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A Life In The Loser’s Dressing Room
A talk with the superb journalist and sports report who was the co-author of MASH and wrote Ernest Hemingway’s favorite fight novel
August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
What happened was that a doctor named J. Maxwell Chamberlain helped me write my novel The Surgeon and, previous to that, a Life cover piece about a lung operation. Another doctor, H. Richard Hornberger, had studied under Chamberlain and sent him a letter saying, “That clown who wrote your book might be interested that I have a book I put together from my experiences in Korea.” Betty read it and enjoyed it, which let me know that it was funny—within the realm of decency, once I cleaned it up, since it was full of those jokes that doctors like to make about the body. So that’s the way we got together. Then it took quite a while, maybe a year, back and forth. I eventually tied everything together. As much as it got tied together; there isn’t a hell of a story line in MASH , just a succession of operations and techniques and humor. The only thing that holds it together is the characters and the familiarity that the reader comes to have with them.
Did you work on any of the sequels?
No, I just worked on the original novel. Later on Hornberger got together with a Southern writer named Butterworth, and they turned out trashy things like MASH Goes to New Orleans , at which point I stepped in and said, “Wait a minute. This [Richard Hooker] is my byline, too, and this stuff is crap.”
So yes, these collaborations were certainly different. I’d say Hornberger was interested in writing, and Lombardi was interested in football. Lombardi was interested in good books when he got a chance; his favorite book was probably The Godfather.
Looking back broadly, are there any athletes or events you covered that remain particularly large in your mind down the years?
Joe Louis had a tremendous amount of class. He never knocked anybody else, was always gracious. He was protected because the press respected him for his ability but also because he could take you out with a look. He was that kind of a guy. The press used to approach him as they would approach DiMaggio, very carefully, and ask him decent questions, and he would answer them with a lot of wisdom. The one about Billy Conn—“He can run, but he can’t hide"—that was Joe’s. There were I’ve forgotten how many hundred reporters covering that fight, and Joe wrote the best line.
But my all-time guy was a baseball player named Pete Reiser. When somebody risks his life the way he did, that to me is what professionalism is all about. Who knows how great Pete would have been if he hadn’t wrecked himself running into all those outfield walls. But he was philosophical about it. He said, “If I hadn’t played that way, how good would I have been?” So running into outfield walls was part of playing. He never regretted for a moment that he’d hit those walls. I never found anyone else who had professionalism as strong as Reiser, never saw anyone who had that much promise and then destroyed it. A professional is someone who makes every play. There’s no compromise. Lombardi used to lecture on that: “There are approximately 150 different plays in a game that you have to make, and you have to be professional on every one of them.”