"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Book Review

Rod ‘N Reel

Here’s a good piece on a new book about Heminway:

From his father, who loved the natural world, Hemingway learned in childhood to fish and shoot, and a love of these things shaped his life along with a third thing, writing. Almost from the first there is his distinct voice. In his journal of a camping trip he took with a friend when he was sixteen years old, he wrote of trout fishing, “Great fun fighting them in the dark in the deep swift river.” His style was later said to have been influenced by Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, journalism, and the forced economy of transatlantic cables, but he had his own poetic gift and also the intense desire to give to the reader the full and true feeling of what happened, to make the reader feel it had happened to him. He pared things down. He left out all that could be readily understood or taken for granted and the rest he delivered with savage exactness. There is a nervy tension in his writing. The words seem to stand almost in defiance of one another. The powerful early stories that were made of simple declaratives seemed somehow to break through into a new language, a genuine American language that had so far been undiscovered, and with it was a distinct view of the world.

Unchained Melody

Pete Dexter’s first book report in 55 years appeared in the New York Times Book Review yesterday. It is about Jim Harrison’s latest novel, “The Great Leader”:

To enlighten and to entertain: what else is there? And while good books — even so-so books — serve both functions, if you ever have to choose one over the other, keep in mind that a book that entertains without enlightening can still be a guilty pleasure, but a book that enlightens without entertaining is algebra.

… I would mention that for me, Harrison set the hook deep and early, in a novella called “Revenge.”

There is a scene in that story of almost incomprehensible savagery — Harrison by the way is as good at writing violence as anybody, and particularly gets the weirdness of the incubation period — and he accomplished this particular violence by interrupting himself and manually moving readers to the fireplace mantel, where they could watch without getting hurt.

It was one of Harrison’s moments of instinctive genius, I think, perhaps the only way to bring off the scene without changing the mesmeric sound coming off the pages to something more ordinary, and I mean it as no disrespect to speculate that these moments are in some way out of Harrison’s hands, and very close to magic.

Bronx Banter Book Review: The ESPN Book

The much ballyhooed ESPN Book, “Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside the World of ESPN” has been out for two weeks, and to no surprise, landed atop the New York Times Bestseller list for nonfiction. The writers, James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, spent the better part of two years interviewing dozens of current and former ESPN employees. The access they received and the candor they elicited from their interview subjects was unprecedented. In doing so, Miller and Shales trace the company’s history from its roots as an idea by Bill Rasmussen and his son Scott, mentioned on a drive from Connecticut to the Jersey Shore in the summer of 1978, to the monolith it has become.

Miller and Shales, who also wrote the oral account of Saturday Night Live, have structured this tome in a similar fashion to the SNL retrospective. The interviews and the quotes drive the narrative. Any reporting and interjections outside the context of quoted material appears in italics and helps to establish the next batch of interviews. The reported inserts serve a similar purpose Steinbeck’s interclary chapters in “The Grapes of Wrath.” The only difference — beyond the obvious that “The Grapes of Wrath” is fiction and the ESPN Book is nonfiction — is that unlike the interclary chapters, which are third-person omniscient accounts of similar situations that foreshadow what will happen to the Joads, Miller and Shales’ reporting does not pull the reader away from their interview subjects and personalities framing the storyline. This style made for a quick read. I wore out the touch screen on my iPad (via the Kindle app), ripping through the book in four days.

The blogosphere naturally pounced on the salacious accounts in the book, specifically descriptions of co-workers having sex in stairwells and utility closets, the raucousness of the holiday parties, the history of sexual harassment, and incidents of lewd conduct involving Gary Miller (arrested for allegedly urinating on a police officer in Cleveland) and Dana Jacobson (drinking vodka straight from the bottle at the “Mike and Mike” roast and making fun of Notre Dame’s Touchdown Jesus). But the book, as an oral history, is about much more than that.

If you think you will read this book and get a repeat of “The Big Show,” or get behind the scenes of SportsCenter, you’ll be disappointed. Yes, there is plenty of time spent on Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick, what they did to elevate SportsCenter, and what the show has become since their respective departures. But this book is all about ESPN as a business venture, and how the people involved created a business model, a brand, cultivated a workplace culture, and framed how we as fans consume live sporting events and get our sports news. It’s about the leadership of Chet Simmons, then Roger Werner, then Steve Bornstein, George Bodenheimer, and the joint efforts of John Walsh, Mark Shapiro, and John Skipper.

The highlights are the details of the beginnings of the relationship when Getty Oil owned the company; how George Bodenheimer, the current CEO, rose to his position from being a driver when the company started. It was his idea of a dual revenue stream (cable companies paying them a share for subscriptions, plus advertising), that laid the foundation for the cash machine ESPN is today; the influence of Don Ohlmeyer, who has made more money from the company than any individual; and the inner workings of the last round of NFL negotiations, which brought Monday Night Football off of ABC and over to ESPN, and took the Sunday Night package to NBC. Charley Steiner, Bob Ley, Robin Roberts, George Grande, Gayle Gardner, Linda Cohn, John Saunders, and Jeremy Schaap all present themselves as the professionals they are. Chris Berman is, well, Chris Berman.

Among the lowlights are the rampant misspellings. Now, having contributed to, and co-edited books, I know this happens. I have a glaring typo in the first paragraph of my essay in the Baseball Prospectus 2007 annual that to this day kills me. Jim Miller even said on his appearance on Bill Simmons’ podcast last week that he was upset at the number of times he misspelled Jim Nantz’s name. (It appears about five or six times as “Nance”.) Beyond that, Stan Verrett, who anchors the late SportsCenter from LA, had his name misspelled. So did a few athletes, including former Denver Broncos defensive lineman Trevor Pryce. (It was spelled “Price”.) Also, not enough time was spent on ESPN.com’s effect on the Internet and how other sports websites do their daily bidding. Dozens of pages are devoted to ESPN Magazine—its creation, editorial philosophy, etc. ESPN.com’s little nook reveal that Steve Bornstein, who at the time was running the company, had one of the first-ever aol addresses, the purchases of Infoseek and Starwave helped build the infrastructure for the website, Bill Simmons hates being edited and Rick Reilly was not, in fact, traded for Dan Patrick. Too much time is spent on the Erin Andrews peephole incident, and nothing of the reaction she received when she went on Dancing with the Stars, wearing outfits that lead dudes to creep and peep in the first place. Too much time is also spent on Rush Limbaugh, and the three-man booth of Monday Night Football that involved Tony Kornheiser, Mike Tirico and first, Joe Theismann, then Ron Jaworski, and now Kornheiser’s replacement, Jon Gruden. Bottom line, with MNF the games sucked. At least they mentioned that trying to make chicken salad out of you-know-what was impossible given their schedule. Way too much time is spent on the ESPYs.

There are elements to the book for me that are personal. I interned on “Up Close” in 1999 when Gary Miller hosted the show, and my first job after graduating college was at ABC Sports as an assistant editor for their college football web operation. With those experiences etched in my brain, I had more than a passing interest in the book. It was odd to read direct quotes from people I know and worked with for a time in both instances. To learn that ESPN had planned to dissolve ABC Sports going back to the days when CapCities owned them both — as early as 1993 — was alarming. To learn that it was an inevitability following the Disney purchase, and as early as Super Bowl XXXIII, saddened me. I knew the plan and saw it happen beginning in the Summer of 2001. I saw industry veterans agonize over taking a buyout or fighting for their jobs. I saw my own boss decide which members of our eight-person team were going to stay and which were going to go in order to meet his headcount requirement. Had I known all this was in the offing when I interviewed for my job there, my entire career path may have been altered.

Similarly, the accounts from ABC folks, or ESPN people who were assigned to ABC, detailing how they were viewed as second-class citizens by the powers that be in Bristol stung a similar way. I remember in November 2001 interviewing for a beat position at ESPN.com. I had a feeling going into the interview that based on my experience at the time, I was a longshot, but I wanted the chance to interview with the editor-in-chief of ESPN.com — at the time, this was Neal Scarbrough, who ran ESPN the Magazine and has since had stops at AOL Sports, Wasserman Media and Comcast — and believed I had forged strong relationships with my Bristol-based colleagues to where I at least merited a look. As good as my interview was, and as much as I do believe they liked me, it wasn’t to be. Despite my being single at the time and willing to move to Bristol, I had the three letters attached to my resume that basically ruled me out. There were no other openings in Bristol, despite several months of inquiry. In February of ’02, I started at YES, where a host of other ABC refugees, including my former boss, landed.

Reading this book, I determined there is a wide subset of people who it is written for: ESPN employees and alumni, industry types, bloggers, media members, people interested in public relations and sports business, and sports video production. The diehard sports fan or casual viewer of ESPN likely will not care about 70 percent of the book’s content.

Keep that in mind if you’re thinking of spending $15 on it.

On the Shelf

Some of what I’ve been reading…

American Beauty

David L. Ulin revisits James M. Cain’s novel, “Mildred Pierce” in the L.A. Times:

Of all the classic noir writers, perhaps none has been as tarnished by the brush of genre as James M. Cain. That’s because Cain — born in Baltimore in 1892, a protégé of H.L. Mencken and, briefly, managing editor of The New Yorker — was not a great hard-boiled novelist but a great novelist period, whose vision of 1930s Southern California is as acute and resonant as anything ever written about that time and place.

…“I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim,” Cain once noted of his own writing, “or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort.”

A History of Violence

Check out this review of a tough but compelling-sounding memoir:

One Saturday night in the mid-’70s, I stood on the deck of a shabby duplex watching my teenage boyfriend — a character who could have walked out of the pages of Andre Dubus III’s powerful new memoir, “Townie” — beat another boy senseless in the parking lot below. Under the yellowish dusk-to-dawn lights, I could see my boyfriend’s blond sideburns, denim jacket and dingo boots, and I could see him punch the boy in the stomach until he crumpled to the ground, then kick him over and over until his nose and lips were split and bleeding. In “Townie,” which details Dubus’s 1970s coming-of-age in the poor mill towns of Massachusetts, there are none of the usual signifiers of today’s ’70s Nostalgia Industrial Complex, no peace-sign key chains or smiley-face T-shirts, none of the goofy stoners and ditsy girls in tube tops that American television viewers have become accustomed to on “That ’70s Show.” Instead, Dubus writes about “the apartments” where his older sister buys drugs, two rows of three-story buildings surrounded by packed dirt worn smooth, a Dumpster in back always filled with dirty diapers, used condoms and pizza boxes. He writes about an early manifestation of “Fight Club” culture at his school, where, whenever there is a fight, boys and girls rush to one spot “like they were being pulled there by the air itself. . . . Kids were yelling: ‘Kill him! Kill him!’ ”

It was his parents’ divorce that left Dubus fatherless and living in a world of violence and poverty. Dubus’s father (and namesake) was a well-known writer, famous among other things for his short story “The Winter Father,” about a man recently separated from his family. The most vivid image in the story is of the protagonist watching through his rearview mirror as his young son chases after him: “A small running shape in the dark, charging the car, picking up something and throwing it, missing, crying You bum You bum You bum.”

Click here for an excerpt from “Townie,” by Andre Dubus III.

[Photo Credit: Alan Guido]

Million Dollar Movie

Allen Barra on the new Bogie bio:

[Pauline] Kael put words to the image in her book Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1968) when she explained Bogart as “The man with a code (moral, aesthetic, chivalrous) in a corrupt society, he had, so to speak, inside knowledge of the nature of the enemy. He was a sophisticated urban version of The Westerner, who, classically, knew both sides of the law.”

He was, of course, faking it. As Stefan Kanfer makes clear in his new biography Tough Without A Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart, Bogart’s ancestors were more like characters in The Philadelphia Story than the ones in movies that Bogie himself would become famous in. “In the 150 year history of cinema,” as Kanfer puts it, “few performers have arrived with a more impressive resume of monetary privilege and social distinction.”

Million Dollar Movie

Over at NYRB, Larry McMurty reviews a trio of new books on Marilyn Monroe:

In film Marilyn’s talent shows most strongly in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, Some Like It Hot, Bus Stop, and The Misfits. The director Billy Wilder quarreled with her on Some Like It Hot—but Wilder was no dummy and had this to say about her: “I think she was the best light comedienne we have in films today, and anyone will tell you that the toughest of acting styles is light comedy.”

She was almost always photographed smiling, her lips slightly parted, her skin aglow with an aura all its own, and yet there was usually a curl of sadness in her smile: sadness that just managed to fight through; sadness that was always considerable and sometimes intense.

In a review of “Marilyn,” by Norman Mailer, Pauline Kael wrote:

Monroe used her lack of an actress’s skills to amuse the public. She had the wit or crassness or desperation to turn cheesecake into acting–and vice versa; she did what others had the “good taste” not to do, like Mailer, who puts in what other writers have been educated to leave out. She would bat her Bambi eyelashes, lick her messy suggestive open mouth, wiggle that pert and tempting bottom, and use her hushed voice to caress us with dizzying innuendos.

…Her mixture of wide-eyed wonder and cuddly drugged sexiness seemed to get to just about every male; she turned on even homosexual men. And women couldn’t take her seriously enough to be indignant; she was funny and impulsive in a way that made people feel protective. She was a little knocked out; her face looked as if, when nobody was paying attention to her, it would go utterly slack–as if she died between wolf calls.

She seemed to have become a camp siren out of confusion and ineptitude; her comedy was self-satire, and apologetic–conscious parody that had begun unconsciously…The mystique of Monroe–which accounts for the book Marilyn–is that she became spiritual as she fell apart. But as an actress she had no way of expressing what was deeper in her except moodiness and weakness. When she was “sensitive” she was drab.

Slouching Towards Fargo

The other day I mused offhandedly about how cool it would be to own a baseball team, and also how completely impossible. And that made me think of minor-league or independent-league team ownership, which is still kind of a possibility for mere mortals – and which, these days, has a lot more room for quirk. Given the choice between two clubs, as a general rule of thumb, you’re probably better off joining the one that doesn’t require Bud Selig’s approval.

Back in the fall I read Neal Karlen’s Slouching Towards Fargo, which is an affectionate portrait of the St. Paul Saints circa 1996 and 1997, an independent Northern League team owned in part by Bill Veeck’s son Mike (decades after his Disco Demolition Night debacle) that boasts a pig delivering baseballs to the mound, a nun in the stands  offering massages, appearances by part-owner Bill Murray, sumo-wrestling contests for opposing managers between innings, and much more. “Fun Is Good,” is the Saints’ motto, and it’s refreshing to watch a team that doesn’t take itself too seriously. (Bless the Yankees, but you know it would do them good to lighten up once in a while). Daryl Strawberry, who redeemed himself with the Saints shortly before joining the Yankees and salvaging his career, serves as something of a focal point in the book, representing the Saints’ function as a haven of second- and third-chances for baseball types and locals; there are also draft holdouts, washups, career minor leaguers and female pitcher Ila Borders. The Saints have room for just about everyone.

Author Neal Karlen also tries to tell the story of his own sort of redemption, as he was initially sent to Saint Paul by Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner to dig up mud and write a story eviscerating Bill Murray and Strawberry. But there’s little suspense or originality in the story of how he ultimately grows a conscience once away from the big city. This part of the book was less successful, for me – partly because Karlen’s writing (and, to be fair, editing – the book is very unevenly paced) is not up to the standards of his material, and partly because his view of cynical and immoral New York City media types vs. big-hearted Midwesterners struck me as overly pat. He frequently brings up petty grudges against other writers or media-world denizens, and he’s too on-the-nose when writing about how baseball and the Saints will heal us all; it’s a theme that would have benefited from subtlety. Still, Karlen does a good job of chronicling the fascinating collection of individuals who cluster around the Saints, a haven for nonconformists, and whatever his flaws as a writer, they don’t prevent the charm of the team itself from coming through loud and clear.

Searching for Bobby Fischer

Over at the Times, Janet Maslin reviews a new biography of Bobby Fischer by Frank Brady:

“Endgame” is a rapt, intimate book, greatly helped by its author’s long acquaintance with Fischer, who died in 2008, and his deep grounding in the world of chess. Mr. Brady was the founding editor of Chess Life, the official magazine of the United States Chess Federation, but his book is entirely accessible to readers who have never heard of that publication. Nor does “Endgame” require any prior knowledge of chess luminaries, chess strategies (no charts here) or chess tournament etiquette. It requires no expertise to appreciate a one-liner like the one the 19-year-old Fischer delivered after a visit to a brothel in Curaçao. “Chess is better,” Fischer said.

Mr. Brady, a biographer dangerously drawn to megalomania (he has also written books about Aristotle Onassis and Orson Welles), takes a demystifying approach to Fischer’s eccentricities. He sees the person behind the bluster, and he presents that person in a reasonably realistic light. Mr. Brady also makes use of unusually good source material, from Fischer’s own unpublished manuscript to 50 years’ worth of his own conversations with Fischer’s associates, mentors and relatives. Note the omission of the word “friends.” Fischer never had them.

Fischer was a genius as well as a madman. Do yourself a favor and check out Bill Nack’s terrific SI piece on his search for the reclusive Fischer: “To find him, to see him, had become a kind of crazy and delirious obsession, the kind of insanity that has hounded other men in search of, say, the Loch Ness monster.”

[Photo Credit: Times On-Line]

The Book of Basketball and Staggering Casual Sexism

I meant to write a post like this a solid year ago, but I kept putting it off. It’s not directly baseball-related, and it has a decently high likelihood of inspiring an exhausting reaction. But then Bill Simmons’ “Book of Basketball” came out in paperback, and he has been on a mini-tour to promote it, and started a mini-multimedia-feud with Charles Pierce (who returned fire and then some), and Alex started pestering me to do it, and so I will.

Photo from doulikeme.wordpress.com

I’ve mostly found Bill Simmons to be an entertaining, engaging writer. His persona gets too over-the-top frat-boy for me at times (choose your own adventure with that last link), but I used to enjoy his columns even if I rolled my eyes often – anyone who spends as much time as I do on sports blogs is inured to a certain amount of that, and usually, if it doesn’t seem malicious, I brush it off easily enough. You can’t fight every battle and it’s no fun trying. Anyway, I got a kick out of Simmons’ baseball columns even though I often disagree with him there (even aside from him being a Red Sox fan) — but when it comes to basketball, he really knows his stuff. So when I visited my publisher last winter I was pleased to pick up a copy of the then-new “Book of Basketball,” and even more pleased to see that it had pushed Mitch Albom’s latest pap out of first place on the New York Times bestseller list.

The first really clear sign of trouble was this sentence and footnote (talking about going to Vegas, of course):

“I needed permission from my pregnant wife, who was perpetually ornery from (a) carrying our second child during the hot weather months in California, and (b) being knocked up because I pulled the goalie on her back in February.(1)
(1)The term “pulling the goalie” means “eschewing birth control and letting the chips fall where they may.” Usually couples discuss pulling the goalie before it happens… unless it’s Bridgette Moynahan. In my case, I made the executive decision to speed up plans for kid number two. This did not go over well. I think I’m the first person who ever had a home pregnancy test whipped at them at 95 mph. In my defense, I’m getting old and wanted to have a second kid before I wouldn’t be able to have a catch with them anymore. I have no regrets. Plus, we had a son. In the words of Joel Goodson, sometimes you gotta say, “What the fuck?” (pages 30-31)

What the fuck is right. I assume this is a joke — at least, it’s clearly supposed to be funny, but man did it fall flat with me. “Ornery” does not begin to describe my reaction if my husband, who’d very soon be my ex-husband, made an “executive decision” to stop using birth control without telling me. (Also, what the hell were they using that he could do this without her knowing? A valid question, though not one I care to dwell on).

A lot of reviewers noted “The Book of Basketball’s” sexism at the time. Writing in a discussion at New York Magazine’s Vulture Blog, here’s Tommy Craggs:

I’m glad Jonathan [Lethem] brought up the sexism, because, well, it’s pretty astounding (this from a guy writing next to the stripper pole at Deadspin HQ). Let’s just pass over the story about the “mediocre Asian with fake cans” and head straight to this little pearl, provided by Simmons’s buddy Bug: “Every time I watch Jason Kidd play, initially it’s like seeing a girl walk into a bar who’s just drop-dead gorgeous, but then when he throws up one of those bricks, it’s like the gorgeous girl taking off her jacket and you see she has tiny mosquito bites for tits.” Yeesh.

His take was followed by Ben Mathis-Lilley’s:

First, some thoughts on the book’s horrible sexism. In my notes on TBOB, I actually stopped bothering to copy down the most egregious comments and figured I’d just note when Simmons mentioned a woman for any reason other than evaluating her appeal as something to put a penis in. I’m open to correction on this, but I believe it was when he praised Meryl Streep’s acting somewhere around page 500.

The annoying thing about Simmons’s sexism in this book is that it’s not only abhorrent—we probably all look up to writers and artists and Shawn Kemps who have personal attitudes we don’t agree with—it’s intrusively abhorrent. I’m not a Puritan. I don’t mind battle-of-the-sexes banter or bachelor-party anecdotes and I’m not, presently, wearing pants. But Simmons gets into weird, pathological territory. Here’s a selection from one of his columns that the book prompted me to look up:

I flew to San Fran to hang out with my buddies Bish, Mikey and Hopper (the heart of the original Vegas crew) for a few days. The weekend started off with Mikey showing us a then-legendary porn scene–one where Rocco Siffredi randomly decided to dunk a co-star’s head into a toilet–which we analyzed like it was the Zapruder film for a good two to 10 hours. Then we flew to Vegas and gambled for three straight days, and every time someone got killed by a blackjack hand we made a variation of a joke about someone getting their head rammed in the toilet by Rocco. Vegas is the place where you beat the same joke into the ground, but this went to another level–flushing sounds, gurgling, “No, no Rocco, not again!” and everything else. It just never got old.

Jeez, man. Jeez. I didn’t realize guys like this had friends; I assumed they were all rapey basement loners. We reviewers and commenters seem to be in agreement that it’s not cool—so who’s out there egging him on? Am I misjudging the sleaziness of the American male?

Both of those writers did a good job of laying out the hostile tone that surfaces in this book dozens of times, though I should point out that both of them went on to mostly enjoy it otherwise. And I can see why – it’s easy reading, outside of this issue, and as I said the guy knows his basketball; he did a lot of research, put a lot of thought in, and his love of the game shines through. Unfortunately, so does his utter contempt for women, and I just couldn’t ignore the mounting pile of passages like this:

“There are three great what-ifs in my life that don’t involve women. The first is, “What if I had gone west or south for college?” This haunts me and will continue to haunt me until the day I die. I could have chosen a warm-weather school with hundreds of gorgeous sorority girls, and instead I went to an Irish Catholic school on a Worcester hill with bone-chilling 20-degree winds, which allowed female students to hide behind heavy coats and butt-covering sweaters so thick it became impossible to guess their weight within a 35-pound range.” (page 157)

“…Phoenix swapped Kidd to New Jersey for Stephon Marbury a few months after Kidd was charged with domestic assault. (36)
(36) Anytime “he smacked his wife, let’s get him the hell out of here” is the only reason for dealing one of the best top-ten point guards ever, I’m sorry, that’s a shitty reason. By the way, this footnote was written by Ike Turner.” (page 236)

(Yes, I know it’s a joke. I think it’s possible to pull off a funny joke about domestic violence — as George Carlin used to say, you can find some sort of humor in any topic. This is not that joke.)

“I’m springing one of my favorite theories here: the Tipping Point Friend. Every group of female college friends goes between eight and twelve girls deep. Within that group, there might be three or four little cliques and backstabbing is through the roof, but the girls get along for the most part and make a big deal about hanging out, doing dinners, having special weekends and everything else. Maybe two of them get married early, then the other ones start dropping in their mid-20s until there’s only five left – the cute blonde who can’t get a boyfriend because she’s either a drunk, an anorexic, or a drunkorexic; the cute brunette who only attracts assholes; the 185-pounder who’d be cute if she lost weight; the not-so-cute one with a great sense of humor; and the sarcastic chain-smoker with 36DDs who isn’t quite cute enough to land anyone but hooks up a lot because of the 36DDs. In this scenario, the cute brunette is the Tipping Point Friend – as long as she’s in the group, guys will approach them in bars, clubs or wherever. Once she settles down with a non-asshole, now all the pressure is on the drunkorexic and if she can’t handle it, then the girl with 36DDs has to start wearing crazy shirts and blouses to show off her guns.” (page 258)

“I wish WNBA scores would be banned from all scrolling tickers on ABC and ESPN. I’m tired of subconsciously digesting tidbits like “Phoenix 52, Sacramento 44 F” and thinking, “Wait, that was the final score?” before realizing it was WNBA. Let’s just run their scores on NBA TV with pink lettering. And only between the hours of 2:00 a.m and 7:30 a.m.” (page 262)

I could have picked out and transcribed a dozen more examples, but life is short. Taken one at a time, any of these could be shrugged off, but each one piles on the previous instances until they have so much cumulative bulk that they can’t be ignored. I read a lot of books that are written by men and for a largely male audience — in fact that describes many of my favorite books. But this book goes further: it’s not just not coming from a male perspective, it seems to have been written without the slightest hint that any woman could ever conceivably read it. I don’t know what Simmons is like personally, but with this book the Sports Guy persona that he’s constructed for himself has become downright toxic.

Simmons does have a number of female fans, and hey, to each their own. I would have liked to know what the rest of his NBA Pyramid looked like, but not enough to wade through 400 more pages of this stuff. In light of the above passages, reading Melissa Jacobs’ well done but not exactly hard-hitting interview with Bill Simmons on espnW, I found this exchange interesting:

MJ: Moving on to the great world of fantasy football and your “Fantasy Fixes” column, which outraged a lot of women. Do you still think women shouldn’t be allowed to integrate into men’s leagues?

BS: I don’t think it should be a law. I just personally like to be in a league with all guys. I like hanging out with guys in certain situations and I think we should be allowed to do that without it being sexist. Sometimes I like just hanging out with my guy friends. My wife likes hanging out with her friends.

MJ: But you’re not against other dudes, who don’t have a history of being in a league with their buddies, having integrated leagues?

BS: (laughing) You say integrated like it’s the 1960’s. Brown versus the Board of Education or something.

MJ: (laughing) I know. It’s quasi intentional.

BS: If it was one of my friends and he was in a league with girls, would we make fun of him? Yeah. Whatever. I don’t care. For me, we like to sit around and make fun of each other and, if we had a girl in our group we hung out with all the time, it would make sense. But just to bring in a random girl doesn’t make sense.

So… no close female friends, then? Shocking.

I have to say that, after all this, I’m still glad “The Book of Basketball” got Mitch Albom out of 1st on the Times list. But the enemy of my enemy is not my friend here. I wish I could have read more of “The Book of Basketball” without getting pissed off and grossed out, but there was, if you will, a Tipping Point Sexist Paragraph effect at play in this book. After a certain number of them go by, you can no longer see it as casual or unintentional or thoughtless – it’s flat-out unattractive, and I will not be approaching it in bars or clubs.

The Fella With the Celebrated Swing

Jane Leavy’s Mickey Mantle biography, which I finished over the holiday weekend, is nothing if not meticulously fair. It features a staggering amount of reporting. Leavy talked to anyone and everyone alive with anything to say about The Mick, and includes all available sides of every story. (Sometimes this can be almost excessive – she expends quite a bit of time and effort, and nearly 20 pages, tracking down the then-teenager who found the ball Mantle hit out of Griffith Stadium in 1953, in an effort to find out just how far the home run had really traveled). The result is a careful and detailed character study that manages to describe all Mantle’s many glories without lionizing him, and all his many faults without demonizing him — no easy feat in either case.

Leavy (who was interviewed by our own Hank Waddles just a few weeks ago) grew up idolizing Mantle; I never got to see him play. I think my earliest real memory of him has to do with my father’s surprised reaction to Mantle’s openness and honesty about his alcoholism and stint at the Betty Ford Clinic in 1994. Leavy’s book details decades of Mantle’s uncontrolled debauchery and downward spiral, which dragged in teammates and friends and lovers and, most upsetting, his entire family. But it also does a good job of explaining why, despite all of that, he was still so beloved, not just by fans but by almost all of those same teammates and friends and lovers and family, no matter how severely he hurt them. She also digs up some new information about possible childhood sexual abuse that, while deeply uncomfortable to contemplate, could explain some of the facets of Mantle that hadn’t previously made much sense.

Fans and columnists today often decry modern players’ lack of privacy, but I can’t help wondering what effect that level of scrutiny might have had on the Mick. Maybe it would have ended his career – then again, maybe it would have saved him decades of suffering; maybe it would have saved his life. Mantle was publicly drunk and inappropriate quite literally hundreds if not thousands of times over his career; the Yankees did nothing more than scold and fine him and the papers never reported it. Today, the tabloids would feast on that kind of story, but at the same time I have to believe that the Yankees or Major League Baseball would’ve pressured him into getting help sooner.

Given all the Jeter-contract shenanigans over the holiday weekend, I couldn’t help drawing some comparisons between Yankee superstars — Mantle held out for better contracts from the Yankees multiple times, and was villainized by reporters and fans as greedy, though the parallels are hardly exact since Derek Jeter made more per base hit last season than Mantle ever got paid in a year. Mantle of course ended up a proud lifelong Yankee and, something I didn’t know, was buried in pinstripes (I still haven’t decided if that’s touching or unsettling; both I suppose). Jeter is as controlled and buttoned-down and sophisticated as Mantle was raw and out of control, although I suppose it’s quite possible that, as with Mantle’s fans back then, we simply don’t know him as well as we think we do.

On that note, I wanted to share one revealing  Jeter-related passage from the book that cracked  me up:

On a flawless spring training day in 2006, arms folded over a slight pinstriped paunch, Reggie Jackson turned away from tracking the flight of one hundred batting-practice hacks to consider the question of Mickey Mantle and white-skin privilege. Forty-five minutes into Jackson’s disquisition, Derek Jeter jogged over to find out what was holding Mr. October’s attention. “We’re just talking about how Mantle would have been remembered if he was black,” Jackson said.

Jeter, a post-racial hero who has perfected the art of public speaking without saying anything at all, executed the patented mid-air pirouette usually reserved for hard-hit balls in the hole and headed in the opposite direction.

Grand Master

The New Yorker’s recent compilation, The Only Game in Town: Sportswriting from the New Yorker, is a fine and handsome collection but it is does not contain a single piece by John Lardner, which begs the question: Is Lardner the most neglected great sports writer of all-time?

Sure, Jimmy Cannon is  overlooked these days and he was a legend during his time; Joe H. Palmer was on his way to a PHD in English Literature when he became a full-time chronicler of horse racing–which he did as well as anyone ever has–but he died young and his name is lost; and Lenny Shecter was a funny, irascible talent, the patron saint of cynicism and snarki, and he’s sadly known as just the “co-writer” of “Ball Four.” Shecter also died young.

Over at SI.com, I’ve got an appreciation of a new collection of Lardner’s best sportswriting:

John Lardner was painting a prose portrait of a legendary con man when he wrote: “On a small scale, Titanic Thompson is an American legend. I say on a small scale, because an overpowering majority of the public has never heard of him. That is the way Titanic likes it. He is a professional gambler. He has sometimes been called the gambler’s gambler.”

Lardner might well have been writing about himself, although calling him a writer’s writer is too limiting, not to mention entirely inadequate. In a career that spanned three decades, the ’30s through the ’50s, he wrote for The New Yorker about everything from movies and TV, to the invasions of Normandy and Iwo Jima. But it was as a sports columnist for Newsweek that Lardner left his deepest footprint, and he underscored it with long, brilliant pieces for magazines like True and Sport. His trademark, as Stan Isaacs, the former Newsday sports columnist recently pointed out, was a “droll touch — precise, detached.”

“Time has a way of dimming the memory and achievements of writers who wrote, essentially, for the moment, as writers writing for journals must do,” Ira Berkow, the longtime columnist of the New York Times, told me recently. “But the best shouldn’t be lost in the haze of history and John Lardner was a brilliant writer — which means, in my view, that he was insightful, irreverent, wry and a master of English prose.”

Al Silverman, who ran Sport magazine in the Sixties, edited Lardner’s once-a-month sports column in True for a year-and-a-half in the early ’50s. “We never did meet but talked over the phone about his piece every month,” said Silverman. “I don’t remember ever saying, ‘You made a little grammatical error here, John.’ Always it was me saying, ‘Another great one, John.’ And they all were wonderful.”

In the epilogue to a posthumous collection “The World of John Lardner” (1961), his friend Roger Kahn wrote, “Although most perceptive sports writers accepted him as matchless, sports writing was not the craft of John Lardner. Nor was it profile writing, nor column writing. After the painstaking business of reportage, his craft was purely writing: writing the English sentence, fusing sound and meaning, matching the precision of the word with the rhythm of the phrase. It is a pursuit which is unfailing demanding, and Lardner met it with unfailing mastery.”

Do yourself a favor and pick up the new Lardner collection. You won’t be sorry.

[Drawings by Walt Kelly]

Have You Heard About the Lonesome Loser?

“The Silent Season of a Hero,” a collection of Gay Talese’s sportswriting, got a rave review in the Times over the weekend. Gordon Marino writes:

Early on, Talese studied fiction with the strange intention of writing nonfiction, of elevating real life to literary life. Taking note of his way of setting up scenes, his oddly angled story lines and realistic dialogue, Tom Wolfe credited Talese with stirring a revolution in reporting that Wolfe christened the “new journalism.” This pronouncement was neither fiction nor hyperbole. Gay Talese’s outré method of framing and developing his “factual short stories” (as Rosenwald describes them) was as groundbreaking as it is still arresting. As this marvel of an anthology makes manifest, Talese transformed sportswriting into literature that is both serious and delightful.

Talese wasn’t the first writer to apply novelist techniques to non-fiction–WC Heinz and John Lardner had been doing it for years. In a recent interview for the Paris Review, Talese explained:

My first job was on the sports desk, but I didn’t want to write about sporting events. I wanted to write about people. I wrote about a losing boxer, a horse trainer, and the guy in the boxing ring who rang the bell between rounds. I was interested in fiction. I wanted to write like Fitzgerald. I collected his work—his short stories and journals. “Winter Dreams” is my favorite story of all time. The good nonfiction writers were writing about famous people, or topical people, or public people. No one was writing about unknown people. I knew I did not want to be on the front page. On the front page you’re stuck with the news. The news dominates you. I wanted to dominate the story. I wanted to pick subjects that were not the ordinary assignment editor’s idea of a story. My idea was to use some of the techniques of a fiction writer: scene setting, dialogue, and even interior monologue, if you knew your people well enough. I was writing short stories, and there were not many people on the Times who were doing that. Once, at an NYU baseball game, I overheard a conversation between a young couple who were having a lovers’ quarrel. I wrote the dialogue and I told the story of the game through what they were watching and what they were saying. At the St. Patrick’s Day parade, I wrote about the last person in the procession, a little guy who was carrying a tuba, and behind him came the sanitation trucks. I followed the parade from the vantage point of this tuba player.

…I could not contain myself within the twelve-hundred-word limit of daily journalism. Wherever I was, I thought that there were stories that other people weren’t telling. When I was going into professional athletes’ locker rooms, for instance, I would just listen to the chatter and look at the bodies of these men who had been in locker rooms with other men since they were little boys. There’d be other sports writers there, and they’d be asking the athletes questions about their performance in that night’s game, but I thought, No, there’s a different story here. These men are fascinating not as performers but in the way in which they mingle together. They’re freer with each other than homosexual men in a bathhouse. These other reporters didn’t even see the story, they just saw their job. Yet because it was a daily newspaper I was always being pulled away from these stories. I couldn’t do them at any real depth. That was really why I couldn’t do the job anymore.

At the same time, in the mid-sixties, Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin were having fun at the Herald Tribune. They were able to write what they wanted to write and I wished I had that kind of freedom. I was getting a lot of freedom by the standards of the Times, but not compared to them. I wanted more room and I wanted to go anywhere I wanted.

Talese wrote memorably about Floyd Patterson and his Esquire feature on Joe DiMaggio remains a classic.

Calmer Than You

An intriguing new book on Charlie Chan by Yunte Hang has received good reviews–from the L.A. Times and the New York Times and The New Yorker:

Chan’s Hollywood career was launched in 1926, with a film adaptation of “The House Without a Key,” starring the Japanese actor George Kuwa, after which Chan went on to appear in forty-six more movies; he was most memorably played, in the nineteen-thirties, by a Swede named Warner Oland. He also appeared in countless comic strips and, in the nineteen-seventies, in sixteen episodes of Hanna-Barbera’s “The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan,” which aired on CBS television on Saturday mornings and featured a dog named Chu Chu, Jodie Foster’s voice as one of Chan’s ten children, and the cri de coeur “Wham bam, we’re in a jam!”
Charlie Chan is also one of the most hated characters in American popular culture. In the nineteen-eighties and nineties, distinguished American writers, including Frank Chin and Gish Jen, argued for laying Chan to rest, a yellow Uncle Tom, best buried. In trenchant essays, Chin condemned the Warner Oland movies as “parables of racial order”; Jen called Chan “the original Asian whiz kid.” In 1993, the literary scholar Elaine Kim bid Chan good riddance—“Gone for good his yellowface asexual bulk, his fortune-cookie English”—in an anthology of contemporary Asian-American fiction titled “Charlie Chan Is Dead,” which is not to be confused with the beautiful and fantastically clever 1982 Wayne Wang film, “Chan Is Missing,” and in which traces of a man named Chan are all over the place, it’s just that no one can find him anymore.
“Role of dead man require very little acting,” as Charlie Chan liked to say. (Don’t ask me what that means. Aphorisms, like tiger in zoo, all roar, no claw.) In “Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History” (Norton; $26.95), Yunte Huang, who grew up in China, went to graduate school in the United States, taught at Harvard for a while, and now teaches American literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara, confesses, abashedly, to being a Chan fan: “Sometimes late at night, I turn on the TV and a Chinaman falls out. He is hilarious.” Most interesting.
(Jill Lepore, The New Yorker)

[Picture by Greg Kucera]

The Write Stuff

Roger Angell was the first baseball writer I can remember. Actually, it was the two Rogers–Angell and Kahn–whose books were in my father’s collection, and sometimes–I’m sure I’m not alone here–I confused them. But when it came time to actually reading them and not just noticing the jacket cover of their books, Angell was my guy. Years later, when I started this blog, Angell served as a role model. Not because I wanted to copy his style or his sensibility, but because he was an example of fan who wrote well and loved the game.

So long as I was authentic and wrote with dedication and sincerity, I knew I’d be okay. Angell came to mind recently when I read a blog post by the veteran sports writer, David Kindred:

Bill Simmons is America’s hottest sportswriter. Fortunately, at the same time I came up with an explanation that enabled me to continue calling myself a sportswriter. Bill Simmons has succeeded because he is not, has never been, and will never be a sportswriter. He’s a fan.

Lord knows, there’s nothing wrong with being a fan. I love sports fans. Without the painted-face people, I’d be writing ad copy for weedeaters. But I have I ever been a sports fan. A fan of reporting, yes. Of journalism. Of newspapers. A fan of reading and writing, you bet. I am a fan of sports, which is different from being a sports fan of the Simmons stripe.
The art and craft of competition fascinates me. Sports gives us, on a daily basis, ordinary people doing extraordinary things and extraordinary people doing unimagined things. I love it.

But I have never cared who wins. I am a disciple of the Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Dave Anderson, whose gospel is: “I root for the column.” We don’t care what happens as long as there’s a story.

My readings of Simmons now suggest he is past caring only about the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and Patriots winning (though if they all won championships in the same year, the book would be an Everest of Will Durant proportions). He now engages, however timidly, in actual reporting of actual events; he even has allowed that interviewing people might give him insights otherwise unavailable on his flat-screen TV. Clearly, though, he is most comfortable in his persona as just a guy talking sports with other guys between commercials – which is fine if, unlike me, you go for that guys-being-guys/beer-and-wings nonsense and have infinite patience for The Sports Guy’s bloviation, blather, and balderdash.

Even though Bill James has written almost exclusively about baseball, for traditional newspaper and magazine guys, I doubt that he’d qualify as a sports writer. Not without reporting, or going into the locker rooms. Then where does that leave guys like Joe Sheehan, Tim Marchman, Jonah Keri and Rob Neyer (to name, just a few)? They aren’t fans like Simmons, but they write soley about sports.

The definition of what it is to be a sports writer is changing.

I have done some freelance writing for SI.com, gone into the locker rooms and filed stories. I’ve also worked on longer bonus pieces too. I enjoyed both experiences because it gave me an appreciation for the rigors of journalism. I also came to realize that being a beat writer, for instance, is not a job for me–I’m too old and I don’t have that kind of hustle and I don’t care enough about where being a good beat writer would take me.

Nobody grows up dreaming of beinga  columnist anymore do they? I suspect they dream of growing up and writing, or blogging, so that they can be on TV.

Here at the Banter, I’m more like Simmons or Angell. I’m not a reporter or a columnist or an analyst, and I’m certainly no expert (I’m lucky to have a sharp mind like Cliff writing analytical pieces in this space). I think of myself as an observer. More than a strict seamhead, I write about what it is like to live in New York City and root for the Yankees. Often, I’m just as interested in writing about my subway ride home or the latest Jeff Bridges movie as I am about who the Yankees left fielder will be next year. Which makes the Banter more of a lifestyle blog than just a Yankee site, for better or worse.

So I’m no sports writer and that’s cool but I’m not sure what a sports writer is anymore.

…Oh, and along with Kindred, the inimitable Charlie Pierce has started a blog at Boston.com. Pierce is a welcome addition to the landscape. Be sure to check him out.

Deeper into Baseball Books

My favorite part about asking people for their list of ten essential baseball books was not learning that "Ball Four" or "Glory of Their Times" are so popular. We already knew that. What really turned me on were the titles I had never of like Man on Spikes, or the ones that I knew precious little about like The Celebrant and The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book. I was over at Jay Jaffe’s new crib in Brooklyn last Friday and he showed me his copy of the card book which looks like terrific fun.  Dig this:


"Earl Torgeson’s two favorite activities were fist-fighting and breaking his shoulder, both of which he did whenever he got the chance. On the back of this card it says, "Torgy likes a good practical joke" – which is the biog writer’s subtle way of suggesting that he enjoyed knocking people’s teeth out. He is probably also the only left-handed hitting first baseman over 6’2" who ever stole 20 bases in one season."

 Brendan C Boyd and Fred C. Harris.



Essential Baseball Books: The Ballots (Part II)

 More voting…(S-W)


Essential Baseball Books: The Ballots


 Here’s the voting, in alphabetical order: A-R (S-Z to follow)


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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver