Saturday, October 15, 2016


                Arnold Palmer died two weeks ago, at age 87, and while the sports world mourned his passing it also celebrated a life that was well lived by any measure. Arnie played great golf, saw the world, made a lot of money and, by all accounts, had a lot of fun. No one could ask for more.
               He wasn’t the best golfer of his era—Jack Nicklaus was—and another contemporary, Gary Player, also won more “major” championships. Indeed, Palmer’s period of golf dominance was roughly comparable to Sandy Koufax’s in baseball, a 1958-to-1964 span during which he went from age 29 to 35 and won all seven of his major titles.  That must be considered brief in a sport in which it’s not uncommon for men to play at a top level well into their 40s.
                Four of Palmer’s major titles came in the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, whose wide-open acres suited his powerful but less-than-precise game. Two more came at British Opens played over similar layouts. He won just one U.S. Open (in 1960) and never did capture a PGA Championship. Player won all four of those crowns, as did Nicklaus, many times.
              Palmer, however, was far-and-away golf’s most popular performer as long as he competed, and one of the most popular athletes of any time. The son of a golf-course superintendent from small-town Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and with a flailing swing to go with his working-class origins, he exuded the sort of everyman appeal that was rare in what was, and still is, a predominantly country club sport.

When he flicked away his cigarette, hitched his pants, gazed intently at the flagstick and squared away to bash, we rooted for his every shot to go in, and despaired when it didn’t. The straightforward and unfeigned friendliness of his off-course manner reinforced his appeal. His “Army” included millions of people who never set foot on a golf course.

Still, Palmer’s most-lasting legacy has come not on the links but in the counting houses. With the visionary Mark McCormack, the late Cleveland lawyer and golf aficionado who founded the International Management Group, which under the initials IMG now just about runs golf, tennis and several other sports, Palmer became the first athlete to fully cash in on his celebrity. In doing so he set the pattern that Michael Jordan, David Beckham and Tiger Woods, and many lesser lights, have followed. It’s a whole new financial ball game these days, and they can thank McCormack and Arnie for that.

I had various contacts with Palmer over the years, starting with the front-page story on him I did for the Wall Street Journal in 1966, as a reporter in New York before my columnizing days.  Slugged “Arnold Palmer, Inc.”, it detailed the many business ventures in which the golfer had become involved under McCormack’s guidance.

Previously, golfers’ and other jocks’ non-competitive income had been pretty much limited to signing equipment lines, playing exhibitions and, maybe, being quoted on how much they enjoyed smoking Lucky Strikes. Sam Snead, whose Wilson-brand golf clubs topped the sales charts for decades, was paid no more than $200,000 a year for the use of his name and technical advice.

The revolutionary McCormack decided to turn the tables on all that. “Any time you sell an endorsement you know that the man doing the buying will benefit from it more than you,” he told me about his epiphany. “We figured, why shouldn’t we be on the other side?”

Because of his unique popularity, Palmer was the perfect instrument for McCormack’s thrust. Soon, not only was he endorsing products ranging from ice rinks to a dry-cleaning chain (no kidding), he also came out with his own lines of golf clubs, balls, bags and sportswear and took an ownership share in the companies that made them. Those ventures still were taking off in 1966 but his annual income the year before approached $800,000, of which only $57,000 came from his winnings on the PGA Tour.  By his death his net worth was $675 million, according to Internet sources, a figure that dwarfed his lifetime Tour earnings of $2.1 million and the $6.9 million he took in when his international and PGA Senior Tour prize money is included.

Through it all, and remarkably, Palmer remained much the same, approachable figure he was when he was younger. While some jock-tycoons (e.g., Tiger Woods) wrap themselves in corporate cocoons and parcel out their time and attentions parsimoniously, he was generous with his. A few years ago I wrote a book titled “For the Love of Golf” as part of the “For the Love of…” series of illustrated books I did for Triumph Books. The publisher asked me to contact Palmer to “write” the foreword; I put the word in quotes because the usual practice is for the author, or someone, to do the writing and the celeb to sign it.

I called Donald “Doc” Giffin, the ex-sportswriter who was Palmer’s long-time factotum. He said sure, send it over. I next inquired about what sort of compensation Arnie might expect. Not to worry, said Doc, a couple cartons of the book would do fine.
I can’t help but contrast that reaction with the one I received in 1996 when I was doing a piece for a Wall Street Journal golf supplement on the 1986 Masters, which I covered and which Nicklaus won in memorable fashion. Wanting a few quotes to flesh it out, I phoned Nicklaus’s “people” about setting up a brief interview with the golfer.

 The guy I spoke to asked me what companies were advertising in the issue. I didn’t know and said so. Nobody’d ever asked me that. He said to find out and call him back. I did, and named Cadillac among several others. He said in that case Jack wouldn’t be speaking with me.

 “Why?” I asked.

“Jack endorses Chrysler,” the guy replied.



Sunday, October 2, 2016


                The Chicago Cubs are in the National League playoffs, so in the coming days or (I hope) weeks we’ll be hearing a lot about curses. Actually, one specifically, involving an animal. That would be the Billy Goat Curse, delivered by the beast’s owner William Sianis, a Chicago bar owner who in the 1940s was ahead of his time in his ability to manipulate the news media to his advantage.
             Maybe because his nickname was “Billy,” Sianis identified with goats and named his establishment the Billy Goat Tavern. He kept one as a pet and often took it along in his jaunts around town, attracting the sort of attention he relished. On October 6, 1945, he appeared at game four of that year’s baseball World Series between the Cubs and Detroit Tigers at Wrigley Field with the animal in tow and two tickets in hand, asking that both be admitted.

Here accounts diverge: according to some the pair got in but the goat was quickly expelled for obvious reasons; according to others the goat was repulsed at the gate and spent the afternoon tethered outside the park while his owner watched from within. Either way, Sianis later professed to be irate and telegraphed Philip K. Wrigley, the Cubs’ owner, saying he hoped the team never again would win a World Series.

The curse has worked wonderfully; not only did the Cubs lose that Series, in seven games, they’ve also never qualified for another, 1945 being their last pennant year. Their Series-win dearth dates back farther, to 1908, which is 108 years ago if you’re scoring. That’s impressive even to Buddhist monks, Australian aborigines and others whose time frames are wider than ours.

  What’s more, like all good curses this one has had an odd (eerie?) kicker. The goat’s name was Murphy, and last year, when the Cubs made it to the WS semis against the New York Mets, Daniel Murphy was the Mets’ batting star, going 9 for 17 with four home runs in his team’s four-game sweep. You can’t make up stuff like that.

The Billy Goat Curse certainly is Numero Uno on the sports’ curse list, but it’s not without challengers. Right up there with it is the Pottsville Curse, delivered upon the football Chicago Cardinals by residents of Pottsville, Pa., (current population about 14,000), who believed the 1925 National Football League title was unfairly stripped from their Maroons and handed to the Cardinals by a league ruling penalizing their team for playing an unauthorized game.

This curse hasn’t been wholly effective-- the Cardinals won the 1947 NFL title-- but the team has been a consistent loser otherwise and its woes have followed it from Chicago to St. Louis to its current home in Phoenix, Az. And when it finally made a Super Bowl, in 2009, victory was cruelly denied it by a last-minute Pittsburgh Steelers’ touchdown in a 27-23 outcome.

Also vying for the lead is the Bobby Layne Curse, delivered by the late quarterback. He was one of my all-time favorite players, a gritty sort whose whole exceeded the sum of its parts. He led the Detroit Lions to NFL championships in 1952, ’53 and ’57, and when traded to the Steelers during the 1958 season spit out that he hoped the Lions wouldn’t win another crown for 50 years. His curse has exceeded its time limit but shows no signs of abating. The Lions are one of four teams who’ve never been to a Super Bowl (the others are the Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars) and show no signs of qualifying any time soon.

I could go on about sports curses (The Curse of the Bambino , the Rocky Colavito Curse, the Honey Bear Curse) but you get the idea. Just about every team with a losing history can summon one up. Fancying myself to be a rational person, I don’t believe that otherworldly forces affect human events, but while I don’t believe in curses I do believe in psychology and think that winning and losing both can create their own momentum.

 As I’ve seen in my horse playing, winning (I do win, sometimes) can produce a powerful, positive vibe that gives one confidence in one’s judgement and courage to move ahead, while losing brings the sort of self-doubt that causes the second-guessing of choices and pulling away from potentially worthwhile situations. In brief, the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings.

I also believe in competence, the lack of which is why the Cubs have had such a dismal record over the decades. Generations of team management have been hypnotized by the cozy dimensions of Wrigley Field and loaded up on power hitting to the detriment of baseball’s other, equally important, facets, namely pitching, defense and speed. Lopsided teams are losers, and until lately the Cubs have been lopsided.

Since 1945, the first year I took notice of them (at age 7), an overwhelming proportion of Cubs’ heroes have been sluggers—Sauer, Banks, Williams, Santo, Kingman, Dawson, Sosa, Lee. Good pitchers have been few and far between, and when the team has blundered onto one (Maddux, Jenkins, Sutter, Smith) it has allowed him to escape with plenty of tread remaining.

The same goes for speed: the only real burner in Cubs’ annals, Lou Brock, was dealt away (and to the archrival St. Louis Cardinals!) as a youth in a trade (Brock for Broglio) that ranks among the worst of all time, ever.  You can win a bar bet by asking the guy next to you to name the last Cub to lead the National League in stolen bases. The answer is Stan Hack, with 17, in 1939. Again, you can’t make this up.

Current Cub execs, led by the curse-breaker (in Boston) Theo Epstein, seem to have learned some history, because the team’s starting-pitching staff this season has been the game’s best, and its bullpen close to it. The Cubs are baseball’s best team overall going into post-season play, which is worth something even though the best teams don’t win, the teams that play best do.

 To break the curse they’ll have to win 11 games against three good teams, no small thing in a sport of small differences. Surviving that grind always is a long shot, but someone will do it. With a little help from above, it finally may be the Cubs.