R.I.P., Richard Ben Cramer: Five Great Articles By the What It Takes Author

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
Jan. 12 2013 7:00 AM

The Longform Guide to Richard Ben Cramer

Five classics by the author of What It Takes.

Richard Ben Cramer.
Richard Ben Cramer, 1950-2013.

Screenshot courtesy CSPAN2.

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Richard Ben Cramer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wrote for Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Sports Illustrated, among others, died this week at 62. A sampling of his work:

Cramer’s most famous piece of writing, a profile of an aging Ted Williams.

"Few men try for best ever, and Ted Williams is one of those. There's a story about him I think of now. This is not about baseball but fishing. He meant to be the best there, too. One day he says to a Boston writer: ‘Ain't no one in heaven or earth ever knew more about fishing.’

“ ‘Sure there is,’ says the scribe.

" ‘Oh, yeah? Who?’

" ‘Well, God made the fish.’

" ‘Yeah, awright,’ Ted says. ‘But you have to go pretty far back.’ "

The Strange and Mysterious Death of Mrs. Jerry Lee Lewis
Rolling Stone • March 1984             

How Jerry Lee Lewis, whose nickname was “The Killer,” got away with murdering 25-year-old Shawn Michelle Stevens, his fifth wife.

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“The Killer was there within seconds. If he’d been sleeping on the big canopied bed, he must have been sleeping in his bathrobe. For now, he came into the hall, with the white terrycloth lapels pulled right across his skinny chest, and he looked surprised to find Lottie in tears. Then he looked a silent question into Sonny Daniels’ eyes.

“ ‘Mr. Lewis, your wife … ’ Sonny averred his gaze. He said: ‘I just checked her over in there …’

“Still, he didn’t meet the question in Jerry Lee’s hard eyes. He saw the two bright red scratches on the back ofJerry Lee’s hand, like a car had gouged him from the wrist to the knuckles. When Sonny looked up at last, his own eyes grew, his whole face seemed to grow larger, rounder, younger.

“ ‘Mr. Lewis,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry. Miz Lewis is dead.’ ”

Nice Guys Finish Last
Texas Monthly • August 1992

An excerpt from What It Takes, Cramer’s book about the 1988 presidential election. (Bonus reading: Ben Smith on Cramer and how What It Takes changed political reporting.)

“George Bush knew he was headed for the Senate. That’s where he belonged, like his dad. He had no doubt. He could have held his House seat forever, like a birthright: That new district, Houston’s seventh, had been birthed for him. After one term, he was unopposed.

“And he was a certified star: There were forty new Republicans elected to that Congress, in the rebound after the Goldwater debacle. Bush was chosen as president of the freshman class. For the first time in decades, a GOP freshman got a seat on Ways and Means. (Prescott Bush, a former Connecticut senator, had called on old friends for his son.) From the start, everybody knew about this bright, handsome young Republican from Houston—a chink, at last, in the solid South. George Bush was the party’s bold breeze of the future.

“He was invited to address GOP luncheons and breakfasts of bigwigs. He’d talk about the revival of the two-party system, change on the southern wind. What a hopeful vision! He wore that excitement like a suit coat thrown over one shoulder, as he strode down the hallways with a greeting and a grin. He was having such a good time.

“It wasn’t legislating that ran his motor: He wasn’t one of those annoying first-termers who think they’ve got to make floor speeches and pepper the House with bills. The only bills he pushed were aid for birth control (always an interest of his father’s, maybe unfinished business for the old man) and a short-lived proposal on congressional ethics. (This pup published his tax returns!) Most of his work he did in committee, as a quiet, respectful student of the chairman, Wilbur Mills. (Mills loved him. After the kid filed that birth-control bill, Mills always called him Rubbers.) When the bells rang, Bush would hustle to the oor, check in. But on routine days, he could leave with his new friend, the Mississippi Democrat Sonny Montgomery, for a do-or-die dollar-a-game paddleball match in the House gym.

“It was the life itself that Bush found bracing—all the doing, new friends. He was in such demand! There wasn’t ten minutes to sit around: He had committee, he had lunch, a meeting at Interior. He’d grab his coat and bolt for his office door, calling over his shoulder to his secretary, Aleene Smith, who’d come with him from Houston: ‘Allie! See what Mr. Holburn needs, will you—he’s on the phone!’ He’d run through the afternoon, with that lock of hair falling onto his forehead and the ladies of his office clucking, through their smiles, ‘Mr. Bush! Tuck in your shirttail!’ ”

A Native Son's Thoughts
Sports Illustrated • September 1995

Cramer on his hometown of Baltimore and its hero, Cal Ripken Jr.

“The point is, the umps, the writers, even the Streak itself, they all get in the way of the goal—always the same goal—which is to play the game just right. The umps make mistakes. The writers don't care, they want controversy. Cal doesn't like controversy. And the writers take time. Cal doesn't have time, not now. He's got his wife and kids in the big country house; he doesn't get enough time with them already. He's got fans, he gives autographs—thousands of signatures. He's got press conferences at ballparks across the country and big, scheduled media hits—The New York Times, Prime Time Live, TV Guide, the cover of SI. He's got endorsement deals, his old ones (local hot dogs and milk) and new ones: Chevy Trucks, Coca-Cola, Nike, Franklin Glove, the Adventureland theme park, and assorted memorabilia, including a bobble-head doll. (You can't establish a deathless baseball record without a bobble-head doll.) It's not easy being an icon—when it has to be done just right.

“And time before a game ... well, forget it. That's sacred. That's Cal's time to prepare. He's in his routine—the silence, the planning, the discussion. And he wants to hit, take batting practice, correctly: first a bunt, then a ground ball to the right side (move that runner to third), then a fly to the outfield (bring that runner home) and then swing away, swing away, swing away. He wants to take grounders—has to take grounders—but correctly: You don't grab the ball any which way and close your mitt around it; you catch the grounder with an open glove, to get your throwing hand in. You catch it in position to throw. That's all part of catching the grounder correctly. See, Cal's dad, who taught him, has these sayings—said them all a million times—like: If you want to play the game properly, you have to get ready to play.”

The Ballad of Johnny France
Esquire • October 1985

A profile of a Montana sheriff in the midst of a manhunt.

“This was when Johnny was flying one day, with the fellow who’d taught him. They’re up in a Cessna 210, a little single-engine job with retracting landing gear. They’re in for a landing at Dillon and they flick down the wheels and—damn!—one side won’t come down. It’s the gear. The wheel just hangs out at a useless 45-degree angle. It won’t lock down, no matter how many times they flip it up and back. Luckily, they’ve got some fuel. So they start doing rolls and dives and things that a Cessna shouldn’t do, trying to shake this gear down so they can land. The fellows at air traffic control don’t know what to do either, so they call Cessna. The folks at Cessna don’t know what to do, so they suggest belly-landing. Well, Johnny and his friend don’t have so many planes, so they do more loops and dives, trying to shake the gear loose. Well, it looks bad. They talk it over. Johnny climbs out of the plane, locks his hands around the wheel strut. Then, with wind blowing him out horizontal under the wing, he hooks a boot on that balky wheel, kicks the mother home. Climbs back in. Lands the plane.

“Ride ‘em Johnny.”

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longform. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive.

Max Linsky is a founding editor of Longform.org.

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