Some amazing writers from various disciplines have contributed to the pages of The New Yorker in the magazine’s 80-plus-year history. More than 30 of them are included in this wonderful anthology of the best from the world of sports, in itself a competition of sorts.
One would not find these pieces in the back pages of a local newspaper. These are thoughtful, long pieces that go beyond the box score and records, or the simple accomplishments on the various fields of play. Some --- like “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” John Updike’s chronicle of Ted Williams’s final game --- have become part of the larger time capsule of sports’ legendary figures, both subject and author (a 50th anniversary edition of “Hub Fans” was published earlier this year by the Library of America). Others --- such as Lillian Ross’s “El Unico Matador,” perhaps the only profile ever written about a gay Jewish-American bullfighter --- offer people, places and events they otherwise would never discover.
It is fitting that New Yorker staple Roger Angell “leads off” the collection with his famous report of a classic 1-0 extra-inning 1981 college contest between Frank Viola of St. John’s and Ron Darling of Yale. (And if you want to know the details, in the words of the eminent baseball philosopher Casey Stengel, “you could look it up.”) Adding to the enjoyment of Angell’s tale: the presence and commentary of “Smoky Joe” Wood, a standout of the early 1900s and later a college coach himself. Other notable writers include John Cheever on fathers, sons and baseball; Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on Michael Jordan; A. J. Liebling on the 1955 Marciano-Moore fight; and John McPhee on Princeton basketball star (and later U.S. senator) Bill Bradley.
But is good writing on its own enough of a draw? While there are five essays on baseball, it seems editor David Remnick tries perhaps a bit too hard to be democratic as he includes so many sports/games/activities. Maybe that’s the point. In what other mainstream publication would you find so much thoughtful prose on such diverse topics as surfing (William Finnegan), snowmobiling (Calvin Trillin), dog sledding (Susan Orlean), ping-pong (Nancy Franklin), and parkour (Alec Wilkinson; parkour is a jumping “sport” that seems more applicable to cinematic stunt work than athletics). Oddity for oddity’s sake? Or is it perhaps a “snob factor” the historic magazine is after?
Regardless, sports fans who hold The New Yorker in the same regard as The Sporting News or Sports Illustrated will no doubt welcome this edition into their library.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on January 13, 2011