My first memory of Muhammad Ali is from February 1964 in Miami's funky Fifth Street gym, just after the Beatles had departed from a memorable photo shoot.
Ali was still in the ring shouting his pre-rap couplet, "Save your money and don't bet on Sonny!" "Sonny" was Sonny Liston, the surly champion and 7-1 betting favorite, whom I'd heard the day before dismiss his challenger as a "virgin" and a "faggot." Ali had just turned 22.
I am old enough to remember when Ali was underestimated, reviled and exiled, called a coward and a traitor, and referred to as "Clay" by all the best papers, long after he had changed his name, when those same papers had no difficulty calling Robert Zimmerman "Bob Dylan."
When Ali shocked the world and vanquished the invincible monster Sonny Liston, the arena was half empty, because so few fans gave him a chance to survive the first round, much less prevail. Only Ali's front-row faction of American black royalty had faith in him that night--Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Sugar Ray Robinson.
But today Ali is universally beloved as he turns 60 (January 17), basks in the glow of Michael Mann's superb new movie about his life and sees rapper Will Smith impersonate him to perfection, down to the shoulder dip in the ring and the lower register of his voice in repose.
The once-reviled Cassius Clay has come to be perceived as America's Buddha, our Dalai Lama, who personifies peace and harmony. Ali at 60 is the most famous face on the planet, and probably the most loved person, if a democratic election were held that included Africa, the Islamic world, America and Vietnam.
His trembling hands and muted speech from Parkinson's disease only make him seem more revered, vulnerable and heroic; he is not afraid to display his impairment to the world. He has a serenity that allows him not to hide.
What happened is that America has changed more than Ali since the 1960s.
Like all mortals, Muhammad Ali has made his mistakes and said his share of stupid things, to which I will return. He did have a mean streak of venom he used against his best black opponents. And he did betray and abandon his teacher, Malcolm X, out of blind loyalty to the cult racketeer Elijah Muhammad.
Ali is what he is today, I think, primarily because of his draft resistance and opposition to the Vietnam War. This is what made him bigger than sports, and allowed him to endure so long after his career ended and to become an international icon.
This is what made him come to personify principle and sacrifice for all times. He gave up his championship, surrendered his prime athletic years between 26 and 29, and lost millions of dollars in earnings. He sacrificed all this--without being given any due process--to become a conscientious objector to an unjust war that was still popular when he took his formal stand in April 1967. He had moral courage equal to his physical courage.
The transcendent meaning of what Ali did was memorialized by literature professor and boxing scholar Gerald Early, in his essay "Tales of the Wonderboy." Recalling his reaction as a young boy to Ali's simple act of defiance, Early writes:
When he refused, I felt something greater than pride: I felt as though my honor as a black boy had been defended, my honor as a human being. He was the grand knight, after all, the dragon slayer. And I felt myself, little inner-city boy that I was, his apprentice to the grand imagination, the grand daring. The day that Ali refused the draft, I cried in my room. I cried for him, and for myself, for my future and his, for all our black possibilities.
Michael Mann, who directed the film Ali, told me, "The draft resistance was it for Nelson Mandela. When the cast had dinner with Mandela, while we were filming in Mozambique, Mandela told us that what Ali was willing to lose in order to oppose the war was the defining thing about him."
Jack Johnson was a sophisticated, apolitical hedonist. Joe Louis was a modest patriot. Michael Jordan will not do anything controversial. Jackie Robinson became a Republican and campaigned for Richard Nixon against Jack Kennedy in 1960.
Muhammad Ali is the most socially significant athlete in American history. He invented himself out of the cultural and political currents of the early 1960s--black pride, rock and roll, popular entertainment, anti-authority rebellion, generational self-expression and wrestling.
I once asked him where he got his early arrogant, bombastic performance art. He replied, "Little Richard, Gorgeous George and Liberace. George told me I could fill arenas by selling tickets to fans who would pay to see someone shut my big mouth."
When Ali upset Liston and won the heavyweight championship, he ignited a transformation in the consciousness of a generation. He consolidated a radical shift in black consciousness in America and, later, in the world. And he changed the popular culture of media and celebrity with the force of his personality. No football game ever did all that.
On that sea-changing night in Miami, the most mythic prize in sports passed from the Mafia, which owned Liston and used him as a strikebreaker, to this liberated, uninhibited black man, who kept saying, "I don't have to be what you want me to be."
The new champ announced the next morning that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, briefly taking the name Cassius X, and then Muhammad Ali. This was a lot for America to digest in twenty-four hours.
Ali's actual relationship to the Nation of Islam seems mysterious to this day. He never obeyed all its practices. He was promiscuous with women. He kept the white Angelo Dundee as his trainer, Ferdie Pacheco as his doctor and Bundini Brown as his camp cheerleader, even though Bundini was a black Jew who chased white women. Ali never displayed any hostility toward white people. He dumped Don King as his promoter in 1976 for Bob Arum, a Jew from Brooklyn. It is possible that his religious conversion was initially more of a social awakening, his way of asserting black pride and solidarity.
Ali quietly quit the Nation of Islam in 1975, to become a follower of a more inclusive Islamic faith, the brand that Malcolm X embraced in the last nine months of his life, after his pilgrimage to Mecca.
Ali once confided to me that he didn't become "a devout, true believer in Allah" until the mid-1980s, "when my career was over, and miniskirts went out of style."
The Greatest was the first rock-and-roll heavyweight champion. His rebellious heroes growing up were Sam Cooke (who was in the chaotic ring with him after he beat Liston in Miami), Lloyd Price, James Brown, Chubby Checker, Fats Domino and the exhibitionistic, uninhibited Little Richard. Ali moved to the backbeat with invincible confidence and vanity.
There are two distinctive assets underlying Ali's protean originality.
One is very simple--he loves people in a gargantuan, Babe Ruth kind of way that was never bogus. He likes to be around people, in crowds, signing autographs for free, joking with kids, performing his corny magic tricks. Ali always had a color-blind enthusiasm for humankind, even when he appeared to be in his most fervent Nation of Islam phase.
In Muhammad Ali, the definitive oral-history biography by Thomas Hauser, there is a revealing quotation from the champ, who says,
All my life I admired Elvis Presley. When I was in Las Vegas, I heard him sing, and it was a thrill to meet him.... But I felt sorry for Elvis, because he didn't enjoy life the way he should. He stayed indoors all the time. I told him he should go out and see people. He said he couldn't, because everywhere he went, they mobbed him. He didn't understand. No one wanted to hurt him. All they wanted was to be friendly, and tell him how much they loved him.
Ali proves the wisdom of the old Beatles message--the more love you give, the more love you receive.
Ali's second secret asset--and this is just my intuition--is that he possesses an almost mystical capacity to absorb energy and inspiration from the external world, and then filter it through his politicized rock-and-roll imagination. This helped make him special as both a fighter and a figure in history.
Ali drew strength and extra reserves of resolve from being black, from Allah, from being beautiful, from being a rebel and an outsider, from being underestimated, from Africa, from being booed by bigots, from being cheered by white hippies for opposing the Vietnam War, from having Lloyd Price and James Brown with him in Africa when he beat George Foreman to regain his crown on the soil of his ancestors.
Ali believed that if he could beat Liston or Foreman or Frazier, that would inspire a junkie to get off drugs, a child to survive a terminal illness, a welfare recipient to get a job, a drunk to go to rehab. He believed his life could change other lives, that his fate was linked to the fate of the masses, that if he won a fight, that could motivate a derelict to rise out of the gutter.
He believed he was on a divine mission, and that Allah would not allow him to lose a mere athletic competition. Malcolm X told him before the Liston fight that Muslims felt no fear, and Ali lived this way.
In his most desperate moments, when he was blinded by a foreign substance from Liston's "juiced" gloves, or exhausted against Frazier in Manila and feeling "next to death," Ali was able to draw confidence, desire and serenity from the external world beyond the ring and the gym.
He put this mystical faith into words--once on film, for Leon Gast's camera at his Deer Lake training camp, just before he left to meet the unbeaten Foreman in Africa, as the heavy underdog at 32. His soliloquy did not make it into the wonderful documentary, When We Were Kings, that Gast and Taylor Hackford put together. But it is in the outtakes. Sitting on the steps of his cabin, Ali speaks directly into the camera, with an honest self-exposure: "I am fighting for God and my people. I am not fighting for fame or money. I'm fighting for me. I'm fighting for the black people on welfare, the black people who have no future, black people who are the wineheads and dope addicts. I am a politician for Allah."
Then he added wistfully, "I wish Lumumba was here to see me. I want to win so I can lead my people."
Ali's rebirth has inevitably generated its own backlash, most notably Mark Kram's half-excellent book Ghosts of Manila, published last June. The book gives Joe Frazier all the respect and poetry he is due. But it goes on to claim that Ali was just a dupe of the Nation of Islam in his draft resistance.
Kram argues that Ali didn't know what he was doing when he refused induction, that he was being manipulated, and may have feared being assassinated by the Nation. Kram compares Ali to the empty simpleton Chauncy Gardner from the Jerzy Kosinski novel Being There, whose vague clichés were mistaken for deep insights.
"Seldom has a public figure of such superficial depth been more wrongly perceived," Kram writes of Ali.
This is a caricature of a complicated history. The Muslims wanted Ali to keep fighting so they could continue to make money off him; Herbert Muhammad, the Messenger Elijah Muhammad's son, was his manager, who took a third of all his ring earnings and a third of all his commercial-endorsement contracts. At the same time, the Messenger was--in theory--opposed to boxing as an enterprise.
When I asked Ali about this in 1991, he said, "If anybody used anybody, I used the Nation. They didn't make me do anything I didn't want to do."
What is not generally known (or remembered) is that the Muslims repudiated and banished Ali during his exile from boxing, when he was at his lowest ebb of earning power and legitimacy. On April 4, 1969, the Messenger published a statement in the Muslim newspaper that said:
We tell the world we're not with Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali is out of the circle of the brotherhood of the followers of Islam...for one year. Mr. Muhammad Ali shall not be recognized with us under the holy name Muhammad Ali. We will call him Cassius Clay.
The way the Nation exploited Ali is well told both in the film Ali and in one of the most sensitive books about Ali--Redemption Song, by Mike Marqusee (Verso).
The small reason the Messenger stripped Ali of his holy name was explained by the late Philadelphia Muslim minister Jeremiah Shabazz in Hauser's oral biography. Jeremiah was a large and much-feared figure in the Nation. He started Ali's conversion to Islam before Ali met Malcolm, he was a confidant of Elijah Muhammad and he maintained close ties to Ali. He told Hauser:
In early 1969, Ali was questioned on a television program about whether or not he'd go back to boxing. And Ali said something to the effect of, Yeah, I'd go back if the money was right. And that comment angered the Messenger, because to him, it was like Ali was saying he'd give up his religion for the white man's money. The Messenger sent for Ali, and I went with him to Chicago. I was there when the Messenger told Ali he was taking his name back and suspending him from the faith, that he didn't want to be involved with anyone so weak as to go crawling on hands and knees to the white man for a little money.
The Nation of Islam had no control over Ali after this brutal excommunication.
The rebuttal to Kram's depiction of Ali as a manipulated Muslim dupe is even further complicated. Ali's reaction to being reclassified as 1-A and thus eligible for the draft went through a process. It began on that first day of reclassification (February 17, 1966), and it evolved over the next few months, as his emotions changed and as the tactics of his lawyers changed.
Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times was present on that first day, and his observations are quoted at length in Redemption Song. Lipsyte heard Ali whine at first about how he could be drafted out of all the thousands of eligible kids in Louisville. Ali kept asking, "Why me?"
Lipsyte felt that in those first hours, as media calls poured in, Ali's attitude was "self-centered." Also, Ali did not seem to know where Vietnam was on the map.
But at the same time, also on the first hectic day, Ali was humming to himself Dylan's antiwar anthem "Blowin' in the Wind." And on this first day Ali did say to a reporter perhaps his most famous line--"I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong."
In that moment Ali began to change the world more than the world was changing him. This quote resonated and took on a life of its own.
Lipsyte has been a supporter of Ali in general, but is critical of his first, peevish response to being made eligible for the draft. He remembers Ali's anger over being reclassified for the draft on the basis of the recalibration of the intelligence-test standards, so that Ali's result was now counted a pass without his being retested. (Tom Hauser thinks Ali flunked the test legitimately because of his poor math skills.)
On that first day, Lipsyte heard Ali whine that his tax payments were paying for "three jet bombers and lots of bullets."
But within a few months Ali's selfish emotions subsided, and he grew into a critic of the war. He read, watched television and saw gory photos of the carnage in the newsmagazines.
The FBI certainly did not regard Ali as a brainless dupe. They began surveillance of him in early 1964, after he was observed with Malcolm X. An FBI memo dated July 25, 1967, recommended intensified surveillance of "Clay." Five of his phone calls were illegally recorded by the FBI, including one with Martin Luther King Jr., whom he called "brother."
By the end of 1966, Ali's opposition tothe war was more advanced than that of most senators. He told the great photographer Gordon Parks, "How can I kill somebody when I pray five times a day for peace?"
This is not to suggest that Ali had the complex global sophistication of I.F. Stone or Norman Mailer, or the towering moral authority of Martin Luther King Jr. He was still a fighter, not an intellectual or a foreign policy expert. But he was the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world, and whatever he said or did got on television and into millions of homes with draft-age children. The combination of principle and position made him dangerous.
Ali became a willing symbol, catalyst and martyr to the antiwar movement. He may have started out selfish and irritable, but he evolved into a serious man, a fearless American dissident who made the racist J. Edgar Hoover anxious and angry.
At first, Ali's lawyers argued that his Army induction would be an "undue financial hardship" on his family. But a month later they began to invoke his religion as alternative grounds for refusing to fight in the war.
Another historical detail that is often neglected is that the original hearing officer for his Louisville draft board (retired Judge Lawrence Grauman) actually ruled in favor of Ali's conscientious objector claim. But Grauman was overruled by the all-white draft board.
Ali's draft refusal seemed to be intuitive and authentic. Whether or not he was capable of shooting anybody, he certainly wouldn't kill any Vietnamese on behalf of a government that, in 1966, oppressed black people in his own country and in his own discriminatory hometown of Louisville. His quarrel was with his own government, which was the implication of his Vietcong remark.
Ali's feelings about the war were strong enough, and clear enough, for him to speak at an antiwar rally in Los Angeles on June 23, 1967, with Dr. Benjamin Spock. Ali told the crowd of about 20,000:
"Anything designed for peace and to stop the killing, I'm for 100 percent. I'm not a leader. I'm not here to advise you. But I encourage you to express yourself."
Ali's stand against killing wasn't vindicated until the Supreme Court threw out his conviction and five-year sentence on June 28, 1971, in an 8-0 ruling. The High Court agreed that his draft resistance was rooted in his religious faith.
This exoneration came three months after Ali lost to Joe Frazier. Years later he acknowledged to me, "I wasn't ready for Joe after only two tune-ups. But I felt I had to take the fight when I did because I needed the money. I assumed I was going into prison in a few months, and had no choice on the timing of the fight."
(The only major historical inaccuracy I noticed in the film Ali is that the Supreme Court exoneration is portrayed as coming before the loss to Frazier.)
Ali's first fight after his three-and-a-half-year exile from boxing was in Atlanta, against Jerry Quarry in 1970, because the local politics were favorable to Ali. There was no boxing commission in Georgia. And a local black state senator named Leroy Johnson cut himself in for a piece of the promotion. Johnson controlled enough black votes to be able to force the mayor, Sam Massell, to let Ali fight in his jurisdiction. An injustice was cured, and State Senator Leroy Johnson made a nice piece of change.
Ali had his blemishes, and committed his blunders, as a young man swept up in the wildest conflicts and largest personalities of the 1960s.
When he sided with the cranky, despotic Elijah Muhammad against Malcolm X, it left Malcolm naked to his enemies for the kill. If Ali, as the new heavyweight champion, had remained loyal to his mentor, and continued to lend his public support to Malcolm, history might have gone in a different direction. Malcolm might not have lost his power base. Louis Farrakhan might not have taken his place.
Ali shows the champion sobbing in remorse when he learns that Malcolm has been murdered (by Nation of Islam assassins), as Al Green sings Sam Cooke's soul masterpiece, "A Change Is Gonna Come," on the rising soundtrack.
The way Ali deployed his verbal skills to dehumanize Joe Frazier was indefensible. He used his wit and vocabulary to redefine "black authenticity," to cast his rivals as less black than himself, to rob them of their true identity. (Interestingly, he was never cruel to white opponents like Jerry Quarry and George Chuvalo. He did not try to mess with their minds.)
He called Frazier an "Uncle Tom" and a "gorilla" and the "white man's champion." Frazier experienced these racial insults as a personal betrayal, since he had befriended Ali during his years away from the ring, offered to lend him money and campaigned to get Ali his license back, so they could fight and make money together.
The taunting positioned Ali favorably among intellectuals--black and white--but it was essentially the tactic of an artful politician, campaigning for votes. Black laborers and cops tended to favor Frazier. It was Frazier who had the more impoverished origins, the darker skin color, the more African features, the black trainer and the black doctor. Frazier was pure blue-collar work ethic, a proud warrior from the slums and fields who was subservient to nobody.
In an interview in the early 1990s, Frazier told me: "I had to swallow a lot of razor blades when the butterfly ran his mouth. He grew up nice in the suburbs and says he learned to box when somebody stole his bicycle. I didn't have no bicycle! When I was 12 years old my family was sharecroppers in South Carolina. One day the bossman told me the mule had just died, and I had to replace the mule in the fields. I'm a lot blacker than the butterfly."
"I don't have to be what you want me to be" endures as Muhammad Ali's credo of self-creation, social defiance and historical significance.
The moral of his imperfect life remains: redemption through suffering, emancipation through courage, vindication through adherence to principle. Whenever he got knocked down, he got up, which is the best any of us can do.
Yet there is also the inescapable element of Greek tragedy to Ali's physical decline over the past twenty years. The same gift the gods gave him has also partially destroyed him. He was most renowned for his speed and speech, and now both those gifts are disfigured beyond recognition. He could survive astonishing punishment and still win, but this bravery eventually betrayed his body.
But what Muhammad Ali accomplished in his youth under two different names, both in the limited boxing arena and in the unlimited world arena of values and consciousness, changed history forever--and for the better.
The fighters are powerless workers in need of rights and justice.
The twentieth century produced few American heroes like Joe DiMaggio. He was arguably the best all-around ballplayer who'd ever taken the field, a unique combination of power, speed and grace, a lifetime .325 hitter with a classic swing and an unworldly calm whose fielding was as nearly flawless as it seemed effortless. He was not a fidgeter, adjusting batting gloves a hundred times (there were no batting gloves). Once he squared his bat, said his friend Tony Gomez, "the guy was a statue." There was no wasted motion on the field--he flowed to the ball--and no hotdogging: The fielders' mitts were too small for snap-catches. Those of us who saw him play when we were teenagers would caricature the batting styles of other players, but we all wanted to look and move like DiMaggio. He was also the possessor, as any fan knows, of what is the most extraordinary feat in baseball, and perhaps in any sport, a fifty-six-game hitting streak that defies all statistical logic and that most people believe will never be matched again. That in itself is the material of myth.
But there was something else as well. When he first appeared in a New York Yankees uniform in 1936, he seemed to come from nowhere at the very moment when both the Yankees and a depressed nation--and the rising second generation of Italian-Americans--seemed to need him most. Paul Simon's line "where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio," could have been written as anticipatory longing thirty years before it became ironic sentimentality.
Unlike the boisterous beer-swilling Babe Ruth, who'd retired the year before, DiMaggio, the son of an immigrant Sicilian fisherman from San Francisco, became the essence of that elusive thing called class. He rarely spoke; he dressed superbly--another thing he would become known for--and he seemed to conduct himself, both on and off the field, with a royal calm, even an icy distance, that only enhanced the allure. The Yankees, in those days when baseball was the national pastime, had won the World Series just once since their Murderers' Row rampage of the 1920s. In the four years after he arrived, they would win four times. In his thirteen war-interrupted seasons--the last was 1951--they would win the pennant ten times. He played not only to win--to drive his team to win, often playing through his own pain, the bone spurs in his heels, the aching knees, the trick shoulder--but to play flawlessly. He was the epitome of Yankees royalty.
And somehow, after those thirteen seasons, when the myth might have faded into an endless haze of celebrity golf tournaments and testimonial dinners, it seemed only to thrive--through the 286-day klieg-light royal marriage to Marilyn Monroe, the ensuing divorce and the love that seemed to survive both, through the Mr. Coffee and Bowery Bank commercials and through tawdry rounds of high-priced baseball-card shows and memorabilia signings--little seemed to tarnish the mythic glow. If anything, the forty-eight years after DiMaggio's retirement--he died in 1999--seemed only to burnish it. Almost from the moment he arrived in New York, people wanted to touch him, do him favors, run his errands, drive him places, give him things. Cops gave him access to places denied anyone else. He rarely paid for his own meals, his own cars or even his own hotel rooms. There would always be guys eager to be his delivery boys, to bring him women--mostly the blond showgirls he preferred--even some who moved out of their homes to be with him, to take care of him. Anything for the Dago. The namewas used with so much affection that it became an honorific.
But of course there was more--lots of it--and Richard Ben Cramer is there to mine every ugly moment: the money, ultimately more than a million, that came under the table in hundreds and two hundreds from mobsters (who adored him even more than did other American males, and who found him a useful draw to Toots Shor's, El Morocco or the other clubs and restaurants they controlled in New York); DiMaggio's compulsive whoring, combined with his possessiveness--unto physical abuse--of his two wives; the estrangement from his own brothers, who were also big-league ballplayers; frosty rejection of his son (except when publicity photos were required), who would die of a drug overdose; the envy directed at other great players; the grudging World War II military career that he spent in safe, warm places playing baseball for the prestige of the brass under whom he served; the obsessive money-grubbing--$150, or $175, for each signed baseball, each signed bat, each photograph, thousands upon thousands of them, deals upon deals.
Cramer contends that DiMaggio not only wanted the money--he was pathological in the thought that others would profit: "Who else would make money off the deal? How much? Why should those guys make a buck off my life?" The fear went back to the beginning of his career, to the days before free agency when ballplayers were chattel: Club owners like Ruppert beer baron Jacob Ruppert of the Yankees and his general manager Ed Barrow owned not just the players but many of the writers and columnists as well. You could try to hold out, but in the end, it was the owners who set the terms; you either played for the team that owned you or you didn't play at all. Worse, as DiMaggio discovered early in his career, even the attempt was likely to expose you to a torrent of press and fan abuse as an ingrate. The same newspaper hacks who could manufacture heroes could just as easily be turned to embarrassing them or tearing them down. DiMaggio, the idol who was making the owners additional millions in attendance, was lucky to get his $25,000, or his $40,000. In the Depression years, those seemed like princely sums. In a way, you could understand the paranoia about other people making money off you. Lots of them tried.
In the course of telling the story, Cramer seems to have turned over every rock in DiMaggio's life, but in the end even he seems uncertain how to frame his flawed hero's life, caught up, on the one hand, in the man's greatness and lavishing us, on the other, with his rage, his distrust, his shabbiness.
DiMaggio excelled and continued to excel, against the mounting "natural" odds. He exceeded, withal, the cruelest expectations: He was expected to be the best--and he was. He was expected to be the exemplar of dignity, class, grace--expected to look the best.... And he looked perfect.
DiMaggio did for us--for the sake of our good opinion--through every decade, every day. He was, at every turn, one man we could look to who made us feel good. For it was always about how we felt...with Joe. No wonder we strove for sixty years to give him the hero's life. It was always about us. Alas, it was his destiny to know that, as well.
Of course it was always about us; what else could it be about? But as with a lot of other latter-day muckraking of heroes "who did for us"--Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy--the ground rules have changed. Even the un-kept, independent sports writers of the 1930s and 1940s would never have written the other DiMaggio story, would have respected the man's privacy, as the White House press respected Kennedy's. (Through Marilyn Monroe, of course, the two stories were linked: DiMaggio thought maybe the "fucking Kennedys" had killed her.) If we were charmingly naïve then, a nation of hicks who liked simple morality tales, our confessional age now demands full disclosure--we expose our potential heroes before they even have a chance to show their stuff. Cramer, who won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting and wrote a fine book about the 1988 presidential campaign, gets himself caught in between--still in love with the performance, the style, the heroism, but probing the private, inner man until little is left. Heroes on pedestals are all fair game. But Cramer gives us little help in squaring the two DiMaggios. How do we hold the one without forgetting the other? In the end, it's even hard to square what Cramer tells us about DiMaggio's admiration for--and friendship with--people like Woody Allen with the shallow DiMaggio he mostly gives us.
What makes that even more exasperating is that Cramer gets into his characters' heads, reports events and quotes conversations with no attribution. The book's acknowledgments include a huge list of people, from old ballplayers to Henry Kissinger, himself a DiMaggio idolater from the 1930s who would later sit with the Clipper at Yankee Stadium and get enlightenment about the subtleties of big-league pitching and hitting. But there are no footnotes, no lists of sources. In the hours after the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, Cramer reports, DiMaggio rushed to his sister's house in the Marina--the house, which he had given to his family many years earlier, was undamaged--and emerged with "his big right hand around the neck of a garbage bag...which held six hundred thousand dollars, cash." How does he know that--not the part about the bag, but about the contents? And where did the cash come from? (It seems to have belonged to some long-gone mobster who was making certain that he could make a fast exit if necessary, but we are not sure.) There's also the touching story about Marilyn Monroe's tour entertaining the troops in Korea in 1954, three years after DiMaggio--who wanted his wives to be homebodies and never approved of their careers--had retired. "Joe," she said on her return, "you never heard such cheering." "Yes, I have," he said. Where did that come from? And when "he was off to himself, on his cot, thinking about (his first wife) Dorothy," where did that come from?
To compound the exasperation, Cramer likes to affect a wise-guy writing style that's often more annoying than evocative. The ambient sporting life of 1930s New York is itself a nice story, full of Guys and Dolls characters--prizefighters, jockeys, ballplayers; Broadway showgirls; politicians like La Guardia, columnists like Walter Winchell and Sidney Skolsky; small-time hoods like Jimmy "Peanuts" Ceres, who drove DiMaggio around, and some big-time ones as well, Ruggiero "Richie the Boot" Boiardo, Joe Adonis, Abner "Longy" Zwillman, "who put the 'organized' in organized crime"; Toots Shor himself, who loved the Dago and would later be spurned by him, as would so many other onetime friends. But the Runyonesque rhetoric gets in the way: sentences like "See, Joe had to have a private life," or "See, Gomez was gone," or "In the sixth, Joe got ahold of a pitch...", or "Winchell, Len Lyons, that nosy Kilgallen broad; even the battle-ax, Louella Parsons, used to write up Joe like an old friend" or (even more bizarre) "Joe was digging for second base, when Gionfriddo, in an act of God...and--Cazzo! Figlio di putana!--stole the home run away from DiMaggio." Now who said (or thought) that?
It's hard to deny Cramer's portrait of DiMaggio as an empty and increasingly lonely and embittered man, whose lifelong act as an aging public monument could only have added to the bitterness. "From the start," Cramer writes early in the book, "he had to have it both ways: he wanted to be well known at what he was known for--and for the rest, he wouldn't be known at all." We once allowed our heroes that privilege--but as Cramer's book demonstrates, we permit it less and less, either to the living or the dead. If DiMaggio had cooperated, he would probably have received more consideration, but DiMaggio being who he was, no such cooperation could have been expected. In the end, our sympathy is restored only by the venality of his lawyer Morris Engelberg, who continues to mine DiMaggio's memorabilia and exploit his name even more ruthlessly than DiMaggio did. In the penultimate moment in Cramer's book, a few minutes after DiMaggio's death, there is Engelberg, in DiMaggio's room, ordering the nurse to force DiMaggio's 1936 World Series ring, the only genuine one he had left, from the dead hero's finger. When the nurse succeeded, "Morris yanked [it] out of his hands, and left the room in a hurry." He would claim that DiMaggio "gave him that ring, on his deathbed--before Joe died in his arms."
Thirty years ago, I went to the San Francisco Giants Arizona spring-training camp to do a magazine piece on Willie Mays, another of our imperfect diamond heroes. How much, Mays asked, was he going to get paid for cooperating? At that point, I decided I would simply hang around for a week or two and watch and listen. There was little he could tell me, I decided, that would strengthen the piece. (In the days following, I learned more than I ever expected--about Mays, about the changing culture of baseball and about the game itself.) Sometimes, maybe, the work of athletes, like that of dancers or, for that matter, composers or actors or novelists, deserves to be well known, as DiMaggio seemed to wish, without the unceasing pursuit and exposure of all the rest. In some cases, say in Mozart's or Wagner's or J.D. Salinger's, or maybe even in Bill Clinton's, if you can't separate the neuroses or the anti-Semitism or just the ordinariness of a man from the public performance--you may never know greatness at all. But it gets harder every day.
We don't have a TV at home, so we've missed the much-drubbed NBC Olympics coverage. So when a little friend of my son's said she'd been watching, I asked her if any of the events had inspired her to want to be an Olympic athlete when she grew older.
"Yeah!" she raved. "Just wait! I'm gonna be a rock star and I'll ride onto the field with my helmet on my head and my crossbow on my back and I'm gonna have a band and six backup singers, and then when they light the torch, all the soldiers I've been saving in my disk drive are gonna burst onto the screen and do a dance and then there'll be fireworks, fireworks, fireworks, boom, boom, kaBOOM! Like you've never seen before!"
Flushed from such imaginative exertions, this dangerous little person ran off with my precious son, she humming a tune by Britney Spears, he shouting a song by the Backstreet Boys. (It was a perfect fugue, by the way. Has anyone else noticed that Britney is just Lance hung upside down and played backwards?)
Each culture develops its own sense of sport, I suppose. When I travel, I confess I make up for the deprivation at home by watching a lot of hotel-room television. I am always fascinated to see the kinds of competitive sports that people will sit up late for in other parts of the world. I've been to Edinburgh during sheepherding finals (sort of a par course for sheepdogs grafted onto a running of the bulls, except with large shaggy rams. Like Babe, but vicious). I've spent time with friends in Minnesota where ice fishing--which is, I assure you, one of the slower sports known to mankind--took up Real Time in dinner party conversation.
Once I spent five days in a small German town in a university dormitory built on the site of what had been a Nazi bank vault. This being truly the belly of the beast, I was not at all surprised when the heat went out the moment I got there. Within hours, I fell sick with a raging fever, my body temperature rising with each degree the room temperature fell. As I lay shivering beneath the thin cotton blanket, I used my last ounce of strength to flick through the channels on the steel television set (which was bolted to a fixed rod hanging from the ceiling, like the ones in hospitals or prisons). Aside from the ubiquitous CNN, all the available stations were displaying the same sporting event--in German, Swiss German, Farsi, Turkish and Basque. The event in question appeared to be a particularly formal version of Austrian dressage: horses with knotted manes and beribboned tails prancing rigidly through backbreakingly unnatural placements and postures, two-stepping, then waltzing to martial music. The riders, who wore high hats and polished boots, put the animals through their paces with the reins tightened so as to hold the horses' necks upright, the bits so tight the horses looked as though they were leering. The riders were tense and ferocious. The horses were precise, wild-eyed, slobbering with foam.
In happier times, I've been to the far north, up around the Arctic Circle, where Icelandic log-tossing is what in other climes might be called "hot." These are not little logs we're talking about, if the broadcast I saw is any measure--contestants trained by hoisting Yugo minivans on their backs. Indeed, in a side event to the log-toss, they ran a course where every thirty feet or so they stopped to pick up a 350-pound block of stone and chuck it in a rain barrel. "These Icelandic strong men" the voiceover explained, "consume from eight thousand to ten thousand calories a day"--a conceivable goal if, like me, you're thinking of the energizing properties of Ring Dings and marshmallow fluff, but an impressively ambitious one when you learn that a professional log-tosser's diet is fat- and sugar-free.
In South Africa, I once watched a spoofy (I think) combat in which a white gladiator and a black gladiator battled each other up the sheer face of a wall, the goal being not just to reach the top first but to dislodge your opponent so that he has no chance of ever making it up.
Then there's Wisconsin, where, back in the eighties, I lived through three deer-hunting seasons. The season was only nine days long but with more than 600,000 licensed hunters on the prowl, around 260,000 deer could expect to meet their maker within that time. "I guess they have bad aim," said my sister dryly when she heard this bit of data, but the truth is they did indeed have exceedingly bad aim. If memory serves me, Wisconsin was the only state that actually gave blind people a license to shoot. I was told they had to wear a neon-red sign that said: blind hunter (thus giving other blind hunters the chance to duck, I suppose).
Not only did more deer die at that time of year than at any other, more Wisconsiners did too. So the real suspense of the daily television tally was always the human toll, not the animal. Lost bullets seeking their mark took shortcuts through people's breakfast nooks and open bathroom windows and attic hideaways. Stray bullets always caught people by surprise in the middle of some intensely private act. Not that every such death was a complete surprise: One year the sheriffs and game wardens got worried about hunters who shot across busy highways at deer on the other side. So they set up lots of deer decoys by the sides of lots of busy highways to catch the sort of people who would do such a thing. Many of us just hid in the basement until they thought the logic of that one over.
I'm optimistic that we humans will always express our sporting instincts in locally interesting and richly varied ways. Indeed, a recurring criticism of the NBC coverage has been precisely its homogenization of the Olympics--the sappy human interest, the weepy mood music, the breathlessly overdramatized replays. But when I think about what the youngest consumers of American sports culture are exposed to as routine athletic fare, I guess it's no wonder some of them would opt for the halftime song-and-dance act. They already know that too often the real action is played out in culturally revealing games like the Bobby Knight Memorial chair-tossing competition, Hide and Seek the Steroids, the Million Dollar Endorsement Dash, Soccer Mom Slugfest and Hockey Dad Death Match.
I suppose it would be in my financial interest if Rush Limbaugh were to get his wish and become part of the broadcast team for ABC's Monday Night Football.
After a century of repressing or deriding Woman as a symbol of beauty, high culture in the West has suddenly gone over.
'Twas said the honest folks of Salt Lake City
Deplored sins large and even itty-bitty.
But, trying for the Games, they thought it pretty
In October in Las Vegas, Mike Tyson went before the Nevada Athletic
Commission to ask it to reinstate his boxing license, which had been
suspended after Tyson took a bite out of Evander Holyfie
Baseball is deservedly known as our national sport, for in the World Series just ended in triumph for the Athletics it was evident that the games contained most of the characteristic phases of American life: shrewdness, skill, sentimentality and downright luck.