One of the best things about life these days is the website amazon.com. Through it you can order just about any book ever written, usually at prices well below those at which it originally was offered. Even some of my old books still are kicking around on it, one for as little as 69 cents. Shipping, of course, is extra.
I mention this not to promote my chestnuts but to recommend other books you may have missed the first time around. The joke has it that the shortest book ever was “Great Jewish Sports Heroes,” but any reputable list of sports books worth reading would be shorter yet. The four to follow belong on it, and in any proper sports-book library. Check them out on Amazon and you won’t be sorry
The first is Volume 1 of “Boxiana,” by Pierce Egan, one I’ll bet none of you has read. Egan-- born 1772, died 1849-- was perhaps the first modern sportswriter. His specialties were boxing and horse racing, the dominant sports of his day, but in writing about them he also chronicled the racy side of the London he knew, and with style and flair. Dickens was said to have been influenced by him. So was A.J. Leibling, whose great, later-day book on boxing, “The Sweet Science,” was in part a tribute to the Englishman who invented that phrase.
Many another common sports-page usage can be traced to Egan; remember that today’s cliché originally was thought to be brightly apt. He coined the adjective “game” to denote fortitude, a “set-to” was a fight, “stuff” meant skills, and a fighter who was knocked down was “floored.” Most people think the word “fan” is short for “fanatic,” but it ain’t. It stems from Egan’s milder word “fancier,” which he helpfully defined as “any person who is fond of a particular amusement.” In Egan’s prose, the fight crowd was “the fancy,” no matter how fanatical it might be.
“Boxiana” is a four-volume compilation, published between 1818 and 1824, but Vol. 1, at a hefty 497 pages in paperback, will give you an ample sample of Egan’s oeuvre. It’s worth perusing even though the pugilists he writes of are long forgotten.
The segue from the first sportswriter to the best moves us easily to Walter Wellesley Smith, known universally as “Red, ” whose prose graced American sports pages from 1928 until his death, at age 76, in 1982. Two excellent books recall him: “The Red Smith Reader” (Random House, 1982), and “Red; A Biography of Red Smith,” (Times Books, 1986), by Ira Berkow, a Smith colleague on the New York Times.
Should one first read the writer, or read about him? The former, probably. “Reader,” a collection of Smith’s columns, shows his range across the sports spectrum as well as the command of language and deft, lively touch that made his work stand out even in the part of the newspaper that gives writers their best showcase.
Unlike many of his colleagues past and present, Smith didn’t regard his subjects —or himself—with undo seriousness, and while he saw them warts and all he usually managed to find something likeable about them. In “Reader,” I recommend especially his piece on “Papa Bear” George Halas, which in about 1,000 words renders that profane, cheap, irascible, determined gent as roundly as others could in a book-length treatment.
It’s tough to write about writers because their work-a-day activity is anything but dramatic, but Berkow’s biography shows Red at work as well as could be done. Berkow was helped by the fact that few people have written or spoken as well or amusingly about writing as Smith.
“I’ve read about Flaubert rolling on the floor for three days, groping for the right word,” Smith said. “I haven’t rolled on the floor. I can’t afford three days. I’ll blow two deadlines if I do.” He joked on another occasion: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.”
My last recommendation is a quite-different sort of work-- “Heaven is a Playground,” by Rick Telander, which I recently reread after a gap of 30-or-so years. Telander, now a Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist, was just out of Northwestern in the summer of 1974 when he took his pony tail, note pad, camera, tape recorder and middling jump shot to Foster Park in ghetto Brooklyn to hang with the teenaged hoopsters who frequented the place. The result was a portrait of the boys and their relationship to basketball that’s yet to be matched.
Despite its upbeat title, “Heaven” is a sad story. Telander’s playground kids may have been wise and tough in some ways, but they were remarkably naïve in others; even Manhattan, a 20-minute subway ride away under the East River, might as well have been in another country. Their lives were so circumscribed by their circumstances—and the expectations they engendered—that they saw basketball as their sole “way out,” and not much of a way at that. Telander emphasizes that point by interweaving their stories with those of such New York playground legends as “Fly” Williams, “Goat” Manigault and “Helicopter” Knowings, whose manifest talents were undermined by the chaos inside and around them.
Have things changed much at Foster Park and places like it since the book was published in 1976? Not for the better, I fear. From what I see and read, “hoops dreams” are as alluring now as they were then, while surer but less sparkly paths go untrod. One wishes that “Heaven” were out of date, but it doesn’t seem to be.