“Even a guy who commits murder gets pardoned after 20 years…”

Ralph Branca died and my first thought was of a Frenchman.

But we’ll get back to that.

So a 25-year-old Ralph Branca, wearing a dusty white and blue uniform, threw a pitch up in Harlem on a cloudy day in early October in front of a half empty ballpark. One of, let’s say, 100,000 baseballs he threw toward a plate in his life. (No, I’m not doing the math to ballpark this.)

While we’re at it, how long does it take a ball traveling 88 mph to go 60 feet 6 inches? Half a second? (I’m not doing the math here either.)

Half a second, the batter connects, and 4 or so seconds later… your life begins.

And effectively ends.

What is it like to live another 65 years unable to escape a half second? This is not a new question. Larry King and his Brooklyn cohorts have been debating it publicly for, well, 65 years.

But lest we forget, this half second took place during a game. A pastime, actually, which Webster calls,“something that serves to make the time pass agreeably.” We’re not talking about a split-second decision on the beaches of Normandy here.

The optimist, the American, has a quick rejoinder to all of this. That half second granted Branca, the 15th of 17 children, access to the world. He was feted on TV and radio and the guest of honor in perpetuity among a certain demographic of NY society. For 65 years, he could attend any sporting event in the greater NY area and would immediately be recognized and treated as royalty.

Indeed, that half second granted Branca an audience with multiple Presidents. The Emperor of Japan likely knew his name.

The American too, preternaturally sunny, would emphasize the graciousness with which Mr. Branca handled this absurdity. For sure, every one of his obituaries did. The always pleasant disposition. His long and enduring friendship with the perpetrator of his misfortune, the Scottish highlander, Bobby Thomson. Never bitter, the very definition of grace. Branca understood, intuitively, that the moment wasn’t even his. It was the city’s, the country’s. He’d blanche at describing any of it, the pitch or its aftermath, as an “absurdity.” Indeed, this is the very tact DeLillo takes, if I’m recalling that 900 page monstrosity of his correctly.

Of course, I am not, and have never been, an optimist. I’m not sure I’m even an American. So I see it differently.

***********************************************************************

Decades ago, one of the golf publications printed an interview with Gerald Ford, at the time safely ensconced in Palms Springs, enjoying the fruits of a hard-earned life. Ford’s life was now about golf, sun, and friends, and he carried himself with the dignity of an ex-President, steeled by the knowledge that he had led the country through a difficult period, even if his triumph was too opaque, and controversial, to be fully appreciated by the masses. Ford, like Branca, took the arrows well. Ford, like Branca, was a prisoner of circumstance. And Ford, like Branca, accepted his fate with grace.

But the interview ended on a discordant note, upended by a solitary throwaway comment from a friend, a secret service officer, or some other acquaintance of sorts at the end of the story.

“Sure, he takes it well. But you should see the teethmarks on his pipes.”

Unlike Ford, Branca did not need a surrogate to betray his true feelings; toward the end he himself began bearing his teeth, the public narrative be damned. For one thing, there’s the title quote of this post, from Branca, which even if taken out of context and made in jest throws a different light on the public’s Capra-esque view of his life.

Later, the furious tempest over the cheating allegations involving those dastardly Giants, with Branca, in his 80s, changing his tune, impugning Thomson, and expressing, with a strange but sad aggressiveness, the injustice of it all.

Then, the off-the-record comments and whispers after Thomson’s passing that Branca, perhaps understandably, sort of found the guy to be a nuisance after awhile.

Finally, there’s the ultimate indignity of the obituary. All but six of the 35 paragraphs The Washington Post gave Branca focused on that half second. The New York Times took it to another level, spending more time transcribing DeLillo than discussing any other aspect of Branca’s 90 year life.

And a Thanksgiving Day phone call to my 86 year old uncle on the Island? I expected some emotion, but not vitriol. How many others of Branca’s generation responded to his passing this way?

***********************************************************************

So about that Frenchman…

The Golf Channel’s Rich Lerner, after spending the bulk of a recent interview with Jean Van de Velde trying to make the Frenchman’s life following his own half second—it was more like 30 minutes for poor Jean; even while watching live one had the feeling that 72nd hole would never end—more palatable for the American audience, gave up.

Lerner, evidently auditioning for 60 Minutes, in the end tried hectoring Jean into admitting that he not only doesn’t sleep, it’s a small wonder he can function. Lerner, for whatever reason, needed Van de Velde to say that his life, at least the important part, ended on that summer day in Scotland.

Van de Velde—if nothing else, God is an expert casting agent, because no man better looks or speaks the part he’s been fated to play—offered a forced laugh and tried to explain to this much too earnest provincial fellow in front of him that Carnoustie was but a solitary moment in a long and winding life…

Alas, Ralph Branca could have told him. Sometimes a moment is all you’re given.

Advertisements

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.