I can see him now, coming through the door of Runyon's, the Second Ave. gin mill, slouching along in his big soft-brimmed hat and hawsered to a ritual cigar, a writing man who doesn't talk so much as declaim. And when there's already in the joint another writing-talking man like Bill Flanagan of Forbes magazine and he and Bert get started, this isn't a conversation; it's the Thirty Years War of The Tonsils.
Bert used to run Ring magazine but he lost it to people he considers rascals and today he publishes Boxing Illustrated to which eight civilians and his wife subscribe but which contains lots of good stuff. Bert has also written 54 books and claims kinship with the aristocratic Randolphs of Virginia and is the only New York guy I know who stands up and weeps when they play "Dixie."
Because of Bert's knowledge of ring lore he is always on TV before a big fight and invariably picks the loser. This is not that Bert can't handicap a fight. It is because there are always experts picking the favorite so Bert knows if he picks McNeeley, say, over Tyson, he is sure to get airtime as the only guy who does.
He has written, as I say, all those books and here comes the 55th. It is published by Carol Publishing Co.'s Citadel Press and is called "The 100 Greatest Athletes of All Time," costs $24.95, and is irresistible. Even though, right at the start, Bert is lying because it is not "of all time" but only of this century. But I quibble. Here is your Christmas gift for people who enjoy arguing over drinks.
"After all," Bert writes, "what [is] a book but a glorified bar bet?"
This hardcover bar bet starts off controversially by calling Jim Brown the single best athlete of our time and, besides that, is so rife with copy-editing errors both Bert and Carol Publishing (to say nothing of the Randolphs of Virginia) ought to be red-faced. Fanny Blankers-Koen (the great Dutch track star) is spelled two ways on the same page, "Roosevelt" comes out "Rossevelt," and Hobey Baker is spelled "Hobe," which should have Scott Fitzgerald whirling in his grave.
Following the absurd Jim Brown selection (Bert notes he was also the best lacrosse player in the world as well, which is sort of like saying Joe Louis also played a nice game of hearts), Bert gets serious. We have Jim Thorpe number two and Babe Didrikson Zaharias (Bert's spelling and I hope it's right) in third place. Jackie Robinson (another eminently debatable pick) at four and Babe Ruth fifth. Filling out the top 10, Jesse Owens, Wilt Chamberlain, Pele, Ernie Nevers (I love this pick but if you're under 50 you say, "who?") and Michael Jordan in 10th place.
The leading women after Zaharias are Jackie Joyner-Kersee at 16, Martina at 23, Wilma Rudolph at 65, Chrissie Evert 70, Billie Jean King 82, Sonja Henie at 90, Nadia Comaneci at 95 and Fanny Blankers-Koen, by whatever spelling, at 97.
Note the paucity of golfers, male or female, in the top ranks. No boxers, either. Carl Lewis is 11 overall, Bobby Orr the first hockey player at 12, Paavo Nurmi at 13, Willie Mays 14, Muhammad Ali 15, Ty Cobb 17, Red Grange 18 (in a grand old leather helmet which reminds me to say, the pix are wonderful).
For those questioning Grange, recall that Damon Runyon wrote, "He is three or four men rolled into one. He is Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Paavo Nurmi and Man o' War." Coach George Halas said of Red, "He was the game's greatest runner until he hurt his knee, and after that, the game's greatest defensive back." How can you rank Jim Brown 17 spots ahead of The Galloping Ghost?
Oscar Robertson is 19, Tilden 20, Nicklaus the first golfer at 21. Walter Payton at 24 one place ahead of Sugar Ray Robinson? You jest! DiMag is at 26 and Bobby Jones 27. Gretzky is 30. Unitas 34. Bill Russell 35 and didn't he own Chamberlain in big games? Honus Wagner 37? That far behind Jackie Robinson? Magic is 39. Joe Montana 54. Dempsey at 60 seems wrong to me. But how about Bobby Feller at 73 and Bronko Nagurski at 74?
Bob Gibson is 75, Pete Rose 77, Blanchard & Davis take the next two places. But A.J. Foyt at 83 and not a mention of Ascari or the great Tazio Nuvolari to say nothing of King Richard Petty?
Satchel Paige only 96? If they let black guys play, Satch would have won more games than Cy Young. John L. Sullivan (a bit before my time) is at 99 and The Gipper at 100. The only skier is Killy at 69. What about Tony Sailer? We get Jimmy Connors but not Jake Kramer? And what's Bert got against matadors? No Belmonte or Manolete, no Ordonez or Luis Dominguin (they were good enough for Papa Hemingway and Luis for Ava Gardner as well, which ought surely to score points). There's no barefoot Karch Kiraly on the sands of Laguna Beach. Bert's got Arcaro and Willie the Shoe in there but how about "a handy guy named Sande/ Bootin' them winners home?"
And what of Jacques Anquetil who won the Tour de France five times?
I guess Bert never stood there in the sunshine of a Paris Sunday waiting for Anquetil to to finish yet another Tour and way off there in the distance, over by the Bois, you'd hear them starting to chant, the million Frenchmen lined up cheering, "ANK-uh-teel.... ANK-uh-teel....ANK-uh-teel" and then finally you could see him coming, blond hair slicked back, legs pumping, nose on the handlebars, and suddenly he's on you and then instantly past you and the French are going crazy and weeping and cheering all at the same time and it didn't cost a sou just to stand there on the sidewalk in the sun and see Anquetil pass, the greatest bike rider in the world and maybe that ever was, and years later you could tell your kids you saw him there in Paris on a racing Sunday.
Aw, the hell with it. Just buy Bert Sugar's book.