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Jerry Quarry, Alan Goldstein, and Telling Stories With Sport

Jerry Quarry was a boxer. When he died in 1999, I had no idea who he was.

Turns out he fought Ali twice, and traded punches with Joe Frazier and Floyd Patterson. He was considered a fairly notable fighter, a “great white hope” of sorts. He was also punch-drunk, nearly broke, and 53 when he passed, barely conscious of who he was or what he was doing.

I learned these things via his obituary in the Baltimore Sun. I remember that when I first read it, I cut the columns from the paper and hung them up on the bulletin board at work. I highlighted two phrases that I thought everyone else should read. It felt like the thing to do.

I got to thinking about Jerry Quarry the other day for no particular reason. But I couldn’t remember what it was that had fascinated me so much. I had some vague idea of the quotes I had been compelled to share, but nothing specific. So I went digging.

After some stops and starts I managed to penetrate the Sun archive system, where I paid $4 to access the original piece.

I found the quotes in question, courtesy of former Sun scribe Alan Goldstein:

Asked if he was bitter about ending up broke and depending on his family to care for him, he said: “No, it’s part of life. Life is just a steady climb to the bottom.”

And, more importantly:

“I wasn’t fighting for race, creed or color that night. I was fighting for money. My heritage was like the `Grapes of Wrath.’ I went to over 20 schools as a kid. If I’d beaten Ali that night, I’d have made millions. It just wasn’t my night.”

Quarry did earn more than $1 million in his career, but ended up living on a $614 Social Security disability check as a childlike hulk of a man.

“Boxing is a very cruel sport,” he said in his final years. “It’s a one-on-one confrontation with your life. But retiring from the ring, that’s really hellacious.”

If I needed a reminder of why I love sports, these quotes are it.

Here is Quarry, a beaten man facing the end. Punch-drunk or not, he’s acutely aware of how he spent his life and just what it means. His only regret is that he simply can’t fight anymore. That kind of sentiment exists in every great athlete. And, in a sense, that is the narrative we follow every time we watch.

And here is Alan Goldstein, a brilliant sports writer if ever there was one. He realized that the story wasn’t the fights, or the results — it was the man. Goldstein correctly realized that Quarry’s life transcended boxing — transcended sports — and reached the level of literature. To write his obituary any other way would have been to cheat him of everything he suffered to earn.

It’s about finding the humanity that lies beneath the broadcast, the recap, the box score.

Jerry Quarry lost every one of his big fights. It never was “his night.” Yet I find in that fact — and in Goldstein’s account of Quarry’s life — something great. Something worthwhile.

I took the liberty of reprinting the entire Quarry obit, and I hope you’ll read it here. It’s a fantastic piece of work.

9 comments to Jerry Quarry, Alan Goldstein, and Telling Stories With Sport

  • Joe the Guy

    thanks neal. heavy stuff. but it’s the intriguing stuff like this that makes the LC unique

  • sara jane

    FYI: Baltimore Sun archives back to 1990 are available for free through the Enoch Pratt Library’s website with your library card. Could have saved you $4.

    (The city library actually has a great deal of awesome databases full of publications — often with PDF versions of journal articles — available on their website. Never pay for online articles; they have WSJ, Consumer Reports, Financial Times.)

    baltimore city library cards ftw

  • Andrew in Rochester

    Neal, I felt like this was a continuation of your discussion on stats and their usefulness, particularly when you say “beyond the box score” and “worthwhile”.

    I’ll agree that telling life through sports is probably the thing that turns me on the most. I remember reading Rabbit, Run in 11th grade for my thesis paper and being totally engrossed by Rabbit Angstrom’s feelings about how right it feels to hit that perfect golf shot. He’s absolutely right, of course.
    You said that Quarry’s story is the same as any athlete, unwanting to give up – but I think that its true of all of us: nobody wants to look at themselves when they’re 40 years old and say “I’m through”. It isn’t boxing that’s cruel, and it isn’t giving up the ring that hellacious: it’s life that’s cruel and saying our best years are behind us is what’s absolutely terrifying.
    Of course, it’s not just depressing things that make sports instantly relative to everyday life – as I’m sure all of us know quite well.

    Anyway, I get a hard-on for this sort of thing, it’s true. BUT! We don’t use box scores and stats to tell life stories and get to the meaning of things. We use them to tell us if player X is any good in situation Y. Quarry seems like a sad story and a good one, too – but you’d have been a damn fool to look at him, with his stats, and say “I’m betting everything on him against Ali – he’s got a good story! I don’t care if he always struggles against the Champ!”.

    Sorry if I just spun that on everyone, but I read into it maybe too much and wanted to comment.

    Other than that, this was some fine blogging Neal…very fine indeed.

  • dan the man

    The link to the obit seems to be dead at the moment – I’m getting a 404 message.. I’ll keep checking because it seems like a great story.

    Quarry is kind of like the poster child for boxing in general – it’s a troubled sport that never seems to rise to its potential.

  • neal s

    @Dan: I had the obit page set to “private”, not realizing that doing so kept out everyone but registered users. I turned that setting off, meaning it’s now available to everyone. Doing that is probably a copyright violation, although I think it could be called fair use. In any case I’ll take it down if the Sun asks me to. Enjoy it in the meantime.

    @Sara: I don’t have a library card, which is probably a character flaw.

    @Andrew: Great comment, man.

    As I wrote this I didn’t have our stats discussion in mind at all. As I got set to click “publish”, though, I realized that it might be read that way. The truth is just that I have a focus on understanding and talking sports via the stories and narratives they create.

    BUT, I must reiterate that I don’t have a bias against stats. I love stats as far as they go, and they’re certainly not incompatible with a piece like this.

    When you say that …It isn’t boxing that’s cruel, and it isn’t giving up the ring that hellacious: it’s life that’s cruel and saying our best years are behind us is what’s absolutely terrifying… I think you nail it, and that’s the larger point I was hinting at.

    A story like Quarry’s allows us to glimpse something of ourselves, and in doing so we can — if we look with the right kind of eyes — learn something.

    An early draft of this post had me talking about how I’m drawn to writers who are able to capture heroism and tragedy at once, and in doing so reveal just how similar the two things are. I left that part out because it didn’t seem to fit, but maybe it does bear mentioning. I don’t find Quarry’s story particularly heavy or depressing, I just find it fascinating. But then again I might have something of a morbid personality.

  • I remember seeing a profile about him on HBO’s Real Sports years ago; just sad.

    As much as boxing is the ‘sweet science’, it can be beyond brutal and dangerous.

    Thanks for the post, Neal

    – Anthony, the Oriole Post

  • KonaBoy

    neal, spot on about tragedy and heroism, that is what I love about the human condition, Howard Hughes and countless others come to mind that absolutely exemplified that (enormous flaws & enormous talents).

  • neal s

    Good call on Hughes, Kona. Perfect example of what I’m getting at.

    Not to get too far away from sports, but anyone who digs on this post (and on Quarry’s story in general) should consider reading Nelson Algren. He’s a brilliant writer who never quite gets his due.

  • neal s

    And one last thing on Algren (sorry, but I’ve got a deep love of the guy and can’t help but promote him):

    “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”

    — from his book A Walk on the Wild Side.