Recommended Readings in Sports Literature

I’ve recently finished teaching an intersession course here at Johns Hopkins—that is, a three-week course, held during the period between winter break and the start of the spring semester, on a topic of my choosing. As such, I’ve spent most of January thinking about the literature of sports, and how various writers manage to make the subject compelling to a general audience.

Speaking as someone who loves sports, someone who organizes dinner plans and reading schedules around “the game tonight,” I often find written descriptions of sporting events rather dull. I’ll read newspaper recaps or student stories about some athletic contest, and my eyes will start glazing over the text immediately. As a reader, I want more than a litany of individual events. I want an actual narrative, or an argument, or something musical.

As such, most of the pieces I selected for the syllabus take an indirect approach to sports. Rather than focusing on the outcome of the game—the thing we care about when watching sports—they tend to emphasize the beauty inherent in athletic excellence, or the personal significance that the sport holds for the characters, or what the sport tells us about society. Such approaches are not just more creative than the play-by-play method, but are also more appealing to a reader who doesn’t care about sports but still appreciates good writing.

What follows are a series of pieces from my syllabus that my students seemed to respond to the most. They all either provoked interesting discussions during class, or had a clear influence on their own creative efforts. Each of these works, I believe, tells us something about how successful sports writing functions.

“Analysis of Baseball” by May Swenson (link here)

May Swenson’s poem “Analysis of Baseball” breaks the title game down to its constituent parts, down to the people and equipment necessary for it to occur. That sounds like the driest poem in history, but it’s a blast to read because Swenson privileges sound above all else. The poem’s paratactic phrasing, insistent repetition and constant rhyming results in a work that is quite playful coming off the tongue. Consider the following excerpt:

Bat waits
for ball
to mate.
Ball hates
to take bat’s
bait. Ball
flirts, bat’s
late, don’t
keep the date. (lines 17-25)

Obviously we can see the heavy alliteration and rhyme, which would make for a sonically dense poem to begin with. But also consider how the enjambment creates tiny pauses right as we learn the pitch has fooled the batter. Just as the pitcher has played his foe like a fiddle, Swenson has the reader right where she wants them.

On the first day of class, I had my students write imitations of the various baseball poems we discussed, and “Analysis of Baseball” was the most popular model. Conceptually it lends itself to that exercise well, and it was quite fun to hear what happened when students allowed themselves to chase the sound while describing the sport of their choosing.

“Body and Soul” by B. H. Fairchild (link here)

One of my colleagues—a tip of the ol’ hat to J. P. Allen—sent me a link to this poem when I was first designing the course, and I’m forever grateful for that. Whereas Swenson’s poem homes in on how the game of baseball is played, B. H. Fairchild’s “Body and Soul” concerns itself with why people bother playing it.

An extended narrative about working class men playing sandlot baseball in Oklahoma, “Body and Soul” is at once a humorous yarn and a meditation on the nature of masculinity. These grown men, short a player for a full team, allow a fifteen-year-old to join them. The kid, to their shock, proceeds to hit a whopping five home runs against them—turns out the kid was a young Mickey Mantle. It’s the exact sort of plausible-enough tall tale you’d expect to hear from your grandfather at barbecue.

But it’s the sections where Fairchild explores the psyches of his characters where the poem really comes to life. Why, the poem asks, did the men keep on pitching to Mantle when he kept taking them yard? It all comes down to foolish, self-destructive male pride:

…they had gone through a depression and a war that had left
them with the idea that being a man in the eyes of their fathers
and everyone else had cost them just too goddamn much to lay it
at the feet of a fifteen-year-old boy. And so they did not walk him,
and lost, but at least had some ragged remnant of themselves
to take back home. (lines 97-102)

As a portrait of the everyday athlete, at once sympathetic and critical, “Body and Soul” is a difficult one to top.

“Pafko at the Wall” by Don DeLillo (link to excerpt here)

In this story—originally published as a novella, later made into the prologue to his 1997 novel Underworld—Don DeLillo chronicles one of the most celebrated days in baseball history: October 3, 1951, the day Bobby Thompson hit the Shot Heard ‘Round the World and the New York Giants won the pennant over their arch-rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Every baseball fan knows about this game, but DeLillo’s story makes it fresh by mostly ignoring the game itself. Instead, his narrative focuses on the spectators at the Polo Grounds, and the personal struggles they’ve brought to the ballpark. We follow the likes of Cotter Martin, a boy from Harlem who’s snuck past the turnstiles to watch his beloved Giants; Russ Hodges, the Giants radio announcer getting a sore throat at the worst possible time; and J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous FBI director who’s just learned about a Soviet atom bomb test.

My students found this emphasis on the spectators fascinating. Most sports literature—for an obvious example, think “Casey at the Bat”—treats the crowd as a single character, a chorus of approval or disapproval. Not “Pafko at the Wall”: each member of the crowd has their own inner life, their own motivations and fears. It’s a difficult task, and it requires a lot of space (the story runs about 50 pages in my anthology of baseball writing), but it’s a challenge worth accepting.

Me, I’m always struck by how DeLillo, on the few occasions he actually talks about the game, chooses to emphasize moments of comic failure: Bobby Thompson getting thrown out a second, Don Mueller hurting himself sliding into third, etc. DeLillo saves the beautiful descriptions for the fans, especially Cotter. The passage in which the kid sneaks into the Polo Grounds is just exquisite:

Cotter thinks he sees a path to the turnstile on the right. He drains himself of everything he does not need to make the jump. Some are still jumping, some are thinking about it, some need a haircut, some have girlfriends in woolly sweaters and the rest have landed in the ruck and are trying to get up and scatter. A couple of stadium cops are rumbling down the ramp. Cotter sheds these elements as they appear, sheds a thousand waves of information hitting on his skin. His gaze is trained on the iron bar projected from the post. He picks up speed and seems to lose his gangliness, the slouchy funk of hormones and unbelonging and all the stammering things that seal his adolescence. He is just a running boy, a half-seen figure from the streets, but the way running reveals some clue to being, the way a runner bares himself to consciousness, this is how the dark-skinned kid seems to open to the world, how the bloodrush of a thousand strides brings him into eloquence. (p. 658, in Baseball: A Literary Anthology, ed. Nicholas Dawidoff, Library of America, 2002)

Even in the bleachers, “Pafko at the Wall” tells us, athletics is transformative in more ways that one.

“Roger Federer as Religious Experience” by David Foster Wallace (link here)

A celebration of perhaps the greatest player in the history of tennis, David Foster Wallace’s essay does to Federer what Don DeLillo does to Cotter Martin: use language to convey a moment of kinesthetic brilliance. “Federer Moments,” Wallace calls them, and they require almost as much virtuosity to describe as they do to perform.

Wallace’s technique of choice here is the long sentence, and I do mean long: a single-sentence rally between Federer and Andre Agassi, for instance, lasts for over 250 words before finally reaching a period. But this is no show of self-indulgence. Rather, Wallace uses the long sentence to illustrate all the complexities of tennis that a player must understand simultaneously and intuitively, and also to suggest the sheer stamina needed in top-flight tennis. If you get tired just reading about Federer’s exploits, just imagine actually doing them.

But the part of the essay that most interested my students, and ended up framing a lot the discussion in subsequent classes, was an almost-digressive paragraph on the language we use to describe sports. Sports are often thought of as simulations of war, and the pageantry surrounding them, especially men’s sports, bears that out:

[I]n men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their love of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s.

In part, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” is a corrective to this tendency in sports writing. It leads by example in praising the aesthetic qualities of a world-class athlete, asking us to see the emergent artwork in a point well-played. The world could certainly use more lyricism and less brute force, no?

Part II of Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (link to slighlty edited version here)

I’ve briefly talked Claudia Rankine’s Citizen before, as part of my list of modern classics in poetry. In particular, I noted how much I admired Rankine’s decision to use John McEnroe as a Greek chorus to discuss the various injustices Serena Williams has faced on and off the court. So I won’t dwell on that specific craft choice here.

Instead, I’ll highlight the section’s use images, as the mere presence of photographs and video stills made Rankine’s piece unique within the class. Sometimes, Rankine’s chosen images provide visual evidence of the incidents she cites, most notably the photo which closes the section: Caroline Wozniacki “imitating” Williams by stuffing towels into her shirt and skirt. But other times, they illustrate a point that’s rather difficult to express verbally.

In my most unfortunate omission this intersession, I neglected to include the image credits in my scan of the piece. As such, my students weren’t sure what to make of the image of one of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits: gaudily decorated performance art outfits that make a lot noise when worn. They are designed to call attention to the wearer’s body in a public space. Including the image of a Soundsuit provides a parallel to Williams’ position within the world of tennis: a black woman from Compton, standing in an historically white and wealthy space. Her body’s mere presence, Rankine suggests, calls attention to itself.

Someone whose image is notably absent from this section: Serena Williams. If that’s not a significant and deliberate choice, I don’t know what is.

Note: the version of this piece linked above lacks the embedded images that I’ve just been praising. Quite a shame, that. By all means, consider getting your hands on a physical copy.

“The Cruelest Sport” by Joyce Carol Oates (link here)

I’ll close with what is perhaps the most straightforward piece on this list. Taken from her collection of essays on boxing (titled, appropriately, On Boxing),“The Cruelest Sport” sees Joyce Carol Oates confronting the brutal realities of a sport she greatly enjoys. Boxing is not merely violent, like football—violence is part of boxing’s very essence, the intention of every fighter who enters the ring. Who can ethically justify watching a sport where the goal is not simply to win, but to cause one’s opponent to lose consciousness?

On top of the sport’s physical dangers, Oates doesn’t shy away from the socioeconomic conditions which underpin boxing. After all, what would drive someone to enter the world of prizefighting, if not economic necessity?

Boxing is only possible if there is an endless supply of young men hungry to leave their impoverished ghetto neighborhoods, more than willing to substitute the putative dangers of the ring for the evident, possibly daily, dangers of the street; yet it is rarely advanced as means of eradicating boxing, that poverty itself be abolished, that it is the social conditions feeding boxing that are obscene.

This article resonated with a lot of my students, because the harmful effects of sports institutions extend far beyond the boxing establishment. The head trauma crisis in the NFL and the appalling response to sexual abuse in US women’s gymnastics are just two recent examples. Sports are useful to a writer not simply because they’re exciting, but because they offer us a lens through which to view society. How does a business treat its workers? How do institutions treat their most marginalized members?

That’s enough from me. How about you? Are there any pieces of sports literature that you think exemplify a compelling approach to the subject? Let me know in the comments.

What Next?: Claressa Shields and Life Post-Triumph

Last night, PBS’s Independent Lens aired a 2015 documentary about Claressa Shields, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist in middleweight women’s boxing. Entitled T-Rex: Her Fight for Gold (dir. Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari), the film has its share of problems. The process of Shields’s qualification for the Olympics is not explained very well, and the film for some reason completely skips over the semifinal bout of the Olympic tournament. On top of that, the filmmakers set up a number of potential story threads in the first act, such as Claressa’s relationship with her sister, that are never fully developed by the end.

Indeed, had the film ended with Shields’s victory in London, I would have thought it a disappointment, a work with lots of promise but with little accomplishment. But the film has another twenty-five to run, and in those final scenes it finds its most compelling story: what does an athlete do after success?

Normally in a sports movie, if this question comes up at all, it gets answered with some expository text before the credits roll. This holds whether the film represents the end of an athlete’s career or just the beginning: when victory is itself the denoument, who could possibly be interested in the days and weeks after? Whatever happens, it will surely be lit with the afterglow of a championship.

But in T-Rex, the post-Olympics period is filled with uncertainty and frustration. For starters, Shields faces a difficult career decision: does she continue to compete as an amateur and defend her gold medal at the 2016 Olympics, or does she become a professional boxer and try to make a living for her family? As it happens, she chooses the former route, but that only becomes clear to audience in the closing expository text. Shields has plenty of reasons to consider the alternative path.

To further complicate matters, her relationship with her coach, Jason Crutchfield, becomes strained when she begins (openly) dating her sparring partner, which goes against Crutchfield’s principle of not mixing the personal and the professional (never mind that Shields lives with Crutchfield as a quasi-family member for the majority of the film). Considering how central his voice is in Shields’s life, seeing the two at loggerheads has an added sting beyond mere conflict.

The wrinkle that I find most interesting, however, is Shields and Crutchfield’s efforts to obtain endorsement deals following her gold medal triumph. Shields’s family has plenty of financial worries, struggling to pay for basic utilities, so she needs an income stream to subsidize her unpaid amateur boxing. One might assume that being among the first ever women’s boxing gold medalists would get the sponsors lining up to sign her, but such is not the case.

According to USA Boxing officials featured in the film, Shields faces far greater difficulty in getting sponsorship deals than someone like Gabby Douglas, 2012 gold medalist in women’s gymnastics. For starters, gymnastics gets covered during primetime on a major network, whereas boxing is shown midday on a cable channel. People, and by extension potential sponsors, are far more likely to have seen Douglas perform than they are Shields.

Yet there is also the problem of American cultural attitudes. Douglas, with her cheerful presentation and her achievement in a sport associated with traditional femininity, is an easy sell to corporations. Shields, on the other hand, has a more brash personality; in a clip from The Colbert Report shown during a montage, she says she got into boxing because she likes punching people. It’s at least partly in jest, but it’s that sort of thing, the boxing officials say, that can make sponsors wary of signing athletes.

As a black woman, Shields detects racial and gendered assumptions behind that reluctance, and while the filmmakers do not explore that particular line of thought in great depth, it’s hard not to reach the same conclusions. Given how much Shields has accomplished and how little she has to show for it financially, there must be something unfair in the system of American athletics.

Honestly, I would have loved to see a cut of this movie that stretched the post-Olympic period over two acts, giving more time to explore an athlete’s life once the dream has been realized. As is, T-Rex is a fine documentary that doesn’t reach its full potential until the final bell has rung.

Currently, T-Rex: Her Fight for Gold is available for streaming at its Independent Lens episode page (link). The 2016 Olympic women’s middleweight boxing tournament begins August 14.