Filling in the Gaps
The goal for the Athletic Supporter is to write about every sports book I read. But here’s the secret: Not every book makes it. They’re reviewed for other publications. Sometimes, I want to read a book for pleasure without spending 1,000 words dissecting it like a fetal pig.
In the spirit of full disclosure, here’s what I read from cover to cover from late ‘09 through 2010 that I did not get around to writing about, along with why that’s the case.
The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, the Cowboys, the ‘70s, and the Fight for America’s Soul by Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne.
Not only does the book masterfully resurrect the significance of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers—who with each passing year are becoming a forgotten dynasty—it expertly covers the swirling change in sports and society during that decade. Steroids were becoming a presence in locker rooms. Pittsburgh was dying as a steel manufacturer, thanks to complacent union leadership and foreign competition. A new breed of athlete who didn’t care about authority and tradition was emerging. Teams were becoming less about people and more about performance and image. The NFL’s two best teams of the 1970s, the Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys, and their cities reflected those ideologies. Dallas was wealthy and liked things big and brash. Pittsburgh was hitting a skid, and residents saw themselves in the hard-working Steelers. The teams met in two Super Bowls, which wasn’t so much a game but a battle for endorsing a way of life.
Why the book wasn’t profiled in 2010: I ran out of time. And energy.
I was assigned to interview Millman about The Ones Who Hit the Hardest for the website Gelf Magazine. Via my editor, I requested a copy of the book on December 17, confident that it would arrive no later than December 21. By the morning of December 24, I was pacing the hallways like an expectant father.
The book still hadn't arrived, and Millman’s only available days were Christmas Eve—which was out because my fiancée and I had to tie loose ends before leaving for the holiday weekend—or Monday, December 27. After that, Millman was on vacation and unreachable. The interview was due on December 31.
My last hope was that the book arrived before we left, so I could read it by Monday. The mailman arrived right as I packed the car. The book did not. I was doomed. The library had no copies. A snowstorm was coming that weekend, so bookstores would certainly be closed. I was destined to ask poor Millman questions he’d hear on a Topeka FM rock n’ roll morning show: “What was Franco Harris’s beard like? What Steeler smelled the worst? Awright, now here’s Cheap Trick!”
Then, a miracle happened. Forgetting that I had requested it for Christmas, I received The Ones Who Hit the Hardest from my future in-laws. Feeling born again, I read the book in two giant gulps early Sunday morning and late Sunday night. On Monday morning, I had questions ready. A few hours later, the interview was done.
Welcome to the glamorous world of freelance writing! Your check should arrive in eight to ten weeks. P.S.: The book never came.
Top of the Order: 25 Writers Pick Their Favorite Baseball Players of All Time edited by Sean Manning.
I was in the middle of a truly crappy freelance gig—working for a professional liar whose checks usually bounced higher than a SuperBall—and my one solace was taking an hour to read during my self-imposed lunch break.
Why did I choose this book? The anthology format made it easier to read and the talent level was staggering. You have accomplished sportswriters like Roger Kahn and Jeff Pearlman mixed with writers like Steve Almond (a new favorite thanks to Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life) and Neal Pollack. Their entries are full of warmth, affection, and humor. It was like having a series of witty, energetic conversations with very smart people. And it was an interaction that I desperately needed.
My favorite contribution—and it’s a tough choice—comes from comedian Michael Ian Black. The former star of The State chooses former New York Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson, who spoke to Black’s mostly white school in Hillsborough, NJ back in the early 1980s. When Wilson, an African American, mentioned that he went to college, an eleven-year-old Black reacted most inappropriately.
I laughed out loud because Mookie Wilson, a black guy with a ridiculous nickname, was talking about going to college. My immediate impulse was to laugh, and in that moment, I understood a deep and horrible truth about myself, although it was something I could not have put into words at the time.
It’s this: I felt superior to Mookie Wilson, a guy who embodied everything I wanted for myself, who played for the New York Mets, who was famous and richer than I would ever be, who was talented and strong, who was loved by an entire metropolitan region. In that moment, I recognized that, despite of all that, I felt superior to Mookie Wilson for the simple reason that he was black.
You can be a complete asshole when you are eleven. I am living proof.
Why the book wasn’t profiled in 2010: Former colleague David G. Mitchell beat me to it. But I must say, he did a nice job.
Are We Winning?: Fathers and Sons in the New Golden Age of Baseball by Will Leitch.
A 2008 Cardinals/Cubs game at Wrigley Field serves as a springboard for Leitch to examine his relationship with his dad and his own maturity. Leitch is best known as the founder of the popular, sarcastic sports blog Deadspin, but he’s never been afraid to let his guard down, to remind you that an actual person is writing. Combine that quality with his considerable talent, and you get a poignant look into the emotional value of baseball and how fathers and sons gradually and unexpectedly get to know each other.
Baseball binds us in unsaid, unbreakable ways: One of my fondest memories is hitting a towering triple in Little League, and barely beating the throw to third base. As the dust and adrenaline subsided, I see my dad on his feet, clapping like a gospel singer, smiling like he had just won the lottery. That happened nearly twenty years ago, and the moment is still Technicolor perfect. And it tells me more than anything he can ever say.
Why the book wasn’t profiled in 2010: I’m a big fan of Leitch, and this was an end-of-the year treat to myself. When I dropped off books to donate at my local library, I grabbed this on my way out. Plus, I have written a lot about Leitch since 2009. I wanted to explore other authors.
Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything by Kevin Cook
This was a ton of fun—with a title like that, how could it not be?—because I can’t remember the last time I read about an honest-to-goodness character. Cook does a hell of a job profiling an epic, fun-filled life of high-stakes card games, golf course cons, beautiful women, and murder. Cook, to his credit, is never seduced by Thompson’s flashy ways, which inspired Guys & Dolls’ Sky Masterson. He shows the broken man Thompson becomes, playing cards with arthritic hands at a nursing home, and paying a young nurse to strip naked, then requesting that he touch her. Cook’s desire to profile the con artist's entire life—from his sleight-of-hand mastery to his failed marriages—contributed to one of the best biographies I read in 2010.
Why the book wasn’t profiled in 2010: I reviewed this for BookPage, and typically I don’t like to duplicate efforts. Copyright laws are dicey and every publication has its own rules and preferences. To quote a cop source during my newspaper days, “I don't want to shit in my own cereal.”
The Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball 1995 edited by Zander Hollander
Before the Internet, I relied on Zander Hollander and his crew to provide my constant craving for statistics and scouting reports, which were both provided in a series of small, dense paperbacks. As a kid, I read the baseball and basketball ones with such zeal that at least two of them split down the middle from overuse.
It wasn’t until I started reading the basketball handbooks that I noticed the writing—clever, funny, and unafraid. In the 1995 edition, troubled guard Vernon Maxwell “knows about defenses and defense attorneys.” Kevin Duckworth, the Bullets awful and overpaid center, was described as follows: “In the real world, he’d be indicted for fraud.” And there are countless other phrases that showed a love for the written word, a desire to avoid clichés.
I regret donating the dozen or so previous editions I had, victims of a move and the Internet's wealth of information, all symbols of my sports-obsessed childhood. The one I kept features the 1994 Knicks, probably my all-time favorite team, who were a pitiful John Starks performance away from winning the championship. I read that handbook constantly. Yes, it’s terrific, but it also reminds me of when the Knicks and I had potential. We’ve both had our ups and downs since then, but we turned out OK.
Why the book wasn’t profiled in 2010: I did my share of nostalgia-tinged pieces in 2010. There was no need for another one.
Also read for other publications: He Crashed Me So I Crashed Him Back by Mark Bechtel, an excellent book about the birth of NASCAR, a sport I don’t follow; The First Star: Red Grange and the Barnstorming Tour that Launched the NFL by Lars Anderson, a colorful, informative read about football’s early days Jay Jennings’s examination of Little Rock’s stormy racial politics via a high school football team, Carry the Rock, and Craig Robinson’s self-help book/memoir, A Game of Character were fine—neither memorable nor catastrophic. Susan Casey’s look at wave dynamics and big-wave surfers (called, not surprisingly, The Wave) was entertaining and informative. Her earth-happy tone and chumminess with her subjects did grow tiresome. I plan to write extensively in the future about The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White, Doug Merlino’s wonderful blend of memoir and non-fiction about Seattle, race, basketball, and life.
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.