A few years ago, as the venerable radio play-by-play men of Southern college sports began to retire or pass from the scene, The Birmingham News compiled a Top 10 list entitled “Greatest voices of the Southeastern Conference.”
At the top was Larry Munson, the voice of the Georgia Bulldogs, whom I listened to often and who might be most beloved UGA sports figure of all. Right behind were Cawood Ledford (Kentucky), John Ward (Tennessee), John Ferguson (LSU), Jack Cristil (Mississippi State) and even Keith Jackson of ABC, a native son of Bremen, Ga.
I was thinking about Munson right before the 35th anniversary of his legendary “Run Lindsay!” call in 1980 Georgia-Florida game, a miraculous win that set the Bulldogs up for their only national championship.
This anniversary also came as my stepfather, a massive Bulldogs fan, passed away. Ironically enough, he and my mother had retired to Florida, not far from Jacksonville, where that game is played every year. Continue reading
In the 1970s, the overlap between sports and the arts was on the mind of an Amherst College professor who would revolutionize his field with uncanny insights gleaned from his work teaching American cultural history.
In his landmark book “From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports,” Allen Guttmann dabbled in a subject area that was rare among his peers, and that he didn’t fully revisit until later in his career as a pioneering sports historian.
He mentioned the work of a French scholar, Pierre Frayssinet, who tried to make the case for sports being included among the arts in the late 1960s.
Guttmann wasn’t quite convinced of this, contending that “the distinction between play and art may lie in the theory of expression.” While “art must communicate something” and an artist invariably needs an audience, “play expresses an exuberance that need not be communicated.”
Yet this idea stuck with Guttmann over the next three decades or so, culminating with the 2011 publication of “Sports and American Art: From Benjamin West to Andy Warhol.” Continue reading
The late journalist and author David Halberstam wrote that he regarded his major books as his “many universities that I entered” for self-guided coursework in foreign policy, civil rights, sports and other subjects.
This is how I as a reader and the holder only of an undergraduate history degree—with “Thank the Lawdy!” honors—approach each book that I take up.
Allen Guttmann taught a number of sports history courses during his distinguished career at Amherst College, where he is professor emeritus of English and American studies.
His many books on the history of sports, accessible to general readers, likewise can be considered universities of their own. They cover a broad spectrum of sports in society, helping us understand the role athletics have played in ancient and contemporary civilizations. Continue reading
Near the beginning of his biography of Ty Cobb, author Charles Leerhsen writes that in 1911, the budding Detroit Tigers star “was still a young man wrestling with the question of what it meant to be this new thing called a celebrity.”
In the century that has passed, baseball historians, authors and filmmakers have been wrestling with whom they thought the fiery Cobb really was, both as an early 20th century sports figure and as a human being.
Leerhsen (biography), a former Sports Illustrated editor whose previous sports books are about the Indianapolis 500 and the early 20th century race horse Dan Patch, has grappled with Cobb’s life in a way that has resulted in a significant act of revision, one he didn’t anticipate at the outset. Continue reading
My baseball card collections were strictly relics of their time—the 1970s, for the most part—and are long gone now.
They probably vanished before my folks moved to Florida in retirement, and I wish I had retrieved them when I could.
It’s interesting to see so much of the sports world from that decade, the decade of my coming of age, reflected in a bevy of newly published books: baseball, football and most recently, hockey.
Perhaps in another half-century, after those of us who remember those days are long gone, there will be the kind of artsy approach to collectibles that are proliferating these days.
I ordered a copy of the new Baseball History & Art magazine, published quarterly by the Helmar Brewing Company, and it’s kind of a work of art itself. It’s the second edition of a glossy, lavishly-produced publication, featuring vintage cards and other items, and I haven’t seen anything quite like it. Continue reading
I don’t remember not having a transistor radio as a kid.
Most of the time it sat on a nightstand next to my bed, where it could be easily retrieved for late-night listening.
After the lights went out —10 p.m. sharp on a school night—I’d place it near my pillow and tune into a powerful AM station airing games from the West Coast.
The Cardinals on KMOX. The Indians on WWWE. The Cubs on WGN. The White Sox on WMAQ. And in my hometown, WSB in Atlanta. The reception faded in and out, with as much static as human voice coming through, but I didn’t care.
I was able to hear enough of Jack Buck, Harry Caray, Joe Tait, Milo Hamilton and others to keep feeding my love for baseball, and the imaginative descriptions they conjured up when I should have been asleep.
Perhaps that’s how the night owl in me was born. What I didn’t realize at the time, as television was in full flower, was that I was actually part of what St. Xavier University emeritus professor James R. Walker calls a “radio generation.” Continue reading
Sit back and have a listen.
When I want to feed my imagination, I tell myself to do this just as much reading printed matter, or words on a screen.
The human eye can ingest only so much type before the brain disconnects. Those who can’t live without reading and the power of narrative also understand that what is filtered through the human ear can feed those cravings.
Which is why in recent years I’ve tried to become as good of a listener as I think I am a reader.
Thankfully this is the dawn of the podcasting age, and devotees of audio narrative have never lived in better times. Continue reading
Reading through the volumes of Best American Sports Writing—and there are now 25 editions—is an endless, timeless treat.
From its inception in 1991, at the twilight of print supremacy, to its evolution in the full flowering of the digital age, BASW has done more than showcase some of the best-styled prose storytelling about sports figures and their lives that go far beyond their athletic endeavors.
These collections have helped keep alive the notion that sportswriting isn’t just the hackaday fare that earned many sports newsroom staffs the dubious title of being the “toy department.”
Series editor Glenn Stout, who has been scouring stories and recommending them to guest editors since the very beginning, goes even further than that in his foreword to the 2015 edition. Continue reading
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously wrote in “The White Album,” a declaration that eventually became the title of another of her acclaimed story collections.
Now an octogenarian, Didion is enjoying a twilight appreciation for more than her prescient essays about the 1960s and 1970s, although it’s debatable to what extent her style and influence are being replicated today.
In mid-century America, shortly after World War II and right at the dawn of the television age, a tradition of sports storytelling emerged that is enjoying more than a renaissance, nearly 60 years later.
What we now refer to as “longform” stories have been around as long as humans have told stories, in verbal, printed and now electronic form, and regardless of their length.
The sports stories of two 1950s-era writers in particular are being held in special reverence, as the Baby Boomers they influenced are giving way to a new generation of successors accustomed to online media.
In early 2015, the Library of America published another sports-related volume and the second featuring the works of a noted sportswriter. “The Top of His Game: The Sportswriting of W.C. Heinz,” was compiled by Bill Littlefield, the host of the NPR sports program “Only a Game.” Continue reading
During a time in which American masculinity — especially in sports — is being roundly demonized, a failed humanities academic has provided a refreshing defense of properly channeled male aggression.
Jonathan Gottschall’s “Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch” (Penguin Press), is the story of his preparation for what turns out to be a very brief single bout in a Mixed Martial Arts contest.
But the book really shines as a meditation on the lure of the bout and the rediscovery of an archaic sense of manhood that is becoming rapidly out of fashion in today’s American popular culture.
With references ranging from ancient Roman to-the-death rites to the early American duel (Hamilton vs. Burr) and present-day mixed martial arts, Gottschall writes that fighting is part of male nature, a necessary “monkey dance” undertaken by men for centuries to prove their mating worth to women. Continue reading