Norman Mailer, Sportswriter

A recent biography of the literary legend's life largely ignores a fascinating part of Mailer's life and career: his deep love for sports like baseball, bullfighting, and boxing.
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Mailer at his Brooklyn apartment in 1998. (AP / Bebeto Matthews) 

Norman Mailer’s writing career spanned almost 60 years, over which he produced more than 40 books, winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (The Executioner’s Song) and the Pulitzer and National Book award for nonfiction (The Armies of the Night). Yet, as J. Michael Lennon notes in his sumptuous new biography, Norman Mailer: A Double Life, despite laudatory reviews, Mailer had “mixed feelings” over The Fight, his account of the 1974 heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire. He wondered if spending half a year on it had been worthwhile. But reading Lennon's biography's “making-of” details about The Fight, I found myself thrilled by the story all over again.

A cardinal rule among sportswriters is to never openly root for a team, player or a fighter. One should always be cool and objective, or at least pretend to be. But Mailer openly and passionately pulled for his favorites, and it made his work jump off the page at you. In Zaire, according to Lennon, Mailer ardently believed that a victory by Ali would be “A triumph for everything which did not fit into the computer: for audacity, inventiveness, even art.”

“What,” he asks himself rhetorically in his book, “could be more important to Norman?”

But as he watched Foreman in training, Mailer concluded that Foreman’s punches “were probably the heaviest cumulative series of punches any boxing writer had ever seen. Each of these blows was enough to smash an average athlete’s ribs; anybody with poor stomach muscles would have a broken spine.” Mailer was worried for Muhammad Ali, who was 32 at the time. A loss would have effectively ended his career, and Foreman, Ali’s junior by eight years, could very well hurt or at least humiliate Ali.

Even now, 39 years later, one can feel Mailer’s exhilaration when, after seven brutal rounds, Foreman was moving as “slow as a man walking up a hill of pillows.” When Ali finally came off the ropes in the eighth round and fired a rapid-fire three-punch combination Foreman “went over like a six-foot sixty-year-old butler who has just heard tragic news. Yes, fell over all of a long collapsing two seconds. Down came the champion in sections.”

“Guile,” Lennon concludes, “beat force; art defeated power.” Lennon—rightfully, I think—feels that “looking back now at what is generally considered a masterpiece of sports biography, one could justly conclude that the expenditure of effort was worthwhile.”

In passages like this, Lennon masterfully captures Mailer’s all-consuming love of Muhammad Ali and boxing. Lennon’s biography, however, only touches on what was actually a substantial and fascinating aspect of Mailer’s life and career: his sports fandom. It’s a great shame for readers everywhere that Mailer didn’t do more writing on sports. He might not have become the greatest sportswriter who ever lived, but he could have been one of the greats.

***

Though he could never devote much time to the sport, Mailer loved baseball. But despite numerous references to the game in his work, he never wrote a long baseball piece.

According to Lennon, Mailer thought that 1947, Jackie Robinson’s first year as a Brooklyn Dodger, “was the most exciting year Brooklyn fans could remember.” He loved some players and was indifferent to others—Joe DiMaggio, for instance: In a piece collected in The Presidential Papers, he wrote, “His legend left me cold.” (Possibly because his idol, Ernest Hemingway, staked a claim to the Yankee Clipper first in The Old Man and the Sea.)

Another fascinating tidbit Lennon uncovered is that Mailer corresponded with one-time Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jim Brosnan, who had written baseball’s first tell-all, The Long Season. “I can’t pitch worth a fuck,” Mailer wrote to Brosnan, “and you write like a dull whore with an honest streak, but if you ain’t afraid of a grand slam, which you is, come around when you get to New York, and we’ll have a drink or two.”

But Lennon leaves out that Mailer was an early supporter of Bill James, baseball’s sabermetrics pioneer. When James was putting out his first analytical newsletter in the late 1970s, Mailer heard about him through a friend and wrote to James asking how he could subscribe.

“I told him I’d be happy to send it to him for free,” James told me, “but he wanted to pay for it. He sent me a check for $5. I had Norman Mailer’s autograph on a $5 check. And I was so desperate back then, I cashed it.”

Mailer loved football, too, and let it slip on several occasions that he had played on the intramural team at Harvard. Another of Mailer’s favorite sports was bullfighting, though he never really developed his own style when writing about it.  It’s hard not to imagine that he took up with it in the hopes that Hemingway would see what he had written and send him a fan letter.

The sport Hemingway should have sent him a fan letter about, though, was, of course, boxing. In his account of the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight in 1971, King of the Hill (a long essay included in several Mailer collections but also available in a slim paperbackedition) and The Fight, his book on the 1974 George Foreman-Muhammad Ali fight in Zaire, Mailer reached heights of poetry and insight that neither Papa at his best nor the New Yorker’s A.J. Liebling nor the great Red Smith nor anyone else ever laid a glove on.

No boxer fired up Mailer’s imagination like Ali did. “He is,” Mailer wrote in King of the Hill, “America’s Greatest Ego”—which might well have been true if not for Mailer himself. To Mailer, Ali was “the swiftest embodiment of human intelligence we have had yet, he is the very spirit of the 20th century.”And, writing about Ali in The Fight, Mailer proclaimed that “The World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man.”

When writing about Ali, if Mailer’s prose sometimes seems unmoored, it was, after all, because he was writing about a man who had no point of comparison. According to one of his most famous passages in King of the Hill,

The closer a heavyweight comes to the championship, the more natural it is for him to be a little bit insane, secretly insane, for the heavyweight champion of the world is either the toughest man in the world or he is not, but there is a real possibility he is. It is like being the big toe of God. You have nothing to measure yourself by.

And if, by extension, a writer could capture such a fighter’s essence in words, who could we measure that writer by? If it’s true that to understand is to equal, then Mailer’s genius was the equal of Ali’s, for he was the first writer to perceive the method in Ali’s apparent madness in the ring. When, in Zaire, Ali violated all the cardinal rules of boxing by leaning back against the ropes and letting Foreman wear himself out by pounding on him, Mailer wrote that Ali was “demonstrating that what for other fighters is a weakness can be for him a strength.” Ali, said Mailer, “turned the pockets of the boxing world inside out.” 

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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