It was my first visit to Las Vegas. I was covering a Mets trip to the Coast in 1966 or so, and there was a day off between LA and San Francisco.
My pal Vic Ziegel of the good old New York Post said, “Let’s go to Las Vegas.”
Vic had been there before.
Flights were cheap. Food was cheap. The only thing that wasn’t cheap was the gambling, but I don’t gamble. Long story. I watched Vic play blackjack and I watched life in Las Vegas.
The hotel lounge was also inexpensive. By doing the math in Rickles’ obituary in the Times Friday, I deduce that he was around 40, but in a way he was ageless. Bald. Profane. Cranky. What’s it to you?
He had a theme: Anybody who came to see him in that lounge was truly desperate.
He pointed out a young couple and wondered if they were married, or cheating on spouses.
He pointed out a young man: “He’s thinking, I’m in Las Vegas, I can get rid of my pimples.”
Then he recognized Vic as a member of the tribe. A landsman.
“Look at that nose,” he said. “What’s your name?”
Somehow, Rickles deduced that Vic was the sportswriter from the Post.
“Vic Ziegel!” screamed Don Rickles from Jackson Heights, Queens. (Queens boys are a yappy lot.)
“I love you guys!” – meaning the good old Post. (I did not count.)
Rickles thought about it for a while.
“What’s a Ziegel?” he asked the crowd.
Comedic pause. Then he touched his own beak.
“It’s an eagle. A Jewish eagle. A Ziegel.”
That’s all I remember, except laughing a lot. I’m sure Vic could re-create the entire dialogue but unfortunately Vic left the stage in the summer of 2010. He had introduced me to a lot of good stuff on the road – “Beat the Devil” in Cambridge, Mass., him chatting up jazz musician Roland Kirk in some all-night coffee shop on the square in Cincinnati. And Rickles.
In 2015, I saw an aging Don Rickles on the Letterman show; I noticed the immense respect Letterman had for him, getting him through the gig.
Now Rickles has bowed out. But every time I went back to Las Vegas – to write about boxing or an entertainer – I remembered Don Rickles in that lounge.
Before I tell my Jimmy Breslin-Casey Stengel story, let's talk about bad timing for obituaries. (For example: Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis both died on Nov. 22, 1963.)
Likewise, it is not a good career move to compete with Jimmy Breslin, “the outer-borough boulevardier of bilious persuasion,” as Dan Barry calls him.
Chuck Berry died the same weekend as Breslin; the Times rolled out the big guns for his strut and the clanging of his guitar, outside the schoolhouse, urging boys and girls to come out and play.
John Herbers was also honored with a Times obituary on Monday. He was 93, one of the great reporters of the civil-rights era, a gentleman all the way who politely treated me like an equal when I joined the national reporting staff. He had been in bad places – Emmett Till’s murder – and never lost the unassuming air of a small-town southerner.
Bob McFadden and the Times did right by John Herbers:
Okay. Here’s my story about Jimmy Breslin, my fellow Queens boy. Elderly editors still marvel at his imagination in the wonderful interviews he turned in for $10 fees on long-forgotten sports magazines.
In 1962 the New York newspapers acknowledged the Mets' raffish ineptitude early on. By late July Sports Illustrated dispatched Jimmy for his take on the worst team in the history of baseball.
Breslin arrived in St. Louis the weekend of Casey Stengel’s 72nd birthday, and watched them bumble away games. One evening the club held a party for Casey in the rooftop room of the Chase-Park Plaza.
Casey greeted the headwaiter, who had once tossed batting practice for visiting teams in the old Sportsmans Park. Casey imitated his motion, remembered his nickname.
I was fascinated by Casey and never left his side all evening. Breslin was also there, observing. If anybody was taking notes, I do not remember.
A year later, a Breslin book came out, entitled "Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?" a plea ostensibly uttered by Casey during his long monologue that evening in St. Louis.
Not long afterward, Breslin called me for a phone number or something and at the end I said, "Jimmy, just curious, I was at that party for Casey, never left his side, and I don't remember him ever saying, 'Can't anybody here play this game?'"
"What are you, the F.B.I?" Breslin asked, his Queens accent turning “the” into “duh.”
Years later, Breslin conceded he just might have exercised some creative license.
Casey never complained about being misquoted. He would have said it if he had thought of it.
That was the thing about Jimmy Breslin. He got the inner truths. He had an insight into people’s hearts, almost like a mystic or a psychic. Given his imperfections and his imaginations, he was a universal voice. He was also a very local voice.
As the world becomes homogenized, we lose the local voices, the salt and the spices that make life exciting. (Fortunately for readers everywhere, Corey Kilgannon is covering Queens for the Times.)
Chuck Berry caught the feel of Route 66 (“Well it winds from Chicago to L.A./More than 2000 miles all the way/Get your kicks on Route 66.” Makes you want to rev up the engine.
John Herbers reported from the Deep South, which he loved and sometimes lamented.
Jimmy Breslin understood Queens…and the world. He has not been well for years. I would have loved to read him on the scam artist from our home borough.
* * *
MUST READ: Dan Barry's personal tribute to Breslin on the NYT site:
Our friend Ina sent this video from a live French broadcast. World was never the same.
The great journalist Sydney Schanberg died the other day at 82.
(Please see the lovely tribute by Charlie Kaiser, another ex-Times person:)
I was more of an admirer than a close friend, but we had one moment of contact that I probably recalled better than he did.
This was on the spring day in 1976 when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize after having stayed behind in Cambodia to write about the ravages of a society gone mad.
He had become separated from his colleague, his friend, his brother, Dith Pran, who was still missing.
I knew Schanberg only as a presence who moved through the city room now and then when he was on home leave. Foreign correspondents have an aura. I knew I could not do what they do, and I admired them greatly.
On Pulitzer day, I was a cityside reporter, covering the suburbs, but if the city editor spotted you walking and breathing you could get sent anywhere – a shootout in Brooklyn, an assassination in Bermuda, a visiting king or prime minister in our town.
One editor asked me to interview Schanberg for the profile of him in the paper the next day. He was surrounded by friends and I introduced myself and we walked to a less noisy corner and I started with a very general question.
This gutsy correspondent who had survived the Khmer Rouge began to cry, and then he began to sob. I did what reporters should do. I went silent and waited for him to make the next move. He was a pro. He gathered himself and managed to say a few things:
“I accept this award on behalf of myself and my Cambodian colleague, Dith Pran, who had a great commitment to cover this story and stayed to cover it and is a great journalist.”
Schanberg told me he had spent the last year “in a state of deep decompression – I lost a lot of friends over there.”
I knew enough not to go much further. I typed up his words, which were in the paper the next day.
* * *
In 1979, Schanberg’s friend, his brother, made it over the Thai border and soon became a photographer for the Times, a sweet and slight man who made us happy just by being alive. The two buddies got to watch Sam Waterston and Dr Haing S. Ngor portray them in the movie, “The Killing Fields.” (Dith Pran died in 2008.)
* * *
Sydney was appointed Metro editor in 1977 shortly after I had taken a new post reporting on religion. The Times already had an expert on theology and religious history, and Sydney did not think they needed a second reporter on such a soft beat. He said he would find something else for me.
I was enjoying the beat – Hasids one day, nuns the next day, Evangelicals the day after that. I did not want to get shifted.
A few days later I just happened to be having lunch with the rabbi who was the spokesman for the Orthodox wing of Judaism in North America. I allowed as how I was feeling a bit glum that day because they were cutting back on the religion beat. My rabbi thought that was too bad because the Orthodox liked the way I, a Christian, wrote about them.
It took me 10 minutes to walk from Lou G. Siegel’s on W. 38th St. to the old Times building on W, 43rd St. When I reached the newsroom, Sydney spotted me, and with a mixture of annoyance and possibly admiration he said, “Aw, fuck it, you’re staying on the beat.”
I asked no questions but I assumed my rabbi had called a higher-up (not that Higher-Up) and arranged things while I was walking five blocks on Seventh Ave.
Sydney held no grudges. He played hardball; he understood it.
The next spring, he called me to his desk and said Passover was starting that night and could I get him a Haggadah, the guide to the rituals of the Seder.
“Pretty contemporary,” he said. “But not too liberal. You know.”
Oh, that Haggadah.
I took the No. 1 train uptown to a Judaica bookstore, rounded up a few Haggadahs, and presented them to Sydney. I never asked how the Seder went.
He was a hard editor to work for because, like most great reporters, he was used to cutting his own deals; after all, he had defied his own editors by not leaving Cambodia.
He was not so good on leadership, on listening to his staff, but he was smart and tough and talented, and I admired him greatly. Later he wrote a column and inevitably butted heads with his own editors, and left the Times.
Over the years we met at Times get-togethers and funerals, and we got along fine, old colleagues who had been through stuff together -- but not the kind of stuff he had seen in Cambodia.
Every time I saw him, I thought of him crying in the City Room for his missing buddy.
No sport carries a sense of community like tennis. Even with gigantic prize money and swollen retinues of today, the sport remains somewhat a caravan of gypsies familiar to each other, even though their occupations vary – players, coaches, hitting partners, significant others, moms and dads, agents and publicists, plus the specialists who cover the sport: the peripatetic photographers plus the scribblers and babblers, as Bud Collins called himself and his colleagues.
Arthur Worth Collins, Jr., was the center of one sport, more than any other journalist has ever been.
In his half century on the beat, tennis has been a movable feast, seeking warm spots year round – Monaco in April, Wimbledon in late June, Australia in January – jet-lagged regulars taking the rays during a desultory early-round match in some tune-up event.
Collins could doze in the sun with the best of them, as recalled by Bill Littlefield of WBUR radio, who spoke at the memorial service for Collins in historic Trinity Church on Copley Square in Boston last Friday.
Littlefield talked about Collins the writer – often overlooked amidst his garish pants and equally garish vocabulary – who could describe the sound of tennis balls being “punished,” yet make it a soft, pleasurable backdrop to life itself, like a heartbeat.
Collins was the heart of the sport for decades, back to the late 60s when he shifted from a general sports reporter who recognized the special ones, Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell and Billie Jean King, becoming a tennis maven.
He brought people together at events around the world, said Lesley Visser, once a Globe sports writer, now a broadcaster, who recalled how Collins could write a column and simultaneously answer questions from colleagues, always ending with some version of “ciao” in their native tongues.
(He addressed me as “VAY-chay,” which is how real Hungarians pronounce my name. Three Italian insiders – Gianni Clerici, Ubaldo Scanagatta and Rino Tommasi – in turn called him “Collini.”)
Collins, in failing health for years, passed on March 4 at 86, and his wife and protector and caretaker for two decades, Anita Ruthling Klaussen, spent three months preparing a ceremony -- on his birthday -- that was both elaborate and parochial in that most hamish of great American cities.
The service was both stately Episcopalian and randy jock. In the pews were familiar faces, and forehands, of Rod Laver, Stan Smith, Todd Martin and Pam Shriver, as well as tennis officials from around the world, and journalists who knew Collins both as friend and source (oh, and by the way, a very accomplished "hacker" in the tennis sense of the word.)
Two great champions spoke. Chris Evert recalled being a monosyllabic 16-year-old, feeling the kindness of Collins, and later, when she lost seven Wimbledon finals to a rival whose name she did not need to pronounce, Collins was always at courtside, doing a worldwide live interview “in those silly pants,” but with a kind smile that showed he understood the pain of being second on that day of days.
Billie Jean King, wearing a pink blazer in tribute to the people who died in Orlando a week earlier, captured the day, for me, because she was once again Mother Freedom – nickname courtesy of Collins – and like Evert she remembered being interviewed by Collins at 16 and finding she could talk to him.
King's talk was disciplined, smart and passionate. She remembered Ali once telling her that people had to always be ready for the moment. She found that trait in Collins, always in tune to the colors and tones and spins and bounces of that day, living in the moment, working hard, enjoying himself.
The congregation was elderly, many people moving slower than they used to. Hundreds of them came from a world where everybody followed the sun, hearing the brassy notes from the Pied Piper who was at the core of their world for so long, and so well.
Nice to be back in the NYT, twice in one day – courtesy of two hard hitters, Gordie Howe and Muhammad Ali.
The Times resurrected a column I did in 1996, the morning after Ali’s stunning appearance, carrying the Olympic torch.
Then by coincidence, they also used a column I prepared a year ago, when Gordie Howe had a stroke.
Two great athletes in vastly different sports, one expanding his strong personality over the years, the other subordinating himself to his sport and his home of Canada.
* * *
Some thoughts on the farewell to Ali:
I was asked to provide some color for the funeral for the lively New York television station, NY1, which, alas, I cannot access on Long Island due to cable rivalries.
I spent a pleasant afternoon with Roma Torre, the anchor (and daughter of epic New York Herald Tribune journalist Marie Torre.) She let me share some of my glimpses of Ali, in Louisville, where I lived for a few years, and at boxing events. In between, we watched the farewell to Ali.
It was fascinating to see Ali as touchstone for the religions and passions and politics of so many disparate people – the activist, Rabbi Michael Lerner of New York, Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation (unidentified as a great Syracuse lacrosse player and teammate of another Greatest, Jim Brown), and so many Ali women, with his verbal gifts and his beauty.
When I called home, my wife raved about Billy Crystal, for catching Ali (and Howard Cosell) just perfectly, telling how Ali stopped jogging at a swank country club in the New York suburbs after Crystal mentioned that the place was known to exclude Jews.
The one over-riding impression of Ali was a man who did righteous things, in small and hidden and often funny ways – in contrast to his public bombast and occasional cruelties. I liked him even better afterward.
* * *
My column on Ali at the Atlanta Olympics revived my memory of how it came about – as pure afterthought, blessed inspiration, the next morning, on three hours of sleep, when I had committed to covering the first gold medal of the Games, for shooting. My strongest memory is of an Iranian woman in full chador, competing, making it a truly universal Olympics.
But as I banged out my column smack on deadline for the first Sunday edition, I realized we (I) needed to get back to what it mean for Ali to materialize like that, high above the stadium, like a comet, glowing brightly. I consulted with our Olympic bureau chief, my pal Kathleen O. McElroy, and we got a short column done for the second edition, and for posterity. How sweet that the NYT would find it again this week (with a photo by the great Doug Mills, now taking photos of President Obama in the White House.)
* * *
It touched me to see Ali buried in Cave Hill Cemetery, in one of the most beautiful corners of Louisville – steep hills, limestone outcroppings, Beargrass Creek flowing through it, with tombs of many famous Louisvillians – veterans on both sides of that ghastly Civil War, plus George Rogers Clark, Joshua Speed, Barry Bingham Sr. and Barry Junior (who was so hospitable to me in my two-year stint as Appalachian Correspondent for the NYT) and Col. Harland Sanders (whom we once saw eating ice cream one night – in a Howard Johnson’s.)
We almost bought a house in that funky old neighborhood of the Highlands – always sorry the deal fell through -- and when I returned for the Derby I would duck the Oaks on Friday and go jogging in the Highlands, including through Cave Hill Cemetery. When it quiets down, I’ll go back and pay respects to Ali. RIP.
Bill Campbell was a man of many homes, who reveled in all of them.
He went from the Monongahela Valley of Pennsylvania to Morningside Heights of New York City to Silicon Valley, and remained the same person – high energy, high expectations.
Campbell, who passed on Monday at 75, intrigued me as a beacon to others, by willing himself to a whole new life, after a term as yet another Columbia University football coach with a losing record.
Instead of catching on as an assistant coach at some other school, he reinvented himself in the growing dot-com world. Not everybody can shift gears at that level, but he proved it can be done.
He became known as “Coach” to some of the biggest companies - Apple, Google, Intuit -- even advising competitors.
I've often said I wished the leadership qualities of some coaches and managers leaders I admired -- Gil Hodges, Al Arbour, Herman Edwards, Dean Smith, Pia Sundhage -- could be grafted into the newspaper business. (Some other coaches were cruel and selfish louts.)
"Billy (as I knew him) was one of a kind: a 165-pound all-Ivy League linebacker and guard, (two-way players in his day), who was the most natural leader I’ve ever met," wrote Jonathan R. Cole, athlete, professor and former provost at Columbia. (From Jamaica High School in Queens, speaking of roots.)
Cole continued: "His type of intelligence can’t be measured in SAT scores or even GPA, but in the power of his personality to lead people anywhere. He was like the original Pied Piper -- his friends would follow him anywhere. His intelligence about people, his irrepressible energy, his warmth, his understanding of people and how to make them feel good about themselves was beyond measure."
He continued: "He was made to lead - and despite the despair he experienced in continually losing as coach of Columbia’s football team, he loved his players and they loved him. He was, indeed, a Shavian life force. Those people come along rarely and now one is gone. I’ll miss him."
I saw Campbell play once and talked to him on the phone once.
In 1961 he was the captain of Columbia’s Ivy League champs, who, in the last game of the season, took a lead before Rutgers rallied to finish its season undefeated.
(I was in the Rutgers stands that day after my brother-in-law borrowed somebody’s photo ID. I believe I was Wesley Wu.)
I talked to Campbell in 2009 when the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame re-named its annual award for a scholar-athlete for Campbell. Over the phone, I felt his gusto for frequent homecomings to New York (he had a favorite pub downtown) and his home town of Homestead, Pa.
Campbell's father had worked in the steel mills to send himself through college – and eventually become superintendent of schools. That faded world is described in the epic book, “Homestead: The Glory and Tragedy of an American Steel Town,” by William Serrin.
Profiled in the Serrin book is Ray Hornak, a foreman with a conscience, whose son, the Hon. Mark R. Hornak of the U.S. District Court for Western Pennsylvania, was president of the Steel Valley school board in 1987.
“I had the pleasure of introducing Bill as the graduation speaker at our high school,” Judge Hornak recalled Tuesday. “His speech was terrific, but even better was the day that he spent at the high school with group after group of students, talking about achievement, dreams and how to do big things (as each kid would define them.)”
That day, the judge recalled, Campbell and Apple announced a major partnership with the school district, a public/private partnership in something called The Office of the Future.
"It brought 1987 tech to an industrial town high school,” Judge Hornak recalled, “but most of all, it threw the windows open on how our kids could view themselves, their education and their future.” (Campbell also donated money; he didn’t talk much about numbers.)
Campbell also stayed close to his alma mater, eventually becoming the chairman of the Columbia trustees. He carried himself as the avuncular coach-for-life, who encouraged a young athletic trainer, Neila Buday (a good friend of my family.)
“This is tough,” Neila wrote on Tuesday. “Bill was such a special person. I know that phrase is used often but here it truly applies. In my first few years working as an athletic trainer at Columbia, Bill embraced me into the Columbia Football family, both figuratively and literally as friends were always greeted with a big hug and kiss. Years later he embraced my husband Greg into this family as well, and loved the FDNY shirt Greg gave him. It gave him pride to wear it at the gym back west.
“When I left Columbia in 2010 he sent me an e-mail letting me know that I would always be part of that Columbia Family. Despite all his accolades, connections and relationships with the tech industry power players as the ‘Coach of Silicon Valley,’ I don't think anything meant more to him than Columbia football. I have seen him cry after both wins and losses. Both his son (Jimmy) and daughter (Maggie) went to Columbia. He bled Columbia Blue.
“After the Columbia Football Gold Dinner, or other Columbia formal functions, he could be found behind the bar at Old Town, tie undone and Columbia baseball cap on, handing out beer and burgers, always making sure you had a cold one in hand.
"You would never know who he was or how spectacular he as an industry leader. You just saw his charisma and genuineness. I loved watching the friendships he had with his former teammates, the famous 1961 team, and those players he coached. His smile was lit from within when he was around them.
“He will be missed by so many, but Columbia Football lost a true treasure.”
Neila Buday concluded: “Scroll through Facebook and see what all the former players have to say, how much he helped them, how humble he was.”
A wise analysis by Ken Auletta:
The NYT obit:
My 2009 column on the NCAA award:
The Fortune obituary:
A Columbia alumni feature:
Other voices celebrating Bill Campbell:
It was December of 1973 and New York still had an AM country music station and I was writing about the Long Island suburbs but thinking about Appalachia, where I used to work.
Three years earlier, I had been at the Hyden mine disaster, Dec, 30, 1970, when 38 men were blown to Kingdom Come, which remains just about the saddest event I ever covered.
Now, back home in New York, I was still thinking about Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, and the country station was playing a lot of Merle Haggard, singing “If We Make It Through December.”
One of his lines is: “Just got laid off down at the factory,” which means he cannot afford presents for his little girl.
Sure, it's a tear-jerker, but that's what country is, or should be.
The song hits a universal theme -- parents wanting to provide for their children; in Appalachia I saw a lot of people living at the margins, and the song cut deep.
That’s my major impression of Merle Haggard, who died Wednesday on his 79th birthday, a balladeer of the working class and hard-living men and long-suffering women. He was what country used to be, before it turned slick and uptown on us.
I never met Haggard when I was privileged enough to wander around backstage at the Ryman Auditorium in funky downtown Nashville and chat casually with Johnny Cash and June Carter and Bobby Bare and Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl.
Haggard was probably out on the road, living up to the label of outlaw, and doing a good job of it.
As Don Cusic notes in his fine book, “Discovering Country Music," Haggard was a symbol of the outsider, the working class, an American type, then and now, writing “Okie From Muskogee,” a defiant celebration of otherness.
When I helped Barbara Mandrell write her book, "Get to the Heart," she noted that she did not cover Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man," but that she loved performing Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee." (Mandrell noted that Haggard and other men got away with romanticizing the double standard in cheatin' songs.)
In this primary season, politicians exploit resentments galore but don't talk often enough about the economic inequities, the stacked deck, the rich getting richer, the great people who pay off politicians and park much of their money offshore, so it cannot possibly trickle down to people who just got laid off down at the factory.
This is an essay I have been dreading since September when Yogi Berra passed and I called up his good friend (and perhaps even his publicist-inventor) Joe Garagiola to see how he was doing.
Garagiola, who died Wednesday at 90, always called back, to tell stories, illuminate, maybe even heighten legends.
I’ve known about him since the 1946 World Series, when I was 7 and he was a brash 20-year-old rookie for the home-town Cardinals who out-talked the superstars, Stan Musial and Ted Williams.
Even the writers of the time, who did not make a practice of working the locker rooms for quotes, could not miss the ebullient kid.
And when Garagiola split a finger in the epic seventh game (when Enos Slaughter scored from first on a looped hit to left) Garagiola ran around the Cards’ clubhouse waving his bandaged finger and shouting, “Hey, I’m out for the season! I’m out for the season!”
He was rehearsing for his later career as baseball everyman on NBC. You can read two wonderful tributes by Richard Sandomir and by Richard Goldstein in Thursday’s Times.
This one is strictly personal. Joe was always a wonderful source – not a social friend but somebody I really liked and trusted. He was fair, even about a broken friendship with Musial.
Garagiola even invented himself, including the rep that he was a bad ball player. Fact was, he had been good enough to be stashed by the devious Branch Rickey as an under-age prospect in the Cardinals’ farm system, shining shoes and taking batting practice to evade the scouts until he came of age.
Let the record note that Garagiola hit .316 and drove in four runs in the 1946 World Series before, like many catchers, he got hurt. Later he accumulated the insights of a backup catcher, inventing himself – and maybe even his pal, Lawrence Peter Berra, from the Italian neighborhood, The Hill, who signed with the Yankees. Without baseball, they both could have been laboring in the brickworks or producing toasted ravioli on The Hill.
Garagiola and Musial used to drive for hours from the St. Louis region, talking to fans for a few bucks.
They agreed they both had mike fright.
Musial, who was shy and had a bit of a stutter, was afraid they would hand him the microphone.
Garagiola was afraid they wouldn’t.
Garagiola’s road to the radio booth is well told in the Times. I got to know him in the mid-60’s when he went to work for the miserable Yankees, enlightening spare time by imitating Joe Pepitone’s protests of a called third strike, hairpiece slipping, arms waving.
Garagiola gave Pepitone’s gesture an operatic feel, calling it the “Ma Che Fai?” (What are you doing?)
Joe was always there for color and background. I once edited a quite lovely anthology called “The Way It Was” about great sports events and I chose the 1946 World Series (which I consider the greatest World Series, ever) for my own chapter. Joe was working for the Today Show, getting up in the dark, but at a more civilized hour he had time for me in his office at NBC. His stories make that chapter hum – the postwar hopefulness, the talent, the veterans, the fun.
In his later decades, Garagiola became an even greater man – helping create a charity for destitute players (B.A.T.) and lobbying against chewing tobacco, which had disfigured and killed some players.
When I was writing the Stan Musial biography in 2007-8, Joe talked, off the record, about the friendship gone bad over a mutual investment in a bowling alley, run by surrogates. The ultimate headline in the Post-Dispatch was: “Stan and Joe: Business Splits Old Friends.” I don’t believe they ever spoke again.
For my Musial biography, Garagiola – way off the record -- told me sweet stories about Musial, their car rides, their early days when it all was good. His loving insights enrich my book.
I sent him a copy and one day after a siege of bad health he rang me and, nearly sobbing, thanked me for being fair to him – “and to Stan.”
That was Joe Garagiola – emotional, perceptive and fair. When he didn’t call back about Yogi, I knew it was bad.
This was at the United States Open five or six years ago. I was sitting outdoors with a couple I knew from the Deep South, tennis fans who had spent a lot of money to be in New York for a few days.
Bud Collins hove into sight, moving fast, sweater thrown jauntily over his shoulders, couple of his books he had been pushing in one hand, and wearing a dazzling pair of pants, made from material he had discovered in some haberdashery or curtain emporium in Mumbai or London or wherever.
My friends brightened at this dazzling sight and looked to me to see if I could slow him down. Bud absolutely screeched to a halt to greet the couple, tennis fans, his people.
I made the introductions, he chatted, picked up on their charming accent, tossed off a quickie memory of their home town, and then he was off, down the lane, moving fast.
“He’s probably due on the air in 30 seconds,” I said.
They were in awe. Bud Collins was the core of tennis, the man who brought it to their town via his pioneering multisyllabic imaginative narrative of tennis, the men and the women.
He came up with nicknames: the mysterious computer rankings ("Medusa"), a love-love blanking ("bagel job"), the dominant German star Steffi Graf ("Fraulein Forehand"), the ultra-composed Chris Evert ("The Ice Maiden") and the powerful Venus and Serena Williams ("Sisters Sledgehammer"). (List from John Jeansonne of Newsday.)
Bud gave life and form and history to tennis. I cannot think of any single journalist/broadcaster/historian that embodied any sport as much as Bud. He was tennis, roaming the earth, the warm places, where players cavorted on red clay or grass or synthetic stuff. Bud followed the sun, bringing his glittering wardrobe with him.
His defining moment was at Wimbledon one year when Martina had just beaten Chris (no last names needed in Bud’s world) in the finals, and Bud was working for NBC.
He stood there with his microphone, and Evert dutifully trudged over for the mandatory interview and she looked him up (ruddy face, frilly shirt) and down (pants looking like watermelons or cherries) and then, before he could launch into his introduction, she said drily, “Nice pants, Bud.” Over worldwide TV.
Bud also played tennis. Back at the dear old West Side Tennis Club in the mid-70’s, I saw him scampering around a celebrity doubles court, barefoot. He coached the sport at Brandeis years ago.
Bud was the memory of the sport, always willing to answer a question when we all were on deadline. He had once taken a spot of tea with people who had won Wimbledon decades earlier. Lefty or righty? Personable or dour? Bud would fill you in.
Bud has been winding down the last few years, in front of our eyes, Father Courage trekking to the Open with the help of his indomitable wife, the photographer Anita Ruthling Klaussen.
Last year the United States Tennis Association named the media center for Bud and Bud got there, in a wheelchair, wearing nice pants. Billie Jean King recalled Bud's respect for women’s tennis.
I recalled how, when I broke in, Bud was covering all sports for the Boston Globe, in the avant-garde of the Chipmunks, the youngish reporters who respected not only Muhammad Ali’s chosen name but also his importance. Before he was a tennis maven, Bud was a versatile journalist.
One thing I noticed that day was the women players who chose to show up for the ceremony. Bud perked up when he spied Katrina Adams, the president of the USTA, and called her a “Wildcat,” a reference to her college, Northwestern. He could see Billie Jean, of course, and also Martina and Rosie and Tracy, faces in the adoring crowd. (Harvey Araton, the Times’s resident voice of sports memory, wrote a sweet column that day.)
Since then, people have been keeping in touch, via Anita. Billie Jean King dropped in one day when she was in Boston. Mary Carillo stayed in touch. So did Lesley Visser and Cindy Shmerler, a tennis authority herself, who recalls a couple of high points of her wedding -- playing tennis with Bud in the morning, dancing cheek-to-cheek with him at the reception. .
Bud passed today – Friday morning. There will be longer, fuller obituaries, and details of a memorial in Boston around what would have been Bud’s 87th birthday, June 17. I just want to thank Bud for stopping and chatting with that couple from the Deep South, and for personifying his sport. Nice pants, Bud.
I was thinking about Monte Irvin before the State of the Union speech. Irvin died Monday and my friend Ray Robinson, the writer, called me to commiserate.
Ray once wrote a story about Irvin visiting him at his home on Fire Island, dutifully hitting fly balls at the edge of the surf to young fans who knew a Hall of Famer was visiting. Irvin was always a gentleman.
The early great black players were individuals: the activist Jackie Robinson, the lifer Roy Campanella, the energetic Willie Mays, the stoic Larry Doby. Monte Irvin was a centrist, a veteran of the Negro Leagues, who played in Newark, across the river, while lesser players were performing in Brooklyn, Harlem, the Bronx.
When he got his chance, Irvin had eight seasons to show the great player he was.
Later, he was brought into the Commissioner’s office, perhaps as a gesture, perhaps to offer real counsel.
Either way, he was available, to talk about the past, to talk about the present. Some reporters were lucky enough to spend time with him around ball parks and hotel lobbies. He was a link; he was a guide.
(The National Football League did somewhat the same with Buddy Young, the splendid little running back, a pioneer black star right after the War. What a treat to sit around an otherwise tedious summer camp and talk about Illinois and the New York Yankees football team.)
A personal note about Monte Irvin: in the mid-‘60’s the baseball writers held a summer outing at Bear Mountain, including a hardball game. I was playing left field, and Monte Irvin, long retired, lofted one so far over my head that I think it landed in the Hudson River.
Monte was always available for history and opinions. Around 2009, I called him for my Stan Musial book (he thought Musial was a positive force in those days) and I reminded him of the shot he hit at Bear Mountain. Not surprisingly, I recalled it more than he did. He, after all, had tagged Warren Spahn and Robin Roberts much the same way.
I thought about Monte Irvin again during the State of the Union speech, as President Obama made a passionate call for Americans to somehow dig back to their better selves.
At the end, I saw some black members of Congress near the exit – Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee from Jamaica High School and Yale and now Houston, always there for his autograph. I saw the sheer pride emanating from them, but that is also how we feel about him and Michelle Obama, with the pride of family members.
When the President casually offered to give some tips about Iowa to current candidates, my wife and I whooped it up. Oh, right. He won two elections, come to think of it.
We look forward to the Obamas maintaining a standard of dignity and thoughtfulness over the decades. The president’s speech soared like Monte Irvin’s home run.
* * *
LOVELY CODA TO THIS POST:
(Jon Leonoudakis, who made the recent documentary on Arnold Hano, another grand old writer, displays the bond among Hano, Ray Robinson and Monte Irvin:)
From Jon Leonoudakis:
After I heard the sad news of the passing of Monte Irvin, it struck me there was a wonderful story to share about him that is largely unknown.
Ray Robinson and Monte were good friends, and in the summer of 1963, Ray invited Monte and his wife, Dee, to join Arnold Hano, his wife, Bonnie and their nine-year-old daughter, Laurel, at their place on Fire Island for a weekend. When the kids in Ray’s neighborhood learned Monte Irvin was staying there, they begged him to come out and play ball with them. Remarkably, Arnold Hano had his 16mm film camera with him and captured Monte playing with the kids. It is a very sweet story and I’ll be sharing it with the world later today. Click on the link above.
When I first saw the footage while making the Hano documentary, I asked Arnold, “Who’s the black guy in the Sports Illustrated T-shirt?”. The reply via e-mail: “Monte Irvin.” I nearly fell out of my chair! I then set about interviewing Arnold and Ray about their recollections of that weekend. It wasn’t something I could fit into the body of the film, but I hoped there would be an outlet for it at some point.
Rest in peace, Monte Irvin.
* * *
Ray Robinson’s 1984 article about the day Monte Irvin visited him at the beach:
Two days in a row, the New York Times paid long and literate attention to two worthy people I happened to know – one a coal-region doctor, one a figure skater.
* * *
I met Dr. Donald L. Rasmussen once – at a Black Lung meeting in Beckley, W. Va. Miners, wrecked in their 40s, were milling around, coughing and brandishing tattered papers of denial for medical benefits.
In the swarm was a tall and red-headed doctor, as out of place as a Viking in a Bosch painting. Doc Rasmussen was one of those outsiders come to foment trouble among the innocent folk of Appalachia (as the coal lobby would say.)
He carried a small rectangular box that could have held cigars or chocolates. Inside was a gray object, grainy and desiccated – a slide from a miner’s lung, available only upon autopsy. That’s when I learned about Pneumoconiosis – Black Lung Disease. Most miners had it, the doctor said.
This was after decades of coal-region doctors attesting that coal dust was good for you – cured the common cold.
Doc Rasmussen taught generations of miners and any federal welfare officials that would listen what miners’ lungs looked like after a few years underground.
The coal companies never did run him out of Beckley. He died at 87 on July 23. Don’t know if Sam Roberts ever heard of him before, but he did right by Doc Rasmussen.
* * *
I met Aja Zanova when I was doing Martina Navratilova's book. Aja was tall for a figure skater, head up, shoulders out, one of the straightest shooters I ever met. Her career as a world-level Czech figure skater was cut short by the Soviet domination, and she defected to the United States, part of the Czech diaspora. I was lucky to meet her husband, Paul Steindler, the New York restaurateur, who was dying. Aja served as a surrogate big sister to Martina.
I would run into Aja at tennis and skating events all over the world. She had news and opinions and was good company. She outwaited “our good friends” from the East (as Martina’s stepfather Mirek called the Soviets) and eventually she went back to Prague, greeted by 50,000 people in Wenceslas Square.
The new Czech government gave her a medal and restored some long-confiscated family real estate. Aja wryly told me how some old acquaintances looked her up, said they had always been on her side. She died on July 30 at 84. I don’t know if Margalit Fox knew her, but the obit in the Times caught her strength.
* * *
I was toying with commemorating Jerry Garcia and Mickey Mantle, who both died in August of 1995, but here is my column linking them. Better I should honor Doc Rasmussen and Aja Zanova.
When we were privileged to visit Cuba in 1991 for the Pan-American Games, a couple of state translators knew our country, its culture, its movies.
Ziomara and Tessie spoke English as well as we did, although they had never left the island.
They called Merrell Noden “Robert Redford” not only for his handsome face,I think, but for something good inside him, something they sensed, from Redford’s movies and his persona. It was a compliment to him, maybe even to us.
I hung out with Merrell and Alex Wolff from Sports Illus- trated, a couple of Princeton guys. Somebody else griped about the food one day and one of them, can’t remember which, dryly noted that Cubans had one egg a week while we were eating protein every meal.
I slowly realized that Merrell’s love of track and field came from his own running ability at Princeton and later at Oxford. He never told me about his high grades, his love of Shakespeare, but he did brag on his wife, the artist, Eva Mantell, whom I got to meet back in New York.
I wish I had kept in better contact as they moved from the city to Princeton, to raise their children, Miranda and Sam.
I picked up SI the other day and discovered that Merrell, the strapping athlete, had died of cancer at 59.
His friend and colleague, Richard O’Brien, delivered the eulogy, reproduced on Jack McCallum’s web site. It is definitely worth getting to know him better.
The Rev. Gardner C. Taylor was 96 and in retirement in North Carolina. Once he was a giant in the pulpit of Brooklyn, the entire world. He was an intellectual who made bells ring when he spoke.
I was just thinking about Dr. Taylor Sunday afternoon as I pondered the closeness of Passover and Easter this year, remembering seders at the Kelman household on West End Avenue and the sermon by Dr. Taylor in Harlem during Holy Week. How lucky to be part of so many worlds.
To my chagrin, I had never heard of Dr. Taylor until 1978, when I was covering religion for the Times, although he was a pillar of religion and civil rights (if one can separate them) as pastor at the Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I heard about a gathering of black pastors every Monday, when one preached and later they all went out for lunch, uptown.
It was the day after Palm Sunday, and Dr. Taylor was preaching to the committed, about the ordeal of Jesus Christ during Holy Week. For a time, he was intellectual, measured, logical, but then he raised the amps. I described the mood in the church:
“I say to every Christian, You have not even wrestled with temptation the way Jesus did. Where are the blood marks? What pain have you undertaken in the name of Jesus? What sacrifice...? We cannot even know the misery of our Lord.”
Then, with most people leaning forward eagerly, Mr. Taylor retold a basic truth of Christianity – that Jesus came back on Easter morning.
“He won!” Mr. Taylor exclaimed, and his own colleagues began chanting at the end of every sentence. “He won!” until he finished with the urgent, emotional message of the Resurrection, and ended abruptly.
I can still hear his voice pealing. Later I came to know how he and the Rev. Martin Luther King had formed a progressive black Baptist denomination to advance civil rights, and in 1993 Dr. Taylor preached during the inauguration of President Clinton. I grieved from afar in 1995 when Dr. Taylor’s wife, Laura Scott Taylor, the unsalaried principal of the church elementary school, was killed by a truck as she crossed a street in Crown Heights. (He later remarried.)
He was a great American, graduate of the School of Theology, Oberlin College , and lecturer at Princeton. He was on my mind the afternoon he passed.
For a public figure compared to Hamlet or some of the major saints, Mario Cuomo had a fiendish side.
I once reminded him the way basketball players of St. Monica’s parish in South Jamaica, Queens, used to take advantage of two tile pillars smack in the middle of the court.
While Sunday Mass was being held on the main floor, the Leprechauns or the Shannons would usher in new victims to the basement. Joe Austin, Cuomo’s coach for life, taught his players to run the old pick-and-roll play on the valid theory that a tile pillar cannot be whistled for setting a moving pick.
When Cuomo was governor – a huge source of pride for those of us who grew up around Jamaica – I reminded him how unsuspecting visitors got our brains bashed in.
His laugh was long and villainous, from deep in the chest, as he mirthfully remembered suckers decked out on the floor of the rec hall. That was fun, he said. The man had articulate empathy for the poor, the marginal, of his home state, of his nation, of the entire world, but strangers in the basement of St. Monica’s – tough luck, man.
From what I heard, he carried this rugged ethic to the basketball games in Albany during his long tenure as governor.
In 1993, he told Kevin Sack of the Times: “I'm the most formidable figure on the court because I own the league.” He added, “They all work for me and I am notoriously ungrateful to people who make me look bad.”
He was proud of being a jock, a minor-league outfielder until he was beaned in the pre-helmet days. He reveled in the ringer names he used in the amateur leagues -- Glendie LaDuke or Matt Denty or Lava Labretta (because he was ''always hot,” the governor of New York once told me.
Cuomo had a long memory, good and bad. For his inaugurations, he invited his gremlin mentor, Joe Austin, who ran a great baseball program on the field of Jamaica High School, when he wasn’t working the night shift at the Piels brewery. Cuomo would address remarks to “Coach,” and when Austin passed, Cuomo made sure that a street and park near the old Jamaica field were named for him.
We had a minor connection to the Cuomos – somebody in our extended family became a friend of theirs when the family moved into the twisting back streets of Holliswood. Matilda Cuomo visited our house once, a lovely lady, and my parents voted at the same hall as the Cuomos. The governor spoke well of our relative -- even when she became a hard-core Palinite.
He was a beacon to those of us who learned our lessons well in central Queens – that Jamaica Estates and Hillcrest are inextricably linked to South Jamaica and Hollis, that we are in this together. He brokered a housing agreement in Forest Hills when it seemed impossible. Maybe reason and compassion would work elsewhere.
In July of 1984, my wife and I were sitting in an outdoor restaurant in Santa Barbara, listening to a couple of stockbroker types at the next table discussing the Democratic convention up the coast, where Mario Cuomo had delivered his epic speech. The two money guys told each other that Reagan would sweep the 1984 election, but that Cuomo was now the favorite for 1988. And they were Republicans.
It never happened. Mario and Matilda Cuomo remained New Yorkers, perhaps a regional taste. He had wielded his elbows on the court, and maybe that kept him from needing to wield his elbows for the presidency.
Long before he was a doctor, famed as a diagnostician, Kenneth Ewing was the captain of the Guatemala national soccer team. That made him a double legend in my eyes.
Dr. Ewing passed on Sept. 1, leaving a lot of us bereft. At the crowded wake on Saturday, people traded stories about voicing vague discomfort and how Ewing discovered the underlying problem.
The guestbook from the funeral home tells about his talent for saving lives.
His was an old-fashioned practice, in a big old house near the bay in Port Washington, Long Island, attracting the olla podrida, the grand mix, of our town – old ladies he greeted courteously, commuter types, a track coach and former Olympian (I could only imagine the dialogue between those two) plus the new hopeful generation from Central America.
It was an eclectic clubhouse, teammates drawn by the charismatic and talented star, who would poke his head through the door and summon his patients. I was “Professor.” Another guy was Flaco – Skinny.
I started going to him when my doctor, a very good friend of mine, was away a lot on business. I asked Dr. Ewing about soccer, and he told me he had played for Guatemala and then professionally in Toluca, Mexico, to finance medical school, and then moved to the United States.
He told about a friendly match in Guatemala with the touring Real Madrid stars, Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano.
“Another world,” he said admiringly. “Those guys could do things you never saw before.”
He told about playing in front of hostile crowds in El Salvador or Honduras, never quite qualifying for the World Cup. Known as Tony Ewing back then (his middle name was Anthony), he was admired for his soccer, and for his second career.
In 1989, Guatemala was playing the USA in New Britain, Conn. Dr. Ewing was going up with some countrymen in a chartered van and I was covering the match. He had told me about another Guatemala legend, the old equipment man, from back in the day.
An hour before the match, I spotted a little old man lugging jugs of water toward the Guatemala bench. He looked to be 100 years old. I introduced myself and asked if he knew Kenneth Ewing.
“Conoce Ewing?” he asked with awe. You know Ewing?
“Es mi doctor,” I said. He’s my doctor.
I told him how popular Ewing was in my town. Then I watched the old man step proudly toward the field. Later, I wrote this: :
Ewing was as formidable in his practice, specializing in cardiology, as he must have been as a defender. He liked to be in charge. I learned early on that the worst possible thing I could do was raise a medical point: “Hey, I was reading on the Internet…” His response was as terse as a hip check to a marauding forward: “You think I’m trying to kill you?” I knew a patient he had flat-out fired because he didn’t follow orders.
I’ve never seen him so furious as when I neglected the blatant symptoms of shingles while I was in California covering the World Series. I came home with a rampaging case of Bell’s Palsy right up my facial nerve toward my eye. He took 30 seconds to totally ream me out, then picked up the phone and had me in a neurologist’s office within an hour, and I escaped visible damage, probably by minutes. For the next six months, he shook his head at me in disdain.
A checkup could take a while. He was one of those doctors who work with their hands, getting up close, making sure the system is in working order. At the same time, he would be talking about a Mexico match on television the night before.
He insisted he could drive out the Expressway on Sunday morning to fields where teenagers and adults had moves never seen on the US national team. I am sure the US federation would love to find the next Maradona on Long Island, or anywhere, but I knew my place and rarely argued with him.
He was a private man but I learned his son Paul (PK) is an Annapolis graduate and Marine major, now retired. His wife Pauline was a teacher. He comes from a family of pro-fessionals, scattered around the world. I once inquired about the name Ewing and he said, “What, you think there weren’t slaves in Guatemala?”
Last February I was about to pick Germany to win the World Cup. I went in for a checkup and asked the doctor who would win. Germany, he said. Brazil was too fragile. In journalism we call this a second opinion.
Kenneth Ewing was a god to many of his patients, and also to his colleagues. One orthopedist told me with visible relief how he had spotted my mother's problem before Ewing saw her.
It was pretty clear Dr. Ewing was not well in recent years, but I never asked. This June I was scheduled to plug my World Cup book at the local library, and I invited Dr. Ewing to join me. I wanted people in town to know him not only as a famed doctor but also as an athlete who had once played with Puskas and Di Stefano, a neighbor who had gone to four World Cups as a fan.
Somebody who knew him warned me there was no chance in the world the doctor could make it at 7 PM because he needed to go home and rest every evening, but there he was, sprightly and charming, up for the big game.
I went to see him in the hospital a couple of weeks ago. One Guatemalan family, thriving in their second home, had driven up from New Orleans, to bring him familiar food. A nurse had come over from St. Francis Hospital, his home base, bringing home-made bread he loved. The doctor and I chatted for 15 minutes, but only about soccer. Captains must show no weakness.
As I left, he praised me for looking in good shape.
“I’ve got a good doctor,” I said.
Sometimes a person is revealed in the chords as well as the relationships.
There was a memorial for Joe McGinniss in New York on Friday, two months after he passed at the age of 71.
Friends and family told their stories, revealing a man of vastly eclectic interests and ties.
Roger Ailes, the brains behind Fox, told of a warm friendship that went back to 1968, when McGinniss, a kid of 26, wrote “The Selling of the President.” They did not fight over politics, Ailes said. They just enjoyed each other’s company.
Others of the liberal persuasion told how McGinniss could write about Ted Kennedy or Sarah Palin with equal tenacity.
And Ray Hudson, the garrulous English soccer broadcaster, who does La Liga of Spain, popped in from south Florida to talk about his friend, who maintained he was actually Italian despite a name and a face that insisted he was surely not.
The four McGinniss children were very sweet with their memories and emotions.
And one of the best stories came from Joe’s lawyer, Dennis Holohan, who told of not being able to even speak of his military service in Vietnam for 20 years afterward. McGinniss had been one of the great American journalists like David Halberstam and Gloria Emerson and Mike McGrady who went there and exposed the mission for the tragic fraud it was.
Finally, Joe cajoled Holohan into joining Joe on a trip to modern Vietnam. They took different routes from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, and the lawyer arrived first, taking a taxi tour of a war museum and then a Buddhist temple, where he totally lost it. Meltdown. But his driver consoled him, saying the Vietnamese people had moved on. You’re a good man, Minh said. I can tell. You need to get past it.
When McGinniss caught up with Holohan in Saigon, the lawyer told his friend what had happened at the temple with the taxi driver. McGinniss said he knew it would happen. That was why he proposed the trip. The friend is still stunned that his friend could anticipate such a breakthrough.
I never met Joe McGinniss but we became email pals two decades ago, united by our love of Italian calcio and Roberto Baggio and the language and the daily pace of Italian life. I am never jealous of other people’s talent or success or dedication or great ideas but I was tanto geloso of the time he spent in a hill town, and the book he wrote about a scandal among minor-league players he knew.
I got to know Joe McGinniss better from the music his family selected for the memorial:
And at the end, there was a slide show of Joe McGinniss’ life, frolicking with his children, out and about in the world, thoroughly engaged, enjoying himself immensely.
The background music was:
That’s how I got to know somebody I never met. Addio, buon amico.
The scariest thing I ever saw on a basketball court was the maniacal grin of Art Heyman, 10 feet above the floor, as he wielded a pair of scissors.
He was cutting his segment of the net after Oceanside High won the 1959 Nassau County tournament; I stopped taking notes to make sure he got down off the ladder without inadvertently doing harm to anybody, in his zeal.
Life was always an adventure with Heyman, during a game or during conversation. You never knew wherethings were going.
Artie died two weeks ago at the age of 71 in Florida. He would come and go in life, as he did in his mercurial pro basketball career, which consisted of six seasons, two leagues, and eight hitches with seven different teams, plus a few paper transactions with teams that decided they could not use him.
He had so much talent coming along as a big-beamed 6-foot, 5-inch star at Oceanside and Duke that it was reasonable to envision him as the next big thing to Oscar Robertson. In fact, the award he won as the best college player of 1962-63 is now called the Oscar Robertson Trophy.
Heyman must have had Robertson on the brain. When he was at Duke he used to take little sojourns to the Carolina coast, bringing along a lady friend and registering as Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Robertson. Once he was arrested because the girl was under 18. He was not without his flaws, which he knew as well as anybody.
I found him interesting but then again I didn’t have to coach him, as Frank Januszewski did at Oceanside or Vic Bubas did at Duke. He could taunt opponents, take a punch at somebody for no reason, and toss elbows in practice, just out of meanness. He was big enough to insinuate himself toward the basket, like Robertson, and when the Knicks drafted him first in 1963-64, he scored an average of 13.4 points in 75 games – what turned out to be the best season of his career.
The next year he was sitting a lot after Harry Gallatin, the rugged old forward, was brought back from the Midwest to coach the new breed.
This really happened: I was with the Knicks in a hotel lobby in Providence, when one of the players, rolling his eyes, informed us that crazy Artie had been playing poker after a loss to the Celtics earlier in the night, and Gallatin walked by the open door and, in a gesture of friendship, asked if he could take part.
“If you won’t let me into your game, Coach, I won’t let you into mine,” Artie said, and meant it.
The next season he was at Cincinnati, and after that he was in the American Basketball Association. He had a bad back; the attitude was not so good, either.
One year Heyman was playing for the New Jersey Americans, the forerunners of the new Brooklyn Nets. That is to say, before the Nets had Julius Erving from Roosevelt, L.I., they had Artie Heyman from Oceanside, L.I., a few miles away.
After games Artie would beat it back across the George Washington Bridge to the East Side of Manhattan, where he ran a bar that catered to flight attendants and males.
His career in the singles-bar trade was as disjointed as his basketball career or his persona. It was hard to keep things straight with him. I would diagnose him as having concentration issues; there was something sad about him, an inner lost child.
I ran into him in Manhattan in his various bar cycles, would catch up on the phone when I could track down his number. About 15 years ago I ran into him in North Carolina. He did not look healthy, and he felt under-appreciated. It was a long way from Oceanside High, when he climbed that ladder with the sharp object in his hand and nobody dared turn away.
He arrived out of the ozone in the very late ‘60’s, a voice straight off the Fordham campus. On WNEW-FM, a station with its share of edgy types, he came off as much more than sophomoric but not yet a grad student – a perpetual junior, who was starting to get it. That is a compliment.
Pete Fornatale maintained that mix of wonder and knowledge as long as he lived, which was not nearly long enough. He died Thursday at the age of 66.
He was a friend. We lived about a mile apart in Port Washington for decades, and took long walks around the old sand mines on Hempstead Harbor. We talked about serious issues as we walked – spiritual things, political things. He was deeply affected by 9/11 – talked about it on the air at WFUV-FM, his first and final station.
He didn’t seem much interested in talking sports, thank goodness, which gave me the leverage to ask him about his music contacts.
There were perks to being a friend of Pete’s.
He introduced us to our heroes, Anna and Kate McGarrigle, in some Village basement dressing room, right after a show.
We sat with him when he emceed a benefit brunch at the Lone Star, when Richard Manuel and Rick Danko were about to go back on the road. Check out the High on the Hog album. Richard sings She Knows in that sweet falsetto, and at the end Pete and Richard salute each other. Now all three of them are gone, and so is Levon.
Pete and I took our sons to a Grateful Dead concert at the Nassau Coliseum.
He introduced me to John Platt, his Long Island buddy, now a Sunday-morning presence on WFUV.
And one night in a club on the South Shore of Long Island, he introduced us to Christine Lavin, his friend, now my friend. Chris once performed Sensitive New Age Guys live on Pete’s Mixed Bag show – using Pete as the male foil. That night in the club, she called out both of us to sing backup. She’s currently on the road, working on a tribute to Pete that will be played sometime over the weekend on XM radio and also on WFUV-FM on Saturday. We are all in shock.
But the best part was the music, the thematic shows, where Pete could find four or five songs that belonged together. (Doug Martin’s obit in the New York Times on Friday does a great job explaining Pete’s technique. )
I hope this doesn’t get Pete in trouble with the authorities – what can they do to him now? – but he used to make copies (cassettes, which dates me) of his best thematic shows. I play them on my walks.
One show was Ladies Love the Beatles, amazing arrangements of old favorites.
Another show was about aviation, with a sensational version of Tree Top Flyer by Stephen Stills. Afterward, Pete admits, with that heh-heh laugh of his, that the song just might have been about an illegal pursuit.
Another cassette was about the Sunday papers, all those sections, including the so-called funnies, with Adam Carroll’s song urging Dagwood to take Blondie up on the roof for a glimpse of the sky. That one certainly puts some zip in the step.
Pete was still growing, still learning, still thinking, still talking. My deepest condolences to his family. I’ll miss the walks but I’ve got the cassettes.
They played music from deep in the collective continental soul. Four Canadians and a drummer from Arkansas.
First time I saw Levon Helm was backstage at the Garden during the Dylan tour in ’74. Somebody had placed a backboard outside The Band’s dressing room, and he was messing around with the ball, between shows. Wish I had said hello, but I was spying on Dylan’s sound check, so I kept moving.
Now his family says he is dying of cancer.
My favorite song from Levon is Ophelia because it is so….so…southern.
Boards on the window/Mail by the door….
Reminds me of funky neighborhoods in the south, where people come and go.
Although what could be more southern than Levon’s buzz-saw rasp on The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down?
Only met him once. He played Loretta Lynn’s father, Ted Webb, in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter. I had written the book for Loretta, and the movie people graciously invited me to the openings in Nashville and Louisville.
I was afraid the movie-makers might commit a Beverly Hillbillies version about a part of the world I love. But as soon as I saw Levon as the slender, bashful miner, I knew the movie was going to be respectful.
The second night, there was a party at the hotel, with Loretta and Sissy Spacek jamming together. Sissy could crack up Loretta by imitating her voice and her down-home bended-knee gestures.
Levon was singing backup. It was the women’s show.
During a break in the music, my wife sidled up to Levon and told him how good he was in the movie, and then she added, “You can sing, too.”
He might have had a bit to drink, but not enough that he couldn’t detect the compliment.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said.
“He was so cute,” she recalled on Tuesday, when we heard the awful news.
Of course, I'm giving away the punch line.
This was at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, when a bunch of traveling American writers were in Florence to watch Our Lads get waxed.
Searching for the press tribune, one of my colleagues spotted a man in a bright blue blazer standing in a portal.
What with the blazer, he could have been an usher.
"Excuse me," the reporter said, probably in slow, basic English, "but we're looking for the press section."
"My name is Giorgio Chinaglia," the man in the bright blue blazer replied with a smile.. "And I believe it is right over there."
My friend knew enough to be apologetic. Giorgio, who had what one might call a strong sense of self, thought it was funny.
Giorgio knew that current soccer writers might not recognize him. But defenders and keepers (and his own coaches and general managers) would always remember him.
Giorgio Chinaglia was one of those headstrong stars who came to New York in athletic middle age and could handle the pressure, much of it self-induced.
Think Reggie Jackson, Keith Hernandez, Mark Messier, Earl (the Pearl) Monroe.
Giorgio had the chutzpah to stick his 6-foot-1 frame as close to the goal as he could, and defied anybody – keepers, defenders, referees or, for that matter, his own coaches – to dislodge him.
Playing striker for the New York Cosmos from 1976 through 1983, he had the coraggio – translated more as gall or impudence than mere courage – to declare himself responsible for scoring goals. Anything else was somebody else’s job.
Just put the ball near the No. 9 on his jersey, and he would do the job.
He will always be the career leader in scoring for the North American Soccer League, inasmuch as the league is defunct.
Giorgio died at home in Florida on Sunday, at 65, of a heart attack. A friend said he had distress earlier in the week but checked himself out of the hospital. That would be Giorgio. Why should he regard doctors be any differently than he did Hennes Weisweiler, his German coach with the Cosmos, whom he openly defied.
“My job is to score goals,'' Chinaglia told me in 1981. “Other players may play both ends of the field, but they don't score as many goals. That is what the game is all about.” And he meant it.
Giorgio was the first world-level player I got to know when I was discovering soccer in 1980. He had a vaguely sinister presence even on his own team because he had the ear of ownership, and more or less flaunted it.
I saw him score two in a 2-1 victory over the Philadelphia Fury in 1980 – first on a header, and then with a shot out of the pivot with 18 minutes remaining. He faked to his left as if to use his power foot, his right, but then he swerved to his right to score at close range with his left foot.
“Usually, he will set up for his right foot,'' keeper Bob Rigby of the Fury said about the second goal. “But you know Giorgio, he is an instinctive player. The great ones don't think. They just do it. He is more dangerous with his back to me because I can't tell what he will do. He has an uncanny sense for what is right. ''
Giorgio just didn’t care what people thought. He was born in Tuscany, in Carrara, known for its marble, and in Italy was regarded as something of a straniero, an outsider, because his family had run a restaurant in Wales and he had come up through the pro club in Swansea.
He later was a star for Lazio -- by now the tifosi called him Long John, because he was tall, and spoke English. He played for the underperforming national team in 1974, and when he moved to the Cosmos he was criticized by Italian fans for defecting. That was Giorgio. He went his own way.
The Cosmos were made for him, the way New York was waiting for Reggie and Hernandez and Messier and Earl the Pearl.
Later he did television in Italy and helped run Lazio and sometimes gave striker-like feints that he might be in the mix of leadership if the Cosmos ever truly materialized again. Instead his heart gave out. But never his gall.
PS: Some serious soccer buffs might see this. Your own memories/tributes/critiques of Giorgio would be welcome right here:
"The day after my 80th birthday, which overflowed with good wishes, surprises and Covid-safe celebrations, I awoke feeling fulfilled and thinking that whatever happens going forward, I’m OK with it. My life has been rewarding, my bucket list is empty, my family is thriving, and if everything ends tomorrow, so be it.
"Not that I expect to do anything to hasten my demise. I will continue to exercise regularly, eat healthfully and strive to minimize stress. But I’m also now taking stock of the many common hallmarks of aging and deciding what I need to reconsider."
--Jane E. Brody, my pal in the NYT newsroom, oh, a few years back, in the Personal Health column, Sept. 13, 2021.
"People have said to me, ‘You’re fully vaccinated. Why are you being so careful?’” said Dr. Robert M. Wachter, professor and chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “I’m still in the camp of I don’t want to get Covid. I don’t want to get a breakthrough infection.”
---Tara Parker-Pope, The New York Times, Aug. 16, 2021.