Richard Ben Cramer: Play All The Big Chords

Richard Ben Cramer was a journalist who wrote great, shambling, unafraid sentences that weren't so much lively—though they were that—as they were lived-in.

It was forty-five years ago, when achievements with a bat first brought him to the nation's notice, that Ted Williams began work on his defense. He wanted fame, and wanted it with a pure, hot eagerness that would have been embarrassing in a smaller man. But he could not stand celebrity. This is a bitch of a line to draw in America's dust.

I love that. Those are big, perfect chords being strummed very loudly, like the best kind of pop music. That paragraph is from Cramer's 1986 profile of Ted Williams, one of the greatest, most humane pieces of sportswriting you'll ever come across. He always wrote like that. Read Cramer on Cal Ripken. Or Jerry Lee Lewis. Or Bobby Sands. Or read What It Takes, Cramer's brilliant book about the 1988 presidential election, a prodigy of empathic journalism and still very much worth a look, even if it does bear, in its campaigning-as-the-one-true-crucible thesis and its policy-free approach to politics, a certain ancestral resemblance to the likes of Politico.

The climax had to wait for the last breathy column, where [Gary] Hart was asked about his marriage ... now that Lee was back in Denver, and Gary was alone. Quinn wrote:

"He will only say of his marriage, 'I have almost no personal life at all. I lead a completely political existence. If one party doesn't share the same interests you've got a problem. Let's just say I believe in reform marriage.'"

From the Monday morning when he saw the paper, Hart could not believe what she'd done to him ... what he'd done to himself. He meant to be candid, charming, at ease. (At one point he was quoted: the best thing was "not just winning, but winning, and making it look easy.") But you don't learn ease on the job with Sally Quinn, no.

He was horrified at the hurt he'd done to Lee ... and himself! It was so irresponsible ... clumsy ... bush league. He never would have said those things, if she hadn't been, you know, attractive ... but even so ... damn! Lee had gone and left him here ... he barely saw his own kids. That part about no personal life—he meant it, but even so ... why did he say it?

Well, he learned a lesson—the hard way. It didn't matter what he saw around him, the marriages on paper, the people in the campaign, on the press plane, in the field offices, all running away from hearth and homes, living for the day (and the night!) ... you still couldn't say it! Well, he never would again. He'd never discuss his personal life—not with reporters—hell, no!

But then, too, never would that quote go away. It would come back with him, to Washington, when he took his seat in the Senate. It would surface in files in 1984. It was alive and swimming in the stinking bouillabaisse in '88—oh, very much alive!

And a strange, rotten bit of fish it seemed to this new pack, though they, too, had been young in '72. They were in schools, or coming out to first jobs. They, too, had long hair, and tight pants over slender legs ... and if sex were money, they all would have been rich.

But here's what the wooers of this generation missed ... Biden, Caddell, and all the trackers of this bulge in the bell curve: the salient fact about this boom generation had nothing to do with its love-and-drug-addled idealism, when it—when they—were the hope and heritors of the world.

By 1987, they still felt the world was theirs; the nation, the society (and everyone in it) ought, by all rights, to march to their tune. But the tune was changed, the times transformed. They'd done their own thing, they'd been the Me Generation, they'd sung "We Are the World" (and they meant it) ... but the salient fact, at this point in their lives was ... they were turning forty.

They were worried about their gums.

They were experts on soy formula.

They were working seriously on their (late, or second) marriages.

They were livid about saturated fats in airline food. What, no fiber?

They did not drink, they did not smoke, drugs were a sniggering memory. They worked all the time, except when they were calling home.

And they certainly, God knows, did not mess around!

Sex! ... It was tacky. It was dangerous. It was (sniff!) ... not serious.

And being ... (They Are the World) ... this generation, no one else was going to get away with sex, either.

Or drugs.

Or ill health.

Or fouling their air with noxious smoke.

Or music so loud they couldn't hear their cellular phones!

Or driving without a seat belt, and a baby seat ... like they had ... so they could navigate the mortal dangers of the world, to get home, where there was some decent (i.e., French) springwater.

They had become the Thank-You-For-Not (smoking, eating, drinking, fornicating ... or anything else I don't do) Generation. In their self-referential certainties, they were:

The ⃠ Generation.

Their mortality, their middle age, their growing and overweening fear must now become their world's fear.

And here was Hart—so dedicated (still!) to undermining the safe security of convention—even their conventions. Jesus, this guy just reeked of danger!

Here was Hart—(still!) unconvinced of their God-given bulge-driven right to decided what was right for him ... or sane for the rest of the world. Well, if that wasn't arrogance!

Here was Hart (reform marriage, indeed!)—whoeverybody knew was (still!) getting laid ...

Well, the sonofabitch was prima facie crazy!

I thought of the above passage when I heard a few years ago that Cramer was working on a biography of Alex Rodriguez. He was at his best when writing about public figures either too readily embraced or too summarily dismissed, which is why he was one of the only writers to get both Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams dead to rights (and which is why it was a shame Jesse Jackson never cooperated with his 1988 book). Here was the perfect guy to write the A-Rod story, I thought—someone who could take the full and proper measure of baseball's most talented phony.

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He never did, alas. Cramer was a notoriously slow writer, and the book fell apart, its bones now getting picked over by lawyers.

Cramer died on Monday night of complications from lung cancer. He was 62. No one went for the big chords the way he did. What was it he wrote about Ted Williams? "Few men try for best ever, and Ted Williams is one of those."