Gorgeous George on the Links

by Joseph Epstein
Unto George Ames Plimpton has been entrusted a large share of the fantasy life of the majority of the American male population. I speak of sport; it has become his sacred duty to act out the sports fantasies of the rest of us. It is an awesome responsibility to place in anyone’s hands, yet in whose better than those of that nice young man Mr. Plimpton? Adored by Miss Marianne Moore, approved by Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, invited by Mr. Truman Capote — Mr. Plimpton has an extraordinary supply of a boyish, New Frontier kind of charm. To take the measure of this charm one must imagine the late Lucius Beebe corning out with an endorsement for Big Boy hamburgers, a book like Making It written by Andy Hardy, and Henry Aldrich living in Newport, Rhode Island. Thus Mr. Plimpton: he’s beautiful! he’s socially acceptable! he’s the editor of the Paris Review!
The Bogey Man by George Plimpton (Harper & Row, $5.95)
As if all this weren’t enough, Mr. Plimpton has still another good thing going. He has taken a fragile, rather dubious publishing idea and turned it into what for any other man would be a full career. The idea is precisely this: Mr. Plimpton arranges the enactment of delectable sports fantasies, such as even you and I have carried around in our heads since we were kids, into which he inserts himself as a participant. In Out of My League, for example, he pitched to a lineup of all-star baseball players; in Paper Lion, he reported to the Detroit Lions’ training camp as a rookie quarterback; on another occasion he stepped into the ring with the great Archie Moore. The twist, as readers of his books will by now know, is that these fantasies inevitably backfire on him, for in reality Mr. Plimpton is a pretty lousy athlete, again even as you and I. The all-stars slap hell out of his pitching, the Lions rudely crash him to the ground, and Archie Moore playfully clobbers him. Mr. Plimpton’s readers are supposed to — and, I take it, usually do — come away from these little excursions with expanded admiration for the professional athletes involved and with humorous sympathy for Mr. Plimpton, who, in a neat reversal on Stephen Potter’s conception of gamesmanship, may be said to get away with it while making an absolute plonk of himself. In a country where masculine maturity generally comes with the realization that one will never live to pitch in a World Series game — and for most of us this realization arrives, I suspect, only on our deathbeds — Mr. Plimpton has hit a best-seller formula.
In The Bogey Man Mr. Plimpton works the same rich vein, this time with the game of golf. The narrative of the book need not detain us very long. Suffice it to say that Mr. Plimpton, bankrolled by Sports Illustrated, enters himself in a number of pro-am tournaments in California and that the usual disasters occur: he shoots terribly, is humiliated on several occasions, and what awe his readers had for professional golfers will, by book’s end, no doubt be intensified. What is, I think, of some interest is that which is implicit in The Bogey Man about the current status of the adulation of athletes and athletics in America. Twenty, even ten, years ago, I do not believe anyone would have bothered to have written such a book, let alone a member of the cognoscenti literati like George Plimpton. Sports, like the movies, are probably better than ever. Not only are there more of them, but — with a few obvious exceptions, such as boxing — the quality of play is everywhere higher. Yet some thing somewhere along the line seems to have gone wrong. The old tingle, the old fantasy-making power, seems to have been drained out. The going cliche blames it on the corporatization of athletics, the fact that almost all sports have gone Big Business. But I doubt this explains it. When after all hasn’t sports been Big Business — they were talking about a milliondollar gate for the Dempsey-Tunney fight back in the ‘20s — and in a world in which a great many people are overpaid, why shouldn’t athletes get theirs? No, what seems to me to have changed are the athletes — or, more precisely, our relationship to them.
The fact is, we have come to know too damn much about them. Like all mythical figures, athletes require a certain distancing from their admirers. Take away that distance and we see them for what they are: pretty, much like the rest of us, except, perhaps because less is required of them in the way of mother wit to get on in the great world, generally a little duller. This, inevitably, is dismaying. Years ago it was fairly evident that neither Joe Louis nor Joe DiMaggio was a suitable companion for Ludwig Wittgenstein, but the question about their intelligence and personality was not a pressing one. What chiefly counted was the power of the one man and the physical elegance of the other. With the klieg lights of personal publicity glaring with an ever increasing intensity, such purely athletic qualities count for less than they once did.
In brief, athletes have become subject, as never before, to the cult of personality. The overall result has been to diminish them. Without his consciously intending it so, this, surely, is the effect of Mr. Plimpton’s book. There is a certain irony here, for no one is a more enthusiastic fan than he, no one’s admiration for the professional athlete is less bounded. The problem revolves around Mr. Plimpton’s approach to his subject. He comes on wideeyed and innocent. “Lord,” he exclaims, while in the middle of one of the scores of anecdotes with which his book is so heavily padded, “what did he do?”
In part, Mr. Plimpton’s problem has to do with the game of golf, which is intrinsically one of the dullest devised by man. Apart from the fact that it is the game that has long held General Eisenhower in thrall, one of the measures for determining its dullness is money: Lake the element of money out of golf and what you have left is a spoiled walk. In the greatest of tournaments, what is of interest is not whether a player can stroke the little white ball six feet and into the cup, but whether he can do so under the pressure of knowing that twenty-five grand rides on the shot. So inherently boring is the game, so heavily dependent is it on artificially induced competition, that even the best, most companionable of friends seem unable to get around a golf course without the aid of side bets to hyp-up the action.
Another infallible measure of the dullness of a sport is the amount of trivia, the sheer tonnage of superfluous information, that attaches to it and becomes as relevant to its fans as the Thirty-nine Articles are to the Church of England. Here, of course, golf is unsurpassed. As a chronicler of this sort of information, Mr. Plimpton is a Thucydides of the trivial, a veritable Dante of dreck. “What’s the widest shoe you’ve seen come along? ” he asks a man who keeps records of the equipment golfers use. (Ed “Porky” Oliver’s nine triple E’s.) “ ‘What about Hogan?’ I asked. ‘What number ball does he use?’ ” (A Titlcist 4, as it turns out.) And of an official PGA scorer, he inquires, “. . . what was the highest score he could remember posting for a single hole?” (Dave Hill’s 108.)
At one point, Mr. Plimpton asks Jack Nicklaus, the one player on the professional tour who consistently rivals Palmer, “How much ribbing goes on when you play with Arnold Palmer?” Here, alas, is the reply:
“Not too much,” Nicklaus said. “Oh, we kid around a bit. Arnie’Il come in with a 75 and I’ll say, ‘Gee, where’d you get all those birdies?’ Or when I come in he’ll say, ‘Nice round. What’d you shoot?’ — in that order. Ww give nicknames to the girls in the gallery sometimes. We found a great one in Paris — ‘Blackie’ we called her — and she turned out to be the daughter of a four-star general.”
Elsewhere in The Bogey Man Mr. Plimpton stakes out the claim that the golfer is a lonely, indeed a tragic, figure. With the above snippet of dialogue in mind, it would appear that the tragedy it most closely resembles is Of Mice and Men, with poor Nicklaus in the role of Lenny.
An interesting sidelight to all this is that most of the professional golfers Mr. Plimpton encountered went along nicely with his plans for this book — loading him up with anecdotes, filling him in on the gritty details of the pro tour, answering any questions he posed, no matter how obtuse or irrelevant. Do they realize, one wonders, that this is the quickest way to use up one of their most important assets — their fast receding status as mythical figures? The Bogey Man, by the way, is not Mr. Plimpton’s first attempt to write about golf. Five or six years ago, he tells us, he played a round with Sam Snead, out of which he hoped to get an article. Snead took fifty bucks off him in a side bet, offered him no conversation, and he came away without a paragraph. Later, he tried to arrange a similar match with Ben Hogan, who politely — but irrevocably — turned him down. There, I would say, are two real pros.