The Mace & Crown, October 8, 1979
A self-styled "Jack of all trades and master of none" George Plimpton delighted a captivated audience of 500 last Wednesday with anecdotes about his forays into the world of professional sports.
His appearance in the ODU field house was sponsored by the Activities ProgrammIng Board in conjunction with the ODU literary festival.
Plimpton Is a natural storyteller. He blends a dry Cambridge wit with a perfect sense of timing, refined from days at attempting stand-up comedy in Las Vegas. He appeared a bit haggard at first, but soon warmed up to the positive response his tales elicited.
His task is an enviable one. From his early days at Sports Illustrated to the authoring of numerous books on sports, Plimpton has "played out the daydreams of all American males." He is a hero to all those armchair quarterbacks whose closest contact with the gridiron or batter's box has been the distance from sofa to TV set.
He calls playing the sports he writes about "participatory journalism." It all began by mistake, he said, when trying to join the literary magazine at Harvard. His initiation rite was to run in the Boston Marathon.
"I was prudent enough to enter the race a block and a half from the finish line. There was one person ahead of me. I put on a desperate sprint but still lost, indicative of my speed. But I was exhilirated in a curious way. I had the sense of a marathon run. My participatory journalism started there."
Plimpton's predecessor in participatory journalism, Paul Gallico, stressed the need for sportswriters to learn about the skills of athletes. Plimpton took it one step further. "He needs to know not only the skills, but about the society of athletes" Plimpton said. "What goes on when changing pitchers on the mound, what goes on in the locker room."
Confrontations were set up. One was pitching baseball. He noted that he got Willie Mays to pop out. "He popped out to one of those great monuments in deep center field of Yankee Stadium."
Boxing was another sport he tackled. He wrote Archie Moore asking him to go three rounds in the name of literature. Moore, Plimpton said, "had the appaling statistic of knocking more people out than any one else." Before the fight, writer Peter Maas told Moore that Plimpton was "an intercollegiate boxer with a polarizing right hand. He wants to be champion. He's tricked you into the ring." Moore was incensed, stating, "If he touches me, he's cooked." Plimpton wryly observed that Moore held him up for three rounds. "He kept coming over to me saying 'Breathe, man, breathe.'
He also scheduled to fight Muhammad All. "I got a sense of what it's like to be in his force field. Ali puts you in his brain, then every two hours takes you out and toys with you. Once he called me up at 2 a.m. and said 'You is going to fall during the ring instructions.'
Plimpton noted that his quarter-backing of professional football was improving. "I'm getting better. The first time I had four plays and lost 36 yards. The second time I made 19 yards. Fifteen were on a roughing-the-passer penalty."
He encountered the sport of hockey through the eyes of a goalie. He played for five minutes, allowing only one of seven shots to pass him. Skill was not involved. "The puck simply hit me like a golf ball hits a tree on the fairway."
Plimpton reeled off enough one liners to amply prove his comic deftness. On wrestling: "I never tried it. it is one of the great pieces of theatre in the country." On hockey: "I'm the only hockey player who would check himself." On polo: "I don't play it. I can't afford the ponies."
The most frightening experience he had in journalism was not even sports related. It was playing the triangle in the New York Philharmonic. "I still have nightmares about it." Plimpton said.
In addition to sports writing, Plimpton edited the prestigous Paris Review Interviews. One subject was Ernest Hemingway. "He was the best storyteller I ever heard, except when it came to talking about writing. I wanted to ask him a question about why when he described lovemaking, there were always these white birds flying around. I said, 'Papa, what about the birds.' He got furious. A prickly man to ask questions."
Next on Plimpton's itinerary may be the world of rock and roll. "Kiss or something like that. I want to be a rock star and wear platform shoes, although a fifth Kiss might be too much for the country to bear."