Reconsidering the late Pat Putnam

By George Kimball


Reconsidering the late Pat Putnam


He was the finest boxing writer of his generation (“Maybe the best since [A.J.] Liebling,” says Michael Katz), and the unfortunate part of it is that in the eyes of people who never knew him, the late Pat Putnam’s enduring legacy could turn out to be not his lifetime body of work but as the creator of an alternate universe in which he represented himself to have been a Marine Corps veteran of the Korean War who spent 17 months as a POW.

Putnam, who died in 2005, wrote for Sports Illustrated for 27 years, and was the 1982 recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism.

Within the past few days, Puntam’s alleged military background has been revealed to have been an elaborate fiction. Veterans groups have condemned what they termed a “fake” and a “disgrace,” and the Boxing Writers Association of America appears to have leapt aboard the same bandwagon, hastily distancing itself from Putnam with the announcement that it would remove his name from an award for perseverance that it had bestowed in his honor in each of the three years following his death.

(Since the BWAA couldn’t take Putnam’s name off the award fast enough, it should probably be noted that we’re talking about an organization that routinely bestows annual awards named for crooked politicians and boxing officials of dubious ethics.)

“He had us all fooled,” BWAA president Bernard Fernandez, who labelled Putnam’s tale “totally bogus,” told The Navy Times.

It now appears that Pat Putnam’s fate will be to take his place in sporting lore alongside the likes of former Blue Jays manager Tim Johnson and (briefly) erstwhile Notre Dame coach George O’Leary, whose falsification of their resumes brought them into disrepute and cost them their jobs.

There is no doubt that Pat made the claims he stands accused of making. He recounted them in my presence at the Galleria Bar at Caesars and the lounge at the Flame in Las Vegas, and like many others who were taken in, I had little reason to doubt them, but there is an important distinction to be made here. 

Pat’s wartime adventures might have been tall tales, but he never attempted to make them part of his official resume.  They were never a consideration in helping get him a job. They weren’t included in his official biographies at the Miami Herald, at Sports Illustrated, or at, for which he wrote following his retirement from SI.

He never publicly represented himself as either a veteran or a POW. He never attempted to join groups representing either.  He never applied for veterans’ benefits, he didn’t ask to be buried with military honors, and he certainly didn’t ask the BWAA to label him a war hero or to name an award after him. He didn’t even attempt to tell these tall tales to his children. 

“Never, ever, ever,” said his daughter Collen Putnam, who was herself surprised by the accounts of his Korean experience that emerged at the time of her father’s death.

In short, if Putnam is going to be posthumously convicted of anything, it should be of slinging bullshit in a bar. If that were a hanging offense, we’d all be in trouble.

That the BWAA has chosen to view this as a scandal exposed is, to say the least, interesting, because any  public accounts of Putnam’s wartime experiences were never promulgated by Pat himself, but almost exclusively by fellow BWAA members – by myself, by Katz, and by Bernard Fernandez, among others – following his death.  References – obviously, unchecked -- to Korea, the Marines, and POW camps were also prominent in obituaries circulated by both Sports Illustrated (Richard O’Brein) and the Associated Press (Ed Schuyler).

In other words, if we’re going to question somebody’s journalistic principles here, should it be Pat Putnam’s or ours?

When BWAA vice president Tom Hauser contacted me with the revelation on Friday morning I was, like virtually everyone else who knew Pat well, stunned, but when asked for my reaction, I replied that since Putnam’s journalistic career was an open book that would hold up to scrutiny, the episode should not reflect on his professional accomplishments.

Hauser wondered whether his having been unmasked as an accomplished teller of tall tales on one front might cause some to wonder whether he had similarly embellished his reportage.

For most of his writing career, in fact, Putnam operated under journalistic constraints more rigid than the rest of us had to endure. His stories were combed over by armies of fact-checkers, and SI minions routinely phoned his subjects to verify the accuracy of quotes. Moreover, because of SI’s status in the sporting world of his era, he almost always had better access to his subjects than the rest of us did. (While the rest of us made do with press conference quotes, Pat usually had a private post-fight audience with the fighter in his hotel suite.)

And whether it was Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard or Mike Tyson, there has never been the remotest suggestion that Pat Putnam fabricated a single word in any of his stories. He didn’t have to. He could write circles around the rest of us anyway.

It seems plain enough – plain enough to me, anyway – that Pat’s fictitious past simply represented saloon banter that eventually took on a life of its own, and I imagine he expected that that the truth would be revealed once he died and his colleagues began to check the facts of his life against the public record. If so, his confidence in the journalistic process may have been naively optimistic.

Still, it must have become at times an unsettling burden to carry around. In the past 24 hours, three different colleagues have recalled the widespread apprehension at the 1988 Seoul Olympics when Pat would have ostensibly been returning to Korea for the first time since the war.

“I remember everybody being so nervous about how Pat would do in the situation,” said Leigh Montville. “He pretty much did fine.”

“That was my first year at the magazine,” remembered Rich O’Brien, “and I too remember quite vividly his distress at being ‘back in Korea.’ It’s very strange to reassess that now.”

“I spent a day in Seoul with him when he pointed out the places he was under fire before his capture,” said James Lawton of The Independent in London.

Judging from its seemingly precipitate reaction in wiping his name off the former Pat Putnam Award, he BWAA has reacted as if the organization itself had been dishonored. Since the move itself came within hours of his denunciation by the veterans’ groups, it is interesting to note how that process worked.

Earlier in the week Fernandez had written a story about this year’s recipients Lamont and Anthony Peterson for the Philadelphia Daily News, in which he described Putnam as a “rawhide-tough Marine” who “came back from Korea with four Purple Hearts and the Navy Cross.”

Which of these google-able phrases triggered the interest of Mary and Charles Schantag remains unlearned, but was shortly on the case.

Although they have no official status, the Schantags operate their investigative resources out of their home in Missouri. Described on a rival website as “a mom-and-pop Colombo team,” the Shantags were themselves the subject of an investigation by the office of the Virginia Inspector General for having exercised excessive zeal in outing what they describes as “phonies and wannabes,” at least some of whom turned out to be neither.

(In this regard, would appear to share a spiritual kinship with “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” the sham organization hastily assembled four years ago to undermine the candidacy of John Kerry.)

“It is a disgrace that somebody allowed this to go on for so long,” Mary Schantag told ABC News after the Marine Corps had confirmed that they had no record
of Putnam having ever served. “I have no sympathy for someone that told lies like this and goes to the grave this way.”

Well, they were lies, no doubt about it.

“What made my father such a great writer was that he was such a great storyteller,” said Colleen Putnam. “I think this one just got away from him, but what concerns me most is that this is what people will remember him for. That would have been devastating to him.

“I guess until this I never realized,” added Ms. Putnam, “that the award they named for my father was associated all that stuff about Korea.”

“But since the Putnam Award is supposed to be for ‘courage,’ I can see the problem,” said Leigh Montiville. “Maybe they should just give out another award for writing or reporting and name it after him.”

Richard O’Brien pronounced himself “gobsmacked” by the news, but added “it really doesn’t change how I felt about Pat as a friend, and certainly not as a writer.”

The revelations may have been surprising, said James Lawton, “but it doesn’t take a fig away from his tremendous achievements professionally. But, hell, why would he need to invent extra heroism?”

“It still doesn’t change who he was,” said Katz. “He’ll always be a hero to me.”

Me, too.