Legendary scribes and hoop dreams in Philippines
Lots of people contend that Roger Angel is the finest writer ever to have been consumed with baseball, although some cite John Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” as their favorite triumph of baseball writing.
Lots of people maintain that no one has ever written more knowledgeably about boxing than A.J. Liebling, and the same is said regarding Herbert Warren Wind and golf by numerous fans of that game.
All of those citizens will be pleased by “The Only Game in Town: Sportswriting from The New Yorker,’’ because all of those writers are represented therein. The volume also includes selections from John Cheever, Susan Orlean, Martin Amis, and John McPhee, which is, perhaps, no less than what one should expect of a collection culled from the pages of The New Yorker. My favorite piece is “Legend of a Sport,” Alva Johnston’s brilliant and very funny portrait of Wilson Mizner, the con man extraordinaire who briefly managed boxer Stanley Ketchel, with whom he first became involved as “an unpaid specialist on the political and graft setup in New York.”
“Fathers & Daughters & Sports’’ is a less ambitious collection with a more modest pedigree, but the best of these pieces by athletes, sports journalists, and other writers are fresh and encouraging. We’ve all heard enough tales of manic tennis moms and homicidal hockey dads. It’s fine to learn from Sally Jenkins that although her sportswriter dad, Dan, was away from home during a lot of her childhood, she continues to regard him as “a better father than nine-tenths of the ones I knew.” Bernie Lincicome’s “Whoa Is Me” about his daughter’s adventures in the equestrian ranks is charming. Steve Rushin’s explanation of why the two girls he’s raising with his wife, former basketball star Rebecca Lobo, prefer soccer to American football is worth the price of the book. Lobo’s account of her father’s quiet yet firm support during her basketball days is heartening and sweet.
Stephen King is at least as well known as any of the writers represented in “The Only Game in Town’’ and “Fathers & Daughters & Sports,’’ and he has probably made more money than all of them combined. It would be risky to characterize “Blockade Billy’’ as King’s most recent book, first because it’s only the title story of a two-story book, and second because the author is so prolific that by the time this column appears, King may have produced several more volumes. In any case, “Blockade Billy’’ is a puzzling effort. The title and cover art — a catcher and sliding base runner who look as if they would have been comfortable on the front of the Saturday Evening Post 50 years ago — suggest that it’s a “boys’ book.” But the first four-letter words appear only a few pages in, and they find lots of company as the story, such as it is, proceeds.
King fans, anticipating mayhem and psychotic rage even in the context of a pastoral game, will not be disappointed. I won’t be giving away too much if I reveal that “Blockade Billy’’ is rife with envy, vengeance, razor blades, and corpses, human and bovine. Maybe the dead cows are meant to serve as a link to baseball’s grassy vistas and the gloves worn by those who roam them.
“Pacific Rims’’ is one of those books with a subtitle almost too long for the cover: “Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball.”
At least one of the “beermen” is Billy Ray Bates, whose pro basketball career in the Philippines provides one of the more entertaining “whatever happened to him?” stories you’re likely to encounter. Bates played for four years in the NBA, but he peaked in 1983, employed by the Crispa Redmanizers in Manila. For the next several years, according to Rafe Bartholomew, Bates, who had “all-star talent and all-world athleticism,” was “a tank with wings . . . the closest most Filipinos ever came to seeing Michael Jordan or Julius Erving in person.”
Bartholomew’s tales of US players who were not quite good enough to stay in the NBA but found celebrity, notoriety or both in the Philippine pro ranks are sometimes cautionary and always entertaining, as are the tales of his own stint as an actor in a local TV soap opera, where he played the white guy. The author also explores the roots of the popularity of hoops in a country where “basketball is part of the evanescent core.” To accumulate evidence for that contention, Bartholomew spent time not only in the thriving pro league, but with “a troupe of midgets and transsexuals who play exhibition games at rural fiestas.”
Maybe somewhere there is somebody who has conducted more unlikely research to write a book about a sport. Maybe.
Bill Littlefield hosts National Public Radio’s ”Only A Game” at WBUR in Boston and teaches at Curry College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.