Leigh Montville

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There aren’t many people I regularly quote, and there certainly aren’t many people I regularly quote twice. But, in the case of Leigh Montville, exceptions can be made.

If you’re from Boston, you probably know Leigh as the longtime Boston Globe columnist. If you’re a sports fan from the 1990s, you probably know Leigh as one of Sports Illustrated‘s all-time fantastic feature writers. And if you’re a reader of sports books, his biographies of (among others) Ted Williams and Babe Ruth are classics. Although we’re rarely in the same place at the same time, Leigh and I have crossed paths on multiple occasions, which leads to the two quotations …

First, when Leigh was promoting Ted Williams and I was promoting my book on the 1986 Mets, we appeared together on a television show. In the green room beforehand told him how uncomfortable the whole PR thing felt, and he said, “It’s a strange profession, right? We live in caves for two years, then we pop our heads out for two weeks to see the sunlight. Then we return to the cave.” That stuck with me.

Second, when Leigh was working on his Babe Ruth bio I asked, “Haven’t there been a lot of Babe Ruth books?” He said, without pause, “Sure, but there’s never been my Babe Ruth book.” God, I love that.

Anyhow, this week marks the release of Leigh’s newest literary offering, “Sting Like a Bee: Muhammad Ali vs. the United States of America, 1966-1971.” The reviews have been terrific, which is no surprise—Leigh is, truly, an elite sports writer.

Today Leigh Montville discusses his path toward journalism and his process for biography. He explains why the world needs more Ali and maybe even a little bit Manute Bol. One can follow him on Twitter here and read his SI content here.

Leigh Montville, you are the 309th Quaz Q&A …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So you’ve written some of the biggest, best sports books of the past few decades, but the one that’s often fascinated me is perhaps your least-discussed: “Manute: The Center of Two Worlds.” I’m way late on this, but I’ve always wanted to know–why a book on Manute Bol? What was the process like? And, having written it, how did it hit you when he died?

LEIGH MONTVILLE: I never had written a book before Manute. I always wanted to write one, but never could settle on a subject. Tom Callahan, a columnist at the Washington Post and then Time magazine, once said “You know, you don’t open up a copy of ‘The Sun Also Rises’ and read ‘Also by Ernest Hemingway, ‘Charlie Hustle: The Pete Rose Story.’” That stuck with me. I didn’t want to do the obvious for a first book. I wanted a different sort of subject, something or someone unique. That turned out to be Manute.

I was working for Sports Illustrated and wrote a story on him when he played for the Philadelphia 76ers. The guy came from the jungle of South Sudan, never had even seen a basketball or backboard until he was 18 or 19.  Four or five years later he was playing in the NBA. There was magic here. He was his own 7-foot-7 lottery ticket. People would do great things for him because they thought he had value on a basketball court. He could speak five languages, but couldn’t read or write any of them. He still had a 2.9 grade point average in his one year at the University of Bridgeport. Crazy stuff.

Simon and Schuster bought the proposal … for very short money. I didn’t care. This was the big idea at last. America would go crazy for Manute, the book, even more than for Manute, the man. This did not happen. In the end, with the expense of going to Khartoum and Cairo and other places, I might have made a penny for every hour I spent on the project. I also might have made minus a penny.

The culture change was unbelievable for Manute. He didn’t know how to hold a pencil when he came here, or how to drive a car or order a meal at a fast-food restaurant. Modern, industrialized life just hit him in a public flash. He could never hide, big as he was. The people in the Sudan thought he was a billionaire and always wanted money and time from him. Underneath the story of this journey, I felt there was more than a touch of sadness. When he died so young, I wondered if he would have been better off left in his village, just an incredibly tall guy in the jungle. I still wonder.

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J.P.: There is no shortage of Muhammad Ali books out there. So why a Muhammad Ali book? And how did you come up with the idea?

L.M.: Fast forward 20-something years after ‘Manute’ and I still was looking for that different sort of subject. The funny thing is that my biggest successes have been books about the obvious, my versions of ‘Charlie Hustle.’ I’ve written about iconic characters like Dale Earnhardt, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Evel Knievel. I still was looking for that weird book, maybe not ‘The Sun Also Rises,’ but maybe something that might resemble ‘Seabiscuit.’ Who wouldn’t want to write ‘Seabiscuit?’ A different sports story.

I proposed a book about Will McDonough, the late sportswriter/ broadcaster from Boston. I worked with him, knew him, thought he had a great backstory filled with gangsters and feuds and all kinds of stuff. The response was tepid. My editor at Random House told me to write a 25-page outline, which I did. In his quick rejection, he said that nobody around the country would be interested in a sportswriter from Boston, etc., etc. Other publishers felt the same way. My editor said I should find another iconic athlete who everybody knew. The anti-Seabiscuit approach.

I made a list of iconic athletes. Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Wilt Chamberlain, Bobby Orr, etc. They all had been subjects of biographies in recent years. I rejected one after another, done and done and done. There had to be someone else … and then Muhammad Ali popped into my mind. This was the most iconic athlete of all time. How had I forgotten him? Muhammad Ali.

David Remnick’s book, ‘King of the World,’ was terrific, but I remembered that it stopped after Ali won the title over Sonny Liston and proclaimed himself a member of the Nation of Islam. What if I picked up the story from there, Ali’s refusal to step forward for the draft, his time banned from boxing, his return to fight Joe Frazier and his acquittal by the Supreme Court in the end? The story just jumped at me. Muhammad Ali vs. the United States of America. There was drama, passion, Vietnam, religion, race relations, the Sixities, boxing, a jumble of stuff inside that package.

My editor heard the proposed title, told me to write two paragraphs (as opposed to 25 pages) and we had a deal the next day. In a bunch of ways the subject was perfect. I’m only 18 months younger than Ali, so I dealt with the draft and Vietnam when he did, got married when he did, lived through the same headlines he did. I also covered five of his fights later in his career, so I had a small history with a bunch of the characters involved in his story. There was an easy familiarity with the subject matter from the start.

This is a slice of time book, not a biography. It is a commentary on how we lived during the sixties as much as what happened in Ali’s life. The issues around him then resonate in our country today, probably louder than ever when you look at Black Lives Matter and the Muslim bans and the military adventurism and the right-leaning government in Washington. Would the Muhammad Ali of 1966 have trouble in 2017? Ali was Colin Kapernick expanded by a multiple of ten. Did Colin Kapernick have trouble?

From the May 11, 1965 Hartford Courant.
From the May 11, 1965 Hartford Courant.

J.P.: So I know you’re from New Haven, know you live in Massachusetts. But how did this happen for you? When did you know, “I want to write”? When did you know, “I can write”?

L.M.: I was in fifth grade, Dwight School, New Haven, Ct. Our teacher was Marie Esposito, “Miss Esposito.” She returned our book reports one day, student by student, but didn’t return mine. She told me to see her at the end of class. I was terrified, thought I had done something wrong. Instead, she praised me, said I had written a terrific paper and should think about becoming a writer when I grew up. She said this a number of times.

“You definitely could be a writer,” Miss Esposito said. Fifth grade.

“Really,” I said. Fifth grade.

She’s the only teacher who ever praised me like that during my entire school experience, including four years of college. I was foolish enough to believe her. I folded up her words and kept them in my pocket and whenever people asked what I was going to be, I said “a writer.” It’s a testament to the power of one compliment from one teacher, no matter when in life it is delivered. I signed up for the Connecticut Daily Campus on my first week at the University of Connecticut and went from there. It was an eight-page daily newspaper, a lot of space to fill, and I was the editor in chief in my senior year.

Writing is an insecure business. I don’t know if you ever fully say “I can write.” You don’t have to look far to find something that someone else wrote that makes you feel like you’re lost in the grammatical woods. I obviously think I can tell a story in a serviceable and somewhat appealing way because that is what has fed and clothed me for 50 years and sent a couple of kids through college, but there is always the thought that you could do much better. It’s part of the job.

A columnist at the Boston Globe once said, ‘I’m not a writer, John Cheever is a writer.’ I sort of feel that way,

J.P.: As you certainly know by now, another excellent writer/reporter, Jonathan Eig, has an Ali biography coming out later in the year. And, having experienced this sort of thing myself, I wonder how that makes you feel? Do competitive juices kick in? Are you at all nervous he has stuff from 1966-71 that you don’t? Do you want his book to do well? Do you sorta want his book to do well? Does it matter to you either way?

L.M.: I know Jonathan a bit. We were on a panel together because I had written the book about Babe Ruth and he had written a book about Lou Gehrig. We became friendly, talked on the phone, emailed, went out to dinner. He knew I was writing this book about Ali and called me one night and said he had a possible deal to do a full-scale Ali biography. He wondered if he should do it. I told him, finding myself down some semi-blind alleys at the time, which was well before Ali’s death, that it was a tough proposition because there were a million older Ali books in the marketplace and a lot of primary sources had died and the ones who were alive mostly said the same old things and people often wanted money and blah-blah-blah. He thanked me and said he was going to think it over. The very next day—in the morning of the very next day—my editor called and said he had received a press release that Jonathan had signed to do the book. So I guess I wasn’t very convincing.

I wish him good luck. He’s a fine writer, fine researcher. I’m sure he has come up with some different stories, opinions, whatever, from within my time frame. Ali is a guy who can be approached from assorted directions. His death, well after I talked to Jonathan, opened up a bunch of sources and made new books more compelling. I think ten more writers could write ten more books and each would come up with different material or different presentations. How many books are there about Lincoln and Washington and, hell, Frank Sinatra and Elvis? Good luck to everybody. It’s a jungle in the book world. The best thing is that these two books aren’t coming out at the same time. That would cloud the waters for both of us. I’m here in May and he is in October.

Good luck to Jonathan. Good luck to me.

With daughter Robin at Fenway for their annual Opening Day adventure.
With daughter Robin at Fenway for their annual Opening Day adventure.

J.P.: You and I overlapped for a couple of years at Sports Illustrated, and I’m guessing we’d agree the magazine isn’t what it once was. I wonder: A. How does the decline of print make you feel? B. How does the decline of SI’s influence make you feel? C. Do you still read it?

L.M.: The decline of print, of course, is stupefying for anyone who has made a living in the print world for a long time. Maybe, if we can bring back coal by changes in legislation, we can do that for print, too. (That’s a joke.) Everything changed so quickly. There was a time when it looked like computers were going to make newspapers and magazines incredibly efficient and then, whoof, computers made them almost obsolete. It seemed to happen overnight.

SI always was a standard for excellence, the golden place where a sportswriter wanted to be. It was an honor to be there, to be part of a great tradition. The magazine has just gotten thinner and thinner as ads have disappeared. There are still some great stories and some great writers, but it takes about a third of the time to read it now than it did when you and I were there. My subscription lapsed about a year ago and I am going to re-up one of these days. I’m embarrassed that I haven’t already done it.

There is a ray of hope. My 11-year-old grandson loves Sports Illustrated. He races to the mailbox every Thursday after school, takes the magazine and disappears into his bedroom. He did this in January when the swimsuit issue arrived. My daughter left him alone for a while, then knocked on his door.

“What is this?” my grandson asked. “Why are there are all these women in bathing suits?”

“It’s the swimsuit issue,” my daughter said. “They do it every year.”

“Well, it’s awful. I don’t understand.”

“What don’t you understand?”

“There’s no sports and it’s supposed to be Sports Illustrated!”

I love that.

J.P.: Your Ted Williams biography is one of my all-time favorites. So how do you go about reporting a straight birth-to-death biography? Are there certain steps you always take? Do you feel like you know what the narrative will be going in?

L.M.: Ted Williams is not a straight birth-to-death biography. I always say that outside of the Bible, this is the only biography where the subject dies and you are not sure what happens next. Cryogenics. A fine plot device.

Sports biographies are a bit different from most famous-man biographies. There usually are no letters from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, not a lot of correspondence. Athletes don’t do that much. There usually are, however, reams of stories about these characters in newspapers, magazines and book after previous book. The beauty of modern research is that a writer can sit at his computer and find material that other writers never have found by climbing through the stacks in faraway libraries. You don’t have to go to Atlanta any more to search the morgue at the Atlanta Journal. We are in a golden age of research.

When I wrote Ted Williams I called up Peter Guralnick, who wrote those two bios of Elvis and a bunch of other wonderful books about music. I didn’t know him, but he lives near Boston. I asked for a tip and he graciously told me he uses index cards as a basic tool. He collects material and writes the information on the cards and then can move them around to different places in the narrative.

I tried this, but I wasn’t organized enough. I mostly collect material in piles and on the computer, trying to keep everything chronological. I think you have a general idea of where you’re going in the story when you start, but would love to find some side streets or alternate routes along the way, places where nobody else has been.

The book on Ted was a combination of interviews and published material. I think that’s the best way to operate. The book on the Babe, most of his contemporaries long gone, was more academic-style research. This, to me, was not as satisfying. The other books have been a mixture. Ali is a mixture. I did find some important court transcripts that never had been published, plus some great recorded interviews of Ali and everyone around him in 1966. Plus I had some in-person interviews, especially with his ex wife, Khaliah, that went down those side streets and alternate routes.

At the start of every book, I tell myself that I am going to find a non-chronological way to tell the story. I always fall back into the same birth-to-death slog. I think it’s the basic form of the exercise, the iambic pentameter of biographies, almost impossible to break.

I heard some biographer on television say that “you never think you have enough material, but you usually do.” That is a dead-solid truth. You drive yourself batty because you always think there is one more phone call you have to make. Robert Caro, the Lyndon Johnson biographer, the Robert Moses biographer, has set that bar so high with his research he has left the rest of us with dizzy feelings of inferiority.

As a private in the PR corps of the Massachusetts National Guard.
As a private in the PR corps of the Massachusetts National Guard.

J.P.: You turn 74 this year. I’m obsessed with aging, and not in a good way. I wonder—74 … how does that feel to you? Sound to you? Do you at all find it harder to relate with modern athletes than when you were in your 20s, 30s? And, as a whole, how does aging make you feel? Is it something you fret about?

L.M.: I love the David Bowie quote that “Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.” I think it’s absolutely true. The bullshit is gone. You really don’t have to prove anything to anyone any more. Including yourself.

I used to worry the way you worry now. It’s different when you get here. That’s all I can say. It’s not a big deal. If you have a semblance of health—and I do so far, knock-knock—you’re all right. You live the day more than plan for the future. You can pursue what you want at your own pace. I always say it’s like extra time in soccer before they put the number of minutes left on the scoreboard. The referee has the clock and we don’t know how long the game is going to last. I’m the same age as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Maybe the ref has lost his whistle.

Not working any more in the day-to-day crush with modern athletes, it really doesn’t matter if I relate. Overall, I think all of us are tied to our time frame in relating to athletes. When our music is no longer their music, we’re in a different situation. Do you know what I mean? There’s a time when you’re the same age as the athletes, then the same age as the managers and coaches, then the same age as the owners and the Hall of Famers. It’s the same scene, but different perspectives.

I have a picture of 11 guys from the old neighborhood in New Haven on the door to my office. It’s from a reunion maybe 20 years ago. I see it every day. We called ourselves ‘The Garden Street Athletic Club.’ Six of the 11 guys have passed. It’s a startling statistic, but somehow I’m not startled. I just say hello to everyone in the picture and everyone says hello back to me. Living and dead. That’s the way it is.

J.P.: Every writer has a money story—something that happened to them on the job that makes an all-time fantastic around-the-table tale. What’s yours, Leigh?

L.M.: It’s an Ali story. Not in the book. Later in his career. The first fight of his that I covered was when he met Chuck Wepner, the Bayonne Bleeder, in Cleveland. I rented a car for the couple of days I was there because the arena actually was in Richfield, which is well outside Cleveland. I was new and didn’t know the promoters provided a media bus.

The day before the fight, I went out to the arena for the weigh-in. I wrote down all the public words, the promotional hoopla, same as everyone else. But when the rest of the writers and broadcasters went back to the hotel on the bus, I stayed around. I went to Ali’s dressing room hoping I might find some other angle than everyone else had.

I slipped through the door. Nobody seemed to notice. Ali was stretched out on a training table, still in his boxing trunks. He was scrunched up a little so his head was propped against a wall. There were only six or seven people in the room. I was the only one with red hair and freckles. I recognized James Brown and Billy Eckstine, the singers, and I also recognized Redd Foxx, the comedian. Redd was telling dirty jokes. They were the best dirty jokes I ever heard, fabulous, hilarious, filthy dirty jokes. Everyone had tears in his eyes from laughing so hard.

“Tell another one,” Ali would command from his position on the table.

Redd would tell another one. More tears. Bigger tears.

“Tell another one,” Ali would say again and again and again.

I had a feeling like we were all captured in time. Maybe James Brown or Billy Eckstine would sing. Maybe Ali would get up and demonstrate the Shuffle. Maybe the jokes would go on forever. The thought, the moment, took my breath away. When the moment ended—James and Billy did not sing, Ali did not do the Shuffle – I slipped from the room and went to Wepner’s dressing room. He was alone with his wife. We had a nice chat.

J.P.: You co-authored a book with Jim Calhoun. Co-authoring sounds sorta thankless and awful. Is it? What was that like? And how was it working with a notoriously, um, grumpy man?

L.M.: I didn’t know if I was going to write another book after Manute was such a financial flop. My agent, Esther Newberg, called me about doing a book with Calhoun. He had asked about me because we knew each other a bit and I was a UConn guy and a Boston guy and it all fit. I was interested mostly because the school had just won the NCAA championship for the first time, a moment that I still find as the most implausible athletic result of my lifetime. As a UConn graduate, I never, never, absolutely never, had believed this was possible.

Calhoun was OK. He fills the room, for sure, but that’s what these successful guys do. After a bump or two, we got along fine. I liked being on the inside, getting the real lowdown on what took place. That was a lot of fun. The un-fun part probably was when the book came out and the “as told to” helper sort of fell to the wayside. I knew that was going to happen, but it still felt weird. Maybe I have some fill-the-room tendencies myself.

The best part was that the book put me together with Doubleday at Random House. My editor suggested we do another book and we picked Dale Earnhardt as a subject and we’ve been rolling along ever since.

J.P.: What’s the biggest screw-up of your career? What happened?

L.M: Of all the columns I’ve written the one I most regret was about women in sports media. It was in the Boston Globe, a long, long time ago, way back when Phyllis George was on NFL football on CBS. Remember that? The Seventies. Media outlets everywhere suddenly felt a need to add a woman to their sports presentations and their choices always seemed to be very good looking.

I felt that gender had replaced expertise. I thought a lot of good guys, friends of mine who knew a lot about sports, were being passed over so a woman could join the business as window dressing for equal rights. I wrote a column that said to cover sports you should have fielded a ground ball, taped up a hockey stick, tried to shoot a lay-up with your left hand. Stuff like that. You should know about Rocket Richard and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Pee Wee Reese. There was a list of things. Collected baseball cards! Read ‘Sport’ magazine! Knew who was on first! I said that if a woman had done this stuff, knew this stuff, OK, she should be hired. If she hadn’t, didn’t, then she shouldn’t be hired. I implied that most women hadn’t, didn’t.

Well … I never received so many letters. They all were from women. They all were wonderful, poetic depictions of life-long love affairs with sport, trips to ballgames with dad, slights from coaches and peers, roadblocks in front of career paths. I never felt more embarrassed. More wrong.

I apologized in the paper. That was the end of my role as Mr. Sports Page Misogyny. I haven’t doubted anything about women in sport ever since.

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• Five greatest baseball players of your lifetime: Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Nolan Ryan. (I know I forgot someone.)

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Bob Seger, Bill Nack, Anthrax, Super Glue, Jackie Chan, Emily Blunt, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Don Cheadle, Pac Man, Oil Can Boyd: Bill NackPac ManOil Can BoydJackie ChanEmily BluntDon CheadleBob Seger“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Super Glue, Anthrax.

• One question you would ask Cesar Cedeno were he here right now?: Did you ever hear that Bob Seger song about about wishing that he didn’t know now what he didn’t know then?

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I feel that way every time the plane lands hard and keeps rolling for a long time. Was in a plane in Houston that seemed to abort the landing about eight feet off the ground. The woman next to me filled up the little bag as we turned around to try again.

• The most important thing a kid needs to know when it comes to learning to write?: How to read. Learning how to write is like learning how play point guard, rhythm guitar or the lead role in the high school production of ‘The Music Man.’ You copy the way someone you like does the job. You find a writer you like to read and he will show you the way to write. Imitation is the way we all start to learn anything. We go from there.

• What Whitney Houston song most moves you to tears?: ‘I Will Always Love You.’ But maybe not to real tears.

• I’ve been told Starbucks puts a tiny bit of cocaine in its coffee. Any idea if there’s truth to the rumor?: Don’t drink coffee. Don’t go to Starbucks. Maybe I’m missing something.

• Coolest three pro sports uniform? Ugliest three?: Coolest – 1. Boston Red Sox 2. Boston Bruins 3. Boston Celtics. Ugliest – 1. New York Yankees 2. Montreal Canadiens 3. Los Angeles Lakers.  (Hah.)

• Three memories from your first-ever date: 1. She asked me to a freshman dance at her school. 2. My dad drove us. 3. He waited in the car while we went for ice cream sundaes after the dance.

• Would an openly gay player struggle to be accepted in the modern Major League locker room?: There would be awkward moments, but I think it would be much easier, say, than the Jackie Robinson experience.