The Willie Mays Hall of Fame (Redux)

The best player in baseball history turns 90 today, Willie Mays, the Say Hey Kid, the player who blended speed and power and joy and poetry and enthusiasm like no one else. A few years ago — well, wow, it’s probably a decade ago now — I wrote something I called “The Willie Mays Hall of Fame.” People still mention it to me pretty often. So in honor of the man and his 90th birthday, I thought it might be a good idea to update and rerun it here today.

Happy birthday, Say Hey Kid.


I cannot tell you how many times in my life I have received an email or text or tweet or actual conversation starter that goes something like: "Willie Mays -- now THAT is a Hall of Famer.”

This usually follows when I make a pitch for someone — say, Luis Tiant or Minnie Miñoso or Lou Whitaker or Dwight Evans or Dan Quisenberry or any number of others — to be considered for the Hall of Fame. The reflex response from many is that those people do not FEEL like Hall of Famers somehow. The Hall of Fame, they insist, is Willie Mays! Was Scott Rolen as good as Willie Mays? Obviously not. Case closed.

The reality, of course, is very different. I imagine that the average baseball fan — even people who would consider themselves to be somewhat passionate baseball fans — would know barely half of the people in the Hall of Fame. For every Ruth there is a Kelly, for every Mantle there’s a Lindstrom, for every Collins you’ve heard of there’s a Collins you have not heard of, for every Aaron there’s a Schalk, for every Satchel there’s a Bancroft.

But it is is no crime to romanticize the Hall of Fame. In fact, it’s almost required. People want to believe in a Hall of Fame where the standard is Willie Mays.

So that’s my mission: To create the Willie Mays Hall of Fame.

To get in, a player:

1. Has to achieve a consensus of greatness. I like those words. Could make for a good book title: "Consensus of Greatness." The player had to be viewed as an all-time great by the majority of people, more, the VAST majority of people. This is by far our No. 1 goal here, to find those people who are viewed as legends.

2. Has to be so good that there's no one precisely comparable. This is very important. One of the most annoying parts of the Hall of Fame to those people who want it reduced to the core is that people keep saying: "Well if Bill Mazeroski is in the Hall of Fame the n Frank White has a case to be in there" or "Well if Catfish Hunter is in the Hall of Fame then Luis Tiant has a case to be in there." The truth of these statements seems to annoy the hell out of them. They would rather Maz and Catfish were OUT rather than putting other people IN. So, we need players without annoying comps.

3. Should pass what Tom Verducci calls "the eyeball" test. We're talking gut feeling here.

4. Had to be in the same league with Willie Mays as an all-around ballplayer.

And here we go.

First thing we do is eliminate everyone who was not a first-ballot Hall of Famer. There officially have been 57 first-ballot Hall of Famers. This does not include Joe DiMaggio, Mel Ott, Rogers Hornsby or Carl Hubbell who, were not voted in on their first ballot appearance. The voting rules were different then. I’ll include those four to make it 61 players who we are considering here.

Now, it should be said that this list of 61 excludes many, many, many great players -- including a great player like Arky Vaughn who was actually NEVER voted in by the writers. Vaughan might be the second-greatest hitting shortstop in baseball history, behind only Honus Wagner. His omission by the writers -- he never got more than 29% -- is one of the real black marks on our voting record (I say "our record" though Vaughan was off the ballot the year after I was born — like it’s MY fault.

Lefty Grove is another black mark -- guy has a powerful case as the greatest pitcher who ever lived, and he got in on fourth ballot . There were some extenuating circumstances but this is the Willie Mays Hall of Fame so he’s out. So is Yogi Berra — more on him in a minute -- did not get in first ballot either.

Remember, we're not exactly trying to build a Hall of Fame of the BEST players by any statistical measure or any historical standard. We're trying to build a consensus Hall of Fame, a Hall where every member in it would be widely viewed as a true Hall of Famer. We're shooting for a 90 to 95% approval rating here. For that, we can only have the first-ballot Hall of Famers.

So we start with those 61 players (a list that does not include Roberto Alomar since the voters had to get in their "tsk tsk" for the spitting incident and not vote him in until the second ballot). That means we have already cut out 243 people! We are off to a roaring start.

But 61, I would say, is WAY too many for this kind of Hall of Fame. The 61, for instance, includes Kirby Puckett. And there's way too much controversy about Puckett because of his short career and because some view him as pretty wildly overrated and because he inspires way too many Don Mattingly comparisons. He's obviously out.

So, there are a couple of ways to cut out all the Pucketts. One is to not only choose first ballot Hall of Famers, but resounding first-ballot Hall of Famers. That is to say, we're looking for those players who received a vast majority of the vote. Let's say minimum 85-90%. We'll have to massage this a little bit, as you will see, but this is a good way to start cutting out some people.

Mel Ott is already out -- his first ballot credentials were shaky to start with. He didn't get in until his third ballot. Not good enough. Robin Yount is out. More than 100 writers did not vote for him. Can't have it. Lou Brock (80 no-votes) is out. Ivan Rodriguez (106 no-votes), Roy Halladay (99), John Smoltz (94), Frank Thomas (93), Kirby Puckett (92), Dennis Eckersley (85), Roy Halladay Dave Winfield (80), Willie McCovey (79), Paul Molitor (75), Willie Stargell (75), Eddie Murray (73), they are all out.

But by eliminating players who did not get resounding vote totals, we have a few challenges.

-- Jackie Robinson received only 77.5% of the vote. I'm going to assume that most of the 36 people who did not vote for him were, let’s just say, not worldly baseball scholars.

-- Eighty-one people did not vote for Joe Morgan. I'm not exactly sure why Morgan should get an exemption that the players above did not get ... but I also have this gut feeling (and this is the Hall for gut feeling) that people DO consider Morgan an inner-circle, no-doubter, 95% approval rating Hall of Famer. I think the reason he didn't get a higher percentage of the vote is because voters then put way too much stock in batting average and looked at his .271 career batting average and said: "I don’t care that he walked a billion times" Plus I wrote a book about the 1975 Reds, so maybe I’m just going soft. I'm going to keep Morgan on the list for now, but he's teetering.

-- Rogers Hornsby is widely viewed now as one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game, but he had a very shaky Hall of Fame election experience. He did not make it until his fifth ballot, though admittedly he was still playing (barely) for the first two votes, and had only just retired the second two (which is why I still qualify him as a first-ballot guy). HOWEVER, the thing I cannot overlook is that he still only got 78.1% of the vote when he actually made it in. Fifty-one of the 233 writers did not vote for him.

I don't know about you -- but I never saw Rogers Hornsby play. I take his greatness on faith, based on the remarkable statistics I've seen and the stories I've read and the research I've done. But more than 20% of the people who saw Hornsby play did not vote him into the Hall of Fame his FIFTH TIME ON THE BALLOT. Rogers is out. And, anyway, he was a jerk.

-- There are four others players who did not get 85% of the vote. I want to keep all four of them on for the same reason I want to keep Morgan on because I have this gut feeling that people do view them as all-time, inner circle guys. They are:

Bob Gibson (84%) Walter Johnson (83.6%) Ernie Banks (83.8%) Warren Spahn (83.2%)

Unfortunately, I can't keep on all four. We still have some trimming to do, and this is basic stuff getting a massive majority of the writer's vote. Walter Johnson gets to stay because his 83.6% was actually achieved in the first year of Hall of Fame voting, when -- as you might imagine -- there was a rather crowded ballot. And for now, Bob Gibson gets to stay too because I suspect none of the 64 people who did not vote for him would publicly admit it. Banks and Spahn, sadly, don't make the cut because I can't think of a good enough reason to keep them on. Hey, you want a Willie Mays Hall of Fame, you have to make some vicious choices.

So now we're down to 48.

Now, we try to eliminate the comps problem. What we want to do here is drop all the players who create comparison player headaches. For instance: Tony Gwynn is one of our 48. Well, Gwynn's contemporary Tim Raines reached base more times than Gwynn in almost precisely the same number of at-bats, and he was one of the two or three greatest base stealers in baseball history. When it comes to value, Raines' peak was probably higher and even over a career it was about as high. Well, you can see the chart for yourself.

In the old days, you could argue: "Yeah but Gwynn hit .338 for his career while Raines only hit .294" but even the most stubborn and crotchety "The Hall is way too big" zealots are beginning to understand the absurdity of measuring a player by batting average. There just seems very little separating Gwynn and Raines as players. This means Tony Gwynn has to go.

Ozzie Smith may have been the greatest defensive shortstop in baseball history. But he already is encouraging too many Omar Vizquel fans, and so he's out.

Brooks Robinson is a very tricky case. Everyone loves Brooks Robinson, as well they should. He's one of my fathers two or three favorite players, and so one of mine. But, let's not kid anybody: He really was a subpar hitter for much of his career. His career numbers of .267/.322/.401 are kind of an eyesore as is his career 104 OPS+. Of course, he was a marvelous defensive third baseman -- most would argue he was the greatest defensive third baseman ever. But we can't have all the great defensive third baseman lobbyists -- the Graig Nettles lobbyists, the Clete Boyer lobbyists, the Billy Cox lobbyists -- hammering on our door. Brooks is out.

Carl Hubbell has kind of been holding on for dear life for a little while now. He did not, technically, make it into Cooperstown on his first ballot. He survived that round because we were being very liberal with our definition of "first ballot," but, no, I don't think he's going to make it this round. His career record was 253-154 with a 2.98 ERA. He had three great years, three or four more very good years. He finished out the career 83-60 with a 3.45 ERA his last seven years. But here's the big problem: His No. 1 comps are Juan Marichal (who did not get in first ballot), someone named Charlie Buffington and a deadball era pitcher called Iron Joe McGinnity. Sorry Carl.

Jim Palmer's No. 1 comp? The barely survived Bob Gibson. Bob Gibson's No. 1 comp? Jim Palmer. Are these two trying to sneak into the Willie Mays Hall of Fame together? Gibson's No. 2 comp is Jack Morris, and Morris appears on Palmer's comp list as well, and though Morris has a bizarre level of support among the supposed "Willie Mays Hall" type people, it's not anywhere near the level of support that we are talking about here. If Jack Morris is on your comp list, you are out. That means Palmer and Gibson are out*. And alas they’re going to have to take Tom Glavine with them, which is a shame because Glavine is one of my all-time favorite players and people.

*There is an exception to this rule -- the War Exemption. Because Jack Morris also appears on Bob Feller's comp list. But Feller missed three years during World War II and so remains on our list.

Eddie Mathews is causing us some major problems here. Here's why: Mathews is not on our list. The writers did not vote him in until his fifth ballot -- that means he clearly falls way, way, way below our standard of entry. But Mathews is the highest-rated comp on three of our remaining players: Mike Schmidt (a 920 similarity score), George Brett (an 854 similarity score) and Mickey Mantle (also an 854 similarity -- shouldn't this make Brett and Mantle, like identical twins?). This is problematic because we do not want Eddie Mathews fans shouting about how he belongs in our Hall when we so clearly know he does not. So ... Schmidt and Brett are out. We hate to lose 'em -- because if they’re out then Chipper Jones is out too. This means we will not have a third baseman in our Hall. But you know, third base is kind of a minor position anyway, right? I mean, if they could play defense, they'd be shortstops.

Sammy Sosa is causing equally difficult conundrums. Obviously, Sammy Sosa is not in the Hall of Fame, certainly not in the Willie Mays Hall of Fame, and yet he is the No. 1 comp of Jim Thome. He’s also on the comp list with Ken Griffey Jr. We’ll keep Junior on here for now, but Thome, alas, is gone.

Christy Mathewson's 905 similarity score to the Pete Alexander disqualifies him -- Alexander did not get into Cooperstown until third ballot and he was an alcoholic and if he threw anything like Ronald Reagan, who played him in the movie, then he couldn't have been very good at all. Christy Mathewson is out.

What to do about Sandy Koufax? His No. 1 comp is Ron Guidry who is CLEARLY not going into the Willie Mays Hall of Fame since he's not even in the liberal Hall of Fame. But it's also true that Koufax's peak was much higher than Guidry's, and was, in fact, one of the best peaks in baseball history. And Koufax scores like a 1,048,384 on the gut factor, many people would argue he's the greatest pitcher of all time. But that Guidry comp makes it tough. And while some see his retirement at 30 because of arm troubles as sad, another way to look at it is that he didn't last long enough. He's out.

But if Koufax is out, then what do we do with Pedro Martinez? He was the greatest pitcher I ever saw, but isn’t his Hall of Fame case basically the Sand Koufax case, that he was dominant for a too-short period of time? Remembering that this is the Willie Mays Hall of Fame, and one of the things that Willie Mays WILLIE MAYS is that he was so good for so long. I guess Pedro’s out too.

Reggie Jackson has the three-homer World Series game, and he was undoubtedly one of the bright lights of his era, and he had the candy bar named for him. But his No. 1 comp is Gary Sheffield. I don't think I need to say anything more. He's out.

I have no idea how Steve Carlton lasted this long, by the way. His No. 1 comp is Don Sutton which, obviously, means immediate banishment.

Al Kaline's No. 1 comp? Harold Baines. Gone. ... Carl Yastrzemski's No. 1 comp? Dave Winfield. Didn't we just eliminate Dave Winfield? I can’t even remember anymore. Yaz gone. And take Cal Ripken with you since his No. 1 comp is also Dave Winfield. ... Joe Morgan, I stayed with you as long as I could. I really wanted you in there. But your No. 1 comp? Lou Whitaker? Do you know what Lou Whitaker did on his one Hall of Fame ballot? Sorry. Gone. ...

Joe DiMaggio is lucky he has the war exemption because he was not elected first-ballot AND his No. 1 comp is Larry Walker. He’s just begging to be booted.

Robert Clemente. Oh, man, this is a tough one. Clemente obviously was not only a great player, but he was also a hero and one of the great forces for good in baseball history. On the other hand his No. 1 comp is the so-clearly-not-Willie-Mays-great Zack Wheat. There is a great debate about Roberto Clemente and Al Kaline, which one was the better player. I suppose that argument should be held outside the Willie Mays Hall of Fame because Kaline has already been pushed out. Sorry Roberto. Usted esta fuera.*

*Four years of Spanish talking ... there is absolutely NO DOUBT I got that wrong.

One more -- this is the trickiest one of all, I think. Johnny Bench. He is similar to Yogi Berra, who did not make it into Cooperstown on his first ballot which suggests that the writers did not see Yogi as a slam-dunk, no-doubt Hall of Famer. Of course, this could just be because the writers had lost their minds. Many people -- Bill James included -- think Yogi Berra was actually the greatest catcher of all time, and he's one of the two or three most famous wordsmiths in the history of the game. So having Yogi Berra as a comp shouldn't mean immediate expulsion. That said, if Yogi Berra is out -- as he must be -- then I don't see how we can keep Johnny Bench in.

OK, the players remaining are unique enough, I think, that we can generally avoid the "Well, if he's in, then he should be in" kind of arguments. Now comes the second-toughest test of all -- the gut test. I can tell you that right away Rod Carew and Wade Boggs are out. Fine players. But there is no way that the gut has them as Willie Mays Hall of Famers. Out.

I've got to be honest with you ... I'm not too comfortable with Honus Wagner being in the Willie Mays Hall. Sure, he was an amazing player in his time, and a great person, and all that. But the guy began his career in the 1890s. Baseball wasn't even baseball then. He began playing before shinguards, before the sacrifice fly, before the baseball had a cork center, when baseball gloves were about as useful as raw steaks. Sure, he dominated his time, but baseball's nothing like that now. Put up an exhibit of him in the museum. But as for Willie Mays Hall? He's out.

And, you know, Walter Johnson has similar issues. He started in 1907 and pitched most of his time in the Deadball Era which, well, look at the name of the era: "Deadball." He was super great for his time. So was Johnny Weissmuller. He's out.

I don't know what to do with Nolan Ryan because no one knows what to do with Ryan -- he was great fun to watch, and he undoubtedly threw a ball as hard as anyone, and he had all those strikeouts and no-hitters and all. But he also had all those walks and wild pitches. He's the most unhittable pitcher who ever lived, and his ERA was a bland 3.12 and his .526 winning percentage is kind of brutal and, back to the walks, he walked almost ONE THOUSAND more batters than any man who ever lived. He is, I feel certain, the most unique pitcher of all-time. But is he truly one of the best? There's too much static here. He's out.

Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson. They were nothing alike, and yet you look at their careers and see kind of a mirror-imagine thing going. Both 300-game winners. Both won many, many Cy Youngs. Both led the league in ERA and wins many times. Both dominated in a great offensive era. But you know what? I think you could argue that Roger Clemens is better than both of them.

Roger Clemens is not in the Hall of Fame and we don’t need that sort of mess around the WIllie Mays Hall of Fame.

They’re both out.

Now, we have to look hard at the war guys -- lower case "war" -- Joe DiMaggio and Bob Feller. There is no question they were both great when they played. And then they served our country with distinction during World War II -- during which time they lost prime years of their careers. Had Feller pitched, he might have won 100 more games. Had DIMaggio played, he might have reached 3,000 hits and won a total of five or six MVP awards. But we are dealing with the world of imagination now. They also might have gotten hurt and not been able to complete their careers. If we are to assume one thing, what is to prevent us from assuming the other? It hurts to say it but we must judge their careers on what they did and their careers were not very long and ... they're both out.

And then ... Jackie Robinson. He's the most important figure in baseball history. He's one of the most important American figures of the 20th Century, I believe. Former Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson used to include a quote on the bottom of his emails from Martin Luther King Jr.: "Jackie Robinson made it possible for me in the first place. Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did."

That said, the Willie Mays Hall of Fame is more interested in finding players who were as great as Willie Mays. And while I overlooked Robinson's low Hall of Fame vote total and overlooked that his No. 1 comp was someone named George Grantham and tried to give him as much credit as I could being, you know, one of the most important reasons Willie Mays got to play in the Major Leagues, well, he was not quite as good as Joe Morgan or Rogers Hornsby, and neither of them is in. So Jackie Robinson is out.

OK, has been fun and ... oh, wait. We just knocked Bob Feller out, didn't we? Well, Tom Seaver's No. 1 comp is Bob Feller -- and not only that, they have a stunning 988 similarity score. They're almost identical. If Feller is out, Seaver has to be out too.

So, finally, we are down to the 11 players in the Willie Mays Hall of Fame. And they are ...

Hold on. I forgot something. Let me go back up and look ... oh yeah. I forgot the fourth qualification for the Willie Mays Hall. They have to be in Willie Mays' league as players. Well, that's going to be tough, isn't it?

Ted Williams couldn't field or run with Willie. He's out.

Stan Musial couldn't field or run with Willie. He's out.

Ken Griffey Jr. was great at his peak, no question, but after age 30 he hit .262/.355/.493 and had to be moved from center field. That’s not Willie Mays.

Frank Robinson was a terrific player. But he wasn't quite as good as Willie Mays in just about anything.

Lou Gehrig. Iron Horse. Great player. Great man. But the standard is Willie Mays. Gehrig played first base, and he wasn't fast.

Mickey Mantle ... how did he get through with Eddie Mathews as his No. 1 comp? Oh yeah: The Seinfeld Exemption — the fact that George wanted to name a baby “Seven” after Mantle. Also Bob Costas still carries a Mickey Mantle baseball card with him. Mantle was the fastest thing anyone had ever seen before he hurt his knee. But he did hurt his knee, and after that he could not run or field with Willie Mays. He also did not endure like Mays, who was still a great player at 37 and 38. Those late nights got him. He’s out.

Rickey Henderson had a different kind of greatness from Mays. But different, in this case, doesn't help him. He didn't have Mays' power or his batting ability and he certainly didn't play centerfield like Mays.

And we are down to four. The four players in the Willie Mays Hall of Fame are ...

Babe Ruth ... though now that you mention it, there are persuasive reports that Ruth corked his bat throughout his career. It is true that some science has shown that corking the bat does not really make any kind of difference. But ... cheating is cheating.

OK, so, make it three. The three players in the Willie Mays Hall of Fame are ...

Ty Cobb ... oh, come on, how did he get in here? Are you kidding me? We're really going to have a controversial guy like Ty Cobb who at one point in his career was charged with being involved in a gambling scandal in the WILLIE MAYS HALL OF FAME? No. We're not.

OK, so, make it two. The two players in the Willie Mays Hall of Fame are ...

Henry Aaron. He was, as the line goes, Willie Mays without having his cap fly off. Of course, he also did not play center field like Mays. And, now that you mention it, he has actually admitted using amphetamines once when they were vaguely against the rules of baseball and …

Well, it ends where it had to end. The one player in the Willie Mays Hall of Fame is ...

Willie Mays.

So, congratulations to Willie for ... what's that? Willie also may have used amphetamines? But there's no real proof and ... what's that you say? Mays was once suspended from baseball after his playing days for his involvement at a casino? And Mays was on the 1951 Giants team that, it has been proven, rigged up some sort of sign-stealing system that undoubtedly helped them come back and win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant? And he didn't turn himself in? He didn't turn in any of his teammates?

Ah well. Come visit the Willie Mays Baseball Hall of Fame. It is in a desk drawer in my office.

Clemency for Quin

My life does take unexpected turns. I mean this in the best way — I’m mostly a sportswriter, of course, but then I find myself involved in all sorts of projects, some which seem pretty directly related to the sportswriting gig, like writing the movie they play at the Baseball Hall of Fame or last year’s wonderful Tip Your Cap campaign. But then some have no apparent connection to sports at all, like last year’s equally wonderful First Woman Voter campaign.

This Thursday, I’m in conversation with John Grisham for his new book “Sooley.” I have no idea how that happened either; I hope you’ll join us.

But I want to share an entirely different and unexpected project I’m involved in with the hope that you might want to take a moment to help.

There’s a man on death row named Quintin Phillippe Jones — everybody calls him Quin. He is scheduled to be executed on May 19. He committed a terrible crime when he was 20 years old; he murdered his great-aunt Berthena Bryant in a $50 robbery for drug money. He does not deny any of the details of the murder nor does he believe himself worthy of forgiveness. As author Suleika Jaouad says: He has not forgiven himself.

If you have read Suleika’s bestselling book “Between Two Kingdoms,” you have already heard about Quin — he’s Lil’ GQ in the book. Suleika and Quin first exchanged letters almost a decade ago when she was diagnosed with leukemia and given a 35% chance of surviving. She wrote a column for the New York Times about the loneliness of facing death and the hardships of isolation. He wrote to her about how much her words resonated with him. They have exchanged many, many letters since. She went to visit him on death row.

When he wrote that first letter, he had already begun a transformation that astounds the mind and soul. Quin’s childhood was unimaginable to most of us, filled with sexual abuse, drugs, poverty and pain. He says the first person to pull a gun on him was his mother. He was living on the streets by age 13. And yet he does not blame any of that for his crime or his fate in life. Instead, he began spending his time in prison reading, working out, seeking redemption and, incredibly, writing letters to people all around the world in an effort to spread some comfort and joy.

These letters are absolutely amazing. You can see a few of the letters he has shared with Suleika through the years at our website, but the truth is that these are not unusual, he has been writing these sorts of letters to so many people we’ve heard from. A teacher talks about having boxes and boxes of Quin’s letters. A nine-year-old girl talks about Quin being her very best friend and she wrote to the Pope asking for his help. A mother talks about writing to Quin about her son’s suicide, and him writing back from the experience of twice attempting suicide himself.

We’ll be sharing as much of this as we can because there are so many people that this man has reached and helped from the isolation of death row.

Take a look at this collage of letters Suleika put together. Look at the handwriting. Sometimes just seeing the handwriting can tell its own story.

Suleika and others have started this grassroots effort to get Quin’s death sentence commuted so that he can spend the rest of his natural life in prison. There are many legal reasons that this should happen that you can read about on the site. Here are just three:

1) The death sentence is suspect because the jury was presented with since-discredited psychological evidence of his “future dangerousness,” which is the key component for applying the death penalty. And when I say the evidence has been discredited, I’m not kidding — the very person who invented the psychological checklist that was used by the prosecution in court published a paper stating that it should never be used in criminal cases.

2) The ringleader of the gang was a guy named Riky “Red” Roosa. He was convicted of two murders, and he was sentenced to life in prison and will actually be eligible for parole in 2039. Roosa is 18 years older than Quin and white. Quin was only 20 at the time of his crime — there is all sorts of compelling new science that shows the brain does not reach full maturity until people reach their mid-20s — and is black and he received a death sentence.

3) The family of the victim is, in this case, also Quin’s family and Berthena Bryant’s sister Mattie Long and her nephew Benjamin Jones have both long forgiven him and ask the state not to add to their trauma by executing him.

I’m obviously not a lawyer so while I find all of these arguments rational and powerful — it seems so clear to me that no matter where you may stand on the death penalty that Quintin Jones does not deserve to die — it is the person who I find compelling. Even in prison, even in isolation, Quin has something to offer this world. He has been, by all accounts, a model prisoner for 20 years and he is so clearly and vividly on a journey of redemption.

Thank you for reading this; I know it’s not what you signed up for, and we’ll get back to the sports and fun stuff. But I hope you’ll at least take a moment to think of Quin and, if you feel up to it, sign the petition asking Texas Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to let Quin live.

The Legend of Bo

Hoping all of you saw this:

A Negro Leagues Museum Bo Jackson bobblehead? What? I’m going to lose my mind.

And what better excuse do you need to re-run one of my all-time favorite stories, the Legend of Bo, from 2007.


OK, so one day in New York, Bo Jackson complained in the dugout before a game. Reporters surrounded Bo, which never made him happy anyway. Reporters wanted to explain things, and Bo Jackson wasn’t about explaining. Bo was about doing.

“Everything I do, people tend to exaggerate it,” he moaned. “With me, they want to make things bigger than they are.”

Bo said he was just another guy. He wasn’t some sort of folk hero, like John Henry or Pecos Bill. No, he hurt like other players. He made mistakes like other players. He struck out a lot. He wasn’t forged out of steel, and he couldn’t outrun locomotives, and he couldn’t turn back time by flying around the world and reversing the rotation of the earth.

“I’m just another player, you know?” he said.

Then the game began, Royals vs. Yankees at Yankee Stadium.

First time up, Bo hit a 412-foot homer to center field.

Second time up, Bo smashed a 464-foot opposite-field home run. Longtime Yankees fans said that ball landed in a far-off place where only home runs by Ruth, Gehrig and Mantle from the left side ever reached.

“Colossal,” teammate George Brett would say. “I had to stop and watch.”

Third time up, Yankees manager Stump Merrill walked out to the mound to ask pitcher Andy Hawkins how he intended to get Bo out this time.

“I’ll pitch it outside,” Hawkins said.

“It better be way outside,” Merrill replied.

Hawkins threw it way outside. Jackson poked the ball over the right-field fence for his third homer. The New York crowd went bananas.

Bo never got a fourth time up that day. Instead, Bo hurt his shoulder while diving and almost making one of the great catches in baseball history. New Yorkers stood and cheered Bo as he walked off the field. It’s possible that no opposing player ever heard those sorts of cheers at Yankee Stadium.

“You know what?” Royals Hall of Famer Frank White would say almost 20 years later. “I really did play baseball with Superman.”

Yes, you read that right — it has been 20 years since Bo Jackson was a rookie. That means there is an entire generation of young baseball fans who never experienced that incomparable thrill of watching Bo play baseball.

How can you explain Bo Jackson to a kid today? Old-time baseball fans and scouts are always telling tall tales about players — they will say, “Oh, you should have seen Mickey Mantle before he hurt his knees; he ran so fast he could bunt for doubles.” They will say: “Before Pete Reiser started running into walls, he could play left field and center field at the same time.” They will say, “There was nobody quite like Monte Irvin before he went to war; he used to hit for the cycle three times a week.”

So what makes Bo different? Well, for one thing, it’s all on video. Bo really did break a baseball bat over his thigh after striking out. Bo really did throw a ball from left field all the way to first base on a fly to double-up Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk. Bo really did, in his spare time, transform into the most sensational running back the NFL has ever seen. He really did … well, he really did a lot of stuff.

First time I ever saw Bo Jackson was in 1986 in a makeshift ballpark in Charlotte, N.C. He had just started his pro baseball career, and even then it seemed a bit surreal. Bo had won the Heisman Trophy at Auburn. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked him №1 overall, of course, sent a limo to pick him up and drive him to Canton, where sculptors were already working on his Pro Football Hall of Fame bust.

Instead, he signed to play baseball with the Royals.

“That day we signed Bo was one of my greatest days in professional baseball,” says Art Stewart, now the Royals’ senior adviser to the general manager. “There was just nobody like this guy.”

On the day Bo signed, he asked whether he could take batting practice. Bo had not swung a bat in months. He hit the first pitch he saw off the base of the crown scoreboard in center field. It had to fly 450 feet. Avron Fogelman, who co-owned the Royals, shouted: “Get me that baseball.” Bo promptly hit the second ball he saw to almost the exact same spot, off the base of the scoreboard.

“Get me that ball, too,” Fogelman said.

That was the day that Buck O’Neil heard the sound — a crack of the bat he heard only three times in his life. The first time he heard it was as a boy, when he watched Babe Ruth take batting practice. The second time was as a player in the Negro Leagues, and the player was Josh Gibson. The third time was Bo that first day in Kansas City.

“You had to rub your eyes,” Art Stewart said. “Because you couldn’t believe what you were seeing.”

A short while later Bo was playing for the Memphis Chicks in that little park in Charlotte. He muscled a long fly ball over the Krispy Kreme sign in left-field.

“That was Bo Jackson’s first professional home run,” the public-address announcer said.

Everybody cheered. And then someone pointed and shouted, “He broke his bat.”

Yes, kids. Bo Jackson broke his bat on his first professional home run. That’s the kind of guy we’re talking about here.

Bo Jackson was always grouchily unimpressed with himself. Michael Jordan thought that was part of Bo’s magic. “Neither of us is very easily amazed,” Jordan told Newsweek in those days when he and Bo were the two greatest athletes in the world. “You have to expect things of yourself before you can do them.”

So when Bo Jackson was called up to the big leagues that September after only 53 minor-league games, he shrugged. When he had his first four-hit game in only his fifth game, he announced, “It’s just another night.” Two days after that, he faced Seattle’s Mike Moore, a power pitcher who would win 161 games in the big leagues. Before the game, Bo went over to Willie Wilson’s bats, liked the feel of one, and announced, “This is mine.”

With Willie’s bat, Bo Jackson hit a 475-foot blast to left-center. It was the longest home run ever hit at Royals Stadium.

Yes, kids. Bo Jackson’s first major-league home run flew 475 feet.

“It felt good,” Bo said, “But it can only last a couple of minutes. Everybody was oohing and ahhing and giving me high fives. You know the usual stuff that goes on.”

You know. The usual stuff.

“There’s something about Bo,” Royals general manager John Schuerholz said then. “Call it mystical or magical.”

Nobody had any idea what to make of Bo Jackson. On the one hand, he really didn’t know how to play baseball. He was striking out nearly every other at-bat. Fly balls were an adventure. He needed time to learn … but there was no time. He was playing football. He was a Nike icon — Bo Knows commercials were the hottest thing in sports. He was too big a star to ride minor-league buses.

“I think if Bo had been able to stay healthy and been given time to learn the game, he would have been a Hall of Famer,” says Allard Baird, who was working as a scout for the Royals at the time. “I have no doubt in my mind about that. He had everything you could want in a player. Everything. But that just wasn’t Bo’s destiny.”

No, instead, Bo’s destiny was to become a comic book hero.

September 2, 1986

Bo’s first game. His first at-bat was against Hall of Famer Steve Carlton. He hit a ground ball to second base, and Tim Hulett picked it up and threw to first — only Bo was already past the bag.

“Oh man, nothing that big should move that fast,” said Royals Hall of Famer and former hitting coach John Mayberry.

April 14, 1987

Bo Jackson faced Detroit’s Nate Snell with the bases loaded. In spring training that year, Snell had forced Bo to pop out with the bases loaded and Bo threw his bat and glared at Snell.

“Bo was the kind of guy who wanted to prove you wrong,” Frank White says. “If you told him he couldn’t do something, he would do it.”

Snell threw a fastball, and Bo crushed it. Grand slam. It was his fourth hit of the day, his second homer, seventh RBI. He also stole a base. When the bat boy picked up the bat, he realized something. Bo had broken his bat on the homer again.

July 29, 1988

Bo Jackson was facing Baltimore’s Jeff Ballard. He called timeout and stepped out of the box. He adjusted his batting glove when he realized that the umpire did not actually grant his timeout, and Ballard was throwing the ball. Jackson jumped back into the box, swung that bat and … yeah. He hit a home run. “Most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Bob Schaeffer, Kansas City’s first-base coach at the time.

May 15, 1989

Legendary baseball writer Peter Gammons was in Minnesota to write a Sports Illustrated cover story about Jackson, so he watched Bo take batting practice. It was a typical Bo hitting session — he cracked rockets all over the field. Then it was time for his last swing. Bo jumped into the cage and hit left-handed. He hit a titanic shot 450 feet off the Hardware Hank sign in right field.

Left-handed.

“I got work to do,” Bo said to the other players, whose jaws had dropped. He ran out to the outfield to shag some fly balls.

May 23, 1989

Bo locked into a fastball battle with Nolan Ryan. Up to that point, they had met six times, and Bo had struck out six times. This time, Nolan kept pumping 100-mph fastballs and Bo kept fouling them off, a real clash of the titans. Ryan was not going to try a curveball — this was man-to-man. He threw one last fastball. Bo connected. Bo hit the ball 461 feet, the longest ever homer at Arlington Stadium.

“They better get a new tape measure,” Bo said.

July 11, 1989

All-Star Game in Anaheim. Bo Jackson led off with a monstrous 448-foot home run to straightaway center field — it cleared two fences out there.

“Unbelievable,” Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn would say.

“I got a piece of it,” Bo would say.

The next inning, he beat out a double-play grounder by running to first in 3.81 seconds — one of the fastest times ever clocked for a right-handed hitter. He stole second base (becoming only the second player to hit a homer and steal a base in an All-Star Game, with Willie Mays). He scored the game-winning run. He was selected MVP.

July 11, 1990

Bo ran up the outfield wall. Literally. He chased down a fly ball and caught it about four steps in front of the fence. He put his right foot on the wall, then his left, then his right — until he was 7 feet off the ground and sideways. For a guy who didn’t want to be seen as a superhero, he sure kept doing superhero things.

“What do you think of Bo Jackson?” a reporter asked, well, Bo Jackson.

“I’ve known this guy for years,” Bo said of Bo. “And nothing he does fazes me.”

There are so many more. One coach says he saw Bo Jackson swing a bat so hard, he actually broke it even though he missed the ball. Once, he ran over catcher Rick Dempsey. Dempsey broke his thumb but said: “I held him to fewer yards than Brian Bosworth.” That goes back to a Monday night game.

We don’t even have time for all the legendary football stories.

There was the time when Bo faced Roger Clemens, who had struck him out four straight times. “I’m going to get him this time,” Bo said. He smashed a home run over the left-field fence.

And there was “The Throw.” That deserves its own section. On June 5, 1989, the Royals were playing at Seattle. It was the 10th inning, score was tied 3–3, Harold Reynolds was on first base when Scott Bradley rifled a double to left field. Reynolds was running on the pitch, so it was obvious he would score the winning run. He rounded third, headed for home and prepared to have his teammates mob him when he saw his teammate Darnell Coles pumping his arms, the baseball signal for “SLIDE!”

Reynolds thought: “Slide? Are you kidding me?”

So, he was about to launch into what he called “a courtesy slide” when he saw that Kansas City catcher Bob Boone had the ball. Boone tagged him. In the clubhouse afterward, Reynolds would watch the play again and again and again, and never figure out exactly what happened.

What happened was this … Bo Jackson had gotten the ball and made a flatfooted throw of 300 feet in the air. It was a perfect strike. It was so impossible, so ridiculous, so absurd that no umpire was on the spot to make the call. Home-plate umpire Larry Young finally came to his senses and made a fist — Reynolds was out.

“Now I’ve seen it all,” Scott Bradley would say.

“This is not a normal guy,” George Brett would say.

“That was just a supernatural, unbelievable play,” Seattle manager Jim Lefebve would say.

“I just caught the ball, turned and threw,” Bo grumbled. “End of story. … It’s nothing to brag about. Don’t try to make a big issue out of it.”

Bo Jackson’s baseball career really ended on a football field in Los Angeles — he hurt his hip against the Cincinnati Bengals. He did come back and did a few remarkable things after that, but it was different. He wasn’t superhuman anymore.

In four-plus seasons with the Kansas City Royals, Bo Jackson hit only .250. He hit 109 homers and stole 81 bases. He banged 32 homers one season, and stole 27 bases another. He struck out more than 600 times. That was his great flaw. When Bo connected with the ball, he hit .385. He made some great plays in the outfield, but one year he had 12 errors in only 97 games. He played in that one All-Star Game.

The thing is, anyone who ever saw him play will never forget him. Every game was like a Harry Houdini performance — you expected to see something you had never seen before. This story began with that July day in 1990 at Yankee Stadium when Bo Jackson hit three home runs. He got hurt, though, and missed more than a month.

He returned on Aug. 11 to face Seattle but was so unsure about his health that he did not even take batting practice. Then he said, “I can play.” He came up in the second inning. The pitcher was Randy Johnson. First pitch, Bo crushed a long fly ball to center field. The ball splashed in the waterfall to the left of the scoreboard. The Royals estimated the homer flew 450 feet.

“I’m not trying to brag,” Jackson said. “But I actually saw the threads on the ball right before I hit it.”

For once, Bo Jackson had impressed himself. And that might have been his greatest feat of all.

Rafer Johnson and the Power of 10

The great decathlete and humanitarian Rafer Johnson passed away on Wednesday. He was 86 years old. About 10 years ago, I spent some time with him and it led to one of my favorite ever stories which I will reprint in full below.


First event: 100-meter dash

Rafer Johnson came into the decathlon 50 years ago — at the 1960 Olympics in Rome — as the heavy favorite and the world-record holder. He got off to a bit of a rough start. There were three false starts in his 100-meter heat, and on the third he ran about halfway before realizing that he had to come back. The extra energy he exerted may have depleted him, and Johnson ran a 10.9… slow by his high standards. He had run a 10.6 when setting the world record at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., just months earlier.

Johnson’s close friend and training partner, Chinese Taipei’s Yang Chuan-Kwang — known internationally as C.K. Yang — ran well, posting a 10.7 to win the event. And one of the great duels had begun.

Result: Yang led Johnson by 86 points (1,034-948).

* * *

These are some stories of an extraordinary life. No. Wait. They teach you early on in the storytelling business to never set expectations too high. For instance, you don’t want to say, “Oh, I’ve got this hilarious joke I have to tell you.” Let the joke breathe. You don’t want to say, “Here is a story you will not believe.” Let the story speak.

So, no, you don’t want to start off with something like, “These are some stories of an extraordinary life.” You want to let the stories stretch out on their own, reveal themselves slowly, allow John Wooden to appear and then Robert Kennedy, let Spartacus come up out of nowhere, and also the Special Olympics, drop in the saving of a Football Hall of Famer’s life, and then mention the Olympic torch. Yes, you want to let the stories unfold, except that there are too many stories on Rafer Johnson’s life, too much to get into, because even if you tell all those stories, you are still leaving out what he whispered in the ear of Muhammad Ali, and the love affair with Gloria Steinem, and the friendship with Tom Brokaw, and the time he played in a James Bond movie, and the other time he saved Lassie and…

These are the stories of an extraordinary life.

And we have not even gotten to that part from 50 years ago when Rafer Johnson and his good friend C.K. Yang competed in the decathlon for the ages.

* * *

Second event: Long jump

The long jump was once Johnson’s best event — he qualified for the 1956 Olympic team as a long jumper (broad jumper they called them then) AND as a decathlete. It’s rare when a decathlete is good enough at any single event to compete with the world’s best.

But that was 1956. And long jumping in the decathlon can be notoriously inconsistent. It takes a certain kind of training, which intrudes on other kinds of training. This is the beauty and ordeal of the decathlon. One event crashes against another. This time Johnson barely cleared 24 feet… some eight inches shy of the length he achieved in Eugene.

Yang, again, put up a solid performance — consistency was Yang’s great strength. He jumped 24 feet, 5 inches. Those following closely may have been surprised that Yang had built a sizable lead after two events, but Johnson was not. He had trained with Yang day after day under coach Ducky Drake. They has pushed each other, fed off each other, challenged each other. “C.K. had become like my brother,” Johnson would say. “I KNEW how good he was.”

Result: Yang led Johnson by 130 points (1,984-1,854).

* * *

A story about the father: In 1944, Lewis Johnson moved his family to a small California city called Kingsburg. They were, for a time, the only black family in town. This was before Jackie Robinson had integrated Major League Baseball, before Rosa Parks remained seated, before Martin Luther King graduated high school, before 13 parents — most prominently a welder and part-time pastor named Oliver Brown — sued the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., for their children’s rights to attend all-white schools. Rafer Johnson was 9 years old.

There was no great plan, no grand design. The move of the Johnson family to Kingsburg was Lewis Johnson doing nothing more than what fathers throughout history have tried to do… make a better life for the children. Lewis was a conflicted man. He loved his family, of course, and wanted desperately to give them more than the shack in Texas without electricity or indoor plumbing or hope (“I don’t care if I never see Texas again,” Rafer Johnson would tell the press years later, after he had made his name). But he was also disappointed and discouraged by life. Much of Rafer’s childhood was haunted by Lewis Johnson’s alcoholism and the violence that his drinking inspired. The weekends were the worst.

There was something about Rafer — something that was apparent long before he ever discovered the decathlon. He was elected class president in junior high school. He was elected class president in high school. He was a good student, a good athlete, a good person. He was looked up to in Kingsburg… which just might have been an extraordinary thing in those years. Even many of those not predisposed or raised to respect or admire anyone with dark skin found themselves respecting and admiring Johnson. There was just something about the way he carried himself, the way he treated people, the way he stood for what he believed to be right. “People say that Rafer Johnson put Kingsburg on the map,” he would say, “but the truth is that Kingsburg put Rafer Johnson on the map.”

His friends and people in the community did not know this, but as he grew older and stronger and more assured, Rafer would volunteer to take his fathers’ beatings in place of his brothers — this, because he had come to realize that he was strong enough to endure them, because he had come to realize that his father, in his weakness, had actually given him a great gift. Rafer Johnson discovered that he could endure as much pain as necessary to triumph.

* * *

Third event: Shot put

Here, Rafer Johnson roared. Rain had started to fall in Rome, and Johnson — like so many great athletes before and since — found that tough conditions favor tough athletes. Johnson simply refused to let the conditions affect him. He threw the shot almost 52 feet — the best performance of his life.

His throw was almost three feet longer than anyone else… and more importantly it was more than eight feet longer than Yang. The shot put was already Yang’s weakest event, but the rain preyed on his timidity. He fouled on his first attempt, and he would say later that he simply wanted to get a throw fair. His 43-foot, 8 3/8 inch throw placed 14th in the field… and by the confusing decathlon scoring system Johnson outscored him by a staggering 273 points.

Result: Johnson led Yang by 143 points (2,830-2.687).

* * *

A story about Bob Mathias: When Rafer Johnson was 16 years old — this was 1952 — his track coach, Murl Dodson, drove him the 25 or so miles to Tulare, Calif., the hometown of the great decathlete Bob Mathias. There were few athletes in the world as respected as Mathias. He was often called the greatest athlete in the world. He won the decathlon in 1948, he would win it again in 1952. He then would play himself in the movie The Bob Mathias Story. He would serve four terms as a Congressman. In those days when track and field still played on center stage in American sports, he was a deity.
Dodson thought that Rafer Johnson had that sort of brilliance in him, waiting to emerge. At the time, Johnson had shown some versatility on the track… but that was about it. “”I was probably the fourth or fifth best sprinter on our team,” he would say. “I was a high jumper, too, but I don’t think I ever jumped higher than 6-foot-3.”

But Dodson had a feeling that the challenge of 10 different events would move Johnson, bring out his best. It was one of the great scouting calls in Olympics history. The national AAU decathlon was being held in Tulare, and from the start Johnson was mesmerized. “Sometimes, you have that feeling: This is right.’ When I saw Mathias at the decathlon, I thought: ‘You can do this. This is it.’ This was an event where I could be the best that I could be.’”

The best that I can be. The words would become the title of Johnson’s autobiography, the focus of his speeches, the strength behind his message to children. The shame is that now those words sound hackneyed and self-helpish. There was nothing hackneyed about it for Rafer Johnson… the words had power. The day he watched Bob Mathias, he turned to his coach and said, “I could have beaten most of those guys.” The fourth time he competed in a decathlon, he set the world record. He was a prodigy, but his genius wasn’t built on his extraordinary athleticism. It was built, instead, on his hunger to achieve. He has to be his best. It is just something inside.

* * *

Fourth event: High jump

Rain fell and postponed the final two events of the first day until well in the evening… which gave Johnson and Yang a lot of time to think about the significance of those final two events. The high jump was Yang’s opportunity to strike back, and both athletes knew it. The high jump was Johnson’s weakest event — even when he set the world record in Eugene (and when he set the world record the first time in 1958 in Moscow) he failed to jump even 6 feet. This was in the days before Dick Fosbury had introduced the flop and forever changed the form and possibilities of high jumping.

Yang, meanwhile, had won the decathlon high jump at the 1956 Olympics… and qualified for the actual high jump at those Olympics as well. And Yang jumped about 6-feet-3 inches (1.90 meters to be exact) which allowed him to cut into Johnson’s lead… but not quite as much as he might have expected. Johnson cleared 6 feet for one of the better jumps of his decathlon career.

Result: Johnson’s lead was slashed to 75 points (3,662-3,587).

* * *

A story about John Wooden: Not many people remember this, but Rafer Johnson played basketball for Wooden at UCLA. Wooden remembered him as a great defensive player and, of course, the best athlete he ever coached. Wooden would sometimes say that one of his great coaching regrets was holding back some of his early teams. “Imagine,” Wooden would sometimes say, “imagine Rafer Johnson on the break.”

What Johnson remembered, though, were Wooden’s bits of advice, the small and carefully crafted mottos that encapsulated all that Wooden had learned about sports. Understand that by the time Johnson played basketball at UCLA, he was already an international sensation. He had set the world record in the decathlon and won a silver medal at the 1956 Olympics. He was named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year in 1958. He was class president at UCLA and a popular speaker for various causes and someone who bridged the gap, made everyone across all lines feel good about America.

But he was also an athlete, and he was hungry for the ultimate success, and perhaps more than anyone else he listened to Wooden, wrote down the words, studied them, memorized them, repeated them to himself while he competed. Be quick but don’t hurry…. Place the team above yourself, always…. Work hard constantly to improve…. Be quick and clever but never get fancy or grandstand. And perhaps more than any of them he remembered this: “If you are not preparing to win, you are prepared to lose.”

“You know what excuses are?” Johnson says — his own contribution to the sports library. “Excuses are just ways to fool yourself.”

* * *

Fifth event: 400-meter run

Decathletes will argue about which event is most devastating to the body… is it the 400-meter run at the end of the first day, or the 1,500-meter run at the end of the second? Johnson believed it was the 400 because the race is too long to be a sprint, too short to be long distance. You give everything you have for one lap, even when your body feels like crashing.

Johnson hated the 400. And he loved it. “I know that whatever I’m feeling is probably being felt by my competitors,” he would say. “And knowing that is my strength. The question becomes: Can I handle it better than they can?” In this case, Johnson knew that Yang was as good or perhaps an even better 400-meter runner. But Johnson also knew that he had as big a sporting heart as his friend or anyone else. Yang ran a 48.1 — a fast time — but Johnson closed fast and almost caught Yang at the tape. He ran a 48.3, faster than the time he ran when setting the world record.

At the end of the first day, Johnson felt mixed emotions. He knew that he had left a lot of points out there… especially because of his disappointments in the 100-meter dash and the long jump. Yang had won four of the five events. But Johnson also knew that he was leading by a slim margin with one of his best events, the 110-meter hurdles to start the next day.

“And I also knew that I was going to win,” Johnson would say. “I had to win.”

Only he was in for another jolt.

Result: Johnson led Yang by 55 points (4,647-4,592),

* * *

A story about losing: In 1956, Rafer Johnson was the favorite to win the Olympic decathlon. He did not win. He had injured his knee during training — badly enough that he needed to have it drained on a regular basis — and then aggravated the injury in Melbourne during pole vault practice. The knee hurt so badly, he would say years later, that he could not even straighten it completely. Johnson had qualified for the long jump competition in addition to the decathlon, but the injury forced him to pull out. As the decathlon began, he kept telling himself that he could endure the pain. He kept telling himself that pain was temporary. He ran a good 100-meter dash, and won the long jump. But during the long jump, he twisted to avoid landing directly on the knee and tore a stomach muscle. With his knee and stomach both searing, the 400-meter run was almost unendurable.

Johnson believed that he would win — after the first day he trailed his American counterpart Milt Campbell by 189 points, which was not too much to make up. And Johnson loved the 110-meter hurdles, the first event of the second day. He just knew that if he could only put up a great time in the hurdles — Campbell’s best event — that he would still win. Only, it didn’t happen that way. Campbell put up a spectacular time in the hurdles — running a 14 flat. And Johnson — hindered by the bad knee and the jabbing pain in his stomach — ran a staggeringly slow 15.1. He trailed by 525 points. He was not going to win the decathlon.

Johnson did make up ground in the pole vault and discus, but he knew going into the 1,500 that he had no chance of winning. And he also knew that running the 1,500 would be painful beyond words… for years people would ask him why he did not simply pull out. He still would have won a bronze medal. But Johnson would say that he never even considered it… he ran his best time through some of the most staggering pain in his life (“I really didn’t know if I could make it,” he said), and took home the silver. When he crossed the finish line, Campbell ran over and covered him in a blanket. And when asked afterward about his injuries, Rafer Johnson waved off the questions. Milt Campbell, he said, was a great champion.

“You’re not going to win every race,” Johnson would say all these years later. “The question is, will you change your circumstances, change what you think, do what you must do to win the next race? The difference between victory and defeat is only a few seconds. And you have to ask yourself: How will I make up those seconds?”

* * *

Sixth event: 110-meter hurdles

Fifty years later, Rafer Johnson would still regret that morning of the second day of the decathlon. He had slept fitfully the night before. He had long believed the creed of the decathlete — that once an event was over it was OVER, there was no time to celebrate and no time to regret. And still, he found himself playing over the day all night. He should have a bigger lead. He should have a clearer path to victory. He should feel better.

When he got to the track, he did not feel up to his normal warm-up routine. His stomach hurt. His body ached. And the 110-meter hurdles was his event, the event that felt as much a part of his life as breathing. All he had to do was go out there, perform well, build a bit on his lead…

No. Once he began to run, nothing felt right. His start was atrocious… he felt like the gun had already echoed before he took off. And he could get no momentum; he clipped the second hurdle and almost fell. He ran a 15.3… his worst time in years. Yang, meanwhile, ran one of his best times — a 14.6. The turnaround was dramatic and stunning. Yang had outscored Johnson by 183 points and taken a substantial lead. And it looked like Melbourne could happen again.

Result: Yang led Johnson by 128 points (5,515-5,387).

* * *

A story about Robert Kennedy: Johnson and Kennedy became friends in 1961, just after Bobby Kennedy had become the attorney general. It was easy to understand why the two men were drawn to each other — they tended to believe many of the same things about America and life. Johnson would spend a lot of time at the Kennedy house, talking with Robert, playing with the kids, discussing how things could change and how America could be a better place. It was a confusing time. Johnson promised himself that if his friend ever ran for office, he would be there to help.

That happened in 1968, of course. Bobby Kennedy ran for president. Johnson was working as a television sportscaster in California but eventually quit to work full-time on the Kennedy campaign. On June 5 of that year, Kennedy was celebrating his California primary victory with a morning speech at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when a 24-year-old man named Sirhan Sirhan fired his 22-caliber revolver and killed Kennedy. All around were shrieks. All around was chaos.

It was Rafer Johnson who wrestled Sirhan Sirhan to the ground and, with the help of football player Rosey Grier, pried the gun from his fingers.

Johnson was so distraught that he actually put the gun in his own pocket and forgot about it until later. That feeling of despondency did not leave soon leave him. It still hasn’t in many ways. Being there to watch his friend and hero die was too much for Johnson. He became despondent. “I became a recluse,” he would say. Rafer Johnson attended the funeral in New York, and he did not emerge in public again for weeks. He would say that in those haunting weeks when he wanted to see someone he would go to a nearby pay phone, call with some code words, and hang up. He was scared for his life. “I was as low as low can get,” he says.

And then, a few weeks later — at the request of Kennedy’s sister Eunice Shriver — Rafer Johnson found himself in Chicago, at Soldier Field, for the first national Special Olympics. And as he watched the children compete joyfully and courageously, as he talked to them, as he hugged them and encouraged them… he felt himself coming back to life. Soon after, he went to another Special Olympics event, and found himself coming even more back to life.

“When I see a special Olympic athlete run,” he says, “I understand. I know every step, because I have taken that same step a thousand times. I know every thought, but I have had those thoughts. When I see them run, it’s like I’m running. Their triumph is my triumph.”

And for the last 42 years, Rafer Johnson has dedicated much of his life to the Special Olympics.

* * *

Seventh event: Discus

The proudest achievement for any person, Rafer Johnson says, is when he or she rises to the moment — this, he says, is true in and out of sports. This was his moment. The pole vault was coming — Yang’s best event — and they both knew that if Yang could keep his lead going into the pole vault, he was going to win the decathlon. That simple. Johnson understood that he could not just beat Yang in the discus, he would have to bury him.

And under that pressure, he unleashed a 159-foot throw. It was not as good as his throw in Eugene, but it was what the moment demanded. Yang had won five of the first six events, but field events were not his strength and here he had his second subpar performance — he could not even throw 131 feet. Johnson outscored him by 272 points and took back the lead.

Result: Johnson led Yang by 144 points (6,281-6,137).

* * *

A story about Spartacus: After the Olympics, Rafer Johnson would play in numerous movies and television shows. He was in two Tarzan movies. He played a good pirate — one of those great Hollywood inventions — in The Pirates of Tortuga. He was in a Bob Hope movie and an Elvis movie. He was in None but the Brave, which was directed by Frank Sinatra. He was a friend of James Bond in one movie, and a construction worker who helped save Lassie from falling off a cliff on television.

But he was not allowed to play his most important role. While he was training for the 1960 Olympics, he became friends with the actor Kirk Douglas. And one day Douglas said he was making a movie that had a chance to be pretty big, a movie called Spartacus. The director needed someone to play Draba, the Ethiopian gladiator who defeats Spartacus but refused to kill him.

Spartacus: What’s your name?
Draba: You don’t want to know my name. I don’t want to know your name.
Spartacus: Just a friendly question.
Draba: Gladiators don’t make friends.

It was not a big part but, Douglas thought, it could be a star-making role. Johnson went to read for it and got the part. And that is when the AAU — the Amateur Athletic Union — stepped in and said that if Johnson played in Spartacus, he would be considered a pro and would be ineligible to compete in the Olympics. Yes, if you find yourself bothered by the hypocrisy of the NCAA or BCS or whatever, well, those are NOTHING compared to the old AAU. When Johnson appealed, making the very reasonable claim that getting a movie part should have nothing at all to do with his athletic status, he was told that the only reason he got the part was because of the fame he had earned as an athlete.

The former pro football player Woody Strode ended up playing Draba. “I might have had a much better road in Hollywood had I played in Spartacus,” Johnson would say. “But Woody was a better actor than me. There are no regrets.”

* * *

Eighth event: Pole vault

This was C.K. Yang’s best event — an event in which he was actually considered a threat to someday clear the world record height of 15 feet, 8 inches (he would qualify for the actual pole vault at the 1964 Olympics and finish 10th). The pole vault, like the high jump, was very different in 1960. The vaulters were still using steel poles rather than the bendable fiberglass poles that would send the world record soaring to 18 feet by the end of the decade.

This was C.K. Yang’s moment — just like Johnson knew that he had to win the discus by a lot, Yang knew that with the javelin coming up (another Johnson specialty) he had to build up his lead here. This was especially true because Johnson jumped a personal best 13 feet, 5 3/8 inches. Yang had to go for broke.

On his final jump, Yang looked to clear 14 feet, 9 inches — what would have been his personal best. If he cleared it, he almost certainly would win the decathlon. But he just brushed the bar and knocked it down. That left his high jump at 14-1 1/4 — good enough to slash into Johnson’s lead and put only 24 points between them. This had never happened before… the two best decathletes competing at their best and separated by just two dozen points at the Olympics. The decathlon winner was very much in doubt.

Result: Johnson led Yang by 24 points (7,076-7,052).

* * *

A story about Muhammad Ali: They were two of the biggest stars of the 1960 Olympics and they became friends. This friendship was very different from Johnson’s friendship with Bobby Kennedy — Ali and Johnson could not have been less alike. Ali was loud and cocky; Johnson was quiet and dignified. But their different personalities blended — Johnson loved the way the young Ali (then Cassius Clay) predicted victory and celebrated himself and brought joy to people. “We were doing many of the same things,” Johnson would say, “only in different ways.”

So, the story: Just after the Olympics, when they were both on the speaking tour together, they saw a beautiful woman named Carmelita. And they argued about which one she liked. Johnson would exchange letters with Carmelita for a while, but it was Ali who seemed to have the last word: One day, years later, he saw Johnson at a dinner and said: “Carmelita’s my girlfriend now.”

Then, it was many years later, 1996, just before Ali lit the torch at the Atlanta Olympics. By then, Ali had been ravaged by Parkinson’s Syndrome. The image of a shaking Ali lighting the torch would move the nation. But before that, Johnson and Ali saw each other. Johnson whispered something in Ali’s ear and Ali laughed and laughed.

“Wait,” one of Ali’s friends yelled as Johnson walked away. “What did you say? He hasn’t laughed like that in years. Can you say it again?”

“No,” Johnson said. “You can only say it once.”

Johnson had whispered: “Carmelita.”

* * *

Ninth event: Javelin

The javelin was the best of Yang’s field events… and it was a special event for Johnson. In Eugene, he had unleashed a spectacular throw of more than 233 feet; it was so conclusive that Johnson actually set the decathlon world record before his final event. Both competitors knew that Yang was the better at the 1,500 — the final event — so there was intense pressure on both men… on Johnson to build his lead, and on Yang to keep the score close.

In the end, both more or less accomplished what they needed. Johnson threw the javelin almost 229 feet… not quite what he threw in Eugene, but certainly a strong throw under the circumstances. And Yang threw almost 224 feet. The lead had grown but not enough. Johnson led by 67 points… or about 10 seconds of time in the 1,500 meters.

Yang’s best 1,500 time was 15 seconds faster than Johnson’s best 1,500 time. Both men went into the 1,500 believing that they were going to win the decathlon.

Result: Johnson led Yang by 67 points (8,056-7,989).

* * *

A story about a Hall of Famer: Once, when they were both young, Rafer Johnson and his brother, Jimmy, were playing near an irrigation ditch when Jimmy fell in and hit his head. Rafer had not seen his brother fall into the water, but a moment or two later he saw Jimmy bobbing up and down, drowning. Rafter jumped in, grabbed him, pulled him out and tried some sort of respiration thing based on what he had seen in the movies. He managed to pound Jimmy’s chest enough to get him to spit out water. Rafer saved his brother’s life.

Jimmy Johnson would go on to play defensive back and flanker for the San Francisco 49ers. He would make five Pro Bowls and, in 1994, be elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He would say his lifelong hero was his brother, Rafer Johnson, the best man he ever knew, and the man who saved his life.

* * *

When C.K. Yang saw that he was paired in the same heat with Rafer Johnson in the 1,500 meters… he understood that he had gotten a bad break. If they had run in different heats, Yang’s chance to outrun Johnson by 10 seconds was a distinct possibility, maybe even a probability. Yang was a much better distance runner. But when racing together, it became a matter of the heart. And Yang knew the strength of his friend’s heart.

They were both coached by the same man, Ducky Drake, and so before the race they each went to Drake separately. The coach told Johnson that he had to stick with Yang no matter what. “You have to stay in contact with him,” Drake said. “If he goes, you have to go. This is it. This is for the gold medal. You cannot let him get away. You have given too much to let him get away.”

And when Yang came over, Drake said simply: “He has never beaten you before. He cannot stay with you.”

The friends did not talk before the race. There was nothing left to say. They started the race… and Rafer Johnson stayed with Yang in the early part. Yang started to pull away, Johnson closed the gap. Yang sped up, Johnson sped up. At one point, Yang turned back to see Johnson just over his right shoulder… and then Rafer Johnson did the strangest thing. He smiled. He did not feel like smiling. He was feeling excruciating pain. He was running the 1,500 faster than he ever had before. But he smiled just the same.

Johnson would say that he was smiling because he wanted Yang to think that he had things under control. But there was something else in that smile. This was the moment of Rafer Johnson’s sporting life. He was competing against a close friend, and both of them were at the height of their powers, and the crowd roared, and this was everything sports was supposed to be about. Johnson felt the pain that his father had helped him control, the competitive spirit that John Wooden had taught him, the strength of his hometown behind him. He knew this was the last time he would ever compete in a decathlon. He smiled. He was not going to let his friend pull away.

Yang crossed the tape in 4:48.5… Johnson just behind him at 4:49.7. As soon as Johnson crossed, he put his head on Yang’s shoulder. And they embraced. “It was basically a tie,” Johnson would say many times after that. But Rafer Johnson won the gold… by 58 points.

Result: Johnson won the decathlon (8,392-8,334).

* * *

A story about The Torch: More people these days remember Rafer Johnson for lighting the torch in 1984 than winning the decathlon in 1960. Well, that’s the power of television. Millions and millions more people watched Rafer Johnson light the torch in Los Angeles than win the gold medal in Rome.

The torch lighting brought Johnson back into the American spotlight, and he has stayed in the spotlight. This week, for the 30th time, he will be in Hershey, Pa., to be spokesman for the Hershey’s Track & Field Games to promote youth physical fitness. “We need to give our young people inspiration,” he says. Yes, Rafer Johnson is still involved. He will turn 75 in two weeks. The 50-year anniversary of his decathlon gold medal will be in the beginning of September.

The funny thing about the torch lighting is that a lot of young people did not know who Rafer Johnson was when he began to climb the stairs. They needed a television announcer to explain that Johnson had won the 1960 Olympic decathlon gold medal in a duel with his good friend C.K. Yang, and that he was the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year in 1958, and a two-time world record holder, and an actor and an activist and a sportscaster and a speaker… these quick explanations somehow fell short.

But… there was something in the grace with which the 49-year-old man ran that told a larger story. To watch him climb those stairs, the choir singing around him, then to reach the top, hold out the torch to the crowd, light the cauldron and then stand there under the burning Olympic rings… well, you didn’t have to know the stories to know that there was something extraordinary about the man and his life.

“Was I concerned about making it to the top of the stairs?” Johnson would write in his autobiography. “Yes. Was I thinking about whether I might trip or fall? Yes. Did I have any doubt that I would come through? No.”

He came through. He would say many years later that he was thinking about how he had gotten there. And he was thinking about how he just wished that he could stay up there forever. And he was thinking that he could never help enough people to repay those who helped him, but he would try. Once before, in his biggest moment, he looked at C.K. Yang and he smiled broadly, a smile that said, “I won’t let you go.” This time, Rafer Johnson did not smile. He simply looked out at the beauty of it all, breathed heavily, and thought about all those stairs and all that climbing and the stories of a remarkable life. And he tried hard not to cry.

Hi Everybody: An Update

First, as always, come the apologies: Life has been kicking my butt lately. I don’t need to burden you with my troubles, you have your own. And we’ll pull through. But it’s fair to say that it has been difficult to find the time and mind space over the last few weeks to do much extra writing. I hope you’ve been following along at The Athletic, I have been doing my Cleveland Browns diary there, and I wrote a couple of pieces about The Masters, and yesterday I wrote something about Theo Epstein and how I think he’s the right guy to take baseball into the future.

As always, you should be able to find my Athletic stuff here.

I’ve got a really cool Athletic project coming up that I think you’ll like. I’ll tell you about that in a minute.

First, I wanted to pass along some pretty exciting news: The Baseball 100 is about to become a book. So many of you have asked about that for years, and now it’s going to happen. The great folks at my publishing house, Avid Reader, are going to publish the book in October to coincide with the World Series (and, sure, hopefully in time for you to buy many many copies as Christmas gifts for friends and family). I’m very excited about it, obviously, but particularly for two reasons:

  1. The Baseball 100 will NOT be a coffee table book. No offense to coffee table books, I love them, but the Baseball 100 was meant to READ. I feel like it has some of the best writing that I’ve ever done, and while that might not mean a whole lot in the grand picture, it does mean quite a bit to me, and I would like for the book to be the sort you could take to the beach, take on a train or a plane, read in bed at night. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it will be big — 300,000 words is a lot of words — but my editor and friend Jofie Ferrari-Adler and the folks at Avid are dedicated to designing the book for readers. I love that.

  2. One of America’s greatest journalists and baseball fans has agreed to write the introduction. No, more than agreed — he ASKED to write the introduction. It’s an incredible honor, and I can’t wait to tell you who it is.

So I’m thrilled to tell you that your 2021 holiday shopping is already done.

Second, I want you to be the first to know about the project that I’m about to start at The Athletic: I’m going to count down (aw, come on, not another countdown) the 100 greatest players (so unoriginal) who are NOT in the Hall of Fame. It’s not going to be exactly like the Baseball 100 in that I’m not going to do an individual essay on all 100 players. I’ll do very short essays, 10 at a time, on the first 70. The final 30 players will each get his own essay.

Here’s the fun part: I’m going to do it in the order that I would vote them into the Hall of Fame. So it won’t necessarily be in the order of the players’ greatness on the field. In fact, I can tell you that it definitely will not be in the order of the players’ greatness. It’s a much more holistic kind of list. That project will begin on December 1 and end on the day the Hall of Fame announces its new inductees. I hope you come along for the ride.

Finally, I want to point again to two projects I was involved with this year that fill my heart with so much joy. I look back at the last nine months or so, and it feels so overwhelming — the sadness, the anger, the boredom, the fear. Zoom funerals. Friends and family getting sick … and fighting about what American means … and showing up only on a computer screen where you can’t hug them.

But I was lucky enough to find inspiration being part of two incredible campaigns. I’ve mentioned them before but I’d like to mention them once more.

The first was called Tip Your Cap. In it, we celebrated and commemorated the 100th anniversary of the forming of the Negro Leagues. It was overwhelming. Four U.S. Presidents tipped their caps. Many of the greatest baseball players who ever lived tipped their caps. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Billie Jean King, Tony Bennett, Nick Offerman, The Temptations, Gen. Colin Powell, Stephen Colbert, Rob Lowe, Conan O’Brien … the list goes on and on. NASA Astronaut Chris Cassidy tipped his cap.

I mean, this guy tipped his cap:

It was absolutely incredible. Working with my Passions in America partner and friend Dan McGinn, we were able to help the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (and my brother and dear friend Bob Kendrick) tell this important, haunting and inspiring story in an entirely new way. I know that Buck O’Neil was smiling.

Then, right after that — actually. we started on this before Tip Your Cap was even over — Dan and I were approached to help celebrate another even bigger centennial: The 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment which finally granted women the right to vote. We called this campaign First Woman Voter, and we asked women to pay tribute to the first woman voter in their families. The response was, if possible, even bigger and more extraordinary than the first. Four First Ladies*. Four First Daughters. Every female Secretary of State. Senators. Congresswomen. Governors.

*And a First Lady Elect!

And journalists. Of all the amazing parts of the project, the response of women journalists was perhaps the most amazing. Almost every prominent woman television journalist in America — dozens and dozens — told the story of the first woman voter in their family. And the stories are beautiful. I mean, watch this story from CNN’s Kate Bolduan and wait for the big finish.

Or get inspired by watching Rev. Bernice A. King talk about her mother Coretta Scott King:

I mean, I could put up any of the videos we received, and it would move your heart.

And here’s the thing about these two projects: We did them for free. Well, more than that, they actually cost us a few bucks for the websites and some light video editing equipment. I don’t know that we can keep doing these projects pro bono forever, but the idea we had when we started Passions in America was to inject more joy in the world. I think we did some of that in 2020. I’m so proud of that.

Things everywhere are so hectic, so frantic, so messy, so divisive, it can be difficult to remember what it is that bonds us, what it is that lifts us up, what it is that makes everything worthwhile. I think now of the words, not of a politician or author or athlete or even non-fictional character. I think of the words of a superhero, uttered by the incomparable Chadwick Boseman as King T’Challa: “More connects us than separates us.” I hold onto that. Happy Thanksgiving everybody.

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