I was six years old in 1952 when Mickey Mantle hit his first World Series homerun as the Yankees won their fourth straight championship, defeating the Brooklyn Dodgers in seven games. Yankee games were broadcast on WPIX, channel 11, in New York, one of five channels we would be able to receive when television finally came to our home in the northeastern corner of Connecticut four years later. Because television was still in my future, I didn’t see Mantle’s homerun or Bobby Layne and Doak Walker’s Detroit Lions defeat Otto Graham and the Browns in the NFL championship game that year; the Lions hadn’t been in a championship game since 1935, and the Browns had been in three of the past four. I didn’t see the Minneapolis Lakers beat the Knicks in the NBA finals that year, or Rocky Marciano knock out Jersey Joe Wolcott. I didn’t see Sam Snead win the Masters or the Red Wings skate past the Canadiens to take the Stanley Cup. I didn’t get to see the summer Olympic games in Helsinki or the winter games in Oslo, so didn’t get to see Bob Mathias defend his title as Olympic decathlon champion or Stein Eriksen win the giant slalom.
But I read about them all.
In 1958 I found a copy of the Second Fireside Book of Baseball under the Christmas tree. That book sits by my bedside tonight; I read an article or story almost every day. By the time I left home for boarding school, I had read every book I could find about baseball, football, hockey, basketball, track and field, golf, tennis, prize fighting, horse racing, sailing. I read about gentlemanly Christy Mathewson and decidedly ungentlemanly Ty Cobb. I read about Jesse Owens and Jim Thorpe, about Man ‘O War and Seabiscuit, Jack Dempsey, “The Manassa Mauler” and Luis Angel Firpo, “The Wild Bull of the Pampas”.
I read about Bronislau “Bronko” Nagurski, the Lithuanian Canadian discovered plowing a field in MInnesota, later named an All American at fullback and tackle. I read about Red Grange, “The Galloping Ghost”, at the University of Illinois whose electrifying breakaway touchdowns were broadcast across the nation and about “Mr. Inside”, Doc Blanchard, and “Mr. Outside”, Glenn Davis, Army’s unstoppable running backs. Blanchard who won the Heisman, Maxwell, and Sullivan trophies as a junior, so impressed Notre Dame’s coach in administering a 59-0 thumping that he is reputed to have said, “I’ve just seen Superman in the flesh. He wears number 35 and goes by the name of Blanchard.”
I didn’t get to Yankee Stadium until 1965 and Michigan’s Big House until 1982. I have yet to see a Rose Bowl game or NFL game in person. I’ve never been to Wimbledon or Churchill Downs. I’ve never attended a World Series game or a Stanley Cup final.
But I have read about it all. This modest sportsman owes his love of sport to a host of great sportswriters. With gratitude, I write because of Ring Lardner and Grantland Rice. A.J. Liebling, John Lardner, and Red Smith. I write because of Roger Angell, David Halberstam, George Plimpton, Jimmy Cannon, Shirley Povich, Dan Jenkins, John McPhee, Jim Murray, Dick Schaap., W.C. Heintz, Bob Considine, Jimmy Breslin, Murray Kempton.
Why do I love sports? Because I read passages such as this one, written by David Halberstam:
“DiMaggio complemented his natural athletic ability with astonishing physical grace. He played the outfield, he ran the bases, and he batted not just effectively but with rare style. He would glide rather than run, it seemed, always smooth, always ending up where he wanted to be just when he wanted to be there. If he appeared to play effortlessly, his teammates knew otherwise. In his first season as a Yankee, Gene Woodling, who played left field, was struck by the sound of DiMaggio chasing a fly ball. He sounded like a giant truck horse on the loose, Woodling thought, his feet thudding down hard on the grass. The great, clear noises in the open space enabled Woodling to measure the distance between them without looking.
He was the perfect Hemingway hero, for Hemingway in his novels romanticized the man who exhibited grace under pressure, who withheld any emotion lest it soil the purer statement of his deeds. DiMaggio was that kind of hero; his grace and skill were always on display, his emotions always concealed. This stoic grace was not achieved without a terrible price: DiMaggio was a man wound tight. He suffered from insomnia and ulcers. When he sat and watched the game he chain-smoked and drank endless cups of coffee. He was ever conscious of his obligation to play well. Late in his career, when his legs were bothering him and the Yankees had a comfortable lead in a pennant race, a friend of his, columnist Jimmy Cannon, asked him why he played so hard — the games, after all, no longer meant so much. “Because there might be somebody out there who’s never seen me play before,” he answered.”
And that is why I remain a modest sportsman, writing in the shadow of giants.