First, I salute David for this beautiful essay. There is no doubt that he could have been a great sportswriter, and as this piece shows, it's not too late either. I have been inspired to offer a few thoughts.
First, as the editors of the NY Times have themselves acknowledged, a weakness of the paper has always been the failure to develop a really good sports section. Red Smith was certainly the best columnist they ever had, but as I think John Stuart Mill once said in another connection (or perhaps it was said about John Stuart Mill) "his eminence reveals the flatness of the surrounding terrain." Apparently there is some basic contradiction between the unique identity of the NY Times and the sports section of a newspaper. It's hard to imagine writers like Jim Murray, Jimmy Cannon, or David Condon publishing in the New York Times. That's life.
A.J. Liebling was one of those writers I wanted to like and the topics he wrote about seemed interesting, but I was completely disappointed in him. Whether he was writing about boxing, eating, or (especially) the city of Chicago, I sensed that in those days New Yorker writers must have been paid by the word. Just terrible. But he's still vastly better than Joseph Mitchell, another New Yorker writer whom I wanted to like. Joseph Mitchell is really the worst.
Onward. I am not free to disclose my sources, but the legendary collapse of the Chicago Cubs in 1969, which allowed the Mets to win the pennant, was caused in large part by a feud between Cubs manager Leo Durocher and Cubs third baseman Ron Santo -- both of them megalomaniacs. There were eleven games left in the season and I believe the Cubs only had to win one of them in order to get the pennant, but the Cubs lost them all. Something like that. Durocher's stepson was in my class when I was a seventh grade gym teacher that Fall, and he was really a great kid. It was certainly a difficult situation for him. We never spoke about what was happening during "the collapse."
Marciano, LaMotta, Graziano, Basilio, Joey Giardello, those guys were like Roman legionaries. Basilio and Giardello were boxers to some extent but the others were brawlers like gladiators with short swords. Marciano had wanted to be a baseball player more than a boxer. His advantage was that he loved to train. Heavyweights in that era weighed about 185 pounds, which was Marciano's weight. This continued up through Floyd Patterson's reign. Against Sonny Liston and the 220 pound men who followed him, Marciano would have definitely lost. A big heart can take you only so far.
Lots of matches from the postwar era and before can be seen on YouTube. Viewing them can only increase one's admiration for men like Mickey Walker, Archie Moore, Harry Greb, Benny Leonard, and many more. And no one knows more about the history of boxing than Mike Tyson. What a pleasure it would be to hear Mike speak about that! I know he has great admiration for Battling Nelson, although (or maybe because) Battling Nelson did lose 30 fights.
Ali became a great fighter and destroyed himself in the process. But I find it hard to listen to people rhapsodize about Ali when they don't really know anything else about the sport. The same thing happens regarding Secretariat. Citizen Joe is aware of Secretariat's dominant victory in the Belmont race. But Joe doesn't lament the fact that Secretariat was never tested beyond his third year. I think Secretariat only ran against older horses twice, and lost once. Not sure about that. Citation, in contrast, ran through age five. But the greatest horses were the geldings who had to keep running until they could hardly walk: Kelso, John Henry, Forego.
Blah, blah. It's impossible to make a "safe" football helmet. Baseball is the best invention America has produced. The baseball rule book is a stunningly great piece of writing. If a foul ball lodges in the catcher's mask, is it considered a catch? Jimmy Breslin's bio of Damon Runyon is a masterpiece. Blah, blah. Hank Stram is a badly underrated pro football coach. Bobby Fischer is in a category by himself but I more admire Michael Tal. Ultra-distance runner Pam Reed is the toughest athlete on Earth. The late Alex Karras went to Emerson High School in Gary IN. Blah blah. Football players with unique names include Cosmo Iacavazzi (Princeton), Elvis Peacock (Oklahoma), and Joe Don Looney (Oklahoma). Blah, blah, blah.
Here's a funny video of Hank Stram coaching the KC Chiefs. The coach knew he was wearing a microphone but the players did not. They couldn't understand why he was acting like he had ants in his pants.