Just like fans of professional hockey and basketball are ending their long seasons and resting their bleary, red eyes from lack of sleep, I have closed the book on Wilfrid Sheed's collection of essays Baseball and Lesser Sports, which I began several months ago (I was briefly sidetracked by another baseball book Robert Weintraub's The Victory Season). Besides I had already read Sheed's sports-related memoir, My Life as a Fan (2001) and found his prose rich and fun to read. I was confident I would return to finish it.
This collection of sports writing published in 1991, (Sheed died in 2011) spans 30 years of Sheed's sports-related essays and though he devotes much of the book to baseball figures such as Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Connie Mack, and Branch Rickey, I was equally impressed with his take on Howard Cosell, John McEnroe, Muhammad Ali and Jack Nicklaus. Most of these are names from the past, I know, but if you are familiar with them at all, Sheed will give you fresh perspectives.
One of Sheed's essays, “Sports Talk” explains the difficulties of sports writing in the modern era citing that some of the master journalists were Damon Runyon, Heywoud Broun, Ring Lardner and Red Smith. Sheed devotes separate essays to baseball Hall of Famer Smith and Ring Lardners' baseball novel You Know Me, Al, which Sheed maintains is a polished novel (though it reads like a serial) and despite Lardner's denial that he (Lardner) didn't consider himself a novelist.
Another aspect of Sheed that I find so relevant is that he writes so timelessly about sports. Then, I ask myself are there any sports writers that write with such elegance still around?” Despite the volume of online prose that is available, rehashing the daily onslaught of 24/7 sports programming, is there anyone writing anything that provides a refreshing insight or a phase worth repeating. I eventually may stand corrected on this, but as one who has read Sports Illustrated for dozens of years, I rarely pull anything out (much less scan and post) that I would call “great writing.” (The same could be said of blogs too, I suppose).
Because it is intimidating to describe Sheed, I leave you with an excerpts electronically ripped from the pages of the Sheed book. This is from an essay about Jack Nicklaus as he triumphs in 1986 Masters at the age of 46. Of course, this is almost 10 years before Tiger Woods would begin to challenge Nicklaus' record for winning the most majors, but note the strange coincidental mention of “tigers.” As long as I am deconstructing, notice on the second scan how Sheed gives a tight, brief comparison of watching other sports faces on television. He often likes to compare sports to each other, but in a succinct, nonjudgmental way. Take note of the highlighting on the second scan about the value of a face. In a world of botox and maintaining the appearance of youth, there is a reminder that there is some appreciation of having a face that has been lived in. (P.S. No books were harmed to scan this copy. Take comfort in knowing that before lodging a complaint about the quality.)
Enjoy and appreciate and then go hunting for your own copy.