I like the one about heading over to MLB’s Classics You Tube Channel.
or maybe this:
[Photo Credit: Joe Scherschel/LIFE]
I like the one about heading over to MLB’s Classics You Tube Channel.
or maybe this:
[Photo Credit: Joe Scherschel/LIFE]
The Yankees and Dodgers are scheduled to play a two-game series in the Bronx starting tonight (if the weather permits). Nice job by SI.com’s Jay Jaffe today recalling the 1978 World Series and Game 2′s classic final out when Bob Welch whiffed Mr. October. Featured is the following take on “Casey at the Bat”:
“Destiny, Ah Fate, Mighty Reggie has Struck Out!”
by Jules Loh, AP Special Correspondent, 1978
The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Yankees in L.A. The score stood 4-3, two out, one inning left to play. But when Dent slid safe at second and Blair got on at first Every screaming Dodger fan had cause to fear the worst. For there before the multitude — Ah destiny! Ah fate! Reggie Jackson, mighty Reggie, was advancing to the plate.
Reggie, whose three home runs had won the year before, Reggie, whose big bat tonight fetched every Yankee score. On the mound to face him stood the rookie, young Bob Welch. A kid with a red hot fastball — Reggie’s pitch — and nothing else. Fifty-thousand voices cheered as Welch gripped ball in mitt. One hundred thousand eyes watched Reggie rub his bat and spit.
“Throw your best pitch, kid, and duck,” Reggie seemed to say. The kid just glared. He must have known this wasn’t Reggie’s day. His fist pitch was a blazer. Reggie missed it clean Fifty-thousand throats responded with a Dodger scream. They squared off, Reggie and the kid, each knew what he must do. And seven fastballs later, the count was three and two.
No shootout on a dusty street out here in the Far West Could match the scene: A famous bat, a kid put to the test. One final pitch. The kid reared back and let a fastball fly. Fifty-thousand Dodger fans gave forth one final cry… Ah, the lights still shine on Broadway, but there isn’t any doubt The Big Apple has no joy left. Mighty Reggie has struck out.
Also buried by Welch’s sensational performance in Game 2 was when Reggie got his revenge in Game 6. The Yankees were up 3 games to 2 and leading in the 7th inning by the score of 5-2 when Jackson faced Welch again.
This time he hit a long home run–they didn’t call him Buck Tater for nothing–the icing on the gravy of the Yankees World Series win.
Red Smith is the most respected sports columnist we’ve ever had. In his prime, Jimmy Cannon, Smith’s friendly rival, was certainly as well-known. Cannon, the Voice of New York, was an emotional, colloquial writer whose reputation, unfortunately, has faded. But Smith endures. What is it about his writing that ages so well?
“It’s the same reason Shakespeare ages well,” Dave Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist told me recently. “He wrote beautifully, it’s as simple as that.”
The Library of America presents Smith’s finest work in the new collection, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith. It is available now and a must-read for all sports fans, young and old (and an ideal gift for Father’s Day). This week, with permission from Smith’s family, we’ll reprint a Red Smith column every day to offer you a sample of what he was all about. Today’s column is “The Moving Finger Writes, Etc.” which ran on October 19, 1977, the day after Reggie Jackson hit three home runs on three pitches in the deciding game of the World Series.
So, enjoy, and for more on Smith, check out this oral history from Jerome Holtzman’s classic,No Cheering in the Press Box; this excerpt from Stanley Woodward’s memoir, Paper Tiger; anice tribute by his son, Terrance Smith; and this excerpt from Dan Okrent’s introduction toAmerican Pastimes. ‘Course it goes without saying that if you want to know from Red Smith you need to go find a copy of Ira Berkow’s excellent biography, Red.
It had to happen this way. It had been predestined since November 29, 1976, when Reginald Martinez Jackson sat down on a gilded chair in New York’s Americana Hotel and wrote his name on a Yankee contract. That day he became an instant millionaire, the big honcho on the best team money could buy, the richest, least inhibited, most glamorous exhibit in Billy Martin’s pin-striped zoo. That day the plot was written for last night—the bizarre scenario Reggie Jackson played out by hitting three home runs, clubbing the Los Angeles Dodgers into submission, and carrying his supporting players with him to the baseball championship of North America. His was the most lurid performance in seventy-four World Series, for although Babe Ruth hit three home runs in a game in 1926 and again in 1928, not even that demigod smashed three in a row.
Reggie’s first broke a tie and put the Yankees in front, 4–3. His second fattened the advantage to 7–3. His third completed arrangements for a final score of 8–4, wrapping up the championship in six games.
Yet that was merely the final act of an implausible one-man show. Jackson had made a home run last Saturday in Los Angeles and another on his last time at bat in that earthly paradise on Sunday. On his first appearance at the plate last night he walked, getting no official time at bat, so in his last four official turns he hit four home runs.
In his last nine times at bat, this Hamlet in double-knits scored seven runs, made six hits and five home runs, and batted in six runs for a batting average of .667 compiled by day and by night on two sea-coasts three thousand miles and three time zones apart. Shakespeare wouldn’t attempt a curtain scene like that if he was plastered.
This was a drama that consumed seven months, for ever since the Yankees went to training camp last March, Jackson had lived in the eye of the hurricane. All summer long as the spike-shod capitalists bickered and quarreled, contending with their manager, defying their owner, Reggie was the most controversial, the most articulate, the most flamboyant.
Part philosopher, part preacher and part outfielder, he carried this rancorous company with his bat in the season’s last fifty games, leading them to the East championship in the American League and into the World Series. He knocked in the winning run in the twelve-inning first game, drove in a run and scored two in the third, furnished the winning margin in the fourth, and delivered the final run in the fifth.
Thus the stage was set when he went to the plate in last night’s second inning with the Dodgers leading, 2–0. Sedately, he led off with a walk. Serenely, he circled the bases on a home run by Chris Chambliss. The score was tied.
Los Angeles had moved out front, 3–2, when the man reappeared in the fourth inning with Thurman Munson on base. He hit the first pitch on a line into the seats beyond right field. Circling the bases for the second time, he went into his home-run glide—head high, chest out. The Yankees led, 4–3. In the dugout, Yankees fell upon him. Billy Martin, the manager, who tried to slug him last June, patted his cheek lovingly. The dugout phone rang and Reggie accepted the call graciously.
His first home run knocked the Dodgers’ starting pitcher, Burt Hooton, out of the game. His second disposed of Elias Sosa, Hooton’s successor. Before Sosa’s first pitch in the fifth inning, Reggie had strolled the length of the dugout to pluck a bat from the rack, even though three men would precede him to the plate. He was confident he would get his turn. When he did, there was a runner on base again, and again he hit the first pitch. Again it reached the seats in right.
When the last jubilant playmate had been peeled off his neck, Reggie took a seat near the first-base end of the bench. The crowd was still bawling for him and comrades urged him to take a curtain call but he replied with a gesture that said, “Aw, fellows, cut it out!” He did unbend enough to hold up two fingers for photographers in a V-for-victory sign.
Jackson was the leadoff batter in the eighth. By that time, Martin would have replaced him in an ordinary game, sending Paul Blair to right field to help protect the Yankees’ lead. But did they ever bench Edwin Booth in the last act?
For the third time, Reggie hit the first pitch but this one didn’t take the shortest distance between two points. Straight out from the plate the ball streaked, not toward the neighborly stands in right but on a soaring arc toward the unoccupied bleachers in dead center, where the seats are blacked out to give batters a background. Up the white speck climbed, dwindling, diminishing, until it settled at last halfway up those empty stands, probably four hundred fifty feet away.
This time he could not disappoint his public. He stepped out of the dugout and faced the multitude, two fists and one cap uplifted. Not only the customers applauded.
“I must admit,” said Steve Garvey, the Dodgers’ first baseman, “when Reggie Jackson hit his third home run and I was sure nobody was listening, I applauded into my glove.”
Here is a gem from Tony Kornheiser, a long piece on George Steinbrenner. It originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine on April 9, 1978 at is featured here with the author’s permission.
You’re going to dig this one.
“That Damn Yankee”
By Tony Kornheiser
THE OLD MAN WAS rigid. Dinner was at 5:45 each evening, and it was “Please, sir” and “Thank you, sir” and “May I be excused, sir?” He was a perfectionist. He was an intercollegiate hurdles champion, and he had the kid running hurdles at age 12. If the kid ran three races and won two and finished second in the third, the old man wasn’t completely satisfied; he’d come down from the stands asking, “What the hell happened? How’d you let that guy beat you?” The old man thrived on work. He told the kid, “Always work as hard as, or harder than anyone who works for you.”
The old man owned a shipping company.
He planned that someday the kid would take it over. The kid did even better than that. Now the kid is 47 years old, and he’s chairman of the board of The American Ship Building Company, which is expected to do $180 million worth of sales in 1978. And he’s principal owner of the New York Yankees, the most famous sports franchise in the world, which brings its World Series championship team back to Yankee Stadium this week. And he owns a thoroughbred farm, a hotel and a lot of real estate on the booming west coast of Florida. And he has a piece of the Chicago Bulls basketball team. He has Kinsman Shipping, the family company he bought from his father, and has extensive holdings in land and banking operations. The kid say is a multimillionaire; the multis may well be approaching triple figures.
The kid says it’s lonely at the top, it’s the loneliest place in the world.
But every day he thanks the old man. “You never really appreciated him or liked him as a young person,” he says. “But you appreciated him more as every day of your life went on. I can’t give enough credit to my dad. Anything I ever accomplish I owe to him.”
The father is German. From the father, the kid says he learned to be tough, to drive and succeed, to win; he doesn’t believe in entering a contest just to compete. He believes in keeping score; he doesn’t mess around with No. 2. The mother is Irish. From the mother, the kid says he learned compassion, a feel for the underdog, the desire to help those less fortunate, less blessed. The kid has sent some 75 people through college; he serves on charitable committees; he chairs philanthropic foundations. His closest friends say he’s a soft touch.
But the thesis-antithesis-synthesis doesn’t compute. Something got lost in the mix, an overload of thesis perhaps. The kid is hard on his people. Like the secretary he once fired for failing to get him an airline reservation; he fired her from the airport, over the telephone, when the ticket he went to pick up wasn’t there.
“Clear out your desk,” he said, “you’re through.”
She didn’t budge. Maybe she knew the man.
The next day the kid went to see her in the office.
“I’ve made arrangements to send your son to camp this summer,” he told her; that was how the kid said he was sorry.
“I know I’m tough,” he says. “But I try to make it up to my people in other ways. I don’t like to hurt people. Sometimes I just. . . . Well, I guess I can’t help it.”
George Steinbrenner is charming, generous, philanthropic, well-connected, wealthy, energetic and a delight to be with. He is also imperious, tyrannical, impatient, tough, nasty and almost impossible to work for. If he has to pick a label to hang his psyche on, he picks none of the above.
He picks misunderstood.
“No one has been able to capture the real me, how I feel,” he says. “But I guess it’s tough. It’s hard for me to convey what I really feel. It’s not something I can easily say.”
He lists among his friends such people as Senator Edward Kennedy; Thomas P. O’Neill, better known as Tip, the Speaker of the House of Representatives; Cary Grant, the legend, and Barbara Walters, a close personal friend of Anwar el-Sadat. He lists among his prominent positions, spots on the boards of trustees at the University of Tampa. the Culver Educational Foundation, the University of South Florida Foundation. He is the Florida state chairman of the American Cancer Society. He lists among his accomplishments, assistant varsity football coach at both Northwestern and Purdue, chairman of the Democratic Party fund raising effort in 1969 and 1970, all sorts of charitable work for poverty foundations and sports-for-youth federations and co-producer of such award-winning Broadway shows as “Seesaw” and “Applause.” Oh, and he brought the Yankees back from comatose to champions in five years.
Yet what people remember him for most are his felony conviction for election-campaign fraud in the time of Watergate, and the weekly reports of his threats to fire Billy Martin, the manager of the Yankees, a 49-year-old Fonzie who has been described by John Schulian of The Chicago Sun-Times as “a mouse studying to be a rat.”
George Steinbrenner, who very much would like to be a man of the people, a working-class hero, hasn’t a shot. He takes his satisfactions privately; he gets his beatings publicly.
“I’m the heavy,” he says. “I don’t like it, but I don’t know how to change it.”
“TWO THINGSS ARE important to George,” says a close friend who believes he needs anonymity on this one to stay close. “Two things—winning and power.”
Steinbrenner does not dispute the former; he pleads guilty, with an explanation, to the latter.
“Only if I can use it for good, to help those less fortunate than me,” he says. He is sitting in the restaurant in his Tampa hotel, the Bay Harbor Inn. He puts his elbows on the table and leans forward: This one is coming from the heart.
“I’ll tell you when I really bristle,” he says. “I’ll be sitting at some board meeting, and I’ll hear some big shot say—’Look at those people.’ And you’ll know exactly which people he’s talking about. ‘All they want is their unemployment checks.’ Well, let me tell you something. I’ve been to the South Bronx; how many of those big shots have been to the South Bronx? You gonna tell me that’s all that guy wants in life? No way. . . . If he had the opportunity that I had, God knows he might be a better man than all of us.
“Now look, I’m no crusader, I don’t want it to sound like that. I’m no Robin Hood. I just like to help people, that’s my bag. They call me a flaming liberal; guess I am.”
The little guy, Steinbrenner claims kinship with the little guy. The cabby who has to fight the traffic every day, the bartender, the hotel worker, that’s his cast of characters; he talks about them so often you’d think he did his senior thesis at Williams College on Damon Runyon instead of on the heroines in Thomas Hardy’s novels. His favorite little guy is the one who stops him on the street and thanks him for bringing the Yankees back. He makes it seem there are a legion of little guys out there on the streets of New York, patrolling every comer just waiting to spot him and shake his hand.
“Class,” he says. “What class they have.”
“I wish I had class like that,” he says. “I wish I had the class to go up to a stranger and thank him for something. I don’t.”
Now it may be a bit hard to swallow that, to fully swallow how a man who likes the feel of a chauffeured limousine can claim this spiritual tie to the little guy. Especially since he’s so hard with his own little people, his secretaries and his office personnel. Especially since he stays at the Hotel Carlyle and wears $40 shirts and sits fifth-row center at the theater, house seats.
But down deep, even if he knows it isn’t readily visible, George Steinbrenner feels like one of the guys. Down deep, he’s at a fraternity party. All his life, through military school and through board meetings, he acted one way and coveted another, and down deep, he wants to be one of the common people, if only for a handshake. Of course his hero is the cabby. The common denominator in New York City is the traffic; Steinbrenner sees it even through the window of his chauffeured limo, he feels it, he sits in it. When you’re stuck on 37th Street, it doesn’t matter if you’re stuck in a cab, or a bus or a limo. You’re all alike. For maybe the only time in his life, he’s down with the people.
“I’ve always kept my emotions inside me,” he says. “They tell me I don’t let myself go, and that’s true. It’s a mark of strength among Germans, you know. . . . it isn’t that frequent that I really enjoy myself. It’s hard to explain, but the feeling I got after winning a World Series wasn’t what I thought it’d be. I remember saying to myself—I wonder why I’m not more excited? But then I saw the happiness I got was seeing happiness in others, and when that cabby comes up to me and says, ‘Thanks for bringing the Yankees back,’ even if it’s just ‘Thanks for spending your money,’ it’s unreal. I feel so good about winning one for New York. This is the greatest city in the world and its people are the greatest people in the world. And I just hope they like me.”
The New York Yankees won the World Series last season.
It should have been some party.
All season long the Yankees played “West Side Story” in dugouts and locker rooms throughout the country, and when they closed the curtain—when “Bernardo” Jackson hit his three homers and “Riff” Munson caught his last ball and “Tony” Martin got his contract extended and “Officer Krupke” Steinbrenner made nicey-nice and bought them all championship rings—the cast was too drained to dance. Even with Steinbrenner insisting that months of intramural feuding had forced them to acquire “the mental toughness necessary to win,” the Yankees could only ride their World Series high for one week or so before deflating like a hot-air balloon. The stars of the show needed time to recuperate.
Jackson went to the West Coast, where he apparently took a vow of silence, licked his wounds and rented all the king’s horses and all the king’s men to help put his psyche together again.
Martin, the darling of the fans, seemed to disappear completely. Steinbrenner did the banquet circuit. He made so many speeches and received so many awards that he was to the sports testimonial circuit what Charo is to talk shows.
Only Munson simmered publicly. For someone who rates reporters lower than the lowest, Munson attempted major league manipulation of the press. From his home in Canton, Ohio, he regularly demanded to be traded to the Cleveland Indians, threatened to quit baseball if he wasn’t, and accused Steinbrenner of stiffing him out of some verbal contractual promises. Steinbrenner seemed somewhat amused by Munson’s bluster; he could afford to be. He had Munson’s signature on a contract.
All things considered, not a bad winter at all.
And through it all, the Yankees sold tickets. There was just enough controversy, just enough bad blood to keep them cards and letters coming in. Steinbrenner is theatrical enough to know that controversy sells.
This winter, the Yankees got box office performances by Gabe Paul and Mike Torrez—who departed; Rich Gossage, Rawly Eastwick, Jim Spencer, Andy Messersmith and Al Rosen—who arrived—and Jackson, Munson and Sparky Lyle, the Three Stooges of spring training.
Behind it all—rather, above it all—moving the strings that make the puppets dance, George Steinbrenner’s hands were clearly visible.
Make no mistake, he is the New York Yankees.
Gabe Paul’s departure was at least gracious. He quit as president and general manager and signed on with the Indians. Paul didn’t say anything bad about Steinbrenner publicly, but if he’d had anything good to say he wouldn’t have left. As easily as changing a flat tire, Steinbrenner immediately installed Al Rosen in Paul’s place, as president in charge of explanations.
In Rosen, Steinbrenner has a good and true friend, the devoted ally he never had in Paul. Rosen’s presence is a sure sign that Steinbrenner will be calling all the shots; Steinbrenner believes that winning the championship last season vindicated the moves he made, and this season he will run his team as if it were one of his Great Lakes tankers. This time, if Steinbrenner wants Martin out, no one will be there to block the move; Martin will see Al Rosen opening the exit door as soon as Steinbrenner points to it, and Steinbrenner’s assistant, first base coach Gene Michael, will be walking in before Martin is halfway down the hall.
Torrez’s departure was noisier. He was the Yankees’ best pitcher in the playoff and Series, but Steinbrenner—through Paul—never seriously negotiated to keep him; Torrez was a rent-an-arm, that’s all. After signing as a free agent with Boston, Torrez was quoted as saying, “The Yankees will have just as much trouble next season because Munson and Nettles hate Jackson.” The only thing that surprised Torrez was that more people didn’t know it.
Again, Steinbrenner went the free agent route to improve his Yankees. He signed Rich Gossage, the best available relief pitcher, and Rawly Eastwick, the second-best available relief pitcher. In Gossage and Sparky Lyle, Steinbrenner has the best righty-lefty bullpen duo in baseball. If all this fast relief works out, Steinbrenner could put Alka-Seltzer out of business. Gossage’s presence infuriated Lyle enough to ask to be traded to a team where he’ll pitch more and earn more. Consider that Lyle was the best pitcher in the American League last season, and now he wants out. Could you ask for a better controversy?
Steinbrenner made one cosmetic attempt to trade Lyle, but found it easy to turn down a deal sending Lyle and Chris Chambliss to Texas for Claudell Washington and Paul Lindblad.
The next day Steinbrenner told the press that Lyle wasn’t going anywhere. Then, just to let Lyle stew in his own juices, Steinbrenner said, “Like I told Sparky, ‘How much market value is there for a 34-year-old reliever?’” It may not be great public relations, but it made a striking headline.
Oh, and Munson’s still here.
“You really didn’t think he’d quit?” Steinbrenner asks, doing a strut with his voice.
Some people take refuge in being the underdog; with his money, Steinbrenner is forced to be the overdog. The mistake is in thinking that the overdog won’t bite. New York City is making that mistake in its recent complaint about the size of the bone that Steinbrenner has buried in his tenant’s contract at Yankee Stadium with the city. Suddenly, after the Yankees won the World Series and made a $12 million profit in 1977, the city started crying about the contract it had negotiated with the Yankees even before Steinbrenner purchased the team in 1973. It seems that the contract—assumed by Steinbrenner, but signed by CBS, the previous Yankee owner—allows the Yankees to deduct maintenance costs before paying tenant taxes. That clause—perhaps it should be called “the insanity clause” in honor of the city lawyers who agreed to it—allowed the Yankees to pay only $150,000 to the city last year, less even than Ron Guidry makes for pitching for the Yankees. Now the city wants to renegotiate. You could hardly blame Steinbrenner for telling the city exactly where to file that request. Especially considering that the Mets’ contract at Shea Stadium with the city is even more of a sweetheart deal. Steinbrenner’s overdog philosophy is that he is being picked on just because he’s winning; As The Worm Turns in The Big Apple, on your soap opera digest.
“I’ll meet with the Mayor,” Steinbrenner says. “He’s the leader of the city.”
A simple one-on-one. Dueling egos. Bet on George.
IT IS EARLY IN spring training and Steinbrenner is sitting comfortably in the Yankee dugout in Fort Lauderdale watching his players work out. As usual, he is wearing blue. Normalcy, such as it is, is alive and well on the Yankees.
Martin is out of Steinbrenner’s sight; Munson is avoiding reporters; Jackson is entertaining them. There is the sound of baseballs hitting bats, then skimming the grass, then slapping into gloves. Players are making fun of other players. Steinbrenner seems pleased.
He seems to be holding court from his dugout seat, greeting his players with a pleasant one-liner, then sending them on their way with a smile. This is his element, the throne room of spring training. From here he dispenses his medicines, always a first name, always a smile, always a gentle prodding to improve oneself. This will be a crucial season, he says. If it were breakfast time, he would insist this would be a crucial breakfast.
“Lou,” he says to outfielder Lou Piniella, “that hat’s too small.”
Piniella is wearing a size 3 cap on a size 7 head. “I need some sun, George,” Piniella says.
“Oh, you Spaniards all tan quick,” Steinbrenner says.
Surely, this must be the most fun of all for Steinbrenner. The jock chatter. He is in his dugout and all’s right with the world.
“Things are going just great,” he says, “Sure, we have problems, but every team has problems. The thing is that this year it will be so much easier. The players understand each other and they understand what Billy and I want. They went through hell last year, but they all were toughened by the experience.”
On another side of the field, Martin is answering questions about spring training and the upcoming season. Each time he is asked about Lyle, about Jackson-Munson, about Jackson-Martin, even about Steinbrenner-Martin, his answer is basically the same.
“Everything is beautiful,” Martin is saying. It sounds robotomized, something out of the closing scenes of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
It will be the Yankees’ slogan this year.
Everything Is Beautiful.
At least until the first blowup of the season, which ought to happen no later than next week, and possibly as soon as today.
The press corps that covers the Yankees is leery of Steinbrenner. It sees his charm, appreciates his availability and distrusts his sincerity. One reporter calls Steinbrenner, “the Queen of Hearts—he’s always one second away from shouting, ‘Off with their heads.’” Reporters think he starts controversies for the sheer sake of action. They think he’s very theatrical with them and very demeaning with his employees.
Worst of all, they think he lies.
More than anything else, Steinbrenner resents being called a liar. Specifics, he demands specifics. It has been alleged that the night before the final papers were to be signed—Steinbrenner instructed Joe Garagiola Jr.—then Yankee counsel, to write some clauses in Reggie Jackson’s contract in 1977, to deliberately attempt to substantially alter the oral agreement.
“An outright lie,” says Steinbrenner. “Boy, that bums me. I want you to call Steve Kaye, in Oakland, he’s Reggie’s attorney, and ask him about his dealings with me. Wait, here’s his private number. Call him.”
The call was made, and Kaye characterized the allegation as “ridiculous.” Kaye said Steinbrenner was “completely honorable in our dealings. Yes, there were some slight adjustments we made in the final contract, but that’s normal. George was eminently fair with us.”
It has been suggested that Steinbrenner, in 1976, had his employees’ office telephones tapped.
“Never,” says Steinbrenner. “We thought that our phones might have been bugged, so we had the telephone company sweep my office to see—just my office; they told us the lines were clean.”
New York Telephone Company records show that in 1976 the Yankees reported trouble with their phone lines. An inspection revealed no tapping, but a circuit problem; anyone calling in could patch into even the most private conversations. It was fixed.
Most of the allegations against Steinbrenner are groundless, apparently carried on the wings of distrust.
Others are not.
Steinbrenner did lie about the nature of an injury to Mickey Klutts, a shortstop; Steinbrenner concealed that Klutts had a broken hand, telling the press he had only a sprained thumb. He did so to prevent the Yankees—who were trying to trade for Bucky Dent—from being put in a compromising position on the deal.
“It will never happen again,” said Steinbrenner at that time. Last month, he said he had to do it to prevent another team from taking advantage of his Yankees.
Another alleged lie concerns Thurman Munson. It is alleged—publicly by Munson—that Steinbrenner reneged on certain verbal promises to Munson after making them to induce him to sign his contract in 1977. Munson has let people know that Steinbrenner promised him that he would be the highest paid Yankee, except for Catfish Hunter but including Reggie Jackson. The story that Steinbrenner put out is that the promise was based on annual salary, not total value of contract including deferred compensation.
“Go ask Thurman about it,” says Steinbrenner.
Munson will not comment.
“It’s just a misunderstanding,” says Steinbrenner. “Misunderstandings happen in business; they are not lies.”
Semantics, perhaps. But crucial to Steinbrenner’s character. He does not lie, he says. He demands loyalty, and he gives loyalty. He demands hard work, and he gives hard work. Uppermost is the belief in the system.
This leads to a personal theory about George Steinbrenner.
It is the Blue Spotlight Theory.
It holds that newspapers are printed in black and white, and black is a hard and fast color. George Steinbrenner does not photograph well in black and white. Blue is his favorite color, his best color. It is said that under a soft blue light a Phyllis Diller can look like a Phyllis George.
Steinbrenner carries a metaphorical soft blue spotlight around with him, and plugs it in and shines it on himself when the questions get hotter than he cares for. Half the time he shines it on himself on the record. Half the time he shines it on himself off the record, not for print. This system gives him the upper hand; he controls the rules. His sides of the stories are fascinating. They are also unprintable. The reporter deals in black and white; Steinbrenner speaks fluent blue.
“He’s a man of his word,” says Catfish Hunter, whose guaranteed contract makes him immune from retaliation. “Even though a lot of times you have to get it in writing to make sure of it.”
GEORGE STEINBRENNER STUDIED voice for three years and was the president of the Williams Glee Club; he attends the opera and ballet; he knows the difference between arabesque and changement de pieds, and how many people in baseball, he wants to know, know that?
Yet his favorite television program is “The Gong Show.” Obviously, a man of great width.
Most of his players couldn’t care less that Steinbrenner is familiar with the fifth position in ballet; they like his money.
He is generous with it. He pays his players as much as any team in baseball. He buys them free suits, gives them bonuses at All Star time, picks up their tabs in certain hotels and restaurants, notably in the Theatrical in Cleveland, gives them cab fare home so their wives won’t have to pick them up when the Yankee charter lands late at night. Steinbrenner’s players go only one way—first class. He rewards excellence just as he punishes incompetence; if you put out, he puts up.
The crown jewel in Steinbrenner’s holdings is the Yankees. Although Steinbrenner says his favorite businesses are still his shipping companies it’s because he has a sentimental tie with the industry that goes back 100 years in his family. It is the Yankees that afford him the most visibility and celebrity.
“The Yankees are a great, great vehicle,” Steinbrenner says.
His eyes twinkle.
He is now the majority owner of the team. In 1973, when he put together the team that purchased the team from CBS, Steinbrenner owned some 20 percent of the ball club. But in the past five years he has personally bought out such original partners as Jess Bell, Marvin Warner—now United States Ambassador to Switzerland—Ed Ginsberg, Sheldon Guren, Nelson Bunker Hunt, Edward Greeenwald and Thomas W. Evans, increasing his ownership to some 55 percent of the team. The Yankees are now valued at about $25 million, a 150 percent increase over the sale price in 1973.
“George is an empire builder,” says Patrick Shields, a close friend. “The only trouble is that he was born a little too late. Most of the world has already been parceled out.”
The Yankees are much more than just another company to Steinbrenner, they are an image and an obsession. He claims to still “well up” every time he sees Gary Cooper portray Lou Gehrig on film. Steinbrenner, who was born on the Fourth of July and who considers himself a patriot above all, truly believes that the Yankees are important to this country, that if they are strong, then the country is strong, that if they are neat and clean, then they serve as shining examples to the youth of this country. You cannot shake him from that tree.
“The Yankees are apple pie and hot dogs,” he says.
“You know that he bought the rights to ‘George M.’ when the Broadway show lost millions,” says Tip O’Neill. “You know that George put that show in every city in the country, not so much to make money, but to get people waving the flag again. He did it right after Vietnam. That tell you something about George?”
Steinbrenner wears Bill Blass shirts, primarily because Blass is an American designer. Steinbrenner’s favorite writers are Melville, James Fenimore Cooper and John Greenleaf Whittier. Americans all. He even refuses to buy foreign automobiles.
“I have a Rolls Royce,” says Reggie Jackson. This is obvious. It’s a silver and blue Corniche, the kind that retails for almost $80,000; it doesn’t wholesale. One day Jackson discovered some nicks on the passenger side and treated the discovery as if he had been told he had leukemia. If he didn’t want dents, he should have bought an anti-personnel tank.
“So George and I are having dinner one night,” Jackson says, “and I say to him, ‘Boss, when are you gonna get a real car? When are you gonna quit that Cad you been driving and get a Rolls? C’mon big man, get the kind of car you rate.’”
“‘I believe in America,” George says.
“‘So, if it’s not made with American Steel, I don’t buy it.’”
Al Rosen says that Steinbrenner would have been comfortable with men like John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould, empire builders. History has called these men “ruthless.” Rosen does not like the sound of that word; he prefers tough, but fair. Steinbrenner never minds when people call him tough, but fair. He believes in winning. (“He’s the kind of owner,” says Piniella, “who likes a 163-game lead with 162 games left.” The baseball season, you should know, lasts 162 games.) He believes that if you win, it means you have done things right. Some people say that sounds like “The end justifies the means,” they say it sounds Machiavellian. Steinbrenner could share a chocolate sundae with Mr. Machiavelli.
Growing up in Cleveland, Steinbrenner was the kind of guy who was in bed by 10:30 every night of the year except on New Year’s Eve, when he was in by 11. But if he was a rooster in Cleveland, he is an owl in New York, and he has made the transition easily, remarkably easily, as if he had always known that he was born to run on the other side of midnight. If there is a term that applies to those people born west of the Hudson River who are convinced that they belong on Fifth Avenue, it might be “Neo-Yorker.”
In the history of this country, there are, arguably, a number of American myths that define who we are as a people. One is the Frontier. One is the New England town meeting. One is New Orleans jazz. Another is the New York Yankees.
The Yankees were up for sale and down in the standings. Steinbrenner saw himself as the person with cash, drive and vision enough to restore them to their proper position; more importantly, he recognized what that position was. Now, here was the Yankee club, a fallen idol in need of restoration. Like him, an inheritance to be claimed. Like him, a proud history. Like him, a need to be No. 1.
He came in shooting his mouth off about how he would make the Yankees world champions in five years–and he delivered. “Look, when I came here four years ago,” says Piniella, “all you ever heard about was the Mets. Now all you hear is the Yankees. That’s George.” He came in walking the walk and talking the talk of a native New Yorker, the ones he’d seen all those years on the Johnny Carson show. He seemed to be a boulevardier, but they were long gone since the days of Jimmy Walker, so now we’d call him a beautiful person. Think of the in-spots in New York—”21,” Le Club, Elaine’s, Jimmy Weston’s, Mike Manuche’s, P.J. Clarke’s—the spots where the sporting crowd, the literary crowd and the political crowd overlap, then look for George, the man in blue at the head of the featured table.
It is almost a secret that he is married and has four children, and that home is in Tampa. They are all shielded from the public eye that Steinbrenner seems to crave so much that you’d think he was born with an asbestos cornea. In Tampa and Cleveland he is still the same old George he always was. It is only in New York that he jumps from his base at the Carlyle to the opera, to the theater, to the ballet, to the ball park, as if he had stuffed chili peppers in his Gucci loafers.
Steinbrenner is very big on crowds. He seems to need them and feed off them. He has his walking around guys; the total effect is that of a permanent floating crap game. Some people who know him suggest that he is scared of the intimacy of one-on-one personal relationships, and, if it’s valid, that could be because he is, at his core, an insecure man, a man who has been able to win at almost everything he competed in but who never really found happiness in the winning. Look closely at George Steinbrenner and you’ll see that he is always running that third hurdles race and listening for his father’s approval. Look closely and you’ll see that his football background and his military school background and his business background have taught him that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Look closely and you’ll see a winner—even if he doesn’t. The shame of it is that he’s never satisfied. The one thing he didn’t count on when he counted on New York was that he couldn’t run away from himself.
There are some players who surmise that Steinbrenner, jocko that he is, bought the Yankees to be a Yankee. There is something to that. Steinbrenner likes to wander the locker room, although he does it less than before. The lesson was learned last season on a bus ride in Texas. The bus driver was hopelessly lost, driving the bus in circles around the Dallas airport. Almost two hours went by; the players were annoyed. As usual.
“I guess we’re just going out to do another favor for Steinbrenner’s daughter,” someone yelled out. In spring training Steinbrenner had the Yankees play an exhibition game at the University of North Carolina, where Steinbrenner’s oldest daughter attends college.
Steinbrenner heard the comment and foam formed on his lips.
“Who said that?” he demanded.
” Who said that?” the veins stood in his neck like chicken bones.
Graig Nettles—”cowering,” Steinbrenner says—said he did.
“Well, don’t you ever say another goddamned thing about my daughter again,” Steinbrenner said, making fists with his voice.
The next morning, at breakfast, Gene Michael, a former player and now an assistant to Steinbrenner, took his boss aside and told him if he wanted to ride the bus with the players, he’d have to learn to accept a certain amount of locker room humor—the kind of humor where a man with acne is called “Pizza Face.”
“George,” Michael said, “they wouldn’t kid you if they didn’t at least like you.”
“Gene,” Steinbrenner said,” I shouldn’t have been on the bus.”
Some of the tenseness still lingers. Steinbrenner recognizes it, and tries to laugh it off; he’s got a terrific sense of humor really. Much of it with himself as the target.
Just the other week, driving from the Fort Lauderdale airport to his hotel, Steinbrenner noticed a hang glider soaring over the beach. Turning to the driver, Steinbrenner said, “You wouldn’t get me up on one of those for all the money in the world.”
“It’s just a ride,” the man said. “The guy is being towed by a boat. It’s nothing scary.”
“Don’t kid me,” Steinbrenner said. “I’ll tell you what. I bet you could get every guy on the team to put up $1,000 each just to get me up there, and then one of them would stand there with a rifle and—bang—shoot the glider.”
Steinbrenner howled with laughter.
FLORIDA DOWNS IS A small thoroughbred track near Tampa. Steinbrenner has a filly running in the ninth, and he wants to watch her, and he brings guests, a young couple from Long Island on vacation in Florida. He knows the filly is over her head in a stakes race, but he’s hoping she’ll place in the top three; he plans to retire her and make her a brood mare, and placing in a stakes race will up the ante.
Before pulling out, Steinbrenner combs his hair. His hair is scientifically exceptional; it never ruffles in the wind. Some people have accused him of wearing a toupee, but he doesn’t. He just has obedient hair. Perhaps he has threatened to fire it. After starting the car, Steinbrenner puts in a cassette of disco music. He loves disco music. The story is told that Steinbrenner once berated the Yankee Stadium electrician for testing out the sound system—at 11 A.M. with no one in the park, mind you—with a record that was not a disco record. Some stories are too good to try to confirm.
The track has a country fair feel. Hialeah it ain’t. In the infield there is what appears to be a swamp. Steinbrenner moves to the Turf Club. None of the little people on his way recognize him although he is wearing his championship ring with its diamond-studded “NY” logo the size of Venezuela. Are there no cabbies in West Florida?
Steinbrenner has been in horses for about seven years. Prior to that he didn’t know a hoof from a flank. But he is a quick study. Now he’s expert on bloodlines and configurations. He starts talking about forelocks and fetlocks and possibly warlocks. He has the seventh doped in minutes. It is, he says, a question of breeding. He likes 7-4-2 in the perfecta; the sires impress him.
“What do you like?” he asks the Long Island girl.
“I bet numbers and colors.”
“And what do you like?” Steinbrenner asks her husband.
“I bet names.”
“Yeah. I like First of Dawn.”
First of Dawn went wire-to-wire in mud, paying $25.60.
“Unreal,” Steinbrenner said.
Next race, the wife liked Purple Britches, and the husband liked a horse trained by someone named A. Fink. Steinbrenner bet the quinella, that the horses would finish one-two.
“The true test of a champion is to repeat,” he told the husband.
“Get a bushel basket for the winnings,” the husband said.
Purple Britches ran first, followed by Beta Broker, trained by A. Fink. The quinella paid $34.
On his way to the paddock. Steinbrenner passed a frozen custard stand. Ice cream, especially chocolate, is his weakness. He tells people that he loses control of his car within one mile of a Dairy Queen. “They go there on their own,” he says. “I can’t stop them. Automatic steering.” Steinbrenner carries about 12 pounds more than he ought to around his belt line.
They decide to get some ice cream after Steinbrenner’s horse finishes. In the program morning line she’s 20-1; she may not finish for days.
Over the public address system comes the announcement. “In the ninth race, Jenny’s Lady, three pounds over. Jenny’s Lady!’
Steinbrenner winces. His blue eyes ice over; it appears to be smoke coming out of his left ear.
“That’s no good,” he says.
Jenny’s Lady is his horse. She’s overmatched anyway. She’s a come-from-behind horse, and the track is muddy so she might not even want to run. Now, instead of carrying 119 pounds, she has to carry 122 because her jockey is three pounds over. Steinbrenner thinks it will cost him at least one length. He slams his program at a wall.
“Trainer’s fault. Sure, the boy should come in at weight, but it’s the trainer’s fault for not knowing about it.”
There is a Steinbrenner story that has him firing a trainer after an incident at this very track when the trainer told Steinbrenner that his horse would win, and it finished last. Steinbrenner didn’t like being lied to. If the horse is a mutt, he wants it straight.
The jocks come out to claim their mounts. The one wearing the blue and brown of Kinsman Stud Farm looks as if he’d just got off a police lineup.
“That yours, George?”
“He’s the one. I wanted him because he’s a veteran, and I thought this little girl needed a veteran.”
Steinbrenner glared at the little man. “He’ll never ride for me again.”
Jenny’s Lady went off at 60-1 and deserved it. She finished next to last.
On the way out of the track Steinbrenner passed the frozen custard stand. It was closed.
“I HAVE SHORTCOMINGS too, but I am the boss,” Steinbrenner says.
Reggie Jackson certifies it by calling Steinbrenner “Boss.” He wouldn’t call Steinbrenner “Boss” unless he meant it respectfully and affectionately.
“A wheeler-dealer,” Jackson says, smiling. They like each other. Steinbrenner stood with Jackson last season when Billy Martin tried to humiliate him; Steinbrenner identifies with his player. They share the pursuit of excellence and celebrity. They understand that controversy fills the seats. “That’s what it’s all about,” as Steinbrenner says. They also share a spirit; neither was born in New York City, and neither flourished until getting here. New York is a spotlight city. Each discovered that he liked it.
“An action guy, he needs a lot of action going to keep his interest. He bores easily. He likes his chauffeured limos and his night life; he likes to roll the dice,” Jackson says. He pauses. “I’ll say this, and I won’t apologize for it later—if George Steinbrenner were a ballplayer, he’d be like Reggie Jackson.”
Negatives are suggested; Jackson listens attentively as the list is recited: Steinbrenner goes through secretaries the way some men go through martinis. Steinbrenner sets people up to take a fall for him. Steinbrenner drives a hard bargain, and you wouldn’t want to get on his bad side because he never forgets and he can do to a man in public what some people wouldn’t even dream of doing in private.
Ruthless? No, Jackson says. A good businessman. Acute.
“But no matter what’s said about the man,” Jackson says, “George Steinbrenner brought pride back to this city. He foot the tab. That was his neck stuck all the way out there, not mine, not yours. So, it’s his party.”
Pep talks are part of the party. Steinbrenner believes in pep talks. “Once you’ve heard the first one or two, you can almost sleep through the others,” says Catfish Hunter. “He means well, but they always sound the same. It’s always how we’re embarrassing ourselves and embarrassing New York and baseball and the country. George tells us how he was a football coach, and how he was in locker rooms before we were born. It’s always, ‘I, this’ and ‘I, that.’ The way he talks, you think he thinks he could do a better job than the manager. He tells us that he never makes a mistake, and that we can’t either; he tells us that if he made mistakes, he wouldn’t be as successful in business as he is—hell, even he makes mistakes.”
At least two.
At least one monster.
The first was in Cleveland, in the early 60′s, when he went down the chute with the Cleveland Pipers of the old American Basketball League. The team won, but it didn’t draw. Steinbrenner, turning on that little blue spotlight, says that he was 10 years ahead of his time with pro basketball in Cleveland. He lost about $400,000 and was advised to go into bankruptcy, but didn’t. What he did do proved to be the single smartest business decision he ever made. Instead of taking his partners down with him, he paid off all nine of them and then worked to pay off every creditor the Pipers owed. That made his reputation as a businessman of his word.
“Now,” says Walter Knapp, president of Tampa Ship Repair, a subsidiary of American Ship Building, “George’s word is so good that if he said he needed $10 million to make a deal tomorrow, he’d have 10 guys with a million each lined up tonight.”
But Watergate was a loss, a total loss.
He tries shining the blue spotlight on it, but he doesn’t have enough amps.
Although he was the Democrats’ chief fund-raiser in 1969 and ’70, he played footsie with the Committee to Re-Elect the President in 1972. Steinbrenner’s businesses weren’t growing the way he felt they should; the Internal Revenue Service was doing an audit; Government contracts were being stalled. Steinbrenner reasoned that he was being targeted by Nixon’s men, so he decided it would be good business to do some business with the Republicans. He agreed to give $75,000 of his own money to the Nixon people, and he decided to give $25,000 of other people’s money to the Nixon people. What he did was give his employees bonuses, then instruct them to give those bonuses to the Nixon people.
“My lawyers told me it was perfectly legal. They gave me written and oral permission to do it,” Steinbrenner says.
It wasn’t legal.
One of his lawyers was John Melcher Jr. Melcher has since resigned from the bar as a result of “this mess,” as he calls it. Watergate, he says, was “a nightmare.” He says, “George wants someone to blame this thing on.”
Why did Steinbrenner get involved with the Committee to Re-Elect the President? “I wanted to do things that I thought were needed for the Great Lakes, for Cleveland, and I knew if I had some pop, or whatever you want to call it, I could do the things that I knew had to be done for the people, and that’s the truth,” Steinbrenner says.
On April 5, 1974—opening day of the baseball season—Steinbrenner was indicted on 14 counts of illegal actions pertaining to election fraud.
On April 19, he pleaded not guilty.
On Aug. 23, some time after retaining the legal counsel of Edward Bennett Williams, Steinbrenner pleaded guilty to one count of illegal campaign contributions and one count of aiding and abetting obstruction of an investigation. Through plea bargaining, Williams succeeded in getting the other counts dismissed. Steinbrenner paid a $15,000 fine for his felony conviction, and to this day he cannot vote.
Most of the other corporate heads caught in the Watergate slime got off with misdemeanors. Steinbrenner got the felony, he thinks, because he didn’t come in voluntarily. One might disagree. One might reason that he drew the felony because he obstructed the investigation. Although Steinbrenner insists that he never asked his employees to lie about their part in the contributions—maybe he didn’t; maybe they were just so scared that when he “remembered” what happened in one way, they found it easy to “remember” it the same way—there is sworn testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee that Steinbrenner called his employees together and urged them to misrepresent what really happened. That sworn testimony was given by his employees.
“Under extreme pressure by the prosecutors.” says Steinbrenner, who doesn’t like to talk about what he calls “the election incident.”
Further, before sentencing, Tom McBride, the assistant special prosecutor—”an honorable man,” says Steinbrenner—told the Federal judge that Steinbrenner knowingly and continually urged his employees to lie even after receiving advice from counsel that such action was illegal.
“I never asked them to lie,” Steinbrenner says to a reporter just before he tells the reporter to turn off his tape recorder. Steinbrenner’s version, the soft blue spotlighted version, is off the record.
Steinbrenner has come to cast himself in the good soldier perspective. That posture suggests that he took the heat for his friends, presumably some high-level political friends who couldn’t afford to have their soiled linen laundered in open court. Some prominent Democrats—some very prominent Democrats—will agree. Not that Steinbrenner has forgotten his conviction. On the contrary, he wears it tattooed on his psyche just as he wears his World Championship ring on his finger. He does not need to be reminded that he is a felon.
To be sure, there are those who say he look the heat only after running out of people to lay it off on, and that a corporate head’s most deadly sin is not having enough lay-off guys when the seat heats.
Perhaps what happened to Steinbrenner is that he followed his own personal business law until it conflicted with the rule of law—and then followed it some more. The rules of law are, arguably, constructed to blunt the “laws” of business. Steinbrenner has his legal advice neatly arranged in signed affidavits. He also has his conviction. It is written in black and while, which are not his shades, not at all.
ANOTHER PERSONAL THEORY: Numbers Count, Make It Big.
Like many businessmen, Steinbrenner speaks in numbers. He uses them to make points, which are numbers too.
He is fond of saying that 50 people per week stop him on the street and thank him for bringing the Yankees back. He is fond of saying that the Yankees were the first American League club in the 76-year history or the league to draw two million in home attendance and another two million in road attendance. He tells you that while the Yankees receive only one-26th of the revenue from major league baseball properties—balls, balls, T-shirts, etc.—the Yankees account for 17 percent of all sales. That live televised baseball has been bought by the Japanese this year under the stipulation that 16 of the 22 televised games feature the New York Yankees.
This strategy, when abused, leads to the indefensible posture that if you pour three quarts of béarnaise sauce on a quarter pounder, you will think you are eating chateau briand.
George Steinbrenner is a generous man. He has, in fact, done more things, spent more money, given more time to youth sports projects in New York City than any other sports executive in this city.
But it is a quality of Steinbrenner’s that he goes for superlatives where ordinarys will suffice. Every game is crucial. Every series is crucial. Good things are super or unreal. Catch him at a bad time, and he says it is positively the worst time.
“If something goes wrong,” says an employee, “you never get the chance to give the full explanation of why it went went wrong because you’re stupid. And what’s worse is that he says it in front of other people.”
In a recent week, Steinbrenner was in Tampa on a Monday, in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, in Cincinnati on Wednesday, in Boston on Thursday, in Miami on Friday and in New York on Sunday. On Saturday, even Steinbrenner doesn’t remember where he was.
“It’s such a rat race for the guy,” says Catfish Hunter. “He can’t even take a vacation. People like that never have any fun.”
IN HIS OFFICE AT Yankee Stadium, Steinbrenner has a large, round wooden table. His chair is the only one with a high back, like a throne. He’ll call a meeting and his staff will give reports. Brief reports. Steinbrenner has no patience with rambling.
“O.K., that’s enough,” he’ll say. “That’s a red flag area. Get me a memo on it. Next.”
Red-flag areas produce rules: Employees are to be at their desks for 30 minutes after a night game, back at work at 9:30 a.m.; employees must sign out for lunch and leave a telephone number.
“He treats his employees like they’re in elementary school,” a former employee says. “He treated Gabe Paul like a secretary.”
Gabe Paul, the former Yankee president, a man Steinbrenner described as “brilliant” last Oct. 17, is with the Cleveland Indians now.
The story of Gabe Paul is an example of how rough Steinbrenner can be. On the record, Steinbrenner praised him, gave him credit for putting the Yankees together, credit for keeping relative peace among Jackson, Munson, Martin and even Steinbrenner. Off the record, Steinbrenner told reporters that Paul’s health was failing, that he didn’t understand what Steinbrenner was trying to do with the team, that he did not really put the team together, that he—Steinbrenner—assisted on all trades, that he—Steinbrenner—kept the peace. Steinbrenner dangled Paul’s authority all season long, insisting that Paul would make the final decision on the hiring or firing of Martin, thus insuring a lay-off guy if needed. There were times when Paul was seen crying in his office from the strain that Steinbrenner put on him.
“I don’t mind Gabe leaving with his image intact,” Steinbrenner said this spring in Fort Lauderdale. “But he was in baseball for 40 years, 25 as a general manager, and did he ever win a pennant before? You think he made all those moves with this team himself? You think all of a sudden he got brilliant?”
When Steinbrenner was reminded that “brilliant” was the precise word he had used not six months before to describe Paul, he changed course and flipped on something soft and blue.
“A brilliant baseball man, yes,” Steinbrenner said. “But he was getting old. Look, let him have his image if he wants it. I won’t say anything bad about Gabe. Maybe I was too hard on him. Maybe I hurt him. If I did, I’m sorry.”
Shoot first, apologize later.
Steinbrenner calls this tendency a dent in his armor.
What’s next for Steinbrenner?
Some of his close friends say he wants a Kentucky Derby winner real bad, that he’ll spend progressively more time with his horses, and back off the Yankees. But Steinbrenner devotes only about 25 percent of his time now to the Yankees, and he is unlikely to give up his main source of celebrity. The Yankees are still “a challenge” to him. Rich people use that word, “challenge.” Little guys, when they switch jobs, say, from the phone company to selling insurance, say they did it for “money.”
George Steinbrenner wants to be the most powerful man in baseball. Not the commissioner, mind you, just the most powerful. An example of that want lies in what he said when he planned to raise his minor league players’ salaries high above the minimum allowed, just to provide them with what he called “a decent standard of living, to show them we care.”
“The rule says you’re paying too much,” his farm director told Steinbrenner.
“Screw the rule.” Steinbrenner said. “We’ll make a new rule.”
One last story:
Twice in the last five minutes Steinbrenner had picked up the phone in his spring training office expecting to hear Ted Turner’s voice on the other end. Twice, the line had gone dead.
Steinbrenner buzzed the secretary in charge of telephones.
The secretary, mindful—ever mindful—that Steinbrenner is not a patient man, apologized.
He was waiting for Turner because Turner owns the Atlanta Braves, and Steinbrenner wanted Turner as a signatory on a letter he was drafting, a letter supporting the Commissioner of Baseball. In recent weeks, a small group of owners—notably Ray Kroc of San Diego and Brad Corbett of Texas—were trying to get Bowie Kuhn ousted as commissioner. Steinbrenner considered the move “ill-conceived.”
There arc two significant groups of baseball owners. One is the Young Turks. This coterie has been formed primarily by Steinbrenner and includes Ruly Carpenter of Philadelphia, Bob Lurie of San Francisco, Bud Selig of Milwaukee, Peter O’Malley of Los Angeles, Clark Griffith of Minnesota and Dan Galbreath of Pittsburgh. Significantly, O’Malley, Griffith and Galbreath are sons of owners who might logically be called the Old Turks. The Young Turks claim to stand for constructive change in baseball; the Old Turks basically stand for the National Anthem. Included among the Old Turks are such owners as Gussie Busch or St. Louis, M. Donald Grant of the Mets and Jerry Hoffberger of Baltimore. With Tom Yawkey of Boston and Phil Wrigley of Chicago now deceased, the Old Turks have lost significant power. They depend on such maverick owners as Bill Veeck of the While Sox, Brad Corbett of Texas and Ray Kroc of San Diego to blunt the Steinbrenner group, but Steinbrenner & Company seem to hold the trump cards now. Steinbrenner and Turner, who once tampered with another team’s player prior to a free agent draft, are the only owners Kuhn has ever suspended. Neither figures to support him; Kuhn would be well advised to bring a food taster should he go to dinner with Steinbrenner and Turner.
“Mr. Steinbrenner,” the secretary said, “Mr. Turner on 22.”
With considerable skepticism, Steinbrenner pushed the button.
“Ted, old guy, how are you?”
There followed a remarkable conversation, which clearly demonstrated Steinbrenner’s fund-raising capability. Within 10 minutes, Steinbrenner had persuaded Turner to become a signatory. He assured Turner that the letter in no way supported Kuhn personally, but supported the Office of Commissioner, which should be safe from attack. He congratulated Turner on his America’s Cup triumph, throwing in a few “supers” and a few “unreals” as he marveled at Turner’s ability to turn a yawner of a boat race into front page news worldwide. He reminded Turner he had lobbied for his reinstatement to full ownership privileges at the recent major league meetings. He told Turner that he was the kind of owner baseball needed; he said the Young Turks of baseball ownership really liked him and he could count on their continued support. He even told Turner that late at night, at his home in Tampa, he can get Turner’s Atlanta television station.
“Those are great ads you’ve got on for the Braves. Ted, I swear I saw them. Last night, when you were running that movie. ‘Mister Roberts’ with Jimmy Cagney. I saw it. Honest to God.”
By the end of their conversation Turner would have made out a blank check payable to Kuhn and had Steinbrenner fill in the amount.
“We needed him on that letter, you know,” Steinbrenner said to his visitor after the call. “The other guys knew it, but they were afraid to ask for his support. Not me.”
Steinbrenner leaned back and smiled. In the back of the room, a soft, blue spotlight was shining.
Robert Ward is a novelist, journalist, and a screenwriter. He recently published, Renegades, a collection of his magazine work from the 1970′s and was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule for a chat.
Hope you enjoy. Dig in.
Bronx Banter: You were a novelist before you wrote journalism. How did you transition from writing fiction to doing non-fiction?
Robert Ward: My first novel Shedding Skin was really good and won the NEA Grant as one of the top novels of 1972 because I had lived it all. I had actually hitched around and gone to Haight-Ashbury and lived there and been idealistic and seen my ideals trashed. I’d suffered a nervous breakdown living that way, and was barely able to survive mentally. All of that material got into Shedding Skin. So it was lived experience not second hand stuff from a book. In short it was wild-exaggerated-for-comic effect-reportage. But the bottom line was it was real. You can’t twist and turn stuff unless you have it to begin with.
BB: The so-called New Journalism was in full swing by then.
RW: That’s right. I had done a little journalism work. In fact, I’d help start an underground newspaper with John Waters, Jack Hicks, Elia Katz, and Jack Walsh in Baltimore. It was called the Baltimore Free Press. My first piece for it was an interview with The Loving Spoonful, when they came to town. I was a huge fan of theirs and assumed they’d be happy guys, considering the many hits they’d had.
But I found them to be depressed and bummed-out because they hadn’t had a hit for I think it was like eight months. It was the first time I realized how fleeting rock n roll fame could be. They were unhappy and John Sebastian seemed really miserable. I wish I could have found that piece and included it. It taught me a lot. That getting out in the world and seeing things for yourself was really exciting.
BB: Getting you out of your head and in the insulated world of academia.
RW: Yeah, it was a lesson I didn’t learn well enough, because after I had published Shedding Skin and gotten married again, I found myself with two young boys–my second wife’s kids from her first marriage–and no money. Teaching was at least a little security but it was killing me. I knew I didn’t belong in it. When my second novel–which was supposed to be this Great Radical Tome that would fan the fires of revolution–failed miserably, I knew I had done what so many other writers of my generation had done. That was become an academic, a guy who never saw anything but pretended to know all about the world. I got drunk on campus and played the enfant terrible with a bunch of teenaged students. I had grown to hate myself for being such a phony, so I was determined to become a journalist like Tom Wolfe or Hunter Thompson and let the chips fall where they may. When my wife left me for this rock n roller dude I knew I had to re-invent myself or really go down the tubes. I got encouragement from Tom Wolfe when he came to campus and figured out a way to get the Geneva police to let me hang with them and did my first piece on them. From that moment on my career took off.
BB: What was it about Wolfe and Thompson, as opposed to Gay Talese, for instance, that turned you on?
RW: I was influenced by Wolfe and Thompson and also Terry Southern. But pretty soon I found my own voice, which was not so absurd as either Thompson or Southern, and less erudite and right-wing than Wolfe’s. I wanted to be funny and smart but also compassionate and risk feeling things for my subjects. I didn’t want it to be all outrage and jokes. And I was still basically a Lefty.
BB: That’s great you mentioned Terry Southern. Of the three guys you mentioned he’s the one who is least remembered now. Why do you think that is? He could have been the biggest influence of all three at the time.
RW: Terry was my hero, not for his journalism, but for his book The Magic Christian, which is still the funniest and hippest satire on American greed, show biz and hype ever. I loved his sensibility and shared it in a way. As a kid in college the crowd I ran with got into speaking only in clichés to people we didn’t dig. It was cruel and very funny for a while. The people we were talking to often didn’t realize it was going on. Of course it was very immature but hey, we did it mainly to people who were the big men on campus, jerks. It was the arty students little revenge on them. They were the fifties people and the world was fast-changing. It was around then–my junior year–that I discovered The Magic Christian on a pile of remaindered books at E.J. Korvettes. A black hardback book with a pink pig on the cover. I picked it up and read the opening lines: “Grand Guy Guy Grand was, as he put it, on the go.” After reading a couple more cliché laden lines I had the great realization that this novel was going to be one of my favorite books of all time.
BB: I love when that happens.
RW: Certain books are like that. You need only look at their covers and read one or two lines and you know your whole life will be changed by them. The only other books I’ve read that put this astounding spell on me were Catcher in The Rye when I was fifteen and A Fan’s Notes in my 20′s. Anyway, I realized that this Terry Southern chap shared my love of the put-on and had a very similar sensibility as myself and my friends. The use of clichés, the feeling that the world was mad, but also this almost academic rigor in his sentences. Parodic 19th Century stuff. Perfect. I never actually used his riffs, but he helped me see into sham and the great hustle of pop culture. Later, in New York, we became friends and he was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. His bullshit detector was foolproof. That’s what I think we shared.
BB: That’s one thing about Wolfe and Thompson and Southern–their style seems loose at first almost improvisational which may explain why it appeals to younger readers but it actually takes a huge amount of discipline and rigor to pull it off. I remember the same being said about Robert Altman, that he produced casual-looking ensemble style but it took a ton of discipline to achieve it.
RW: Well, with Wolfe , Southern and Hunter Thompson their style and sense of humor is first what appealed to me. They all had the sense of how wild the world was, what an amazing parade of fools and heroes passed before us. I loved that about them. They really caught the unique quality of American life like no one else. But what people forget about Wolfe and Thompson was that they really knew their subjects inside and out. I took Tom Wolfe from Hobart College in Geneva to his plane in Rochester and he told me all about Jospeh Smith in upstate New York and the history of the Mormons. It was the same for whatever he wrote. He researched the subjects before he went out and interviewed them. I did the same thing with ex-Premier Ky of Vietnam. I spent three days in the library before I went out to California to interview him. Six hours a day. I wanted to know everything I could about him. Research made a huge difference. We were able to talk about people like Ellsworth Bunker, Johnson, Thieu and many others. When someone is relaxed and likes you they’ll tell you great stories and allow you to hang out with them. Going to a parents-teachers meeting with him was absolutely amazing. The twenty-something-year-old kids who were teaching his children were absolutely terrified of him. But he was as nice as he could be to them. I wouldn’t have gotten to go on that little every day journey with him if I hadn’t prepared. You can only get the casual, everyday stuff if you’ve really done your homework.
BB: One of my favorite pieces in the book is a memoir story about your grandfather and the strip clubs in Baltimore. It reminded me of a scene out of the movie Diner. How did Baltimore shape you?
RW: Baltimore is a tough town, a very loyal town, a town of small neighborhoods in which people know one another all their lives. At least it was that way when I grew up. It formed my consciousness. You had a rough kind of wise guy humor there, and growing up my friends and I laughed at anything that scared us. But the really tough thing about the place was that there was just about no place to go if you wanted to be a writer. That’s why I had so little confidence when I grew up. My dad used to laugh at my desires to be a writer. Mainly because he was a failed painter. He had talent and was very artistic and a sensitive guy. Very smart. But there was no outlet for a working class kid like him and there was very little for me. I used to try and write and he’d look at me and say, “Mister Hemingway. You think you’re going to be a big writer. Well, you’ll learn pal. You’ll learn like I learned. Nobody wants you. Nobody is waiting for you, Mister Hemingway!” How I hated those words.
BB: I have an uncle who grew up in South Ozone Park in Queens and they used to rag on him for wanting to be a painter. “Hey, Freddy the Artist.” Like he was a clown.
RW: Maybe my father did me a favor because I would scream back at him: “I AM GOING TO BE A WRITER AND NOTHING YOU CAN SAY WILL STOP ME!” Man, I hated him in those days, he never took up for me. I was busted by the cops once for speeding, and I called the cop a fascist. They made me come down to the Chief of Police’s office with my old man. I thought he’d speak up for me, you know say something like “He’s really a good boy, officer.” Instead he said, right in front of me, “He’s a rebellious boy officer and always has been. I don’t know what to do with him. He won’t listen to me or his mother. He’s just no good.” The Chief suggested they lock me up for a week to see if that would get me straightened out and my father didn’t say anything at all in my behalf. I just sat there totally freaked out. I knew they couldn’t really lock me up for a traffic ticket and a wise crack. They let me go with a warning. The cop told my father “If he ever gives you anymore trouble Mister Ward call me and we’ll lock him up for a while.” Then we left. In the car going home I screamed at him. I was crying, “You sold me out to that cop. You didn’t even stand up for me, you cowardly bastard.” I jumped out of the car on the way home at a red light and just wandered around on the streets for hours until my friend Hicks got home and then stayed on his couch for a month.
BB: How long did the rift last?
RW: A while. But later in life we made up and he admitted he had been too tough on me, that he had been a lousy dad. I found out about things his dad had done to him. It was a sad story. I knew I had to get out of Baltimore or I’d drown there. But in many ways I loved the city, loved the Orioles, the Colts, my buddies and our wild, drunken car rides. But you could see very early–and I saw it in my own family–that no one who wanted to be a writer from my class of people was going to get anywhere in that town.
BB: How did you find support or the confidence to become a writer in spite of that?
RW: It took my years to find myself and my own way but I found people who helped me. Some in academia and some–most of them–in New York. Editors and other writers who told me I was talented and couldn’t do enough to help me. People call New York a heartless place but they don’t know anything about it. No place was ever better to me. If you have talent in New York and want to work you’ll succeed. Same in LA. There are rough people in both places but if you’re tough enough and want to work, you’ll make it.
BB: Did you grow up reading Mencken? And did you follow your contemporaries from Baltimore, reporters like Mark Kram, a fellow blue collar guy, or Frank Deford, who was not so blue collar?
RW: Mark Kram wrote obits for New Times. I knew him a little. Good dude. I never read Frank Deford. Never met him. He was older than me. I loved Mencken to death. And still recall his great essay “Why Baltimore Is Superior to New York.” He said that basically it was better because people in Baltimore were your friends whether you were successful or not but in New York once you lost your mojo no one would talk to you anymore. I didn’t find this to be true but it informed my life when I got to New York. I met various con artists and hustlers there. And was, for the most part, not all that surprised because of Mencken.
BB: When you started doing pieces for the New Times, and then even later when you profiled celebrities, did you have a hard word count?
RW: There was sometimes a word count. “We need about three thousand words on this one.” But if I got great stuff they would always try to fit it in. New Times was the best at that. But so was Sport, GQ, Rolling Stone. These were real writers’ magazines. When I think back on it, I can’t believe how lucky I was to work for mags that cared about the writers, and made them the stars of the magazine world.
BB: One of the most notable differences between magazine pieces then and now is that writer’s were given far more space back then.
RW: There is nothing out there now like this. Maybe Harper’s and the New Yorker. But the other mags have all become pretty much promotional organs for the stars of entertainment. That’s because the publicists control the scene now. If you’re a little mean, from their point of view, to one of their clients, say Tom Cruise, the PR firms will make sure you never get access to any of their other clients. It’s a form of censorship. And a very effective one. Of course you can say whatever the hell you want on the internet but that’s not reportage. People who blog and trash public figures rarely have any access to them. And most of them aren’t real writers either. Merely having a snarky opinion isn’t writing.
BB: Can you talk a little bit about the New Times another magazine that is not well remembered by younger generations.
RW: New Times was a new magazine in the early 70′s. It was started by Jon Larsen, whose father was a journalist with Life, and in fact the Larson School of Journalism was named after him at Harvard. Also Frank Rich, David Hollander, and it was owned by George Hirsch. It was a bi-weekly magazine with really good writing in it. Larry L. King, one of my favorite writers from Willie Morris’ Harper’s in the sixties, and Robert Sam Anson, the intrepid war reporter from Harvard, was there as well. It wasn’t as counter cultural as Rolling Stone, but very political. I’d say it was a cross pollination of The Voice, Rolling Stone and Esquire. Later when they brought on John Lombardi from Rolling Stone as an editor it attracted some wilder writers like Lucian Truscott, who did great work for them. It never quite found its true identity, however. Not quite Time, not quite Stone. Eventually, as circulation dropped Hirsch sold it and started a new magazine called Runner. He told me later that one of the problems with New Times was that the ad guys would work their asses off to get say a Xerox account and then Larsen would publish some investigative piece on them which would, of course, infuriate Xerox and make them cancel their contract. But for me it was a showcase. They gave me as much space as I wanted and I loved working with everyone there. I’m still close pals with most of the guys I worked with there.
BB: The first non-fiction story you wrote was about the police in Geneva, the college town where you taught. It also brought your first brush with consequences. What did you learn right off the bat about the impact you’re reporting might have on a subject and did that effect how you approached doing stories moving forward?
RW: “The Yawn Patrol.” That really shook me up, the cops harassed me slightly after that, but I never let it bother me. I was determined to take the journalism life seriously and rather than scare me off, it made me excited to know that my words could have a real effect in the real world. I was sorry that I’d made the cops life uncomfortable for a while but it was the truth. That line about the girl’s legs and their walks…walks with money behind them…said it all. The class gulf between the kids they protected and their own lives. What I learned was that if a piece is really good it’s going to sting somebody and they might come after you. But if you let that stop you, you shouldn’t be in the game.
BB: I like that your go-to line with subjects was that you were there to “set the record straight.” Can you talk about why this worked as a way to relax them?
RW: The beauty of the new journalism was that they’d tell you to write a piece on say Larry Flynt but there was no word count at all. They left it to the writer’s judgment. I spent a week with Flynt and got stuff that was totally outrageous. No one had ever really hung out with him before. When he asked me if the review was going to be negative or positive I answered, “I’m here to set the record straight.” To my mind this meant whatever I find I’m writing, unless you specifically tell me it’s off the record. I don’t know what Larry made of what I said. But he did mention how he thought of his life as a Horatio Alger story. “Poor Boy From The Back-Woods Makes Good.” He never actually said he wanted me to write the story that way. But it’s probably what he expected. But I had already told him why I was there. “To set the record straight.” And what great stuff I got for the record.
BB: He was the gift that kept giving.
RW: I sent the 10,000 words into New Times and they couldn’t believe it. They ran the whole damned thing, pretty much as I wrote it. That was so exciting. I mean I had barely started in my career and here was a cover piece. Plus, we asked Flynt to pose with his Blow Up Sex Dolls on the cover of the magazine and he did it. He had no idea what the piece said inside. Of course, when the piece came out he was shocked. Which I thought was pretty funny since he spent all his time shocking the bourgeois liberals and Bible Belters with his outrageous sex and outhouse humor. Eventually, he got over it and offered me the editorship of Hustler! I turned it down but my buddy Paul Krassner took the gig. Think he lasted about a year.
BB: I can’t believe that Flynt was taken aback by your piece. Did that just show his own naiveté at having a writer follow him around for a week?
RW: What you’re forgetting is I was the very first guy to do an in-depth, hang-out piece with Flynt. He was completely naive and thought–I think–that I would have the same attitude that he had about his life and career. But I never promised him anything. Anyway, he never let anyone get close to him again. Look at any other piece on him and you’ll never see that kind of access. Later, after he had forgiven me he asked me to do a documentary on him. I said I was willing to do it but I had to have control over the final cut. He wouldn’t go for that, so it never happened. But I remember when we met to discuss it in New York. He looked at me and said, “There he is: The Truth Teller!” Said with both admiration and disgust.
BB: And yet your more frightening episode was with the country singer David Allen Coe.
RW: Yes, the confrontation with Coe’s biker friends was super scary. They moved in on me in his room and there was no appealing to him because he was passed out on the bed with a girl sort of draped over him. One of them had a knife and cut away part of my leather jacket I was wearing. I remained fairly cool headed, kept my voice even, as I said, “You guys got the wrong writer. I have never written anything about Coe before. They thought I was the writer who had written a piece saying he wasn’t a murderer, that his story about how he’d been put in prison for murder but sung to the warden and gotten a pardon was all bullshit. Actually, a woman writer whose name I can’t recall now wrote the piece for Rolling Stone. Which is what his manager said when he came walking into the room. Jesus, what a nightmare. The guy took me into the next room and told me that he was sorry for the biker’s mis-treatment of me. “Come back when we tour the East Coast next year and you’ll see that we’re not like that.” Right, yeah, see you guys then.
BB: And yet your editor wished you had gotten stabbed because it would have made a better story.
RW: My editor Jon Larsen’s response was his idea of a joke. Sort of. He actually kind of meant it. It wasn’t enough to take one for the team. He wanted me to bleed for the team! I forgave him though and we’re still pals. WASP humor. He did a lot for me, gave me all the space I wanted and was a champion of my career.
BB: Another piece I really liked was the portrait of Leroy Neiman. The guy seemed so insecure, wrapped up in his celebrity–pissed that the art world didn’t take him seriously while the masses made him rich. He seemed like a character that Warhol himself could have invented but without irony or seemingly a sense of humor about himself.
RW: Looking back I think I was a little hard on Neiman. He was a pretty good guy, though he had a ridiculous king sized ego, marching around Jets stadium and waving to his fans. He did lack a sense of humor about himself and he was insecure. But you know what–he was a hell of a sketch artist and he was really good at illustrating sports heroes and other entertainers. Maybe I should have given him more credit. But he wanted to be taken seriously as a great artist like Picasso, and that just wasn’t going to happen. Still, he might be remembered as a great illustrator. People certainly love his work. And he was right about one thing: The establishment in the art world is snobby and nasty, and to tell you the truth I’ve never been a great Andy Warhol fan.
BB: Warhol was a bullshit artist.
RW: He was hip and cool and all that but I never loved his soup cans or his paintings of celebs. How much brains did it take to do what he did? But nobody ever parodied him. Why is that? Afraid if you laughed at Andy you wouldn’t be cool?
BB: He beat them to the punch.
RW: Well, I never dug him or his scene filled with drag queens and other non-talents and would have loved to have done a piece on him with all of his affectations. Leroy said so many self aggrandizing things it was kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. But it is a funny piece…
BB: Your most famous magazine story might be the profile you did on Reggie Jackson for Sport. Did you know you had gold when you spoke to Reggie in the bar during spring training?
RW: Oh, yes. I couldn’t quite believe how poetic he was. But this goes along with my theory of bragging and poetry. For the average male in the world today the one place where they really become poetic is when they’re cursing someone out, or bragging about how great they are. Over the years I’ve heard the most creative use of language in these arenas. But Reggie went beyond the call of metaphorical duty. “I’m the straw that stirs the drink. Thurman Munson thinks he can stir it but he can only stir it bad. I’m the guy who puts the meat in the seats.” On and on and on…When he left the bar I just sat there reading my notes and saying, “Thank you, Jesus!”
BB: In the postscript to your story on Clint Eastwood you write about a reporter’s nightmare—your tape recorder not working. Did you tape record the Reggie interview?
RW: I didn’t use tape much at all because I was afraid something would happen to the machine. Just like it did with Clint. I had a perfect memory and let people talk, then scribbled down what they said when we were eating or having a drink. Obviously you can’t write as fast as someone talks, but I never missed a word.
BB: I know Reggie has denied saying the “Straw that stirs the drink” line. Why do you think, all these years later, he still disputes it so hotly?
RW: Reggie is super competitive and he hates to this day that I got him dead to rights. But he admitted it to Pete Axthelm in Newsweek right after he said it all. Axthelm asked him if he really said all that stuff and he said, “Ward caught me off guard.” Later, he changed it to the “took me out of context,” to which Munson is reported to have said, “For twelve fucking pages?” Then, even later, he decided he never said any of it. The next stance he might take is that he was never there at all and I never spoke to him. Then maybe he could go a step farther and say he doesn’t even exist. Who knows?
BB: I doubt he’d go that far. Reggie had a flair for hype. Genius may be too strong. That’s a word, “genius”, that is tossed around all too flippantly but I was drawn to how you used it, with great sincerity, in describing Pete Maravich.
RW: Pete Maravich was a true athletic genius. What he could do with a basketball was so amazing you had to see it three or four times to believe it. I mean running full-tilt down a court, bouncing a ball off of your instep cross court to a guy waiting under the basket? Unreal. Punching the ball with your forearm while looking the other way and making a totally accurate pass, heading the ball into the basket ten times in a row. He would do this stuff in practice and the other players would just stop and stare at him open mouthed. I feel privileged to have known and hung out with him. And then consider he did all this with one less arterial system in his body than we are supposed to have. His whole career was a miracle because most kids who are born with his heart problems are dead before they are sixteen.
BB: People tend to remember him as someone who was tortured and didn’t achieve as much as he could have but it was incredible what he accomplished considering his health problems.
RW: As a journalist you’re always on the lookout for a good story, but sometimes you run into someone who is just freaking miraculous. That was Pete. Even Magic Johnson said so. But again, he made it look easy because he practiced six or seven hours a day as a kid. Every day. He worked out all of these ball exercises and did them religiously day after day after day. He was sweet natured too. I said, “Pete I just can’t believe the stuff you do.” He said, in this really sincere voice, “Robert, you could do all of them too if you went home and practiced two or three hours a day. I mean really. Try it!”
Hearing that made me want to give him a hug. I mean it was like being told, by Einstein, “Honestly, Bob you could have come up with Theory of Relativity if you’d just worked a little harder at your physics lessons. Go home. Read a couple more science books and you’ll see what I mean” The guy was sincere and a great teacher. If he had lived he would have been a wonderful coach, because he wasn’t only talented, he was kind and patient as well.
BB: What are the general differences between writing about actors and athletes?
RW: Well, they have a lot on common. Both athletics and acting is about timing. You need to do things just right. If you’re running through the two hole on the line you need to wait for your block just long enough and then go. Same with delivering lines. You need to have the right timing when you start speaking, when you move your hand to pick up the cigarette, or answer the phone. It has to be done the same way over and over and over again. Amateur actors, for example, can’t sustain a performance because they don’t stay in character with their bodies. It’s not about just saying lines. You have to turn your body just so, pick up the magazine just so…on the third line of the speech. You have to move your mouth just so, your eyes have to squint or not squint just so. Comparably, as a wide receiver you have to make your break at the fifteen yard line every time, not the fifteen and a half yard line. You have to wait for the block as you run through the line, you have to make the back cut after the pulling guard has hit the linebacker not before. In basketball you have to get to your spot on the floor at the right moment, not a second later or a second earlier. In baseball you have to hit to the opposite field if the ball is outside. You have to play every batter differently in the field. You have to time your hitting, time your throw to second. Physical timing is imperative in both sports.
BB: That’s so true and yet people rarely comment on the physicality that goes into acting.
RW: Yeah, and athletes tend to become pretty good actors. Obviously there is sensitivity to acting, to saying lines that most jocks don’t have. Just as there are physical attributes actors don’t have when they want to play sports. Ever look at actors? They are small boned for the most part and short. They have thin legs and waists. Look at a baseball player on any team. Big thick thighs, big wrists…some of them, like pitchers, big waists. But almost all power hitters have big trunks. Reggie had huge legs, thighs. That’s where they get their power from.
BB: But isn’t there a difference between the mental makeup of actors and jocks?
RW: Actors are much more vulnerable and insecure than athletes. They worry a lot and feel, I think, that acting isn’t a manly profession. There’s a saying actors have: “To be an actor you have to be twice the woman, and half the man.” Only a tough woman can make it because it’s so tough. But for a man to do it…well, it’s seen by actors as being a kind of feminine profession. Pretending. Not very manly. Men should be building bridges, flying planes, shooting guns. Actors only pretend to do these things, so it makes them feel insecure and I think there’s still some shame in the profession. Brando used to say that all the time. I think writers feel the same thing. As a rule, both actors and writers would rather be John Elway than Hemingway. Because athletes risk physical damage, have to have physical courage. Actors and writers need courage too, though. It’s tough being a writer. No one knows how tough until they try it. It takes a kind of courage not many people will ever realize to face a white page of paper and know you have to fill it up with new, brilliant stuff that people may read and hate or laugh at. I’ve had scripts I’ve written for TV balled up and thrown back at me with absolute hatred. It took courage to go back into my room, knowing I was two seconds away from being fired or strangling my boss and just cool down and start over again. It takes courage to act in a movie and risk people thinking you are awful. Few people can either act or write well, and it takes a lot of courage to do either one as your life’s work.
RW: In those days before publicists did you find that your subjects were almost always cooperative? Or did that depend on the person’s personality? Can you recall profiling anyone who was reticent and difficult to draw out?
RW: I did a piece on Robert Duvall which was impossible. He wouldn’t say anything at all. He didn’t trust me and as a result I had to go back again and again to talk to him and I still got next to nothing. When the piece came out in Rolling Stone I heard from a friend who knew him. He said that Duvall thought I tried to make him look stupid. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. I thought he was quite bright but he didn’t say enough for me to get a very good piece.
BB: It sounds as if Duvall made his bed, determined to be unhappy no matter what you wrote. I know he wanted to strangle Pauline Kael for her review of Tender Mercies. He wouldn’t be alone. But I liked how Clint Eastwood was more objective about her critique of Dirty Harry–he understood the hype in her take. And it sounds as if Eastwood was the opposite of Duvall.
RW: Clint Eastwood was anxious to have the younger, hipper audience catch on to him. In fact, most of them were starting to get it, so we were only a little way ahead of the curve. He was famous for short interviews and I was told if you asked the wrong question he would get surly and toss you out. In fact he was friendly, courteous and very well spoken. He knew what he was doing on the screen and he understood that there was a comic side to his performance, but it had to be done completely straight. As he said to me, “If you winked or let the audience know you knew it was funny, it wouldn’t work.”
What really impressed me is when I asked him about critics who had assumed he didn’t know what he was doing, that he was just lucky. He said that he had chosen his hat and his old jeans and the serape he wore in the man With No Name Westerns with Leone. He brought them with him from America. He knew exactly the effect he was creating. The squint, the cigar, the clothes were all Clint’s ideas not wardrobe’s. That’s part of acting too, your look. People forget that. Think of the show I worked on, Miami Vice. Without the look of the show it’s just another cop show. These are things the average movie critic doesn’t even comment on. Clint was generous and civil and even did the interview with me over again when my tape recorder failed! I thought I would get fifteen minutes and I ended up with three hours of tape. He’s a great guy.
BB: How surprised were you that Lee Marvin turned out to be so agreeable to interview?
RW: Lee Marvin completely fooled me. I always assumed he would be some lout like the louts he played so well. But he was the exact opposite. He was dressed in a beautiful Italian suit, and was friendly and, at first, rather formal. But after a couple of drinks we became good buddies. He loved to tell stories of his drinking days, and he loved fishing, hanging out in the desert, listening to jazz. He also made a musical, “Paint Your Wagon,” as did Bob Mitchum.
BB: I dug the no-nonsense professionalism of Mitchum. Especially his comment about De Niro:
I was on the set with De Niro, The Last Tycoon, and he takes forty minutes to get ready for a scene in his trailer. Ray Milland was in the movie, and he gets all upset. He asks Gage Zazan how come we didn’t get that much time, and Kazan says, ‘Hey, look, you guys don’t need time like that. Come on, just say your lines, I got enough problems with him.’ The thing is, it’s a hell of a lot more work, and I don’t see overall where the films are any better, really. You tell me.”
How was Mitchum like Marvin if at all?
RW: In Mitchum’s case it wasn’t a musical but he did write and sing the lead song “Thunder Road,” which was a hit in the fifties. They both were tough guys who had big hearts. I didn’t know Mitchum as well, but Lee was kind and loved his old friends, especially Woody Strode, his partner in “The Professionals” and other films. He was so kind. When we went out to the Palm for dinner he was besieged by autograph seekers and he insisted they get my signature too, telling them, “This guy is a great writer. You’ll be happy you have his autograph some day.” You can’t get much nicer than that. He called me at four in the morning to tell me how much he loved my novel Red Baker. “Hello, this is your book reviewer from Tucson. One hell of a book, Bobby.” That was the kind of a guy he was.
BB: Was there anyone you wanted to profile that you never had the chance to get to?
RW: I would have loved to interview Johnny Unitas, who eventually became a friend of mine. He was my childhood hero, and when the horrible Irsays moved the Colts out of Baltimore in the middle of the night I wrote a piece in GQ on how much the old Colts meant to me and everyone else I knew growing up in Baltimore in the fifties.
Johnny and Alex Hawkins called me up to thank me for it! I was so moved I could barely talk. And when Johnny died I sat at my computer and wept like a baby. I’m not ashamed of it, as many other guys I knew in those days had the exact same reaction. We loved him like no other athlete. He was exactly what you wanted your heroes to be like, on the field and off. Ask any of the old Colts who are left and they’ll say the same thing. A wonderful, caring and also very amusing guy. Had a great sense of humor. And more guts and heart than any player I’ve ever seen. He was the very best of the old Baltimore too. A guy who was kind to everyone and never stiffed his fans. You could go to his old place The Golden Arm on the York Road and have drinks with him. Imagine doing that with any of the well known quarterbacks today. They all have bodyguards and live in gaited prisons. The fact that he once threw me a pass when I was twelve and then said, “Good hands” when I caught. It’s a memory I’ve cherished all my life.
BB: Were there any pieces that were tough not to include in Renegades?
RW: I wish I’d included a humorous take on the Orioles losing to the Pirates in the World Series. It was really funny and one of my best short pieces, but I couldn’t find it. And there was a profile I did on Rip Torn for American Film but I couldn’t find it until the damned thing was put to bed.
BB: I had a subscription to American Film as a kid. I remember that one.
RW: Rip is the best. One night Rip, Margot Kidder, the mad novelist James Crumley and myself went to Chez Jay’s in Santa Monica. We’d all had too much to drink and we got into a pirate contest. That is “who could do the best Arrrrgghhhh!” I did one, ok but modest. Crumley did a better one. Then Rip did one that we were sure no one could beat. It was the Arghhh to end all Arghhhh’s. And loud. Like the whole joint stopped eating to hear it.
Finally, Margot, not to be outdone by no men, stood on the freaking table, looked out across the joint and ARRRRRGHED her ass off. I’ve never heard another Argggggh to top it. The whole restaurant applauded her and they bought us free drinks. That’s Rip. That’s Margot. Thank God they never got together. There would have been a new H Bomb.
Paul Haddad’s new book about the Dodgers–available now at Amazon–is a real treat for all baseball fans. Paul grew up listening to Vin Scully and we’re fortunate that he recorded some of those broadcasts. Head on over to Paul’s site and check out this gallery of audio clips.
Here are a few that Paul was good enough to share with us:
Mike Scioscia’s first major league home run:
This one, according to Haddad, is “classic Vin, weaving in a story between pitches, and then he gets caught off guard and does a great, unorthodox (for him) home run call. He’s talking about Mets’ reliever Neil Allen’s desire to wear number 13, back when wearing such things was considered “bad luck.” This Pedro Guerrero homer happened in the 8th inning on May 15, 1981. It tied the game and the Dodgers won it in the 9th. My 15-year-old self sets up the action, rather blandly.”
This was in Game 6 of the 1981 World Series. “It was still a close game when Nettles made this great play to rob Derrel Thomas in the 6th inning,” says Haddad. “But by the time the inning was over, the Yankees were down, 8-1. Anyway, this play is what I’ll always remember of Nettles in the World Series, just always leaving you flabbergasted. This also is an example of Vin sharing the booth for a postseason game – in this case, Sparky Anderson.”
“OK, this last one is sort of a wild card,” Haddad said. “It’s Vin admonishing home fans in left field who were pelting left fielder Jose Cruz as it became apparent the Astros were going to cruise into the playoffs by clobbering the Dodgers in the one-game tiebreaker in 1980. During this clip, Vin makes reference to the Yankees and the “zoo… the animals” that the Dodgers thought inhabited the place! This goes with my notion that Yankee Stadium was scary to me, even from afar.”
Meanwhile, I had the chance to chat with Paul about his book. Enjoy.
BB: We don’t have anything like Vin Scully in New York. Can you talk about what he meant to you as a kid in the context of life in L.A.?
Paul Haddad: Vin Scully is the main reason I got into the Dodgers. My Dodger obsession was just as equally a Vin obsession – they were intertwined and you couldn’t imagine one without the other. Fans in 1976 already knew this, naming Vinny the “most memorable personality” in Dodger history, and this from a team that’s had no shortage of iconic players or big personalities. My parents were not baseball fans, but growing up in Los Angeles, Vin’s voice was ubiquitous, like the smell of night jasmine, or smog. You would hear his warm baritone emanating out of storefronts, car windows, gas stations, parking lot booths, even people walking down the street clutching a transistor radio. So really, all those years of hearing this magnificent voice around town lured me into becoming a Dodger fan.
Beyond the spell of his voice and impeccable delivery, I think Vin’s continuity – he’s entering his 63rd year as the Dodgers’ broadcaster – is a big factor in why he’s cherished by so many generations. I work in television, and last year I executive produced a cool series for Cooking Channel called “The Originals,” in which chef Emeril Lagasse visited historic restaurants around the U.S. and hobnobbed with kitchen staff who have been part of these eateries for 50 or 60 years. In New York, we visited places like Keens Steakhouse, Peter Luger, Il Vagabondo and Katz’s Deli. The stories from customers were all the same – I come here to feel a connection to the past and so my kids can experience something that’s real. Vin is a lot like these iconic restaurants – timeless, classy, comforting. He’s an original.
BB: You mention Vin being heard everywhere. I have a sense of what that means in a city like New York. You can walk down the street and see a playoff game on the TV in the bars and know people are following it. But L.A. is so vast and spread out, you never seem to be falling over each other out there, if anything, I always get the sense that people want to be left alone. Can you explain Vin’s connective power in place that seems so disconnected?
PH: Yes, well put, Alex. Because Los Angeles is so spread out and is such a car culture, it lends itself to isolation, and it can be a very lonely place if you don’t have a good social network in place. I think people here do want to connect with other people, it’s just harder to do. And that’s what Vin brings to the table. You don’t hear his voice wafting throughout the city nearly as much now, as it’s become more diverse and baseball’s – especially the Dodgers’ – hold on the city wanes (this is a Laker town now). But as a kid, his radio broadcasts cut through all socio-economic boundaries and it got people talking to each other. A guy in a business suit could walk into a hardware store after work, and he’d bond with the cashier, who had the radio on. Dodger broadcasts allowed for meaningful exchanges between Angelinos who might not otherwise connect with each other.
BB: Did Chick Hearn have the same kind of impact that Vin has had?
PH: He did, in different ways. You could say Chick’s impact on the sport of basketball is even more profound than Vin’s on baseball. Chicky Baby contributed so many phrases that we now take for granted, like slam-dunk, dribble-drive, air ball, finger roll, no harm/no foul, and on and on. From a personal standpoint, I got into the Lakers around the same time as I did the Dodgers, and that was largely because of Chick. Even at 11, I knew brilliance when I heard it, and Chick sucked me in with the way he described the action. He was also funny. When the Lakers got sloppy while showboating, the “mustard was off the hot dog.” If Magic duped a defender, he “put him in the popcorn machine.” And of course, when he felt a game was out of reach, it was “in the refrigerator.” It’s interesting, while I was digging up my old audio tapes and digitizing them, I came across a couple spots where I randomly recorded Laker games so I could rehear Chick during the off-seasons. But ultimately I think I gravitated more toward Vin because the nature of baseball allows for more storytelling and less flash, which was more appealing to me. He was just more comforting to listen to, especially coming out of a transistor radio under your pillow at nights. So if forced into a Sophie’s Choice of Local Broadcasters, I’d have to say I enjoyed Vin and what he brought to the table just a little bit more.
BB: I’ve always wondered, does he have a nickname or is he just known as Vin or Vinny?
PH: Vin is simply known as Vin or Vinny to fans. On air, when he slips into self-deprecating mode, he’ll say, “Nice going, red.” But only Vin seems to call himself “Red.”
BB: Vin is such an icon, do you have any sense of what he’s like as a man? Does that matter to you?
PH: Vin is famously private and modest. He has refused all calls for an autobiography. I know what most people know through the few books and articles on him. You can often glean things about him through his broadcasts. His love of Broadway tunes, his adoration of children, his Catholic schooling with the nuns putting him in his place. I know he’s ferociously patriotic. Every June 6, you can count on Vin to gently reprimand younger viewers for not remembering D-Day, and then explaining its significance. He’s like Johnny Carson was – a very public figure leading a guarded life out of the spotlight. I always admire and respect people like that.
I met Vin one time, in 1996, when I was a TV producer for E! Before the game, I got to visit him in the press booth, and up rose this redheaded man with a crooked smile and sparkly eyes, greeting me like an old friend.
BB: That must have been a thrill.
PH: Meeting him was surreal. As he said hello and shook my hand, I couldn’t believe I was pounding flesh with a living legend. My mouth went immediately dry. The analogy I use with friends is, imagine the animatronic Lincoln coming to life in the “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” exhibit at Disneyland (I’m not sure they even have that exhibit at Disney World).
What I took away from it was Vin’s famed work ethic. Here’s how I describe it in my book:
As we were leaving to head over and interview organist Nancy Bea Hefley, I asked my contact, “So was that a radio ad he was voicing?”
He rubbed his chin. “Mmmmm . . . I think he was practicing.”
“For the ad?”
“For the game.”
The game wasn’t going to start for at least an hour and a half.
But even after almost fifty years, there was Vin, getting his game on, still living by the credo passed down to him by mentor Red Barber from their Brooklyn days: be there early, and be prepared.
BB: Has Vin always worked alone calling Dodgers games?
PH:Since moving to Los Angeles, at least, Vin has always worked alone on Dodger broadcasts. As he explains, it’s not an ego thing… it’s merely so he can connect directly with listeners. Putting another man in the booth changes that dynamic. All you have to do is listen to the radio duo of Rick Monday and Charley Steiner giggling at each other’s jokes to realize that. I wish more announcers worked alone, but the trend these days seems to be to pair people up, which is a shame. There’s a constant yammering. One of the great things about Vin on radio was how he clammed up after a Dodger hit a home run, to let the listener soak in the home crowd’s cheers. In my book, I actually time out how long those silences were after certain home runs.
Now, of course, Vin did pair up with people like Sparky Anderson or Brent Musburger for CBS Radio’s national baseball broadcasts, and everyone remembers him and Joe Garagiola doing the Games of the Week and three World Series in the ‘80s for NBC. But these were exceptions to the rule to accommodate a national audience. Vin ably acquitted himself, and the other announcers gave him room to maneuver, so it never bothered me.
BB: Do you still listen to old Vin broadcasts?
PH: Every once in a while, I’ll break out the old Vin broadcasts. They instantly teleport me back to that time, which usually leads to other imagery from my childhood that has nothing to do with games. They’re like a portal to my memory bank. So I’ll often start listening to them to revisit a call, but they end up having a residual effect beyond the call.
BB: Do you have a favorite story or call that he made?
PH: Three calls from 1981 come to mind, all featuring Fernando Valenzuela. Fernando was Vin’s muse, and inspired the artist to new heights. That April 27, 1981 game that caught Fernandomania at its peak (mentioned earlier) remains a high point because he was truly a master at the top of his game. I also love his call on May 14 when Pedro Guerrero hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to help Fernando go 8-0. This is the homer that he dedicated to Fernando, saying, “It’s gone, Fernando, it’s gone!”
And finally, after El Toro sweated and bluffed his way through that 147 pitch complete-game outing in Game 3 of the World Series, 5-4, Vin was summed it all up with a succinct, “Somehow, this was not the best Fernando game. It was his finest.”
BB: Obviously, he’s gotten older but what, if anything, has changed about Scully’s broadcasting over the course of your life?
PH: That question requires a measured response, because to suggest Vin may not be at the top of his game in Los Angeles brands you a heretic! But I think even Vin himself would say he’s slowed down a bit, much like Chick Hearn did. There’s a snap, a verve to his voice when I listen to those late ‘70s, early ‘80s games, whereas now it’s more grandfatherly and in some ways, more soothing. When the Dodgers hit a clutch home run nowadays, he doesn’t register the same excitement in his voice at 84 that he did at 54. But his insights and storytelling remain sharp, and he still seamlessly weaves narratives between pitches without missing a beat. Vin is like baseball itself – just when you think you’ve seen or heard it all, he surprises you every game with a turn of phrase, a story, an observation that makes you think or smile. I wish he did exclusively radio for a few innings, where I feel his genius is really allowed to flourish. Since Fox regional started broadcasting the games, Vin does a simulcast for the first three innings, with the final six on television. This means Vin is always calling a game for a television audience, which is a different experience than listening to a game on the radio. Time that could’ve been spent working in another anecdote is spent, say, commenting on a slow-motion replay. But the impact of That Voice… that still cuts through any medium.
BB: I know that the ’77 and ’78 loses to the Yanks were brutal for you. Which was worse?
PH: Well, 1977 was bad because, at 11 years old and new to baseball, I was ill-prepared for the emotional onslaught that overcame me when Reggie hit his 3 home runs to knock the Dodgers out of the World Series. His casual “Hi, Moms” in the dugout and the seeming effortlessness with which he hit the homers before swaggering around the bases were like kicks in the gut. It reminded me of my older brother and his show-off friends humiliating me, and to know that baseball too had that sort of destructive power on my psyche was a rude awakening. But 1978 was even worse. This was supposed to be the Series in which the Dodgers exacted their revenge. Going up 2 games to none only heightened the expectations. Once the Series switched to the Bronx for the middle three games, it was like living through a nightmare. For one thing, even 3,000 miles away, Yankee Stadium scared me. I was a SoCal kid raised in the sunshiny ‘burbs. My impressions of New York were formed by dark and dangerous movies like “Serpico” and “Taxi Driver,” which I caught many times on Z Channel (a movie subscription channel only in L.A.), and the willy-nilly mob that flooded the playing field at the end of the ’77 Series. Even the “Utz” potato chip sign prominently displayed in right field inexplicably disturbed me. We didn’t have those in Los Angeles, and it spoke of a foreign thing whose pronunciation I couldn’t quite figure out.
My memories of Game 3 are defined by third baseman Graig Nettles and play like a video loop of him making great play after great play after great play. I remember screaming “It’s not fair!” at the TV. He saved at least four runs that game. Game 4 of course was the infamous “hip and run” play by Reggie Jackson. It was one thing for Reggie to beat us fair and square the year before – I couldn’t begrudge him that. But that little hip-jut of his on the basepaths to deflect Bill Russell’s throw… that was downright cheating.
This is what made this Series so painful. Reggie’s ploy told me that if someone could cheat that openly and get away with it in a sport with clearly defined rules, then there was no justice in this world. (Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that rules are open to interpretation, and no one ever promised there was justice in this world!) I have almost no memories of Games 5 and 6. Everyone knew the momentum had shifted the day before and the Dodgers would lose the Series. The Dodgers seemed to know it too, getting outscored 19-4 in those last two games.
BB: What is your worst memory? Reggie’s three homers, Reggie interfering with the ball or Reggie’s revenge homer against Bob Welch?
PH: Definitely the non-interference call on Reggie Jackson. To my earlier point, it differed from the others in that it involved a player being duplicitous and getting away with it. And I hate to draw another negative analogy to my older brother – these things shade our perceptions of things as kids, so it’s hard not to – but it reminded me of something my brother would do. Michael was notorious for cheating at board games. During Monopoly, I would often catch him slipping an extra $200 for himself whenever he passed “Go!” while playing the “banker” – a role we all eventually banished him from taking. But just as my brother and I are now close, years later I grew to really respect Reggie Jackson and what he brought to the game. When he signed with the Angels in 1982, I remember being excited that someone who went to any lengths to win a game was now on a local team.
BB: Can you describe the ’81 season, the impact of Fernandomania, Rick Monday’s homer, and the Series win against the Yanks–especially in light of how they trailed 2-0?
PH: Relief. Like those Rolaids commercials. That was the biggest emotion I felt when the Dodgers finally beat the Yankees after the debacles of ’77 and ’78. And especially once the Dodgers went down 2 games to none in ’81. It was hard to shake that unmistakable “here we go again” feeling. I was also happy that a magical season – despite the players’ strike that shut the season down for 50 days in the middle of summer – did not go to waste. That magic, of course, was led by Fernando Valenzuela. You simply cannot describe the kind of excitement he brought to Dodger Stadium. One of my favorites is the last out of an April 27 game at home that sounds like it’s the last game of the World Series. You had 50,000 rabid fans clamoring for Fernando to strike out the last Giants batter so that he could capture his third shutout in only his fourth big-league start. Vin puts on a clinic – it’s the best I’ve ever heard him and it still gives me goose bumps. In my book, I devote four full pages to this 3 ½ minute at-bat alone. You can hear how much Vin is also swept up in Fernandomania – he even starts trotting out phrases he’s learned in Spanish!
Rick Monday was an enigmatic player for the Dodgers in that he was sort of a bust since coming over from the Cubs in 1977, streaky and often injured. But then in 1981 at age 35 (he looked 45), he finished really strong. As a part-timer that year, he averaged one homer every 11.8 at-bats, which was just a hair behind home run leader Mike Schmidt’s one for every 11.4. So the notion that Rick Monday came out of nowhere to hit that home run that put the Dodgers in the World Series is a bit misleading – he was their hottest player in the second half. As for hearing the actual homer, I was stuck in math class with an unsympathetic teacher named Mr. Bland who would not let us listen to the game (it was played on a Monday afternoon since the day before was rained out). My friend Andrew and I tried to listen to the game on radios that we smuggled into our backpacks and laid on our desks, passing notes back and forth when the teacher turned his back. But Bland busted us. Shortly after we were instructed to turn our radios off, all the other classrooms erupted in deafening cheers, whoops and hollers. They were all listening to the game, courtesy of their teachers! I was seething with resentment – I knew it had to be some kind of momentous home run. Luckily, I had set up a timer to record the game off the radio at home, but hearing it later obviously wasn’t the same thing as hearing it live. Just talking about this now still makes me angry!
I was 15 ½ years old when the 1981 season ended. I knew instantly after they won the World Series that I would not continue recording their games. Really, after finally beating the Yankees, the team had nowhere to go but down! Turns out I was right – they’ve appeared in (and won) only one World Series in the 30 years since 1981. In the five years I documented them, they got in three times! Who knew after experiencing such heartbreak, we would all look back at those times as the glory years.
[Photographs of Vin Scully via Sports Illustrated; pictures of Paul Haddad provided by the author]
I recently found a diary that I kept in 1985. I turned 14 that June. Pasted to the pages are ticket stubs from the movies I saw (“View to a Kill,” “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”), from the Eric Clapton concert my mom took me to for my birthday, and the ball games I saw. There’s some writing in there, updates on Pony League games and school work, but there’s more drawing than writing.
Here’s a few pages…
My man, Reggie.
Good ol’ Knucksie, Phil Niekro.
In August my mother rented a cheap little cabin for a week out near the tip of Long Island. My twin sister, Sam, and one of her friends came along with us. The highlight of the week was finally getting to see “Back to the Future,” which I’d be pining to see for weeks.
What I’ll remember most, however, is listening to the Yankees on the radio. The night before we left, I went with my father to see them play the first of a four-game series against the Red Sox. The Yanks won in extra innings and then won again on Saturday and Sunday too. On Monday afternoon, Ken Griffey made a great catch in the 9th inning as the Yanks swept the Sox.
Mom didn’t want us watching TV while we were on vacation so I had to listen to the games on the radio. But I begged her to let me watch the news later that night to see the highlights and she did. The next day, Griffey’s catch was on the back page of the Daily News. We bought the paper and I copied the picture into my diary.
That’s my favorite Yankee catch of the 1980s (which is saying something considering how many sick plays Winfield made).
“Perhaps because he decamped to Hollywood in the 1980s, while he was still in his prime, John Schulian has never quite been recognized as one of the last in the great line of newspaper sports columnists that started with Ring Lardner, ran through W.C. Heinz and Red Smith, and probably ended when Joe Posnanski left the Kansas City Star in 2009. This is a shame. On his better days, he rated with anyone you might care to name.”
Tim Marchman on John Schulian’s latest collection, “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us.” (Wall Street Journal)
John Schulian has been entertaining us this year with the story of his career in “From Ali to Xena.” He has a new collection of sports writing out and we recently caught up to talk about it. Here’s our conversation.
BB: Your work has been collected twice before: “Writers’ Fighters,” a boxing compilation, and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods,” a collection of baseball writing. What was the genesis of your new anthology, which is both broader and more specific than those two?
JS: “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” was born of a mixture of ego and an urge to remind readers of the kind of sports writing they’re no longer getting in newspapers. What writer doesn’t want to have his work, at least that portion of it which isn’t embarrassingly bad, preserved in book form? I got my greatest lessons in writing by reading collections of my favorite sports writers—Red Smith, W.C. Heinz, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner—so having a collection with my name on it became a goal early on in my career. Because “Sometimes” is my third, I may have exceeded my limit, but I hope people will forgive me when they see that it’s wider in scope than “Writers’ Fighters” and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods.” I’m not just talking about the number of different sports it touches on, either. I’m talking about the personalities involved, and how open they were about themselves and their talents.
I realize, of course, how rare such accessibility is in today’s world, with athletes wary of any kind of media, protected by their agents, and generally paranoid about revealing anything about themselves except whether they hit a fastball or a slider. I think it was you who told me the change came about in the early ‘90s, which did a lot to shape this book. Suddenly, I knew how to make it more than a vanity project. The key was to make it stand as a tribute to the kind of sports writing that enriched newspapers when guys like Dave Kindred, Mike Lupica, David Israel, Leigh Montville, Bill Nack, Tony Kornheiser, Tom Boswell and I were turned loose with our portable typewriters. It was my great good fortune to work in an era so rich in talent, so full of talented people who were both my competition and my friends. Likewise, the athletes were there to talk to when you needed them. I know I didn’t always get the answers I wanted, but I got enough of them to give my columns and my magazine work the heartbeat they needed. It was a wonderful time to be a sports writer, and I hope “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” bears that out.
BB: I was struck by your piece on John Riggins in Super Bowl XVII. Your starting and closing image is the most famous one from that game. You didn’t get any special access that your peers didn’t have and yet within those limitations the piece is just so writerly. The kind you don’t see today. How were you able to condense a guy’s career into a single column?
JS: It was pure reflex. I forget how much time I had for post-game interviews, but it wasn’t much before I had to get back to my computer. I’m guessing I had an hour or so to write the column. There were some guys who routinely finished in less time than that, but for me, that was a sprint. I still wanted the column to be as stylish as possible. Sometimes that was my undoing, because I spent too much time massaging the language and not enough just saying what I wanted to say. With the Riggins column, though, things fell into place. I’d spent a lot of time around the Redskins during the regular season and into the playoffs, so I was pretty well steeped in his story. As for working with the same post-game material everybody else had, there was something liberating about that. No scoops, no exclusive interviews, just a good old-fashioned writing contest. When you get in a situation like that, if you can get your mind right, everything just flows. And that was certainly the case when I wrote about Riggins. I knew instantly where all the pieces of the puzzle were supposed to go—imagery, post-game quotes, back-story. Then my instincts took over, and I even made my deadline. What could be better than that?
BB: The majority of the stories in the collection were written for newspapers. Can you describe the atmosphere of that business in the post-Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein days when columnists were stars?
JS: The newspaper business became truly glamorous after Watergate. Robert Redford played Woodward, Dustin Hoffman played Bernstein, and Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post’s executive editor, practically became Jason Robards, who portrayed him on the screen. It just didn’t get any cooler than that, and the people at the Post were certainly aware of it, maybe too much so. I noticed the self-importance and inflated egos when I showed up there in 1975, in the wake of Watergate. The Post was a wonderful paper—beautifully written, smartly and courageously edited—but it was still a newspaper. There were still typos and factual errors and the kind of bad prose that daily deadlines inspire. The ink still came off on your hands, too. And there were still desk men with enlarged prostates and reporters who stank of cigar smoke, and one night some son of a bitch stole my jacket. Maybe worst of all, if you looked beyond the Post, you could see the storm clouds gathering. More and more afternoon papers were dying, and there was a segment of the population that hated the Post for unhorsing Dick Nixon and the New York Times for printing the Pentagon Papers. But newspaper people, who can be so sharp about spotting trouble on the horizon for others, tend to be blind when it comes to their own house. No wonder it felt safe and good and even magical to work on newspapers after Watergate. I loved it as much as anybody. And I probably would have liked the dance band on the Titanic, too.
BB: Before we get to the players, let’s talk about the section you have on the writers—Red Smith, A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Mark Kram and F.X. Toole—because it reminds us that the era you cover wasn’t just about the athletes, it was about the writers too. Can you talk about what a remarkable stylist Mark Kram was in his prime?
JS: I don’t think any sports writer ever wrote prose as dense and muscular and literary as Mark Kram’s. He opened my eyes to the possibilities of what you could do in terms of pure writing even though the subject was fun and games. If you want to read classic Kram, you need only turn to the opening paragraphs of his Sports Illustrated story about the Thrilla in Manila. It has to be one of the most anthologized pieces in any genre of writing. I know that it was a mortal lock to be in “At the Fighters” as soon as George Kimball and I sat down to edit the book. Kram had been on my radar since I was in college. He absolutely killed me with his bittersweet love letter to Baltimore, his hometown, on the eve of the 1966 World Series. He was under the influence of Nelson Algren when he wrote it, but I wouldn’t figure that out until years later. All I knew was that he had taken a mundane idea and turned it into a tone poem about blue collar life. Baseball was only a small part of it, and even though I was under the Orioles’ spell—Frank Robinson! Brooks Robinson! Jim Palmer!—I loved Kram’s audacity. He wasn’t afraid of the dark no matter how bright the lights on what he was writing about.
No wonder he was so great when the subject was boxing. When I was in grad school, he did a piece about the fighting Quarry brothers and how their old man had ridden the rails from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to the supposedly golden promise of Southern California. He had LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, and Kram left me with a picture of him standing in a boxcar door as the train carried him toward a future filled with more sorrow than joy. I read the story standing at the newsstand where I bought SI every week, and when I got back to my apartment, I read it again. I would discover A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner, and all the other giants of fight writing later, but Mark Kram was the one who lit the way for me. And it began with that story about the Quarry brothers and the image of their old man in the boxcar door.
The Job, Chicago Style
By John Schulian
The best advice I ever got about business came from my old baseball coach, Pete Radulovich: “Nobody plays for free.” My lawyer passed Pete’s wisdom along to the brass at the Sun-Times when the New York Times was courting me, and the next thing I knew, I got a raise and a deal with Universal Press Syndicate, which had made a fortune with “Doonesbury” and a host of other wildly successful comic strips. Funny how a little leverage works, isn’t it?
Close to 100 papers bought my column at one point, some because they actually used it, like the Atlanta Journal and Miami News. The talent-rich Boston Globe, on the other hand, bought it just to keep it out of the Boston Herald’s hands. Whatever their motivation, those big city papers all paid a decent buck. It was the small papers, however, the ones in Iowa and Louisiana, that relied on me most heavily for a national voice, even though they paid only a couple of dollars a week. But I stopped worrying about the price when John Ed Bradley, that most poetic of sports writers, told me his father used to cut my column out of his hometown paper and mail it to him at LSU.
With syndication, I was traveling the same road that Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, and Jim Murray had before me. That was an honor in itself, but Universal Press made things even better by publishing my first book, “Writers’ Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists.” It’s a collection of my boxing writing that came out in 1983 and has achieved what is best described as cult status. God knows it was never a big seller, but there are still people who speak of it fondly, not just old goats of my vintage but young writers and fight fans who stumble upon it. I’m not sure it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with any book by Hugh McIlvanney, the superb British boxing writer, but I’m still grateful that people haven’t used it for kindling.
For all this talk about the fruits of being a columnist, it’s high time I said a something about the job itself. At the Sun-Times I wrote four a week–Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday. They ran 1,000 words apiece, which was standard for my generation but looks like literary abuse compared to the three that today’s columnists get by with. Of course the old-timers thought guys like me were pansies because they had written as many as seven a week. Red Smith, when he worked for the Philadelphia Record, even covered a beat in addition to writing his column. And then there was Arthur Daley of the New York Times, who was writing seven when his editor cut his load to six. Instead of celebrating, Daley thought his boss didn’t like him anymore.
Whether you’re doing seven columns a week or three, it’s still tough to do them right. Anybody can fill space, whether it’s an overmatched kid or an old hack running on Jack Daniels fumes. But if you really care about the craft right down to the last syllable, you inevitably wind up feeling like you’re married to a nymphomaniac: as soon as you’re finished, you’ve got to start again. For all the joy that attends a column you get right, whether it’s funny or sad or angry, you’re still staring into a black hole when you wonder what you’re going to do for an encore. There were times I started worrying before I finished the column I was working on. Other than that, it was the best job on the paper.
I’ve always felt lucky that I worked in Chicago, which, in addition to being a great city, overflowed with sports to write about, professional and college. The National League was on the North Side, the American on the South. I could write about the Bears any time of year. I could have done the same with Michael Jordan, but I was gone by the time he arrived. The best I could do in basketball was DePaul, which had a great run in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Talk about an embarrassment of riches. Better yet, most of the time I was there, the teams were terrible-–and terrible teams are a hell of a lot more fun to write about than good teams. When a team is good or, worse, great, most everybody connected with it turns secretive. They don’t want to run their mouths for fear the fates smite them. But when a team is bad, the fear is gone. Players start to reveal their true selves, whether they’re hilarious or soulful or complete assholes. There’s always something going on, always somebody running his mouth, always somebody begging to have his ears pinned back.
There isn’t a more reliable bunch of losers in all of sports than the Cubs. And yet, in my Chicago years, they had a world-class right-hander in Rick Reuschel and a great reliever in Bruce Sutter and a batting champion in Bill Buckner, whose bad legs should have qualified him for handicapped parking and who was the bravest player I ever covered. Each was a good guy in his own way. Not the life of the party, by any stretch of the imagination, but honest and insightful and professional in surroundings that would have turned lesser men into drooling loonies. There was one year when, miraculously, the Cubs were still in the pennant race on September 1 and Buckner came to Wrigley all fired up for a game he thought would sell the old joint out. Instead, it was almost empty. “It’s like they turn the lights out every August 31st,” he said. He deserved better. They all did.
No, let me amend that. There were exceptions. There were those Cubs who were such chowderheads that they were like batting-practice fastballs for a columnist. The biggest one of all was Dave Kingman. Of course you couldn’t say much bad about him the year he hit 48 homers, but he showed what a wasted blob of protoplasm he was when he spent most of the next season lolling on the disabled list. He’d come in early in the morning for treatment on whatever his injury was, but he wouldn’t hang around to watch the game, ever. One day, one of the team’s good guys pulled me aside and told me Kingman was hustling jet skis at a big summer blowout called ChicagoFest when he should have been at the ballpark. I did my due diligence as a reporter and then ripped him as a feckless, narcissistic slug. I thought he’d try to strangle me the next time our paths crossed, but he didn’t say a thing. He just looked scary, the way he always did: 6-foot-6, with a permanent Charles Whitman stare.
Herman Franks did two tours as the Cubs’ manager while I worked in Chicago. It’s hard to believe a bigger lout ever darkened baseball. Some days his greatest joy in life seemed to be throwing his dirty laundry at the clubhouse man and telling him, “Get the brown out, Jap.” The clubhouse man was, as you probably guessed, Japanese.
To say Herman was an uninspired manager would be understatement. He consistently made a bad team worse, and when I kept calling him on it in print, he whined to friends back home in Salt Lake City. That’s right. We came from the same town. We even went to the same high school, albeit 30 years apart. “Get this goddamned Schulian off my back,” Herman begged a friend with whom he had played CYO ball. Not a chance. Herman was just too much fun to write about. There was, for instance, the day he said the difference between Jose Cardenal, who’d been traded from the Cubs, and Greg Luzinski was the difference between ice cream and horseshit. I seized the moment and wrote that the difference between Cardenal and Herman was the difference between ice cream and, taking my readers’ sensitivities into consideration, horse manure. The next time I was beside the batting cage at Wrigley, Herman challenged me to a fight. When he saw that I couldn’t stop laughing, he stomped away.
I wasn’t wild about George Halas, either. Forget the Monsters of the Midway and the Decatur Staleys and the running board of the car that he and the NFL’s other original owner posed beside. All of that was real, but it became part of a mythology that served Halas as a protective shield. He was about 1,000 years old when I worked in Chicago, and he could give you an E.T. smile that was supposed to pass for charm, but underneath it all, he was still a tightwad and a mean SOB. For years he employed a team physician who did nothing but screw up players’ knees. Big name players like Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus. I always wondered about Halas’s feelings about race, too. He was, if I recall correctly, the next-to-last NFL owner to integrate his team. And even at the end of his reign, he publicly tortured Neil Armstrong, an eminently decent man who happened to be a less than wonderful head coach. I’m not sure Halas a word of what I said about him, but it still felt good to tee off on the old bastard.
All things considered, I’d rather be remembered for the work I did that wasn’t the product of outrage–the magazine pieces about Josh Gibson and Chuck Bednarik and the old Pacific Coast League, the newspaper columns about Muhammad Ali and Pete Maravich and a high school basketball star named Ben Wilson whose dreams were canceled by a stranger with a gun. But raising hell was part of the job, too, and I did my share of it. Maybe I even liked it too much. I remember Mike Royko telling me there’s no sense in peeling a grape with an ax. Sometimes I forgot to heed his advice. But other times the grape deserved the ax.
Unquestionably the toughest column I ever wrote was about Quentin Dailey, a basketball player the Bulls shouldn’t have drafted. He’d terrorized a student nurse at the University of San Francisco. Didn’t rape her, mind you. But left her with bad dreams that still may not have gone away. The Bulls drafted him No. 1 in 1982, and I went to the press conference where they introduced him. I was the only one there who asked if he had had any regrets, was getting any counseling, was doing anything positive to make amends for the harm he had done. And he turned out to be utterly unrepentant. I went back to the paper and wrote the harshest column I could. It might be the harshest column I’ve ever seen by anyone. Then I waited to see what would happen.
There were calls and letters that accused me of being a racist, lots of them. But there was also an invitation to appear on Oprah Winfrey’s show as a defender of women. I accepted, of course. NOW thanked me and started making plans to picket the Bulls’ games. Reggie Jackson called and said he’d paid for Dailey’s lawyer because his niece had been going out with Dailey. Bill Veeck called and said he wanted me to know he was in my corner. Best of all, my wife said she was proud of me.
Still, it felt like I was breathing thin air, maybe having an out-of-body experience. I felt terribly self-conscious. It wasn’t like seeing my face in an ad on the side of a bus, and it wasn’t like my wife nudging me in a restaurant and saying, “Those people over there recognize you.” It was disconcerting. When I walked to a courthouse a few blocks from the Sun-Times to take care of a ticket-–I’d raced a stoplight and lost-–I couldn’t help wondering if some cop was going to get in my face and call me a racist motherfucker. And if I would have the stones to hold my ground and say that race had nothing to do with what I wrote. It never happened, though. Life went on, the way it usually does.
Reggie Jackson turned 65 yesterday. He was my baseball hero as a kid. He was also Jon DeRosa’s idol. To mark the occasion of Reggie becoming a senior citizen, figured this is as good a time as any to share Jon’s Lasting Yankee Stadium Memory (which appeared in the book but not on-line until now).
By Jon DeRosa
On January 22, 1982 Reggie Jackson signed with the California Angels. It was the latest in a series of difficult lessons for me—a six-year-old who otherwise had it pretty good. In rapid succession, Darth Vader revealed he was Luke Skywalker’s father, the Yankees crashed out of the only two baseball seasons I had ever followed, and my Grandmother passed days after my little brother was born on my 6th birthday. I was looking for a fight and George Steinbrenner and his Yankees were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I assigned Steinbrenner and Vader to the same category of evil: each had reached into my life and changed things forever. I actively rooted for the Yankees’ decline the way I rooted for the fall of the Empire. I removed my Yankee baseball cards from the binder, secured them with merciless rubber bands and tossed them in with obscure Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians and other total strangers. From that point on, I rooted for the Angels.
In 1982, for a kid in New York, that was difficult. You had to write a letter to the team, addressed to the stadium itself, requesting them to mail you an order form so that you might have the opportunity to buy something with a halo on it. My mother wrote such a letter and, by the grace of Gene Autry, was allowed to purchase a cap, a helmet, a jersey, and for some reason, Angels wristbands. I wore the whole ensemble to Yankee Stadium on Tuesday April 27th, 1982 for Reggie’s first game back in New York. My father and older brother were with me but I was scared stiff. What if he struck out? What if they booed? What if the Yankees were right?
We watched batting practice from right field in a light rain as a buzzing crowd filed in around us. Our seats were in the upper deck between first base and right field, where we munched on hot dogs. I felt grown-up whenever I was allowed to get two, but that night, my nervous stomach wasn’t accommodating. The rain made the bun on the second hot dog a little soggy.
When Reggie came to bat in the second inning, Bob Sheppard announced his name with such elegance that I imagined it was a personal statement, “I should be announcing this name every night.” This was the moment I dreaded. Would they boo? The crowd stood and chanted: REG-GIE, REG-GIE, REG-GIE. Buoyed by the warmth of the welcome, I got to my feet, but my jaw was frozen shut and I couldn’t move my lips. My dad put his arm around me as Ron Guidry poured in a heater. Reggie took his massive cut, but he got jammed and popped out. I was back in my seat the instant I saw Reggie’s reaction.
The game rolled along at a pace more akin to a 100-meter dash than a modern American League baseball game—they got through seven innings in 1 hour and 51 minutes before the game was called due to rain. When Reggie batted in the fifth, the crowd rose for him again. REG-GIE, REG-GIE, REG-GIE. He yanked a single to right field and was rewarded with brief applause. I was silent throughout this at bat, too, but the base hit calmed my nerves temporarily. The crowd asked; Reggie delivered. Contract complete, customers satisfied, right? Even a child should have known better. Yankee fans didn’t ask—they demanded. And they didn’t want a single; they wanted a home run.
When they greeted Reggie with his chant for the third time in the seventh, my stomach knotted, and I wished they would stop chanting. It wasn’t fanatical devotion; it was the begging of spoiled children. REG-GIE, REG-GIE, REG-GIE might as well be MORE, MORE, MORE. I knew it was not fair to ask for so much. In this world I was learning about, teams lose, people die; things just don’t usually work out…
I saw Reggie’s black bat whip through the hitting zone; the ball accelerated at an improbable speed and angle at impact and assumed a trajectory that could have sent it across the street if not for the upper deck façade. As the ball sped past my face it erased all my doubts and fears and I felt a lightness rise from my gut to my head. Pure relief. I couldn’t hear anything because my mind had not yet validated this moment as reality. Then the noise just materialized in my ears: REG-GIE, REG-GIE, REG-GIE, louder than the other three times combined. My brother and father jostled me from side to side as they chanted along.
I stayed quiet. How did this happen? Did I use the Force to will that ball out of the park? I couldn’t even comprehend that I just got exactly what I wanted. What were the ramifications of getting what you pray for? I should have been screaming my head off, but I just stared out at Reggie rounding the bases, making sure he touched every one and hoping he was as happy as I was.
The chanting didn’t end when Reggie reached the dugout. When he came out for his curtain call, as if they had rehearsed it prior to the game, the crowd turned toward Steinbrenner’s box and let him have it. Steinbrenner SUCKS, Steinbrenner SUCKS, Steinbrenner SUCKS! All of the emotion that had built up in my little body flowed through the crowd into the damp Stadium air. My brother and father were gleefully singing the song, rousing me to participate. But I felt bad for George and I kept silent.
This is a collaborative effort of words, numbers (Chris & Jon DeRosa) and original artwork (Ben DeRosa) dedicated to the memory of Joseph DeRosa, our grandfather, who pretty much hated every personnel move his beloved New York Mets ever made.
1976 – 2nd Place NL East
Anticipation for the first ever Bridge & Tunnel Series ran high as the Mets had their best club since 1973, and Yankees were charged up under new skipper Billy Martin. Each led their divisions into September, but the while Yankees went wire-to-wire by a stride, the Mets couldn’t shake Philadelphia. Rallying behind former Mets fireman Tug McGraw, the “You Gotta Believe” Phils snuck ahead at the finish line. Cincy beat the Phils and then swept the Yanks for their second straight title. The disappointment got the best of M. Donald Grant and, believing the team needed a spark to get back to the top, replaced manager Yogi Berra with veteran third baseman Joe Torre (“Joe Who?” wondered the writers accustomed to the Mets being managed by heroes of ‘50s New York baseball scene). Shocked and hurt to be cast aside despite his successful record, Berra did not return to Shea Stadium for Old Timer’s Day for another ten years.
This is a collaborative effort of words, numbers (Chris & Jon DeRosa) and original artwork (Ben DeRosa) dedicated to the memory of Joseph DeRosa, our grandfather, who pretty much hated every personnel move his beloved New York Mets ever made.
Over at the Hardball Times, one of our favorite baseball writers, the estimable Steve Treder, does these fascinating roster reconstructions, speculating on what might have happened if this or that team hadn’t gone through with some pivotal personnel decisions. In one piece, he imagined what might have become of the Braves had they not passed on Willie Mays. In another, he asked what if the Giants had sorted out their talent correctly in the 1960s. The “what if” scenario that most tantalizes Yankee fans is, of course, “what if the Yankees had held onto the group of prospects they produced in the mid-90s?”
What if the Yankees hadn’t given up on Andy Pettitte and dealt him off the National League in 1994? Then they might not have been so desperate for left-handed pitching that they were willing to swapfuture all-stars Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera to Detroit for David Wells. While Mariano has earned a reputation as a postseason choker due to his memorable meltdown in his first and only postseason appearance in 2006, it’s quite possible that with a few more chances he might have sorted things out.
What if the Yankee front office saw the charismatic future star they had in Derek Jeter, and hadn’t traded him to the Reds? Unlikely? Sure. But just pretend for a minute that Tony Fernandez had gotten injured at the outset of the 1996 season, and Jeter had gotten a chance to play in pinstripes.
It is difficult, even in the form of a Marvel Comics “What If?” fantasy, to imagine Bernie Williams starring for the Yanks instead of the Sox—when has George Steinbrenner ever given an unproven outfielder 1300 plate appearances to blossom?—but for the sake of argument, let’s just say that George was somehow suspended from making a premature call on Bernie and he roamed centerfield for an entire decade. What then?
With their actual free-agent signings to buttress this up-the-middle talent core, the Yankees might have had some kind of ballclub in the late 90s-early ‘00s.
To indulge such an exercise, you have to imagine the very same people behaving differently, but even still, it is remarkable that such a thin tissue of attitudes and circumstances means the difference between a great team coming together or not. Go back and check the trade rumors swirling around the NL forty years ago, for instance, and you will see that but for a few key decisions, the Amazin’ Mets dynasty of the 1970s might too have been scattered to the winds.
Since we’re on a Reggie kick today, here’s a tune from Tribe’s fourth record with a reference to Buck Tater:
Our old pal Josh Wilker will be in town later this week (and into early next week) to promote his critically-praised memoir Cardboard Gods. First up, Thursday night. Josh will be featured at a No Mas event at the Nike Store in Soho from 7:30-9:30. He’ll be reading from the book and signing copies too. Oh, and there’ll be a bubble-blowing contest as well.
I’m so there.
I don’t remember the first time I met Dayn Perry but it must have been about five years ago now. This was back when he was writing for Baseball Prospectus in addition to Fox Sports. We hit it off immediately and have remained pals ever since. Dayn’s got that easy Southern charm that makes for wonderful company. When he told me that he was writing a book about my boyhood hero Reggie Jackson I was more than somewhat eager to see what he’d come up with. We spoke about Reggie and the writing process often while he was working on the book and Dayn went so far as to mention me in the acknowledgements.
The book, Reggie Jackson: The Life and Thunderous Career of Baseball’s Mr. October, drops today. Dayn and I caught up recently to chat about all things Reggie and what it was like writing a biography.
Bronx Banter: There are two big biographies out this spring, one of Willie Mays and the other on Hank Aaron. Both books are well over 500 pages and aim to be the definitive work on their subjects. Your book is leaner at 300 pages. What was behind your thinking in making this a trimmer rather than an exhaustive narrative?
Dayn Perry: Part of it was that the publisher wanted me to stay as close as possible to 100,000 words. The initial manuscript I submitted was about 20,000 words longer than the final product, so I undertook some heavy editing toward the end of the process. On another level, though, I wanted a brisk, readable book that included all the important events in Reggie’s life and aspects of his character. My hope is that we’ve achieved that.
BB: You wrote this book without Reggie’s participation. Was that because he didn’t want to talk with you?
DP: On a couple of occasions, I spoke with Reggie’s business manager and requested an interview, but I never received a response. My understanding is that he didn’t want his cooperation to detract from the book he was working on at the time with Bob Gibson and Lonnie Wheeler. That’s understandable, of course.
BB: What, if any, obstacles did it present?
DP: It made it easier because I much enjoy the solitary aspect of writing, and the more of that I’m allowed the better my work is going to be. I still conducted 50 or so interviews for the book, and they made it a better work, I think. But I think of myself more as a writer than a reporter, so the nuts-and-bolts writing–the craft aspect–is the most fulfilling part of the job. Also, I think cooperation with the subject can sometimes lead to a varnishing or leavening of the work, even if it happens unconsciously. Obviously, I had no such concerns. It’s an honest, fact-based account, but I didn’t have to worry about satisfying him at every turn.
BB: Did Reggie prevent anyone from speaking to you?
DP: Not to my knowledge. A number of former teammates of his declined to speak with me once they learned Reggie wasn’t cooperating with the project, but so far as I know he didn’t actively work to undermine my efforts.
BB: There has been so much written about Reggie, particularly during his years in New York. What does your book offer that is new?
DP: My book sheds new light on the Mets’ decision not to draft him and covers his Angels years and retirement for the first time. Some people are going to be familiar with his Oakland years, and even more people are going to be familiar with his New York years. But so much of that time is forgotten or neglected by history. I think the totality of his life–the scope of his life–is something most people haven’t grasped yet.
I received Sixty Feet, Six Inches for Christmas. In fact, the book is so directly in my wheelhouse, I received it twice. If you haven’t heard about it, it’s a book length conversation between Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson, guided off-page by co-author Lonnie Wheeler, about the duel the between pitcher and batter. They delve deeply into the mechanics and psychology, the preparation and the consequences, but mostly, they tell detailed anecdotes about the wily bastids that they couldn’t quite master and the poor stooges they could.
Upon first glance, they did not strike me as a natural pair. Reggie’s hunger for attention and approval seemed an odd match for Gibson’s stoic surliness. But at least some of each player’s professional personality was an act. And some of what remained has eroded in the years following their retirements and enshrinements.
So what we get in this conversation are two ballplayers who no longer occupy the exact personalities they made famous, but who can (and do) slip into those familiar characters when necessary – like putting on a vintage uniform for old-timer’s day.