"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: vic ziegel

How Sweet It Is

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

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

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

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

Here’s Kimball:

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

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

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

And Schulian:

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

Click here for an excerpt.

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

It’s Only a Day Away

The Cliff Lee Drama promises to unfold shortly–tomorrow they say–and I for one am fed-up with all this waiting. I hope he signs with Texas, stay the bad guy (and I think he’s lock to go back). Look, if he comes to the Yanks, I’ll bellyache about the contract, because it’s insane, but I’ll be pleased that he improves the team in the short term. If he passes, I’ll be relieved and eager to see what the Yanks do next.

That said, this waiting game isn’t endearing Lee to anyone. Not that he does–or should–care.

It’s raining in New York this morning. The Jets play the Dolphins in the late afternoon game out in Jersey. I wonder if football players wake up bummed when they hear raindrops or if it just doesn’t matter at all to them as they gnaw on a slab of raw meat.

In the meantime, check out this loving appreciation of Vic Ziegel and Maury Allen by Harvey Ararton in today’s New York Times.

Araton gets props over here.

In the meantime, the Knicks are on early this afternoon. Yes, the Knicks. Amare has been so much better than I ever expected. What a nice surprise. It’s been awhile…

UPDATE: The first half of the Knicks-Nuggest game today at the Garden is enough to turn fair-weather Knicks fans like me back on. 66-65 Knicks at the half, a shoot-out. Lots of fun. Nene vs. Amare has been spirited, Amare came close to getting his second tech and tossed in the second quarter. Refs gave the Knicks a hometown call. Nene’s thrown down three dunks, the last one, emphatically! over Amare.

Can’t remember the last time I was actually excited about watching the second half of a Knicks game…

UPDATE: Knicks win a good one…that’s their 8th win in a row, something they haven’t done in 16 years.

Celts and then the Heat come to the Garden this week. Nice.

[Photo Credit: N.Y. Daily News and Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images]

Fall Into the Gap (Do it Up)

From the New York Magazine archives, here’s the late, great Vic Ziegel on Ali-Spinks II:

he copy of Money magazine offered to Leon Spinks during his flight to New Orleans was full of splendid suggestions for a new career. Soccer coach, that was something the heavyweight champion might want to think about. Nowhere is it written that soccer coaches have to run through strange cities at five in the morning. Or spend great hunks of each day inside expensive hotel rooms that offer baskets of apples and Gouda instead of X-rated film selections. And there aren’t small armies of people telling the cover-boy soccer coach to kick this, do that, no this, no, no, no . . . armies that depend on the heavyweight champion to provide their per diem expenses.

The magazine went unread, of course. Leon Spinks was in Louisiana to defend his title against Muhammad Ali, a 36-year-old body with the staying power of Tutankhamen. Ali was the favorite. Ali was the attraction—the once, twice, and future champion. Leon Spinks? Come on. Just another name on an expired driver’s license.

“Did you hear what Spinks did when he came off the plane?” The lawyer is talking to a sportswriter after the fight. The party is at the Windsor Suite of the New Orleans Hilton. Sportswriters are badly outnumbered by designer suits. Worse yet, the lawyers had heard all the best available fiction.

“Spinks gets off the plane and he does an interview. Everything’s cool. No problems. And then they hustle him into the sheriff’s private car to drive him to the hotel. The first thing he does—this is in the sheriff’s car, right?—the first thing he does is take out a joint and light up.”

Ali won the rematch.

[Art by Neil Adams]

Chivas Times Three

Nice  job by Mike Lupica remembering Vic Ziegel.

Thanks to my man Greg Prince for the link.

Bet a Million

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

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

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

And here’s John Schulian remembering his friend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Photo Credit: NY Daily News, Corbis]

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