The Devil and Sonny Liston

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Hanging ‘Em Up: On Reading About (and Not Watching) Sports

In the past year or so, I’ve read the following books about boxing: Nick Tosches’s The Devil and Sonny Liston, a stylized history of the troubled former champion; Norman Mailer’s document of the 1975 Muhammad Ali/George Foreman battle, The Fight; Mark Kriegel’s The Good Son, a biography of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini; and Undisputed Truth, Mike Tyson’s maddening but compelling autobiography. I’ve supplemented those with a heavy dose of magazine articles, including Sports Illustrated profiles of Deontay Wilder, Gennady Golovkin, Don King, and Al Haymon, pieces in New York and The New Yorker about the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fiasco, and classics by Gay Talese and W.C. Heinz.

All of this would suggest that I’m a boxing fan, one of those old-timey cigar-chewers eager to overlook the sport’s myriad problems and mainstream insignificance in order to enjoy its brutal purity. But despite boxing’s outsize presence in my reading, I’m not particularly interested in it. I’ve watched perhaps an hour’s worth of the sport in the past 12 months, mostly in a flipping-channels sort of way. As it turns out, I’m not a boxing fan; I’m a fan of reading about it.

This has happened to me with other sports, to varying degrees. I read about baseball far more than I watch it; at one point this summer, I forewent live Mets games in favor of The Bad Guys Won, Jeff Pearlman’s account of the team’s debauched ’86 World Series run. I recently read Scott Raab’s pre-Cavs-return evisceration of LeBron James, The Whore of Akron, but I’ve watched about 15 minutes of James’s actual career. Nicholas Dawidoff’s Collision Low Crossers, a deep inside look at the 2011 New York Jets, is coming up fast in my queue. I haven’t watched a Jets game since Boomer Esiason was the team’s quarterback.

This sort of effete, keeping-my-gloves-on distance is somewhat disconcerting to me. As a child, I read about sports just as I do now; among the first books I read cover-to-cover were Outrageous!, Charles Barkley’s autobiography (in which he famously claimed to have been misquoted,) and Say Hey!, the autobiography of Willie Mays. The difference — aside from my having outgrown exclamation-pointed, ghostwritten autobiographies — was that my interest in such books was an outgrowth of my overall sports fanaticism; it was an equal branch on the tree. I read about Barkley because I played basketball after school and watched NBA games on weekends. Despite a few obvious differences — I was a skinny, contact-shy 11-year-old from suburban New Jersey; he was a 250-pound wrecking ball from central Alabama — my desire to read his book was more physical than intellectual. I loved what he did on the court, I wished that I could play like him, and I saw Outrageous! as a chance to spend some time with the man. It was all of a piece.

Twenty-odd years later, only the reading remains. I recently read Pistol, Kriegel’s excellent biography of doomed basketball legend Pete Maravich, for the opposite reason that I once read Outrageous! I had never seen a second of a Maravich game, had never sought out his grainy YouTube clips. I was attracted to his story, his fashionably damned character arc: father-crafted kid prodigy, collegiate megastar, oft-injured pro, reclusive retiree, early heart attack victim. Take away the droopy socks and the LSU jersey and he could have been a figure in a Richard Yates novel. I once used to read sports books because I admired their subjects; now, it seems, I read them because I admire their narrative — the more harrowing the better.

So why read these books at all? Why not stick with Yates — or, for that matter, any novelist or nonfiction writer — if all I’m after is the story? I think the answer, as is increasingly the case, lies in my mortality. I’ll be 37 in a couple of weeks — not old, of course, but getting slightly grayer, growing indisputably creakier — with a hazy sense of the end of things, way off down the road. I shouldn’t arrive there any time soon (at least I hope I don’t), but, like a faraway city on the bottom of a roadside mileage sign, its distance is no excuse to ignore the fact of it.

As a chronically exhausted, train-commuting, kitchen-cleaning husband and father, I have neither the time, energy, nor desire to sit on the couch for two hours and watch a Grizzlies-Raptors game. Life might not be too short for such things, but it’s not as long as it used to be. Sports books have become my replacement for those hours on the couch. They take the most interesting aspects of a sport — for instance, baseball’s longest game, immortalized in Dan Barry’s wonderful Bottom of the 33rd — and let the irrelevancies fall away, like Civil War accounts that skip over the minor battles. The books allow me to experience the games without having to experience all the games.

As children, we watch those games to vicariously experience triumph and defeat, and in the process learn that we will experience both — usually more of the latter — throughout the course of our lives. When I was 12, the Giants won Super Bowl XXV on Scott Norwood’s errant field goal, and as I screamed with joy, I couldn’t help but think about the weight on the kicker’s shoulders. ABC’s cameras caught him as he shuffled off the field, blankly miserable, and the image stopped my whooping and made me want to cry. Football, as strange as it seems, was offering a lesson in empathy.

I absorbed plenty of such lessons through years of watching sports, and many more from playing them. But I’m pushing 40, and I’ve pretty much learned all I’m going to learn about empathy, say, or perseverance, from men in uniforms. And although I still love to see a well-turned double play, a darting touchdown run, or a well-thrown jab, I’d just as soon wait a few years — when the best moments and contests have been ranked and distilled — and read about them. I’ll lie down on the couch with the new book, relaxing after another tiring day. My lifelong love for sports will feel undiminished. The TV, hanging on the wall in the corner of the room, will be off.

Image Credit: Flickr/Generation Bass.

Gay Talese’s The Silent Season of a Hero is Sports Writing That’s Destined to Last

Reading The Silent Season of a Hero, a new collection of sports writing by the venerable Gay Talese, is a bit like watching time-lapse photography of a rose blooming.  In the course of this 308-page book, we see a raw teenage sportswriter become a college columnist with obvious talent, then a polished reporter for a daily newspaper, and finally blossoming into a master of the long narrative form once favored by our best magazines.

It’s thrilling to witness this process of maturation.  Much of the credit goes to Michael Rosenwald, a staff writer at the Washington Post who selected the book’s 39 pieces and wrote short, illuminating essays that introduce each of its five sections.  He sometimes quotes Talese to great effect.  For instance, in praising Talese’s skill as a reporter, Rosenwald writes: “The ability to make people comfortable enough to reveal things they have never told their wives or mistresses is one of the unseen strengths of Talese’s career.”  To which Talese adds, “What I think is important and what influences people to let me in the door, it’s because my manner is courteous.  I want to hear about their lives.  I want to listen.”  In the case of the rough-edged entourage that surrounded the boxer Floyd Patterson, Talese says, “There’s a sadness about them and when someone would talk to them decently, as I did, they sort of opened up to me.”

Tom Wolfe famously touted Talese’s 1962 Esquire magazine article on Joe Louis in retirement as the piece of writing that spawned The New Journalism.  Talese isn’t having it.  As he explains in this book’s introduction, he had spent years prior to 1962 trying to figure out ways to use the devices of fiction – “scene-setting, dialogue, drama, conflict” – in non-fiction.  He cites such specific early influences as the short stories of Hemingway and John O’Hara, “Winter Dreams” by Fitzgerald, “The Jockey” by Carson McCullers and “The Eighty-Yard Run” by Irwin Shaw.  By the time he graduated from his Ocean City, N.J., high school newspaper and hometown weekly to the undergrad newspaper at the University of Alabama, he was also emulating the sports columnists Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon and Dan Parker.

It was at the New York Times from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s that Talese’s unique penchants and gifts began to pay off.  He is, in essence, an old-school reporter – but with a critical difference.  He does the legwork, he has a sharp eye for the telling detail, he gets people to open up and then he writes down what they say – but along the way he also mastered what he calls “the art of hanging out.”  The art of becoming part of his subject’s world.  Of absorbing things until he has absorbed the essence of the story he needs to tell.  The stories written for the Times often revolved around the sporting world’s invisible people, boxing referees, timekeepers, horseshoe makers, bare-knuckle fighters, agents, midget wrestlers.  As good as these stories are – quirky, sharply observed, beautifully written – they’re warm-ups for the main event.

One of my favorite elements in the book is photocopies of six dense pages of notes Talese typed while getting ready to write about the New York Yankees’ final road trip in their disastrous 1979 season.  Fragmentary, riddled with typos, sometimes nearly incoherent, these six pages nonetheless open a window into Talese’s creative process – how he sketches scenes, pulls together scraps of dialogue, lays out the ethnic and regional and class differences between the ballplayers and the sportswriters, even the music coming out of the players’ ubiquitous radios.  It’s a string of buzzy, electric riffs, like an athlete getting pumped up in the locker room before taking the field.  It’s fascinating.

Two crucial aspects of Talese’s temperament are also revealed in this book: he is indifferent to the results of contests – to news – but he is fascinated by how those results affect the contestants.  Especially when they lose.  Floyd Patterson could have been speaking for Talese when he said this about the seemingly invincible Sonny Liston: “We’ll find out what he’s like after somebody beats him, how he takes it.  It’s easy to do anything in victory.  It’s in defeat that a man reveals himself.”  (For an answer to Patterson’s musings, I refer you to Nick Tosches’s superb impressionistic little book The Devil and Sonny Liston.)

Even more fascinating to Talese than failure is the murky downslope of greatness, the twilight of storied careers, the ways stars must struggle to get their bearings after the cheering stops.  This fascination led to Talese’s classic Esquire articles from the 1960s about Patterson (“The Loser”), Joe Louis (“The King as a Middle-Aged Man”) and Joe DiMaggio (“The Silent Season of a Hero”).

Eventually the cheering faded for Talese, too.  When he was in his mid-sixties, half a dozen magazines turned down his brilliant article about Muhammad Ali meeting Fidel Castro in Havana, which is included here and which Talese regards as his finest piece of work.  Eventually Esquire buried it at the back of its September 1996 issue.

Talese, now pushing 80, is still working.  He published a memoir, A Writer’s Life, in 2007.  He has new books in the works.  As for being inventor of The New Journalism, Talese says, “I have always thought of myself as rather traditional in my approach, and not so ‘new.’  I never wanted to do something new.  I wanted to do something that would hold up over time, something that could get old and still have the same resonance.”

As this book demonstrates, that is precisely what he has done.

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