Interview with Ira Berkow
BROADCAST: Aug. 9, 1988 | DURATION: 00:54:04
Discussing "Pitchers Do Get Lonely and other Sports Stories," with author Ira Berkow.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Ira Berkow "In between running a baseball team and operating a shipbuilding company, George M. Steinbrenner has also found time in his busy schedule to assist lexicographers. He recently was of invaluable assistance to them in adding to the definition of the noun 'winner.' In Webster's New Collegiate, a winner is defined as 'one that wins, or one that is successful, especially through praiseworthy ability and hard work. Also a victor, especially in games and sports.' Steinbrenner generously has added to this: see, one who wears a World Series ring; that is, a member of a team that has won the World Series."
Studs Terkel That's Ira Berkow, who's an excellent sportswriter, excellent writer I should say, reading the opening passage, a provocative one, of one of his pieces that comprise a book. A book, it's about baseball and other sports, and yet it's about us, too. It's called "Pitchers Do Get Lonely", and Athenæum the publisher, and Ira Berkow is a sportswriter of "The New York Times", formerly of Chicago, and I was thinking this particularly we're talking about sports, we're talking about life in the United States as well, aren't we? Winners and losers, and what is, what is a winner. And you mentioned Steinbrenner, whose name is known I'm sure to many listeners of WFMT though they may not be baseball fans, because he's known beyond baseball as a certain kind of owner of an enterprise known as the Yankees.
Ira Berkow Well, that's true. And he's imposed himself on the national consciousness. I mean, even to the extent of having a segment on "60 Minutes" about him. It seems that he is the quintessential quote "winner" or one who seeks to win. And at almost any cost. Course, he was convicted of a felony with contributing illegal funds to the Nixon campaign in 1972, but I guess this was all part of quote "business" as far as he was concerned. And it seems that he has taken a certain amount of humanity out of the games. And when we think of big-time sports now as being a sports -- as being business, rather than sports, very often we come to Steinbrenner as the symbol of that.
Studs Terkel Yeah, we -- that's the point. I think you, Ira, Berkow, you yourself. As a writer, as a sports writer, to further define what you do. It's more than about sports, it's about attitudes of people toward one another, toward society, but sport almost the overused phrase, almost a metaphor for life on.
Studs Terkel One definition of a winner. But since you mention sports as a meta -- as life a metaphor for sports, we're having this conversation the day after the rather well-publicized first night ball game in Cubs park that was, I'm happy to say, rained out. And, and
Studs Terkel With the Cubs ahead, though if you were to ask, I would guess 99% of those who watched or attended, ask them who played and who was ahead and what were the outstanding plays, I wonder if they would know because the event, or non-event or what it's about, and you covered that.
Ira Berkow Yes.
Ira Berkow Yeah. Well I was there at it, at the game, and people have asked me about what it was like having been there. And I remember sitting in the press box looking out on the field and I thought, "Hey, this is just like a night game." The distinctiveness was gone, although the park remains beautiful, but the idea that we've lost a link with the past and we keep losing links with the past and is this a sentimental, is this a romantic notion? I'm not sure, but I do know that there seemed almost no reason to change something
Studs Terkel You've just hit something. I think we have to continue. We'll come back to the Steinbrenner piece. And what is a winner, and what he determined a winner. The ring on the finger, World Series ring and you go, you expand that, let's stick with what you just said. Probably the last link with the past of daytime Major League Baseball, but you said we're losing links to the past. Here's what I mean by sports. This game last night was a metaphor for more. We are losing strength for the past in every aspect of our lives. I know this from no fault of the young, but I'm just astonished at the complete non-knowledge of what happened yesterday, let alone several years ago.
Ira Berkow Well, and then just in so many ways a lack of quality because we're going so fast that things, we become so mechanized that we lose certain things especially in the pursuit of money. In almost every element. For example, the other day in a nice restaurant, on ice cream I was served frozen strawberries. I mean, this is shocking. You know, frozen strawberries are not strawberries. I'm not sure what they are. I'm not even sure they're food.
Ira Berkow Yeah.
Studs Terkel In this article he's pointing out that the dime, the ring, the World Series ring means you're a winner. And he says, and he mentioned some players who are not really quite winners. Winfield, who is this excellent ballplayer with whom for the sake of those who are not ball fans, Steinbrenner has had disputes. This guy is a remarkably good ballplayer. He's not yet a winner, because he hasn't been on a World Series team.
Ira Berkow Right.
Ira Berkow Right.
Studs Terkel To show. And this is what we're talking about, the whole matter so that is it natural leads to -- the Olympics. We're talking Olympics again, this time in North -- in Korea in Seoul. And the Olympics, you point out once organized -- once! Originally is a quest for excellence, individual excellence.
Ira Berkow Now it's trying to establish which country has the best form of government, and the country that has the best athletes by that virtue according to the politicians are the best -- have the best political structure, and that's what East Germany apparently is all about, and what Russia was all about. And in fact even what Steinbrenner is attempting, because of our Winter Olympic teams have not succeeded to the extent that other nations have, and they've brought in Steinbrenner to try to build better Winter Olympic teams for America.
Studs Terkel We
Studs Terkel Us against them. And you're pointing out so when and, when the Romanian women gymnast, gymnasts beat -- the United States, the Romanians were not seen on the winner stands, ABC swung away from them.
Studs Terkel One of the networks. "We won. We didn't think we would" -- but you ask, my guest Ira Berkow, "Who is we? Frank Gifford? This viewer? Frank was seen only in his chair in the studio. This viewer got off his couch during the competition only to investigate the refrigerator. Neither of 'we' got within a mile of a pommel horse." So that's what we're talking about, aren't we? So when you cover whatever it is you cover, some sports, or whether it's baseball, football or a horse race or a prize fight, it's more than the event you're covering.
Ira Berkow Yeah and you're just, you're looking at people. If I may, it's very similar to what you do attempting to get inside people and inside their minds and inside their bodies, whether they're baseball players or waitresses. You know, motivation is still there, and you know what drives people, and maybe how it affects the rest of us and how we can relate to it.
Studs Terkel You know, I was thinking, the contrast of Steinbrenner winning on the ring and the aggrandize, the self-aggrandizement, you know, it's Bill Veeck. The contrast the two. Now Veeck one day sitting in this restaurant is saying, "My time is up," and I'm thinking about last night's, the end of night -- even though it's only 18 night games in Cubs park, we know what the future holds. He was saying the time of someone like myself is over. It is the time of Steinbrenner and those because there's more and more of commerce and bigness and less and less of whatever that sport is itself, and you have several pieces, very moving on Bill Veeck.
Ira Berkow Yeah, yeah. I did a piece that's included in there on Veeck's death. And shortly after and I remember calling his friend Hank Greenberg, who himself only had nine months to live at the time. And I remember Gree-- and Greenberg had a catch in his voice when we talked and really cared about Veeck and cared about, you know, what he -- how he viewed things, and he remembered meeting Veeck for the first time, and Veeck started talking to him about Indians and how much he felt about Indians, and Greenberg, Greenberg
Studs Terkel We should point out that the Indians you're referring to, the can I, if I may to the audience, if I'm being patronizing, forgive me. It means the Cle- Ira's talking about the Cleveland Indians, and when Veeck was the general manager won the World Series and broke attendance records and Greenberg was
Ira Berkow Yeah, well, and Greenberg was saying that Veeck was talking about Indians, and it turned out how mistreated the Indians were and Greenberg thought he was talking about the Cleveland Indians, but he was really talking about Native Americans, and that was you know his consciousness. Veeck's.
Ira Berkow Yeah.
Ira Berkow Unbelievable. I missed -- "Though Veeck was out of baseball for the last six years, he couldn't stay away and was frequently seen in the bleachers in Wrigley Field. Greenberg recalled, 'The last time we talked was on Monday when I called him in the hospital. Bill said, 'You know, I think I can get the Cleveland club.' I said, 'You're crazy. Why don't you go someplace where you have a chance to make some money? Why don't you go into the stock market or some other business? With your talents you can make a lot of money at anything.' He said, 'Wouldn't it be great, Hank, to get the old gang together again?' He was hopeless. I said, 'You still want to sell peanuts at the ballpark, don't you?' Yeah,' he said. 'I do."
Studs Terkel And there perhaps we come to something of the magic why the whole sports has, aside from the commerce and the overwhelming, you know, use of it by corporate America. The overwhelming use of it. The fact is in the case of Bill Veeck and the case of so many of us is still that, one of your last chapters deals with, piece deals with that, that that hangover from youth, that memory, that small boy's memory. Can't give up youth, you say.
Ira Berkow Well, you're still -- I mean, we remember this baseball, and we remember it as a game. And even as we get older and as we get involved in commerce, as we get infa-- involved with the hard realities of life, somehow we want a piece of what used to be, and maybe it's a romantic notion, maybe it's too romantic, but I think that we all need a certain amount of romance in our lives. In some corner.
Studs Terkel There is a memory. There is, there is there's this vestige of some kind of memory that hangs, whether it, anybody whether one saw the empty lot where kids played stickball or played baseball or visited Coogan's Bluff, whatever that might, you know that place outside Polo Grounds New York or Cubs park, somewhere he got on the roof to watch it or waited for a ball to come over Waveland Avenue.
Studs Terkel I have to confess. I came here at eight years old from New York. I'm now 76, I've been a 68 -- but I'm a New York Giant fan. Of course, John McGraw was the manager and we used to memorize the names of all the players, Kelly, Frisch, Bancroft, Groh, the million-dollar infield, see. Then came Bill Terry and Mel Ott, you see. But that's all and of course, McGraw loathed and despised the Yankees. Of course. Still do, of course. Now more than ever. But that's part of it. An eight-year-old memory coming here, root against the Cubs. Of course.
Studs Terkel San Francisco, but still Giants. It's not quite the same. I don't see how a Dodger fan could possibly be rooting for those incredible boys in blue, whatever it might be of Los Angeles. How could that be?
Ira Berkow Well, I live in New York but I grew up in Chicago and grew up following the Cubs, and I confess that I still -- as a, even though I'm an objective reporter, in quotes, I still have that feeling -- so out of the corner of my eye watch to see what the Cubs are doing in the standings.
Studs Terkel And I still admire Ira Berkow's writing even though he is a Cub fan. Why he's not a Sox fan I don't know because he lived the other part of town. "Pitchers Do Get Lonely and Other Sports Stories", and we have, we've just touched on one or two of his remarkably perceptive and in many cases quite moving pieces, and Athenæum are the publishers, we'll resume after this message. [pause in recording] You know, when we left we were talking, you know, Ira Berkow is my guest and "Pitchers Do Get Lonely", which is a comment made by one of the pitchers I, wasn't it?
Ira Berkow Yeah. Well actually, it was the catcher. The Cubs, the -- I'm sorry, the Yankee, the despised Yankees were losing a game to the Texas Rangers last year 16 to 3, and it was the ninth inning. Lou Pinella the manager didn't want to use any more of his pitchers. He had on the bench a reserve catcher named Rick Cerone who pitched batting practice sometimes and who could get the ball over the plate. It's the bottom -- it's the top of the ninth inning, it's the last inning, he has the bases loaded, so finally with no outs he sends in Cerone of all people to pitch, just to try and get this Texas Rangers out and finish the game. After the -- and he did. Three line drives and they were out of the inning. After the game Cerone was interviewed by reporters and asked, "What was it like on the mound?" He said, "I never could believe how scary it was out there. Never knew how lonely it was on the pitcher's mound." Well, that immediately opened up a memory vein for me, because I remembered pitching for Sullivan High School on the North Side and how lonely it was for me pitching against Lane Tech or Von Steuben with all these guys coming up and hitting the ball all over the place, and I'm standing there on the mound helpless, with no help, by myself. So that led, led my memory to a piece that I wrote for the "Times" called "Pitchers Do Get Lonely", which I thought would be an appropriate title for my collection.
Studs Terkel Yeah. I think you just -- just sticking with the matter of sports and other interests and pitchers getting lonely and winning and losing, suppose we hear Bill Veeck, the guy we talked about. And on that very subject, and the contrast of the piece you wrote about Steinbrenner and the ring, that means you won, no matter what, the possession. You possess victory. You possess a team, you possess a player.
Bill Veeck Now, winning has become -- I start to say unfortunate, but I don't really mean unfortunate, but it has become of such paramount importance that we lose sight of the fact that this is a game. We lose sight of the fact that it's a delightful game, and it's a game that is played skillfully by the last place club as well as the first place club, and that the game itself should be enjoyed and savored. But we say, like some owners said one time what I think was the most damning statement ever made about our game: "All you need is a winning club." That isn't all you need. Sure, we all like winners better than losers. We all like to win. We all like a best-seller. If for no other reason it gives us a certain sense of satisfaction, of a job well done. All right. But how winning is maybe the most important thing [unintelligible]. It isn't the only thing, because the game just playing it is fun and entertaining. And you're seeing great skills. Even on losing ball clubs, you're playing, seeing great skills, and you're seeing let's say 20 of the best of their business in the nation of two, 120 million people, and you're seeing 20 out of 500. Pretty good, you're seeing pretty good talent. So there is something more to be said about first the skill of the performance, but second is that they do provide the maximum in my opinion entertainment for the fewest dollars.
Studs Terkel So I was thinking about they winning, and he says it isn't that so much said Bill Veeck, which leads to another subject. He mentioned these players, some are better than others, but they are the best of the lot of thousands, you know, those who are in the big leagues are the best. And we hear more and more talk about their high pay, as though they play forever, and the people are talk about them often are the very high-paid sportscasters. So that leads to the question of the change in the lives of athletes and certain people played a role in that, I mean, organization of a union for example.
Ira Berkow Who was absolutely brilliant. He took -- he came in to become the head of the -- the executive director of the players, baseball players union about 1968 or '69. And the players were averaging something like fifty thousand dollars a year, somewhere along there, maybe even a little bit less. And today, some 20 years later, after Marvin Miller's brilliant unionizing, the players now average something like $440,000 a year. And some people may object to this kind of money, but this is America. This is a democracy, and the players are getting what the traffic will bear. Now, you don't see any owners driving around on bicycles. I mean, they all have their chauffeur-driven limousine, so the owners must be doing pretty well. I mean, none of them are going to the poorhouse. So you can see how much money that these people are still making, and again there's plenty apparently to give to the players.
Studs Terkel And some of them like, say Stallone what he makes, they haven't a semblance of the talent that some of the players have. No one objects to that, you see. But more than that we forget the life, the actual career of an athlete is not the career of an accountant.
Ira Berkow And then what happens? And then they're 25 or 26 years old and they've spent their whole lives involved in this, and they have nothing else. So many times. And in many ways their life, their lives are over.
Studs Terkel And of course, Miller had more, he also dealt with, Marvin Miller who organized, who only worked with steel, steelworkers became this -- he changed the whole aspect of athletic life today, didn't he? 'Cause this went into other professional sports as well.
Ira Berkow Yeah. And as the baseball players started making more money, and as the other unions saw how Marvin Miller worked, they began to follow him, and now basketball players are making you know, the average is over half a million dollars I think, and they're estimating that within a couple of years basketball player will be, pro basketball player will be averaging about a million dollars a year.
Studs Terkel We are talking about a short life, a short career span. And the fact that the ones who are paying them and complaining about are making tremendous -- we're talking about TV rights and whatever God know whatever multimillions there are in other aspects of it, which leads to injuries as well. Miller was also trying to do something about -- by the way, today there are more, with Astroturf which is something entirely different than natural grass, they are more prone to
Ira Berkow Well
Ira Berkow Probably foot, football more than any of the others because these guys can't cut on the artificial turf. We saw it even years ago with Gale Sayers. Virtually ruined his career on artificial turf. But the owners want this artificial turf because it's, it's multi-- for multisports use. And I guess when it rains you can sweep off, you can sweep the rain off the, off the field and it cleans better. So but the last consideration is the human body and the human being for the owners.
Studs Terkel So we're talking -- now injuries is another thing we've been talking about here. Injuries now -- the now they report injury, this is rather interesting. These are pieces by Ira Berkow, and they deal more than with the event than that which accompanies it. Sometimes gambling as well. Injuries now have to be reported publicly. Why don't you explain that?
Ira Berkow Yeah, well, in the NFL it's a, it's a boon to gamblers. Or -- they make it equal for all the gamblers. At one point gamblers would try to get inside information about who was hurt and who wasn't hurt on the various football teams, and if you get you -- if all you need for a gambler is to get a little edge. So football owner or football management understood that that the gamblers were attempting to get an edge and so they decided that they are going to have an integrity of the bet, and that is they now announce all injuries so that all gamblers can have equal access to it. So this is, this is making the -- and also I guess in their way feeling that that this is an added integrity to the game. But when you think about this, you know, one team wanting to beat another team, you're not gonna -- you don't want to tell the other team that "Gee, you know, we -- my running back has a sore leg." You'll use him as a decoy. But they don't do that anymore, see, because the commercialism is more important.
Studs Terkel You know, the commercialism dealing with gamblers and connecting, you have two pieces, I'm now freely associating. Dennis McLain was a great pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, won 30 games when he, he was the last one for some time to win 30 games, wasn't
Studs Terkel But then something happened. I compared two pieces you wrote in your, in your connect, in your book "Pitchers Do Get Lonely and Other Sports Stories", one on him and one on the boxing trainer, this, the late Cus Samato. Cus D'Amato. But the contra -- so Lain [sic - McLain] got caught, involved in some sort of trap.
Ira Berkow He was dealing with drugs. He was drug smuggling, drug racketeering, extortion, bribery, about five or six things. And he was sent away to jail a couple of years ago and spent two and a half years in jail, is out now and on an appeal.
Ira Berkow No, probably -- no. Because you know they rarely prepare themselves for other things. Denny may have been a little special case. Lou Boudreau's son-in-law of course. And but Denny was always kind of a smart-aleck. By the way, from Chicago. Went to Mount Carmel High School, and -- but he enjoyed association with evil types, I think.
Studs Terkel But then you've got this remarkable boxing trainer who taught Floyd Patterson and now Mike Tyson. That's Cus D'Amato, holy -- he's in the world where gambling, where the Syndicate and the Mob will be very much in professional prizefighting.
Ira Berkow That's right. And he stood apart. In fact, when he had started with Patterson as Patterson was a young fighter who would become the heavyweight champion of the world, a couple of as he'd call them, "crooked-nose guys" came into his gym and said, "We want a piece of your fighter or we'll -- we'll chop your hands off." And he said to them, "Let's go outside and you could start chopping finger by finger. But you're not getting a piece of my fighter." The crooked-nose guys left.
Ira Berkow I don't know. He was, you know he brought Mike Tyson along and then he died, Cus died I think about a year and a half, two years ago, when Tyson was just starting his professional career, but he had brought him along from out of reform school when Tyson was about 13 to about when Tyson was 19 or close to 20. Now Tyson is 22 years old. What he would be thinking about Tyson right now, I'm not quite sure.
Studs Terkel All right let's continue with boxing right after this, because there's a very funny profile here a story of Jake LaMotta, "Raging Bull" from the film, Jake LaMotta was a middleweight champ, wasn't he?
Ira Berkow Right,
Studs Terkel And a very funny story and of course we have to talk about Muhammad Ali, Cassius Clay, and that I deliberately used both names for a certain reason. We're talking to Ira Berkow, "Pitchers Do Get Lonely and Other Sports Stories" are the book [unintelligible] Athenæum the publishers and very moving, and by the way Benjamin DeMott we know as the good literary critic, speaks of Ira Berkow's writing "Over the years the sports page has been hyped as literary showcase. His first writing style was Ring Lardner, next came Red Smith, and lately 'New York Times' Ira Berkow wins acclaim." That's pretty fast, good parlay. Good parlay.
Ira Berkow Yes, he was and also a mentor of sorts. When I was in college I wrote Red and when I was working the college paper and I sent him a few of my columns because figuring he had nothing else to do but read my stuff, and he wrote back and with marginal criticisms and we developed a correspondence.
Studs Terkel Let's resume right after this message. [pause in recording] Resuming with Ira Berkow, we're talking about his book, a collection of his -- well, they're essays, they're pieces yet essays that he wrote for "The New York Times" during the past several years. "Pitchers Do Get Lonely". And since we started talking about boxing, prizefighting, you've got to tell about the LaMotta nuptials. Jake LaMotta the fighter, Las Vegas November 20th, 1985. So why don't you sort of take over, because that's got -- some great lines are in
Ira Berkow Yeah. It was a wedding and it was the night before the Hagler-Hearns fight in November 20, 1985. And Jake, who is 63 years old is, was going to get married for I think the sixth time to a woman considerably younger and considerably prettier than Jake. And it was in a, in Las Vegas in a casino in a room really off, off of the gambling room, and the door was open and you hear all the noise from the gambling casino. And at one point there was a little canopy and he had all the old fighters there. Basilio was there and Pep was there and Sugar Ray Robinson was the best man and Fullmer was there. Billy Conn was there, all these old guys, and I'd never seen so many cauliflower ears in my life and in one room, and there was a canopy where they were going to, where they were going to be married, and there was the minister there, and he began with the ceremony. And about halfway through the ceremony, a short ceremony but about halfway through, a telephone rang in the back of the room, and Jake looked around, stepped forward and said, "What round is it?" And his wife turns to him and she says, "I'm getting out of here!" And the minister says "Wait, wait, we're almost finished, we're almost finished." And so it went on like that. And, and they finally got married but it was -- and then suddenly people from the gambling casinos began just drifting in, walking around, and it became part of the entire thing.
Ira Berkow Yeah. His first wife divorced him he says because "I clashed with the drapes," and there was another one, Vicky, she complained about not having enough clothes. And LaMotta says, "I didn't believe her until I saw her pose nude in 'Playboy' magazine."
Studs Terkel So these are classics. How come they stopped it? 'Cause the referee counted to 11. And "I fought Sugar" -- talking about Ray Robinson, who was one of the best all-around fighters ever was, was "I fought Sugar six times. I only beat him once. This is my sixth marriage and ain't won one yet, so I figure I'm due."
Studs Terkel So this, now we come to Muhammad Ali, and I suppose if ever there were an argument for the banning of professional boxing, it would what happened to someone who no longer floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.
Ira Berkow Ali has Parkinson's syndrome now, which is different as I understand it from Parkinson's disease. There are the symptoms, and if he took his medication, which is something called L-Dopa, a lot of the symptoms would go away. But he doesn't out of laziness and also out of some religious principles, feeling that if Allah wanted him to be this way, then that's the way he's supposed to be. But Ali is a man who is still attractive and I have found spending time with him -- in fact I was with him a month ago shortly before the, on the afternoon of the Tyson-Spinks fight. He slurs his words. He walks kind of stiff now, and you have to get your ear very close to him to hear what he's saying. But I think that his mind is functioning very well. I don't think that the disease has made it really a dent in his mind. And I think he's still sharp. For example: I was in his room in the hotel, and a TV sportscaster was up there trying to talk him into doing a telecast, an interview on television. And Ali now knows that he doesn't come off too well anymore on television, and so he was saying, just shaking his head and saying, "No." The television guy persisted. Finally Ali, Ali looked at him and gave him gave him one of those mock tough-guy kinds of looks and says, "Be cool, fool." And that ended the discussion.
Ira Berkow Yeah.
Studs Terkel You know, that he still could -- you were asking about a certain poem when he upset everybody by beating Sonny Liston who thought would kill him, this kid from Louisville and so he was trying to recall, wasn't he? Trying to recall a poem.
Ira Berkow He began and I remember this was a poem that he had given when -- shortly before he was going to fight Liston. And he was predicting how the Liston fight was going to go. And now just a couple of years ago I asked him if he remembered all this, and you know, Ali now seems to be, you know, much less of what he used to be, but he began, his voice still very low: "Ali comes out to meet Liston and then Liston starts to retreat. If he goes back any farther he'll wind up in a ringside seat. And Liston keeps backing. But there's not enough room. It's a matter of time -- there! Ali lowers the boom. Ali lands with a right. What a beautiful swing. The punch knocks Liston right out of the ring. Who would have thought when they came to the fight that they'd witnessed the launching of a human satellite? Yes, yes, the crowd did not dream when they laid down their money that they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny."
Ira Berkow I'm not one of them, Studs, and I and I would say that Muhammad Ali is not one of them, either. I don't think that he would have changed any -- I'm not sure if he would have changed anything in his life. He felt that God destined him to do what he did, and to become as famous as he as he became, to spread the word. He felt that he was brought on Earth for that particular reason.
Studs Terkel See, just if we're talking about say a Ty Cobb or Willie Mays or something, a DiMaggio. And we're talking about someone very unique in contrast to the great, great, great many, not just the Korean fighter who was killed Kim or Benny Paret or [you could stop and?] name 'em, as a kid I remember a flyweight killed named Clever Cenkio, Sencio [sic - Cancio] or something like that, but so we don't know about -- and those who reach Punchville as Willy Bratton did here, very, very classy.
Ira Berkow Yeah, but there are a number of fighters you know who come out of it all right, with their brains and even in some -- even with money. You know, LaMotta is an example. You know, not all go -- become punch-drunk, and also you know there's a certain risk involved. We all know -- we all take risks of one sort or another. And unfortunately in this society some elements of our society don't have access the way others do.
Ira Berkow Right.
Ira Berkow Right.
Studs Terkel But about Ali. Why he -- you know, people say, "Oh, here he is, you know, a Muslim now, Muham-- he's Ali, former Cassius Clay," but you're describing here how he -- different he is in his feelings as a result of that change in name and attitude, it's far more -- he becomes freer as a res-- would you mind expanding on that? There are a couple of very telling passages there.
Ira Berkow Here, well he's talking about the difference between being Muhammad Ali and being Cassius Clay, and he said "There's as much difference as night and day. Cassius Clay was popular in America and Europe. Muhammad Ali has a billion more fans all over the world. Cassius Clay had no knowledge of his self. He thought Clay was his name, but found out it was a slave name. Clay means dirt with no ingredients. Cassius, I don't know what that means, but Ali means the most high. And Muhammad means worthy of praise and praiseworthy. Cassius Clay had Caucasian images of God on his wall. Muhammad Ali was taught to believe that there should be no image of God, no color. That's a big difference."
Ira Berkow Right. Feeling that most of those who fought in the Vietnam War were poor Black kids fighting for the white establishment. And in fact pretty soon a lot of other people began and came to feel the way Ali did.
Studs Terkel You know, one of the moving passages in your book, sequences, deal with the old athletes, there's Ali retired but the old ones -- and there was the indestructible seemingly indestructible Bronko Nagurski.
Ira Berkow Yeah.
Ira Berkow Yeah. I saw Bronko, he came to the Super Bowl one year and was interviewed and this was one of the strongest people around. And he has lost his eyesight almost, much of his hearing, he walked with a cane, and it was amazing to see this -- you know, as you say almost indestructible athlete and how he had changed, but also in the book there was along these lines, Studs, there there's a piece in there which I'm sure you remember is, it's called "The Toughest Man in the World".
Ira Berkow Yes. And it was interesting that my wife and I were walking down 2nd Avenue going to see the movie coincidentally, the "Raging Bull" about LaMotta, and it was around 52nd Street, and coming toward us was an old man with his cap down, it was a cold day, and walking with a cane and he was holding on to the arm of a woman walking with him. I'm not sure if it was his wife or a relative or what, but it was a woman, and he was walking very slowly, hobbling, an old man. And I said to my wife, "Do you recognize that man?" And she said, "No, I have no idea who it was. Who it is." And I said, "He used to be the toughest man in the world." She said, "He was?" I said, "Yes." I said, "That's Jack Dempsey."
Studs Terkel But this leads into the matter of Bronko Nagurski. "We root for old guys. We root for them not to leave us too soon, and many times any time is too soon. They've been around and have become familiar, and we've come if not always to love them, to understand them or appreciate them or enjoy them. The sadness of the end of the career of an older athlete with a betrayal of his body is mirrored in the rest of us. Consciously or not, we know there soon go I, and so we cheer when the old guy does not go gentle into that good night." And so when Jimmy Connors is playing against a younger guy
Studs Terkel But then your mentor Red Smith, wrote after watching the old Joe Louis being knocked out by Rocky Marciano. And this is you, Ira, quoting Red Smith: "An old man's dream ended. A young man's vision of the future opened wide. Young men have visions; old men have dreams." I like that, Smith, I like that. "But the place for old men to dream is beside the fire." But you say the fire was still burning inside Connors.
Ira Berkow Well, and interestingly enough, it was also burning inside Red Smith, because Red Smith was still writing, still writing well, still writing hard at age 76 when he died, Studs, and so even though he wrote that old men should dream beside the fire, he wasn't one of those old men. It wasn't for him.
Studs Terkel We're talking to Ira Berkow, and then we're coming, and entering the last lap, and it's "Pitchers Do Get Lonely and Other, and Other Sports Stories" Athenæum the publishers. It's quite more than revealing, quite in spots quite moving, too. We'll resume for the last lap after this message. [pause in recording] We enter the last lap and I was thinking of what we covered with Ira Berkow, we've got some of baseball and boxing and we haven't covered horseracing and the dream, the dream of the perennial, the man who hopes forever. "All horseplayers must die poor," said [Irvin?] [unintelligible]. You've got quite a few rather wistful but at the same time whimsical tales of the horseplayers.
Studs Terkel So I remember, I'll never forget it, the hotel that my mother ran, it was a men's hotel, but not, I should make it clear, there was not a flophouse, it was a hotel, a very good, respectable hotel back in the late '20s and early '30s and an old skilled craftsman lived there, a great many, but there were horseplayers, a number of them, and this one guy, a little Scotsman named McCrimmon, would study -- he was the scholar, and his room had racing forms up to the ceiling, and he studied and studied and studied, and his pal was an Indian, East Indian, Hindu, and "Maharaj" we called him, we called him "Raj," and both were scholars of horse, and they lost all the time. Now and then they'd win, it was a triumphal moment.
Studs Terkel But they would pore over the small print of the racing form and they'd study and study as scholars whether they'd be Talmudic scholars or whether it be mathematicians at work or a guy's through microscopes looking for some lost microbe, they were incredible in their studies.
Ira Berkow I did a wrestling piece which is included in the book, and I went to the Garden to watch wrestlers. First of all, the PR people, I mean the wrestling people don't want you covering these games. You never see them written about. The reason is because they know that responsible newspaper people up close will write about what kind of a phony sport it is, and people and wrestling fans aren't -- don't want to read about this. And also, they're not interested in it because they go and they pay their money and this is their entertainment. And so the owners and the management of wrestling know this and so they don't want anything to do with legitimate newspaper people. But I was, I got myself in somehow or other, and I sat at ringside, which is kind of dangerous because people upstairs are throwing things at the wrestlers. But also it's dangerous because these people take real falls. I mean, they go flying through the ropes, and these are big people. Some of these, I remember one of the Samoans, they had two Samoan brothers who, they were about 6'6", weighed about 320 pounds, and these guys go flying like trapeze artists and crashing into the chairs. You wonder why they don't break all their bones. Maybe they do.
Studs Terkel So they really are, so this is the part I can't figure out. I -- some of -- we know there's a great deal of theater here and burlesque here, when he jumps, stamps on him, misses by 10 feet, this -- at the same time I am astonished at the actual falls. Dumped on his back and
Ira Berkow It looks you know, they're attempting to portray a someone leaping up and jumping on the other person. Well, they're not really jumping on the other person, but when they leap, fly through the air and come down on their feet, the surprising thing is, why don't they break an ankle? See? So that, and sometimes they do.
Studs Terkel So we have to come to the audience, and here the imponderable, the audience now. Now, the audience knows this is theater, isn't it? And what -- now, we can -- these are hard-working people. Some are Appalachian, some are Hispanic, some are Asiatic, some are Early Americans, and it's everybody coming with their wives and friends, and they're cheering and booing -- now, they know it's theater. Or do they?
Ira Berkow You know, it's the greatest act of self-delusion, and it reminds me of a play I saw the other night in New York, "M. Butterfly", in which a French -- a young Frenchman, true story. A young French council member in China fell in love with a man. He met a man, but who had effeminate qualities, and a, a Chinese man. And it turned out that the Chinese man apparently let it be felt by the French man that the -- that he, that the Chinese man was really a woman. And so the French guy was actually falling in love with the Chinese man but didn't want to admit it to himself, because he didn't want to admit he was homosexual. But when the man says, "No, I'm really a woman," the Chinese man, so the French guy says, "Okay, now it's safe to fall in love with this guy," and they carried on a relationship for 19 years, even having sex. And at the end of it, the -- the finally the Chinese man admitted he wasn't a woman. Okay? So what this was to me was the greatest act of self-delusion. And it reminds me exactly of wrestling fans.
Studs Terkel It's amazing to watch. I must admit I turn on these, I want to hear these guys talking, what they can do, and it's very -- it reminds me of old burlesque shows, years of outrageous baggy-pants comics.
Ira Berkow Yeah.
Studs Terkel That's what it is. We're talking to Ira Berkow, and this could be a couple hours easily, as since you can see it's about sports and yet it's about the world outside it, too. "Pitchers Do Get Lonely and Other Sports Stories", and Red Smith your mentor says about you. In fact, he's almost saying you're hi-- you pick up the baton. "It can be stated as a law that the sportswriter whose horizons are no wider than the outfield fence is a bad sports writer because he has no sense of proportion and no awareness of the real world around him. Ira Berkow knows that what is important about a game is not the score, but the people who play it." Red Smith then, to which I say of course "Amen." Any postscript before we say goodbye for now?