Authors: Mordecai Richler
“Stylish sports essays from a master…. With economy, wit and flair, Richler shows how it’s done. The man’s style is always evident, whether he’s failing to catch salmon in Scotland or rooting on the hapless Habs.”—Calgary Herald
“Dispatchesreflects Richler’s passion for sports…. Richler combines the enthusiasm of a fan with the curiosity and insight of a first-rate reporter. Add to the mix the prose skills of an accomplished novelist with the wry, mordant wit of a satirist and you end up with sports writing of a high order.”—The Hamilton Spectator
“The real appeal ofDispatches from the Sporting Lifelies in the previously uncollected pieces. Connoisseurs of Richler’s prose will be pleased to discover hard-to-find items fromSignature, Inside Sports, GQ,andThe New York Times Sports Magazinetogether in one tidy place.”—The Globe and Mail
“This collection conveys the passion of a lifelong observer and fan holding up the ideals of sport even as he saw those principles being tarnished by people who should have known better….[Dispatches from the Sporting Life]should be required reading for some of today’s sports poobahs, the ones holding court in the box seats high above the action.”—The Toronto Star
“Dispatches from the Sporting Lifeis a personal postscript from Richler, a reminder that behind the acerbic wit was a warm family man, a sports fan like many ordinary men whose allegiances were formed in the hot enthusiasms of youth but frayed in old age by the cold realities of the sports business…. And it is as a fan that he wrote these essays.”—The Chronicle–Herald(Halifax)ALSO BYMORDECAIRICHLER
NOVELSThe AcrobatsSon of a Smaller HeroA Choice of EnemiesThe Apprenticeship of Duddy KravitzThe Incomparable AtukocksureSt. Urbain’s HorsemaJoshua Then and NowSolomon Gursky Was HereBarney’s Version
ESSAYSHunting Tigers under GlassShovelling TroubleHome Sweet Home: My Canadian AlbumBroadsidesBelling the Cat
CHILDREN’S BOOKSJacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded FangJacob Two-Two and the DinosaurJacob Two-Two’s First Spy Case
ANTHOLOGIESThe Best of Modern HumorWriters on World War II
NONFICTIONOh Canada! Oh Quebec!This Year in JerusalemOn Snooker: The Game and the Characters Who Play ItContents
Foreword Noah Richler
1. An Incompleat Angler’s Journal
2. Jews in Sports
3. A Real Canadian Success Story
4. With the Trail Smoke Eaters in Stockholm
6. You Know Me, Ring
7. Writers and Sports
8. Gretzky in Eighty-five
9. From Satchel, through Hank Greenberg, to El Divino Loco
10. Eddie Quinn
11. Cheap Skates
13. Paper Lion
15. Pete Rose
16. Kiss the Ump!
17. Soul on Ice
18. From Gladu, through Kitman, to the Victoire Historique and After
19. The Fall of the Montreal Canadiens
20. Playing Ball on Hampstead Heath—An Excerpt fromSt. Urbain’s Horseman
Dispatches from the Sporting LifeForewordNOAHRICHLER
In 1972, my father brought his family back to Canada after nearly twenty years in England. I learned in no time that his preferred place on Saturday nights from September to May was on the living room couch, watchingHockey Night in Canada.
We returned to Canada in the country’s prime time, you might say. The Canadian dollar was on par with the American (a detail that matters, when it comes to international leagues), and though Pierre Trudeau and René Lévesque were sparring from their federal and provincial party offices, the Parti Québecois had not yet driven a stake through Montreal’s cosmopolitan heart. Montreal was a city on top of the world, rich with memories and history, but anavenirtoo. There was no question, in my father’s mind, that it was the only city in Canada where he could possibly live: the most sophisticated—which meant, for him, the best restaurants, the most critical and interesting politics and, at the Forum, the chance to watch the Montreal Canadiens—the Habs—playing before the mostknowledgeable and demanding hockey crowd in North America.
Twelve years old, I received swift instruction in matters Canadian. My father’s love of sports, I quickly saw, was entirely wrapped up in the urban landscape of his childhood: the cold-water flats of Montreal’s Jewish ghetto, east of Park and north of Pine, bounded to one side by the well-to-do French Canadians of Outremont and on the other by the francophone working class of the Plateau. Baseball at Delormier Downs and hockey at the Forum were what Montreal Jews and French Canadians had in common. During the summer, Pa showed me what the bleachers were at Jarry Park, and introduced me to baseball’s ritual of the seventh-inning stretch. Then, that September, we watched an overweight Team Canada, fresh off the links, face off against Russia, an opponent the NHL’s professionals famously failed to take seriously. It fast became the most extraordinary international hockey series Canada has ever played. The Cold War still on, the Red Army was what the West feared then, but in Canada we held them in awe for a different reason: soldiers who played crisp, mesmerizing, “amateur” hockey—full-time. All Canadians of my generation can hum the grand Soviet anthem as a consequence. We feel a kinship there. We know where we were when Paul Henderson scored, saving face for Canada, and we remember the shock we felt when, after Team Canada scored the first goal of the series in Montreal, the Russians stormed back to win the game 7–3.
I was watching the game with my father that evening, all the family in the living room, Pa’s enthrallment palpable. After that series ended, my father took me to the Forum to see the Canadiens, who beat Minnesota 3–0 in an early season NHL game. I was thrilled to be with him, of course, in the building that I knew meant so much to him, but we’d been spoiled by the match with the Soviets: the hockey was somnambulant by comparison.
The Canadiens, at the time, were on their way to becoming the winningest franchise in professional sports, no mean achievement. By the middle of the eighties, they’d have won more Stanley Cups than the Yankees had World Series, or Liverpool FC had carried football trophies back to Merseyside. They were unquestionably the best—and they belonged to us. Quebeckers many of them, Canadians certainly. The Habs of the 1970s went on to establish themselves as the second most powerful dynasty in the team’s history, losing eight or so games a season—a couple of these out of boredom, surely. The first, setting the bar for my father, had won five Stanley Cups in a row from 1956 to 1960. That was the team Pa got to callNos Glorieux.The Canadiens, for his generation and mine, were a thrilling, easy team to support.
My father the fan, however, was also something of a fatalist, inclined to moments of deep foreboding. The team down one or, just occasionally, two goals at the end of the first period, he’d pronounce on their sloppiness from his uncontested position on the couch: “We’re in trouble now,” he’d say—before, more often than not, the Canadiens dug themselvesout of it. It was, I suppose, the mark of the writer in him, someone who did not expect things to go swimmingly for long.
Come the early nineties, after yet more league expansion, after the owners’ and the players’ greed turned the game into a television spectacle, the play stopping every few minutes for another commercial break, my father lost interest in hockey. He stopped going to games because—he would never have imagined it—he was often bored at the rink. Pa frowned every time a new Canadiens team, its meagre talent stretched too thin, would dump the puck forward and race on in. This was not the game he grew up with, and soon he’d given up on it entirely.
By then, a string of Péquiste victories had taken its toll, and the dollar was in freefall. Trudeau was no longer a figure in public life, and a huge number of anglophone Montrealers had left the province—though not my father, stubbornly. The Canadiens had been relegated to a shameful box of an arena built by Molson Inc., their indifferent last Canadian proprietors; the Expos had been languishing in the horrid Olympic Stadium for more than two decades, playing to the smallest attendances in the National League.
Too many Montreal institutions gone.
Pa’s sports were not, as games are for so many fans these days, vessels for statistics or of contrived corporate competition—a city’s glory purchased by some conglomerate churning money at the gate. Nor was the game, as Pa writes, the place for “intellectual gibberish”—a tableau for some eclectic, European, Umberto Eco–like reduction of philosophical life. It was, instead, a very real matter. It wasabout getting ahead, about making your way in the world—as a Canadian. No, we can be more specific than that: as a Montrealer, of the non-WASP kind, during the time that city was original and great.
Pa was serious in his allegiances: hockey in winter, and baseball in summer. Snooker, year-round, was something he could relax to—playing, or watching the sport on television, after his working day was done. Fishing, a pastime he undertook later in life, was, I suspect, a pursuit that had more to do with a feeling of having arrived—as well as his love of the Canadian outdoors, an attribute of my father’s writing that is often underestimated. It’s there inBarney’s Version,and in thea mari usque ad mareromp ofSolomon Gursky Was Here—and, of course, in Duddy Kravitz’s dream of purchasing all the properties bordering a Laurentian lake. The love of sports had, most of all, to do with home. In all those years in London, cricket, soccer, rugby—they just didn’t figure. Hockey and baseball were part of the patrimony in ways those sports could never be. What the journalism offered, those forays into Gordie Howe’s garage or to a bodybuilding convention, was the chance to get away from the typewriter and drop in on lives other than his own. One of the unusual complaints my father would sometimes make is that his literary success had come too soon. He’d not had to work in an office or hold down a factory job to get by, so he’d lost out on the material those experiences might have supplied him. The sports assignments helped satisfy that necessary, writer’s curiosity.
Morning in the Richler house, before my father set to work: a hard-boiled egg rolls in a puddle of steaming water on the chopping board. “I made you breakfast,” he tells my younger brother, Jacob, his fishing companion of choice (that’s him on the cover), who’s used to this routine. Pa prepares my mother’s loving tray—hot black coffee with the froth still riding on it, a glass of orange juice freshly squeezed, and my mother’s seaweed and garlic pills—and carries it to the bedroom at the back of the apartment. No one else goes there, unless summoned. In a moment he’s back at the table, for sliced tomatoes and toast, and a look at the sports section of the MontrealGazette.
“Here,” he says, handing one of his five children the Business or the Classified pages—chortle, chortle—“you want a piece of the paper?” Then it’s off to the loo to catch up on the Expos or the NHL.
“Richard Nixon,” he says, “always read the sports pages first.”
Hockey was his Canadian writer’s trump card, my father capable of using sports as a vehicle for just about anything—as a way of applauding the virtuosity of Frank Augustyn, thepremier danseurson of a steel worker from Hamilton, or, inSt. Urbain’s Horseman,Jake Hersh’s fantasy of a life of greater moral rectitude. Try this passage, for instance, imagined as only a Montreal lad could, the reverie of someone who, as a boy, watched the likes of black Jackie Robinson play for the Montreal Royals, the farm team for Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers. Leo Durocher was the coach:
…even though he went twelve innings in the series opener the day before yesterday, allowing only two cheap hits, Leo looks at the loaded bases, Mantle coming up, their one-run lead, and he asks Jake to step in again.
Jake says, “On one condition only.”
“You’ve got to tell Branch I want him to give the Negroes a chance in the big leagues.”
Originals, and rogues, in the Nixon vein, were something else sports had to offer. Iffy characters who’d made a success of themselves against the odds: Gordie Howe, “a child of prairie penury,” the wild-eyed Maurice Richard, or the Jewish baseball player Kermit Kitman, “one of ours,” a scholar who later went into the shmatte trade. And let’s not forget Don Cherry, an affectionate target of my father’s pen. Once the Boston Bruins coach, now a television commentator, he is known in Canada not least for his outrageous, over-the-top plaid suits—and, in my father’s words, for having been hockey’s patriotic xenophobe, forever railing against “chickenshit foreign commies taking away hockey jobs that rightfully belong to our own slash-and-grab Canadian thugs.” These European players, in Cherry’s view, insisted on wearing masks, protecting their teeth and otherwise dragging down the game’s fine traditions. My father later suggested that Cherry should be Canada’s next governor general, as his flamboyant dress sense would satisfy the demands of the oifice, and appeal to jocks and homosexuals alike. “What do you expect the guy to say,” said Cherry, clearly miffed, “I mean, with a name likeMordecai?”
Looking over these essays, I wondered why, as a boy, I’d never asked my father if he could skate—even as he praised his great friend Jack Clayton, the English director ofRoom at the Top(with whom he worked on the screenplay of John Braine’s novel, which won an Oscar) for being good on skates. I found the answer in these pages: he couldn’t afford a pair—though it’s also true that observing, and not playing, is the writer’s game. Amazing, that I never asked him.
So Pa would be off to the bleachers at Delormier Downs, to take in a ball game with the Montreal Royals—or, more often than not, to the poolrooms of Park Avenue. Pa, as I knew him, was a man who bought himself few treats. (One Christmas he was given a bottle of Remy Martin V.S.O.P., his favourite brand of cognac, by each of his five children—we couldn’t think of anything else he would like more, and he was delighted). There was a motorboat for the country house on the lake in the Eastern Townships, the place where he preferred to write, and when the childrens’ educations had all been paid for, he bought himself a snooker table, a throwback to his youth. Ma housed it in a beautiful, airy, cedar-and-glass addition on a terrace overlooking the water—and in winter, the frozen lake. An old chisel that my father’s father had used is pinned to one wall of the snooker room. On it are written, in yellow chalk, the words “Moses Isaac Richler—No Success!”On Boxing Day, we’d host a tournament, Pa inviting Sweetpea and his other local drinking pals, Eastern Townships descendants of United Empire Loyalists who’d been not much transformed as characters inSolomon Gursky Was Here.Ma would cook up a pot ofher wonderful chili, safely removed from the boozy action, various of her children and their friends joining the day-long party, playing, at $20 each, for a pot of maybe $200 or $300.
The Richler kids didn’t do very well. No success, I’m afraid, letting their father down—in public.Pa would usually make it to the final rounds, as would my brother, Daniel, but any of us was hard put to sink three balls in a row. Pa, seeking to improve our play, taught the kids a couple of hustling tricks: how to distract your opponent by standing behind the pocket he is aiming at, tossing the cue from hand to hand as a Catskills entertainer might a microphone, subtly putting off his aim. A bit of cheating, I gathered, is acceptable in sports—as long as you are not caught, that is. The lesson was not so much that crime pays (which it probably did, for a couple of his poolroom pals), but that you need to be vigilant if you’re going to play a good game. As Max Kravitz writes to Duddy—but affectionately, note—“Remember, the world is full of shits.” Or, as Jake Hersh is told by his father, Izzy, inSt. Urbain’s Horseman,“You want me to be proud? Earn a living. Stand on your own two feet.” That was the kind of advice he liked to give.
For my pa, sports were also about escape. When I was in my early teens, I remember—I think we were watching some old Pathé Joe Louis newsreel, or could it have been a James Cagney movie?—he told me that boxing and baseball were easy ways out of the ghetto, for blacks and Jews especially. It is interesting to me that Pa writes of the NHL athletes of his day that they were “the progeny of miners and railwayshop workers and welders,” and that in the summer they were “driving beer trucks or working on construction sites” to get by. If it’s an idea that is repeated, in subtle variations, it’s because it is one of the most important ones. My father was a ghetto boy. He did not forget where he came from. (That was a favourite bit of his writer’s advice.)
For these reasons, he did not care much for modern players, earning big bucks yet unwilling to go into the corners. By and large, they were athletes schooled by hectoring parents on covered rinks at 5:00 a.m., and not on some frozen backyard or river. They did not appeal much to the storyteller in him. In their smart Gucci suits, with PR flacks to stand between them and the kind of clumsy—but poetic—Ring Lardner utterances he so enjoyed, they struck him as men without character, too specifically trained. Wayne Gretzky, I suppose, put to work by his father, Walt, from an early age, was the beginning of that sea-change. Pa preferred the struggle: the striving Pete Rose, grittily singling his way into the record books, every hit a determined grunt; the heroic obduracy of Jackie Robinson, enduring the abuse ordered on him deliberately by Branch Rickey, who was readying his brilliant shortstop to break the colour barrier in baseball’s National League. Or, consider it, the unknowing certainty of young Gordie Howe: “pre-paring for what he knew lay ahead, he sat at the kitchen table night after night, practising his autograph”—and long after that, amazingly, at the age of fifty-two, playing on the same line as his children, Mark and Marty. It interests me, as his son, that Pa quotes—unmockingly—this poem of the third Howe boy, Murray, a pre-med student.
So you eat, and you sleep.So you walk, and you run.So you touch, and you hear.You lead, and you follow.You mate with the chosen.But do you live?
These were stories about talent, determination, and the hunger for a new and better life—a bit of fame, fortune, prowess—but they are also about choosing.
Pa found his own unlikely way out, though he never did leave his beloved Montreal behind. Not in all those years in Britain, perusing the hockey listings in theHerald Tribune—or, in the sanctity of his loft office, conjuring up the subtext of a crazy expats’ ball game in London’s Hampstead Heath (that chapter fromSt. Urbain’s Horsemanis included here). He never did stray far from home, eventually, in 1972, coming back to it all, to the seat of it—because he felt he was drying up as writer, he told Ma. (He liked to quote V. S. Naipaul, who’d said of his own writer’s relationship with Englishmen that “I don’t know what they do when they go home at night”—an explanation for the family’s move from Britain that Ma did not easily accept.) That summer, he took the kids to see the Expos in Jarry Park frequently. And come winter, he told his friend the longtime MontrealGazettesports columnist, Dink Caroll, who’d supply us with a pair of his Forum press tickets from time to time, that I was a fleet defenceman.I think hewantedthat to be true, and I remember having to keep up the pretence for many years, until Dink died.
Then, in June 1998, my father telephoned me from Montreal—I was living in London at the time—and told me that he was going into hospital, the Montreal General, to have a cancerous kidney removed. I flew to Montreal, knowing remarkably little about operations and hospitals, thank God, and spent the nights there in his small, gloomy, dilapidated room. (So much of his Montreal felt diminished then.) We rented a television set so that I could watch the World Cup and Pa, I’d expected, the hockey playoffs. Except that he was not interested. He was on morphine—hell for a mind like his—and other thoughts were racing through his unfettered consciousness. It must have been the surgical masks of the doctors who’d leaned over him on the operating table, stemming an unexpected loss of blood, that provided his delirium with a thread of crazy reason. “No!” said Pa, bolt upright, that great head of thick hair a standing tussle, when, a few days after the operation, a nurse tried to put an oxygen mask on his face to help him through his recovery. “No. I won’t—it’s an anti-Semitic machine.”Even the French-Canadian doctors laughed at that. Then, the queue of doctors and nurses abating for a while, Pa would drift in and out of sleep and the topics that were his lifetime’s concerns: Canadian politics, Israel and Palestine—and hockey.
“Where did the U.S. make the speech recognizing Israel? Was it in San Francisco?”
“I think so, Pa, in May 1948, wasn’t it? Harry Truman sent a cable.”
“Oh dear, oh dear. Who would have thought it would all end so badly?”
“It’s not over yet, Pa.”
What does he mean, I wonder. Israel? Himself? Pa lifts his arm, as if it were a stranger’s, looking at the intravenous feed indignantly. Then he rolls onto his side and lets out a big sigh.
“What are we going to do in this country? Canada’s in such a mess. Did you get to the Knesset? Did you get to the meeting of the men with masks?”
“No, Pa. What meeting was that?”
“That Don Cherry—ha ha!—great guy.”
And, before giving in to sleep again, he says, “But can you imagine,hockey in June.”
Three years later, Pa went into hospital again, and this time he died. The family, according to his wishes, buried him in Montreal’s Mount Royal cemetery, in a grave on Rose Hill, overlooking his boyhood home on St. Urbain Street. (The “ghetto” is a much more affluent community now.) We put this notice in the paper.
Mordecai Richler died from complications related to kidney cancer early Tuesday morning at the Montreal General Hospital. He will be sorely missed by Florence, his beloved wife of forty years; his five devoted children, Daniel, Noah, Emma, Martha and Jacob; their lovedones, Jill, Sarah, Nigel and Leanne; and the young grandchildren, Maximilian, Poppy and Simone. A private funeral will be held today in Montreal. A public memorial will take place in the autumn. The family asks that donations be made to the Canadian Cancer Society, Centrâide, Médecins sans Frontières (or, say, the Montreal Canadiens, a true lost cause).
The month before, the Canadiens, who’d missed the playoffs for the second year in a row, were sold to an American businessman from Colorado. He promised not to move the team south, but the Expos, it soon became apparent, were likely heading that way. I’m glad Pa did not witness this. It was the end of an era—but not unthinkable. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Love you, Pa.
Toronto, December 20011An Incompleat Angler’s Journal
September 13, 1988. Wednesday. Montreal’s Mirabel airport. Before boarding our preferred carrier, British Airways, I loiter close by the insurance vending machine, making sure no shifty-eyed bastard, seeing off his beloved wife, is covering her for two million bucks and then rushing off to embrace his bimbo—“It’s done, baby.” Pretending to tie my shoelaces, I listen to unattended carry-on baggage that might go tick-tick-tick. Then, composing my soul, gulping down just one more cognac, I allow my wife to drag me to the plane. Florence and I are bound for a short stay in London and then on to the Scottish Highlands and the islands of Shetland and Orkney, where, in fulfillment of a long-cherished dream, I will fish for salar, the leaper.
The first known image of salmon, discovered by a French archaeologist, was carved into a reindeer bone, circa 12,000B.C.It was Julius Caesar and hismen, invaders of Western Europe, who dubbed it salar, the leaper. William the Conqueror and his barons savoured it and so did that swindler John Cabot, when he first sailed to North America in 1497. The first book in English on salmon, published in 1481,The Gentleman’s Recreation, The Boke of St. Alban’s—though possibly a compilation of earlier books on angling—is credited to Dame Juliana Berners, prioress of the Sopwell Nunnery. She went after the fish required for her Friday table with a rod cut from ash and line made from the hair of the horse’s tail. Then, in 1653, there came the essential book for fishermen,The Compleat Angler, or the Contemplative Man’s Recreation: Being a Discourse of Fish & Fishing Not Unworthy of the Perusal of Most Anglers,by Izaak Walton:
The salmon is accounted the King of fresh-water fish, and is ever bred in rivers relating to the sea, yet so high or far from it as admits no tincture of salt, or brackishness; he is said to breed or cast his spawn in most rivers, in the month of August: some say that then they dig a hole or grave in a safe place in the gravel, and there place their eggs or spawn, after the melter has done his natural office, and then hide it most cunningly, and cover it over with gravel and stones; and then leave it to their Creator’s protection, who by a gentle heat, which he infuses into that cold element, makes it brood and beget life in the spawn, and to become Samlets in the Spring next following.
Thrusting Izzy’s book aside, I begin to dream about silvery sea-bright salmon rolling in the ripples of the Spey River. Casting with my usual panache, I catch plenty before we’ve even climbed to 33,000 feet, some 32,994 feet too high for London. Following two lap-of-luxury nights at the Ritz, tainted for me only because my wife insisted it would be bad form for me to practice casting in the lobby, we are driven to Euston station by a couple who are old friends: “Remember,” he said, “we’re expecting you for dinner the night of your return.”
“Should I order a standing roast beef from Harrod’s?” she asks.
“Nonsense,” I say. “I’ll be bringing fresh salmon.”
Then we board the overnight train to the Highlands and the fabled Spey, the fastest-flowing river in Europe, thick with salmon, according to legend. Once established on my narrow bunk, I turn toOrkney & Shetland,by Eric Linklater, wherein I read of a dizzying succession of Norse conquerors:
But Sigurd, when he got his Earldom…made an alliance with Thorstein the Red, son of Olaf the White … and that famous woman Aud the Deep-Minded who … was the daughter of Katil Flatnose …
On arrival in Aviemore, we’re met by a tourist-office flack who drives us over winding country lanes, peasants lurking in the fields of ferns alongside, to Tulchan Lodge, a veritable stone mini-castle, complete with turret, that immediately evokes myboyhood home. The butler who tippled. The saucy second-floor maid. My nanny, a treasure. On the other hand, that delightful lodge, rising in the Tulchan and Cromdale hills above the Spey River, is set in a rolling wooded parkland of no less than twenty-three thousand acres, admittedly a tad larger than my boyhood backyard. Tulchan was built in 1906, an Edwardian fishing and hunting lodge, the private property of one George McCordquodale, Esq., and did not become analbergountil 1976. Handsomely appointed, with oak-panelled drawing and billiards rooms, the lodge can accommodate no more than twenty-four guests in its twelve double bedrooms. A room will set you back $200 a night, but that includes breakfast, afternoon tea, and a four-course dinner, and the fare is first-rate. There are additional charges, however, for deerstalking, shooting grouse, or fishing. A rod, along with the services of a gillie, costs $170 a day. The lodge commands Tulchan Water, eight miles long, with four beats, considered to be the most productive on the Spey, but before we have even unpacked I am told:
This season the fishing had been the worst in twenty-five years, with only 17 salmon taken in July, whereas the usual catch was 165 or more.
Water temperature in July was in the seventies, intolerable for salmon.
The wind is up.
The water is too low.
Yes, yes, but I do not put much stock in these gloomy reports, because Mordecai the Deep-Minded,son of Moses the Bald, has been salmon fishing before on some of the best rivers of Quebec and New Brunswick (the Cascapédia, the Restigouche, the Miramichi) and is familiar with the perverse tradition peculiar to salmon camps everywhere. The head guide, greeting newcomers, always complains that the water is too high or too low, and you should have been here last week when horny thirty-pound salmon had to be restrained from leaping into the arms of anglers, never mind taking a fly.
In the drawing room, Joseph, the menacingly obsequious wine steward (a Pole who had put in thirteen years as a butler), seems to have wandered in off the set of an old-time Hammer horror film; he stoops to kiss my wife’s hand and then asks if we fancy wine with our lunch.
“A bottle of Puligny-Montrachet.”
“An excellent choice,” Joseph oozes, dentures gleaming.
Late in the afternoon a middle-aged American couple arrives, Joseph greeting the lady with a ritual kiss of the hand. “Would you care for wine with your dinner?” he asks.
“People are so nice in this neck of the woods,” the lady says.
“Red or white?” her husband asks her.
“It’s all the same, isn’t it, dear?”
Husband, consulting the price list, chooses a bottle of Frascati.
“An excellent choice,” Joseph responds, beaming.Greeted at breakfast by a rowdy group of grouse shooters out of Yorkshire, drinking Champagne, dressed in elegant tweed jackets and plus fours. “You’re not going after salmon this late in the season?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“You’re Canadian, did you say?”
There are no keys for our bedroom doors, but the Fly and Tackle Room is securely locked. Seemingly, the guests can trust each other, but the Tulchan management knows that when it comes to fishing flies, anglers are a notoriously thieving lot.
The head gillie, wearing a deerstalker cap, outfits me with hip boots and a fifteen-foot, two-handed rod, traditional in Scotland. At home, we use a ten-foot rod, a one-hander, so I will have to make a considerable adjustment. I am driven down to a beat on the Spey, where I am astonished to see manicured lawns, picnic tables, and a fishing “shack” that would rent for $8,000 a summer in the Hamptons. In Canada, of course, we fish in rough country, bush country, blackflies and mosquitoes the unhappy rule. Within a couple of hours I can manage, but have hardly mastered, the two-handed rod and the tricksy Spey double-cast, all to no avail. The only salmon left in the river in mid-September are black salmon, that is to say, derelict scrawny fish that have loitered in the Spey for years and have learned to eschew any fly thrown over their heads.
Come noon, on Canadian rivers, I would not be surprised to see a moose or a black bear wanderingdown to the water’s edge. But in the Highlands, at the stroke of twelve o’clock, an appropriately attired waiter is sent down from the lodge with a much-needed bottle of single-malt Scotch, white wine, and a baffling hot lunch: pasta served with a baked potato. Then, casting into a stiff wind, I spend another miserable two hours on the beat without raising a fish.
The odious Joseph is lying in wait in the drawing room with hiscarte du vins.“We’ll have a bottle of Château Margaux tonight,” I say, after consulting my wife.
“Very good, sir.”
“Wait. Tell me, Joseph, do you think that’s an excellent choice?”
“But, of course, sir.”
The American couple drifts in from their afternoon stroll. “I’d like a gin and tonic, please,” the lady says.
“Tanqueray?” Joseph asks.
“I don’t understand,” she replies, appealing to her husband.
“It’s their accent,” he assures her. “My wife would like aGIN AND TONIC!”
The grouse shooters are back. Those self-satisfied bastards, preceded by an army of beaters from a neighbouring estate, have taken fourteen birds. I retreat to our room just in time to field a phone call from our friends in London.
“Well, we’ve ordered the wine, but naturally we’re counting on you for the yummy salmon.”
Shit. Switching on the bedside radio, I tune in on a convention of the Scottish Nationalist Party. The speaker proclaims, “The Soviet Union treats itsethnic minorities better than England does the Scots,” and harvests wild applause.
The Highlands Tourist Office, determined to dispel a nasty myth, has issued a pamphlet that claims, “We have wet weather and dry weather, but no bad weather.” All the same, I waken to windowpane-rattling wind. Driving rain. But I’m out on the river immediately after breakfast, casting to no point until my arm throbs and cursing the Highlands Tourist Office for assuring me that mid-September was vintage time on the Spey.
Compensations. Today we have been invited to lunch at the Macallan distillery, some ten miles from Tulchan Lodge, on the Spey side in the lee of the Grampian Mountains. Kingsley Amis, who certainly ought to know, has pronounced Macallan “about the most delicious malt ever,” and I am inclined to agree, especially as we are being poured the eighteen-year-old stuff. In fact, by the time lunch is ready I have such an agreeable buzz on that I’m even willing to forgive our host for serving us locally caught salmon.
Chatting with the amiable W. C. H. Phillips, managing director of Macallan, I get some notion of just how much a productive stretch of the Spey is actually worth. In 1954, Phillips tells us, Macallan was offered a two-mile section of the river for $10,000 but, following a directors’ meeting, declined the deal. Then, four years ago, the two-mile stretch of the Spey came up for sale again. Macallan bid$765,000 forone-thirdof it, and that offer was promptly declined as insultingly inadequate.
Following a quick breakfast, we say goodbye to our impeccable hosts at the first-class Tulchan Lodge, unaware that we have eaten our last good meal in Scotland. Weather conditions being what they are, our flight to Shetland, via Orkney, is delayed for two hours. The airline clerk is amused when I doublecheck that our luggage is tagged for the right island. “If you’re going to Shetland,” he says cheerily, “all you’ll need is an umbrella.”
Bouncing high over the North Sea, I calm myself by trying once more to tackle the history of our ultimate destination, Orkney, this time digging into a real page-turner,Orkneyinga Saga,the history of the earls of Orkney from the ninth century to the thirteenth, translated from the Icelandic by Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards: “Earl Thorfinn had five sons, one called Arnfinn, the next Havard the Fecund, the third Hlodvir, the fourth Ljot, and the fifth Skuli. Ragnhild Eirik’s-Daughter plotted the death of her husband Arnfinn at Murkle in Caithness, then married his brother Havard the Fecund….”
On first sight, Shetland is absolutely haunting. Not a tree to be seen anywhere. Bare, gaunt hills, rock bursting like bone through the thin topsoil. Seemingly endless rolling fields of rich, dark peat, the fuel cut and stacked to dry here and there. Sheep foraging everywhere. And above, intruding helicoptersferrying workers to and from the North Sea oil rigs. Our taxi driver is quick to point out that nobody speaks Gaelic here or would be caught wearing a kilt. The Shetlanders, honouring their Viking heritage, seem to identify more closely with Iceland and Norway (Bergen is accessible by overnight ferry from Lerwick) than they do with Scotland.
As we proceed in the wind and rain through the narrow streets of bleak, grey stone Lerwick, I can’t help observing that fishing equipment is being offered at 25 percent off everywhere, a depressing indication that the season is over. I also note that on the island God gave to Calvin, it is illegal to take a salmon or a sea trout on a Sunday.
Finally we reach our hotel, the Shetland, overlooking the harbour but within walking distance of the city centre, especially given favourable tailwinds. Considering the hotel’s grim, fortresslike exterior, I wonder whether we’re expected to register or if we’ll simply be fingerprinted and led to our cell. Inside, it is dark and reeks of damp and of cleaning fluid. Once out for a stroll, however, leaning into the wind, we are overwhelmed by the natural friendliness of the islanders, strangers greeting us warmly everywhere.
Dinner at the Shetland hotel proves inedible. Slabs of fish cemented inside artificially coloured bread crumbs. Potatoes rock-hard and raw through the middle. Slushy green peas. Our host, the hotel manager or warden, tells us that Russian and other Eastern bloc freighters regularly put in at the harbour and that the crews are allowed to wander freely through the port town. Me, I put this down to a clever KGB plot. Once the commie seamen have hada taste of beautiful downtown Lerwick, perhaps their first and only glimpse of the freedom-loving West, they can’t wait to sail home to the fleshpots of Leningrad or Gdansk.
Mind you, Shetland (population twenty-three thousand) is well worth a visit. First settled by Neolithic farmers some five thousand years ago, it is uncommonly rich in both fascinating archaeological sites and, for once, truly breathtaking views from the top of jagged cliffs that soar hundreds of feet above the pelting sea. At one point—Mavis Grind—the highway crosses a chicken neck of land, the Atlantic visible on one side and the North Sea on the other.
The prime archaeological site is Jarlshof, hard by Sumburgh airport. Jarlshof, which takes its name from Sir Walter Scott’s novelThe Pirate,leads the amazed visitor from Stone Age settlement, through Bronze, to Iron Age. “Some eighty years ago,” Eric Linklater wrote inOrkney & Shetland,first published in 1965 and deservedly reprinted many times since, “the ruin of a medieval house stood on a grassy mound beside a small shallow bay. Great gales eroded the mound, and revealed stone walls. The proprietor, John Bruce of Sumburgh, began to excavate, and excavation was continued, at intervals, until quite recently. Oldest of the buildings uncovered was the remains of a Stone Age hut….”
It is possible, at Jarlshof, to walk through Bronze Age shelter and smithy, circa 2000B.C., into an overlapping Iron Age village, its shelters connected by winding stone-walled passages, right into a broch. A broch, I should point out, is a prehistoric structure peculiar to Shetland and Orkney and the adjacentScottish mainland. It is a round stone tower, a considerable engineering feat, with small chambers for human habitation inside.
Jarlshof, once but two days’ fair sail from Norway, was settled by the Norse (charmingly described as “recent occupiers” on a plaque I saw in Lerwick) in the ninth century, their rule lasting until 1471, when Scotland annexed the islands.
My gillie, actually a young baker, arrives shortly before noon, having been up most of the night baking scones, which, in my experience of the islands, serve better as projectiles than pastries. A cheerful lad, he has a wool cap pierced by innumerable badges, testimony to his prowess as a trout fisherman. He’s a champ, actually, winner of many a competition on Orkney and on Shetland. We set out through lashing wind and rain for Loch Benston, a half-hour drive. En route we pass a couple of bays where salmon is farmed. These tame salmon, he tells me, are a menace. Idiot fish. Breaking free of their restraining pens by the thousands from time to time, without the redeeming memory of a river that spawned them, they have no notion of which way to swim. The fear is that infiltrating a school of wild salmon, the farm fish could contaminate the wild ones. Something else. “The pellets they’re fed,” the gillie tells me, “contain a pink dye; otherwise the flesh of the farmed salmon would be a sickly white and not fit for market.”
Sooner or later, salar, the leaper, will have to bedeclared an endangered species. With the benefit of sonar, commercial fishermen have solved the mystery of where the salmon gather in the winter, under the Arctic ice, and now net them by the thousands of tons, heedless of the fact that if the fish don’t return in sufficient numbers to the rivers that spawned them there will soon be hardly any left. Another threat to the Atlantic salmon is that wrongheaded environmentalists, demonstrating in Europe, have seen to it that there is no more hunting of the cutesy-poo seal cubs on the Newfoundland ice. Consequently, the seal herd, its appetite for salmon prodigious, has increased beyond reason, and fewer and fewer of the fish return to spawn in Canada’s once-rich network of maritime rivers.
I find casting into the wind of Loch Benston all but impossible, my leader knotting again and again, my fly shooting back to nick me in the face more than once. After an embarrassing two hours of shivering out there on the loch (during which time—ho, ho, ho—my champion gillie also fails to get a trout to rise), I say I’ve had quite enough and suggest we row to shore.
“Och,” the gillie says, “it’s a dour loch, but bonny.”
Once dried out back in the Shetland hotel, I hire a car and my wife and I drive to the Booth, the island’s oldest pub, established in 1698 in St. Magnus Bay and by the look of it not renovated once since then. Following my third large single malt, I tell Florence that if our friends call from London tonight to say I was out.
“What if you don’t catch anything tomorrow?”
“There’s still Orkney.”
We agree to cut our stay in Shetland by a day and leave for Orkney the next morning.
Out over the North Sea again, I turn once again to the spellbindingOrkneyinga Saga,totally absorbed in the hijinks of Oddi the Little, Thorkel Hook-Eye, and Havard the Fecund.
Orkney is only a twenty-five-minute flight, albeit bouncy enough, but also a world away from gaunt Shetland. Even as our plane skitters into the airport, we can see trees, grassy meadows, cultivated fields, cattle. Our taxi driver, once he has heard where we’ve been, says, “Och, but they’re a thieving lot.” Then he asks, “Have you come for the fishing?”
“The water’s too high.”
We drive through Kirkwall, a refreshingly cheerful-looking town, handsome as well, dominated by the St. Magnus Cathedral, and then on to the Merkister Hotel, a proper fishing lodge, on Harray Loch.
“You’re a day early,” Angus MacDonald, our ebullient host, says.
“We got time off for good behaviour.”
Following a couple of heart attacks seven years ago, the portly Angus MacDonald, an accomplished fisherman himself, chucked his Aberdeen heating business and bought the foundering Merkister, which he and his wife, Elma, have revived with such flair that it is now considered one of the finestangling hotels in Scotland. Incidentally, $325 is the weekly rate for room and board.
Angus points out the fish scale in the entrance hall, underneath which rests a full basket of trout caught earlier in the day, and then leads me into the bar. Now that I’m down to my last fishing hole, salmon is out. Our London friends would have to settle for a bonny basket of trout.
Affable fishermen, still flushed from their day on the wind-whipped loch, make me instantly welcome: Walter, Sandy, John. “Do you abide in New York?” Sandy asks.
“Then you wouldn’t be familiar with the Loch Harray roll cast.”
“Or the double roll cast.”
“He’ll catch on soon enough tomorrow morning,” Angus says.
Out again in a boat in the punishing wind and rain, with Angus and a young gillie, I manage the Loch Harray roll cast one try out of the three. Once, I actually get a trout to rise but fail to set the hook quickly enough and lose it, and that is that.
Like Shetland, Orkney is rich in archaeological sites, the most famous being Skara Brae, the ruins of prehistoric dwellings, and Maes Howe, a prime example of the Neolithic chambered tomb. Also not to be missed is the Ring of Brodgar, a circle of standing stones reminiscent of Stonehenge. In fact,Orkney, first settled in the fourth millenniumB.C., boasts so many archaeological sites that farmers, striking one, commonly plow it over before the hordes from Historic Buildings and Monuments descend on them, roping off valuable arable land.
Skara Brae, settled for some six hundred years, from 3100B.C.to 2500B.C., is made up of a compelling cluster of six self-contained dwellings, complete with hearth and stone beds, joined by passages. The dwellings were once buried under a heap of ash and midden, which preserved them. The tomb of Maes Howe, probably dating from before 2700 B.C., is an astonishing feat of construction, its largest stones weighing some thirty tons. We were preceded to the site by early souvenir hunters, medieval yuppies, Crusaders, or Vikings, who wintered in Orkney in 1150 and pilfered whatever treasures were to be found in the tomb.
Chilled to the bone on our return to the Merkister, Florence and I repair to the bar.
“There’s a nasty storm coming in,” Angus says. “I hope you weren’t counting on fishing tomorrow morning.”
“Naw,” I say. “Water’s too high anyway.”
The windowpanes are rattling again. Gale-force winds. Heavy rain. Florence and I decide to cut our stay short and escape to London this afternoon, if possible. I linger in the hall as she consults the manager’s wife, asking for the airline’s phone number.
“Did you mean the office in Kirkwall?”
“Did you forget it was Sunday?”
“But everything’s closed. There’s nobody at the airport. There are no flights on Sunday.”
Happily, as it turns out, this enables us to visit both Stromness and Kirkwall.
Stromness, which once supplied three-quarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company employees in Canada, was of particular interest to me. It was here, in 1845, that Sir John Franklin put in for fresh water at Login’s Well before setting out again with a complement of 134 officers and men on two stout three-masted ships, theErebusand theTerror,bound for the Polar Seas in quest of the northwest village of substantial stone houses squished together on narrow, twisting cobblestone streets.
Kirkwall is worth a visit if only because of the incredibly beautiful St. Magnus Cathedral, with its red-and-yellow sandstone-brick exterior. St. Magnus, surely one of the most imposing medieval cathedrals in Scotland, is dedicated to the martyred Magnus Erlendsson. Founded in 1137, it took all of three centuries to complete, which accounts for its mélange of styles—Romanesque, Transitional, and Gothic.
Back at the Merkister, we are joined for a farewell dinner by Josh Gournley, director of tourism for Orkney, and it is from him that I learn the probable origin of the Super Bowl. I speak of the Men’s Ba’, a game played twice annually in Kirkwall, on Christmas and on New Year’s Day, between the “Uppies” and the “Doonies.” The two sides, made up of most of the able-bodied young men in town, confront eachother on Kirk Green, where the Ba’ is thrown up in the air. In a contest that has been known to last seven hours, it is then up to the Doonies, pushing and shoving, to deliver the Ba’ to the top of the town or to the Uppies to manoeuvre the ball into a harbour splashdown. According to Gournley, who used to compete, many a private score is settled with the elbows during the struggle. “Then,” he said, “when you’ve reached your early thirties like me, and believe you’re too old for the contest, you put on your best suit and join the spectators on the sidelines, but before you know it you’re back in there, pushing and shoving with all your might, emerging bruised, with your suit torn, most likely.”
The airport. Aberdeen. Making sure that I’m not being observed, I purchase two sides of smoked salmon in a shop, comforting myself with some wise words from Mascall’sBooke of Fishing with Hook and Line,published in 1590: “The Salmon is a gentle fish, but he is cumbrous to take; for commonly he is in deep places of great rivers, and commonly in the middlest of the rivers.” Yes, but not in mid-September, damn it.
August 19912Jews in SportsI. THEENCYCLOPEDIA OFJEWS INSPORTS
Good news. The bar mitzvah gift book has come of age. In my time, we had to make do with Paul de Kruif’s inspirational medical books or a year’s subscription to theNational Geographicmagazine. Since then, but too late for me, a spill of treasuries has become available: of Jewish Thought, of Jewish Wisdom, of Jewish Humour. Now, after many years of research, filling “a glaring void in the long record of Jewish achievement,” comesThe Encyclopedia of Jews in Sportsby Bernard Postal, Jesse Silver, and Roy Silver, “the first all-inclusive volume to tell the complete story of Jews in professional and amateur sports all over the world, from Biblical times to Sandy Koufax’s no-hitter in September.”
The compendium comes lavishly recommended. “It is,” Mel Allen writes on the jacket flap, “a noteworthy contribution to mankind’s ever-growing quest for knowledge”; while Senator Abraham Ribicoff, former secretary of health, education andwelfare, writes in a foreword, “Interest in sports among Jews—as among all Americans—has intensified as opportunities for leisure activities have increased.” Continuing in the same thoughtful, controversial vein, he adds, “For sports are a healthy part of American life, and Jews are involving themselves fully in all aspects of American life.”
The encyclopedia should first of all be judged by its own exacting standards. If I am not guilty of misunderstanding editors Postal, Silver, and Silver, they compiled it not to turn a buck in the non-book trade, but for two altogether admirable reasons: that Jews might be made more aware of their sports heritage and to dispel “one of the oldest myths about the Jew…the curious belief that he was a physical coward and a stranger to athletics,” or, as Senator Ribicoff puts it, that he is “nimble in the head, perhaps, but not too nimble with the feet.” On this test alone, the encyclopedia fails. It will, I fear, make trouble foruswiththem.It’s dynamite! Rotten with proof of Jewish duplicity and athletic ineptitude.
Until I read the encyclopedia, for instance, I had no idea that Mushy Callaghan (world junior welterweight champion, 1926–30) was really born Vincente Morris Schneer, and I wonder if this will also be a revelation to his Irish-Catholic fans. Neither did I suspect that anybody called Al McCoy (world middleweight champion, 1914–17) answered more properly to the name Al Rudolph, and was actually the son of a kosher butcher who had changed his name because his parents objected to his boxing activities.
Then consider these far from untypical baseball entries:
COHEN, HYMAN “HY.”Pitcher, b. Jan. 29, 1931, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Played for Chicago Cubs in 1955. Total Games: 7. Pitching record: 0-0. Right-hander.
HERTZ, STEVE ALLAN.Infielder, b. Feb. 26, 1945, in Dayton, Ohio. Played for Houston in 1964. Total Games: 5. Batting Average: 000.
Is this the stuff the Jewish Hall of Fame is made of? Doesn’t it suggest that in order to fill only 526 pages with Jewish athletic “Achievement” Messrs. Postal, Silver, and Silver were driven to scraping the bottom of the barrel, so to speak? Still worse. Put this volume in the hands of an anti-Semitic sportsman and can’t you just hear him say, “Nimble in the feet? Ho ho! Among them 0–0 pitchers and nothing hitters count asathletes.”
Orthodox Jews will also be distressed by certain entries in the encyclopedia. Was it necessary, for example, to include Cardinal, Conrad Ceth, a pitcher with a 0–1 record, when he is only half Jewish? Or the playboy pitcher Belinsky, Robert “Bo,” just because he is the son of a Jewish mother? This is more than a purist’s racial quibble. Such entries could lead, if this volume is the first of a series, to the inclusion of, say, Elizabeth Taylor in a compilation of Jewish Playmates from Biblical Times to Today.
Of course there is another possibility. Half-Jewish players of dubious achievement were included in the book because the editors are not only racialists, but cunning ones at that, and whatthey intended by listing Belinsky and Cardinal was an oblique but penetrating comment on the capabilities of the issue of mixed marriages.
Something else. You and I might be pleased in our hearts to know that the first man to take money for playing baseball, the first real pro, was a Jew, Lipman E. “Lip” Pike, whose name appeared in a box score for the first time only one week after his bar mitzvah in 1864, but anti-Semites could easily make something unfortunate out of this information. Neither was I proud to discover that, according to a Talmudic scholar at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Jews—as early as the second century C.E.—had a special prayer for horse players; and that the bettor was advised to “take this [prayer] tablet and bury it in the ground of the hippodrome where you want to win.”
There are some regrettable omissions. While Joe Reichler earns an entry because he is a baseball writer and Allan Roth, resident statistician with the Dodgers, is also included, there is no mention anywhere of Mailer, Norman, who has reported memorably on boxing forEsquire.Neither could I find the names of Malamud, Bernard, author of a baseball novel, or Schulberg, Budd, who has written a novel about boxing. Does this suggest an anti-intellectual bias on the part of Messrs. Postal, Silver, and Silver?
This is not to say thatThe Encyclopedia of Jews in Sportsis entirely without merit. The three-page ice hockey section pleased me enormously if only because it included my favourite Jewish defenceman, one-time National League player, the astuteLarry Zeidel. An issue ofJewish Press,a New York publication, once carried the following Canadian report:“ONLY JEW IN PRO HOCKEY PLAYS A ROUGH GAME.”“Larry Zeidal,” the story began, “owns a scar for every one of the 20 years he marauded through organized hockey. ‘When you’re the only Jew in this bloody game,’ he said, ‘you have to prove you can take the rough stuff more than the average player.’” The story went on to say that Zeidal, in contrast to his teammates, readBarron’s Business Weeklybetween periods, perhaps taking “Lip” Pike as his inspiration. Pike, the encyclopedia notes, played baseball at a time when other players were usually gamblers and drunkards. “However, Pike was an exception. Throughout his career contemporary journals commented on his sobriety, intelligence, wit, and industry.”
Finally, if the encyclopedia fails, on balance, to rectify the oldest myth about the Jew—that he is “a stranger to athletics”—it must be allowed that this is a pioneering work and a step in the right direction. Let us hope that Messrs. Postal, Silver, and Silver, thus encouraged, will now take on other foul anti-Semitic myths, for instance, that Jews don’t drink or practice homosexuality widely enough. I, for one, look forward to an encyclopedia (for delinquent bar mitzvah boys, perhaps) on Jewish Drunks, High School Dropouts, and Thugs from Noah to Today. I would also like to see a compilation of Famous Jewish Homosexuals, Professional and Amateur, Throughout History.II. KOUFAX THEINCOMPARABLE
Within many a once-promising, now suddenly command-generation Jewish writer, there is a major league ball player waiting to leap out; and come Sunday mornings in summer, from the playing fields of East Hampton to the Bois de Boulogne to Hyde Park, you can see them, heedless of tender discs and protruding bellies, out in the fresh air together, playing ball. We were all raised on baseball. While today there do not seem to be that many Jewish major league stars about, when I was a kid there were plenty we could identify with: Sid Gordon and Al Rosen and of course Hank Greenberg. Even in Montreal we had, for a time, one of our own in the outfield, Kermit Kitman. Kitman, alas, was all field and no hit and never graduated from the Royals to the parent Dodgers, but it was once our schoolboy delight to lie in wait for him over the clubhouse at Saturday afternoon games and shout, “Hey, Kermit, youpipickhead,you think it’s right for you to strike out onShabbes?”
Baseball was never a bowl of cherries for the Jewish player.The Encyclopedia of Jews in Sportsobserves that while the initial ball player to accept money for playing was a Jew, Lipman E. Pike, there were few known Jewish players.The Sporting News,in 1902, wrote of one player, “His name was Cohen and he assumed the name of Kane when he became a semi-professional, because he fancied that there was a popular and professional prejudice against Hebrews as ball players.” Other major leaguers were more militantly Jewish. Barney Pelty, for instance,who pitched for the St. Louis Browns from 1903 to 1912, seemingly did not object to being known as “The Yiddish Curver.” Still, the number of our players in any era has been small, possibly because, as Norm Sherry, once a catcher with the Dodgers, has said, “Many boys find opposition at home when they want to go out for a ball-playing career.” Despite opposition at home or in the game, the Jew, as theEncyclopediahappily notes, has won virtually every honour in baseball. If there remains a Jewish Problem in the game today, it hinges on the Rosh Hashanah–Yom Kippur syndrome, for the truth we all have to live with is that much as the Reform temple has done to lighten our traditional Jewish burdens, the rush for the pennant and Rosh Hashanah, the World Series and Yom Kippur, still sometimes conflict.
Should a nice Jewish boy play ball on the High Holidays? Historical evidence is inconclusive. Harry Eisenstadt, once a pitcher for the Dodgers, was in uniform but not scheduled to pitch on Rosh Hashanah 1935, but when the Giants began to hurt his team he was called into the game and his first pitch was hit for a grand-slam home run. And yet—and yet—one year earlier, Hank Greenberg, with the Tigers close to their first pennant since 1909, played on Rosh Hashanah and hit two home runs. Greenberg went toshulon Yom Kippur, alas, and the Tigers lost. The whole country, rabbis and fans at odds, was involved in the controversy, and Edgar Guest was sufficiently inspired to write a poem, the last verse of which reads:
Come Yom Kippur—holy fast dayworld-wide over to the Jew—And Hank Greenberg to his teachingand the old tradition trueSpent the day among his peopleandhe didn’t come to play.Said Murphy to Mulrooney “Weshall lose the game today!We shall miss him in the infieldandshall miss him at the bat,But he’s true to his religion—andI honour him for that!”
Honour him, yes, but it is possible that Greenberg, at that time the only Jew in the Hall of Fame, was also tragically inhibited by his Jewish heritage. I’m thinking of 1938, when he had hit fifty-eight home runs, two short of Babe Ruth’s record, but with five games to play, failed to hit another one out of the park. Failed … or just possibly held back, because Greenberg just possibly understood that if he shattered the Babe’s record, seemingly inviolate, it would be considered pushy of him and, given the climate of the times, not be such a good thing for the Jews.
Greenberg, in any event, paved the way for today’s outstanding Jewish player, the incomparable Sandy Koufax. So sensitive is the Dodgers’ front office to Koufax’s religious feelings that Walter Alston, the Dodgers’ manager, who was once severely criticized for scheduling him to play on Yom Kippur,is now reported to keep a Jewish calendar on his desk.
Koufax, who has just published his autobiography, is not only the best Jewish hurler in history, he may well be the greatest pitcher of all time, regardless of race, colour, or creed. His fastball, Bob Feller has said, “is just as good as mine,” and Casey Stengel was once moved to comment, “If that young fella was running for office in Israel, they’d have a whole new government over there….” Koufax has won the National League’s Most valuable Player Award, the Cy Young Award as the outstanding major league pitcher of the year, and the Hickok Pro Athlete of the Year Award. He has pitched four no-hit games, more than any other major league pitcher. He holds the major league record for both the most shutouts and the most strikeouts in one season and also the major league record for the number of seasons in which he has struck out more than three hundred batters. He has tied the major league record for most strikeouts in a nine-inning game, and also tied World Series records. I could go on and on, but a nagging question persists. This, you’d think, was enough. Koufax, at least, has proved himself. He is accepted. But is he?
Anti-Semitism takes many subtle shapes, and the deprecating story one reads again and again, most memorably recorded inTime,is that Sandy Koufax is actually something of an intellectual. He doesn’t mix. Though he is the highest-paid player in the history of the game, improving enormously on Lipman E. Pike’s $20 a week, he considers himself above it. Fresco Thompson, a Dodger vice-president, is quoted as saying, “What kind of a line is hedrawing anyway—between himself and the world, between himself and the team?” Another report quotes Koufax himself as saying, “The last thing that entered my mind was becoming a professional athlete. Some kids dream of being a ball player. I wanted to be an architect. In fact, I didn’t like baseball. I didn’t think I’d ever like it.” And the infamousTimestory relates that when Koufax was asked how he felt after winning the last game in the 1965 World Series, he said, “I’m just glad it’s over and I don’t have to do this again for four whole months.”
InKoufax,which the pitcher wrote with the dubious relief help of one Ed Linn, he denies the accuracy of most of these stories. In fact, looked at one way, Koufax’s autobiography can be seen as a sad effort at self-vindication, a forced attempt to prove once and for all that he is the same as anybody else. Possibly Koufax protests too much. “I have nothing against myths,” he begins, “but there is one myth that has been building through the years that I would just as soon bury without any particular honours: the myth of Sandy Koufax, the anti-athlete.” He goes on to state flatly that he is no “dreamy intellectual” lured out of college by a big bonus, which he has since regretted, and as if to underline this point, he immediately lapses into regular-guy English. “Look, if I could act that good I’d have signed with 20th Century–Fox instead of Brooklyn….” Koufax protests that though he is supposed to read Aldous Huxley and Thomas Wolfe and listen to Beethoven, Bach, and Mendelssohn, if anybody dropped in at his place they would more likely find him listening to a show tune or a Sinatra album. All the same, he doesown up to a hi-fi. “I wish,” he writes, “my reading tastes were classier, but they happen to run to the bestseller list and the book-club selections,” which strikes this reader as something of an evasion. Which book clubs, Sandy? Literary Guild or Readers’ Subscription?
Koufax insists the only thing he was good at in school was athletics (he captained the basketball team that won the National Jewish Welfare Board hoop tournament in 1951–52) and denies, to quoteTimeagain, that he is an anti-athlete “who suffers so little from pride that he does not even possess a photograph of himself.” If you walk into his room, Koufax writes, “you are overwhelmed by a huge, immodest action painting,” by which he means a picture that shows him in four successive positions of delivery. Furthermore, he denies that “I’m mightily concerned about projecting a sparkling all-American image,” and yet it seems to me this book has no other purpose. Examined on any other level it is a very bush-league performance, thin, cliché-ridden, and slapped together with obnoxiously clever chapter headings such as, “Where the Games Were,”“La Dolce Vitaof Vero Beach,” “Suddenly That Summer,” and “California, Here We—Ooops—Come.” A chapter called “The Year of the Finger,” I should hasten to add in this time of Olympia and Grove Press books, actually deals with Koufax’s near tragic circulatory troubles, his suspected case of Raynaud’s syndrome.
Projecting an all-American image or not, Koufax hasn’t one unkind or, come to think of it, perceptive, word to say about the game or any of his teammates. Anecdotes with a built-in twinkle about this player orthat unfailingly end with “That’s John [Roseboro],” or “That’s Lou [Johnson],” and one of his weightiest observations runs “Life is odd,” which,paceFresco Thompson, is not enough to imply alienation.
Still true to the all-American image, Koufax writes, nicely understating the case, that though there are few automobiles he couldn’t afford today, nothing has given him more joy than the maroon Rollfast bicycle his grandparents gave him for his tenth birthday when he was just another Rockville Center kid. “An automobile is only a means of transportation. A bike to a ten-year-old boy is a magic carpet and a status symbol and a gift of love.” Self-conscious, perhaps, about his towering salary, which he clearly deserves, considering what a draw he is at the gate, he claims that most of the players were for him and Drysdale during their 1966 holdout. “The players felt—I hope—that the more we got paid, the more they would get paid in the future,” which may be stretching a point some.
Koufax was not an instant success in baseball. He was, to begin with, an inordinately wild pitcher, and the record for his 1955 rookie year was 2–2. The following year he won two more games, but lost four, and even in 1960 his record was only 8–13. Koufax didn’t arrive until 1961, with an 18–13 record, and though some accounts tell of his dissatisfaction with the earlier years and even report a bitter run-in with the Dodgers’ general manager, Buzzy Bavasi—because Koufax felt he was not getting sufficientwork—he understandably soft-pedals the story in his autobiography. Koufax is also soft on Alston, who, according to other sources, doubted that the pitcher would ever make it.
If Koufax came into his own in 1961—becoming a pitcher, he writes, as distinct from a thrower—then his transmogrification goes some way to belie the all-American image; in fact there is something in the story that will undoubtedly appeal to anti-Semites who favour the Jewish-conspiracy theory of history. Koufax, according to his own account, was helped most by two other Jews on the team, Allan Roth, the resident statistician, and Norm Sherry, a catcher. The turning point, Koufax writes, came during spring training, at an exhibition game, when Sherry told him, “Don’t try to throw hard, because when you force your fastball you’re always high with it. Just this once, try it my way….”
“I had heard it all before,” Koufax writes. “Only, for once, it wasn’t blahblahblah. For once I was rather convinced….” Koufax pitched Sherry’s way and ended up with a seven-inning no-hitter and went on from there to superstardom. The unasked question is, Would Norm Sherry have done as much for Don Drysdale?III. POSTSCRIPT
“Koufax the Incomparable” appeared inCommentary,November 1966, and led to a heated correspondence:
MARSHALL ADESMAN, BROOKLYN, N.Y., WROTE:
As a professional athlete in the highest sense of the word, Hank Greenberg would never have purposely failed to tie or break Ruth’s record. The material gain he could have realized by attaining this goal would have been matched only by the great prestige and glory that naturally come along with the magical figure of sixty home runs. Greenberg failed only because the pressure, magnified tenfold by the press, weighed too heavily on his shoulders. Very rarely is one able to hit the ball into the seats when he is seeking to do so. Home runs come from natural strokes of the bat, and Greenberg’s stroke in those last five games was anything but natural. The pitchers, also, were not giving the Detroit slugger anything too good to hit, not wishing to have the dubious honour of surrendering number sixty. In short, it was the pressure that made Greenberg’s bat too heavy, not the political atmosphere. Perhaps Mr. Richler should check his facts before his next article on the National Pastime.
SAMUEL HEFT, LONG BEACH, N.Y., WROTE:
I am stunned by…some startling statements made by Mordecai Richler….
Even to hint at the possibility that the Hall of Fame baseball player Hank Greenberg “held back” in his efforts to break Babe Ruth’s home run record, for any reason, is shocking. To state that Greenberg considered it would be “pushy” of him to do so, is almost too silly for comment. I shudder to think of a player in the Hall of Fame being accused of not giving his all….
Richler states that “many boys found oppositionat home” when they went out for sports. This is understandable. Our parents were not sports-minded, because of their European sufferings….I’m
sure our people didn’t get many opportunities to play ball in theshtetl,while running away from pogroms.
I disagree that there is a Jewish problem in baseball today. If Walter Alston keeps a Jewish calendar on his desk … it is because he is a good administrator and needs this reminder in his scheduling of pitchers’ rotations, and not because of “sensitivity.”
So far as playing baseball on the Jewish holidays goes, and yellingpipickheadat Kermit, this is not a baseball problem. I see with my own eyes too many Jews of all denominations mowing lawns, shopping, and doing numerous other chores on theShabbes….
Mr. Richler’s article may do serious harm in the struggle against discrimination…. Maybe, according to Richler, even Kermit Kitman might have been a good hitter, but he was afraid the Montreal non-Jewish population would think he was “pushy.”
E. KINTISCH, ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA, WROTE:
…Richler very obviously doesn’t think much of Koufax. Then why did he bother reading the Koufax book, or writing about it?…
JEROME HOLTZMAN,CHICAGO SUN-TIMES,CHICAGO, ILL., WROTE:
I am but one of approximately two to three dozen Jewish baseball writers—writers from big-city newspapers—who cover major league baseball teams from the beginning of spring training through the World Series—and as such should inform yourreaders that Mordecai Richler was off base quite a few times in his “Koufax the Incomparable.”
Richler indicates that Hank Greenberg was “tragically inhibited by his Jewish heritage” and thus held back and hit fifty-eight home runs instead of breaking Babe Ruth’s record of sixty because the breaking of such a record “…would be considered pushy of him…and not a good thing for the Jews.” Balderdash! Greenberg didn’t hit sixty because pitchers stopped giving him anything good to hit at—probably because he was Jewish, and probably also because no pitcher wants to be remembered for throwing historic home-run balls. We must assume also that the pressure was a factor, as it always is; what also hurt was that a season-ending doubleheader (in Cleveland) had to be moved to a bigger ballpark with a longer left field, and that the second game wasn’t played to a nine-inning finish….
I agree that theTimemagazine cover story on Koufax was distorted, but to accuseTimeof anti-Semitism is presumptuous.Timehas erred on plenty of other sports cover stories, as have many of the other slicks. The image of Koufax as an intellectual (which he is not) was featured, I suspect, because it made “a good angle” and probably because aTimestringer spotted a bookshelf. Moreover, that Koufax likes his privacy isn’t unusual. Many star players, Feller, Musial, Williamset al.,roomed alone in their later years and did their best to avoid the mob.
Author Richler is looking too hard, also, when he emphasizes that Koufax, in his autobiography, points out that he was helped most by two otherJews … Sherry, a catcher, advised Koufax not to throw hard, advice I’m sure Sherry has given to dozens and dozens of Gentile pitchers, and advice which previously had been given to Koufax by Gentile coaches. Sherry simply happened to mention this at precisely the right moment, before a meaningless exhibition game, and when Koufax was…eager to listen….
As for Allan Roth, he was a statistician with the Dodgers, the only full-time statistician employed by a big league club. Roth borders on genius in this field. It was his job to keep and translate his findings to the Dodger players and the Dodger management. Whatever information Roth gave Koufax (and I don’t know what this was), I’m sure was part of the routine. Richler’s attitude is disgusting if he thinks that Roth would favour Koufax because both are Jews. In effect, Richler is saying that Roth would withhold significant statistics from Gentiles such as Drysdale, Newcombe, or Podres.
I agree that from a so-called Jewish standpoint, the Koufax book is disappointing, and I agree with Richler that Koufax protesteth too much in emphasizing that he is not anti-athlete. It is unfortunate that Koufax didn’t control his anger, not only at theTimestory but at several minor pieces that preceded it. In his book, Koufax tells us almost nothing about his Jewishness; that he is Jewish is mentioned almost in passing. But he doesn’t owe us any detailed explanations. As a baseball book, and as a text in pitching, I found it excellent.
I should think thatCommentary,in this rare instance when it did touch on sports, could havedone better than offer the long-distance musings of a novelist….
AVRAM M. DUCOVNY, NEW YORK CITY, WRITES:
I am shocked that Mr. Richler in his treatise on Curve Balls: Are They Good or Bad for the Jews? overlooked Willie Davis’s three errors in one inning behind Koufax in the 1966 World Series—which was one of the most flagrant acts of Negro anti-Semitism since the panic of 1908.
He does get somewhere in pointing out the Jewish-conspiracy angle in the Norm Sherry–Koufax cabal; however, he does not really go deep enough. What of Norm’s brother Larry—also a Dodger pitcher at the time—stopped from the advice that made a super start because of piddling sibling rivalry? There’s one for Bill Stern!
And yea, verily, let us weep for the likes of Don Drysdale—disenfranchised WASP—alone in a sea of Gentile coaches whose knowledge of baseball never had the benefit of the secret indoctrination into theProtocols of the Elders of Swat.By the way, what is that resident genius, Norm Sherry, doing today? Have I somehow missed his name among the current great pitching coaches of baseball?
And finally, finally, the true story of the whispered Greenberg caper, wherein he was visited by representatives of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and Congress, and the many, many Friends of the Hebrew University, who said unto him: “Hershel, thou shalt not Swat; whither Ruth goest, thou goest not.”
I am looking forward with great anticipation toMr. Richler’s exposure of Mike Epstein (the self-labelled “super-Jew” rookie of the Baltimore Orioles) who all “insiders” know is a robot created at a secret plant in the Negev and shipped to Baltimore for obvious chauvinistic reasons.
FINALLY, THAT VERY GOOD WRITER DAN WAKEFIELD WROTE A MOST AMUSING LETTER THAT BEGAN:
I greatly enjoyed Mordecai Richler’s significant comments on Sandy Koufax, and the profound questions he raised about the role of Jews in American sports. Certainly much research still needs to be done in this area, and I hope that some of the provocative points raised by Richler will be picked up and followed through by our social scientists, many of whom are capable of turning, say, a called strike into a three-volume study of discrimination in the subculture of American athletics.
The crucial question is, Did Hank Greenberg hold back (possibly for our sake), or was the pressure too much for him? Mr. Adesman, obviously a worldly man, suggests that Greenberg couldn’t have held back, because of “the material gain he could have realized” by hitting sixty home runs. This, it seems to me, is gratuitously attributing coarse motives to an outstanding Jewish sportsman.
Mr. Heft is stunned by my flattering notion that Greenberg might have placed the greater Jewish good above mere athletic records and goes on to nibble at a theory of Jewish anti-gamesmanship based on our parents’ “running away from pogroms.” Thistheory, clearly unattractive if developed to its logical big league conclusion, would surely have resulted in a more noteworthy Jewish record on the base paths. Mr. Heft is also of the opinion that if Walter Alston keeps a Jewish calendar on his desk, it is because he is a good administrator. Yom Kippur, Mr. Heft, comes but once a year, and surely Alston doesn’t require a calendar to remind him of one date. If Koufax had also been unwilling to take his turn on the mound on Tishah-b’Ab or required, say, achometz-freeresin bag for the Passover week, then Alston would have had a case. As things stand, the calendar must be reckoned ostentatious.
About Kermit Kitman: I’m afraid his poor hitting had no racial origins, but was a failure all his own, regardless of race, colour, or creed. His superb fielding, however, was another matter: a clear case of the overcompensating Jew. Briefly put, Kitman was a notoriouschapper—a grabber, that is to say, any fly ball hit into the outfield had to behisfly ball, if you know what I mean.
Mr. Kintisch errs. I admire Koufax enormously and shall miss him sorely this season. He was undoubtedly the greatest pitcher of our time, and yet—and yet—now that he has retired so young, is it possible that carping anti-Semites have already begun the whispering campaign: great, yes, butsickly.Without the staying power of Warren Spahn. An unnatural athlete.
Jerome Holtzman, a dazzling intellectual asset to the sports department of theChicago Sun-Times,raises darker questions. Greenberg, he says, would never have held back. He “didn’t hit sixty becausepitchers stopped giving him anything good to hit at—probably because he was Jewish….” Now there’s something nasty even I didn’t think of: the possibility that Bob Feller, Red Ruffing, and others threw bigoted anti-Semitic curveballs at Hank Greenberg while a later generation of American League pitchers fed Roger Maris pro-Gentile pitches…. Next season I would implore Holtzman and other Jewish baseball writers to keep a sharp eye on the racial nature of pitches thrown to (or God forbid, even at) Mike Epstein.
As forTime,if it is not anti-Semitic, then it is certainly Machiavellian; otherwise, why second-best Juan Marichal on a cover last summer when Koufax was also available? Either as a back of the hand to Jewish achievement or as a shameful, possibly Jewish-motivated, attempt to apply the famousTimecover jinx to the one Gentile who might have won more games than Koufax.
Messrs. Ducovny and Wakefield are another matter. They think I would joke about Jews in sport, which strikes me as presumptuous.
Mr. Ducovny cunningly introduces Willie Davis’s three errors behind Koufax in one inning and immediately claims this was a case of Negro anti-Semitism. Not necessarily. It depends on whether Davis dropped the three fly balls in his character as a Negro or in his office as an outfielder. Me, I’m keeping an open mind on the incident.
On the other hand, Mr. Wakefield is right when he says there is much more research to be done about Jews in sport. Not only Jews, but other minority and out-groups. Allan Roth,paceJeromeHoltzman, may border on genius in his field, but though it may seem to some fans that baseball is already stifled with statistics, these are only statistics of a certain kind, safe statistics. It has been left to me to establish, haphazardly I admit, the absorbing statistic that homosexuals in both major leagues prefer playing third base over all other positions. As a group, they hit better in night games and are more adroit at trapping line drives than catching flies. They do not, as the prejudiced would have it, tend to be showboats. They are a group with a gripe. A valid gripe. Treated as equals on the field, cheered on by teammates when they hit a homer, they tend to be shunned in the showers. On road trips, they have trouble finding roomies.
Finally, since I wrote my article, so unexpectedly controversial, world events have overtaken journalism.
Sandy Koufax has retired.
Ronald Reagan has been elected governor of California.
Tommy Davis has been traded to the Mets.
Maury Wills has been given, it would seem, to Pittsburgh.
I’m not saying that Ronald Reagan, who in the unhappy past has been obliged to play second-best man again and again for Jewish producers, has been harbouring resentments … or is behind the incomparable Koufax’s departure from California. I’m not saying that image-conscious Governor Reagan, mindful of right-wing support, was against beingphotographed shaking hands with Captain Maury Wills on opening day. I’m also not saying that after Willie Davis dropped the three flies, Mr. O’Malley turned to one of his minions and said, “Davis belongs with the Mets.” Furthermore, I’m not saying that the aforementioned front-office minion could not tell one Davis from another…. Just remember, as they said in the sports pages of my boyhood, that you read it here first.
19663A Real Canadian Success Story
“You’ll find this is a good story for you,” he said. “A real Canadian success story.”
The party at the other end of the line was Ben Weider, president of the International Federation of Body Builders, who was sponsoring the Official Combination Contests to Select Mr. America and Mr. Universe at the Monument National Theatre, in Montreal, in 1960. The competition, according to advance publicity, was going to be the “Greatest Physical Culture Contest ever organized anyplace in the World!”
“I’ve been to eighty-four countries in the last six years,” Weider told me, “including Red China. But I’m not a communist, you know.”
Weider was a man of many offices. He was, with his brother Joe, the Trainer of Champions, with outlets in cities as far-flung as Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, and Vienna. He was president and director of Weider Food Supplements (makers of Super Protein 90 andEnergex) and the Weider Barbell Company, and managing editor ofMr. AmericaandMuscle Builder,among other magazines. He was the author of such books asMANGEZ BIENet restez svelte andJEUNEtoute sa vie. In one of his many inspirational articles, “The Man Who Began Again,” he wrote, “True sportsmen always cheer for the underdog … for the guy who has come up from down under—the hard way,” and that’s certainly how Ben Weider had risen to eminence as manufacturer, publisher, author, editor, world traveller, and number-one purveyor of muscle-building equipment and correspondence courses in North America.
Weider was only thirty-six years old. His brother Joe, who ran the American end of their various enterprises out of Union City, New Jersey, was thirty-nine. They had both been brought up in Montreal’s St. Urbain Street area during the thirties. Skinny, underdeveloped boys, they first took to body development as a form of self-improvement. Then, in 1939, they began to write and publish a mimeographed magazine that would tell others how they could become he-men. To begin with, the magazine had a circulation of five hundred copies. Enthusiasts started to write in to ask where they could get the necessary equipment to train themselves. And so, from their modest offices on Colonial Street, the Weiders began to supply the desired equipment and correspondence courses until, Ben Weider said, they became the acknowledged leaders in the field.Muscle BuilderandMr. America,no longer mimeographed, now appeared monthly in ten languages with, Weider claimed, a total circulation of a million copies.
In May 1960, Ben Weider moved into his ownbuilding on Bates Road, from which he overlooked his widespread empire in the comfort of a most luxurious office. For inspiration, perhaps, there hung behind Weider’s desk a painting of a resolute Napoleon, sword drawn, mounted atop a bucking stallion. It was here, amid trophies, diplomas, and the odd bottle of Quick-Wate (Say Goodbye to Skinny Weakness), that we had our first chat.
“Why don’t you send me a chapter from your next novel,” Weider offered, “and we could shove it intoMuscle BuilderorMr. America.It ought to win you a lot of new readers.”
Yes, possibly. But, alas, I had to let on, I had never been consideredA BIG HITTERby the muscle-building set.
Weider looked at me severely.
Later, once I had read some of his correspondence courses, I realized that he had probably spotted my inferiority complex. I was not thinkingBIG,positivethoughts.“DON’T BE ENVIOUS OF SOMEONE ELSE’S SUCCESS,”brother Joe advised people who felt inferior.“MAYBE SOMEONE ELSE ENVIES YOU!They are bald…you have a head full of hair.They are fat…you are building a he-man body.”
Weider was a soft-spoken, courteous, ever-smiling man(“YOUR TEETH,”Joe wrote,“ARE THE JEWELS OF YOUR FACE”)with a high-pitched voice. A conservative dresser, he had surely grasped, just as Joe advised inBE POPULAR, SELF-CONFIDENT, AND A HE-MAN,that it was necessary toMAKE YOUR FIRST IMPRESSION A GOOD ONE!Why? Because, as Joe said,your packaging is your appearance.Another thing was that Ben had chosen his hairstyle wisely.It fitted his face!He was not thesort of birdbrain Joe complained about who wore his hair in, say, a Flat-Top Crew Cut, just because “it’s what everybody else is wearing now.”
Weider, married in 1959, had recently become a father. His boy, he told me, weighed ten pounds eleven ounces at birth.He was also twenty-three inches long!
“CONGRATULATIONS!!!”I said, grasping his handfirmly.And, even as we parted, I made a note to remember his name, for… “people like to be called by name…. You can make yourself a realsomebodyby being known as theoneman who never forgets names.”
At home, I had time to read only one of Weider’s correspondence lessons before going to bed. My choice wasSecrets of a Healthy Sex Life.
Choosing the right girl, brother Joe wrote, was vitally important.“Is she sports-minded?”he asks. “Would she frown on you having your own home gym?DOES SHE LIKE WORKING OUT WITH YOU?”
Weider also suggested that young couples should pray together, use a good deodorant and positive thinking, and keep their weightnormalized.He offered sensible advice to young husbands. “Wear clean pyjamas each night…and be sure that you have a variety of patterns in pyjamas. You would not expect her to retire in a torn nightgown with cold cream daubed over her face … hence you should make yourself as attractive as she.”
All in all,Secretsgave me plenty of food for thought. It seemed a good idea to absorb its message before plunging into other, more advanced lessons, likeHow to Get the Most Out of People,although thisparticular pamphlet looked most intriguing. The illustration on the cover showed an assured, smiling young man grasping piles of dollar bills, coins, and money bags. I was keen to learn from him how to use people, but oneBIG,positivethought was enough for one day. So, putting the lessons aside, I turned toMuscle Builder.There I read that Chuck Sipes, a recent Mr. America champion, had built hisTERRIFICmuscles by using the Weider Concentration Principle.
A couple of days later I met Sipes at the Mount Royal Studio, where he had come to train for the approaching contest.
“Been in weightlifting a long time?” I asked.
“Enjoying your stay in Montreal?”
Sipes managed a gym in Sacramento, California. He told me that when he started lifting weights eight years ago he had been just another puny guy of some 165 pounds, but now he weighed in at 204. I wished him luck in the contest and went on to chat with Mr. Ireland, Mr. Bombay, and Mr. Hercules of India, all fine fellows. But the man who made the greatest impression on me was Mr. Scotland Sr., otherwise known as R. G. Smith, of the electricity board in Edinburgh. Smith, who was to become my friend, had come to Montreal both to visit his children and to enter the contest—not that he had the slightest chance of winning. Smith was fifty-four years old. He had begun to practice body building at forty-seven.
The body builders’ exhibition was held on Eaton’sfourth floor on the Friday night before the contest. There was a good turnout. Some three to four hundred people, I’d say. An associate of Weider’s introduced me to Dr. Frederick Tilney, who had flown in from Florida to be one of the contest judges. “Dr. Tilney,” the man said, “has seven degrees.”
The doctor, a sturdily built man in his mid-sixties, looked surprisingly young for his years.
“Can you tell me,” I asked, “at what colleges you got your degrees?”
“What’s the difference what college? A college is a college. Some college graduates end up digging ditches. It’s what you make of yourself that counts in this world.”
“What exactly do you do, Doctor?”
“Oh, I lecture on health and success and that sort of stuff.”
Suddenly Ben Weider was upon us. “Sorry to interrupt your interview,” he said, “but the show must go on.”
A young French-Canadian body builder mounted the platform to introduce Dr. Tilney. “The doctor,” he said, “has travelled all over the world and is one of the most famous editors and writers in it.”
“Well, then,” Dr. Tilney said, “I’m sure all you washed-out, weak, worn-out, suffering, sickly men want to renew your youth and delay that trip to the underground bungalow.”
A body builder came out and struck a classic pose.
Dr. Tilney beamed at us. “We have assembled here some of the finest examples of manhood in the world. We are building a new race of muscularmarvels, greater than the Greek gods. We’re doing it scientifically.”
Mr. Ireland assumed a heroic pose.
“You too,” Dr. Tilney told us, “can develop a physique like Bill Cook’s and overcome constipation, hernia, hardening of the arteries, diarrhea, heart disease, tuberculosis, rheumatism, and so forth.”
We were introduced to Ed Theriault and his eight-year-old son, who demonstrated the Weider Chest Expander.
“This man here,” the doctor said, “is the strongest short man in the world. He can do it—so can you! And look at this boy here. Isn’t he sensational? Body building is one of the finest means of overcoming delinquency. If the kid’s in the gym he’s not in the poolroom. Why, I’m sure none of you want your boy to grow up a skinny runt—puny! You want him to be a real Weider he-man!”
Some other men came out to demonstrate weight lifting.
“And just look at the fine equipment, Weider equipment,” the doctor said. “Guaranteed to last a lifetime. No parts to break. Isn’t it something? And I have news for you. Eaton’s is going to make this beautiful equipment available to you on their wonderful convenient time-payment plan. Isn’t that something?”
Ben Weider applauded.
“You men out there,” the doctor said, “want to have the bodies the Creator meant you to have, don’t you?”
Mr. Scotland Sr. asked if he could say a few words.
“I just wanted to tell you,” he said, “that I’m glad to be in your city, it’s a wonderful opportunity, and I think body building is marvellous.”
“Isn’t that sensational?” Dr. Tilney said.
Chuck Sipes, the former Mr. America, came out and bent some enormous nails. He asked for a hot-water bottle and blew it up and exploded it just like a child’s balloon.
“He’s demonstrating wonderful lung power,” Dr. Tilney said.
Chuck said he’d like to tear a telephone book for us.
“You’ll notice,” the doctor said, “that he’s starting on the real tough end, the bound end of the book.”
Chuck pulled, he grimaced, he grunted, he pulled again.
“A lot of you folks have heard body builders are musclebound. Well, you just watch Chuck here demonstrate …”
Chuck couldn’t tear the book. He apologized, explaining that his hands were still greasy from having rubbed so much olive oil on his chest before posing for us.
“See you on Sunday at the Monument National,” Dr. Tilney said.
The crowd began to disperse. I went home to study Weider’s magazines and correspondence courses and to read up on Dr. Tilney, in anticipation of the grand contest on Sunday.
The pinups and articles inMuscle BuilderandMr. Americaappear between advertisements for Weider equipment. In one advertisement inMuscle Builder,Weider offers his readers $50 worth of personalitycoursesFREE&MDASH;with each order for $21.98 worth of equipment. Otherwise, his booklets sold for $1 each. They includedHow to Make Women Like You, How to Develop Leadership Qualities,andSex Education for the Body Builder.“WHAT YOU DARE TO DREAM,”one booklet advised,“DARE TO DO.”
All the personality-course booklets were signed “Joe Weider, Trainer of Champions,” but Dr. Tilney assured me that he was the actual author. The doctor, who had been in the health business for fifty years, also claimed that he had written the original Charles Atlas courses in the twenties and, to his regret, sold them outright for $1,000.
Tilney was a doctor of philosophy, divinity, natural law, naturopathy, chiropractic, and food science. I am indebted to Armin Mitto-Sampson of Trinidad for this information. Mitto-Sampson, author ofMeet…Dr. Frederick Tilney,writes, “He stands like a Colossus, a God-propelled Titan, floodlighting the cosmos with his inspirational thunderbolts. He has zoomed up the voltage of more downtrodden souls than most all the Teachers, Adepts, Masters and Leaders of Men put together…. Most of Dr. Tilney’s articles are stunners—torrid capsules…. His word-arrows are the language ofTRUTH,not the piffle of intellectual witch-doctors…. At his lectures truth-starved souls gulp his gems, eager to utilize the Jewels of his Thoughts.”
The next time I saw the doctor it was backstage at the Monument National Theatre on the day of the Mr. Universe and Mr. America contests, and all around me body builders were busy rubbing olive oil on each other’s back and chest, posing forphotographers, and trying out difficult postures before a full-length mirror. Ben Weider flitted anxiously from group to group, like a bad-tempered schoolmarm on scholarship day. I spotted my friend Mr. Scotland Sr. standing alone. He was, like so many of the body builders in the contest, an unusually short man. “If you ask me,” he said, “it’s going to be Mr. Guadeloupe and Mr. France. They can’t be beat.”
Joe Weider, who had flown in from Union City for the contest, wore a dark suit, a conservative tie, and a pleated dress shirt. A romantic drawing of him appeared in almost all Weider advertisements and bottle labels. The drawing showed Joe with enormous arms folded over a massive bare chest, his expression manly, commanding, but of course it could give no indication that in real life he also suffered from a nervous twitch.
“You all get into a circle now,” Joe ordered the bashful contestants.“Did you hear what I said?”And he began to strut around them like a ringmaster. Meanwhile, Ben, followed everywhere by a sad, nearsighted photographer, grabbed Mr. Guadeloupe. “Take my picture with him.” Briefly, Ben smiled. “Got it?”
The photographer nodded.
“Where in the hell’s Mr. France?”
I took a seat in the orchestra pit with the judges and noted that the contest had attracted a full house. Ben Weider welcomed us on behalf of the IFBB. The master of ceremonies came out and told us, “I will announce each contestant as Mr. So-and-so from here-here in English and French. Then I’ll tell you his weight, height, and measurements of chest and biceps. That’s biceps,” he said, grinning, “not bisex.I will also tell you where each contestant has flown in from for the contest.”
The boys began to appear onstage. The former Mr. Eastern Canada Jr., Mr. Calcutta, the Most Muscular Man from the Middle Atlantic, Mr. Hercules Jr., Mr. Montreal, Mr. Northern Quebec, and Mr. Muscle Beach. One by one they stepped under the spotlight, assumed a series of virile poses, and showed some spectacular muscle control. The last activity includes throwing the shoulder blades astonishingly far apart, jerking breast muscles, raising shoulder humps, and revolving yet other muscles.
During the intermission, between the Mr. America and Mr. Universe contests, the activity backstage was frenetic, what with cameramen competing to get shots of the likely winners. Ben Weider, here, there, and everywhere, attempted to gather his body builders into a corner. “Now listen to this! Will you come here and listen, please!”
Slowly the contestants gathered around.
“There will be no more gum chewing or muscle control. And I’m not kidding, guys. Anybody who does chew gum or do muscle-control stunts onstage will lose points.”
I was, I must say, taken aback by Weider’s behaviour. Only the other day I had read, inHow to Develop Leadership Qualities, “Avoid shouting…BE FIRM—BUT DON’T BULLY.The most commanding people I’ve met were the gentlest and the kindest. Only the weak individual becomes a bully.” But this, I felt, was not the right time for reproaches.
The second half of the program, the Mr. Universe contest, moved along more quickly than the first, andafter the lads had done their bit Ben Weider summoned them into a corner once more. “Okay, we’re soon going to announce the results. Now listen, you guys,will you listen, please.EVERYBODY’S GOING TO GET A MEDAL.But you have to be ready to go on as soon as your name is called.Understand?Be ready when your name is called. And just don’t come crying to me afterwards and say you didn’t get your medal.Because you won’t get your medal afterwards.”
Before the results were announced, Weider, once more composed and soft-spoken, came onstage to present an award to Dr. Tilney for his tremendous contribution to the cause of body building. “The doc,” he said, “is a real okay fella.”
Then, one by one, the contestants’ names were called, and, just as Weider had promised, there were medals for everybody. Mr. Guadeloupe and Mr. France both won bigger trophies than the rest, but the grand prize of all, Mr. Universe, went to Chuck Sipes. He burst into tears.
Then it was off to the City Hall in the rain for the official reception. Dr. Tilney and the other judges had already arrived by the time I got there. Heaps of sandwiches and glasses of fruit juice were laid out on a long table. Finally, the boys began to turn up. And after a short delay, Ben Weider rushed into the hall, carrying diplomas in both arms. Tony Lanza, one of the judges, went to summon the mayor.
Sarto Fournier, then mayor of Montreal, told us how much he admired body builders. “I have been told,” he said, “that you boys have come from twenty different countries.”
Weider summoned his photographer to takepictures of himself with the mayor. Shuffling through diplomas, he began to call the boys forward. “And this,” Weider said to the mayor, “is the young man who won the Most Muscular Man in America Award.He’s a fine French-Canadian boy,Your Worship.”
The mayor grasped the boy’s hand and smiled. Photographers drew nearer. Weider, also smiling, stepped between the mayor and the boy, thrusting his wife into the picture as well.
“And this, sir, is Bill Cook,MR. IRELAND!”
Cook wore a green jacket.
“I can see,” the mayor said, with a twinkle in his eye, “that you are Irish.”
Weider shook with laughter.
Then, as more and more boys came forward to collect diplomas, the mayor glanced anxiously at his watch. Weider began to speed things up. “The mayor,” Weider said, “has taken off valuable time from his work to greet us here. Well, I think everybody will agree he’s a jolly good fellow.”
As Ben Weider and his wife, brother Joe, and Chuck Sipes gathered around, the mayor got out his Golden Book. Everybody smiled for the sad, nearsighted photographer. “No,no,NO,”Weider protested. “I want my wife to sign the Golden Book too.”4With the Trail Smoke Eaters in Stockholm
In 1963 the world ice hockey championships were not only held in Stockholm but, for the third time, the Swedes were the incumbent champions and the team to beat. Other threatening contenders were the Czechs and the Russians, and the team everyone had come to see humiliated was our own peppery but far from incomparable Trail Smoke Eaters.
“No nations can form ties of friendship without there being personal contact between the peoples. In these respects sports builds on principles of long standing,” Helge Berglund, president of the Swedish Hockey Association, wrote warmly in the world hockey tournament’s 1963 program. Berglund’s bubbly letter of greeting continued, “I do hope the ice hockey players will feel at home here and that you will take advantage of your leisure to study Swedish culture and Swedish life. Welcome to our country.”
Yes, indeed; but on the day I arrived in Stockholm a poster advertising a sports magazineon kiosks everywhere announced“THE CANADIANS WANT TO SEE BLOOD.”Only a few days later a headline in theToronto Daily Starread“UGLY ROW IN SWEDEN OVER OUR HOCKEY TEAM.”
I checked into the Hotel Continental, a well-lit teak-ridden place where well on a hundred other reporters, radio and television men, referees, a hockey priest, and a contingent of twenty-seven Russians were staying and immediately sought out Jim Proudfoot of theToronto Daily Star.Proudfoot had just returned from a cocktail party at the Canadian embassy. “What did the players have to say?” I asked.
“The players weren’t invited.”
The next morning things began to sizzle. On Saturday night, according to the most colourful Swedish newspapers, a substitute player with the Canadian team, Russ Kowalchuk, tried to smuggle a girl into his room and was knocked senseless by an outraged hall porter. Kowalchuk, enthusiastically described as a “star” in one Swedish newspaper and “a philandering hoodlum” in another, was not flattered: he denied that there had been a girl involved in the incident and claimed he had been flattened by a sneak punch.
Two things worried me about this essentially commonplace story. While it seemed credible that a hotel porter might be shocked if a hockey player tried to sneak a stuffed rabbit into the elevator, it did seem absurd that he would be shaken to his roots if a man, invited by Helge Berglund to study Swedish life, tried to take a girl to his room. And if the Canadians were such a rough-and-ready lot, if theywere determined to crush Swedish bones in Friday night’s game, wasn’t it deflating that one of their defencemen could be knocked out by a mere porter? More important, mightn’t it even hurt the gate?
The Trail Smoke Eaters, as well as the Czech, Russian, and American players, were staying at the Malmen—not, to put it mildly, the most elegant of hotels, a feeling, I might add, obviously shared by the amateur hockey officials associated with the Smoke Eaters, which group sagaciously put up at the much more commodious Grand Hotel.
When I finally got to the Malmen at noon on Sunday, I found the sidewalk outside all but impassable. Kids clutching autograph books, older boys in black leather jackets, and fetching girls who didn’t look as if they’d need much encouragement to come in out of the cold, jostled each other by the entrance. An American player emerged from the hotel and was quickly engulfed by a group of autograph-hungry kids. “Shove off,” he said, leading with his elbows; and if the kids (who, incidentally, learn to speak three languages at school) didn’t grasp the colloquialism immediately, then the player’s message, I must say, was implicit in his tone. The kids scattered. The American player, however, stopped a little farther down the street for three girls and signed his name for them. I knew hecouldsign too, for, unlike the amateurs of other nations, he was neither a reinstated pro, army officer, or sports equipment manufacturer but a bona fide student. Possibly, he could signvery well.
In the lobby of the Malmen, Bobby Kromm, the truculent coach of the Smoke Eaters, was shoutingat a Swedish journalist. Other players, reporters, camp followers, cops,agents provocateurs,and strong-armed hotel staff milled about, seemingly bored. Outside, kids with their noses flattened against the windows tried to attract the attention of the players who slouched in leather chairs. Suddenly the Russian team, off to a game, emerged from the elevators, already in playing uniforms and carrying sticks. A Canadian journalist whispered to me, “Don’t they look sinister?” As a matter of fact, if you overlooked the absence of facial stitches, they closely resembled the many Canadians of Ukrainian origin who play in the National Hockey League.
Bobby Kromm and his assistant manager, Don Freer, were also off to the game, but they agreed to meet me at eight o’clock.
When I returned to the Malmen that evening, I saw a car parked by the entrance, three girls waiting in the backseat. Kids, also hoping to attract the players’ attention, were banging coins against the lobby windows. The players ignored them, sucking on matchsticks. Kromm, Freer, and I went into the dining room, and while I ordered a cognac I was gratified to see that the reputedly terrifying Smoke Eaters, those behemoths who struck fear into the hearts of both Swedish mothers and Russian defencemen, stuck to coffee and pie.
Kromm, assuming our elderly waiter could understand English, barked his order at him and was somewhat put out—in fact, he complained in a voice trained to carry out to centre ice—when the waiter got his order wrong. The waiter began to mutter. “You see,” Kromm said, “they just don’t like Canadians here.”
I nodded sympathetically.
“Why do they serve us pork chops,coldpork chops,for breakfast?”
“If you don’t like it here, why don’t you check out and move right into another hotel?”
This wasn’t possible, Kromm explained. Their stay at the Malmen was prepaid. It had been arranged by John Ahearne, European president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, who, as it turned out, also ran a travel agency. “If they’d treat us good here,” Kromm said, “we’d treat them good.”
Freer explained that the Smoke Eaters had nothing against the Swedes, but they felt the press had used them badly.
“They called me a slum,” Kromm said. “Am I a slum?”
“No. But what,” I asked, “is your big complaint here?”
Bobby Kromm pondered briefly. “We’ve got nothing to do at night. Why couldn’t they give us a Ping-Pong table?”
Were these men the terror of Stockholm? On the contrary. It seemed to me they would have delighted the heart of any YMCA athletic director. Freer told me proudly that nine of the twenty-one players on the team had been born and raised in Trail and that ten of them worked for the CM and S.
“What does that stand for?” I asked.
“I dunno,” he said.
It stands for Consolidated Mining and Smelting, and Bobby Kromm is employed as a glassblower by the company. All of them would be compensated for lost pay.
Kromm said, “We can’t step out of the hotel without feeling like monkeys in a cage. People point you out on the streets and laugh.”
“It might help if you didn’t wear those blazing red coats everywhere.”
“We haven’t any other coats.”
I asked Kromm why European players didn’t go in for body checking.
“They condone it,” he said, “that’s why.”
I must have looked baffled.
“They condone it. Don’t you understand?”
I did, once I remembered that when Kromm had been asked by another reporter for his version of the girl-in-the-lobby incident, he had said, “Okay, I’ll give you my impersonation of it.”
Kromm and Freer were clear about one thing. “We’d never come back here again.”
Jackie McLeod, the only player on the team with National Hockey League experience, didn’t want to come back again either. I asked him if he had, as reported, been wakened by hostile telephone calls. He had been wakened, he said, but the calls weren’t hostile. “Just guys in nightclubs wanting us to come out and have a drink with them.”
While Canadian and Swedish journalists were outraged by Kowalchuk’s misadventures, the men representing international news agencies found the tournament dull and Stockholm a subzero and most expensive bore. Late every night the weary reporters, many of whom had sat through three hockey games a day in a cold arena, gathered in the makeshift press club at the Hotel Continental. Genuine melancholy usually set in at 2:00 a.m.
“If only we could get one of the Russian players to defect.”
“You crazy? To work for a lousy smelting factory in Trail? Those guys have it really good, you know.”
The lowest paid of all the amateurs were the Americans, who were given $20 spending money for the entire European tour; and the best off, individually, was undoubtedly the Swedish star, Tumba Johansson. Tumba, a $10-a-game amateur, had turned down a Boston Bruins contract offer but not, I feel, because he was intent on keeping his status pure. A national hero, Tumba earns a reputed $40,000 a year through a hockey equipment manufacturer. First night on the ice not many Swedish players wore helmets. “Don’t worry,” a local reporter said, “they’ll be wearing their helmets for Tumba on Wednesday. Wednesday they’re on TV.”
It was most exhilarating to be a Canadian in Stockholm. Everywhere else I’ve been in Europe I’ve generally had to explain where and what Canada was, that I was neither quite an American nor really a colonial. But in Sweden there was no need to fumble or apologize. Canadians are known, widely known, and widely disliked. It gave me a charge, this—a real charge—as if I actually came from a country important enough to be feared.
The affable Helge Berglund claims there are more than a hundred thousand active players and about seven thousand hockey teams in Sweden. How fitting, he reflects, that the Johanneshovisstadionshould be the scene of the world championship competition. “The stadium’s fame as the Mecca of ice hockey,” he continues in his own bouncy style, “is once more sustained.”
My trouble was I couldn’t get into Mecca.
“You say that you have just come from London for theMaclean’s,”the official said warily, “but how do I know you are not a… chancer?”
With the help of the Canadian embassy, I was able to establish that I was an honest reporter.
“I could tell you were not a chancer,” the official said, smiling now. “A man doesn’t flow all the way from London just for a free ticket.”
“You’re very perceptive,” I said.
“They think here I am a fool that I do everybody favours—even the Russians. But if I now go to Moscow, they do me a favour and if I come to London,” he said menacingly, “you are happy to do me a favour too.”
Inside theisstadion,the Finns were playing the West Germans. A sloppy, lacklustre affair. Very little body contact. If a Finn and a West German collided, they didn’t exactly say excuse me; neither did any of them come on in rough National Hockey League style.
I returned the same night, Monday, to watch the Smoke Eaters play the exhausted, dispirited Americans. Down four goals to begin with, the Canadians easily rallied to win 10–4. The game, a dull one, was not altogether uninstructive. I had been placed in the press section and in the seats below me agitated agency men, reporters from Associated Press, United Press International, Canadian Press, and other news organizations, sat with pads on their knees and telephones clapped to their ears. Therewas a scramble around the American nets and a goal was scored.
“Um, it looked like number 10 to me,” one of the agency men ventured.
“No, no—it was number 6.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m with Harry,” the man from another agency said. “I think it was number 10.”
A troubled pause.
“Maybe we ought to wait for the official scorer?”
“Tell you what, as long as we all agree it was number 10—”
All at once, the agency men began to talk urgently into their telephones.
“… and the Smoke Eaters add yet another tally. The second counter of the series for…”
The next game I saw—Canada vs. Czechoslovakia—was what the sporting writers of my Montreal boyhood used to call the big one, a four pointer. Whoever lost this one was unlikely to emerge world champion. Sensing the excitement, maybe even hoping for a show of violence, some fifteen thousand people turned up for the match. Most of them were obliged to stand for the entire game, maybe two hours.
This was an exciting contest, the lead seesawing back and forth throughout. The Czech amateurs are not only better paid than ours but play with infinitely more elegance. Superb stickhandlers and accurate passers, they skated circles around the Smoke Eaters, overlooking only one thing: in order to score frequently, it is necessary to shoot on the nets. Whilethe Czechs seemed loath to part with the puck, the more primitive Canadians couldn’t get rid of it quickly enough. Their approach was to wind up and belt the puck in the general direction of the Czech zone, all five players digging in after it.
The spectators—except for one hoarse and lonely voice that seemed to come from the farthest reaches of Helge Berglund’s Mecca—delighted in every Canadian pratfall. From time to time, the isolated Canadian supporter called out in a mournful voice, “Come on, Canada.”
The Czechs had a built-in cheering section behind their bench. Each time one of their players put stick and puck together, a banner was unfurled and at least a hundred chunky broad-shouldered men began to leap up and down and shout something that sounded like “Umpa-Umpa-Czechoslovakia!”
Whenever a Czech player scored, their bench would empty, everybody spilling out on the ice to embrace, leap in the air, and shout joyously. The Canadian team, made of cooler stuff, would confine their scoring celebration to players already out on the ice. With admirable unselfconsciousness, I thought, the boys would skate up and down poking each other on the behind with their hockey sticks.
The game, incidentally, ended in a 4–4 tie.
The Canadians wanted to see blood, the posters said. Hoodlums, one newspaper said. The red jackets go hunting at night, another claimed. George Gross, the TorontoTelegram’soutraged reporter, wrote, “Anti-Canadian feeling is so strong here it has become impossible to wear a maple leaf on yourlapel without being branded ruffian, hooligan and—since yesterday—sex maniac.”
A man, that is to say, a Canadian man, couldn’t help walking taller in such a heady atmosphere, absorbing some of the fabled Smoke Eaters’ virility by osmosis. But I must confess that no window shutters were drawn as I walked down the streets. Mothers did not lock up their daughters. I was not called ruffian, hooligan, or anything even mildly deprecating. Possibly, the trouble was I wore no maple leaf in my lapel.
Anyway, in the end everything worked out fine. On Tuesday morning Russ Kowalchuk’s virtue shone with its radiance restored. Earlier, Art Potter, the politically astute president of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, had confided to a Canadian reporter, “These are cold war tactics to demoralize the Canadian team. They always stab us in the back here.” But now even he was satisfied. Witnesses swore there was no girl in the lobby. The Malmen Hotel apologized. Russ Kowalchuk, after all, was a nice clean-living Canadian boy. In the late watches of the night, he did not lust after Swedish girls, but possibly, like Bobby Kromm and Don Freer, yearned for nothing more depraved than a Ping-Pong table. A McIntosh apple, maybe.
Finally, the Smoke Eaters did not behave badly in Stockholm. They were misunderstood. They also finished fourth.5Safari
Aweek before our scheduled departure for Kenya in 1982, excitement ruled our home. After all, we were soon to abandon wintry Montreal for the fabled Aberdare Salient, Lake Baringo in the Great Rift Valley, and the Masai Mara Game Reserve. Lions, leopards, elephants, zebras, antelopes, and gazelles. Florence and I took to studying Ker and Downey Tented Safari brochures in bed. Our insect-proof tents, we were assured, would include bedside lamps, washbasins, and adjoining shower and toilet tents. African crew would do our laundry overnight, except for women’s lingerie, a task they took to be humiliating. Our group was to consist of three couples. All old friends, all new to Africa. Remember, a thrilling covering letter enjoined us, to bring two pairs of sunglasses. “It’s one thing to drop them from a Land Rover; another, in murky, crocodile-infested waters.”
A week before we left, my arm rendered leaden by a cholera shot, I repaired to my favourite downtown bar. How about one for the road, a crony asked. “Certainly,” I replied.“But first,”I added in a voicecalculated to boom across the bar, “Imust take my malaria pill.”
We landed in Nairobi (fifty-five hundred feet above sea level, population 135,000) early in the morning, flying overnight from London. A testing time, this, for at the Jomo Kenyatta Airport we were to meet the two guides with whom we would trek through the reserves for the next eleven days. If the chemistry weren’t right, we all agreed, the trip could be a washout. Happily, our apprehensions were for nothing. David Mead, forty-three, and Alan Binks, thirty-eight, turned out to be affable, cultured fellows, both of them fluent in Swahili. Truly good companions.
Mead, a Sandhurst graduate, had been in Africa since 1968, a professional white hunter until it was ruled illegal in 1977. Binks, a naturalist and photographer, immigrated to Africa in 1967 and was now a Kenyan citizen. “In England,” he said, “the horizon meant the next garden hedge. Here, the space is immense.” But, he allowed, there were problems in Kenya. “We have no oil, no natural resources. Just coffee, tea, and tourism.”
The Norfolk, where we were to stay overnight, is possibly the most legendary hotel in East Africa, built in 1904 by Maj. C. G. R. Ringer. Its guest list since then would seem to include just about everybody accounted for inBurke’s Peerage,as well as Teddy Roosevelt and his son Kermit, Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), author of the classicOut of Africa,Winston Churchill, and, of course, Mr. Hemingway. Abraham Brock, who arrived from South Africa in 1903, when the lands of the Great Rift Valley were proposed as a projected colony for Jewishsettlement—a new Canaan that was just not to be—bought the hotel in 1927. It was now part of the Brock chain, which included Treetops, the Lake Baringo Club, and seven other hotels and lodges. Brock was reported to have played a crucial role in the celebrated Israeli raid on Entebbe airport, in 1976, which liberated Israeli captives who had been on a plane hijacked by the PLO. It was said that he was the one who negotiated refuelling rights in Kenya for the Israeli special forces, en route to Uganda.
There was no need, incidentally, to fret about safari suits. Once installed at the Norfolk, we hurried over to Colpro, a shop on Kimathi Street run by enterprising Indians, where we were equipped with the appropriate cotton safari suits, very reasonably priced, and altered within a couple of hours.
The churning streets of downtown Nairobi teem with persistent hawkers of ugly, factory-made souvenirs. Shoeshine boys lie in wait everywhere. Possibly the only place where you can safely buy authentic indigenous jewellery and artifacts is at the government-run African Heritage, a handsome shop. We paused there so that Florence could select some things for our children. Her modest purchases in hand, she was boorishly thrust aside from the cash-register counter by burly American secret service men, as then vice-president George Bush laid out his collection of spears and shields and masks. The elegant black woman clerk toted up the items and handed Bush a considerable bill. “I’m the vice-president of the United States,” said Bush. “Don’t I get a discount?”
“No, you don’t,” she replied.
From African Heritage, it was only a short stroll to the famous Thorn Tree Bar at the New Stanley Hotel, an obligatory stop, even if you pass on the impala stew. Ensconced on the terrace, I asked a settler at a neighbouring table about the abortive airforce-led coup of last August 1. “What, in fact, happened to the air force?”
“They were, um, disbanded.”
“Do you mean…liquidated?”
Kenya, independent since 1963, is a one-party state with a population of some fifteen million, maybe fifty thousand of them white. The autocratic successor to the great Jomo Kenyatta, President Daniel arap Moi was staunchly supported by the local press in 1982. On November 13, the page-one headline in theDaily Nationproclaimed,“THUGS IN POLLS RACE, SAY MOI”:
“Some politicalmajambazi[thugs] have joined the race for the Nakuru North parliamentary seat,” President Moi said yesterday.
The President said this when he conducted a harambee funds drive at Ol Kalou, Nyandarua District, Central Province. A total of about Sh. 3.5 million was collected.
President Moi, who spoke in Kiswahili, said he did not mind anybody being elected. But he urged the electorate to vote in a Nyayo man.
He said he did not take pleasure in detaining anybody and added that some politicalmajambazihad rushed to enter the race in Nakuru North street.
He also asked the electorate not to electwakora[hooligans]. He said he was not interested in any group and warned people not to blame him if things went wrong.
A story on page four noted that bargain hunter George Bush might cut short his African tour to fly to Moscow for the funeral of President Leonid Brezhnev, whose death had been announced the day before. And, on page seven, there was an interesting letter to the editor from George Wanyoike of Nairobi:
During the recent Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Australia, I noticed that while all countries fielded national teams, the United Kingdom fielded hers on tribal lines.
There were tribal teams from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. What should we expect next time: Eskimos and Quebecan Canadians being fielded as separate teams or Luos, Kikiyus and Kalenjins being fielded as separate teams? This should be discouraged.
A Moi supporter, Raphael Obwori Khalumba, surfaced in the letters column of Nairobi’sTrue Love with Trustmagazine:
I congratulate President Moi, the government and the Kenya Army, GSU and Police for suppressing the insurgence by the KAF rebels on August 1, 1982. The episode shall remain a dark and unforgettable mark in the Kenya history. Theperpetrators of the attempted coup should be hunted down and punished severely. If it were not for our loyal forces, we don’t know what shape Kenya would have assumed by now.
God is with the government of Kenya. There is no leadership as dedicated as that of our beloved President Daniel arap Moi in the whole of Africa. God bless Moi, our country Kenya, the armed forces, and all the people of Kenya.
Back at the Norfolk my telephone rang and rang, but each time I picked it up the line was dead. I finally took my problem to the clerk at the front desk.
“You go back to your room,” he said, “and the operator will ring you.”
“But it’s no use, don’t you see? The line is dead. I can’t get a dial tone.”
“You go back. Operator will ring you.”
I did. She did. The line was dead. I returned to the front desk.
“Your telephone doesn’t work,” said the desk clerk. “It will be fixed.”
“Thank you. When?”
“We must get an engineer from the post office.”
“When will that be?”
“Unfortunately, he just left. He will return, if he has a car.”
A couple of hours later I confronted the front-desk clerk yet again.
“If the engineer comes,” he said, “your phone will certainly be fixed.”
“What if he doesn’t come?”
“We like to think he will.”
We all went to dinner at Alan Bobbé’s Bistro, reputedly the best restaurant in East Africa. I didn’t try the parrot’s eye, a specialty, but I can certainly vouch for the smoked sailfish, the truly giant shrimp from the Indian Ocean, and the king crab.
Early the next morning, we set out with our guides in two Toyota Land Cruisers. The eight Africans who would lay out our luxurious camp in the Aberdare Salient, some one hundred miles north of Nairobi, had moved on ahead of us. In theory you are supposed to keep to the left-hand side of the road in Kenya, but in practice you drive on either side, wherever the potholes are fewest. Again and again we passedmantatus,astonishingly overcrowded little makeshift buses run by private entrepreneurs. There were pathetic shantytowns, slapped together out of waste tin and battered crates. Pineapple and coffee plantations. Long, lean, languid Africans tending to papyrus stands by the dusty roadside. Men cutting building bricks out of rock in a roadside quarry, women stooping over tiny vegetable plots, more men ambling along the road, carrying pangas. Indeed, wherever we drove there were people out walking, infinitely patient, the women sometimes carrying black parasols, more often knitting, as they passed, the men in tribal attire, stopping to wave, the children reaching out for candies. And then there were the magnificent flame trees in flower. Fever trees looming over muddy streams. The smallwhistling thorn, umbrella trees, and the spectacular euphorbia, or candelabra, trees. Finally, at 1:00 p.m., we arrived at the gates of Aberdare National Park, some sixty-five hundred feet above sea level:
Visitors enter this national park entirely at their own risk. Please exercise care and keep a safe distance from any dangerous animals. They have the right of way.
Immediately beyond the gates was our first wild beast, a warthog, seemingly bemused, willing to pose for pictures. It was a hefty specimen, say two hundred pounds, with an enormous wart-filled face and two sets of menacing tusks, the lower with a razor-sharp cutting edge. Soon we would discover these hogs are ubiquitous in the Aberdare as well as the Masai Mara, constantly on the trot, followed by their mates and troops of piglets. If animals drank booze, the barrel-chested warthog would be a beer belter. A hard hat. Ugly yet somehow endearing. The giraffes, on the other hand, which Isak Dinesen described as “rare, long-stemmed, speckled, gigantic flowers,” would certainly affect pince-nez and sip Dom Perignon.
We were hardly into the forested salient when David Mead said, “There were elephants through here, maybe in the last hour.” And round a bend in the track there they were, seven of them, munching punishingly prickly thorn-tree branches. Elephants,wrote Isak Dinesen, “travelling through the dense native forest…pacing along as if they had an appointment at the end of the world.” Later we would come upon a herd of them, frolicking in a muddy waterhole. Sometimes, however, they were not so sweet-tempered, alertly extending their huge floppy ears, raising their trunks to trumpet at us. “They are perfectly capable,” Binks informed us jauntily, “of stomping on a car, flattening everybody in it.” Then he told us about the time a hippo, grazing in the evening, had espied a foolish woman with a camera poised between him and his waterhole, cutting off his retreat. He promptly chomped her to bits. “Of course, I think at least one tourist should be scarfed a year. It adds a certain spice to the safari, don’t you think?”
We reached camp, exhilarated, and settled into a delicious lunch. Actually, the best food we would eat in Kenya would be prepared right in camp, our miracle-making chef baking bread and cooking roasts, equipped with nothing more than two metal ammunition cases laid out on a carefully tended bed of hot charcoal.
In the afternoon we caught sight of our first bunch of black-and-white colobus monkeys, squealing as they squirted from tree to tree. Wherever the baboons gathered, two or maybe three of them stood on the high ground to guard against predators. Herds of large black Cape buffalo, their curled horns massive, scowled at us from every open glade. These weighty buffalo, dripping animosity, seemed already cast in bronze.
Here and there in the salient there were large,peculiar craters. “Oh, those,” said Mead. “This was once Mau Mau country. They hid out here, living off the land, their only protection against the cold the animal skins that were glued to their backs. The British scatter-bombed the area, hoping to flush them out. All they did was create havoc for the wildlife.”
The densely forested, hilly, dark green Aberdare was filled with breathtaking surprises. Around one rising bend in the road at twilight we came upon our first leopard—liquid, muscular grace—fondly nuzzling the head of a long-dead antelope. Probably not his own kill, Mead explained, because a leopard promptly removes his kill to a high fork in a convenient tree, where he can ravage it at ease, proof against thieving lions and hyenas. Reacting to our presence, the leopard sprang free of the dead antelope, glared at us, and then, even more disturbed by a sudden burst of thunder, retreated into the bush. Not quickly, but with considerable grace.
In the evening, less than twenty-four hours on the land but already old Africa hands, our safari suits gratifyingly mud-caked, we gathered round a fire, prompting Mead to tell us tales of his hunting exploits. A reticent man, he made light of a serious injury he had suffered when a wounded Cape buffalo got his horns into him, “tossing me like I was a piece of paper.” There are no stuffed animal heads or horns or tusks mounted in Mead’s home on the outskirts of Nairobi. In fact, he made it abundantly clear that hehad never gone in for wanton destruction, only very selective killing. If animals were to survive on the reserves for another generation, he felt, sentiment wouldn’t do it; it had to be made plain to Kenyans that the animals were a natural resource, a rare economic asset. They brought in tourists. Foreign currency. “The truth is,” he said, “I much prefer this kind of safari to hunting.”
The next morning we came across a dead buffalo lying in a shallow stream. Probably a lion kill. And then, tracking vultures circling high over a distant hill, we set off in pursuit and discovered an even more malodorous buffalo corpse being devoured by those fierce, ugly birds, a blight of them squabbling over their putrescent spoils.
In the afternoon, en route to Jonathan Leakey’s Island Camp, on Lake Baringo, we made a pit stop at the Aberdare Country Club, a grand old colonial mansion, commanding an achingly beautiful view of what had once been a white settler’s coffee plantation. Mead told us, “Most of them had to sell. The estates, some of which ran to forty thousand acres, were broken up. But, really, they had little to complain about. They came here worth nothing and sold their farms for half a million quid or better in ‘63. I think they were jolly lucky.”
Bumping over dusty roads through an ever-changing, always-spectacular landscape, we had soon crossed into the Rift Valley country, hot and humid, the dun-coloured hills, seemingly moth-eaten, yieldingto soaring purplish walls on both sides. Hard by the Menenga Crater, we drove past President Moi’s enormous estate. Here, in the president’s very own tribal district, the road, not surprisingly, was actually paved. Finally we took a motorboat across the crocodile-infested waters of Lake Baringo to Leakey’s Island Camp, remembering not to drop our sunglasses. The camp, overlooking the lake, is hewn right out of the cliffside, embedded with cacti and desert roses and acacias. Something of a South Seas oasis in the middle of the Rift country. Our double tents, tucked into the cliffside with integrated flush toilets and showers, were certainly commodious, but the food was mediocre. In a land where the fresh pineapple is truly succulent, we were served tinned pineapple juice for breakfast. But never mind; bird-watching the next morning was simply marvellous. I had never seen such a gaudy, splendiferous display. Suffice it to say that there are around fifteen hundred different species of birds in Kenya, almost as many as in all of North America.
In the morning we quit the Island Camp for nearby Lake Bogoria, pausing en route to marvel over the termite heaps that loomed everywhere, some of them twenty feet high, representing fifty years of labour. And then there were the gorgeous elands, the largest antelopes on earth, with their splendid corkscrew horns. Dr. Chris Hillman, of Nairobi University, writes: “The eland is the most common animal in bushman rock paintings. Louis Leakey reckoned it was second only to the giraffes, over the whole of Africa, for the frequency of depiction in prehistoric paintings and rock engravings.” And as weapproached the shores of Lake Bogoria itself, there was an endless swirling slash of pink, soon to be revealed as flocks of flamingos, thousands of them.
From Lake Bogoria, we scooted across the country to the Masai Mara, where we would camp for five days. Giraffes. Waterbucks. Herds of roaming elephants. Wildebeests. Prides of lions. Cheetahs. Leopards. Hippos. Crocodiles. Hyenas. Jackals. Baboons. But, above all, herds of exquisite antelopes and gazelles: impalas, topis, Thomson’s gazelle, and Grant’s gazelle. Gazelles, gazelles, breaking into a trot and, if alarmed, literally flying across the flat open country.
At first sight, the Masai Mara, its horizon endless, seems the most enchanting of pastoral scenes. All those grazing animals. This, you might think, is how things were in the Garden of Eden. But, on closer examination, it is most certainly not a peaceable kingdom. Put plainly, it’s a meat rack—those exquisitely frolicking antelopes and gazelles being coolly eyed by the predators on the plain, none more obscene than the loping, slope-shouldered hyena, constantly on the prowl. In the morning, these vile creatures are everywhere, their pelts greasy and bellies bloated.
One evening—a scene right out of hell, this—we came upon a pack of thirty-three hyenas, hooting and cackling as they fed on a freshly dead hippo. Finding the hippo hide an impediment—although hyenas have the strongest jaws of any animal on the plain—they had eaten their way in through the softer anus, emerging again and again with dripping chunks of meat or gut, thrusting the scavengingjackals aside. The lion may be king of the animals, but, Mead assured me, he had seen a swift pack of hyenas move a lion off its kill more than once. Still, the lions are feared. One morning we caught two cheetahs gorging themselves on a wildebeest, eating hastily, constantly alert for lions that could rob them of their feast. But the lions are not invincible. Another time we came upon two lions on the hunt, attacking a herd of Cape buffalo. Eight of the buffalo formed a line, lowering their heads and charging, driving off the lions.
At twilight we watched the gazelles and antelopes cavort, a sight I never tired of, but, come morning, their skulls and rib cages would be strewn across the plain, being picked clean by vultures.
Our camp, neatly tucked into a stand of shade trees, was actually a corner that a bunch of baboons called home. Perched high and quarrelsome in the trees, they did not take kindly to our intrusion, pissing on our tents and pelting them with sticks at night. This, however, was not the only thing to disturb our sleep. After dark there came the shrieking of birds. Hooting hyenas on the prowl. Lions coughing. Once we wakened to find an elephant feeding on a thorn tree only six feet behind our tent.
After we turned in, zipping up our tents, a guard patrolled the camp all night, panga at the ready. He was there to protect not so much us but rather the kitchen tent from hungering hyenas, capable of biting right through a frying pan.
Weeks after our safari was done, I continued at home to awaken at 3:00 a.m. to afterimages of Africa. A Masai tribesman, his robes brilliantly coloured, his spear in hand, strolling casually toward us across the open plain. A leopard springing out of its cave and darting into the night. Adolescent topis at play, locking horns, testing themselves. Lions lazing in the sun or padding in a slow line through the tall grass. Elephants gathering their vulnerable young into the centre of their circle. And the giraffes, elegant beyond compare, always out there on the far horizon, looming over the trees.
Go, go, before it’s gone. Before the rough tracks of the Masai Mara are paved and hamburger havens and pizza parlours spring up and the Masai herdsman who approaches across the plain has his ears plugged into a Walkman. Or is talking into a cellular phone.
February 19836You Know Me, Ring
When I was a boy in Montreal, during the Second World War, my parents feared Adolf Hitler and his seemingly invulnerable panzers beyond all things, but my old bunch, somewhat more savvy, was in far greater terror of Mr. Branch Rickey. Let me explain. In those days our hearts belonged to the late, great Montreal Royals of the old International League. In 1939, the Royals signed a contract with Mr. Rickey—the baseball intellectual who built the legendary Brooklyn teams—making the club the Dodgers’ number-one farm team. Five years later, our club was sold outright to the Dodgers. This meant that come the dog days of August, the imperial Mr. Rickey could descend on our colony and harvest its best players to bolster the Dodgers’ perennial pennant drive. Gone, gone were Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Ralph Branca, Don Newcombe, and Carl Furillo just when we needed them most. My romance with baseball, still unrequited, goes back that far.
Since then, of course, there have been many changes in the game, some of them heartening butmost of them diminishing. Among the most heartening changes I naturally count the coming of major league baseball in the shape of those suddenly traditional bridesmaids, our very own Expos, to Montreal in 1969. Mind you, if once we lost our most gifted players to the majors, now that we are in the biggies ourselves we can’t even sign them. Take young Pete Incaviglia, for instance. He was the Expos’ number-one college-draft choice in 1985, but, obviously having majored in geography rather than haute cuisine, he didn’t want to come this far north. He was lost to the balmier climes of Texas, where in early July he was hitting.266, with thirteen home runs and forty-two RBIs (and I hope suffering heartburn on a daily diet of greasy ribs and twice-warmed-over chili).
As I am a supporter of Band-Aid, Oxfam, and food stamps, willing to join hands or rub noses across America any day, rain or shine, I am also relieved that the hardworking players (ruining their knees on artificial turf, risking skin cancer in the afternoon sun out there in stadiums as yet undomed) are now earning decent beer money. But I do sometimes worry about the owners’ generosity, making instant millionaires of many a.250 hitter or a pitcher with a bloated ERA. “It isn’t really the stars who are expensive,” the late Bill Veeck once said, “it’s the high price of mediocrity.”
One of the most depressing changes in the game has been the advent of the insufferably cute team mascot. Montreal’s very own Youppi, for instance, has led me to reconsider my hitherto impeccable stand on capital punishment. I preferred it when thegame was played out on the grass in the afternoon sun rather than on a carpet in glorified hangars.
Happily, there is a constant. Baseball’s clichés remain largely unchanged through the years. The mop-up pitcher with a 2–12 record will still complain, “If only they give me a chance to start, I know I can help this team.” Similarly, the utility infielder, batting.198, can be counted on to protest, “I know I’m a.300 hitter, but they’ve got to play me every day.” The manager, enduring a ten-game losing streak, is absolutely required to point out, “It’s a long season,” and if his team is going to be sacrificed to Dwight Gooden that very night, he will assuredly remind the fans, “The way I look at it, he gets into his trousers one leg at a time, just like the rest of us.” Of course, we can assume everybody between those white lines will give 110 percent, damn it, but the player who wins the MVP award this autumn is bound to kick the dirt and say, “I’m willing to trade in any individual awards for a World Series ring,” just as Peter Rose, Esq., will come clean at last when he retires in 2001, saying, “Individual stats never meant anything to me.”
If there is anything really new in the game it is the sudden and sometimes bewildering proliferation of stats, which now go beyond the traditional BA, HR, SO and RBI to include such recherché items as RRF (runs responsible for), SA (slugging average), hits made during LIP (late-inning pressure), on grass or artificial turf, with two out, or fewer than two out, after a tiff with the wife or a night out on the town, etc., etc. I have resisted reading the new baseball mavens, however brilliant, because my fear has beenthat they might diminish my joy in the game even as earlier intellectuals—Edmund Wilson being a case in point—arguably ruined vaudeville by analyzing it too closely. But Messrs. Seymour Siwoff, Steve Hirdt, and Peter Hirdt, compilers ofThe 1986 Elias Baseball Analyst—a volume that comes highly recommended by that fine baseball writer Thomas Boswell—have certainly stitched together a compendium of considerable value to the armchair manager or, come to think of it, the real managers. It helps, however, if you are not so much a fan as an addict and absolutely need to know that Dave Winfield’s career home-run percentage when facing left-handed pitchers is 5.36.
Bill James, the acknowledged pioneer in the field, has published two books this season:The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1986andThe Bill James Historical Abstract.This master of Sabermetrics (the systematic, scientific study of baseball-related questions) turns out to be not only illuminating but also considerably charming and honest. “Hi,” he writes in his 1986 abstract,
I’m Bill James. Let’s assume that you’re standing in your local bookstore flipping through the pages and trying to decide whether to buy this book or save the money for a down payment on a pair of nylon underpants for grandpa’s Birthday…. In this year’s book, I looked into questions like whether artificial turf shortens a player’s career …what thede factostandards for the Hall of Fame are … what a player’s chances are of getting 3,000 hits…. If you enjoy thinkingabout questions like these, and you have a certain amount of patience with statistical information that relates to them, then you’ll enjoy this book; if you’re not interested, you won’t.
HisHistorical Abstract,grand fun for browsing, rich in wacky asides, deserves a place on that small shelf reserved for essential baseball books such as Joseph L. Reichler’sBaseball Encyclopedia,sixth edition, revised in 1985; Jim Brosnan’sLong Season;Roger Kahn’sBoys of Summer;Jim Bouton’sBall Four;Roger Angell’sLate Innings: A Baseball Companion;and Red Smith’s anthology of favourite sports stories,Press Box,which includes John Updike’s wonderful piece on Ted Williams’s last game at Fenway Park, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”
Of course, the best baseball book ever, published as long ago as 1916 but still fresh and acute, is Ring Lardner’sYou Know Me Al,available again from Vintage Books, with an introduction by my colleague Wilfrid Sheed.You Know Me Al,a novel written in the form of letters home by Jack Keefe, a busher who catches on in the majors his second time out, was enormously appreciated by as unlikely a reader as Virginia Woolf. “With extraordinary ease and aptitude,” she wrote, “with the quickest strokes, the surest touch, the sharpest insight, [Lardner] lets Jack Keefe the baseball player cut out his own outline, fill in his own depths, until the figure of the foolish, boastful, innocent athlete lives before us.” Lardner, Mrs. Woolf concluded, had talents of a remarkable order. Yes, indeed. He could be funny, very funny, but he also, as his son Johnonce noted, carried a sharp knife. Astonishingly,You Know Me Al,Lardner’s first novel, was originally written as a serial for theSaturday Evening Post,with the last installments earning Lardner 1,250 bucks. If the unassuming Lardner wrote it with an eye on the rent money rather than on posterity, there is no doubt that the upshot was an American classic. Lardner was an original, a writer with an impeccable ear and an enviable gift for clean prose. He was Mark Twain’s legitimate heir, perhaps, and an important influence on Hemingway and Fitzgerald. And so I also urge you to read Lardner’sHaircut and Other Stories,which includes another superb baseball story, “Alibi Ike.” Here’s a short paragraph from that story:
“He’s got the world beat,” says Carey to Jack and I. “I’ve knew lots o’ guys that had an alibi for every mistake they made; I’ve heard pitchers say that the ball slipped when somebody cracked one off’n’em; I’ve heard infielders complain of a sore arm after heavin’ one into the stand, and I’ve saw outfielders tooken sick with a dizzy spell when they’ve misjudged a fly ball. But this baby can’t even go to bed without apologizin’, and I bet he excuses himself to the razor when he gets ready to shave.”
In fact, you can’t go wrong reading just about anything Lardner wrote. But don’t take my word for it—you can look it up in H. L. Mencken. “Lardner,” he wrote, “knows more about the management of the short story than all of its professors.” I’m not going tosay any more, because as Ring Lardner Jr. once wrote of his father, “He thought all prefaces (and most literary criticism) were nonsense.”
September 19867Writers and Sports
In an otherwise generous review of my most recent novel,Barney’s Version,that appeared in the LondonSpectator,Francis King had one caveat. Noting the sharpness of protagonist Barney Panofsky’s intelligence and the breadth of his culture, he doubted that he could also be a sports nut. “Would such a man, obsessed with ice hockey, be able to pronounce with such authority on topics as diverse as the descriptive passages in the novels of P. D. James,Pygmalionas play, musical and film, the pornography published by Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press and Dr. Johnson’sThe Vanity of Human Wishes?—rather strains credulity.”
But North American literary men in general, and the Jewish writers among them in particular, have always been obsessed by sports, an enthusiasm we acquired as kids and have carried with us into middle age and beyond, adjudging it far more enjoyable than lots of other baggage we still lug around. Arguably, we settled for writing, a sissy’s game, because we couldn’t pitch a curve ball, catch, deke, score a touchdown, or “float like a butterfly and stinglike a bee.” Never mind manage a 147 clearance on a snooker table.
George Plimpton, acting out our fantasies, did get to pitch in Yankee Stadium, while a bona fide intellectual, Robert Silvers, editor ofThe New York Review of Books,marked a scorecard in the stands. Plimpton next trained with the Detroit Lions and wrote engaging books about both his experiences. He also wanted to try his hand at tending the nets of the Detroit Red Wings, but, he told me, he was refused permission by the coach who warned him, “The puck is mindless.” And, he might have added, can come zinging in on a goalie at a hundred miles per hour.
Norman Mailer got to spar with both Archie Moore and José Torres. And, in perhaps the most famous boxing match in literary history, Morley Callaghan fought Ernest Hemingway in a Paris gym in the twenties, Scott Fitzgerald acting as timekeeper. In his memoir,That Summer in Paris,Callaghan claimed that he had famously knocked Hemingway down only after Papa had both startled and insulted him by spitting in his face. The embarrassed Hemingway, on the other hand, accused the duplicitous Fitzgerald of allowing the round to go beyond three minutes, or there would have been no knockdown. He also complained that Callaghan, in search of publicity, had passed on news of Hemingway’s humiliation to a New York newspaper gossip columnist, but Callaghan denied the story.
Sport weighs heavily on the American literary man’s psyche. Back in the seventies, when I once met Irwin Shaw for drinks in the Polo Lounge, in Beverly Hills, he was still touchy about being patronized bythe Jewish literary mafia, theCommentaryintelligentsia rating him far below the trinity of Bellow, Malamud, and Roth. “They could never forgive me for being such a good football player,” he said.
North American men of letters, incidentally, are not the only literary sports nutters. Albert Camus, for one, liked to brag about his prowess on the soccer pitch. However, if we are sports obsessed, at least we don’t attempt to dignify our boyish enthusiasms with intellectual gibberish. Were you aware, for instance, that the soccer ball is a symbol of sainthood? Or that goalkeepers are patriarchal figures with roots deep in the culture of European Christendom? Such, in any event, were the conclusions reached by Günter Gebauer, professor of philosophy at the Institute of Sport in Berlin, speaking at Cité Philo, a month-long philosophy festival that took place late in 2000 at Lens, near Lille in northern France. Ruminating on the meaning of the soccer ball, Herr Gebauer said, “It is mistreated in the most vile fashion… but it returns to your feet and is cherished and loved. This is like the saint who is thrown out of town and comes back to conquer people’s hearts.”
He also had some original thoughts on the goal and goalkeeper. “They are bound up with intrinsically European values, where our house is our castle and the source of pride and honour. We guard it against intrusion, just as a goalkeeper guards his goal. Scoring is like penetrating into a stranger’s house, burning his belongings or raping his wife and daughter.”
Then, as no conference of European intellectuals would be complete without its anti-American dig, he added, “In the U.S. the attachment to notions ofhonour and pride are far less strong, which no doubt explains why there is no goal or goalkeeper in their version of football.”
Never mind that the American corruption of soccer does include a goal or touchdown line, coveted by rapists, but what about ice hockey?
My all-time favourite hockey goalie, Gump Worsley, also a philosopher of sorts, once tended the nets for the hapless New York Rangers.
“Which team gives you the most trouble?” a reporter once asked.
“The Rangers,” he said.
Another professor of philosophy at Cité Philo, Jean-Michel Salanskis, ventured that soccer was not for the, um, mentally disadvantaged. “Wherever you go in the world,” he said, “people talk about soccer in terms of theories. There is the theory of the playmaker, the theory of the counter-attack, the theory of the three-man defence and so on.” Such capacity for abstract thought, he suggested, made every fan a potential philosopher.
Obviously he had never been to a British soccer match, the riot police and ambulances in attendance, the philosophers in the stands, many of them with shaven heads, heaving bananas at the black players, pissing against the nearest wall or even where they sat, an intimidating puddle once forming immediately below.
It was sport that first enabled me, as a child, to grasp that the adult world was suspect. Tainted by lies andbetrayals. This insight came about when I discovered that our home baseball team, the Triple A Montreal Royals, which I was enjoined to cheer for, was in fact made up of strangers, hired hands, most of them American Southerners who were long gone once the season was over and had never been tested by a punishing Montreal winter. Only during the darkest days of the Second World War when deprivation was the unhappy rule, coffee and sugar and gasoline all rationed, American comic books temporarily unavailable, one-armed Pete Gray toiling in the Toronto Maple Leafs outfield—only then did French-Canadian players off the local sandlots briefly play for the Royals: Stan Bréard atarrêt-court,Roland Galdu attroisième bu,and Jean-Pierre Roy aslanceur.A few years later my bunch could root for a Jewish player, outfielder Kermit Kitman, who eventually married a Montreal girl and settled here, ending up in the schmata trade. Lead-off hitter for the Royals, only twenty-two years old, but a college boy, rare in baseball in those days, he was paid somewhat better than most: $650 monthly for six months of the year, a bonanza enriched by $13 a day meal money on the road. Kitman told me, “As a Jewish boy, I could eat on that money and maybe even save a little in those days. The Gentile players had enough left over for beer and cigarettes.” If the Royals went all the way, winning the Little World Series, he would earn another $1,800.
My disenchantment with the baseball Royals, counterfeit hometowners, didn’t matter as soon as I discovered that I could give my unqualified love to the Montreal Canadiens,Nos Glorieux,then a team unique in sport because most of its star performerswere Quebeckers born and bred, many of whom had to drive beer trucks or take construction jobs in summer in order to make ends meet. I speak of the incomparable Richard brothers, Maurice and Henri; goalie Jacques Plante, who knitted between periods; and Doug Harvey, universally acknowledged as the outstanding defenceman of his time, who never was paid more than $15,000 a season, and in his last boozy days earned his beer money sharpening skates in his brother’s sports shop, for kids who had no idea who he was.
Then as now I turn to the sports pages first in my morning newspaper, unlike Frederick Exley, who would begin by reading the book review and entertainment sections: “Finally I turned to the sports sections. Even then I did not begin reading about the Giants. I was like a child who, having been given a box of chocolates, eats the jellies and nuts first and saves the creamy caramels till last. I read about the golf in Scotland, surf-boarding in Oahu, football as Harvard imagines it played, and deep-sea fishing in Mexico. Only then did I turn to the Giants….”
In the forties radio was our primary source of sports news. Saturday nights we usually tuned in to the overexcited Foster Hewitt onHockey Night in Canada.Like millions of others on the night of June 18, 1941, we huddled round our RCA Victor radio to listen to the broadcast from the Polo Grounds in New York, as former light heavyweight champion Billy Conn took on the great Joe Louis. The Brown Bomber, patronizingly described again and again as “a credit to his people,” also qualified as a Jewish hero ever since he had redeemed our people by knockingout Max Schmelling in their second meeting. Conn, a clever boxer, was ahead on points after twelve rounds, but in the thirteenth he foolishly stood toe to toe with Louis, intent on flattening him. Instead, Louis knocked him out at 2:52 of the thirteenth.
My heart went out, however grudgingly, to the Brooklyn Dodgers, if only because so many of their players had served their apprenticeship with our Montreal Royals. One autumn afternoon I joined a concerned knot of fans outside Jack and Moe’s barbershop, on the corner of Park Avenue and Laurier, to listen to the radio broadcast of the infamous 1941 World Series game, wherein catcher Mickey Owen dropped that third strike, enabling the dreaded Yankees to trample the jinxed Dodgers yet again.
When we were St. Urbain Street urchins, Hank Greenberg, the Detroit Tigers’ first baseman, was our hero. Proof positive that not all Jews were necessarily short, good at chess, but unable to swing a bat.
Numbering high among my most cherished sports memories is the night in the sixties, in New York, when Ted Solataroff, my writer chum, took me to the Polo Grounds to watch Sandy Koufax pitch a two-hitter. He went nine innings, of course, but those were the days when a starter was expected to go nine, or at least eight, rather than to be hugged by his teammates if he managed six, to be followed on the mound by a succession of multimillionaire holders and closers.
Although I spent some twenty years in England, I could never, unlike our children, who were brought up there, acquire a taste for soccer or cricket. So I can appreciate that most Englishmen of my acquaintancehave no interest in ice hockey and consider baseball a bore. “Isn’t that the game,” I have been asked more than once, “that grown men play in their pyjamas?”
The absurdity of sport in general, American football in particular, to people who weren’t brought up on our games was once illuminated for me by the Canadian writer and broadcaster Peter Gzowski. Gzowski, a frequent traveller to the Arctic, told me that as far as the Inuit were concerned, football was funnier than any sitcom available on TV. They would gather round a set in Inuvik falling about with laughter at the sight of the players in their outlandish gear, especially savouring the spectacle of them testing their armour on the sidelines, banging into each other like caribou in heat.
American literary guys tend not only to be obsessed by sport, but many have also written with distinction about games. George Plimpton, already mentioned, has hardly ever written about anything else. A baseball game between yeshiva students and goy boys was crucial to Chaim Potok’s novelThe Chosen.Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth have both had their tickets punched with baseball novels:The NaturalandOur Gang.Saul Bellow has yet to oblige, but in his most recent novel,Ravelstein,the imposing intellectual protagonist is also a sports nut, an avid fan of both the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago basketball Bulls. At the risk of appearing pushy, I will also include my own modest contribution here: a long set-piece in my novelSt. Urbain’s Horsemanabout a baseball gameplayed by blacklisted expatriate American filmmakers on Hampstead Heath in the sixties.
Robert Coover contributed one of the most original baseball novels I know of,Mr. Waugh’s Universal Baseball League.But the classic baseball novel, first published in 1916 and happily still in print, as fresh and acute as ever, is Ring Lardner’sYou Know Me Al.
Boxing, above all, has attracted the attention of literary men in England as well as America. Dr. Johnson, Swift, Pope, and Hazlitt have all had their considerable say. In America Jack London, James Farrell, Nelson Algren, John O’Hara, Hemingway, Irwin Shaw, Budd Shulberg, Norman Mailer, and Wilfrid Sheed have all written about the sport. So have W. C. Heinz and Ted Hoagland, and of course there is Leonard Gardner’s wonderful novelFat City.Not only guys have pronounced on what Pierce Egan dubbed “the sweet science,” but also Joyce Carol Oates. Her eruditeOn Boxingmust be the only book about the game that refers,en passant,to Petronius, Thorstein Veblen, Santayana, Yeats, Beckett, Ionesco, Emily Dickinson, and both William and Henry James, among others. Joyce Carol Oates was introduced to boxing in the early fifties when her father first took her to a Golden Gloves tournament in Buffalo, New York. Happily, in her original, if somewhat eccentric, take on the game she does pay tribute, as is only proper, to the great Pierce Egan, who published his classicBoxiana: Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism,acknowledging that his prose was as wittily nuanced as that of Defoe, Swift, and Pope. However, she finds herself “uneasily alone” in beingscornful of A. J. Liebling, a journalist whose boxing writing I cherish. She dislikes Liebling “for his relentless jokey, condescending, and occasionally racist attitude toward his subject.” Perhaps because it was originally published inThe New Yorkerin the early fifties,The Sweet Science: Boxing and Boxiana—a Ringside Viewis a peculiarly self-conscious assemblage of pieces, arch, broad in humour, rather like a situation comedy in which boxers are “characters” depicted for our amusement. Liebling is even uncertain about such champions as Louis, Marciano, and Robinson—should one revere or mock? And he is pitiless when writing about “Hurricane” Jackson, a black boxer cruelly called an animal, an “it,” because of his poor boxing skills and what Liebling considers his mental inferiority.
Obviously Ms. Oates does not consider this to be the case with Mike Tyson, with whom she spent considerable time. Astonishingly, she adjudges Tyson “clearly thoughtful, intelligent, introspective; yet at the same time—or nearly the same time—he is a ‘killer’ in the ring… one of the most warmly affectionate persons, yet at the same time—or nearly—a machine for hitting ‘sledgehammer’ blows.”
Be that as it may, Joyce Carol Oates won me over with a fetching analogy: “The artist senses some kinship, however oblique and one-sided, with the professional boxer in this matter of training. This fanatic subordination of the self in terms of a wished-for destiny. One might compare the time-bound public spectacle of the boxing match (which could be as brief as an ignominious forty-five seconds—the record for a title fight!) with the publicationof a writer’s book. That which is ‘public’ is but the final stage in a protracted, arduous, grueling, and frequently despairing period of preparation.”
And this, she ventures, may be one of the reasons for the habitual attraction of serious writers to boxing.
John Updike, that readiest of writers, has pronounced adoringly about golf both in incidental pieces and his Rabbit Angstrom novels. “Like a religion,” he wrote inIs There Life After Golf?,“a game seeks to codify and lighten life. Played earnestly enough (spectatorship being merely a degenerate form of playing), a game can gather to itself awesome dimensions of subtlety and transcendental significance. Consult George Steiner’s hymn to the fathomless wonder of chess, or Roger Angell’s startlingly intense meditations upon the time-stopping, mathematical beauty of baseball. Some sports, surely, are more religious than others; ice hockey, fervent though its devotees, retains a dross of brutal messiness….”
In common, I should have thought, with Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Or conversely, hockey is just the ticket for sports agnostics like me.
Over the years, unable to act out my fantasies like George Plimpton, I have, all the same, on assignment for various magazines, been able to accompanythe Montreal Canadiens on a road trip, shooting the breeze with Guy Lafleur and playing poker with Toe Blake and others on the coaching staff. I have also got to hang out with Pete Rose and Johnny Bench in Cincinnati, and I once spent some time with the Edmonton Oilers when Wayne Gretzky was still with them. Gretzky, his immense skills undeniable, has to be one of the most boring men I ever met. To come clean, neither was the far more appealing snooker sensation Stephen Hendry the wittiest of luncheon companions, but, to be fair, I doubt that Gore Vidal ever scored a maximum.8Gretzky in Eighty-five
Nineteen eighty-five. Edmonton. One day in March, at Barry T’s Roadhouse out there on tacky 104th Street—wedged between welding shops and cinder block strip joints and used car lots—the city’s amiable sportswriting fraternity gathered for its annual award luncheon. The writers were going to present Wayne Gretzky with their Sports Professional of the Year Award again. “I’ll bet he tells us it means more to him than the Stanley Cup,” one of the writers said.
“Or the Hart.”
“Or his contract with General Mills. What do you think that’s worth, eh?”
Bill Tuele, director of public relations for the Oilers, joined our table. “Does flying really scare Gretzky that much?” I asked.
“Nah. It doesn’t scare himthatmuch,” Tuele said. “It’s just that if we go bumpety-bump, he staggers off the plane with his shirt drenched.”
Gretzky, who was running late, finally drifted into Barry T’s. A curiously bland twenty-four-year-old in a grey flannel suit, he graciously accepted hisplaque. “Anytime you win an award, it’s a thrill,” he said. “With so many great athletes in Edmonton, I’m very honoured to win this.” Then, his duty done, he retreated to a booth to eat lunch. And in Western Canada, where civility is the rule, he was not immediately besieged by reporters with notebooks or tape recorders. They left him alone with his overdone roast beef and curling, soggy french fries.
There had been a game the night before, the slumping Edmonton Oilers ending a five-game losing streak at home, edging the Detroit Red Wings 7–6, only their second victory in their last eight outings. Even so, they were still leading the league. Gretzky, juggling his crammed schedule, had fitted me in for an interview at the Northlands Coliseum at 9:00 a.m. Increasingly caught up in the business world, he told me he had recently readIacoccaand was now intoCitizen Hughes.Though he enjoyed watching television soap operas and had once appeared onThe Young and the Restlesshimself, he never bothered with fiction. “I like to read fact,” he said. “I’m so busy, I haven’t got the time to read stories that aren’t real.”
After the interview, there was a team practice, and following the sportswriters’ lunch, he was scheduled to shoot a television commercial, and then there was a dinner he was obliged to attend. The next night, there was a game with Buffalo. It would be the seventieth for the Oilers in the regular NHL schedule but the seventy-second for Gretzky, who had played in eight Canada Cup games immediately before the NHL season. There were a further ten games to come in the regular season and, as itturned out, another eighteen in the playoffs before the Oilers would skate to their second consecutive Stanley Cup.
But at the time, Gretzky, understandably, was in a defensive mood, aware that another undeniably talented club, the Boston Bruins, led by Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, had promised better than they had paid, faltering more than once in the playoffs. “We’ve already been compared to the great Boston team of the early seventies, which won only two cups but they still say should have won four,” Gretzky said.
I asked Gretzky if he didn’t consider the regular NHL schedule, which more than one wag has put down as the longest exhibition season in sport, to be insufferably long and meaningless. After all, it ran to 840 games, from September to April, and when it was over only five of the then twenty-one teams had been cut from what knowledgeable fans appreciated as the real season—the Stanley Cup playoffs. “Well,” he said, “this city’s not like New York, where there are lots of things to do. In Edmonton in February, we’re the only attraction.”
When I asked Peter Pocklington, the owner of the Oilers, about the seemingly endless season, he protested, “We’re the only show in town. Coming to see Gretzky is like going to watch Pavarotti or Nureyev. What else are you going to do in Edmonton in the middle of the winter? How many beers can you drink?”
The capital of Alberta is a city you come from, not a place to visit, unless you have relatives there or an interest in an oil well nearby. On first glance, andeven on third, it seems not so much a city as a jumble of a used-building lot, where the spare office towers and box-shaped apartment buildings and cinder-block motels discarded in the construction of real cities have been abandoned to waste away in the cruel prairie winter.
If Canada were not a country, however fragmented, but instead a house, Vancouver would be the solarium-cum-playroom, an afterthought of affluence; Toronto, the counting room, where money makes for the most glee; Montreal, the salon; and Edmonton, the boiler room. There is hardly a tree to be seen downtown, nothing to delight the eye on Jasper Avenue. On thirty-below-zero nights, grim religious zealots loom on street corners, speaking in tongues, and intrepid hookers in mini-skirts rap on the windows of cars that have stopped for traffic. There isn’t a first-class restaurant anywhere in town. For all that, Edmontonians are a truly admirable lot. They have not only endured great hardships in the past but also continue to suffer an abominable climate as well as isolation from the cities of light. And to some degree, like other Westerners, they thrive on resentments against the grasping, self-satisfied East, which has exploited their natural resources for years, taking their oil and gas at cut prices to subsidize inefficient Ontario and Quebec industries.
For as long as Edmontonians can remember, the biggies were elsewhere. Though they had contributed many fine hockey players to the game, they could only hear about their feats on radio or later see them on television. Hockey wastheirgame,damn it,theirnational sport, but New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Boston were in the NHL long before the league’s governors adjudged Edmonton not so much worthy as potentially profitable. But in 1984, Canada’s hockey shrines were either in decline, as was then the case in Montreal, or in total disrepute, as in Toronto. In those glory days, if Easterners wanted to see the best player in the game more than twice a season, if they wanted to catch a dynasty in the making, why, then, they had to pack their fat coats and fur-lined boots and head for Edmonton, home of the Stanley Cup champions and the Great Gretzky himself.
In March 1984, Gretzky the commodity was soaring to new heights of fame and fortune; Gretzky the most famous player ever was struggling, justifiably fatigued.
In a five-week period, Gretzky had been on the cover ofSporting News,two Canadian hockey magazines, andSports Illustrated(for the fifth time), and he had shared aTimecover with Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics. He had tested his scoring skills against no less a goalie than George Plimpton, and he had been the subject of an article in theSaturday Evening Postand an interview inPlayboy.He had, Gretzky told me, been criticized for submitting to thePlayboyinterview, accused of endorsing pornography. But as he put it, “You can’t please everybody.” Actually, the engaging truth is that his interview withPlayboywas a triumph of small-town Canadian rectitude over that magazine’s appetite for salacious detail.
PLAYBOY: How many women have been in your life?
GRETZKY:Vickie Moss was my first girlfriend. I never dated anyone else.
PLAYBOY:Do you haveanyvices?
GRETZKY:Oh, yeah, I’m human. I do have a bad habit of swearing on ice. I forget that there are people around the rink. It’s a problem. I hope I’m heading in a direction where I can correct it, but I don’t know if I will be able to.
Gretzky was what athletes are supposed to be, but seldom are—McIntosh-apple wholesome, dedicated, an inspirational model for young fans. He was an anachronism, rooted in an age when a date wasn’t a disco, then your place or mine, but rather a movie, then maybe a banana split at the corner soda fountain. He had owned a Ferrari for four years but had never had a speeding ticket. He still phoned home to Brantford, Ontario, to report to his father three times a week. He struck me as nice, very nice, but incapable of genuine wit or irreverence, like, say, Tug McGraw. What he did tell me, his manner appropriately solemn, was that he felt it was his responsibility never to refuse to sign an autograph: “For that person, that kid, it could be the greatest thing that ever happened to him.”
Gretzky worked hard, incredibly hard, both for the charities he supported and for himself. He was boffo sales stuff. The hockey stick he endorsed, Titan, leaped from twelfth to first place in sales in thirty-six months. Gretzky also pitched for Canon cameras, Nike sportswear, General Mills Pro Starscereal, Mattel toys, Travellers Insurance, and American Express. These endorsements were handled by Michael Barnett of CorpSport International out of handsomely appointed offices in an old converted Edmonton mansion. There was a large portrait of Gretzky in action on a wall in the reception room as well as the essential LeRoy Neiman, and a placard with a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you.”
CorpSport International represented other athletes, but for the past four years Gretzky, who then earned an estimated $1 million annually in endorsements—about the same as his salary—had been the major preoccupation of its thirty-four-year-old president. Barnett, a former minor league hockey player himself, was in daily contact with Gretzky’s lawyer as well as the firm that handled his investments. “Though Wayne listens to all his advisers,” Barnett said, “he makes his own business and investment decisions. We get some three dozen personal appearance requests for him a month, but he will only speak for charities. Pro Stars cereal advertises the Wayne Gretzky Fan Club on four million boxes. It costs seven bucks a year to be a member, and for that you get four annual Wayne Gretzky newsletters as well as this set of photographs.
“There have been seven unauthorized biographies,” Barnett continued. “Wayne gets between two to five thousand fan letters a month. Vickie Moss’s mother handles that for him.”
Mattel has marketed a Wayne Gretzky doll (“For avid fans, his out-of-town uniform, jogging suit, andtuxedo are also available”), which has led to cracks about the need for a Dave Semenko doll to beat up any kid who roughs up the Gretzky doll.
Late at night, even as he talked business with Barnett, Gretzky autographed colour photographs of himself. Mattel supplied the photographs, which included its logo, but Gretzky, according to Barnett, paid the postal charges, about $2,000 monthly. Barnett also pointed out that since the Oilers took their first Stanley Cup on May 19, 1984, Gretzky had only six weeks off the ice before joining the Canada Cup training camp, playing in that series, and then moving directly into the NHL season.
And in March, things weren’t going well. Gretzky was playing without his usual intensity. I asked saucy, streetwise Glen Sather, president, general manager, and coach of the Oilers, if he was guilty of overplaying Gretzky. “Wayne,” he said, “plays something like twenty-two minutes a game. He thrives on work. The more ice time he gets, the better he is.”
Yet Gretzky hadn’t had a two-goal game since February 19 or scored a hat trick for two months. He would, however, finish the 1984–85 season with 208 points (73 goals, 135 assists). This marked the third time he had scored more than 200 points in his six seasons in the NHL. A truly remarkable feat, this, when you consider that no previous player in league history had managed it even once.
The Official Edmonton Oilers 1984–85Guide lists a modest three records under the heading, “NHL Individual Records Held or Co-Held by Edmonton Oilers (excluding Wayne Gretzky),” and there followsa stunning full page of Wayne Gretzky’s contribution to the NHL records. Paraphrasing the guide, here are Gretzky’s statistics:
“No. 99, centre: height, 6’0”; weight, 170 lbs.; born, Brantford, Ontario, Jan. 26, 1961; shoots, left. He is not the fastest or the most graceful skater in hockey; neither does he boast the hardest shot. But he now holds 38 NHL records.”
Of course, he would, as was his habit, set or tie even more records in the 1985 playoffs, as well as win the Conn Smythe Trophy for most valuable player in that series. But back in March 1984 all I asked him was, did he feel a hundred-goal season was possible?
“Sure, it’s possible,” Gretzky said. “Somebody will do it. The year I got ninety-two, everything went my way.” But he had begun to feel the pressure. “Yesterday you got two goals in a game, tomorrow the fans want three.” He has said he would like to retire at the age of thirty, after fifteen years in hockey. “When Lafleur retired, it made me open my eyes,” he said.
Lafleur, who quit suddenly in 1984 (temporarily, as it would turn out) at the age of thirty-three after four mediocre years, had scored sixty goals in his best season, 1977–78. “I wasn’t surprised he retired,” Gretzky said. “You wake up, you’re no longer in the top-ten scorers, you think, ‘Oh, my God,’ and you begin to press. When Lafleur was in his prime, it was a much rougher league, but slower. We get hit, but not as much as in the late seventies.”
Danny Gare, the Red Wing veteran who had played against Gretzky the night before, told me, “They don’t run against him like they did on Lafleur.”Acknowledging Gretzky’s enormous talent, he added that it had been more exciting to watch Lafleur. Well, yes, so it was. And come to think of it, the same could be said of Bobby Orr.
When either Lafleur or Orr was on the ice, you never took your eyes off him, never mind the puck. Orr could literally establish the pace of a game, speeding it up or slowing it down at will. Lafleur couldn’t do that. He was—in Ken Dryden’s felicitous phrase—the last of the river-hockey players, who had learned the game outdoors instead of in a rink, a solitary type, often lost in a reverie on ice all his own. Gretzky was something else again. Sometimes you didn’t even realize he was out there, watching as he whirled, until he emerged out of nowhere, finding open ice, and accelerated to score. Other times, working out of a seemingly impossible angle in a corner, he could lay a feathery pass right on the stick of whoever had skated into the slot, a teammate startled to find the puck at his feet against all odds.
It’s not true that they don’t run on him. The hit men seek him here, they seek him there, but like the Scarlet Pimpernel they can’t board him anywhere: he’s too elusive. Gretzky can fit through a keyhole. Watching him out there, I often felt that he was made of plasticine. I’ve seen him stretch his arms a seeming two feet more because that’s what was required to retrieve a puck. Conversely, putting a shift on a defenceman, cruising very low on ice, he seemed to shrink to whatever size was necessary to pass. He is incomparably dangerous behind the opposition’s net and unequalled at making a puck squirt free from a crowd.
If, to begin with, Gretzky had a fault, it was his tendency to whine. For a while, all an opposing player had to do was skate past Gretzky thinking negative thoughts for number 99 to fall to the ice, seemingly mortally wounded, his eyes turned imploringly to the referee. In Edmonton, this had earned him a pejorative nickname: “The Wayner.”
In June, Gretzky won the Hart Memorial Trophy, the league’s most valuable player award, for the sixth straight time, this in a year in which he had already won his fifth consecutive Art Ross Trophy, for the NHL’s leading point scorer during the regular season. One hundred and eighteen years after Confederation, the only thing out of Canada more famous than Gretzky was the cold front.
For a hockey player, it should be noted, this was a grand accomplishment, for, as a rule in 1985, NHL stars had to cope with a difficult paradox. Celebrated at home, they could, much to their chagrin, usually pass anonymously south of the forty-ninth parallel. Not so Gretzky. But for all his fame, he remained something of an enigma, a young man charged with contradictions. Ostensibly modest beyond compare, he had taken to talking about himself in the third person. Speaking of the endless hours he clocked on his backyard skating rink as a child, he said: “It wasn’t a sacrifice. That’s what Wayne Gretzky wanted to do.” Discussing possible commercial endorsements, he allowed, “The thing to look for is … is there a future in it for Wayne Gretzky?”
Seemingly self-composed, he didn’t fly on airplanes easily. Obviously, there was a lot of inner tension bottled up in Gretzky, and at thirty thousand feet it began to leak. In 1981, trying to beat his fear of flying, he tried a hypnotherapist, but it worked only briefly. Come 1984 he flew with pilots in the cockpit as often as possible, which helped only some, because they had to send him back into the cabin once they began landing procedures, and Gretzky had been known to sit there, unable to look, holding his head in his hands.
As I sifted through the Gretzky file, it appeared that just about every reply he had ever given in an interview was calculated to oblige. Again and again, his answers were not only boringly proper but tainted by what W. H. Auden once condemned as the rehearsed response. Under all the superficial sweetness, however, I suspected there was a small residue of bitterness. This, in remembrance of a boy deprived of a normal childhood, driven to compete on ice with boys four to six years his senior from the age of six.
Gretzky, for example, unfailingly went out of his way to pay obeisance to his father, his mentor. Walter Gretzky, a thwarted hockey player himself, a man who was mired in Junior B for five years, was still working as a telephone repair man in 1984. In his brash memoir,Gretzky,written with Jim Taylor, he gloated, “Wayne learned to skate and Walter Gretzky built a hockey star.” He had Wayne, at the age of four, out in the backyard skating rink well into the dark evening hours, learning to crisscross between pylons made of Javex bleach containers.Walter Gretzky wrote, “You can just see them thinking, ‘Boy, did he push those kids! That’s a hockey father for you!’ Actually, it was the most natural thing in the world.” But in an epilogue to the book, Wayne, recalling that he had been shipped to Toronto to further his hockey career when he was barely a teenager, noted, “There’s no way my son is leaving home at fourteen.” At fourteen, he added, he thought Toronto was the greatest thing in the world, “but if there was one thing I could do over again, I’d like to be able to say I lived at home until I was eighteen or nineteen.”
Wayne was only eleven years old when he began to set all manner of amazing records in minor league hockey, even as he would later astound the NHL. But in 1984, even as Gretzky was arguably the best player the game had ever known, a much-needed publicity bonanza for the NHL in the United States, he was also, ironically, a menace to the game.
Imagine, if you will, a baseball outfielder, not yet in his prime, who hits .400 or better every season as a matter of course and you have some notion of Gretzky’s hockey stature. Furthermore, since Gretzky’s sophomore year in the NHL, there had been no contest for the Art Ross Trophy. Gretzky is so far superior to any other forward, regularly winning the point-scoring title by a previously unheard of fifty or sixty points, that he inadvertently makes the other star players appear sadly inadequate. And while the other players tend to tell you, tight-lipped, that “Gretz is the greatest … he has all the moves and then some,” I don’t think they really like him, any more than Salieri did the young Mozart.
Peter Gzowski, in one of the very few intelligent books ever written about hockey,The Game of Their Lives,ventures, “Often the difference between what Wayne Gretzky does with the puck and what less accomplished players would have done with it is simply apause,as if, as time freezes, he is enjoying an extra handful of milliseconds.” Gzowski goes on to cite experiments done with athletes by a neurologist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Based on this and other research, he suggested that Gretzky, like other superstars (say, Ted Williams or Bjorn Borg), benefited from motor neurons that fired faster than those of mere mortals. Or, put more simply, time slowed down for him. Gretzky also profited from an uncanny ability to react quickly to everybody’s position on the ice. “What separates him from his peers in the end,” Gzowski writes, “the quality that has led him to the very point of the pyramid, may well have nothing to do with physical characteristics at all, but instead be a manner of perception, not so much of what he sees—he does not have exceptional vision—but ofhowhe sees it and absorbs it.”
As Gretzky often emerged out of nowhere to score, so did Peter Pocklington, the owner of the Oilers. The son of a London, Ontario, insurance agent, he parlayed a Ford dealership, acquired at the age of twenty-three, some choice real estate, and a meatpacking firm into a fabled fortune, even by western oil-patch standards. Pocklington got into hockey, hesaid, because he wanted to be recognized on the streets. In 1984, he not only owned the most talented team in the NHL, a club that boasted such players as Paul Coffey and Mark Messier, but he also had Gretzky tied to a personal-services contract that made him one of the world’s highest-paid indentured labourers. It was said to be worth $21 million and to extend until 1999.
In 1981, Pocklington’s assets were estimated to be worth $1.4 billion, but the recession got to him, and his holdings by 1984 had reportedly shrunk to a mere $150 to $200 million. Gone, gone, was the $9 million worth of art, the private Learjet, and the Rolls-Royce. I asked Pocklington about the rumours, rampant at the time, that—such were his financial difficulties—he might be offering his legendary chattel to the nefarious Americans, say Detroit or New York. Looking me in the eye, he denied it adamantly. “There’s nothing to it,” he said. “You can imagine what they would do to me here if I sold Wayne. It’s almost a sacred trust.”
September 19859From Satchel, through Hank Greenberg, to El Divino Loco
Come spring, I turn hungrily to the sports pages first every morning to ponder the baseball scores, held in the thrall of overgrown boys whose notion of humour is to slip an exploding device into a cigar, drench a phone receiver with shaving cream, or line the inside of a teammate’s hat with shoe polish. But, to be fair, a certain corrosive wit is not unknown among some ball players. Asked if he threw spitters, Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez replied, “Not intentionally, but I sweat easy.” Invited to comment on whether he favoured grass over AstroTurf, relief pitcher Tug McGraw said, “I don’t know. I never smoked AstroTurf.” On another occasion, a reporter asked McGraw how he intended to budget his latest salary increase. “Ninety percent I’ll spend on good times, women, and Irish whisky,” he said. “The other 10 percent I’ll probably waste.” Then the immortal Leroy “Satchel” Paigeonce said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
Satchel Paige, one of the greatest pitchers the game has ever known, was shamefully confined to the Negro leagues in his prime. Only in 1948, when he was forty-two years old, did he finally get a chance to compete in the majors, signed by Bill Veeck to play for the Cleveland Indians. Paige helped the Indians to win a World Series in 1949, went on to pitch for the St. Louis Browns for a couple of years, and then dropped out of sight.
The film director Robert Parrish once told me a story about Paige that he then included in his memoir,Hollywood Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.In the early fifties, Parrish was shooting a western in Mexico,The Wonderful Country,in which Robert Mitchum was playing the lead. Mitchum suggested that they get Satchel to play a black sergeant in the U.S. Tenth Cavalry.
“Where can we find him?” Parrish asked.
“Why don’t you call Bill Veeck?”
Parrish called Veeck and learned that Paige was now with the Miami Marlins in the Southern Association, but he didn’t think that Parrish could contact him because he was in jail on a misdemeanour charge and the judge, who was a baseball fan, would let him out only on the days he was to pitch. Parrish called the judge.
“Well,” said the judge, “I think we can work it out. Leroy has a sore arm and has lost his last four games. I’ll let him out if you’ll guarantee he doesn’t touch a baseball until he comes back to Miami.”
Paige arrived in Durango, Mexico, a week later, accompanied by a beautiful teenage black girl whomhe introduced as Susan. Parrish knew he had a daughter and assumed that’s who she was. “Paige … stayed with us for six weeks,” wrote Parrish in his memoir, “and when it was time to send him back to Miami, Mitchum and I took him to the airport. Susan boarded the small commuter plane, and Mitchum, Paige, and I stood on the tarmac … and after a while, Mitchum asked a question that had been bothering both of us since Paige arrived. “Is Susan your daughter?” he asked.
“No,” said Paige. “She’s my daughter’s nurse.”
There was a pause and then Mitchum finally said, “But your daughter’s not here.”
Paige looked at Mitchum and smiled. “How about that?” he said. Then he turned and boarded the plane, still smiling.
The late Hank Greenberg wrote in his autobiography,Hank Greenberg: The Story of My Life,of John King, a legendary left-handed slugger who hit .380 in the Texas League but never made it to the bigs because he couldn’t cope with southpaw pitching. Once, according to Greenberg, King came out of a restaurant and saw a beggar with a tin cup: “King slipped a quarter into the cup. As he turned around, he saw the beggar pull the quarter out of the cup with his left hand and John went back and grabbed the coin out of his hand, and said, ‘No left-handed son of a bitch is going to get any of my money.’”
If my devotion to baseball is an occasional embarrassment to me, I blame it on being a Montrealer. Weput up with plenty here. Going into the 1989 season of dubious promise, for instance, Claude Brochu, president of Les Expos and a former Seagrams marketing maven, pronounced that the year would be successful if fans would just increase their consumption and spend $7.25 per game on soggy hot dogs and lukewarm beer rather than the measly $5.50 they grudgingly parted with the previous season. Baseball, once a game of inches, was now a business of pennies. Hank Greenberg’s father, a prescient man, understood this as early as 1929, when Hank signed his first pro contract.
“Pop,” Hank said, “are you against baseball as a career?”
His father nodded.
“The Tigers offered nine thousand dollars.”
His father whistled softly. “Nine thousand dollars,” he said. “You mean they would give you that kind of money just to go out and play baseball?”
“And they’ll let you finish college first?”
“I thought baseball was a game,” his father said, “but it’s a business—apparently a very good business. Take the money.”
My problem with Montreal baseball is compounded by the fact that in a climate where we are fortunate to reap seven weeks of summer, maybe six, the game is played on a zippered carpet in a concrete container that resembles nothing so much as an outsize toilet bowl—a toilet bowl the cost of which would humble even a Pentagon procurement agent. The ugly Olympic Stadium, more properly known inMontreal as the Big Owe, cost $650 million to build in 1976,more than the combined cost of all the domed stadiums constructed in North America up to that time.And this price doesn’t include the parking facilities, which set taxpayers back another $70 million. Nor did it take into account the so-called retractable roof, finally put in place in 1988, its reported cost another $80 million. A roof that retracted only erratically come 1989 and already leaked in several places.
Despite these local difficulties, I am not only addicted to the game but also to books that celebrate it: say, George V. Higgins’sProgress of the Seasons: Forty Years of Baseball in Our Town,composed in praise of those who came closest to the sun, playing in Boston’s Fenway Park. Baseball, writes Higgins, differs from football and basketball in that it is “a game played by generally normal-sized men whose proportions approximate those of the majority of onlookers, and whose feats are therefore plausibly imagined by the spectator as his own acts and deeds.”
There is a lot in that, certainly, but also an exception to the rule, the towering six-foot-four Hank Greenberg, who first came up with the Detroit Tigers in 1930 and before he was done, in 1947, had hit 331 home runs in a career that was interrupted by four years of military service in the Second World War. Greenberg, whose lifetime batting average was .313, was twice named MVP. He drove in 1,276 runs and remains tied with Lou Gehrig for highest average of runs batted in per game with.920, or nearly one RBI a game for his career. He is also one of only two Jewish players in the Hall of Fame, the other being Sandy Koufax.
Ira Berkow, who did an admirable job of editing and amendingHank Greenberg,an autobiography that remained unfinished when Greenberg died of cancer in 1986, notes that Greenberg’s onetime teammate Birdie Tebbetts recalled, “There was nobody in the history of the game who took more abuse than Greenberg, unless it was Jackie Robinson.” But Greenberg, a man of immense dignity, refused to either anglicize his name or flaunt his Jewishness. Instead, he put up with the taunts, though on one occasion he did walk over to the Yankee dugout, which was riding him hard, and challenge everybody on the team.
The racial slurs that Jewish players once heard in the majors were not always devoid of wit. Andy Cohen, a New York Giants infielder who came up to the bigs before Greenberg, tells about one Texas League game in 1925. “I made a good catch and the fans gave me a pretty big hand. Then I heard one guy yell out, ‘Just like the rest of the Jews. Take everything they can get their hands on.’”
Even more famous, of course, was the end of the 1938 season, when Greenberg hit fifty-eight home runs, two under Babe Ruth’s record, with five games left to play. When he was unable to hit another homer, a lot was made of the story that pitchers had thrown him anti-Semitic fastballs, racist sliders, and Jew-baiting curves, but Greenberg would have none of it. “Some people still have it fixed in their minds,” he writes, “that the reason I didn’t break Ruth’s record was because I was Jewish, that the ball players did everything they could to stop me. That’s pure baloney. The fact is quite the opposite: So far as Icould tell, the players were mostly rooting for me, aside from the pitchers.”
Walter Matthau told Berkow that when he was growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, his idol was Hank Greenberg: “Greenberg for me put a stop to the perpetuation of the myth at the time that all Jews wound up as cutters or pants pressers. Or, if they were lucky, salesmen in the garment centre.”
Years later Matthau joined the Beverly Hills Tennis Club only because Hank Greenberg was then a member.
“For thirty years,” said Matthau, “I told a story which I read in the newspapers about Hank Greenberg at a port of embarkation during the Second World War. The story had it that there was a soldier who had had a little too much to drink, and he was weaving around all the soldiers sitting there. He was quite a big fella. And he said in a very loud voice, ‘Anybody here named Goldberg or Ginsburg? I’ll kick the livin’ daylights out of him.’ Or words to that effect. Hank had been sitting on his helmet, and he stood up and said, ‘My name is Greenberg, soldier.’ The soldier looked at him from head to foot and said, ‘Well, I said nothin’ about Greenberg, I said Goldberg or Ginsburg.’ I told this to Hank when I met him at the club. He said it never happened. I told him I didn’t care to hear that. I was going to continue to tell that story because I liked it. He said, ‘Okay, whatever you say, Walter.’”
The most original and quirky baseball book I have read in ages,El Béisbol: Travels through the Pan-American Pastime,by John Krich, is an antic tour through far fields, where Fan Appreciation Day isEl Día de Los Fanáticos,the Day of the Fanatics; pitchers must beware of arobador de bases;and Roberto Clemente is still worshipped above all.El Béisbolabounds in vivid set pieces, among them a game Krich attended in Puerto Rico with Vic Power, a slugger with the Cleveland Indians in the late fifties, and Rubén Gomez, a.k.a.El Divino Loco(the Divine Crazy), who pitched for the Giants in the first game they played after their move to San Francisco. “Oh, baby,” Power told Krich. “My biggest salary in the major leagues was thirty-eight thousand dollars. Now the average Puerto Rican kid wants that for a signing bonus. The kid’s mama, she knows too much!”
July 198910Eddie Quinn
On July 28, 1939, the following item appeared in the MontrealGazette:
FORUM WRESTLING TO RESUME AUGUST 8
At a meeting of the Montreal Athletic Commission, yesterday morning, Eddie Quinn, of Boston, was granted a matchmaker’s licence as representative of the Forum in succession to Jack Ganson…. [Quinn] was given permission to go ahead with the arrangements for his first big show on August 8…. Yvon Robert, formerly recognized locally as heavyweight champion, will appear in the inaugural program….
Apparently Quinn intends to have no traffic with the “noble experiment” which was Ganson’s swan song locally; that of a return to straight, scientific wrestling. Quinn stands solidly behind rip-roaring rassling with all the frills. He is not even daunted by the plethora of “champions” that infest the mat landscape…. Referring toGanson’s attempt to take the fun out of wrestling, Quinn said, “The public will not fall for that pink-tea stuff.”
Quinn, who used to drive a taxi in Brookline, Massachusetts, never looked back. In 1960 he not only promoted all the wrestling matches at the Montreal Forum, but, as he said, “I got most of Canada, Boston, thirty percent of St. Louis, and fifty percent of Chicago. Things have gone pretty fast in the last twenty years.”
So fast, in fact, that Quinn was netting as much as a quarter of a million dollars a year for his activities. He had made wrestling the number-two spectator sport in Quebec.
Quinn, who necessarily travelled a good deal, was a difficult man to catch up with. His offices, Canadian Athletic Promotions, were in the Forum. The first time I dropped in, there were two men seated in the outer office: Larry Moquin and somebody called Benny. Moquin, who books the wrestlers for Quinn, used to be a famous performer himself. He was a semi-pro football player when Quinn discovered him. Benny, a greying, curly-haired man-of-all-jobs, reminded me of the horseplayers I used to know as a kid around the roaring Main.
Moquin and Benny were playing gin rummy, $10 bills changing hands often. The phone rang a couple of times, and Moquin, his tone belligerent, said, “He’s gone fishing. Yeah.” Once Benny answered the phone, held it, and looked quizzically at Moquin. “For God’s sake,” Moquin said, “he’s gone fishing.”
Actually, I was waiting for one of Quinn’s publicitymen, Norman Olson, to show up. The first thing Olson said to me after he came in was “Are you here to knock us?”
I told him no.
Olson, in his early thirties, was a fat, swarthy man with a little black moustache. “Eddie isn’t here,” he said.
“He’s gone fishing,” I said.
Olson laughed. “Aw, Eddie’s in the pool. He’s in the pool all day. On the phone. His phone bills come to $2,000 a month.”
Quinn lived in the town of Mount Royal, one of Montreal’s more affluent suburbs. His swimming pool, he would later tell me, held 38,500 gallons of water and cost him $12,000. Olson got him on the line and all at once the office jumped to life. Everybody wanted to talk to Eddie, who had just flown in from Chicago. “How’s the Irishman?” Olson asked with a nervous little laugh. There was a pause. “Sure,” Olson said, intimidated. “I’ll fix it.”
Dan Parker, then theNew York Daily Mirror’ssports editor, had made a sarcastic remark in his column about Quinn’s having one world champion wrestler in Montreal, another in St. Louis, and a third in Chicago.
“Parker doesn’t like Eddie,” Olson said. “There’s more to wrestling than meets the eye. We’ve got all kinds of people coming here. I know one psychiatrist who never misses a match. All day people tell him nutty things. At night he comes here. It relaxes him.” Olson believed that wrestling, like golf, had great therapeutic value. “The immigrants come here,” he said, “because it makes them feel good inside to seethe Anglo Saxon, the blond guy, get it. The French like it too, you know. It’s a release for them.” He felt that TV had given the sport a big boost. One-hour shows in Detroit and Chicago, he said, outdrew other sports. Before TV, Killer Kowalski and Yukon Eric drew only $1,500 at the gate in Chicago, but after three months of appearing on studio shows with a small invited audience, the same two performers drew $56,000.
Quinn, Olson predicted, would begin to run studio shows out of Montreal as soon as his contract with the CBC ended. “These days,” he said, giving the TV set an affectionate slap, “you’ve just got to come to terms with the one-eyed monster. But it’s killed the nightclubs, you know. Today only the walkers will bring them in.” Walkers, he explained, were girls who took their clothes off on stage, slipped into them again, and then drank with the customers on commission. “I could tell you a lot about this town,” he said.
Olson gave me a couple of wrestling magazines, tickets for the next show, and promised to arrange meetings for me with Killer Kowalski and Eddie Quinn. “Eddie’s a wonderful guy,” he said. “He’s got a wonderful sense of humour.”
In the outer office Benny and Moquin were still playing gin rummy. Moquin was losing.
“You’ll like Kowalski,” Olson said. “A lovable guy.”
Before going to the match the next night I read up on the sport inWrestling RevueandWrestling News.The former, a most spirited quarterly, featured biographies of top performers, action pictures, and an especially informative department called “Rumours versus Facts,” wherein I learned that 640-pound Haystack Calhoun doesnotsuffer from a glandulardisorder (he’s a big boy, that’s all), and that Skull Murphy doesnotrub a special kind of animal grease over his hairless head so that opponents cannot hold him in a headlock (in Skull’s own words, “I use ordinary Johnson’s baby oil on my head. I find it helps to prevent irritation from rubbing on the dirty canvas”). However, Princess Zelina, slave girl of the hated Sheik,doescome from a royal family in Lebanon (her old man, living in penurious exile in London, hopes to regain his throne before long). InWrestling News,which is actually a section ofBoxing Illustrated,I was taken with a defence of girl midget wrestlers by Buddy Lee. In a truculent piece titled “Don’t Sell These Girls Short,” Lee assured his readers that those “pint-sized pachyderms, Baby Cheryl, a real toughie for one so tiny, and Little Darling Dagmar, ‘the Marilyn Monroe of the Maulin’ Midgets,’ are a couple of sweet kids, happy with their work.”
Both magazines rated Killer Kowalski as number three among the world’s wrestlers. This was especially gratifying to me as the following night I was to see the Killer battle “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers for the world championship and an $18,000 winner-take-all purse.
There were, I’d say, only about four thousand fans at the Forum for the occasion. Many of the older men still wore their working clothes. The teenagers, however, favoured black leather jackets, their names implanted with steel studs on the back. The most engaging of the preliminary performers was Tiger Tomasso, an uncouth villain who not only eye-gouged and kicked below the belt but also bit into his opponent’s shoulder when aroused.
Before the main bout, a precautionary net wastied around the ring. This was necessary because Kowalski, a strapping six feet seven, is, all the same, a most bashful performer, given to fleeing the ring when the going gets rough. Not only that. Struck the slightest blow, he tends to whine and even plead for mercy from his opponent. Even so, the wily Pole made short work of the golden-haired Nature Boy and won the coveted championship belt. This was a popular win with all us non–Anglo Saxons.
The next afternoon, back in the modest offices of Canadian Athletic Promotions, Kowalski told me, “I indulge in lots of histrionics in the ring. I shout, I snarl, I jump up and down like a madman. Am I mad? I earn more than $50,000 a year.”
Kowalski told me that he used to work on the Ford assembly line in Windsor for $50 a week. He was paid more than that for his first wrestling match in Detroit and quickly realized that he was in the wrong business. A top performer in 1960, Kowalski wrestled three times a week, usually for a percentage of the gate, and lived with his brother and sister-in-law in a house he had recently bought in Montreal. He was thirty-three years old and expected to be able to go on wrestling until he reached his mid-forties. Meanwhile, against that retirement day, Kowalski had been investing his money in securities.
“I’ve built up a personality,” he said, “a product, and that’s what I sell. Ted Williams is no different. Why do you think he spat at the crowd that day? It’s showmanship. Everything is showmanship today. Richard Nixon has his act and I have mine.” Kowalski bent over and showed me a scar on his head. “Last week in Chicago,” he said, “after I’d won a match, myopponent hit me over the head with a chair. You think he wanted to hurt me? He wanted to make an impression, that’s all.”
Norman Olson, who had joined us earlier, now began to stir anxiously. “You’re forgetting that wrestling takes a lot of natural ability,” he said.
“Sure,” Kowalski said.
“You’ve got to keep in shape.”
“The most dangerous thing,” Kowalski said, “are those crazy kids. They come to the matches with clothespin guns and sometimes they shoot rusty nails at us. Once one got embedded in my side.” Kowalski also pointed out that young performers, taking part in their first big match, are also a threat. “They’re so nervous,” he said, “they might do something wrong.”
I asked Kowalski if there was any animosity among wrestlers.
“No,” he said.
“Tell him about the night here when you ripped off Yukon Eric’s ear,” Olson said gleefully.
“Well,” Kowalski said, “one of my specialties is to climb up on the ropes and jump up and down on my opponent. One night Eric slipped aside, trying to avoid me, and I landed on his ear, ripping it off. He was very upset and he fled to his dressing room. Before long the dressing room was full of reporters and relatives and fans. Finally Eric looked up and asked for his ear. He’d forgotten it in the ring. The referee had picked it up, put it in his pocket, and by this time was showing it to all his friends at the other end of the Forum. When they got it back from him it was too late to sew it on again.”
A few days later Olson arranged for me to havelunch with Eddie Quinn in the Kon-Tiki Room in the Mount Royal Hotel. Quinn was already there when I arrived, seated with one of his referees and Olson. He wore rings on both hands—one was an enormous signet and the other was diamond encrusted. A chunky man with an expressive if hardbitten face, he spoke out of the corner of his mouth, just the way promoters did in the movies. “There’s nothing left,” he said, “but death and taxes. They belt you here, they belt you there. I just go on to keep people working. The government takes all the money, you know.” He turned to the referee. “I dropped ten thousand this morning,” he said.
“You’re used to it.”
“That doesn’t mean I like it.”
“Eddie’s got a wonderful sense of humour,” Olson said.
“You’re too fat, Norman. Hey, where’s your broad?” Quinn asked the referee. Then, turning to me, he added, “We’re waiting for a French chantoosie.”
“She’s at the hairdresser’s upstairs.”
“Well, go get her. We want to eat.”
The referee hurried off. “Hey, what’s your name?” Quinn asked me. “Norman here says to call you Moe for short but not for long.”
“Norman’s too fat.”
Quinn laughed and slapped my knee. The referee returned with the girl. “Meet the Freedom Fighter,” Quinn said. “She was Miss Europe. She worked with Chevalier. She can’t sing, either.”
The referee shook with laughter.
“Say hello to Mr. Richler,” Quinn said to the girl. “Hey, waiter. Another round of the same.” The waiterhanded Quinn a menu. “How do you order this stuff?” Quinn asked, and then he made some loud, unintelligible noises that were supposed to sound like Chinese. The Chinese waiter smiled thinly. “Just bring us lots of everything,” Quinn said, and then he turned to me. “You like this food? Looks like it’s been through a sawmill. Hey, waiter, if you don’t know what to get us, just call the health board and ask them to recommend something.”
“Eddie’s a natural-born kibitzer,” Olson said.
I asked Quinn about Yvon Robert, the most popular performer ever to wrestle in Quebec. “Around here,” Quinn said, “it used to be the pope, Robert, and Maurice Richard. In that order.”
“Robert was great,” Olson said.
Quinn, who had a phenomenal memory for facts, told me the exact date, place, and take of his most successful bouts. In 1959, he drew ten thousand people to the Forum with a novel attraction, boxer versus wrestler. Former world heavyweight champion “Jersey” Joe Walcott took on Buddy Rogers, the Nature Boy. Rogers dived for the canvas immediately and seldom rose higher than a low crouch. In the first round Walcott nailed the wrestler with a hard right and seemed to have him nearly out, but in the third Rogers got Walcott’s legs and Walcott quit.
Quinn’s biggest gates came from the three Yvon Robert matches against Gorgeous George. George’s gimmicks included long curly hair that he had dyed blond and a female valet who used to spray the ring with perfume before the wrestler himself deigned to appear. Religious leaders objected to the gorgeous one’s effeminate antics and brought pressure to bearon the Montreal police. As a consequence, George never wrestled in the Forum again.
I asked Quinn about midget wrestlers. “The crowd loves ’em,” he said.
The girl who had sung with Chevalier produced some photos of herself and handed them around. She explained that she had to take the photos to a theatrical agency round the corner and asked Quinn if he would accompany her.
“Delivering pictures is Benny’s department,” Quinn said. He seized a linen napkin, wrote a phone number on it with a ballpoint pen, and handed it to the girl. “Call Benny,” he said. “Hey, waiter”—Quinn made some more Chinese-like sounds—“the bill.” He didn’t look at the amount. Turning to me, he said, “Shall I sign it Eddie Quinn, the Men’s Room?”
“We must meet again and talk,” he said. “Come to my pool one day. Norman will fix it.”
“Sure thing,” Norman said.
On the way out we ran into the French chantoosie. She told Quinn she owed the bellboy a dime for the phone call. “Here, kid,” Quinn said, and he handed the boy a dollar.
“Couldn’t we walk there?” the girl asked Quinn once more.
“Walking is Benny’s department. I only walk as far as elevators.”
A couple of nights later I went to another wrestling match, this time at the small Mont St. Louis Gym. There wasn’t much of a crowd, but those who did turn up were fierce. There were several fistfights. A fan attempted to break a folding chair over KillerKowalski’s back. On the whole, though, this was an evening of indifferent performances. Obviously, wrestlers, like actors, need a big, responsive audience. Only Tiger Tomasso, a dedicated performer, put on a good exhibition: spitting, eye-gouging, biting.
I was lucky enough to meet the Tiger a week later.
I had asked Olson if, once the wrestlers started to travel on the summer circuit, I could drive with one of them to Trois-Rivières. Olson arranged for Ovile Asselin, a former Mr. Canada, to take me out. Asselin picked me up at four in the afternoon and we drove to a road junction, outside of town, where we were to meet another wrestler, Don Lewin. While we were waiting, two other cars, both Cadillacs, pulled up and out stepped Tiger Tomasso, Eddie Auger, Maurice Lapointe, and three other wrestlers who were on the card that night. I immediately went up to chat with the Tiger.
Tomasso told me he used to be a deskman in a hotel in Hamilton. All the wrestlers used to stay there, and he began to work out with them. Finally, he went into the game. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
I was writing an article, I explained, as two pretty girls in shorts strolled past.
“That’s the only kind of article I’m interested in,” Tomasso said.
Eventually Lewin, a surly ex-marine, arrived, and he, Asselin, and I drove off together. Lewin, a suspicious type, wouldn’t talk much in my presence. He had performed in Buffalo the previous night and had been driving all day to make the date in Trois-Rivières. He was, understandably, extremely tired. And unfriendly. On arrival, he made it clear that Iwould have to find another lift back to Montreal.
There was only a thin crowd at the seedy little arena in the city, and Lewin, excusably, pulled his opponent out of the ring after five minutes of lacklustre wrestling and held him there long enough to be disqualified. Larry Moquin arranged for me to be driven home by a young French Canadian who had taken part in a tag-team match earlier in the evening. His side, the villainous one, had lost.
The wrestler had taken a bad fall, and on the drive back to Montreal he kept rubbing his back. “Tomorrow,” he said wearily, “I have to go to Hull. I’m working there.”
“Don’t you guys ever take time off?” I asked.
He explained that you had to be available when a promoter wanted you; otherwise, you were considered unreliable. “It’s a dangerous profession,” he said. “My insides are all shaken up. You take your life in your hands each time you step in the ring.” He had wrestled for a long time in Florida, where a Puerto Rican fan had once knifed him. “But that’s a good territory. They liked me there. The worst was the West.” Once, he said, he had driven 450 miles each way to make matches in two western cities. Four wrestlers, taking turns at the wheel, had managed the trip there and back within a day. “The worst things are canvas burns. They’re extremely painful and we all get them. Sometimes they last a week, other times a month.” Suppressing a yawn, he added, “I used to sell cars. I could always go back to that. I like meeting the public.”
November 196011Cheap Skates