Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
You've Got to Pick Your Spots
2004-11-12 08:55
by Alex Belth

It's All About Timing

It's tough to find successful "As-told-to" biographies. I imagine that most of them consist of the subject talking into a tape recorder for many hours and dumping the mess on a writer. Then the writer goes off to transcribe the ramblings in the attempt turn it into something coherent. I may be wrong, but rarely do these kind of books strike me as true collaborations. The results are often clumsy and artless, though they can still be entertaining. But it's a pleasure when a book of this sort seems to capture the subject's spirit, their rhythms and inflections. When the writer and subject actually connect.

As I mentioned earlier in the week, Ed Linn captured Leo Durocher's personality vividily in their book, "Nice Guys Finish Last." Another winning example is "Second Wind: Memoirs of an Opinonated Man," by Bill Russell with the historian Taylor Branch (1979, Random House; currently out-of-print). Russell grew up in West Oakland, and I came across this book researching the Curt Flood project I've been working on. (Rusell was four years older than Flood but played high school basketball with Frank Robinson.) Anyhow, it is a terrific read, emotionally direct and tender. Well worth snatching if you ever find it in a used bookshop.

There are many stories that stand out, but one of my favorites is about Russell's grandfather and his mule, Kate. Russell's family was from Monroe, Louisiana and he actually lived down there until he was about ten. He called his father's father, The Old Man. When Russell was four or five (1938-9), he followed his grandfather and Kate around one day:

I could tell that Kate and the Old Man understood each other. One day I was walking along with them when Kate decided to go off and stand in a ditch. Being an honest mule, she had a stubborn, mulish personality, and she stood there with this determined look on her face. It was as if Kate were saying, Okay, I got you now. We’re going to do this my way.” The Old Man did everything he could to get Kate back up on the road. I watched him talk to her, and push, pull, shove and kick—a tough job, because there must have been nine hundred pounds of mule there. The Old Man would get Kate’s front up on the raod and be cooing into her ear, but when he walked around to pull up her taile end, the front would sidle back into the ditch again—so he’d take a deep breath and start over. I was taking all this in, and I couldn’t believe that the Old Man didn’t lose his temper.

After a long ordeal, Kate finally wound up back on the road. The Old Man looked exhausted, and the mule must have taken some satisfaction from all the effort she’d cost him. She looked fresh and relaxed, standing there as warm and lazy as the country air. The Old Man leaned on Kate and rested there for a minute or two; then out of nowhere he hauled off and punched her with his bare fist. Wack, just once, right on the side of the neck. The thud was so loud that I must have jumped a foot. The mule gently swayed back and forth groggily; then her front legs buckled and she collapsed to her knees. Then the hindquarters slowly buckled and settled down too. Kate looked all bent and contorted, like a squatting camel, as she sat there with a vacant stare in her eyes. I was dumbstruck. Right in front of my eyes the Old Man had knocked out a MULE with one punch.

He never said a word to me or to the mule. He just let Kate sit there for a minute, and then he grabbed her by the head and picked her up. “Okay, let’s go,” he said quietly, and we started off again as if nothing had happened.

That sight stuck in my mind so vividly that I learned a practical lesson from it. I got into very few fights when I played for the Celtics, but every single one of them was in the last quarter, after the game was decided. You have to choose when to fight, and that is the time. The Old Man knew he’d have been in big trouble if he’d knocked that mule down in the ditch, so he waited until it didn’t cost him anything. Then he relieved his frustration and gave Kate something to think about.

Eat your heart out Mongo.

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