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BSG: Summer’s End Recalls Memory of a Faded Dream

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Excerpted from From Black Sox to Three-Peats: A Century of Chicago’s Best Sports Writing (University of Chicago Press), edited by Ron Rapoport and featuring stories from the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Daily News, and the Chicago Defender, among other papers.

Today gives John Schulian’s column from the Sept. 24, 1983, Sun-Times.

“Summer’s End Recalls Memory of a Faded Dream”

By John Schulian

Up ahead, you could see a full moon sandwiched by thick, wet clouds. Beneath them glowed the lights of Chicago, turning the soggy heavens red-orange and proving that this ribbon of highway actually led somewhere.

Another country radio station faded into oblivion inside the car, so you pressed a button and came across the White Sox, summer’s golden children at play on a night made for antifreeze.

Their presence should have been a comfort at 70 miles an hour, just as it had been since they used June as their launching pad to glory. But now the Sox were bidding adieu to their regular season at home. They weren’t going to return to Comiskey Park until October’s playoffs, and the thought left you feeling as empty as a farewell at a train station. Summer was over.

All you could do about it was punch another button on the car’s radio, punch another button and hope you would hear the Police singing “Every Breath You Take.” For that was the song that provided the background music for the last three months, lingering in your mind whether you were mowing the lawn or trying to describe the cosmic significance of the infield fly rule. The melody haunted you, the lyrics left you wondering about the residue of your own tilling and threshing. And, like a lot of other things this summer, that hadn’t happened for a while.

Maybe you have to go back as far as the days before baseball finally defeated you, days of keg parties and a curveball pitcher who lay down next to a stereo speaker filled with the Rolling Stones’ voices and begged his kid brother to turn the music louder. The season was over by then and the unraked diamonds had started turning hard under the fading sun. Every morning, the chill sunk a little deeper and lasted a little longer, and you began to realize how impossible it is to hang on to summer and all the things it represents.

No team you played on would ever be the same, no chance for a professional contract ever as good, no friendships ever so unencumbered. And that was what mattered to a catcher with a strong arm and a weak bat, a kid who hid inside a game and thought it would always sustain him.

Even on the night he graduated from high school, he tried to flee what scared him most for the safety that the Salt Lake Bees provided. But before he got to his $1.50 seat, before he even got out of the auditorium where he had received his diploma, there was lipstick on his cheek and a pretty girl saying, “Now you can go.”

Funny how long a kiss can last. Ask the man who got it now and he will tell you that summers should have such staying power. For he would think about it from time to time, smile and wonder about the girl who didn’t dance off into that happy night before she had made sure he was remembered. And when it came time for the 20th reunion this summer, when he flew back to the place that used to be home, he wondered if she would remember her own kindness. He looked for her and found only a mutual friend with bad news: “She’s very sick. I understand it’s terminal.”

What do you do then? Do you write a letter, or do you pray? Do you retreat into the silence that has become your comfortable enemy, or do you hope that the next knock on your door brings a smiling face and laughter that tinkles like chimes in an ocean breeze? Do you see your own life reduced to what the poet Yeats called “day’s vanity and night’s remorse,” or do you borrow from Tom T. Hall, the hillbilly songwriter, and tell someone dear, “You love everybody but you”?

The questions pile up, but there are never enough answers to clear them all away. Ten years ago, you couldn’t have imagined such a predicament. You knew everything then—knew it and said you knew it and expected the world to know you knew it. Perhaps it is only age that brings stupidity.

Summer certainly suggested as much. Whether you were gazing out at Lake Michigan or laboring over your prose, your mind kept drifting away from the business at hand. For too many hours, neither the splendor of Floyd Bannister’s left arm nor the foot in Dallas Green’s mouth held the appeal of life’s complexities. It was time to consider what you had let get away from you, and how, and why. The process was as unsettling as the gray taking over your beard and the lines growing deeper around your eyes.

“I don’t know,” you kept saying. “I just don’t know.” It was an all-purpose reply for a summer that raised new questions almost daily. It could also, however, be tiresome. “This is the place for you,” a friend said, passing a senior citizens’ center. And you couldn’t keep from laughing. You feigned anger, too. But down deep, you thanked God there was someone who cared enough to remind you that the sun always comes up in the morning.

It shows its face later and later now, though. You can’t ignore that. The leaves on the trees have already started to turn, and even if the White Sox go on to win the World Series, there won’t be many more trips to Comiskey Park. The days are growing short, and more and more you cling to the brightness that Ron Kittle, the rookie free spirit, brings to them. “Here’s my bat,” he said to a team trainer after two hitless nights. “Take its temperature.” What a pleasure to find someone who knows where to get answers.

But when they aren’t to your questions, the answers are only for enjoyment, not enlightenment. They serve the same function summer did this year as you spun your wheels for week after week, searching for something you hesitate to define and eventually heading back to the garage empty-handed. The answers made you forget the storm front, but by the time you got home it was starting to rain again.

 

John Schulian was a sports columnist for the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Philadelphia Daily News before moving to Hollywood, where he wrote for a number of television shows and was the co-creator of Xena: Warrior Princess. His work has been collected in several books, including Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us. With George Kimball, he edited At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing for the Library of America. 

[Photo Credit: Sarah Elston and Paolo Di Lucente via MPD]

The Banter Gold Standard: The Earl of Baltimore

Here’s another gem from our man John Schulian. This column on Earl Weaver first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, August 16, 1981 (It can also be found in Schulian’s collection, Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand). It is featured here with the author’s permission.

“The Earl of Baltimore”

By John Schulian

BALTIMORE—Based on the available evidence, it is easy to assume that Earl Weaver perfected managerial sin. After all, the profane potentate of the Orioles has spent the past thirteen seasons kicking dirt on home plate, tearing up rule books under umpires’ noses, and generally behaving as if he were renting his soul to the devil with an option to buy. Yet here it is the middle of August and he has only been kicked out of one game. Reputations have been ruined for less.

Understandably, Weaver is not pleased to hear that his dark star appears to be fading. In his corner of Memorial Stadium’s third base dugout, he looks up from a pregame meal of a sandwich and a cigarette and searches the horizon for an explanation. “Musta been the foggin’ strike,” he says at last. “Guys like me, I coulda got tossed five foggin’ times in the time we were off. I’m streaky that way.”

Satisfied, he resumes dining only to be interrupted moments later by Jim Palmer, the noted pitcher and underwear model. With a mischievous smile, Palmer raises his voice in a song that suggests one more reason why his fearless leader has been wont to raise hell with umpires: “Happy Birthday.”

“Oh,” Weaver says, “you remembered.”

“Of course,” Palmer says.

“I know why you remembered, too,” Weaver tells his favorite rascal. “You know that at my age, it’s gotta hurt.”

He has turned fifty-one on this gray Friday, but there will be no party for him. The Orioles will play the White Sox, and then Earl Weaver, the owner of a full head of hair and none of his own teeth, will go home to be with his wife and his prized tomato plants. He will go home to rest, to savor his stature as the winningest manager in the big leagues, and to get away from all the insufferable questions about how the White Sox are pretending to be a new and improved version of the Black Sox.

They have been quoted anonymously in the press as saying they would throw games at the end of this split season if it would help them get into the playoffs. The mere suggestion of such chicanery has horrified the lords of baseball and forced the team’s management to talk faster than a married politician photographed in the arms of a Las Vegas strumpet. To Weaver, who once marched his team off the field in Toronto to save his bone-weary pitching staff, the Sox’s scheme sounds like the work of dummies.

“What the fog,” he says. “The White Sox better not lose too many foggin’ games deliberately or they’re not gonna be in it. The simplest thing for them to do is win as many games as they can and root like hell for foggin’ Oakland. Look at us, we’re in the same boat. We gotta hope New York beats every-foggin’-body except us. Ain’t that something? I gotta root for them damn pinstripes.”

Nobody said the split season would honor tradition. Indeed, there are those who believe that cutting the season in half smacks more of the old Georgia-Florida League than it does of the American or the National. “Oh, no you don’t,” says Weaver, who spent his playing career in towns where two cars on Main Street constituted a traffic jam. “I don’t want no foggin’ headline sayin’ WEAVER CALLS SPLIT SEASON BUSH.” As a matter of fact, if he had his way, every season would have two chapters, strike or no. “If you start bad,” he says, “it’s nice to be reborn again.” When was the last time Bowie Kuhn addressed any issue so eloquently?

The next thing you know, Weaver will find himself running for commissioner when all he really wants to do is figure out a better way to handicap horse races. That’s the way baseball works: What’s dumb gets done. So lest the game’s kingmakers get the wrong impression from his bleats about old age and his apparent flirtation with respectability, Weaver tries to erase some of the points he has scored with the establishment. The best way to do that is to discuss the fine art of making umpires look like donkeys.

He remembers hearing how a minor league manager named Grover Resinger responded to being given five minutes to get off the field and out of the ballpark. “He asked if he could see the umpire’s watch,” Weaver says, “and when the dumb fogger handed it to him, Resinger threw it over the top of the foggin’ grandstand.”

Then there is Frank Lucchesi, an old sparring partner from the Eastern League. Once, Lucchesi sat on home plate until the police came and carried him into the dugout. Another time, after being ordered off the premises, he climbed the flagpole behind the outfield fence and flashed signals to his team from there. But what Lucchesi did best was drive Weaver to heights of creative genius.

“I forget what the foggin’ call was,” Weaver says, “but the umpire blew it, so I went out and talked like a Dutch uncle and they changed it back. Then Lucchesi comes out and he talks like a Dutch uncle and they change it back. I’m standing there on the mound talking to my pitcher, and when I see them do this, I grab my foggin’ heart and fall on my face. Right there on the mound.

“One of my players comes runnin’ out and rolls me over and starts fannin’ me with his cap. The umpire is right there with him. He says, ‘Weaver, if you even open one eye, you’re out of this game.’ Well, hell, by then, I couldn’t resist, and you know what I saw? There was Lucchesi with one of them old Brownie box cameras. He told me later it was the greatest foggin’ thing he’d ever seen.”

A mischievous smile creases Weaver’s face. “Hey,” he says, “maybe I oughta do that again.”

It could save his reputation.

Jump Start

From his fine collection, Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand, here is John Schulian on Stan the Man:

Of all the heroes I encountered, though, the one who best fit the description was Stan Musial, who managed to be a regular guy even with a statue of him standing outside old Busch Stadium, just as it does now in front of new Busch. In 1982, with the Cardinals on their way to the World Series, it seemed fitting that I should write about him. We met at the restaurant that bore his name, and as soon as I mentioned an obscure teammate of his—Eddie Kazak, a third baseman in the forties—it was like we were old friends.

When I finally ran out of questions, Musial offered to drive me back to my hotel. We made our way through the restaurant’s kitchen, pausing every few steps so he could say hello to a cook or slap a dishwasher on the shoulder. At last we reached the small parking lot in back. The only other people in sight were two teenaged boys with long faces. Musial was unlocking his Cadillac when one of them said, “Hey, mister, you got any jumper cables? Our car won’t start.”

“Lemme see, lemme see,” Musial said. He repeated himself a lot that way. It only added to his charm.

He opened his trunk and started rooting around, pulling out golf clubs, moving aside bags and boxes until, at last, he found his cables. By then, however, I was more interested in watching the boys. One of them was whispering something to his buddy and I could read his lips: “Do you know who that is? That’s Stan Musial.”

The statue in front of the ballpark had come to life.

Nowhere to Hide

At the Fights is now out in paperback. It’s a must-have for any self-respecting sports fan.

Over at the Library of America’s terrific Story of the Week site, check out John Schulian’s wonderful story, “Nowhere to Run.”

You can order the paperback here.

Double Trouble

The Giants play the Eagles tonight. In honor of this old rivalry, check out our pal John Schulian’s classic portrait of Chuck Bednarik:

He really was the last of a breed. For 58 1/2 minutes in the NFL’s 1960 championship game, he held his ground in the middle of Philly’s Franklin Field, a force of nature determined to postpone the christening of the Green Bay Packers’ dynasty. “I didn’t run down on kickoffs, that’s all,” Bednarik says. The rest of that frosty Dec. 26, on both offense and defense, he played with the passion that crested when he wrestled Packer fullback Jim Taylor to the ground one last time and held him there until the final gun punctuated the Eagles’ 17-13 victory.

Philadelphia hasn’t ruled pro football in the 33 years since then, and pro football hasn’t produced a player with the combination of talent, hunger and opportunity to duplicate what Bednarik did. It is a far different game now, of course, its complexities seeming to increase exponentially every year, but the athletes playing it are so much bigger and faster than Bednarik and his contemporaries that surely someone with the ability to go both ways must dwell among them.

Two-sport athletes are something else again, physical marvels driven by boundless egos. Yet neither Bo Jackson nor Deion Sanders, for all their storied shuttling between football and baseball, ever played what Bednarik calls “the whole schmear.” And don’t try to make a case for Sanders by bringing up the turn he took at wide receiver last season. Bednarik has heard that kind of noise before.

“This writer in St. Louis calls me a few years back and starts talking about some guy out there, some wide receiver,” he says, making no attempt to hide his disdain for both the position and the player. “Yeah, Roy Green, that was his name. This writer’s talking about how the guy would catch passes and then go in on the Cardinals’ umbrella defense, and I tell him, ‘Don’t give me that b.s. You’ve got to play every down.’ “

“Concrete Charlie,” is also featured in Schulian’s recent collection: Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand.

Mann, Oh Mann

Jack Mann appreciation continues with three pieces by his colleagues. Please enjoy these memories of Mann from John Schulian, Tom Callahan and Dave McKenna.

Unvarnished Mann

By John Schulian

In the world according to Jack Mann, if a ballplayer dragged his private parts over the post-game spread while reaching for the mustard, a sports writer damn well better file it away for future use. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to re-create the scene for a family newspaper, but he could certainly offer some well-crafted hints. In fact Jack insisted on it when he was a visionary sports editor at Newsday because he would have done no less were he writing the story himself. He was, after all, a slave to the truth no matter how discomfiting.

Not everybody appreciated it. To this day, there are those who recoil at the sound of his name before recovering to rail profanely about his parentage, fondness for the grape, and well-worn mean streak. Jack was, in his time, the most complicated and divisive figure in sportswriting this side of Mark Kram and Dick Young. You either loved him or hated him, and if you loved him, there were still going to be times when you wondered why the hell he did some of the things he did.

Of course the legend occasionally got in the way of the facts. Jack may have thrown a tray of type out a window at the Washington Daily News, for instance, or it may have been his boss, Dave Burgin, who did the honors. God knows they were both capable of it in the days when they were making the sports section in that abysmal tabloid the liveliest reading in town. Or maybe the incident never happened at all.

What I can guarantee did happen was Jack’s constant and very public humiliation of Shirley Povich, the icon who anchored the Washington Post’s sports page for 70 years. Shirley was every bit as gracious and gentlemanly as Red Smith, and a fine writer, too, but by the early 1970s, his reportorial legs were gone and his column showed it. He covered more and more games by watching them on TV. Even the Redskins, who become more important than the White House during the NFL season, couldn’t get him off his couch. Jack smelled blood and went for the kill, parodying Shirley’s style (“The way it came across on Channel 9”) and sneeringly referring to the Post by its advertising slogan (“Over at ‘Quoted, Honored and Consulted’”).

It was not for nothing then that the Post never hired Jack full-time after the Daily News and his subsequent employer, the Washington Star, went belly up. To tell the truth, I was surprised he got so much as a freelance assignment at the Post, but when Casey Stengel died, there was that byline – Jack Mann – on the front of the next day’s sports page. I doubt the old Professor got a better sendoff. And there would be more pieces by Jack, not a lot of them but enough to keep his name alive. I still wonder how hard George Solomon, who was then settling into his job as the Post’s sports editor, had to fight for Jack. But they had worked together at the Daily News, and George understood just how good Jack was.

To read his prose was to get a sense of the man at the typewriter. It was blunt, no-nonsense, and it could, on certain occasions, feel like a punch in the mouth. And yet, while lyricism wasn’t his game, he wove enough literary allusions into his work to let readers in on the fact that he knew Hester Prynne wasn’t a baseball Annie from Boston.

(more…)

And a Fine Time Was Had By All

Last night, Jon DeRosa and I went to a book party at the New York Athletic Club for “At the Fights.” It was well attended–contributors like Robert Lipsyte, Thomas Hauser, Larry Merchant and Gay Talese were there. Joe Flaherty’s wife showed up, and so did W.C. Heinz’s daughter. Art Donovan, the football legend whose old man was a great boxing ref, was there too. George Kimball and John Schulian, pictured above, gave lovely speeches.

George talked about the relationship between boxing and writing, about how they are both difficult, solitary experiences. He said, “Writing is hard but editing this book was a complete pleasure.” Sure, the editors had to make agonizing choices–some fine stories like Jack Murphy’s “The Mongoose,” Frank Deford’s “The Boxer and the Blonde,” and J.R. Moehringer’s “Resurrecting the Champ,” didn’t make the final cut–but still, selecting from a wealth of fantastic writing must easier than writing itself.

If you care about good writing, doesn’t matter if you are a boxing fan or not, this is a book to have.

How Sweet It Is

George Plimpton once wrote, “The smaller the ball used in the sport, the better the book.” But this doesn’t account for boxing, a sport that word-for-word has produced more great writing than any other. For hard evidence, look no further than “At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing,” an outstanding new collection edited by George Kimball and John Schulian.

All of the heavyweights are here–from Jack London, James Baldwin and Norman Mailer, to A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon. And that’s just for starters. How about Gay Talese, Pete Hamill, George Plimpton, Pete Dexter, David Remnick and Mark Kriegel, not to mention the veterans of the boxing scene like Larry Merchant, Mark Kram, Vic Ziegel, Pat Putnam and Richard Hoffer.

I’m not a huge boxing fan but I adore boxing writing and this is the finest anthology I’ve ever come across.

Check out the Library of America’s website for a fascinating and in-depth interview with Kimball and Schulian.

Here’s Kimball:

The wonder shouldn’t be that there are two Liebling pieces, but that there are only two. (He and Schulberg have the only double-barreled entries in the anthology.) If I’d been compiling that list, The Sweet Science would be No.1, and A Neutral Corner, Liebling’s other collection of (mostly) New Yorker pieces No. 2.

Putting At the Fights together was a painstaking, year-long process that was often like a jigsaw puzzle, because sometimes the decision to include a par- ticular piece would, due to subject matter or tone or approach, displace others. John and I made a conscious decision early on to hold Liebling in reserve. We knew whichever of his pieces we wound up using, they were going to work. Our initial inclination, for instance, had been to include Liebling’s terrific account of his visit to Sonny Liston’s training camp, but if we’d used that we probably wouldn’t have been able to include Joe Flaherty’s wonderful “Amen to Sonny,” and if we hadn’t used Liebling’s “Kearns by a Knockout” we’d probably have had to find two more pieces to adequately address Doc Kearns and Sugar Ray Robinson. It was sometimes like playing Whack-A-Mole, because every time you’d hammer one down, three more would pop up somewhere else. But in that respect Liebling was a constant security blanket, our wild-card, because of our unshaken confidence that whatever we wound up using was going to be great.

Anyone who has written about boxing for the last fifty years owes a great debt of gratitude to Joe Liebling, so yes, his influence has been both pervasive and profound, but woe be unto the conscious imitator. Any writer who sets out trying to write his own “Liebling piece”—and there have been a few—is inex- orably doomed to fall flat on his face.

And Schulian:

It’s too much to say that the best boxing stories are about losers. That argument is contradicted time and again throughout the book. But losers and eccentrics and guys who never quite made it to the mountaintop have inspired some classic writing. You want to weep for Primo Carnera after read- ing what Paul Gallico had to say about the way he was used as a patsy and a stooge and a pretend heavyweight champion. And then you have Stanley Ketchel and Bummy Davis, two crazy-tough fighters who would have been swallowed by the mists of time if it weren’t for the stories written about them. Was John Lardner’s piece on Ketchel better than the fighter himself? Absolutely. And Bill Heinz’s on Davis? Without a doubt. And the amazing thing is that Lardner and Heinz never met their subjects, both of whom were prematurely dispatched from this life by gunshot. But Lardner and Heinz were intrepid reporters as well as stunning writers, and they proved it with their renderings of the two fighters’ hearts and souls.

Click here for an excerpt.

Don’t sleep, pound-for-pound, this will be the most rewarding book–never mind sports book–you’ll buy this spring.

The Power and Beauty of Restraint

Check out this fine post by Chris Jones at his blog, “Son of Bold Venture” (named after a horse in W.C. Heinz’s classic column, “Death of a Racehorse”).

Here’s Jones:

It’s probably the hardest lesson in writing: learning when you’ve already written enough.

We’re taught to believe that words have a value, a power, a weight. Logically, then, the more words, the better the sentence or paragraph or story. But writing isn’t always a logical exercise. Sometimes—most of the time—it’s about things that are harder to measure.

My editor, Peter—he will hate that I’m about to praise him in public—is one of the best in the business. He’s particularly good at carving the little excesses from a story that might either push it into sentimentality or turn the screw a little too hard. Because I’m often writing about emotional subjects, I’m especially dependent on Peter’s eye and knife. He just seems to know when even the smallest trim will serve the story. Peter understands restraint. He knows the value and power and weight of the words that aren’t there.

The older I get, the more I am drawn to restraint in cooking, moviemaking, music, and writing. It takes courage and discipline, not to mention confidence, to show restraint, to leave things out.

I e-mailed Glenn Stout, editor of the Best American Sports Writing series, about Jones’ post. He replied via e-mail:

Well, I’ve always thought it important to note that “In the beginning was the word…” Not “In the beginning was the words…” Although I wouldn’t necessarily say that more stories are ruined by underwriting rather than overwriting, because I see a lot of work in which the writer appears to have missed an opportunity, I will say that more ambitious stories could probably use more restraint. That’s one of the reasons I think that writers of any stripe should read poetry – it not only teaches tangible things like economy, sound and rhythm, but it also teaches that the negative space in writing – what’s not there, and the heartbeat of recognition that takes place over the empty space at the end of a line or a phrase – is as important as what is on the page. The way we connect with a piece of writing is how our brain fills in the blanks.

It’s like backing away from a painting rather than standing too close.

I understand negative space when it comes to painting, like in Giorgio Morandi’s wonderful still life pictures, but have only recently come to appreciate it in writing as well. Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy expressionists, just that I am more drawn to writers like Heinz and Pat Jordan, Elmore Leonard and Pete Dexter.

My pal John Schulian also sent the following e-mail:

The interesting thing about this is that Chris Jones writes with such restraint in the first place. For him to go public with a confession that even he needs an editor to keep his prose from going over the edge is truly remarkable. And instructive. Every writer caves in to his worst instincts sooner or later. Problem is, not every writer has an editor as sharp as Jones’s Peter (I assume he means Peter Griffin, Esquire’s deputy editor). Also, not every editor is working with a writer as wonderful as Chris Jones. Not that the wonderful-ness of a writer would stop some editors from screwing up their prose. But the trims that Peter made were as artful and restrained as what Jones wrote. They eliminated the unnecessary and, just as important, preserved the rhythm of Jones’ prose. Peter heard the music and left no fingerprints, and that, perhaps, is the ultimate proof of his artistry as a line editor. No wonder Jones saluted him.

It is not easy to find a good editor. Jones has it good and seems to know it. Perhaps the most instructive book I’ve read about editing is Susan Bell’s “The Artful Edit.” It’s an essential guide for me and rests next to “The Elements of Style” on my night table. Bell uses the relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor Maxwell Perkins throughout her text.

Dig this one example from “The Great Gatsby.” First, from a rough draft:

They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just blown in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments on the threshold, dazzled by the alabaster light, listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall.

And then revised for the the final version:

They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall.

Fitzgerald dropped “dazzled by the alabaster light…” a vivid, but ultimately, distracting flourish. Man, you’ve got to be ruthless to murder your darlings. It is nothing short of inspiring when the great talents have the conviction to do just that.

[Painting by Girogio Morandi]

Beat of the Day

The Boss is lost on me but that’s just a matter of taste. Still, I regard him as a great musician and songwriter and performer. For the many of you who dig Bruce, check out this post over at Pitchers and Poets.

This is one tune of his that I love:

And here is a 1975 newspaper article on the Boss by our pal John Schulian.

Bet a Million

Here’s Vic Ziegel, from the introduction to his collection Sunday Punch: Raspberries, Strawberries, Steinbrenner & Tysons–a Famed Sports Columnist Takes His Best Shot at Sports’ Big Shots:

Many of the pieces contained here were written in the press boxes, very close to deadline, with the stranger next to me typing a lot quicker. When sportswriters describe other sportswriters, good is high praise, quick is the ultimate. (The two words, quikc and good, make the work sound almost lewd. Me? I never got it for free and I never will.) The deadline is the problem, the enemy. It is there, at the same time, every night. You stand still and it comes closer. You can’t fake it out because it doesn’t move. It grows shorter and towers over you. It doesn’t understand that you want a better word than fast to describe a baserunner. Very fast is very bad. Fleet is out. Swift, nimble, speedy. No, no, no. Fast is starting to look better. There’s coffee spilled on my notes, you know in your heart that the press lounge has run out of beer, and now the stranger is on the telephone telling someone named Sweetie that he’s on the way.

On those days I write in the Daily News‘ sports department, and the ax of a deadline isn’t about to drop immediately, when you might think I have words enough and time, it suddenly becomes important to play chicken with the blade. So I shmooze with the guys in the office, go downstairs for another cup of cardboard coffee, call home, anybody’s home, until I have finally arrived at the moment I dread: the sports editor standing over me and saying, “Where is it?” (This is what you answer, kids. You say five minutes. And not to worry. If you miss once, nothing happens. If you miss too many times, they make you sports editor.)

And here’s John Schulian remembering his friend.

It was Vic Ziegel who once began a story with these immortal words: “The game is never over until the last man is out, the New York Post learned late last night.” If I had a nickel for every baseball writer who has paraphrased or just plain stolen that sentence, I might be able to afford a box seat at a Yankee game.

But those 19 words, no matter how often they appeared in one form or another under someone else’s byline, would always belong to Vic. He took a cliché and, with one deft addition, told his readers that he had written about a game, not the end of the world. Better still, he was setting the stage for a story filled with fun and whimsy. It would also be wise and free of self-importance, because those were trademarks of Vic’s work, too. Most of all, though, his story was going to make people laugh.

Making people laugh was what Vic did best until he died the other day, at 72, and turned my smile, and the smiles of everybody else that knew him, upside down. At the old Dorothy Schiff Post, he tickled funny bones by writing a sports advice column he called “Dear Flabby.” When Red Smith invited him to go to the horse races in some exotic, Ali-inspired locale -– oh, did Vic love the horses -– the next thing he knew, Red had written a column featuring a character named “Bet a Million” Ziegel.

And then there was a story that never made print, the one Vic told on himself about his turn as a hockey writer. The old one had left the Post, and when the new one couldn’t start for a couple of weeks, Vic volunteered the fill in even though hockey left him cold. Somehow he survived. He was such a team guy, in fact, that he even escorted the new man to the first game he covered. Soon after the puck was dropped, the new man began waxing rhapsodic about the action in the crease.

“The crease?” Vic Ziegel, hockey expert, said. “What’s the crease?”

As the story comes back to me, I can hear him laughing. Not loudly -– there was nothing loud about him -– but with the joy he got from telling a funny story well. And if he was the punch line, so what? We’re all punch lines at one point or another in our lives.

He and I might have qualified in that regard when we wrote for P.M. papers–Vic the Post, me the Chicago Daily News–and still struggled to make our deadlines. It was funny for everybody except us and the desk men who were waiting to slap headlines on our copy as dawn came creeping. For all I know, that was how our friendship was born: We were the last two guys in the pressroom. The only thing I can tell you for sure, though, is that we met at the Muhammad Ali-Alfredo Evangelista fight outside Washington, D.C., in 1977, and we became friends, just like that.

It was one more stunning development in the year and a half or so that saw me go from cityside reporter in Baltimore to sportswriter at the Washington Post to columnist in Chicago. Here was Vic, whose work in the New York Post had been making me laugh since the first time I picked up the paper, in 1968, and he was giving me his phone number and calling me “pal” and treating me as if I belonged in the kind of company he kept in Manhattan. He had worked with Leonard Shecter, Larry Merchant, Pete Hamill, and Murray Kempton, and I’d read in the Village Voice that he hung out at the ultimate writers’ bar, the Lion’s Head. Now he was my friend — how cool was that?

There was a grace and good-heartedness about Vic that never wavered throughout the 33 years I knew him. He took me to the Lion’s Head for my first visit, and made a point of introducing me to Hamill and Joel Oppenheimer and Joe Flaherty, towering figures in the pecking order in my head.

When I was married and my wife and I visited New York, Vic and his wife, the pluperfect Roberta, hosted a brunch in our honor at their apartment, and who should show up but Wilfred Sheed, another writing hero. Vic knew the Italian restaurants I should eat at, and the movies I should see (especially if they were film noir), and the old jazz I should be aware of, by Bix Beiderbecke and Jellyroll Morton. I’m partial to country music myself, but one rainy night Vic picked me up to go to dinner and then abruptly pulled his car to a stop on a side street so I could listen to what he thought was the perfect blending of our sensibilities: Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, backed by Louis Armstrong. If a goy from Salt Lake City may say such a thing, he was the ultimate mensch.

There are people who knew Vic longer than I did, and there are people who knew him better, but I consider myself lucky to have spent the time I did reading him and hanging out with him. The last time was after last year’s Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita. He stayed for a couple of days in the room where I keep my crime novels and a jukebox that I’m ashamed to say has only one jazz CD on it, Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue.” He had aged and he seemed less sure of himself physically, but if he had been diagnosed with the cancer that ultimately killed him, he never breathed a word of it. He wanted to talk, to laugh, to eat, and when I suggested that we watch The Friends of Eddie Coyle, he was up for that, too. He took the sofa, I took the easy chair, and we were both sound asleep before we got 20 minutes into the movie. It’s what old guys do. Then they say goodbye and hope they’ll see each other again.

When Vic was back in New York, he told me about the health problems that had begun to dog him, though still with no mention of cancer. But I’m not sure I ever told him about the anthology of boxing writing that George Kimball, another old friend, and I are putting together. I should have, because he’s in the book with a blissfully funny story he wrote for Inside Sports 30 years ago about the devoutly unfunny Roberto Duran. The story opens with Vic’s description of two chinchillas, Ralph and Steve, who live in a window cage in New York’s fur district. Now nobody will ever open another boxing story with chinchillas named Ralph and Steve, damn it.

[Photo Credit: NY Daily News, Corbis]

Beat of the Day

Another boxing beat:

…For the Brown Bomber:

Beat of the Day

Boxing Week continues

Beat of the Day

In celebration of the recent publication of The Fighter Still Remains: A Celebration of Boxing in Poetry and Song from Zevon to Ali (edited by George Kimbal and John Schulian), let’s do a week of boxing tunes.

First up, a classic:

Million Dollar Movie

Guest Writer: John Schulian

It is a sign of the times that our movie heroes no longer go traipsing off to Mexico to scratch their itch for unlikely nobility, filthy lucre, or good old-fashioned trouble. The show-me-your-papers crowd in Arizona would have us believe there are so many illegals heading north that even celluloid mercenaries looking south of the border better stay home lest they be trampled. Myself, I’d suggest that the abundance of lead being slung in Mexico’s drug wars makes telling stories about brave yanquis, especially the contemporary variety, about as plausible as having Madonna sing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Once, however, the land of Villa welcomed Humphrey Bogart so he could die a greed head’s death in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and Robert Mitchum, fresh out of a very real jail, as he tracked down a missing Army payroll in “The Big Steal.” You should know about “The Magnificent Seven,” of course, just as you should “The Wild Bunch”: two classic Westerns that sprang from the idea of American bad men finding something good inside them under Mexican skies, the former ending with a triumphant ride out of town, the latter with a fireball of dark glory. And then there is a hugely entertaining Western that is too often forgotten, “The Professionals,” which is about early 20th Century mercenaries who are crazy brave but not stupid. Four of them, to be exact: Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode, each possessing more testosterone by himself than there is in all of Hollywood today.

Lancaster was a former circus acrobat who did his own stunts and, legend has it, could handle himself in a street fight. Marvin fought his way through World War II as a marine in the Pacific, and, with a mug like his, he must have put up his dukes a few times as a civilian, too. Ryan boxed in college (and was nothing less than splendid in the fight racket noir “The Set-Up”). Strode played football at UCLA, broke the NFL’s color line (alongside college teammate Kenny Washington), wrestled professionally, died a righteous death in “Spartacus,” and, though he was 52 when “The Professionals” was released in 1966, looked like he was made of steel cable.

(more…)

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