If I could interview anybody, living or dead, who would I choose?
That was the question posed in a letter from two University of Oregon students conducting a survey of powerful, big-time journalists like myself.
In order to take this thought-provoking exercise and spin it off into a column, I altered the concept slightly. The interview subjects must be involved in sports, because this is a sports column, and they must be dead, because all living athletes are saving their good stuff for their ghost-written autobiographies.
My Top Ten (some of whom, granted, are not normally thought of as having been athletes, but they were) in no particular order:
1. The Red Baron. Don't tell me World War I dogfighting wasn't a sport. For one thing, they kept stats. Five or more enemy planes shot out of the sky officially qualified you as an "ace."
Baron Manfred von Richtofen shot down 80 enemy planes. A distant second on the WWI hit list was France's Capt. Rene Fonck, with 75.
By all accounts, the Red Baron had style and courage, not to mention the eye and reflexes of a .400 hitter. As part of the interview, I'd get Red to sit down and talk flying with Ted Williams, who was a WWII fighter pilot.
Some questions: What did you aim for? When the war ended, did you miss the action? Did you have a motor oil endorsement contract? When you shot a guy down, did you salute him, or hold up an "I'm No. 1" finger?
2. Babe Ruth. An obvious choice. Not only the greatest baseball player of all time, but probably the wildest. Some guys would chalk up outrageous nights on the town. The Babe would chalk up outrageous seasons on the town.
Some questions: Was it all really as easy as it looked? Did you call your shot in Chicago, or what? What's the secret of staying in tip-top shape while eating like a pig, drinking like a fish and having a busy, uh, social life? Who in baseball did you like and who did you hate, and why? If you had known some guy would hit 61 home runs, would you have rested up a little in '27 and gone for 65?
3. Babe Didrikson Zaharias. She was the Babe Ruth of babes (no chauvinistic disrespect intended). But Ruth was only great in one sport, while Didrikson was a champion in every sport she tried--basketball, baseball, swimming, golf, track and field.
Also a fairly outrageous and colorful personality. And a pioneer.
4. Billy the Kid. In the Old West, gunfighters were the star jocks, and the Kid was the most celebrated gunner.
There is evidence that he also may have been the most overrated. He was, some historians say, an unattractive little punk cattle-rustler who never gunned down an opponent face to face, High-Noon style, but logged most of his 21 killings in sneak attacks.
I'd ask him about this, in a tactful way.
5. Jackie Robinson. Despite all the books about him, all the ink, I bet Jackie went to his grave with thousands of amazing, unrecorded stories . . . The Negro Leagues . . . UCLA days . . . Innermost thoughts on that 1947 season . . . Ruminations on his impact on baseball and society.
Some questions: Name your Top 10 baseball bigots. Tell how you intimidated and angered opposing players, especially pitchers. Was baseball your best sport?
6. Gorgeous George. Not the greatest wrestler of all time, but a man who made a major impact on his sport, and on sports in general. The grandfather of hot dogging. The inventor of showtime.
Sports guys don't live up to their nicknames (are you listening, Bonecrusher?), but this guy did.
Some questions: Is that your natural color? Don't you just hate draft physicals? Seriously, how does a guy go from being a normal, crewcut halfback to a prancing, eye-gouging superstar?
7. David. Again, warriors were the athletes of that day, and David was a champ, before he became king of Israel. David, tell us the whole story of that upset KO over Goliath, the Philistine Phlogger.
8. Jack Johnson. To take nothing away from Ali, Johnson was the most outrageous, courageous fighter of all time, if you count life in general as a fight. Heavyweight champ from 1908 to 1915, Johnson was the first famous black athlete to defy the racist American society.
Where Jackie Robinson used tough-minded intelligence to blaze a trail, Johnson used a flame thrower.
9. Any Roman gladiator in the Colosseum. These may have been the glamour athletes of all time. Darlings of the Empire. Their sport was incredibly brutal, often fatal, and they were taken care of in a style so lavish and grand it rivals the treatment of football player at SMU.
10. Atilla the Hun. The prototype for George Steinbrenner, Bobby Knight and every sports agent.
Whatta competitor! When Atilla's brother, Bleda, started muscling in on Hun leadership, Atilla had him killed.
Contract negotiating? The Romans paid him 700 pounds of gold a year not to attack their empire, and he renegotiated that contract eight years later, up to 2,000 pounds, with bonus clauses.
I think he would've been a Raider fan.
That's my 10. If I can't have any of them for an interview, I'll settle for getting them together for a Lite Beer commercial.