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May 2024
8min read

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.

Pitching in a Pinch

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 Pitching in a Pinch. Reading it, one learns of signs and sign stealing, umpires and close decisions, coaching good and bad, and jinxes and what they mean. The worst of jinxes was seeing a cross-eyed woman. The only way to kill that jinx was to spit in your hat—the ball cap on the field, the fedora or bowler when not in uniform. A wise and often very funny look at baseball and America back when the Giants ruled the game and the twentieth century was young.

Match Play and the Spin of the Ball

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.

Farewell to Sport

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 (Snow Goose and The Poseidon Adventure), Gallico was a sportswriting heavyweight whose work illuminated a golden age without neglecting the pyrite, the fool’s gold. Stripped of their robes, many champions, he said, were boobs. Boobs with muscles but boobs nonetheless.

Sports Page

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.”

White Hopes and Other Tigers

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.

Wait Till Next Year: The Life Story of Jackie Robinson

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.

The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played

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…?

Nobody Asked Me, But…

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.

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