The Silent Season of a Hero: The Sports Writing of Gay Talese, out next week, includes more than 50 years’ worth of the writer’s pieces on boxing, baseball, and other sports. A giant of narrative nonfiction, Talese joined the Times staff in 1953, and over the course of a legendary career — his 1966 Esquire profile of Frank Sinatra has been called the twentieth century’s greatest work of magazine journalism — he has filed some truly great sportswriting. He says the process has kept him humble. “The best piece in there, ‘Ali in Havana,’ was turned down by twelve magazine editors, and there’s another piece in there that never got published,” he says. “So I know what it’s like to be published, and I know what it’s like not to be published.”
Talese, who is working on a book about his marriage to the publisher Nan Talese, took time recently to talk about why losers are more interesting that winners, his recent fan letter to a Jets beat reporter, and what happened when the Yankees held spring training in New Jersey.
What was it like to read pieces you might not have thought about for 40 years?
It was really interesting. This young man named Mike Rosenwald [the book’s editor] selected these pieces and he sent them to me. I didn’t change or quarrel with any of them, but I thought, Are these pieces that I want to have published? Because they represent me when I’m very young. In some of these pieces I’m 16 years old. I was born in 1932 and some of these pieces are from 1948. I don’t know whether they’re embarrassing or not. I have a picture of myself typing on a Remington portable in my bedroom. It’s a 78-year-old looking back on an 18-year-old. You realize that not much has changed. Writing is not meant to be easy, and anyone who aspires to write well has no right to think it should be going well. It should be hard.
You mentioned your editor Michael Rosenwald. In the book, he writes that “[Talese], an outsider to his school’s social scene, attended dances as a reporter rather than a young man with a date, chronicling who wore what and who strolled in on the arm of the football captain.” Is this true?
That’s absolutely right. I didn’t have any dates in high school. I had very strict parents who were worried that I would get into trouble. You must remember that this was the post–World War II forties in Ocean City, New Jersey, which was founded in the 1870s by Methodist ministers. And I was pretty shy as a young person, and that’s what made journalism so essential to me. Journalism is a perfect occupation for people who are shy. Especially when you’re young, it gives you a license to ask questions of people that your shyness would prevent you from asking. You can go to the prom queen, the Lady Gaga of her class, and you can get an interview.
What do you recall about Sports Gay-zing, the column you wrote when you were at the University of Alabama?
I wasn’t so different in college than I was in high school. If I had been fairly treated I wouldn’t have gotten to college. The only reason I got there is because my father made suits for a prominent doctor in Ocean City. The doctor was from Birmingham, Alabama.
You were a poor student in high school?
I was a terrible one. The only thing I had going for me was curiosity. I was just curious about people and I listened well. But I didn’t seem to listen well in class, because I didn’t test well. I was raised in a store, and my mother had a faithful clientele of middle-aged women. My mother sold wonderful dresses to women who were overweight, and made them look better. The women were affluent — they played bridge, they were the wives of the Buick dealer — and I would listen to these women talk. The art of the interview comes out of my mother’s dress shop.
As you mention in the book, you were reading sportswriters like Red Smith around this time?
In February 1944, when I was 11, the 1943 World Champion Yankees came to Atlantic City. They had spring training there, because of the gas rationing. You couldn’t go to Florida. I saw sportswriters covering the New York Yankees. They were from the New York Mirror, they were from the New York News, they were from the New York Times, they were from the New York Herald Tribune. All those guys were covering spring training and I’m 11, rubbing knees with some of those people.
There was a guy who was my favorite, a New York Times sportswriter who covered the Yankees. His name was John Drebinger. He was hard of hearing. I’d hear him talking to Joe McCarthy, the manager, and he’d always say, “What do you mean, Joe?” Everybody knew that Drebinger was deaf, and they would yell during interviews. I’d read the stories the next day and John Drebinger sometimes would write 2,000 words. The space that was given in those days to baseball was amazing. So I thought sportswriting was great.
Two big parts of the book are gathered under the headings “The Loser” and “The .200 hitter.” Are losers more interesting than winners?
If you lose, you lose more than the game — you can lose your job. If you’re a prizefighter and you lose too many fights, you can’t fight anymore. Most of these people, of course, are young. They’re 25, 26, 27, and if you’re a pitcher who gets knocked out too much, you lose your job. And when you lose your job and you’re 28 and you’ve trained from the age of 9 or 10, you have little to fall back on.
Is that why you wrote so often about Floyd Patterson? You did almost 40 stories on him. He was the heavyweight champ, but people seem to remember him more for some of the beatings he took.
I thought he had tremendous courage, because he had so little going for him physically. I don’t think he even belonged in the heavyweight class, and he only survived because there weren’t any massive killer men in the heavyweight division when he was first prominent. And then when the first of the big men came along — [Sonny] Liston — he pulverized Patterson. The second thing that made him interesting was that he was honest. He talked about his fears. He wasn’t reticent. He acknowledged what so many athletes have, which is a real internal fear.
Rosenwald also says that you “take notes in a rather unconventional way, on small pieces of shirtboard recycled from dry-cleaned shirts.” Is this true?
The laundry comes back with this wonderful cardboard. For decades the laundry has provided shirtboard. Most people throw the damn shirtboard out. This is trash to most people. It’s never been trash to me. What you do is you get a scissor and you cut it in five sections. Three shirts and you have fifteen pieces of cardboard, and it fits snugly in the breast pocket of your jacket. And then I write on it. It’s like a folding pad but it’s better than that. It’s easy to hold and it doesn’t flap back and forth.
Are there athletes you didn’t write about but wanted to?
I didn’t ever write about women sportswriters. I was just listening to WFAN a little while ago and some caller was talking about the incident in the Jets locker room. I went to a couple Jets games because I have a young sportswriter friend whose name is Greg Bishop, the Jets beat writer for the Times. I know him because I wrote him a fan letter about a year and a half ago, and then a couple times last year he took me to games. As a result he took me to the locker room as he’s doing interviews after the game. That’s when I became aware of how many women are in the sports media and also how nude the men were in front of these women. When I was a sportswriter back in the fifties, I never saw anything like that. You don’t see big men nude unless you go to a professional football game.
What sports coverage do you follow? Do you read sports blogs?
I’m tuned into 660 WFAN all the time. I miss Mike and the Mad Dog as a couple. I think that they made a mistake breaking up. They were better as a team. Aside from listening to a radio station, I read the papers. I read the New York Post, the Daily News, the Times. I read Sports Illustrated. When I was in Russia in August, and I was in Buenos Aires after that and I was in Barcelona after that, I get on the Internet and check the scores. I mean, the goddamned Herald Tribune doesn’t have any sports.