Little boy, literary celebrity, sports lover

The trick to writing seriously about sport for a literary man was to take the sport seriously himself. George Plimpton did that. His books were personal histories that teased out the essence of sport and the individuals involved.

One doesn’t hear the expression ‘participatory journalism’ these days. It was popularised by the American writer and editor George Plimpton, although he didn’t invent either the term or the technique. Popular novelist Paul Gallico (The Poseidon Adventure), who began as a sportswriter, went a round with Jack Dempsey (who knocked him out in 10 seconds) in order to understand sport and get a “feel” for it.

Gallico played golf with Bobby Jones, swam with Johnny Weissmuller, and so on. “It all began back in 1922,” he wrote in Farewell to Sport, “when I was a cub sportswriter and consumed with more curiosity than was good for my health.” The bout with Dempsey taught him that “the fighter rarely if ever sees the punch that tumbles blackness over him like a mantle, with a tearing rip as though the roof of his skull were exploding, and robs him of his senses.” Not bad for 10 seconds’ work.

Plimpton belonged to a generation of writers – Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese were some others – who put themselves at the centre of the story. Thus emerged a series of books on sports in which Plimpton participated at the highest level: Out of My League (baseball), Paper Lion (American football), The Bogey Man (golf), Shadow Box (boxing) and Open Net (ice hockey). Plimpton played as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions, pitched to Willie Mays and Ernie Banks and golfed with Sam Snead.

The trick to writing seriously about sport for a literary man was to take the sport seriously himself. Plimpton did that. The books were not versions of travel writing where you carried a refrigerator over the Alps just to describe the experience; they were personal histories that teased out the essence of sport and the individuals involved.

In the foreword to The Bogey Man, sportswriter Rick Reilly put it in perspective: “Plimpton had the genius to stop talking to the pros who played the sports he loved and start playing the sports he loved.”

Plimpton showed that the actual game itself is not always the most interesting part of competitive sport. It is the human stories, the laughter, the anecdotes, the stories-within-stories that endure. He was sensitive enough to understand this and professional enough to go after them as an insider. He describes himself as being “very lean and thin, along the lines of a stick… I can slide my watch up my arm almost to the elbow”. Hardly guaranteed to inspire confidence in his ability to survive in a contact sport! “You had to have an awful lot of little boy in you to play baseball for a living,” he quotes someone as saying. Plimpton was a rare mix: little boy, literary celebrity, social lion, sports lover, hero worshipper.

“I am inordinately fond of Shadow Box,” he tells us in that book, “very likely because Muhammad Ali, the most colourful athlete of our times, dominates its pages.” The books come alive because Plimpton is the most colourful writer on sports of our times.