And now taking the mound for the New York baseball Giants … right-hander Tom Wolfe.
Yes, the Tom Wolfe who ultimately became a much-celebrated writer and author.
Ah, what could have been …
Wolfe’s first love was baseball, and his dream was the majors. He was a star pitcher for his high school team at St. Christopher’s School, an Episcopal all-boys school in Richmond, Va. He also pitched in college, at Washington & Lee University, in Lexington, Va.
After graduating from Washington & Lee, Wolfe landed a tryout with the then-New York Giants in 1952, but was cut three days later. Wolfe then chose to attend graduate school at Yale, where he earned a doctorate in American studies.
Later, Wolfe became an innovative writer who engaged in the seductive New Journalism of the 1960s, sassy satire and conservative social criticism. The rest is history, as Wolfe eventually wrote two best-selling books that led to movies, ”The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “The Right Stuff,” which garnered four Academy Awards.
His book “A Man in Full” sold at least 1.4 million hardcover copies and landed Wolfe on the cover of Time magazine in 1998.
And, along the way, he became that eccentric guy who often dressed like the Good Humor ice-cream man in public — with his nouveau chic cream-colored or white suits and white fedoras. For all four seasons. And sometimes with a double-breasted, woolen white overcoat and white gloves.
Wolfe died at age 88 on May 14, barely a week before another pre-eminent American novelist, the Pulitzer Prize-winning and controversial Philip Roth, passed away at 85 on Tuesday.
In current times, we remember Wolfe as a writer, not a washed-up baseball player, though his initial failure set him on the path to literary stardom. He often wrote about class, family, wealth, race, crime, sex, corruption and ambition, all wrapped into one untidy sum.
Despite his million-dollar writing successes, it was obvious Wolfe had his heart set on pro sports. In 1999, Matt Chittum of The Roanoke (Va.) Times landed a very revealing sports-oriented interview with Wolfe, who that year returned to Washington & Lee as the university celebrated its 250th anniversary. Wolfe was one of the keynote speakers for the festivities, along with his former classmate, venerable CBS News correspondent/anchorman Roger Mudd.
Probably the best segment of the interview occurred when Wolfe appeared to wonder about what could have been vs. what was in reality. During that moment, Wolfe wistfully told Chittum, “I think if I could have been a baseball star at Washington & Lee, I probably never would have touched a typewriter again. Maybe it was a good thing for my family that things worked out as they did.”
That conjures memories of that classic scene in the movie “On the Waterfront,” when Marlon Brando’s character, almost in grief, cries out in that thick accent, “I coulda been a contenduh.”
But as Mudd told Chittum, “(Wolfe) always said he had a curve(ball), but no one ever saw it break.”
What if Wolfe did develop that all-important breaking ball on the pitching mound? Then, we might not have been introduced to his time-honored descriptive phrases, such as “push the envelope,” “statusphere,” “the right stuff,” “the Me Decade,” “good ol’ boy” and “radical chic.”
Nevertheless, how good was Wolfe on the mound, really, Chittum asked the man himself.
Mediocre, at best?
“What? Who told you that?” Wolfe answered with a laugh back in 1999.
“Unfortunately, you journalists tend to ferret out the truth.”
As Chittum recounted, Wolfe was a rawboned right-hander and a second-stringer in reality, a self-described “struggling middle reliever,” responsible for carrying the team through “the soggy bottom of the middle innings.”
But perhaps there is something else in play here, no pun intended.
Wolfe might be a testament that sometimes your first love for a vocation or endeavor might not necessarily be the most qualitative love — especially in terms of impact and posterity. Sometimes the second gig can become the signature milestone.
Another great example is Walt Disney. According to the Kansas City Star, for six years as a boy, Disney delivered copies of The Star and Kansas City Times with his father, who was a newspaper carrier. He later applied for a permanent job with The Star as a cartoonist, clerk and even truck driver. However, the newspaper turned him down each time.
For Disney, like Wolfe on the pitcher’s mound, it was three strikes and you’re out. So what did Disney do? Like every other near-penniless, red-blooded American back in the early 1920s, he hopped on a train. Bound for Hollywood. With a bag and a “Mickey Mouse” idea in tow.
Now Disney’s moniker is on one of the most powerful corporate brands in the world, with ownership of the ABC-TV network, the “Black Panther” and “Avengers” movie franchises, ESPN and the eponymous theme parks.
One account says a Kansas City editor told Disney that he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”
Some observers may say Wolfe could have had the best of both worlds — that is, enjoy a lengthy major league baseball career, then switch to the keyboard. That’s a thought but no guarantee, as Wolfe, a crafty wordsmith, could have retired and remained in the game because of his love for the game. He could have used his clever way with words on the airwaves — as a baseball radio/television broadcaster for decades, a la the iconic Vin Scully or Red Barber or Ernie Harwell.
During the interview, Wolfe also seemed to try to convince himself that he was only one pitch from the big leagues, as he matter-of-factly told Chittum, “I always thought if I could maybe add one more breaking ball to my repertoire, maybe if I could come up with a forkball, that stardom was one pitch away.”
One pitch away … but in the end, it all worked out for Wolfe, us readers and viewers, too.