The Underground Detective

Thomas Boswell’s baseball columns might be close to unreadable now, but he’s excellent when writing about the human condition. Obituaries. Retirements. Hiring decisions. He’s insightful in a way others aren’t. Sure he’s no Gary Smith, but even Smith lost his fastball long before leaving Sports Illustrated. Hacks might be able to churn out the same drivel forever (see Lupica, Mike) but the most talented writers, it seems, burn out relatively quickly.

Not Boswell, who’s been at it since the tail end of the 60s. Boswell out wrote everyone not named Jaime Diaz regarding Seve’s fall and was Diaz’s equal in explaining Tiger’s frailties, nudged out only by Tom Callahan, who had the advantage, if you’d call it that, of being friends with Earl. Heck, after long leaving golf behind Boswell even wrote the best piece out there on the denuding of Oakmont, primarily by looking at the issue as a human and not a golf snob. Similarly, Boswell did a better job on Bud after his passing than any of the tennis elite.

After Arnold Palmer died, Boswell, in his weekly online chat, told a story of Arnold’s genuine excitement after scoring a hole-in-one on consecutive days on the same hole at some entirely forgettable senior tour event. And Boswell recounted his own excitement covering it. He used the story to get across the point that everyone else emphasized in their Arnold biopics — the man truly loved the game of golf. It was no act.

But Boswell then explained that he wouldn’t be touching Arnold in the newspaper. He said he didn’t really know Arnold. He never pilgrimaged to Latrobe, or walked through Arnold’s legendary barn. Boswell never did a one-on-one interview with him.

Boswell, in effect, said he’d be a fraud if he attempted to take on the topic, and further called out anyone who would deign to write about a subject they’d never met. “You can’t fake it,” he wrote.

And this is where I spit the bit.

For one thing, you can bet Boswell never interviewed Seve. And even if he had during a Kemper Open drive by, Seve certainly wouldn’t have opened up in any meaningful way. At best, Boswell likely talked to Dean Beman about how exasperating Seve was, and perhaps got a few quotes from Crenshaw types about Seve’s “genius.”

But this would have been nothing more than box-checking; Crenshaw and Beman had nothing to say about the man that wasn’t already well known. Yet, years later Boswell was able to get at Seve in a way that others covering golf for a living weren’t.

What’s more interesting, and telling, is that the one subject Boswell has flubbed is the athlete he’s known better than any. I stopped being a baseball guy in 1986 or so, but the game’s mid-Atlantic hero, Cal Ripken, is of that time, so I’d pay attention when the DC papers covered him. And Boswell was the dean of the sport in this very non-baseball city, so he was one of the few to read on the matter.

But all Boswell could muster on Cal was mush, hero-worshipping fluff. I recall a paragraph or two about “roughhousing” in the clubhouse — which I translated to mean acting like an ass — and a ridiculous reflection on the moment Boswell realized Cal had lost a step. The rest, platitudes.

A few lines I came across recently in a book on Cuba’s ‘el Duque’ (which touched on Cal’s “leadership” or lack thereof, during a playoff game against the Yankees) and some stories that surfaced in the New York papers after an Orioles infield prospect was traded to the Mets (add “selfish” and “ego” to the jackass theme above) were much more instructive.

Let’s get back to Arnold. You wouldn’t know it from reading most of the gibberish published lately, but the guy was a human being. And, actually, his flaws are entirely uninteresting. He had a weakness for the flesh? Set him next to every other rich and powerful man in history. What’s only interesting here is the length that “journalists” have gone over the years to cover up, or even excuse Arnold’s behavior.

Some books on Arnold late in his life gently addressed this stuff, but the recent obits skirted it entirely or covered it with the old “sex is on my face” trope (and you can be sure that Arnold made this comment the way Yogi Berra said the 47,000 quips attributed to him). Callahan’s writeup on Arnold was the most blunt, but even he sugarcoats it with a “boys will be boys” story.

Some journalists, and my revered Dan Jenkins is the absolute worst on this score, barely even hide their intention to use the pen to protect friends and to take on others they doesn’t like. Or those who wouldn’t cooperate over the years. How else to explain Jenkins never touching the issue in all the words he’s spilled on Palmer but lambasting, with unabashed glee, Tiger for similar transgressions?

I came across an interview Michael Bamberger gave to NPR a day or two after Arnold passed. It entirely uninteresting, until Bamberger responded to a throw away line from the host at the end.

“And what else is there to say about the life of this genuinely happy man?”

“Happy? “Arnold was not happy. He had a deep darkness, emanating from some of his notable failures on the course, that he carried with him to the end.”

Now this isn’t entirely news to those paying close attention, but never had I heard it in such stark terms. And one wonders where this theme was in the 1,500 words Bamberger had just written for Sports Illustrated. Bamberger, and everyone else who did know Arnold in the way that Boswell claims is necessary to write on a subject, didn’t just bury the lead. The ignored it.

Why?

Professional self preservation, I presume. How else to explain why it took Richard Ben Cramer, a man who didn’t make a living on sports, to finally explain DiMaggio. And someone like Mark Kram, on the eve of checking out of the game entirely, to put out the only honest profile on Ali. Something, it should be noted, that even Gary Smith, while still in the employ of the machine, hadn’t been able to do.

What this all proves is that Boswell’s throw away in the chat was 180 degrees off. Outsiders, particularly those disconnected from the subject at hand, are always the most insightful.

So, if you care at all about the people playing these games, discard the traditional fare and look for a detective. Best, an underground one.

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Everything would be his…

Most call it his best book, a few even the best on golf, but it still took me about 25 years to find Dan Jenkins’s The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate. What an odd title, I never could quite make it out, and the fact that it was based on a Bobby Jones quote only further muddled the plot. I guess I assumed the book, if not the quote, was about a bunch of half-drunk Texans betting their mortgages on who could clear the local saloon with a one-iron.

And, of course, there is a section in there on that.

But the book, it turns out, is really nothing more than a reiteration of the same stories Jenkins has been telling for 50 years now, a compilation of his best, pre-1970, hits.

Regardless, it’s still worth reading, if only for the last 4 or 5 pages. He ends by describing the final afternoon of the 1960 US Open, a story I’ve read so many times I could tell it verbatim, and the sole tale Jenkins uses in the eulogy he published immediately after the death of Arnold Palmer.

Somehow though the version Jenkins recounts in Dogged is far and away the best, and in less than 500 words he better explains the man than any of the other tomes written about him.

Now I’m not going to waste time setting up that particular Open. If you don’t know about the pre-round banter in the grill room, Arnold subsequently driving the first green, the front nine 30, Hogan rinsing a wedge on 17, and a pudgy 20-year-old amateur named Jack something or other 3-putting away the championship, well, you know now.

Two things come across in the account in Dogged of that day.

First, you can stuff your Masters revisionism in a sack. The King was crowned on that front nine outside Denver, and defined, later, by his losses at Oakmont and Olympic. Arnold Palmer probably played more than a thousand tournaments, but only 3 or 4, all United States Open Championships, really mattered. And 1960 mattered most. Sometime late on that back nine out West, far from a certain course on the Georgia – South Carolina border, Jenkins recognized: Everything would be his now.

This point is muffed by most of the obits floating around, with many continuing to propel the myth that a limited invitation-only event, on a wholly unnatural made-for-TV course, held a couple of months too early in the season is an arbiter of anything.

More interestingly, in Dogged you learn what drove Arnold Palmer on the golf course. Late that afternoon the man had all but ascended Everest — similar to Tiger at, yes, Augusta in 1997. The world was about to be handed to him, he was about to recognize his life’s dream, and yet he remained fixated on an ultimately irrelevant putt that lipped out and cost him a 29 on the front nine.

And this is the crux of being a fan. The human beings in the arena are infinitely more interesting than the results of these silly events. Does anyone with any depth really care how Arnold, or anyone else for that matter, got or gets the clubface back to square? The carnival barkers on the Golf Channel, apparently, but they can stuff their fatwas on Tiger’s swing in a sack too.

Lee Trevino said he would have bet his mortgage there wasn’t a soul with greater love for the game than his own, until he got to know Arnold Palmer. Jack confirms this, sadly observing that Arnold became a bit lost, a few years ago, after his body finally gave way and golf, of any kind, fell out of reach.

Michael Bamberger, recovering from a misguided, or perhaps obligatory, Masters genuflection in Sports Illustrated’s Arnold obit, gets to the heart of the matter by recounting a tale of the once great man, well past his prime, shaking his putter with glee after a birdie brought him back into a friendly match with a 15 handicapper.

Now, the rank-and-file professional golfer, even those that make it to the top of the game, hang on to the bitter end. The senior tour, the corporate circuit, and the very nature of golf, make this possible in a way that’s out of reach for any other athlete.

There’s a different dynamic at play though for the best of the best. Their biographies are remarkably consistent, and they all end the same. The alpha loses a step, then another. And, the thought of being proven diminished is too heavy a burden. The clubs are hung up. When you were number 1, number 30 is an embarrassment. Heck, number 2 is. Jack liked to say that he had no interest in becoming a “ceremonial golfer.” The lure of the dollar might be the only thing that keeps Tiger from all but joining Mickey Wright in seclusion.

Not Arnold. He didn’t care if he was shooting 60 or 80. He was just trying to hit the ball on the center of the club and ram home a birdie.

Well, that’s the myth anyway. And even if there are less appealing sides to Arnold, as there are to any human being, there is no reason to think it doesn’t approximate the truth.