“The column is where the stars of the 20th-century sports page usually conducted their business, and even with longform now in flower, there are still those scribes who feel the column’s magnetic pull.
“They want the freedom a columnist has to create a world all his own, a place where he can raise hell, tug heartstrings, or seek nobility in a loser’s locker room.”
The words of John Schulian.
Last week I got a copy of The Great American Sports Page, edited by Schulian, whose introduction I have quoted above (for which much thanks, Leslie Schwartz of the Library of America).
It’s a century of sports columns, many of them composed on deadline against the deafening tick of a clock, and some of them can stop you in your tracks.
The greatest sports column I ever read is in there on page 95: W.C. Heinz’s stunning piece on the death of an obscure horse in a long-forgotten race.
I’ve seen lauded short stories — overpraised novels, come to that — which didn’t tell as much as Death Of A Racehorse does in 800 words. But for Heinz it was just another day’s work.
There’s another beauty from Dick Young about a baseball manager, Fred Hutchinson, stricken with illness; a classic from Diane Shah about a recalcitrant interview subject, baseball, horses, boxing. . . the list goes on and on.
Even if they missed Red Smith’s column on Christy Ring it was a great idea for a book.
And a bittersweet one. This note is sounded early, where Schulian cites the last century as the high-water mark of the sports column.
The big hitters who pop up in the book come with 20th-century credibility, like the columnist namechecked by Elmore Leonard in one of his novels.
But that’s not what I mean when I refer to sentiment.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. One of the greatest newspaper writers of all time, Jimmy Breslin, always said that after a game he went to the beaten team’s side of the stadium because that was where the best stories were.
Dick Young, mentioned above, was a pugnacious confronter in many of his columns, but ‘Hutch’, the piece mentioned above, is a masterpiece of restrained emotion.
One of his predecessors as a New York voice, Jimmy Cannon, could wring tears from a stone with his columns about the loneliness of a big city at Christmas (when he wasn’t waxing lyrical about the Irish lads playing hurling in the Greenwich Village of his youth, you could look it up).
The last piece in the collection is an obituary by Joe Posnanski for ‘Buck’ O’Neil, who died in 2006 at the age of 94, having toiled in obscurity until Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary conferred sudden fame on him when he was over 80.
Make what you will of the fact that Schulian found his most recent inclusion 13 years ago, but the column lives on despite being past its best as a vehicle.
Schulian himself points out that the modern columnist will “ . . . wish writing the column wasn’t always such a wrestling match with the language.
He’ll wish he could rap one out in 20 minutes, the way some columnists do. He’ll wish he had a better lead or a better idea or maybe any idea at all.
“He always comes up with something, though, and when he finishes it, he promises the next one will be better.”
We started a new series last week in the paper, one in which I chat to hurlers about their hands. Ken McGrath was the first, and there’ll be other big names rolling out in the next couple of weeks.
Already I have texts and messages across various platforms recommending players because of the absolute state of their hands, this finger going out at right angles to the others, that thumb warped beyond recognition.
While I acknowledge that people have an understandable curiosity about just what kind of damage 20 years of hurling can inflict on your fingernails and knuckles, a class of injury porn is not the aim of the series.
It’s been interesting to hear them talk about the size of their hands, and whether they felt conscious their fingers weren’t long enough to maintain control of the stick; their own preferred type of stick, and the little idiosyncrasies that endeared certain hurleys to them over other; their enjoyment of what other hurlers could do with the ball, and so on.
For me you can’t get technical enough with any sport. One of the best chapters of a sports book I ever read came from Brian Moore’s autobiography.
The former England rugby international may offer a fair impression of someone frothing at the mouth from dawn to dusk, but a few brisk pages of his memoir explained more to me about scrummaging than 20 years of (admittedly desultory) viewing on TV ever did.
Likewise with hurling, hurleys, and hands. Hearing who the best player ever was to break his wrists and disguise his shot?
Well, I could listen to that all day, so you can read it all night.
An old pal of this column popped up in the news last week.
Golfer John Daly had his application to use a golf buggy at tournaments approved; he uses the buggy because of a knee issue.
He was then snapped rolling around in his buggy, with a lot of attention being paid to a McDonald’s soft drink container tucked into said buggy.
I interviewed the great man a few years ago in a Cork hotel, where he was engaging company discussing American football and so on; I didn’t venture much golf opinion and he seemed as happy I didn’t.
(There was a chap mooching around behind us with a TV camera but I took little notice of him. A few months later a friend watching the Golf Channel in the US was surprised to see Daly pop up in Cork, but when he saw me talking to him he thought he was hallucinating.)
By the way, I saw that at least one of his competitors was unhappy with the decision: Tiger Woods was quoted as saying, “Well, I walked with a broken leg,” which makes me hope Daly loses temporary control of the steering if he sees Woods out on the course at any point.
I won’t stop with the American tinge this week: the book I have my eye on is Our Man: Richard Holbrook and The End of the American Century.
A few years ago Packer wrote The Unwinding, a powerful, frightening account of life in America in a multi-person narrative, but early signs may indicate that Our Man is better.
Holbrooke is a name that may be receding now, but he had a lengthy diplomatic career representing the US, including a leading role in ending the war in Bosnia.
Packer fleshes out the portrait to include Holbrooke’s flaws as well: “You will have heard that he was a monstrous egotist. It’s true. It’s even worse than you’ve heard.”
Column ideas and broken hurlers’ fingers to email@example.com
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Anthony Daly, Ger Cunningham and TJ Ryan review the weekend's hurling.