An entire generation of Americans, schooled in cool-contemporary insouciance of the classics and willful ignorance and indifference to the literary greats, has never read some of the immortals of literature: Aristotle. Damon Runyon. Plato. Grantland Rice. Aeschylus. Westbrook Pegler. Racine and Corneille. Red Smith and Jim Murray. Ionesco and Sartre. Bud Collins and Diane K. Shah.
The Library of America, that indispensable publishing house that serves as the curator of America’s backlist, has a remedy for half that shameful deficit. Its latest addition to the nation’s bookshelf is ‘’The Great American Sports Page,’’ an anthology of the best sports columns by the best sports columnists, and it belongs in your den next to the television remote. Think of it as a highlight film in hardback. There isn’t a loser between its bound covers.
Breathes there a sports fan who hasn’t read Jimmy Cannon (represented here on Joe DiMaggio)? Sadly there does. Is there a devotee of the back section of the newspaper who doesn’t have a passing familiarity with Sandy Grady (represented here on Wilt Chamberlain) or who hasn’t luxuriated in the thoughtful prose of John Schulian (who edited this volume and who, I am happy to report, wasn’t too modest to include his classic paean to Pistol Pete Maravich)? Tragically there is.
Printed newspapers may be on life support, but the sports columnist is not, which is why there breathes, in Boston, the great Dan Shaughnessy and, at my old paper in Pittsburgh, the peerless Gene Collier, and here in The Times, a veritable Whitman’s sampler of sports columnists. (Yes, they paid me for this review, but not for that aside. Every syllable of it is true.)
This book may be meant for browsing; think of it as channel flipping between a late-season NFL game on CBS and an ACC-Big 10 challenge basketball game on ESPN. But, like the games you are sampling on television, it is best consumed from beginning to end, the better to experience the grand sweep of the game, and of the genre of deadline-defying sports columnists.
You would not, for example, want to miss Haywood Broun on the old mastodons of the gridiron (“Princeton, hitherto believed to be this side of paradise, sent a line through the pearly gates of this afternoon and defeated Yale by 20-0,’’ from 1920) any more than you would want to skip Sally Jenkins on Dale Earnhardt’s death (“Racing is a sport about progress, and perfectibility, but it’s also about clans and running down dirt roads, looking for a fast way out of the dull inertia of a small towns,’’ from 2006).
It is possible, I suppose, to mine the Web and to find Robert Lipsyte’s account of what happened in 1964 when the much-favored champ Sonny Liston was challenged by the much-misunderstood and even more-underestimated talkaholic Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, but what force of nature and trick of fortune might prompt you to do so? Here you need only to crack the covers and to read this classic column opening: ‘’Incredibly, the loud-mouth bragging, insulting youngster had been telling the truth all along. Cassius Clay won the world heavyweight title tonight when a bleeding Sonny Liston, his left shoulder injured, was unable to answer the bell for the seventh round.’’
And there is no reason to doubt that with a few internet keystrokes you may find Frank Graham’s column on a vitally important, and diplomatically significant, boxing match of 1938, but who among today’s iPhone typists has ever heard of Graham (1893-1965) or of the New York Sun? But here you can read these deathless words: “The ring may have seen a better fighter than Joe Louis, but it never saw a greater one during a span of two minutes than he was at the Yankee Stadium last night when he hammered Max Schmeling into a state of helplessness.’’ He described the bout as a spectacle that left the crowd ‘’breathless and startled and perhaps a little frightened.’’
And for those of you Times readers too young to have marinated yourselves in the splendid splinters from the typewriter of the grand Jim Murray — for those of you who never knew the sweetness of a morning that started with Maxwell House and Murray, in the pages of this paper, and who never shared the sadness of the loss of his searching, sharply focused eye in 1979 – here is a Murray morsel that should send you to the booksellers for this volume: ‘’I’d like to see Sandy Koufax just once more facing Willie Mays with a no-hitter on the line. I’d like to see Maury Wills with a big lead against a pitcher with a good move.’’
One more from those fortunate few whom Ted Williams used to call the ‘’knights of the keyboard’’ before my space — and your time — runs out. Have you ever read sentences like these two, from the keyboard of Bill Nack, on Secretariat’s run in 1973?
“It was time to ride in the horse race of his life; a time to whip and beat all horses, and to do it with the ease of breaking sticks. And it was a time to understand that some things are a long time ending, and for some they never end at all.’’
No, I don’t think you have.
John Schulian, editor
Library of America; 432 pp., $29.95