Richard Ben Cramer, a journalist like no other I’ve read, clearly kept his ears open as well as his eyes. Cramer, who just passed away at the age of 62, listened. Listening is so much more effective than talking. Too many people who ask questions — journalists and otherwise — spend too much time holding the ball on their side of the conversation. Shut up, I kind of want to say politely, and let your subject answer.
Cramer did that. Cramer had to have. You don’t deliver as much sound as he did to a story without a very active ear. A good eye, too, and Cramer had that working at all times. The man heard what was going on and he noticed what was going on. It was a combination that could cut glass when set to the printed word.
I love to read baseball. I love to read politics. Richard Ben Cramer was so sharp at writing both that I could read him on either subject all day and all night — and I literally did. Cramer’s masterwork on politics, What It Takes: The Way to the White House, accompanied me on a cross-continent sprint the year it came out, 1992. I had to fly all night to Vancouver and fly all night the next night back to New York. What It Takes checked in at 1,047 pages, though who was counting? Today they’d make me buy it its own ticket. I’d have bought it one then if that’s what it had taken for me to take What It Takes where I had to go. It was the epitome of I-can’t-put-this-down storytelling.
What It Takes is a hexagon-shaped profile of approximately half the serious presidential primary field of 1988, when no incumbent was running, thus everybody in both parties was giving the race a spin. Cramer burrowed his way into a half-dozen heads that carried the loftiest of electoral aspirations. In so many words, he wondered what kind of a person thinks he’s fit to be leader of the free world? So he set about finding out, not just by getting to know his subjects — Messrs. Bush, Dole, Dukakis, Biden, Hart and Gephardt — but just about everybody who’d ever known them. Any one would’ve been a biography for the ages. But six? Via who knows how many hundreds of conversations and filtered through a half-dozen psychographic dialects that remained true to their subjects while never letting you forget they were gathered together under one hardcover roof?
Which, you might say, is where the reader enters the What It Takes story, on October 8, 1986, Game One of the NLCS at the Astrodome. It was the beginning of the George Bush campaign trail and it just happened to cross paths with the Mets’ pursuit of a pennant:
Tonight, George Bush will shine for the nation as a whole — ABC, coast to coast, and it’s perfect: the Astros against the Mets, Scott v. Gooden, the K kings, the best against the best, the showdown America’s been waiting for, and to cut the ribbon, to Let the Games Begin…George Bush. Spectacular! Reagan’s guys couldn’t have done better. It’s Houston, Bush’s hometown. They love him. Guaranteed standing O. Meanwhile, ABC will have to mention he was captain of the Yale team, the College World Series — maybe show the picture of him meeting Babe Ruth. You couldn’t buy better airtime. Just wave to the crowd, throw the ball. A no-brainer. There he’ll be, his trim form bisecting every TV screen in the blessed Western Hemisphere, for a few telegenic moments, the brightest star in this grand tableau: the red carpet on the Astroturf; the electronic light-board shooting patterns of stars and smoke from a bull’s nose, like it does when an Astro hits a home run; the Diamond Vision in riveting close-up, his image to the tenth power for the fans in the cheap seats; and then the languorous walk to the mound, the wave to the grandstand, the cheers of the throng, the windup…that gorgeous one-minute nexus with the national anthem, the national pastime, the national past, and better still…with the honest manly combat of the diamond, a thousand freeze-frames, a million words worth, of George Bush at play in the world of spikes and dirt, all scalded into the beery brainpans of fifty million prime-time fans…mostly men. God knows, he needs help with men.
So George Bush is coming to the Astrodome.
Disaster in the making.
“The thing is,” Cramer continued, “it couldn’t just happen. George Bush couldn’t just fly in, catch a cab to the ballpark, get his ticket torn, and grab a beer on the way to his seat. No, he’d come too far for that.” Meaning? Meaning there’d be six or seven pages on all the logistical ins and outs it took to get a sitting vice president to the mound of National League playoff game; five more on how Bush embraced the job he was compelled to settle for six years earlier; the introduction to the Astrodome scene of his explosive eldest son, George, and the element of danger he represented as he expressed his displeasure over the less-than-royal treatment his dad’s operation had allowed to transpire in his direction (“SEATS AIN’T WORTH A SHIT. I GUESS THE BOX GOT A LITTLE CROWDED…”); then back to the elder Bush and a hearty helping of the veep’s well-honed love of all things jockish, including a nugget about his friendships with Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan…all of which builds up to the “disaster” of a bulletproof vest-encumbered first pitch which Cramer foretold:
[H]is eyes still following the feckless parabola of his toss, which is not gonna…oh, God!…not gonna even make the dirt in front of the plate, but bounce off the turf, one dying hop to the…oh, God!
And as he skitters off the mound toward the first-base line, and the ball on the downcurve of its bounce settles, soundless, into Ashby’s glove, then George Bush does what any old player might do in his shame…what any man might do who knows he can throw, and knows he’s just thrown like a girl in her first softball game…what any man might do — but no other politician, no politician who is falling off the mound toward the massed news cameras of the nation, what no politician would do in his nightmares, in front of fifty million coast-to-coast, prime-time votes:
George Bush twists his face into a mush of chagrin, hunches his shoulders like a boy who just dropped the cookie jar, and for one generous freeze-frame moment, buries his head in both hands.
I love to read baseball. I love to read politics. What were the odds the two would converge this way?
Don’t care for politics? Cramer wrote baseball straight, too. His Joe DiMaggio: A Hero’s Life explained to me once and for all why my dad and his generation revered Joltin’ Joe beyond mere statistical measurement and more than hinted at why that reverence wouldn’t fly today. He was less iconoclastic toward Cal Ripken, Jr., at the height of streakmania in 1995 for Sports Illustrated, but every bit as characteristically sharp in observing the scene around him:
It’s a stinkin’-hot night at the ballpark — near 100°, the air is code red — and the Orioles are playing the cellar-dwelling Blue Jays. Still, it’s got to be a big night: It’s Coca-Cola/Burger King Cal Ripken Fotoball Night. That is, it’s the sort of ersatz event that is a staple of baseball now that payrolls are fat, attendance is slim, and the game — well, no one trusts the game to be enough. These new Orioles yield to no club in the promotional pennant race. There’s Floppy Hat Night, Squeeze Bottle Night, Cooler Bag Night. There’s an item called the NationsBank Orioles Batting Helmet Bank, and there’s the highly prized Mid-Atlantic Milk Marketing Cal Ripken Growth Poster. They are all a stylistic match for the graphics on the scoreboard that tell you when to clap or the shlub whose bodily fluids are draining into his fake-fur Bird Suit while he dances on the dugouts for reasons known only to him.
Still, as a celebration of the Hardest-Workin’ Man in Baseball, the hero of this Old-Fashioned Hardworkin’ Town, the Cal Ripken Fotoball is my personal favorite, perfect in every detail. There is the F in the name — gives it klass, and it’s korrect, because there’s no photo on the ball. There’s a line drawing of Cal’s face, with a signature across the neck. The signature is of the artist who made this genuine-original line drawing from a genuine-official photo of Cal. And then there’s the plastic wrapper — says it’s all Made in China. I like that in a baseball. And one key word: NONPLAYABLE. In other words, don’t throw or hit it, or this fotobooger will come apart.
Hours before game time, I wanted to ask Cal about his Fotoball. I wanted to ask how it feels to be the icon for baseball and Baltimore. But he’s hard to catch in the locker room. He has his locker way off in the corner, where his dad used to dress as a coach. The official-and-genuine Oriole explanation is that the corner affords him room for two lockers — one extra to pile up all the stuff fans send him. But it’s also unofficially helpful that there’s an exit door in that corner, and anyway it makes Cal plain hard to get to. (One day early in the season I was blocked entirely by the richly misshapen and tattooed flesh of Sid Fernandez.) And if you’re lucky enough to catch Cal, you’re still not home free: Even local writers — guys Cal knows — find that out. “Angle your story,” he might say, without looking at the writer, his eyes still on the socks in his hand. “Yeah…but what’s the angle?”
So the writer must explain what he means to write. “Cal, it’s just about all the second basemen you’ve had to play with — you know, 30 different guys to get used to.”
“No,” Cal says to his socks. “Doesn’t do me any good to answer that.”
See, these days, just a handful of games from Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive starts, he’s playing writers like he always plays defense, on the balls of his feet, cutting down the angles: How is this gonna come at me? Where should I play it? Positioning (forethought, control) has always been his game. And streak or no streak, Cal still has to play the game his way — that is, correctly: He’s got to click with his second baseman.
Fifteen years after I first read that, I wrote this, about a Mets promotion called Collector’s Cup Night. It’s a piece people remind me of to this day. I realized today, as I sought out his writing, that my Collector’s Cup was a direct descendant of Richard Ben Cramer’s Fotoball. He paid attention and he wasn’t so occupationally immersed in his habitat that he was incapable of making note of its occasional absurdities. To him, it was a Fotoball. To me it was the notion that we were actively Collecting Cups. His Ripken story was about far more than a silly sponsored promotion, but a little slice of it served as a quiet inspiration to some writer somewhere. A multitude of his slices have over time, actually.
Richard Ben Cramer’s writing was just that sharp.