Kram, Mark 1932-2002
KRAM, Mark 1932-2002
PERSONAL: Born George Melvin Kram, December 6, 1932, in Baltimore, MD; died of a heart attack June 14, 2002, in Washington, DC; son of Gerard (a factory worker) and Naomi (Arthur) Kram; married Joan Sienkilewski, 1955 (divorced, 1977); married, 1977; second wife's name, René; children: (first marriage) Mark, Tracey, Kerry; (second marriage) Raymond, Robert, Alix. Religion: Roman Catholic.
CAREER: Baltimore Sun, Baltimore, MD, 1959-64, began as general assignment sportswriter, became sports columnist; Sports Illustrated, New York, NY, 1964-77, began as staff writer, became associate editor and senior writer; freelance writer, 1977-81; Washington Times, Washington, DC, sports columnist, 1981-82; contributor to magazines; writer of books and screenplays, 1982-2002. Military service: U.S. Army, 1952-53.
(With Dean Selmier) Blow Away: A Killer's Story, Viking (New York, NY), 1979.
Miles to Go (novel), Morrow (New York, NY), 1982.
Contributor to books, including Irving T. Marsh and Edward Ehre, editors, Best Sports Stories, Dutton (New York, NY),1962; The Wonderful World of Sport, Time/Life Books (New York, NY), 1967; Gerald Walker, editor, Best Magazine Articles: 1967, Crown (New York, NY), 1967; The Norton Reader, 4th edition, Norton (New York, NY), 1977; David Fulk and Dan Riley, editors, The Cubs Reader, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1991; Sports Illustrated: Baseball, Oxmoor House (Birmingham, AL), 1993; Frank Deford and Glenn Stout, editors, The Best American Sports Writing—1993, Houghton Mifflin,1993; Greg Williams, editor, The Esquire Book of Sports Writing, Penguin (New York, NY), 1995; Dan Jenkins and Glenn Stout, editors, The Best American Sports Writing—1995, Houghton Mifflin, 1995; Richard Ford, editor and author of introduction, The Fights, photographs by Charles Hoff, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 1996; George Plimpton and Glenn Stout, editors, The Best American Sports Writing—1997, Houghton Mifflin, 1997; Gerald Early, editor, The Muhammad Ali Reader, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1998; W. C. Heinz and Nathan Ward, editors, The Book of Boxing, Bishop Books (New York, NY), 1999; David Halberstam and Glenn Stout, editors, The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, Houghton Mifflin, 1999; Mark Collings, editor, Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World, Sanctuary Publishing Ltd. (London, England), 2001; and The Greatest Boxing Stories Ever Told: Thirty-six Incredible Tales from the Ring, Lyons Press (Guilford, CT), 2002. Contributor of articles to periodicals, including Gentleman's Quarterly, Men's Journal, Esquire, Playboy, Regardie's, Health, Men's Health, Special Report, Audience, Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, and New York Times.
SIDELIGHTS: During his career, journalist Mark Kram brought to his work a level of prose style not often seen in traditional coverage of athletic events. In magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Esquire, and books such as Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Kram elevated sports writing to the literary and examined the mythic underpinnings of professional athletic endeavor. "It seems right to remember Mark Kram as a poet of the dark nights in sports," wrote John Schulian in an obituary for MSNBC.com. "He wrote as if he believed that the best stories, like the best songs, are the sad ones, and sometimes he lived sad stories himself. He knew perhaps more than he should have about pain, failure, disgrace, but given time and inspiration, he could transform them all into things of beauty. When you read Mark Kram, even when his subject was a crowd screaming for blood, you could always hear an old jazz band playing." According to Brad Buchholz in the Austin American-Statesman, Kram "was one of the quiet writers—subtle, delicate, understated. . . . Kram's narratives were exquisitely crafted, rich with the sort of detail that told us something about a larger humanity. It was all the more impressive that he conveyed this frequently in the world of boxing, the most brutal of sports."
Kram was born and raised in Baltimore and attended the city's Calvert Hall High School, where he excelled in football and baseball. After graduating he signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization to play professional baseball. He served in the military during the Korean War and then returned to baseball, but his career as a pro player ended when he was hit by a pitch in a game in Burlington, North Carolina. He returned to Baltimore, embarked on a program of self-education, and joined the staff of the Baltimore Sun in 1959.
When Kram became a writer for Sports Illustrated in 1964, the magazine was widely recognized for its journalistic excellence. Stories were lengthy and well crafted, and it was not unusual to find within its pages essays on subjects as varied as hunting and ballet. Kram thrived in this environment and became well known primarily, but certainly not exclusively, as a boxing writer. Schulian wrote: "SI was where Kram did more than make his name; he established himself as the grandest stylist on a staff embarrassingly rich in talent. Indeed, it can be said that Kram's stablemates—Dan Jenkins, Frank Deford, Bud Shrake and Roy Blount Jr.—have all enjoyed greater long-term success than he did. . . . But for turning journalism into literature, there was no one among them whose dust Kram had to eat." Buchholz observed that Kram's "mission statement was all about the beauty of language."
One of the highlights of Kram's career at Sports Illustrated was his coverage of the epic boxing matches between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. His account of the 1975 "Thrilla' in Manila," where the two fighters met for the last time, is frequently anthologized. Buchholz commented: "Kram took us far from the ring, into the rooms of the bruised and battered boxers, not for the sake of revealing something private, but to look into the shadows and share something universal. In the eyes of Frazier, we felt an eternal ache, related to honor and loneliness and pain." Washington Post correspondent Jennifer Frey observed that Kram's "article on the 'Thrilla' in Manila' is considered by many to be one of the greatest sports magazine stories of all time."
Kram left Sports Illustrated in 1977. Thereafter he contributed articles to magazines such as Esquire and Gentleman's Quarterly, wrote screenplays, and published books. His novel Miles to Go concerns the efforts of three runners who are seeking to break the two-hour barrier for a marathon. He also continued to write about Muhammad Ali, and he took aim at a new generation of boxers, including Mike Tyson. Throughout the remainder of his life he lived in Washington, D.C.
Ghosts of Manila was inspired by what Kram saw as an undue lionization of Muhammad Ali. Writers who had never known the fighter praised Ali as a visionary and revolutionary, holding him in high esteem for his unwillingness to serve in the Vietnam War and for his statements on race relations. Having watched Ali at close range for years, Kram was in a position to challenge the myths that cling to the former boxer. "I grew weary of all the hagiography about Ali," Kram once told an interviewer for the Washington Post. "I kept seeing this great social figure, mentioned next to Martin Luther King, and I said, 'This is wrong.' So I decided, why not do a book on the person I saw, put some flesh and blood on him."
Ghosts of Manila explores the relationship between Ali and Frazier, beginning with their widely disparate backgrounds and ending with the lasting physical and psychological damage they have inflicted upon one another. The book also examines Ali's position within the Black Muslims and that group's influence on his pronouncements and decisions. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the work is the way it portrays the darker side of Muhammad Ali: his derogatory remarks about Frazier, his womanizing, and his obsessive courtship of fame. As Richard Sandomir put it in the New York Times, "A central theme of Kram's book is that Ali is less than he seems to be, especially as a political and social force, that he was an empty canvas upon which the uninformed painted a world idol."
Not surprisingly, Ghosts of Manila earned Kram the enmity of some people who admire Muhammad Ali, including a few of Ali's biographers. Other reviewers, however, appreciated not only the points Kram makes about Ali but also the style in which the book is written. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reviewer Gene Collier declared, "it's evident that Kram's skills have merely swelled and exploded, while Ali's have long since vanished. You need only bathe yourself in any of the hundreds of descriptions of that decline in these pages to appreciate Kram's brilliance." On the ESPN Web site, David Halberstam observed that Kram "has produced a quite remarkable book—it is both an exceptional, wonderfully written account of those fights in which he goes back-and-forth in time between then and now, and it is also a screed against many of the journalists who covered the fights, and who, he believes, were taken in by Ali." Halberstam added: "It is very much to Kram's credit—it is one of the things that makes the book so successful—that he manages to give Frazier a dignity and humanity so often denied him by other writers who were so caught up in the mystique of the infinitely more charismatic Ali." Boston Globe writer Mark Jurkowitz concluded: "Whether you accept Kram's point of view—and many won't—you have to admire his sparse but rich storytelling technique. He spent considerable time with the principals and their entourages, and it shows."
Ghosts of Manila was published only two years prior to Kram's death. He suffered a fatal heart attack in June of 2002, not long after returning from a Mike Tyson-Lennox Lewis fight in Memphis, Tennessee. Halberstam wrote of Kram: "In the semi-closed world of high-level sportswriting, he was known as a bleeder. No one at Sports Illustrated, in the opinion of his peers, agonized over his writing as Kram did, bleeding over every word, and agonizing, as well, over what he was doing, and whether working for Sports Illustrated was a worthy enough goal, when perhaps there were more important subjects to write about. . . . At his best . . . no one wrote better about boxing. He did the requisite legwork, he had the requisite connection and trust with the men who formed the inner world of boxing, he knew how to listen, and he brought an inordinate amount of passion to his work."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Austin American-Statesman, December 29, 2002, Brad Buchholz, "On Narrative, Death, and Four Men Who Loved Words," p. K1.
Boston Globe, July 26, 2001, Mark Jurkowitz, "'Ghosts of Manila' Gets in the Ring with Ali Legend."
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 23, 2001, Jeff Guinn, "Weighing in on Ali," p. 1.
New York Times, May 21, 2001, Richard Sandomir, "Book Portrays Ali as Not 'the Greatest,'" p. D10.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 10, 2001, Gene Collier, "Ali on the Ropes," p. 8.
Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2001, Chris Gay, "A Jab at the Greatest," p. W8.
Washington Post, May 29, 2001, Jennifer Frey, "Mark Kram, Pulling No Punches," pp. C1, C14.
CNN/Sports Illustrated Online,http://www.cnnsi.com/ (May 30, 2001), Frank Deford, "Kram Goes for the Greatest Knockout."
CreativeLoafing.com,http://www.creativeloafing.com/ (April 28, 2001), Sam Shapiro, "Beauty and Beastliness."
New York Times, June 15, 2002, p. B18.