Shrake 'Did Everything He Wanted to, and Nothing He Didn't'

Edwin "Bud" Shrake was known for "Harvey Penick's Little Red Book" and his writing for Sports Illustrated, but to Sally Jenkins he was more like a second father. (By Ralph Barrera -- Associated Press)
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By Sally Jenkins
Monday, May 11, 2009

The last thing the great sportswriter and author Bud Shrake ever said to me was, "Remember to look left." It's not often you get memorable parting words from someone you loved, even if he was only talking about stepping off a curb.

What he really meant was, don't forget to check the periphery. It was Bud's style to capture large meanings in simple sentences, which was why he could write anything from a hilarious headline to serious award-winning work about Muhammad Ali, to the best-selling sports book of all time, on golf, "Harvey Penick's Little Red Book." Bud always checked the periphery, which was where he found his best stories. He drank in Jack Ruby's bar in Dallas, and he made a bum-luck fighter named Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams, a guy with one kidney and a police bullet in his hip who got his face busted open by Ali, seem as important as the champion in the pages of Sports Illustrated. You could learn a lot from that as a writer. Another thing I learned from him was not to try cook omelets with leftover Chinese food after a long night out.

Bud slipped downriver on Friday morning at the age of 77 from lung cancer, and his epitaph should be, "He did everything he wanted to, and nothing he didn't." He traveled from Acapulco to Indochina, and was much loved by his longtime companion, Texas Gov. Ann Richards. He woke up laughing, and died tranquilly. He completed 13 books, assorted screenplays, a couple of stage plays, and along the way he helped transform sportswriting from a wretched-paying hack job into high adventure and near art.

He started at the old Fort Worth Press practically as a boy in 1951 and worked his way through college, alongside my father, his best friend from junior high on, for $15 a week. They would both wind up at Sports Illustrated, thanks in part to the priceless literary education they received from their legendary sports editor at the Press, Blackie Sherrod, who once said of them, "I looked for good merchandise cheap." The Press was so strapped for funds that when pencils wore down to nubs they were ordered to tape two ends together. You had to turn in your nubs before you got a new pencil. But Blackie would hand them stories by John Lardner, S.J. Perelman, and James Thurber, and encourage them to experiment. This begat attempts to entertain each other, with results such as the following, written by Bud about a high school track meet and over which they keened with laughter for years: "This is no golden legend, this is the plain unvarnished tale of youth."

Later on Bud would be known for tough and honest writing that was admired by literary figures as various as George Plimpton, David Halberstam and Willie Morris. He and my father, along with others of their generation, would be labeled the "Texas Literary Outlaws," because they didn't write pretty, they wrote true. Sort of the same way Bud's friend Willie Nelson would transform country music and the way people sang.

Bud was always looking left -- while everyone was staring at the main event, he would notice the things on the sidelines, in the margins. In the Best Sports Stories edition of 1963 you can find a piece he wrote about Arnold Palmer at the Masters, only it wasn't about Palmer, it was about the ordinary stiffs in his gallery, the members of "Arnie's Army," who marched "under a dull aluminum sky" with their binoculars and umbrellas, "Ladies in pink tennis shoes standing on canvas stools. Men in muddy golf shoes with raincoats tied around their waists. Women in big straw hats decorated with golf balls and tees." Arnie's Army smelled "like grass, like beer and a freshly mowed lawn, like mustard and damp laundry."

In the early 1960s my father went to work for Sports Illustrated and we moved to New York, where Bud became a regular houseguest and my sometime babysitter. He would spin outrageous fictions at bedtime, one of which was a riveting account of how he personally killed Hitler, told so persuasively that my brother actually believed it and offered it as hard historical fact to his grade-school teacher. The house was always full of writers, men like Larry L. King, who wrote a hit musical called "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," and Dick Growald, who covered Vietnam for United Press International. The adults were always clapping their hands over my ears to protect me from their language and other mysterious matters, which had to do with amber liquids and explosive laughter. In the mornings, they would hunch over coffee and tall glasses of tomato juice.

Once when my parents were out of town and Bud was in charge I woke up to find cowboys all over the furniture. Only it turned out they weren't actual cowboys, they were Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band, in town for a gig, who Bud had brought home at daylight. Some of them were sleeping with boots up on the ends of the sofas, while others were in the kitchen eating Chinese food. Bud was trying to fold Kung Pao chicken into a scrambled egg to feed me before school. I was by now accustomed to his non-traditional methods of caring for children.

"I'll give you a treat if you'll be good," he'd say.

"What kind of treat?" I asked.

"An ice cube," he said. "I'll give you an ice cube."

He made it sound like a forty-carat present, and I was good.

And he made writing seem like the most dashing job in the world. He was heroically handsome, with rust-colored hair curling over the collar of his suede jackets, and he wrote critically acclaimed novels about American outlaw-saints, and screenplays for Dennis Hopper ("Kid Blue") and Steve McQueen ("Tom Horn"). He co-wrote the autobiographies of Willie Nelson, and Barry Switzer. His approach toward writing came partly from Bundini Brown, Muhammad Ali's assistant cornerman, and an amateur philosopher. It was Bundini Brown who would get Ali mentally ready to fight, and who came up with "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee; the hands can't hit what the eyes can't see."

Bundini Brown told Bud that only 15 percent of the world was visible, the remaining 85 percent was dark matter and energy, and contained in that matter was "all the knowledge of all the stories that ever happened." The molecules of words were just floating out there, captured in the ether, and if you attuned your mind properly, the words would just flow into you. Bud believed that, but he also believed what Harvey Penick said to him: "Life consists of a lot of minor annoyances and a few matters of real consequence."

Bud took other writing advice from Mark Twain, who said, "The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug." And from Rudyard Kipling, who insisted that to write meant being patiently ruled by the subconscious: "You wait, you listen, you obey."

Bud's formal obituary will call him an influential journalist, novelist, screenwriter, but what I have to contribute about him is more personal: He was 6 feet 6, and when he lifted me up as a small girl, it was like rising to the top of the tallest tree. At the end of every long stay with our family there was a spectacular present. Once, a telescope arrived. On another occasion he noticed my head bent over a tattered storybook. Beautiful embossed new editions began to appear by my bedside, "The Three Musketeers" and "Tom Sawyer."

You wait, you listen, you obey -- and what comes are a few stricken paragraphs about a man who doubled as a father when the real one was on the road, from whom laughter broke like waves, and who could make a swollen-fisted boxer worth reading about, and ice cubes seem like treasure.

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