The Kings of Sport
- By Ronald Goldfarb
- July 21, 2015
Recalling the masters who elevated sports writing to an art.
Why is a column covering “letters” reviewing books by sports writers? Because good sports writers, and the larger-than-life characters and lessons their writings describe, go beyond sports. In the best pieces, there are more than facts and statistics; there are lessons of life.
Years ago, I listened on radio to Warner Wolf interview Frank Howard, a big-hitting first baseman for the Washington Senators who was in the middle of a contract dispute. The flustered commentator asked, “Frank, you’ve been offered $100,000; that’s more than the president of the United States makes. How can you explain that to all your fans?” Howard responded: “The president of the U.S. didn’t have a good year last year; I did.”
Those wonderful remarks by the Yogi Berras, Casey Stengels, Dizzy Deans, and Mohammed Alis are as quotable as Shakespeare. And the writers who cover sports — the best ones, like those treated here — can be as literary as our finest novelists.
Since 1991, The Best American Sports Writing has been collecting the genre’s superlative stories. The latest edition, 2014, contains articles from such magazines as Rolling Stone, ESPN, and the New Yorker. They include off-beat pieces about the importance of sports bras; the travails of a one-legged all-star wrestler; and the utter dominance of Serena Williams in tennis. They are familiar, fresh, and more journalistic than literary.
Sports, like trials, provide the best sources of drama. And the best writers capture that drama and reach the heights of good literature. Read Mark Kram’s richly created stories about the “Thrilla in Manila,” the third Ali v. Frazier fight, and you will read glorious writing. There are lessons in the works of sports writers such as Red Smith and A.J. Liebling, but Kram and W.C. Heinz are less well known, but worth knowing.
Great Men Die Twice: The Selected Works of Mark Kram (St. Martin’s Griffin) features the 1960s-1970s Sports Illustrated writer’s seminal pieces, collected here by his son. One of Kram’s colleagues described Kram (whose name is an adopted palindrome), with his boxing essays, as “a poet of the dark night in sports.” British actor Terence Stamp wrote to Kram about his book on those Manila fights: “Your text is as sequined to your subject as a Cole Porter lyric.”
Kram’s career went off the tracks over a financial-ethical event, but his writing forever elevated sports reporting to an art form. He wrote about Ali, “the gifted prodigy,” and Frazier, who suffered “the harshness of black life.” He successfully compared Ali’s political martyrdom with that of Thomas Beckett: “Is a man less a saint because he tries to be a saint?”
Kram writes about the fighters’ training, and then the heavyweight fight of all fights:
“So now, with only the hallucinatory ranting of Ali to amuse us and whip the passions of his legions, we can only wait for the climax of the ring’s strangest era. Wait and wonder if Ali will fulfill what he calls his divine destiny and deliver as romantic a moment as sport has ever known. Wait and feel the loneliness of Joe Frazier’s position, sense his quiet desperation to remove the last obstacle in his life. Wait…as the drama tightens like a knotted rope in water.”
But Kram wrote about more than sports, as his 1966 article about Baltimore, “A Wink at a Homely Girl,” demonstrates. It is the best 15-page sociological study of a city you’re likely to read. Kram mentions Baltimore’s best-known sports figure, Johnny Unitas, for example, but only to get to the culture of the place: “The bond between Baltimore and the hero is sort of matrimonial in nature, fraught with all the emotions and pettiness of marriage, nowhere else does adulation dip and rise as it does in Baltimore.”
Baltimore has “a giant inferiority complex,” he continues, “It is a beer drinker of a town…with too much past and too little present.”
He goes on about the:
“…Town where Edgar Allan Poe is buried, where Thomas Wolfe died, and where F. Scott Fitzgerald brooded on Park Avenue, town where Francis X. Bushman was born, town that Father Divine had to leave to work his con, town where you can still buy a vote with a draft beer, town where a Bromo-Seltzer advertisement defaces the medieval tower of a building — Baltimore has not changed much since Mencken’s time.”
In his conclusion, he quotes a local character: “You can’t help lovin’ this town…but you never know why. It’s kinda like bein’ in love with a certain kind of woman, maybe one with a broken nose. She may not be the prettiest or the most attractive, but she’s real.”
The other recent notable collection is The Top of His Game: The Best Sportswriting of W.C. Heinz (Library of America), a name only sports aficionados will recall. NPR’s sports editor and the book’s editor, Bill Littlefield, wrote about one of Heinz’s stories, “Brownsville Bum,” that it is “no more a sports story than Moby-Dick is an account of a fishing trip.”
Heinz (1915-2008) was the first magazine editor of the “long-form sports story,” the forerunner of New Journalism. He was a writer’s writer. Collected here are 38 columns, profiles, and memoirs that David Halberstam called writing which “expanded the possibilities of what a reporter could do.”
Sports Illustrated dubbed Heinz “The Heavyweight Champion of the Word.” Heinz described his interview technique as getting “the rhythm…the sound and feel” of his interviewee. He wrote human-interest stories (not only about sports figures, but about popular culture) so well that his peers — Damon Runyon and Ernest Hemingway, for example — praised his style and depth.
One of my favorite Heinz essays is “The Psychology of Horse Betting,” where he explores the idea that “people don’t bet on horse races to win, but to lose.” The regulars go back, he writes, “not with any real expectation of winning, but for the thrill of losing.” Losing is the element of tragedy.
“The nearness of winning and then defeat is one thing all humanity understands. It’s been the great force behind our literature, our art.” Regarding the sadness of Mona Lisa’s smile, Heinz muses, “Maybe she’s lost a bet.” There’s something heroic about the ability to accept defeat. “Successful people won’t understand this,” he instructs, and concludes: “Remind me, sometime, to think about it.”
A favorite of Heinz’s professional fans is his “Brownsville Bum,” the extraordinary story of Al “Bummy” Davis, a roughneck and one-time welterweight world champ. He specialized in boxing characters, and his long essay about Rocky Graziano captures the elements of the classic sports story’s heroic, tragic, colorful characters.
“Somebody Up There Likes Him” is another great piece, and it ends with Heinz explaining his writing craft: “My battle would be the same battle it has been for all the years, to try to put it all down — the way it looked and how they looked and what they said and how they said it — and to try to get it as right as I could get it in this book.”
Read it. He sure did!
Ronald Goldfarb’s column, CapitaLetters, appears regularly in the Washington Independent Review of Books.