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George Plimpton

September 29, 2003 Columns No Comments

A Tribute to George Plimpton

by Zach Van Hart

Why do sports writers do what we do? Sure, we have literary ability. We like to travel. We enjoy seeing our name in print. But honestly, the real reason is we wish we could be the ones on the field playing. Writing about it is as close as we can get.

George Plimpton took that premonition to its extreme, and in the process created a whole new genre for journalism. Plimpton died Thursday night at the age of 76 in his Manhattan apartment.

While he was a sports journalist by trade, he was an intellectual by heart. He befriended several U.S. presidents, including JFK, both George and George W. Bush, and was a classmate of Robert Kennedy at Harvard. Sports journalism kept him connected to the political world, something he took full advantage of. But it was a two-way street; those in the public eye wanted to hang with Plimpton. And it was because his unique style, his own genre actually, that attractive so many to him.

Plimpton was renowned for his “participatory” journalism, throwing himself into the mix for countless stories, television specials and others. In 1963, he wrote the famous “Paper Lion,” describing his time spent as the Detroit Lions’ quarterback.

His documentations about his various experiments were like to a dream for so many, it’s no wonder why his writings were so highly regarded and loved. He symbolized the story of Rocky Balboa, the unknown going up against the big boys.

Of course Plimpton never reached the glory on any field the way Balboa did, but that didn’t matter. That was part of the charm of Plimpton’s pieces and experiences. Everyone knew he would likely leave the field with his tail between his legs. But everyone also loves an underdog, and Plimpton was the quintessential underdog.

Besides the renowned “Lions,” some of Plimpton’s other legendary books included “The Bogey Man,” “Out of My League” and “Shadow Box.”

Plimpton also graced America with one of its greatest fictional characters – Sidd Finch. Every baseball fan knows the great story of Finch – the man from the mountains who showed up for the Mets, threw a 168 mile-per-hour fastball, and then disappeared. Of course Finch never existed, but Plimpton’s article captured the imagination of a nation. Some of our imaginations still believe Finch exists.

And that’s what Plimpton was all about – capturing our imagination. Personally, writing game stories and conference notebooks is swell and all, but that’s not the writing that gets my juices flowing. It’s when I write columns and about the odd side of sports that I relish.

When you can be goofy, poke fun, write horrible puns and do what it takes to get a smile out of your readers, that’s where it’s at. And if you are lucky, make a difference in the life of your readers (even just one).

One day I hope to accomplish that. Plimpton did.

George Plimpton will be missed. The world of journalism will miss his unique and creative style. But that style lives on in every one of us who believes in the underdog. I know it lives on in me.


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