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.

Doc Emrick: The Master

There are two things that blow my mind about Mike Emrick, NBC’s legendary hockey announcer who on Monday announced his retirement. The first is how awed other sports announcers are of him. There are a handful of people in the world like this, people who are not just good at what they do but who leave everyone else in their business dumbfounded and dazed. Richard Pryor or Mel Brooks in comedy, Prince or Aretha Franklin in music, Michael Lewis or Laura Hillenbrand in non-fiction writing, Jeffrey Wright or Patricia Clarkson in acting, their genius goes beyond the simple wonder of their work, the stuff that the rest of us notice.

Others in their fields simply cannot understand how they do it.

So it is with Doc Emrick. A few years ago for a Doc story, I talked to some of the most famous sports announcers in America — Bob Costas, Al Michaels, Jim Nantz, etc. — and they talked about him not like he was a great announcer but like he was magical. They talked like he didn’t just call the games, he actually could bend time.

See, every sport has its own challenges to announce*, and with hockey, the challenge is bringing order to chaos. Players are constantly shifting in and out, the puck is always moving and changing sides, the game presses on at a mind-bending clip, it’s like being inside a tornado.

*This sounds like a fun future essay — breaking down the challenges of calling each sport.

And yet, somehow, Emrick slows the tornado. While other mortal announcers try to keep up with the action, with Doc it’s the opposite, it’s like the hockey action decelerates to match his pace.

“He tells stories during the action,” Costas said with genuine amazement in his voice. “He’s the only hockey announcer I’ve ever seen who could do that.”

If you are a hockey fan, you already know about Doc’s lifelong search for the perfect hockey verbs. He always wanted his verbs to precisely describe the action, so in his world players didn’t just shoot or pass or block the puck. They shuffled it, shoveled it, tapped, pitched, chopped, chipped, skipped, squibbed, whacked, deflected, rifled and stifled the puck. This was a 50-year pursuit for Emrick, this dream of calling the perfect hockey game, and he never stopped working at it, never stopped pushing himself, never stopped trying for a higher place.

And, here’s was the coolest part, he kept striving because of how much he loves hockey, because of how much he has wanted to express that love. In my life, I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with so many of the play-by-play masters — the aforementioned Costas, Michaels and Nantz but also Vin Scully, Marv Albert, Kevin Harlan, Joe Buck, Verne Lundquist, Dan Shulman, the late Ernie Harwell and Dick Enberg and on and on and on — and though they are obviously very different people, there is something that connects them.

They try to make music.

That’s the part that is so difficult for us people outside broadcasting to understand. It’s tempting for the rest of us to think they are just talking, just narrating the action, just telling us down and distance, the count, how much time is left in the quarter and when the team is going for a shift change. But that’s the easy stuff. The great ones lift and soften their voices, sharpen and blur the scene, take us inside but also put us up in the top row so we can see everything from afar. And when it’s just right, yes, it is music, the action and the voice and the crowd and tension all fitting together to create a song.

Nobody made music quite like Doc Emrick.

I mentioned at the top that there are two things that blow my mind about Doc Emrick. The second is personal. Everyone will tell you what a great guy Doc is, how hard he works to connect with everybody. Well, here’s my story. The first time I met him, well, he knew how much I love baseball. And, first thing, he handed me a baseball card of himself in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform. “It’s corny,” he told me, “but I wanted you to know how much I love baseball too.”

A Memory of Buck

A few weeks before Buck O’Neil died — he died 14 years ago today — I got to tell the red dress story publicly for the first time. We were at some sort of dinner honoring Buck, I can’t remember all the details. I just know I was asked to say a few words about Buck, and he was sitting next to me on the stage. It was a full house.

I was in the middle of the very last edit of my book “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.” The book would come out about eight months after that dinner. I, of course, didn’t know that Buck would be gone by then.

Buck was insistent that I not tell him anything about the book until after it was done. I am not sure why; I think he wanted me to feel free to write it without worrying about his reaction. This was one of so many gifts that Buck gave me: He trusted me completely and utterly to tell his story. He never asked about it. He never offered suggestions about it. He never once came to me during our travels around the country and said, “Hey, can you leave that one out of the book?”

That night, with Buck sitting next to me, I decided to share my favorite story from the book. It goes like this.

We were in New York, and it was a long, hard day. Most of the days during our travels together were easy, smooth, they flew by as we ate well and met friends and Buck told stories. But that day in New York … it was rough. Buck went on a morning show, and I will always remember that when we got to the studio, the security guard in the front recognized Buck and asked what he was doing there. Buck said he was going on this show.

The guard was horrified. ““Please don’t do that show, Mr. O’Neil,” he said. “You are a gentleman. Please don’t do that. It’s the wrong show for you.”

Buck did the show. But the guard was right. The shock jock host began by calling Jackie Robinson a sellout, and it went downhill from there. Buck held his own, as he always did, but I still cringe thinking about that morning. After the show, Buck had a whole bunch of interviews to do and the rest of the day was spent stuck in traffic, waiting for elevators, answering the same questions, and looking at the watch to see just how late we were for the next thing.

And at the end of the day, we were all beat but Buck most of all. He looked as if he had aged 15 years since the morning. He announced that he was going to skip dinner and go right to bed, and for Buck that was serious — he loved dinner most of all. The car pulled up to the hotel and we all began that slow walk through the courtyard and toward the lobby.

And to our left was a woman wearing a red dress.

All these years later, I have a picture in my mind of what she looked like — but I’m not sure that it’s right. I do remember how red and gorgeous that dress was, though. That dress was Marilyn Monroe. That dress was Paris. That dress was the song “La Vie En Rose.” That dress was Rick and Ilsa, the balcony scene, the Temptations singing “My Girl” and chocolate strawberries with wine.

So, when we got into the hotel, I turned to talk to Buck about it.

But Buck wasn’t there.

I looked around but couldn’t find him. I looked back to where the car dropped us off, but the car was gone. And then, yes, I turned and saw the Buck was talking to the woman in the red dress.

They talked. They laughed. They hugged. A man walked over, and Buck hugged him, and they all laughed, and this lasted for a good solid minute or two. By the end, they were all best friends. Buck walked into the hotel lobby, and all the years New York had added that day were gone along with 10 more. “OK!” he said loudly as he made a beeline for the hotel restaurant. “Let’s eat!”

So we walked toward the restaurant, but suddenly Buck stopped. He put his hand on my shoulder and he asked, “Did you see the woman in the red dress?”

“Yes,” I said, and I smiled a little.

I will always remember that stern look Buck gave me then. He shook his head, and squeezed my shoulder, and said those words: “Son, in this life, you don’t ever walk by a red dress.”

I have probably told that story 500 times in the 13 years since The Soul of Baseball came out. People still come up to me sometimes and ask me to tell it. But what I remember now is that first time I told it, with Buck sitting there on the stage with me. He didn’t know it was coming. More than that, I don’t know he would have even remembered saying it had I not brought it up.

And I remember the plate erupted in laughter and cheers after. Buck just kind of looked out into the crowd and smiled and afterward so many people came up to Buck to talk about red dresses. I believe in the last few weeks of his life, numerous women wore red dresses as the came to see him at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, at the handful of events he did and, yes, even in the hospital.

The last time I saw Buck O’Neil, it was in the hospital. We talked about many things, including the book, which I had just finished. Then the doctor came in, and I got up to leave but Buck asked me to stay. The doctor talked a little bit about next steps, and then he walked out, and Buck said, “Next time, bring the book with you and read it to me.” I told him I would. I didn’t know there wouldn’t be a next time. I guess we never do.

“I’ll keep an eye out for red dresses,” I told him as I was getting ready to leave.

“Don’t walk by,” he said. I don’t think those were the very last words he said to me, but they are the last words I remember. In the 14 years since I’ve tried not to walk by — not red dresses or opportunities to make a friend or moments of joy or chances to make a difference. Of course, I have failed repeatedly, daily, hourly.

Then I think of Buck, who was denied a chance to go to Sarasota High School, to attend a white college, to play in the Major Leagues, to manage in the Major Leagues, to buy a home in the white part of Kansas City, to fight side by side with white Americans in World War II. And I think of him asking people in airports if they can remember the first baseball game they attended or their first day of school. I think of him walking up to strangers tables in restaurants and starting conversations. I think of the countless times he would see little girl or boy wearing a baseball glove, and he would pull out a baseball and play catch. I think of him offering hugs to anyone and everyone.

“Give it up!” he used to say.

Red dresses. He never walked by. It’s 14 years, and I still miss him every day.

Renewals

Hi everybody. Hope you’re holding up in these crazy times.

I apologize again for not posting here more often. I’m hoping for things to begin to clear up a bit over the next few weeks and we can get this thing rolling again. In the meantime, I wanted to mention a few things.

  1. I’ve heard from a few of you that your free year-long subscription to The Athletic has expired and your credit card has been charged its renewal cost. I, unfortunately, do not have any first-hand knowledge about this, and if you would like to cancel or dispute charges, you need to email The Athletic directly at support@theathletic.com. I’m told they are responsive to all inquiries. My sportswriting appears at The Athletic and I hope you’ll keep reading. Here are a handful of recent stories:

Five Baseball Things: The Yankees, the AL Central and a plea to the Hall of Fame

Thoughts on the Novak Djokovic fiasco

60 Moments: Game 6 of the 1975 World Series

The angel that inspired Lou Brock (unlocked for everyone)

Considering Tom Seaver in baseball history

The Comeback: When baseball greats returned from World War II

  1. This newsletter and blog is free. I guess that’s not much of a bargain if I’m not writing for it, but I do hope to pick things up here over the next few weeks and have pieces here focusing mostly on non-sports stuff.

  2. Our oldest daughter and I have been binge-watching Community, and we’re hopelessly smitten by it. I think we completely ignored the show when it was actually playing because of my general aversion to Chevy Chase. There was a time when I got Chevy Chase, back in the Fletch days when he would do movies now and then with Goldie Hawn, but that’s a long time ago and I’m pretty sure seeing Modern Problems affected me in ways that I’m still not completely over. In any case, I don’t particularly like Chevy Chase in Community either but I didn’t realize that he’s really a small part of it, and the rest is just wonderful. When there seems so much to be happy about in the world, Community brings us nightly joy (though we are about to finish the sixth season, and there’s no movie yet).

  3. For reasons I cannot fully explain, The PosCast is now weekly … and has been for several months now. I am fully aware that this is only adding meaninglessness to this already incomprehensible time, but if you’d like to listen, it’s a free country (I’m pretty sure). You can also find it on

Stitcher

Podbay.fm

Spotify

The Athletic (no ads)

  1. I mentioned this in the last update, but that was so long ago I thought I’d mention it again: Dan McGinn and I and the whole gang with Passions in America had one heck of a summer. We got to be part of two absolutely amazing Centennial Celebrations — one commemorating the birth of the Negro Leagues and one commemorating the ratification of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.

Please check the Negro Leagues Celebration here.

And you can find the First Woman Voter celebration here — take some time and watch a few of the videos if you can. They’re simply spectacular.

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