The piece they call Richard Ben Cramer’s finest work reads like unkempt morning hair. This makes it fun to read, and this makes it entertaining to read, but neither one of those really grabs the heart of the thing. No, more than anything, Cramer’s 1986 Esquire profile of baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” feels good to read.
When the piece circled the Internet the other day, I was a little bit embarrassed. See, I work in media for a living, spending much of my free time reading and studying great writers. Given that much, I should have known about this piece. And see, I grew up with baseball, around baseball, playing baseball, and it’s always meant just a little bit more than a game for me. Now given that much, I REALLY should have known about Cramer’s profile.
But I didn’t, and that made up about half of the embarrassment. The other half? I wasn’t that familiar with Cramer himself. I could say, “Well, what’s regarded as Cramer’s best piece ever was published almost three years before I was born, which is about 16 years before I began paying any sort of serious attention to writers.” But I don’t say that, because I don’t believe it. We can read seemingly anything ever written with the Internet. I should have known.
The regret and embarrassment came after I read Cramer. While I read, I felt astonishment, in the words, in the narrative, in my discovery. The profile is wild and free, from language to the anecdotes to the punctuation. It reads like a movie script, carried by dialogue and diction. The story breathes, not in the sense of spacing and rhythm, but in the sense of actually being alive. Cramer’s words are pulled by a current, a force that doesn’t feel tenable.
Sadly, the reason I came across Cramer’s work at all is because he died the other day. His stories resurfaced, and personal stories of his kindness were written. It seemed everyone fortunate enough to encounter Cramer, as a writer or a mentor or a friend (are those all the same for Cramer?), had an endearing memory to share.
Sure, I’m biased, but the best tribute I read was delivered by a colleague of mine, Ryan McGee. You can read it here, and it’s phenomenal.
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