A collection of sports writing from The New Yorker showcases great athletes, events, and the best non-fiction writers of our time.
Authors Roger Angell,, John Updike, John Cheever, John McPhee, Ring Lardner, and Calvin Trillin are represented in The Only Game in Town: Sportswriting from The New Yorker magazine
Marcianno and Archie Moore, New Yorker Style.
Where but The New Yorker would you find a story of a boxing match that uses the word Euclidean, and compares Archie Moore and Rocky Marcianno to Hero and Nemesis, Ahab and Moby Dick. A. J. Liebling does it in “Ahab and Nemesis,” which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1955.
Like most stories in The New Yorker, these 33 are as much about the writing as the subject.. They cover baseball. basketball, betting on horses, swimming the Bering Strait from Alaska to Siberia. ping-pong, snowmobiling, bicycle racing, and the Beijing Olympics, ,
They look closely at knuckleball pitchers, extreme swimming, running, tennis personalities, golfing in Ireland, and 90-year-old Smokey Joe Wood, who won 34 games and three World Series games for the Red Sox in 1912. He later coached the Yale baseball team for 20 years.
The New Journalism
They are all about sports, all excellent short pieces of non-fiction, and all examples of The New Journalism.
We still call it that, but when Roger Angell started writing about baseball in 1962, it was still new. John McPhee, whose study of Bill Bradley appears in this book, Joan Didion, and Norman Mailer were early practitioners,
It allowed journalists to be writers, not just chroniclers, to use fiction and story-telling devices to tell true stories. They put themselves into their stories as characters. They explored their reactions to the people and events they were covering instead of trying to hide them.
For newspaper writers, the New Journalism was a welcome deliverance from rigid structures.
The old inverted pyramid, where the first paragraph had to say who, what, when, where, why, and how, gave way to a freer form. Writers could spend their first sentence or two grabbing the reader’s attention by telling them why they should care, then answering the W questions in what’s called a “nut graf.” Cramming those facts into the first paragraph made for some long, thick, convoluted openings.
The narrative lead, so common in magazine writing today, is now acceptable in newspaper features. Narrative leads are extended anecdotes at the beginning, often an individual’s story or scene setter, that leads the reader to the larger subject, which might be expressed eight or nine paragraphs into the story.
Roger Angell and Smokey Joe Wood
Roger Angell, widely considered the best baseball writer alive, possibly the best ever, tells the story of watching a long-forgotten game between Yale and St. John’s University with Smokey Joe Wood, still feisty and articulate at 90 years old.
After posting a 34-5 record for the Red Sox in 1912, Wood won three World Series games, and out-pitched Christy Mathewson in Game 7 to ice the championship..Then, he coached the Yale team for 20 years. Angell re-creates the conversation, including his questions and reactions to Wood.
Starting pitcher Frank Viola, for St. John’s, pitched a 10-inning shut-out, and Yale’s starter Ron Darling, took a no-hitter into the 10th before giving up a hit, and the game’s only run, to lose what was probably the best game of a long career. Both pitchers were drafted early in the amateur draft that year, and had long, successful careers in the Major Leagues.
Wood tells Angell that he likes a lot of the modern players, but only Pete Rose, whom Wood dislikes personally, plays as hard as the players back in his day.
John McPhee, Bill Bradley, and Knuckleball Pitchers
In “A Sense of Where You Are,” John McPhee watches Bill Bradley, then a college star, practice alone in the Princeton gym. He takes us through Bradley’s solo practice routine and talks to him about what he’s doing and why. Again, the writer makes himself a character in the story, and explores his reactions to the person and event he is writing about,
“Project Knuckleball” by Ben McGrath treats knuckleball pitchers as a small, special subculture in baseball. It’s a nearly unhittable and uncatchable pitch when thrown well, but it’s also extremely hard to throw well with confidence in all situations. That’s why there have been so few successful knucklers in baseball history.
It’s a funny pitch, and the article quotes many funny lines and anecdotes it inspired. It travels 65 to 72 mph, breaks unpredictably, and gets knocked out of the park if it spins on its way to the batter, Because throwing such a slow pitch takes nothing out of the pitcher’s arm, Hoyt Wilhelm appeared in more games than Cy Young, whose record for games pitched was considered unbreakable for 60 years.
Updike and Ted Williams
“Hub Fans Bids Kid Adieu” is the story of John Updike watching Ted Williams’s last game in Fenway Park. From a seat in the grandstand, Updike reflects on Williams’s career, his transformation from Peck’s Bad Boy, booed by fans, abused by sportswriters, to beloved elder statesman.
He summarizes the good arguments pro and con about whether Williams achieved his goal of being the greatest hitter who ever lived. It’s undeniable that Williams was, at least, the greatest OLD hitter who ever lived. He batted .388 when he was 40.
When Williams’s last at-bat in Fenway turns out to be a home run, Upike describes in detail the pitch, swing, flight of the ball, and Williams’s trot around the bases. Finally, he explores his complex reaction to, and Williams’s complex reasons for, the hero’s dogged refusal to tip his cap or take a curtain call as 10,000 people begged him for a final gesture of recognition and good-bye.
Updike concludes that Williams was being true to himself by remembering the manhandling he endured from fans and “the knights of the keyboard,” his derisive name for the Boston media.
People interested in outstanding non-fiction writing, as well as sports, will find this collection deeply rewarding.
The Only Game in Town: Sportswriting from The New Yorker, David Remnick, ed, Random House, ISBN 978-1-4000-6802-9, 2010, 492 pp.
Copyright Ken Braiterman. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.