Sports Biblio

A Blog About Sports Books, History And Culture

Category: Sports Culture (page 1 of 3)

The appeal of ‘Victory Journal’: The Sports Biblio Podcast

Many sports magazines promise to offer a real, gritty, authentic look at games and recreational endeavors that go deep into what the athletic experience has to offer. Victory Journal truly delivers on that promise.

victory journal, sports magazinesIn the latest episode of the Sports Biblio Podcast, I explore this sports-and-art magazine that debuted in 2010. When I first noticed it at my local Barnes & Noble, I could tell right away that it stood out from the standard coffee table fare. Once you look through the lushly photographed pages, it’s clear that this isn’t usual magazine eye candy. Continue reading

Where sports and politics are out of bounds

When it comes to the so-called “intersection” of sports and politics, essayist and author Pamela Haag knows where she stands along this increasingly blurry divide.

barbaric sport, sports and politicsAmericans, she wrote in 2012, should pay more attention to sports than to presidential politics. Sports, she claims, better reflect the values we used to believe we could find in campaigns.

If she watched enought highlights on ESPN “SportsCenter” or listened to enough critics of the college football bowl system, she might amend her remarks: Continue reading

The sailing art of Edward Hopper

During his long and distinguished career, realist artist Edward Hopper expertly chronicled the dark, isolated psyche of 20th century American life.

ground swell, edward hopper, sailing art

“Ground Swell,” by Edward Hopper, 1939 (National Gallery of Art)

Even the paintings that demonstrate his mastery of color and light—especially those stemming from his summer visits to the New England shore—reflect spare and lean vistas and landscapes, and the uncertainties and anxieties of everyday people.

The few sports-related activities Hopper depicted in his mature works also contain these themes, although in some cases they are drawn more subtly. Continue reading

Enjoying an oasis of recreation as the summer fades away

One of the best vacations I ever took was quite a few years ago, in Colorado, where I had done things I rarely ever did and in some cases haven’t done since. More than recreation beckoned, and it was glorious.

sope creek bridge, summer, recreation

The peaceful waters of Sope Creek, close to where Sherman’s army crossed the Chattahoochee River into Atlanta. (Wendy Parker)

A friend had a time share in Breckenridge, and for a week I filled my days with kayaking and canoeing, some hiking and taking the ski lift to enjoy the magnificent view.

There were summer youth symphony concerts, fine little shops and restaurants in the heart of town and a restful vista from the deck of the house where I stayed, complete with barbecue grill and hot tub. Continue reading

A NASCAR tragedy and the Southern culture of racing

My stepfather had passed through Valdosta, Ga., on his way back to Atlanta when the news came over his car radio that Dale Earnhardt had died.

earnhardt nation, nascar, southern cultureAn avid NASCAR fan, my stepfather had seen the 2001 Daytona 500 in person, watching the legendary driver’s car collide along the back straightaway with Ken Schrader’s car in the final lap, with both vehicles sliding onto the infield in a smoking heap.

Schrader got out of his car under his own power, but Earnhardt did not. Even today, it’s still hard to fathom the impact the tragedy has had on NASCAR, and its legions of fans. Continue reading

Sports superstars, Gods and antiheroes we think we know

Contemporary sports superstars are hardly alone in having been caught in the grasp of social media mobs who scrutinize, judge and presume guilty with the ridiculous ease and light-speed that digital technology and gadgets provide.

something like the gods, sports superstars, steven amidonThe regrettable saga stemming from the Ray Rice case engulfed the top rung of NFL leadership, the ownership of the Baltimore Ravens and a powerful sport seemingly operating with oblivion in a moral vacuum that is turning off many fans.

Whether enough people will turn away for good is doubtful, but the lasting impact of the league’s inaction over Rice’s brutal, videotaped episode of beating his now-wife Janay Rice has been devastating, and not just as far as the former Ravens running back is concerned. Continue reading

Finding a metaphysical tribe among the ping-pong set

In the philosophical grand spin of things in the world of table tennis, non-fiction author and novelist Guido Mina di Sospiro knows which side he prefers.

the metaphysics of ping-pong, table tennisIn “The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong,” (Quest Books), his 2013 inquiry into what for many of us is a leisure activity, he pits this epic epistemological battle between the metaphysicians and empiricists.

His team, in case you couldn’t tell from the title, is the former: 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.


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.


The psychology of sports fans and the influence of ‘Fever Pitch’

The psychology of sports fans is coming in for more scientific scrutiny in the age of quantification and social media.

psychology of sports fans, fever pitch, nick hornbyAcademics, clinical psychologists and other related professionals are conducting studies, poring over blog posts, Facebook updates and database spreadsheets and employing other contemporary tools to measure how, and why, sports fans obsess over their teams the way they do.

A pre-Internet fan memoir is included in this research vault, and it is often cited as a masterwork of the psychology of sports fans, even though some publishers doubted it would  sell. Continue reading

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