Keys to the Kingdom, the story on page 76, is an excerpt from Frank Deford's forthcoming novel, Cut 'n' Run, and you may have noted that another novel by one of our staff members, Dan Jenkins' Semi-Tough, is presently making its way up the bestseller list. In the course of thinking, because of these, that our cup was running over, it occurred to us that everybody's cup has been running over lately in the matter of sports books.
Not that America has suffered any dearth of sporting literature within our memory—a country with a range of sporty heroes that includes Frank Merriwell, Francis Macomber, Rabbit Angstrom and Nathan Detroit, to say nothing of Joe Palooka, is in solid shape—but we seem to have moved beyond solid shape into a veritable boom. Two nostalgic books about baseball. The Boys of Summer and The Summer Game, were on the nonfiction bestseller lists for months this year, and a prize-winning Broadway play, That Championship Season, took basketball as its metaphor. Good books have seemed to abound: Far City, Runner Mack, End Zone, Cockfighting. Books by Bill Veeck, George Plimpton, Jerry Kramer and Jim Bouton clamored for—and got—attention, working the territory staked out by Jim Brosnan when he wrote The Long Season back in 1959. That was perhaps the first backstage sports bestseller, a book that made readers more demanding of the books that followed. In 1966, for example, Sandy Koufax, then probably the biggest single name in U.S. sports, received a tremendous advance, and publicity to match, for his autobiography, but the book was a financial bust because Koufax offered nothing new. Nevertheless, books of the same sort, by and about innumerable teams and lesser sports figures, continue to pour into this office. The sports that bring one into contact with nature, hunting and (especially) fishing have always made authors of many of their enthusiasts, but recently the pro athletes have been writing in increasing numbers, both poetry (Bernie Casey, Tom Meschery) and prose (José Torres and Lance Rentzel). At the same time more and more recognized writers are turning to sport. We will shortly publish a story by John Hersey that has to do with rally racing, and Philip Roth, possibly having exhausted sex and politics, is engaged in writing a novel about baseball and sports-writing.
The reason for this deluge no doubt lies in the increased market for sports books, which is in turn presumably due to the increased demand for sports themselves. Deford says of his novel, a football satire, that "Cut 'n' Run deals not so much with pro football, with players and games, as it does with the pro football phenomenon. The book suggests that the game is breaking up families, restructuring society, threatening the defense of the nation. These are plainly exaggerated premises, to be treated humorously, but a few years ago I could not have treated them at all—because pro football, sports generally, had not entrenched themselves in society to this degree."
"I think the mood of the country has a lot to do with it," agrees Dan Jenkins. "People want to be distracted and sport is one thing they can turn to. My own book's success has been helped by the fact that many people have grown tired of all the inspirational, gee-whiz stuff about sports."
Whatever the reasons, the years of plenty are upon us, to a point where Deford can also observe, "Sports books have carved out such a nice piece of the market that lately they have spawned their own anti-Establishment school of literature." An anti-Sports Establishment school of literature. Imagine trying that on the guys back in the days when the Babe was, or was not, pointing over the center-field fence. But it is certainly proof now of a boom, to say nothing of being the ultimate, if backhanded, compliment.