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Richard Ben Cramer's genius: books from politics to baseball

Richard Ben Cramer had the gift of a great writer: an agile mind that generated entertaining books and magazine articles in topics as disparate as Middle East politics and baseball.

The Chestertown, Md., resident, who died Monday at age 62, "had raw talent for writing and reporting and was just so damn good," said Tom Horton, a former Baltimore Sun colleague said in an obituary. "He was born to be a journalist and a writer."

His books ranged from "Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life," a biography of the Yankee outfielder to "What It Takes: The Way to the White House, a look at the 1988 presidential campaign," to "How Israel Lost: The Four Questions," which wrestled with the decades-long conflict between the young country and Palestinians. In Baltimore, he will always be remembered for a 1984 Esquire magazine piece called "Mayor Annoyed," chronicling the obsessiveness of William Donald Schaefer.

Few other authors have that range. Michael Lewis, John McPhee and Calvin Trillin are favorites who come to mind, but it is not a long list.

How did he do it? By getting inside his subject's head -- whether that person was a politician or ballplayer. Speaking to the Sun in 1992 about the presidential candidates in "What It Takes," he outlined the approach that would serve him well throughout his career: "The question that I started out with was, why do all of these fellas seem cut off? Why do they look like they don't know what's going on in normal American life? I wanted to know how these fellas got the way they are, and so what I set about trying to do was not actually write about the campaign but the lives that brought these guys to the campaign. And then, once I got in, what happened to those lives?"

Cramer won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Middle East for the Philadelphia Inquirer. "He was one of the greatest nonfiction writers to sit behind a desk and put a pen to a page," friend James McBride, author of the best-selling "The Color of Water," told the Philadelphia Daily News. "He's the writer that we all wanted to be . . . He could spin a yarn out of anything."

 

 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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