The New Yorker elevates sports writing

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.

You could probably skip Rebecca Mead on Shaquille O’Neal if you think the guy may be more than just a big teddy bear. Henry Louis Gates Jr. provides a good look at Michael Jordan, the marketing genius, but Jordan’s natural skills in that enterprise simply aren’t as compelling as his basketball gifts. They can be summed up with an anecdote about a press conference, when he was just 22, announcing an endorsement deal with Coca-Cola. The beverage giant had just stumbled into the “New Coke” controversy and a reporter sprung the question on Jordan: which did he prefer? Jordan apparently didn’t hesitate before saying, “Coke is Coke. They both taste great.” Writes Gates: “As the sportscasters say, nothing but net.” Some readers may be less enthralled with the bland response.

The best of the basketball essays is John McPhee’s on the cerebral ‘60s Princeton star Bill Bradley. Bradley was such a fascinating athlete and McPhee’s writing is such an intricate weave that it doesn’t matter that Bradley fell short of all the hype. He didn’t turn out to be the pro player to rival Oscar Robertson nor president of the United States (though he did prove a solid NBAer, winning a pair of championship rings with the New York Knicks, and an earnest U.S. senator from New Jersey). Bradley was always inclined to pass to a teammate with a better, or at least closer shot, even though the odds of a basket were best when Bradley shot from anywhere on the court. Only in desperate times would he, reluctantly, take over the game and commence to score at will.

Better than profiles of the famous and familiar are the excursions into the offbeat, in terms of both the athletes and their sports. Lillian Ross’ 1949 tale of Brooklyn-born matador Sidney Franklin is a delightful romp, even if you don’t regard bullfighting as a sport (or possibly not even a legitimate activity). So too is Alva Johnston’s 1950 tale of Wilson Mizner, who in 1910 — “after marrying the $40 million widow” — became manager of a middleweight champion. Mizner survives the association, but the champ doesn’t. He is shot to death during what was supposed to be a restful retreat on a Missouri farm, a victim of his undue attentions to a farmhand’s wife. Johnson notes: “Dispatches bluntly described her as ugly but she possessed the irresistible magic of propinquity.”

One a more somber note, Nick Paumgarten, delivers a chilling yarn — “Dangerous Game” — in which the title adjective appears to be a significant understatement. Andrew McClain is a skier and mountaineer who — at that time in 2005 — had the dubious distinction of having witnessed four men die while skiing or climbing with him. In the world of extreme skiing, this is not necessarily a stigma and may possibly be a badge. Paumgarten, the son of a ski racer, does venture out with McClain. But in the end, when McClain tries to entice him on a particularly harrowing adventure, the writer makes excuses and stays safely at home with his wife. Charles Sprawson’s 1999 essay — on marathon swimmer Lynne Cox — “Swimming with Sharks” — has much the same jaw-dropping effect on the reader.

There are also a number of trifles, a few of them inspired. My favorite is Martin Amis’ caustic 1994 essay on the meaning of “personality” as used so often in conjunction with tennis players. He notes how “personality” seems to flourish only in males, most notably those — Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase, John McEnroe — famous for their histrionics and tantrums. And he wonders if, perhaps, another descriptive noun might be more accurate, namely “asshole.” Amis on Connors: “Imagine the sepsis of helpless loathing he must have inspired in his ‘great runs’ at the U.S. Open. There’s Jimmy (what a ‘personality’) orchestrating mass sex with the Grandstand Court. It’s great for the mild-mannered Swiss or Swede up at the other end.”

New Yorker favorites are well represented. Liebling’s rendering of Rocky Marciano’s title defense against the great — but aging — Archie Moore is a gem, catching both the writer and the champ at their best. Gopnik’s essay about a dying art historian who agrees to coach a youth football team is heartfelt without spilling over into the maudlin.

Gladwell is somewhat less successful with “The Art of Failure,” failure being a nice New Yorker word for choking. At essay’s end, I understand the difference between choking and panicking. However, it seems a lapse when Gladwell interviews a Stanford psychologist and analyzes JFK Jr.’s plane crash, but — while starting with Jan Novotna’s 1993 Wimbledon final fold and ending with Greg Norman’s 1996 Masters collapse — doesn’t talk to a single athlete who has endured the choking phenomenon.

Both Orlean and Trillin have brief, at least in pages, northern adventures — Orlean with Alaskan dog musher Susan Butcher, a two-time Iditarod champion and Trillin with snowmobiling enthusiasts in northern Minnesota. There is always virtue in traversing unfamiliar terrain (at least unfamiliar to me) with masterful storytellers. From Orlean we learn that Butcher has 150 Alaskan Husky sled dogs, all with names and all of whose names she recalls.

With Trillin we discover that for many the snowmobile is essentially a winter “pub-crawl vehicle.” One devotee reveals that “the success of snowmobiling is due partly to the secret yen middle-class people in places like upper Minnesota have for the life of motorcycle gangs.” Trillin has long been one of my journalistic heroes and I find pretty much everything he writes sumptuous. Still, I would have preferred one of his classic food yarns; to some of us, eating remains the greatest sport of all.