Sports Biblio

The Imagination Of Sports In Books, History And Culture

Month: March 2016 (page 1 of 2)

Saying farewell to the baseball game story

I got a little crabby recently when reading about The Sporting News, the first general interest sports publication in America, and which has been online-only since 2012. For more than a century, the “Bible of Baseball” was a weekly that went far beyond the baseball game story to include a thorough, wondrous collection of box scores.

In particular, I groused that a current writer, in a summary article for its website, said that the print publication “provided content baseball fans needed every week.”

AJC, baseball game story

AJC Braves game story, 2006, when Andruw Jones could hit.

I hate the word “content.” When I hear or read this ghastly word, as least when it’s used to describe sacred words as a commodity, I spit nails. Darts fly out of my eyes. My teeth gnash. I emit a primal scream that sends the cat scuttling into another room. 

Never, ever, say the word “content” to me, except as an adjective. The journalism that so many of us have done over the years has been reduced to this, in current parlance, the horrific “c-word.” Continue reading

The cultural roots of race and baseball

The subject of race and baseball is never far from any discussion about the cultural history of the sport, especially when the major league season begins. In April teams throughout the big leagues, as well as the minors, designate special events to commemorate Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color line in 1947.

negro league baseball, neil lanctot, race and baseballIn this 2014 adapted post from another blog, I explore some of the cultural roots of race and baseball, which extend beyond the legacy of Robinson’s feat and the fate of the Negro Leagues. I was also thinking about this while reading about the future of baseball in Cuba in the wake of President Obama’s visit.

The doors of opportunity that belatedly opened to blacks nearly seven decades ago may finally open for talented Cuban players to join the likes of Yasiel Puig, without them defecting and turning their backs on their families.

But what might be the cultural cost of this freedom for those athletes who choose to be fully rewarded for their talents? It’s a vexing question that, based on the migration of some blacks and Latinos into the majors, has often led to some painful answers.

* * * * * * * *

On the surface, I’ve got absolutely nothing in common with Michael Tillery: He’s an African-American from the urban Northeast, heavily seeped in hip-hop and rap and the New York Yankees.

I’m white and hopelessly suburban in the Sun Belt, raised on a racially-mixed Top 40 playlist that in more recent years has morphed into a blend of Sinatra and Mozart. Dead. White. Males. I loathe pinstripes and while I’ve been a big fan of jazz and rhythm and blues, I’ve only tuned into rap accidentally.

But through the magical serendipity of social media, we’ve struck up a cordial association online that I value strongly. He’s had me on his podcast on Rapstation Radio a couple of times, and I do appreciate that.

During All-Star Game festivities, he Tweeted out a link to a 2012 post from his blog, The Starting Five, that boosted my admiration for his work even more. In “There is no joy in Blackville: Baseball and Blues,” Tillery high in his post wrote this paragraph:

“The writer and essayist Gerald Early during Ken Burns’ 1994 PBS documentary ‘Baseball’ said that ‘when they study our civilization two thousand years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music. They’re the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created.’ “

Bingo, not just to Early for his keen observation, but to Tillery for employing it as a prelude to his riff on race and baseball. The occasion of his post was the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s arrival in Major League Baseball and the dearth of African-Americans currently in the game.

This is an exemplary examination of the topic, laced with insight from two other noted African-American writers, Amiri Baraka and Ralph Wiley. Like the blues, Tillery writes, baseball developed separately for black Americans. When Robinson crossed the color line, the cultural gap was enormous, and in baseball it has never fully closed. The sport has suffered as a result:

“But perhaps more importantly what was being devalued was the black attitude or approach to the game. Where has the improvisational allure of the Willie Mays basket catch or base running of Rickey Henderson gone? As is the case often with things that reach its peak the downfall is already underway. Black baseball reached its peak of popularity with participation in MLB in the late 1970s. That run lasted 30 years but the change was already afoot a decade or so earlier.

“You see, playing the blues, jazz or rapping is not a rebellious act of black people. It is within the context of white America but it’s squarely within the tradition of making sense of this culture that historically devalues its existence.

“The most transformative moment for re-contextualizing this dilemma for black music may have been the 1940s black jazz musicians. This was years after Zora Neale Hurston, the famed writer and lone voice among the Harlem Renaissance crowd that tried to remind blacks of its rich heritage. But these jazz bluesmen who witnessed black music degenerate into soulless imitation by black and white artists alike and drift toward a composer medium rather than a musician where individuality and improvisational mattered. They returned it back to its roots with bebop. This music much like blues was not for dancing but for thinking.”

(Here’s more on how the cultural institution — and business — of black baseball struggled post-Robinson in a 2004 Q and A with Neil Lanctot, author of “Negro League Baseball.”)

While the majors quickly claimed the cream of the crop of the Negro Leagues, those in charge of the big leagues, according to Tillery:

” . . . never adopted the stance or attitude of the players. In fact, the pathos and joy of the player and fan were expected to be forsaken for ‘dignity’ for the purpose of not disturbing white folk. The decision was made to sacrifice the national business interests of the black community for cultural assimilation.

Baseball’s integration took place before the height of the Civil Rights movement. During the 1960s, with race consciousness high, African-American athletes found new outlets like the American Football League and the American Basketball Association more amenable for cultural expression.raceball, rob ruck, race and baseball

Blacks remain the solid majority of players in the NFL and NBA, which prevailed over the upstarts but, as Tillery notes, also “inherited the black aesthetic those other leagues cultivated.”

Robert Ruck, author of the 2012 book “Raceball,” echoes some of these observations and is hopeful that “the Caribbean will avoid the fate endured by baseball in the black community, which lost control of its own sporting life.”

But unlike so many of the media hand-wringers about baseball, Tillery reaches a different conclusion:

“Black people still do play baseball and maybe it’s not the game that is too slow — it’s just that America has sped up.”

This is the kind of cultural writing about sports — regardless of whether it involves race — that’s so badly missing in our mainstream media. While not dismissing some of the concerns about black youths and baseball, Tillery essentially blows away the arguments of sportswriters who don’t plumb what he calls “deeper root explanations.”

Sometimes it’s clear-eyed, unsentimental writers with the proper reverence for history and authentic culture who are best able to understand what committees and Cassandras scratching the surface simply cannot.


Sports Biblio Digest, 3.27.16

News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books and History

In This Issue: Remembering Johan Cruyff and Joe Garagiola; Baseball Poets and Baby Boomers; 130 Years of The Sporting News; ‘Fastball’ the Movie

ajax barcelona cruyff, sports books and historyJust a few months after he was diagnosed with lung cancer, Dutch soccer legend Johan Cruyff died Thursday at the age of 68.

As the spearhead of club teams at Ajax Amsterdam and Barcelona, and for coach Rinus Michels’ “Total Football” concept of the 1970s, Cruyff’s career, both as a player and a manager, symbolized the modern game perhaps like no other. Continue reading

‘The Glory of Their Times’ at 50: The Sports Biblio Podcast

Included on just about every baseball lover’s list of finest baseball books, “The Glory of Their Times” endures as a testament to the best traditions of oral history and storytelling regardless of topic.

the glory of their times, lawrence ritter, baseball booksThis year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Lawrence Ritter’s acclaimed book, which is a collection of 26 interviews he conducted with players who played in the early- to mid-20th century.

They range from Sam Crawford to Stan Coveleski to Babe Herman to Hank Greenberg. Some are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, most of them are not. Continue reading

Baseball books and the twilight of the baby boomers

Baseball books are everywhere. Despite frequent (and often dubious) predictions that the death of the sport is imminent, largely based on television ratings, demographics and too-late starts for World Series games (think of the children!), baseball endures.

baseball and the baby boomer, talmage boston, baseball booksThose of us who grew up as baseball entered the era of free agency and television superstations, and as the onslaught of the National Football League began, have been indulging in quite a bit of nostalgia as we qualify for AARP membership.

This adapted 2014 post from another blog gets into how my fellow baby boomers settled on the so-called “Golden Age” of baseball—from the World War II years to the early 1960s—as if there were no tomorrow. Continue reading

The timeless genuflection of the baseball poets

casey at the bat, ernest lawrence thayer, baseball poetsEvery March, baseball fans come out of hibernation as spring training begins. Unfortunately, so do the baseball poets, as I wrote on a previous blog a few years ago. I’ve revised this post a bit, and I hope it doesn’t offend anyone when I say that the game and the art form are fine as totally separate entities.

As the American sports historian Allen Guttmann has discovered, there aren’t many parallels between sports and the arts. But that hasn’t deterred the baseball poets.

My grievance is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and I certainly appreciate the enduring verse of Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s 1880s classic “Casey at the Bat,” especially its 2000 hardcover re-release with gorgeous illustrations by Christopher Bing. It’s an iconic ballad aimed at young readers that tells a compelling story that still resonates more than a century later.

Not long after I originally published the post below, David Ward offered an assessment of baseball and poetry at the Smithsonian website. His conclusion:

It really is remarkable that baseball, which occupies such a large part of our culture and history, remains in the view of this critic, so inadequately treated by our writers and poets. 

I feel vindicated, even if his own argument is more generous than mine. 

* * * * * * * *

I love baseball.

I love poetry.

But I hate baseball poetry.

Or, more precisely, I loathe the pretentiousness of many of the contemporary baseball poets, with another season soon upon us and the exhortations of spring and splendor being uttered.

There is nothing subtle about how I feel, and it hurts me to confess that my favorite poet and the forever bard of America, Walt Whitman, is to blame.

The Poetry Foundation, which sponsors The Writers Almanac that Garrison Keillor narrates daily on NPR, features on its website an essay entitled “Baseball and Verse, from Tinker to Evers to Big Papi: Grand slam poetry: our twin national pastimes,” which makes me want to hurl.

And not from the pitcher’s mound.

Levi Stahl enthusiastically reminds us that it was Whitman who “fell for baseball in its first heyday, saying that it had ‘the snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere.’ ”

And it descends from there in treacly fashion, with doses of Longfellow, Frost, Japanese haiku and even Marianne Moore tossing out a first pitch.

Take me out to that ballgame. Not.

Stahl includes a dreadful Donald Hall poem, “The Baseball Players,” and concludes that “baseball’s very rhythms are those of poetry, acknowledging that if everything can change in a moment, then attention to those moments is an essential duty.”

Spare me.

Stahl is channeling the same Donald Hall, once an American poet laureate, who says on Ken Burns’ good, but too-long “Baseball” film that “baseball, because of its continuity over the space of America and the time of America, is a place where memory gathers.”old whitman loved baseball, baseball poets

Enough. Please. Enough. Mudville is weeping torrential rains. Casey is going to go all Carlos Zambrano and take his bat and smash all this.

I also have written of baseball and memory through prose, and specifically the prose of literary stylists and baseball historians Roger Kahn and Roger Angell.

As I think about why my revulsion for baseball poetry is so deep, I have no rational protest to offer except this: I don’t think the poetic form is being employed to reflect the full humanity of baseball.

It seems that our best versers are capable only of sentimental, pastoral ramblings. Oh sure, they write about the failure inherent in the sport—the batting averages, the losses, the errors—but rarely do they plumb deep into the game’s heart of darkness. This is as close as Gail Mazur comes in “Baseball,” a not-so-surprising conclusion to a not-so-surprisingly named poem:

the question of what makes a man
slump when his form, his eye,
his power aren’t to blame, this isn’t
like the bad luck that hounds us,
and his frustration in the games
not like our deep rage
for disappointing ourselves

I apologize to those who get into baseball poetry for my crankiness here. I just think that baseball brings out the worst in some of our best poets, who spit out the most overwrought metaphors and the falsest of pieties.

The baseball poets, then and now, are more hacktastic than the hackiest deadline hacks who ever wrote for a newspaper. And that’s saying something.

This is what you get if Frank Merriwell could have gotten the hang of rhyming couplets: Abstract, one-dimensional characterizations of a game whose more essential meanings are left for artists in other forms to flesh out.

If you disagree with me, then perhaps you will be comforted by this collection of baseball poems, also lovingly compiled by The Poetry Foundation.


Sports Biblio Digest, 3.20.16

News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture

In This Issue: Spring Break Reading, When Saturday Comes Turns 30, The Fall of Johnny Football, A Midwestern Art Deco Basketball ‘Jewel’

earnhardt nation, jay busbee, new sports booksPerhaps it was the switch to daylight savings time in the U.S. Or perhaps it was glorious sunshine and temperatures in the 80s. And there’s the start of the NCAA basketball tournaments, always the favorite event on my sporting calendar.

For those and other reasons, I pulled back a little bit on the blog this week, taking a “spring break” from fresh posts to get ahead of forthcoming Sports Biblio content plans, including reviews of new sports books, and to recharge my creative batteries.

As I explained in a post on Wednesday, this need to step away stemmed from a sense of depleted energy and misplaced focus on a previous blog. In last week’s newsletter I felt some of those same pangs return when I waxed on far too long about the 10th anniversary of the Duke lacrosse scandal.

The “30 for 30” film about that case aired Sunday on ESPN, and the injustice done to those players, aided by some abysmal journalism, made my blood boil even more.

But my aim here is to give readers what I’ve been billing since I started this blog and newsletter: A deep dive into the best sports books, and great reads about sports history, arts and culture. I veered away too much from that mission last week, and for anyone taken aback by what I wrote here, I apologize.

I also got away from something that Ray Bradbury, one of my writing heroes, spelled out in “Zen in the Art of Writing,” his excellent and essential essay collection: “For the first thing a writer should be is—excited.”

I’ve also got several review books-in-waiting, and that’s another reason for the break this week from a posting new review. I did compile a list of other reviews, interviews and news about new sports books.boys among men, jonathan abrams, new sports books

Stay tuned here for new reviews of “The Selling of the Babe,” “Redskins: Insult and Brand” and “Players,” a book by Matthew Futterman of The Wall Street Journal about how the business of sports—especially the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and the Olympics—grew to become so big, starting in the 1970s.

They’re all fascinating, interesting reads for so many reasons, and I can’t wait to sort them all out in the coming weeks.

Next week I’m posting about baseball history, including a look at Lawrence Ritter’s classic oral history “The Glory of Their Times.” If spring training can’t get a writer, or a fan, excited, then nothing can.

‘When Saturday Comes’ Turns 30

Earlier this week I also posted about an anniversary for the British soccer magazine “When Saturday Comes.” It was launched in March 1986, at a critical juncture for the sport in that country and Europe. This was right around the time of the Heysel and later Hillsborough stadium tragedies, and right before the creation of the English Premier League and the expansion of continental club competition.

WSC remains resolutely independent and iconoclastic in an age when slick and occasionally cynical media entities have popped up to cash in on the money and celebrity that have poured into the game.

I first saw the magazine at my nearby Barnes & Noble in the early 1990s, as the U.S. was preparing to play host to the World Cup, and it fed my interest in the game. WSC also produced several excellent books, collections of magazine pieces and other writing, that I’ve found invaluable.

when saturday comes, sports magazinesNothing tops the comical and witty magazine covers, which the WSC crew has collected in this excellent gallery. If you’ve got a print subscription, you’ve also got free access to this amazing archive.

Contributor Barney Ronay sums up what he thinks the magazine has been and continues to represent, against what I think are some long odds.

News About New Basketball Docs

With March Madness underway, college hoops gets its rare window in the American sports spotlight. On April 2, during the weekend of the Final Four, CBS and Turner Sports will air a documentary about the popular color analyst Bill Raftery.

The title of the film is “With a Kiss,” one of the affable Raftery’s many signature lines, and is produced by his son. At the age of 73, Raftery’s better than ever. During a very long day on Thursday, calling four games on the first day of the NCAA tournament, he was actually singing a little. The game was a blowout, with Kansas torturing poor little Austin Peay, but I just closed my eyes, listened, and let out a belting laugh.

Former Providence College player God Shammgod was known as much for his name as his patented crossover dribble. A forthcoming mini-documentary, “The Ascension of God” (trailer), chronicles his time as the New York City playground legend of his youth. Born Shammgod Wells, he played in the NBA for just one season, then had a long professional career overseas before “crossing over” into coaching.

A Few Good Reads

  • Johnny Manziel was released, as expected, by the Cleveland Browns this week, prompting another glut of hollow, clickbait-driven stories with nothing new to reveal about the troubled former Heisman Trophy winner. At MMQB, Emily Kaplan’s piece, “The Fall of Johnny Football,” is well worth your time. Instead of exploiting the tragedy of a troubled young man, Kaplan details what was happening in his inner circle, and how his life could conceivably become even more difficult;rise and fire, shawn fury, new sports books
  • More about the art and history of the jump shot at The Sporting Scene, the sports blog of The New Yorker’s website, riffing off Shawn Fury’s newly released “Rise and Fire.” Yes, it’s mostly about Stephen Curry, but Pasha Malla writes about Julius Erving, Larry Bird and more in this nifty little post;
  • South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley is gradually becoming the face of her sport on the sidelines, as she was during her glittering college days at Virginia, and as an Olympic gold medalist. Good work here by Dan Wolken of USA Today;
  • My friend George Vecsey writes about the 50th anniversary of Texas Western’s monumental win over Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA basketball championship game.

Sports History Files

• Another acquaintance, Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star, notes the 80th anniversary of the opening of Municipal Auditorium, an art deco masterpiece that still plays host to small-college basketball tournaments and local teams from the University of Missouri at Kansas City. I covered the Big 12 women’s tournament there a few years ago and marveled at how well-preserved the building remains;

• Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is planning to sell most of his basketball memorabilia, with the proceeds designated for charity, saying he’s “not in the museum business;”

ty cobb baseball card• Seven rare Ty Cobb baseball cards, dating from 1909-1911, have been discovered by a family that wishes to remain anonymous. Forbes has more on the controversy over the ‘Lucky Seven;’

• At The Allrounder, Canadian professor Mark Norman, an editor at the Hockey in Society blog, writes about how the National Hockey League is caught between heritage and hard cash as it eyes expansion;

• There’s a new FIFA museum that has opened in Zurich, but Paula Dupraz-Dobias writes at Vice Sports that it glosses over the Sepp Blatter era;

• The University of New Mexico and Texas Tech University have received the sports broadcast collections of Connie Alexander, who called Albuquerque Dukes minor league baseball games in the 1940s and 1950s and was the longtime radio voice of the Southwest Conference.

New Sports Books News

  • Longtime Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander, author of the acclaimed books “Heaven is a Playground” and “The Hundred Yard Lie,” has been named the guest editor of the 2016 edition of the “Best American Sports Writing” book to be published in the fall;
  • Wayne Gretzky is publishing a hockey history book this fall to mark the 99th year of the National Hockey League;back from the dead, bill walton, new sports books
  • A couple of books of note that are being published on Tuesday in the U.S.: “Back from the Dead,” Bill Walton’s new memoir; and “When the Braves Ruled the Diamond,” by Dan Schlossberg and former manager Bobby Cox. As a longtime Braves fan, I had to wince a little about that title. Hope may spring eternal in the month of March, but my “rebuilding” team’s last season at Turner Field may feel very wintry once the games start counting in the standings.

The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books, history and culture. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 33 published March 20, 2016. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website, which is updated every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

I’d love to hear what you think. Send feedback, suggestions, book recommendations and requests for interviews to Wendy Parker,

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Spring break 2016: New sports books news and reviews

In place of my standard book review this week I’m rounding up some news and reviews about new sports books, some of which I am going to be reviewing soon.

boys among men, basketball books, nba, new sports booksAs I mentioned previously on the blog, I’m taking a bit of a creative break while I “spring forward” with new posts, podcasts and reviews. Maybe it was just some winter cabin fever setting in but I need to recharge my batteries a bit before tackling what promises to be an abundant spring and summer of sports books.

In addition to the start of the American baseball season, I’m also researching post topics that include the Australian Football League, the Olympics, European soccer, sports analytics, tennis and more. Continue reading

Regaining the ‘zen’ for writing and creativity

While I’ve enjoyed the Sports Biblio project immensely, I’ve fallen a little behind lately and have run out of some steam. Writing and creativity have defined so much of my work professionally, and have been personally gratifying like nothing else.

zen in the art of writing, ray bradbury, writing and creativityFor the moment, however, I’m taking a bit of a break from all-new blog posts while I work on producing future book reviews, podcasts and other content for this site.

Whenever I feel tapped out, I consult Ray Bradbury’s superb essay collection “Zen in the Art of Writing.” Continue reading

A 30th anniversary tribute to ‘When Saturday Comes’

The following is a post adapted from a previous blog that I am reposting on Sports Biblio. I’m doing so to mark the 30th anniversary of the start of the British soccer publication When Saturday Comes, which was one of the first magazines I consulted as I began covering the sport here in the United States.

when saturday comes, sports magazinesThat’s because it was about the only soccer magazine I could find on my newsstand at that point—and this was as the U.S. was gearing up for the 1994 World Cup. Believe it or not, more than 20 years later, I can still find a copy of WSC at my local Barnes & Noble. Bookstores may be dying off, and the soccer media landscape has changed dramatically, especially in America.

But I still find WSC relevant and real amid a steady diet of slick and glib soccer magazine fare. As one of its longtime contributors notes, it’s still “shooting from football’s fringes,” and that’s becoming an increasingly difficult thing to do.
Continue reading

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