“It was so wonderful, Joe. You never heard such cheering.”
“Yes I have.”
These might be my three favorite sentences in modern American literature. They come from Gay Talese’s classic profile of DiMaggio, which first ran in Esquire in 1966. It now appears as the title piece in “The Silent Season of a Hero,” a wonderful collection of Talese’s sports writing.
The DiMaggio portrait isn’t the only baseball moment. There is also Talese’s unforgettable account of a forgettable 1958 game between New York University and Wagner College, with 18 people in the stands, including a pretty sophomore drawn to the game because of the presence at third base of a boy she met in sociology class five months earlier. By the seventh inning she had gone home.
In this tidy volume are pieces influenced by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Frank O’Hara, Irwin Shaw and Carson McCullers, and the pieces, maybe because of the subtle influence of A.J. Liebling, are tilted toward boxing. Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson and Joe Louis are here, and so is Muhammad Ali, in a remarkable portrait of the champ’s visit with Fidel Castro.
Next to baseball, boxing has spawned the greatest American sports writing, and Louis is one of the reasons. Randy Roberts, a Purdue University historian, has written “Joe Louis,” a biography that bears the apt subtitle “Hard Times Man.”
Roberts, who has also written biographies of Jack Dempsey and Jack Johnson, puts Louis in his historical context, equating the prizefighter with Franklin Delano Roosevelt as cultural touchstones of their time, arguing that each was “a moral compass during a turbulent era.”
That was an era when the world heavyweight championship and the World Series were moral equals -- and equal competitors for the nation’s attention.
I live a half mile from Billy Conn Boulevard, so people in my Pittsburgh neighborhood still talk about the match between Louis and Conn, the Pittsburgh Kid who had been fighting in the light-heavyweight division before he almost defeated Louis. People in every neighborhood still talk about Louis’s two fights against Max Schmeling.
Louis’s rivals in the rings were but foils for his ability and his personality. “Louis had become the black Clark Gable, supernatural in his power to attract crowds,” Roberts writes. The sheer power of his appeal helped revive boxing after the retirement of Dempsey and Gene Tunney.
He was a symbol, too. In the Schmeling bouts, Louis stood for American virtue against Nazi racial arrogance -- and Louis’s victory in the second fight was, as Roberts puts it, a validation of “an American ideology of equal opportunity and individual initiative.”
But of course, Louis, born in Jim Crow Alabama, part of the great migration to Detroit and shaped by the persecution of Jack Johnson, knew that equal opportunity and individual initiative were limited if you were black in America. He became “the loudest cry for racial justice,” Roberts says, and one that “set the tone for the later civil-rights movement.”
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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