Sports Reporting Hero Speaks Of 'Silent Season'

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"The Silent Season of a Hero" by Gay Talese appeared in Esquire magazine in 1966 and is considered one of the founding documents of what they used to call "The New Journalism." Host Scott Simon talks to Talese about a newly released compilation of his sports stories, The Silent Season of a Hero: The Sports Writing of Gay Talese.

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

One of the most famous articles in American journalism - it's classified as sports though the famous man who is profiled was retired from the field - opens with Joe DiMaggio telling a visiting New York reporter that he just can't speak to him. Then he offers him a ride in his blue Chevy Impala.

"The Silent Season of a Hero" appeared in Esquire magazine in 1966. It's considered one of the founding documents of what they used to call the New Journalism.

SIMON: The Sports Writing of Gay Talese."

Gay Talese joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

SIMON: Well, thank you for having me.

SIMON: And seems like from the first, you found it more profitable to write about losers than champions.

SIMON: Well, more insightful, I would say. Because they lose - they lose a step. They lose the game. They lose - they fumble too much or they have too many intercepted passes, or they don't catch enough passes - whatever it is. And they lose out, and they lose their jobs.

And when you lose your job and you're in your mid 20s, for example, you've lost everything you'd learned all your life. And you've lost your capacity to perform, to have a chance to succeed, to have a chance to make money. It is a tragic story.

SIMON: You know, I can't stop thinking about Floyd Patterson, since reading your 1964 piece in this anthology, called "The Loser." You wrote the piece for Esquire. He was an odd, kind and appealing man. Do you remember your time with him?

SIMON: Oh boy, it's unforgettable. But he was a guy who was articulate. He was also a guy that was candid. And I did one interview with him. And the next two or three years, as Patterson won the championship, he lost to Johansson, then he won again in a rematch with Johansson, he became the first heavyweight to regain his title - this is 1959 I'm talking about - and I got to know Patterson very well.

In point of fact, I wrote, through the next few years, about 39 articles about him, most of them for the New York Times and some of them for magazines, then the Esquire piece you refer to. I got inside from the vantage point of Floyd Patterson, who knew what it was like to lose, and who had been on the floor several times in the fight with Sonny Liston - he had two of them - and also Muhammad Ali - he had two of them, and he spent a lot of time on the floor. And I got to have him tell me what it's like to be knocked out, to be on the floor semi-conscious. Or maybe you hear the bell ringing, you hear the crowd screaming, and you hear within yourself the desire to get up and the inability to get up, and then walking out the ring and up the aisle. And the fans who lost money on you or the fans who lost their hope on - by hoping for you - are jeering you or saying something to you, and you make your way - in the locker room.

A: What happened? What happened? What happened? We saw what happened. He got killed. And this is the life that a prizefighter who loses has to endure. And Patterson endured with courage, endured with patience.

SIMON: This 1966 piece that gives the title to this anthology, "The Silent Season of a Hero," by Joe DiMaggio, is still painful to read. The astonishing thing about reading this piece is you think, why couldn't this man be happier? Why did he seem to be - if I might put it this way - encased in melancholy?

SIMON: Well, I think part of the reason, he was an ultimate perfectionist. So you aspire to greatness, and you settle for nothing less than what you think is great. And I think DiMaggio was in a fantasy land. He wanted to look great, and he wanted to be great - and he was great. He was great. Not all the time. He struck out with the bases loaded like any great person in baseball does, time to time.

And also in his private life, in the marriage to Monroe, it was like a fantasy, because he was married to Miss Fantasy of all time. I mean, talk about a woman living in another world. And these two people were maybe a great match for the tabloids, a great match for Life magazine photographers, but she was off in her own world, and she was old - I mean, he was old and she was young. When he married her, his career was over - and hers was just soaring, as it would. So DiMaggio was dealing not much with the reality but much, I think, with the fantasy of seeking the perfection, seeking heaven in a marriage, seeking a kind of euphoria in achieving greatness at all times as a performing athlete. But when you're not an athlete, when your body no longer can move the way an athlete has to, when your age is against you, when you retire into a kind of state of legendary yore from yesteryear, it's not a happy place to be.

SIMON: Let me just get you to talk about one more story that's in here, for a couple minutes. You talk about a 1996 visit Muhammad Ali made. You accompanied him to Havana. And if I could get you to recollect the meeting with Fidel Castro and Teofilo Stevenson, the great Cuban heavyweight, who never had a chance to fight Ali.

A phrase - I scrawled down a phrase - when the three of them finally meet and they're talking - Ali's wife, I guess, is with him, too. The phrase I scrawled down was, the banality of celebrity.

SIMON: Well, because of Parkinson syndrome, Muhammad Ali, the most verbal, the most verbose of all champions, couldn't - couldn't speak. And I didn't know that when I took the assignment. And I thought it would be great, because they were going to meet Castro. And I thought ha, here's a great chance - Muhammad Ali, for the first time, is meeting Fidel Castro. And so I went down there. And when I got on the plane in Miami to go down there, first time I saw Ali, I realized only then that he didn't talk. And so Teofilo Stevenson was like Muhammad Ali's escort. And on the final occasion, when they went to the headquarters of Fidel Castro, with Stevenson, who was with him, with Ali's wife and another group - they were a little group from "60 Minutes" - Ed Bradley was there. They did a feature on this for the "60 Minutes" show.

So we were on the bus, and then we went to the reception hall . And finally, Castro - who was always late - showed up. And Castro then comes forward, and he embraces Muhammad - Muhammad Ali. But then, I was there leaning forward, and everybody was in the circle, leaning forward, trying to capture what was said. Well, not much was said because Castro seemed not to know that Ali couldn't talk. I mean, you would think he'd been briefed. But for some reason, Castro, when he couldn't talk, leaned forward as if he would hear better, but he didn't hear very much because nothing came out of Ali's mouth.

So there was - really, nothing came out of this except three men looking at one another in a sense of wonderment and asking the question that was never asked - what's going to happen next, and how do we get out of this embarrassing threesome, surrounded by all these people, including the camera from "60 Minutes" - and Mr. Ed Bradley leaning forward, and I was, of course, on the other side, leaning forward.

SIMON: Didn't they talk about the weather in Michigan?

SIMON: Well, later on. Ali lived with his wife in Michigan at the time. Castro asked about the weather in Michigan, and Castro kept asking these banal questions, and he kept getting these answers that were of no consequence. But I was writing it all down, and it was quite a time.

SIMON: Gay, thanks so much.

SIMON: Thank you very much. I appreciated it.

SIMON: Gay Talese. New anthology has just been published of his sports writing: "The Silent Season of a Hero: The Sports Writing of Gay Talese."

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