Portaits of the sporting life
Sports fans with a nose for books will have plenty to keep them busy this winter, with major new titles on baseball, football, basketball and outdoor pursuits. The styles are diverse, too: Releases include photo-heavy coffee-table tomes, brisk memoirs and literary nonfiction.
GUTS & GLORY
The best bet of the season is The Big Show: Charles M. Conlon’s Golden Age Baseball Photographs. This collection, compiled by Neal and Constance McCabe and introduced by Roger Kahn, focuses on the period from 1904-1942. Conlon was an amateur photographer who never quit his day job, but this book is an argument that his player portraits deserve the status of high art. The selections include plenty of superstars—Cobb, Gehrig, Ruth and DiMaggio all appear—but the real delight is in the photos of lesser players such as Buzz McWeeny and Sunset Jimmy Burke. Each photo is given a caption that tells the story of the man it portrays: Bugs Raymond, who was beaten to death with a bat after a semi-pro game; Jimmy Archer, who lost the ability to extend his throwing arm when he fell into a vat of boiling soap; and the countless players whose careers succumbed to alcoholism. For those interested in prewar baseball, this is a wonderful historical document, and it’s a delight to pore over the old-time uniforms, the bats and the gloves and the primitive catching equipment. But the appeal of the book runs deeper. The men portrayed just happen to be baseball players. At their best, Conlon’s photos capture a humanity that comes through regardless of sport.
For more flash (if not more style), try 100 Yards of Glory: The Greatest Moments in NFL History. Co-written by Joe Garner and broadcaster Bob Costas, this is an NFL-approved catalog of league history, told in the form of superlatives: the greatest Super Bowls, the greatest catches, the greatest comebacks and so on. The photos can’t hope to match Conlon’s—with some exceptions, most are of sports-page quality—and there is plenty of room for argument about the anointed highlights. Though some choices seem rather present-minded—is Sean Payton really a coaching great?—the book does a good job covering moments from the pre-Super Bowl era. There’s a lot of material here, and Monday-morning quarterbacks will enjoy thumbing these ample pages. In case paper and ink are not enough, the book comes with a DVD containing archival NFL video.
Since the NBA has recently been plagued by labor strife, many basketball fans will enjoy looking back to the league’s happier days. When the Garden Was Eden: Clyde, the Captain, Dollar Bill, and the Glory Days of the Old Knicks should serve nicely. Author Harvey Araton, a longtime Knicks reporter currently writing for the New York Times, does excellent work bringing to life a team that many consider “the most intelligent ever”: Willis Reed, the quiet, inspiring center; Walt Frazier, whose flashy style belied a root conservatism; Phil Jackson, a lesser player who would become the most celebrated of basketball coaches; and Bill Bradley, who transitioned from forward to U.S. senator. This so-called “old” basketball club reached its apex only 40 years ago, but the book shows how the team’s style was far removed from the star-focused game of today. These Knicks truly played as a unit—remarkable, considering the strong individual personas that Araton ably profiles. (As one of his interviewees puts it, the team was a group of “many personalities, but somehow no egos.”) The book makes something of a stab at placing the Knicks against the backdrop of Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement, but the real action here is on the court.
The court fades to the background in Shaq Uncut, Shaquille O’Neal’s post-retirement memoir, co-authored with Jackie MacMullan. The big center liked his teammates to dish him the ball, and now he dishes back on Penny Hardaway, Kobe Bryant and Pat Riley, among others. Shaq doesn’t hit all that hard, but he still manages to emerge an unsympathetic character. We learn much less about what motivates the man than about how he likes to spend his money. (One suspects the two topics are not unrelated.) His well-known love of law enforcement is discussed but essentially goes unexplained; there is more, albeit only slightly, about his relationship with his tough stepfather and his disdain for the biological father who abandoned him and his mother. But even if Shaq hasn’t earned the right to dub himself the Big Proust, the memoir’s candid quality will satisfy those who care to glance inside the mind of a modern-day hoops star.
Room for Improvement: Notes on a Dozen Lifelong Sports is a memoir of outdoor life far removed from the arenas of spectator sport. John Casey, a National Book Award–winning novelist (for Spartina), describes years of challenging his own capabilities, often by rowing, hiking, cross-country skiing or running, usually at long distances. This might sound intimidating to the sedentary reader, but Casey takes a thoughtful approach, aware of his physical inadequacies as he probes the purpose behind his sporting passions. The essays here, several of which were published as magazine articles, are occasionally fragmentary, and they are held together by not much more than the progression of time from Casey’s young manhood to older age. But an erratic overall pace does not detract from the nuggets in each piece. The book will immediately appeal to those who share Casey’s need for physical challenge, but even the less athletically adventurous will discover something worthwhile in Casey’s reflections.