Niceness counts, your mother used to tell you, and so it does, for you and me. When you are one of the best in the world at what you do, niceness stops counting. I am reminded of this by the sportswriters’ treatment of Barry Bonds.
Barry Bonds is one of the greatest hitters who ever lived, and his unearthly bat speed, unerring plate discipline and perfect balance make him a joy to watch. The pleasure he has given anyone who enjoys baseball, including some sportswriters, can never be repaid. He is also rather surly with the media and disinclined to give interviews. Tough. Nobody cares about how Barry Bonds’ relations with the press except the press, and if they had any respect for greatness they would keep quiet about it.
Babe Ruth, in another era, was celebrated for promising to hit home runs for sick children, although by the authoritative account he was a lout. But really, does anything matter about him except the way he played baseball?
I have quoted Yvor Winters before on the relations between distinguished poets and scholars, but his words serve equally well to describe the relations between great athletes and sportswriters:
To the scholar in question, the poet is wrong-headed and eccentric, and the scholar will usually tell him so. This is bad manners on the part of the scholar, but the scholar considers it good manners. If the poet, after some years of such experiences, loses his temper occasionally, he is immediately convicted of bad manners. The scholar often hates him (I am not exaggerating), or comes close to hating him, but if the poet returns hatred with hatred (and surely this is understandable), he is labeled as a vicious character, for, after all, he is a member of a very small minority group.
David Halberstam, he’s talking to you.
Jacques Barzun, in The House of Intellect, has an anecdote about a distinguished jurist, a member of the Supreme Court, who was profiled in a newspaper article the largest point of which was that the jurist rose early every morning and cooked breakfast for his family. In the forty-odd years since Barzun’s book was published his anecdote has been reprised countless times, almost exactly in the case of Justice Rehnquist, about whom ten people could tell you that he put stripes on his gown and sings Christmas carols for every one who could tell you a thing about his jurisprudence. This is supposed to “humanize” great men. By “humanizing” is meant “making seem more like you and me,” although what is interesting about the great is precisely what makes them unlike the rest of us. These “human” qualities are attractive or unattractive, according to the disposition of the writer: they are always irrelevant. I don’t want to see great men humanized. I want to see them praised, or even damned, for the qualities that make them great. Everything else is pornography.
(Update: Howard Owens comments.)