The Plimpton Issue

by | Mar 25, 2014 | Creative Nonfiction

Terwilliger Bunts, Culture Slides, and Papa Is Safe at the Plate

I like cosmic connections in the literary world and I like it even better when they involve fellow New Jersey writers and shared passions. So when I stumbled upon The Millions essay, “End Zones: On Football, Sports Scandals, and Don DeLillo” by Nick Ripatrazone, it motivated me to talk to Atticus Review editor-in-chief Joe Gross about publishing a special “Sports Lit” issue.

Joe was on board without hesitation because he’s that kind of heavenly Dude and I immediately began referring to our project as “The Plimpton Issue,” in deference to George Plimpton whose influence, even just on a subconscious level, has helped me shape this Atticus House of Quirk.

For the green and uninitiated, Plimpton is one of the founding editors of The Paris Review, an iconic literary journal. But the greater impact that old Georgie has had on me is his self-deprecating humor and enormous appetite for sports. Look no further than the persona he invented as a sports journalist participating in pro sports and then writing about it from an amateur athlete’s perspective. (See his books, Paper Lion and Open Net, as examples.)

I envied Plimpton in the late 1980s, not because he was famous, but because he appeared to be living my and many a sportswriter’s dream. He covered the sports circuit, competed against modern-day gladiators, and earned critical and commercial acclaim for his adventures as the “participant observer.” This was no ordinary feat.

Plimpton’s 1987 novel, The Curious Case of Sidd Finch, remains a literary anomaly from that period, if only for its capacity to launch and extend a gag to new heights. The book piggybacked on the success of Plimpton’s famous April Fools’ Day 1985 article in Sports Illustrated.

In the SI hoax, Plimpton had invented a New York Mets baseball phenom who could throw over 160 miles per hour—and many Mets enthusiasts fell hard for the prank. Plimpton’s creation of this fictitious pitcher was so convincing—and the article presentation, complete with photos and endorsements from talent scouts, so seemingly authentic—that people believed Sidd Finch was real.

What made hardboiled New Yorkers think that a 168-mph pitch was humanly possible? What made them swallow the story of an enlightened Buddhist rookie raised in an English orphanage who had learned yoga in Tibet, wore only one shoe (a heavy hiker’s boot) when pitching, and was purportedly deciding between a career in sports or one playing the French horn?

You might say that Mets fans were so hungry to win another pennant, so desperate to again believe in miracles (à la Casey Stengel’s teachings in 1969), so tired of being disappointed by reality…that they could happily fall for anything…even a prospect who allegedly had never played baseball, but could hurl a fastball at an unheard-of 168 mph (far above the record of 103) with pinpoint accuracy and no need to warm up.

Come on! You pull a whopper like that over street-smart, notoriously skeptical New Yorkers? Over a legendary citizenry of con men like George C. Parker who took pride in selling the Brooklyn Bridge to naïve tourists? How could astute readers and fans of the game suddenly become so gullible?

I’ll tell you how.

The power of imagination. The power of fiction. The power of stupendous narrative.

And yeah, I guess it’s true: some knuckleheads will fall for anything, especially if they see it in print.

***

Sports were the common denominator in my household. My dad watched them and my brothers played them. It only made sense that I, the baby son, would do the same. When you’re seeking the approval of others, you mimic their actions and comply with expectations. I mimicked and I complied.

I may not have been as short as Owen Meany, but my height was definitely not helpful. Thankfully, my small town failed to produce many tall kids in the ’70s—something in the water, we used to joke—so I competed against a small crop of athletes, both in stature and in numbers.

I was an introspective geek in a stocky, unorthodox body. I was clumsily effective on the field. I had good instincts as a baseball player and took pleasure in the physical contact of football. I loved hitting (one-on-one tackling drills were my favorite) and I wasn’t afraid of being hit. I may not have made it look pretty, but I compensated for my lack of grace with a scrapper attitude.

At some point in a close-knit suburban childhood, I think you become the person everyone thinks you’re meant to become. I became one of the community’s athletes. Not a dumb jock, but a preoccupied kid who spent a lot of time competing in sports, while doing everything he could to escape the scary, mind-boggling, authoritative artifice and constraints of the outside world.

Baseball and football were my great escape from the Nixon era through the Reagan years. Both sports essentially hijacked my childhood, but I have few regrets. Being a part of team sports taught me the meaning of self-sacrifice and camaraderie. That may sound like a line of hooey from a military recruitment brochure, but when you’ve recklessly laid out your body to block a defensive end or cut down an oversized linebacker so that your teammate could gain a few extra yards and perhaps break one for a score, you learn to toe the line and appreciate teamwork.

I used to have night terrors that my mom insisted were a result of being what she called the “star” of my Little League baseball team. My dad, brother and cousin all coached the team and they leaned on me too much, she thought.

My mom’s usually right, but I doubt that the pressure to strike out as many batters as possible was the reason for my bad dreams. They more likely were just a manifestation of an overactive imagination.

Encouraging our kids to read is one thing. Letting your kid read Stephen King at a tender age is another. Just kidding, Mom! I didn’t read Firestarter until freshman year in high school. It may have been Tolkien who freaked me out in the second grade. Who knows?

***

“It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.” – Paul Gallico

In a world of literary idols and sports heroes, I’ve always felt a bit like a half-breed Klingon, not exactly sure how and where I fit.

Even as sports monopolized my youth, I consumed literature from a very young age. I read whatever was lying around the house. Alas, it consisted mostly of antiseptic Reader’s Digest and TV Guide editions and newspapers including that tabloid of ill repute, the New York Daily News.

The Daily News always has been a rag filled with sensationalism and celebrity gossip, but it also has one thing going for it. It has an outstanding, award-winning sports section.

I used to love reading NYC sports columnist Dick Young. Young’s abrasive, in-your-face style made him a groundbreaking journalist in the 1970s and ’80s, cut from the same cloth as Jimmy Cannon, Damon Runyon, and Red Smith of the New York Times.

Smith was no slouch, either. He was the first sportswriter to receive a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. Legend has it that when asked by a colleague if turning out a daily column was a chore, Smith replied, “Why, no. You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

Hmm. That sounds awfully familiar. Did Smith steal from Ernest Hemingway? People typically credit Papa with: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Or did Smith and Hemingway both borrow the sentiment from their contemporary Paul Gallico?

In 1946, Gallico wrote: “It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.”

So who misquoted or improperly credited whom? Does it matter?

It seems reasonable for the reader to reconcile these worlds of literary writers and sports journalists—they are conjoined at the hip and intersect more often than we think.

Don DeLillo, arguably one of today’s finest novelists, defines his subject matter as “the inner life of the culture.”

What is sports if not the inner life of our culture?

Ring Lardner certainly made sportswriting and our nation’s pastime the centerpiece of his fiction, in part through his biting satires of a game that lost its innocence and his respect after the Black Sox Scandal. It could be said that Shoeless Joe Jackson got the short end of the stick when his good name was forever marred by the scandal. An interview with Joe Anders, who was close friends with Jackson from the late 1930s until his death in 1951, may have shown people the true picture of Shoeless Joe’s nature.

No matter which side of the fence they’re on, writers have long used the subject of sports to discover truth and integrity while also exposing the cheats and scoundrels amid the legends. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pages of literature, don’t lie. Sport is rich terrain for fiction. Just ask Plimpton, Bernard Malamud, Mark Harris, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, Roger Kahn, Marianne Moore, Roger Angell, Gay Talese…the list goes on and on.

Novelist, poet and nature writer Annie Dillard illustrates the cultural intersection in her memoir, An American Childhood.

Baseball: A Literary Anthology excerpted a small, humorous passage from Dillard’s book because it captured one nuance of the game (its jargon) with the catchphrase, “Terwilliger bunts one.”

Editor Nicholas Dawidoff quipped that Dillard’s “home-brewed etymology” would have pleased H.L. Mencken who mused in his book, The American Language, that “the history of baseball terms also deserves to be investigated.”

“Terwilliger bunts one.”

Huh. Who woulda thunk it? How perfectly poetic.
Photo: William M. Vander Weyde (1871-1929)

About The Author

Dan Cafaro

Dan Cafaro is the founder and publisher of Atticus Books, a small press based in Madison, N.J. When Dan is not following his wife around the country, he is known to sit for long periods of time pondering how to live off the grid. Atticus Review is his first literary journal.