Friday, 26 February 2016


meGeoff’s Extremely Subjective Guide to Great Sports Writing

Fifty years have passed since the National Hockey League audaciously planned to double itself in size, expanding from six to twelve teams. I remember my big brother Bob, nine years my senior, a teenager well into life’s double digits, opening the latest issue of The Sporting News, showing me the new teams’ logos and then quizzing me about their likely nicknames. We were in his bedroom, sitting or lying together on his bed, ensconced in the deep sagging pit in the middle of his mattress. I couldn’t complete the simple North Stars graphic puzzle, and many years passed before I was able to appreciate the synchronous ingenuity of the St. Louis Blues winged music note. I guessed the Penguins; the Seals too though unaware of Oakland’s hockey homage to baseball’s Pacific Coast League San Francisco Seals and local hero Joe DiMaggio. Nor was I aware that my older brother had begun to train his sibling seal.

Indoctrination is best done, and usually most successfully, at an early age. My father read to me almost every night when I was small, perhaps we’d spend a month or so with The Man in the Iron Mask or one of C.S. Forester’s Hornblower epics. As I grew, Bob encouraged me to participate in sports. I did and he was my first football coach and my first baseball coach. If he hated the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Dallas Cowboys, well, so did I. If he read the newspaper sports section, Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News, I did too (provided he was done with them). Some sort of personal convergence of reading and sports writing was inevitable.

Bob’s room was a pretty neat place to sneak into when he wasn’t home. The ceiling over his desk was pebbled with dried, stuck spitballs. His transistor radio in its brown leather case was always on the blotter, tuned to the Canadiens skating right to left on the CFCF radio dial. The L-bracket shelves on the wall Dad had installed held textbooks in their bows with two notable exceptions: Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer and Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer. (Years later I bumped into Brooklyn Dodger legend Duke Snider in a Montreal grocery store and I wondered what he thought about Boys as he was a central figure. Duke said the author had got a lot wrong though he’d probably meant well. As I was wearing a red A&P apron and Duke was seeking Sun Maid raisins I couldn’t ask him any follow-up questions.)

My sports library was seeded by Bob. Both hardcover books were gifts and were written by Canadian Football League stars and football was my best sport as an average athlete. I still have them: Mel Profit’s For Love, Money and Future Considerations and Dirty 30 by B.C. Lions receiver Jim Young whom I absolutely adored; he had me with that Fu Manchu moustache.

As I added to that foundation and sometimes culled mistaken acquisitions I began to understand that sports writing is a particularly tricky business. Because everybody knows the score, it’s not the story so much as how it’s told. The prose of the best writers possesses more style and flair between the margins than the stars they cover display between the lines. Always in the past tense, sports writing is history and sociology written for the common man. H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, an examination of high school football in a depressed west Texas town, is a fine example.

There was something else to be gleaned too. Great sports writing transcended the prejudices of the fan in two ways. You could be seduced by the saga of a team or player you’d happily stab at from the depths of hell, or become immersed in the nuances of a sport you’d always ignored or even despised. Based on those criteria, the best sports book I have ever read is The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam, a suggestion of my brother’s. I cannot abide basketball.

Halberstam was a Pulitzer Prize winner, a political historian. I’ve never read The Best and the Brightest, but I’m pretty sure I’ve read every word he ever wrote about his leisure passions which included baseball and… fishing. Game follows the fortunes of Bill Walton’s Portland Trailblazers over the course of a late 70s single season, a model CBC Morningside host Peter Gzowski would employ with the protean Edmonton Oilers in The Game of Our Lives. Perhaps both books owe a debt to Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? Jimmy Breslin’s chronicle of National League baseball’s return to New York in 1962. For some, an entire schedule wasn’t enough. Ivy League blue blood George Plimpton, he of the literary and esteemed Paris Review, actually tried to play football with Detroit pros in order to produce the brilliant journalistic origami that unfolded in Sports Illustrated and evolved into Paper Lion, an article that became a book.

When renowned writers go off topic to examine their distractions and entertainments, readers win. Novelist and blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Eliot Asinof viewed the 1919 Black Sox scandal from every angle and corner of a baseball diamond in Eight Men Out; the flaws in the young though already corrupt corporate culture flowed downward from the executive suite. Ain’t no new news here a century later. Mordecai Richler wrote On Snooker and sent readers Dispatches from the Sporting Life (his description of Edmonton as Canada’s boiler room still rankles some folks in these parts). Roch Carrier revisited the genesis of The Hockey Sweater in Our Life with the Rocket. Richler’s chief biographer Charles Foran later wrote an elegant and succinct biography of Rocket Richard for a Penguin series on prominent Canadians.

An oral history bound between a book’s covers seems an oxymoron. Is it even writing, or just transcribing and editing? The oral history is a deceitfully difficult format because the interlocutor must not only know his subject but also be able to sublimate himself to the voices and stories he’s able to tease out by asking the right questions at the right moment. During a growing pause does the listener hope the speaker will fill the gap?

One of the greatest baseball books ever is The Glory of Their Times, an anthropological portrait of the game as it was played in the late 19th and early 20th centuries researched and assembled by Lawrence Ritter, a university economics professor. When you love something such as the summer game you must know everything about it, however arcane.  This book is evocative and delightfully human. The only Canadian and winter equivalent I can think of is Dick Irvin’s The Habs: An Oral History of the Montreal Canadiens 1940-1980. I’d recommend it to any Boston Bruins fan because their players figure prominently and you need to know and understand your enemy.

Contrasting the collective memory of an oral history is the singular point of view of the memoir. A cerebral athlete is a rare bird and likely considered a misfit by the rest of the roster. But luckily for their readers they kept notes. The most remarkable hockey book I’ve ever read is Ken Dryden’s The Game detailing his time with the Montreal Canadiens during their phenomenal seasons in the 70s. There is no other hockey book quite like it.

There are three similar baseball books. They were all written by pitchers. Perhaps a staff’s rotation downtime offers more opportunity for reflection. Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season was the likely inspiration for Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. Both books breached the omerta of the clubhouse. While Brosnan was more self-absorbed about his days pitching in the National League, Bouton spilled the beans about almost everyone he’d played with, notably Mickey Mantle, thus causing thousands of wide-eyed teenage boys to embrace the new sport of beaver shooting. Pat Jordan’s A False Spring recounts the pain of never being able to make the cut as a major league hurler. He quit the game and went on to a dual career as a sportswriter and mystery novelist.

Career spanning autobiographies are generally best avoided. They are usually shallow, defensively self-serving, or intended to convey some hackneyed personal credo. The really bad ones manage to do all three. Larger than life personalities are best viewed through the lens of an objective biographer and not a friendly ghost.

A few biographies published during the last 25 years have stuck with me. They of course reflect my interests and my fandom. Georges-Herbert Germain’s Overtime: The Legend of Guy Lafleur struck me because it reads like a novel. Stephen Brunt’s Searching for Bobby Orr is the definitive portrait of the ever elusive number 4. Great Time Coming by David Faulkner provides greater context to the life of Jackie Robinson. Richard Ben Cramer’s Joe DiMaggio unravels some of the enigma that was the Yankee Clipper. An old friend with a fine baseball pedigree has recommended The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood by Jane Leavy. What the hell, they’re playing ball in Florida and it’s time for my annual baseball read.

Cancer killed my brother Bob in 2012. When the timing was appropriate I went through his collection of sports writing. I was unsurprised at the number of doubles, titles we shared. I did find two volumes I wanted, The Teammates and Everything They Had, both by David Halberstam. The bookmarks in each were airline boarding cards; reading was how he passed his business travel hours in the air. They’re on my shelf now, nestled up along side the other books he gave me. I see their spines most every day and remember him and the love of the game he passed down to me.

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