Do you know what is the worst thing that can happen to a golfer?" Bernie Loomis asked. "Well, it happened to me today. What do you think it is?"
Bernie Loomis had just come from the country club and was still wearing white shorts and a white golf shirt, and his face was very red beneath jagged thrusts of black and white hair. He was standing at the bar in a hospitality room in an enormous motel that wanders up a hillside in Cincinnati. Bernie is president of Kenner Products, a toy-manufacturing company with headquarters in Cincinnati, and around him a number of toy people bent forward to hear what is the worst thing that can happen to a golfer.
"Can't anybody guess?" Bernie asked.
"You made a hole in one, and nobody saw it," someone said.
August 18, 1974
"Ha! That's close! That's very close!" said Bernie. "Do you want me to tell you what it is?"
"What is it, Bernie?"
"I hit a mulligan and it went in the hole!"
A mulligan is when you hit an extra ball, usually because you didn't like your first shot or because the first shot felt so good you wanted to see if you could do it again. So everybody Bernie was playing with at Crest Hills saw his hole in one, but it didn't count. People nodded and said that was a terrible thing, all right.
"Say, Bernie, when is O.J. coming?" someone asked.
"He's here. Just got in from the airport. He and Marguerite will be down in a few minutes."
In the hospitality room there were about 100 toy buyers from all over the country, and maybe 35 representatives of Kenner Products and its boss company, General Mills, makers of Wheaties. They had been lured to Cincinnati for a meeting and toy-hustling gala that included golf, tennis, a banquet, plenty of cocktails and tables laden with shrimp and meatballs and little sausages.
The gala included, too, as its main course, O. J. Simpson. In the last week Simpson had been at the Las Vegas Hilton for a banquet for the City of Hope Victor Award, in Chicago for the NFL Players Association dinner, in Appleton, Wis. for the 1,000 Yard Club dinner with his Buffalo offensive line as guests, in Buffalo to register his two children in school, and now to Cincinnati to pal it up with people who would buy and sell the O. J. Simpson See Action Football Game.
There may have been a few cynics in the crowd (if so, they were a secret society), but most of the toy people were as thrilled as little boys at the prospect of standing close to the first man who ever gained more than 2,000 yards running with the ball in a single National Football League season. All-America at USC, Heisman Trophy winner by the biggest vote margin of all time, NFL Player of the Year, Hickok Belt winner, self-made semimillionaire from off the streets, television and movie actor, etc. In other words, O. J. Simpson.
"What's he like?"
"Who, the Juice? Haven't you met the Juice?"
"Hell of a guy. Real man and nice as can be."
"He sure fills out a shirt, boy. I'll tell you that."
Upstairs Simpson and his wife Marguerite were sprawled on a king-size bed in their suite. They were very tired, and Marguerite could dredge up little joy at the idea of going down to mingle with the toy people. Marguerite is an exotically beautiful woman who has studied the art of makeup and uses it with stunning effect. She had brought enough suitcases to fill half of a room. All she wanted to do was unpack and watch television, but O.J. got up and put his tennis shoes back on.
"We ought to go on down," O.J. said. "It won't take long."
"All right, for a little while," Marguerite said.
"We have to sacrifice a lot of privacy," said O.J. "When we go out to eat, for example, there's always somebody coming over to talk or get an autograph. Sometimes it bothers the people I'm with but it doesn't bother me."
"He likes it," Marguerite said.
As soon as they stepped off the elevator they disappeared into a forest of toy people. O.J. was shaking hands, signing autographs, laughing, answering questions, grinning for cameras, being steered through the room. Marguerite's eyes went sort of glassy. The makeup didn't hide that.
In the morning O.J. went on a bus tour with the toy people over to the plant where Kenner makes Play-Doh, a substance that can be modeled somewhat like soft clay into little airplanes and heads and so forth. Play-Doh, in case you have never eaten any, is made largely from cake flour and tastes pretty good. Kenner sold more than $ 10 million worth last year.
"Sports toys are getting to be a hot item," a Kenner man was saying. "I don't mean games, they've done pretty well for a long time. I mean toys. We've got a girl doll that can swing a baseball bat or hit a golf ball. We've got a motorcycle toy that works on compressed air. You pump it up just right and the little guy on the motorcycle shoots off down a chute and flies off in the air. We also have the T.P. Challenge Set, endorsed by Debbie Lawler. That's her over there."
Sure enough, there was Debbie Lawler, the pretty blonde girl who jumps over obstacles on her motorcycle and endorses nearly everything she is riding or wearing. She was still limping slightly from her last wreck.
"O.J., I know you'll believe this just by taking a look at me. I'm an eater," the woman said.
O.J. looked at her and smiled. She was decidedly an eater. He was standing now at the gate to the tennis courts at Crest Hills Country Club, tennis racket in hand, tennis outfit on, ready to play tennis with the toy people. "For an eater like me to skip my lunch just to come over and shake hands with you, well, you know it just has to be a supreme compliment," the woman said.
She shook O.J.'s hand and walked off through a dozen other women who were studying Simpson as if they'd like to offer him the keys to the car.
"Where you going now? To lunch?" O.J. yelled after the woman and laughed.
"That's O.J. Simpson there," another woman said.
"Which one? How can you tell?"
"He's, uh, well, he's the only, uh...."
Right. The other blacks at Crest Hills Country Club that day were cutting grass or polishing shoes in the locker room.
O.J. played six sets of tennis with the toy people in the next four hours while Marguerite went shopping with Mrs. Lillian Loomis, Bernie's wife. Then O.J. walked outside to look for a ride back to the motel. About a dozen toy people followed him.
"Hey, Juice. What say, Juice?"
"It's cool," said O.J.
"I didn't mean anything by that, O.J. Just trying to make a witticism."
"I said it's cool, man."
At the motel O.J. changed clothes. He came back to the country club to speak at the banquet. There was an empty chair at the table beside him. The name card said: MRS. SIMPSON. "Marguerite's about had it with all this traveling," O.J. said. "I think she's going back to L.A. in the morning."
Then he was on his feet in front of a microphone. After many years of receiving awards and attending banquets, stretching back into high school, Simpson has become a smooth, confident public speaker, and his physical presence is impressive. He talked about how great he thinks the offensive team at Buffalo is. He said he thinks with any luck he can break last year's rushing record. He said he felt very low a couple of years ago, but now he wants to play until Buffalo gets into the Super Bowl. He held up an O. J. Simpson See Action Football Game so the buyers could look at the box with the picture of O.J. on it. "The better I do my job on the field, the easier it will be for you to do your jobs in your field," he said. The toy people cheered.
Later he posed for dozens of photographs with the toy people. O.J. moved a lot of football games that day.
In this last off-season O.J. Simpson probably made more public appearances and possibly more money than any other athlete ever. Exactly how many appearances is lost somewhere in a maze of credit-card bills, but O.J. seldom visited his big Bel Air home, above the smog line in Los Angeles. During this period O.J. also worked in two to-be-released films—The Klansman with Richard Burton and Lee Marvin and The Towering Inferno with Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and Fred Astaire—and has commuted weekends to New York for his job as a commentator on ABC-TV's Wide World of Sports. "Getting from Oroville, Calif. [where The Klansman was shot] to New York on Friday night and back to Oroville by Monday morning was crazy. It was practically suicide," O.J. says. He did it eight times.
Although O.J. now pays his own bills and handles his own business affairs for O. J. Simpson Enterprises with the help of an accountant and an attorney, and has a movie agent named Jack Gilardi, his off-season schedule is still arranged by his original agent, Chuck Barnes, and by Marilyn O'Brien, vice-president of Sports Headliners, Inc.
Sports Headliners, Inc. has an office that opens onto a swimming pool in Marina del Rey, a condominium city on the ocean near the Los Angeles airport. In a time when star athletes are packaged and sold like Baby Ruth bars, their names stuck on everything from cologne to cricket bats, with Rotary Clubs and the U.S. Congress requesting their appearances, Chuck Barnes has done very well for himself and most of his clients.
"I'd been working with automobile-racing people for 15 years," Barnes said, sitting on a couch in the living room of his office, with paintings of O. J. Simpson and Calvin Hill on the walls, one of O.J.'s trophies on the coffee table and a Franco Harris cushion on the floor. "I'd see racing people get accustomed to going first class and then find out it was all over for them. It's a tough adjustment to make. So I got into the business of trying to expand their incomes and get them something for the future."
Thirty days after O.J. got out of USC, Barnes arranged for him to sign a personal service contract to promote Chevrolets. Next came a contract with RC Cola, which was then considering marketing an orange drink. Simpson meanwhile had been offered $200,000 to sign a one-year contract to play for Indianapolis in the old Continental League, and Barnes was negotiating a $300,000 four-year contract with Buffalo and trying to persuade Bills' Owner Ralph Wilson to trade O.J. to Los Angeles or San Francisco, where he could have sold a lot of season tickets.
"Frankly, we were afraid O.J. would be buried at Buffalo," Barnes said. "We knew the personnel they had then and figured O.J. didn't have much of a chance to do anything except get hurt. So I went to work at once on a network TV deal to keep him visible. ABC said they'd film O.J.'s Continental League games to use on Wide World of Sports, but Chevrolet and RC Cola didn't want O.J. to play in the Continental League, and in the end he signed with Buffalo."
A $300,000 four-year contract doesn't sound like quite so much now (Barnes' client Calvin Hill signed earlier this year with Hawaii of the World Football League for more than $1 million) but $300,000 was only part of what O.J. was earning. Buffalo had a 46,000-seat stadium in those days; O.J.'s commercial value to the Bills was what he could draw on the road. His presence enabled the Bills, a weak team then, to schedule exhibition games in big stadiums. Now Buffalo has an 80,000-seat stadium and last year led the NFL in attendance. O.J. signed a new contract at midseason that runs through 1977, and is reportedly worth a lot more than $300,000.
And along came Kenner Products with a personal service contract that calls for TV commercials and provides a royalty for the O.J. football games. The Juice also serves as official spokesman for Hyde Spot-bilt shoes. And makes Schick commercials. And commercials for Foster Grant sunglasses that include Marguerite and the children. And commercials for Trau & Loevner, Inc., makers of T shirts and other "soft goods," that are supposed to include members of the Buffalo line, with Guard Reggie McKenzie saying, "I'm a member of the Electric Company. We turn on the Juice." And he has TV and movie jobs. And gets $2,000 for speaking at a banquet.
"But a lot of appearances O.J. makes, he does for nothing," said Marilyn O'Brien. "We're directing the life of a legend, you know. He knows he owes something to society."
O.J. Simpson is a pretty good gin-rummy player. He is said to have laid heavily into the wages of many technicians during the filming of The Klansman. The great thing about playing with him this day on a flight to Saginaw, Mich., via Dayton and Flint, was that it was the tornado season and the plane moved in bounding leaps, and the cards kept flying into the air, thus slowing the game to a reasonable pace.
And what was O.J. Simpson doing being hurled through boiling Midwest skies? Was he on his way to address a used-car-dealers rally for his $2,000 fee and a year's supply of spare parts for the Cadillac and Mercedes that he and Marguerite garage back home by the big house where visitors hang around as if it were a hotel lobby?
As a matter of fact he was going to Saginaw because a friend, Jerry Patton, who played defensive tackle for Buffalo before he was traded to Philadelphia, had asked him to. Patton's idea was to get O.J. to come in for a day and visit around with a lot of kids and talk them into playing football instead of basketball. That may sound like a peculiar way for a star to spend his time, but O.J. appears to value a friendship and he appreciates what Jerry Patton has done for him. "I'll tell you one thing about Jerry, he's a tackle who never lost a game for us," O.J. said. "He may not have always beat his man, but Jerry would never make you lose a game because of it. I was sorry to see him traded."
"Well, I've got to go around the world to throw this card, but at least it's safe."
"With all this traveling I've been doing, I'm looking forward to going to training camp. At camp they tell you where you're supposed to be at what time, what you can eat, what time you go to sleep and get up. You never have to worry about an airplane ticket or a hotel room, you just go where they point you. There's something comforting about it."
"Did you really say gin?"
"Looks like 63 points to me."
Then they met him at the airport: Patton, tall and burly and bearded; Reggie McKenzie, even taller, wearing a T shirt and shorts, looking like the absolute king of the mountain, a man you wouldn't mess with for $1,000 a minute; an old friend, Scrap Iron, wearing his pants pulled up high, a kind of weary and cool look in his eye; Patton's younger brother, also in a T shirt and shorts, and another fellow, quite dapper in a suit and a hat, driving a Lincoln Continental with a sliding sun roof.
"Yryowwwwwwwww!" cried Patton and McKenzie.
"Yryowwwwwwwww!" cried O.J.
They took O.J. to Delta State College, where he sat in a patio and answered questions and then was interviewed with McKenzie on a local television show.
"When I was drafted by Buffalo from the University of Michigan in 1972, I had already been to a Rose Bowl, and I lived with six guys, and we shined our own thing," McKenzie said. "So I didn't look at O.J. as any kind of superstar. I just had a job to do. But as time went on I realized what that man can do. If you hold your block a couple of seconds, he's gone."
O.J. said he never had played for a team that took a lot of drugs or regularly shot up injured players so they could play, but he said he never had played for San Diego, either. "My wife and I discussed the possibility of not playing this year," he said. "Financially we can do all right without it. But I want to play until Buffalo gets into the Super Bowl and then I want to step out on top, when it's my choice and not anybody else's."
After the interview O.J. decided he needed a pair of blue loafers. He was going to have dinner the next night in Detroit with Bills' Owner Wilson, and O.J. had only tennis shoes. He decided he would rather wear blue loafers to go with the dark blue suit, but he didn't want patent leather or stack heels. There is a shopping mall in Saginaw that has several shoe stores, and Patton took him there.
At once O.J. attracted crowds. Here were all these people who had no reason really to know O. J. Simpson was going to be walking through their shopping mall, but all of a sudden they poured around him wanting autographs, touches of flesh, just a look, an acknowledgment. They thrust at him menus, napkins, notepaper, receipts. He kept signing them: "O. J. Simpson, No. 31." A visitor had noted this oddity earlier when he happened to recognize in the portrait in Chuck Barnes' office that O.J. wears No. 32. "It's because when he was a kid he was so poor that he had a broken pen that he had to hold down by the tip to keep it together, and that's the way he learned to write, with his 2s looking like Is," Marilyn O'Brien had explained. Could this be true? "That's the story," said Marilyn. O.J. said he was writing 32, not 31.
A couple of young cops walked up to O.J., who was standing beside a planter box on a big aisle of the mall. The cops were white and had fairly long hair and mustaches. One seemed a bit embarrassed but the other told O.J. he would have to leave the mall because he was causing a public nuisance. He was drawing too big a crowd. "Man, I would think what you would want to have in a shopping mall is a crowd," O.J. said. Wrong, said the cop, you got to go.
"I got to find some soft blue loafers," O.J. said.
"He wants to go to the hotel and rest. he wants to get something to eat, he wants to buy shoes, all at the same time, that's the Juice," chuckled Patton. "You got to let him walk it off. Man, he'll do what's right."
O.J. went to Patton's folks' house. It is a couple of blocks off the freeway. They had prepared a little snack of 60 pounds of barbecued ribs that had been soaked in water and vinegar and then cooked over a low fire long enough for the meat to slide right off and leave the bone clean. Also macaroni and cheese, baked beans, turnip greens, corn bread. Served on tables set up in the garage and backyard. With neighbors dropping in. Not your common Hollywood ambience. Not your ordinary superstar eating it, either.
"Some of the brothers say that man don't need all he got," said one of the neighbors, looking at O.J. scooping greens into his mouth and biting meat off the ribs. "But I say, man, look how good he looks doing it."