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Posted: Wednesday December 17, 2008 9:31AM; Updated: Wednesday December 17, 2008 3:28PM
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George, Being George (cont.)

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Plimpton-Lions.jpg
Plimpton trained as a quarterback with the Lions and then wrote the book Paper Lion.
Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated

Myra Gelband: It was Out of My League, with that terrific blurb from Hemingway -- George as the explorer of the dark side of Walter Mitty -- which launched him as a literary sportswriter. But he didn't really make his mark until the early sixties, with Paper Lion.

Donald Hall: One year after Out of My League came out, several writers were invited to try out for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and I was one of them. I was a terrible athlete, and I knew it. I weighed two hundred and fifty pounds. Anyway, the night before I suited up for the first time, to meet the players, I called George in New York and I said that I was nervous. George talked to me very soberly and very practically; he advised me to get to know a particular player, make him into a friend. Then he said, "Above all, Donald, don't be sullen." I said, "George, do I sound sullen?" He said, "Donald, you sound as though you are walking into the valley of the shadow of death." And of course, I ripped it off. I printed that whole dialogue. It was the beginning of my essay.

Starling Lawrence: Sportswriters are a pretty earnest bunch of folks. By and large, they take the home run and the no-hitter very seriously. Then there's George, who has a wonderful way of mocking himself and everything else. I don't know another sportswriter who was coming from quite the same place or had the same touch.

James Salter: George wanted to do things with champions but never boasted of it. I remember once he told me of interviewing Muhammad Ali when he was training for some fight, and he went to Ali's trailer and Ali had to excuse himself because someone else was there. He said, "You're going to have to wait outside for a while," and Wilma Rudolph, the famous black Olympic champion sprinter, came into the trailer, and they closed the door. George said he was sitting around outside for quite a while, in fact more than an hour. Finally, Wilma Rudolph came out and went off. Anyway, some years later, George went to see him again and said, "Champ, the last time I saw you was when you were down in Florida, training for the fight." And Ali said, "I remember: Wilma Rudolph." That's the story George would tell about himself. Most interviewers would say, "I'm tight with Ali. I went down and I interviewed him," and this and that, but George wasn't that way.

Bud Shrake: I can remember seeing George in the locker room talking to Ali. Ali always had a good eye; he always recognized someone who was way beyond average, and this was not your routine sportswriter he was talking to. When George walked up, Ali's eyes would sort of light up with this mischievous little glint, and you could tell he was getting ready to put George on, or have fun with George, or enjoy George's company.

Ray Cave: His description in "Bogey Man" [1967] of the guy in the Port-o-Let at the U.S. Open is classic sportswriting. George is out on the course standing next to a Port-o-Let with some guy in it. The guy opens the door, and the door squeaks loudly, and when he looks out, there's Arnold Palmer about ten yards away in the rough, about to hit his shot. So the guy closes the Port-o-Let. And he waits, and he waits, and he figures that Mr. Palmer must have hit his shot by now. But Arnold can't stand it; he's been waiting for the guy to finish his business and come out. He says, "George, knock on that door!" One wonders if it ever happened. Enough of it happened. There was probably a squeaky door.

Bill Curry: The first day of [football] practice was no surprise, really, but really hard for him. He looked like a big, graceful guy on the tennis court, but he was forty-two years old and didn't run well; he wobbled in football gear. He also had an ankle that bothered him, and he appeared to be flat-footed. It was such a struggle for him, and yet he did everything we did. So he comes out the first day, and he's just standing there. Nobody's paying any attention, and he announces to the coach, "I want to get in on the drill." Well, the drill happened to be "the nutcracker," which is man on man, one blocker, one tackler, one ball carrier. Our coach, Don McCafferty, said, "Well, George, which spot do you want?" "I want to carry the ball." "You sure?" "Yeah." So he runs up in there.

We had three All World linebackers, the least famous of which was Ray May. Ray would not have injured anyone purposely, but he tackled George and drove him into the ground, and when he did, George was just stunned. When he got up, he was just standing there, his arm flapping painfully. He said, "My God, look at this." So, everybody kind of looked at each other and said, "Well, that's it for him. We won't see him anymore." That afternoon he shows up, heavily taped, and comes out. He did well at the center/quarterback exchange, traditionally one of the first things you do in football practice. The center, hiking the ball to the quarterback, creates a really explosive boom! The ball smashes into the palm of the quarterback, including the thumb. If the quarterback is right- handed, and that right hand is the one that goes under the butt of the center, there's no way an amateur can take a snap and actually grasp the ball, but George did. When that happened, people started to take him seriously. He got respect from the guys who were already inclined to welcome an outsider, and a couple of weeks later he had everybody eating out of his hand. He never missed a practice.

Bill Curry: Let me tell you about the origin of the title of the book One More July: It was the early 1970s, I was home in Atlanta, and I thought I was going to retire. Then Bart Starr got his job with the Green Bay Packers, and he called 'cause he desperately needed a center. My knee was destroyed, but I thought I could play football one or two more years, so I started thinking about whether I was going to give it another shot and go up for training camp in July, like I'd been doing for most of my adult life.

Meanwhile, I was interviewing for insurance jobs in Atlanta. I went into one interview with a good friend of mine, and he said, "Look, Bill, let me put this into perspective for you: If you're telling me that your passion in life is the insurance business, you'll be a marvelous representative; but if all you're doing is looking forward to July, to training camp -- if this is just going to be your next July for a while, then you're wasting your time." I drove from that interview to another, again with a good friend of mine who was in the business. He sat across from me, looked me in the eye, and said, "What do you really want to do?" and I said, "Oh, my gosh. Bingo." I grabbed a napkin and wrote, "One more July." I said, "Excuse me, I've got the title of the book that George Plimpton and I are going to write."

Myra Gelband: Within minutes after I got the [Sidd Finch] manuscript, George called and said, "What do you think?" Now, I don't remember him being that insecure, but he hadn't written anything for us for a while, and this was so different and so secret -- I mean, we didn't tell anybody about it. I said, "I'll read it on the train." I read it and I called him in the morning and said it was wonderful. He said, "Has Mark [Mulvoy] read it?" and I said, "I'm giving it to him now." He said, "Well, call me as soon as he reads it." And of course, it's not the only story you're working on when you're working for a weekly newsmagazine. So I gave it to Mark Mulvoy and said, "George wants to know what we think of it." I don't think I was even back at my desk yet when Mark -- who's very compulsive about things like that -- called me, laughing, and said, "I'm on page four." And it was a long piece. So I said, "Well, keep going, it gets better." I don't think he even got to the end before he called George himself.

Jonathan Dee: As publication day approached, George was consumed by the fear that he had gone too far and no one could possibly fall for it. The day the issue hit newsstands -- April Fools' Day 1985 -- happened to be a day when he had to do one of these goddamned speeches, in South Carolina this time. He begged me before he left, "If anybody calls, try to keep the joke going for as long as you can." Which made me extremely nervous. I didn't think I could handle that at all. As it turned out, that was a big moment in my relationship with him, because I was able to do it, and I think he was happy to discover that I was on his wavelength enough to be trusted to go through with something like that.

Anyway, the big morning arrived, and the phone did not stop ringing all day long. Other journalists called. They thought it was on the level. To give you an idea -- the sportscaster at Channel Eleven, Jerry Girard, called the office and said, "I've gotten Sidd to agree to an interview on the news tonight. Will George come, too?" I said, "I give you my word that if Sidd is there, George will be there."

Peter Matthiessen: There was something about him -- in those antics -- that bordered on the foolish, or buffoonish almost. But that was the source of his humor, and it was wonderful. His craft was based on self-deprecation; it was the source of his charm and his wit. His wide-eyed and buffoonish look at things like the guy going in the flying lawn chair. He loved that sort of quirky thing. He's laughing at the absurdity. I think it's one of his most appealing qualities: the self-deprecation, but also the laughter at human folly.

More Plimpton

Read some of the classic Plimpton stories from Sports Illustrated:
The Curious Case of Sidd Finch (April 1, 1985)
Birds Thou Never Wert (December 28, 1981)
Thrown to the Lions (August 6, 1973)
Beneath the Eyes of Arnie (February 6, 1967)
Great Days Under Sail (October 15, 1956)

To buy a copy of George, Being George, go here.

 
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