Book Review: “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century”

The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, edited by the late David Halberstam, is a phenomenal collection of sports essays dating as far back as 1921. The book runs the gamut of professional and collegiate athletics, with articles on baseball, football, basketball, hockey, boxing, and more. There’s something for everyone in this “best of the best” collection, and anyone with even a passing interest in sports journalism would benefit from the breadth of styles of writing found in this book.

Fans of Boston sports will have plenty to enjoy in this collection. There are several articles on Ted Williams found here, including a character study by Richard Ben Cramer and a depiction of Ted Williams’ final game at Fenway by John Updike. The latter contains this wonderful sentence: “There will always lurk, around the corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future” (315). This sentence prefaces Williams’ famous last at-bat home run, and it epitomizes what it means to be a fan and to root for your team’s success.

My favorite article, while not about a Boston sports figure or team, will resonate with any longstanding fan of the Red Sox. “‘A Very Solid Book,'” by Mike Royko, is a book review of Keith Hernandez’s story of the Mets’ 1986 championship season. Royko, a Chicago Tribune writer and Chicago native, doesn’t really read the book: he abuses it. The entire article, a scant two pages in length, is about how he throws the book at his wall, jumps on it, rips out the pages, and eventually lights the whole thing on fire. The reason, as any baseball fan will understand, is that it is impossible for him as Cubs fan to read about a championship that has eluded his team for so many years. Any Red Sox fan will understand the heartache, frustration, and anger associated with being a fan of a losing sports team. And considering Hernandez’s book is about the defeat of the Red Sox, Boston readers will draw additional pleasure from reading about Royko’s trashing of it.

My two other favorite articles were Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” and Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.” The former is a ridiculous story about Hunter S. Thompson’s failed attempt at covering the 1970 Kentucky Derby. As with most things Hunter S. Thomspon, it quickly devolves into drunkenness and assault, as he spends most of the time getting hammered and then threatening (and sometimes more than threatening) to mace the various people he encounters. It’s a fun story that makes a point about the degree to which the sports journalist not only covers the story, but actively CREATES it in doing so. The latter story is the short-story accounting of Krakauer’s disastrous 1996 attempt at scaling Everest. It eventually got made into a full-length nonfiction novel. It’s a riveting and powerful tale that captures just how dangerous mountain climbing can be.

This is not to say every article is golden. The only thing more boring than fishing is Thomas McGuane’s accounting of it. And for all his gravitas, Normal Mailer’s account of the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier boxing match was one of the worst written articles I’ve ever read. Every sentence is a run on, every paragraph is too long, every idea is too complicated. I found myself rereading section after section, and it became more frustrating every time. I could not wait to finish this article, sandwiched in the middle of several other articles about Muhammad Ali, making it not even a fresh subject for reading (not that that’s Mailer’s fault).

But the majority of stories are wonderful character studies and first-person narratives. George Plimpton’s “Medora Goes to the Game” is an adorable accounting of Plimpton bringing his young daughter to the Harvard-Yale football game, only to have her like Yale better because of their color and cuter mascot. Stan Fischler’s “A Rough Time on the Road,” the story of Boston Bruins’ defenseman Eddie Shore harrowing attempt to catch up with his team after missing the train for a road game, is a fun little story about the lengths a player will go to be with and contribute to his team. And Mike Lupica’s “A Brother’s Keeper” is the touching and tragic expose of Boston Red Sox outfield Tony Conigliaro and the steps his family took to take care of him after his career-ending injury.

For those interested in sports, and especially for those interested in sports writing, this is a terrific resource to have at your disposal. As an aspiring writer, I found it greatly helped me to see the broad spectrum of writing styles and subjects that are out there for the adventurous storyteller to find and share with the world. While younger sports fans may find they can’t relate to many of the figures in this book, anyone with a sense of sports history will find at least something to love in thisexcellent collection of sports writing that truly spans the entirety of the last century.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century””

  1. This is one of my favorites. What’s amazing to me, a guy who went to college essentially to become a sportswriter is how much of the twentieth century of sports journalism the book captures. Most of the greats are included: Jim Murray, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Ring Lardner and a whole bunch of other great writers. In fact, I think someone could substitute this book for four years of journalism school and be fine.
    Thanks for your post!

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