Liam Day explains why, as a sportswriter, Richard Ben Cramer, who passed away on Monday, was his model.
I would be remiss if I didn’t note Richard Ben Cramer’s passing. He wasn’t a sportswriter so much as a writer who loved sports. Baseball, to be more specific. He falls into that same category of writer as David Halberstam and Robert Lypsite, men who transcended (or transcend—Mr. Lypsite is, after all, still with us) the mere reportage of who beat whom to find the story behind the box scores, who were/are able to tell us something about the society we live in from the games we play and watch.
Like Halberstam, who covered everything from the Vietnam War to Bill Belichick’s football genius, Cramer was equally at home in the bleachers and on a campaign plane. What It Takes, his 1,000-page tome on the 1988 presidential election is considered by many to be the best book ever written about political campaigning. (Though not me. As good as Cramer’s book is, I still have to give that nod to Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72.)
There are, of course, parallels to be drawn between sports and politics—the competition, the testosterone, the bravado, mostly false. And though, thankfully, that is changing—20 United States Senators sworn in to start our country’s 113th Congress were women, the most in that august body’s history—the uber-masculine parallels between the two arenas remain engrained in our language, if not our culture. Players and candidates who are perceived to be tough and agressive are said to have balls, even when, as in the case of our departing Secretary of State, she is a woman.
Still, the ease with which Cramer migrated between the two gives me hope—both for men generally and for me personally. He is a model to be emulated, one who resided in the intersection of a Venn diagram, who tells me it is okay to be bookish and like sports. Today, that intersection is filled with sabermetricians. Billy Beane made it safe for them more than a decade ago, but before he did, it was the guys in the booth, cigar in mouth, pounding away on their typewriters, who represented the amalgamation of interests.
I am always somewhat embarrassed that, at 40, I still like sports. In a piece on Roger Federer last summer I wondered whether we don’t seek meaning in athletic competition because it justifies our continued interest in sport past the age of 25. But I can’t help it. However, the fact that I appreciate, perhaps as much as anything in this world, a well-executed pick and roll, doesn’t mean I can’t also appreciate a well-run campaign or a well-crafted metaphor, such as, for example, this one from perhaps Cramer’s most famous piece, his long feature in Esquire of one of baseball’s most iconic and reclusive figures, Ted Williams: “This is not to paint him as a hermit or a shrinking flower, Garbo with a baseball bat.”
I would like to ask Mr. Cramer how many baseball fans he thinks know who Greta Garbo is, or have seen Ninotchka (and, by the way, if you haven’t, get thee to Netflix). I will now not get that chance, but that he was seamlessly able to compare an aging ballplayer with an actress who appeared in her last film the same year Williams hit .400 is testament enough to the breadth of interests a man and a writer can have.