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The New Yorker elevates sports writing

Review: Anthology touches on the famous, the familiar and a Brooklyn-born matador.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods of tees off on the sixth hole during the third round of the 139th Open Championship on the Old Course, St Andrews on July 17, 2010 in St. Andrews, Scotland. (Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

BOSTON — Sports has largely been something of an afterthought at The New Yorker.

The magazine has never boasted a sports column alongside its arts domain. Nor has it employed a writer to regularly cover the broad expanse of sports, although longtime fiction editor Roger Angell did double duty writing about baseball, a labor of love that yielded some of the most graceful essays on that game or any game. So The New Yorker’s decision to publish a collection of its best sports writing (“The Only Game in Town” — Random House) might come as a surprise.

However, it turns out to be a very pleasant surprise. Because when The New Yorker did pay attention to sports, it brought exceptional talent to the task. This New Yorker collection boasts a Hall-of-Fame roster of writers who were apparently delighted to dabble in sports. Among the notables: John Updike, John Cheever, John McPhee, Martin Amis, Don DeLillo, Haruki Murakami, A.J. Liebling, Lillian Ross, Calvin Trillin, Susan Orlean. Adam Gopnik and Malcolm Gladwell. Everyone can decide who should bat cleanup in that lineup.

While sports has frequently lent itself to first-rate writing, this starry assemblage assures a level of erudition — a dictionary at hand will prove useful — far above the norm. Almost immediately you encounter references to Melville, Camus, Shakespeare and Pythagoras. New Yorker editor David Remnick sets the lofty standard in his introduction by dedicating the book to Roger Angell, a regular contributor to the New Yorker whom Remnick compares to “Blaze Boylan, Molly’s vital lover in Ulysses.” If you haven’t read the James Joyce classic, you may have struck out there.

For Angell’s contribution, Remnick strayed from the writer’s usual Major League Baseball turf and selected a gem about a 1991 collegiate game in which Yale’s Ron Darling, later of the New York Mets, threw 11 no-hit innings only to lose. The conversation in the bleachers was every bit as good as the ballgame, as Smokey Joe Wood, a star pitcher in the early 20th century, regaled the author with tales of baseball’s olden days and legends like Walter Johnson and Tris Speaker. There is plenty of flash throughout this New Yorker anthology, but nobody does simple elegance better than Angell.

Baseball fares exceptionally well in the book, with John Updike’s memorable paean — “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” — to the Boston Red Sox immortal Ted Williams in his final game. In his last at bat, Williams blasted a home run into Fenway Park’s right field stands. After trotting around the bases, “Teddy Ballgame” ignored the pleas of the crowd to make a curtain call. Williams, scarred after three decades’ real and imagined grievances against reporters and fans, didn’t even doff his cap as he disappeared into the dugout. Wrote Updike: “Gods do not answer letters.”

Far less lyrical, but informative and entertaining is Ben McGrath on the knuckleball and its devotees. It turns out that they are not knuckleheads, but rather men trying, sometimes desperately, to salvage baseball careers with what is essentially a gimmick pitch. Baseball also gets a humorous nod from Lardner and a Cheever short story, both of which may have been included for the name-dropping privileges.

The least successful stories are those on modern stars about whom we may already know too much or at least more than — and some of it at odds with — what was written at the time. Michael Specter’s essay on Lance Armstrong now seems a bit naïve, as it skips merrily over drug issues to celebrate Armstrong’s accomplishments and character. There is a problem too with David Owen’s 2000 tale of Tiger Woods, back in the day when the kid’s life seemed to be all sunshine. “The real purpose of the Woods family lifestyle, both parents insisted, was not to turn Tiger into a professional golfer,” Owen wrote, “but to strengthen his character.” Perhaps true, but with the benefit of hindsight they may have bogied the kid.