Biographies of athletes overplay the 'hero' bit

The Argument

The exceptions are rare, but wonderful, in rising above triviality


April 11, 2004|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,Special to the Sun

As a biographer, I dread the thought of picking up yet another book recounting the life of a professional athlete. Sports biographies tend to be mindlessly adulatory, skimpily researched and poorly written. The same can be said about biographies of movie stars, musicians, business tycoons and politicians. But there seems to be something in the brains of authors who choose athletes as their biographical subjects that triggers the frequent inappropriate use of the word hero.

At the end of 2002, Sports Illustrated magazine published a list headlined "The Top 100 Sports Books of All Time." Only four are biographies: David Maraniss' life of Vince Lombardi, Robert Creamer on Babe Ruth, Richard Ben Cramer on Joe DiMaggio and David Wolf on Connie Hawkins. Only one of those four biographers, Creamer, made his living primarily as a sports writer. (Other books on the Sports Illustrated list contain elements of biography, but are not traditional cradle-to-grave lives. Furthermore, the Sports Illustrated list omits several sports biographies that might warrant inclusion. But that is an argument for another day.)

Any sports biography worthy of praise must examine the athlete as a human being, not merely as somebody who hits or pitches a baseball, throws or catches a football, shoots or passes a basketball, sends punches in the direction of an opposing boxer, fires tennis shots across a net, kicks a soccer ball, skates on ice with a hockey stick, rockets downhill on skis, sprints on a track or covers a cross-country route, churns arms through the water of a swimming pool. (Some competitors do not qualify as athletes in my mind, and therefore should not be considered the subjects of sports biographies. Race car drivers and jockeys come to mind; after all, the automobile and the horse are enduring most of the physical strain.)

Given my repeated awful reading experiences with sports biographies, imagine my thoughts as I picked up the hefty Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero, by Leigh Montville, just published by Doubleday (513 pages, $26.95). There was that word, hero.

Of all professional sports, baseball is the only one I follow closely. That means I enjoy reading about the lives of baseball players and managers more than I enjoy reading about men and women connected with other sports. It also means I know more about baseball figures than about those from other sports. And everything I thought I knew about Boston Red Sox outfielder and Washington Senators manager Ted Williams, who died last year at age 83, screamed, "This man is no hero."

A great hitter, yes, maybe the greatest of all time. But a terrible human being. Can a terrible human being legitimately be labeled a hero? Furthermore, I wondered, how much compelling new material about Williams could a new biographer find? Two better-than-average biographies had already been published, by Columbia University English professor Michael Seidel in 1991 (reissued last year, with a new foreword, by the University of Nebraska Press) and by sportswriter Edward Linn in 1993. Furthermore, Williams' 1969 autobiography, a collaboration with sportswriter John Underwood, is unusually revealing.

My hope for a positive sports biography reading experience circa 2004 was tied to the newest author entering the Ted Williams sweepstakes, Leigh Montville. A longtime writer for Sports Illustrated, Montville impressed me decades ago as a superb stylist. But would he turn out to be the sort of relentless researcher and sublime thinker who could produce an excellent biography?

The answer is yes. Montville's Ted Williams is not only a first-rate sports biography, but also a first-rate biography, period. It contains a lot of new facts -- especially about the battle within Williams' family after his death about preserving his body through the controversial freezing procedure known as cryonics. More important, Montville shows Williams' mind-boggling complexity writ large. Although every human being is complex, a large percentage of sports biographies and a smaller but still significant percentage of all biographies are reductionist. The mediocre sports biographer reduces the athlete-subject to somebody motivated solely by winning. The mediocre biographer of a business tycoon reduces motivation to, for example, the desire for great wealth.

Montville is not at all reductionist. He shows Williams as a mostly neglected young man growing up in San Diego -- more or less abandoned by a heavy-drinking Anglo father and a Mexican-American mother who channeled her religious zealotry into a Salvation Army job; an intelligent schoolboy who almost never applied himself to classwork; an obsessive, talented baseball player even as a preteen. (Williams' only sibling, a brother, handled the lack of childhood supervision differently. He became a small-time criminal and died of illness before age 40.)

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