I was saddened Sunday to learn of the passing of Bert Randolph Sugar, the writer and raconteur who left us in his mid-70s but seemed sent here from a much earlier age. Bert, as you probably know if you’re a sports fan, was the gravelly-voiced, twinkly-eyed fella who wore a fedora, held a stogie and shared what he knew on those subjects he knew best. Primarily it was boxing, occasionally it was baseball, always it was entertaining. He was a regular in documentaries about the way things used to be, yet never seemed at a loss to discuss the way things were lately.
He was something you don’t hear people described as much anymore. He was a charming gentleman. Or maybe a charming rascal. Or a rascally charmer. I don’t know. I do know the fifteen or so minutes I spent with Bert Randolph Sugar were unlike any quarter-hour I’ve spent with anybody else.
Our sole encounter occurred at a company holiday party a mere 15 months ago, in December 2010. Neither of us worked for this company but we had each had our services engaged by it, and the mutual friend who invited us was the only person I was sure I knew there. When I stuck close to my friend, it was a swell party. When he had to excuse himself to make his requisite corporate rounds, it became like most parties for me where I didn’t know anybody: a mostly desolate experience from which I sought to run out the clock, at least until my friend returned. Between nibbles and sips of whatever was handy, I looked around to see if, by some remote chance, there was anyone else I recognized.
There was. I recognized Bert Randolph Sugar, whose persona was as familiar as his name was unforgettable. How could you not recognize him? The fedora was on his head, the stogie was in his hand and the gravel and the twinkle were in full effect.
Thirty-five years earlier, before I knew what Bert Randolph Sugar looked or sounded like, I learned his name. It was the December I was about to turn 13. My Bar Mitzvah was around the corner, in January, but there was still a birthday on the calendar. I didn’t want to be greedy, but I asked my parents if I could have one thing unrelated to my allegedly “becoming a man,” namely The Sports Collector’s Bible by Bert Randolph Sugar. I’d seen ads in the backs of magazines for this unprecedented volume. The Sports Collector’s Bible promised to rate and value all manner of things people like me saved — baseball cards, baseball programs, baseball tchotchkes of all manner. My single birthday wish was granted and I received it.
And now the man who wrote the book on baseball card collecting, and would go on to write dozens of books besides (including one to which I had recently contributed a sliver of content) was in my midst three-and-a-half decades later. So I decided — despite being a socially uncomfortable almost-13-year-old trapped inside the body of a socially uncomfortable almost-48-year-old — to open my mouth and introduce myself to someone who surely had better things to do, or at least more important people to talk to.
Whether he did or not, Bert Randolph Sugar gave me no such impression. He talked to me as if I rated being in a conversation with Bert Randolph Sugar.
What did we talk about? A little about baseball, for starters. I told him I wrote about the Mets. We agreed the Mets probably weren’t going to be very good in 2011, but he assured me it could be worse. He grew up a fan of the old Washington Senators, the American League’s perennial cellar-dwellers of his youth. I thought the Mets were bad?
“The Senators were so bad, they had a double play combination of second base to shortstop to the right field stands!”
Bert Randolph Sugar made me laugh very hard.
I thanked him belatedly for my 13th-birthday present. He seemed to appreciate that, though rued how the hobby kids like me relished became a big business since he never made any money off it. Of course that was so many books ago for him. On why he was so prolific, he quoted his better half.
“My wife says I can’t say no. If I were a woman, I’d always be in a family way!”
As for everything else Burt Randolph Sugar held forth on after he invited me to sit with him in the midst of this bustling, buzzing holiday gala, I’m not sure I can repeat much of it in polite company. The party itself, for example:
“I’ve seen better-organized…”
Yeah, I better not say what he said he’d seen that were better-organized.
Nor should I be too explicit about his appraisal of some of the young ladies who sashayed by. What they, uh, had that met with his approval is better kept between him and me.
Same for his opinion of what he had to “haul” in order to make it to this party all the way over on the West Side, which I assumed that for Bert Randolph Sugar was a side too far, since he disdainfully placed our location as “almost to the river!” We were barely west of Eighth Avenue, but I didn’t contradict his sense of geography.
As it happened, the thing he had to haul was the same thing he admired on the young ladies. Or half of what he liked about each of them (you can do the math). Let’s just say that whereas I’ve heard many a person bemoan having to “haul ass,” I’ve never heard anybody other than Bert Randolph Sugar claim to have hauled what he claimed to have hauled to Eighth Avenue.
In the singular, no less.
Soon, somehow, he was on to a story about Las Vegas and being mistaken for Hugh Hefner. That was pretty tame, actually, but since it involved Playboy, it felt randy enough, so maybe it’s best to hold back on the details — though the punchline was his wife telling him upon his return home, “I’m glad somebody else still finds you attractive.”
This led to a joke he picked up from his Southern in-laws, one that involved multiple religions. It was pretty clever, but I suppose it has the capacity to offend, so I’ll resist the temptation to pass it along. But I can tell you Bert Randolph Sugar taught me the key to telling a good “a rabbi, a priest and a minister” joke — on the off chance that I plan to tell one in this century — is to make the first example in the joke a “throwaway” line. Sets up the payoff like Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope set up his knockout blow…which I imagine he might have added had I pressed him on the sport for which he was considered a walking encyclopedia.
Honestly, though, you didn’t have to imagine things Bert Randolph Sugar might have told you. What he told you was plenty.
“When you’re old, you can say what you want,” he assured me with his gravelly laugh. It was a preemptive cushion against the kind of shock he obviously knew he good-naturedly provoked in strangers who learned a few people still deigned to speak as he did in polite company. Advanced age — in concert with an anachronistic hat, an unlit cigar, an inherent level of fame and that undeniable twinkle — did indeed make his brand of chat seem less offensive than adorable. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t advise trying to replicate Bert Randolph Sugar’s conversational style should you find yourself adrift at your next party. Social mores suggest a guarded, tactful approach to small talk will serve you better in the long run.
Then again, if I were to add up all the pleasantries I’ve endured at all the parties to which I’ve ever hauled [whatever], the sum total wouldn’t remotely match the square tonnage of joy I accumulated from my fifteen minutes of listening to Bert Randolph Sugar say whatever he felt like saying, however he felt like saying it.
Polite company can be overrated, no matter what side of town you’re on.