George Plimpton

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Author George Plimpton, front left, and J.W. Gallivan, Jr., a Rober

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  • George Plimpton seemed to have lost the will to live soon after I interviewed him in 2003. Two weeks later he was dead. It was unintentional, I swear.
  • The best part of Plimpton’s journalism, from being an embed Bedouin on the set of Lawrence of Arabia to playing quarterback in a preseason game for the Detroit Lions, was that he realized the business sometimes served an important purpose, but the vast majority of it was a lark to have fun in between visits from the Time Inc. drink cart. I cant say I approve of his mixing fiction into his fact, but the lust for life was admirable. Perhaps being in close proximity to Robert F. Kennedy as he was assassinated–he helped wrest the gun from Sirhan Sirhan’s hand–gave him perspective that life and death is life and death, and everything else is not.
  • Plimpton began writing for Sports Illustrated in the 1950s, one of the young literary lights recruited by editor Sid James to write for his publication in that era. Plimpton thrived, with the magazine nurturing his flair for participatory journalism. One who did less well was Kurt Vonnegut, whose first assignment was to write a full-length article about a spooked racehorse that jumped over a fence. Before grabbing his coat and exiting the offices to never return, he typed these words: “The horse jumped over the fucking fence.”
  • I’m sure there was some great national prank after Plimpton’s Sidd Finch story on April Fools Day in 1985, but that was one of the last hurrahs of the pre-Information Age, a story that would unravel now on Twitter in minutes. We still get fooled a lot, but by nothing nearly so wonderful. 

In a New York Review of Books piece about Plimpton’s sports journalism, Nathaniel Rich acknowledges that sometimes the writer dropped the ball, as he did in underplaying that racial hatred directed at Henry Aaron as the Atlanta slugger closed in on Babe Ruth’s home-run record, but his close proximity to the game often allowed him to digest small details about the games, including points about class, something not every patrician would appreciate. An excerpt:

Sports memoirs, like humor collections, rarely outlive their authors, but Plimpton’s books have aged gracefully and even matured. Today they have the additional (and unintended) appeal of vivid history, bearing witness to a mythical era that, as Rick Reilly writes in his foreword to The Bogey Man, “historians classify as ‘Before Insurance Lawyers Ruined Everything.’” (Journalists might classify it as Before Fact-Checkers Ruined Everything.) Plimpton writes about baseball locker rooms “heavy with cigarette and cigar smoke,” star players humbled by their off-season jobs (Pro-Bowler Alex Karras fills jelly doughnuts), and teams that cheat by positioning a spy with binoculars on a roof near the opponent’s practice field. He is able to convince major league All-Stars to take part in his scheme by offering, to the players on the team that gets the most hits off him, a reward of $125, the equivalent today of about $1,000. (By comparison, the Detroit Tigers’ slugger Miguel Cabrera earned $19,000 per inning this season.) It was also an age in which the press was powerful enough to convince professional teams to grant full, unfettered access to a journalist. Today a writer for a major national magazine is lucky to be allowed more than one hour with the subject of a cover article. Plimpton spent a full month living in a dormitory with the Lions.

As enjoyable as it is to read about Plimpton being treated roughly by professional gladiators in front of large crowds, the participatory approach also has its journalistic benefits. He understood that within every professional athlete is an amateur who, through some combination of born talent and luck, is surprised to find himself elevated to divine status. As a writer who, after the success of Paper Lion, was a bigger celebrity than most of his subjects, Plimpton had a special sensitivity to the hidden vulnerabilities of giants.

The weigh-in ceremony before Cassius Clay’s first championship fight against Sonny Liston is best remembered for Clay’s rumbling taunts, but Plimpton notes that Clay’s pulse was taken at 180; the doctor concluded that he was “scared to death.” We learn that Roger Maris, after the stress of breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, changed his batting style the following year to avoid reliving the experience. Plimpton devotes a chapter in One for the Record to the pitchers who allowed the most famous home runs in baseball history. Ralph Branca tells him that, after yielding “The Shot Heard Round the World,” he left the Polo Grounds to find his sobbing fiancée waiting for him in the parking lot with a priest. Branca’s second career, Plimpton notes, was in life insurance.•

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Literature will be around as long as people are, but the particular literary world which George Plimpton and John Gregory Dunne inhabited has been disrupted, permanently. It wasn’t necessarily greater, but it was great. In a 1996 Paris Review interview, the former queried the latter about writing. The opening:

George Plimpton:

Your work is populated with the most extraordinary grotesqueries—nutty nuns, midgets, whores of the most breathtaking abilities and appetites. Do you know all these characters?

John Gregory Dunne:

Certainly I knew the nuns. You couldn’t go to a parochial school in the 1940s and not know them. They were like concentration-camp guards. They all seemed to have rulers and they hit you across the knuckles with them. The joke at St. Joseph’s Cathedral School in Hartford, Connecticut, where I grew up, was that the nuns would hit you until you bled and then hit you for bleeding. Having said that, I should also say they were great teachers. As a matter of fact, the best of my formal education came from the nuns at St. Joseph’s and from the monks at Portsmouth Priory, a Benedictine boarding school in Rhode Island where I spent my junior and senior years of high school. The nuns taught me basic reading, writing, and arithmetic; the monks taught me how to think, how to question, even to question Catholicism in order to better understand it. The nuns and the monks were far more valuable to me than my four years at Princeton. I’m not a practicing Catholic, but one thing you never lose from a Catholic education is a sense of sin and the conviction that the taint on the human condition is the natural order.

George Plimpton:

What about the whores and midgets?

John Gregory Dunne:

I suppose for that I would have to go to my informal education. I spent two years as an enlisted man in the army in Germany after the Korean War, and those two years were the most important learning experience I really ever had. I was just a tight-assed upper-middle-class kid, the son of a surgeon, and I had this sense of Ivy League entitlement, and all that was knocked out of me in the army. Princeton boys didn’t meet the white and black underclass that you meet as an enlisted draftee. It was a constituency of the dispossessed—high-school dropouts, petty criminals, rednecks, racists, gamblers, you name it—and I fit right in. I grew to hate the officer class that was my natural constituency. A Princeton classmate was an officer on my post and he told me I was to salute him and call him sir, as if I had to be reminded, and also that he would discourage any outward signs that we knew each other. I hate that son of a bitch to this day. I took care of him in Harp. Those two years in Germany gave me a subject I suppose I’ve been mining for the past God-knows-how-many years. It fit nicely with that Catholic sense of sin, the taint on the human condition. And it was in the army that I learned to appreciate whores. You didn’t meet many Vassar girls when you were serving in a gun battery on the Czech border and were in a constant state of alert in case the Red Army came rolling across the frontier. As for midgets, they’re part of that constituency of the dispossessed.

George Plimpton:

You once said you only had one character. Is that true?

John Gregory Dunne:

I’ve always thought a novelist only has one character and that is himself or herself. In my case, me.•

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Placing an image from a commercial for Pele’s Soccer Atari video game in a post yesterday reminded of the gag game, George Plimpton’s Video Falconry, a faux ColecoVision cartridge that was hatched in the wonderfully odd mind of John Hodgman a few years ago. What makes the joke so special is that while it’s a ridiculous concept, it feels like it could be real because it plays on truths of both Plimpton (who was a wonderfully wooden Intellivision pitchman) and ’80s gaming (which wasn’t directed only by market research but by hunches, sometimes awful hunches). You have to be of a certain age and culture to get it, but if you are, it may be the most brilliantly specific joke ever. 

It was all over the web in 2011, so many of you are probably familiar with Tom Fulp’s realization of Hodgman’s joke, but have a look at this video in case you missed it or want to relive it.

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In honor of the NHL playoffs, here’s a 1985 clip of amateur netminder George Plimpton trying to turn aside the shots of Hall of Famer Bobby Orr.

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Three decades before Siri was able to respond to verbal cues and answer complex questions, just hearing a computer voice seemed impressive. George Plimpton for Intellivoice, 1982.

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I interviewed George Plimpton shortly before his death, though I accept no blame for his demise. In 1966, the journalist, editor, party maven and prankster scored one of his greatest successes with Paper Lion, a sports book about trying out for third-string quarterback for the Detroit Lions. The other players weren’t in on the lark, though they soon came to realize the 36-year-old rookie was better at throwing back martinis than throwing tight spirals. The book grew out of “Zero of the Lions,” the author’s famous 1964 Sports Illustrated article. An excerpt from that piece:

“I looked for my helmet, relieved to see it lying in the grass a few yards away. My impulse was to put it on. From the beginning I’d had trouble getting into the helmet. The procedure was to stick the thumbs in the helmet’s ear holes and stretch the helmet out as it came down over the head—a matter of lateral pull, and easy enough if you practiced isometrics, but I never had the strength to get my ears quite clear, so they were bent double inside the helmet once it was on. I would work a finger up inside to get the cars upright again, a painful procedure, and noisy, the sounds sharp in the confines of the hard shell of the helmet as I twisted and murmured until it was done, the ears ringing softly. Then quiet would settle in the helmet, and I would look out beyond the bars of the nose guard—the ‘cage,’ the players call it—to see what was going on outside, my eyes still watering slightly. It was even more difficult to get the helmet off. The first helmet Friday Macklem had given me was too small—a helmet is supposed to fit snugly to afford the best protection—and when I tried it on in front of my locker I yelled as it came down over my ears. Wayne Walker, the big linebacker, happened to be chatting with me at the time.

‘How’d she feel?’

‘Feels fine. Snug,’ I said. ‘Once you get the thing on.’

I tried to take it off. I got my thumbs in the ear holes and tried to budge the helmet loose.

‘I’m stuck in here,’ I said, simply.

Walker began to grin. He looked down the locker room aisle for other players who would have enjoyed the dilemma. Mercifully, none were on hand.

‘Damn!’ I said. ‘I can’t budge this thing.'”

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Plimpton parlayed his Paper Lion success into Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser ads:

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"The fact is, they know very little about him. He has had no baseball career." (Image by "Sports Illustrated.")

As April Fools’ Day and baseball season approach, it’s time to look back at one of the greatest pranks ever pulled, a George Plimpton article in Sports Illustrated entitled “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch,” which was published on April 1, 1985. The piece, about a newly discovered, larger-than-life baseball player who could supposedly throw a fastball 168 miles per hour, was presented as fact by the mag and fooled people across the nation for several days. Outside of War of the Worlds, it may be the best large-scale hoax in American history.

And it’s unlikely to be surpassed. You see some person or another tricked occasionally on April Fools’ Day now, but a mass prank that permeates through the culture over the course of a week is only really possible in a world where communication is limited, information imperfect and a sense of wonder prevalent. The information explosion has passed April Fools’ Day into obsolescence. In our time, it’s much easier to be shocked by truths than tricks. An excerpt from the article:

“The phenomenon the three young batters faced, and about whom only Reynolds, Stottlemyre and a few members of the Mets’ front office know, is a 28-year-old, somewhat eccentric mystic named Hayden (Sidd) Finch. He may well change the course of baseball history. On St. Patrick’s Day, to make sure they were not all victims of a crazy hallucination, the Mets brought in a radar gun to measure the speed of Finch’s fastball. The model used was a JUGS Supergun II. It looks like a black space gun with a big snout, weighs about five pounds and is usually pointed at the pitcher from behind the catcher. A glass plate in the back of the gun shows the pitch’s velocity — accurate, so the manufacturer claims, to within plus or minus 1 mph. The figure at the top of the gauge is 200 mph. The fastest projectile ever measured by the JUGS (which is named after the oldtimer’s descriptive — the ‘jug-handled’curveball) was a Roscoe Tanner serve that registered 153 mph. The highest number that the JUGS had ever turned for a baseball was 103 mph, which it did, curiously, twice on one day, July 11, at the 1978 All-Star game when both Goose Gossage and Nolan Ryan threw the ball at that speed. On March 17, the gun was handled by Stottlemyre. He heard the pop of the ball in Reynolds’s mitt and the little squeak of pain from the catcher. Then the astonishing figure 168 appeared on the glass plate. Stottlemyre remembers whistling in amazement, and then he heard Reynolds say, ‘Don’t tell me, Mel, I don’t want to know. . . ‘

The Met front office is reluctant to talk about Finch. The fact is, they know very little about him. He has had no baseball career. Most of his life has been spent abroad, except for a short period at Harvard University.”

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Like a lot of people who move to New York to reinvent themselves, Jerzy Kosinksi was a tangle of fact and fiction that couldn’t easily be unknotted. He was lauded and reviled, labeled as brilliant and a plagiarist, called fascinating and a fraud. The truth, as usual, probably lies somewhere in between. Kosinski was a regular on talk shows, at book parties and at Plato’s Retreat. He acted in Reds and posed for magazine covers. But he was too haunted to be a bon vivant, and in 1991, the author committed suicide.

Kosinski did an interview with The Paris Review in 1972. He opined about what he felt was the ever-dwindling importance of written and verbal language. He was very concerned by how much people liked to watch. Since his death, the Internet has supplanted TV as the premium medium, allowing people to write and publish more words than ever before, though that hasn’t really halted our drift deeper into pictures.

An excerpt:

Question:

Since you often teach English, what is your feeling about the future of the written word?

Jerzy Kosinski

I think its place has always been at the edge of popular culture. Indeed, it is the proper place for it. Reading novels–serious novels, anyhow–is an experience limited to a very small percentage of the so-called enlightened public. Increasingly, it’s going to be a pursuit for those who seek unusual experiences, moral fetishists perhaps, people of heightened imagination, the troubled pursuers of the enlightened self.

Question:

Why such a limited audience?

Jerzy Kosinski:

Today, people are absorbed in the most common denominator, the visual. It requires no education to watch TV. It knows no age limit. Your infant child can watch the same program you do. Witness its role in the homes of the old and incurably sick. Television is everywhere. It has the immediacy which the evocative medium of language doesn’t. Language requires some inner triggering; television doesn’t. The image is ultimately accessible, i.e., extremely attractive. And, I think, ultimately deadly, because it tuns the viewer into a bystander. 

Of course, that’s a situation we have always dreamt of . . . the ultimate hope of religion was that it would release us from trauma. Television actually does so. It “proves” that you can always be an observer of the tragedies of others. The fact that one day you will die in front of the live show is irrelevant—you are reminded about it no more than you are reminded about real weather existing outside the TV weather program. You’re not told to open your window and take a look; television will never say that. It says, instead, “The weather today is . . .” and so forth. The weatherman never says, “If you don’t believe me, go find out.”

From way back, our major development as a race of frightened beings has been toward how to avoid facing the discomfort of our existence, primarily the possibility of an accident, immediate death, ugliness, and the ultimate departure. In terms of all this, television is a very pleasing medium: one is always the observer. The life of discomfort is always accorded to others, and even this is disqualified, since one program immediately disqualifies the preceding one. Literature does not have this ability to soothe. You have to evoke, and by evoking, you yourself have to provide your own inner setting. When you read about a man who dies, part of you dies with him because you have to recreate his dying inside your head.

Question:

That doesn’t happen with the visual?

Jerzy Kosinski:

No, because he dies on the screen in front of you, and at any time you can turn it off or select another program. The evocative power is torpedoed by the fact that this is another man; your eye somehow perceives him as a visual object. Thus, of course, television is my ultimate enemy and it will push reading matter—including The Paris Review—to the extreme margin of human experience.•

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Samuel Beckett had nearly died in 1938 when he was stabbed in the chest by a pimp.

I gleaned a copy of a 1997 issue of the Paris Review this morning from the stoop of a neighbor’s brownstone. It was in a box of free stuff. This issue had a theater theme. George Plimpton was still the editor at this point. I interviewed Plimpton a month or so before his death in 2003 and he could still get excited recalling being an extra in Lawrence of Arabia. I like to think my questions in no way contributed to his demise.

This edition has Israel Horovitz‘s remembrance of the final days of that baffling genius Samuel Beckett, who passed away in 1989. An excerpt:

“When I saw Sam last, some months ago, he had grown as frail as old paper.

He was living in a room in an old people’s home in the rue Remy-Dumonce, a few doors from his (holistic) doctor’s house. I was stunned to realize that Beckett was now living like a character of his creation. To reach Beckett’s room one had to pass through something called ‘the recreation room.’ Two dozen elderly French sat in a row like sparrows on a telephone wire, watching an obnoxious song-and-dance man via an outdated black-and-white television set. I broke into a shared reverie and asked where Beckett could be found. Nobody seemed to know him. I found the home’s office. I was directed to a small courtyard to the rear of the block, where I saw a tiny ground-floor room with window blinds partly drawn. Beckett was inside, dressed in a tattered old robe, working with pen and ink at a bridge table.

This edition cost $10 unless you found it while sifting through the trash like a bum.

I stopped and stared for a while. for some reason remembering Beckett’s shock, twenty-two years before, that I didn’t know Yeats’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium.’ Before I left the table that night, yeats’ poem had passed from Mr. Beckett’s memory to my memory, along with Sam’s small, scholarly note of caution: ‘I don’t totally approve of the  Soul Clap Its Hands part!’

Samuel Beckett’s final room was seedy, small, sad: a bed, a bedside table, bridge table and a matching chair, a television set ‘for sporting events.’ It was prisonlike, pathetic. My initial impulse was to pick him up and run, carrying him out, away, to some time past. It’s taken me nearly a year to let it go, to accept that it was his choice.”

More Gleanings:

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Beautiful Isabella checks out a ripe gourd with dad.

Stunt journalism didn’t always have a bad name, not when George Plimpton was trying to quarterback an NFL team or become an extra in a David Lean epic. But over the last decade it’s become an increasingly high-concept field concerned more with sales pitches than truly interesting experiences.

Manhattan writer Colin Beavan entered this dubious landscape when he decided to turn a year-long experiment in extreme eco-consciousness into a blog, a book and ultimately this movie (directed by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein). Beaven, wife Michelle Conlin (a Businessweek journalist) and their two-year-old daughter spent a year without TV, motorized transportation, electricity, air conditioning, elevators and many other modern conveniences that damage the environment. Beaven gets his book deal and plenty of attention (much of it negative), but at least in the film version the focus isn’t on being green but on the dynamics of his marriage.

Beavan is keenly aware what is happening when he tells his wife he thinks discussing their private lives on camera will turn the film into a reality-show spectacle. But spectacle is all they really have. As the initially reluctant Conlin begins to warm to the austerity of her passive-aggressive husband’s scheme, you have to wonder if it’s marital love driving her or the Stockholm syndrome.

Beavan and Conlin aren’t bad people who should be made sport of because they went without toilet paper for awhile. But it’s difficult to take much of this carefully calibrated publicity stunt very seriously.

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