Sports: The Real Holiday Tradition

Benjamin Baruch Woody

As we gracefully ease into the holiday season it is incumbent upon all of us to count our blessings and truly realize what this time of the year is all about. Sports. Yes, that’s right, sports. Many of you may be terribly excited to sit at the Thanksgiving table and hear Aunt Grunhilda drone on about her time as a young, competitive clogger on the Close Cousin and Hayseed Circuit (sponsored by Martha White Flour), but I am not. When Uncle Dipwalla starts his hysterical comedy routine about the Donner Party, I take that as my cue to slip away and park myself in front of the TV to watch some football. Now this is a blog about literature, art, etc, and not about TV (although some movies will be mentioned), so I won’t bore you with the details of this week’s upcoming games. I am, however very excited to share some of my favorite books and movies about sports.

I firmly believe that the greatest sportswriter of all-time is David Halberstam. Mr. Halberstam is well-known (deservedly so) for his account of the Vietnam War The Best and the Brightest and his stunning retelling of the struggle between the US and Japan for control of the automobile industry The Reckoning. He is also known for what many critics and “experts” say is the greatest sports book of all time The Breaks of the Game. This book is a detailed account of the NBA 1979-1980 season of the Portland Trailblazers and, in particular, their fascinating star Bill Walton. Like most great works of literature, this book is about much more than what is on the surface. It is a wonderfully written account of race relations in the 70’s, what became of the late sixties’ counter-culture in the 70’s, a philosophical rumination on the subsummation of highly skilled individuals for the greater of the whole and the conflicts that arise when someone (a coach) tries to find the right alchemy, and so, so much more. I cannot recommend it enough. However, I actually think one of Halberstam’s least known books is a tiny bit better. The Amateurs is a short book about a little-known or cared about topic, the world of rowing. In this book Halberstam follows 4 completely different men as they strive to represent the US in the 1984 Olympics. The star of the book, Tiff Wood, is one of my favorite characters of any book I have ever read. I have absolutely no interest in rowing, yet I have read this book probably fifteen times. Halberstam uses the 1984 Single Scull trials to examine obsession, sacrifice, pain, iconoclasm, stubbornness, and single-mindedness. He is a master. All of David Halberstam’s books are good.

Later in this blog I will give some lists of favorite sports books and movies, but for now I want to concentrate on a few more of my absolute favorites. One of the best biographies I have ever read is When Pride Still Mattered by David Maraniss. This is the biography of legendary Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi. Not only is Lombardi a fascinating character, but Maraniss writes wonderfully about the lives of Italian immigrants, the ideas and methods of leadership, the contradiction between private family life and public life, and much more. Just an outstanding book.

Laura Hillenbrand is a genius. I have written about her before, but I do not care. She needs to be celebrated. Seabiscuit is not your traditional sports book, but it is about horse racing and how a particular horse captured the nation’s imagination. It is a mesmerizing account of a certain time in America. Wonderful. My only beef with Mrs. Hillenbrand is that she has only written two books. I know she suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and I wish her the best. The world is a better place with more Hillenbrand books.

Michael Lewis is one of my favorite writers. He can even make high finance interesting. His book Moneyball, which inspired the very good movie, is an interesting look at how analytics and the theories of the great Baseball Wizard, Bill James, were put to use in Major League Baseball. Lewis’ book about football, The Blind Side, is also very good.

As a certified sports fanatic, one would think I have many sports fiction books that I love. I do not. I think that many writers struggle to write about sports in fiction. I don’t know why, other than there are so many true sports stories that are amazing and why not write about one of those? I guess the last sentence could be true about any genre of literature. I do have 2 favorite sports fiction books. The first is W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe. A perfect little gem of a book, it is the book that the wonderful movie Field of Dreams is drawn from. This book is so full of wonder, magic, laughter, and tears that I reread it every year, and every year it breaks my heart all over again.

The next book may be considered an “outdoor” book and it is about many things. I am including it here because I love it and it is about fishing, which could be considered a sport. A River Runs Through It is another book, and movie, that can break your heart. Also very short, it may be the perfect American Novel. Not one word is out of place or superfluous. Norman Maclean taught Literature at the University of Chicago for 40 years. He wrote one novel in his life. I would like to think he spent 40 years thinking about this novel and making it perfect. I strongly believe that A River Runs Through It has the greatest closing lines in the history of American Literature:

It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.

Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.

Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.

 

Authors of whom I recommend all of their books:

John Feinstein

Richard Ben Cramer

George Plimpton

Thomas Boswell

Buzz Bissinger

Howard Bryant

 

Baseball Authors:

Roger Angell

Roger Kahn

George Will

 

Basketball Authors:

Rick Telander

Pete Axthelm

 

A special obsession of mine are Mountaineering books. Here are the key writers:

Jon Krakauer

David Roberts

Clint Willis

and many more. Please email me at bwoody@fontanalib.org if you want more authors.

 

 

 

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