Before I start let me admit to my long held prejudice about sports writers: I think they know how to write.
As a kid growing up before Title IX, I read all the Duane Decker books (Good Field No Hit, Rookie at Third Base), much to the chagrin of my school librarian who told me they were books for boys. As a teacher I regularly added sports books and articles to my reading lists.
Today I read the back page of Sports Illustrated for the clear thought and rich prose by Riley, Roberts, and others. My nephew, an Ohio sportswriter, makes me feel less bad and less isolated about the Browns, the Indians, and LeBron James when he puts it all in context and in images that are direct and strong.
Somehow none of this rich literary tradition influences the large talking heads on ESPN, but it’s a different, more immediate, and much less cerebral medium. Much less.
So I just finished The Match by Mark Frost. The Match is a best-ball contest between two legendary pros (Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson) and two brilliant amateurs (Harvie Ward and Ken Venturi). You don’t have to be a golfer yourself to appreciate the event. Frost knows how to tell a story and how to make characters interesting and human. The match takes place during the emergence of the PGA tour as a way that a golfer might actually make a living, opening the game up to poor kids as well as the wealthy, who could afford amateur status and who could play for the prestige of the win and the love of the game.
Here’s Frost’s final observation about the legendary match:
No four men will ever play such a match again. No four men like these. The genuine way they lived their lives makes most of today’s fast and frenzied sports and entertainment culture seem like so much packaged goods, a self-conscious, unauthentic hustle…. Some green, untested souls might be tempted to wonder why one should still care, but none of us are here forever, we’re not even here for long, and if it’s true that our collective past exists inside all of us, unless we take time to bear witness to the best of those who strived before us, our chance to learn from their lives will be lost forever, and we will be poorer for it.
Do we need to reach back over 50 years to find sports heroes for ourselves and for our kids? Probably not. But it’s a little trickier today to find them and a little easier when their careers are completed and there are no surprises.
For additional thoughtful consideration of youth and sports, I also recommend George Dohrmann’s Play Their Hearts Out, a story one reviewer called “the ugly side of youth basketball.”