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Slam Dunk

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<i> Bill Littlefield edited "Best American Sports Writing, 1998." He is the host of the nationally syndicated radio program, "Only A Game," and the author of "Keepers: Radio Stories from Only a Game and Elsewhere" and "Champions: The Stories of Ten Remarkable Athletes."</i>

“The Best American Sports Writing of the Century” is by its nature a brave and foolish undertaking, but it’s a worthy one as well. Even if all it did was collect some of the pieces that everyone would agree are deserving, the labor would be justifiable. Red Smith is here, as are Heywood Broun, W. C. Heinz, Ring Lardner, Jim Murray, John Lardner, Roger Angell, Frank Deford and J.R. Moehringer. It could hardly be otherwise.

But beyond the obvious come grounds for dispute. Tom Boswell is in the book, but for two unremarkable pieces on boxing. Why’s that? Boswell is a superb baseball writer who’s maybe even a little better on golf. Bud Collins, who writes almost exclusively about tennis, is a better boxing writer than Boswell, and Collins (who just won the Red Smith Award) isn’t in the book at all.

See how quickly this exercise could turn small-minded, nasty and subjective? In the wrong hands, this collection could spark the literary equivalent of the bar fight over whether they should have let Phil Rizzuto into the Hall of Fame. (Could play short, helped the Yanks reach the World Series nine times but, jeez, hit over .300 only twice and once batted under .200.)

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In the interests of keeping the discussion on a higher plane, it’s worth mentioning that a great part of the fun of this collection comes in encountering or re-encountering the particular stories of some of the aforementioned worthies and others. Consider, for example, a bit of John Lardner’s 1959 True Magazine profile of pro golf’s greatest hustler, Walter Hagen. Having subdued the usually great and always revered Bobby Jones in one tournament “by the whopping margin of 12 and 11,” Hagen bought Jones, the amateur who could accept no prize money, an $800 pair of diamond cuff links.

“ ‘We must encourage the breed of amateur,’ ” Hagen explained sweetly, and Lardner aptly reports. “ ‘They draw their share of customers, and we take their share of the gravy.’

“So saying, Hagen leaped aboard his Madame X Cadillac (a deluxe model of the period, of which he owned the first specimen ever produced) and rode to his office to see how things were doing in the business (Florida golf promotion), which at the time paid him $30,000 a year and included, among other things, a blonde secretary who played the ukulele.”

So much for the idea that the flamboyant star athlete is the spawn of the alliance of Nike, the music video culture and Michael, Tiger and Mia.

W. C. Heinz’s account of the misadventures of Brooklyn outfielder Pete Reiser, who never met an outfield wall he didn’t assault with his head, is similarly splendid. Who can fail to be moved by a man who left the field unconscious about as often as he made it to the clubhouse under his own power? Murry Kempton’s understated profile of Sal Maglie, the pitcher on the losing side of Don Larsen’s World Series no-hitter in 1956, has lost nothing to the years, and it reminds us that as often as not, the writer is better off in the loser’s clubhouse than in the crowd of reporters surrounding the champagne-drenched winner. Red Smith’s 52-year-old column chronicling a peculiar autumn afternoon upon which the Dodgers upstaged the Yankees holds up, too: Bill Bevens made the critical catch that day, and Cookie Lavagetto got the game-winning hit. What other columnist, then or now, would finish the piece with this paragraph:

“The unhappiest man in Brooklyn is sitting up here in the far end of the press box. The v on his typewriter is broken. He can’t write either Lavagetto or Bevens.”

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Oddly enough, some of the more ambitious and much longer entries don’t weather so well. In his introduction, David Halberstam goes on at great length about the much-celebrated piece on Joe DiMaggio that Gay Talese wrote for Esquire in 1966, but readers now may find themselves wishing Talese had been less tenacious, less of a pain in the ass to a cranky retired ballplayer who just wanted to be left alone. But in this age of tabloid TV, respect for privacy--especially the privacy of a baseball player who was married to Marilyn Monroe--may seem an odd value to champion. Halberstam refers to Tom Wolfe as “a superstar of magazine writing,” but much of Wolfe’s account of race car driver and former moonshiner Junior Johnson, written in 1966 for Esquire, feels self-indulgent and artificially breathless:

“Ggghhzzzzzzzzhhhhhhhgggggggzzzzzeeee-ong!--gawdam! there he goes again, it was him, Junior Johnson! with a gawdam agent’s si-reen and a red light in his grille!”

Though the fellows (and they’re almost all fellows) who wrote the pieces included in “The Best American Sports Writing” are no doubt delighted to have been so honored, a few among them may wish the pieces in the book had been arranged differently. Figuring, probably correctly, that Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) constitutes the single most important sports story of the century, Halberstam and Glenn Stout end this collection with six pieces grouped under the heading “The One and Only.” Right in the middle of that subsection comes the swaggering and impossibly ambitious essay titled “Ego” that Norman Mailer wrote for Life Magazine in 1971. Identifying Ali as “the swiftest embodiment of human intelligence we have had yet” and “the very spirit of the twentieth century,” Mailer also writes as nobody else writes about the nasty and irresistible game over which Ali towered during his fighting days:

“Clay knew that a fighter who had been put in psychological knots before he got near the ring had already lost half, three quarters, no, all of the fight could be lost before the first punch. That was the psychology of the body.

“Now, add his curious ability as a puncher. He knew that the heaviest punches, systematically delivered, meant little. There are club fighters who look like armadillos and alligators--you can bounce punches off them forever and they never go down. You can break them down only if they are in a profound state of confusion, and the bombardment of another fighter’s fists is never their confusion but their expectation. So Clay punched with a greater variety of mixed intensities than anyone around, he played with punches, was tender with them, laid them on as delicately as you put a postage stamp on an envelope, then cracked them in like a riding crop across your face, stuck a cruel jab like a baseball bat held head on into your mouth, next waltzed you in a clinch with a tender arm around your neck, winged away out of reach on flying legs, dug a hook with the full swing of a baseball bat hard into your ribs, hard pokes of a jab into the face, a mocking soft flurry of pillows and gloves, a mean forearm cutting you off from coming up on him, a cruel wrestling of your neck in a clinch, then elusive again, glove snake-licking your face like a whip.”

How’d you like to have written the piece that immediately preceded or followed that?

If all this has not convinced you that unless you’ve saved an awful lot of old magazines, “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century” belongs on your shelf and in your town’s library, let me leave no doubt: It does. David Halberstam maintains in his introduction that in reading this volume, “the reader should be able to sense the changes being wrought in the society by a number of forces, racial change, the coming of stunning new material affluence, the growing importance of sports in what is increasingly an entertainment age, and finally, the effect of other forms of communication on print.”

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Though he has a point--sure enough, folks writing about major league baseball before 1947 don’t mention African American players--the claim’s a little grandiose. But this collection doesn’t require for its justification the sense of its relevance to matters more significant than sports. The book is full of wonderful writing: good stories as well. As such, the stories have the same claim on readers as good stories set in politics, war or dance might have. Several essays (Mailer’s, of course, Hunter Thompson’s and a few others) demonstrate again the silliness of automatically dismissing as “sportswriting” anything written about our games, or the people who play them, or those who cannot look away from them. Many more of them are simply wise, clever, perceptive or funny enough to delight readers who are not necessarily fans. People who already love sports, of course, will have more fun with “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century” than anyone is supposed to have with a book.

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