Unless you have been living under rock, you know that the Houston Astros recently won the World Series. Growing up, I played only backyard baseball with friends, but I learned to appreciate the subtle (and not-so-subtle) attempts to gain a mental advantage in the sport.
This past week, I was reminded of the mental games between pitcher Louis Norman “Bobo” Newsom and North Carolina writer Robert “Bobby” Ruark in 1939. Their brief locker room altercation made national news. Bobo frequently made national headlines, but the budding novelist, then a sports writer, wanted the spotlight to turn on him.
Bobo Newsom was born in Hartesville, S.C. He was one of the winningest pitchers with a less than .500 record (211-222) during his 20-plus-year career. He was a “traveling man,” a journeyman as some today call a player who plays every couple years or so with a different team. One sports writer remarked that Newsom talked his way onto some rosters.
Newsom was superstitious concerning baseball. No one, for example, was supposed to touch his glove, and when the other team was on the field, he placed his glove in the same spot. He wanted a clean pitcher’s mound with no debris. Opponents sometimes purposefully left torn paper near the mound to annoy Newsom and distract him from concentrating on his fastball.
Newsom made national headlines because he publicly predicted some wins, and when talking to reporters, he referred to himself as “Bobo” and called almost everyone else “Bobo.”
At Bobo’s expense, Ruark, a sports writer for Washington Daily News, positioned himself to gain national attention. A Southport native, Ruark was an outdoorsman and a truly gifted writer. He eventually authored bestsellers, including “Something of Value,” and was a popular columnist for decades, especially for Field and Stream. His best work may be one of his collections of outdoorsman columns, “The Old Man and the Boy.”
Although agreeable and benevolent among friends, Ruark acquired a caustic public reputation. And he celebrated this reputation in some of his novels in which his life provided material.
With their somewhat similar personalities, Bobo and Bobby eventually clashed in the locker room, after the Detroit Tigers played the Washington Senators. In print, Ruark accused Newsom of being a showoff and a blowhard who berated Senators fans in a hotel lobby.
Any press, it seems, for Newsom was good press. Ruark’s column, however, provoked the ire of Bobo, who threatened to “knock his block off” if he ever saw the writer.
Never one to avoid controversy, Ruark showed up in the Tigers locker room and made his presence known. After labeling each other with unwanted characteristics, Ruark threw a wild punch. Big Bobo Newsom, meanwhile, held Ruark at arm’s length with one arm, while holding and drinking a soda with the other. Some accounts have an unorthodox Ruark also falling over benches. Players eventually separated them and ended the “Newsom-Ruark War.”
Ruark was glad players held him back. A lot of damage can be done during a fight — especially when it’s Newsom, Ruark later commented, doing the pummeling.
The Southport native’s publicity stunt had worked. The altercation was retold in papers across the country, and Ruark made national news.
Ruark frequently applied this abrasive approach in his columns. For instance, lamenting the state of boxing in 1964, Ruark made a bold claim: “I never made a dent in Bobo Newsom’s chin, but I reckon I can whip Patterson, Johansson, Liston, and Clay in a heat each.”
The “poor man’s Hemingway” had learned to swing hard, even if sometimes ineffectively and wildly, to gain the spotlight.