In the introduction to the Norton Book of Sports (W.W. Norton & Company, $24.95), which he compiled and edited, George Plimpton posits his Small Ball Theory: In writing about sports, "the smaller the ball, the more formidable the literature." Plimpton makes the argument that "there are superb books about golf, very good books about baseball, not many good books about football, or soccer, very few good books about basketball, and no good books at all about beach balls." In support of this theory, Plimpton leads off his collection with Mark Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," in which, he reminds us, bird shot—"very small balls, indeed"—plays an important role.
Readers of this rich and varied anthology would be well advised, however, to ignore for the most part the Small Ball Theory, accurate though it may be. Indeed, some of the best offerings in these pages—Sir Edmund Hillary's description of his final ascent up Mount Everest, Joe Palmer's profile of the racehorse Stymie, Gay Talese's interview with former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson—don't involve balls at all.
In fact, spheroids of whatever size are basically irrelevant to the high quality of writing here. Plimpton has assembled an amazing team, the authors ranging from James Joyce (a passage on cricket from Finnegans Wake) to Bud Abbott and Lou Costello ("Who's on First"). The Wolfes, Tom and Thomas, are represented, as are such big-time small-ball writers as Ring Lardner, James Thurber and P.G. Wodehouse. In "The Heart of a Goof," his fictional account of a young man whose love life is endangered by his golf game, Wodehouse offers this poignant observation: "Many bad golfers marry, feeling that a wife's loving solicitude may improve their game."
The anthology also includes pieces by Roger Angell, Robert Creamer, John McPhee, Roger Kahn and A.J. Liebling, as well as John Updike's "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," a description of Ted Williams's last game that has appeared, with considerable justification, in almost every anthology of sportswriting published in the past 30 years. There is even some good work by literate athletes (an oxymoron?) such as Jim Brosnan, Jackie Stewart, Ken Dryden, Bill Russell and Gordon Forbes. Former Green Bay Packer center Bill Curry recalls his legendary coach, Vince Lombardi, in a conversation with Plimpton, and Fred Snodgrass looks back on his long-lamented World Series muff of 1912 in a memorable excerpt from Lawrence Ritter's "The Glory of Their Times." And though you may be as immune as I am to the charms of cricket, you will, I'm certain, be captivated by Sir Bernard Darwin's portrait of one of that game's immortals, W.G. Grace: "He did not think very deeply or very subtly about anybody or anything; perhaps not even about cricket, although his knowledge of it was intuitively profound, his judgement of a cricketer unique."
Plimpton's specialty over the years has been participatory journalism, and in an excerpt from his book Open Net, he describes in terrifying and amusing detail his experiences as a predictably inept and virtually nonskating goalie for the Boston Bruins during an NHL exhibition game with the Philadelphia Flyers. The author generously acknowledges his progenitor in this field, Paul Gallico, who gave up a successful and eventful career as a sportswriter in the 1920s and '30s to concentrate on fiction. Gallico, during his days with the New York Daily News, was fully prepared to risk life and limb anywhere, from the ski slopes to the boxing ring, to acquire that otherwise elusive "feel" of what it is like to be in high-risk athletic competition.
"None of these things can I do well," wrote Gallico, "but I never cared about becoming an expert." He was convinced, however, that the one sure way of capturing an athlete's "human sensations" was to experience them himself. Gallico even got himself knocked cold by Jack Dempsey in a training-camp sparring session: "When it was over and I escaped through the ropes, shaking, bleeding a little from the mouth, with rosin dust on my pants and a vicious throbbing in my head, I knew all that there was to know about being hit in the prize ring. It seems that I had gone to an expert for tuition."
That's getting the feel of it, all right. Gallico's fellow writers in this fine collection may not be willing to go that far in the interests of authenticity, but in fact or fiction they nevertheless take us all a little closer to a world that for all its easy accessibility remains, in essence, remote from our experience. Good writing, whether it is about bouncing balls or punches on the nose, will do that every time.