was different from anyone I’d ever met,” she says. “He was a gentleman. He was not all over my body the minute I saw him. He seemed so stable. Maybe it was because of my childhood, but it was terrific to talk to someone who knew what he wanted to do. He’d already signed then. He was so directed, you know, to be a baseball star.”

They dated for two-and-one-half years, during which time he did become a major league star—he was the National League’s Most Valuable Player at the age of twenty-four—and their relationship reached a point where, as she puts it, “either we married or it died. I’d never thought of marrying a baseball player. I wasn’t even a fan, and then, suddenly, I was the wife of a major leaguer. The wife of a star.”

For the first time in her life, the wife, always a pretty woman, became visible in relation to someone else—her husband. It was exciting. She would walk down the ramp leading to her seat with the other wives at the stadium and fans would turn in admiration. Children, even grown men, begged her for her autograph. When her husband came to bat, he always paused a minute in the on-deck circle, and looked for her in the stands. The camera quickly panned to her (she was easy to spot, with her long blonde hair). She cheered her husband on. He hit a home run, or a double, or a single, and, in a way, she had shared in it.

“The high point of my day was going to the ballpark,” she says. “Soon my entire satisfaction was in my husband’s career, his day-to-day achievements. Some of the wives tear their hair out during the games. I watched one wife unravel the entire hem of her dress. Another tore her nails off. I wasn’t that bad. I wasn’t that team-oriented. Until my husband came to bat, I would read a book to pass the time. I made sure the book was in my lap so no one would notice.”

In her early twenties, she became used to living her life in the public eye, in that rarefied atmosphere of adulation and deference and instant gratification so familiar to famous athletes, politicians, actors, and rock stars, who, after awhile, see it all as their birthright. Her husband bought her a baby blue Cadillac with a vanity license plate—“Cyndy N6” (her name, his uniform number). Her husband took her with him when he was a guest on a television talk show. While she waited in the wings, he took his place beside Johnny or Dinah or Merv or Mike.

Wearing a three-piece-suit, his thumbs hooked into his vast pockets, looking for all the world like a young Southern entrepreneur, the husband could not contain himself. He waited for an opening, forced it even, and then began to tell Johnny or Dinah or Merv or Mike about his wife: how intelligent she was (3.8 grade average in sociology), how beautiful she was (a model), how talented (a dancer), what a great wife she was (she inspired him to hit home runs), what a great mother she was (for by then they had two daughters), and, finally, how much he loved her. The audience applauded. (At home, unseen, more than one ordinary housewife groaned at his effusiveness.) Then, the husband, hinting broadly, told his host that his wife was waiting for him off-stage. The host invariably took the bait. Well, let’s bring her out! She slipped through the curtain onto the stage. The audience applauded, again, applauded as resoundingly as if she had been a famous actress or singer, and not merely the wife of a baseball star. As she walked across the stage towards her husband, he beamed.

The husband took her with him everywhere, and always, it seemed, it was a public occasion recorded by the media. She went to banquets when he gave a speech or received yet another award. There were mostly men at these banquets, older men, baseball executives, Rotarians, and they were all charmed by the wife. “They always said the same thing,” says the wife. “‘Oh, isn’t she lovely!’ They said it to my husband. In front of me. ‘Lovely’ became my middle name.” She went with her husband to charity functions, too, and political fund raisers (for even then, the husband harbored distant political ambitions) in which she and her husband were as celebrated as the politicians seeking office. “When we walked in,” says the wife, “the crowd parted for us as if we were royalty.”

Their public perceived then as a handsome, loving couple. And nice. Nice in that bland, middle American conception of niceness (“If you can’t say something nice about someone, then it’s best not to say anything at all.”) It seemed almost irrelevant that, despite their image, they were nice, truly nice to those who got to know them. The media, in which, increasingly, they seemed to live their lives, began referring to them as baseball’s perfect couple. The blonde wife with the perfect smile (so what if, picture after picture, it was the same smile and her hair seemed a solid piece?). The handsome husband with the blow-dried hair (so what if he looked a bit too boyish and his hair was done at Jon Peters’ Salon in Beverly Hills).

They signed on with the William Morris Agency. Endorsements began to pour in: Pepsi (“As soon as I get to my seat at the stadium,” says the wife, “I order a Coke. . . . Oh, I mean Pepsi!”), Jack LaLanne (the husband and wife exercising, smiling, not a drop of sweat anywhere, and the wife, curiously, appearing taller than the husband), Mattel (the makers of, among other things, Ken and Barbie dolls. After they signed with Mattel, the media began to refer to the couple, not without a touch of sarcasm, as “the Ken and Barbie dolls of baseball.” The sarcasm escaped the wife, at first: “I was so flattered,” she says. “I only wish I had…” (modest pause) “…as much on top as she does.”)

Soon, their public image began to work against them. No one could be that perfect! No couple could be that much in love! No life was that simple! “But it was,” says the wife. “It was simple. We were just young and in love and we did a lot of charitable work.” Her husband began to have trouble with his teammates, who felt he was receiving a disproportionate share of publicity. Worse, they felt he courted it. (More than once, he was heard saying to a magazine writer, “Will this be a cover story?”) His image grated on them. They questioned its sincerity. How could someone, a baseball player, a star, on whose time the public had made unfair demands, be so nice to everyone? Before every home game, he went out of his way to say hello to two little old ladies in the stands. “They’ve come to every game,” he says, and then adds with all humility, “They just wouldn’t feel right unless I said, ‘Hello.’ It makes their day.”

There was a much publicized locker room fight with a teammate. Punches were thrown. They grappled on the floor. Their teammates had to pry them apart. Afterwards, there were televised apologies. The husband began to crack. In an emotional speech, he told the audience he was defending his wife’s honor. He refused to elaborate.

The bad feeling that some teammates harbored against the husband spilled over onto the wife. The other wives complained that she was too often with her husband, especially on those public occasions when the media was present. They told her she had never paid her dues in the minor leagues as they had, as if this was the wife’s fault. They complained that a woman’s magazine photo lay-out of the team wives carried a disproportionate number of photos of the wife. They threatened to withdraw their approval of the lay-out unless the imbalance was rectified. They complained, finally, that too often during a game the television camera panned the wives and focused on the wife.

“It wasn’t my fault,” says the wife. “It was just that my hair made it easy for the camera man to pick me out. And I didn’t tell the magazine to use more pictures of me than the others. It was their decision. A few of the wives—and I want to emphasize this point, I’ve only had trouble with a few of them—maybe were not as pretty as I am, and maybe they didn’t have a vehicle like I did—” meaning the husband—“I began to sit off by myself at games. Why not? I’d always felt their conversation was so trivial, anyway. I mean, those few I didn’t get along with. They spent hours talking about make-up. I would go wild. They said I was a snob for not sitting with them, so I went upstairs to the Stadium Club. I watched the game from behind a glass partition.

“I phased out of baseball three years ago. I don’t see the wives much anymore. I don’t have to ask them about their kids or their husbands or anything. I only went to eight games last year. It wasn’t any one big thing, it was just that a season came along and I said, that’s it. I don’t go to banquets anymore with my husband, either. I told him I couldn’t take it. I wanted to scream! All those men talking baseball. I was just a ‘lovely’, that’s all. I promised myself I wouldn’t do that anymore. My husband says I don’t want to participate in any part of his life now. He gets invitations that say, Oh, and your wife came come, too. She can sit on the dais with you. Of course, she isn’t gonna do shit, but so what? I wouldn’t go. There would always be this empty place beside my husband with my name tag, and my name spelled wrong. I hate that. But that’s the way it was…I don’t go with my husband to talk shows either. I’ll only go if I have a vehicle of my own. I can sing, you know. I can dance. I can talk. I can chew gum.”

The wife was twenty-nine-years-old. Life was no longer simple. She took a job.

THE JOB

The chef is smoking a long cigar while plucking the feathers from a dead chicken. The lady from Adopt-a-Dog is sitting on stool with two whimpering puppies and a towel on her lap. The male model is smoothing the sides of his hair with the flat of his palms. The housewife, who lost her husband to her best friend and wrote a book about it, is talking to an actress whose career was based on her talent for marrying a succession of men, each more wealthy than the last. The actress, a plump little blonde, is telling the housewife how she has managed to retain her taut facial skin without benefit of a facelift. She throws her hair forward, over her face, and points behind her ears. “You see, Dahlink,” she says. “Not
even a scar.”

Suddenly, there is a call for quiet on the set. The director, a slim black man with a gold earring in one pierced ear, begins counting down, out loud, from ten. “Nine…eight…seven…” Behind him, a New York commercial actress is telling a bearded man about her network coffee commercial.

“You see this,” she says, pointing to her face.” This is the face that launched a thousand coffee cups.”

The director whirls around on his heels, plants his hands on his hips, and snaps, “Quiet, LOVE! If you please!” He returns to his counting. The battery of cameras begins to move forward, towards the talk show host, a dapper man in a pinstriped suit, who is sitting on a large sofa. Sitting beside him is the wife, the show’s co-host. The director points at the host and nods with great exaggeration. The host begins his monologue. The wife smiles at the camera. She is sitting up very straight, legs crossed, hands folded in her lap, leaning slightly towards the host. Every so often she interjects a comment. The host responds without looking at her. She smiles at the camera. The host goes on. From the shadows, the New York actress whispers to the bearded man. “It’s a regional look,” she says of the wife. “It would never play in New York.”

The wife is wearing a teal blue, Qiana, pajama suit with white high heeled shoes. The suit is belted at the waist with a large, cloth flower. There is a string of pearls around her long, tanned neck. Her blonde hair is pulled back into a pony tail revealing a pair of oversized bulb earrings. Her hair is pulled back so tightly from the sides of her face, stretching the skin, that her face looks gaunt. She is too thin. Her thin arms appear as sticks protruding from her sleeveless blouse. On the television screen she appears only as slim, but in person she looks emaciated. There are deep lines, parentheses, on either side of her wide mouth, as if from too much smiling, or too severe a diet, or maybe just from an inner tension that is finally beginning to show in her face.

The host is telling a funny story directly into the camera. The wife adds a word here and there, no more than a phrase. She punctuates her words with a taut smile, a laugh, a flutter of eyelids, a gesture of her hands, all of which seem a bit out-of-sync with her words. She smiles too broadly, too often, too late. The host finishes his story and she laughs, laying a hand on his arm and leaning against his shoulder. The host begins another story. The wife listens, smiles. She initiates nothing, ventures little, seems content only to react to his lead, as if all her life she has been only an appendage of men.

As the host is finishing his monologue, the wife interrupts him with a truly funny comment of her own. The camera crew breaks into laughter. The host turns his head towards her, simultaneously pulling away from her as if her touch carried contagion. “What the hell do you know?” he says, only half-kidding. “You’ve only been doing this show for a year. I’ve been doing it for five years.” She smiles at him, as a dutiful wife would a husband who has chastised her in front of guests. Unseen by the camera, she kicks him in the shins.

“Oh, Jeez,” says the New York actress to the bearded man. “No wonder she doesn’t have much confidence. He won’t give her a break. He’s a real cunt.”

Before the commercial break, the host introduces the day’s guests. The camera pans to each of them at various parts of the set. The chef at the kitchen set. The Adopt-a-Dog lady on the stool. The blonde actress and the housewife-author. The male model in a jogging suit. The model looks properly macho into the camera, a snarl on his lips, and then, when the camera leaves him, he dashes off, like the athlete he is supposed to be, towards a make-shift dressing room in the shadows. A male attendant is leaning against the dressing room wall. As the model dashes inside, the attendant disdainfully peels off after him.

During the commercial break, the wife takes a sip from a mug of coffee. When she returns it to the coffee table in front of her it is smudged with lipstick. She climbs down from the elevated sofa set and goes over to the Adopt-a-Dog lady and sits on a stool beside her. She smiles at the lady and pets the whimpering puppies with a wary hand. The black director hands her a towel. She lays it across her lap and reluctantly takes the two puppies. She is holding them stiffly in her lap when the camera returns to her. She smiles into the camera as she begins to interview the Adopt-a-Dog lady.

She gives the audience a number to call if anyone of them wishes to adopt one of the puppies. As she finishes her interview, she looks suddenly startled. She looks down at the puppies in her lap. She shakes her head and rolls her eyes heavenward. The camera crew breaks into laughter. The Adopt-a-Dog lady blushes. The wife forces a smile into the camera as it pans away from her for another commercial break. The wife, with a forced smile, dries her lap with the towel and goes back to the sofa set with the host to wait for the camera’s return. The host points at her soiled lap, and laughs. She says nothing, smiles at him, and sits stiffly waiting for the camera to return. When it does, and the host begins to introduce the next guest, the male model, who is now in a white summer suit, the wife takes the wet towel in her lap and lays it gently over the host’s shoulder.

After the segment with the model, the wife goes over to the kitchen set with the chef. She is replaced at the sofa set by the housewife-author and the blonde actress. The blonde actress stops at the foot of the elevated set, her arms held out from her sides like wings, and says, “Dahlinks, somebody please, give me a step up.”

The director holds her under her outstretched arms and helps her up. Soon the camera pans back to the sofa and the host begins interviewing the housewife-author, who is plugging her book, and the blonde actress, who is plugging a line of cheap cosmetic jewelry. Waiting at the kitchen set, unseen by the camera, the wife is laughing softly with the chef. He is a robust, barrel-chested man with a van Dyke beard and slicked back hair that curls up at the nap of his neck. He tells the wife something with a lascivious grin, flourishing his cigar for emphasis. Laughing, she brushes lint off his navy blazer and straightens the handkerchief dripping from his coat pocket. At the sofa set the housewife-author is telling the host about her experiences. “The problem with most women,” she says, “is that their self-esteem is always tied up with a man.”

Finally, the camera pans to the wife and she introduces the chef. He drops his cigar and steps on it as he greets her and the audience with a booming, good-natured voice. He resembles an 1890s circus strongman. He says he is going to teach the wife how to prepare a chicken for stew. He hands her a pot-holder glove. She looks at it, holds it up to the camera with a thumb and forefinger as if it was rancid.

“What’s this?” she says. “I haven’t been in a kitchen in three years.”

The chef roars with laughter. The wife shrugs, slips on the pot-holder. She is no longer studied, seems very much at ease now, and confident with the chef. Perhaps it is because she is freed from the tyranny of the host, or perhaps it is merely because the chef is such a good-natured, sexually robust man, and the wife is so obviously attracted to such men.

The chef holds up the plucked chicken by the neck. It is a ridiculous sight. He pinches it in various places, slaps it a few times to the delight of everyone on the set. “You know,” he says to the wife, “I used to be a geek in the circus.” The wife laughs, a truly genuine laugh, and as she does she slides her arm around his back and clings to him… At the close of the show, the camera pans back to the host who announces tomorrow’s guests. The wife stays to talk to the chef. From the shadows, the New York actress says to the bearded man, “You know, she could make it in New York. If I was a casting director, and she came to me for a job, I’d tell her to go home, wash her face, cut her hair, get some sleep, gain fifteen pounds, and then come back and read some copy…Oh, and of course, she’d have to get over whatever it is that’s making her so drawn and tense.”

THE HOTEL

The two producers have taken off their suit coats and silk shirts against the morning heat as they sit by the hotel pool playing cards and talking business into telephones. They pause in their business dealings only to acknowledge each other’s play of cards with a nod and a flourish of their long cigars. They are in their sixties, distinguished looking men, in that typically Southern California manner. Tanned. White-haired. Mustachioed. Vigorous-looking, with the faint muscle tone of older men who train daily with chromium-plated weights. They are wearing gold medallions around their necks, the medallions partially obscured by the white foliage on their chests.

The pool, like the pink stucco hotel beside it, is camouflaged from the street by palm trees and dark, tropical vegetation, as are most of the pools belonging to the mansions on this residential street of millionaires. The pool boy circles the pool, laying white towels over the arm of each deck chair. A woman is swimming laps. She swims from one end of the pool to the other and back again. She swims with a maddening precision, altering her stroke only to lift her head from the water for a breath, before plunging on. The pool boy is oblivious to the woman in the pool. He is wearing white tennis shorts, and he moves with a ponderous, thick-legged slowness. He is blonde, but no longer youthful, and his body has not aged well as it has taken on flesh. He stops to hand a towel to an actress reclining on a chaise lounge reading a script. She is wearing dark glasses, a string bikini, and satin short-shorts. She accepts the towel with a languidly raised hand without taking her eyes from her script. She resembles, faintly, Jane Fonda, only in a more conventional way, with less of Fonda’s distinct, big-jawed prettiness.

A few chairs away, a party of men in bathing suits is seated around an awninged table, finishing their breakfast. One of them is the son of the wealthiest man in the world. A few years ago the son was kidnapped and held for ransom in Italy, and after he had been released there was talk that he had engineered his own abduction to bilk his father out of millions. Every so often, one of the men at the table glances over at the actress. Finally, the youngest-looking man, red-haired and freckled, with part of an ear missing, leans forward and whispers to one of his friends. The friend gets up and goes over to the actress. He is wearing Bermuda shorts and white patent-leather loafers without socks. He hovers over the actress for a long moment, waiting for her to acknowledge him. She does so, only after she has finished a page of her script. He smiles at her, and says something. She looks at him wearily, closes her eyes behind her dark glasses as if to erase him from sight, and, without speaking, returns to her script. The man utters a curse and returns to his friends. The actress does not look up from her script again for a long while, and when she finally does, the men have gone. Only the remnants of their breakfast remain. Two hummingbirds are hovering over the plates, pecking at the morsels of food.

The maitre’d sighs, snaps up the menus he has just deposited on the table near the service bar, and leads the wife and her gentleman companion to another table in the center of the nearly-deserted hotel restaurant.

“Will this do, Madam?” he says.

“Yes. Thank you very much,” says the wife, smiling. They sit down. After the maitre’d leaves, the wife says, “Well, I just don’t care. I will not be seated near the service bar.” Her companion nods. He is a tall man, in his forties, with a salt-and-pepper beard. He unbuttons the cuffs of his silk shirt and is about to roll them back, when the wife says, “Oh, let me do it. I think it looks sooo sexy.”

She rolls back the cuffs twice, smiling at the man as she does so. It is the smile of a coquette. Of someone who thinks they are being sexy. Of someone who is trying to be sexy. Of someone who has read too many of the wrong women’s magazines. It implies nothing, is merely a dessert filled with empty calories. Falsely satisfying, yet without substance. She knows, and she assumes her companion knows, that her flirtation is meant to lead nowhere. She is the wife of a star, who can afford such a luxury. She is used to flirting without having to deliver on it. It is safe. Most men are gratified by it, by her merely laying a hand on their arm, a small blessing, for which they are grateful.

Her companion asks how she manages to put up with the talk show host. She smiles and says, “You mean, Bozo? Oh, he’s my big bad brother. He’s always teasing me, but I can put up with it because I don’t need it. The show, I mean. They told him the show would be a lot better if he’d do less. But he won’t. Actually, he’s good for me. There’s a lot of give and take, and I have to hold my own against a very strong man. Viewers like the way we bicker back and forth. It’s like a husband and wife bickering over coffee in the morning. The funny thing is, we really like each other. I mean, he was in a bad mood today because he didn’t get a commercial he auditioned for last night. That’s all. He took it out on me, but that’s the way it is. Still, I really do like him. And I love the atmosphere of the set. It’s kinda like a baseball locker room, only on a higher intellectual level, don’t you think? Oh, that’s dumb to say. I’ve never been in a locker room.”

A waiter comes to take their order, and then leaves. The room is filled now, with voices and the clatter of silverware against porcelain. The people at tables in the middle of the room are talking to one another, while those at the more prestigious booths along the walls are talking into telephones. The telephones are green, hospital green, their wires are a faded pink. Everything in this hotel-lounge, which is famous for its movie star clientele, is done in pink or green. Napkins (green). Table cloths (pink). Rubber plants (green). Carnations (pink, their stems, green). Leather booths (green). The telephones are green and pink. A woman in a turban is seated alongside of a man at a booth. The man is eating while the woman is talking into a telephone. The man says something to the woman. She puts a finger into the ear nearest the man so she can better hear the voice coming through the telephone. The man sighs, disgustedly, and pours heavy cream over strawberries in a silver dish. He sprinkles powdered sugar over the cream. At another booth, two men in dark suits are talking very loudly into telephones in order to be heard over the chatter of the three young blonde women interspersed between them. The men are leaning back in the booths, away from the women, who are leaning forward over the table, chattering gaily.

“Actually, this show is my kindergarten,” says the wife. “I’m working, learning, and some day I’ll graduate. I’ll be all right. I’m not twenty-two anymore. I’m no little nymphet. But I’m no ballsy career woman either. I’m just trying to balance a career with being a wife and mother. I have all this energy and nowhere to channel it. Now I have a voice of my own. I’m gonna do something with my life. Maybe I’ll do news, or straight acting, or a talk show. Whatever, I won’t go through life wondering what I might have been… Would I like a career in New York? You mean, if my husband was traded to New York? Oh, you mean just me.” She laughs, as if embarrassed. “I can’t answer that right now. The way things are…”

After the waiter brings their food, the wife is quiet for a long moment. She picks at her food. Finally, she looks up and says in a flat voice devoid of emotion, “When I married my husband, I had no idea it would lead to a career of my own. I never intended to be anything but a wife and mother until a few years ago. I was bored, so I took a job. I know my husband wants me to be happy and fulfilled, and if this job does it then that’s what he wants for me. In the long run, my career might even be bigger than my husband’s.”

She laughs again, as if contemplating a fantasy. “You know, a woman in her thirties needs mobility to grow,” she continues. “When she gets into something she’s hard pressed to give it up…even for a man. I know in my own case, if I was single now, I’d be a hard person to marry…But still…my career doesn’t fill the void of not having my husband home during the baseball season. He’s gone 92 days out of the summer, and during the offseason, he’s very active in business. He’s got to take advantage of his peak earning years as a ballplayer. He’s got to capitalize on his success now. Of course, he only endorses products he uses…But God, sometimes, I wish I could cuddle with someone. I have to have someone to talk to at night. Baseball is a tough sport for a wife. A baseball wife can’t work at a conventional job, like teaching, or else she’ll never see her husband. Baseball doesn’t leave much time to be together, unless the wife goes to the park and sits in the stands and cheers her husband on. I don’t do that anymore. I’m sick of baseball. It’s fun for guys, but it’s a watching sport for girls…Jeez, when there’s no man in your house you can really go nuts…

“The wife of a baseball player must see that baseball is his main thing. I have to be a constant support for my husband. If I’m angry at him when he leaves his house for the stadium, I feel guilty maybe he won’t do well. Of course, he always does do well.” (She says this, not with pride, but with sarcasm.) “At first I channeled all my energy into him. Now he calls home, and I’m not there. A baseball wife either lives her life around her husband’s career or else she gets frustrated and this affects their marriage. A lot of us discover a need for our own identity at 30, but we’re so used to thinking in terms of a man, we think all we need to get rid of the frustration is a different man. We trade up, we think. It’s a halfway measure. If the new man’s an athlete, we’ll outgrow him, too.”

Throughout her monologue, the wife is speaking in a brusque, nasal voice that sounds almost whiny except that there is no self-pity behind it. Her voice is perfectly flat, objective, punctuated here and there by quick smiles and brittle laughter that seem rarely to correspond to the words she is speaking. In fact, her style and words contain none of the nuances of felt emotion.

“Of course, baseball leaves the wives a lot of time to develop,” she continues. “The men are gone so much of the time. It’s one of the advantages, if that’s what you want. If you don’t, you’re lonely. I’m both. And wives left alone tend to take charge. But charge of what? You think, great. I’ve got a famous husband, a big house, a career, everything, but what good is it? Go try to sleep with it. There’s always a dark moment when you want to make love to someone and there’s no one there, so you go stumbling around an empty house talking to yourself.

“The off-season’s no better when your husband is like mine, with a lot of outside business interests. You try to fulfill social obligations, go to dinners, shows, friends’ homes, and still you’re alone. You end up talking about a ghost person…You know, baseball wives are told how lucky we are, and we’re not ungrateful for the good things, but…it’s just that sometimes you crave good conversation, a laugh, and in baseball these things aren’t there for women. If a woman shows a baseball player too much in a non-sexual way, he doesn’t know what to make of her. That’s why I love older men. They can appreciate you. They’re their own men. They aren’t still growing up. I mean, I always wonder, am I gonna go through life knowing only baseball players? They’re so shy around real women. They’re nice guys, but I don’t have much to say to many of them. Is that what a hero is? Of course not. I wouldn’t want my child to look at baseball players or any athletes as heroes. It’s such a limited endeavor. You train so hard, for what?

“My feelings about baseball must sound trite to fans who see players as heroes making so much money. I mean, I don’t want to sound ungrateful. As Chico Escuela on Saturday Night Live says, ‘Baseball been berry, berry good to me.’ And it has. I’ve got security. How do you complain? The average fan is gonna read this and say, ‘What the hell does she have to be frustrated about? Hollywood must have turned her head.’ But they don’t know…Do you want to hear a baseball story? A real baseball story?

“The other day my daughter fell out of a tree and broke her wrist. My husband and I rushed her to the hospital. While she was in the operating room I had to fill out a questionnaire for a nurse. When I said my husband’s occupation was ‘baseball player’, she asked, for what team? I told her. Then she asked, what position? I got so pissed off, I shoved the paper at my husband and told him to deal with her, she was obviously more interested in him than our daughter. Now there’s another woman who’s gonna think I’m just the stuck-up wife of a star.

“Anyway, just before they set my daughter’s wrist, my husband had to leave to go to the stadium. He couldn’t wait. That’s the clearest vision of when the game comes first. Before anything. It’s so cut and dried with him. I got furious. It’s always been like that. Another time I had a baby while he was playing in the World Series. When they wheeled me back from the delivery room—I’m just coming out of the anesthesia—the nurse is putting on the TV. ‘I thought you’d like to watch your husband playing in the World Series,’ she says. I screamed at her to shut it off. Hell, he didn’t come to watch me. I could have died in childbirth and my man wouldn’t have been there. The burden is always on the wife’s shoulders. Her man is never there. You can’t even make love to your husband when you want to. You’ve got to wait for an off-day. What if you get your period? What if you don’t feel like it then? How often can you put that aside? Do you think a marriage can survive that? I need to be cuddled, tested, talked to, made love to, and if I don’t have those things I turn into a stone princess. I’m very sexual looking but I can be like ice when I’m near someone who doesn’t give off a sexual aura. I’m much more sexual than my husband. I need a man more than he needs a woman. And I want a man when I want one. That’s my ideal fantasy love. I love men. Men who are their own man. I don’t want a man who’s still growing up. My husband is the same person now that he was when I first met him. On exactly the same emotional level. He’s so goal oriented. He wants to be a senator. Ten years from now I’ll be a senator’s wife. Isn’t that funny? When he wants something he puts blinders on. That’s why he’s so successful. He’s disciplined and controlled. He’s never loose. He can’t be mussed. We play tennis, and after a few minutes, I’m a mess. He doesn’t have one hair on his head out of place. It’s not that he tries to be that way, he just is. He’s neat. Everything about him is neat. He’s the pinnacle of what everyone should be. Really, isn’t that awful? It makes life so boring. His image has been carried over on to me. We look alike so people think we are alike. But what have I ever done to make people think I’m so cherry pie? I’m not like him at all. I’m street smart. Emotional. Sensitive. I mean, he edits his thoughts. I can’t. It drives him nuts. I’m so uncontrollable he’s afraid of what I’m gonna say. I’ve been misquoted so often. I get so angry when I’m thrown into an article about him without my being talked to. He didn’t tell me you were doing a story on me, because he wasn’t sure I’d agree to it. When I found out, that old feeling clicked in me. I thought he set me up for it so I couldn’t refuse. He’s still reverberating from my wrath over the last story. Old news about the wives all hating me. A lot of Ken and Barbie shit. I told my husband, thanks a lot. Now, what are you gonna do about this? He said there would come a time. I said, when? My husband’s been in this town for twelve years and if people respected him as a man, they’d respect his wife, too…”

When the wife and her companion finally get up to leave, the maitre’d comes over to them. He apologizes to the wife for not having recognized her earlier. He is ashamed of himself, he says, Why, he watches her on television every morning. She forgives him with a smile, and then brushes his cheek with hers, her lips puckered into a kiss that caresses the air.

THE HUSBAND

The husband, dressed in a white baseball uniform with royal blue letters and red numerals, goes to the refrigerator in the clubhouse and withdraws a bottle of diet Pepsi. He does not bother to ask his guest, a bearded man in jeans, if he wants a soda, too. The husband scoops up some ice into a plastic cup and then pours the soda over the ice in such a way, the cup tilted at just the right angle, that the foam will not overflow the cup. Satisfied, he scissors his hair off his forehead and hands the cup to his guest.

In person, the husband does not look so boyishly soft as he does on television. He looks more rugged, manly, but in a Hollywood way, with a handsomely lined face. He is too handsome to be a long distance truck driver and not nearly scuffed enough to be a rodeo cowboy. Yet, his face has more character than one might expect, certainly more than that of the messianic Jim Jones, whom he closely resembles. The husband is sitting on a sofa in a small room off the clubhouse, watching a video tape of himself batting in a game. He stares at his image through narrowed eyes. Without taking his eyes off his image, he tells the man running the video tape to replay it. His image back-tracks like that in an old time comedy movie. Then it goes forward again, slower. He watches himself swing the bat. He fouls off the ball. Still without taking his eyes off his image, the husband says, “Not that far off. Yes. Not that far. Maybe move back in the box a bit.”

He speaks in a soft, droning, almost hypnotic voice, and it is not clear whether he is talking to anyone else in the room, or merely to himself. His image swings again. The husband says, “Hmmm. That’s it. That’s a training guide right there.” He nods his head and smiles. It is a small smile. Smug, almost. The smile of a man who is so obviously satisfied with himself, in a world of the dissatisfied.

The husband hops up the dugout steps onto the field and breaks into a trot towards first base while, around him, his teammates are taking pregame batting practice. He moves precisely, with a textbook stride, almost in slow motion. He is conscious of the way he runs and of the fact that he is being watched. His pumping arms are properly bent into L’s at his sides, and held away from his body a bit, like wings, as if to keep his shirt from wrinkling. He resembles a man trotting to catch a bus in a new silk shirt on a hot day.

A fan in the stands calls out his name. Without breaking stride, the husband glances back over his shoulder and bestows a blessing. He smiles. It is an odd smile, both humble and smug, and it is the same smile he shows in every newspaper and magazine photograph of himself. It is automatic, perfected, the smile of a man who is used to smiling often in public, even when the occasion does not demand it, just as a foreigner smiles too readily at things he does not understand.

Standing at first base, the husband takes ground balls during batting practice. He moves deftly around the bag, scooping up balls with studied nonchalance, and then pausing a moment to examine each ball. He looks for scuff marks or caked dirt that might cause the next ground ball to take a bad hop. If he finds a blemish he either tosses the ball into the dugout or else scrapes off the dirt with his fingernail before lobbing it back to his coach. He sets himself again in a classic first baseman’s pose, and waits for the next ball. He moves to his right, bends low and spears the ball. He moves with a certain stiffness, as if he has yet to loosen aching muscles. His are the movements of a man with a single focus of concentration, a man for whom nothing—running, picking up a ball, smiling—is natural or intuitive and everything is learned.

The husband trots over to the batting cage to take his swings. There is a crowd of people around the cage. Teammates. Opposing players in orange and black uniforms. Photographers with cameras slung around their necks. Reporters with tape recorders and steno pads. Television announcers wearing patchwork sports jackets and white patent leather loafers. The husband shakes hands with an opposing black player and makes a joke, “No socialism before a game.” It is a malapropism. He means socializing. He allows each writer a few moments for an interview; he poses for photographers; he stands for an interview with a television sportscaster. He greets everyone around the cage with good cheer and a smile. (“You should say something nice to everyone,” he has said.)

It is the same smile for each. Only his compliments vary. They are personal to each man. He asks one man what kind of gas mileage he is getting with his new car. He congratulates another on his daughter’s acceptance into a prestigious college. He compliments a third on a book he has written. (“I gave it to my wife,” he says. “She read it three times.”) Each person is slightly taken aback at his knowledge of their personal affairs; and then flattered that he, a star, has taken the time to bestow a blessing; and, finally, disturbed, although they are not sure why. It is, as if, like a good politician, he has memorized the voluminous file cards his advance men have accumulated on the personal lives of each constituent he is about to meet at a fund raiser.

Twenty minutes before the game is to begin, the husband is seated by his locker in the clubhouse. Around him, his teammates joke amongst themselves, ignoring him. (“I don’t understand how he does it,” says the wife. “His locker is between those of two players he doesn’t get along with.”) “It’s not so hard,” says the husband. “You have to learn to live with thirty players because you’ve got to play together.”

Then he tells a sportswriter it would be best to conduct the interview in the concrete runway where they can have some “privacy.” They go out to the runway and sit on uniform trunks. Before the writer can even ask a question, the husband begins the interview in his soft, droning voice. A star, he is used to being interviewed. Immediately, he steers the interview in the direction in which he wishes it to go. He talks about his children. How he sent them to a Catholic school to get a Catholic base. How difficult it is for him to function like other fathers. Still, despite the burden of his stardom, his daughters are very well-adjusted. He and his wife try to be like other parents, he says, and then, “I can be a silly daddy, too, you know.”

He looks down and flutters his eyelids as he speaks. It is meant to be a humbling gesture, The Emperor Without Clothes, but it comes off only as contrived. Self-conscious in the extreme.

“I always try to do what I feel like doing,” he continues. “I’m not acting. This is not a concentrated effort. I am the same as I was ten years ago. Everyone has their own space and they have to decide how they want to use it. It’s natural to me to say, ‘Hello,’ to everyone. To wave to those little old ladies who haven’t missed a game. I look forward to seeing them. In life, you’re either a people person or a private person. I’m a people person. I like dealing with groups of people. I think I can get along with banker’s sons and blacks from the ghettos. When I retire, I’d like to go into politics.”

He talks for a few more minutes about his political ambitions, and then he begins to talk about his wife. Her 3.95 grade point average in college. Her energy. Her deep insight. Her talent for interviewing. The speed with which she mastered her talk show format. “It amazes me,” he says, truly amazed, and he goes on. He can’t stop. About his wife, he is compulsive.

It is Band Day at the stadium. A few minutes before the game is to begin, a dozen or so colorfully-uniformed high school bands assemble in front of a small conductor’s platform at the pitcher’s mound. The public address announcer introduces the guest conductor. It is Lawrence Welk! The fans applaud. Welk, smiling, wearing a powder blue blazer, white slacks and shoes, leaps out of the home team dugout as agilely as any young player. He walks briskly towards the pitcher’s mound. His hair is slicked back into a stiff pompadour, and he looks remarkably fit for a man in his seventies. The public address announcer calls attention to this fact, to Welk’s age—seventy-seven. The fans applaud louder. Welk breaks into a trot.

“Isn’t he amazing, folks, seventy-seven years young!” says the public address announcer. Welk is running now, as fast as a seventy-seven-year-old man in patent leather loafers can run on slick grass. When he reaches the pitcher’s mound, he is exhausted, but still smiling. Two men grip him by each elbow and propel him up the platform. . . .There is something disturbing about Lawrence Welk’s vitality, about his show of vitality—at seventy-seven. It is not enough for him to be remarkably fit at that age—an age when most men are tending a lone orange tree behind their mobile home in St. Petersburg, Florida—he is compelled to show us how fit he is—at seventy-seven. He intends to remind people of what they will never be, to remind them of how dissatisfied they should be in the face of his obvious satisfaction with what he is. He is gloating in the same way many people feel that the husband is gloating over the successes of his life—his wife, his children, his talent, his image, his future. To make matters worse, the husband is satisfied with himself so soon, at thirty-one! He seems so positive he is the best he can be, that he strives only to protect the delicate balance of his perfect life without ever questioning the worth of what he’s created. It is an enviable state, and those who have not reached it resent him for implying that this is their failure. But he doesn’t. Unlike Welk, the husband does not intend to rub our noses in his perfection. He is merely a simple man who has worked very hard at being what he thinks he should be, and now he is single-mindedly compelled to maintain the standards he has set for himself.

THE PROBLEM

“My husband is a very warm, gentle, understanding, considerate…father. His controlled traits pay off with our children,” she says. The wife, dressed in a peach-colored, velour jogging suit, is sitting cross-legged on the print sofa in the den of her house. A bearded man in jeans is sitting in a chair beside her. He is leaning towards her, his elbows on his knees, his hands folded in front of him. There is a tape recorder on the coffee table in front of her, the microphone aimed at her. She does not look at the microphone as she speaks, nor does she look at the man to her left. She stares straight ahead, through unseeing eyes, as she speaks in her brusque, whiny, yet absolutely unemotional voice.

“We don’t talk baseball or my show, anymore,” she says. “Just the children. We’re not good in certain areas. I’m not as affectionate as I used to be and he, he’s so jumbled up in his career and his outside interests…When I say, ‘Let’s talk about it,’ he says, ‘Whoa! Is this gonna be the same old stuff? How unhappy you are?’ I say, ‘Oh, forget it, then!’ Maybe relationships are just bound to deteriorate gradually, I don’t know? Don’t get me wrong, we’re not serving papers, or anything. It’s just…I wonder, are marriages ideal anymore? I mean, I’m out here in the land of fantasy and I see relationships come and go and I don’t know whether or not it’s worth it to cash in on something stable in order to find something more fulfilling. That’s why I want to try everything to make this thing work. During the off-season we’re going to Europe. I really hope in the next year my husband can develop to keep my interest. I want to see if what I feel in love with is still there…

“Sometimes, though, I feel I’m banging my head against the wall. I’m trying to get him to see other possibilities, that the way he sees things is not the only way. But he’s so satisfied with the way he is. He’s stayed the same all these years. He does everything the way people wish they could do them. He can’t break that mold. It’s really him. He’s a nice guy. He gives and all, but…ah, I want electricity, a spark, some idiosyncrasy…Now catch this act. It was so stupid. A few days ago we had three hours to ourselves. We’re driving in the car. He says to me, ‘Where do you want to go to eat?’ I mean, I’d love my man to say, ‘I’m taking you here and then back home to make love.’ Now, I could have said that, but it wouldn’t be the same. I want him to be smart enough to arrange his meetings around me. I don’t want him to have to be told. I don’t want to teach him anymore. Oh, he tries, but he can’t be something he’s not. He has no interests other than baseball. He doesn’t understand music, or art. Those LeRoy Neiman prints? They all look alike to me. And he’s not a sexual guy. Sometimes he teases me. He walks around the house with this great body, and when I try to focus love and attention on it, it’s not there. I’m a girl who needs a regular sex life…I’ve reached the point where I don’t care anymore. Then again, maybe it’s me? Maybe it’s not his problem, but mine? Maybe I haven’t told him exactly what I want? Maybe this will pass and I’m just going through a cycle? Sometimes I think I’m distorted, that what I want can never be. I told my husband he should have married another girl. I don’t want to sell him short. I don’t want to downgrade him; he has no choice because of the structures of this sport. When we have our little fights, I say, ‘How do you fight with a sport?’ How do you do that?

“I’m open now, because I’m angry. I’m tired of that Ken and Barbie shit. I never questioned before. I was always busy with the children. The suburbs drove me nuts. I had to get out. That’s why I went back to work. Maybe my job will be a way out. I don’t want to give up what I’ve got unless I can go to something else. I don’t want to drag my kids around during my indecision. If I can tolerate it, if I can live within the confines of this marriage, I’ll stay. I’m not wanting for anything. It’s convenient. No, it’s not even that. That’s not enough. Maybe some miracle happens to help you make up your mind? Sometimes I wonder if I met someone would a relationship develop. I haven’t had any affairs yet, but I wonder what it would be like. Someone who is his own man. I’m untapped. No one touches me. There’s no mentor in my life. Someone to tell me to shut up. I get so depressed. I have too much time to think. What am I doing here? Life is going on around me and I’m not participating. My security is to go out and then come back. I can’t keep doing this. Everyone tells me how lucky I am. If I divorced my husband I’d have to get out of town. He’s a god here. Where would I go without my husband? Do you know what a price it is to be told that? A real kick. I mean, just because he doesn’t beat me or anything, it doesn’t mean. . . .”

She falls silent for a moment. She is still staring straight ahead. Throughout her monologue, the tone in her voice has remained constant. Brusque. Unemotional. Confusing to her listener. How can she reveal such intimacies without the nuances of felt emotion? Does she feel nothing? Or is it simply that there is some strange lack in her, some inability to communicate her deepest emotions in conventional ways? She does not cry. Her voice does not falter. Her expression never varies. In fact, at times, she flashes her brittle smile precisely at that moment one expects her to cry. She reveals everything—trivialities and intimacies—on the same note. It is the single note of a Public Persona, of one who is used to smiling in front of a camera, or the public, no matter what the mood of the moment may be. It is, as if her nature had been formed in some Charm School where she was taught always to smile, to be nice, to express herself in a pleasant way. Now, at thirty, when she is feeling unpleasant emotions, she knows of no other way to express them. It is her curse. She will always be misread. She will always appear to be cool, aloof, unfeeling, no matter how deeply she feels. She is like her husband. Their style will always be misconstrued as a lack of substance.

She begins again. “Sometimes, half-kiddingly, I say to my husband, ‘If I ever left you, would you always be my good friend?’ He says, ‘No,’ and then a little later, ‘O.K.’ He’s like a brother to me. What I’m hoping—if I don’t get involved with a lover somewhere—is that…I’m going to have to…” She falls silent again. She is still staring straight ahead. Her face still has that perfectly composed look, only now; she is trying very hard not to cry. She forces back her tears with a weak laugh and a brittle smile before she can continue, “…we’ll have to be good friends for awhile…maybe we can…I mean, sometimes, I’ll catch a vignette, it’s like I’m wearing 3D glasses, and suddenly I’ll see something we’re doing together, and it’s all right again. Maybe we’re at a show, or playing tennis, and I’ll say to myself, ‘Oh, that’s it! That’s fine!’ But then it goes away and a few nights later I’m sitting home alone, crying, thinking, is this the future for me? To gut it out…”

THE COUPLE

It is dusk in Calabasas Park. The bearded man walks up to the front door of the house on the bluff at the end of Park Vicente, and rings the door bell. The husband appears, smiling, and welcomes him inside. The husband is wearing a V-neck sweater and gray slacks. He leads the bearded man to the family room where he has been watching television. They sit down on a sofa, and, after a few words of small talk, the husband returns his attention to the television. He is now watching a program, whose premise, in imitation of the Superstars competition, is to find the best bar bouncer and the best belly flop diver in the country.

A huge black man (Mr. T), who claims he was Leon Spinks’ former bodyguard, is the last contestant in the bouncer competition. Mr. T has a shaved head, a goatee, and a ring through his nose, and he looks like someone who should be hanging by one hand from the Empire State Building. A bell rings and Mr. T dives over a fake bar, picks up a dummy and heaves it, head first, through a plate glass window. Then Mr. T crashes through a door, splintering it, and rings a bell. His time is recorded and he is judged the winner. He is interviewed by Bruce Jenner.

After a commercial, during which the husband is still silent, the belly flop championships begin. A man in a straw boater and a tuxedo climbs up onto a diving board and leaps off into a pool. He lands with a splat on his stomach. The audience around the pool cheers wildly. The next contestant, a man in a red t-shirt, dives off the board and as he is suspended in mid-air, his arms outstretched like wings, he bursts into flames. The flames are doused when he hits the water. The bearded man can’t keep from laughing at this. The husband looks at him for a moment, and only then does he smile.

The wife appears, holding the daughter with the broken wrist. The daughter, a beautiful blonde child with pouting lips, is sobbing with pain. The husband says to the bearded man, “Well, let’s get the interview over. We can do it in my office.”

But before he can raise, his wife snaps at him.

“Oh, Garvey, you make me sick,” she says. “Stay right there!” She goes over to the television set and turns it off. “Did you offer him a drink, at least?”

The husband jumps up and asks the bearded man if he would like a Pepsi. He goes to the kitchen to get one. While he is gone, the wife says, “Sometimes, he just…I mean, he leaves the dumb TV on when you’re here. I hate that. And then he pulls that interview shit…” She shakes her head.

When the husband returns with the Pepsi, the wife hands him their daughter for a few moments. The husband is very careful in the way he holds his daughter. While his wife and the bearded man talk, he sooths his daughter with his voice. Soon, her eyes fill with sleep. He gently presses her head to his chest. Finally, the wife tells the bearded man she had best put her daughter to bed, and then get to bed herself in order to get up in time for tomorrow morning’s show. The husband hands her the child, and the wife and child go upstairs. The husband looks down at his sweater. His sweater is wrinkled from the warmth of his daughter’s body. With the palms of both hands, he smoothes away the wrinkles, and then sits back on the sofa.

“This is the first year, she’s been out working,” says the husband. “She’s sacrificed a lot for my career. I’d like her to have a job of more importance than mine, not so much for her to be a success, but so she’ll be happy. I love the woman very deeply. I have this sense of injustice because of what I do. It’s been draining to her. You see her now in a period of frustration. The things she’s told you, she’s told you out of emotion. Deep down she knows there’s nothing I can do about my job. She used to do a lot of things with me but now she doesn’t have time because of her job. I do things alone or else I try to fit my schedule into hers…

“We’re not so different from most people, really. People would see that if they just didn’t take into account our appearance. We’re just two people who love each other and who have gone through a lot…I hope…maybe…it’s just a cycle she’s going through…what do you think?”

When the bearded man tells the husband what he wants to hear, the husband smiles. It is unlike his other smile. It is a smile of absolute vulnerability. The husband is genuinely infatuated with his wife, in the same way a porcelain collector is infatuated with an exquisite piece—a ballerina poised on one toe as she is about to pirouette. He has loved her in the same way for ten years, and now that that is no longer enough for her, he is confused.

Finally, the bearded man gets up to leave. The husband shakes his hand at the door and tells him he is sure he and his wife will resolve their difficulties. The bearded man says he is sure they will, too. The husband opens the front door and the bearded man steps outside into the darkness. It is night, now, and strangely quiet. There is not even the sound of crickets in the hot stillness of this arid land that was not meant for human habitation. The bearded man gets into his car, and as he pulls out of the driveway, he sees the husband, a silhouette, framed in the doorway by the light at his back. The silhouette waves once, and then turns its back and closes the door.

No Trespassing

Here’s another good one from our man, Dexter. The following originally appeared in Inside Sports (September 30, 1981).

No Trespassing

By Pete Dexter

The old lion is still a bad mother,” he said. “He just wants to roam. Leave him alone. He’s fading, but he’s still a lion.”

St. Simons Island lies four miles off the coast of southern Georgia, connected to the mainland by a two-lane road, separated by saw grass and swamp.

It’s a quiet place with miles of hard-sand beaches, a place the big developers and the resort hotels somehow missed, where people work for a living and nobody has decided yet that you and your dog can’t drink beer on the beach.

For the first nine years of his life, Jim Brown lived on the island in the care of his grandmother and great-grandmother. He still calls the great-grandmother the love of my life. “She would say, ‘I love you forever,’” he said, “and for as long as I was on St. Simons, there was always the ocean and the white sand, and there was never a question of belonging.”

Jim Brown is 45 years old now. It hasn’t been like that for him since.

The island is a town. There is a main street, a couple of small shopping centers, churches, bars. A few rich neighborhoods, a few dirt poor. The poorest is Gordon Retreat, a dead-end mud road three blocks past the firehouse. Two-room houses, falling down, porches filled with old women and flowers. A long-armed girl stops jumping rope in the road when she sees the car. She stands, as still as the sun, and watches. The rope rests in her hair.

The address is on the right, halfway to the end. An old man sits on the porch in front of a television set, eating watermelon with a pocket knife, watching soap operas. Inside an old woman is dying of cancer.

She is on a hospital bed in the front room, staring at the ceiling. Her arms are as thin as the rails that keep her from falling into the night. There is a fan in the corner, the room is still hot. But it is her room, it is her home, her island. She has almost lived her life here now, and she would not move and have it finished somewhere else.

The old woman struggles up to shake hands, then drops back into her pillow. “Simple things,” she says. She catches her breath. A line of sweat shines on the bones of her chest, then tears and runs off into her nightclothes. From where she lies, she can look up and see the wall behind her. There is a picture there, freshly dusted, of a football player.

The football player is Jim Brown, the woman is his last connection with the white sands and a time when there was no question he belonged. The woman is his grandmother.

The house sits in the mountains over Hollywood, a couple of hundred feet off Sunset Plaza Drive. It’s a clear day and from the living room you can look out over the swimming pool and see Los Angeles County all the way to the ocean. At night, the lights could be your carpet.

“The house is worth a million-two, a million-four; and there’s the view and the pool and all that, but that’s not why he lives there. It’s the privacy.”

The man who said that is George Hughley, who is in the room off the kitchen with Brown now, playing backgammon. They play a loud game—a lot of standing up and shouting. The birds have left the tree outside the window until it’s over. Hughley was a fullback, too, a couple of years in Canada and one season with the Redskins. He is one of a handful of people Brown allows in close. “With George,” he says, “you don’t have to be more than you are.” There is Hughley and Bill Russell and maybe the girl who lives with him.

Her name is Kim, he met her at a roller-skating rink. She is 19 or 20, so pretty you could just stick a fork in your leg. She comes out of the bedroom to answer the phone with a pencil in her mouth, wearing Brown’s slippers and carrying an open book. The phone rings every five minutes. It is always for Brown.

“You’ve been around long enough to see that people come by all the time,” George said later. “They come and go—only a few matter to him—but it gives him the chance to choose who he’s around. As long as he lives, he’s going to be Jim Brown, the football player. He went to a place in human activity where he was all alone, where no one else was, and he’s one of the few human beings to achieve that singular status who didn’t insulate himself with flunkies. Up here, he’s got some control over who he sees.”

And they come by all the time, these people who don’t matter.

Just now, though, it’s only George and Jim and the backgammon board. They are playing for $50. A mason jar filled with vodka and apple juice is next to Brown on the table. George drinks from a glass, and he is winning. You can tell because he is making most of the noise. When the game turns, Brown does the talking.

George rolls the dice. “I’m the lawn mower now,” he says, “and your ass is the grass.”

“Where is it?” Brown says. “Where is your move?”

“Where you think it is, turkey butt?” George moves. “I don’t hear you now, do I?”

“I’m watchin’ your chubby-ass hand, Rufus.”

“I don’t care what you watch. Gammon….”

Brown takes the gammon, doubling the stakes. He rolls. George rolls. They accuse each other of rolling too fast, then too slow.

Brown looks across the table. George says, “C’mon, man, move.”

Brown says, “Go slow, Negro.”

They play for two hours and then, toward the end, in the middle of all the shouting and insults, something changes. George rolls before Brown has finished his moves—they have both done it 20 times—but this time Brown makes him take it over. George argues but finally gives in. The new roll beats him.

“Who was wrong?” Brown says.

George argues, points. Brown sits still, asking, “Who was wrong?” over and over.

And George gives in again. “I was wrong.”

Brown nods, it relaxes. It seems like a strange thing to want from a friend.

They play out the game and then George writes a check. The house is suddenly quiet, the birds come back to the tree outside the window.

Brown makes a new drink and sits down at the table. No matter how much he drinks, it never shows. “You got scared, George,” he says. “When you’re scared you don’t get nothin’. From the dice or nothin’ else.”

“Scared of what? Fifty dollars?”

“You went blind in your anxiety.” Brown is preoccupied with why people lose; it means as much as the winning or losing itself. A couple of days later, playing golf with Bill Russell, he will watch a man in the foursome ahead top a wood off the tee. The ball skips into some trees and the man screams and throws the club after it. Brown smiles. “I always wonder about those cats,” he says.

“Is that the first time that’s happened? I mean, is he surprised? The man’s a 22 handicap, how did he get to be a 22?”

Now he says to George, “Anything you do, if you lose, don’t let it be because you give it up.”

Later, George says, “People who don’t know us, they think somebody is about to die on the kitchen table. Of course, that what it sounds like, but it’s also Jim’s reputation. Smoldering violence. People want to believe that he won’t argue with them. He isn’t going to sit around explaining himself.

(more…)

From Ali to Xena: 29

The Road to Philly

By John Schulian 

I know how I ended up in Philadelphia: I drove.

What I don’t know is why I ended up in Philadelphia.

The Daily News, home of one of the truly great sports sections of the last half of the Twentieth Century, already had three stellar columnists, Ray Didinger, Stan Hochman, and Mark Whicker. Bill Conlin was covering baseball with idiosyncratic fervor, conducting a running feud with the Phillies, delivering history lessons in his game stories, and flirting with scatology every chance he got. Long before I hit town, he set the standard for blue wordplay by quoting Dusty Baker, who had dropped a fly ball, as saying, “I had the motor faker right in my glove.” The quote only lasted one edition, but Conlin was the one guy in all of sportswriting capable of getting away with even that much.

None of the other beat writers came close to him in terms of sheer outrageousness, but each was an intrepid digger: Phil Jasner on the 76ers, Jay Greenberg on the Flyers, Paul Domowitch and the young Rich Hoffman (not long out of Penn) on pro football, Elmer Smith on boxing, and the inimitable Dick (Hoops) Weiss on college basketball. These guys were passionate about what they did. And smart. And aggressive. And competitive. I realize that the Boston Globe was regarded as the gold standard for sports sections back then-–and I know what a joy it was for me to read the Globe–but I still think the Daily News gave it a run for its money.

The Daily News certainly didn’t need me to do that. Even with a hole in its lineup after Tom Cushman, who was so solid on boxing, college sports, and track and field, left for San Diego, the paper still had all the talent–and all the egos–it needed. The Daily News hired me anyway.

No matter how good a sports columnist I was, I was hardly a marketable commodity after my inelegant departure from the Sun-Times. It was pretty much what I expected. There are more than a few newspaper editors who love to have a reason to think they have the upper hand on the talent. In my case, they could go tsk-tsk and say I was a troublemaker or that I was out of control. On the other hand, there was the reaction my blow-up got from Pete Dexter, who was a city columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News and whom I had yet to meet. Pete told our mutual friend Rob Fleder, a world-class magazine editor, “I don’t know Schulian and I don’t know exactly what happened, but I know he was right.” Which, of course, earned Pete a place in my personal hall of fame.

But guys like Pete don’t run newspapers. Guys unlike him do. And the hell of it was, I couldn’t argue with them, even though I’d been provoked and maybe set up. I was wrung out. Getting fired and divorced in a four-month span was all I could handle. I didn’t write a word for the first two months after I left the Sun-Times. I just rode my bike and ate pizza and watched the Cubs on TV. As if to spite me, they almost had a great season, but their muscle memory finally kicked in and they fell apart in the playoffs.

I didn’t put words on paper again until Eliot Kaplan, GQ’s managing editor, called because Vic Ziegel, may he rest in peace, told him I was massively available. Eliot was looking for someone to profile Mike Royko and I convinced him that I was his man. In the course of conversation, Eliot told me he’d read me when he was a kid. It wasn’t exactly what I was hoping to hear, but the truth was, he really was a kid. He couldn’t have been more than 26 or 27 when he became Art Cooper’s right-hand man at GQ. As for Royko, he couldn’t have been a more cooperative subject, right down to musing forlornly about the death of his first wife and dancing with the woman who would become his second wife on the sidewalk outside the Billy Goat Tavern.

Just like that, I was a made man at GQ, which was becoming a home for first-rate writing and reportage instead of pretty boys in clothes guaranteed to get their asses kicked. I wrote for the magazine whenever I could for the next 20 years, until Art got forced out. He died not long afterward, while having lunch at the Four Seasons. The man had style.

Looking back, I wonder if I should have lobbied for a three-story deal with GQ that would have allowed me to stay in Chicago. John Walsh, when he was running Inside Sports, told me he thought I was a natural magazine writer, and he may have been right. Magazine work certainly was a better fit for the way I approached writing than a four-times-a-week column was. The column chewed me up, and yet, when the Daily News called, I threw myself back in the meat grinder. It was partly because I was afraid let go of the identity a column gave me and partly because I was infatuated with the history of the sports section that Larry Merchant had built for glory 20 years earlier.

I saw myself joining a parade in which George Kiseda, Sandy Grady, and Jack McKinney had marched. Merchant had made them the Daily News’ pioneers in trenchant reporting, salty prose, and raucous laughter. Stan Hochman, who was there at the beginning with them, once told me about the old warehouse the paper had called home when it was known as the “Dirty News” for its emphasis on crime and cheesecake. The building wasn’t air conditioned, and one sweltering summer day, with huge floor fans shoving hot air around the newsroom, some genius got it in his head to open the windows. The fans proceeded to blow every piece of paper that wasn’t weighted down out the windows and to hell and gone.

I should have been smart enough to realize there was no recapturing those days or the spirit that infused the Merchant era. Instead, I acted according to Faulkner’s theory that the past is never really past. Faulkner didn’t play in Philly, though, and soon enough I was a man out of time, out of place.

Click here for the full “From Ali to Xena” archives.

The Apprenticeship of Randall Cobb

Another sure shot from Pete Dexter. From the May 31, 181 issue of Inside Sports.

The Apprenticeship of Randall Cobb: The Late-Booming Karate Fighter From Abilene Wants to Be The Baddest Ass In Boxing

By Pete Dexter

The face suggests more than 21 fights, but that’s how many there have been. Counting the two as an amateur. There is a scar over the left eye, a missing tooth. The nose is flat and soft, without cartilage.

Apart from that, it’s a face that’s been hurt.

On March 22, a 26-year-old fighter named Randall Cobb lost a majority decision on national television to Michael Dokes. Two of the judges gave the fight to Dokes, one called it a draw.

Dokes was supposed to win. He is the fastest fighter in the division, maybe the most talented. He was schooled through a long amateur career and brought carefully through 20 fights as a professional. The only problem Dokes ever had was a lack of size, and in the last year he has grown two inches to 6-2 and filled out to 218 pounds, and there is a feeling among some people that after Larry Holmes retires, Dokes doesn’t have any problems at all.

Given all that, there are people who like the other guy’s chances.

At 22 years old—a long time after most professionals were polished fighters—Randall Cobb had his first amateur fight. He had a second and then turned professional, saying he was going to be the heavyweight champion of the world. Ali was the champion then. Cobb would have had trouble naming five other men in the division.

He spent three years knocking out people like Chebo Hernandez (the former heavyweight champion of Mexico) and then, with 18 lifetime fights and 18 days to get ready, he crawled into the ring with Earnie Shavers and won on a TKO in the eighth.

He lost a split decision to Ken Norton and then dropped the fight to Dokes. In each of the fights he got better, and he is still just learning. He has the best chin in boxing and in the Dokes fight—when he caught much of what Dokes threw on his gloves and arms—the people who have watched Cobb got their first sign that he wasn’t going to be proving it the rest of his life.

After the fight Cobb sat with ABC’s Keith Jackson, who asked if he had been surprised Dokes hadn’t run more. Cobb said, “I don’t know how it looked from here, but to me it looked like I was running my ass all over the ring trying to catch him.”

As he said that Dokes dropped into the chair next to him. Cobb smiled. “We’ll have to do this again, Mike.”

Dokes shook his head. “Oh, no,” he said. “No, I don’t think so.”

“I’m going to go back and start all over,” Cobb said later. “I’ll do whatever I got to do and I’m going to keep doin’ it until it’s right.”

His mother heard that and nodded. “Some day that dog’s going to lie in the sun,” she said.

Randall Cobb is my friend. I know him, he won’t cheat himself. And after it’s over—it doesn’t matter how many times he’s hit in the face—he’ll be able to look in the mirror and not be afraid of what he sees.

(more…)

Two for Toozday: Pete Dexter Meets John Matuszak

Here’s another vintage bonus piece by our man Pete Dexter. This one appeared in the October 31, 1981 edition of Inside Sports.

If This is Wednesday, It Must Be Toozday

By Pete Dexter

At three in the morning, coming east across the Bay Bridge in a limousine the size of a cattle truck, a quiet falls over the back seat. It is the last day before John Matuszak goes to Santa Rosa for training camp. More to the point, it is Wednesday. There are three of us in the back—John and me and Donna, the girl he cares for above all others—and suddenly, as if by unspoken agreement, it is time for some quiet thinking and assessment.

We have run out of flaming arrows—matches, Southern Comfort, shot glasses. “Jeez, that’s too bad,” the driver says. He doesn’t sound like it’s too bad.

I’m not the first person to wonder what John Matuszak was thinking. Since he came into the National Football League as the first draft pick of 1973—ahead of people like Bert Jones and John Hannah—that question has been on a lot of minds at one time or another.

Matuszak went to Houston in that draft, then to the World Football League, where he played one series of downs before he was handed an injunction returning him to the NFL, then to Kansas City. He was traded from there to Washington where George Allen, whose idea of temptation is a quart of ice cream, cut him in two weeks. Matuszak was on the way to the Canadian Football League when Al Davis flew out from Oakland and offered him a chance to play for the Raiders in 1976.

He has been there since. “It’s the only place I could play,” he said once. “I know my reputation around the league.” The reputation, briefly, is that he still belongs in the straitjacket they used on him when he overdosed on depressants and alcohol in Kansas City. The truth, though, unless you happen to look at it from a very tight-ass point of view, say, that of most of the coaches in the National Football League, is that while Matuszak has had his share of scrapes, most of them can be put down to growing pains. That and things found hidden in his automobiles. A machete, a .44 magnum, a little dope.

Anyway, all that was before he mellowed….

Milwaukee

Sometimes you go in and it’s like you’re Edward R. Murrow. You let go of the doorbell and hear the footsteps. You feel it coming and there’s no place to hide.

The kids are going to be lined up on the couch, youngest to oldest. The little girls will have ribbons in their hair, Skipper the mongrel will be there on the floor and mom will be sitting at the end with an arm around Dale Jr. Trophies over the fireplace and dad is out in the shop, finishing up some woodwork. Why don’t we go see how he’s doing?

You wait at the door, dead certain that unless a sociable way to pass a quart of 151 up and down that couch presents itself, you’re doomed.

But the door opens and it’s Audrey Matuszak, still in the skirt she’d worn to work, talking on the phone. Somebody she has never heard of in New York wants to know if she’s big.

She holds the door while I come in. “Big?” she says. “Why, I never thought of it. I’m 6-5 and 265…no, that’s about average in the family….” Some days you’re doomed, some days you’re not.

She says the sweetest goodbye you ever heard and cradles the phone against her ear a minute longer. “I shouldn’t have done that, I suppose,” she says, “but sometimes you wonder about New York, don’t you?”

“Yes ma’am, you do.” She smiles and gets me a beer out of the refrigerator. There is an autographed picture of her son on the door. BEST WISHES TO MOM AND DAD, YOU’RE THE GREATEST. JOHN. It is the only evidence on the main floor of the house that he is different from the other children. The trophies, the movie posters are upstairs in the bedrooms.

“I think you’re going to enjoy John,” she says. “He’s just so much fun to be with. He’s out in back if you want to see what’s he’s doing.”

Picture old Ed now, sitting back in a cloud of Lucky Strike smoke, watching the camera roll through the doorway to the backyard where John Matuszak, massive and naked except for bikini swimwear, is sitting on an old blanket, tearing the big toenail off his right foot.

He holds it up to the sun, checking both sides.

He looks at the nail, then at the toe. “Toes are tender,” he says.

I take a look at the toenail, then give it back. “That looks like it was a real nice one.”

He nods. “It’s been getting on my nerves, though.”

Matuszak puts the nail next to him on the blanket and leans back to find a new station on the portable radio. “I’ve been on a hot streak,” he says. “It’s hard to explain. I was driving into town Wednesday and suddenly I said ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ and half a minute later that’s what they played. The same thing happened with ‘Déjà Vu.’ Yeah, that’s a song. You know what I mean, when you’re just tuned with things?”

I think that over. “I always know it just before a dog bites me.”

At the work “dog,” he looks around to make sure his mother is gone. He lowers his voice and points to a pile of freshly turned dirt over by the garden. “They just buried Skipper,” he says. “It really broke them up, they’d had him for years.”

I swear. Skipper. A hot streak of my own. The radio cracks and suddenly Brenda Lee is singing “All Alone Am I.” Matuszak closes his eyes and runs a hand through his hair. “Look at me,” he says, pointing to his arm and shoulder. “Goose bumps. Brenda Lee, 1962. That’s what music does to me. I couldn’t live without music.”

He sings along with Brenda. He tests the toe. He reasons with it. “Well, there’s always a hump out there you’ve got to get over, right?”

The hump is an asphalt hill on the other side of the two-lane highway that runs in front of his parents’ house. The hill angles like a swan’s beak about a quarter of a mile down, then flattens into a dirt road and disappears into a railroad tunnel. The radio has just said it is three o’clock and 105° at Gen. Billy Mitchell airport. The heat off the asphalt makes the tunnel seem to float.

The Tooz is wearing sweat pants now, two plastic jackets, a towel around his neck and a wool stocking cap with the insignia of the Oakland Raiders pulled down over his ears.

“Just sit over there on the fence, stud, and I’ll be right back.” He jogs down the hill, getting smaller and smaller, his body waving in the heat until, at the bottom, he could almost be of this earth. He comes back up, spitting and pounding, growing like a bad dream.

At the top he walks it off, blowing his nose.

He will run the hill three more times before he quits, each time coming up harder than the time before. He is big, even for a pro football player—6-8, 300 pounds and none of it is fat—but you don’t really feel it until you see him tired, and he can feel it, too. Walking back to the house he says, “Well, I kicked the hill’s ass today.”

(more…)

LeeRoy, He Ain’t Here No More

We’re proud to reprint this story by Pete Dexter which originally appeared in Inside Sports (May 31, 1980).

By Pete Dexter


The child in the child is somehow faded. She is eight years old but there is nothing in her manner to say she isn’t nineteen, with a house full of screaming babies and a high school sweetheart who doesn’t always come home at night anymore.

She walks the front yard like walking is already a chore, collecting the mongrel puppies. There are nine of them and her fingers disappear into the long coats as she picks them up, then puts them in a cardboard box next to the front door.

The house is a shack, about a block from the abandoned half-mile dirt track where LeeRoy Yarbrough, the most famous man ever to come out of west Jacksonville, Florida, got his start racing automobiles. About three blocks from the place where, a month before, cold sober, he tried to strangle his own mother.

“He live right up that road there,” she says, pointing a puppy. “Him and Miz Yarbrough, but they ain’t there now. Everybody knows LeeRoy, sometime he come by and sit on the steps, but now he wrung Miz Yarbrough’s neck, he ain’t home no more.”

The screen door opens and a woman in white socks steps halfway out the door. Missing teeth and a face as narrow as the phone book. “You git them puppies up yet? You know what your daddy tol’ you.”

The door slams shut, but the woman stays there, behind it in the shadows. In west Jacksonville it always feels like there’s somebody watching behind the screen door.

“We got to take the puppies down to the lake,” the girl says. “Daddy got back from the country [farm] and says so. He goin’ take them out to the lake with him tonight.”

I ask her why she just didn’t give the puppies away. She shakes her head. “I tol’ you,” she says. “Daddy got back from the country.”

I’m going to tell you right here that I don’t know what picked LeeRoy Yarbrough off the top of his world in 1969 and delivered him, eleven years later, to the night when he would get up off a living room chair and tell his mother, “I hate to do this to you,” and then try to kill her. I can tell you some of how it happened, I can tell you what the doctors said, what his people said. But I don’t know why.

It has business with that little girl and her puppies, though. With not looking at what you don’t want to see, putting it off until you are face-to-face with something unspeakable.

And tonight those nine puppies go to the bottom of the lake.

A Short History

“They ain’t ever been no fits on neither side of the family. That’s how the doctors knowed it was them licks on the head that made LeeRoy how he is.” Minnie Yarbrough is LeeRoy’s mother. She is seventy-six years old, and she’s sitting on the couch in her living room, as far away from the yellow chair in the corner as she can get. That is where it happened.

It’s an old house on Plymouth Street, in west Jacksonville, brown shingles, a bad roof, the porch gives when you step on it. An empty trailer sits rusting in the backyard. Inside it’s dark. The windows are closed off and Minnie Yarbrough keeps the door to her room locked any time she isn’t in it.

“I was born and partial raised in Clay County, Florida. Mr. Yarbrough was partial raised in Baker County. Both of us come from Florida families, Baptists, and there was never no fits on either side. Mr. Yarbrough died in 1974, but he’d of mentioned it if it was. We was together forty-three years…”

Lonnie LeeRoy Yarbrough was one of six children. He was the first son, born September 17, 1938, and named after his father, who ran a roadside vegetable stand.

Lonnie Yarbrough hauled the vegetables in an old truck and played penny poker with his friends to pass the time.

LeeRoy passed his time at Moon’s Garage. He put his first car together when he was twelve—dropping a Chrysler engine into a 1934 Ford coupe—and wore the police out stopping him along the back roads of west Jacksonville. He quit Paxon High School after the tenth grade, and he won the first race he was ever in at Jacksonville Speedway when he was sixteen.

Even now, sitting in the Duval County Jail, waiting to be processed out to a state hospital, he can tell you exactly what he was running that day. A 1940 flat-head Ford, bored out 81/1,000ths of an inch, with high-compression heads.

He can tell you that, but he can’t tell you who is president.

(more…)

Gun Smoke

Ah, now Grantland has something here that really smokes. They are running a “Director’s Cut” series reprinting old pieces of sports writing. First up, is Tony Kornheiser’s profile of Nolan Ryan from the debut issue of Inside Sports.  Kornheiser was a wonderful long-form writer, first at Newsday, then the New York Times, where he covered basketball and wrote, “That Damned Yankees,” which stands as one the finest stories on George Steinbrenner.

For the first year-and-a-half of its run, Inside Sports was terrific. It was run by John Walsh. Tom Boswell was their baseball guy, Pete Axthelm contributed a column. Diane K. Shah was there. Gary Smith got his start as a magazine writer there and once wrote a wonderful basketball story called “Tinkerbell and Sweet Lou.”  Kornheiser did several bonus pieces, including a classic one on Joe Nameth, and the great Pete Dexter also did takeouts for them–on Jim Brown, Randy White, Daryl Dawkins, and the Tooz. Len Shapiro wrote about Bill James, John Schulian about Mark Aguirre and Gary Fencik, George Kimball on George Brett, and Dick Young wrote a fine piece on Duke Snider. Oh, yeah, Leonard Gardner, who wrote perhaps the finest boxing novel of them all, covered Duran Leonard.

Pat Jordan wrote the most celebrated story in the magazine’s history, a profile of Steve and Cyndi Garvey. The Garvey’s sued Inside Sports’ parent company (The Washington Post) and the ordeal put Jordan’s career on hold for more than a year (though he wrote two more pieces for them: a spring training story on the Yankees, and a profile of Steve Dalkowski). The suit, however, kept the magazine going longer than expected, according to Jay Lovinger, one of its editors. The case was eventually settled, the Garveys got divorced, and the Post sold the magazine. It was never the same.

I’m looking forward to this series. It’s a real mitzvah when you consider that the majority of the greatest sports writing is not available on-line.

Duke in his Domain

Here’s Roger Angell on Duke Snider:

I still feel that I owe him. I saw him play plenty of times, but carry only a fragmented memory of him in action: rounded shoulders, and that thick face tilting while the finish of his big, left-side stroke starts him up the baseline, his gaze fixed on the rising (and often departing) ball. A first-class center fielder, who eagerly closed the angle on line drives. Great arm. Good guy, terrific smile. Hall of Famer. Something smug in me used to relish him, even while I rooted against him. Growing up in Manhattan, I was a Giants fan first of all, a huge Yankees booster in the other league, and caught the Dodgers pretty much only when they played at the Polo Grounds. Which is to say a Willie Mays fan first and always; an awestruck admirer of Mickey Mantle when he succeeded Joe DiMaggio in center for the Yankees, in 1952, and aware of Snider, of course, over there in Ebbets Field: the third-best, or—since he overlapped Joe D.’s tenure by three seasons—maybe the fourth-best fabulous center-field slugger in town but a guaranteed superstar as well. If Snider was great, how much better did that make my guys? I met the Duke once or twice, long after he’d left the game—he was gone before I started writing about baseball—and wanted to apologize for patronizing him in my fan’s heart. He didn’t mind; he was a self-punisher, not a self-aggrandizer, and I don’t think he worried about status.

And click below for and excellent profile on Snider by Dick Young from “Inside Sports.”

2500_001

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver