Why hasn't our favorite sport produced better literature?

The Argument

Baseball, boxing, basketball, horse racing inspire books that eclipse football -- which is too young to yield classics

August 25, 2002|By Jon Morgan | By Jon Morgan,Sun Staff

Fans still debate which sport is truly the national pastime. But, from an objective standpoint, the matter was settled long ago.

Football is, and has been for some time, the pre-eminent sport of the United States. When pollsters ask U.S. citizens to name their favorite, about 35 percent say professional football. Baseball, despite its historical claim, vies with basketball for second place, both at 25 percent, plus or minus a few points depending on the latest scandal or strike. Hockey barely breaks out of the single digits, and everything else, from auto racing to college hoops, follows.

Not convinced? Consider this: About 140 million Americans tune in each year to watch the Super Bowl, despite an almost comical absence of suspense regarding its outcome. The record for an NBA championship was set in 1996, when Michael Jordan was in full flight. Barely 30 million of us watched.

All of which raises a literary question: If we love football so much, why don't we want to read about it in hardcover? Book sales almost universally favor baseball, with some support for gimmicky gift books related to golf. And any list of classics almost always begins and ends with baseball volumes, with a couple of basketball, boxing and horse racing titles thrown in.

When the New York Public Library drew up a list of the "books of the century" to mark its centennial in 1995, only one sports book make the cut: Ball Four: My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Big Leagues.

That 1970 work by major league pitcher Jim Bouton wasn't a stylistic breakthrough, but it attracted attention for its unvarnished depiction of boozy legends such as Mickey Mantle. It is often wrongly cited as the first tell-all baseball book. That honor actually belongs to another pitcher's journal. Jim Brosnan's The Long Season was published in 1960.

Other baseball books have a legitimate claim to greatness. Roger Kahn's graceful account of the Brooklyn Dodgers he covered as a sportswriter in the 1950s, The Boys of Summer, blended baseball, nostalgia and autobiography in a way that remains the standard of baseball-as-allegory.

Likewise, David Halberstam's Summer of '49, set in the 1949 American League pennant race between the Yankees and Red Sox, used baseball to explore larger issues, such as racism at the dawn of the American Century. Halberstam did the same thing for basketball, another sport that, due to its urban appeal, lends itself nicely to sociological dissection. His Breaks of the Game uses the 1977 Portland Trailblazers to examine race relations and the economics of a game in its adolescence.

Laura Hillenbrand achieved the unthinkable last year: beating a dead horse into a best seller. Her Seabiscuit: An American Legend used a champion thoroughbred as a window onto its time.

One mark of a sport's literary arrival is when it gains sufficient metaphorical value -- that is to say, when it comes to mean something -- to attract great writers. Clearly, baseball has achieved that; Kahn, Halberstam, George Will, Richard Ben Cramer and John Updike have waxed poetic over the sport.

Boxing, too, has had the power. Novelist Norman Mailer covered the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in The Fight. Some devotees of A.J. Liebling think the journalist hit a stylistic peak covering boxing for the New Yorker. His The Sweet Science, published in 1956, contains some of the best of those stories.

So where are today's great writers during football season? Watching at home with a bag of Doritos like everybody else, apparently. The sport has generated only a handful of significant books.

In 1968, Dick Schaap helped offensive lineman Jerry Kramer relate his years with Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers in Instant Replay, a revealing look inside the sport as it was beginning its ascent. Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, and a Dream, by H.G. Bissinger, captured in 1988 the fanaticism surrounding high school pigskin in the West Texas oil patch.

David Harris' The League: the Rise and Decline of the NFL is one of the best depictions of the economics and politics of a sports league, despite its laughably inaccurate subtitle. Published in 1986, it pre-dated by nearly a decade the classic Lords of the Realm: the Real History of Baseball, by John Helyar, and marked the emergence of sports as a big business.

The current crop offers little hope that the literary drought is coming to end. Among the tiresome first-person accounts by washed out players and broadcasters, and the endless how-to-play texts now on store shelves are two works of note, though not destined for history: A War in Dixie: Alabama v. Auburn, (HarperCollins, 272 pages, $25.95) was written by a pair of talented national football writers, Sports Illustrated's Ivan Maisel and Kelly Whiteside of USA Today.

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