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Tag: The National

Opening Day Special: The Last Yankee


Matinglymo

Here’s an Opening Day treat from my pal Paul Solotaroff. “The Last Yankee” is a story he wrote about Don Mattingly for the National Sports Daily back in 1990 and at the time it rang true. Of course, this was before Derek Jeter. Still, dig this trip down memory lane as we get ready for the season to begin tonight in Houston.

 

“The Last Yankee”

By Paul Solotaroff
The National Sports Daily, July 6, 1990

It begins, of course, with Babe Ruth, the god of thunder, who invented the home run and the 12-hot dog breakfast. It runs through Lou Gehrig, the first baseman built like a center field monument, and through Joe DiMaggio, the center fielder straight from central casting. It culminates in Mickey Mantle, that beautiful wreck who played hard, lived hard, and once remarked in his forties that if he’d known he was going to live so long, he’d’ve taken better care of himself. “It,” of course, is the lineage of the One Great Yankee, the player who taught his generation about class and success, and set boys everywhere dreaming about pinstripes.

It wasn’t, God knows, anything like virtue that made Ruth an icon. What signified him to his age was his invincibility—he won everything in sight, and devastated teams doing it. His 500-foot shots were like bombs over Nagasaki; whenever he hit one, the other side just collapsed.

But the mythos of the Great Yankee has as much to do with heart as muscle. DiMaggio played on crippled heels; Gehrig, the last couple of years, could hardly bend to take grounders, so ravaged was he by ALS; Mantle hobbled through much of his career, his knee done in by a sprinkler head. Nonetheless, they endured like soldiers, Gehrig for 17 years, Joe D. for 13, the Mick for 18. Gehrig lasted through ’39, by which time DiMaggio was securely established; DiMaggio until ’51, when Mantle broke in. No one, alas, stepped up for Mantle but his legacy of courage and pride survived, in trust, for his eventual heir.

Beyond the monster home runs and memorable catches in center, though, what the One Great Yankee did was set absolute standards—Yankee standards. DiMaggio must have uttered all of 10 words his entire career, but his mute ferocity put the fear of God into his teammates. He once cornered Vic Raschi, who was 21–8 that year but had a nasty habit of squandering big leads, and told him that if he ever blew another one, he’d beat the hell out of him then and there. Nor was there any malingering permitted. If DiMaggio was going to go out there every day on splintered shins, then, believe it, everybody was going to play. One shudders to think what would have happened if Joe D. had ever played with Rickey Henderson.

Mantle may have been the culmination of the line—no one has ever had his combination of lefty-righty power and speed—but he was not the last of the Great Yankees. Reggie, with his drink-stirring swagger, was as true a son of Ruth as any of them. Forget the fact that he was only there for five years. They were titanic years, full of glorious theater; no one since the Babe has so enlivened the franchise.

And then, of course, there is Don Mattingly. All line drives and silence, he is the very incarnation of Gehrig: solemn and single-minded and as untaintable by George Steinbrenner as Gehrig was by Ruth. But this is where the lineage ends. When Mattingly goes, there will be no more like him. Rome is burning, the royal family disgraced. Soon, nothing will remain but the mad fiddler and his running slaves.

“My place in Yankee history?” sniggers Donald Arthur Mattingly. ”I’ll tell you what my place in Yankee history is. It’s hitting .260 on a struggling ballclub, and letting everyone down in here. At the moment, I don’t exactly feel too much a part of Ruth or Gehrig or DiMaggio.”

It is three hours before game time, and Mattingly, sheathed in sweat and silver bike shorts, is sitting in his corner cubicle, the place d’honneur in the Yankee clubhouse. The other players loll about, most of them still in street clothes, grazing on fruit or playing three-handed rummy, but Mattingly has already put in a fierce hour in the batting cage. His black bat propped beside him, he looks like he wants nothing so much as to go back there now, to the temple of his solemn devotions.

In the batting cage, there is the pure release of hard work, and the pleasure of attacking one baseball after another. But mostly, there is the relief of being away from this team, a collection of can’t-win don’t-care, no-account strangers, the most faceless bunch to ever set foot in here. Two years ago, this room was electric with the likes of Henderson, Willie Randolph, Jack Clark, and Dave Winfield. Now, peopled by Velardes and Leyritzes, it’s got all the flavor of a bus station. Surveying the scene, Mattingly’s eyes say, “Can these guys really be Yankees?”

“Man, oh man, this is just so tough,” he says. “It hasn’t been like this since I was 13 playing for a Babe Ruth team. We were horrible. Awful. Plus, we had bad uniforms. Ugly green things. It was terrible.”

Mantle-Maris-Berra-Howard. Munson-Nettles-Jackson-Gossage. Those teams won because they were star-laden,yes, but also because they were blood-and-knuckles competitive. Year in, year out, they played as tough as pirates, tromping on good teams of lesser wills. Not so these Yankees. They give up before the first shot rings out.

“By the seventh inning we’re getting pounded again, or we’re down a run and we don’t expect to win, and you think, ‘This is another night we’re not going to get over the hill,’” he laments. “We’re not even making tough outs. . . . It’s really pretty ugly, to tell you the truth. What they need to do is get rid of anyone who doesn’t care. I take it home every night, and some guys just leave it. That ticks me off, to see a guy laughing and joking around when we lose. . . . You don’t want any of those kind of guys on your team.”

It is hard to say which is sadder, the dismantling of all this glorious tradition, or the desolation of Don Mattingly. Once the centerpiece of the gaudiest lineup in baseball, he is, for all intent and purposes, alone out there now. In ’88, he hit behind Henderson and Randolph, who, regardless of their averages, drew 100 walks apiece, and were constantly dancing off of first and third for him. Now, he hits behind Roberto Kelly, who walks about as often as Mario Andretti, and Steve Sax, an opposite-field hitter whom American League pitchers seem to have figured out.

“It was such a different situation with Rickey and Willie,” he says wistfully. “They put pressure on the pitcher. When there’s nobody out there, the pitcher doesn’t feel any tension. The only thing that’ll hurt him is a home run.”

The loss of Henderson and Randolph, both of whom Steinbrenner essentially gave away, is only the half of it, though. The other half is the subtraction of Clark and Winfield, who combined for 200 RBI behind Mattingly in ’88. In baseball, this is called protection, and without it you stand about as much chance as a stray blonde in a biker joint. In Mattingly’s first five full seasons, only four players hit more homers than he did (137); near the halfway point of this one, he has exactly five. And nobody in baseball had more RBI over that stretch (574); to date, he has 33. Thanks entirely to George’s machinations, the Yankees are dead last in the league in hitting, slugging, runs scored, total bases, and on-base percentage. And so the team that won more games than anyone else in the ’80s stands every chance of losing 105 this year. If this were any other kind of business, federal investigators would have been called in long ago and a conservator appointed.

None of which is to exempt Mattingly from blame, or to suggest for a moment that he exempts himself. His recent castigation of the team was the first of its kind, an outburst after a disastrous sweep in Boston during which manager Bucky Dent got canned and the wheels came off this abysmal club. By nature, Mattingly is unceasingly upbeat (read, deluded) about his teammates, and brutally hard on himself. Never mind that all the talent has gone elsewhere—to his mind, the losing this season is somehow his fault, his particular responsibility. On a team batting .240, it is not enough anymore to hit the ball hard and field his position flawlessly. He has to drive in every runner, though he hasn’t had a pitch to hit in weeks; he has to turn this team around, though no one has a clue what direction it’s headed in the first place; he has to take outfield practice, extra batting practice, more extra batting practice . . .

“I have no excuses for this year,” he says, despite the built-in excuse of a chronic back problem, which flared again this week. “You look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘You haven’t been getting it done, have you?’ I’ve swung at bad pitches, I haven’t been patient—there’s a whole lot of things I haven’t done. Naturally, you try to do too much, but I’m not even doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

He bites the sentence off, chewing on his self-acrimony. He is generally about as expressive as prairie grass, disclosing as little about himself as is humanly possible. But this year he’s been even quieter than usual, stewing in a broth of exasperation. “If you’re around him every day, you can tell,”says first base coach Mike Ferraro. “He has a lot of anxiety to succeed. He’s a very intense person, a perfectionist. Mantle was exactly the same. A quiet guy, but boy, you didn’t want to be anywhere near him when we lost.”

“I can tell you exactly where this season went south on him,” says Tony Kubek, the Yankees’ color man extraordinaire. “It was about a month ago in a game here against K.C. The Yankees are getting one-hit, 3–0, it’s the bottom of the ninth, they’ve got men on first and second and Mattingly up. [K.C. manager John] Wathan runs out and tells his reliever, ‘Do what we did to [Wade] Boggs last year—walk him. I don’t care if there’s no base open and he’s the tying run—put him on. He goes back to the dugout, [Steve] Farr throws Donnie a curve that just does break over the plate, and he hits it back into the right field seats. The next day, the word goes out around the league: ‘There’s nobody else on this team that can beat you—do not pitch to Mattingly. I don’t think he’s had a ball to drive since.”

For the last six years Don Mattingly has simply been the best player in baseball. Over that stretch, he is first in the majors in total RBIs, third in hits, fourth in BA, fifth in HRs. He’s won a batting title, an MVP, five Gold Gloves, set a consecutive-game home run streak, has been the AP Player of the Year three times running and an All-Star every season. He didn’t get here on talent—not, at any rate, the sort of head-turning talent with which superstars are usually favored: the blinding bat speed, for instance, of Canseco, or the magic eyes of Ted Williams. No, Mattingly is the first self-made Great Yankee, a 19th-round draft pick from Evansville, Ind., who, through the alchemy of smarts and desire, turned modest gifts into exquisite skills.

“Don Mattingly’s the best first baseman I’ve ever seen,” Kubek says, “because he practices harder than most guys play. Intensity pays in the game, and Donnie’s focused from the minute he gets to the ballpark. Offensively, defensively, he’s just so tuned in. It’s his mental sharpness more than anything that makes him so special.”

Mattingly’s hitting coach, Darrell Evans, agrees. “A lot of guys work hard. The great ones work smart, know themselves backwards and forwards. I saw that in Atlanta, with [Hank] Aaron, and in Detroit, with [Alan] Trammel. Other guys may realize their potential, but the Mattinglys exceed theirs.”

Baseball people extol the work habits of Dave Stewart and such, but no one in the sport puts in the hours Mattingly does. He grew up in the mirror, emulating his hero, Rod Carew—hands back, knees bent in that old man’s crouch—and has been perfecting and refining the stroke practically every day since. Like a guy with a vintage car, he always has it up on the blocks, sweating the little things like the set of his shoulders, the tilt of his hips.

But something has gone wrong with his swing this year that no amount of tinkering has fixed. Jumping at the bait of that enormous contract he signed in April (five year, $19.3 million), he has tried to be the savior of this team. Instead of taking what the league is giving him and lining the away pitch to left, he is contorting himself, trying to jerk it into the short porch in right. That is breaking faith with his one commandment to himself, to hit the ball hard, and never mind where it goes.

“Donnie had fallen into some pretty bad habits before I got here,” says Evans, who came over as hitting instructor when Champ Summers was fired with Dent. “Normally, he’s the most patient hitter in baseball, but this year he’s just lunging at balls. I guess it’s easy enough to see why.”

That it is, though not without a little history. In ’88 when Mattingly signed his last contract (three years, $6.7 million), he got off to his habitual slow start and was roundly savaged by Steinbrenner for “lacking leadership,” George’s code word for wimpishness. The belittlement stunned and ate away at Mattingly, and at the All-Star break he exploded, telling the national press that he’d never “gotten it [respect] around here.” A hideous snit between the two ensued; for days, the back pages were bloody with George’s threats to trade him.

The whole business deeply embarrassed Mattingly, who is, as Kubek describes him, “Yankee class from head to toe—and I mean the kind you don’t see around here anymore.” Whether Mattingly knows it or not, he is surely trying to pre-empt another strike by George, flexing muscles he doesn’t have, breaking his back to be The Man. It is an old, old story—Steinbrenner signing someone to a fat contract, then promptly and publicly impugning his manhood—but it is the last time we shall see it play out here. None but the lame (Pascual Perez) and desperate Dave LaPoint will take his money anymore, though the Mark Langstons will of course be happy to use him shamelessly to drive their price up elsewhere. Money is money, and every owner in baseball has it. What George has frittered away is the only capital that mattered: the cachet of being a Yankee.

It spoke to Mattingly this spring—”It would kill me if I left and two or three years later the Yankees won”—just as it had spoken to Reggie Jackson 15 years before him, and 50 years before Reggie, to a strapping architecture student named Lou Gehrig. “Just putting on a Yankee uniform gave you confidence,” Gehrig once said. ”It made you better than you actually were.” The pride of the Yankees was no insubstantial thing; it was the team’s precious equity, built up over time by a succession of the greatest men ever to play this game. Now it is gone, squandered by the little man from Tampa, and New Yorkers are immeasurably poorer for it. They cling to Don Mattingly, cheering even his pop flies and groundouts, because he is the last Yankee, and he is all they have left.

[Illustration from the 1986 Sports Illustrated Baseball Preview issue]

The Banter Gold Standard: The Sports Fan

More baseball. This here beaut by Pete Richmond was a “Main Event” takeout for The National Sports Daily back on August 30, 1990. It appears here with the author’s permission.

“The Sports Fan”

By Peter Richmond

The first time I called Bill Murray to see if he wanted to watch some Cubs games he insisted on reading me the Recipe of the Month from the Cubs newsletter, which was Ryne and Cindy Sandberg’s recipe for Chicken Parmesan. It didn’t sound particularly appetizing. We never found out what it tasted like, even though we did end up in Chicago, and we did end up eating a lot. We just never ate any of Ryne and Cindy Sandberg’s Chicken Parmesan. We did eat Diana Ditka’s chicken, which wasn’t anything special, especially after Bill picked up this kid who wanted an autograph and lowered his head until it was a few inches from the mashed potatoes. We also ate lamb chops with an orange sauce at a cocktail party for some of the Cubs in a men’s store that sold ties for $200, but there was nowhere to put the bones except in the pockets of the silk jackets. We also had eggs Benedict with fresh tomato slices, and some pretty good swordfish, but the most appetizing dish by far was the fruit bowl that looked like a Dutch still life in Mick Fleetwood’s hotel suite on the forty first floor. Unfortunately, he never offered us any, even though Bill was polite enough to read aloud from the unpublished science fiction manuscript written by Mick’s dad, the late Wing Commander Fleetwood of the RAF, at 3 A.M., while the rest of Fleetwood Mac drank pear brandy down at the bar.

And, of course, we ate Polish Sausages. We ate a lot of Polish sausages. In fact, the first thing Bill said when he reached our seats behind home plate in Wrigley Field during the national anthem for a 7:35 start against the Expos was, “I brought you a Polish,” and he held up a brown paper bag. He was wearing a baseball cap with the insignia of the Salt Lake Trappers on the crest. He was wearing baggy bluejeans and a black Adidas jacket with Cyrillic writing on it. Holding the bag in his left hand and his ticket stub in the right, with the brim of the cap pulled down, Bill had moved through the crowd without causing a ripple. He seems to fit in Wrigley Field the way something fits in your glove compartment that’s always there, where it belongs.

“Beer?” said the vendor who always brings her coldest case to where Bill’s sitting.

“That’s what we’re here for,” Bill said. He was right. We drank Old Style, and kept score, and talked about the 1957 Braves. The day they clinched the pennant, Bill’s dad—a lumber salesman, father of nine—drove the family up to Milwaukee and they cruised the streets in celebration, even though they were Cubs fans. He can still recite their starting lineup.

Since then, Bill has spent a lot of time in baseball parks. He had two at bats with the Grays Harbor Loggers. Now he owns part of the Trappers, the Charleston (S.C.) Rainbows, the Williamsport (Pa.) Bills and the Pompano Beach (Fla.) Miracle, which he recently visited on Gaelic night, and when he was presented with a baked potato, plain, he ate it so as not to offend his hosts.

But you’re likely to see him just about anywhere. Last autumn, for instance, in the middle of a pennant race, he leaned over the lip of the Cubs dugout in Shea Stadium in the late innings and
tried to hand a Heineken and some Cajun fries to Rick Sutcliffe, who pitches for the Cubs. Sutcliffe tried not to panic. His manager, Don Zimmer, had turned the color of a cherry tomato. “At least take the fries,” Bill said, hanging upside down. Sutcliffe didn’t even take the fries. Bill ate them. The Cubs won the division.

Bill had remembered to put everything on the Polish dogs, including jalapeños and celery salt. The girl at the Polish place on Waveland Avenue invariably gives him the best Polishes on the grill. Bill isn’t very comfortable with being treated specially, but a good Polish and a cold Old Style are two of the perks he’d be foolish to spurn, especially considering all of the drawbacks to trying to watch a Cubs game if you’re Bill, which are considerable. In Wrigley Field, for instance, he is seldom granted more than four seconds to himself, which grows quickly annoying to a man who is far more than a casual fan. (How many people do you know who know that Lloyd McLendon once hit five home runs in five at bats in Little League?)

“Are you Bill Murray or a lookalike?” said a doughy man in the bottom of the second as he walked in front of our seats. Marvel Wynne had just singled. “Are you Duffy Dougherty?” said Bill. He was trying to watch Wynne’s lead off first.

Then a guy with maximum security prison tattoos came up and said, “I know I shouldn’t bother you, so I’m going to. Bill looked at him the wav you’d look at a dead fish on the beach. The man left.

Another man came over and shoved a program in his face. “If I miss one pitch, I’m going to kill you,” Bill said. The man laughed. “I mean it,” Bill said. The man left.

“Hey Bill, l think it’s great how you support Chicago sports,” said someone else.

“I can’t do anything else,” Bill said.

Mostly Bill didn’t seem to mind, if it was between innings. When a teenage girl skipped in front of us and almost kicked over our beers, he said, “Hey, get those big feet outta here,” and when she turned around, blushing, he smiled, and she smiled back and sort of melted right there into a pink puddle. Another girl leaned over in the middle of an inning and he signed her program in mock exasperation.

“I’m only doing this because I like the way you look,” he said. She laughed. He was telling the truth. In fact, he was in a particularly good mood. A few days earlier he’d taken batting practice with the Trappers and put a few on the track, and the day before, the Miracle had taken part in the amateur draft and had picked up a couple of definite prospects. Also, Dwight Smith hit a home run in the fifth, and now Wynne hit one in the sixth—”He hit it!” Bill said, shooting to his feet, watching the arc of the ball over the ivy. But he regretted having made himself so conspicuous, for the Expos soon knocked Shawn Boskie out and took a considerable lead, and the crowd started paying more attention to Bill than to the Cubs. A woman tried to pass him a love note on an All-Star ballot, and a man handed him a cellular telephone and said loudly, “Talk to my wife.” Bill did. Faceless fans kept sending us beers, even though he kept refusing them. “You can’t get too relaxed in a military situation,” he said, and he was right: we were under siege.

“Dogs and cats, living together!” wailed someone a few rows back.

“This Ghostbusters thing is not going to go away until someone kills themselves with one of the toys,” Bill said.

In the middle innings, Mark Grace, who was suffering through a terrible slump, walked into the on-deck circle. Bill stood up and shouted “I can swing that bat!” so loudly that Grace had to turn around to see what kind of demented loon was sitting in the fifth row, and when he saw it was Bill, he couldn’t keep himself from smiling, all the while motioning frantically for him to sit back down before everyone got in trouble. I think Bill was trying to help him out of the slump, but he grounded to first base.

Finally, Nelson Santovenia hit a home run for the Expos.

“Nelson Santovenia?” Bill said softly.

It was all over but the shouting, of which there was a lot, so we ducked out a side door and went downtown for dinner.

As we drove down Lake Shore Drive in my rented Geo, Bill said, “The Cubs seemed sort of cranky.”

They had, too.

We found a restaurant that had the White Sox-Angels game from Anaheim on the television. As we found a table, Sammy Sosa threw an Angel out at the plate. It was a good sign. Bill never likes to stray too far from baseball. He keeps close tabs on the game and has many interesting theories about sports in general. One is his Civic Metropolitan Trauma Theory, whereby cities undergoing disasters and strife are likelier to be blessed with sports championships. It is not statistically verifiable, however.

Also, his theory about the National League East this year is that the team that eats the most protein will win. “That bodes well for the Mets,” he says, “because in New York, they eat their own, whereas in Pittsburgh they eat pure anthracite.”

Bill ordered the swordfish. I had the crab.

“You mind if I smoke?” he asked me. Your mother would like Bill. He has these manners. “Manners are the only thing left,” Bill said to me.

We tried to watch the White Sox game but people kept appearing from the dimness. The closer they got to the table, the more they all took on the look of subjects in a Diane Arbus photograph, or a Fellini film cast by Woody Allen.

“I want to talk to you about this idea I have for a theme restaurant—you and Belushi,” said a man waving a cigar the size of the Graf Zeppelin. (This is a recurring theme; in Pompano Beach, a woman who wanted Bill to ride on her Harley asked him. “How’s Belushi?” “He’s dead,” said Bill. “Yeah, I know,” she said, shaking her head.)

The man with the cigar kept trying to buy us drinks, although Bill was just drinking La Croix water, because it’s bottled in La Cross, Wisconsin, and they just turned it into French to sell it. Bill will drink anything made in Wisconsin.

Then another man left his woman friend at the bar to sidle up to Bill and introduce himself as a producer. He had something to do with the camera angles at Wrigley Field. About ten minutes later, when she realized that the man had no intention of summoning her, the woman sidled over, too. She was dressed in a black leotard top, and she had black hair and dark eyes and very white skin. She told us she didn’t like baseball as much as she liked hockey, which she said she liked because the athletes beat each other up. Bill and I exchanged glances.

“Are you out on the coast most of the time?” said the producer. “Yeah,” Bill said, “the East Coast.”

“Really?” said the man.

“I like the air,” Bill said.

“Yeah, but what about the females on the West Coast?” the man said, and he actually winked like Eric Idle used to in Monty Python skits.

“Well, I like to talk to the women I meet,” Bill said. The man didn’t get it. Bill was trying to watch the White Sox Angels game.

“Did you know,” he finally said to the man, “that one out of ten people comes from California? Is that frightening, or what?” The man left. Another one took his place, a much older man. “I used to know Georg’e Raft,” he said.

“I dated George Raft,” Bill said.

A woman came over to tell Bill that he didn’t seem very animated.

“I’m emotionally down because the Cubs lost,” he said. “If they’d won I’d be out ripping the antennas off cars.”

A woman came over with a glass full of clear liquor. Her eyes swam in her head the way the ice cubes swam in her glass. It apparently hadn’t been her first drink. She said she worked for the Illinois secretary of state.

“You look like the kind of person I could go on a kill spree with,” Bill said. “Knock over a few gas stations, kill a few people.” She did, too.

“Listen—I’ve struggled, darling,” she said as if she were on stage. People tend to approach Bill as if they were auditioning for really bad parts in life.

As we left the restaurant, the cigar man tried to pay the check.

Bill wouldn’t let him. As we left the guy was yelling, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” as if we’d insulted him or something.

On the street, a man in a wheelchair told Bill he’d been shot in the back because he refused to join a street gang. He asked Bill for enough money to stay in the Y. He had an upper body like Lawrence Taylor’s.

“I gotta think you could be applying yourself more, Roger,” Bill said, and Roger didn’t seem to disagree. Then Bill gave him more than enough money to stay for a night at the Y, and said that he hoped he wouldn’t see him back at the same spot on the street later that night. “I mean it,” Bill said, and judging from the expression on Roger’s face, I don’t imagine he’s returned to the spot yet.

Back at the bar in Bill’s hotel, Fleetwood Mac had a bodyguard named Roman who looked as if he’d sprung from the cellar of David Lynch’s imagination. He had a smile like he was being
shocked by electrodes. Bill asked the bartender for an aquavit. Everyone in Fleetwood Mac immediately asked for an aquavit. They were wearing a lot of silver jewelry and black clothes. Every few minutes one of them invited Bill to accompany them on their jet the next night to Columbus, Ohio. Bill smiled politely a lot. Mick Fleetwood drank everyone’s aquavit before they could, and kept saying profound things in an elegant voice. Then he invited Bill up to his suite to listen to his late father’s poetry. Bill could tell it meant a lot to Mick, so he agreed. Besides which, the band’s conversation had reached the level of chatter between tree slugs.

The poetry was pretty good. It was on a cassette. There were a couple of dozen beers arranged on ice in a huge silver bowl, like shrimp cocktails, only they were beer bottles. Mick offered us beers but none of the fruit.

Bill had an 8:30 radio appearance the next morning, so we left at 3: 15. As Mick saw us to the door, he asked me what he’d said that I’d written down on the corner of my Cubs program while we were at the bar, and so I read it.

“The English, the English,” I quoted. “The English are the hushpuppy brigade continuing to trample the world in disgrace.”

“You’re the only one who has that,” Mick Fleetwood said, nodding, with a smile. He’s right. I am.

Down on Michigan Avenue, Bill and I were the only people on the street. A very warm wind was buffeting the buildings. For some reason, it carried the scent of newly mowed grass, We agreed to meet on the same corner the next morning. Mike Harkey was starting for the Cubs, and we had good seats again.

On the radio show, someone from Elgin called in to ask him about his movie. Among other things, Elgin houses the Elgin Mental Health Center.

“Did you escape?” Bill said, “Are you one of those guys who climbs the sidewalk and kills people in his car?” The man didn’t laugh. The radio host asked Bill about the Cubs.

“I think they need a few laughs,” Bill said.

I met him on the street corner. He had a white T-shirt and a blue sweater under his arm. The cabdriver said he’d had a bad day. Bill asked him if he was the kind of cabdriver who said he’d had a bad day to get a big tip. The man insisted he’d had a bad day. Bill gave him grief most of the way. When we reached Wrigley, Bill tipped him $20 and told the man to spend it on an activity that family newspapers are reluctant to talk about, although it’s legal between consenting adults in most states.

Then we got more Polish sausage on Waveland Avenue.

A girl in a tank top with a Felix the Cat tattoo on the back of her left shoulder tried to sell him a Bart Simpson T-shirt. We were both feeling the effects of not getting much sleep, and the girl asked him why he was so crabby. I think he resisted the impulse to plant her upside down in one of the bushes. Instead he said, “That’s a nice tattoo. I bet you got one somewhere else.” If she did, she didn’t show us.

The Cubs had given us good seats again, but the team wasn’t playing any better. Our vendor wasn’t working, and the beer was never cold. In the top of the sixth the Expos scored three runs. A woman from a television network who had an anchor apprentice smile asked him to come watch her team play softball that weekend.

“Well,” Bill said, “maybe I’ll come by and insult you.”

“That’d be great,” she said.

A teenage girl asked him for an autograph.

“This girl smells really nice,” he said to me.

“Thank you,” she said. “You’re very sweet.”

“She really smelled good,” he said after she left. Another one took her place. She said her name was Jennifer.

“Jennifer, you’re a total babe,” he said. “Now go on. Get out of here.”

To a lot of people who kept coming up, he said, “You don’t understand. There’s a baseball game going on.” Once he said, “Hey! There’s a two-and-one count here!”

It was a strange game that afternoon, error-filled and back-and-forth. Bill likes games with errors. “A rally of a double and an error and another double, that’s somehow more exciting to me,” he said. “That’s the real game. Human error.”

In the bottom of the eighth it was tied. Bill had to do Siskel live in twenty minutes, back downtown. We decided to stay anyway. But then Jerry Goff hit a home run for the Expos in the top of
the ninth.

“Jerry Goff?” Bill said softly.

We found a cab and Bill said to the driver, “Can you get us to the CBS studios in eight minutes?”

“Sure,” the driver said, and I think he thought he was in a movie. He screeched the tires and missed a baby carriage by a foot and a half. We headed down Lake Shore Drive like one of those cars in a video driving game. The driver literally screeched up to the curb at CBS. A woman was holding the doors open, looking at her watch. Bill said, “Excuse me,” and ducked into the men’s room. He came out a moment later wearing the clean T-shirt and the blue sweater. He’d stuck his head under the sink and combed all his hair straight back. Siskel was wearing clothes that looked like he’d stepped out of a Brooks Brothers catalogue six minutes ago. The anchor people segued into Siskel and Bill.

“Bill Murray’s movies,” Siskel said, by way of introducing Bill, “average one hundred million dollars gross,” as if it had anything to do with anything. Bill didn’t get animated until Siskel asked him about the Cubs. When Siskel asked him how the studio had come to let him direct his latest film, Bill said. “Sometimes when it’s three-and-oh, they let you swing away.”

Outside the studio, back on the street, Bill’s studio’s publicist had produced a limousine the size of a stretch DC-9. He’d been trying to get Bill to ride in limos for two~days. This time Bill acquiesced, as a favor to the publicist, who belongs to the age when publicists knew how to publicize, but liked nothing more than making their stars feel like stars. He’d say things to Bill like, “Need anything? Plane tickets? Money?” And Bill~would say, “No thanks.” In the back of the limo, the publicist had Paris on the car phone, and so Bill talked to Paris for a minute. There were crystal glasses in the bar, but there wasn’t any time to use them because the hotel was about six blocks from the CBS studio. In fact, the limo was so big we probably could have gotten in one end at the studio and gotten out the other at the hotel without the car actually moving.

Bill’s hotel room was on the forty-fourth floor, facing north. You could see Greenland. A basketball sat in a window sill, looking north up the shore of the lake like someone pining away for something.

Bill changed into a purple shirt and blue jeans and we crossed the street to the cocktail party introducing the Chicago Cubs calendar. Jerome Walton was wearing enough jewelry to anchor a Japanese supertanker. We took some vodka-and-tonics off the trays that kept arriving on the arms of tuxedoed young men, and lamb chops with orange sauce. I put my bones in mv pocket, in
their napkins.

Mark Grace introduced Bill to a guy with long hair and a cowboy hat. He was the lead singer of a band called Restless Heart. They are apparently very big in white baseball circles. The Cubs all seemed relieved to have Bill to talk to, instead of having to talk to the other guests at the party, who clearly did their shopping at this store, but were not acting as cool as you’re supposed to act when your shirt costs $190. They clotted around Bill so that eventually he had to stand behind the sales counter. A man in a $6,000 suit—I’d guess—asked him what his plans were.

“I’m supposed to be making a movie in the fall,” Bill said, “but I’m going to try and get out of it.”

“Oh,” the man said, and went to look for the bar, which was up near the neckties.

We took a cab to Ditka’s. At a stoplight we stopped next to a Mercedes painted the color of mold, driven by a woman in dark glasses with a scarf over her hair. Bill leaned out the window.

“Nice color!” he said. “Hey, I’ll bet $10 you just quit smoking and drinking!”

When the light changed, she didn’t move. She looked as if someone had just hit her with a cattle prod.

We joined Grace and Sutcliffe and Steve Wilson and the lead singer of Restless Heart at a table in the Hall of Fame Room, where a man played lounge songs on an electric piano with a plaque that read “Myles Green at The Piano.” Myles was exactly like the lounge singers Bill used to imitate, and by the size of his smile when he recognized Bill, you’d have thought he sensed the irony of it all, but judging by the music he played, he apparently didn’t.

There were about thirty-five televisions up on the walls, all showing a Giants Cardinals game. Every time Will Clark came up, Mark Grace watched very intently. The Cubs asked Bill about his movies.

Bill steered the conversation back to baseball. He told them they’d probably turn it around on the West Coast trip.

“I’m going to give you guys a joke book,” Bill said. He was convinced they weren’t having enough fun this year. He was right. “We need it,” Grace said.

“We need something,” Sutcliffe said.

Bill ordered Diana Ditka’s chicken. It had a sauce with a lot of peas in it. When the kid showed up asking for an autograph, Bill shot out of his chair, grabbed the kid by the lapels of his shirt, picked him up two feet in the air and lowered him onto the table a few inches from Diana Ditka’s peas, and shook him in mock anger. The kid was laughing. Bill let him up and signed the autograph. Then, just when the kid thought he was safe, Bill grabbed him and did it again. The Cubs were more or less falling out of their chairs.

I think Bill was doing it for the Cubs, so they’d start winning.

Then a woman with white-blonde hair in a black leather skirt, black halter top, exposed midriff, and a lot of S&M jewelry came over and handed Bill a piece of paper to sign.

He wrote, “Judy: Don’t Let Them Behead Us. Bill.”

“What does it say?” she said, peering at it closely. He read it aloud. She left.

On the walk back to the hotel, Bill found a baseball hat with elephants on it in the window of a tie store. He wanted to buy it for Jerome Walton, but the place was closed. It started to rain and we ducked into a piano bar in the lobby of a nice hotel. We each had a Pernod and water. No one recognized him. The pianist was much better than Myles, but since he hadn’t pasted a plaque with his name to the piano, we never found out who it was.

Back at Bill’s hotel, no one was in the bar. Fleetwood Mac had gone to Columbus, but Bill’s family had arrived in the RV. It was one of the great trades of all time.

At breakfast the next morning, Bill’ son Homer brought a baseball to the table and tried to cut it with a knife and fork while we were waiting for the eggs to come. Homer is a catcher. He once started a triple play with the bases loaded by grabbing a bunt, stepping on home, and throwing to first, where the first baseman threw on to third. He’s such a catcher that the thing he loves most is blocking the plate and getting run into and holding on to the ball, and he’s only eight. Luke, who is five, had the glove he’d given Bill for Father’s Day. It was a beautiful glove. They were all en route to a vacation. But there was one more Cubs game to go to.

We took the Geo to Wrigley, up Lake Shore Drive, past picnics and beachgoers, and got a good parking place in the lot across the street. Before the game Bill hung out with Zimmer in his office while Grace got bubble gum for Homer and Luke. In the Cubs weight room, Sutcliffe told us Cubs stories. Sutcliffe asked where the seats were, and Bill said,”Up among the weird and the damned.”

But on this day, the crowd was soft and comfortable, and it was a fine day for a baseball game. Someone gave Bill a Twizzler and didn’t ask for anything in return, and he took it. All afternoon, Luke’s green eyes lit up the whole ballpark, and after he saw everyone asking Bill for autographs, he handed his baseball to Bill, and Bill signed it “Dad” and gave it back to him, and Luke tucked it into the pocket of his glove.

Bill’s putting the kid in Diana Ditka’s peas to make the Cubs laugh had worked, because on this afternoon, Grace broke out of his slump, and Sandberg hit two home runs—two!—and Jeff Pico won easily. The vendor with the nice smile was back, and all of her beer was cold enough to freeze the roof of your mouth.

In the seventh, Larry Walker hit a home run for the Expos.

Bill said, “Larry Walker?” in a soft voice.

But the Cubs won easily.

Outside in the parking lot we made plans to see the Miracle. Then he went on vacation and I went to Wyoming. On the plane I read a magazine with Bill on the cover. At the beginning of the story about Bill, the writer said that Bill seems like the kind of guy you think you can go to baseball games with, but you can’t.

He was wrong. You can. You should try. Really. For one thing, you get the coldest beers.

 

The Banter Gold Standard: Thieves of Time

The following piece was written by one of our best, Charlie Pierce (Esquire, Grantland). It originally appeared in The National (May 10, 1990) and can also be found in Pierce’s excellent collection Sports Guy.

“Thieves of Time”

By Charlie Pierce

The press conference was over, and two men from New Castle, Pa., named Robert Retort and Ed Grybowski had been charged with interstate transportation of stolen property, which is a federal felony. In the conference room of the FBI field office in Pittsburgh, an agent named Bob Reutter was looking over the stolen property, examining it, not with a G-man’s eyes, but with those of a fan. There were baseball uniforms—thick, heavy flannel things with the names of the great, lost teams on them. The Memphis Red Sox. The Kansas City Monarchs. There were autographed baseballs, and old, sepia-shrouded pictures of young men wearing the heavy flannel uniforms of the great, lost teams. Looking at them, you could see back through time, all the way to the outskirts of town. Bob Reutter spent a long time looking.

It all belonged to an 86-year-old former security guard at the St. Louis City Hall named James Bell. In 1922, when he and the world were young, James Bell was pitching one hot day for the St. Louis Stars in the Negro League. It was late in the game, and there were men on base, and at the plate was a signifying hitter named Oscar Charleston. If the Negro League had a Babe Ruth, it was Oscar Charleston. The 19-year-old pitcher stared down the alley, and struck Oscar Charleston out of there, saving the game.

Lord, the other Stars thought, that young man is cool. So that’s what they called him. Cool Bell. But Manager Bill Gatewood thought the nickname lacked sufficient dignity for the grave young man man with the thoughtful eyes. He’s older than that, thought Gatewood. Cool Papa, that’s who he is.

Cool Papa Bell.

The man had style. Anyone could see that. In the Negro League, the wardrobes always cut like knives. A player named Country Jake Stevens cold Donn Rogosin, the author of Invisible Men, that he knew he’d made the big club when the owner took him out and bought him three new suits and two new Stetson hats. Even in this company, Cool Papa was sharp. When he walked through Compton Hill in St. Louis, children danced in his wake.

He played for 29 years and for seven different teams. He was the fastest man anywhere in baseball, so swift and deft on the basepaths that, when it looked like Jackie Robinson was going to be chosen to shatter the segregation of the major leagues, Cool Papa once ran wild just to show the young shortstop what kind of play he could expect when and if Robinson were called up. Jimmy Crutchfield once told a baseball historian named Robert Peterson that, when Cool Papa hit one back to the pitcher, everybody else in the field yelled, “Hurry!” Satchel Paige claimed that Cool Pap could hit the light switch in the hotel room, and that he’d be in bed before the room got dark. That was the story they always cold about Cool Papa Bell. They even told it when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.

He is old now, and half-blind. For years, he held court in his house on what is now Cool Papa Bell Avenue in St. Louis. He would tell stories, and sign autographs, and he would show the curious everything he had saved from his playing days. The uniforms. The programs. The pictures. He always was an obliging man, was Cool Papa Bell. Even when his health began to fail, he always was that.

“He always had all of this memorabilia,” says Norman Seay, Bell’s nephew and an administrator at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. “People came from everywhere, from Timbuktu, to get autographs from Uncle Bell. It was a normal occurrence around that house.”

The, on March 22, all that changed. Bell was visited by Grybowski and Retort, who had driven 17 hours to St. Louis from New Castle, where Retort owns a company called R.D. Retort Enterprises. It operates within the bull market in what are called baseball collectibles. By all accounts, Retort is an aggressive collector. “He called here a lot, and you couldn’t get him off the phone,” says a source at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. “He never quite made it clear what the purpose of his research was, but he made a lot of requests for uniform numbers, and for what teams certain players played for. He didn’t seem to have much of a working knowledge of baseball history, but he kept us on the phone a half-hour at a time.”

Retort has declined comment on the specifics of the case against him, but does say that “when it all comes out, you’ll see there’s one huge world of difference between what I’ve been charged with, and what really happened. It’s a situation where, basically, I was there to get autographs from a Hall of Famer, and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

It is possible that Retort and Grybowski were invited to come to St. Louis by Bell, who rarely turned down such a request. The two spent several days there. Bell signed a lot of autographs, but it was a slow process. The FBI says that Retort paid Bell $100 for the various autographed items. That is all that Retort says he did there. The FBI does not agree.

According to investigators, Retort and Grybowski returned on March 25, and began to remove from the Bells’ house several cardboard boxes filled with the paraphernalia Cool Papa had collected over the course of his career. Bell and his wife, Clarabelle, told both the local police and the FBI that they had felt “trapped” by the two men, and that they were too intimidated to try and stop them. In fact, the Bells said, they were so intimidated that they didn’t even report the incident until their daughter, Connie Brooks, discovered what had happened a week later.

Retort, 38, and Grybowski, 65, were arrested on April 9. Both are free now, Retort on $25,000 bond and Grybowski on $10,000. They will stand trial this summer in St. Louis. Most of the memorabilia was recovered. Connie Brooks has flown in from New York, and she has spent a month helping investigators identify some of the articles. It is a federal offense to take more the [sic] $5,000 worth of stolen merchandise across state lines. The estimated value of everything that was taken from Cool Papa Bell’s house is $300,000, which has flatly flabbergasted some people who are close to him.

“I couldn’t believe it when they said that,” says Norman Seay. “I mean, a half-a-million dollars? To me, he was just my Uncle Bell, and all that stuff he had, I thought its real value was an internal kind of thing, that its value was intrinsic to him.”

But that is not the way the world is today. There are people who would call $300,000 a modest price for what was taken from Cool Papa Bell. These are people who understand a new and unsettlingly volatile marketplace in which the past is raw currency, and what energizes that marketplace is that same feeling that came over Bob Reutter, when he looked into the FBI’s conference room and saw an exposed vein of pure history stretched across its walls.

“I have to admit that I’m a fan, and I looked the stuff over,” admits the agent with a chuckle. “I saw those uniforms and I thought, ‘How did they ever play in those heavy things?’ It was all really interesting to me.”

Perhaps the Fourth Lateran Council had the right idea after all. In the 13th century, the Roman Catholic Church was awash in very pricey relics, including not only the purported heads of various saints, but also enough alleged pieces of the True Cross to build duplex homes for half the yeomanry in Western Europe. Embarrassed by this unbridled profiteering in the sacred, the church called the Council, which forbade the practice in 1215, whereupon the price of a saint’s head crashed all over Christendom.

That sort of naked interference in the free marketplace would not be tolerated today. We live in an acquisitive age, a trend encouraged from the very top of the political and cultural elite for more than a decade now. It manifests itself in everything from the leveraged buyout to the current desire of every cherubic four-year old to surround himself with replicas of pizza-chomping, Hey-Dude amphibians who are built like Ben Johnson. Indeed, today we have collectibles the instantly accrued value of which almost totally rests with the immediate demand for them. How much more, then, must genuine relics be worth?

It hit the art world first. In his book, Circus of Ambition, journalist John Taylor describes the rise of what he calls “the collecting class.” Taylor writes that, in the 1980s, “Collectors were returning in droves. One reason was the huge surge in income enjoyed by the individuals in the higher income brackets.” In one telling anecdote, Taylor overhears a rich young couple at an art auction. The husband complains that, “We’re unhappy with the Cezanne.” His wife responds, cheerily, “That’s OK because we’re going to trade up!”

Substitute “Pete Rose” for Cezanne in that conversation, and you’ve pretty much got what happened when this dynamic hit sports, the only difference being, of course, that, unlike Rose, Cezanne wasn’t around to pitch his own paintings on the Home Shopping Network. It is estimated that the trade in sports collectibles has become a $200 million industry in this country. It is manifested best by all those things that give the willies to the baseball purists. These include card shows—and the almost universally condemned notion of the $15 autograph—as well as the public auction of old baseball equipment.

When Taylor writes that, “Many of these collectors were frankly more interested in art as an investment than as a means of cultural certification,” it’s hard not to hear the complaint that echoes across the land every time another one of yesterday’s heroes starts peddling his memories. It’s hard not to hear the guy at Cooperstown saying that Robert Retort’s “working knowledge of baseball” was lacking.

As is the case with any good capitalist enterprise, if you push it far enough you find yourself passing through greed and moving all the way into the criminal. The case of Pete Rose is instructive here. First came the reports that there were several bats in circulation that were purported to be the one that Rose used to break Ty Cobb’s record on Sept. 11, 1985. Now, accounts of that historic at-bat indicate that Rose used only one bat. Where the other three (or four, or eight, or 12) came from remains a mystery, especially to the gullible people who bought them. In this, Pete Rose was lucky he only had to face the late Bart Giamatti. The Fourth Lateran Council would’ve had him in thumbscrews.

Now, however, it’s been revealed that Rose failed to declare to the Internal Revenue Service the cash income that he made at card shows, and in the sale of various memorabilia. There is some symmetry, at least, in the fact that, in the same week, Pete Rose and Michael Milken, symbols of their age, both faced a federal judge.

Nor is Rose the only criminal case in which baseball collectibles figure prominently. We have the odd affair involving National League umpire Bob Engel, who is alleged to have attempted to steal 4,180 baseball cards from a store in Bakersfield, CA. And, believing that his bats were being lifted by enterprisingly larcenous clubhouse personnel, at least one American League superstar has taken the radical step of having the bats sent directly to his hotel rather than to the ball park.

But the case of Cool Papa Bell is far more serious than either of these other two. After all, it involves the alleged intimidation of an 87-year old, half-blind, sickly man, and it also involves a federal felony even more serious than the one committed by Pete Rose. There would have to be a huge payoff involved for Retort to have risked such a crime. Experts say that there was, and that it has everything to do with the nature of the memorabilia itself.

In the first place, there is a finite number of Negro League collectibles available. When Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers, the Negro League essentially collapsed. Therefore, there’s no futures market in Negro League memorabilia.

In addition, the people who played in the Negro League are mainly quite old now—Bell is about the average age for a Negro League veteran—and there are not many left who even played back then. That means there are only limited prospects for the lucrative trade in replicas, in which a retired player will authorize (and autograph) things like duplicate bats and uniforms. The FBI charges that Retort and Grybowski forced Bell to sign a letter authorizing such replicas. Retort denies the charge.

Because Negro League memorabilia is so passing rare, there is no established price scale for any of it. Thus, traders are free to ask whatever price they want because there are no benchmarks by which that price can be measured. “If I saw a ball signed by the 1919 Black Sox, I’d know what that was worth,” says Alan Rosen, a New Jersey entrepreneur who’s known among memorabilia collectors as Mr. Mint. “But if I saw a ball signed by the original winners of the Black World Series, I wouldn’t know how to authenticate the signatures. I wouldn’t know how to price the thing.”

This is not an insignificant admission. Mr. Mint has been known to show up in the living rooms of baseball-card collectors with a briefcase full of cash. Indeed, if you were to skulk around Colin Cliveishly and dig up Christy Mathewson, Mr. Mint probably could price the bones for you. Nevertheless, Negro League memorabilia has brought top dollar at a number of auctions. An authentic poster advertising a Fourth ofJuly doubleheader featuring Satchel Paige once sold for $2,400. A program from an exhibition game between a Negro League All-Star team and Dizzy Dean’s barnstorming club went for $700. Intact tickets from the Negro World Series, or from the annual East-West All-Star game have fetched up to $500 apiece, and an autographed ball from the 1940 East-West game was sold to a collector for $850. A man named George Lyons even got $1,500 for an authenticated contract between a Cuban League team and one James Bell of St. Louis.

“Nobody really has any independent judgment regarding what to pay for something,” explains Herman Kaufman, a collector and auctioneer who specializes in Negro League memorabilia. “I’d say that 99 percent of collecting is pure enjoyment, but that the other one percent is knowing that you have something that nobody else has.”

Which brings up the question of how far a collector is willing to go to get what nobody else has. Investigators probing the recent massive art theft at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum say privately that, while they’re confident that they will apprehend the thieves, most of the actual paintings are probably gone forever, quietly sold to collectors and now hanging in someone’s library.

Kaufman dismisses the idea of a memorabilia underground—”Why buy something if you can never show it?” he asks—but others in the field are not as sanguine about the possibility. They think Cool Papa’s lucky that the FBI got most of his things back.

“If you’re asking if sometimes guys’ll come to me and say, ‘Look, I got this scuff here, and keep it between me and you where you got it,’ and that’s the deal, I’d have to say, yes that happens, says Joe Esposito of B&E Collectibles in New York. “You have to remember that you’re dealing with collectors. They’ll do anything.”

***

Cool Papa was hospitalized shortly after the incident with Retort and Grybowski. “He’s at the point of death,” says his wife. He’s at home now, but other family members wonder whether or not it’s time for him to leave the house on Cool Papa Bell Avenue and live out his days in a retirement home. They doubt whether Clarabelle can adequately care for him anymore.

“He’s very fragile and he’s very weak; ‘ says Norman Seay. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. You know, it’s funny, all those years growing up next door to him, I didn’t realize that he was a celebrity. He was just Uncle Bell. I never realized how great he really was. You know, as an African-American athlete, he never got the respect he should have. It was kind of a second-class identity for him.”

That, perhaps, is the real crime here. It’s more than a simple threat. It’s a kind of crime against history. Because of the entrenched racism of major league baseball, Cool Papa Bell never was able to profit fully from his enormous skills. At the very least, then, he ought to be able to profit fully from the accoutrements of that talent, or he ought to be able to leave it alone, snug in boxes in the basement. If what the FBI says is true, then that is the real crime here, not the mere pilfering of things to meet the demands of a marketplace gone dotty, or to satisfy an acquisitive age. *It is the further robbing of a man who’s already had too much of his self stolen.

There’s a man named Tweed Webb who knows what the crime is. He is the unofficial historian for the Negro League in St. Louis, and he is a friend of Cool Papa Bell’s. “I go back to about 1910,” he says. “I kept all my records because if you don’t have records, you can’t prove nothing happened. It’s like nothing ever did happen, if you don’t have records.

“Cool Papa, he’s been sick for 18 or 19 years, but we talk, you know? He told me about what happened right when it happened.

The FBI come out here to talk to me because, you know, I got valuable stuff myself. I got all my records, all my scorecards. Certain people’d love to get their hands on the stuff I got. But I don’t sell none of it. I pass along learning to people, but the records are priceless. At least, they’re priceless to me.”

Oddly enough, both the investigators and the defendant express concern for Bell’s health. “I did a lot of work on this out of loyalty to Cool Papa,” says Bob Reutter, G-man and baseball fan. “I heard that he wasn’t doing too well, and I wanted to get that stuff back for him. I don’t imagine the publicity’s going to help much, either. I mean, it probably isn’t good for him that people know he’s got a quarter-million dollars worth of stuff in his basement.”

“I’m worried about what all this will do to his health,” says Robert Retort. “It’s got to take a toll on the poor man.”

It will come to trial sometime this summer. For now, Connie Brooks stays in St. Louis, identifying pieces of her father’s past for the investigators. And Cool Papa Bell stays at home. He doesn’t get up much any more. In the twilight, Cool Papa Bell is already in bed. Someone else turns out the light.

Nobody was ever convicted of any crime in connection with Cool Papa Bell’s memorabilia. Cool Papa died on March 7, 1991 and he’s buried in Hilldale Cemetery near St. Louis. His fame lives on in the name of a popular Detroit funk band.

[Illustrations by Allan Mardon; Will JohnsonTom Chiarello; Mike Benny; John Wolfe]

Bounce, Rock, Skate

 

The latest installment of Grantland’s “Director’s Cut” series gives Johnette Howard’s first story for The National: “The Making of a Goon,” about hockey enforcer, Joe Kocur:

“See, hockey fighting is different than boxing,” says Kocur, who once visited the training camp of Detroit’s Thomas Hearns — courtesy of Red Wings owner Mike Illitch — to pick up a few tips. “In hockey, fighting is pulling and punching. If you just stand there and hold a guy out and hit him, you won’t faze him. But if you can pull him into you and punch at the same time, that’s when you start hurting people.”

How to hit hard is just one of the lessons an enforcer must learn. There’s also an unwritten and often unspoken code of honor that governs who hits whom, and under what circumstances. Kocur also likes to do research of his own; knowing other fighters’ tendencies helps him avoid surprises. But nothing, Kocur says, supersedes the most basic fighter’s rule: Never, ever lose.

“You’ve got to understand some things about the fighter’s job,” says Demers. “Tough guys in this league are under a tremendous amount of pressure. Unfortunately, many of them are untalented except for fighting, and they’ve gotten here the hard way. And once you’re recognized as a tough guy in this league, you go from having targets to becoming one.

“As long as you’re beating up somebody, the fans are cheering and shouting our name. But the first time you lose one, everyone gets down on you. You have to be fearless. I’ve seen guys lose just once, and pretty soon they just sort of fade away.”

Though coaches and other players all say that Kocur has good all-around hockey talent and that Demers encourages him to use it, Kocur considers himself a fighter first. He believes that preserving his aura of invincibility is essential because “it pays off down the line. Maybe I’ll be going into the corner to get the puck and the guy going with me will think, ‘Uh-oh, it’s Joe Kocur. This guy’s crazy. I won’t give him the elbow in the face. I’ll give him that extra step and poke at the puck instead of trying to take the body.’ And then maybe I can make a play, make a good pass. And maybe we’ll put the puck in the net.”

[Photo Credit: Stefan Alforn]

Game Changer

Over at Grantland, there is a long, entertaining oral history piece compiled by Alex French and Howie Kahn on “The National,” Frank Deford’s influential, short-lived sports newspaper:

Peter Richmond (Main Event Writer): I had a Nieman fellowship at Harvard when I heard about The National. You’re obliged, if you get a Nieman, to go back to the newspaper you were working at. I worked at the Miami Herald as the national sports correspondent. I’d go to the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NBA Finals. I’d go to prize fights. I had a column. Then I got a free ride at Harvard for a year. In the middle of it, I had heard in the New York Daily News that Frank Deford was rounding up this all-star team for The National. I thought, “Oh my god. I’ve got to get there.”

Charles P. Pierce (Main Event Writer): As soon as I heard about it, I basically hurled myself out a window.

Frank Deford: What was my sales pitch like? It wasn’t a reach, and I wasn’t blowing smoke. I’d say, “This paper is going to be the first of its kind. We’ve got this extraordinary staff and we’ve got a lot of money behind it. Go look up anything you want about Emilio Azcárraga. He’s into this, and these sorts of things have worked all over the world, so why can’t they work in the United States? Then I’d pause and say, “I understand it’s risky. We all know this is new territory. But you’re a sports guy. Don’t you want to be part of this?”

Rob Fleder (Main Event Editor): Here was this great adventure and chance to invent something new. It was clear even before it started, and certainly long before it failed, that you were going to get one chance to try this in your life. This was as close to a frontier as we had.

Pierce: Rob Fleder, who was one of the original founding members of Rotisserie baseball, literally in the Rotisserie restaurant, had seen some of my stuff in New England Monthly. He called and said, “Would you like to come down and talk about this thing we have?” So I went down to New York. They didn’t even have real offices yet. They were in some space with pieces of paper hanging on the door.

For all their fine work, somebody at Grantland should have known how to spell Glenn Stout’s name. Otherwise, this is a terrific read.

And while you are at it, dig Charles Pierce’s memories of “The National”:

Oh, money. Yeah, wait. I should tell this story about money, first. In the spring of 1991, the last spring of our newspaper’s life, I got a call from New York. Mike Lupica was leaving the paper to return to the New York Daily News, a development that surprised approximately nobody. He was taking with him his “Shooting From The Lip” column, the three-dot bullet template invented by the great Jimmy Cannon and subsequently appropriated by almost everyone else in the history of newspapers, including, most notably, in USA Today by Larry — “If it’s Wheatena, I’m all in!” — King. The column had been running in The National every Friday, and it had developed an audience. They wanted to keep the idea under a different name, and someone had mentioned that I’d done a similar kind of thing when I was writing a column at the Boston Herald. So they asked me if I’d do it.

Of course, I told them, but I’d need more money to do it.

How much, they asked.

I had no idea, so I quoted them a figure that I thought probably indicated I was on mushrooms at the time.

They didn’t even blink.

You start this week, they said.

Fun stuff.

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