When Tim Raines, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and Jeff Bagwell are inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame today, it will mark the start of a new era of voting by writers that could signal some profound, if gradual, changes to the process.
The infusion of advanced statistics has created many new conversations about who’s worthy of inclusion, and who’s not. The issue of performance-enhancing drugs has ratcheted up emotions enormously, especially among an aging group of baby-boom voters not always enamored with sabermetrics.
Jay Jaffe, author of the newly released “The Cooperstown Casebook,” has made an innovative case for a numbers-based selection criteria and also welcomes the steroids-tainted likes of Bobby Bonds and Roger Clemens.
News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture
Also In This Issue: The Architecture of Sports; A Mississippi Faulkernian Football Tale; The Happenstance Discovery of Bobby Orr; Women’s Sports Books; Remembering Johnny Kundla and Margaret Bergmann Lambert
Is this a result of the passage of time, of the culling of old-school writers who haven’t covered the game in years but who resolutely said hell no (or refused to fill out ballots at all) to protest the doping issue?
It’s not as simple to chalk this up to generational attitudes, although they do play a role. Jaffe, a post-boomer who doesn’t have a Hall of Fame vote, devised his “JAWS” system (Jaffe Wins Above Replacement Score) while at Baseball Prospectus in 2004.
As he told Tom Hoffarth last week, eligibility is about more than numbers. Influenced by Bill James’ 1994 book “The Politics of Glory,” Jaffe wanted to take a more detached, metrics-based approach, so working toward a better-informed process is the ideal. Even better statistical tools won’t end all the arguments, as he noted in Part 2 of his interview with Hoffarth.
In a book excerpt published in Sports Illustrated, Jaffe writes about the difficulties of some third basemen getting into Cooperstown, especially Ron Santo. He died in 2010, a year before the Hall changed an eligibility rule that resulted in his posthumous induction. As Jaffe wrote:
“If election to the Hall of Fame is an honor, it is one that holds far less value to the dead than the living. We’d all like to believe our best work will outlive us, that our accomplishments will be recognized after we’re gone. Even if that’s the case, wouldn’t it be nice if we could stick around for the celebration? To echo Frank Baker, better to have a rose bud when alive than a rose garden after you’re gone.”
A Few Good Reads
Richard Cleary, an architectural historian at the University of Texas, has written an exquisite long piece in Places Journal that is one of the most splendid things I’ve ever read, about sports or anything else. “The Architecture of Sports,” featured in the July issue, is so much more than a lengthy meditation on the convergence of play, space, geography and culture. It’s also treatise on an aesthetic suffused with examples of raw, real-world, feet-on-the ground sports activity.
From the “Total Football” of Johan Cruyff’s 1970s-era Dutch soccer teams, to the geometrical precision of court games such as tennis, squash and badminton, and the incongruous freedom of baseball diamonds and links golf courses, Cleary cites some of the masterworks of sports and the imagination. These include “The Summer Game” by Roger Angell, “Homo Ludens,” Johan Huizinga’s 1938 classic on play and culture, and “In Praise of Athletic Beauty” by Hans Ulbrich Gumbrecht, a Stanford literary philosopher.
Cleary also references Robert Novak’s “The Joy of Sports.” I’ve written here before why it’s my favorite sports book. Cleary bolsters his argument on the spiritual and metaphysical terrain of sports that Novak (who died last year) understood so well by quoting from his book:
“Sports arenas are storied places. Universes of tales. One sits in them surrounded by ghostly ancestors, as at the Mass one is surmounted by the hosts who have since Abraham celebrated a Eucharist. Even a new stadium . . . is a place where tradition instantaneously begins. Impoverished in memory, a new arena is a tabula rasa for new impressions. Records are set. Achievements are fixed in memory.”
- The sudden resignation of Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze is the result of a perfect storm of bizzare factors, including a Mississippi State fan blogger who wouldn’t let go of the story of Freeze’s calls to an escort service. As ESPN’s Mark Schlabach quotes an observer: “It’s very Mississippi. It’s very William Faulkner;”
- When Walter O. Briggs was the owner of the Detroit Tigers, he lived in a mansion in the revered Boston-Edison neighborhood that evoked a Motor City of another time;
- I’ve written about some of these publications before, but Stack, which keeps tabs on indie magazines, has a list of sports mags you ought to check out, and they’re much more than pretty (and pricey) coffee table fare;
- At The Boston Globe, Kevin Paul Dupont goes long on how the Boston Bruins went on a scouting trip to look at two promising prospects in a junior tournament in Gananoque, Ontario in the early 1960s, and ended up instead signing a lad from the nearby town of Parry Sound. His name was Bobby Orr, and Rick Eaton, one of the now-forgotten prospects sums it up thusly: “I feel like that guy that served up the ball to Hank Aaron;”
- The Stacks (no relation to Stack) this week reproduced a piece by the Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler and published in Inside Sports on how Gordie Howe (aka “Mr. Elbows”) got things done. The story also appeared in Richler’s posthumous collection “Dispatches from the Sporting Life” from 2003.
Sports Media News
- I wrote last week about The Athletic’s expansion as a band of city-specific, subscription-based sports sites in North America. The franchise is going nationwide, with college football and college basketball verticals, The All-American and The Field House, led respectively by Stewart Mandel and Seth Davis, both recently caught up in the latest Sports Illustrated layoffs. In order to scoop them up, The Athletic raised another 5.4 million in Silicon Valley funding. Davis, who’s still an analyst for CBS Sports, explains the focus of The Field House, and why he thinks a subscription approach can work in a sea of free national college sports content;
- The real trendsetter, Dejan Kovacevic of DK Pittsburgh Sports, just marked his third year online, and remains fiercely independent, having turned down a role with The Athletic as his own site grows. This guy really gets it, understanding the imperative of running this as a business above all.
New Sports Books
I wish Emma John had waited a bit longer in the wake of England’s victory in the recent Women’s Cricket World Cup and done a bit more research (including a nifty illustrated history of women’s cricket in India from BuzzFeed) before launching this complaint in The Guardian about the paucity of women’s sports books. Compared to male athletes, yes, the volumes will never equal up, but should that be the objective? As I wrote here in June, there’s a growing body of excellent longform magazine stories and books being produced that dig into women’s sports history on a global scale, and this is only just the start. This isn’t limited to women and sports, but the female-focused Excelle Sports has a summer reading list that includes several women’s titles, including Olympic gymnastics champion Simone Biles’ memoir, as well as memoirs by U.S. World Cup star Carli Lloyd and retired WNBA legend Tamika Catchings.
John’s piece also seems oddly timed, given the ongoing women’s Euro 2017 soccer tournament in Holland, and an anticipated new book about the sport. Journalist and documentary filmmaker Gwendolyn Oxenham’s “Under the Lights and In the Dark” is due out in September, and is based on her experiences as a player and observer in Brazil, the National Women’s Soccer League in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Oxenham also is the author of a 2012 book about pick-up soccer, “Finding the Game” and has written for The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated and other publications. Here’s what Oxenham wrote for Slate about Abby Wambach’s legacy upon her retirement in from the U.S.. women’s soccer team in 2015. Oxenham’s approach reminds me of Alyson Rudd’s late 1990s book, “Astroturf Blonde,” when women’s soccer may have seemed truly like the dark ages to the likes of Emma John.
- My friend Ray Glier, an Atlanta-based freelance writer and author of the excellent book 2012 book, “How the SEC Became Goliath,” is the co-author with Phil Savage on a book about Alabama football, “4th and Goal Every Day,” that’s due out Aug. 29;
- Publishers Weekly fiction review editor Gabe Habash has written his first novel, which has a wrestling theme, entitled “Stephen Florida,” and it gets the critical treatment from The New York Times;
- At the U.S. Sport History blog, a review of Richard Ian Kimball’s “Legends Never Die,” and the subjects include Lou Gehrig, Benny Paret, Dale Earnhardt Sr., and Bonnie McCarroll, a female rodeo champion who died accidentally at the famed Pendleton Roundup in Oregon in 1929.
- John Kundla, 101, was the very first coach of the Lakers, when they were based in Minneapolis (hence the geographically-intoned nickname, unchanged upon moving to Los Angeles.), coaching George Mikan and the first dynasty in the NBA. He had been the oldest living Hall of Famer in the four major team sports.
- Margaret Bergmann Lambert, 103, a record-setting high jumper nicknamed “The Great German Hope” in her youth, was banned from participating in the 1936 Berlin Olympics because she was Jewish. A year later, she permanently moved to the U.S., becoming the American high jump champion but never taking part in the Olympics due to the outbreak of World War II. Stadiums are named after her in Queens, Berlin and her hometown of Laupheim, Germany, and her German record was restored in 2009. Her story was the subject of a 2004 HBO documentary, “Hitler’s Pawn.” Lambert’s granddaughter, Molly Lambert, was a pop culture writer for Grantland and more recently for MTV News and has been actively fighting against an Olympic bid for Los Angeles.
The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 90, published July 30, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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