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Richard Ben Cramer, Maryland’s greatest writer, dead at 62

January 8, 2013

No offense to Poe or Mencken or anyone else, but Maryland may have lost its greatest writer when Richard Ben Cramer died on Monday night at 62.

Cramer, a former reporter for the Sun papers and editor of the JHU News-Letter, would be a national treasure on the basis of What It Takes alone. The 1,051-page book takes the 1988 presidential campaign and turns it into an American War and Peace by following a single, rather simple observation: “None of my friends ever thought he should be President—much less that he could be…I still did not know what kind of life would lead a man (in my lifetime, all have been men) to think he ought to be President. I could only guess at the habit of triumph that would make him conclude he could be President.” This observation and the questions “Who are these guys? What are they like?” led Cramer to reinvent the American campaign book, turning it into literature by talking to thousands of sources and ignoring the normal rhythms of campaign reporting. The book didn’t come out until 1992, and at the time was not exceptionally well received. The Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein, in a post this morning where he wrote about how the book changed his life, relaunched his campaign to make it number one on Amazon. We heartily endorse Klein’s project and urge you to read his post and buy the book here. Additionally, we urge Governor O’Malley and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to fly the state and city flags at half-mast in his honor.

What It Takes is a towering achievement,  but it is only part of Cramer’s great legacy. In the same way that What It Takes can make a lifelong Democrat fall in love with Bob Dole or George H.W. Bush, Cramer’s sports reporting made a sports-illiterate nerd like me love baseball. His Esquire piece on Ted Williams is one of the best pieces of magazine journalism ever written (It was judged one of Esquire’s six best pieces and has been called the “greatest piece of sports writing ever). Williams, who had retired to fishing in Florida, wouldn’t talk to reporters, so Cramer, as he told Robert Boynton in the New New Journalism, went down there while Williams was out of town and started fishing with all his buddies so that, by the time Williams returned, everyone was talking about this Cramer guy, and Williams called him! Read “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” here.

I wish I had shown that kind of guts with Cramer himself. City Paper had intended to do a story on him and when I contacted him, through his wife, who handled such communication, she said they would love to have me down to the shore as soon as he finished his book on Alex Rodriguez. I agreed and now I’m writing this piece instead, wondering if he finished the book.

I sure as hell hope he did, even if it was about a Yankee, because he took what we do and elevated to the highest level of art.