This Christmas, I received as a gift The Only Game in Town: Sportswriting from The New Yorker. As a lifelong lover of The New Yorker and an admitted sucker for the long-form essay, I was anxious to begin the block of ink and paper. Flipping to the table to contents to see what lay on the horizon, I knew I was in good hands: John Updike's indispensable essay on Ted Williams' last game in Fenway Park, Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, was included; a piece from humorist Ian Frazier hovered like a cloud in the distance; and, maybe most excitingly, an essay from A.J. Liebling loomed on the landscape.
I have always been a fan of Liebling, but my experience with his writing had been limited to his essays on food and his canonical war correspondent collections. Liebling was a bit of an interesting cat: An intellect of immense proportions, buoyed equal parts by his contempt for, presumably, everything and everyone and his dry, cutting wit that exceeded droll but was tempered by an air of social superiority that roadblocked excessive nose-thumbing.
Liebling was, as it were, in a state of pseudo-detente: He was in it solely to amuse himself, but if you slyly smiled along it wouldn't ruin his fun.
This amusement, I discovered, was not limited to just his love of French cuisine and his recollections of youth. (An adolescence in which he tried to con his father into giving him straight cash instead of accepting his offer of paying his way through France to study at the Sorbonne.) Liebling found great interest in boxing, and as his essay in The New Yorker collection showed (a piece entitled Ahab and Nemesis), Liebling's cutting tongue put to paper via pen illustrated a man who loved sport as much as baguettes and foie gras.
The essay was built around the Rocky Marciano-Archie Moore bout at Yankee Stadium in 1955, although the subject was clearly A.J. Liebling with the pugilists serving merely as the supporting cast. For the uneducated, Marciano was one of America's great heavyweights -- he completed his career with an unblemished record, having defended his title successfully six times. More importantly, though, Marciano was the pride and joy of Brockton, Massachusetts, a blue-collar town that loves its heroes as much as it does complaining about hard work and tough times. Marciano rose from this dreary Boston outpost to become heavyweight champion of the world, and many parts of New England shared in his glory.
The fight against Moore would be Marciano's last, and Liebling paints a delicate portrait of Rocky, Moore, philosophical underpinnings of the sweet science, his European travels, and the scene at Yankee Stadium that night. While Liebling spends ample time discussing the action in the ring, it is subordinate to that which occurs after Marciano drops Moore in the ninth to protect his belt. This is what Liebling wrote:
The fight was no sooner over than hundreds of unsavory young yokels with New England accents began a kind of mountain-goat immigration from the bleachers to ringside. They leaped from chair to chair and, after they reached the press section, from typewriter shelf to typewriter shelf. . . . "Rocky!" they yelled. Two of them, as dismal a pair of civic ambassadors as I have seen since I worked on The Providence Journal & Evening Bulletin, stood on [a reporter's] typewriter and yelled "Providence!"
This is why Syracuse must defeat Providence on Saturday. Not to protect its number one ranking, not to protect its position at the top of the Big East table, not to prove the pundits wrong. It's to keep huckleberries from Rhode Island off of Ditota's and Waters' computers and shouting "Prawvidence! Buddy Cianci nevah woulda hiuhed a kid touchah!"
Rhode Island is a weird place, man, and it's not just because they make their clam chowder with clear broth.