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Remembering Virtuoso Sports Writer Richard Ben Cramer


Yesterday, we took a moment to remember author and journalist Richard Ben Cramer, who died on Monday at the age of 62. He was best known for his seminal work of political reporting, "What it Takes."

But as NPR's Mike Pesca notes in this remembrance, Cramer was also a virtuoso sportswriter.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Herculean reporting, compelling writing and bursts of insight borne of that research and wordsmanship were the hallmarks of Richard Ben Cramer. Just as he laid out how Bob Dole's occasional vicious put-down sprang from the same place as his fiery determination, Cramer explained how Ted Williams wanted fame, but could not stand celebrity.

Glenn Stout, creator of "The Best Sports Writing in America" series, co-edited one volume with Cramer and included the Cramer story "What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?" in "The Best American Sports Writing of the Century.'

GLENN STOUT: If you don't do that kind of reporting, you don't get that kind of material to work with, to use as a writer to really make it stand out.

PESCA: Stout says Cramer's profile of the Red Sox outfielder was an automatic inclusion on that list of the century's best. David Hirshey, who edited that piece for Esquire magazine, remembers that Cramer took on the assignment with little more than a side-door strategy.

DAVID HIRSHEY: He saw it as opportunity to go down to the Florida Keys and hang out with Ted Williams' fishing buddies, because he knew he couldn't get close to Williams unless he had some introduction.

PESCA: It took 10 days, but he met the great man and they talked and talked and talked. Upon completion, Cramer insisted his story couldn't be less than 15,000 words. Hirshey cut it by 10 percent. Then on the night the magazine closed, Cramer hung around the Esquire offices, cajoling three separate departments for the return of the full 15,000. Some say the longest home run Ted Williams was responsible for landed in Section 42 of Fenway Park. Others claim it was the June '86 edition of Esquire.

Then there was "Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life." Here's Cramer narrating the audio of his DiMaggio biography, talking about DiMaggio's father.


PESCA: But Cramer, a Yankee fanatic, unraveled Joltin' Joe's guarded reputation. The sourcing was impeccable, the storytelling compelling, the damage to DiMaggio complete. "The Hero's Life" indicts DiMaggio and, by extension, the culture that celebrated him.

But Cramer had some critics who were anything but pinstriped romantics. Writer Gay Talese says Cramer was a wonderful researcher and an energetic figure.

GAY TALESE: And on the other hand I sometimes felt sorry for the people he was writing about.

PESCA: Talese says, for instance, in his own reporting, he earned that DiMaggio frequented brothels and wasn't the first to pick up a check, but thought better of putting those facts into print. An artist - and Talese compares DiMaggio to an artist - should be judged mostly on the art. Cramer clearly thought of his sporting subjects less as artists and more as touchstones. He examined how they acted and how the world reacted. Cramer's tone often was tough, but as an artist himself, his portraits were compelling.

Mike Pesca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.