While waiting for the grifter Donald Trump to be hooted off the campaign trail, I have ignored my own guilt, as a sports columnist, in his public survival.
In his home town, where he was known the best, he was always a joke, a poseur, a piker, a pisher, as we say in New York. And I contributed to this by using him as a punch line for something gaudy, something trivial, something absurd.
Trump pops up in many columns I wrote over nearly three decades.
Football: I first became aware of Trump in the mid-‘70’s when I met his brother, Freddy, who had gone to grade school with friends of mine. (The Trumps lived in a tony area half a mile from my busy street.) Freddy talked with great respect about his younger brother, the builder.
I met Trump when he purchased the Generals, a football team in a startup league. He held press conferences in his glitzy hotels – free advertising – and signed expensive players like Doug Flutie, but with Trump’s apparently short attention span, details were always vague.
Figure Skating: Through a mutual friend, I got invited to an exhibition in the Garden, where I met the very bright Ivana Trump. The Donald wore a camel’s hair coat, and always stayed on the periphery of social conversation.
Baseball: When George Steinbrenner seemed to have burned out, or gotten himself suspended, I would suggest he sell the Yankees to Trump. I assumed Trump could afford it; now it appears he could not. Later I realized George was twice as smart and had more compassion and social conscience than Trump.
Tennis: Trump had a box at Ashe Stadium, right above the media section. For yooge matches, he would materialize up front, leaning on the railing, like the captain of a ship, but I noticed that his head and eyes never moved. He didn’t watch the ball. I realized he was preening, advertising himself. Or possibly it was a cardboard cutout, one inch thick.
Boxing: I am an abolitionist toward boxing. Let’s start with that. A boxer, Stephan Johnson, died after a fight in the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. A few days later, Trump took my call and I reported his tone as shaken, but his rationale for boxing was this:
“'You have to understand that we do not sanction the fights. That is done by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Commission. All we are is the venue -- and fighting is popular. Every fight sells out. We have other things like gymnastics; they don't sell out. All I know is, boxing sells out.''
So there you have it. It was easy to feel he was a lightweight, who built gaudy buildings and postured. I was always making jokes about Trump trying to build Brasilia on the edge of Manhattan. Now he is the darling of many religious folk and flag-waving patriots.
Rachel Maddow said after the debate the other night that most people would be nervous if somebody with Trump’s facial twitches sat down next to them on an airplane. What did we in New York do wrong in not taking him more seriously? Mea culpa.
* * *
Here are some old columns in which Trump is a convenient target.
On his theory that it is not every day that a person turns 90, Frank Litsky threw himself a party the other night.
Frank drew over 40 old hands from the Times, who celebrated him – and our business, which was putting out the paper on deadline.
Looking great, sounding great, Frank noted others in his nonagenarian state – Tony Bennett, Fidel Castro, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Cloris Leachman, Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks, Don Rickles, just to name a few. (The overall list is impressive.)
Colleagues from the 50’s and 60’s, Gay Talese and Bob Lipsyte, made lovely talks about Frank’s energy and knowledge and productivity.
In an informal chat, I reminded Frank of my nickname for him -- Four-Fifty. This stems from when I came over from Newsday in 1968 with a lot to say, and Frank was the day assignment editor who shoehorned stories into the section.
I would check in each day with proposals for lengthy rambles about the Amazing Mets or the post-Mantle Yankees, and Frank would cut me dead with the fatal words: “Four-fifty.” That is, 450 words
Frank Litsky stifled my imagination and made it impossible to show my stuff, to the point that my career and the paper suffered terribly. He has never repented.
We crowded into Coogan’s Restaurant in Washington Heights, near the armory which has been refurbished to house Frank’s beloved track and field. (The proprietor, Peter Walsh, himself a copy boy at the Times in the late ‘60’s, even serenaded us with a song in Gaelic.)
We all had histories with each other, over the decades: Sports editors who had made tough decisions. Copy editors who had pulled stories together minutes before the press run. Reporters who had broken good stories. Columnists who had typed our precious little thoughts. Clerks and office managers who made the whole thing work.
Margaret Roach, the journalist daughter of James Roach, the beloved sports editor of the ’60’s, was there. Joe Vecchione and Neil Amdur, two subsequent sports editors. Fern Turkowitz and now TerriAnn Glynn, who held the section together.
All of us could, if we tried, recall snit fits and frustrations with some of the people we were now hugging. But what we remembered most was somehow letting the esteemed production people push the button on time. What we had in common was the identification with the physical product that people held in their hands, read seriously. It is in our blood.
Frank Litsky, who covered Olympics and pro football and women’s basketball, has known good times and terrible times, and now he sat there, a wise old Buddha figure with a New York accent, with “the love of my life,” Zina Greene, listening to old stories, some true.
One thing I learned that night was that in his alleged retirement, Frank has contributed over 100 obituaries of sports figures, sitting there in the digital can.
I am betting all his masterpieces go over 450 words. Just saying.
Abby Wambach hurled herself into the scrum, raised her forehead above the crowd, and drilled home more goals than any player in American soccer history.
She took her hits, including a gruesome broken leg, but remained a towering presence even as a role player and leader in her last Women’s World Cup which she helped win in 2015.
Now she has revealed more about herself in a brave and revealing new book, “Forward,” written with the help of Karen Abbott. She talks about her use of alcohol and pills, and says she is clean and sober now.
(Disclosure: The editor of this book at HarperCollins is the talented Julia Cheiffetz, who brought a better baseball history book out of me than I ever could have done on my own.)
Wambach also talks about realizing she was attracted to women, and how she came out to family, friends, teammates and the public.
More than any athlete I have read about, Wambach is open about the touches and glances and courtships and breakups in her private life – plus, how her moods have disrupted her marriage to a former teammate.
Wambach also talks about the challenges of being large and athletic from an early age – taking the hits on the field, and off. At least once in college she jumped a football player who had made a comment about her.
The injuries and stress are right out of Peter Gent’s book, “North Dallas Forty,” in which football players need this pill to get going in the morning and that pill to go out on the practice field, and that other pill to mask the pain afterward.
The pain of soccer and the pain of her inner life seemed to overlap for Wambach, although she was fortunate to have a strong family, a close male friend since college, and several former companions and teammates who came to realize her torments.
In one of the strongest moments in the book, Wambach’s team roommate, Sydney Leroux, married and “straight,” realizes Wambach is crying in the next bed, and removes her ear plugs and then takes “careful steps to my bed. She lies down and makes room for herself, crying right along with me.”
Leroux and others offer wise intervention, but is it enough?
After several attempts at sobriety, Wambach stops drinking and abusing pills, which is where the book ends.
Having written a book with an alcoholic baseball player, Bob Welch, I am a strong supporter of organized rehab. Bob went through an emotional month at a center, and I later spent a week at the same clinic so I would understand Bob and the process.
The first step is admission of powerlessness. I think Wambach is saying she was powerless over alcohol and pills, so I wish she had put herself in an organized setting, to be confronted by trained counselors and recovering addicts and friends and family.
As she knows from her 184 goals, the best headers come from a buildup and skilled passes from teammates.
Abby Wambach is now doing television commentary and making speeches, being presented as a role model. I am rooting for this complicated and passionate person, as her story goes “Forward.”
Altenir Silva, my friend from Brazil, had a one-minute play produced at the New Workshop Theatre, Brooklyn College, in June.
It is called “She Loves Pepsi and He Drinks Coca-Cola.”
Needless to say, it is about relationships.
I told him it sounds like “Waiting for Godot,” only with a redhead with a Russian accent.
Altenir has written for Brazilian television and has also written several movies, including the touching “Curitiba Zero Degree,” about four men whose lives intersect in gritty corners of a large southern city.
The film has a hopeful message, rare anywhere.
The trailer for the film:
I didn’t remember, until a nice guy named Bob sent me a link that noted the 75th anniversary of Stan Musial’s first game, Sept. 17, 1941.
This reminded me that baseball -- for all the steroids and designated hitters and the deafening blare of ball-park commercials – is pretty much the same game.
Teams battle all season, and then in September new boys come along to alter the pennant race.
You never know.
In New York this week, the Mets won a game because an obscure callup named T.J. Rivera, out of the Bronx, hit a home run, and the Yankees almost won a game as a recently dismissed hitter named Billy Butler flew across the country to drive in runs in his first game.
Shades of Stan Musial, now known as a career .331 hitter but in 1941 not known at all, even in St. Louis. He was just a kid called up from Rochester because a few Cardinals were hurt as the team tried to catch the Brooklyn Dodgers.
My Brooklyn Dodgers. I was 2, but I was rooting. Years later, our fans would dub him “Stan the Man.” He moidered us, but we loved him all the same.
Nobody knew him when he came up. There was no web-o-sphere, no blab-o-sphere. He just showed up in St. Louis, as ordered, took the uniform No. 6 (he was not a star prospect, but the uniform was available) and in the second game of a doubleheader he tried to hit Jim Tobin, a pitcher known as Abba-Dabba because his knuckleball fluttered with occult mystery.
Musial popped up the first time but then calibrated for a double and single and two runs-batted in. The Cardinals didn’t catch the Dodgers, but Musial pretty much hit like that right through 1963.
The Boston Braves’ manager, named Charles Dillon Stengel, was so jealous of the new talent that he kept telling people, “They got another one,” or words to that effect. Thus was born one of baseball’s most beautiful bromances, two men who positively adored each other for life, but never got to work together.
The Cardinals loved the kid’s swing, and decided they shouldn’t run him out of the batting cage, the way veterans did.
On a subsequent train ride, Terry Moore, one of the great baseball captains, sat next to Musial in the parlor car and asked him who he was, and Musial said he was the lefty whom the varsity had bombarded in a spring-camp game. Right, he started the year as a rag-arm pitcher.
It’s all in the biography I did about Musial, “Stan Musial, an American Life,” published in 2011.
Musial passed in January of 2013 and I wrote about him in the Times -- the 475 homers, the exact same batting average at home and on the road, the friendship with John F. Kennedy, the identification with his hard-times home town, Donora, Pa., and his adopted home of St. Louis, where he could be his aw-shucks self.
Players still come up in September and perhaps affect pennant races, but not necessarily anybody quite like Stan the Man.
* * *
Musial’s first box score:
The link in the web site of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
I never knew the doll existed until my cousin Caryle came to a family get-together recently. I took the occasion to ask about our mutual grandmother, Irish-born, whom we all called Nana.
“I can’t remember her voice,” I told Caryle. “I can’t remember anything she said.” This is bothering me more, the older I get.
I should have more memories, since my large family lived in Nana’s house in Queens, but she kept to herself, and bustled around to visit her old Irish lady friends in the city or Lake George, Sometimes she visited her sister in Brussels, where that family had been decimated for sheltering Scottish soldiers during World War Two.
Caryle said she had only vague memories of Nana, since her own family moved around for work, and she rarely saw Nana.
“But she gave me a present once,” Caryle added, brightening.
Tell me about it, I said.
After one of my grandmother’s post-war trips to visit her sister, Nana gave Caryle a doll that had belonged to our aunt, Florence Duchene, who died in Bergen-Belsen.
Send me a photo when you get home, I asked Caryle. She did better, adding her lovely memories of the gift:
“My parents and I went to see her off on the ship, when she was going to visit her sister in Brussels,” Caryle wrote. “She said she would have liked me to come with her. Which was not possible, but meant a lot to me.
“When she came back from Brussels, she brought things back with her, one of them a doll that her niece Florrie made. I have always loved dolls, I don't know if she knew that, but she gave me the doll. I still have her, she is tattered, shows her age. But she is very special to me.
“I am putting her picture on this little story. See her as I have always seen her, through my eyes with love.”
The doll in the photo is porcelain, a beautiful woman. Florrie, who ran a millinery shop in the good days before the war, made the frilly dress.
I was stunned to see a treasure from an aunt Caryle and I never met, an aunt who has taken on epic importance to me, along with her brother Leopold, who died soon after being rescued from a Nazi prison.
Leopold lived long enough to receive a king’s medal for his heroism; Florrie’s name is engraved on a monument to the Belgian Resistance, in the Ixelles area of Brussels. (I wrote about Florrie and Rue Sans Souci in March, when contemporary terrorists brutalized Brussels.)
As a young woman before the war, Florrie had fussed over the doll, created her wardrobe, perhaps smoothed her blonde hair, told her secrets, her hopes and dreams.
Florrie and Leopold did not live long enough to marry, to have children. Nana has been gone over 60 years, and I cannot remember if her accent reflected her native Ireland, or her husband’s native Australia, or England where they lived, or New York, where they settled.
There is so much I don’t know because I was too self-centered to ask, to listen.
I do remember an old lady -- formidable, capable -- with white hair and black widow’s dresses, who took me to church and the luncheonette and sometimes to the movies and we would walk home together in the wintry darkness. That’s all I remember.
Now I know the doll lives in Caryle’s home. Her children know the history, Caryle said.
Never have I appreciated defense in baseball as much as I do this season.
Watching Asdrubal Cabrera – why did I know nothing about him until this year? – cavort at shortstop (and in the dugout) has been an absolute treat.
(Parenthetically, I am enjoying the mere fact of Gary Sanchez, without even having the time or psychic energy for the Yankees.)
What a fun September for both New York teams, no matter how they ultimately do in their wild-card pursuits – action every day, scoreboard-watching every day, crowding out U.S. Open tennis and soccer and any other sports that might happen to be in season.
* * *
Saturday Update: Defense played a huge role Friday night as Mets did it again in Atlanta -- down, 4-0, winning, 6-4, with some defense from an improbable source.
Skipper Collins used Loney and Flores in logical switches and needed a first baseman in the eighth. Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez were curious who would get the call – and it was Eric Campbell, in the minors since the end of May.
Never known for defense, Campbell stopped one smash in the eighth and another smash in the ninth – “protecting the line in the late innings,” as Hernandez often says.
Campbell is a big guy out of Boston College with a nice attitude, crowded out by more talented players. He saved a game. With his glove. Will we remember those plays in October, or next year?
* * *
Cabrera has been a revelation all year. People are saying how much José Reyes has revitalized the Mets, but in my opinion the Mets were already a better team with Cabrera at shortstop this season.
They have currently won nine of 11 after the comeback Friday. I have not seen the Mets improve so drastically on defense since 1964 (How’s that for dropping a season on you?) when Roy McMillan came over from the Braves. Suddenly, balls that got through for two-plus seasons were being handled smoothly. The Mets still finished last, but they were, finally, respectable, at times.
I never paid much attention to Cabrera in his peregrinations from Cleveland to Washington to Tampa Bay. There are lots of Cabreras and lots of shortstops. But from the first day, he has been terrific.
Recently, Cabrera he gilded his hair. Nice touch. He hits and fields and has appointed himself the greeting committee when a teammate else hits a home run, lifting the helmet off the slugger’s head.
And when it is Cabrera who hit the homer, René Rivera does the honors. Rivera is a career backup, so good defensively that he has been assigned to a quorum of starters. What a joy to watch him throw to second, call signals, take control of jittery pitchers.
Cabrera and Rivera are part of the Latinization of the Mets, a very positive sign, from players who know and respect and love the game. They are leaders the way David Wright and Michael Cuddyer were last year.
Cabrera leads his own way. He acknowledges the fans, a great idea in Big Town. In one game, he made a catch near the stands and patted the head of a kid in the first row.
In another game, he backed up Reyes on a tricky roller past third, and dove to third base, beating the runner. When Cabrera came out for the next inning, my grown son, sitting behind third, applauded, and Cabrera understood it was for him, and tipped his cap, showing all of that golden hair.
The man is not a hot dog, in ball player parlance, but he certainly is a master draftsman, with a flair.
The Mets have also improved at first base with James Loney and second with Neal Walker until his back went out. You could make the case that Reyes is better at third base than the gallant Wright.
Plus, Terry Collins, the dandy little manager, is now one of the best managers the Mets have ever had.
This team has never quit on Collins. Never. I personally quit at least twice this season. Now the Mets are winning with starters up from the minor leagues. I thank Cabrera and his dugout mates for another long and enjoyable season.
The classical music station was playing “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” by Ravel.
It was beautiful, and I didn't know it, and I wondered why WQXR-FM was playing it on the second day of September while I was driving home from the US Open.
Then I remembered: the Open of 1997, and another princess who died on Aug. 31, and how I saw her once at Wimbledon.
Journalists see public figures, even on the sports beat: Jimmy Carter under the stands at Turner Field. Lyndon Baines Johnson on opening day in Washington, D.C. Hillary Clinton visiting the press box in Wrigley Field. And John F. Kennedy, Jr., right in front of me in Madison Square Garden. Coolest guy in the world.
And Princess Diana at Wimbledon. I’ll never forget the eyes.
The old press tribune was directly alongside the Royal Box. Princess Diana was on the guest list one day in the late ‘80s. We all checked her out early, and went back to our business.
Later, I turned my head and caught those piercing eyes, looking back at us. Perhaps she wondered who that raffish lot was, as we chattered and gestured our way through the afternoon – a fitting Shakespearean upstairs/downstairs balance to the swells in the Royal Box.
She should have heard some of the Brits with lurid commentary, imitating plummy royal accents. I’d like to think she would have laughed.
Her two little boys were scuttling around the box, watched by helpers. Their mom was checking things out, with the curiosity we read about, her concern for the underclass, that is to say, us. I don’t know that she cared much about the tennis. She certainly seemed to be a seeker.
* * *
One evening in the mid ‘90’s, John F. Kennedy, Jr., was sitting in front of me at the Garden, a couple of rows up, behind where Spike Lee sits, facing the Knicks bench.
He arrived late, wearing a nice suit, probably just came from work. He was by himself, and he appeared to be starving, keeping one eye on the game as he devoured a hot dog. Then he went to work on a large sack of fries.
Just to Kennedy’s left, a boy around ten years old was staring at him. Either the boy knew who was sitting next to him, or he was salivating from the proximity of the fries.
Kennedy popped in a few more fries. Did not turn his head. Did not smile or try to ingratiate himself with the boy. But like a point guard making a blind pass, Kennedy held out the bag of fries and shook it.
The boy knew a good thing, took a handful. I don’t think he said a word but then again, JFK, Jr., was not looking for thanks. That was not necessary between a couple of guys who understood each other perfectly. The pass. The dunk. Kennedy understood hunger; the boy understood generosity.
* * *
After hearing Ravel’s “Pavane” on the car radio, I came home and googled up the music, written in tribute to a patron from the Singer sewing machine family, Winnaretta Singer, who was in a lavender marriage with the Prince de Polignac.
Our age has few princesses, few princes, worth noting. I remember Diana’s piercing eyes, and how JFK, Jr., could see out of the corner of his eye.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.