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Sportswriting: A 2,000-Year History

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Sportswriting didn’t start with early 20th-century newspaper columnists talking fast and wearing hats with the word “press” written on the brim. The origins of the genre go way, way back past the historical warning track— hunting stories in pictorial form are on the walls of Lascaux caves. But “ancient” sportswritings aren’t just of archaeological interest; they have quietly helped shape modern sports narratives in everything from newspapers to novels to blogs.

The works selected here have either epitomized new genres of sportswriting or contributed to the cultural influences of sports or sportswriting. Let’s start with the grimmest of these writers, who composed a long song about famous people dying.

The Iliad (800-700 B.C.)
coverYes, The Iliad. The Trojan War may start with a fight over a woman, but soon Homer’s very human heroes are more interested in fame than in love, revenge, or politics. At this point, the war essentially morphs into a sporting competition, and the body count rises exponentially, featuring Sports Center-esque highlight reels in which individual heroes get hot and do improbably balletic damage to the enemy team. The Michael Jordan of the Greeks is Achilles, and within two minutes of action in Book 19, he stabs Dryops, spears Demouchos, dashes brothers Dardanos and Laogonos to the ground, slices Tros (who has come to beg for mercy), hews Echeklos’s head off, and stabs Deukalion through the arm. All good competition, men from good families, worthy enough to be named in the epic but forever posterized in song.

When the battle stops for Patroclus’s funeral, we even get an actual athletic competition among the heroes. With the Olympics, the Ancient Greeks  invented sports as a form of war—official games designed to train citizens for battle. These links between sports and war live on in our imaginations and casual descriptive language (e.g., “Allen Iverson was a real warrior on the court” or “the epic battles between Oklahoma and Nebraska”). In addition, Homer presents the first “best-ever” athletic debate: Achilles had to vanquish Hector to cement his permanent fame, just as Muhammad Ali had to outlast Joe Frazier.

David and Goliath (630-540 B.C.)
coverWho knew that this Bible story would provide Jim Nantz with an infinitely replicable metaphor for each year’s early round NCAA tournament games? The slingshot isn’t cutting edge technology now, but this is a story about the moral superiority of the underdog, how the plucky, brainy guy can strategically outwit the big lunk, and so forth. In other words, it’s a paradigm for almost every moralized sports story you’ve ever read—and most sports stories are heavily moralized.

Similar to NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, there is much more backstory in 1 Samuel than actual combat, but, like Goliath himself and sports stories in general, the confrontation has taken on outsized proportions in the collective imagination. So we can easily imagine Bob Costas’s voice-over for the five-minute NBC “up close and personal” biography of David before the network cuts to the actual battle: “David was born a poor shepherd boy in Bethlehem. But when he found that he could protect his flock from lions and bears, he dreamed one day he could challenge a formidable champion like Goliath” (cut to a clip of Goliath slaughtering enemies and then to a close up of him crossing his arms, slowly nodding at the camera, and looking satisfied).

The Legend of Robin Hood (ca. 1100-1200 A. D.)
The legend of Robin Hood centers around a spectacular athletic performance: Robin shoots an arrow that literally splits the center of his competitor’s arrow. Thanks to sports stories (or legends), leadership is often defined by athletic feats, and Robin, clearly the best athlete available in the 12th century, eventually gets to help Richard the Lionheart reclaim England. (Skipping over Thomas Malory and numerous other medieval and Renaissance tales about knights and tournaments—you’re welcome.)

The slight problem here—for those few who still touchingly insist on historical accuracy—is that Robin’s story, like many sports narratives, changes over time. In one of the first known accounts, “Robin Hood and the Monk,” Robin is just a bad-tempered local yeoman (commoner) who actually assaults Little John for defeating him in the archery contest. As the Robin Hood tales became a legend, the arrow was split, and the outlaw was rebranded as a national hero. These changes are an early, influential example of the game of historical telephone with which we exaggerate athletes’ heroism over time until the stories assume mythic proportions (e.g. Babe Ruth’s alleged “called shot” World Series home run). But how will this process work in the foreseeable future when we have visual evidence qualifying our claims (looking at you, Stephen A. Smith)?

Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857)
coverThomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays is by far the most influential sports novel ever, though, ironically, it has few actual sports scenes. The three major—and quite memorable—ones involve a young Tom Brown, newly arrived at Rugby School, bravely standing against older and larger players at soccer; a slightly older Tom becoming a rugby legend and leader by outboxing school champion “Slogger” Williams; and Tom as a head boy and cricket captain putting in younger and weaker players to help them work on their confidence. In two out of the three crucial sports scenes, therefore, winning is much less important than character and team building. If you think this is didactic, you are correct, but mid-century public schoolmasters and their novelistic publicists were really in the business of training obedient players for another team—the one that ran the British Empire.

The novel invented the modern school story, thus paving the way for thousands of similarly moralized sports tales designed for teenage readers and young adult literature as a genre. Sports scenes in these works function as the applesauce in which authors hide the pill of the moral lesson, lauding teamwork and school spirit over individualism and praising conformity and, often explicitly, Christianity over being an adolescent (an emerging and troubling developmental category). Indeed, at the heart of Tom Brown’s Schooldays is an all-knowing but distant schoolmaster and cleric, the real-life rugby head Thomas Arnold, who occasionally imparts pearls of wisdom to favored students but is often away on more important business, like, say, Dumbledore.

The Sun Also Rises (1926)
coverThis is a novel by Ernest Hemingway about Americans traveling in Spain—very manly men. Except for the one who was wounded down there in the war. U.S. flag flying half-staff in Pamplona. You know what I mean. In sum, it’s a modernist literary masterpiece but also a moralized fable about masculinity and sports (in this case, bullfighting), and heavily influenced by works like Tom Brown. Indeed, sports-themed morality tales, in magazine, pulp, and novel form, saturated the American literary market for young male readers until the late 1950s.

But Hemingway was especially influential because he embodied the vision of manliness his writings promoted: he wrote in short sentences, went fishing and hunting, shot guns, got drunk, and punched other people. He became the first American literary author to be lionized as a famous sportsman, and the rugged outdoorsy persona of “Papa” Hemingway was a masculine icon for a generation of American men. But the author eventually couldn’t stand being “Papa” and shot himself.

Veeck—As in Wreck (1962)
coverIn the 1960s and 1970s, a vanguard of nonfiction writers worked hard to relegate moralizing sports literature to the historical margins. One of the first and most influential of these works features that most modern of characters: a cheerfully unrepentant capitalist who revels as much in the business of baseball as in baseball itself. Imagine a great storyteller at the end of the bar who regales you for several hours on the ins and out of the baseball business: how to acquire teams, populate them with cheap but effective players, outwit other owners and the league office, placate mobsters, publicize games, and sell concessions. That’s Veeck—As in Wreck, essentially a transcription of maverick team owner Bill Veeck talking nonstop about the baseball business to Ed Linn, and no one could talk faster and longer than Veeck. In this book, we see the development of the modern sports team owner: self-publicizing, loud, and innovative, but always with an eye on the turnstile and additional revenue streams. And the book helped cement the ideal form for future sports blowhards (every single one of them less charming than Veeck): the as told to book.

The book starts out with the stunt that ensured Veeck’s fame—sending out 3’ 7” performer Eddie Gaedel to pinch-hit in a major league game in 1951. But the man who also brought us exploding scoreboards and Disco Demolition Night was never out of ideas, and Veeck details many other hilarious ones here (e.g. having players protest the crappy lighting at a competitor’s ballpark by sending them to the on-deck circle wearing miners helmets with lights shining). And as a bonus for romance literary types, the book features two sweet love stories: Veeck’s obsessive love for baseball and his pursuit of his second wife, Mary Frances Veeck, appropriately enough a publicist by trade, while he owned the St. Louis Browns. After they married, he proudly notes, she secretly set up an apartment for the family within St. Louis’s Sportsman’s Park while he was still plotting how to get her to agree to move in there.

Beyond a Boundary (1963)
coverC.L.R. James
’s memoir Beyond a Boundary is important mostly to historians who study the interrelations among sports and politics, and the first half of his book looks backward to the history of cricket in the 195y and early 20th centuries (and proposes cricketer W.G. Grace as the first modern international sports celebrity). A West Indian revolutionary and cricket writer—now that’s a combination—James also argues in Beyond a Boundary that works like Tom Brown helped inaugurate the British “games cult,” which the Empire then imported to its colonies, often in the form of introducing cricket and soccer in local schools. James then intriguingly claims that the games cult spread Britishness throughout the empire more efficiently and peacefully than did the exercise of direct political or military power. Loose analogy fans (and sportswriting is a graveyard of loose analogies) can consider how the global reach of American culture—Hollywood; rock, pop, and rap; and the NBA—now popularizes the United States even in areas where different political and religious views predominate.

In the second part of the book, James shows how he cleverly turned this ruling-class sports ideology on its head by helping to lead a groundswell in 1960 to get one of the West Indian national cricket team’s best players and revered leaders, Frank Worrell, to be named the team’s first black captain. By the usual meritocratic sports arguments, James argued, Worrell deserved to be captain, and the team’s subsequent success under Worrell’s captaincy served as a pointed comment not only about entrenched racism in sports but also about self-government within the empire. As James suspected, his cricket writings may have done as much for West Indian independence as his well-known political writings, including The Case for West Indian Self-Government (1933).

Levels of the Game (1969) and David Foster Wallace’s Tennis Writings
coverIt’s a twofer! John McPhee’s account of a 1968 U.S. Open semifinal match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner is a great piece of writing, as are most things McPhee. For this book, McPhee had the two tennis players subsequently watch a videotape of the match and recount to him, in stunningly detailed fashion, their strategies during their contest. McPhee adds to the layering by detailing their cultural backgrounds; athletic training; and, interestingly, the long mutual acquaintance between them and their families. And he does all this without being intrusive or self-indulgent; he’s the Roger Angell of tennis (but not just tennis— see his brilliant profile of Bill Bradley, “A Sense of Where You Are”). Levels of the Game started out as a New Yorker essay, and this and other McPhee writings served as templates for many subsequent long-form, biographical profiles of sports figures published in magazines or on websites.

coverSome of the better recent McPhee-influenced sports profiles are from the late novelist David Foster Wallace. A talented junior tennis player himself, Wallace could also discuss tennis in fascinating detail, especially in justly celebrated essays on Roger Federer and journeyman pro Michael Joyce, and even in his endlessly annoying (and brilliant in its serial ability to annoy and then intrigue) novel Infinite Jest. But best of all is his essay on playing junior tennis in Illinois, “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” in which Wallace cannily analyzes an overlooked factor explaining why power tennis players essentially took over the pro game in the 1980s. While many other writers have related this shift to changes in racket technologies, Wallace focuses instead on the large-scale construction of court wind screens, which minimized wind bursts and hampered the ability of canny retrievers like himself to use the elements to lengthen points and get into the heads of the power players.

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Ball Four (1970)
coverLet’s move on to another clever and insistent truth-teller, who, like Veeck, never lost his conversational fastball. Jim Bouton did not invent the “player writing an insider account of a year with a team” narrative. That honor goes to Reds pitcher Jim Brosnan and Green Bay Packer lineman and Vince Lombardi-worshipper Jerry Kramer. (Then journalists like George Plimpton, Roy Blount Jr., and David Halberstam got into the act.) But Ball Four is still the most influential of the genre; it exploded every cultural myth associated with heroic Tom Brown-influenced sports narratives, not to mention all assumptions about those narratives’ educational value. Baseball, for Bouton, was a war between venal management and immature, self-indulgent players, most famously embodied in the book by his memories of American icon Mickey Mantle, revealed as a drinker and voyeur (and therefore team leader).

Bouton is funny enough but, more important, brutally honest about everything. He casts himself as the team outsider, a weird knuckleballer who hangs out with the other nonconformists on the Seattle Pilots and even visits a protest on the Berkeley campus on an off day. Anyone who sits by himself in the locker room writing notes would never quite be treated by teammates as family (something about which Bouton is charmingly candid). But, irony alert, Bouton desperately wanted to be accepted by baseball people, including, or especially, Mantle. And unlike truth-tellers who have blown whistles and gone on to other public careers based on the perceived authenticity of their voice (e.g. John Kerry’s move from Vietnam protesting to politics), Bouton never left baseball and, in fact, kept making comebacks and attempting to rejoin his former New York Yankees family, even long after retirement. Bouton’s truth-telling was shocking in 1970; his obsessive need to belong to the baseball community is what poignantly resonates now.

The Boys of Summer (1972)
coverAt some point in this period, baseball was crowned the most literary of U.S. sports, and Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer—the title, tellingly, coming from a line in a Dylan Thomas poem—epitomizes the successful marketing of such pretensions. Kahn had followed the mid-1950s Jackie Robinson-led Brooklyn Dodgers as a beat writer for the New York Herald Tribune, and the first half of his memoir speeds with rhetorical wit and narrative verve over the various athletic and political hurdles confronted by this fascinating group of players. But then Kahn switches gears and interviews the team members 15 years later, and the nostalgia hangs like 1972 SoCal smog. This is not to deny the pleasures of reading Kahn. He is certainly a keen observer of people, and his chronicle of a year in the minor leagues, Good Enough to Dream (1985), is quite affecting. But like other 1970s innovators Chris Evert Lloyd and Led Zeppelin, Kahn was saddled with less-talented imitators and a resulting genre that often bored. A generation of Kahn-lite, big metaphor sports books followed: think of every single thing John Feinstein ever wrote, not to mention, to adapt Jeff Van Gundy’s phraseology about Phil Jackson, Big Chief Vague Metaphor Ken Burns and his Baseball documentary, which not surprisingly featured Kahn as one of the talking heads.

covercoverKahn’s memoir also plumbs the father/son angle so often exploited in sports literature: fathers and sons don’t like or even understand each other unless they are talking about sports. This ubiquitous American stereotype—think Shoeless Joe, the novel on which the movie Field of Dreams was based, or Fenceshas itself motivated a lot of bad historical writing on generational conflicts. Ironically, The Boys of Summer does have lovely and affecting sections featuring Kahn’s James Joyce-reading New York literary mother that would themselves form the core of a charming memoir if they weren’t weighed down by the book’s testosterone-fueled nostalgia.

1980s Boston Globe Sports Omnibus Columns
American newspaper sportswriters deserve a shout-out. Anyone can appreciate Red Smith’s pithy summary of the 1958 Green Bay Packers’ 4-10-1 season, “They overwhelmed four opponents, under-whelmed ten, and whelmed one.” But we’re talking about influence, and nothing has been more influential on the past two generations of sportswriters than the Boston Globe sports section in the 1980s. These talented sportswriters—particularly Peter Gammons on the Red Sox, Bob Ryan on the Celtics, and Will McDonough on the Patriots—refocused their work on the culture and sociology of sports and invented a new medium for their musings: the Sunday paper omnibus column. Gammons started the trend, but the others picked it up, and now you have to look hard for a sports section or website that doesn’t prominently feature such columns (hello, Bill Simmons).

In the mid-1980s, I particularly enjoyed Ryan’s basketball columns, which ranged from insider Celtics info to general ruminations on the state of the game. Ryan could be catty about players, most especially at the time Celtics backup center and garbage-time regular Greg Kite. But if Ryan called BYU grad Kite “the least talented player in the NBA” or once claimed, echoing The Beatles, that the fourth quarter of one Celtics blowout was played for “the benefit of Mr. Kite,” he also speculated that part of Kite’s real role might be to help racially balance the team (still a consideration for ownership, as Boston, a very white and racist city, was only a decade away from its school busing riots). So even in-jokes were linked to larger concerns, and Ryan and Gammons in particular cast themselves as sociologists of the games they covered.

The Various Formats of Bill James (1977-Present)
Another New England writerly phenomenon, Bill James, rounds out our list. The obvious points here are that he revolutionized baseball by helping to introduce statistical thinking to fans and front offices and by re-engineering sportswriting to focus less on game summaries and interviews with players than on abstract questions (e.g. do batting averages really tell us much about hitters’ overall effectiveness?). But he also changed the business of writing with statistics for popular audiences. James’s delineation of problems within manageable chunks of writing containing digestible portions of statistics were exemplary instances of catering to—and capitalizing on—his audience’s short attention spans and math anxieties. Would Freakonomics or Malcolm Gladwell exist without Bill James?

Along with his spiky intelligence, James’s innovative publishing strategies—writing annuals, using subscription models, and creating online platforms for his work—have always been one step ahead of the curve and have forged a surprisingly large audience for him. And he himself is a role model and object lesson for all obsessed sports fans. Once an outsider crank who produced essays during his night shift as a security guard at the Stokely-Van Camp’s pork and beans cannery, James wrote his way into a front office job with the Boston Red Sox.  Who else has changed thinking about a game and writing about sports so thoroughly recently? Why isn’t this man already enshrined in Cooperstown?

A Last Note on Influence
Cultural critics have often derided sportswriting as a willfully simplistic genre. But this critical line doesn’t address the ways in which sports-related imagery, metaphors, and ideas have saturated writings throughout history. At the very least, the works treated above have influenced other sportswritings, but let’s instead ask, more provocatively: What popular writings haven’t been influenced by sportswriting?

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The post Sportswriting: A 2,000-Year History appeared first on The Millions.

Sportswriting: A 2,000-Year History

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