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The Natural
Terry McDonell
October 06, 2003
A singular man of letters, he pushed the limits of journalism and helped define sport in the 20th century even as he elevated it
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October 06, 2003

The Natural

A singular man of letters, he pushed the limits of journalism and helped define sport in the 20th century even as he elevated it

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He was also a physical presence, 6'4" and lean, and blessed with infectious energy and great physical courage. (George helped wrestle the gun from Sirhan Sirhan's hand moments after Sirhan shot Senator Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles in 1968.) These gifts served him well as a participatory journalist—a label he characterized as "that ugly descriptive"—and took him from tennis with Pancho Gonzalez to the NBA with the Celtics and golf with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus to high-flying on a trapeze with the Flying Apollos. Adventure after adventure he described elegantly in nearly three dozen books but not at the expense of the most eccentric of notions, like finding out what it was like to mouth-catch a grape dropped from the top of Trump Tower.

For April Fool's Day 1985, at the prompting of then SI managing editor Mark Mulvoy, George concocted the Buddhist pitcher, Sidd Finch, he of the 168-mile-an-hour fastball. Finch was said to be under wraps at the Mets' training camp, and the club went along, helping to stage bogus photographs. Everybody fell for it. When the prank was exposed (it had been signaled in the piece's subhead), bumper stickers appeared proclaiming SIDD FINCH LIVES, and The Curious Case of Sidd Finch was published as a novel in 1987.

The preposterous Finch was made almost credible by George's reputation and accomplishments as a literary journalist and editor, and his travels with figures as diverse as Hemingway, Muhammad Ali and Bobby Kennedy. He wrote about scientists and poets and presidents and condors. George knew everybody: Sinatra, Mailer, Hef, Warren, Jackie and, that's right, Elvis too. And no matter who you were, if you were with him or even just at the same party, his manners always pulled you in, as good manners always do, making you feel comfortable and in on at least some of the secrets.

The world will be different without George Plimpton, less fun. Which is clear from what I have already left out: the movies, the fireworks, the expeditions. Or this: It was dusk, and we were taking a walk on a ranch road in eastern New Mexico. Actually, we were birding—on the trail of the elusive burrowing owl that lives in prairie dog holes—but we were going about it in that deeply civilized way that allows you to bring your glass of wine along on your after-dinner expedition. We had seen no owls, but George had pointed out a bat or two when suddenly he was pulling his shirt over his head and flinging it in the air. What happened next was that the shirt, peaking at perhaps 25 feet, drew at least a half-dozen bats, which tracked it to the ground like dive bombers, squeaking their shrill bat squeaks. A second throw seemed to double the number of bats. And so on until the light was completely gone.

The trick, George explained, pulling the T-shirt back on, was to give the bats something that would come fluttering up on their sonar as potential food—like a gargantuan moth. "These bats are Tadarida brasiliensis mexicana" George said. "Mexican free-taileds to you." How did he know? When he was 12 George had had a very good time hunting bats and donating the "specimen skins" to museums. And it was almost predictable of him to pull something like bat expertise out of nowhere. With George, you always got something like that. Did you know that Camus played goal for the Oran Football Club but was never moved to write about it?

Last year George was made a chevalier, the highest rank in France's Legion of Honor—a token of which he loved to wear in his lapel to test the alertness of new French restaurants—and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. All the glamour and gravitas that earned him those honors rubbed off on SI, where for almost 50 years he charmed staffers, befriended writers and dedicated books to his various managing editors. The day before he died George closed the 50th anniversary issue of The Paris Review, and we had spoken that afternoon about how he might contribute to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's 50th Anniversary. As always, he had numerous ideas.

With his passing SI loses a very good friend, and I lose my best. And it is not at all surprising to me that so many others out there feel the same way.

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