For George Plimpton the Size of the Ball Mattered


We should not be surprised, after all these years, to rediscover that George Plimpton was the wag who put golf writing into perspective. 'The smaller the ball used in the sport,' Plimpton said long ago, 'the better the book.'
Golf writers immediately and eagerly embraced this conceit. And now there is a sadness in the fraternity. Plimpton, much more than a wag, is dead at 76. The author-editor-actor died in Manhattan Thursday night.
Alas, if only this were a ruse and Plimpton had temporarily burrowed under the pearly gates to find out what it's like on the other side so he could return and write about it for us.
This was what Plimpton did. He played quarterback for the Detroit Lions (Paper Lion) and wrote about it. He boxed with Archie Moore and wrote about it. He pitched to Willie Mays and wrote about that. He sailed with Jack Kennedy, played tennis with George H. W. Bush, and rode in Air Force One with Bill Clinton. He played percussion with the New York Philharmonic.
And in 1968 he wrote a book called 'The Bogey Man,' in which he hung around golf long enough to bring back a few stories about our game. He didn't 'get it,' of course. You have to study golf much longer than that to truly understand the sport.
But, blessedly, Plimpton understood that he didn't 'get it.' How else can you explain this Plimpton passage that does more to underscore the inherent difficulty of the game than anything I have ever heard from any so-called 'expert.'
'I often sense as I commit myself to a golf swing,' Plimpton wrote, 'that my body changes its corporeal status completely and becomes a mechanical entity, built of tubes and conduits, and boiler rooms here and there, with big dials and gauges to check, a Brobdingnagian structure put together by a team of brilliant engineers but manned largely by a dispirited, eccentric group of dissolutes--men with drinking problems, who do not see very well and who are plagued by liver complaints.'
Plimpton wrote close to 30 books. His acting credits included 'Good Will Hunting,' 'Reds,' 'ER,' and 'The Simpsons.' He was famous in literary circles for co-founding 'The Paris Review.' And he was still in high demand as a public
speaker, an art form he didn't take lightly. 'Mark Twain once said it takes three weeks to prepare a good ad-lib speech,' Plimpton said.
Brevity, Plimpton would remind you at a New York cocktail party, was the soul of wit. And he would know that Shakespeare (not Shaw or Franklin or Wilde) first coined that proverb. Plimpton would also know that it was a contemporary, the wickedly wry Dorothy Parker, who sent Shakespeare up when she begged to differ. 'Brevity,' Parker wrote, 'is the soul of lingerie.'
Chances are, not to lose sight of the point, if Plimpton was at your cocktail party, it was going to be a success.
Anyway, Plimpton will be remembered, in the main, for his forays into sports. The son of a career diplomat and educated in the groves of Ivy League academe, Plimpton sounded haughty and looked unkempt but lived a full, vital and delighted life. He never took himself too seriously.
'There were people who would perhaps call me a dilettante because it looks as though I'm having too much fun,' he said. 'I have never been convinced there's anything inherently wrong with having fun.'
Tiger Woods might think about that the next time he tees it up in a major. And golf writers, myself included, might think about the unparalleled access Plimpton and The Paris Review routinely got to literary heavyweights like Hemingway and Faulkner, before they complain how tough it is to get a one-on-one interview with Woods.
'There is an abyss between the professional and the good amateur,' Plimpton said before he died. 'The only exception is golf.'
The reason, of course, is even the most dreadful players will occasionally hit the ball on the 'right jerk,' as Ben Crenshaw likes to say, and produce a hole in one. But 10,000 monkeys banging away on 10,000 typewriters for 10,000 years will never produce 'War and Peace.'
Plimpton knew that, too. His best writing efforts appeared effortless.
Sort of like an Ernie Els tee ball.
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