Art and the sportswriter

Indeed, poets writing creative nonfiction have to learn a great many things; we have to learn how to breathe all over again. And while we encourage young poets to stray from the truth when writing, this is not because we are looking for fiction but because we want them to seek out the larger truth in the moment being described. Whereas a poet might change a few details, or most of them, in a poem, creative nonfiction holds writers to the facts. This is, at times, inconvenient. But what I’ve learned is that this discipline—different from the measured discipline of constructing lines and the economy of phrasing—offers the poet a chance to tell a different kind of truth. It forces us to find only the truth the events reveal, rather than the truth we (sometimes) want to expose.

I was initially attracted to the book more for my interest in Churchill—that canny, paradoxical, invariably fascinating man—than for my interest in painting, though I had had an involvement in art from the time I was a boy growing up in Chicago. My parents occasionally took me to the glorious Art Institute, where I was introduced to, among other works, the riveting pointillism of Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” I took up drawing in grade school and got a scholarship to the school at the Art Institute, but then cast aside my temperas and brushes to concentrate on the more compelling youthful embrace of chasing ground balls on baseball diamonds and lofting basketballs through hoops on any available courts.

For the used-book bargain—a used-book steal, it turned out—of about five dollars, I bought “Painting as a Pastime,” which was first published in 1932 as an essay in Churchill’s collection of pieces, “Amid These Storms.” It tells the story of Churchill’s dismissal from the Admiralty in 1915, following which, he writes, he felt lost “like a sea-beast fished up from the depths.” He needed something to occupy his time and mind, and, by happenstance, he discovered painting and took to it, he wrote, “with Berserk [sic] fury.”

One section of the essay made a particular and stunning impression on me. It concerned Churchill’s experience in learning to make detailed observations of the world around us:

I was shown a picture by Cézanne of a blank wall of a house, which he had made instinct [sic] with the most delicate lights and colours. Now I often amuse myself when I am looking at a wall or a flat surface of any kind by trying to distinguish all the different colours and tints which can be discerned upon it, and considering whether these arise from reflections or natural hues. You would be astonished the first time you tried this to see how many and what beautiful colours there are even in the most commonplace objects, and the more carefully and frequently you look the more variations do you perceive.

I was struck, too, by Churchill’s newly expanded view of Nature: “So many colours on the hillside, each different in shadow.” I had never before noticed, or absorbed, the drama of—for example—shadows on buildings. In museums and in art books, I began keying in on what Hopper and Vermeer, among others, did with shadows. Keeping this in mind when I went to cover sports events—and struggling in the never-ending pursuit of becoming a better writer—I made a conscious point to look for the varied and perhaps obvious but generally little observed particulars of a setting or scene or individual, and to include these vivid details, when fitting, in my stories. This practice also helped me accomplish something that the great sportswriter Red Smith often advised young writers to do: give the reader the sense of “being there.”

I remember an early and explicit example of trying to put these lessons to work—the aspect, for example, of “noticing shadows.” It was baseball spring training, March 1973, and the Mets were playing a game against the Dodgers at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. Willie Mays, the future Hall of Famer, then with the Mets, was two months shy of 42 years old and in his 22nd big league season. Mays came to bat in the first inning to polite applause from the fans, many of whom were retired and appreciated, I wrote, “an old fellow’s efforts.” I added:

Mays and his shadow, which was slight in the early afternoon sun, each acknowledged the reception with a characteristically quick wiggle of the bat. … He looked lively and light at the plate. His helmet was fastened tight on his head. His knit, concentrating brows, pursed lips, and soft Mets’ cap stuffed in his left back pocket gave the impression that he was still the ebullient ‘Say Hey’ kid of Polo Grounds lore.

The eye deceives. Mays is an aging veteran hanging on. … His knees have to be constantly drained; there is gray in his balding head. …

In that first time at bat, he managed to crack a double off the left-field wall, but in his second and last time up, on a 3-2 pitch,

… he and his shadow took a mighty swing at an outside-corner curve ball. `Whoo,’ went the crowd. But Mays’ effort was fruitless. He struck out.

Mays walked back to the bench: His shadow trailed behind.The shadow was longer than before. The sun was lower. It was later in the afternoon.

And that latter shadow, alas, seemed to augur the end: 1973 was Willie Mays’ last season as a baseball player.

After devouring Churchill’s book, I continued to seek out volumes about art or artists with the express intent of gleaning an outlook from their canvases that I might apply to my writing. In reading “The Letters of Vincent van Gogh” to his brother Theo, I was impressed with van Gogh’s ability to plumb his heart as well as his powers of observation. One sentence in particular resonated with me: “You ought to have seen it this week when we had rain, especially in the twilight when the lamps were on and their lights reflected in the wet street.”

I’m sure I buried some of these views in my subconscious, or perhaps not even that deep, for when I sat in the press box before a game that would eventually be rained out, I wrote:

… Rain everywhere.The big black scoreboard is blacker for the wash.The outfield is soaked. Cops stand outside the dugout, their black slickers glistening in the downpour.

Lights turned on: an ersatz sun, which brings no relief from the rain. But the tarpaulin’s puddles are now sprinkled with stars. The geometric railings give a glassiness to the stands.

In wishing to see how artists saw, to sharpen my own perceptions, I occasionally interviewed a true-blue artist. One of them was Roy Lichtenstein, whom I met in his studio in Manhattan in 1968. I asked how he viewed a sports event. His reply was instructive:

Distorted. My favorite sports-viewing is football on color television. And I like to turn the knobs to throw the picture out of focus. You get startling effects. The images are fantastic.

In fact, the results have sometimes influenced my work. My style is not simply to portray realism, but to parody the style of everyday art and commonplace things. And football sometimes offers elements of brutality and even hostility which may be seen in an artistic or aesthetic way—something tragically beautiful with Baroque entanglements.

It wasn’t long afterward that I wrote about football in October, taking notice of the “entanglements.” Surely, Lichtenstein’s words were somewhere in the back— maybe even the front—of my mind:

The sky can be bright blue or mellow yellow or soft gray with a sharp relief of charcoal clouds. … Permit for a suspended moment a nation caught up, eyes raised, mouths agape … at the short flight of a halfback, dangling on a concealed string at the goal line, as a mass of men, waiting for him to descend, crouch with arms wide like the jaws of crocodiles.

At some point, I began to take particular notice of the look of eyes in paintings— from the ghoul-like expressions that reveal anxiety, fear, jealousy or inner turmoil in the characters of Edvard Munch to the contemplative, sometimes searching regard in portraits by John Singer Sargent. Then I took notice of the eyes in my writing subjects—in the case of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, one eye:

With his one good eye, his left still piercing from behind steel-rim glasses, the black man, the one-time middleweight contender, half-blind because of a botched operation in prison, stood Friday at the lectern in front of an audience of some 400 people in the Austin Hall auditorium here at the Harvard Law School.

For nearly 19 years, he had looked out from behind steel bars until, in 1985, a federal judge in New Jersey determined that he had been unjustly and wrongly convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for a triple murder he did not commit. …

Details were, I’d like to think, what Ernest Hemingway referred to in his famous interview with George Plimpton in the anthology, “Writers at Work.” Hemingway said he visited museums, where he found inspiration in works by painters such as Tintoretto, Bosch, Bruegel, Goya, Giotto, Cézanne, van Gogh and Gauguin:

I was trying to learn … and was searching for the unnoticed things that made emotions, such as the way an outfielder tossed his glove without looking back to where it fell, the squeak of resin on canvas under a fighter’s flat-soled gym shoes… and other things I noted as a painter sketches.These were the things which moved you before you knew the story.

I found that hands often told a story of their own, in writing and painting. I remember seeing Rembrandt’s “Old Man Praying” in The Cleveland Museum of Art: the prominent veins in the hands of the ancient subject were, up close, nothing more than subtle brushstrokes! I never forgot those hands, particularly when I encountered the following: A weathered elderly man in top coat and fedora, who was about to pass me and my wife on Second Avenue in Manhattan one morning in 1980, walked with his left hand holding a cane and his right hand in the crook of the arm of his companion, a woman who may have been his wife or daughter. I quietly said to my wife, Dolly, “See him? He was once the toughest man in the world.” It was the former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey, then 84 years old. Upon his death three years later, I recalled those hands in a column:

They were and were not … the gloved fists that were painted by George Bellows in his famous oil titled“Dempsey and Firpo.”In that muscular painting … Dempsey, the defending champ, is seen flying backward through the ropes and into the first row of ringside seats from a blow by Luis Firpo. … Dempsey, dazed and enraged, would climb back into the ring and knock out Firpo in the second round.They were and were not the hands that, in 1919, some 60 years before, had savagely pounded Jess Willard to win the title.

The entire anatomy, I discovered, was subject to scrutiny and care by the great artists. Even the ear. My observation of Thomas Eakins’ “The Wrestlers” perhaps gave rise to my fascination with that particular fixture on the head of the “champeen rassler” Bruno Sammartino:

To peer at an ear of Bruno Sammartino is to look upon an object of awesome and grotesque magnificence. The shape is known as “cauliflower,” but that renders a sense of the delicate which is altogether what the appendage is not. If the ear were planted, it would be a bulbous potato; if installed, a carburetor. It could also be mistaken for a gnarled fist, a pummeled nose, a mangled toe.

Myron’s Discobolus (“discus thrower”), Elaine de Kooning’s abstract expressionist “Baseball Players” (runner sliding into the plate to avoid the catcher’s tag) and Picasso’s bullfighting lithograph “Jeu de la Cape” (matador in a nimble pass with a charging bull) capture perfectly, for me, the athlete’s resolve, power and grace in a frozen moment of action. Like many others, however, I will always associate perfection in performance with Nadia Comaneci, who, at the age of 14 in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, scored the first perfect score—10—in Olympic gymnastics history, then went on to achieve six more 10s and three gold medals. Five years later, the 19-year-old Comaneci was touring the United States in a gymnastics exhibition. I wrote about her in practice at Madison Square Garden, seeking to depict her in such a frozen moment—or, more precisely, moments:

In a simple, black warm-up uniform, her ponytail tied in a shimmery blue ribbon, wearing eye shadow and with red polish on the fingers of her calloused hands, Miss Comaneci elegantly, buoyantly, wingedly whirled through a series of flips, spins and leaps.

In relation to such athletic aesthetics, I was delighted by a description I heard of the great Greg Maddux before he was to pitch the second game of the 1996 World Series against the Yankees. I began my Sports of the Times column thus:

“Greg Maddux is an artist,”saidYankee manager Joe Torre.“Every time you swing at one of his pitches, it’s a ball, and when you don’t, it’s a strike.”

Indeed, Maddux, the Atlanta Braves right-hander, permits so little activity on the bases that each game could still be titled “Still Life.”

“I try to keep it simple,” Maddux told me. “At the same time, I try not to be too smart.The fewest amount of pitches you throw a hitter, the greater your chances of getting him out.”

A crucial element of success for Maddux, then, is that less is more. Or, as Henry James wrote,“In art, economy is always beauty.” …

Perhaps it was such stories that caught the attention of some editors and publishers in areas outside of sports, who invited me to write pieces for them regarding art. In 2006, I wrote a piece for The New York Times’ special “Museums” section:

I visited the Museum of Modern Art on a Sunday in early March to see the “Edvard Munch:The Modern Life of the Soul” exhibition. When the escalator deposited me on the sixth floor, where Munch’s paintings and lithographs are hung, I came upon what seemed, at first sight, like standing room only at Madison Square Garden.

It was as if half the population of the tri-state area had heard there were free pastrami sandwiches and made a beeline there. I couldn’t help recalling what Picasso said was his favorite joke—“Anarchists at drill:When the command is ‘Left Face,’ they all turn right. Because they are anarchists.” Well, I could have used a lot of those people I was encountering to do an about-face and leave. But I endeavored. After all, I already had a ticket.

And I was glad I did. It was a ticket into the wondrous and instructive world of art that knowingly or unknowingly I have gratefully possessed for quite some time. I can envision Churchill, with lit cigar, understanding fully.

About the Author

Ira Berkow

Ira Berkow has been a sports columnist and feature writer for The New York Times for 26 years. He shared a Pulitzer Prize for his feature story, The Minority Quarterback, in the series How Race is Lived in America.

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