Yesterday, we highlighted a Sports Illustrated story about the lone goal from a U.S.-England World Cup match in 1950 and the tragic disappearance of the man who scored it. Today, we hear from Alexander Wolff, who wrote the article. If writing awards could play ball, Wolff could field a football team from his trophy case, but in these excerpts from our talk, he discusses his World Cup piece, integrating forgotten history into sports stories and the future of narrative journalism.
We have an editor at Sports Illustrated, Chris Hunt. He’s been our articles editor for decades—I think he’s an assistant managing editor now. His wife is Brazilian—not just Brazilian, she’s from Belo Horizonte, where this game took place. Chris met a cousin of hers who had actually been at the game.
Over the years, Chris had mentioned this to me and we had talked in vague terms about how it would be a great story to revisit the game. When the World Cup draw came out—I think I was in Vancouver at the Olympics at the time—it had the U.S. playing England in a World Cup for the first time since 1950. I instantly got in touch with Chris and said, “We have to do it now. This is our peg.” It wasn’t hard to sell the story in-house.
So I made all these efforts over the Christmas holidays to chase down any Gaetjens relatives I could find. But then the Haitian earthquake hit, which just redoubled the timeliness of it, I thought. While Americans were groping around for some reason to feel a bond to this nation that’s been struck by this earthquake, here is a case where this Haitian had done something for the United States that had essentially been suppressed for 60 years.
There are a number of parallels and repetitions. Can you talk about how you structured the story to reflect those echoes?
I find myself doing a lot of these historical narrative features. I joke that because I’ve been on the staff almost 30 years, the editors are saying, “Hey, let’s have Wolff do that—he probably witnessed it in real time.” There’s a strategy I find myself using, where I always try to end the story with something a little bit sweeping or contextual, something that pulls back a bit to ask, “If we’re sitting in a lecture hall in on a campus somewhere in 2010, what kind of frame do we put around this?” I knew I wanted to get to that point, but the question was how to start it.
All I could think about was the twin ironies: the irony that Joe Gaetjens had this great moment in his career as a soccer player, where he scores this epic goal. Moments after the game is over, he’s in terror, because these people are running at him and he doesn’t know why. Then you have this other situation in which he’s completely persuaded himself he has nothing to fear in his homeland. He’s a family man, a businessman, he’s teaching soccer to kids. He’s innocently pulling up to his dry-cleaning business and feels no reason to fear anything. People he thinks of as his friends sidle up to him, and the next thing he knows, he’s never seen again. I wanted to get those two things in the first five, six, seven paragraphs, to get them to stand cheek by jowl, to stand in contradistinction with each other.
What elements do you look for in a story, before you write, before you even pitch?
Part of me hopes fervently that there are people who have been waiting for me to call. That the passage of time is softening them up, that they have stories they want to tell that they’ve never told before, either because they want to get something off their chests, or they’ve seen a version of the story told, and they disagree with the emphasis of it. I’m hoping that there will be this sense that people get later in life, an urge to testify.
I did one story on the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre. And I found one guy in Munich, a retired police psychologist, who’d been hired by the Munich organizers to tabletop nightmare security scenarios in advance of the Olympics. Among 30 or 35 that he put together, he had almost exactly predicted what happened with Black September terrorists, hijackers demanding a jet, the takeover of the athletes’ Olympic village, and the hostages. He presented these scenarios and was basically told, “We don’t want you to work for us anymore. We’re not intending to put on games with a lot of security, because we’re Germans, and people will be reminded of the Nazi era, and we’re trying to turn over a new leaf.” This guy was, as you can imagine, dying to tell his story, lo these many years later. You hope for somebody like that, somebody who can in modern-day terms throw that kind of light on the subject.
The other thing I always look for is if there’s some kind of archival trove that hasn’t been looked at. I find myself frequently doing pieces about college sports team or college athletes. Universities have terrific archives about their own history. A good example is a piece I did on the 1963 Mississippi State men’s basketball team, which was all white. There had been a judge’s order saying they couldn’t go to Michigan to play in a tournament game against a team that had black starters, and they basically snuck out of Mississippi on a plane under cover of darkness in defiance of that court order. There was an enormous debate that went on within the university, and there were letters that were sent to the president by Mississippians on both sides of the issue. The stuff that I could play with as a result of the Mississippi State University archives was terrific. I remember getting lost for a couple days in the archives.
You’re hoping that the historical record, the lifeless, musty, yellowing stuff will be there, and you can somehow pair it with great interviews with people who still have their marbles but also have that ability to look back on these events with perspective.
Do you have a consistent way of approaching structure?
I probably don’t outline and envision structure as much as I should, or as much as I’ve been told to over the years. I do work in large part from my gut in terms of a quote or an anecdote or a vague concept—like the beginning of the Gaetjens story, the idea that I wanted to get those two ironies up high. There’s almost always a “breath point” in these stories after the opening section, a space break where you’re rewinding and starting at the beginning.
From an execution point of view, with historical pieces, the narrative is so naturally there that you don’t have to contort yourself to come up with a spine to the story. If you can somehow put enough enticing stuff up top before you rewind and get into the narrative in a more chronological way, you’ve got a really good chance to grab and carry the reader at least through the first third of it.
I suppose baby boomers, which still make up a good percentage of our readership, are inclined to read about things that happened in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s a little tougher sell when you’re going back to the ’40s and ’50s, which is what I’ve done in my last few stories.
I did a piece on the integration of the NFL which took place in the mid-’40s. A big part of the strategy in doing that piece was to play off the Jackie Robinson story, because we all know that integration narrative, which is one we can all feel good about because there were people wearing white hats who were white people. So we all think of the GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers as someone who helped Jackie Robinson along, but in the pro football counterexample, it all happened in spite of the NFL owners at the time. So telling the story in opposition to Jackie Robinson in that narrative was a great way to show the difference in the motivations, how the better angels of our nature weren’t in play in the football example.
Structure-wise, I don’t want to say there’s a formula, but the opportunity for the greatest creativity is in the opener and the summation part of the stories. In that NFL integration story the end dealt with how many fits and starts the NFL has had on the road to real integration: black head coaches have been slow in coming, and black quarterbacks. Perhaps this history helps explain why this is the case.
In the Gaetjens piece, there was a little bit about what the U.S. owes Haiti historically, which is kind of a slap-your-palm-to-your-forehead thing to me. I didn’t know any of that, and I’m guessing our readers didn’t know either.
There are some fabulous details in there—about the way Gaetjens wore his jersey and the idea of l’esprit magique. Where did those details come from?
I usually end up trying to read fairly widely to get a sense of the culture. I ended up reading several books, like The Rainy Season by Amy Wilentz, a wonderful piece of narrative journalism. Kathie Klarreich, who’s been a stringer in Haiti for a number of years—Madame Dread, I think was the name of her book. A lot of the detail about that abortive invasion of Haiti that was led by the former soccer player that caused Papa Doc to get paranoid about soccer players was in a book by two journalists who’d been down there during the ’50s and ’60s.
I was lucky with the Gaetjens story in that I could talk with two of his teammates, Walter Bahr and Harry Keough. I think there are only four or five members of that team still alive, but those two are not only alive, they’re very lucid, very willing to talk. I was able to meet Walter in person, and he led me to José Lorente, who played club soccer with Gaetjens in New York. Once you’re on the trail of one of these subjects, there’s a little bit of a fraternity effect that kicks in.
Did anything surprise you in the course of reporting this story?
All these little myths that probably aren’t of interest to anybody except soccer freaks got cleared up, but the most surprising thing in an ongoing way was how obscure this guy and his feat had been over so many years. He’s become a little less obscure over the last 10 to 15 years, as soccer’s become a little bit more popular in the States, but it’s pretty remarkable that The New York Times the next day in 1950 had the wrong guy scoring the goal. It was several weeks before publications like Time magazine even took note of the fact that England had lost and the U.S. had won.
You’ve been at Sports Illustrated for nearly 30 years, which seems like a secure berth for this kind of writing. Do you haveany thoughts on the future of narrative?
Fortunately, we have a managing editor at SI, Terry McDonell, whose roots are in places like Esquire and Rolling Stone. He’s always believed in the long-form nonfiction pieces. Writers are getting no indication that there is any slackening of interest in these kinds of pieces. You need pages in the book. You need ad fills to support that kind of treatment, to blow a story out to seven, eight, nine pages, but I know the editorial support is there.
You may have seen that Gerry Marzorati from the Times Magazine made some remarks at the CASE conference last year. He makes the case far better than I can about the kind of primal need we have as human beings to tell and hear stories. Irrespective of how those stories are delivered, I think that need will be there.
You’ve probably also seen that the magazine industry has launched a really aggressive image advertising campaign about the power of magazines. It’s targeted mostly to advertisers, of course. With our magazine, I think people renew their subscription on a very emotional level. They’re not saying how many hours have I spent with Sports Illustrated in the last 52 weeks? I think they’re much more likely to say, “You know what? There was a great piece by Gary Smith that ran over 12 pages in the magazine and it had me thinking for days afterward.” We get letters like that.
If the next iteration of Sports Illustrated is an iPad app where you can double-click on one image and see 36 images from the same take by the same photographer, or better yet if the narrative sensibility is brought to additional media, whether they’re still photos or video, and we’re telling parallel stories or the same story in two different ways in the same place, all that is really exciting. But I’m not sure I’m going to be on that train. I think my skill set is rooted in a very old-media set of things, where you’re getting lost in the archives or talking to 67-year-old people and then making sense of it all by your lonesome.