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Soup Of This Day #95: Came Back Like A Slow Voice On A Wave Of Haze

November 5, 2011

Golden Globe Race Jan 19 1969 Estimated Positions
January 19, 1969 positions for competitors in the Sunday Times Golden Globe 1968/69 solo yachting circumnavigation of the globe – Image: Johantheghost, 2006. Johantheghost is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72

Keith Murdoch played for the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team from 1970 until 1972. At 6′ and 110kg he was a big lad, well-suited as a mobile prop. During his stint with the national team he played in 27 matches including 3 Tests. The last of these was his finest hour – He scored a try as the All Blacks beat Wales at Cardiff Arms Park. Later that night Murdoch, who had a reputation as a hard drinker, tried to gain entry to a pub that was closed and subsequently punched a security guard to the ground – This sort of behaviour was not uncommon in the rugby world – It wasn’t a professional sport at the time.

Still there was pressure from the British unions on All Blacks management to act and so they chose to send him home in disgrace. It was not a successful ploy insomuch as Keith Murdoch didn’t go home. Reputedly an intensely private man, he got off the plane in Singapore, hopped another flight to Australia and then disappeared. He has been sighted since, working and living across Australia’s isolated top end and in 2001 he made the news in connection to the death of a man at a mining site. He was subsequently cleared of involvement. When approached by the media, in most cases, he has firmly and politely declined the attention. In at least 1 instance he fled into surrounding bushland rather than talk to a camera crew. His only substantive interview had involved him declining to explain his actions:

‘Why should I? I don’t need to tell my story to anyone.’

With the recent Rugby World Cup held in New Zealand renewed attention was focused on the elusive former prop. But, as he has for nearly 40 years, he shunned the spotlight and remained silent.

Hideki Irabu took the opposite tack. He was born in Okinawa to a Japanese mother and an unknown American serviceman father. Perhaps this contributed to his future career choices for he was a very talented baseball pitcher, shining in the Japanese Pacific League. At 18 the San Diego Padres purchased his contract but Irabu refused to sign with them – He wanted to play for 1 team only, the Yankees, and he believed he was good enough that they would come calling. They did, offering him $12.8m in 1997 for 4 years. They clearly shared his self-belief because his arrival was much hyped – He received the key to the city and after only 8 appearances in the Minors was added to the starting rotation.

He wasn’t that good though.

It’s probably not fair to say that he was bad, more that he didn’t meet expectations. In 1997 he went 5 and 4 with an ERA of 7.09. 1998 was the highpoint of his Yankees tenure, he logged a 13 and 9 record with a personal best ERA of 4.09 as the pinstripers won the World Series. He did not pitch that post-season and a cursory glance at those aforementioned numbers sums him up as a squad contributor at best. He reinforced that conclusion in 1999 going 11 and 7 with an ERA of 4.84 as the Yankees won the World Series again. This coupled with a perceived poor attitude – He’d once declined to move to cover 1st base on a grounder in a spring training match-up, leading George Steinbrenner to describe him as a, ‘fat pus-sy toad’ – meant that the Yankees had seen enough. He was traded from his dream team to Montreal, where he posted a 2 and 7 record over 2 seasons and then Texas where he went 3 and 8 in 2002.

Cut from Texas Irabu returned to Japan, pitching with some success in the Central League. He retired after the 2004 season but hadn’t yet given up on his American dream. In 2009 he came out of retirement to pitch independent league in California. He went 5 and 3 with an ERA of 3.58 and his baseball life seemed to have found some stability. Like Keith Murdoch though his off-field life was unruly – Irabu had a drinking problem – In August of 2008 he admitted to a drunken assault in Japan and in May of 2010 he was arrested in California on a DUI charge. Later in July of 2011 he faced up to 1 last loss – His wife and children left him. Drunk and alone, perhaps haunted by broken dreams, he took his own life.

Donald Crowhurst might have sympathised had he been around at the time. The Englishman had his own sporting dream, 1 born out of desperation. Crowhurst was a weekend sailor and a small business owner, making radio navigational aids that didn’t quite take off in the market. With his business failing and in spite of his lack of blue water experience he decided to gain publicity by entering the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race – The 1st solo round-the-world yacht race. He built an experimental trimaran which he called Teignmouth Electron (His company was called Electron Utilisation Ltd). It had a system that Crowhurst had designed to prevent capsizing, featuring an ‘airbag’ at the top of the mast and an inventive ballast redistribution scheme that would right the boat in the event of it tipping over. He planned to promote his invention via a successful trip.

Despite a tendency to fall off his boat a determined Donald, parted from his wife and kids and set off after the rest of the fleet on the 31st of October 1968 from Teignmouth in Devon. It soon became apparent that he was dangerously out of his depth, with Crowhurst himself confiding in his logs that he had a 50/50 chance of surviving the trip. His boat was under-prepared and it required urgent safety upgrades. It’s sole operator also needed to obtain crucial sailing experience and all of this had to happen before an encounter with the mountainous seas of the southern oceans. At best, Crowhurst had a little more than a month.

Faced with a humiliating failure or an increasingly likely death, Donald found a way to try and avoid both. He chose to lie.

The course called for the 9 competitors to head south through the Atlantic, circumnavigating the lower latitudes before traipsing back up through the Atlantic to home. Crowhurst’s deception was simple – He ambled along off the coast of South America, filing false plots and generating vague position indicators. He would wait for the fleet to complete their southerly trials before picking up the tail-end as they headed home. He would finish last, a measure of some success that would mean his logs would not be overly scrutinised and he would avoid exposure as a fraud.

Which was fine except that the other boats began to drop out and soon Teignmouth Electron assumed a prime position in the eyes of the public. Now, despite cheating to finish last, Donald was on course to win.

This was a seemingly irredeemable position. To win, or even to come close, would surely mean that the failure would be outed. At this point Crowhurst’s log entries and other writings, including some poetry, demonstrated a breakdown of rational thought. On July 10th, 1969 Teigmouth Electron was found adrift and without it’s master. Donald Crowhurst had vanished and the best presumption is that he made a last log entry on July the 1st and then with a false logbook and the ship’s clock stepped overboard.


The trailer for Deep Water, a 2006 documentary on Donald Crowhurst’s journey.

It’s not correct to say that the stories of all 3 men are of an exact type. For 1 Keith Murdoch is alive and has indicated happiness at his lot. He chose to shun the glare of public life. Hideki Irabu chose to embrace it, opting to play for the 1 team where it was inescapable. Donald Crowhurst was somewhere in between – He welcomed the publicity at 1st but then found himself trapped by it. His attempts to escape that trap cost him his life. The 1 constant theme though is of dreams that didn’t meet the reality. For all 3 the ends of those dreams didn’t come in 1 stormy blow – Instead they were a series of reasonable reactions to events that spiraled out of control. That is what makes them so sad and compelling – That you can look at each story and, even with the cursory glance set down here, spot dozens of points at which each of the men could have turned for safe harbour.

For Irabu 1 of those points might have been his interaction with Steinbrenner. Certainly the combatative Yankees owner didn’t help with his widely reported ‘pus-sy toad’ comment. That was Steinbrenner though. Perhaps the best quote that can be fired back at George, who died in 2010, is from the Simpsons. In Homer at the Bat an animated Don Mattingly, who played for the Yankees at the time, was fired by Monty Burns for failing to trim his sideburns to Burn’s irrational specifications (He’d shaved the sides of his head completely by that point). As Mattingly walked away he remarked:

‘I still like him [Burns] better than Steinbrenner.’

After the episode was produced but before it could be aired the actual Mattingly was benched by Steinbrenner’s Yankees for refusing to trim his mullet hairstyle.

Came Back Like A Slow Voice On A Wave Of Haze

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