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 in the Carolinas. He lasted only a season. “You think they’d give a Jewish boy a chance to pitch out there?” he asked. “Sure, in the ninth inning, with the bases loaded and none out, with their home-run hitter coming up to the plate, the manager would shout, OK, Ziggy, it’s your ball game now.”
FOOTBALL, HOWEVER, was always remote. A middle-class WASP’S game. I still associate it with hip flasks, raccoon coats, and loud boring McGill alumni making fools of themselves in downtown Montreal. I also have a problem with the players, the boors of my university days. Of James Thurber’s university days, too, if you remember Bolenciecwcz, the Ohio State University tackle, in My Life and Hard Times. “In order to be eligible to play,” Thurber wrote, “it was necessary for him to keep up on his studies, a very difficult matter, for while he was no dumber than an ox he was not any smarter.” Bassum, the economics professor, asks the star tackle to name a means of transportation (“Just any means of transportation. That is, any medium, agency, or method of getting from one place to another.”), but this he is unable to do. “Toot-toot-toot,” the professor says. “Choo-choo-choo.” Finally, Bolenciecwcz comes up with train, thereby qualifying for the Illinois game.
I’ve been to pro games, and I can’t help feeling that there is something fundamentally unsportsman-like about men, mostly oversize to begin with, strapping themselves into all that outlandish equipment and wearing cages to protect their faces, all for a game’s sake. It’s brutish. In the epilogue to Paper Lion, Plimpton writes:
Detroit had a bad season my year. The team finished fourth in its division…Injuries hurt their chances. Eleven of the first-line players were knocked out of the line-up with injuries, most of them on the defensive team. Joe Schmidt and Carl Bretschneider of the linebackers were crippled, and so were Yale Lary and Night Train Lane. Gary Lowe ruptured his achilles tendon…
If I have already made it abundantly clear that football isn’t exactly my game, then I must say that Paper Lion is at once a more satisfying and complex book than Out Of My League, wherein the writer unwinds the sometimes nightmarish story of how he came to pitch to an all-star line-up of National and American League players in the Yankee Stadium, the team with the most hits picking up a thousand dollars.
Plimpton got Sports Illustrated to put up the pot. It was his notion, he told the editor, that he would pitch “not as a hotshot—that’d be a different story—but as a guy who’s average, really, a sort of Mr. Everybody, the sort who thinks he’s a fair athlete…” If it worked out, he hoped to go on to play tennis with Pancho Gonzales, box with Archie Moore, play golf with Snead or Hogan, and so forth.
THE WRITING IN Out Of my League is fresh and observant, but it suffers from spinning out a one-day adventure into a book. It is original, there is much to admire, but I think it would have been better as a shorter piece, like John Updike’s splendid account of Ted Williams’s last day with the Boston Red Sox. Ultimately, the most memorable thing about Out Of My League is what I can only call the author’s chutzpah, his actually going through with it, imposing himself on the players and the unsuspecting crowd at the Yankee Stadium. Many of the players were indifferent, others were cold. With Plimpton floundering on the mound, Mantle yawns ostentatiously. But then we never really worry about the author’s pitching performance per se as we do, say, about Jim Brosnan’s good and bad days in The Long Season. Plimpton’s professional pride, unlike Brosnan’s, could never be truly involved. Neither is his livelihood.
We also do not fret about how Plimpton will stack up on the field as the Detroit Lion’s last-string quarterback, but from the moment he begins haphazard practice, whacking a football into an armchair in his apartment, until he is finally allowed to call five plays in an inter-squad scrimmage at Pontiac, Plimpton holds us with the force of sheer good writing. If he was, predictably, a disaster on the field, I can think of no other non-fiction book that evokes more successfully the special taste and feeling of a game and the men who play it.
To begin with, Plimpton had trouble getting a team to allow him to work out with them, let alone take part in an actual game. Red Hickey, coach of the Western Conference All-Stars, said, “Did I hear you right? You—with no experience—want to train and then play—in the Pro-Bowl game?”
The New York Giants wouldn’t have him and neither would the Jets. Fortunately George Wilson, the earthy coach of the Detroit Lions, was amused by the idea and invited Plimpton to camp. From the moment of his arrival, Plimpton reveals a necessarily good and receptive nature and an enviable eye for detail. Of course he’s got a lot going for him. Even a run-through of some of the names on the Detroit roster has a distinctive tang to it: Milton Plum, Yale Lary, Nick Pietrosante, Dick LeBeau, Scooter McLean…as well as a linesman, nicknamed the Mad Creeper, who was, Plimpton writes, a near pathological case.
No one knew who the Mad Creeper was…His habit was to creep along the corridors late at night, three or four in the morning, sneak into someone’s room, lean over his bed and throttle him hard and briefly, just closing his hands around the fellow’s throat and then skittering off down the corridor, listening to the gasping behind him.
The trade idiom is rich. Night Train Lane speaks of his “captainship,” tells how you get “a great communion to get to the Hall of Fame,” and teases Plimpton about the unstoppable Roger Brown the night before the inter-squad scrimmage. “Jawge, you set to find if Roger’s going to disjoin you. I mean in Pontiac you are goin’ to have expectation in this whole question—he’s goin’ be at you shufflin’ and breathin’ hard.”
Paper Lion is very good on superfans and hangers-on, including a tailor who has become a touchstone to the rookies. Before the rookies know whether or not they’ve made the squad, the tailor, who has the ear of the coaches, may come to measure them for a team blazer. Conversely, he may pass them by. Plimpton seems to catch exactly the tension between rookie and veteran; the competition for jobs; the night of the team cut-offs; and the nerves that build up before a game, even an exhibition game.
Before Plimpton left to join the Lions, a friend in New York, who had once played for the Washington Redskins, warned him about the stupidity of ball players and told him to expect juvenile behavior. The barracks-room humor of the camp (water pistols, jock straps) does seem more than a bit overhearty at times, but Plimpton makes a convincing case for similar lapses among supposedly loftier groups, such as New Yorker staff writers; and I must admit that I found the fright masks funny. It seems that some nights the players would work off tensions by donning masks made of thin pliable rubber, vampire heads, Frankenstein monsters, and sneak up on a sleeping team mate to startle thim.
Curiously, it is not until page 300 of Paper Lion that Plimpton goes into the question of salaries and bonuses, and then only fleetingly, almost as if talk about money embarrasses him. But, as Red Smith has written again and again, there is no question that the name of the game is money, and that these are men being paid to play a boy’s game. One needn’t be a football fan to know about the $400,000 paid to Joe Namath for signing with the New York Jets, the bigger bonuses that have been handed out to others since, and the $15,000 earned by each of the Green Bay Packers for a day’s work against the Kansas City Chiefs. At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, it goes against the grain. This sort of reward is socially unbalanced. I would have liked to know more about the money in the game and what the players felt about it. Without asking for a gray, sociological work rather than the lively journal Plimpton has given us, I still could have done with decidedly more information about the economics of the football business and the profits involved.
SPORTS, OBVIOUSLY, IS A BLOODY BIG business, a growth industry, as they say, with the National Hockey League expanding to twelve teams next season, new professional basektball and soccer leagues promised, and the purses offered on this year’s PGA circuit the highest ever. If the profits to be made out of sports are immense, just possibly immorally high, then club owners differ from the tycoons in other industries by asking for our hearts as well as our money. We are entreated to trust them with our boyish admiration and enthusiasm, with what we retain of the old school holler, at an age when we are more immediately concerned with falling hair, mortgages, and choosing schools for the kids. Going back through the years, I think the first time I felt socially betrayed, lied to by anyone outside my immediate family, was when I discovered that the Montreal Royals, my home baseball team, was not made up of natives but largely southern crackers. This, of course, was long before club owners had the courage to move their franchises about so cynically. Going wherever the biggest profits were.
Professional sports, though I am still addicted to them, have begun to alienate me in yet another way. It was George Plimpton’s notion that as a sort of Mr. Everybody, a Central Park quarterback, a Sunday pitcher, he would try his hand at baseball, football, and other sports. James Thurber, he told the editor of Sports Illustrated, once wrote that the majority of American males put themselves to sleep by striking out the batting order of the New York Yankees. Yes; but if at one time Plimpton’s idea of testing himself, seeing how well he could do in pro company, seemed a feasible, even charming conceit, I fear it is considerably less so today. If once athletes were really rather like us, only more beautifully made, better conditioned, more gifted, suddenly too many of them are not like us at all. Suddenly basketball players tend to be seven feet tall and football players weigh three hundred pounds. Then football, rather than most sports, has come to suffer from over-specialization, with different teams for offense and defense. In contrast it would seem that soccer players, all of them sixty-minute men, must be far more resourceful. They are certainly more elegant and recognizably human to watch, trotting out on to the field in jerseys and shorts, unarmed, so to speak.
Finally, George Plimpton’s Paper Lion joins a growing body of first-rate writing about sports; one thinks frequently of Norman Maller on the fights, Updike, and Mark Harris—but even then I have a reservation. Much as I enjoyed Plimpton’s book, I can’t help feeling guilty, like having been to a movie on a fine summer’s afternoon. An earlier generation of American writers had to test themselves not against Bart Starr and Archie Moore, but the Spanish Civil War and the Moscow trials. In Europe. Isaac Babel, looking for a change, rode with the Red Cavalry. George Orwell went to Wigan Pier and then Catalonia. Koestler came out of Spain with his Spanish Testament. This is not meant to be an attack on Plimpton, but on all of us, Plimpton’s generation and mine. One day, I fear, we will be put down as a trivial, peripheral bunch. Crazy about bad old movies, nostalgic for comic books. Our Gods don’t fail. At worst, they grow infirm. They suffer pinched nerves, like Paul Hornung, or arthritic arms, like Sandy Koufax.
February 23, 1967