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Other titles in the Best American Sports Writing series:
The Best American Sports Writing (Best American Sports Writing)by Jane Leavy
This all really started for me back in the late 1960s when I was a junior at Bishop Guertin High School, writing about my high school teams for the Nashua (New Hampshire) Telegraph, getting paid five dollars for the stories once Mike Shalhoup, the editor of the paper, convinced me it was a much better idea to start double-spacing them.
Of course, this was before I had the only kind of job I ever wanted, writing a sports column in New York, which is the job that had me sitting in Fenway Park when Bucky Dent hit his home run against the Red Sox on October 2, 1978. And sitting in Lake Placid the night Herb Brookss hockey team beat the Russians. And watching Kirk Gibsons ball fly out of Dodger Stadium one World Series night in 1988. It is the job that has given me a front row seat to everything else I have seen, all the way to the Red Sox coming back from three games down to beat the Yankees last fall.
When the ball that Gibson hit went out of the ballpark that night, the great Jack Buck made this unforgettable call: I dont believe what I just saw.” Nobody believed what they saw in the 2004 American League Championship Series after the Yankees were ahead three games to none. I have always said that, for me, nothing could ever top Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig and what they did in that rink in Lake Placid the night Al Michaels asked if we all believed in miracles. And I still dont think anything ever will. But watching the Red Sox come back that way against the Yankees, no matter which way you were rooting, was pretty good for the silver medal.
I got paid to write about that Olympic team and got paid to write about the Yankees versus the Red Sox. I once told Jimmy Breslin that I liked doing what I was doing so much I would do it for free. Breslin snapped, This isnt the Lawn Tennis Association. We dont just play for the love of the game.” Believe me, the point was well taken. But really, from the time I was a teenager, the only life I ever imagined for myself, at least professionally, was writing about sports.
My dreams about that did not begin with the Nashua Telegraph. More than anything, they really began in the 1960s, when I tore through my copy of Sports Illustrated as soon as it arrived in our mail on a Friday, wanting to see what Dan Jenkins was writing about college football or golf or even skiing and to read any of the other star writers they had at the time. More than anything else the magazine and its writers were doing in those days, they were expanding the possibilities. And making kids like me want to somehow figure out a way to do what they were doing. For me it started with Jenkins, who I believe did more to invent modern sports writing than anybody alive.
It doesnt mean there werent tremendous sports columnists in the newspaper business when I was growing up. There were, there are. My friend Bob Ryan, from the Boston Globe, is a classic American sports columnist and would have been a star, I believe, in any era. Later in my career I would discover the pure, clear genius of W. C. Heinz, one of the best sports columnists of all time for the old New York Sun, and also a storied war correspondent for that paper who traveled across Europe during World War II with his old Remington typewriter and the First Army. In the 1950s, Heinz would come home and write what is still, for my money, the best sports novel ever written, The Professional.
Red Smith was another of my heroes, not just because of the way he could write, but because of the elegant way he went the distance in this business, writing like a total star almost until the day he died. He was a giant of talent and grace and made you proud every single day to be in the same business. Over the years more than a few people have asked me why I stayed in sports, knowing there had been opportunities to write a different kind of column in the front of my paper, the New York Daily News. Ive always had the same answer — that if writing a sports column was good enough for Red Smith to spend his whole life doing it, its more than good enough for me.
But I didnt start reading Red until I got to Boston College. First came SI, just absolutely blowing the doors off everything. Later in my life thered be a movie I liked a lot, The Turning Point, with Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine. It happened to be about ballet. About which I knew nothing. But watching the dancing in that movie, I sure knew this: what Mikhail Baryshnikov was doing was different from everybody else.
The writing in the old Sports Illustrated, under the legendary managing editor Andre Laguerre, was like that. It was different. And after it, nothing was the same in sports writing.
It wasnt justt a different sports world in those days. There was no Internet, of course, no ESPN.com acting as some sort of huge grazing pasture for eeeeeverybody in the business, a place for people to go at the start of the day to make up their minds about what they wanted to write and what they wanted to say. There was no sense that guys in the business were sometimes writing for each other instead of the reader. There was no talk radio, the giant weather vane of modern sports opinion, the monster that tries to shape what everybody thinks and has turned so many modern sports sections into printed versions of what the editors are listening to on the radio.
Now, in the modern American sports culture, the town hall is SportsCenter on ESPN. It is the one place where fans and players and coaches and managers and general managers and writers and broadcasters can collect every night, the sports version of what the nightly network news used to be on television. There was none of that in the old days.
In the old days, if you wanted to find out what people in other places were writing about things, you had to do what I did in college— go to the Out-of-Town Newsstand in Harvard Square, which is where I first read one of the great sports sections of all time in the old New York Post — the pre- Murdoch version of that paper — with Paul Sann as the editor, a future boss of mine, Ike Gellis, as the sports editor, and writers like Larry Merchant and Vic Ziegel and Paul Zimmerman just laying you out every single day.
One night the Mets pulled out an improbable victory in the bottom of the ninth inning. Even now, almost thirty years later, I can tell you Ziegels lead: The game is never over until the final out, the Post has learned.” He made me laugh that day and is still making me laugh as a colleague at the Daily News.
In the front of that paper was Pete Hamill, one of the great big-city newspaper columnists of them all.
But in those days, the town hall for everybody who even thought about writing sports for a living was the old Sports Illustrated. That was the home office for all the dreamers of the world. In all the years I have known Hamill, he has always had a wonderful expression to describe any talented group of people in any profession, an expression that comes from his deep love and deep knowledge of music. The first time I ever heard him use it was when he was talking about the old Knicks one day, the Knicks of Willis Reed and Walt Clyde” Frazier and Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere.
It was like the Basie band,” Hamill said.
He was a New York kid out of the 1930s and 1940s. So the frame of reference came from there. In my world, my generation, those SI writers of the 1960s and 1970s were the Stones. The greatest rockand- roll band of all time.
And Jenkins was Mick Jagger.
Here is Dan Jenkins writing about a college football game as famous as any ever played, the 1010 tie between Notre Dame and Michigan State in 1966:
Old Notre Dame will tie over all. Sing it out, guys. That is not exactly what the march says, of course, but that is how the big game ends every time you replay it. And that is how millions of cranky college football fans will remember it. For 59 minutes in absolutely overwrought East Lansing last week, the brutes of Notre Dame and Michigan State pounded each other into enough mistakes to fill Bubba Smiths uniform — enough to settle a dozen games between lesser teams — but the 1010 tie that destiny seemed to be demanding had a strange, noble quality to it. And then it did not have that anymore. For the people who saw it under the cold, dreary clouds or on national television, suddenly all it had was this enormous emptiness for which the Irish will be forever blamed.
He was just getting warmed up. I sat next to him at enough big events later on, so I know what it was like. He wrote clean, fast, funny, always nailing everything first time through, and he was packing up his typewriter when the rest of the guys in the room must have felt like they were just getting started. Cigarette on one side, coffee on the other, the coolest one in the room . . .
Forget everything that came before, all of that ferocious thudding in the line that was mostly responsible for five fumbles, four interceptions, 25 other incompletions, a total of 20 rushing plays that either lost yardage or gained none, and forget the few good plays — the big passes. Put the No. 1 team, Notre Dame, on its 30-yard line with time for at least four passes to break the tie. A No. 1 team will try something, wont it, to stay that way?
Notre Dame did not. It just let the air out of the ball. . . .
As you can see, this wasnt the beginning of a normal game story, not by a long shot. Oh, it was a game story, all right. As usual, Jenkins had the game he was watching down cold. But it was so much more. It was column, for one thing. It had atmosphere, smart-ass reporting, a rock- solid knowledge and love of college football. It also had this: Jenkins. The one guy everybody wanted to read on this game (even if they didnt get to read him until five or six days after the fact), absolutely dropping the hammer on Ara Parseghian and the most famous college football program in the history of the planet. To the point where as soon as copies of SI started making their way to the Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Indiana, that week, people started burning them.
All this time later, nearly forty years, I believe that Jenkinss story on that one college football game, one called The Game of the Century, changed sports writing and did more than anything to make his magazine matter even more than it ever had before.
(For the record, because I called him and asked, Jenkins doesnt think its the best game story he ever wrote for the magazine, and it wasnt, on either college football or pro football or golf. Maybe his own personal classic was the game story after another Game of the Century, the one between Oklahoma and Nebraska in 1971.) By the way, as long as were on the subject, please check out the lead from the 1972 British Open, where Jack Nicklaus failed to win the third leg of golfs Grand Slam:
He stood against one of those sand hills, one foot halfway up the rise, a gloved hand braced on his knee, and his head hung downward in monumental despair. He lingered in this pose, with what seemed like all of Scotland surrounding him, with the North Sea gleaming in the background and with the quiet broken only by the awkward, silly, faraway sound of bagpipes rehearsing for the victory ceremony. This was Jack Nicklaus on the last hole of the British Open and another putt had refused to fall. It was Nicklaus in the moment he knew, after a furious comeback, that he had finally lost the championship and what might have been the grandest slam in golf. . . .
As good as it gets.
I will tell you again: if you were a kid in those days, dreaming your dreams, this was how you wanted to do it. You wanted to get on a plane with the greatest portable typewriter ever made, the Olivetti Lettera — the one in the blue case, black stripe down the middle — and go find a moment in sports that made you write anything like that.
There were other great writers in that magazine, for sure. But Jenkins was the one.
Forget about baseball cards.
I should have saved those issues of SI.
In college I wasnt just going over to Harvard Square to buy the Post, because I had the Boston Globe to read every day, with Ryan, now my sidekick on The Sports Reporters, writing about the Celtics and Peter Gammons writing about the Red Sox and Bud Collins writing about Wimbledon and, always, Leigh Montvilles brilliant column. I was writing for three school papers at Boston College and writing for the Boston Phoenix and working nights at the Globe.
By that time, what Jenkins and the others had started was making its way into the sports section. All of a sudden, it was even more the best-written part of the newspaper than ever before. I like to think that it still is. Because over all the years and all the changes in sports writing, not all of them good, one thing has not changed: We all still go looking for the moment.
It is the moment in sports where the day changes, and the game changes, and you know how you want to tell your story. Notre Dame running the ball into the line instead of trying to move the ball down the field against Michigan State. Nicklaus standing there after one more putt, which would have made all the difference that day against Lee Trevino, refused to go into the hole.
When that moment doesnt matter to you anymore, you have to go do something else, whether you are writing for a daily newspaper or a weekly newspaper or a monthly or SI. Last October, when the Red Sox were down those three games to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series and the Yankees were three outs away from sweeping them, you better believe there was a moment.
The Yankees had Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in postseason history, maybe all of baseball history, in the game at Fenway Park, and he was going to get three more outs, the way he had all the times before, and the Yankees were going to the World Series.
Only here is what happened next at Fenway Park: Rivera walked the leadoff man for the Red Sox, Kevin Millar, to start the bottom of the ninth. Dave Roberts ran for Millar and stole second base. And even though not a single living person, not even the truest of true believers for the Red Sox, knew it at the time, those two small moments — walk, stolen base — were the beginning of the end for the New York Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series.
Out of those two small moments, the Red Sox began to write the biggest comeback story in the history of sports and end the eightysix- year drought since their last World Series.
Single by Bill Mueller up the middle.
History being made, even if we didnt know it at the time.
For the writers of the longer pieces in this book — some of them stunning pieces — the moment can be different. Sometimes it is a quote, like a crucial line of dialogue from a movie or book. A scene. An insight that gives both writer and reader a better understanding of the subject.
There was the unforgettable exchange between Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe in Gay Taleses legendary piece about DiMaggio for Esquire magazine. Monroe is just back from entertaining the troops in Korea, and shes telling DiMaggio about it and finally says, Joe, you never heard such cheering.” Yes, I have,” Joe DiMaggio says.
Taleses brand of magazine writing, about subjects like DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra, has been called New Journalism. I just always thought it was high literature. The DiMaggio piece, in my opinion, stands with any short story ever written. With Irwin Shaws masterpiece Girls in Their Summer Dresses.” Or Hemingways A Clean Well-Lighted Place.” Anything. Talese begins the piece with a writer pestering DiMaggio for an interview, one to which Joe D. never consents, and Talese never tells you that the writer is himself. After that, the piece is as graceful as DiMaggios game had once been. Reading Taleses Esquire piece now is as exciting as it was the first time. The best literature always stands up that way.
There was a point in my career when I wrote The Sporting Life column for almost ten years in Esquire, first for Lee Eisenberg, then for Ed Kosner, and finally for Terry McDonnell, who now is the managing editor of Sports Illustrated. It was a great job. I worked for great editors there. But the spirit of that place, always, was Talese. He was the one who had set the bar high for everybody who came after him.
Sports writing, in the newspaper anyway, was so different when I was starting out back in the 1970s. Now I worry that the sports section is losing out to all the cable channels, to all the yelling on television and radio, to the dot-coms. I worry a lot that too many people in our business are willing to run with the crowd, especially when it comes to the big issues. And that original thinking is simply a clever reworking of what somebody thought first in another paper.
With all that, I still believe sports brings out the very best in talented writers, whether they are professional sportswriters or not. I hope you will see that in what I think is a wonderful and diverse collection of work here in this book. I wish more newspaper columns had been submitted. Glenn Stout, who labors so mightily on this book every year, constantly laments that not nearly enough columns are submitted.
But included in these pages is work from some guys who have been favorites of mine for a long time: Bill Reynolds from Providence and Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times, a writer who works the space once occupied by the great, great Jim Murray, with his own style and humor. You will see an ambitious column by Richard Sandomir of the New York Times in which he writes, more than successfully to my mind, in the amazing voice of Howard Cosell, speaking beautifully to the whole notion of censorship.
There are fish tales in this book, because if your language and your reporting and your words can make me care about fish, then youve done something. There is Katy Vines piece about the Kilgore Rangerettes, from that fine publication the Texas Monthly. And a touching story from Sean Flynn that is more about friendship than golf.
There is a piece on Joe Paterno by an old baseball pitcher named Pat Jordan, whose work I have long admired. And Ira Berkow of the New York Times, tracking down Jim Woods, a star high school player from Chicago against whom Berkow had once competed. I mentioned Mark Krams boxing writing in SI; Ive included a piece by his son from the Philadelphia Daily News, a moving piece about a football player named Rick Lanetti.
And there is Steve Colls long story from the Washington Post about the death of former football player Pat Tillman. Coll, doing what good newspapermen are supposed to do, tells you the truth about things, even when the truth doesnt fit the legend.
There are pieces about race and steroids and rape and illness and hope and loss, all splendidly told. And honoring the spirit of the old Sports Illustrated, I have included several pieces from the modern version of the magazine, just because I couldnt leave out any of the ones I read. So there is L. Jon Wertheims piece about the rise and fall of tennis player Roscoe Tanner, which knocked my eyes out when I read it in the magazine, mostly because I had covered Tanner back in the 1970s when he was one of the best players in this world.
There is Michael Bambergers superb account of the drug addiction of a pitching prospect named Jeff Allison, the pride of Peabody, Massachusetts. There is Tom Verduccis celebration of Red Sox fans from the magazines Sportsmen of the Year issue, brilliantly and movingly told. And Gary Smith is in here, with a piece about the Mexican American runners of McFarland High.
There was one night back when I was starting to do television work — before sliding into one of the best seats on television, the chair on the far left on The Sports Reporters, first next to Dick Schaap, now John Saunders — when Dan Jenkins told me that no matter what happened with television, I was never to give up my column.
They respect you if you write,” Jenkins said. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter.” I hope you think the words in this book matter. Maybe there will be something in here that will inspire some kid who reads it to go chasing after the old dreams. When I was writing this introduction, I told my literary agent, Esther Newberg, about that 1966 Notre DameMichigan State game story. Esther represents Jenkins and Carl Hiaasen and Thomas Friedman and Bud Shrake — another alumnus of the old SI — and Maureen Dowd and John Feinstein and Tony Kornheiser. So she has an understanding of the business.
Even with that, she said, How do you guys remember all this stuff?” Because you just do.
Because the best writing got into my brain and my heart once and never got out. I can tell you the last line Red Smith wrote — Someday there would be another DiMaggio” — the way I can quote the first line of Gatsby. I can tell you about the lead Curry Kirkpatrick wrote once in SI about Ilie Nastase, one that began: Bad is better than good. . . .” I can quote to you from the column Schaap wrote when his friend Lenny Bruce died, and I can talk to you all day about Breslins piece from Parkland Memorial Hospital, recounting the death there of John F. Kennedy. I read it in a paperback edition of The World of Jimmy Breslin, a copy I still have and always will, even if it is mostly held together by masking tape now.
During the YankeesRed Sox series last fall, I was as excited to pick up the Boston papers as I had been when I was a kid at Boston College and knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
The words still mattered.
Mike Lupica Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright © 2005 by Mike Lupica. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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