From True/Slant on June 6, 2010:
10 Favorite Sports Books, Part II
This list turned into such a monster, I had to split it into two parts so for Part I, books 6 through 10, see earlier post here. On with the countdown:
5. What a Time It Was – W.C. Heinz.
W.C. Heinz, or Bill Heinz, should always be spoken of as the Great Bill Heinz. This is the only book on this list which is a collection of writings, rather than one cohesive narrative story, but Heinz was such a master story-teller, I had to include it. These are wonderful stories, some of which were features and others of which were deadline writing. Deadline writing is a skill that writers work at for the duration of their careers. The best reporters learn to excel at telling the who, what, where, when and hopefully how, concisely and on tight deadlines. A rare few are able to do all of that and also breathe life into the words. Heinz is one of those guys. His newspaper report, Death of a Racehorse, was written on deadline and it is so wonderful, so clean and elegant, I can remember it almost word for word. My favorite story in the collection is Brownsville Bum, about boxer Bummy Davis which Heinz wrote for True Magazine, of all places.
(Read “Death of a Racehorse” click.)
4. Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? – Jimmy Breslin.
Okay, this is almost cheating, because Breslin is one of the greatest chroniclers of American character. He also happens to be one of my favorite writers, with a firm seat at the head of the table in my Pantheon of Brilliance. So Jimmy Breslin + Sports is a no brainer for me. But this book is better than simply the sum of its parts. It is laugh out loud funny and captures the characters who made up the inaugural Mets team, nobody more than Skipper Casey Stengel and Marvelous Marvin Throneberry. And since I can’t find a link with an excerpt, I’ll let Breslin do the talking:
“When the Mets came to bat, Throneberry strode to the plate, intent on making up for the whole thing. With two runners on, Marv drove a long shot to the bullpen in right center field. It went between the outfielders and was a certain triple. As usual, Marv had that wonderful running action. He lowered his head and flew past first. Well past it. He didn’t come within two steps of touching the bag. Then he raced to second, turned the corner grandly, and careened toward third. The stands roared for Marvin Throneberry.
While all this violent action and excitement were going on, Ernie Banks, the Cubs’ first baseman, casually strolled over to Umpire Dusty Boggess.
‘Didn’t touch the bag, you know, Dusty,’ Banks said. Boggess nodded. Banks then called for the ball. The relay came, and he stepped on first base. Across the infield Throneberry was standing on third. He was taking a deep breath and was proudly hitching up his belt, the roar of the crowd in his ears, when he saw the umpire calling him out at first.
‘Things just sort of keep on happening to me,’ Marvin observed at one point during the season.
Which they did. All season long.”
3. The Breaks of the Game – David Halberstam.
The late, great David Halberstam wrote about everything. He wrote about important things, like Vietnam, the Korean War and an entire decade in American history. He has wrote about important people like Ho Chi Minh and the Kennedy administration. Generally, Halberstam wrote big important books about big important things. But Halberstam was also a huge sports fans and often turned his talented pen and critical eye to the field of play. He wrote two of the best baseball books ever written (The Summer of ‘49 and October 1964), but it is this book, his book about the Portland Trailblazers basketball team that makes the list, which is astonishing given that I am more passionate about what kind of salt I use (kosher versus sea) than I am about the NBA. This is the gift that is David Halberstam. He followed the Portland franchise post-championship, as the team teetered on the brink of what would be their decline. Halberstam is unflinching in his treatment, bringing his relentless zeal for investigative reporting to the task, but still his genuine affection comes through, too. If a writer can get me interested in a basketball franchise clear on the other side of the country, wow, just wow. Again, I can’t find an excerpt on line, so here is a short one:
"Because he was black and from a small town and because he often seemed to use the wrong words, there were those who knew him only peripherally who thought he was dumb and treated him as such. Those who knew him better thought he was quite possibly the shrewdest man on the team. Once during a prolonged painful recuperation from an injury he had told Cook, ‘Maybe I should have been a chess player, it would just be a lot easier.’ But even as he said it, he caught himself. ‘But then it would probably be my brain that hurt all the time.’ He was, in truth, a kind man, a mark for others; his teammates like to tell of Lloyd Neal taking a phone call from his wife in the locker room after a particularly tough practice, ‘No, Marcia, no … I can’t do the shopping … no, goddammit, Marcia, I’m a professional athlete, and I’ve been busting my ass up and down this court for two hours and I can’t move and I’m exhausted and I’ve got to go to the exercise room and I can’t shop … No, Marcia, I refuse to … two quarts of milk, a pound of butter, three boxes of diapers, sugar, two pounds of hamburger … All right, Marcia …’"
2. Among the Thugs – Bill Buford.
I don’t care about soccer, or, rather, more to the point, I don’t care for soccer. It is tedious. If I want to watch a bunch of guys running, I’d rather watch a track and field competition. As an astute friend once pointed out, soccer is the sport where something almost happens. Handy then, that Among the Thugs is only tangentially about soccer, or football as the Brits call it. The object of Buford’s attention is really violence. Mob violence, and very specifically, the kind of mob violence associated with soccer hooligans. He describes being in Turin, with “the Lads” before things, “go off.” And then in Sunderland and Cambridge and Sardinia. Buford puts you there, with him, as the crowd increases speed from a walk to a run, the change of pace the turning point between a peaceful march and a dangerous mob. I don’t know how much hard science went into this and I’m not sure that’s the point. Buford was trying to get at what it feels like to be with the lads and learning that the football match isn’t the point; it is the gathering, the creation of a powerful force of young men (mostly), which is the point. It’s strange, bizarre, funny and unnerving all at the same time.
1. About Three Bricks Shy … And the Load Filled Up – Roy Blount, Jr.
I am not exaggerating when I say that this book is everything a book about a professional sports team should be. It doesn’t hurt that it chronicles my favorite team. Not just my favorite franchise, mind you, but my favorite team of all time – the Steelers of the 1970’s. It’s no surprise that a great writer like Blount pulls it off, but the ease of the read is astounding. This book is so funny and engaging, such a wonderful ride that I find myself re-reading sections of it from time to time. I often revisit his handling of race — this was 1973 after all and it’s not like we’ve fixed all of our race issues in the meantime anyway. Sometimes, I just want to re-read his take on Pittsburgh of 1973 or just get lost all over again in his descriptions of certain players, like Dwight White (my personal favorite Steeler of all time) or Ray Mansfield (Blount’s closest friend on the team). Blount allows himself a first-person narrative, so he’s in the story, but he’s never in the way of it. Simply put, Blount just gets it. Again, because I can’t find an excerpt, here’s one of my favorite stories in Three Bricks:
“Still things happened that were too dumb to laugh off. Dwight (White) and I were eating Mexican food in the hotel at Palm Springs when a small pink man sitting with two white-haired ladies came over and said, ‘Excuse me. Those two boys that stuck their heads in the door a minute ago. Those two black boys. Were they basketball players?”
Dwight said he didn’t know.
‘Because they were so tall,’ persisted the man.
‘Maybe they were with the free love convention,’ I said.
‘Oh,’ said the man. ‘You with the free love convention?’ he asked Dwight.
‘Yes,’ said Dwight.
As a matter of fact, the two tall people had been Dwight and Webster. The pink man went back to the two ladies. ‘He’s with the free love convention,’ he reported.
‘Now that man,’ said Dwight gravely, ‘is a fool.’”
What are your favorite sports books? I’m always looking for recommendations, but these are on my nightstand currently:
Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams – Robert Peterson;
Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed and the Corruption of America’s Youth – Dan Wetzel and Don Yaeger;
Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro Leagues – Martha Ackmann;
The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball – Janet Bruce;
The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America – Joe Posnanski;
Counting Coup: A True Story of Basketball and Honor on the Little Big Horn – Larry Colton;
Why She Plays: The World of Women’s Basketball – Christine A. Baker; and
Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor-League Misfit – Matt McCarthy