Essay: George Plimpton: The Professional Amateur

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Plimpton's books are undeniably about sports. Paper Lion, the product of his month in training camp with the Detroit Lions, tells more null the inner world of pro football than any other book ever written. The Bogey Man, similarly, may be the most complete explanation of that infuriating game called golf. Out of My League is the detailed account of only one afternoon Plimpton spent in Yankee Stadium, but it nonetheless offers a keen insight into the mechanics and mystique of baseball. To say merely that the books are about sports, however, is to tell the plot without describing its climax. They are really about people—and the fantasies, triumphs and humiliations of George Plimpton. ∙ The Plimpton method began simply enough as a journalistic gimmick, a conscious attempt to release the Walter Mitty in one man and, perhaps, in every man. If an amateur athlete could take the place of a professional and then write about it, he reasoned, every fan in the country would identify with him and want to read his story. A good amateur pitcher, Plimpton persuaded the editors of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and major league baseball officials to let him pitch to the pros before a post-season all-star exhibition game. What started as a lark quickly turned into nightmare. Under Plimpton's special rules, a batter did not have to swing unless he liked the pitch—and few of them liked his pitches. Ernie Banks, the reigning home run king of the National League at the time, let 22 go by. Exhausted, Plimpton heard an imaginary voice in his inner ear, speaking, for some unknown reason, in a semiliterate Southern accent totally alien to his own exalted New England speech. "My hand drifted up and touched my brow, finding it was as wet and cold as the belly of a trout," he wrote in Out of My League. "It was a disclosure which sent the voice spinning off in a cracker-Cassandra's wail of doom. 'Mah God!' it cried out, 'y'all gonna faint out heah. Lawd Almahty! Y'gonna faint!' "

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