Book Review: “The Best American Sports Writing 1995”

"The Best American Sports Writing 1995," edited by Dan Jenkins
“The Best American Sports Writing 1995,” edited by Dan Jenkins

So it’s been about eight months since I last reviewed a volume from Glenn Stout’s Best American Sports Writing series. Blame it on a new Neil Gaiman book, though that maybe took me three days to read. Or blame it on Guns, Germs and Steel, which took me about three months.

But really, just blame it on The Best American Sports Writing 1995 itself. As volumes go, this one just didn’t grab me.

Weirdest… intro… ever…

I read Dan Jenkins’ introduction to BASW 95, but I use the word “read” loosely. I definitely recognized letters, and my brain definitely ordered the letters into recognizable words. But reading usually implies a measure of understanding, and eight months later I still don’t know what I read.

The essay has something to do with sports books, but it’s really unclear if Jenkins was discussing real books I’d never heard of because I was 11 in 1994, or if he made up the titles to make some kind of point. If Jenkins was trying to criticize the sports media world of the mid-1990s, he didn’t. If he was trying to be funny, he wasn’t.

Whatever he was going for, these six pages of chaos never achieved it. If you ever opt to read this volume, I’d say skip the intro entirely. It says nothing about sports writing in general, nor the specific 28 articles that follow.

A “quaint” problem

Even before I started reading BASW 95, I’d feared that 20 years later, the subjects written about in 1994 would seem “quaint.” And to a large extent, I was right. James Ellroy’s “Sex, Glitz and Greed: The Seduction of O. J. Simpson” harkens back to a time when the most violent thing we cared about was whether a pro athlete murdered two people, and 20 years later Simpson has taken a back seat to things like terrorism and school shootings.

The volume also contains three separate stories on the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan clubbing incident leading into the 1994 Olympics. Just two years later, an Olympics would get bombed, while another would see an athlete die during competition. Again, what mattered back then now seems pretty inconsequential, though Joan Ryan’s “The Cold Wars: Inside the Secret World of Figure Skating” depicts judging as corrupt enough to make the 2002 Olympic scandal seem not at all outlandish.

There are also two stories on the 1994 baseball strike, but after subsequent work-stoppages in the NHL, NBA and NFL — and in light of all the revelations about steroid use in the 1990s — it’s hard to look back at a strike in 1994 and care at all. But at least Bob Verdi makes the strike entertaining, turning the fiasco into a play on Abbott and Costello’s iconic “Who’s on First?” routine in “Baseball’s Troubles Could Play Out to Be No Routine Comedy.”

I didn’t like sports very much in 1994. Brett Favre hadn’t done much with the Packers yet, Boston was still a decade away from becoming the best sports town in America, and the Olympics didn’t start captivating me until the Atlanta Games. So while I as a journalist enjoyed reading this volume dispassionately, as a reader I wanted to connect to these stories and most of the time I just couldn’t.

Not everything’s irrelevant

While many stories read as “quaint,” not every story fell under that category. Skip Hollandsworth’s “Whatever Happened to Ronnie Littleton?” depicts an ex-football player as an alcoholic drug-addict what seems like 15 years before revelations about concussions made it clear how many players turn out that way. And Furman Bisher’s “This Ex-Voter Has Had Enough Heisman Hype” takes a shot at the NCAA football system, similarly taking up arms two decades before anyone else would challenge it.

Steve Rushin’s “1954-1994: How We Got Here” looks at the people and phenomena that led to the sports/marketing/media world of the mid-90s, and it’s not hard to extend the themes Rushin discusses and arrive at that scene as it is today. And anyone curious how New York Jets moron coach Rex Ryan turned into such a dingbat can just read Mark Kram’s “Bully Ball” to discover he probably got it from his dad, Buddy.

Jay Searcy’s “Worth More Dead Than Alive” discusses horse-owners paying to have their own horses killed for insurance money. Considering how often horses are shot after races — HBO had to cancel a series on horse-racing because too many featured horses got hurt and were killed — it seems quite likely this phenomenon continues to this day.

“Quaint” also isn’t a bad thing for every story. Gary Smith’s “An Exclusive Club” proposes the quaint notion that distance-runners will always be more popular than sprinters. That’s quaint because Smith had no idea people like Usain Bolt would eventually steal the spotlight,  but the idea of bringing together all the still-living people who’ve broken the 1-mile record is so damn cool, their ideas about distance-running so intelligent and insightful, that it hardly matters.

Modern readers might not connect to BASW 95 the way they might with a volume from the last 10 years. But if you can wade through the stories that just don’t matter anymore, there are a couple of really good ones that serve as absolute signs of things to come.

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