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The Best American Sports Writing (Best American Sports Writing)by Richard Ford
Introduction Most sports writing operates at a disadvantage - the disadvantage being that it's about sports. No matter how the culture tries to amplify it, sports (especially the spectator kind) is simply not a very serious human pursuit. Oh, yes, people make handsome livings at it - playing it, owning it, promoting it, litigating it, televising it, remembering it, even writing about it. People occasionally even die from it or have their lives markedly changed because of it (bungee jumping with a poorly measured cord, stroking out at a hockey game, hitting your horse at OTB). Sports, as well, enters our lives vertically in all sorts of other influential ways: lavishly consuming our dollars and our precious time; infiltrating and corrupting our language and with it our ways of representing, even assessing, what is important ("They're playing for all the marbles over there in Kosovo"; "It's fourth and long in that Russian economy"). And sports routinely promotes into our attention real people who have no real reason to be there except that they're very tall, or very fat, or very bad-tempered, or very rich or like tattoos. These same people are then promoted (often by sports writers) as interesting models for our human behavior and conduct, so that we often go away confused about what's good and what's bad.
There are other kinds of sports, of course, the kinds we perform ourselves rather than simply observe at distances or on TV. And because we choose to do these, because we act them, sometimes gain pleasurable skills from them, draw close to experience through them, they can begin to seem less unserious. They can even take over our lives in ways we or our loved ones don't like (golf addiction, tennis addiction, canasta addiction). But they can also give us relief from noxious duties, distract us from our bad decisions or dreams, contribute to our fantasies, harden our muscles, keep us in mind of our youths, etc., etc. Positive things - as far as they go.
Each may have its downsides, but nothing's really wrong with these sporting realms. Nobody seriously wants them to quit existing. Part of their satisfying unimportance includes their having almost no victims, offering as little as possible to worry about, being morally uncomplicated - indeed, in their having almost no innate importance whatsoever, except what observers and participants decide to dream up for them. They're free, in the sense of gratuitous. And in a world that seems not always free of what sports are innocent of (moral consequence), this makes them seem good, sometimes even important.
What each of these realms lacks, and what might (in another world) promote either to a plain of genuine importance, is some feature of moral necessity, some "I can do no other" quality of human motive - that spiritual standard by which we routinely appraise action and character and deem each lasting because the events and changes they occasion are so inescapable and important that we employ them to help us understand who we are: if we're good or if we're bad, rather than just good at or bad at something.
Oh, I know. The lives of important brain surgeons and army generals and cult novelists have been lengthened, their thoughts clarified, their decisions made more certain because they fished for trout on the Rangeley Lakes or played varsity squash at Princeton or exceeded at curling up in Manitoba. Whizzer White became a Supreme Court standout only after (and impliedly because of) his All-American football days at Colorado. The scholar-athlete, that deeply serious unserious soul, holds a place of almost Apollonian esteem among American hero figures as the perfection of the sporting ethic made consequential outside of sport: the lessons of the gridiron served young Jonkel well in his march to the statehouse in Bismarck . . . Ja, ja, ja.
Only they didn't have to play sports in the way, say, Hamlet has to kill his uncle. They merely wanted to. And indeed, each of these characters could've done something else - or better yet, done nothing but sit home reading books - and everything would've worked out fine. The really impressive part is that sports didn't cripple their progress more than it did. Auden wrote that poetry makes nothing happen, by which he meant that poetry causes many important things - we just can't see them. But sports really does cause very little of lasting value to happen in the world, except by accident. And this is the fundamental element of sports' character that sports writing has to wrestle with and overcome in order to make itself interesting.
Twenty-five years ago, I used to listen to a sports call-in show in L. A. wherein a guy who billed himself simply aas "Superfan," and whom I envisioned as a congenial cross between Harry Von Zell and Walter Winchell, nightly dispensed vital sports info, intervvvvviewed colorful celebrity sports guests, mediated fan disputes, issued insider wisdom on local teams - in essence did all he could using the AM band to make himself a vicar for citizen needs and to assure us that there was a benevolent good, and his name was sport.
And he was great. My wife and I, without a TV, used to eat our dinner, get finished with whatever piddling duties we had, and then park ourselves on the couch in our little beach house and utterly immerse ourselves, sometimes for two hours a night, in whatever Superfan had on his mind: Dodger news (Marichal was making a comeback with a new club; it fizzled), Laker championship prospects (they won with Wilt and Zeke), Ram quarterback indecision (pretty much the same as now). Like the song says, "I'll never know what made it so exciting." Maybe it was just the Technicolor sports universe cracking open to give me a virtual peek. But it was exciting, and the two of us grew completely involved in the little life of the show - in the caricatured personalities of the callers, "Beano from Encino," "Frankie from Oxnard," "Just Newt from the Valley"; in the ironbound dedication of everyone involved to the unquestioned rightness of our dedication to and use of our time for sports. And in Superfan himself, his chummy, voluble willingness to have faith that dark sports clouds would always give way to bright sports sunshine, all the while staying careful not to be a shameless homer.
What I remember most vividly, though, about those evenings lasting into dreamy summer nights was Superfan's boilerplate sign- off, there at the end of each night's séance with the voices of sport's invisible devotees. "Just remember," he'd say, and a certain breathy solemnity would open in his meaty voice as he was packing up before heading out onto the swarming 405, "just remember, folks, that in the crowded department store of life, sports is, after all, just the toy department." Fade to theme.
In the intervening years, I've tried to take counsel from that bit of complex intelligence, not only because it meant to assure me that there are important things in the world and we need to keep our priorities straight about them (Superfan never said what they were), but that it's also important, if not exactly equally so, that we not take everything so seriously; that in the toy department there are genuine attractions worthy of our dedicated notice, and part of what's good about sports is precisely its optional, inessential character, into which we may choose to thrust ourselves a little, or almost wholly. This wisdom has always reminded me of the old stand-up comic's rule that if nothing's funny, nothing's serious. In the world according to Superfan, if everything's serious, maybe nothing is.
Good sports writing - the best sports writing - always comprehends and often engages this fundamental truth about practically everyone's involvement with sports, be they couch-bound or ironman contestant: that sports is an unserious subject we are willing to seem to take seriously because doing so can make us happy. From this tension between the pseudo-serious and the fanciful, sports writing is often able to generate drama that animates and fosters good writing. In a highly abbreviated form, this tension is what makes the famous anecdote about Joe DiMaggio and his then-wife so vivid and memorably affecting: two larger-than-life characters, who were models for conduct the world over, disagreeing sweetly but unswervingly over nothing more serious than who'd heard the most cheering. It's probably the greatest two-line sports story of all time.
A. J. Liebling was as good as there ever was at advertising sport's basic triviality at the same instant that he made it a sweet virtue by harnessing it to his great wit and writerly felicity, occasionally even affording himself a try at "truth" normally reserved for serious literature. "Jackson was fluttering like a winged bird," Liebling wrote, describing the large but overmatched heavyweight Tommy "Hurricane" Jackson in his 1954 match against the Cuban Nino Valdez, "making a difficult though harmless target. And Valdez," Liebling continued, "conscious of the three-knockdown rule, was following him about, eager to bring him down, even for a half a second, before the round ended. Valdez has had many fights, has always finished strong and was in good condition, but he seemed at this point to be heaving. Perhaps it was merely emotion, for he could not have anticipated a chance to knock off work so early." Any one of us would be happy to have written any one of these sentences as our on-the-record response to seeing two men beat each other up in public. It's privilege enough just to read them. The "winged bird"; the little second-thought parenthetical "even for a half a second," expressing, or more likely inventing, Valdez's patient boxological opportunism; and certainly we prize the provisional aside, placed so carefully at the paragraph's end, reminding us that we are, by the way, reading about feeling human beings here. Beating each other up is just their job, albeit an unusual one.
W. C. Heinz, novelist, war correspondent, and great New York Sun reporter, was another writer who mastered the artful balance of humors sports writing observes when it's done excellently. Recalling his youth and his apprenticeship to the sports reporter's vocation, Heinz wrote in the late 1970s:
"That was how bad I had it in high school, when I was too frail for football and afraid of a baseball thrown near the head and had been a reluctant starter and worse finisher in street fights. Once, when we were both eight years old, they put the shoemaker's son and me together in the high school playground with gloves on, and he punched me around for three one-minute rounds.
"You know," I said, a long time after that, to Sugar Ray Robinson, the greatest fighter I ever saw. "You and I fought the same guy. When we were little kids he punched my head in a playground fight."
"Who was that?" Robinson said.
"Vic Toisi," I said.
"Vic Toisi," Robinson said. "Did I fight him?"
"Yes," I said. "You fought him in the Eastern Parkway, and knocked him out in the first round."
"Is that so?" Robinson said.
End of anecdote.
Boxing, of course, might be a special case, enticing good writing and the best writers with its built-in moral dramas of men in action and its dangerous aura of near-death creating the feel of honest-to-God necessity. Yet here is Heinz again, this time on American football - cartoonish, dubious, cumbersome - although in this instance Heinz's focus is on one of its cult figures from the 1940s, the New York Giants' coach Steve Owen.
On this morning, it was cold, but the air was clear and the sun was shining. The Giants were running through passing plays in deep right field near the outfield wall with the signs painted on the dark green, advertising razor blades and hot dogs and ice cream. Steve Owen was standing with his hands in his hip pockets, talking to several of us and watching Arnie Herber throw the ball.
Herber threw a pass to an end named Hubert Barker. It was deep and Barker ran for it, but when he was about to run into a wall where the sign advertised Gem blades, he slowed and the pass went over his outstretched hands.
"What are you scared of, Barker," Owen said, shouting at him. "What are you scared of?"
"He's scared of the five o'clock shadow," Bert Gumpert, who wrote sports for the Bronx Home News, said.
End of anecdote - the good clincher line given to a colleague, no doubt just the way it happened. Though the story itself, its immaculate timing, the atmospheric outfield details, the positioning of the great but stern Owen as straight man to the small- time beat reporter for the local rag - all that is pure Heinz.
Locked into these two lovely, simple-seeming passages are the elements of fine sports writing: an actual sporting act is described; no strained attempt is made to rig up events as emblematic of anything, or as metaphor for life; some sense of sport's often drably repetitive, one-dimensional nature is not shirked; a possibility of absurdity lurks alongside the possibility of athletic excellence; all is rendered in the form of good sentences - words well chosen, apt details observed, the reader's attention husbanded, and his intelligence respected by the writer's willingness to acknowledge the obvious while putting together what hadn't been joined before for the purpose of saying something new.
These virtues are, of course, the virtues of most good writing, writing that would serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us. Sports writing, however, because it is about a game we or others choose to play and could as easily not choose, is best when it restrains itself from claiming too much, best when it sees itself as a little life within a larger, more important one.
Plenty of writers fail to exercise this restraint, and the result is often bad writing - none of it to be found in this volume, of course. Such faulty writing typically fails to realize, for instance, that human beings are not interesting just because they're athletes; or that behind-the-scenes business shenanigans are not more interesting just because the rich guys happen to own ball clubs or are players dressed in oversize "business" suits no one but they would ever think of wearing. Or else it fails to recognize that sports has really little to do with producing satisfactory role models and probably never has; or that as a useful metaphor for life, sports generally draws upon an inadequate vocabulary and almost always makes life seem simpler, less livable, less interesting than it really is - more like a game. In my view, life beats sports every time.
Best is a difficult concept. But a collection of at least quite good American sport writing seems appropriate for our culture. And not just because we are a sports-besotted country, and writing is an art losing ground to other media, and therefore sports writing could use some bucking up. But rather because we have a long history of wonderful sports writing in America, writing that fully comprehends its station and makes the most of it, and in so doing enriches our national spirit by relieving some of that spirit's natural tensions. There's just something in the American sensibility that values joining the often primal yet contrived acts of sport to the intensities and suave logics of well-made prose. It seems to free us in the way conceptual art frees us. Plus reading sports may be the only reading for pleasure most Americans ever do.
Finally, as much as I love the purely essayistic writing of Liebling and Heinz and Red Smith and John Lardner, and their modern- day inheritors, Roger Angell, Tom Boswell, Tom McGuane, Roger Kahn, Jim Murray, George Vescey, and Mark Kram, I cannot overlook the fact that American sports writing is good in a variety of writerly ways: essays, yes, but also news stories, profiles, news features, and more. And so I've selected the sports stories that follow with what I think of as a spirit of acceptance. My rules have been very few: no pro wrestling, since only the spectators don't know the outcome there, and no stories that fail to describe an actual sporting act. Sports writing, after all, gets boring when it strays from sports acts themselves; when it goes into the counting rooms and doesn't return, or into the jail cell or the rehab unit or the divorce court and leaves actual sports behind; when, equipped with its powers of observation, of sensibility, analysis and pure description, it fails to tell us anew how some difficult feat is performed, how something exhilarating might feel, or how a beautiful act appears to a trained observer, and what difference any of it makes or doesn't.
The appeal of sports writing, then, is exactly what I began this essay seeming to complain about - that it's about sports. There is much pleasure to take in the little life that's there, in human endeavors that lie aside of the great and weighty issues of life, and which can be turned felicitous and absorbing and even memorable by someone who can write - can be made to seem almost if not quite necessary. Indeed, if we can take the time for this pleasure, turn our notice for a moment away from the necessary, we can relish and possibly even understand more of life.
Copyright (c) 1999 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Introduction copyright © 1999 by Richard Ford. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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