FOREWORDS from The Best American Sports Writing
I was a sick kid.
I was born with an enlarged heart, had virtually every childhood disease by the age of two and thereafter was never well for long. My mother complained that at birth I didn’t cry, I coughed, and she lost track of the number of times she put me on the school bus healthy, only to get a call from the nurse an hour or so later that I had a fever of 103 or 104 and that she had to come and get me immediately. Throw in an eye operation, a bone disease, unexplained searing headaches, five or six bouts with pneumonia, poking and probing by specialists and all sorts of other unexplained afflictions and accidents — falling on a stick and having it pierce the roof of my mouth, crashing through a glass door, a coma after a tetanus shot, losing my front teeth in a car accident, a broken arm, a torn rotator cuff, crushed bladder, a half dozen concussions, mysterious hives caused by cold water, chronic bronchitis, mononucleosis and so on — and, well, I missed a lot of school. At the end of the year, when other kids bragged about their grades, I boasted about how many days I missed. I once set a personal record just shy of 50, and always, always missed at least 20.
It made for a strange life. I think I fell part way into myself at an early age and have never climbed completely out. I was ruled by my imagination, the only constant, escaping the hospital or sick bed by embracing the fever dreams and fantasies and shadow plays on the wall of my room as I’d be woken to take a breathing treatment or eat ice chips or swallow a pill or give my temperature, a humidifier spitting in the background and mentholated oil percolating through quadruple layers of clothes.
Confined, too much, and cut off from anything much beyond the bed-ridden, mind-stripping wasteland of daytime TV (Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Merv Griffin), words saved me, pages of paper I lowered over the bedrails to escape to another place. I didn’t just read words, I consumed them and allowed them lead me away, never questioning their value, utter faith in whatever place they took me. I didn’t learn to read books as much as I did occupy them, to wiggle into the crevices of language and characters and stories and then be swept away, or carried elsewhere. Those places often seemed more real to me than where I was, buried under quilts, and even today my dreams are not often of where I am, but ongoing chapters of stories and scenes that unfold without end. I am not in my dreams as much as they are in me.
At a certain point, as I grew older, I began to realize that some of those words that captured me were more potent than others, the connections stronger, more immediate and emotional, making me feel in ways nothing else ever did. That words could do that seemed like some kind of magic, an utter mystery of invention.
I can remember the moment. I was 13 years old and my English teacher gave us an assignment to create a collage to illustrate a poem. A poem? What’s that? My older brother handed me some anthology and I read “Suicide’s Note” by Langston Hughes: “The calm / Cool face of the river / Asked me for a kiss.”
That’s it, the whole poem. Twelve words that knocked me on my ass and changed everything.
How was it possible? How could writers do that? How could someone, with words alone, ink on paper, make me feel so much, so deeply? How could words teach what life had not, and articulate thoughts and feelings I’d never before uttered but now, once articulated, were unquestionably mine. How did they get in there? And then, eventually a question even more important for me to ask: how can I do that?
I followed the usual path of a young writer, one both completely common and entirely my own, unconscious of its near impossibility — voracious reading from piles of library books, secret notebooks and surreptitious screeds, writing for the school newspaper and then off to college on scholarship for creative writing, coupled with a headlong search for experience, sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll but also pouring concrete, driving cross country, serving the rich and working one crap job after another — janitor, security guard, painter — trying to get old fast, and get past the awkwardness of the young writer to become just the noun itself. I was aware enough to know that I had to jettison and write out all the bad sentences and pretentious ideas and rules-ridden construction and then, every once in a great while, I could see — actually hear it spoken from my own mouth when reading my own words, something I unquestionably wrote, that worked. Then, of course, came the challenge: figuring out why and how to make it happen again, to do it more or less, if not on command, at least often enough to know it was no accident.
Twenty-five years ago, I was somewhere on that path, at the start, making the transition from young writer to writer, when stewardship of this book improbably happened. As a favor to a friend, despite my lack of kitchen skills, an agent of cookbook authors had taken me as a client. An editor at Houghton Mifflin asked whether or not she knew an agent who might have a writer who could serve as series editor of another Best American title, a nonfiction sports collection. She didn’t, but she suggested me. At that point, I’d published a handful of magazine stories for Boston Magazine, and was freelancing while working at the Boston Public Library.
I was asked to put together a sort of sampler, recent stories of the kind I would seek for this series. It was easy enough to cull through contemporary magazine anthologies in the stacks, find some sports stories and pretend I had ferreted them out my own. I also made use of a brief meeting with David Halberstam, fresh off the sports best-sellers The Breaks of the Game and The Summer of ‘49. I had helped him with some research and when I met with my editor to discuss the project, I said I knew Halberstam and thought he might agree to serve as guest editor for the inaugural volume. That was a push, but he remembered me and agreed, and that sealed the deal. From the start, I could envision an entire shelf of this book, my name sharing the spine, some small part of me realizing I was meant to do this.
What I did not anticipate was what was really important. Selecting material for this book forced me, for the first time really, to take the why and how of writing seriously. I wasn’t just fooling around anymore, and what worked and what did not were no accidents. Now it mattered. My take on what was good or bad would be tested every single year, not just by the readers of this book, but by my peers, other writers, all of whom, I was certain, were far smarter and more qualified than I.
To paraphrase poet James Wright, fear is what quickened me. I believed from the start that even though the subject matter of this book would be “just ” sports, that sports reached into so much of the world that it could include the full dimension of our experience, that the writers would prove that and all I had to do was uncover the evidence. The fear came, not from the worry that the work did not exist, but that I would not find it, or recognize it, that I would miss the essential and end up collecting the arbitrary. I was afraid the subject would be seen as “just sports,” and nothing else, an accounting of who recently won or lost and nothing more.
The writers, of course, saved me. They did so not only with their words, but their competitiveness, the kind that makes us both share discoveries with others and curse ourselves for not writing it first, or doing it better. In this way the best forced its way into this book, and with each passing year I began to have a better idea, not only of what writing worked, but why.
A big part of that was due to the first decision made in regard to this Series, and perhaps the most important. When it was still in the talking stages, I suggested that we call it The Best American Sports Writing, two words, rather than the compound “sportswriting.” From the start, I think, this made the book larger, more inclusive. It wasn’t “just sports.” It was just writing, and the influence of that adjective became not absolute and narrow, but expansive, wide and ever searching.
I recently had a writer ask me how to find stories “that have that larger, human, beyond-sports resonance.” I think the answer is in that first decision. Sportswriting tells you the score, the essentials, who won and who lost and why. The work represented in this book tells you everything else — why you care.
Unburdened by an exclusive definition, the series was able to evolve into ever more interesting places. While there has always been room here for “sportswriting” — the columns, game stories and shorter features of the daily press — over the past 25 years the media landscape has changed dramatically and profoundly. The daily press, rather than being essential to the genre, at its center, now shares that place not only with other print products, but with an increasing number of online outlets.
Over these years, as the medium changed, so did the content. New formats freed writing from constraints of both time and space. Reporting and reaction need not wait, or have to fit a predetermined hole. Over time, the possibilities of what writers could do expanded. And, ever so slowly, after a transitional period of massive contraction in the print world, the outlets for such work have expanded as well.
This series has bridged perhaps the most volatile era in journalism. I published my first magazine story in 1986, also my first written story, period, about the 1907 suicide of Red Sox manager Chick Stahl. To do so, I had to spend days poring over microfilm, work that in some cases could be accomplished now in only a few minutes. I found a book written in the mid-’60s that told me how to pitch a magazine story, and the advice was not yet outdated. I sent out two pitches by mail. The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine rejection came by way of a mimeographed form letter. The next day, Ken Hartnett, the irascible old-school editor of Boston Magazine, asked to meet me. Despite the fact that I had hair down to my ass, wore a suit freshly purchased from Goodwill that still smelled of mothballs, and had exactly no clips, after talking to me for an hour he still took the story on spec. Over the next week or so I slept about three hours a night, wrote the first, second, third, fourth and fifth drafts out in longhand, and then had to sneak into work early to type it up on an electric typewriter, using the same five fingers I use today — inexplicable nerve damage makes it impossible to touch type. Suffice to say, things have changed since then, but I’ve never been without an assignment, and I type at the speed I think.
The first edition of this book, published in 1991 and guest edited by David Halberstam, included only stories from print, nearly half from newspapers and newspaper magazines. Online journalism did not exist. Not until the 2000 edition did the book feature a story from an online source (for the record it was Pat Toomay’s “Clotheslined” from Sportsjones.com, also, I think, the first online story in any Best American collection). The online behemoth of ESPN did not crack the pages until 2002. (Gene Wojciechowski’s “Last Call” from ESPN.com)
This evolution has been a good thing. As that sick kid, in a house with no money and parents who did not have the luxury of time to read, most magazines were out of reach — the budget didn’t allow for Sports Illustrated, much less the New Yorker (As I flipped through the pages in the doctor’s office one day I remember thinking, Who would ever read that? There are no pictures and the cartoons aren’t even funny.) I had access to only a single newspaper, the boosterish Columbus Dispatch, which worshipped Woody Hayes and the Republican Party as if a single entity. Sports writing from elsewhere mostly lived on a single shelf at the local Library, 796.M365 in the old Dewey decimal system, where the old Best Sports Stories series, which began in 1944, mostly collected dust.
Now of course, almost everything is available, as most print sources also appear somewhere online and the online world has proliferated and grown — in the past few years, at an astonishing rate. As a result, the nature of sports writing has inevitably changed, evolving in ways that were impossible to predict even a decade ago. But it has always been this way.
Sportswriting, the compound word, initially took shape as the score and the game report, soon supplemented by the notes columns, which gave birth to the true columnist. Features, at least the kind of work we recognize today as features, were exceedingly rare before the 1920s, the start of the age of the magazine, and really did not proliferate until after World War II. And there it sat, sports writing encompassed in but four forms: notes, columns, gamers and features.
By the 1960s, due to the influence of writers like Gay Talese and the need to provide something the lumbering presence of television could not, the nature and character of the features began to change, becoming harder, more demanding and ambitious. When the stray issue of Sport or SI found its way into my hands, or a copy the Best Sports Stories with a byline by W.C Heinz, I was mesmerized. Over the next day or two, I was not confined to bed, but freed.
Over the next few decades, this kind of work really began to flourish, both in the daily press as what became known as take-outs, in newspaper Sunday supplements and in magazines — not just Sports Illustrated and Sport, but also in the late lamented Inside Sports and the hybrid National Sports Daily. General interest magazines took note and sports-themed features and profiles — already occasional guests — became ever more regular staples, not just in men’s magazine like GQ, Esquire and Playboy, but in regional and general interest magazines and even more literary publications such as the Atlantic, Harper’s and the New Yorker. When this series first launched, these are the places where sports writing lived and flourished.
Change, of course, is inevitable. As the online world began to develop, the print world, through a combination of pure economics, greed and one misstep after the other, began to shrink, as did, for a time, the amount and kind of work the guest editors tend to select for this book. Fewer pages in print sources meant less room, which led to fewer stories and stories shorter and often less ambitious. The Sunday supplement magazine all but died off (there were nearly a hundred when this series started), and the 3,000 or 4,000 of 5,000 word take-outs or serial features became both more rare and more predictable.
And when work of any kind becomes predictable, produced by the same impulses and written and edited by the same people according to the same criteria, it suffers. Ambition can ossify into the formulaic. If writing has an enemy it is predictability, and if there is one thing I decry after two and a half decades of wading through this bottomless word bog every day, it is work that is safe and smug and satisfied with itself, the “good enough” story that checks off all the boxes and then goes to lunch. That’s one of the reasons this series features a guest editor, to ensure it never stays the same. This year, it is ESPN’s Wright Thompson.
If writing has a savior, however, it is the individual writer, usually unattached, hungry, ambitious and necessarily more creative. As the online world began to flourish, unconfined by the material and economic restraints of print, the scope of the genre began to expand again. In the last decade — really, the last five years, another form has thrived, filling the space between the decline of the newspaper and the shrinkage of magazine advertising on one side, and a similar contraction in the book world, leading to the near abandonment of the nonfiction mid-list by major publishers. In between was left an appetite unfulfilled.
Leave it to the writers to fill it. We all know it when we see it, but it goes by many names: narrative journalism, creative non-fiction, deep reads, longreads, or the handle that seems to raise so many hackles bound to the past, longform. (Let’s just get this out of the way early — if the name bothers you, call it anything you want.)
It was always there, only now there was a place designed to support it. If there is any material difference in this kind of work, it may be that traditional print features and book-length narratives tend to rely on the reader’s pre-existing interest in the subject. The best longer features overcome this, just as the best poems and best fiction do; the “subject” does not matter and is secondary to the execution of the form, the creation of an interesting narrative of characters. That is part of what makes longform so attractive to writers, the inherent challenge to write something engaging regardless of a reader’s pre-existing interest. Yet at the same time, these same longform stories need to respect the reader who is already interested in the subject. This means you never dumb down; you write up. It is an engaging, exciting place to be. Once upon a time, I regularly heard from younger people who wanted to know, “How can I be a sports writer (or sportswriter)?” I don’t get asked that question much anymore. They tell me, “I want to write longform.”
Here’s the thing. The skills and craft required to produce good work — good sports writing, of any length — have not changed. If I have realized anything over the last 25 years, it is this. Length is only a consequence of the time and care spent reporting, writing and editing. As many stories are killed by being too short or underreported as are by being too long — witness the formulaic and deadly dull “news feature,” that populates the newspaper. Every story in every circumstance can be told in any number of ways. That might mean a story of 1,500 or 3,000 words but it might also mean a story of 15,000 or 30,000. Every story, regardless of length, must feel as if it is organic and just as long as it needs to be.
After 25 years of professional reading, not to mention nearly 30 years as a professional writer, from my chair the best stories, whatever name you want to give them, share a few qualities — that is one thing that has not changed, as true today as in 1920, or when I was swaddled in my bed as a 10-year-old. So what do I look for when seeking out “the best?”
I believe the best work features thorough reporting, and has a defined shape, a structure and a backbone and an architecture and a music all its own. The stories I wish to read again are organic, written from within, from the material outward rather than plugged into some pre-existing template or journalistic equivalent of verse, chorus, verse. They are confident from the first word — and certain, sounding as if they already know the end of the story from the start, as if every word is predetermined from the first syllable. I once heard Bill Heinz talk about how important it was for him to find the opening chords, for they define all that can follow. The best stories allow the reader to identify characters by revealing something universal, something authentic we share. They unfold, they answer questions before the reader asks them, they create three-dimensional pictures that play out over that fourth dimension, time, they let the reader to create an internal movie of what is happening, they play to the senses, and involve the senses.
All the parts can be in place, but in the end, I think it is the SOUND of a story that buries it in the reader’s mind and makes it matter. I mean a literal singular sound that, even if never uttered aloud, is distinctive, its pace and tone seductive, a rapt voice whispering in your ear. Just as one need not know the singer’s language to appreciate the song, the sound of a story should be just as engaging. I don’t read for the stories in this book as much as I listen for them.
The really good story provides an experience that approaches the book experience, it takes you from one place and by the end, leaves you in another, changed. The lede is important, of course (why else continue?) but the end is no less so. Stories should not just finish and stop from exhaustion, but allow the experience of reading to continue for a moment, to stop the reader cold, to force he or she to relish the experience, and want to share it. The best close makes the reader pause and allows the momentum of the story wash over like a wave, like the water that runs up the sand and then sinks and disappears, leaving a trace behind. That is what first carried me away from my sickbed and still does so today.
I believe the goal of reading and writing is to change lives in ways large and small, and when the water recedes, the reader must know something has changed. This is the payoff for time spent listening to words. This is why we bother. You emerge at the end almost without breath, transformed, and you want to read it again.
Here is what I listen for more than anything else: to want to read it again. After 25 years of this, if that was not the case I do not think I could read another word. The last thing I want is for this book to come out and not want to read it again myself. This has not often happened. Amid all the false starts, the hundreds and thousands of stories I start to read then stop because, well, I discover I don’t even want to read them once, the rare story that demands to be read again and again keeps me at it.
That’s the dirty little secret of this series. Many readers have already read some of the stories collected in these pages each year, and now it is easy enough to find virtually all of them online. Yet it is just that — the desire to read a story again, to re-experience its craft and drama, that provides the rationale for this series. Discovering work you’ve never encountered before is great and essential — but so is becoming re-acquainted to work you might already know, this time stripped down to its core, just words, on a page or a screen, your eyes, mine, and the writer, all sharing something saved.
And in the end, that is the justification and logic of bothering with any of this at all, as an editor, a writer or a reader. We hope to be taken away — to share, through words, and become more than we are. If you give yourself to something, long enough and completely, it gives you something back.
So I have learned from the words in this book.
Now I can tell the story.
This is the eighteenth edition of The Best American Sports Writing and it has been my pleasure and honor to sit in at this keyboard for all eighteen. As the twentieth anniversary of this series has approached, I’ve often thought of how I’d like to mark that milestone because at the start there was no assurance whatsoever that after edition number one, The Best American Sports Writing 1991, there would even be a number two.
In fact there very nearly wasn’t even edition number one. Although I had planned to save that story for the introduction to number twenty of this series, which will appear in the year 2010, there is no longer any reason to wait. The story involves the first guest editor of The Best American Sports Writing, David Halberstam, who I hoped to ask to serve as guest editor for number twenty. Sadly, David was killed in a car accident on April 27, 2007.
The story of this book begins in the summer of 1991 when, almost by accident, I was first approached to do this series. An editor at Houghton Mifflin asked an agent of cookbook authors whether or not she knew of an agent who might have an author who would be interested in serving as series editor of another Best American title, this one a collection of writing about sports. She did not, but she had just taken me on as a client, not because of my culinary skills, but, I think, as more or less of a favor to a mutual friend. I had published a couple dozen magazine stories about sports history and thought I had a few ideas for a book.
I met with the editor and we discussed the parameters and process of creating this title. I was instantly interested, as I was already familiar with what were then the only two other titles in the Best American series, those on short stories and essays, and I knew the level of respect each volume had among not only readers but writers. I remembered that it took two or three shelves in my small town library to hold every edition of The Best American Short Stories and I envisioned that one day this sports writing series would hold a similar place in the library as first one, then five, then ten and then twenty annual volumes were published. That vision, remarkably, has come true.
But I was the unknown commodity in this fantasy, and untested. So before committing to a contract my editor sent me out in the field and asked me to gather a sampler of sorts, to bring back a collection of stories written over the past five years or so that would be representative of the kind of stories I would selected for this proposed series.
No problem. I was a vigorous reader of almost everything, including sports writing, and I worked at a library – not just any library but the Boston Public Library, then one of the greatest public libraries in the world. I was also – ahem – a real librarian armed with a library degree funded by the largesse of the City of Boston. A few years earlier, when I was working as a lowly library aide I was able to take advantage of a program that has long since gone defunct – the City actually paid me to get a masters degree in library science, and paid me more while doing so (and gave me more vacation time), then paid me even more after I received the degree. God bless big government.
So finding fifteen or twenty representative stories was a gimme. I mined pre-existing anthologies and the Reader’s Guide for stories not just by sportswriters, but also for writing about sports by writers who seemed to expand that definition, people like Frank DeFord, Pat Jordan, Tom Boswell, Ira Berkow, George Plimpton and others.
I also thought of David Halberstam, who a decade before had a best seller in The Breaks of the Game and had just published The Summer of ’49. In fact, a few years earlier he had sought me out at the Library and I had given him some assistance as he researched the book. He had subsequently contacted me one or twice more and I thought that counted for something. Not only did I include a story by Halberstam in my sampler – an account of attending a rowing camp with his wife Jean that I found in Vogue magazine – but when I next met with my editor to discuss the project I allowed that I knew David Halberstam and thought he might be the perfect guest editor for our inaugural volume.
My sampler was a success – I recall the editor being particularly impressed that I had found something from Vogue – but my acquaintanceship with David Halberstam may well have been the clincher. They signed me up and a few week later asked Halberstam to serve as guest editor. He remembered me and, to my everlasting gratitude, agreed to serve as guest editor, a coup of the highest order.
It was already toward the end of the summer so I spent the rest of the year canvassing every magazine and newspaper I could get my hands on and sending hundreds and hundreds of postcards to editors of the same, begging for submissions, and was soon buried in a deluge. Then, as now, my task was to deliver to the guest editor some seventy-five stories or so, from which the final selection of stories would be made. Shortly after the first of the year I dutifully called David Halberstam to make arrangements for delivery and he indicated that, due to his schedule, rather than receive all seventy-five stories at once, he preferred to receive two batches, one sooner and one later. I sorted through the pile and soon sent off a batch of about thirty stories.
A few weeks later, just as I finished making my selections for the second batch and was, quite literally, packing them up to send them off, the phone rang. It was David Halberstam. I started to speak, to tell him that a second batch of material was about to be sent on its way, but he did not call to chat. He started speaking, not rudely, but in one long run-on hurried sentence that gave me no chance to interrupt and ended “so I really don’t think there’s enough to make a book it was a good idea and you’ve done a good job but I really don’t think this is a book goodbye.”
In my mind I saw that library shelf full of the Best American Sports Writing come tumbling down and turning to dust. I also saw myself working nights in a convenience store for the next year to pay back my advance, which of course had already been spent, and my fledgling career in ruins. What had looked to be as wonderful break now looked to be a disaster. I imagined myself sitting in bars for the next several decades, the Terry Malloy of sports writing, endlessly lamenting all the “coulda’ beens” of my fate.
So now…what to do? I had no choice. I called my editor and told him, bluntly, that after reading my initial selections the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and best-selling author David Halberstam did not think there was enough there to make a book. He was off the project.
I do not know, have never asked and do not care what happened next. All I know was that a short time later my editor called and told me all was well and that I should send my second batch of material to David Halberstam. I did as I was told and a few weeks later, Halberstam called again.
Perhaps he had just had a bad day, or was burdened by deadlines or some private matter, but it was as if our previous conversation had never taken place. He made no mention of it but wanted to discuss some of the stories I had sent him. To my surprise, he loved the stories now and wanted to know which I liked, and, more so than any other guest editor this series has enjoyed, enthusiastically solicited my involvement in the selection process. Over the next few days we arrived at the twenty-four stories that made up the first volume of this series – the first story we selected, in fact, was “Pure Heart,” a story about the death of Secretariat from Sports Illustrated, still one of the very best stories ever to appear in this series, written by the guest editor of this volume, the immensely talented William Nack.
The books all flew back onto the shelves, I was saved from my fate behind a cash register and a lucky bartender missed out on my self-loathing. The book appeared in the fall and was well received by both readers and reviewers. As the rest of my life has taken place, this book, like a slow growing tree one sees out of the same window that, season after season, changes yet stays the same, has remained a constant in my life. David Halberstam remained a great friend of the book, suggesting stories and other guest editors, and later serving as guest editor of The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, and, as I learned, serving as a terrific example and mentor to a generation of young writers and journalists.
Earlier this year I was honored to serve as the editor of a collection of his sports writing, Everything They Had. Needless to say, as I put that book together in the same fashion in which I build this one each year, I never thought there were not enough stories to make a book. I do admit, however, that shortly after David Halberstam and I selected the twenty-four stories that made up The Best American Sports Writing 1991, volume one of this series, I did go back and check to see how many stories from each of those two batches of material actually made it into the book.
I don’t believe he would mind if I told you it was a dead heat.
“Shut Up and Write”
Sports writers have never had a higher profile. Although most of us dwell deep within the nether-reaches of the field, a great many are “famous,” and a few are six and even seven-figures rich, autograph-scrawling celebrities nearly as well-known as those they write about.
But, generally speaking, not because of anything they have written.
Over the last two decades or so, as the really big money has come into sports and helped spawn things like cable channels, the Internet, blogs and all-sports radio, there has been a lot of spill-over for those who write about sports for a living. There may not be more jobs or more markets, but there is unquestionably more opportunity to become famous and make money. Not too long ago, the only sports writers whose names meant anything away from their home territory were those on staff at certain few magazines, the handful whose work was widely syndicated, the strays who crossed-over into network broadcasting and the odd duck or two who managed to write a best-selling book.
All those rooms are crowded now. This is not altogether bad, for in the past few years blockbuster books by sports writers have become something of a staple of the best-seller list and there is a steady market even for those books that don’t reach block-buster status. Nothing wrong with that, particularly for those of us who try to eke out a living in the book world. A generation ago, that was all but impossible. Now, it is only implausible.
Oddly, though, many of today’s best-known sports writers are not celebrated for the quality of their work on the page, but for the volume of their words spoken on the airwaves. Off the top of my head I can name a couple of dozen whose fame – as far as I can tell – stems neither from their written words nor even from anything specific they have ever said. Their notoriety seems to come almost entirely from the fact that they appear on cable or radio twenty-four hours a day and apparently never shut up. I’m not sure if some of these writers were actually any good at their initial craft to begin with, or in some cases if they even write at all anymore.
But I do know this – they may have become famous and they may have become rich, but very few have become a better writers. More successful? Perhaps. Richer? Certainly. But better? No way.
To be fair, there are some distinctions in broadcasting media – it is not all the same. In some instances – those programs that are either documentaries, scripted so that a writer either reads what he or she has written, reports, comments about his or her own work, or is asked to comment on a topic of which, clearly, the writer has a certain specific and unique expertise – the broadcast media serves the written word. But the real glory in the industry today seems to stem from something else entirely – personality-based punditry, the ability to yammer on endlessly about whatever happens to be coming down the pike.
I must admit that despite my personal appearance and tendency to cough at inopportune times I have been on both television and radio myself, both as a true contributor and as one of these amorphous pundits. It is difficult to say “no” to the broadcast media, particularly because exposure on the airwaves can help sell books or promote one’s writing, or when one has a particular expertise about a given topic – such appearances are totally appropriate. But I’m no innocent. On a few occasions I have also been asked to appear on television or radio because – well, in some cases I’m not sure exactly why I have been asked. As far as I can tell, a) there was air-time to be filled, and b) I answered the phone when called by some twelve-year old producer who didn’t know better. Fortunately, talking is not very hard – ask any two-year-old.
One is understandably flattered to be asked, and when the invitation comes with the promise of a check, there is added motivation to accept because talking generally pays a great deal better than writing. The last time I was asked to talk on air it was at the exorbitant rate of about $1200 per hour – most writing pays closer to minimum wage. There is also a certain cache that comes along with such requests. A great many more people, particularly players and athletes, watch TV or listen to the radio rather than read newspapers, books or magazines. Incorrectly however, the writer who regularly appears on TV or radio is assumed to be both better and more important than the poor scribe who appears only in print, re-arranging the same 26 letters over and over again.
But for some, this creates an awkward dilemma. I know a few writers who are contractually required by their alphabet employers to make appearances on other media, even though they hate it, aren’t every good at it and would prefer not to. They look and sound like they detest every moment and resent the time and energy it takes from their primary job as a writer. I know others for whom such appearances are not required yet they are nevertheless pressured to accept no matter what effect it might have on their writing responsibilities.
Yet there are others – and more of them every day – for whom talking is the end goal of their writing careers. They remind me of the kid who abandons the classroom for the gym in the wan dream of becoming a superstar. Rather than spending time on the craft, there are many in this industry that write only because of the dim hope that it will allow them to pole vault into the easy money and celebrity benefits that come from making it on television and radio.
And why not, apart from the deception and desperation inherent in such a quest? After all, each of us has bills to pay, families to take care and retirement to think about. While those motivations are understandable, there is still something unseemly, even disgenuine about abandoning the written word in favor of the spoken while still flaunting one’s props as a writer. It is reminiscent of the ill-ease one experiences in the presence of a former athlete who demands to be recognized or shills autographs and anecdotes at a card show, cashing in on what they used to be. So, too, for many writers-turned-pundits. It is a crude admission that writing, well, just isn’t that important, and it often shows in their print work. The professional pundit isn’t a writer anymore as much as some inarticulate kind of “authority” – which from my experience I understand to mean a person who answers the phone when it rings and afterwards is then recognized at the bar.
Many seem either to forget or to be completely unaware that there is an enormous difference between writing and speaking. On the airwaves – deservedly – the words just disappear. They are rarely – if ever – recalled again. To read the transcribed words of a pundit is like eating air. There isn’t a collection entitled The Best American Sports Smack and I don’t think there ever will be. Most of it comes off as so much verbal dog-paddling, a loud splashing of one-liners on the surface of things. A day later – hallelujah – it is gone for good. But writing, particularly good writing, lasts here and elsewhere. Last time I checked the public library wasn’t collecting punditry and no one was clamoring for it to do so.
None of this would matter if not for two factors. One is that both television and radio try to get one’s attention by any means possible, usually by gravitating to the outrageous. Far too often the speaker blabbers on out of ignorance or blubbers some crude and pathetic comment with racist or sexist overtones which embarrasses not only the reputation of the speaker but the entire profession. The issue is not one of political correctness, but public stupidity. Yet even worse is the influence this has on writing, and writers, particularly those too young to know better or too ambitious to care, and far too eager to listen rather than read. Instead of utilizing other writing as a model, too many ape the worst qualities of “sports-talk” in print, presumably with the goal of making the transition from the page. The result is writing that aspires to have the same effect, writing informed not by language or literature but by schtick, by not-so-comic or clever monologues that attempt to shock, provoke or otherwise exhibit “edginess.” Far more often than not such work is neither shocking nor edgy nor provocative but sophomoric, gossipy, trivial, predictable, disposable and utterly forgettable, as entertaining as watching someone else’s child in a pool trying to learn to swim and blubbering “Look at me!”
From where I sit the best writing – regardless of style or approach – is essentially a search for the truth, however ephemeral that may be. I think one becomes a writer because putting words on the page is a document of learning, the consequence of hours and days and sometimes years of inquiry presented in a clear and coherent form that reveals something valuable, lasting and previously unknown. As poet Jack Spicer wrote, the best writing, “has an infinitely small vocabulary,” – every word matters and is necessary. Punditry, on the other hand, is usually whatever temporarily sticks when thrown against the wall, unedited thinking best left private. Elevating that into a kind of public discourse considered more consequential than writing is both to abandon learning and to diminish the craft.
This book tries to serve as a small antidote to all that. Writing remains the best way to communicate and the best writing is far better at drawing and holding an audience than the most prolific or profound punditry. Readers of this book can and do sit and listen to the words of writers for hours, longer and far more carefully than they will listen to anyone on radio or television – there are reasons apart from safety you can’t read and drive a car. When the author has done his or her task well, those careful words are heard and returned to again and again, informing and illuminating our lives.
A long time ago I received perhaps the best single piece of advice I have ever received about writing. I was complaining ad infinitum to a friend about a writing project, about the ten thousand problems I had both with the project and the demands of the subject. When I finally finished my screed my friend – a writer – paused for a moment to make sure that I was done, then scrawled something on a napkin and pushed it to me across the table.
It read, “I think you need to shut up and write.”
Where is sport, without the words that surround it?
Every day a thousand games are played a million times and pass by. Sweat is shed by the bucket as wins and losses peel off in laughter and cheers. Tears fall every second and disappear.
Words preserve this, the taste and smell. We remember not the simple exercise, but the result and reason why that matters at all, or why it doesn’t. With the words as our guide we follow and learn.
As I read these stories each year I find myself caring about someone, something or some sport I know little about and couldn’t have imagined ever wanting to know more. A writer, by way of words alone has made this happen, something so surprising and delightful that even the familiar sometimes becomes extraordinary, and the exotic moves close at hand. And I read on.
My daughter has grown up with the detritus of this endless project all around her. In our home, piles of newspapers, magazines and thick manila envelopes fill the places that in other houses are occupied by – oh I don’t know – potted plants, knick-knacks and knock-offs. Over the course of putting together The Best American Sports Writing 2001, she has grown from almost four to almost five and has begun to read. It has been astonishing to watch letters become words and sentences become stories. And she gets lost in other worlds.
So do I. Still. The experience of creating these books has taken me from smoke-filled rooms in Las Vegas to hospital beds and penitentiaries, from mountain peaks to swamps and ocean wrecks, to locker rooms, playing fields, horse stalls and a hundred other places. The best part of creation, and, I suspect, reading, is the pleasure that comes from being transported outside ourselves to elsewhere. We become happily lost while finding something lasting in what otherwise – without the words – would be remain the unexplored. Most games go unwatched and athletes remain anonymous. Even the fans’ most rabid obsession disregards more than it includes.
Whether or not my team or my sport or your team or your sport appears in this book is, thankfully, immaterial. Final scores do not often matter here. This is not a book of results or an encyclopedia. Neither is it an awards ceremony, a testimonial, or a competition. The collective words of the writers in this book are an invitation, a conversation with those we’ll never meet about things we wouldn’t otherwise experience. Sports is the most subtle of hooks here, one that by the first sentence begins to be unwrapped by language and made into something we do care about. Here is a place where Parts Otherwise Unknown are made familiar.
I suppose that is because the writers both care and use care to let us know that. When they don’t, I can tell and fill landfills with their poor directions. But when they do and whisper in our ear and let us in on the secret, this slim book swells and we find our way. Without the words, I sometimes wonder if there is such a thing as sports at all.
So where is sport? A part of it is here, in the words that follow.
A Faster Read
I get a lot of mail.
Each year I receive hundreds and hundreds of story submissions. Most are sent by writers and editors, but some are sent by their wives, husbands, parents, children, former roommates, current roommates, ex-lovers, current lovers, imprisoned acquaintances, or schizophrenic stalkers. On rare occasions, I’ve even received submissions from the well-meaning stranger who just wanted to make sure I didn’t miss a story he or she really liked. In addition to these manila envelopes, I also receive hundreds of magazine subscriptions, resulting in thousands of individual issues, all of which make the circuitous trek from my P.O. Box, to the floor of my car, to the kitchen table, to my room, to a box, then to the floor next to my chair, where they either go into a small box and occasionally whisper, “Read me again,” or start a reverse trek which ends every second Wednesday in the plastic box of recyclables at the end of my driveway.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind. Reading for a (partial) living is an exquisite and sort of perverse pleasure, one I particularly enjoy when I walk past sites of previous employment, like large holes in the earth full of mud and concrete. I enjoy getting all this mail, particularly when I send something into the small box that whispers back. Some of my best days are spent with the stories that make it into this book each year. There is little I enjoy more than gnawing on a great story while time slows and sometimes seems to stop.
The only drawback to serving as Series Editor is that I’ve ended up on every mailing list in use on the North American continent. I get so much residual junk mail that I’m tempted to start gluing it all together into bricks and building a house worthy of profile in Popular Mechanics (You Can Build a Postal Palace . . for Pennies!). I receive such items as catalogs for everything from collectible dolls to health aids and road signs, the expected barrage of offers for credit cards offering interest rates that rise from zero to 39.9% after six minutes, to promotional materials for every magazine of every possible description ever published or even discussed in a conference room with air conditioning. As difficult as it is for a worthy example of writing to catch my attention, it’s a hell of a lot harder for one of these disposables to catch my eye. In fact, in the eight years I’ve been doing this, it has happened once.
I open almost everything, because I don’t want to send cellophane out with paper and thereby commit an eco-crime, so I do my best to separate envelope from contents. One day in the midst of last years sports writing season, I happened across a scrap of promotional material for New Magazine.
Before I begin insulting the undoubtedly hardworking and talented writers who work for this what-will-remain-anonymous New Magazine, I have to say that I don’t really believe any of the market-driven, hyperbole-ridden drivel contained in the promotional packet. I don’t believe the writers for New Magazine do either. Some of them will probably be in this book someday. But I’m not going to allow that to stop me. For among the bulleted phrases that breathlessly touted the arrival of New Magazine was one that, well, just made me get over to my chair and sit right down.
Not only did New Magazine promise to be “BIGGER” (ooh!), “BOLDER!” (aah!) and “MORE EXCITING!” (as Grandma used to say, “Now my head’s just a-whirling”), New Magazine also promised to be . . .
. . . “A MUCH FASTER READ.”
Now that, as they say, is a thought.
In my experience I’ve found that much of the world’s best literature has, in fact, been marred by just this defect, for being a “slow read.” I’m telling ya’, Middlemarch would have been one hell of a read if it only would have taken fifteen minutes. Ulysses? A dream in half an hour. Same goes for The Iliad and all those other books I’ve still got sitting around from college. Let’s face it, even short books, like the Tao Te Ching, shouldn’t have taken more than a second or two. “Uh-huh,” and “Uh-uh,” just about sum it up, don’t you think?
And two pitches are plenty for a baseball game, too.
I don’t know how, but that little nugget of a literary goal had escaped me, my seventeen years of education, and my near decade in reasonably full employ as a writer. It’s no wonder I haven’t gotten more accomplished, what with way too many not-so-fast reads clogging my mail box and cluttering up my house. Of all writer-stuff I’ve worried about over the years, from proper footnoting, to “who” versus “whom,” to the emergence of language poetry, this “fast-read” business somehow slipped right past me.
And I’d always thought that really good writing was timeless, and that time spent reading didn’t detract from my life, but added to it. I guess I was mistaken.
But it’s far too late for me to change. Call me a Luddite if you want, but here at the world headquarters of The Best American Sports Writing, we see things a little
differently. We have a “bullet phrase” too, one which we quaintly refer to in the archaic form , as a “slogan ,” or “shibboleth.” Here it is . . .
”A MUCH SLOWER READ.”
And I mean slow in the sense it’s so good you don’t want to rush through it, except perhaps, in anticipation of the next story. Because here at TBASW, we believe that writing is more than just the transmittal of information or an excuse to send advertising into your home every month. If I’ve done my job, this book will take you a while to read and will feel like time well spent.
What I look for in the mail each year is the best writing that happens to be about sports in some way. That’s what this book is and that’s what I try to provide, without prejudice in terms of the writer, the subject, or the source. I know this is a great comfort to some of the writers at New Magazine, because some have told me of their nefarious plans to slip “slow reads” in between its covers. Good writing simply can’t be stopped. I believe writers are much too smart for that.
Those still seeking a fast read may wish to skip the next several paragraphs, which describe how to send me material for consideration for The Best American Sports Writing 1999. You will probably consider it a waste of time and won’t want to appear in the book any way. I’ll let you know when The Best American Faster Reads is coming out.
How I Got From There to Here
On a rack in my junior high school library was a selection vocational pamphlets, all bearing titles that began “So You Want To Be A . . .” To the best of my recollection, most of the career choices were on the order of “Farmer,” “Nurse,” and “Engineer. I do not believe there was pamphlet entitled “So You Want To Be A . . . Sports Writer.”
That’s just as well, because I really can’t ever recall a time when I really ever wanted to be a sports writer. At age thirteen or fourteen, I still held out the hope of someday filling the shoes of Roberto Clemente or Bob Gibson or any of a number of my other adolescent heroes. By the time it became obvious that simply wasn’t going to happen, at about age fifteen, I had discovered new heroes named Jack Kerouac and James Wright. I had decided to become a writer. The adjective “sports” had yet to work its way into the phrase.
I mention this for two reasons. When an acquaintance first learns that I am a sports writer, the next question is inevitably, “What paper do you write for?” And ever since I became editor of this series, I am occasionally asked by those who feel compelled to address me as “Mr.” or “Sir,” how I became a sports writer.
I was reminded of this as I considered the selections Guest Editor George Plimpton made in this volume. Unlike some earlier editions of this book, there’s only one selection from a newspaper, and hardly a “sportswriter” to be found. I suppose that’s fine. It keeps this book from becoming too predictable and allows me to go off on the route that has brought me here, one that I think is not all that dissimilar from the paths of many other writers who have been represented in these pages the past seven years , and I suspect, those who will reside here sometime in the future.
I went to college in the glorious late ‘70s, a time period much maligned today but one that I remember as when you could do just about any damn thing you wanted without being bothered by anyone, a kind of a suspended magnetic field between the disparate excesses of the ‘60’s and the ‘80s. What this meant for me was that I somehow managed to spend my five years of undergraduate study completing four years of work without ever pausing, for even a moment, to consider what I was going to do to earn a living. This is, undoubtedly, the reason why within about a week of graduation I was back to pouring concrete and tying re-bar and wanting to write, precisely what I had been doing a week before my higher education started, only now I used bigger words, cursed my fate ever more creatively and owed the federal government ten thousand dollars.
So I quit. But what to do?
Well, I had spent the bulk of my time at Bard College in upstate New York playing softball and writing poetry. I even tried to combine the two whenever I could get away with it, even subtitling my senior project, a collection of poetry, “More poems about baseball and fish.” So it made perfect sense that when I went looking for work I got a job selling minor league baseball tickets over the phone.
I was singularly unsuccessful pitching group buys for a spurious “Business Night” at the ballpark and never made more than seventy dollars a week commission, although I did get free tickets to the games. The only groups with which I demonstrated any facility at all selling to were motorcycle gangs and Catholic priests. That’s because I cheated. I departed from my script and told the motorcycle gangs that such and such gang from across town had bought tickets, and challenged them to prove their toughness by attending the same game. To the priests, I casually mentioned that the local Methodist, or Lutheran or Baptist church had also bought tickets, leading the dear Father to conclude that his gang wasn’t about to back down either. But I eventually ran out of both insecure motorcycle gangs and gullible priests. When I did, I quit that job, too.
And went back to pouring concrete and tying re-bar and wanting to write. But now I started looking at the want -ads.
I found one from a small weekly newspaper in a county seat in eastern Ohio that wanted a sports editor. I typed up a résumé , hedged on the white-out and applied. Obviously impressed by my impeccable typing, superb academic credentials and my recent position as group ticket sales manager for the Columbus Clippers triple AAA baseball team, I was shocked to receive an interview.
So I drove out between the abandoned strip mines to the depressed little hamlet and within ten minutes of meeting the editor was offered the job. All I had to do was meet with the publisher after lunch. Only a formality, I was told. I scoped out an apartment above the Sears catalog center on the town square and met with the great man.
Unfortunately, the publisher was not from Ohio. Reeking of grease from his recent lunch and sweating ever more profusely with each word, he explained to me that he was from upstate New York and knew all about me and people like me, and by god no graduate of godless goddamn Bard College was gonna cut his hair and get a job working for him. No sir.
I looked winsomely at the apartment above the Sears catalog center as I left town. My career as an official sports writer was over.
So I went back to pouring concrete and tying re-bar. And writing. I eventually quit the first two tasks while becoming, in turn, unemployed, a security guard, a janitor, a painter, and a library assistant, although I earned the best money after I sold my trombone and moved to Boston by writing papers for nitwit undergrads attending Harvard and Boston University.
But I kept writing and the pages kept piling up, a fact that eventually made each move from one crummy apartment to another more and more problematic. I was out of options. I either had to start making money writing, stop writing, or never move again.
That’s when I figured it out. Sports and writing. It didn’t matter that had 2,000 poems screaming from the bottom of my file cabinet. They were never going to earn me a nickel (well, reading in the street one time I did get a dollar, but I think the guy thought I was panhandling and schizophrenic). Fine by me. I was spending half my time with the box scores anyway. So I started writing about it. People bought it. I concluded that I didn’t need a newspaper behind me.
That was fine, because I had convinced myself that writing about sports was not only fun, but a cut above other journalisms, like what the local sewer commission was up to, or the hair care industry or writing software manuals or the thousand other kinds of writing I could do. It wasn’t literature, but then again, the more I thought of it, well, sometimes it was. I re-read the great stories I remembered from the old Best Sports Stories series and the Fireside baseball books. These led to me to seek out the great sports writers of the past, like Ring Lardner, Paul Gallico and a host of others. I started paying more attention to those who were writing now, and then discovered, or remembered, the great writing on sports that other non-sports writers had done. My beloved James Wright wrote a poem about football. Kerouac was a gridiron star and also wrote of baseball, boxing and horse racing. Even Theodore Roethke had once taught tennis. Sports and literature were not strangers. They hung out on the side, after hours, in secret, swapping stories late into the night. They didn’t always go home together but they had a certain respect for one another. There was a way I could do this.
Over the next decade I made that most delicate transformation, changing from someone who had a job and wrote, to someone who had to write or else sell their belongings. I became a free-lancer, which I once described to someone, stealing the metaphor from Red Smith, as the “ability to freely lance one’s arm, causing a flow of words in the hope that someone might offer of one or more green band-aids to staunch the flood.”
Now I’ve written some hundred articles, four books under my own name and eight under some else’s, have edited this series since its inception and am not embarrassed by hardly any of it. I like sports, and still play. I like poems, and still write them. My chances of making the major leagues and winning the Nobel Prize in Literature are roughly similar. But what really gets me is being handed the ball. Writing what I want to about sports is just as real as any other kind of writing is, and sometimes even more so. I mean, let’s face it, we all know the score ahead of time.
I bring all this up because I suspect that a number of the writers who have been represented in this book have followed similar paths to reach their destination here. Sports can be some kind of equalizer, and I think that’s true of those who write about sports, too. Personally, I don’t care what anybody’s name is, who they write for or where. It never ceases to amaze me that as soon as someone reaches the best-sellers list with a book about something else, they decide to become a sports writer and the next thing I see with their byline is a personal account of the world tiddly-wink tournament. Art is one thing, but free tickets, autographs and press passes are another. Still, the writing I like is the writing I like.
That’s the reason why this book isn’t called “The Best Sports Reporting,” or “The Best-Known Sports Writers in America” or “The Best Sports Writers Who Now Usually Appear on Television and Just Talk.” All of which, I guess, is a roundabout way of saying that sports writing need not be confined to certain topics or publications, or certain styles or approaches, and that there is no strict career track to follow to become a sports writer. As far as I know, most us attended junior high school. Many of us spent the rest of our formal education cutting class in favor of the Library or tavern, some have missed most important morning events to stay up late to get the scores from the west coast, and a few have just plain quit jobs we hate no matter how far in debt we were. I can form and pour concrete, and have heard rumors that there are some among us who have actually attended journalism school. But fortunately, you usually can’t tell which is which – er – whom is whom.
As I keep company with a room full of magazines and newspapers for much of the year, I have plenty of time to ponder all the thing sports may or may not be. Believe me, if you read as much sports writing as I do, questions like that come up on a fairly regular basis.
The answers, however, usually come from unexpected places. Last year my father visited from Ohio and delivered the last remaining vestiges of my boyhood from the basement, most of which had something to do with sports. I received, among other things, an old pair of baseball spikes, the little league football helmet I wore while receiving two concussions, a deflated football, my T-shirts from Mosquito League baseball, a few trophies, every sports book ever published from the Scholastic Book Club, (including the unforgettable first novel, “Danger in Center Field” by one Willie Howard Mays Jr.), and an old National League baseball given to me by a neighbor. I immediately threw a grounder on our new asphalt driveway and scuffed off the “National League” stamp, but I still kept the ball.
The most interesting of these finds was a box of sports magazines dating from the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Although my collection of The Sporting News did not survive the ensuing years of mildew and decay, a couple dozen copies of SPORT did, as well as a smattering of other forgotten magazines like Sport Scene, Pro Quarterback, All-Star Sports, Pro Sports (my favorite at the time) and a variety of preseason annuals. There were even a few copies of Sports Illustrated, which cost too much for me to buy then. I unapologetically admit that the few copies I do have bear the stamp “Hilliard Ohio Junior High School Library.”
When I tire of reading contemporary periodicals, this box is always worth a couple of hours of entertainment. The magazine covers are the best. At this moment, scattered upon my desk are the faces of Johnny Unitas, Bill Freehan, Lou Brock and Bob Griese, and tabloid headlines heralding the stories contained inside, such as “Joe Namath – Is He Good Or Lucky?” “Why Willie Mays Is Doing A Slow Burn” (probably because I’ve reminded him of his aforementioned novel) and “Pro Football’s Cheap Shot Artists: They Won’t Stop Until Somebody Gets Killed!” The covers of the venerable Sports Illustrated are of a different order. The issue of August 7, 1967 sports a garish painting of golfer Gay Brewer and promotes the scintillating story “Gay Brewer Tells How to Hit Golf’s Best Shot – The Fade.” Gay Brewer never excited my adolescent adoration, so why I liberated this particular issue absolutely escapes me.
But the real fun is inside. As amusing as are the adds for “Manny’s Baseball Land,” “Joe Weider’s Killer Karate Krusher course” and “An Important Message to Every Man and Woman in America Losing His or Her Hair,” or Sport’s fashion photo feature “With Austin Carr and Don May(!),” or even the photo of the US women’s gymnastic team in SI, all of whom are distinguished from today’s gymnasts by the fact that they all have breasts, discernable paunches, and are at least sixteen years old, the stories themselves provide the greatest entertainment. Sorry to burst any nostalgic bubbles, but most of the writing isn’t very good. This doesn’t surprise me. My other writing projects often take me far back into microfilmed recesses of sports journalism. I am accustomed to reading what could never find a publisher today.
The issue of Sports Illustrated mentioned earlier demonstrated true wisdom by not even listing the writers on the “Contents” page, a practice which annoys me when I come across it now but may have been the right decision then. Now, I’m not saying that all the writing was poor, just as I am not saying that today’s writers always adhere to a higher standard. There have always been good writers. But the Ed Linn’s, Roger Kahn’s, and other fine writers of earlier eras jumped off the page then. I’m not sure they would now.
Not that today’s writer’s are so much better and there is no more bad writing, but I think there are certainly less terrible writing today, and many more good writers. There is also a larger, wider, much more varied marketplace for sports writing. The publications like those in the box that filled up issue after issue with newsprint and typewriting, have, by in large, gone by the wayside. Oh, there are still some out there, including a few whose current incarnations disparage the titles on the cover, but they don’t dominate the genre like they once did. It’s a fact, but thirty years ago you’d never find memorable sports writing in a free weekly newspaper, a regional magazine, a Sunday supplement outside the New York Times or in a newspaper from such an unlikely place as Wichita, Kansas. Once in awhile Esquire or The New Yorker printed something worthwhile, but most other general interest magazines eschewed sports as a topic.
These are precisely the places I look every year now. To my mind, I find sports writing there as good, or better, than in most contemporary sports magazines. Every year, at the end of this book I compile a list of “Notable Sports Writing.” Some are listed for reasons known only to me, but many of these stories, in any other year and with another guest editor, may well have made the book. To those readers for whom this volume is not enough, I urge you to flip to the back, then look these stories up at the library or on-line and create your own Best American Sports Writing.
Now what do all those magazines on my desk and the little commentary they spawned have to do with the regularly occurring question of all the things sports may or may not be? Well, the more I thought about it the more I realized that the answer may be found, not just in those magazines my father brought to me, but also in the box they came in.
Remember when you were young and received a present and were sometimes far more interested in the imaginative properties of the box than in the confines of the gift itself? Well it seems to me that, to each of us, sports is in some way a gift, something passed down to us from someone who had it before. I can trace my own love of baseball back to the age of four or five when I demanded the installation of outside lights in the backyard so my father could play whiffle ball with me when he got home after working fourteen hours and it was already dark.
Was it baseball I loved then? Not at first. It was the box, my father coming home, me running out into the yard and the fifteen minutes we’d spend together. Had this been a chore, or a demand, I may have grown up to detest the gift, the box and the giver. As it was, I grew to love all three. Baseball, and sports in general, have been a palpable gift to me. In turn, I have been fascinated, intrigued, repulsed, and sometimes bored by all the permutations “sports” can take. But in the end sports has given me something far more valuable than my livelihood. It has provided another way for me to connect with a world beyond myself. Through sports, I learned to love reading, and through that, writing. Sports took me outside, allowed me to discover my own body, broke my heart and made me laugh, introduced me to friends and forced me to confront my enemies. It showed me what I could do, what I could not, and how to expand on each. Not that sports is the only way to accomplish this, or even the best way. But it is a way.
Of course, by itself, sports didn’t really do any of this. I took the gift and box both, played with each, and followed where they led. Even now, I’m still trying to figure out precisely where this will take me, and it occurs to me that what distinguishes the writing in this or any edition of The Best American Sports Writing is that the all the writers represented here are in the midst of a similar investigation. They are trying to determine the dimensions and limitations of sport, not only for themselves, but through the experiences of others. That is why this book can be done every year, and, I hope, is never quite the same. Each of us either accepts the gift or not, plays with the box or throws it away. How and why we do so is the only reason to keep turning the pages. I, for one, am glad enough to have received the gift at all. So, thanks pop, for bringing me the box..
Letters from ‘Doc’
One of the side benefits of serving as Series Editor of this annual collection is that I get to talk with, and occasionally meet, many of the writers whose work appears in this book. Over the five-year life of The Best American Sports Writing, that list includes over one hundred writers of all descriptions, including some of the most notable names in journalism today.
The most memorable, and, I think, perhaps the most important sports writer I’ve ever met, never appeared in this book or any other similar collection. I doubt if any of the writers whose work has appeared here has ever even heard of the man, and I’d be surprised if more than a handful of readers find his name familiar. Yet I think Doc Kountze, without hardly anyone knowing so, may well have been one of the more significant and important sports writers this nation has ever produced. He certainly was to me. Lessons I first learned from him have probably been more important in the evolution of this series than anything I have gathered from any other single writer I have ever met. When I choose from among the thousands of stories I read each year for those seventy or eighty I pass along to the guest editor, I am reminded there are reasons to write that have little to do with bylines, headlines or bottom lines, that words have power and do matter, and that while sport may not be a microcosm of anything, it is certainly a significant part of something larger. Each year, for better or worse, I think this book provides evidence of that.
Doc Kountze never wanted to be the subject of any story. The whole idea was antithetical to who he was. He resisted my own efforts to write about him, and on several occasions outright refused my pleas for him to tell me about himself. From where Doc sat, every other story was larger and more important than he was. He refused to acknowledge his own central role in some of these larger stories, although they were always immediately apparent to me. Kountze was not trying to appear humble or self-effacing. He was humble and self-effacing.
I can write about Doc Kountze now without feeling that I am violating either his friendship or his trust. He passed away on September 27, 1994, at age 84. Consider this a eulogy.
I met Doc a decade ago, just a few weeks after I completed, and to my everlasting surprise, published the first sports story I ever wrote, a historical feature for Boston Magazine about the suicide of Red Sox manager Chick Stahl in 1907. After my initial success, I was shocked when editor Ken Hartnett turned to me and asked, “Well, what do you want to write about next?”
Every writer longs to hear these words, but I didn’t know that yet. I was so shocked someone actually wanted to publish something I had written that I hadn’t even thought of writing another story. Yet the question, and the opportunity, was hanging there in the air, and I had to answer it.
In a panic, I responded with a topic I knew nothing about.
“Black baseball in Boston,” I blurted out.
“Okay,” the editor said.
Now I have since learned, like John Keats did, that while it is not a bad idea at all to write about something without knowing where it is going, it is usually helpful to know what you don’t know before telling someone you’ll write about it. But it was too late for that.
Over the next few weeks my research sent me deep into the microfilmed recesses of Boston’s black press, the Chronicle and the Guardian, virtually the only source of any information about Black baseball in Boston. While the city never really had a team in the Negro Leagues, the local community still supported a wide variety of semi-pro and barnstorming teams. As I scanned through the papers, season by season, I noticed that virtually every sports story, and every baseball story, carried the byline “Mabray ‘Doc’ Kountze.” Almost by accident, I looked for the name in the phone book. He was still alive.
I made the call and met an amazing man. For more than forty years, Doc’s self-designated beat in the sports world was whatever and whoever the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, or Boston Post didn’t write about. Names they designated to agate type and faces they rarely favored with a photograph were Doc’s sole subjects. He was a curator of the invisible, a collector in awkward silences.
Over the next several years I spoke with Doc every few months and listened to him talk about athletes I’d never heard of. Doc’s heroes weren’t named Ted Williams, or Eddie Shore, or Bob Cousy or Harry Agganis, but Will Jackman, Sam Langford, and Louise Stokes, athletes of equal merit whose accomplishments were hardly recognized and whose memories were preserved in precious few places apart from where Doc had placed them. “Cannonball” Jackman was considered the equal of Satchel Paige in New England and the Canadian maritimes, a barnstorming iron man who, after hurting his arm, pitched into his sixties by developing a submarine knuckleball. The boxer Sam Langford was known as “the Boston Tar Baby,” and was probably the best pound-for-pound fighter ever. He was certainly the best fighter who was totally blind in one eye and partially blind in the other, who sometimes hit referees by mistake and made a living late in life by approaching white sportswriters and telling them his story of woe. They’d write a column about poor old Sam and raise a few thousand dollars on his behalf. The writer would win an award and Langford would live comfortably for a few years. Then Langford would do the same thing over again in another town with another writer and no one would be the wiser. Louise Stokes was first African American female to make the United States Olympic team, but you won’t find her name in any record book. She was withdrawn from competition in the 1932 games in Los Angeles out of deference to Babe Didrickson. Four years later, in Berlin, she was pulled to appease the Nazis. Jesse Owens was not expendable, but a black woman, Louise Stokes, was.
For several years my writing career flourished as Doc pointed me toward these stories. He didn’t mind telling me about them, was pleased that I was interested, and delighted in the finished product. I learned a valuable lesson – most of the good stories haven’t been told yet.
But Doc did more for me than feed me stories. He fed my confidence. He took me seriously and gave me time. Where my entreaties to editors were often ignored, Doc always answered. I sent Doc copies of all my early stories. A week or two later I’d find an envelope in my mail addressed to “Glenn Stout, sportswriter.”
Inside would be a page or two of nearly transparent paper, filled margin-to-margin with incredibly small type from an old manual typewriter, as if paper and words were so precious that neither could be wasted, wonderful letters full of praise, criticism, advice, tips for stories, commentaries on the present, bits of scripture, the accumulated wisdom of someone who spent his entire life writing about sports because he though it was important, had meaning, and could somehow someday make a difference. Wonderful things for a young writer to hear.
But Doc rarely told me about himself. In our letters and conversations, only the dimmest outlines of his own biography slowly slipped out. One of ten children, he was often sick, but loved sports. Although small, he played whenever he could. Knowing the chances of his own progress, and that of many others, was stopped by the reality of his race, Doc parlayed his talent as a cartoonist into a career in journalism, coinciding with a personal commitment to a larger cause. All this he referred to only indirectly, as side trips in stories that always ended with someone else. He referred to sports as his “survival kit.” Where once he had been angry, or bitter, he found that sports was the cure. In his work, he focused not on himself or his own experiences, but on others, toward larger issues. In all his writings I never found a hint of bitterness, never any cynicism or desperation. He knew more about what he was doing than any writer I’ve ever met.
I met Doc in person only once. He was a small man, almost delicate, but not at all infirm. The rooms where he lived were dominated by words. I remember a table piled high with books, papers, magazines and newspapers stacked everywhere, a writing desk, which I think was actually an old door, upon which rested the ancient typewriter, articles and photographs taped to the walls. A writer’s room, most definitely.
The more I spoke with Doc the more I became convinced that he was the real story, for he was the link to so much else. But he resisted personal questions, and consistently deflected my inquiries elsewhere. It took several years, more phone calls and letters, before Doc finally gave me story I was looking for.
Baseball was the sport Doc really loved. The mysterious illness when he was young prevented him from playing much, but he never abandoned the game. He committed himself to the cause of the black ballplayer. When Doc was in his early twenties, on his own initiative, he forced meetings with Bob Quinn, owner of the Red Sox, and Judge Fuchs, owner of the Boston Braves, and discussed the integration of major league baseball. Later, he became the first African-American admitted to the press box in both Braves Field and Fenway Park.
That was Doc’s cause, his single commitment. But how could he, a nearly invisible young writer for the black press, affect such a great change?
In the early 1930’s, Doc contacted the sports editors of the major black papers around the country – The Pittsburgh Courier, The New York Age, The St. Louis Argus and others – and formed an organization he named “The National Negro Newspaper All-American Association of Sports Editors.” Their single goal was to make the white press aware of the black athlete. The NNNAA named their own All-Americans and elected their own All-Star teams. Doc was convinced that once people knew, once the veneer of silence about the black athlete was broken in the white press, the major league color line would be similarly breached.
Doc was no great stylist, for style was a luxury rarely afforded in the black press, but for much of the next decade, he wrote with this one goal in mind.
The strategy worked. Years before Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers knew who Jackie Robinson was, Doc and his counterparts pre-selected Robinson as their choice to break the color line. Robinson was familiar to readers of the black press while he was still a student at UCLA. Through the efforts of the NNNAA, Robinson, with his unique set of qualifications, was made familiar to white America. When Branch Rickey went looking for a player to break the color line, his selection of Robinson was no accident. It was what Doc had in mind all along.
The seminal role of Kountze and the other members of the NNNAA in the eventual breakdown of the color line has never been adequately acknowledged. A version that anoints Rickey and Robinson as singular heroes is both more palatable and more easily told. When Doc finally filled me in on the NNNAA, he characteristically wrote, “I participate only to give honors to those before me.” He didn’t care that the role of the NNNAA was never recognized. They succeeded, and that was what was important. “I never sought the limelight,” he wrote in another letter, “beyond focusing my crusades on what I considered a worthy Cause… and made no profit from my writings… With me, a worthy Cause is above Cash.”
Doc believed what he wrote and lived his beliefs, a worthy goal for anyone, til the very end. Several years ago, I wrote a biography of Ted Williams. I dedicated the book to Doc, and sent him a copy.
In the book, I re-printed the speech Williams gave when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966. Rather remarkably, in his speech Williams campaigned for the inclusion of players from the Negro Leagues in the Hall. This was not a popular position in 1966, yet only five years later Williams’ suggestion became reality.
Several weeks after sending a copy of the book to Doc, I received letter from him. He was upset and embarrassed. He had always privately believed that Williams had something to do with keeping the Red Sox so white for so long. While he never wrote such a story, or even whispered a mention of that belief to me, Doc had himself believed it. And after reading William’s speech, he realized his mistake.
Doc was mortified and deeply ashamed. He called me and sheepishly asked for Williams’ address. He had to apologize. His embarrassment over his own private misconception required forgiveness.
I was able to provide an address, and get word to Williams that one simple letter meant an awful lot to a certain old sportswriter. Doc wrote Williams and apologized profusely for an indiscretion neither Ted nor anyone else knew anything about. Williams wrote back and Doc was delighted. In his last letter to me, Doc Kountze told me about Ted’s letter and how pleased he was to learn that Williams, after all these years, was really on the same side he was, and that he should have known so all along, because the cause was just and it was inevitable that everyone would eventually join. He promised to never make that error again, and cautioned me not to make the same mistake. Then Doc ended the letter with the same admonition he always did.
“Keep Faith,” he wrote.
As I put this book together each year, I often think of Doc Kountze. In my mind, sports writing, at its very best, is best represented by this man. As this series continues to grow, I hope the writers represented herein, and the readers for whom this book exists, adhere to their own standards with the same magnanimous spirit and commitment represented by Doc Kountze. He belongs here, and deserves good company.