The Parson Weems moment, the young-Washington-chopping-down-the-cherry-tree moment, in the accepted mythology of George Herman “Babe” Ruth involves a kindly mentor who first spots the hint of deity under the hardscrabble-boy exterior. It was Xaverian Brother Mathias at Baltimore’s St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys who first took Ruth into gentle tutelage in the art and science of baseball. There are a few persistent apocryphal tales from those years: tales of the teenage Babe beginning to display the eye and reflexes that would one day make him one of baseball’s most underestimated pitchers and the sheer hitting power that would earn him immortality as the Wazir of Wham.

It’s a familiar device, these Parson Weems stories. They grow up entwined in the facts of their subjects’ biographies, covering the bare dates and facts with a green and shifting foliage of folklore.

No other figure from the world of 20th-century sports equals Babe Ruth’s folklore status — with only one exception: Muhammad Ali. The self-proclaimed “greatest,” the heavyweight champion boxer who taunted his opponents, sang his own praises, and by turns charmed and infuriated the world, had his own Parson Weems moment, or rather a one-two combination of them, and fittingly, it was a combination of outrage and showmanship — and the Parson was a cop. More… “Ali Alive”

Steve Donoghue is a reader, editor, and writer living in Boston surrounded by books and dogs. He’s one of the founding editors of the literary journal Open Letters Monthly and the author of one of its book­blogs, Stevereads. HIs work has appeared in The National, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and The Quarterly Conversation, among others. He tweets as @stdonoghue.



Boxing is an ugly thing. The outcome is considered a great success when one combatant has beaten the other into unconsciousness. Old boxers are a sad lot, a compound wreck of irreversible physical and mental damage. The details are well known. Yet no one seems to care all that much. As someone once quipped, “Sure, there have been deaths and injuries in boxing, but none of them serious.”

Underneath this fundamental ugliness is a greater wretchedness still. I think, for instance, of the opening of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, where a group of young blacks in the South are made to fight one another to the drunken joy of the white crowd in order to collect their “scholarships.” Muhammad Ali summed this ugliness up with his typical forthrightness. “Boxing,” he said, “is a lot of white men… More…



Is the world a stale and weary place, now that George Plimpton (1927-2003) is no longer in it? Hardly. But if it still seems fresh with possibility, Plimpton deserves his share of credit for making it so. His legacy is the magazine he edited — The Paris Review — but he is known best for his larks: quarterbacking the Detroit Lions, playing the triangle in Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic, boxing against Sugar Ray Robinson, tending goal for the Bruins, playing piano at an Apollo talent show. (He won second prize, narrowly edging out a guy who played a watering can.) He appeared in so many films that they called him “the Prince of Cameos.” In a way, the denial phase in grieving Plimpton’s death is prolonged by the suspicion that he’s secretly just on temporary assignment… More…

Heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis had just beaten a suddenly old Mike Tyson that evening at The Pyramid, and now Dad and I were back in the courtyard of our hotel in suburban Memphis, far from the crowds that spilled from the arena and choked the highways leading from downtown. I remember thinking as we sat there how the years had accumulated on him, how he had been unable to walk even short distances in the clammy haze that June week without breathing hard; I had to drop him off at the door wherever we went. But even so it had been a busy trip, full of big meals and good cigars and long conversations punctuated with laughter. He had never been in better spirits than when he had work to do, nor happier than when he had some jingle in his kick.

He’d come to Memphis to begin a book… More…