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On Sports

Profiles in courage

By Bill Littlefield
Globe Correspondent / March 6, 2011

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The cover of Hal Needham’s book features the author in flames. He’s running away from a car, which is also on fire.

The cover could as easily have presented Needham turning a car over on the beach, jumping a car from a cliff to a barge in the middle of a river, or leaping from one balcony to another across a cobblestone street. Hal Needham is a former stuntman.

He was successful in the sense that he created some spectacular movie moments doubling for Burt Reynolds and various other prettier faces while making more money than anybody else in his line of work. But faceless celebrity came at a price. Needham broke at least 56 bones in places other than his back. He broke his back twice. He lost much of his hearing when he ran in front of a cannon being fired by a guy who hadn’t understood Needham’s instructions about when to fire it.

Needham was also robbed twice in Las Vegas by women in a gang known as “the Rolex girls’’ because they targeted men wearing expensive watches. These men were lured to hotel rooms with various promises, drugged, and stripped of not only their watches but their rings, cufflinks, and wallets as well.

Needham fails to explain in “Stuntman!’’ how anybody could be foolish enough to be snared twice by a Rolex girl. He does mention that when the police questioned him after the second incident, he shrugged and told them to pull out his previous report and change the dates. He writes that the next time he started to leave his table to pursue a woman in a casino, a friend grabbed his sleeve and offered to hold Needham’s watch.

“Stuntman!’’ is full of dangerous adventures nobody should undertake anywhere, let alone at home. Or in Las Vegas.

Michael Waltrip is something of a stuntman, too, though he’d probably deny it. Waltrip drives cars around various NASCAR ovals at about 200 miles an hour. Ten years ago, he did that more successfully than anybody else competing in the Daytona 500. But as Waltrip crossed the finish line and took the checkered flag in 2001, Dale Earnhardt was bouncing off another car. Shortly after the race Earnhardt, who was the head of the racing team for which Waltrip was driving, was dead.

Much of “In the Blink of an Eye’’ is about Earnhardt’s lasting influence on Waltrip. The final line of the book is “Glad you’re still with me, Dale.’’ Waltrip, who maintains that he could not come to terms with Earnhardt’s death for some time, has apparently reached closure on that issue, which is perhaps part of the reason why his book, written with the assistance of Ellis Henican, has appeared on the 10th anniversary of that race at Daytona. For the record, Waltrip reports that on the day he died, Earnhardt seemed to be particularly happy and at peace with himself. The author, who takes solace from that memory of his mentor, says he’ll go to heaven one day, and he’s sure he’ll find Dale Earnhardt there.

Mark Kurlansky’s concise and thoughtful celebration of former Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg is part of a series of interpretive biographies “designed to illuminate the imprint of eminent Jewish figures’’ upon various fields of endeavor. Greenberg, whom some of his Jewish fans playfully called “Hankus-Pankus’’ and whose given first name was Hyman, was Major League Baseball’s first Jewish superstar. Though he was never observant, he did elect not to play ball on Rosh Hashana during the pennant race in 1934. According to Kurlansky, Greenberg’s decision made him “a kind of national Jew, a symbol . . . a muscular six-foot-four-inch bulwark against anti-Semitism . . . the mythic super-Jew.’’

Greenberg was never comfortable with the role, according to Kurlansky, because “it conflicted with his natural humility,’’ but for numbers of Jewish citizens, regardless of whether they were baseball fans, Greenberg represented the ultimate refutation of various ignorant stereotypes with which they had been burdened. He wasn’t just a very good baseball player, he was a power hitter, a home-run guy, “the Jewish Babe Ruth.’’

As Kurlansky reports, some fans came to view Greenberg, whose career with the Tigers began in 1933, as Jackie Robinson before there was Jackie Robinson. Greenberg himself didn’t buy it. Though he was — as Robinson would be — the target of racist taunts from rival players and fans, Greenberg always maintained that Robinson’s task was far tougher than his own. Still, the two players had in common one crucial quality: Both Greenberg and Robinson were able to turn the insults of ignorant and bigoted fans and fellow players into motivation. Rather than allow the jeers to distract them, let alone destroy them, they built from the abuse a powerful determination to excel, and that achievement is at the center of Kurlansky’s appreciation of Hank Greenberg.

Bill Littlefield hosts National Public Radio’s “Only A Game’’ from WBUR in Boston and is writer-in-residence at Curry College. He can be reached at blittlef@wbur.bu.edu.

STUNTMAN! My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life
By Hal Needham
Little, Brown, 320 pp., illustrated, $25.99

IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE: Dale, Daytona, and the Day that Changed Everything
By Michael Waltrip (and Ellis Henican)
Hyperion, 240 pp., illustrated, $24.99

HANK GREENBERG: The Hero Who Didn’t Want To Be One
By Mark Kurlansky
Yale University, 192 pp., $25