Sports

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by Jimmy Cannon (1978; Penguin; out of print). This is a collection of newspaper columns, anchored, so to speak, by Cannon’s trademark observation, which would begin “Nobody asked me, but.…” Samples: Only lions should be asked to eat hamburgers that aren’t well done; only tall, graceful women should walk with collies; if Howard Cosell was a sport, it would be roller derby. His writing about the two Joes, DiMaggio and Louis, is peerless, and his stuff on Sugar Ray Robinson is nearly as good. I particularly like “A Loser’s Christmas,” a column that goes like this: “Applaud a Salvation Army cornet player and wish every one of them find the truest notes. May those who drink alone find company before tomorrow ends. Hang mistletoe where it may help a spinster. Let a stray dog be called by a whistle. I hope every sore-armed pitcher becomes whole. May a miracle happen for everyone dazed by grief and clenched by age. Honor the unhonored everywhere.” Sentimental? Of course, and how wonderfully so.

To Absent Friends

by Red Smith (1982; New American Library; out of print). Another collection, newspaper columns of farewell to such as Knute Rockne, Babe Ruth, Vince Lombardi, Rocky Marciano, Branch Rickey, and some 200 other sports celebrities. Obituaries can be tedious and fulsome, but not in the hands of this splendid stylist. Walter O’Malley moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, after which he was loved and despised depending on who was speaking and on which coast. Smith sums him up: “A little too much the grand seigneur for my taste. But he built supremely well and contributed greatly to the game’s financial health. As long as he had his way, he was an affable man.” To give us a touch of Walter Johnson, the great and well-beloved pitcher, Smith tells how a fan chatted pleasantly and remarked that he knew Johnson’s sister in Kansas. Johnson said that was nice, but a teammate later broke in, “Walter, I didn’t know you had a sister.” “I haven’t,” Johnson said, “but he was such a nice feller.” Red Smith lived and wrote with his own special grace. Much lives on gracefully in this volume.

Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston

by Howard Bryant (2002; Beacon). A few reviewers have jumped on minor flaws and miss the reporting, the integrity, and the courage that make up this extraordinary book. Bryant, a young African-American journalist out of New England, takes on a daunting trio: the Boston media, racism, and the Red Sox. Here you learn what happened in 1945 when Jackie Robinson went to Fenway Park for a tryout. Someone, probably the Sox owner Tom Yawkey, probably drunk, bellowed, “Get the nigger off the field.” The Sox turned down Robinson, then turned down Willie Mays. The Boston media made little, if any, fuss. Pumpsie Green, the first black Red Sox, was barred from the team’s spring-training hotel in 1959 and had to live 17 miles distant in a rooming house without a kitchen. His training diet: cold sandwiches and milk out of a container. Things got better, but not much, for later black players, yet in Boston, once the home of abolitionism, none of the journalists cared enough or were gifted enough to confront the issue head-on. Bryant does. There is no such thing as the curse of the Bambino, amusing though that conceit may be. Losing Red Sox seasons trace to something else: the curse of bigotry.