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A Sporting Life
The author of America’s best-loved baseball book speaks of his days as a reporter, of his time (unique among sportswriters) owning a team, and of his latest subject, Jack Dempsey, whose violent career he uses to illuminate an era
October 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 6
One time, a few years later, I was visiting Robinson at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. He’d been away for a few minutes on the phone and his wife, Rachel, was holding forth. When Jack came in, he didn’t interrupt her when she asked me, “Don’t you want to know if he takes all those verbal assaults on the ballfield and ever took it out on his family?” Answering her own question, and I think it was a good one, she said, “He never did. Never. The only way I could tell it had been very bad for him at the ballpark was he’d come home and he wouldn’t say anything and he’d take a bucket of golf balls”the Robinson house was on a reservoir—“and he’d take the golf balls and he’d take his driver and he’d just hit all those golf balls into the lake.” Robinson added, “The golf balls were white.”
Dempsey was that direct. The first time I spent any stretch with him, in the fifties, I had been working for Newsweek, where I was just beginning to learn that whatever the brass said, you had to pretend that you were listening and then write the best story you could, and that was how to survive on a newsmagazine. These editors began to get excited that “one of our people is going to see Dempsey,” and they started telling me things to ask him, like “Why aren’t there as many white fighters anymore?” They freighted me down with all these heavy questions, which made my discomfort greater, so one afternoon in 1956 at Dempsey’s Broadway restaurant I started in a halting way, and Dempsey took me over to the mural James Montgomery Flagg had painted for him of his 1919 fight with Willard, pointed to the reporters at ringside, and explained, “That’s Grantland Rice, that’s Damon Runyon, that’s Westbrook Pegler,” as if to say, “Son, I’ve been through this before, now please relax.” At the end of the questions my editors had imposed on me, Dempsey said something that later was quoted elsewhere and became well known: “You know it’s a pretty hard life being a boxer. People don’t go into it often of free choice. If you want a different mix of groups—racial groups, religious groups—in boxing, it’s not going to happen in good times. What boxing needs is a good depression.” He was half-kidding, but only half.
You say in your prologue that “more than any other individual, Jack Dempsey created big-time sports in America.” But wouldn’t most people think Babe Ruth did that?
The Ruth of today is partly a product of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Ruth remains focused in the public consciousness because we’re always comparing a Maris or a McGwire or a Griffey. Baseball is flourishing, and as baseball flourishes, the memory of baseball also flourishes. Boxing has been in decline. People are always getting indicted now. There’s no organized public relations effort. So boxing as it was recedes in the public memory.
Here’s what Dempsey did: As a fighter he wins July 4, 1919, in Toledo, Ohio. Not many people there. About twenty thousand. At Boyle’s Thirty Acres in 1921, he draws the first million-dollar gate, luring some ninety thousand people out to a converted New Jersey swamp. Ruth at his peak was getting eighty thousand dollars a year, but if you wanted Dempsey in the ring, you had to have three, four, five hundred thousand dollars and up. Baseball has always worked the Babe Ruth shtick. As my friend Gerald Astor told me, “There’s too much writing about Babe Ruth and not enough about Dempsey.”
Is that what made you finally write a book about Dempsey, forty years after your Newsweek story?
At Newsweek I got very close to John Lardner, Ring’s oldest son. When John was sick with multiple sclerosis and angina and knew the end was coming, he told me there were two books that he thought I should write, that he would have written had he had the strength. One was The Real Charles Dillon Stengel , who in the minds of John and Ring Lardner was other than the Casey Stengel the public perceived. The book would trace the young Casey’s creative banking methods—he wrote so many bad checks that the owner of a Fiatbush bar papered his window with them—to his later serving as a bank vice president. I didn’t get to do that one. Casey was smart and would never cooperate.
John’s other proposed book was a novel about the 1919 Toledo fight. This left a slow-burning passion in me. Then there was Dempsey asking me to do a book with him in I960. Why didn’t I do it? Well, as Robert Frost said, “Way leads on to way.” I got an assignment from The Saturday Evening Post to do a thirty-thousand-word piece on Harlem (“White Man Walk Easy”). It was a chance to write for the great Otto Friedrich, which was nice if he liked your writing. They said, “Tell us about Harlem.” I said, “I don’t know about Harlem. Harlem is just some place on the way to the Polo Grounds.” Over the three months, I learned it was a lot more than that. Dempsey began to recede in my consciousness. But not forever.
By the time you met him, Dempsey was long retired and a polished gentleman restaurateur. Where did that come from? Did he have much schooling?
He told me that a teacher in Provo had said to him, “You’re not only the biggest kid in this school, you’re also the dumbest.” He was totally self-educated. But certainly he had the background of intelligence. That was the way he fought, tough and intelligent, despite Joyce Carol Oates’s calling him a “barroom brawler.” His father had once taught school, and his mother had read some Carlyle. The family was diffuse but very bright. And he was quite poised.