Review by Choice Review
This collection, edited by acclaimed reporter Schulian, contains offerings from some of the finest sportswriters of the past 100-plus years. It includes pieces from the Golden Age of Sports (the 1920s) by Damon Runyon, Grantland Rice, Ring Lardner, and Heywood Broun, up to more recent times, as displayed in essays by Jane Leavy, Mike Lupica, Michael Wilbon, and Sally Jenkins. In between, columns by Shirley Povich, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Wendell Smith, Dick Young, Jim Murray, Dave Anderson, and many others grace the pages of this instructive volume. The topics are wide-ranging too. Among the stellar deliveries are W. O. McGeehan's examination of the swimmer Gertrude Ederle, Westbrook Pegler's "The Called Shot Heard Round the World," and Bob Ryan's exploration of Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. Baseball, boxing, football, and basketball tales necessarily dominate, but the sport of kings, tennis, and golf make appearances as well. Moving accounts also can be found, on the order of the demise of both the Iron Horse and the Babe, an obit to the Brooklyn Dodgers, the too-long, all-white nature of the Masters, and the Red Sox's pennant loss in 1978. Summing Up: Recommended. All readership levels. --Robert C. Cottrell, emeritus, California State University, Chico
Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by New York Times Review
The baseball park is a peculiar space. As Paul Goldberger allows in BALLPARK: Baseball in the American City (Knopf, $35), "most of the best ballparks have not, in fact, been particularly memorable pieces of architecture by any formal standard." In 1911, when the 37-year-old James McLaughlin was commissioned to design one, he had never worked on such a structure before, and never would again. "If he knew of Frank Lloyd Wright and other modernist architects who were beginning to challenge traditional ways of designing buildings," Goldberger writes, "he probably did not agree with them." The project this unadventurous soul undertook would be known as Fenway Park. Martin F. Nolan, a reporter at The Boston Globe, later described the home of the Red Sox as "a crazy-quilt violation of city planning principles" and "an irregular pile of architecture." These were meant as compliments. What McLaughlin's design lacked in formal grandeur, it made up for in what Goldberger describes as its "benign quirkiness" : the ad hoc arrangement of its grandstands, its famously shallow left field. Fenway hails from a golden era of ballpark construction, when America's pastoral sport was squeezed into the grids of its growing cities. (Fenway's idiosyncrasies are largely the product of the trapezoidal lot McLaughlin was forced to work within.) The great ballparks built in this moment - Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, Chicago's Wrigley Field - realized the ideal of rus in urbe, or the rural in the urban. "The ballpark was the one place where the dialectic between city and country could be experienced within a single intense and lively piece of architecture," Goldberger writes, "the one place where the energy of the city and the easy, relaxed pace of the country were not mutually exclusive, but mutually dependent." Goldberger's book offers a concise history of majorleague ballparks, from the earliest wooden structures (a predecessor to Fenway, the ornate South End Grounds, succumbed to fire - in the middle of a game) to the present. The book is lushly illustrated and can be enjoyed in a coffee-table capacity: Flip to the sections on your favorite parks and you'll find surprising tidbits on nearly every page. The original design for Dodger Stadium, for instance, would have allowed V.I.Rs to drive their cars directly up to their luxury boxes. How Los Angeles is that? But the book also mounts a sustained argument across its pages, which makes reading it end to end equally rewarding. The history of the ballpark, the former New York Times and New Yorker architecture critic asserts, tracks closely with America's attitudes toward its cities. The great parks of the early 20th century may have conjured the rus in urbe, but by midcentury the automobile and the interstate were ushering in the age of the suburb, and ball clubs, too, beat a retreat from the city. Thus began what Goldberger describes as the "concrete doughnut" era, a regrettable period in which teams relocated to venues optimized for parking but detached, spatially and spiritually, from the city. The advent of the domed stadium, around the same time, allowed teams to keep the elements at bay but sacrificed any illusion of pastoral expanse. Of his inaugural visit to the Astrodome in Houston, Mickey Mantle is said to have remarked: "It reminds me of what my first ride would be like in a flying saucer." Thankfully, as American cities began to enjoy a renaissance at the end of the 20 th century, ballparks returned as well, though the retro movement that has given us contemporary gems like Pittsburgh's PNC Park and San Francisco's Oracle Park was far from inevitable. It required the Orioles - owned at the time by an architecture buff and a devoted follower of the urbanist Jane Jacobs - daring to replace the aging hulk of Memorial Stadium with a more intimate downtown park to revive a lost ideal. Architecture critics can be wary of nostalgia, but in the case of Baltimore's Camden Yards, Goldberger writes, "looking toward the past actually was the future." The subject of Kevin Cowherd's when the crowd didn't ROAR: How Baseball's Strangest Game Ever Gave a Broken City Hope (University of Nebraska, $27.95) IS Surely the most peculiar game ever played at Camden Yards. In April 2015, the black Baltimore resident Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained while in the custody of the city's Police Department. Gray's death - the medical examiner would eventually class it as a homicide - prompted widespread protest in the city. In the midst of the civic unrest, the Orioles were due to host a three-game homestand against the Chicago White Sox. Fearing that it could not guarantee the safety of players or fans, the team called off the first two games. Then the front office made a surprise announcement: Baltimore would host Chicago for the final game of the set - but, in a first for Major League Baseball, no spectators would be permitted to enter the ballpark. The game would be broadcast on television and radio, but the gates to the stadium would be locked. No vendors would stalk the aisles selling peanuts. Balls hit out of play would careen off empty seats. Cowherd, a longtime columnist at The Baltimore Sun, attempts to answer the koan-like question posed by this singular event: If you play a baseball game and no fans are there to witness it, have you played a baseball game? Yes and no. The players do their best to stay loose and not be spooked by the strange hush. Caleb Joseph, the Orioles catcher, emerges from the dugout, walks over to the stands, pantomimes the signing of autographs and doffs his cap to the empty stands. In the visiting clubhouse, the Chicago center fielder Adam Eaton takes to Twitter. "We are gonna do our best to take the crowd out of it early," he writes. "Wish us luck." Despite these efforts at levity, a shadow hangs over the proceedings. Some players, including Eaton, portray the game as a worthy attempt to return to "normalcy." Adam Jones, the Orioles' all-star center fielder and one of the league's top black players, isn't so sure. "It's this very 'normalcy' - at least when it comes to the unchanging conditions in the poorest black neighborhoods - that caused Baltimore to erupt in the first place," Cowherd writes. Jones is placed in the impossible, if familiar, position of being a spokesman for his franchise as well as his race. "We need this game to be played," he tells the media that day. "But we need this city to be healed first." It's a hopeful message, but the healing was not to be. The Orioles went on to win the game handily, 8-2. None of the six police officers charged in connection with Gray's death were convicted in criminal court, or faced departmental sanction. If Cowherd's book elucidates a chilling collision of race and sport from recent history, the world's fastest man: The Extraordinary Life of Cyclist Major Taylor, America's First Black Sports Hero (Scribner, $30), by the Washington Post politics reporter Michael Kranish, restores the memory of one of the first black athletes to overcome the drag of racism and achieve national renown. Major Taylor was a champion cyclist at a time when being black limited his ability to compete - and imperiled him on the track. Taylor would ultimately take on, and defeat, the fastest men in what was a wildly popular sport in Gilded Age America. (Teddy Roosevelt was a Major Taylor fan.) But he faced discrimination, or worse, at every turn. Organizing bodies, like the League of American Wheelmen, voted to exclude black racers. Attempting to register for a race in Brooklyn, Taylor was told it would be more appro priate if he were to go "shine the Fifth Avenue gentlemen's shoes." When Taylor did manage to enter a race, Kranish writes, "his competitors made him a marked man, cutting him off, trying to knock over his bike, hoping to make him crash at full speed." When he won, ceremonial bands taunted him by playing "Dixie." Taylor's commitment to his sport - he adhered to a strict training regimen and a careful diet - was outstripped only by his determination not to let such nastiness circumscribe his accomplishments. When, in 1900, his rival Eddie "Cannon" Bald hid behind the color line rather than face a challenge from Taylor, the black racer pasted a newspaper article about the controversy in his scrapbook. Beside it, he wrote: "Yield not to discouragement. Zealously labor for the right, and success is certain." As Kranish's exhaustive account makes plain, success was far from certain. Taylor's remarkable perseverance, in and out of the velodrome, made it possible. This spring, ESPN announced that it would no longer publish ESPN the Magazine in print. If you're familiar with the work of Wright Thompson, you'll mourn the loss. Thompson has written some of the most important pieces of contemporary sports journalism for the magazine, demonstrating unparalleled insight into the lives of the most compelling figures in sport. Thankfully, much of Thompson's best work is now collected in THE COST OF THESE DREAMS: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business (Penguin, paper, $18). Chrestomathies of this sort can feel like a grab bag, or a halfhearted attempt to make a second buck on old work. This volume elevates reporting and writing that was already operating above the rim. Thompson's intricate stories reward a second (and third) reading. And when they are read back to back, themes emerge that permit a view not just of the subject at hand - Urban Meyer, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods - but of something larger: the price these men have paid for greatness. That's the "cost" in the book's title, and it's in evidence throughout its pages. Thompson follows Meyer, at the time the wildly successful Ohio State football coach, as he tries to square his relentless drive to win with a gnawing fear that he's sacrificing his health and his relationship with his family in the process. "This is the difficult calculus of Meyer's future, of any Type A extremist who longs for balance," Thompson writes. "They want the old results without paying the old costs, and while they'll feel guilty about not changing, they'll feel empty without the success. He wants peace and wins, which is a short walk from thinking they are the same." Jordan, too, seeks peace, having realized - mostly - that at 50, he's never returning to the basketball court. He is "dealing, finally, with the cost of his own competitive urges, asking himself difficult questions. To what must he say goodbye?" To the ghost of his former self, first and foremost. In this, Jordan has made some progress: The man Thompson observes is no longer the aggrieved Jordan of his notorious Hall of Fame induction speech, settling scores and threatening (another) comeback. But like Meyer, he can't merely switch off the will to win. On a trip to the Bahamas, Jordan sends a staffer to the hotel gift shop to buy word-search puzzles, then challenges his assistant and lawyer to complete them, defeating both. "1 can't help myself," he says. "You ask for this special power to achieve these heights, and now you got it and you want to give it back, but you can't. If 1 could, then 1 could breathe." A worthy companion to Thompson's rich magazine portraiture IS THE GREAT AMERICAN SPORTS PAGE: A Century of Classic Columns From Ring Lardner to Sally Jenkins (Library of America, $29.95), a compendium of a very different style of sportswriting. The editor, John Schulian, has collected a century's worth of newspaper columns, coverage punched out on deadline. To read the book is to be astonished, again and again, by the ingenuity and flair of the writers who thrived in this medium. Stories written in two hours for the next day's newspaper shouldn't hold up decades later, but the best work here is indelible, even when it describes the heroism of long-forgotten racehorses and prizefighters. All the greats are here - Damon Runyon, Red Smith, Bob Ryan, Jane Leavy - but Schulian also revives some lesser-known scribes, like the great stylist Wells Twombly. If there were a Hall of Fame for lede-writing, Twombly would be a first-ballot selection. His obit of Casey Stengel begins: "On casual inspection, the old man looked like a woodcarver's first attempt at a gargoyle. The face was crude and drooping, even when it was new. The eyes were watery and mournful, like a human basset hound. The ears were large and foolish. The hands were hopelessly gnarled. The legs looked like two Christmas stockings stuffed with oranges." The Old Perfesser, himself a sly stylist, surely would have loved that. In April, as the clock wound down on a Western Conference playoff game, Damian billard launched a 37-foot shot over the outstretched hands of Paul George. The shot found its mark, winning the contest, and the openinground series, for Lillard's Portland Trail Blazers. During a postgame interview, George was asked to offer his review of the remarkable heave. "That's a bad, bad shot," he said. "1 don't care what anybody says. That's a bad shot." ft was an uncharitable description of an exhilarating moment. Also, George was wrong, ft wasn't a bad shot - not for Damian billard. As the ESPN staff writer Kirk Goldsberry noted, Lillard made 39.2 percent of his attempts from 30 to 40 feet this past season. A cartographer by training, Goldsberry had a map to prove it. Goldsberry is the premier student of long-range shooting in the N.B.A., and now, with SPRAWLBALL: A Visual Tour of the New Era of the NBA (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25), its premier chronicler as well. Three-point shots may once have been a niche beat, but today N.B.A. teams are attempting them at unprecedented rates. And they're making them. In the first decade after the three-point line was introduced, in 1979, N.B.A. players connected on 23,871 threes. In the 2017-18 season alone, Goldsberry tells us, they made 25,807. In a way, it's surprising that the long-ball revolution didn't happen sooner. The three-point shot is, after all, worth 50 percent more than the two-point shot. But a perception had lingered that the drop-off in accuracy, as a player moves further from the hoop, made three-pointers a good bet only for old-school specialists like Craig Hodges or Steve Kerr. Next-generation statistics, however, have allowed teams to chart and analyze every make and miss over the course of an N.B.A. season. Distance from the rim, it turns out, has a fairly negligible effect on many of today's shooters. The likelihood that a player like Lillard will make a shot from 24 feet isn't significantly lower than the likelihood that he'll make one from 17 feet. The implication, Goldsberry writes, is clear: "With the exception of layups and dunks, two-point shots are simply dumb choices." Few basketball writers have done more to document the three-point revolution than Goldsberry. Just because he's charted the change doesn't mean he has to like it, though. While much of his book is descriptive - recounting in punchy prose and startling graphics the rise of long-range shooting - the book has a prescriptive element as well. As more teams embrace the three, the game threatens to become monotonous. In place of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's elegant sky hook, we have the three ball. In place of Jordan's balletic fadeaways, we have the three ball. A future in which teams chuck ever more threes may seem inevitable, but as Goldsberry notes, the N.B.A. has historically been very willing to alter the rules to prevent any one style of play from achieving dominance. It twice widened the lane to limit the power of big men like George Mikan and Wilt Chamberlain. How might the league clip the wings of jump-shooters? Move the three-point line, for starters. The current line (23.75 feet along the arc, 22 feet in the corners) was first drawn, arbitrarily, in 1961 by Abe Saperstein, the man best remembered as the founder of the Harlem Globetrotters. (The gimmick was inspired by all the long balls Roger Maris was hitting that year.) Using today's spray charts, the N.B.A. could move the line back to a place where it would actually lead to a meaningful decrease in shot accuracy. In fact, Goldsberry's already done the math: The optimal three-point line should be 25.773 feet from the goal. That's his conservative idea, but there's a wackier, yet appealing, twist on it: Allow each team to set its home three-point line wherever it likes. "When you walk into Fenway Park for the first time, you are greeted by the famed Green Monster, the left-field wall that is one of the most iconic images in baseball," Goldsberry writes. "Now imagine the same thing in basketball." JOHN swansburg is a senior editor at The Atlantic.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [June 9, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review
Among the best sports columnists of his own generation before lighting out for Hollywood to create Xena: Woman Warrior and write for the likes of Jag and Miami Vice, Schulian culls 98 gems from 46 of the most stellar American sportswriters of the past century. The more famous include Shirley Povich, Red Smith, Jim Murray, Thomas Boswell, Dick Young, Tony Kornheiser, Mike Lupica, Michael Wilbon, and Sally Jenkins. Young chronicles, in a nutshell, the cascade of cynical events that sent Brooklyn's beloved Dodgers to L.A., and Kornheiser reminds us he was a great writer before he was an ESPN talking head with a fine New York Times profile of Reggie Jackson. There's also W. O. McGeehan's bold, prophetic 1926 column on American swimmer Gertrude Ederle on the eve of her successful swim across the English Channel, the first ever by a female. And Emmett Watson, far off in the Pacific Northwest, writes a moving, delicate portrait of a young boxer forced to retire to save his own life. Classic columns, indeed.--Alan Moores Copyright 2019 Booklist
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.