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The Best American Sports Writing (Best American Sports Writing)by David Maraniss
One of the joys of visiting my parents at their apartment in Milwaukee during the final years of their lives was rummaging through the wide-ranging collection of magazines and newspapers that piled up on their couch and spilled over to the floor below. The Nation and the Packer Report. The New Yorker and The Sporting News. The New York Review of Books and ESPN The Magazine. The Progressive and Packer Plus. The American Prospect and Baseball America. The Capital Times and Sports Illustrated. The Washington Post National Weekly Edition and Baseball Weekly. If you wanted to know about my dad, Elliott Maraniss, his reading tastes told much of the story.
A lifelong newspaperman, he was always interested in history and politics. The books he checked out from the local library and stacked near the magazine pile tended to be about European writers, Civil War generals, American presidents, British diplomats. But what satisfied him as much or more, I think, was reading about a rookie defensive tackle showing promise in training camp with the Green Bay Packers or another phenom left fielder out in El Paso (when the Diablos were in the Brewers farm system) who was knocking the stuffing off the ball. Earl Warren, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court, was known, among his other greater accomplishments, for saying that when he got the newspaper in the morning he turned to the sports section before the front page. Im not sure whether sports came first with my dad, but he certainly turned to it most often.
He was not a statistics guy. He had little interest in the Sabermetrics approach to baseball analysis in which everything is reduced to numbers. He loved baseball more as a story with characters and some drama. It didnt have to be elegiac, or melodramatic, or even particularly elegant. Maybe thats because he spent his adolescence in Coney Island rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers when they were the Lovable Bums.” His baseball was the sort described by Mark Harris in Bang the Drum Slowly and The Southpaw. Just saltof- the-earth kids, some dumb, some smart, making their way through the vagaries of baseball life. He was from the Ring Lardner school. I had a tendency to make things up when I was a kid and had an excuse for every wrong thing I did. My dad called me Alibi Ike long before I realized that he was at once chewing me out and letting me know that he loved me. In my family, where my mother and siblings were scholars, The sun got in my eyes” held as much literary merit as any quotation from Shakespeare.
I was a bit surprised when my dad joined my brother as owner of a team in the baseball rotisserie league formed by a bunch of my friends at the Washington Post in 1984. The Washington Ghost League, as we called it, was one of the early leagues formed after the statistical game was invented a few years earlier by some writers and editors in New York. As I said, Elliott was not interested in statistics, so why would he take part in a game of statistics? Because it really wasnt about the numbers back then before the entire sporting nation got caught up in what later became fantasy baseball, and fantasy football, and fantasy basketball, and even fantasy NASCAR.
It was about the yearly drafts held at Tom Lippmans house on McKinley Street and the little dramas and characters of our league. How Lippman and his Tom-Toms had an obsession with catchers. How Ben Weiser of the Weiser Owls could almost persuade you that giving up Roger Clemens for Pete Ladd was a good deal. How Neil Henry, in his love for all things Mariner, could not discern the talent gap between Mickey Brantley and Ken Griffey Jr. How Bill Hamiltons team was lousy every year except the one when he disappeared to Europe for the entire summer and won the whole thing thanks to a monster season from Bo Jackson. How Mike Hill would sit snickering in the back and not say a word until Vince Colemans name came up. How the Potts boys would argue excitedly over Mets farm hands never heard from again. And the assertiveness with which Peter Behr of the Archibald Behrisols delivered his immortal preemptive opening bid for a hack second baseman: Jerry Remy for a dollar.” (In our league, Remy would go for ten cents.) In the lore of the Ghost League, Elliott uttered the first line at the first draft, and to this day his words have the resonance of Melvilles Call me Ishmael.” The name of the team formed by my dad and brother Jim would be familiar to track fans of a certain era — the Jim-Elliott Jumbos. From the end of the long oval table, his voice as gruff and determined as if he were barking out an order for copy from his city editor days, Elliott opened the first draft by ddeclaring, The Jumbos want Jim Rice.” I cant adequately describe what those few words convey to my brother and me. All I can say is thaaaaat Jim uttered that phrase again at our fathers funeral in May 2004. In the entire crowd that had gathered for the memorial service at the Unitarian church in Madison, maybe only Jim and I and my son Andrew had the slightest clue what he was talking about, but it had me in tears. It was all in the back story.
There were some apparent contradictions in my dads view of sports.
As a tough-minded journalist, he was fearless in pushing reporters to challenge the traditional wisdom of coaches. He was always skeptical, questioning whether universities were running honest programs and whether sports icons were all they proclaimed to be. He took pride in the fact that one of his reporters at the Madison Capital Times broke a story that Bob Knight was leaving West Point to coach at the University of Wisconsin, and that Knight got so upset by the scoop — it was supposed to be kept secret for two days — that he backed away from the deal. Untold thousands of Badger fans who endured decades of losing seasons at the UW Field House in the ensuing decades might have felt the story wasnt worth all that suffering, but in fact the wound-tight Knight never would have fit in Madison anyway. Elliott also hired the first woman sportswriter at his newspaper, and the first African- American sportswriter, and he was constantly pushing at the traditions of the profession. Even though he was born in Boston, he taught me never to root for the Red Sox because they were the last major league team to integrate. His preference for the National League in the 1950s and 1960s was due in large part to the leagues more progressive recruitment of black and Latino players, from Jackie Robinson to Hank Aaron to Roberto Clemente to Rico Carty and Felipe Alou, two of his favorite hitters from the last days of the Milwaukee Braves.
Yet in his personal tastes, when he was on the side porch in his boxer shorts and T-shirt listening to a ball game on the radio on a summers night, his preferences ran completely to the babbling, incoherent, lovable homers. The newfangled announcers were either too bland or narrow- mindedly aggressive, from his perspective. He even had the temerity to criticize Vin Scully, who was one notch too glib for him. To be completely honest, his disdain for Scully might also have had to do with the fact that Scully sashayed out of Brooklyn with Walter OMalley and made his name with the new Dodgers in Los Angeles, and that marked him as a traitor, but I still think my dad would rather hear Harry Caray or Jack Brickhouse obliterate the English language than listen to Scully recite a perfectly literate paragraph without so much as an er” or an uh.” He felt that announcers like Caray and Brickhouse and Lou Boudreau werent making more out of the game than what it was; they were closer to Ring Lardner and Mark Harris.
Which brings me to the balm of Ron Santo.
Many people, even some Cubs fans I know, might make the reasonable argument that Ron Santo, the old third baseman, ranks among the least articulate announcers ever to call a game. He made Caray, even in his drunken dotage, seem erudite. My dad would agree, but could not care less. He loved Ron Santo, first as an underrated ballplayer, but even more as the voice of Cubs radio with his partner Pat Hughes. Anyone can call balls and strikes, or offer an astute observation on the erratic play of the second baseman during a road trip in June, or coin some distinctive way of calling a home run, but who besides Santo can produce so many central European guttural sounds of agony as his team is on its way to blowing another game? Ahhhhhhhrrrggguuuuuhhhhhgggoooooh.
For most of his life, Elliott lived by the motto: it could be worse. That was in the real world. In the world of baseball his sensibility was that it is going to get worse, no matter how good things seem right now, and Santo was his favorite poet of imminent demise. From homer to Homer.
Ill never forget what Santo did for my dad one July day in 2001 when Elliott was starting to show his own first signs of mortality. He and my mother had taken the Badger Bus from Milwaukee to visit my wife and me in Madison, where we were spending the summer researching a book on the Vietnam era. As my dad stepped down off the bus, he said, Dave, Im sick. Ive got to get to bed right away.” We drove across town to the house and put my dad on a cot with a radio. The Cubs were playing a day game. I cant remember anymore who they were playing, either the Phillies or the Cards, I think. I do remember that the Cubs were leading 101 in the third or fourth inning. And as soon as my dad heard the score, he muttered, Uh-oh. The Cubs are gonna blow it.” For the next two hours, Elliott and Santo were on the same wavelength, Santo moaning, my dad laughing, as the Cubs did what they were destined to do and relinquished a nine-run lead. I was as into the game as either of them, but didnt care about the score or the final result. What made me deliriously happy was how much joy Santo was unwittingly bringing to my ailing dad. What drug, what surgical operation, what wisdom from what physician, what felicitous phrase from the Santo antipode Vin Scully, could have been better treatment for a sick old baseball guy? The answer is absolutely none. Two hours of joy and laughter, and he was up and ready for dinner.
None of this is to say that Elliott did not appreciate the well- spoken or well-written sentence. A baseball scholarship brought him to the University of Michigan in the late 1930s, but he stopped playing in his freshman year and started writing. Michigan had a world-class English department then; fellow students included the playwright Arthur Miller and the poet and critic John Ciardi. Dad was a fine writer himself, clear and clean, with an intelligent vernacular style that captured you in the first sentence and led you all the way to the end. And he gobbled up the best writers from the golden era of Sports Illustrated and anything written by Roger Angell. He was thrilled when writers like John Updike, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, David Halberstam, John Wideman, George Plimpton, and Joyce Carol Oates turned their attention to sports. The best writers, he said, no matter how famous they were, never wrote down to their readers, and they invested the same amount of research and thought in any subject. He had written sports himself once, long ago, during a difficult period in his career when he was working at a labor newspaper in Bettendorf, Iowa. He used two pseudonyms: one was Jimmy Moran, taken in homage to my brother, and the other was Sal LaBarba, a takeoff on Sal the Barber” Maglie, the old Dodger. The story I remember most vividly was a column blasting the Dodgers for callously trading Jackie Robinson to the Giants.
When I showed an interest in writing and could not decide between sports and politics, my dad gently nudged me toward politics, but said that one only fed off the other. I remember how often he pointed out that James Reston, the premier political columnist for the New York Times, got his start as a sportswriter. I happened to stumble across some of Restons sports writing decades later when I was researching a book on Vince Lombardi. It was in a scrapbook up at the library archives at Fordham University, where Lombardi had played as an undersized lineman, one of the famed Seven Blocks of Granite.” In 1936, writing under the byline Scotty Reston, the cub reporter for the AP assessed the Fordham teams prospects. He wrote, accurately as it turned out, that they had the biggest, fastest and most promising squad in years.” As I read through the impressive collection of submissions this year for the Best American Sports Writing anthology, I tried to channel my father as much as possible in picking out the final twenty-eight selections. Im not sure he would have gone with Paul Cullums piece on the Mexican Midget Rodeo, though. My dad was modern and profane and hated the whole concept of political correctness as it was used by the righteous and manipulated by the bigots, but he was just plain respectful in ways that would have made him argue that this particular story could insult someone. Maybe he would be right, but I liked it. When he was proofreading the manuscripts of my books, I would make the vast majority of changes he suggested, but not every one. I remember the biggest dispute we got into was over whether I could write that one of Bill Clintons stepfathers ran a hair salon where they dyed the hair of prostitutes in more places than on their heads. He said no, I said yes.
He had attained basic computer literacy by the time he died, but Im certain he never weaved his way through the Internet to find the U.S.S. Mariner website that published the inimitable story by Derek Zumsteg on an iconic cartoon where Bugs Bunny plays all nine positions in a baseball game — not like Bert Campaneris or Cesar Tovar, one position per inning, but all nine at once. I cant remember ever seeing him watch a cartoon, but I know he would have enjoyed this story and probably would have called the sports editor at his old paper and, again reverting to his city editor days, shouted something like, Jesus Christ, why cant you guys think of innovative stuff like that Bugs Bunny story!” The question of what is sport and what is not seems to be provoked every year by these best-of selections. I kept my dad in mind when thinking about that too. He never hunted in his life, or fished, or went surfing, or played soccer, or raced a bike, or got behind the wheel of a Formula One racecar, or went looking for wild turkeys — but I know he could have devoured a story about any one of those subjects if it was deeply reported and well written, and that he would have ignored any stick-in-the-muds who would limit the definition of sports to the old baseball, football, basketball, hockey, boxing, track and field, tennis tradition. To him, that was like arguing over whether there should be a college football playoff, or how many teams should be in the basketball tournament, or whether a team was ranked too high or low in the midseason polls, or any number of so-called sports-related issues that he considered a foolish waste of time. Who the hell cares? he would ask. Why be narrow about it? Who knows what people will be playing a hundred years from now?
Although he spent most of his newspaper career dealing with other issues — politics, war and peace, civil rights, the environment, poverty, crime and corruption, the role of a great public university — Elliott never adopted a dismissive attitude toward sports. He believed that the substance was in the reporting, and the telling. Politics could be as trivial as sports, and sports as meaningful as politics, depending on the time and place and characters and themes. It was all in knowing what to take seriously and what not to worry about. Part of the beauty of sports, he thought, was the wide canvas it offered, as vast as the world itself — from Larry Browns account of a white raccoon to L. Jon Wertheims story on Kwame James, the basketball journeyman who fought off the terrorist shoe bomber; from Bill Buford off in search of wild turkeys to Bruce Wallace retracing the final living moments of Munar Mudhafar, who died playing soccer in Baghdad. In essence, the world of sports is as wonderfully eclectic as the pile of magazines and newspapers that cluttered my parents couch and spilled onto the floor.
When my mother died last year, some of their old periodicals started coming to our mail slot in Washington. We now get The Nation and ESPN The Magazine.
Copyright © 2007 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright © 2007 by David Maraniss. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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