A Hero of Our Time

Paper Lion

by George Plimpton
Harper & Row, 362 pp., $5.95

Watching Luis Miguel Dominguin fight in Valencia in 1951, I suddenly saw a scrawny boy, two rows down, leap from his seat, vault the barrera, broomstick and sack in hand, and make it clear on to the sands of the bull ring, stamping his foot for the bull to charge. Around me people were cheering or laughing warmly, but I remember watching the boy, my heart hammering, until attendants hustled him off. I did not yet know that these boys, called espontáneous, were commonplace. A week later, in Paris, a friend showed me a new French Communist Party publication, a Life-size picture magazine lampoon about America. On the first page there was a photograph of Harry Truman, then president, looking bumpkinish as he waved a shoe aloft at an American shoe convention. Opposite, Al Capone smiled darkly behind a cigar, and there was a quote from him endorsing capitalism. The best system, Capone said. On the following page, clinching the case for bestiality, there was a full-page spread of a behemoth of a football player; crouching, the eyes mean, the mouth snarling, arms hanging ape-like. This, the caption said, was a typical American university student.

I toss in these two memories, seemingly unrelated, because at the bull fight in Valencia it did not occur to me that a gifted reporter, mulling over just such a bit of adolescent daring, as George Plimpton once did, could develop it into two unusual sports books: Out Of My League, published in 1962, and now Paper Lion. And then I have always shared what I take to be the French Communist Party line on American football. I am, I should hastily add, not so much a fellow traveler as a committed sports fan. Living abroad for more than twelve years, I follow the baseball and ice hockey results conscientiously in the Paris Herald, but football, even after reading Plimpton’s uncommonly good Paper Lion, is still alien to me. Possibly my prejudice against football, like just about every prejudice, breaks down to race and class. On our street, a working-class street, we wanted to be boxers or, failing that, baseball pitchers. Bonus boys. Speaking for myself, I got so far as to train for the Golden Gloves when I unfortunately came up against a schoolmate called Manny, who was already fighting professionally, working in preliminaries under an alias in small towns. Manny had the unnerving habit of blowing his nose on his glove before swatting me. I still insist he didn’t knock me out. Revolted, I fainted. In Montreal we had the example of Maxie Berger, who fought in the Garden and once went the distance with Ike Williams; and we also had our one and only Ziggy “The Fireball” Freed, who would have been a star with the Athletics had Connie Mack not been such a lousy anti-Semite. Ziggy was actually signed by a scout at the age of eighteen and was sent out for seasoning with a Class “D” team …

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