The writer known best for his mountainous study of the 1988 presidential race, “What It Takes,” was remembered just as much this week for his equally memorable magazine work.
Richard Ben Cramer, a Pulitzer Prize winner who was 62 when he died Monday from lung cancer, was especially hailed by fellow authors and journalists for his 1986 Esquire magazine article, “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?”
It was like so much of Cramer’s best work: unflinching, drawing out the visceral, honest truth about a man. Williams’ career drew to a close in 1960 — marked by the last home run he hit in his last at-bat that John Updike famously wrote about for The New Yorker — and Cramer describes the aftermath:
And what was Ted left with? Well, there was pride. He’d done, he felt, the hardest thing in sport: by God, he hit the ball. And there was pride in his new life: he had his name on more rods and reels, hunting guns, tackle boxes, jackets, boots, and bats than any man in the world. He studied fishing like no other man, and lent to it his fame and grace, his discerning eye. He had his tournament wins and trophies, a fishing book and fishing movies, and he got his thousand of the Big Three. Jimmy Albright says to this day: “Best all around, the best is Ted.” But soon there were scores of boats on the bay, and not so many fish. And even the Miramichi had no pools with salmon wall to wall. And Ted walked away from the tournaments. There wasn’t the feeling of sport in them, or respect for the fish anymore. Somehow it had changed. Or maybe it was Ted.
Tom Junod called this “the greatest magazine profile ever written,” and recalled the impression it made on him before his own journalism career was underway:
It didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard, before or since, and in that sound was freedom… freedom to sound like yourself, freedom to sound like your subject, freedom to do what it takes to make both a subject’s experience and the experience of a subject come alive. Sure, there were plenty of sound effects and exclamation points, but it wasn’t Wolfean — it was Bellovian, the work of a first-class noticer who knows that writing “like an angel,” or however it is that writers are supposed to write, is a small thing next to writing, well, like a mensch.
Alex Belth uses the same word in his homage, calling Cramer “a mensch of the highest order, a good man, as well as a wonderful storyteller,” and linking to plenty more, including an acclaimed profile of Jerry Lee Lewis. Here’s another Esquire sports piece from 1987, “Fore Play,” that Belth posted Friday, and he has another remembrance from David Hirshey, Cramer’s editor at the magazine, on what happened when the Williams piece he submitted was far too long.
After I read that piece about Cal Ripken — which includes the magical word “fotobooger” and ends with a seemingly simple story of Ripken signing autographs that gets to the heart of why he mattered so much to people — I had to read everything Richard had ever written. It was only then that I read the Esquire Ted Williams story, which I had heard about and copied but had never really read. Of course, the story was more than great. It was life altering.
ESPN The Magazine writer Ryan McGee recalls how Cramer had done his homework — on him — before their collaboration on a NASCAR-produced documentary about Dale Earnhardt Jr.:
“Now, Ryan McGee, there’s something you need to know about me that you can’t learn by reading the inside of that book jacket. And it’s the one thing you don’t want to hear.”
“I don’t know a damn thing about NASCAR, and I surely do not know a damn thing about Dale Earnhardt.”
Cramer’s 2001 biography, “Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life,” was more than 500 pages in length, and it received mixed reviews. While many of Cramer’s friends and admirers praised it, others were taken aback by the author’s searing investigation of another lionized, but flawed, baseball legend, especially DiMaggio’s shortcomings as a father and ill treatment of others.
As Ian Jackman wrote for the London Review of Books:
Cramer isn’t someone you’d want picking through the debris of your life . . . He tells these stories straight and unsanctimoniously. He does not catalogue DiMaggio’s misdeeds just to run up the score against him.