The phenoms we know about. But forget them. They were overrated, that's all, and we cannot cry about water finding its own level, at their having to go on to pumping gas or selling mutual funds. After all, they had their day in the sun, even if it was only a hazy day of spring; that is a freebie, one more day in the limelight than the rest of us will get. No, the ones to weep for are those who honestly had it but were denied a lifetime of fame by some sad, unlikely fate. Tony Lema died one way, Harry Agganis and Ernie Davis another. Who knows how good Connie Hawkins might have been? Herb Score could have rewritten all the record books, page after page. But for injuries Pete Reiser and Lew Hoad might have made us forget Cobb and Tilden.
And Tony DeSpirito, the late Tony DeSpirito. Most people don't even know the name anymore. Others had forgotten it until it flashed fuzzily before them, an old tune we danced to at the beach one summer, when the word came the other day that he had died, age 39. His mother found him on a Monday morning on the couch in the little apartment he rented in Riverside, R.I. For reasons nobody understands, he choked to death. That's what the autopsy determined. Probably there were too many parts inside him that were just too busted up or worn down. But only 39, that just doesn't seem fair. Especially after all the spills that nearly killed him with his boots on, all the horses' hooves running over him. He had the last rites twice. And he would come back; he even rode into 1973, but each time there was something else diminished, if never the courage.
What a waste. The late Tony DeSpirito could have been the best there ever was on a horse, the very best. He knew that himself. When he visited his children, who had been too young to see him when he was great, sometimes he would laugh and say, "I'm the king. I am. Nobody could ever do on a horse what your father did." And there was no braggadocio to it. It was almost teasing. He just wanted his children to know, for the record. He would laugh. "The king, Donna. Your father was the king."
Even from an outside hole he could drive a horse out of the gate and put it on the engine, or from off the pace he could finish as well as Garrison or Arcaro or Cordero or any man who ever lived, and in between he rode so straight and beautifully, absolutely classically. The oldtimers say you could have put a glassful of water on the late Tony DeSpirito's back, and he would win by a nose in the last jump and never spill a drop. That is what the oldtimers say.
In 1952, when he was 16 years old, he won 390 races, more than anybody ever had before him. Everybody thought he was 17, but he had lied about his age when he quit school and went to the track. He wasn't 17 till Christmas Eve that year. He would have ridden more than 390 winners, but before he got close to the record he would just take off his mounts a day here and there and get in his latest Cadillac, of which (by the best family estimates) he owned 17 in one year's time, and go pick up some tall, big-breasted, grown woman and spend the afternoon with her.
And when people talk about the late Tony DeSpirito that wondrous year, what above all is the first thing they say, the very first thing? It is that he was brought up special from Miami to be on
after he broke the record. That certifies it, his greatness. From age 17 it was never so good again, and all bad luck. He was just on
the one time.
Willie Shoemaker is 43 years old. He broke DeSpirito's record the next year, 1953. This year, 1975, Shoemaker is still in perfect shape, body and mind. He has no weight problem and expects to ride another decade or more. Why not? He hits a golf ball straight for better than 200 yards and plays tennis with people like Burt Bacharach. He has had the same agent all his life. His money is in a safe place. He is not just liked and respected but damn near sainted. Not long after Mrs. DeSpirito found her oldest son dead in Riverside, Willie Shoemaker won the Belmont on Avatar; and he is having one of the better seasons of his 26-year career. Willie Shoemaker, like anyone else, does not know why it is that these things happened to him and those things to the late Tony DeSpirito. He says, "Some people go through doors, Tony ran into them." Come to think of it, you can't say it any better than that.
Tony's mother has read about him in the paper so many times that she plays it back. She says, "Tony was just a hard-luck kid." Have you ever before heard a mother say that her son was a "hard-luck kid"? Probably not. But there is nothing much else to say unless you want to talk about the doors.
In the early '50s DeSpirito in the East was considered the equal of Shoemaker in the West. And DeSpirito was said to have more potential because he was stronger. DeSpirito was the one they compared to Arcaro more often; Arcaro himself thought the kid from New England would be his heir. Many people still refer to DeSpirito as "the kid." It is not that it was a nickname; they just say it unconsciously. He is 39 years old, dead in the ground, and he is still the kid. "Oh, you want to talk about the kid." "Lemme tell you about the kid." "I knew the kid some 20-odd years." And so forth.
This is what happens when you scale the top at age 16, and then can't ever outdo it. Athletes get frozen in time. They get attached to a certain year. People say, "Oh, yeah, that was his year." "That was Walt Dropo's year." "That was Dick Kazmaier's year." "Wasn't that Tom Gola's year?" Nobody ever says this about other people. Nobody once ever said that 1776 was Thomas Jefferson's year. Maybe just athletes have years—and very few of them—usually just the kids. Willie Shoemaker never had a year. But 1952 was the late Tony DeSpirito's year, and when we are all dead, the lot of us, when things are even, he will be able to say that he had the one thing very few others had. Maybe that is why nobody ever heard him rail at the misfortunes dealt him. At least he had a year in his hip pocket.