Richard Ben Cramer: A hero missed

I did not want to work with Richard Ben Cramer.

OK, I did. I adored him as a writer and journalist. I'd devoured his works, from "Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life" to "What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?" to "What It Takes: The Way To The White House." The latter had been assigned reading, widely considered one of the greatest political books of the 20th century. The other two I'd bought for permanent placement in my office bookcase.

So yes, of course, I wanted to work with the Pulitzer winner. I had dreamed of working with him on some project at some point in my career. I just didn't want to work with him on this particular project at this particular time. This one was mine.

What an idiot I was.

It was August 2006 and I was editor-in-chief at NASCAR Media Group, then called NASCAR Images. We were in the midst of producing what I believe is still the company's ultimate work: a film titled "Dale" -- a biographical documentary of Dale Earnhardt produced in conjunction with -- and via the checkbook of -- CMT Films.

Everything about "Dale" was huge. His widow, Teresa Earnhardt, and car owner/best friend Richard Childress were on board. We were shooting on genuine film. We had a composer orchestrating an original score. Paul Newman had signed on as narrator. I was writing the script. And I wanted no help.

But CMT, and rightfully so, wanted that script to be "big enough" to fit its subject, voice and expectations. I, they felt, wasn't big enough. So they hired Cramer to work with me. He boarded a plane to Charlotte, N.C., strode toward my desk, dropped his leather bag on a chair and extended his hand.

"I'm Richard Cramer," he said in his growly Mack truck of a voice, smiling, as his eyes darted around the tiny corner office, taking inventory of its contents and, thusly, me. "Ryan McGee, here's what I already know about you. You have a Richard Petty fetish. You have a beautiful wife. And …" He motioned toward the center shelf of the nearby bookcase, pointing to one specific volume among the auto racing titles and reference materials. "You have damn good taste in books."

It was "DiMaggio."

"Now, Ryan McGee, there's something you need to know about me that you can't learn by reading the inside of that book jacket. And it's the one thing you don't want to hear."

"What's that?"

"I don't know a damn thing about NASCAR, and I surely do not know a damn thing about Dale Earnhardt."

For four days we sat together in that office. The first day was a feeling-out process. Cramer knew I wasn't happy about him having been hired to steal away my script. And he later confessed that he wasn't happy about being there but needed to pick up some projects to stay busy and bring in a little income while he was getting his Alex Rodriguez book off the ground. We accomplished little.

Day 2 we hit the ground running, chunking out Earnhardt's life on a marker board. I taught him about stock car racing and the Elvis-like following that surrounded "The Intimidator" during his life, but particularly following his death. In turn, Cramer talked to me about writing. He flooded my office with knowledge on "depth of words," the "gift of someone telling you his secrets or the secrets of others," and why it is important to "strip the bull---- away from the people that we worship as heroes." He loathed the casual use of that word. Hero. Not necessarily to tear them down but "to actually know them like we only thought we knew them in the first place."

It was rapid-fire journalism school. "Write sentences that are absolute. … Don't be afraid to ask open-ended questions that will put some of the thinking back on the reader. … Don't deify this damn guy; humanize the hero!"

I have pulled these quotes from the notes that I took during those days. Notes I never took in front of him. Instead, I would scramble them onto paper whenever he went outside to burn a cigar, which was often.

By Day 3, I was finally writing the script. Furiously. I wrote nearly the entire two-hour piece in that single day. I would read it aloud line by line as I typed, and he would verbally challenge me at every turn of phrase. "You tell me Earnhardt's greatest fear was to never be trapped inside a textile mill. We know Ralph [Dale's father] quit that same mill because he couldn't take it. But why, Ryan? If it was so horrible, what was so horrible about it? What did this prison feel like? What did it sound like? What did it smell like? We need to call someone who knows firsthand."

So we did. My father grew up on the mill hills in and around Rockingham. Soon we had him on speakerphone. Dad told us it was hot. The machinery was unbearably loud. And everyone working with those infernal looms -- including my grandparents -- left work with their hair and lungs full of lint. We thanked my father, hung up the phone, and Richard slammed his fist to the desk.

"That's the kind of hell that makes a man want something better. Even if it means doing something that might kill him. Now take me somewhere to get some good barbecue."

At Bill Spoon's BBQ on Charlotte's South Boulevard ("We cook the whole pig, it makes the difference"), we talked for three hours. He told me about standing on the beach at Beirut in wartime. I told him about racing on the beach at Daytona. We talked baseball smack about his Yankees and my Red Sox. We talked about the beauty of raising daughters, his being nearly an adult and mine being only 20 months old.

"All this talk about heroes," he said, referring to DiMaggio, Williams, Earnhardt and, admittedly, himself. "Ultimately, no matter what they accomplished, in the end all these heroes were most desperate to know if they had been good fathers. They weren't. But they all tried to be at the end. That's the greatest lesson we can learn from them."

Our fourth and final day in my office was spent doing little writing at all. "You know what you're doing," he told me as we made a run to a cigar store in my truck en route to the airport and his flight home. He told me to massage the script over the weekend and call him to read it over one final time. "But don't turn it in right away," he said with a smile as he shook my hand and said goodbye. "Ryan McGee, my friend, we need them to think this was really hard and we really struggled with it. Tell them that we had no fun. That we fought all the time and lost sleep over it."

He winked and he was off, back to Maryland.

Over the next six years, I leaned on my friend Richard a lot, even shamelessly asking for a blurb to put on the cover of my '09 book on the College World Series. ("Ryan McGee made me feel like I was there in the sunshine at Rosenblatt Stadium …")

However, looking back, I should have called him more. Just as I was afraid for him to see me taking notes back in '06, I refrained from calling too often or asking too many questions, despite his repeated invitations to do both. I was too busy trying to play it cool.

The last time we talked was early last fall. I called to let him know that I was going to be at the Dover International Speedway for a Sprint Cup race weekend and that I wanted to finally stop by his house on the Eastern Shore. He said that he was going to be out of town, but we agreed that we'd meet up this May when I returned to Dover. Because of our time together, he confessed that he'd developed a casual interest in NASCAR, particularly Dale Earnhardt Jr. He joked that if he ever got to a race he wanted to make sure that he did it with me, because I was his "redneck interpreter."

Now that will never happen. On Monday, Cramer died at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He was 62. Lung cancer. Those damn cigars. Tuesday night I pulled my copy of "DiMaggio" off the shelf with the intent of doing a little tribute reading. When I opened it, I discovered that he'd inscribed it during our week together without me knowing.

"For Ryan, Who has strange taste in ball teams (the Red Sox?) … but good taste in books. R.B. Cramer, 8/9/06."

I sat at my desk and I wept for my hero.