As the holiday season nears, men's thoughts turn to . . . sports. Of course, for some guys any occasion will do: "Is it Groundhog Day again? Hmm, I wonder what's on ESPN." This time of year, though, a happy convergence occurs with the publication of handsome gift books, the tradition of giving and the need for much of male America to recover from a morning of riotous unwrapping by lying on a couch and looking at pictures of athletes pounding on each other. And who knows? You may have a sister or aunt with similar taste; just lock her in the attic with these three coffee-table volumes, and she won't bother you until spring.
A whirlwind review of gridiron greatsIn Pro Football's Heroes of the Hall, Ron Smith honors each member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame with a concise writeup, in language that notes the most critical facts with minimal gushiness. If these sketches are too much to digest, highlighted quotes boil every entry down to one or two sentences, like flash cards. Then there's the photography and there's plenty of it from dusty old black-and-white portraits to high-drama, full-color snaps of some especially memorable collisions and sprints.
Still, the most provocative moment occurs before this parade begins, in the "overview." Here, Smith traces a thread from the Hall of Fame's first, modest admission ceremony to the 11-day annual bacchanal that's taken its place, complete with "a queen pageant, a fashion show, a golf tournament, hot air balloons," and other hoopla that seems to distract from rather than honor the history and essence of the game.
Big finishes and a bonus DVDTime to split hairs: some of the moments noted in Not Till the Fat Lady Sings: The Most Dramatic Sports Finishes of All Time (Triumph, $29.95, 148 pages, ISBN 1572435585) didn't take place exactly at the finish, such as the famous "long count" of 1927, which transpired three rounds before boxing champion Gene Tunney rallied to beat Jack Dempsey. But who cares? Each episode recalled here by primary author Les Krantz and other contributors recalls the kind of high, human drama that converts otherwise normal people into sports fans.
A vast chronology unfolds throughout these pages, going back to the famous "Merkle blunder" of 1908 and continuing all the way up to 2003. Many may argue over this inclusion or that omission, and that's good, because this is supposed to happen when sports fans get together. The visuals are splashy, and the bound-in DVD is a big plus, proving that at least in this genre, moving pictures can beat even the most gripping printed material.
A boxing giant's endless appealMuhammad Ali: The Glory Years (Miramax, $45, 288 pages, ISBN 140135193X) stands out in this crowd on several counts. First, it focuses entirely on one person. Second, almost all of its photos are black and white. Finally, the text-to-picture balance is just about even. As a result, a less sensational, more reflective tone emerges, as well as a more focused sense of time and drama. From the opening shot, a breathtaking look at the young Cassius Clay holding a pose in profile and under water, the imagery restricts itself to his glory years, when his looks were as potent as his punches and as dazzling as his footwork. And in capturing him in gritty gyms, or in some quaint neighborhood with his mother, and of course in the ring against opponents both hapless and deadly, the storyline unfolds on the power of image alone.
It's the text, though, that completes these pictures. Authors Felix Dennis and Don Atyeo meet the challenge of finding angles that haven't already been explored a hundred times, such as the struggle for allegiance at the early stages of his career between Cassius Clay Sr. and Officer Joe Martin, the young fighter's first coach. It takes a little work to find these insights, but in the end the story proves so compelling that it's hardly work at all. Robert L. Doerschuk is the former editor of Musician magazine.