In the benumbing crush of holiday-season books, coffee-table and lesser size, there are several on sports that merit a reader's earnest regard. The following is by no means a comprehensive list of the best available but is instead a rather quirky and scattershot inventory. So bear with me as we browse through the shelves.
The Twentieth Century Treasury of Sports (Viking, $30), edited by Viking's editor in chief, Al Silverman, and his writer son, Brian, is a happy mix of fiction and nonfiction on subjects ranging from roller derby (John Lardner) to caddying (John Updike). Some of the finest sports journalists—Roger Angell, Robert Creamer, Frank Deford, Ring and John Lardner, Red Smith—blend in neatly with a gallery of fiction writers that includes James Baldwin, Don DeLillo, William Faulkner, Mark Harris, William Kennedy, Philip Roth and Anne Tyler. Athletes themselves are also represented, as in Gene Tunney's deceptively self-serving account of his two championship bouts with Jack Dempsey, whom he describes as "possibly the greatest that ever entered a ring." This from a man who licked Dempsey twice. Here also is a short story, Irwin Shaw's "The Eighty-Yard Run," that has been a favorite of mine since I first read it at age 18.
There is, thank heaven, an increasing awareness among the public that baseball lost something of immeasurable value when those marvelous old ballparks, with their odd dimensions, were torn down and supplanted by symmetrical all-purpose monstrosities. The current and encouraging trend, as exemplified by Baltimore's Camden Yards, is to build new ones to look old.
And so to remind us of what old actually looked like we have not one but two ballpark histories. Lost Ballparks (Viking Studio Books, $25), which was compiled by distinguished baseball historian Lawrence S. Ritter, describes and depicts 22 departed major and minor league ballparks. Green Cathedrals (Addison Wesley, $24.95), by Philip J. Lowry, is, however, a far more complete and useful book on the same subject. Lowry, an engineer, writes in detail about 271 ballparks that once existed in North American cities from San Francisco to Montreal. The parks are considered from a technical angle, so we learn, for example, that in the 1910s, when there were 16 classic ballparks, the distances down the foul lines differed on average by 36 feet. The difference now is three feet. That tells us a little about conformity. As Lowry quotes the late Bill Veeck, "When there is no room for individualism in ballparks, then there will be no room for individualism in life."
The Spirit of Golf (Longstreet Press, $65) must certainly be one of the most beautiful books ever published on a game that has been explored literarily to the point of nervous exhaustion. Here we have 80 gorgeous watercolor paintings by the American impressionist Ray Ellis, a sophisticated text by the golf writer and CBS analyst Ben Wright, an informative introduction by the former New Yorker master Herbert Warren Wind and photographs by John deGarmo, who conceived the whole delightful project.
Finally, there are the unadorned life stories. In Ditka, Monster of the Midway (Pocket Books, $23), Armen Keteyian, in prose occasionally as overwrought as his subject, does a good job of explaining what makes such a volatile, overbearing, maniacally competitive lout of a man lick. The trouble started with Ditka's austere upbringing in the Pennsylvania steel town of Aliquippa and continued through a brawling, injury-riddled existence as an NFL tight end. This isn't to say the Chicago Bear coach does not have his good side. Somewhere.
Coach Bob Shannon of the East St. Louis High School Flyers has never enjoyed a jot of the celebrity accorded Ditka, but his career, as related by author Kevin Horrigan in The Right Kind of Heroes (Algonquin Books, $18.95), seems ultimately more rewarding. Shannon, an African-American, coaches football in a town with the highest murder rate in the country and among the highest rates for unemployment and teenage pregnancy, but his players, inspired by him, generally go on to college instead of jail. And in the process he has won five Illinois state championships in the last 10 years. "Get it done," is Shannon's motto. He docs. It's a good story, well told.