If you take a quick spin around the Internet today, you can read a bit about an amazing man and writer named Richard Ben Cramer, who died Monday. You can read about his kindness to a good young baseball writer. You can read how his writing affected a similarly wonderful writer named Tom Junod. You can read Alex Belth’s homage which contain only a few of Alex’s words and, fittingly, many more of Richard’s. You can also read a lovely appreciation of the man from one of the last and few to interview him.
I knew Richard — not well, but he was a very important person in my life. He was a hero who became a mentor and a mentor who became a friend. I will not go into details because I don’t think he would want that. It’s just fair to say that I will remember his kindness for the rest of my life.
I do, though, want to talk for a moment about his writing. Unlike most writers, my first true encounter with Richard’s writing was not his seminal Esquire piece on Ted Williams or his unmatched narrative about a presidential election or his Pulitzer Prize winning international reporting for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
|Richard Ben Cramer celebrating his Pultizer Prize in 1979 (AP)|
No, the first piece of Richard’s I read and wondered “Hey, who the heck wrote this?” appeared in Sports Illustrated in 1995. It was called A Native’s Son’s Thoughts. It was about Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games. I can, from memory, almost precisely quote the lead.
“It was a stinkin’ hot night at the ballpark — near 100 degrees, the air is code red — and the Orioles are playing the cellar-dwelling Blue Jays. Still, it’s got to be a big night; It’s Coca-Cola/Burger-King Cal Ripken Fotoball Night. That is, it’s the sort of ersatz event that is a staple of baseball now that payrolls are fat, attendance is slim and the game, well, no one trusts the game to be enough.”
There have been a handful of moments in my life where I have read something and had what you might call a eureka moment, an ineffable thought that might be approximated by this question: “Wow, are you ALLOWED to write like that?” The opening to Catcher In The Rye was that kind of revelation: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” There were others through the years who opened my eyes as a writer, some of them famous writing inspirations — like Tom Wolfe and John Updike and Robert Caro and David Foster Wallace and Dave Barry — and others more personal like my friend Scott Raab.
But none of them turned my head more than Richard Ben Cramer. After I read that piece about Cal Ripken — which includes the magical word “fotobooger” and ends with a seemingly simple story of Ripken signing autographs that gets to the heart of why he mattered so much to people — I had to read everything Richard had ever written. It was only then that I read the Esquire Ted Williams story, which I had heard about and copied but had never really read. Of course, the story was more than great. It was life altering.
Then I read this amazing book about the 1988 Presidental Election, called “What It Takes” — I read all 1,051 pages and I wanted it to last so much longer. I read parts of it again. And again. Every few weeks, even now, I read a section or two. I just pulled down my paperback version of the book, and it’s dogeared and underlined and warped in some weird way. Every page of it courses with ambition and crackles with joy — parentheses everywhere, exclamation points, nicknames, purposeful misspellings, ellipses, star breaks, it’s a big and sprawling Scorsese movie, no, five big sprawling Scorsese movies cut into one.
I was shocked when I learned that there were critics who did not love his writing. I mean that sincerely — shocked. Yes, of course, writing is utterly subjective, and what’s great to some is unreadable to others, but Richard’s writing felt universal to me. How could you not love it? He was hilarious. He was furious. He was, most of all, constantly surprising. I just cracked open “What It Takes”and re-read the opening scene of George H.W. Bush at the Astrodome, throwing out the first pitch, how it is a political mortal lock and how it is also a political disaster in the making, and no matter how many times I read it I find myself slightly unsure how it will end and thrilled when I get to that end.
He laughed when I told him this, by the way — he was talking about critics one time, and I said that I could not imagine him facing much criticism, and he laughed. What It Takes got panned by many. It was too long. The writing was too affected. The characterizations were too naive. “What it Weighs,” one particularly witty critic called it. Stuff like that. Years later, yes, What It Takes is viewed as a groundbreaking and magnificent book, but it was not always like that. The criticism hurt Richard deeply. He told me wistfully that he wished, honestly wished, he had not let it hurt him at all. “It shouldn’t matter,” he said. But he was not the sort of person who could let the criticisms die the unnoticed death they deserved.
Here is a section from Richard’s classic , “Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life,” that I think sums up his writing about as well as any. It is about the famous catch Brooklyn’s Al Gionfriddo made on a long drive by DiMaggio in Game 6 of the 1947 World Series:
DiMaggio smashed a high line drive for the 415 sign, where a low chain link fence walled off the Dodger bullpen from the outfield. You could say he had launched the game-tying homer right at the Dodgers pitchers out there. Here! You boys keep this one for a souvenir! … As DiMaggio rounded first, he could see the outfielder Al Gionfriddo dancing a spirited tarantella — unsure where to run, which way to turn, how to get under the ball. Joe was digging for second base, when Gionfriddo, in an act of God, stumbled under the ball, struck his glove over the wire fence, and — Cazzo! Figlio di putana! — stole the home run away from DiMaggio. Seventy thousand fans in the ballpark and three million watching that miraculous little box saw DiMaggio do what he’d never done before. In frustration — disbelief — he kicked at the dirt in the basepath near second. The sports pages wrote it up like the Pope had pissed on the floor of St. Peter’s.
“The Catch” might not have burned Joe up, if Gionfriddo hadn’t been out of position, clueless in that outfield, and a busher in the first place … but he was, he was, he was. And this was Joe’s ballpark. That was his moment. This Series was his stage. After the game, he didn’t answer questions and told photographers: no pictures. The next day, when one cameraman asked Joe to autograph a picture of that home run theft, DiMaggio snarled him away. “Whyn’cha get the other guy? He made the catch.”
For me, every word is perfectly in place. Every flourish — the Italian curse words, the vehement verbs (walled off the Dodger bullpen, snarled him away, stumbled under the ball) the repetition of “he was,” the story of the photographer — the words lift from the page. This is a rare gift. It was one of Richard’s many gifts as a writer.
There is another thing I remember now about Richard … he would rarely let me turn the conversation toward him. This is a writer trick, I suppose, though most good writers I know are just naturally less interested in their own stories and opinions as they are in hearing others. I’m very much like this … a conversation where the other person finds out more about me than I find out about them seems to me an unsuccessful conversation.
And in Richard’s case, this was doubly true. He was a hero of mine, so I had NO interest in expressing my own thoughts and every interest in hearing him talk about writing and sports and politics and the Middle East and anything else.
And yet, on more than one occasion, a phone call with Richard would end and I would find myself thinking in a horrified way: “Man, he got me to do all the talking.” And I did. He would somehow get me to talk, and he would counter my questions with more thoughtful ones of his own, he would reply with “Actually, I’m interested to hear what you think about that.” Well, what’s there to say? Richard Ben Cramer broke down Bob Dole. Richard broke down Joe Biden. Richard broke down Ted Williams. Seriously, what chance did I have?