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Breslin: The True Years

In Brief:

Jimmy Breslin, the Pulitzer Prize winning writer who passed away this weekend, started his career with the original True: The Man’s Magazine.Like many writers, he found himself in his subjects and their world. With his early pieces for True, that world was the racetrack.

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I first met Jimmy Breslin on the couch over at Jack Newfield’s house—a lot of young writers met him that way. Newfield’s couch and home in the West Village was its own salon for an eclectic cadre of boxing aficionados: a regular place to watch the fights and hear reporting tales from an elite group of writers.

Newfield and Breslin were both legendary newspaper columnists, covering boxing with verve. Newfield wrote about and knew the great champions of era. Ali. Frasier. Holmes. Tyson. But Breslin was older than Newfield by about ten years, and he’d already become a part of sports history.

He’d developed a style and voice that echoed his own personal legends like Jimmy Cannon and Damon Runyon. He also had a chance to meet the champions of boxing’s golden age like Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and the assortment of pugilistic entrepreneurs who made their living off the fights— trainers like Whitey Bimstein and old time fight managers with names like Felix Bocchicchio, who owned a place called the Bo-Bet Motel in New Jersey, where Breslin conducted a few interviews for pieces that became and still are treasures of reportage.

I was always hopeful that lingering around the Great Breslin for long enough might yield a few historical nuggets or writing tips. I was covering boxing for The New York Times then, and was always on the look out for unusual material.

He was never in the mood, though. “What’s doin?” he’d say, answering the phone, and turning our conversation to what was bothering him in that moment. Later in his career, he was finishing his last book and, trapped in the late innings of my first book, I approached him for advice.

I was expecting insight as only a master craftsman and Pulitzer winner like him could deliver. I should have known better. He seemed annoyed at even contemplating the inner mechanics of producing a book.

“It’s work,” he said with a shoulder shrug, delivering his own kind of terse retort. I was the recipient of the Breslin jab, a verbal dispatch perfected over the decades perhaps to keep others at a distance, and wondering about his genius.

Even though we met several times, the only time I felt like I was beginning to know Jimmy Breslin was going through the old archives of True: The Man’s Magazine, where he was a frequent contributor in the late 1950’s, and before his writing career exploded.

The veteran sportswriter Jerry Izenberg, who also wrote for the old True during the same period as Breslin and worked with him at the Herald Tribune, considered his attitude and voice essential to the public consciousness.

“He both spoke and wrote the language of the people and left no doubts as to what he was saying,” Izenberg wrote us.

John Bowers, another True correspondent from the late 1960’s, also admired Breslin’s voice.

“Big Jim never hid his origins,” Bowers said. “You could count on him to come out swinging when he had to say (write) something that had to be said when no one else had the balls to do so. He had a built in bullshit detector, which Hemingway prized among all else.”

According to the archives of the old True, the pulp that inspired myself and a few other writers to launch True.Ink, one of Breslin’s first pieces was timed for release before the Kentucky Derby in 1958, a full four years before he was hired as a columnist at The New York Tribune. Over two years, Breslin travelled the world for True, filing early masterpieces on boxers and baseball players, but what seemed to be his primary focus was another world he knew well: horse-racing.

Breslin’s piece in True entitled “Racing’s Old Reliable,” about the veteran trainer Sunny Fitzsimmons, became fodder for Breslin’s first book, and was emblematic of a writing style that never seemed to change. Breslin was 30-years old when he wrote the piece, but the language could have been during his newspaper days. Here’s how Breslin described his subject:

“Mr. Fitz is 83, and arthritis has bowed his spine so that he walks like a man carrying a keg of beer on his back and he uses an aluminum crutch under his right arm. He is dressed in two thick vests that—because of his stoop—drape around his knees. Coarse pants are held close to his ankles by bicycle clips and he wears black, high-top shoes. A floppy gray hat, brim turned up, covers his bald head.

…He pauses at the top of the steps to fumble with the mailbox and, finding it empty, continues grumpily to the car, convinced that people have become lazy-mail isn’t delivered until half the morning is gone. Then he settles into the front seat for the twenty-minute drive to Barn 17 at Belmont Race Track. This is the start of another day for Mr. Fitz, the now fabled trainer of race horses who is easily the most remarkable person in sports.”

With so many legendary writers covering boxing for True in those days—a cast that included Budd Schulberg and W.C. Heinz—Breslin seemed to find his niche at the magazine when he was at the racetrack.

Throughout 1958 and 1960, Breslin traveled across the country, pit stopping in every jock room at the country’s great racetracks like Arlington, Churchill Downs, Hialeah, and the bars and steakhouses outside of them.

Two months after publishing his profile of Sunny Fitz, Breslin penned another feature two months later on Earl Sande, one of the most successful jockeys of his era, who had disappeared from racing as a recluse. The young talent that achieves glory and fame, only to disappear or suffer tragedy was a regular theme in Breslin’s work for True. Here’s how Breslin describes Sande:

“Once, Earl Sande was around the better places at Saratoga and Miami Beach and he spent time with people you read of in the day’s financial pages. The room Sande goes to now is a lonely place up one flight of creaking stairs from the dining room at Nino’s. It’s a room with a bed, chair and small television set. It looks down on the Long Island Rail Station. A bare, pull-string light breaks the monotony of the high plaster ceiling. A fistful of fading, crumpled ties hang over the chair and a bottle of Scotch stands on the window sill. There are no pictures on the wall. Nor is there a bath in Sande’s room. Across the hall there are a couple of showers and toilets the roomers use. Sande has been living in this room for 9 years.”

Two years later, Breslin profiled another jockey named Bill Hartack, considered one of the greatest winners and most unlikeable figures then in racing for his dismissive attitude and gruff demeanor. In the piece, the young Breslin was able to show command of his subject matter, describing one of Hartack’s starts in the Kentucky Derby.

“When the 14 horses all were locked into the gate, they slammed nervously into the tin sides and fronts of the stalls and the jockeys were calling “Not yet” and “No chance, boss” to the starter and there was a lot of noise and tension. Then the bell rang and the gate checked open and, with riders yelping, the horses came out. Each made a leap first, because a racehorse always is surprised to see the ground when the gates open and he jumps at it. Then the horses start to run with the long, beautiful stride of a thoroughbred and there was a roar from the big crowd.

Hartack pushed Ventian Way [his mount] into fourth, then took a snug hold on the reins. His horse was full of run, but Hartack wanted to keep him fourth, just off the leaders, and he stayed there until they were running down the backstretch….

With the thousands of people screaming from the three-decked stands, Venetian Way began widening the space. Hartack seemed to become frantic as his horse took over. He was whipping with his left hand and rolling side to side in the saddle, the way the book says a jockey should not ride but the way Hartack always does…Venetian Way won big.”

But what interested Breslin was not Hartack’s relationship with horses, but other people. How could such a successful athlete like Hartack continue to be so nasty to so many?

Because of this, people constantly compare him to baseball’s Ted Williams. This is an untrue comparison. Williams is nasty, in general, only to sportswriters and spectators. When stacked against Hartack’s style, this is like hating Russia. Anybody can do it...

Hartack goes all the way…He is a little package of nerves who has been suspended for using abusive language to stewards, for fighting with another jockey, for leaving the track and not finishing his day’s riding because he lost a photo finish. He snaps at writers, agents, owners or anybody else in sight. The people who have anything good to say about him are few.

‘I can’t figure him out,’ [Sam Boulemtis, the hall of fame jockey] was saying. ‘One day he seems nice to you. Next day, he won’t even talk to you.'”

Breslin never stopped working.

In recent years during brief conversations over the phone, he ranted about city life, issues with the police, and various projects he was looking to finish. He was 88, and just like so many of the subjects he covered, he was able to achieve and produce an extraordinary volume of work and yet maintain a level of reclusiveness and mystery. He rarely talked about himself, preferring to live as so many writers do through the characters they choose to cover or create.

In Breslin’s work, you can find the strains of his personal history and motivations peppered throughout his subjects. Breslin had a father who drank too much and left his family too early, just like so many of the jockeys he covered, and left Breslin to fend for himself in working class Queens. And just like his subjects, Breslin came off displaying a grudge with humanity and its cruelty, and perhaps found a kind of solace in the company of survivors like Sunny Fitz, or loners like Earl Sande or curmudgeons like Hartack. These were his early subjects, but also his outlet. They were him. He was them.

“I replaced my feelings with what I felt were the feelings of others,” Breslin said later on. “That changed with each thing I went to, so I was about 67 people in my life.”