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Halberstam: 'Best American Sports Writing' a window on the century

Web posted on: Monday, June 07, 1999 12:05:23 PM EDT

By Jamie Allen
CNN Interactive Senior Writer

(CNN) -- David Halberstam remembers it well. It was 1966. He was 32 and working in Paris for the New York Times when he read a piece of journalism that would change his life.

The article was an Esquire magazine feature on Joe DiMaggio, written by Gay Talese. But it was more than just an insightful observation by Talese of a man who once was king of New York. It was evidence of a new kind of journalism in blossom -- a narrative process that read like a book and gave a reader the feeling that he or she knew the subject personally.

"I read that piece and thought, 'I'm getting out of here,'" Halberstam recalls. "I'm getting out of daily journalism because this is a level way above what I and everybody I know has been doing, and I want to try to do something like this. It's a very influential piece."

Halberstam has since gone on to become one of the most respected observers of our time, penning sports books including "The Summer of '49" (reissued in 1997) as well as political jewels like "The Best and the Brightest" (1973, and a 20th-anniversary edition in 1993).

Now he's paying tribute to some of the top sports reporting ever put on paper.

His most recent project was to serve as guest editor of "The Best American Sports Writing of the Century" (Houghton Mifflin), part of an annual series edited by Glenn Stout. This latest installment, published in May, covers the century, an encompassing look at the development of sports writing that parallels the burgeoning popularity of sport in a large part of American consciousness.

'He was such a magical figure'

Collections of writings by different authors seem to be growing in popularity. Witness the onslaught of "Best" books -- short stories, poetry, erotica. It's easy to assume our fast-food culture breeds a growing audience for brevity.

MULTIMEDIA

Halberstam on Muhammed Ali
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Halberstam says he believes bite-size offerings are one strength of "The Best American Sports Writing of the Century."

"You take a nibble at it and put it down and then come back a couple days later. You don't have to read it all at once," he says.

In "The Best American Sports Writing of the Century," Talese's "The Silent Season of the Hero" is the first piece exhibited by Stout and Halberstam. It's followed by 57 articles spanning from Heywood Broun's "Sports for Art's Sake" (The New York World, 1921), to J.R. Moehringer's "Resurrecting the Champ" (The Los Angeles Times Magazine, 1997).


'If you read this book I think you'll get a sense of change in the society.'
-- David Halberstam


The articles focus on legendary sports personalities -- Red Grange, Joe Louis, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Dick Butkus, Walter Hagen, Secretariat and Tiger Woods. The book also includes a special section of six stories written about boxing's self-proclaimed "Greatest," Muhammad Ali.

"I think he was such a magical figure, so compelling a figure, he inevitably drew the interest of very talented writers," Halberstam offers as the reason for the special Ali material.

The writers are an equally impressive bunch, the list including Red Smith, Bill Heinz, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Tom Wolfe, Frank Deford, Dick Schaap, George Plimpton, Jimmy Cannon, David Remnick, John Krakauer, Hunter S. Thompson and Jimmy Breslin.

'A window on society'

Halberstam says the book is more than a sports fan's guide to the century; it's a reflection of ourselves as we grew as a nation through racial and political upheaval, the birth and influence of television and the never-ending quest for money, money and more money.

"(Sport) is a great window on society," Halberstam says. "People ask, 'Is it a metaphor for society?' and I say, 'No.' But it's a terrific window. Most of the things you're arguing about in sports, sooner or later the politics of the society will reflect it.

"Take the piece by Bill Heinz on Red Grange, all sweetness and modesty, and fast-forward to David Remnick writing about Reggie Jackson and the monstrous kind of ego. If you read this book I think you'll get a sense of change in the society. I mean, it's about sports, but the coming of bigger money, greater fame, more black athletes, all those things are blended in there."

Readers are treated to some memorable, if not the most memorable, victories and defeats in the history of sport, including:

  • Brad Darrach's report on the spontaneous combustion of Bobby Fischer's chess career

  • Updike's classic take on Ted Williams' last at-bat before the Red Sox faithful

  • William Nack's wistfully energetic recounting of Secretariat's run for immortality

  • Tom Boswell's crowning of Sugar Ray Leonard following his "No Mas" fight with Roberto Duran

    The list goes on.

    When you put together a book like this, one that claims to offer perspective on where we've been and where we're headed, critics will be quick to note the lack of material on women in sport, or the fact that Michael Jordan -- this generation's greatest athlete and the subject of Halberstam's own new book "Playing for Keeps" -- is left out of this compendium.

    Halberstam maintains that he and Stout focused on the writing, not the subjects, save Ali.

    "I think what we tried to do is get a reflection of all the forces that are at play, of the best writing," Halberstam says. "In the end, we ended up with something that was a pretty good reflection of the changes in society as well."


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