One of the joys of visiting my parents at their apartment in Milwaukee during the final years of their lives was rummaging through the wide-ranging collection of magazines and newspapers that piled up on their couch and spilled over to the floor below. The Nation and the Packer Report. The New Yorker and The Sporting News. The New York Review of Books and ESPN The Magazine. The Progressive and Packer Plus. The American Prospect and Baseball America. The Capital Times and Sports Illustrated. The Washington Post National Weekly Edition and Baseball Weekly. If you wanted to know about my dad, Elliott Maraniss, his reading tastes told much of the story.
A lifelong newspaperman, he was always interested in history and politics. The books he checked out from the local library and stacked near the magazine pile tended to be about European writers, Civil War generals, American presidents, British diplomats. But what satisfied him as much or more, I think, was reading about a rookie defensive tackle showing promise in training camp with the Green Bay Packers or another phenom left fielder out in El Paso (when the Diablos were in the Brewers farm system) who was knocking the stuffing off the ball. Earl Warren, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court, was known, among his other greater accomplishments, for saying that when he got the newspaper in the morning he turned to the sports section before the front page. I’m not sure whether sports came first with my dad, but he certainly turned to it most often.
He was not a statistics guy. He had little interest in the Sabermetrics approach to baseball analysis in which everything is reduced to numbers. He loved baseball more as a story with characters and some drama. It didn’t have to be elegiac, or melodramatic, or even particularly elegant. Maybe that’s because he spent his adolescence in Coney Island rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers when they were the “Lovable Bums.” His baseball was the sort described by Mark Harris in Bang the Drum Slowly and The Southpaw. Just saltof- the-earth kids, some dumb, some smart, making their way through the vagaries of baseball life. He was from the Ring Lardner school. I had a tendency to make things up when I was a kid and had an excuse for every wrong thing I did. My dad called me Alibi Ike long before I realized that he was at once chewing me out and letting me know that he loved me. In my family, where my mother and siblings were scholars, “The sun got in my eyes” held as much literary merit as any quotation from Shakespeare.
I was a bit surprised when my dad joined my brother as owner of a team in the baseball rotisserie league formed by a bunch of my friends at the Washington Post in 1984. The Washington Ghost League, as we called it, was one of the early leagues formed after the statistical game was invented a few years earlier by some writers and editors in New York. As I said, Elliott was not interested in statistics, so why would he take part in a game of statistics? Because it really wasn’t about the numbers back then before the entire sporting nation got caught up in what later became fantasy baseball, and fantasy football, and fantasy basketball, and even fantasy NASCAR.
It was about the yearly drafts held at Tom Lippman’s house on McKinley Street and the little dramas and characters of our league. How Lippman and his Tom-Toms had an obsession with catchers. How Ben Weiser of the Weiser Owls could almost persuade you that giving up Roger Clemens for Pete Ladd was a good deal. How Neil Henry, in his love for all things Mariner, could not discern the talent gap between Mickey Brantley and Ken Griffey Jr. How Bill Hamilton’s team was lousy every year except the one when he disappeared to Europe for the entire summer and won the whole thing thanks to a monster season from Bo Jackson. How Mike Hill would sit snickering in the back and not say a word until Vince Coleman’s name came up. How the Potts boys would argue excitedly over Mets farm hands never heard from again. And the assertiveness with which Peter Behr of the Archibald Behrisols delivered his immortal preemptive opening bid for a hack second baseman: “Jerry Remy for a dollar.” (In our league, Remy would go for ten cents.) In the lore of the Ghost League, Elliott uttered the first line at the first draft, and to this day his words have the resonance of Melville’s “Call me Ishmael.” The name of the team formed by my dad and brother Jim would be familiar to track fans of a certain era — the Jim-Elliott Jumbos. From the end of the long oval table, his voice as gruff and determined as if he were barking out an order for copy from his city editor days, Elliott opened the first draft by ddeclaring, “The Jumbos want Jim Rice.” I can’t adequately describe what those few words convey to my brother and me. All I can say is thaaaaat Jim uttered that phrase again at our father’s funeral in May 2004. In the entire crowd that had gathered for the memorial service at the Unitarian church in Madison, maybe only Jim and I and my son Andrew had the slightest clue what he was talking about, but it had me in tears. It was all in the back story.
There were some apparent contradictions in my dad’s view of sports.
As a tough-minded journalist, he was fearless in pushing reporters to challenge the traditional wisdom of coaches. He was always skeptical, questioning whether universities were running honest programs and whether sports icons were all they proclaimed to be. He took pride in the fact that one of his reporters at the Madison Capital Times broke a story that Bob Knight was leaving West Point to coach at the University of Wisconsin, and that Knight got so upset by the scoop — it was supposed to be kept secret for two days — that he backed away from the deal. Untold thousands of Badger fans who endured decades of losing seasons at the UW Field House in the ensuing decades might have felt the story wasn’t worth all that suffering, but in fact the wound-tight Knight never would have fit in Madison anyway. Elliott also hired the first woman sportswriter at his newspaper, and the first African- American sportswriter, and he was constantly pushing at the traditions of the profession. Even though he was born in Boston, he taught me never to root for the Red Sox because they were the last major league team to integrate. His preference for the National League in the 1950s and 1960s was due in large part to the league’s more progressive recruitment of black and Latino players, from Jackie Robinson to Hank Aaron to Roberto Clemente to Rico Carty and Felipe Alou, two of his favorite hitters from the last days of the Milwaukee Braves.
Yet in his personal tastes, when he was on the side porch in his boxer shorts and T-shirt listening to a ball game on the radio on a summer’s night, his preferences ran completely to the babbling, incoherent, lovable homers. The newfangled announcers were either too bland or narrow- mindedly aggressive, from his perspective. He even had the temerity to criticize Vin Scully, who was one notch too glib for him. To be completely honest, his disdain for Scully might also have had to do with the fact that Scully sashayed out of Brooklyn with Walter O’Malley and made his name with the new Dodgers in Los Angeles, and that marked him as a traitor, but I still think my dad would rather hear Harry Caray or Jack Brickhouse obliterate the English language than listen to Scully recite a perfectly literate paragraph without so much as an “er” or an “uh.” He felt that announcers like Caray and Brickhouse and Lou Boudreau weren’t making more out of the...