NEW YORK — What is it, Gay Talese is asking, about sports? It occupies a messy, emotional territory in which we embrace, and, just as easily, discard, heroes. “It’s not just losing the game,” Talese reflects, voice etched with the soft syllables of southern New Jersey, where he was born in 1932. “You lose the game enough, or get knocked out enough, you lose your job.”
There’s an empathy in his bearing, a recognition of the challenges facing ballplayers, many of whom, “feel more at home on the grassy fields and hotel lobbies and locker rooms than they do in the suburban houses that most of them will begin to share next week with their wives and children” as he wrote in “On the Road, Going Nowhere, With the Yankees,” a New York Times piece about the end of the 1979 season.
Talese is in the narrow basement study of his Manhattan townhouse, where he has written for more than 50 years. On the walls are posters commemorating his books and appearances, and, farther back, shelves featuring file boxes of research materials, one for each of his books — “The Kingdom and the Power,” “Honor Thy Father,” “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.”
The basement is neat, white carpet, white walls, a couch and table, a writing desk with an electric typewriter and an iMac. The sense one has is of having entered a physical representation of Talese’s mind, an impression only enhanced by the figure of the writer, who is wearing, on this Monday midafternoon, a three-piece suit with a red pocket square, a canary tie and black-and-red shoes.
The Yankees piece is one of 39 in the just-released “The Silent Season of a Hero: The Sports Writing of Gay Talese” (Walker & Co.: 308 pp. $16 paper), edited by Michael Rosenwald. The collection takes its name from the author’s 1966 Esquire profile of Joe DiMaggio, which, along with “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” published the same year in the same magazine, cemented his reputation in what came to be called New Journalism. Talese wrote both pieces after leaving the New York Times, where was on staff from 1956 to 1965.
While acknowledging the influence of other New Journalists — “I was seeing how much fun Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin were having,” he recalls, laughing. “They were in a sinking ship called the Herald-Tribune, and boy, they wrote whatever they wanted to write, at the length they wanted to write” — he also insists that such stories were nothing new but the culmination of a process that began when he joined the Times sports staff as a feature writer. “I always wanted to be a short story writer,” he says simply. “To tell stories about characters, and develop them in terms of scenes. In Sports, you could be looser. It was one of the toy departments, as (managing editor Turner) Catledge called them. So I was the first guy to get in there and do these little pieces I wanted to write, like short stories.”
The key, Talese suggests, was to focus on his subjects as people. He profiled a boxing referee, Ruby Goldstein, who was so incorruptible that he refused to socialize with anyone even remotely affiliated with the sport. He wrote about caddies, a dentist who made mouthguards, and in one especially memorable effort, reported on a young boxer without identifying him until the closing lines. The idea, he explains, was in part to universalize the fighter, to frame him as emblematic: 22 years old, living in an $11-a-week furnished room in Brooklyn, subsisting on a diet of his dreams. But even more, Talese notes, “what I had going for me was that I loved minor characters. The DiMaggio piece, or any of the pieces — even the books I write — are full of minor characters.”
It may sound strange to hear the Yankee Clipper described as a minor figure, but by the time Talese got to him, in the mid-1960s, his moment had passed. A restaurateur in San Francisco, he had retreated from the public and, initially, threatened the author with legal action for “invading my rights.” Talese knew not to try to warm him up; instead, he needed to understand him.
“I saw the scene,” he says, in a phrase that becomes a refrain. “I walk in and I see DiMaggio, and I know that it’s him. It’s an empty dining room, it’s 11 o’clock in the morning, and it’s DiMaggio. But he won’t look at me. So I wait, and talk to this other guy. And then I turn around, and Joe’s gone. ‘Where’d Joe go?’ I ask. ‘He’s not here.’ ‘Not here? He was just over there.’ That dialogue ... I saw the whole scene. I knew it was a writable situation. And that you have to know.”
For Talese, this sensibility is a legacy of childhood. The son of Italian immigrants, he grew up in Ocean City, N.J., where he helped out in his mother’s dress shop after school. “Sometimes women were sitting there,” he remembers, “and what really turned me on to journalism, and the kind of story I like to do, which is about ordinary people, was listening to the women’s stories. They were reflections by women about the town in which they lived, during a time, World War II, when a big event far away had its ramification on their lives.”
Talese came from a home in which his parents whispered in Italian about his father’s brothers, “who were all in the Italian army fighting the Americans, so I had a real sense of not knowing whose side I was on.” Sports became, as it often does, a passage from the outside in.
“I didn’t feel so American when I was home,” Talese says. “In the daytime, my father was a tailor and my mother had a successful dress business, and they were very American in the daytime. But at night they weren’t so American. Sports, though, were patriotic and American, and I felt it around those ballplayers I adored. Because the Yankees were the Yankees, and I was a Yankee fan.”
All these years later, in his study, Talese appears to have put that past behind him. But then, like DiMaggio — another son of Italian immigrants — he admits that he has always felt a bit apart.
“When you don’t know who you are,” Talese says, “you look to other people, to see how their life is different from yours. That’s what drew me to journalism. I didn’t know who I was, and the athlete doesn’t know who he is either, because his tenure with the team depends on so many things. There’s so much there to write about. But it has to be done respectfully and with great sensitivity. Not being blunt or coarse, but being careful. If you are able to take your time to write with care, you can say anything.”