With his palindromic name, Mark Kram Jr. shouldn't have to worry about forming a memorable identity as a writer. And yet, in a recent New York Times essay titled, "Bearing My Father's Byline," the author whose work has appeared in six editions of The Best American Sports Writing comes to terms with the fact that his name will always be associated with that of his late father, a legendary self-taught writer who contributed to Sports Illustrated, GQ, Esquire, and Playboyeven though junior actually had the name first.
"I've tried to live a more balanced life than Dad did. I cannot say I have always succeeded."—Mark Kram Jr.
After lying about his degree to secure a gig as a Baltimore sportswriter, "Dad promptly dropped his given name, George, and adopted mine," Kram Jr. writes in the foreword to Great Men Die Twice: The Selected Works of Mark Kram, a collection of his father's inimitable writing.The collection is named after a piece Kram wrote about Ali's declining years, which includes the line, "Great men, it's been noted, die twiceonce as great, and once as men." Kram's writing life was often wrapped up with Ali's, in that piece, his iconic fight story on the "Thrilla in Manila," and the 2002 book Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, in which he posits that reverence for Ali may have gotten out of hand.
Kram Jr. is no slouch himself, having written Like Any Normal Day: A Story of Devotion, which was honored with the 2013 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. In the following interview, which was conducted over email and edited for clarity, the younger Kram tells Gelf about his father's ledes, Ali's legacy, and why boxers make such good literary subjects.Gelf Magazine: You say in the intro that your father couldn't bring himself to revisit and collect his own work. Did that concern weigh on you in putting this collection together?
Mark Kram Jr.: It's not that I don't think he wanted a book of his work published. I just think he didn't think there was an appetite out there for it that was worth the effort. It was his view that any effort would have included a fair amount of rewriting. As with many fine writers, he was always aware of the places in articles where he fell short. In this respect, he was sort of like an athlete who remembers the losses far longer than he does the wins. In any case, I had a far more charitable view of his work, and a good feel for the stature he had. So when he passed away in 2002, I made an unspoken promise to him that I would try to do something in the way of a collection. Thirteen years later, he is finally getting his victory lap.
Gelf Magazine: You've written before about bearing your father's byline. Is that something you've gotten used to at this point?
Mark Kram Jr.: I'd say so. It was an issue when he was alive and doing books and magazine pieces and we shared the same name. As I reflect on it, I probably shouldn't have struggled with it as much as I did. I should have simply worked under a different byline. But it's not easy to always know what to do when you're in the middle of something. That said, I'm thrilled that his name and work will live on in Great Men Die Twice .
Gelf Magazine: That title comes from your father's legendary story on Ali's declining years. But from the foreword, it seems that your father had gotten a new lease on life just before he died. Is the title about him?
Mark Kram Jr.: No, I wouldn't put it that way. Though he had a fallow period after he parted from Sports Illustrated, he had just written his book, Ghosts of Manila, on the Ali-Frazier trilogy and had lined up another assignment for GQ. So he still had his game together artistically, although he was very aware of the old expression: We live beyond that which we enact. Our moment in the sun is brief, yet life goes on.
Gelf Magazine: There's a great quote from your father in his New York Times obituary: ''I always wanted to write like Edward Hopper painted." Do you think his lack of "formal" training is what accounts for his unique style?
Mark Kram Jr.: I'm not sure. I know he didn't think much of formal training when it came to writing. The Hopper quote speaks to the mood he was always looking to capture. An example would be his opening to the Thrilla in Manila piece. The words were almost like brushstrokes. Whatever style he had was born of the belief that he was there to make you feel something, not just to impart information. A few influential people helped him along the way, chiefly by prodding him to sharpen his focus in places, but he developed his voice by following his own way.
Gelf Magazine: It must've been a hell of a time working at SI when your dad did. Do you consider that a golden age for sportswriting?
Mark Kram Jr.: I gather he had a great deal of fun at SI in those days. There was a high level of talent on the staff, which included some names few people even remember anymore, and there was a high standard for the work that was done each week. I tell people: Think of Mad Men. Along with the booze that flowed, there was money to spend. I remember when Dad first started there, he was assigned to do a profile of Gordie Howe, which required that he go to Saskatoon. When Dad went to the cashier to take out a cash advanceand remember, this is 1964the women asked him how much he would need. Dad shrugged and replied, "Two hundred dollars?" The woman laughed and said, "Oh, you'll need at least $2,000." And she began counting out the bills, Dad thought, "I could get used to this." Beyond that, Dad had a deep and enduring affection for the editor in chief, Andre Laguerre, who became a father figure to him.
Golden age for sportswriting? Maybe. I don't know. Some terrifically talented people have come along since. But it was a time and place that no longer exists. Sports itself no longer exists in the way it once did, by the way. Dad used to get unlimited time with his subjects. And I am not sure he would today.
Gelf Magazine: Where do you think he'd be writing if he were coming up today?
Mark Kram Jr.: I don't know if he would even become a writer today. For one thing, he didn't come close to having a college degree. In fact, he conned his way into the Baltimore Sun in 1959 by saying he did. Today, he would have been shot at dawn without a blindfold or a cigarette for a transgression such as that. But back then it was looked at by Sports Illustrated and others as just being ballsy. To tell you the truth, I don't know where he'd fit in. Maybe if he came along today he'd has stayed in baseball. It was his first passion. He was an All-City player in Baltimore and played against Al Kaline in the early 1950s. Given the way expansion of the sport has gone since then, it's quite possible he would have played a few years and hung around as a coach. I'd like to think that, actually. As great of a writer as he was, he did not have a terribly happy life. I think he might have enjoyed being out in the sun hitting fungoes.
Gelf Magazine: When Ghosts of Manila came out, some publications regarded it as critical of Ali. Do you think that's a fair assessment?
Mark Kram Jr.: It's an interesting thing. By the very nature of Ali and Frazier's rivalry, it was inevitable that readers would take either side in reaction to the book and do so passionately. So with that in mind, yeah, I would say that the reviews were as fair as reviews ever are. Everyone has their opinion on these things. What I do think is misguided is this notion that Dad had some axe to grind against Ali. Nothing could be further from the truth. I know he had a lot of affection for Ali and thought of him as a good and generous man. But Dad did not join in the parade line that his colleagues formed to canonize him. To begin with, it wasn't in his DNA to do that. Moreover, he just didn't think Ali rose to the level of a social force. Great athlete? One of the greatest. Big-time celebrity? The biggest. But he did not see him as a force for social change. It was Dad's book and that was his take on it. And, yes, he threw some sharp elbows along the way. But againhis book.
Gelf Magazine: Do you think Ali has been placed on a pedestal he doesn't necessarily deserve?
Mark Kram Jr.: No more so than one would expect given his stature as one of the world's greatest athletes. If he meant more than that to his multitude of fansand clearly he didI would never say that anyone should not feel that way. But Dad did not experience Ali in the way people did from afar or even other journalists did up close. Dad did not have heroes. Look, Ali was irresistible copy. SI had him on the cover more than anyone until Jordan came along. And Dad was second to no one in giving him his just due in the ring. The question he always had was: Why is that not enough?
Gelf Magazine: Do you think there's something endemic to boxing that inspires such great writing?
Mark Kram Jr.: Well, yes. Fighters tend to lead hard, lonely existences that writers can easily plug into, given how the act of writing is such a solitary ordeal. The fighter is in the ring himself with nothing but his physical ability and courage. The writer is in a room by himself with nothing but a head full of ideas and some vague sense of purpose. Beyond that, fighters tend to open up and are good storytellers. And they tend to be approachablealthough Sonny Liston did pick up Dad once by his lapels and throw him into a snowbank for asking too many questions. Sonny was not always so approachable.
Gelf Magazine: Your father produced some incredible ledes in his writingdo you have any favorites?
Gelf Magazine: Did he approach his celebrity profiles any differently than his pieces about athletes?
Mark Kram Jr.: I wouldn't say so, no.
Gelf Magazine: What lessons from his writingand lifehave you tried to incorporate into your own?
Mark Kram Jr.: I've tried to live a more balanced life than Dad did. I try to take more pleasure in things he perhaps overlooked. I cannot say I have always succeeded. To some extent, his career has served me in a cautionary way. But I did not fully understand him until I did my own book, Like Any Normal Day, and pushed myself artistically in a way that revealed to me the ordeal that writing must have been for him.