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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
I’ve seen the Long Count, and you can’t really say how long it was with a stopwatch because the film was speeded up for the newsreels. So you’re dealing with sprockets and such. Benny Leonard and Hype Igoe of The World worked with stopwatches and say Tunney was down eighteen seconds and that the Long Count was because Boo Boo Hoff and Abe Attell had the referee in their pocket and Dempsey was not supposed to win. The dramatic evidence is that a round or two later a light chop to the jaw sent Dempsey down, and in the picture I have there’s Dempsey down and Tunney not in a neutral corner, and Barry is bellowing, “One. . . .” So I think it’s not just that the new neutral-corner rule was unfamiliar to everyone. I think the referee was fixed, and you can write it now because everybody’s dead. The tragedy of the Long Count, however, is often misstated. It’s not so much that Tunney would have been counted out as that Dempsey would have gotten back at him while Tunney was still groggy and finished him off.
“You could have played sports at a high level, but if it had been written the way things were written in 1900, we would not be talking about a golden age.”
It wasn’t until after Dempsey lost his championship in the first Tunney fight that the public sentimentalized him.
People finally realized what they’d had: not a draft dodger but a great champion.
Your connection with sports hasn’t been solely as a reporter. Good Enough to Dream chronicles your attempt to buy and run a minor-league baseball team called the Utica Blue Sox. How did this happen? And how different are the skills for running a team from those for analyzing one?
In covering the Brooklyn Dodgers, I always rooted for a close game. I’d say, “Come on, Cardinals, get some runs, so we’ll have a nice contentious ninth inning.” As an owner of the Motel 6 of baseball teams, we’d be ahead nine to nothing and I’d say, “Come on, guys, let’s get some runs. Let’s get a safe lead.” You root incredibly.
The first thing is you start lying to reporters. The underlying thing is you have to have enough to pay the bus company or you can’t get to Batavia to play the Batavia Suns. So you are always aware of that, and you’ll do anything. I had a Frisbee-throwing contest. “Wanna see someone throw a Frisbee over the right-field fence? It’ll cost you a buck and a half.” We did that. Or “Reduced Beer Night.” You’ll do anything. I really prefer my baseball pure, without rock music. I just want to watch a game—that’s complicated enough. But I couldn’t do that in Utica without bankrupting generations of Kahns. So we had all kinds of promotions, and they used to say to me, “What are you gonna do next? ‘Have a Cold’ Night? Everybody who has a cold gets in half-price?” I said, “That’s not a bad idea.” I had Miss Utica Blue Sox Night.
Also unlike reporting, as an owner you’re also committed to the emotional well-being of your young people. You are so involved in the day-to-day therapy of keeping the team going, I decided that running a team was 70 percent psychology and 30 percent baseball.
Sometimes, after a game, we locked the gates and bought beer for the guys, figuring they’d talk about baseball, and it would be good for the team. Anyway, my daughter Alissa was sixteen, and a publicist’s factotum, and there was a very handsome Canadian pitcher named Roy Morretti. One day I noticed Alissa and Morretti leaning toward each other, and I thought it looked as though I was going to have to decide between my daughter and my favorite pitcher, except for Christy Mathewson. But when I got close enough to listen in, Roy was saying, “Alissa, don’t give your body to a ballplayer. Because if you do, in the morning you’ll be in love and the ballplayer will be gone.”
Maybe you don’t really lie to the press as an owner, but you do mislead. I had one player who was having terrible marital problems, this same pitcher actually. So this guy from one of the Gannett papers says, “Is it true Morretti’s having marital problems?” I said, “That’s absolutely false.” But the guy was on the edge of divorce. Why am I going to say, “Yes, his wife is sick of him,” and put that in the paper? I want a harmonious team.
You have cited Ring Lardner’s You Know Me, Al and Lose With a Smile, as among the few “works of art built around American sport” before 1935. Why is that?
The only good early baseball book I remember is Pitching in a Pinch, by Christy Mathewson, 1912. Heywood Broun wrote a novel, called The Sun Field, and I don’t think it works. There’s no evidence that Bill McGeehan tried to write a novel or that Runyon tried. I did once say to Red Smith, “Have you thought about writing a novel?” Red said, “Frankly, the idea fills me with terror.”
So there was a period when nobody did sports novels except for boys’ adventure stories, and then suddenly there was a small explosion with Mark Harris and Bernard Malamud. You may not like Malamud’s The Natural, but it was a conscious effort to do the Arthurian legend in a baseball setting: Excalibur and Wonderboy. I find Harris’s Bang the Drum Slowly terribly moving. Maybe it’s sentimental, but so am I.