- Historic Sites
November/December 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 6
by Stanley Woodward (1949; Greenwood; out of print). Woodward was a large, powerful, squeaky-voiced character, once a guard at Amherst, who here describes and defines the modern newspaper sports section with wit and matchless authority. Woodward liked to be called “Coach,” and is remembered today, if at all, for bringing Red Smith from a not very good Philadelphia newspaper to the New York Herald Tribune and for exposing an attempt by white major leaguers in 1947 to go on strike rather than play on the same ballfield as Jackie Robinson. Here he defines his craft, sports editing, as no one has before or since. He warns of “the unholy jargon, the tendency to call things by names other than their own.” He rules that “horrendous clashes of fearsome Tigers and snarling Wolverines, usually concluded in purple sunsets, are taboo.” Copy editors, “the comma police,” sometimes may cut a good writer to dullness, but they are essential “if the vehicle [sports section] is not to be smeared with wild and indiscriminate pigments.” Good copy editors are rare, but the lifeblood of a great sports section flows from the writers. “The giants of our craft,” Woodward asserts, “Grantland Rice, W. O. McGeehan and Westbrook Pegler, each gave something to today’s school of writing. Rice contributed rhythm and euphony; Pegler a grumpy and grudging curiosity for fact; and McGeehan a certain twist, in the likeness of Anatole France, which could make an ordinary sentence interesting.”
by John Lardner (1951; Lippincott; out of print). “There have been periods in American history,” Lardner writes, “when the heavyweight boxing champion outranked the President in public interest. Jack Johnson’s impact on popular feeling was sharper than William H. Taft’s. Jack Dempsey overshadowed Calvin Coolidge.” Lardner’s work surveys a time from the ascendancy of Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, around 1905, to the decline of Dempsey, around 1927. One dominant theme is chicanery and those promoters, politicians, fight managers, and hangers-on who elevated deception to an art form. The other is racism. In his prime Johnson held the heavyweight title securely and seduced and sometimes married white women. “I didn’t court white women because I thought I was too good for the others, like they say,” Johnson told Lardner. “It was just that they always treated me better. I never had a colored girl that didn’t twotime me.” He finally was imprisoned for “transporting a [white] woman across a state line for immoral purposes,” although he had married the girl before he even went to trial. Dempsey, despised after being falsely charged with draft dodging during World War I, gradually redeemed himself until he became, in Lardner’s term, “a flame of pure fire” in the ring. Quite my favorite among a crowd of very fine boxing books.
by Carl T. Rowan with Jackie Robinson (1960; Random House; out of print). There’s also a memoir by Doris Kearns Goodwin with this title, but this book comes to us from Jack Roosevelt Robinson, who worked hard at this book with the fine black journalist Carl Rowan. During the process Robinson told me, “I mean ‘wait till next year’ as they said it in Brooklyn about winning the World Series, but also I mean it about the overall outlook for American Negroes. Do you think that’s clear?” This is the best account I know of Robinson’s brave journey through racism to the major leagues. Rowan writes the narrative, if not brilliantly, well enough. Robinson supplies the quotes. This is a rousing American saga, which concludes with Robinson marching on President Elsenhower’s Washington with Harry Belafonte and Martin Luther King, Jr., to make a strong but courteous appeal for civil rights.
by Lawrence S. Ritter (1966; Perennial). After a divorce, Larry Ritter, Ph.D., an economics professor at New York University, decided to spend a summer visitation in an unusual way. He would journey with his son to see as many old-time ballplayers as he could find. Equipped with a tape recorder, Ritter traveled for many summers, many seasons, covering by his own account 75,000 miles. The ballplayers he found include Rube Marquard, “Smokey” Joe Wood, “Goose” Goslin, names dimly remembered today but characters who explode with vitality in Hitter’s stirring oral history. “We spoke,” Ritter says, “in middle-class homes, in mansions and in shacks. They talked not only about what it was to be a baseball player in the early days but what it was to be alive then and what they were as human beings.” In a sense this book was not written but spoken, and Ritter crafts the talk into an art form. He sets the tone with haunting lines: “Oh, the days of the Kerry dancing,/Oh, the ring of the piper’s tune,/Oh, for one of those hours of gladness,/Gone, alas, like our youth, too soon…?