- Historic Sites
November/December 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 6
On a high Vermont hill, where Robert Frost liked to summer the sound of trees, he and I talked through many afternoons, speaking, as Frost put it, “to some purpose.” He held forth on astronomy, mortality, baseball, poetry, and prose, displaying a command of phrase that I have never heard from anyone else. Frost ranged from Ben Jonson to John Lardner, bounded back to Emily Dickinson and stumbled against Ezra Pound, asserting more than once an unshakable ground rule: I was never publicly to quote him on writers or writing. When asked why, he was ready. “Because,” he said, a little triumph in his eyes, “I’m a poet, not a critic.”
I try to live under the general Rule of Frost, and that might seem to create a problem for us here. How can one select the 10 best nonfiction sports books written since the time of Thebes without sounding portentously like a critic? Fortunately a practical solution lies at hand. If I list not the 10 best books—who truly knows what they are?—but my 10 personal favorites, I retain amateur status as a bibliophile and march on still an author, not a critic. A waffle? Not really. An ambiguity? Perhaps, but isn’t ambiguity the fabric of life? Anyway, in chronological order off we go.
by Christy Mathewson (1912; University of Nebraska). Mathewson, called Matty or “Big Six,” was the greatest of all pitchers, according to no less an authority than Branch Rickey, the Mahatma of baseball. Mathewson also had been, during three years at Bucknell, a member of Euepia, the campus literary society. After Mathewson abandoned college for the New York Giants, he settled in Manhattan and shared an apartment on Eighty-fifth Street with John McGraw, the innovative and ferocious manager whom sportswriters called “Little Napoleon.” This intriguing relationship, the literate, aloof Mathewson and the gutter brawler “Muggsy” McGraw, is at the core of
by William T. Tilden II (1925; Arno; out of print). Big Bill Tilden was 7 times U.S. singles champion and 10 times ranked the best tennis player in the country. He did not achieve court greatness until he reached his late twenties, getting there through hard work, discipline, and analysis. He described himself as a “made” player rather than a natural one and (like Mathewson) brought a remarkable intellect to his sport. The speed of a serve, he wrote, was not nearly as important as its pace. Speed describes the flight of a serve through the air. But you do not return a serve on the fly. Pace is “the momentum with which the ball comes off the bounce.” You do, of course, return off the bounce, high, low, hooking into you or breaking away. It is fascinating to read Tilden, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, on great and small aspects of the game. He is always cogent and sometimes amusing. His comment on mixed doubles may sound chauvinistic. Never hit at a woman, warns Tilden, the gentleman. Always hit to the woman, writes Tilden, the competitor. One day when feeling ragged, he encountered Suzanne Lenglen, the greatest female player of the time. Without perspiring, he skunked her, 6-0.
by Paul Gallico (1938; International Polygonics Ltd.; out of print). Gallico wrote for the New York Daily News from 1923 to 1936, a time during which Tilden served, Bobby Jones putted, Babe Ruth hit homers, and Jack Dempsey’s left hook mesmerized much of the world. A highlight is Gallico, as a young reporter who wants to attract attention, sparring with Dempsey. The episode was brief and ended, Gallico recalled, with a referee standing over him, counting “thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty.” When George Plimpton tried a similar stunt with the light heavyweight Archie Moore, a punch in the nose made Plimpton cry. Gallico was made of sterner stuff. Now remembered for lightweight fiction (