Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Some timeless writing from another time.

Yesterday in my meanderings, I happened upon a column by the great New York sports writer, Red Smith.

My old man—Uncle Slappy’s younger brother—for all his failures, short-comings, peccadilloes and foibles, did good for me in a couple of ways. Perhaps most important, he was an inveterate reader of “The New York Times,” and accordingly, he introduced me to many of the great writers of the 20th Century. Forced me to read them, if you must know, like forcing vitamins down a colt’s throat in winter.

We’d be fairly quizzed by my father. “Didja read Red Smith today? Didja read Scottie Reston? Didja read Flora Lewis, Ada Louise Huxtable, Thomas Wicker?” Most of all, my old man fairly swatted me with “The New York Times Book Review,” like a cruel owner a recalcitrant dog. He believed that the Book Review contained the best writing—and the greatest ideas—of just about anything you could buy for a buck.

But at the top of my father’s personal pantheon was Red Smith. Which brings me to today’s post.

Yesterday, as I labored to write more manifestos than you can shake a timesheet at, I remembered this quotation by Smith: “Writing is easy. You just sit at the typewriter, open a vein and bleed.”

That quote led me to an article on Smith and his prowess. In it they noted that Smith had the only journalism included in a famous College Literature anthology. Smith’s column, the one below, was nestled between an essay by Winston Churchill and a story by Dylan Thomas. Good company for a writer.

The column was written after a rising young Rocky Marciano knocked out a fading Joe Louis, 12-years a champ, in the eighth round in the old Madison Square Garden, on the site of Ogilvy’s old HQ.

Here’s the article. Maybe it's the last paragraph that got to me.

In any event, do my old man proud, and give it a read.

"Night for Joe Louis”
by Red Smith

Joe Louis lay on his stomach on a rubbing table with his right ear pillowed on a folded towel, his left hand in a bucket of ice on the floor. A handler massaged his left ear with ice. Joe still wore his old dressing-gown of blue and red—for the first time, one was aware of how the colors had faded—and a raincoat had been spread on top of that.

This was an hour before midnight of October 26, 1951. It was the evening of a day that dawned July 4, 1934, when Joe Louis became a professional fist fighter and knocked out Jack Kracken in Chicago for a fifty-dollar purse. The night was a long time on the way, but it had to come.

Ordinarily, small space is reserved here for sentimentality about professional fighters. For seventeen years, three months, and twenty-two days Louis fought for money. He collected millions. Now the punch that was launched seventeen years ago had landed. A young man, Rocky Marciano, had knocked the old man out. The story was ended. That was all except—

Well, except that this time he was lying down in his dressing-room in the catacombs of Madison Square Garden. Memory retains scores of pictures of Joe in his dressing room, always sitting up, relaxed, answering questions in his slow, thoughtful way. This time only, he was down.

His face was squashed against the padding of the rubbing table, mulling his words. Newspapermen had to kneel on the floor like supplicants in a tight little semicircle and bring their heads close to his lips to hear him. They heard him say that Marciano was a good puncher, that the best man had won, that he wouldn’t know until Monday whether this had been his last fight.

He said he never lost consciousness when Marciano knocked him through the ropes and Ruby Goldstein, the referee, stopped the fight. He said that if he’d fallen in mid-ring he might have got up inside ten seconds, but he doubted that he could have got back through the ropes in time.

They asked whether Marciano punched harder than Max Schmeling did fifteen years ago, on the only other night when Louis was stopped.

“This kid,” Joe said, “knocked me out with what? Two punches. Schmeling knocked me out with—musta been a hunderd [sic] punches. But,” Joe said, “I was twenty-two years old. You can take more then than later on.”

“Did age count tonight, Joe?”

Joe’s eyes got sleepy. “Ugh,” he said, and bobbed his head.

The fight mob was filling the room. “How did you feel tonight?” Ezzard Charles was asked. Joe Louis was the hero of Charles’ boyhood. Ezzard never wanted to fight Joe, but finally he did and won. Then and thereafter Louis became just another opponent who sometimes disparaged Charles as a champion.

“Uh,” Charles said, hesitating. “Good fight.”

“You didn’t feel sorry, Ezzard?”

“No,” he said, with a kind of apologetic smile that explained this was just a prize fight in which one man knocked out an opponent.

“How did you feel?” Ray Arcel was asked. For years and years Arcel trained opponents for Joe and tried to help them whip him, and in a decade and a half he dug tons of inert meat out of the resin.

“I felt very bad,” Ray said.

It wasn’t necessary to ask how Marciano felt. He is young and strong and undefeated. He is rather clumsy and probably always will be, because he has had the finest of teachers, Charley Goldman, and Charley hasn’t been able to teach him skill. But he can punch. He can take a punch. It is difficult to see how he can be stopped this side of the heavyweight championship.

It is easy to say, and it will be said, that it wouldn’t have been like this with the Louis of ten years ago. It isn’t a surpassingly bright thing to say, though, because this isn’t ten years ago. The Joe Louis of October 26, 1951, couldn’t whip Rocky Marciano, and that’s the only Joe Louis there was in the Garden.

That one was going to lose on points in a dreary fight that would have left everything at loose ends. It would have been a clear victory for Marciano, but not conclusive. Joe might not have been convinced.

Then Rocky hit Joe a left hook and knocked him down. Then Rocky hit him another hook and knocked him out. A right to the neck followed that knocked him out of the ring. And out of the fight business. The last wasn’t necessary, but it was neat. It wrapped the package, neat and tidy.

An old man’s dream ended. A young man’s vision of the future opened wide. Young men have visions, old men have dreams. But the place for old men to dream is beside the fire.

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