Sorry I’m late in sharing this story about Arnold Hano.
[Photo Credit: Scott Smeltzer]
My neighbor across the road, also a young literary hopeful, felt the same. We talked about every paragraph of “Fat City” one by one and over and over, the way couples sometimes reminisce about each moment of their falling in love.
And like most youngsters in the throes, I assumed I was among the very few humans who’d ever felt this way. In the next few years, studying at the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City, I was astonished every time I met a young writer who could quote esctatically line after line of dialogue from the down-and-out souls of “Fat City,” the men and women seeking love, a bit of comfort, even glory — but never forgiveness — in the heat and dust of central California. Admirers were everywhere.
My friend across the road saw Gardner in a drugstore in California once, recognized him from his jacket photo. He was looking at a boxing magazine. “Are you Leonard Gardner?” my friend asked. “You must be a writer,” Gardner said, and went back to the magazine. I made him tell the story a thousand times.
For more on Gardner, check out this appreciation by our old pal George Kimball.
Father’s Day is fast-approaching. Scanning the shelves for the latest baseball books, here are some thoughts:
“Damn Yankees.” ‘Nuff said.
“Wherever I Wind Up,” R.A. Dickey’s memoir, written with Wayne Coffey.
Also, check out Paul Dickson’s formidable-looking biography of Bill Veeck: “Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick.”
There’s Marty Apel’s history of the Yankees:
Also, Rob Miech has a book about the rookie stud Bryce Harper: “The Last Natural.”
Yeah, the kid can play.
I have been in New York for 18 years. Every time I have gone to Yankee Stadium with my two sons and my daughter, I am somehow brought back to my boyhood. Perhaps it is because baseball is so very different from anything I grew up with.
The subway journey out. The hustlers, the bustlers, the bored cops. The jostle at the turnstiles. Up the ramps. Through the shadows. The huge swell of diamond green. The crackle. The billboards. The slight air of the unreal. The guilt when standing for another nation’s national anthem. The hot dogs. The bad beer. The catcalls. Siddown. Shaddup. Fuhgeddaboudit.
Learning baseball is learning to love what is left behind also. The world drifts away for a few hours. We can rediscover what it means to be lost. The world is full, once again, of surprise. We go back to who we were.
I slipped into America via baseball. The language intrigued me. The squeeze plays, the fungoes, the bean balls, the curveballs, the steals. The showboating. The pageantry. The lyrical cursing that unfolded across the bleachers.
[Photo Credit: N.Y. Daily News]
My first reaction when a copy of Paul Dickson’s new biography, “Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick,” lands in my lap is to be curious if justice has been done to him, before turning a single page. I touch base with Mike Veeck, the great man’s son http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-ca-bill-veeck-20120401,0,4034572.story(a man of a few radical and wonderfully ridiculous notions of his own), to inquire if the descendants approve. “We’ve read it and enjoyed the easy flow and the research,” Mike replies. “Mr. Dickson has won me over with his gentle prose.”
Nice first pitch. So into the bio I go, wondering if there’s a chance in heck that this can be a proper bookend to one of the best of all sports books, “Veeck as in Wreck,” the long-ago collaboration of Ed Linn with his subject that established Veeck as a man who held nothing back, denigrating his own contemporaries in such a way that owners such as Gene Autry and Charles O. Finley were appalled by him.
The proof of goodness is usually in the details, so it becomes clear right off the bat that Dickson has written an authoritative work. It does take on a bit of a term-paper feel in part, since Dickson did need to rely heavily on anecdotes of old, Veeck being deceased for 26 years and therefore unavailable for beery, cheery late-night chats. But the stories are well documented and well told, so Veeck, like his kin, likely would approve.
Also reviewed in the Times yesterday was “At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing.” I’ve been touting the book all spring. It was edited by two veteran writers I’m fortunate to call friends: George Kimball and John Schulian. I was thrilled that it received nothing short of a rave from Gordon Marino:
More than any other sport, even baseball or golf, boxing calls forth the muse in writers. It’s no surprise. Where there is risk there is drama, and boxers put more at risk than other athletes. In a single evening, they roll the dice with their health, marketability and sense of identity. When you have a bad night in the ring, you can’t make it up in a double header on Sunday, or on another football field in a week’s time. And after the very last bell, there is seldom a diploma to fall back on, and there sure won’t be any pension checks coming in the mail.
It’s a very hard game — maybe even crazy — but as the affection-filled writers who have attached themselves to these warriors know, the masters of the ring possess a unique nobility. That nobility is perfectly framed in this remarkable volume from the Library of America. The essays here capture every angle of this world, both solemn and comic.
…I would bemoan only one omission, namely, the wise, lustrous pages of F. X. Toole’s introduction to his short-story collection, “Rope Burns.” Though “At the Fights” weighs in at 500-plus pages, it doesn’t contain a single flabby contribution. Over and over again, writers and readers have sought to get behind the eyes of a fighter, to fathom the fighter’s heart. This is as close as you can get without catching a hook to the head.
It’s my favorite book that’s come out this year. Perfect for Father’s Day or any other day you want to be graced by a collection of great writing.
[Cartoon by George Price]
Dig it…(There is no direct hyperlink to the interview, just go to May, 2011 and you’ll find it there.)
George Kimball and Thomas Hauser headline this week’s Varsity Letters speaking series, brought to you by the good people at Gelf Magazine. If you are around on Thursday night, do yourself a favor and fall through, you are sure to be entertained and learn a thing or three. I’ll be there for sure.
Here is a recent interview with Kimball discussing “At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing”:
Arts Fuse: A. J. Liebling is generally considered by critics to be the best American writer on boxing. If he is at the top, who are the runners-up and why?
Kimball: Not Mailer and not Hemingway, although they’d probably think they were. Just off the top of my head, the worthy contenders would include Budd Schulberg and W.C. Heinz for certain, but also Mark Kram and Pat Putnam from SI, Ralph Wiley, all of whom really understood the sport in addition to being wonderful writers.
AF: There are some really rare finds here — for example, pieces by Richard Wright and Sherwood Anderson on Joe Louis. How difficult was the research for the anthology? What are some of your favorite pieces?
Kimball: I wouldn’t describe the research as “difficult,” because it was such a pleasure. We probably read a half-dozen really good pieces for every one that wound up in the anthology. We read some pretty awful ones, too, mostly when we’d been touted by someone who should have known better.
…I’ve been asked that question by several people over the past couple of months and usually manage to duck it by saying “Which of your children is your favorite?” But I will say that John Lardner’s masterpiece on Stanley Ketchel, “Down Great Purple Valleys,” is sort of the cornerstone of the whole book. With all the other changes we went through in compiling At the Fights, that was the one, indispensable story if only because it so exemplified what we wanted to do with the rest of the book –- and that was setting the bar pretty high.
Man, Ralph Wiley is overlooked these days, isn’t he? And since George mentioned “Down Great Purple Valleys,” here again, is one of the greatest openings in the history of American journalism:
“Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.”
Eliot Asinof is most famous for writing “Eight Men Out.” (He is less famous for once being married to Marlon Brando’s sister.) Asinof played minor league ball in the Phillies system for three years before World War II. His first book, a novel about a minor league lifer, “Man on Spikes” was published in 1955 and to my mind is one of the best baseball novels. It is a hard, gripping portrait of baseball under the reserve system (none other than Marvin Miller wrote the foreword for the most recent edition of the book). The prose is plain and clear, the details are vivid and Asinof displayed considerable skill as a dramatist.
If you’ve never read it, pick up a copy when you can. It’s well worth it. Here is an excerpt, from a chapter about an old ballplayer named Herman Cruller:
And now, before the umpire hollered “Play ball!” for the last time that season, Herman felt deflated. He could not look forward to the tension and excitement of the game. The crowd was there, sweltering even in the shade of the stands behind him, pressing the players with their boisterous presence. Even the bleachers, where the Negroes sat blistering under the naked sun, were full and demanding. They were all there, defying the heat, for this was “the big one,” the game that decided and ended a season of games.
Herman looked up into the stands and watched people fanning themselves with their programs, their throats already parched from rasping calls but soon to be lubricated by long draughts of cold beer. For years he had listened to their routine, opinionated braying during the practice hours, the little pieces of stupidity from the big blaring voices. Sullenly, he watched them hollering their pre-game nonsense: “Lefty Moss stinks. He couldn’t even strike out my Aunt Mabel, and she’s ninety-one!” “I’ll bet ya a ten-spot he goes the route, horseface; I’ll bet ya another ten-spot he wins it too!” “Aah, hell. Gowann.” Thinking with their brains in their asses like a bunch of children betting their hard-earned money as if they knew what they were talking about. For all the years he had played professional baseball, for as far back as he could remember, he hated the loud ones in the crowds who had watched him those thousands of innings. He hated them for their fickleness, their blaring derision, their hooting and squawking, the sadistic way they kicked at the guy who was down. He hated the phony effort at what they called sportsmanship, the brief moment of applause that supposedly justified the hours of razzing they had really come to revel in. It was as if the ballplayers were not playing a game they could watch and enjoy, but were caricatures representing objects of love and hate, were either heroes or villains. And if they had love for a player, still they were quick to jeer at him when he booted one or fanned with a crucial run on base. They seldom considered the player a human being, capable of error as well as competence. Their money was their admission to the arena, and it gave them rights unlimited. For half a buck they could scream and jeer and sound off with their cruddy opinions as if they were speaking gospel. When they felt like it, they unleashed their venom against a ballplayer who displeased them until their scorn itself was part of their picture of him. He was a bum in their eyes, and he had to battle against them with as great a power as he did against the legitimate opposition on the field. When the crowd was down on a kid, the odds were you could count him out, for he was hitting with a pair of strikes against him and the rattling of catcalls in his ears.
He had seen the whims of a crowd make a goat out of more than one good ballplayer and then ride him right out of the league.
But it was the crowd who paid him for his stinking forty bucks a week, fair weather and foul. If he forgot, the management was right there to remind him. Baseball was a big game, and all kinds of people came to watch it for all kinds of reasons. He was paid to play for them all.
But the afternoon was hot and he was tired, and the game was a chore. It wasn’t in him to please this crowd.
You’re bitter, Herm, he told himself finally. You’re bitter and beat by the heat. You’re old and tired and near the end of the stinking line in this game, and you’re taking it out on a bunch of people no different from yourself. Give yourself another year or two and you’ll be paying your dough to sit up there and guzzle beer with the rest of them.
[Photo Credit: Old Film]
Kevin Cook is going to be at the Corner Bookstore on the Upper East Side (93rd Street and Madison Ave) tonight at 6 p.m. talking about his new book:
I’m not going to be able to make it but I have the book and am about 50 pages in and recommend it highly. Cook is an engaging and lively writer and this trim book makes for a great holiday gift, no doubt.
Peep, don’t sleep.
Babe Ruth was clearly the best player in Yankees history, Yogi Berra earned the most World Series rings, and Joe DiMaggio was, well, Joe DiMaggio, but somehow Mickey Mantle still stands apart. He came of age along with millions of baby boomers who curled the brims of their hats to match Mantle’s, imitated his swing, and even limped like he did.
Quite simply, he was the Mick. Jane Leavy explores the man and the legend in her recent book, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood. Ms. Leavy was generous enough to talk with me about her book and a few other topics.
Bronx Banter: Behind every good baseball book, you can usually find an author who grew up loving the game, who grew up playing catch with his father…
Jane Leavy: Ah, ah, ah… Watch that “his,” watch that “his,” Hank!
BB: But I think that’s what I want to get at, the fact that typically most of these writers are men who were boys growing up wanting to be baseball players and then settled for being writers. I was just wondering how much of that was true of you as a child?
JL: Well, I don’t think past the age of probably five I really thought there was much prayer I was going to be a baseball player. I think the inheritance of a passion for a game, whether it’s baseball, since baseball claims a supremacy in that, though certainly I know people whose devotion to the New York Football Giants or the Jets or even, God help us, the Redskins, is handed down along with the season tickets the same way. But baseball certainly has a claim on that matter of inheritance, and yes, I inherited my love of the game from my dad. I don’t think I had any illusion that I was going to be out there on the field with the guys, and that was pretty sad. I could dream, but that’s different. And I do think that that makes a big difference in the way that women write about sports. I’ve often said, and I really do believe this, reporters are supposed to be outsiders. There’s always been a little bit of a competitive thing going on when the guys who wish they could’ve been the second baseman for the New York Yankees are trying, almost, in their question to prove to the interview subject that they know as much and they could’ve been out there with them and the whole nine yards. I don’t think any woman is going to go into a locker room with that same notion. Reporters are supposed to be outsiders, that’s what we are. When you’re a woman in a locker room, that’s what you are. You’re an outsider.
BB: It reminds me of something that I heard Suzyn Waldman once talk about. She said that when a player is traded, a male reporter will immediately think about how it impacts a team, whereas she would always realize that behind that player there’s a family that’s being uprooted, and she felt like her female perspective allowed her to see more of a situation than just what was going on on the surface. It seems like you’re kind of saying the same type of thing, I suppose.
JL: Well, I don’t think you can make the acute generalization that every male reporter is gonna not wonder about how somebody’s nursery school age kids are gonna feel, or how every baseball wife is going to deal with yet another relocation. Not every guy is an insensitive boob, and not every woman is an empathic shoulder to cry on. As a reporter, it’s partly determined not just by personality, but by assignment. If you’re just out there to write the game, whether you’re male or female, it doesn’t matter. For a while, once in a while I would trade bylines with a male friend just to see if anybody noticed. I think I wrote this actually once. When I first started sports writing, the gig was can you write so that nobody could tell you were a girl. You had to prove that it was an okay thing to be. I do believe, and this is what I was saying, there are advantages, though it’s certainly a double-edged sword, particularly early on – but there are advantages to being a woman in a locker room. There are things that guys tell women that are different than what they tell other guys. And there are questions that women may ask that are different than what a guy may first ask. I always use this example. I’ve heard countless numbers of men say to a player, “Well, that slider didn’t do much, did it?” The question presumes that they know exactly what the pitch was. Well, maybe they don’t. Half the time the hitters don’t. But a woman, certainly this woman, would presume nothing. I would say, “What was the pitch? Do you know what that pitch was? And where was it? Where did it go? What was it supposed to do?” That’s what I meant about the competitiveness. I didn’t feel the need to show my bona fides in that way.
“John grew up in the shadow of a father who was a great writer,” said A. J. Liebling. “This is a handicap shared by only an infinitesimal portion of any given generation, but it did not intimidate him.”
When John Lardner was ten-years old, he wrote a short verse that appeared in a F.P.A column:
Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey,
Both sultans of the swat.
One hits where other people are,
The other where they’re not.
John Lardner was born in Chicago but raised mostly on the east coast. He went to the Phillips Academy in Andover (his three brothers would follow), spent a year at Harvard and another at the Sorbonne, before he returned to New York and got a job at the New York Herald Tribune in 1931. He was nineteen-years-old. His father, Ring, who was already ill with the tuberculosis and heart diesee that would kill him a few years later, sent a note to Stanley Walker, a Texan who’d made the Tribune into the best writer’s paper in New York.
“You will find him a little reticent at times, but personally I never felt this was a handicap.” Walker later said that John “came close to being the perfect all-around journalist.”
John worked at the Tribune until 1933, the year his father died. The two men were close in Ring’s final years and the old man was proud of his son’s early achievements. “We are all swollen up like my ankles,” Ring wrote in a letter to his nephew, Richard Tobin. John was offered a syndicated sports column when he was twenty-one for the North American Newspaper Alliance. Carried locally by the N.Y. Post, Lardner wrote about sports, and then the war, for NANA until 1948.
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.
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]
Three cheers to Jim Bouton, whose classic book, Ball Four, turns 40 (Jay Jaffe had a great post to mark the event over at the Pinstriped Bible last week).
When asked how the title “Ball Four” came into being, Bouton explained Saturday how he and editor Leonard Shecter were at the Lion’s Head Tavern in New York, the famous literary bar near Columbia University, having just turned in the finished product into the publisher:
“We went to have a drink to celebrate this piece of cardboard we had just turned in, and we’re thinking, ‘Now what are we going to call the damn thing?’
“We were talking about the need to have a downbeat title. This isn’t a story about how somebody just won the World Series. It’s about struggling, about difficulty. What’s the toughest thing for a pitcher — a knuckleball pitcher in particular — it’s to get the damn ball over the plate. It’s walking guys ….
“So we’re talking about all this, and there was a lady sitting at the bar. She was very drunk. And she was listening to our conversation. And at some point, she leans over and says, ‘Whyyyyy don’t you caaaaall it Baaaaallllll Foooouuuuurrrrrrr?’
“And we said, ‘nawwwww.’
“Finally we couldn’t come up with anything. And I was walking Shecter back to his hotel before I went home to New Jersey, and then Shecter says, ‘You know, Ball Four isn’t a bad title.’ So we owe it all to this woman at the bar.”
The Best American Sports Writing turns 20 this year. Peter Gammons is the guest editor and the book will be available in a few weeks. As always, it’s a must-read for anyone who cares about good writing.
To celebrate, here’s an excerpt from the forward by series editor Glenn Stout (I’ll have a Q&A with Glenn up shortly).
Twenty years ago, in the foreword to the inaugural edition of this book, I repeated an anecdote I heard Tim Horgan, long time sports columnist for The Boston Herald, tell at his retirement dinner. He said that when he was approached by aspiring students of sportswriting he always asked why he or she wanted to write about sports for a living. Invariably the students would respond to Horgan by saying, “Because I love sports.”
“Wrong,” Horgan would admonish. “You have to love the writing.”
I have never forgotten those words. They are the reason, as I explained in that first edition, why this book is called The Best American Sports Writing, two words, and not The Best American Sportswriting, the compound word, which would be a different collection entirely. First and foremost this is and has always been a book for those who love writing. That the writing is about sports is, of course, not insignificant, but my goal has always been to seek out stories that are so well written that the subject matter hardly matters, stories readers will enjoy, not simply because of the topic, but, just as a non-athlete can enjoy the artistry of an athlete, because of the artistry displayed by the writer,
A great deal has changed since I began the work of this book twenty years ago, both for me personally and in the field of sports writing. When I began serving this book as series editor, I had just turned thirty years old and lived in an apartment in Boston’s South End and freelanced while working as a librarian at the Boston Public Library. Over the ensuing twenty years BASW world headquarters have moved, first to a house in the suburbs and now to Vermont, hidden in the fields and woods alongside Lake Champlain near the Canadian border. I have married, buried both my parents and watched my daughter grow up amid the clutter of this book for each of her fourteen years. Eighteen years ago I quit my job and have been a full time writer ever since. I rehabbed an old rotator cuff tear, started playing baseball again, pitched in over-30 baseball leagues for ten years, and retired once more. I have coached girls softball and Little League, learned to ski and snorkel and kayak and skate, make my own beer, maple syrup and applesauce, given dozens of talks, visited scores of schools, written hundreds of columns and features, over forty juvenile books, a full dozen adult titles and edited several other anthologies. I’ve made some friends I’ll have for the rest of my life, and lost track of some because, quite frankly, the curse that every writer lives with is that every hour and minute we spend doing what we love are also hours and minutes we spend away from those who we care about. I easily spend six or eight hours almost every day writing (I usually have to ask my daughter, to her amusement, what day of the week it is), and hours more each day reading, usually for this book, sometimes while sitting on an exercise bike, or on the porch, or at the kitchen table eating, or in my chair watching a ballgame. The work of this book never ends, but has surrounded me for so long I sometimes barely notice.
In an earlier edition of the book I told the story about how I came to be selected to serve as Series Editor, something for which I am forever grateful and still a bit mystified, because, to be honest, I did not know how to do this when I started. I cannot imagine that anyone would know how to do this, really. Like the act of writing, this is a “learn by doing” experience.
My first editor, undoubtedly trying to impress me with the magnitude of my task, told me that the series editor for another Best American title kept file cards of publications and dutifully checked them off each time they arrived, notated the cards in regard to their contents, and that I should do the same. I bought a big box of file cards and dutifully began creating a similar card file system.
Then I looked at the pile of material waiting to be read and decided that anything that got in the way of reading should probably be ignored, and tossed the cards. I have kept things simple and never used any kind of grading or ranking system for the stories I read over beyond this: stories I want to read again go in one pile. Stories I don’t go into another, and when that much larger pile topples over, those stories either get recycled or go into my woodstove. As the deadline approaches I keep going over the “read again” pile until it gets small enough to send to the guest editor.
Of course, any changes in my life pale when compared with the changes that have taken place in writing and journalism. Twenty years ago – before anyone had ever called me “sir” – I had just made the transition from writing features and other freelance assignments in long-hand and then going into work early to type them out on an electric typewriter. I was beginning to work on a Magnavox Videowriter, a first generation word processor that, to a non-typist like myself (I use my thumb and two fingers on each hand and type at the speed of my mind, which is not very fast) seemed absolutely magical. When I was selected to edit this annual collection it came with the caveat that I had to buy a computer. It cost most of my advance and now my wristwatch probably contains more computing power.
Writers for newspapers and magazines were making – or had just made – a similar transition to computers, and there was, of course, no such thing as the online world which has changed almost everything everywhere, but few places more so than the commercial worlds of newspaper, magazine and book publishing. There is no point to hash over the obvious here, but anyone involved in any of these businesses knows that everything has changed, and in the last few years of economic recession, not for the better. There are, unquestionably, fewer print outlets for writing than there were twenty years ago, and space in those that remain has become more precious. The online universe, which did not even exist, now offers outlets to everyone, ranging from purely commercial platforms, to the virtually non commercial world of the blog. This is both a bad thing, because the best writing is generally done by professionals, and a good thing, because the best writing is not always done by professionals. Quality, not bylines, matter.
It has never been easy to earn a living as a writer, and it is particularly difficult now, but it probably never been easier to write. Resources are instantly accessible. In an hour I can research what used to take me weeks to do. But those same resources are now also at the fingertips of the reader, who does not always want or even appreciate the care and talent it takes to turn raw facts into fine writing.
In these pages we argue otherwise, because the only thing that has not changed over the last twenty years is the most important thing of all – the quality of the writing. I am amused that every three or four years some magazine (or, now, website) sees fit to run a story that bemoans the “death of sportswriting,” or some similar, “get off of my lawn” nonsense, and then sends it to me for consideration in next years’ edition.
Although I agree that a great deal has died over the last two decades, and perhaps a small portion of that compound word “sportswriting” has reached an end, I am something of a historian of both genres and believe that rumors of the demise of either are highly exaggerated. While I have yet to meet the writer who has become better at his or her craft by going on television or the radio, there always have been and continue to be great writers who value the written word above all others. But the notion of some kind of “Golden Age” of either sportswriting or sports writing is simply the kind of selective nostalgia that still prefers Mom’s meatloaf to any other.
From my chair sports writing seems to be doing quite well. The reason, of course, is the writer. Despite the conveyor belt of change, both in technology and the marketplace, that has been rocketing past, the writers who have appeared in this book and who I read each year have neither cowered in fear before the word and nor been frozen into silence.
Quite the opposite. Many of us who retain faith in the page probably write more and better than before. It’s in the blood, and despite all the logical arguments that can be made against pursuing writing of any kind as an avocation, at the end of each year I end up with a box of about two hundred stories that I want to read again, stories that I worry over as the pile gets smaller and the decisions more difficult, just as I did twenty years ago. At the end of the process, I still seem to find seventy stories or so that I feel are worthy of being sent to the guest editor. Unless they have collectively chosen to lie, each has had a difficult time selecting the twenty to twenty five stories that eventually appear in this book, not because they can’t find enough stories, but because they have a hard time paring the number of stories down to a manageable size.
Now I am the one who regularly gets phone calls or letters or emails from aspiring writers who call me “sir” and approach me in much the same way they approached Tim Horgan. I tell them the same thing he did; you have to love the writing. That, among all else, has not changed and I do not think it ever will.
Foreword” by Glenn Stout from THE BEST AMERICAN SPORTS WRITING 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
For more on BASW, peep Glenn’s website.
Riding the Harper’s Magazine bandwagon today. They’ve earned it. Just published a terrific collection called Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper’s Magazine. Lots of good stuff in there including Pete Axthelm’s memorable essay The City Game (which became an excellent book), Pat Jordan on the shady baseball prospect Toe Nash, another good baseball essay by Rich Cohen, and a spot-on piece on sports writing by the critic Wilfrid Sheed, a guy who is real hit or miss for me.. Also work from Mark Twain, John R. Tunis, Shirley Jackson, Tom Wolfe, and George Plimpton. It’s the goods.
Harper’s has also made Gary Cartwright’s memorable recollection of his days at the Fort-Worth Press (included in the book), Confessions of a Washed-Up Sportswriter, available for us all on the Internet. Whoopee!
Here we have a first-hand account of Shrake and Jenkins, Blackie Sherrod and the Forth-Worth Press in the Fifties:
I did not know it at the time, but The Press sports staff was ten years ahead of the game. In 1955 The Press was perfecting what most, but not yet all, sports staffs believe they have just created: a competitive art form. Significant television competition was years away, but already The Press was rebelling against the stiff, bleak who/what/when/where architecture of its predecessors, exposing myths, demanding to know why, and treating why as the only question. It was funny about 1961 when Newsweek devoted its press section to the wry progressive sports editor of Newsday, Jack Mann. Newsday hired good, creative writers. They worked as a unit, pruning cliches from wire copy, pepping up hard news by tracing angles all over the country, barreling over dogma where they confronted it. Was Yogi Berra a lovable gnome, like it said in Sporting News? Did he sit around reading comic books and eating bananas? Or was he a noncommunicative boor whose funniest line was, “How the hell would I know?” Newsday, the magazine pointed out, demanded an answer.
There was no way for Newsweek to know it, but sports editor Blackie Sherrod had been preaching a better anarchy at The Press in 1950. Sherrod surrounded himself with such men as Dan Jenkins and Bud Shrake, now well-known and excellent writers at Sports Illustrated, not to mention the irresponsible Crew Slammer. He let them write from the gut.
Cartwright recalls the early days with great fondness but he doesn’t romanticize the sports writing profession:
…Let me make one thing plain: most sportswriters have no business in journalism. They are misfits looking for a soft life. The worst sportswriters are frustrated athletes, or compulsive sports fans, or both. The best are frustrated writers trapped by circumstances. Westbrook Pegler called sportswriters “historians of trivia,” but Pegler learned his craft by writing sport. Scotty Reston, Heywood Broun, Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner, and Paul Gallico wrote about sport. Winston Churchill covered cricket during the Boer War. TheNew York Times‘ John Kieran was a sportswriter, but he was much more. When students at Yale protested that a sportswriter had been invited to address them, Kieran delivered his speech in Latin.
Sportswriting should be a young man’s profession, No one improves after eight or ten years, but the assignments get juicier and the way out less attractive. After eight or ten years there is nothing else to say. Every word in every style has been set in print, every variation from discovery to death explored. The ritual goes on, and the mind bends under it. Ask a baseball writer what’s new and he’ll quote you the record book. Baseball writers are old men, regardless of age.
…There is no spectacle in sport more delightful than witnessing members of the Baseball Writers Association, who invented the box score, trampling each other at the buffet table. The first time I actually saw Dick Young, the New York Daily News‘ very good baseball writer, he was smearing deviled egg on the sleeve of Arthur Daley’s sport coat and discussing Casey Stengel’s grammar. Ben Hogan was rude and gruff but he impressed me when I learned that the caviar at his annual press party cost $45 a jar. Tony Lema had a genius for public relations at least as great as his genius for golf. Champagne Tony! I covered his funeral. It was an assignment that I did not want, but I was there, thinking that it may be years before I taste champagne again. They served some on the flight home. Bear Bryant used to insist that the way to handle a sportswriter was with a fifth of Scotch. Sportswriters deplored this attitude, but no one ever thought to sue Bear Bryant.
This was the title piece of Cartwright’s collection of his best work, Confessions of a Washed-Up Sportswriter (including Various Digressions about Sex, Crime, and Other Hobbies). If you can ever find a copy of that on the cheap, get it, it also features a wonderful piece on Candy Barr, the famous Texas stripper, and a vicious story about dog fighting that would make the dudes at Deadspin moist. Cartwright regarded it as the best piece he ever wrote even though it was rejected by Playboy, Sports Illustrated and Esquire. It was his favorite, anyway. Probably worth signing up for Texas Monthly (it’s free) for the Cartwright archive alone.
Kudos to Harper’s here. They are doing a real mitzvah and other publications like Rolling Stone, Esquire, GQ, and The New Yorker could take notice and make some of the gems from their vaults available to us on occasion. Share the wealth, just a little taste, good Internet karma and all that. A little love goes a long way.
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.
Leigh Montville edited this year’s edition of The Best American Sports Writing. If you’ve got the extra scratch, pick-up a copy to see Todd Drew’s terrific Yankee Stadium memory in print. It’s one of the great moments in this site’s history.
WEEI in Boston ran a short interview with Montville who has some interesting thoughts about the newspaper business, Sports Illustrated, and the nature of sports writing today (thanks to the Think Factory for the link).
Also, there’s this on the Babe:
What’s the most surprising thing you learned about Babe Ruth when you wrote that book?
“I think he was smarter than most people think he was. He grew up without much education. He came out of an orphanage. He had that reputation, and it was well-deserved of being a late-night guy, a carouser who ate a million hot dogs and all that stuff. But he was very smart in lining up his career. He had the first real business manager of any athlete. The guy took care of him and his money. Babe Ruth had money until he died and lived a good life. He made sound decisions in the people he enlisted to help him. He got a personal trainer back when nobody had personal trainers, when he was starting to fall apart. The personal trainer got him on the road and got him hitting again. He had the knowledge to straighten himself out. A lot of guys don’t have that — Antoine Walker being the latest one. He had more self control that I think most people give him credit for.”