Hit It Then Quit It

The Best American Sportswriting 1994
Tom Boswell, Guest Editor; Glenn Stout, Series Editor

Why,  you may wonder, is anybody spending time reading an anthology of sportswriting from 1994? Even if the contents were confined to coverage of the Little League World Series the subjects would be on the cusp of middle age.

So what gives? I attribute its appearance to a particular confluence of facts. 1. I acquired the book at some prior time. It’s quite possible if followed me here from my prior life. 2. I have an inability to follow sports as a contemporaneous activity. But I’m able to learn about it as history. 3. Most importantly, I enjoy good writing even when it’s about things I don’t typically enjoy,

Glenn Stout, the series editor, has always made a point, in his foreword to nearly every volume I’ve read of the series, that the focus is on sports writing and not sportswriting. I think that’s a fair distinction and an important one. Sports, the way they are commonly followed, function almost as a social lubricant, enabling conversations and connections between people who might otherwise remain in isolation.

Great writing, though,  uses sports to illuminate life. And why else do we read, at least we who are hardcore readers, unless we are trying to better understand our very existence?

Ferguson Jenkins in his playing days.

How can reading sports-centered stories get us there? Consider the story told by Ira Berkow of Ferguson Jenkins, a major league pitcher of no small renown. He’s retired, living on and working a farm in Guthrie, Oklahoma , trying to make sense of it all. What he’s trying to make sense of, though, is hardly what one would usually expect. Life after The Show is the least of it.

No, he’s trying to fathom why his fiancee took his little girl (for some reason I think she was only 3 -or 4-years old), the child of a previous marriage, with her into a car that she turned into a tomb by filling it with carbon monoxide. The suicide note, vague and accusatory all at once, raises more questions than it will ever answer. In an effort to salve my own pain I collect sad stories. This one is almost too unbearable. Really, how can a win-loss record, or even the story of a critical game being won by great pitching in the clutch, ever compare?

What happens to the greats as they age? More importantly, what happened to The Greatest as he aged? The answer involves Davis Miller traveling–to Louisville, to Miami, to Michigan–and a personal, if improbable, relationship with Muhammad Ali. Yet this glimpse of the Champ in decline before the onset of the Parkinson’s disease which eventually killed him, makes an already superhuman figure much more accessible to the rest of us.

The Champ in winter.

I’ve said before that it took me forever to realize the role the Guest Editor plays. I suppose I once cynically thought the guest editors were selected as a means to boost sales. That may in part be true, but there is no missing the distinctive sensibility that lies behind the selections in this volume. Thomas Boswell, a long-time veteran of  The Washington Posts sports pages, is clearly moved by the darker side of life–a side that sports may keep at bay but cannot ever really dismiss.

It can’t all be tragedy, right? Didn’t Jim McKay reminded us weekly that the thrill of victory always accompanied the agony of defeat? It seems almost unfair to pour on the heavy stuff, especially when there’s the promise, however faint, of something to smile about. Sports are, after all, a diversion, children’s games played before millions by those who earn millions generating tens if not hundreds of millions for the owners.

In the decades since these pieces first appeared sports has gone from a big business to a BIG BUSINESS, “bigger than entertainment” as Phil Knight claims Michael Ovitz told him in the early 1990s. Knight, the entrepreneurial track star who is still listed as Charman Emeritus of Nike, the athletic shoe and apparel company he co-founded, is a world-class enigma according to Frank Deford.

The runner and his shoe.

Builder of a billion-dollar business, Knight’s idea of strategy is to speak cryptically in a manner taken to reflect his love of Japanese culture but never giving much more guidance than, “Don’t f**k it up.” Somehow, this self-described hater of advertising revolutionized the marketing of sneakers, turning celebrity endorsements into a genre of entertainment in their own right. Bo knows as well as anyone that it could be the shoes, so better just do it.

There’s more here, there always is, that’s the glory of anthologies. Well, that and they satisfy my ever-shrinking attention span. Just a sampling of the rest: George Plimpton on the East River‘s anglers. John McPhee on Arthur Ashe. Roger Angell on baseball, of course. Bud Collins on the closing of the 5th Steet gym, where a young and then-unknown Cassius Clay trained. Martin Amis on the US Open, featuring the tennis stars of two generations ago, the ones whose names I know.

The most unexpected piece came from Mark Kram, Jr., Philadelphia‘s near-palindromic spots maven. He tells us the story of Shelle Pennefeather, an All-American  on the Villanova women’s basketball squad and, at the time of her graduation, the school’s leading scorer on either of the basketball teams.

Such stars have the world at their feet. Pennefeather chose to join an order of cloistered nuns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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