As a teenager, I remember reading yet another funny sports column by Tony Kornheiser in the Washington Post print newspaper. Remember newspapers?
This experimental sportswriter was having a laugh playing with words. A goofing around the job that entertained people sounded appealing and I thought one day maybe I could do what Tony was doing and make a career of it. Still haven’t really, but still trying and believe it will come to be. Feeling a late bloomer surge deep in my abdomen.
Every night as soon as the workday ends I have my “gin and tonic hour” — usually a soda or ice water plus something sweet — to watch Tony and his pal Michael Wilbon rap about sports on the TV show “Pardon the Interruption.” These guys make me feel the world is a good place, to be treasured, not taken too seriously. I consider them my close friends. Sports lovers like me, we rock the same way.
I don’t think I write like Tony per se, but I think like him and enjoy the same amusing things he does. A soulmate of mine he is and forever will be.
Not unexpectedly, a few of Tony’s best columns got chosen for a captivating book I just wrapped up reading called The Great American Sports Page: A Century of Classic Columns from Ring Lardner to Sally Jenkins.
The editor is John Schulian, a skilled sports columnist himself, who in this book published full texts of 98 columns written by 46 sports writers dating back to the days of baseball’s Negro Leagues and boxing matches from long ago.
What struck me overall was how many of these sterling works of writing – at least a half dozen – told harrowing life stories of boxers and their bat-crazy profession. I think it’s because boxing is closer to death than just about any sport — with a respectful nod to NASCAR drivers.
So the stories of the guys who punch other guys in the face for a living are dark and scary. Boxing is a life for those not thinking right, nor living right. You find yourself wondering what it’s like to get inside a ring and risk getting your head destroyed to put food on the table. Writing about something so human and raw and life-threatening brings out original and serious thoughts from sports writers. They feel something deep. It’s primal, earthy, with blood, tears, and despair all around.
This book has plenty of other stories that hurt your senses – Pistol Pete Maravich’s tragic retirement and life buried under his father’s helicopter pressures (by Schulian); Dale Earnhardt’s crash into eternity refusing to wear a neck brace that may have saved his life (by Sally Jenkins); Reggie Jackson’s complicated egomania and an avalanche of teammates who disliked him (by Kornheiser).
Each of these 98 articles is written with crackle and original imagery and sudden word usage surprises and intellectual candy boxes. With so much sirloin steak to choose from, I’ve struggled to figure out what literary dishes to serve up for you in a digestible way that feels nutritious.
After a tedious whittling process from this set of noteworthy writing achievements, I decided to bring to your attention a countdown of my three favorite columns based on writing and reading enjoyment and the emotional impact they had on me. Surprising storylines weighed into my decisions.
I easily could have selected 20 others but these three below rang the bell for me reinforcing my beliefs that when done differently, aggressively, honestly and without inhibitions, writing hits us in our hearts.
I believe you’ll be more cultured and spiritually enlivened after devouring these three gems of sports storytelling – but I can’t guarantee this.
But you can count on one thing about this countdown. My number one pick will take you on an original and unexpected journey that you’ve never been on reading any other sports column.
Number 3: “The Proud Warrior,” John Schulian, Philadelphia Daily News, 1985
This article captures the life and death, face-crushing boxing bout between “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler and Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns that after reading will compel you – as it did me – to watch this ferocious fight again on YouTube.
This was more than a boxing match. This was two men trying to destroy each other. Well, maybe they’re similar but the way this column is written you feel the utter importance of the fight to both men at the peak of their boxing careers and the abject fury of Hagler to take the crown. Nothing I’ve ever read about boxing moved me as much as this column did.
Drink in Schulian’s thirst-quenching prose:
Blood cascaded down Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s nose, leaving a stripe thick enough to divide a highway. Yet the sight and feel of the relentless crimson ooze moved Hagler in a way that bore no relation to anything modern, automated, or federal funding.
Suddenly he was jerked out of 1985 and back into a time when warriors wore loincloths instead of boxing trunks and did their hunting without the benefit of eight-ounce gloves. He was primitive and that splash down the middle of his face wasn’t blood. It was war paint.
The more it flowed, the more savage Hagler became. And the more savage he became, the more you wondered if this hellish explosion hadn’t been building inside him for all of his thirty years.
Number Two: “If You’re Expecting One Liners,” Jim Murray, Los Angeles Times, 1979
For such a serious topic – the loss of sight in one eye when the other one hasn’t been seeing right for many years – Jim Murray does the unexpected. He brings a light-hearted but fatalistic poignancy that makes us realize he’s going to get through his failing vision, reminding the rest of us to stay strong and keep laughing when our bodies start to break down.
Murray gives us his soul with these sentences:
I lost an old friend the other day. He was blue-eyed, impish, he cried a lot with me, laughed a lot with me, saw a great many things with me. I don’t know why he left me. Boredom, perhaps.
You see, the friend I lost was my eye. My good eye. The other eye, the right one, we’ve been carrying for years. We just let him tag along like Don Quixote’s nag. It’s been a long time since he could read the number on a halfback or tell whether a ball was fair or foul or even which fighter was down. So one blue is missing and the other misses a lot.
Number One: “Her Blue Haven,” Bill Plaschke, Los Angeles Times, 2001
When I started reading this column, I had no idea where it would end up and was moved like no other column in this book by how it veers off into a story like no other. Just read this. You won’t believe what happens because it’s unbelievable – yet true.
Bill Plaschke predicted doom for the Dodgers in 2001…Plaschke criticized…Plaschke forgot…Plaschke compared unfairly…The Dodgers need encouragement, not negativity…
That was part of a 1,200-word screed e-mailed to me last December, a holiday package filled with colorful rips. It was not much different from other nasty letters I receive, with two exceptions.
This note contained more details than the usual “You’re an idiot.” It included on-base percentages and catchers’ defensive statistics. It was written by someone who knew the Dodgers as well as I thought I did.
And this note was signed. The writer’s name was Sarah Morris. She typed it at the bottom.
Most people hide behind tough words out of embarrassment or fear, but Sarah Morris was different. She had not only challenged me to a fight but had done so with no strings or shadows.
I thought it was cute. I wrote her back. I told her I was impressed and ready for battle.
Little did I know that this would be the start of a most unusual relationship, which eight months later is being recounted from a most unusual place. I am writing this from the floor, Sarah Morris having knocked me flat with a punch I never saw coming.
Sammy Sportface, a sports blogger, galvanizes, inspires, and amuses The Baby Boomer Brotherhood. And you can learn about his vision and join this group's Facebook page here:
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