Six years ago in what seemed at the time to be a typically presumptuous slice of Time Incorporated’s traditional impertinence, Sports Illustrated rated what it called, “The Top 100 Sports Books of All Time.” It was the product, they said, of some “tense and unruly discussions” involving “everyone” on the editorial staff.
No surprise there. These lists invariably spark aggravation. But looking back on it I see merit in the effort, impossibly premised as it may have been, while still respectfully disagreeing with many of SI’s choices. For example:
Rating Larry Ritter’s immortal, “The Glory of Their Times’’ as low as 57th is ridiculous. The book, a collection of charming reminiscences by crusty old-timers, helped spark baseball’s renaissance not merely as a game on the field but as a staple of the broader culture. Another fabulous scribe who deserves to fare better is Roger Angell who has served four decades as baseball’s poet laureate. His superb ‘‘The Summer Game’’ is ranked 18th.
They overrated Jim Bouton’s ‘‘Ball Four” (third) and underrated Pete Gent’s “North Dallas Forty” (25th). I’d say they had them backwards. There are too many books on basketball (12) and golf (10) and not enough on boxing (6), which has inspired twice as much fine literature as the other two combined. Where is Ring Lardner’s “The Champion” or Jake LaMotta’s “Raging Bull”? It’s not widely known that Martin Scorcese’s brilliant movie is based on LaMotta’s remarkably candid and gritty autobiography. At 82nd Paul Gallico’s “Farewell to Sport,” another seminal work, lists much too low.
But on the other hand, they got a lot right too. A.J. Liebling’s ‘‘The Sweet Science,” which is all about boxing, is a wonderful pick for the all-time No. 1. Hopefully it inspired a new generation to get acquainted with this true master. They rank ‘‘Bang the Drum Slowly,’’ the Mark Harris classic correctly too; 14th overall, but foremost among all fictional works on baseball including such weighty company as Bernard Malamud’s ‘‘The Natural,’’ a book that’s much darker than the movie, by the way.
It was especially pleasing to see the extraordinary investigative work of Russ Conway, ex-editor of the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, get recognized. Conway’s relentless expose of Alan Eagleson’s criminal behavior as the NHL union boss entitled “Game Misconduct” (92nd) never got the credit it deserved in our town. Jealousy may have been a factor. Near single-handed, Russ brought down the mighty Eagle. How many of his colleagues can make a comparable claim?
Plainly, sport as a force in American letters -- fiction and non-fiction, history and biography -- is huge. Only sex and war generate more literary output. The scope and numbers, already phenomenal, expand annually. So too does the quality. The day of the market being dominated by thin and pasty profiles depicting all the stars as choir boys and all the wannabe’s as Merriwell’s is long gone. Sports books today have scholarly merit. And they have teeth. The “gee whiz ain’t it grand days” -- in Gallico’s memorable phrase -- are over. Fine illustrations of the point were produced in just the past year.
Acclaimed works include the dramatic tale of the Carlisle Indian School and its most illustrious grad, Jim Thorpe. An excerpt in SI on Carlisle’s fabled 1912 showdown with a West Point team that featured a spirited young lineman named Dwight Eisenhower was excellent. The game, matching Native Americans fresh from their reservations against budding army officers only 20 years after Wounded Knee, has been called the most important in college football history.
Biographies that recently hit the racks include a well-received look at Billy Conn, “The Pittsburgh Kid,” a dramatic character from Boxing’s golden age. Lou Holtz, a football coach who has seen it all, tells his own story in an autobiography that got good grades. The market for sports histories is never sated. New one’s include an exhaustive history of the early days of pro-football and a study of the influence of money in the NBA.
Coming soon is a new work by old friend Leigh Montville, the prolific one-time columnist of the Globe whose monumental biography of Ted Williams produced four years ago is destined to become a classic. Since etching Teddy Ballgame in literary granite for all time, Leigh has taken a twirl with yet another of sports’ great white whales, the incomparable Babe Ruth. This time he tackles, for comic relief, “the Mysterious Montague,” the legendary golfer and Hollywood hustler who drifted through the thirties like a puff of smoke. Watch for it. You can’t go wrong with Montville.
Other new ones that have recently landed on my desk include “Dream Team,” by Frederick Day. It has an extraordinary premise. For it’s all about the good works of a disparate collection of athletes who played every game under the sun over the last century. Day offers 123 mini profiles, all bound by a common thread; their decency. The book is sub-titled, ‘‘Saints and gentle souls from the World of Sports.’’ Having hung around sporting characters too long, I remain skeptical, but I’m willing to be proven wrong.
But it’s baseball that dominates the genre. Books on baseball blossom by the dozens monthly. There’s a periodical devoted entirely to keeping track of them. No era, aspect, nuance, or moment even faintly memorable escapes the extraordinary scrutinies of the nation’s thousands of baseball scholars and they are a truly dedicated lot; or, more precisely, ‘‘obsessed.’’ The recent crop includes:
At least five histories of the Mets. Four of the Yankees. Three of the Cubs, Dodgers, Giants and Pirates whose fans can be forgiven for wanting to live in the past. And one apiece of the Cardinals, Reds, Orioles, Braves, A’s (when they belonged to Philadelphia), Seattle Pilots (who existed only one year), and Blacksox, another one year wonder.
Bio’s, confessions, memory lane excursions, and the like were offered on or by Branch Rickey, Lou Gorman, Mel Allen, Buck O’Neil, David Ortiz, A-Rod, Roger Clemens, Denny McLain, Kent Hrbeck, Ban Johnson, Sal Maglie, Tommy Lasorda and Stan Musial. There were two more on Mickey Mantle, three on Babe Ruth and four on Jackie Robinson because, of course, it was his 60th.
Rico Petrocelli shared his ‘‘Impossible Dream’’ memories. Bill Lee waxed on eccentrics and nutjobs, subjects on which he rightfully considers himself expert. Mike Stadler explored the game’s psychology. J.C. Bradbury dissected its economics. Tim Kurkjian genuflected to its glory. Monte Irvin ranked its greatest players. Jayson Stark assumed the Herculean task of ranking those who have been both most overrated and most underrated of all time. Yikes! And just arrived is a painstaking recounting of the 1978 season told entirely from the perspective of the Red Sox and Yankees by Richard Bradley. Just what you needed; more memories of Bucky Bleepin Dent.
There were books on cheating, quoting, collecting, trivia, quotations, grounds keeping, scapegoating, barnstorming, plus one on ‘‘ghosts, curses and hexes.’’ Tutorials on how to watch a game, listen to a game, score a game, analyze the statistics. Guides to spring training, guides to ballparks, guides to fathoming the game’s myriad odds, probabilities and mathematics and even an advisory on how to be happy at the ball yard while remaining a Cubs’ fan.
There were four new books on the sorrows and triumphs of the integration process and five new encyclopedia’s and a history of the home run. If hardly needed, there were new studies of the 1908 season (Merkle’s boner), the Gashouse Gang, the ‘‘miracle’’ Braves of 1957, the 1944 World Series (featuring the beloved Browns), the 1975 Red Sox, the 1949-53 Yankees, and, in the crowning coup, a 280 page work on a single game; the seventh game of the 1960 world series lovingly dubbed, “the Greatest Game ever played.” Thanks for the memories, Bill Mazeroski.
There’s more; doubtless much more. This is only a sampling and I have neither the wits nor the will to attempt a complete box score. Does the march of civilization really need this monumental explication of mere sport? Apparently, we can’t get enough.