Here’s a representative sample of my conversation with Steve Rushin, American journalist and author.
Early on in the chat Rushin told me he lived on the Connecticut-Massachusetts border, not far from Springfield, and I pointed out that I had often passed through Springfield one long-ago summer on the way to trespassing on a cousin’s hospitality in Worcester, which I felt was a bit nicer than Springfield— “Well, they put that on a road sign up there now,” said Rushin. “On the road outside the town: ‘Welcome to Worcester. A little bit nicer than Springfield’.”
It’s exactly the kind of drollery you’d expect from the man who wrote Road Swing, recently named in The Guardian as one of the greatest sports books of all time. It’s Rushin’s road trip through sporting America, but he tells the story of the book’s genesis a lot better.
“When I got out of college I got a fact-checking job with Sports Illustrated and after a couple of years I was put on the baseball beat.
“And that was a dream for a kid who grew up loving baseball, but after a couple of years it was exhausting. On the road 40 weeks a year, writing four-page stories overnight, I was doing a lot of flying and I wanted to see all the places in the US that I was flying over on the way to the baseball games.
“I was always on a plane and the pilot would say, ‘And on your right you can see the Grand Canyon’. I’d be on the left-hand side of the plane. Why I was in such a hurry I don’t know, but I was saying, ‘I want to see the Grand Canyon’.”
Rushin’s book proposal was a couple of pages and “pretty vague, I wanted to drive around the country and visit sports-related places, and other places I’d discover along the way were sports-related.
“For instance, I didn’t know until I visited Graceland Elvis’s death was caused by an overly strenuous racquetball game, which struck me as a bit of revisionism.
“But there was this huge canvas, and I never knew, from the first night I left Minneapolis and stopped in the part of Iowa where Field of Dreams was filmed, I had no idea where I’d stay. I didn’t make a hotel reservation and never had a destination in mind. I’d just get up and drive.
“And the difference was that obviously everything is scheduled in professional sport — you know when and where everything is happening — whereas this was completely different.”
Rushin grew up as the middle child of five, and the goal was always to make their mother laugh hard enough at the dinner table that she had to go to the bathroom.
“That was the jackpot for us, so we had a family of smart alecks giving each other grief all the time.
“I’m sure the original book proposal had some grand subtitle like ‘finding the soul of American sports’, but my goal was really to go out and have fun, like making my mom laugh at dinner.
“Though after three or four days on the road between the Pacific Northwest, driving across Montana and Idaho, I realised the only human contact I’d had was through the voicebox of a drive-through McDonald’s. I knew then it was time to get off the road.”
The book – one of the funniest reads you could imagine – remains close to Rushin’s heart: “The plan was to write a little bit every day, as I went along, but most writers are procrastinators, so I came home with a huge pile of road maps, mustard-stained flyers, and those little brochures you get in hotels on local attractions with my notes scribbled on them. So I ended up writing it all when I got home.
“The book came out in 1998 and it’s gratifying that people still enjoy it.”
Unlike a lot of people who fall backwards or sideways into the sportswriting racket, Rushin always had an interest in the field.
“I tell kids now that there was a time before the internet when you couldn’t read papers from all over the world with a click of a mouse, but when I was a kid my dad travelled all over the country and he’d bring back newspapers from all over the States.
“Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times was a favourite, with lines like, ‘The trouble with Spokane is there’s nothing to do there after ten o’clock. In the morning. But it’s a great place to have breakfast’.
“And I thought, ‘you could get paid to make fun of an entire city?’ I wanted to be a writer, though probably the kind that no longer existed by the time I was in high school — a sportswriter like the guys in old movies, with a fedora and a cigar.”
Oscar Madison from The Odd Couple?
“Exactly. And I had the great pleasure of spending a day with Jack Klugman six or seven years ago for a column. With someone like that you never know if he’s going to enjoy talking about Oscar, but he said he loved being Oscar and was a bit of a slob himself.”
Rushin met other heroes along the way. As a kid at his local library he read a great sports book, Heaven Is A Playground by Rick Tellander.
“It’s about playground basketball in New York in 1974. Rick was a young guy who hung out with the players, and I really loved the book, which tells you about Albert King, who made it to the NBA, and Fly Williams, who didn’t, but who became a playground legend.
“This was so long ago that a friend and I went to the part of the library where they had phone books for the entire country, and we looked up Tellander’s number in the Chicago book. We tried to work up the nerve to call him, but we felt we just couldn’t do it; we didn’t think you could actually do that.
“And I’m still like that, I’m still more reverential towards writers than athletes, so I never called him.”
The story doesn’t end there. Rushin never returned the book to the library.
“I still have it, through all the amnesties at the library, and when I started at Sports Illustrated I showed Tellander the book, he was working there at the time.”
How did he respond?
“He wasn’t happy. At all. Only 2,000 copies of the book had been printed, and I was depriving a lot of people of the chance to read it.
“I said I didn’t care, I wasn’t going to return it and would he please sign it. Eventually he did, and his inscription was, ‘I suppose your own library should also be complete’. That library, by the way, had a chair shaped like a giant baseball glove. I’d sit in it and read Roger Angell baseball books. I was very lucky I knew from a young age what I wanted to do.
“Now, my mom, with my best interests at heart, would say to me, gently, ‘you like to read, you like to write... you should think about becoming a lawyer?’”
I asked Rushin for a favourite writing assignment. He referred to Kate Upton, an attractive young lady who’s a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, but not in the way I expected.
“Bob Martin, a photographer from London, and I visited the northern-most golf course in the world,” says Rushin. “A course right on the Arctic Circle, half the holes in Sweden, half of them in Finland, and a time zone running through them, so in midsummer, when the sun never sets, you could hit a ball at midnight in one country and – literally – hit it into next week.
“We were there a few days before the locals sheepishly admitted that theirs wasn’t the northernmost golf course – there was a course a few kilometres north, a kind of Santa’s village place, so we went off and Bob got some nice shots of Santa teeing off in his red gear and so on.
“But after a day or two there, one of them told us that there was a ski resort to the north again, in Sweden, which opens a golf course for a few weeks in the summer, and once we got there they’d heard of a new course in Norway... it was an assignment that grew and grew and grew.
“On the other hand, I was sent to Antarctica for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition with Kate Upton, and the ship sailed from Tierra Del Fuego, the southernmost tip of Argentina. On the way to the boat I saw a sign for a golf course advertising itself as the most southerly course in the world.
“Having played in the northernmost, I felt I really had to also play in the southernmost...”
Steve Rushin. Always on the road.