Liebling's work still utterly dazzling


AMERICA AT LARGE:AS SHOULD anyone who hopes to make his living in this racket, at least once or twice a year I’ve found it helpful to recharge the mental batteries by revisiting the work of AJ Liebling, even though those visitations can sometimes prove a two-edged sword. For all the inspiration an encounter with the muse might provide, one will also inevitably encounter a turn of phrase so utterly dazzling that the effect can be daunting.

“Rocky landed a right to his zygomaticus, and he went sprawling down, forgetting to tread water, until he hit the bottom of the pool.”

Being presented with that Liebling observation (of Marciano, in the second Ezzard Charles fight) would seem to leave his spiritual descendents but two choices: should I steal the line for myself, or should I look for another line of work?

The great man, dead for nearly half a century now, has been a particularly palpable presence over the past few days, in which events have conspired to serve up a double dose of Liebling.

Several years ago the Boxing Writers’ Association of America decided to honour his memory with the presentation of the AJ Liebling Award. A few weeks ago I was pressed into service as committee chairman charged with selecting this year’s recipients.

And just a couple of days ago I had lunch with my friend, Pete Hamill, who presented me with a fresh-off-the presses advance copy of The Sweet Science and Other Writings, a massive collection of Lieblingiana he had selected and edited for a new edition, which will be published by the Library of America on March 19th.

(The 2009 Liebling Awards, by the way, will go to Leonard Gardner, whose 1969 novel Fat City remains among the greatest boxing novels ever written, to HBO television analyst Larry Merchant, who spent two decades as a top-flight sports columnist in New York and Philadelphia before crossing over to the dark side, and to the late John Lardner, a Liebling contemporary who produced a similarly diverse body of work before his untimely death, at 48, in 1960.)

A few years ago the editors of Sports Illustrated compiled a roster of the 100 greatest sports books of all time, and The Sweet Science, the collection of Liebling’s boxing coverage for The New Yorker first published in 1956, headed up the list in the number one position. With one foot in the sophisticated world of Manhattan intellectuals from whence he sprang and the other in the Runyonesque netherworld of boxing low-lifes in whose company he so evidently delighted, Liebling (“pound for pound, the top boxing writer of all time,” said SI) brought a unique approach to the sport that was never rivalled before or since.

Although he was the unchallenged master of the medium, Liebling’s boxing coverage comprised a relatively small percentage of his overall output. While he didn’t invent the role of media watchdog, his monthly New Yorker column (The Wayward Press) so defined that role that 45 years later its practitioners seem but pale imitators by comparison.

Liebling himself had been fired from his job in journalism, as a copy editor with the New York Times. (Required to produce box scores of basketball games according to a house template that included the referee’s name, he had taken to identifying the officiant as “Icongo” – Italian for “unknown” – on those occasions the student-manager phoning in the report failed to get the ref’s name.)

Hoping that a semester or two at the Sorbonne might kindle an affinity for a more ambitious calling, his father packed him off to Europe for a year, along with a $2,000 letter of credit that appears to have been more or less exhausted in the bistros and bars of the Rive Gauche.

A youth spent in Paris spawned a lifelong affinity with the French that made his World War 11 coverage the envy of every writer-turned-war correspondent.

He was also an acute and acerbic political analyst, and The Earl of Louisiana, his account of the folksy Earl Long’s colourful gubernatorial campaign (conducted in part from the mental institution to which he had been dispatched while his reputation recovered from revelations of his relationship with the stripper Blaze Starr) remains to this day as insightful a rendition of the way politics works in the Bible Belt as has ever been written.

As one might have assumed from its title, The Sweet Science comprises the first fourth of the collection assembled by Hamill. With notes and appendices, the new book runs over 1,000 pages, and includes selections, many of them previously uncollected, from The Earl of Louisiana, The Jollity Building (from Liebling’s 1942 book The Telephone Booth Indian), a section called Beween Meals: An Appetite for Paris, and, of course, a lengthy compendium of The Press. “Ironically, considering that he pretty much invented the medium,” noted Hamill the other day, “it’s the press stuff which is in some ways the most dated. I found myself continually interrupting to explain in a footnote to today’s readers what, for example, the World-Telegram even was.”

Liebling once famously wrote that “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one”, and while some of his ruminations on the subject might, as his editor notes, require translation for members of the X-Generation, others, when viewed in a contemporary light, seem not only timeless but downright prescient: “News is like the tilefish which appears in great schools off the Atlantic Coast and then vanishes, no one knows whither or for how long. Newspapers might employ these periods searching for the breeding ground of news, but they prefer to fill up with stories about Kurdled Kurds or Calvin Coolidge, until the banks close or a Hitler marches, when they are as surprised as their readers.”