Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

May 29, 2008

Unearthing a Golf Legend

Leigh Montville resurrects the 1930s tale of John Montague, a ready-for-Hollywood saga of sports, wealth, deception, and armed robbery.

Michael Gluckstadt

In the early 1930s, a mysterious, heavy-set man showed up on the Hollywood and golf scenes (apparently, they used to intersect). The man, John Montague, thrilled his contemporaries with extraordinary feats in the clubhouse, at the bar, and especially on the golf course. He could knock a bird off of a wire from 170 yards away or chip off of a sofa cushion into a window open three inches. Respected sportswriters called Montague the greatest golfer they'd ever seen, though he refused to have his picture taken. The reason for this need for secrecy would become apparent when he was placed under arrest. Montague, aka LaVerne Moore, had committed an armed robbery in upstate New York before coming out to the West Coast, and was a wanted man.

Leigh Montville, formerly of the Boston Globe and Sports Illustrated, brings Montague's story to life in his book, The Mysterious Montague: A True Tale of Hollywood, Golf, and Armed Robbery. He's also written biographies of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Dale Earnhardt. Though researched extensively, The Mysterious Montague does not entirely disentangle legend from fact, since the two have become inextricably intertwined. Says Montville, "Anything you read from an American newspaper in the 1930s, you have to take with a grain of salt."

Leigh Montville (Photo by Robin Moleux)
"These guys would finish playing golf, sit down and drink, and play cards all night. It was the middle of the Depression for the rest of the country, but they were all rich and young."

Leigh Montville (Photo by Robin Moleux)

In the following interview, Montville tells Gelf how Montague would have fared against the best golfers of his day, why he thinks Babe Ruth would have used steroids if he had the chance, and what he thinks of Bill Simmons. (The interview was conducted by phone and has been edited for clarity.) You can hear Montville and other golf writers read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, June 5th, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: The story of John Montague/LaVerne Moore is remarkable, yet strangely obscure. How did you first come across it?

Leigh Montville: I had done a book called The Big Bam, on the life of Babe Ruth. In researching it, I had come across a golf match that Babe Ruth had played with this mysterious Montague, which attracted 15,000 people to a Long Island golf course on a November afternoon. I had been around sports forever and I had never heard of this guy. So I looked him up tangentially while I was doing the Babe Ruth book and I thought that he was fascinating. When I finished the Ruth book, I started working on a book about this guy.

GM: He has such an interesting story. Why do you think so few people have heard of him?

LM: I don't know. He fell off the edge of the map as soon as his trial was over, or at least within two years of it. He never did anything competitively where there would be records kept, so he isn't on any lists or anything. He's more of an anecdotal memory in the people that knew him. There are a few magazine stories, as well, though until now nobody had ever written a book.

GM: With all of that information from anecdotal sources, was it difficult for you to separate the facts from the legends?

LM: I don't think the facts and the legends have been separated. Newspapers were vastly different in those days—they kind of let everything go. Anything you read from an American newspaper in the 1930s, you have to take with a grain of salt. The writers were given great liberties and they threw all kinds of stuff in. I tried to write the book in a way that suggested that some of the stories were embellished.

GM: Based on your research, how do you think Montague might have fared against the best golfers of his day?

LM: I think he was a pretty good golfer because of the fact that Grantland Rice, the great sportswriter at the time, found such ability in him. Rice knew a lot about golf and was a great golfer himself. He had played with Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen and all those people. And he thought that Montague was the best golfer he'd ever played with. I put a lot of stock in that opinion. The thing that Montague did better than everybody else was hit the ball a long way, with his large build and oversized golf clubs. He could drive the ball 350 yards. That's the foundation for the success of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods: hitting the ball farther than everyone else to set up for easier shots on the green.

GM: This is a story about sports, deception, and robbery. Sounds like it will make for a compelling movie. Has anyone bought the film rights yet?

LM: There are some interested people out there. Everybody who reads the book says it will be a great movie. They all say, "I'm going to send it to my friend Freddy out in Hollywood." I tell them all to send it to Freddy in Hollywood, but so far Freddy hasn't called back.

Jackie Gleason

Jackie Gleason would have made a convincing Montague.

GM: If you had your pick, whom would you cast as Montague?

LM: There was once a rumor that Jackie Gleason was going to play him, before he died. That would have been perfect. It even looks like him on the cover. Other actors have been suggested, too: Vince Vaughn, Jack Black. People seem to think it should have more of a comedic look than a serious one. Philip Seymour Hoffman can play anybody so let's give it to him.

GM: Today, golf isn't exactly known for its larger-than-life characters (John Daly notwithstanding). Were more golfers showmen back then or was Montague a notable exception?

LM: Well, it was a whole different era. Back then, you didn't really make all that much money from the PGA Tour. That's why it wasn't such a big thing that Montague was not on the tour, choosing instead to play for short money. Walter Hagen was a great showman. He made a lot of money from exhibitions he did all over the world. He went to Australia, Africa, Europe, all over America. Half the time he'd show up right before he was supposed to tee off, still awake from the night before. There was a rowdier aspect of golf back then.

GM: The book does an admirable job of conveying the scene in 1930s Hollywood. How did you go about re-creating that environment?

LM: I read a lot of books about the different characters, and about the scene in Hollywood back then. There was a great book put out by the Lakeside Golf Club, where all these people hung out. The book was put out in 1972 for the club's 50th anniversary, and it's filled with anecdotes about what went on back there. It was wild. These guys would finish playing golf, sit down and drink, and play cards all night. Then they'd drunkenly pile into cars and go off on a boat to Catalina Island. It was the middle of the Depression for the rest of the country, but they were all rich and young.

"Everybody who reads the book says it will be a great movie. They all say, 'I'm going to send it to my friend Freddy out in Hollywood.' I tell them all to send it to Freddy in Hollywood, but so far Freddy hasn't called back."
GM: Moving on from Montague, you've also written biographies of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. Whom do you consider to be the best hitter in the game, past or present?

LM: Babe Ruth could do anything. He changed the entire game. Before he came along a home run—any fly ball, really—was basically a mistake. The whole concept was to hit down on the ball and whack it through the infield. It was revolutionary that he swung up at the ball, and the game was forever changed. Ted Williams might have been the best student of hitting. He was figuring things out in his head that teams of videographers and computer experts are doing today.

GM: Do you think that Barry Bonds is in the same league as these guys?

LM: I think he's up there, but he's had all the benefits of scouting reports and video analysis, not to mention chemical aids. It's just a different era. But, yes, his numbers would put him in the ballpark.

GM: At Gelf we've covered a controversial story about Babe Ruth that the sportswriter Dave Zirin first brought to our attention. Allegedly, Ruth injected himself with sheep testosterone to improve his play, and was very sick afterwards. When we spoke to Ruth biographer Bob Creamer about that story, he disputed it vigorously, but suggested that we ask you about it. Are you familiar with it?

LM: I'm not familiar with it at all. But I would say that the ballplayers in those days, including Ruth and Williams, would take anything that they thought might help them. They were so competitive. I'm not down on Bonds or any of these guys because I think taking these things is part of the competitive nature of athletes' personalities. The Babe was always medicating himself with different things to quiet his stomach. I would bet that if someone had told him that sheep testes were a good thing, he would've tried it. And Ted Williams tried to bulk up his lanky frame his whole career, eating five meals a day to put on weight and muscle. If they had known of a way to get bigger and stronger, I'm sure they would've done it.

"Athletes don't hang out with teammates on the road; they hang out with agents, lawyers, and publicists. All these guys are little corporations making $20 million a year."
GM: Ruth and Montague seem to be similar characters. Is that what drew you from one story to another?

LM: It was the fact that I came across Montague's story while researching Ruth. We all like people like that: outlandish people who live large and err on the side of a good time. I try to figure out who is most like Babe Ruth today, and I think of Charles Barkley. Ruth was a better version of Charles Barkley. He was in trouble for gambling, though I don't know if he ever threw a person through a window. Those are the guys who bring color to the game, often with a self-destructive quality, too.

GM: That sense of fun seems to be missing in a lot of sports today. Do you think today's athletes take themselves too seriously?

LM: Well, it's just become a huge money thing. Everyone has several advisers now. They don't hang out with teammates on the road; they hang out with agents, lawyers, and publicists. All these guys are little corporations making $20 million a year.

GM: Do you think that affects the way the games are covered?

LM: Well, there are so many different ways that the games are covered now with the internet. It's all changing and we'll see how it sorts out.

GM: Do you read any sports blogs?

LM: I read a couple. I saw that thing on Costas the other day. Buzz [Bissinger] was acting like this big internet explosion was going to be the end of the world. I'm from Buzz's generation, though not as angry. I see that things are changing. It seems that Bill Simmons is the big internet sports blogger. I love a lot of the stuff he writes, but sometimes, I really don't give a shit what his father thinks about the Celtics. I'd rather hear someone who knows something. I'd like to see some more reporting and talking to people.

Related on the web

•Time Magazine's 1937 article, "Mysterious Montague."

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.







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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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