Midweek Books: The odyssey of golf in China

On Wednesday I highlight noteworthy new sports books, with links to reviews, interviews and other information about the subject and/or author.

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Golf was outlawed in China until 1984.

Now there are believed to be several million players, and hundreds of new courses have opened in recent years. These figures are growing, despite land reform efforts that prompted an official ban on the construction of new courses.

This is the paradox examined by Dan Washburn in “The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Game,” which was published earlier this month.

Washburn, an American writer who lived in China for a decade and is the online managing editor at the Asia Society (author’s website), weaves a story about so much more than golf. It is a reflection of a Chinese culture embracing more Western pursuits, habits and traditions, and the anomalies this poses in a society still ruled by Communist authorities.

Once denounced by Mao Zedong as a “sport for millionaires,” golf is being taken up in China by the beneficiaries of the nation’s post-Maoist capitalist economy, both the wealthy and upwardly mobile alike.

The Forbidden GameWashburn profiles some of these individuals, including Zhou Xunshu, who went from rural field worker to golf course security guard to aspiring golf professional. His is a fledging existence, since a Chinese PGA tour began only this year. But as this ESPN.com excerpt reveals, Zhou is nonplussed about it roughing it, given his peasant upbringing:

“Sponsorship or no, almost all the golfers on the tournament circuit needed a second job to survive. They also had to be conscious of every yuan they spent.

“For the season opener of the 2007 China Tour in Nanjing, Zhou had traveled to the tournament via a two-and-a-half-day train ride. Had he traveled by plane, he wouldn’t have been able to bring his own caddie, a luxury for most Chinese golfers, who usually use a young female caddie assigned to them by the course.

“He also never stayed at the official tournament hotel. He rarely ate his meals at the clubhouse restaurant; too expensive.

” ‘This place is very cheap, right?’ he would say after dinner in a town or village outside the golf course grounds. ‘Four of us can eat for the same amount one person would pay at the clubhouse.’

“Zhou was not the only one. In the days leading up to tournaments, a separate competition would inevitably break out among the players — who could find the cheapest hotel? Word would spread around the practice green that one golfer found a room somewhere for 30 yuan a night, including hot water, and dozens of other golfers may try to follow him to the same place that evening.

“It was not uncommon for Zhou to change hotels one or two times in the lead-up to an event. Wasn’t this distracting?

” ‘It’s no problem,’ he always said. ‘I only have one bag. I just put it on my back and go.’

Washburn writes that the new course moratorium in place since 2004 is ignored by local authorities who continue to allow their development. From an excerpt on Slate:

“The risks associated with opening a golf course in China, though seemingly minimal in recent years, are no secret. And while official land designations in rural areas often change on the whims of those in power, it was obvious villagers were farming on a portion of the land that is now a golf course. In fact, the company paid close to $1.2 million in fines for illegal land use between 2006 and 2008. But after each fine, sources say, the local government urged them to carry on with construction. The fines were viewed as a cost of doing business.”

And this is at the heart of Washburn’s examination of a sport exemplifying a society with so many subterranean contradictions and corruption. As Edward Chancellor concludes in a review for The Wall Street Journal:

“In short, this is a tale of modern China.”

More reviews here from The Financial Times, Caixin Online, and The Economist.

Washburn is interviewed by Marketplace and Golf.com.

Summer Readings: Roger Angell and ‘An Angel or the Devil’

Richard Sandomir writes about Roger Angell of The New Yorker, the J.G. Taylor Spink honoree into the Baseball Hall of Fame for his writing. Now 93, Angell joins the company of Ring Lardner, Red Smith, Shirley Povich and Dick Young.

His baseball essays for the magazine in 1962. He had no previous experience covering the sport, and he never shared the experience of newspaper writers under daily deadlines:

“I didn’t have to write after a game. That was unforgivable.”

Angell CollectionMost of his 10 books are devoted to baseball, including the trilogy of “The Summer Game, Five Seasons and “Season Ticket” that were pulled together for “The Roger Angell Baseball Collection” published last year.

He doesn’t write magazine-length pieces any longer but pens shorter blog posts, including this one on the recently departed Don Zimmer.

Angell also talked to columnist Maureen Dowd of The New York Times explained the origins of his unlikely path to Cooperstown:

“I didn’t write about baseball because I was looking for the heart and soul of America. I don’t care if baseball is the national pastime or not. The thing about baseball is, it’s probably the hardest game to play. The greatest hitters are only succeeding a third of the time. If you take a great athlete who’s never played baseball and put him in the infield, he’s lost.”

“Baseball is linear — it’s like writing. In other sports, there’s a lot going on at the same time. You can’t quite take it all in.”

Earlier this year, Angell wrote his long life in the post, “This Old Man:”

“I’m not dead and not yet mindless in a reliable upstate facility. Decline and disaster impend, but my thoughts don’t linger there. It shouldn’t surprise me if at this time next week I’m surrounded by family, gathered on short notice—they’re sad and shocked but also a little pissed off to be here—to help decide, after what’s happened, what’s to be done with me now. It must be this hovering knowledge, that two-ton safe swaying on a frayed rope just over my head, that makes everyone so glad to see me again. ‘How great you’re looking! Wow, tell me your secret!’ they kindly cry when they happen upon me crossing the street or exiting a dinghy or departing an X-ray room, while the little balloon over their heads reads, ‘Holy shit—he’s still vertical!’ ”

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As a federal judge is set to rule on O’Bannon v. NCAA — which could dramatically alter the landscape of college athletics — Steve Fainaru and Tom Farrey profile the lead plaintiffs’ attorney for ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.”

“Game changer” examines the sports-related legal career of Michael Hausfeld, a hard-driving Washington class-action litigator who’s burned bridges with his former law firm as well as some of his former clients, including professional football players.

Hausfeld admittedly knows nothing about sports, and revealed it during the O’Bannon trial this summer. But he was deeply influenced by reading former NCAA executive director Walter Byers’ 1997 mea culpa, “Unsportsmanlike Conduct.” Unsportsmanlike Conduct

The Byers book, Fainaru and Farrey write:

” . . . asserts that, with his help, the NCAA erected a ‘nationwide money-laundering scheme’ that enriches conferences, schools, coaches and TV networks on the backs of unpaid athletes. Byers confessed that he helped invent the term ’student-athlete’ to shield the NCAA from having to pay the players.

“To Hausfeld, the book was ‘an amazing revelation’ that helped convince him he had a case. He found that other economists had reached the same conclusions about the NCAA. Two years after the publication of Byers’ book, a former Berkeley economics professor named Ernie Nadel was watching a bowl game when an announcer mentioned that Florida coach Steve Spurrier earned $2 million a year. Nadel approached one of his colleagues, Dan Rascher, and asked how it could be that the head football coach for a public university was making so much money.

” ‘Because he’s good at recruiting talent,’ Rascher said. ‘And you can’t pay the talent.’

” ‘This is legal?’ Nadel responded.

“That inquiry ultimately led to one of the first class-action antitrust cases against the NCAA. Rascher and fellow economist [Andy] Schwarz hoped the case would go to trial. But in 2008, attorneys accepted a $10 million settlement from the NCAA for ‘bona fide educational expenses’ to be distributed to some 12,000 athletes over a three-year period. The lawyers made almost as much money. The NCAA emerged unscathed. Schwarz and Rascher were furious. Hausfeld, who hired them as expert witnesses, gave their cause new life.

“All Hausfeld needed was a name to attach to the case.”

But previous sports clients offered a cautionary tale in dealing with Hausfeld, who represented former NFL players in a 2011 case. Six NFL star retirees sued, claiming the league illegally used their identities in NFL Films productions. Hausfeld worked a $50 million settlement (with another $8 million going to lawyers) that included no direct payment to players or insurance, which some players, including Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame offensive lineman Joe DeLamielleure, said was all they wanted.

Instead, he was among those thinking Hausfeld sold them out, and the bitter haggling between lawyer and players continued into 2012. Said DeLamielleure:

“I thought he was sent from God to help us. Then I realized he was the devil.”

Sexuality, domestic violence and the sports media herd

Last week, Tony Dungy’s comments about Michael Sam and Roger Goodell’s two-game suspension of Ray Rice revealed quite a bit about an American sports media that continues to ditch journalistic rigor about issues involving gender, sexuality and domestic violence.

(I posted recently about pop feminism invading the sports pages, and that was evident last week.)

Typical of the reflexive fare about Dungy/Rice is this Scott Simon interview on NPR Saturday with Bloomberg sports columnist Kavitha Davidson, who wrote on both topics. Utterly hacktastic.

Only a handful of pieces attempted to cut through the black-and-white pontificating, and they were either ignored or slammed. But they are worth linking to, and I hope you’ll keep an open mind and read them:

• John Walters of Newsweek called the Dungy story a “nontroversy:”

“It should and has been noted that Dungy has come out against same-sex marriage in the past, but Dungy never said that he wouldn’t select Sam because he’s gay. If anything, Dungy said that Sam just isn’t a valuable enough commodity to justify the media circus that will surround him, a.k.a., the Tim Tebow Corollary.

“The 58-year-old former coach made the mistake of being candid.”

(A disclaimer: In April I was a guest of Walters on The Grotto, his Notre Dame sports podcast, but we’ve occasionally done some sparring on Twitter on other issues.)

Here’s a bit of a Twitter exchange including a suggestion from a sportswriter for The Chicago Tribune:

Send ‘em to the moon! Not exactly the ideal way to ask for tolerance.

Later in the week, Gregg Doyel of CBSSports.com echoed Walters, writing that the distraction wasn’t Sam or his sexuality, but the media feeding frenzy for a seventh-round draft pick.

While I think his handlers are doing a poor job and the media is treating his arrival as Lindbergh landing in Paris, I hope Sam makes it in the NFL. I also disagree with Dungy on gay issues. But none of that is the point.

• Journalists were quick to blast Goodell (here’s a sampling of reaction) for all kinds of alleged hypocrisy in sitting Rice for the first two games of the regular season only.

Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated was virtually alone in saying that despite his own reservations, the commissioner still made the right call:

“Ray Rice was not convicted. His case never even went to trial. He pleaded not guilty to a single count of third-degree aggravated assault and entered a diversionary pre-trial intervention program for first-time offenders.

“This kind of fact tends to get lost in the modern media climate, especially on Twitter. We draw a line in the sand, jump to one side as quickly as possible, and scream that people on the other side are morons. The instinct is to say ‘HE BEAT UP A WOMAN AND ONLY GOT SUSPENDED TWO GAMES’ and feel proud of ourselves. If anybody tries to dispute the point, or bring some nuance to the discussion, or (gasp!) understand both sides of the argument, that person gets shot down. In this case, that person is easily branded as supporting a domestic abuser.”

And:

“We have a justice system for a reason. It is not perfect, but it’s what we have. It is very possible that prosecutors thought Rice was guilty but did not think they could get a jury to convict him. . . . Nonetheless, this was the outcome of Rice’s journey through the justice system.

“Now: If you were Roger Goodell, what would you do? Can you really suspend Rice for half a season or more based on what you think probably happened?”

It’s an argument lost on too many of Rosenberg’s peers, who don’t venture beyond tales of endless male perfidy/female victimology. The difficulties of investigating and prosecuting domestic violence and rape are ignored, if acknowledged at all. Kangaroo-court actions are demanded to “send a message” about male jocks who hurt women.

This was as rare a point made in the sports media as Rosenberg’s:

Some sportswriters were quick to applaud Texas football coach Charlie Strong last week for booting players charged with sexual assault. Their guilt or innocence hasn’t been established, but Strong — wait for it now — “sent a clear message.”That’s all that matters.

Yes, Strong took a “bold” step. The facts of the pending cases be damned.

Sports journalists like to demonstrate how enlightened they are on social issues. But many are remiss in deeply exploring unanswered questions that need serious critical attention from them. Such as:

What happens when a famous pro football player is shot to death in his sleep by a woman?

Crickets.

Five years ago this month, this happened to Steve McNair in a murder-suicide, but the anniversary was barely noticed in the media. When you Google his name, right below his Wikipedia entry is an ESPN The Magazine profile of his 20-year old assassin (by a female writer) that is borderline sympathetic.

Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs got no such treatment after he killed his pregnant girlfriend, then turned the gun on himself in front of his coach and general manager. A parade of media diatribes about (male) athletes and domestic violence included this noxious crap from Dave Zirin, who implicated the team and the NFL.

You know, blaming the “culture” as well as the institution of professional football, instead of an individual.

Jason Whitlock barely waited for “Air” McNair to be cold in the ground before ripping him for being a bad father because of his extramarital affairs. At least this ugliness got a proper humane pushback.

What happens when female athletes commit acts of domestic violence?

More crickets.

Last year ex-WNBA player Chamique Holdsclaw pleaded guilty to a felony — firing a gun inside her former girlfriend’s SUV after breaking the windows.

Not only did she get a general pass from the press, the Tennessee Lady Vols great also received this redemptive media indulgence mentioning her crime only in passing, and very deep in the story.

Former pro tennis star Jennifer Capriati cut a deal with Florida authorities earlier this year to drop stalking and battery charges in exchange for community service and anger management courses for her confrontation with an ex-boyfriend. No media fulminations were to be found.

Earlier this month marked the end of a blog devoted to the Duke lacrosse controversy. Brooklyn College history professor K.C. Johnson’s Durham-in-Wonderland was inspired by what he saw as “an indefensible betrayal by professors of their own school’s students.” But Johnson also was a rare watchdog of the media excesses of the case, notably The New York Times.

As I wrote last month, it’s as if the media has learned nothing from the Duke story. Instead, personal emotions are substituted for the presumption of innocence and journalistic diligence of complicated issues.

For when it comes to assessing the full picture of domestic violence — it is hardly the one-sided story that is often portrayed — an otherwise self-righteous American sports media is decidedly incurious.

The cultural roots of race and baseball

While I’m taking a summer break from the blog, I’m posting links about sports history, books, culture and the arts that I haven’t mentioned here before. If you have any suggestions on great sports reads you’d like to bring to my attention, contact me at wendygparker@gmail.com. Enjoy!

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On the surface, I’ve got absolutely nothing in common with Michael Tillery: He’s an African-American from the urban Northeast, heavily seeped in hip-hop and rap and the New York Yankees.

I’m white and hopelessly suburban in the Sun Belt, raised on a racially-mixed Top 40 playlist that in more recent years has morphed into a blend of Sinatra and Mozart. Dead. White. Males. I loathe pinstripes and while I’ve been a big fan of jazz and rhythm and blues, I’ve only tuned into rap accidentally.

But through the magical serendipity of social media, we’ve struck up a cordial association online that I value strongly. He’s had me on his podcast on Rapstation Radio a couple of times, and I do appreciate that.

During All-Star Game festivities last week, he Tweeted out a link to a 2012 post from his blog, The Starting Five, that boosted my admiration for his work even more. In “There is no joy in Blackville: Baseball and Blues,” Tillery high in his post wrote this paragraph:

“The writer and essayist Gerald Early during Ken Burns’ 1994 PBS documentary ‘Baseball’ said that ‘when they study our civilization two thousand years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music. They’re the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created.’ “

Negro League BaseballBingo, not just to Early for his keen observation, but to Tillery for employing it as a prelude to his riff on baseball and race. The occasion of his post was the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s arrival in Major League Baseball and the dearth of African-Americans currently in the game.

And it is an exemplary examination of the topic, laced with insight from two other noted African-American writers, Amiri Baraka and Ralph Wiley. Like the blues, Tillery writes, baseball developed separately for black Americans. When Robinson crossed the color line, the cultural gap was enormous, and in baseball it has never fully closed. The sport has suffered as a result:

“But perhaps more importantly what was being devalued was the black attitude or approach to the game. Where has the improvisational allure of the Willie Mays basket catch or base running of Rickey Henderson gone? As is the case often with things that reach its peak the downfall is already underway. Black baseball reached its peak of popularity with participation in MLB in the late 1970s. That run lasted 30 years but the change was already afoot a decade or so earlier.

“You see, playing the blues, jazz or rapping is not a rebellious act of black people. It is within the context of white America but it’s squarely within the tradition of making sense of this culture that historically devalues its existence.

“The most transformative moment for re-contextualizing this dilemma for black music may have been the 1940s black jazz musicians. This was years after Zora Neale Hurston, the famed writer and lone voice among the Harlem Renaissance crowd that tried to remind blacks of its rich heritage. But these jazz bluesmen who witnessed black music degenerate into soulless imitation by black and white artists alike and drift toward a composer medium rather than a musician where individuality and improvisational mattered. They returned it back to its roots with bebop. This music much like blues was not for dancing but for thinking.”

(Here’s more on how the cultural institution — and business — of black baseball struggled post-Robinson in a 2004 Q and A with Neil Lanctot, author of “Negro League Baseball.”)

While the majors quickly claimed the cream of the crop of the Negro Leagues, those in charge of the big leagues, according to Tillery:

” . . . never adopted the stance or attitude of the players. In fact, the pathos and joy of the player and fan were expected to be forsaken for ‘dignity’ for the purpose of not disturbing white folk. The decision was made to sacrifice the national business interests of the black community for cultural assimilation.

Baseball’s integration took place before the height of the Civil Rights movement. During the 1960s, with race consciousness high, African-American athletes found new outlets like the American Football League and the American Basketball Association more amenable for cultural expression.

Blacks remain the solid majority of players in the NFL and NBA, which prevailed over the upstarts but, as Tillery notes, also “inherited the black aesthetic those other leagues cultivated.”

Raceball

Robert Ruck, author of the 2012 book “Raceball,” echoes some of these observations and is hopeful that “the Caribbean will avoid the fate endured by baseball in the black community, which lost control of its own sporting life.”

But unlike so many of the media hand-wringers about baseball, Tillery reaches a different conclusion:

“Black people still do play baseball and maybe it’s not the game that is too slow — it’s just that America has sped up.”

This is the kind of cultural writing about sports — regardless of whether it involves race — that’s so badly missing in our mainstream media. While not dismissing some of the concerns about black youths and baseball, Tillery essentially blows away the arguments of sportswriters who don’t plumb what he calls “deeper root explanations.”

Sometimes it’s clear-eyed, unsentimental writers with the proper reverence for history and authentic culture who are best able to understand what committees and Cassandras scratching the surface simply cannot.

Sports History Files: Germany’s stylish soccer renaissance

While I’m taking a summer break from the blog, I’m posting recent links about sports history, books, culture and the arts that I haven’t mentioned here before. If you have any suggestions on great sports reads you’d like to bring to my attention, contact me at wendygparker@gmail.com. Enjoy!

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German soccer is cool. No, really.

While Die Mannschaft is no stranger to World Cup success — spacing out four titles every other decade since 1954 — the stylish Germans who hoisted the Jules Rimet Trophy in Rio last week have replaced Spain as the “it” boys of the game.

Tor!How long that status lasts may depend on more than the continued success of a fluid, fast-paced style, the result of an overhaul of the country’s youth development structure that’s been written about amply over the last few years.

Germany’s regard also figures to ride on how star players handle their success.

German journalist Raphael Honigstein is among the many chroniclers, having penned this piece for Sports Illustrated during the 2010 World Cup. The young stars that coach Joachim Löw has brought together over the last four years are the products of that revamped system, shepherded along the way by 1990 World Cup winner Jürgen Klinsmann, the current U.S. coach.

Just before Germany met Argentina in the final at the Maracanã, another article by Honigstein on previous German soccer dynasties was published in EightByEight, one of the new American soccer glossies that’s tapping into greater domestic spectator interest in the sport.

In recalling the legacy of Germany’s 1974 World Cup champions who triumphed over Johan Cruyff and The Netherlands in Munich, Honigstein, in “How Germany Got Its Game On” offers a reminder that winners aren’t always well-loved.

This German team — technically, it was West Germany — truly didn’t endear itself to its own citizenry. Despite having the likes of Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller, the West Germans didn’t play an appealing style of soccer. Losing to East Germany in the group stage in the only international match ever between the divided nations also didn’t help.

The letdown was permanent, as Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger wrote in “Tor!: The Story of German Football:”

“There already was a sour taste to the 1974 triumph. These men weren’t like the players of 1954, 1966, 1970 or even 1972. They were men who had got the business done after first severely disappointing both the country and their benign coach. As Cruyff and his teammates walked dejectedly off the pitch, it was suddenly no longer clear who the good guys were. Fittingly, all laughter and merriment died out that same evening. It was the beginning of the decline.”

Honigstein picks up the story there, through the perspective of gritty defender Paul Breitner, who both personally and politically was a revolutionary character in his country’s sporting history. Honigstein chronicles Breitner’s troubled relationship with the national team through the 1982 World Cup that ended for West Germany with keeper Toni Schumacher’s borderline criminal challenge on French striker Patrick Battison.

While Breitner’s persona captured the rebelliousness of the first post-war German generation, “football and its image were changing. Professionalism and tactical realpolitik became more important, and so did money.”

Breitner was among those cashing in, and eventually his “cynicism infected the whole side” as the national team prepared for Spain ‘82:

“The horrors of Breitner’s rabble of a team, the shame of 1982, became entrenched in a stereotype, the prism through which all subsequent West German and German teams were seen abroad. They became the Panzers, arrogant, methodical, and functional soldiers—even when they weren’t. Afro Breitner, the free-spirited attacking fullback, was forgotten; clean- shaven Breitner, torn between advocating a lack of discipline off the pitch and maximum discipline on it, took his place in the collective memory. The best you could say about his Germans was that they never gave up. Breitner’s ‘Kohl football,’ or at least the perception of it, outlived Kohl’s reign, effectively lasting until 2006. Then Jürgen Klinsmann changed everything.”

Honigstein continues through a unified Germany’s hosting of the World Cup in 2006, which unleashed an unusual expression of national pride among young people that carries on today.

With gestures from current players like Mesut Özil — who’s donating his World Cup check so Brazilian children can get operations — Die Mannschaft of the present time have pulled off the novel feat winning over fans around the world both on and off the field.

Midweek Books: Cycling and fiction

While I’m taking a summer break from the blog, I’m posting links this week about sports history, books, culture and the arts that I haven’t mentioned here before. If you have any suggestions on great sports reads you’d like to bring to my attention, contact me at wendygparker@gmail.com. Enjoy!

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If you haven’t heard of the magnificent book blog The Millions, do yourself a favor and have a look around. Sports books are occasionally featured, and I can’t think of a better summertime topic than the Tour de France that’s currently underway and cycling in general.

The RiderEarlier this month, literary critic Matt Seidel wrote about Dutch writer Tim Krabbé’s 1978 book “The Rider,” which has been lauded as one of the best novels about cycling.

It’s about Krabbé’s participation in an amateur cycling race in France. Here’s the first paragraph from Seidel’s piece:

“The ongoing Tour de France is the most novelistic of sporting events: There is ample character development with riders responding to three weeks of brutal tests; plenty of intrigue with opportunistic alliances and rivalries springing up; masterful set pieces like ascents up the denuded landscape of Mt. Ventoux and group sprints through medieval towns; villains, be they deranged fans sprinkling the road with tire-puncturing tacks or a certain disgraced Texan; some upstairs-downstairs class tensions between aristocratic team leaders and their toiling, water bottle-ferryingdomestiques; and finally, a romance between man and exquisitely engineered, custom-fitted and gorgeous machine.”

Seidel writes the book, finally translated into English and published in 2003, is often overwrought, but that Krabbé ” knows how to let the air out of his inflated rhetoric.”

Read the whole thing: “The Scourge of the Peloton.”

“The Rider” is among the Top 10 cycling novels listed in 2010 by William Fotheringham, cycling columnist for The Guardian.

Before there was Bouton there was Brosnan

While I’m taking a summer break from the blog, I’m posting recent links about sports history, books, culture and the arts that I haven’t mentioned here before. If you have any suggestions on great sports reads you’d like to bring to my attention, contact me at wendygparker@gmail.com. Enjoy!

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The contemporary athlete memoir is hardly what it used to be, and has rarely approached the anomaly of ballplayer-as-writer the way Jim Brosnan did when he revolutionized the form 55 years ago with the publication of “The Long Season.”

But Brosnan, who died in June at the age of 84, did more than peel back the veneer of the clubhouse for readers. He had a good deal to do with how sportswriting evolved from endless, purplish hagiography to the litany of blistering psychodrama of our times.

In terms of style and temperament, what Brosnan wrote occupies a more nuanced, moderate ground that’s badly needed today, but that may seem quaint to those who traffick in blunt “reality” and snark.

The Long SeasonSportswriter extraordinaire John Schulian examined Brosnan’s legacy in remarks posted on The Stacks, Deadspin’s tribute to classic sportswriting. While Brosnan’s prose wasn’t as vulgar as what was to come in the 1960s and beyond, Schulian says that the former reliever was provocative in a way that fit his times.

In what was ostensibly a book about the 1959 Cincinnati Reds season, “The Long Season” represented more than a snapshot of a year in the game:

“By lifting the veil of secrecy from his world, Brosnan ventured where no player had ever gone.

“So Brosnan was the first of baseball’s dugout literati. Without him, there might have been noBall Four by Jim Bouton a decade later, which would have been a loss of epic proportions. Then again, Sparky Lyle might not have put his name on the scabrous Bronx Zoo, which would have been a blow for good taste. And what to say of Jose Canseco and Juiced? You take the wretched with the sublime, I guess.

“But never forget this: The Long Season by Jim Brosnan was, and is, the best of its kind.”

Brosnan wrote controversially about the paltry salaries players received, a full 15 years before free agency, a topic that upset the powers that be. In 1964, the Chicago White Sox, which owned his contract, ordered him not to publish any of his baseball writings during the season. Brosnan refused to sign, and went on to a writing career that included children’s books and magazine articles.

His departure from the game was prefigured in a 1961 Saturday Evening Post article stating that Brosnan might have been “the most intellectual creature” ever to play the game. Yogi Berra mused that this might have been the case because he was known to read “books without pictures.”

Here’s much more on Brosnan from Mark Armour on the SABR website.

Why sports fans are the way they are

While I’m taking a summer break from the blog, I’m posting recent links about sports history, books, culture and the arts that I haven’t mentioned here before. If you have any suggestions on great sports reads you’d like to bring to my attention, contact me at wendygparker@gmail.com. Enjoy!

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Before the World Cup began, Simon Kuper of The Financial Times summarized some recent research on what drives sports fans to their obsessions. For many of them, what he discovered might as well have come from the d’oh files:

“The key finding that’s emerging: for most fans, fandom isn’t chiefly about winning, or even particularly about football itself. Rather, it’s about community.”

Indeed, the psychology of fandom goes far beyond results:

“Being a fan also connects you to your own past. In life, everything changes: you grow up, and people divorce, move away and die. Only your football team is for ever. The England team in 2014, for instance, is still recognisably the same animal as the England team of 1954. Football allows you to be eight years old again.”

The Secret Lives of Sports FansHere’s the full story, “Fandom — It’s Bigger Than Football,” from Kuper, who is the co-author of “Soccernomics,” which alludes to some of these research insights.

Last year, American writer Eric Simons took a scientific approach to cracking this what makes sports nuts tick in “The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsessions.” He opens with a personal tale: The wrenching agony of watching his beloved Cal Bears lose a football game to Oregon State, and especially the fateful final seconds as he watched the Beavers prevail:

“In those ten seconds my hormone system blew up. My brain blew up. Nuerons fired away like gangbusters in the brain centers for empathy, action, language, pride, identity, self, reward, relationships, love, addiction, perception, pain and happiness. If you’ve seen these images at the end of heartbreaking games, where the fan is standing there with his hands on his head and his mouth yawning — or if you’ve been that fan — you know that it feels like all this stuff is frothing around on the inside trying to beat its way out of your body like an alien chest-burster.”

He wrote the book to understand himself, and his own reaction to sporting events, particularly those with a deep emotional investment. Simons calls this a “species-level design flaw,” as he explains to Megan Gambino of Smithsonian.com:

“The urge is so powerful that even when we know that this leads to a lot of bad consequences, still we stick around.”

This might explain any kind of obsession, but as Simons claims on a New Books in Psychology podcast, “we sports fans are glorious expressions of all the wondrous quirks and oddities of human nature.”

So embrace the quirkiness.

Taking some time off for the summer

I’m going to step away from this blog for a while, and not just because we’re in the dog days of summer.

It’s a good time to take a break because my creative batteries are running low. The schedule I’ve developed for writing this blog needs to be re-evaluated. Somewhere along the way I need to get back on track to cultivating the art of the 500-to-700-word blog post, which seems very elusive at the moment.

How to Write Short

Can I really, really do this on this blog? Now's the time to make it happen.

More than anything I just need to get offline for a while and read, recreate and get away from a routine that has served me well in recent months.

I could bang out the titles of some of the books I’ve got piled up, but there are so many here, and I don’t know which ones I will choose.

What I’m also doing is going back and reading arts-and-culture-and-current-affairs blogs. They seem like a luxury when in fact they’ve fired so much of my inspiration as a writer. Brain Pickings and Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish are models for any bloggers who insist on honoring their voices in individual settings that let their talents flourish. It can be done.

They’ve developed communities of readers who want to rise above the clickbait, easy outrage and celebrity twaddle of what we are too often sold on the Web.

Appreciating the value of side projects, including this blog, is also something I want to assess. I keep meeting more and more people who do this, who say their working and creative lives benefit from this. If you’re struggling to find some passion, or just something to enjoy deeply, ask yourself these questions:

What lights you up? What could you do every day and lose yourself in doing, if money were no problem? What would get you really early out of bed every morning  if you had no other obligations and you, like me, are not a morning person?

Writing this blog has that effect for me, but there are other things, mostly offline, that I need to tend to.

Getting off of social media has been the first step. As University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson wrote recently, we do suffer from a deficiency of connecting with the real. The author of the forthcoming “Why Football Matters,” Edmundson writes:

“Our culture has fewer and fewer opportunities for absorption. Not enough people care about the arts. Not enough of us quest for truth. The doctor’s office is an assembly line. The artist turns matters over to her assistant. The prof is busy fattening his resumé. But we have plenty of opportunities for attention, yes we do. Under the reign of the computer, jobs are more and more about attention: Get it right, pay attention to detail, fill out the chart, and fill it out again. Did I say opportunities to pay attention? No, they are compulsions and requirements. In short, if attention does not lead to absorption, or if there is little possibility of absorption in a given life, then there will be deficits of attention.”

This is necessary for what Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport calls “deep work.” Little else can be more satisfying:

“At some point, we tire of the shallow – necessary as it might be – and foster a desire to retreat into depth, create the best possible thing we’re capable of creating, then step back, point, and remark simply: ‘I did that.’ “

So I need to jump back in the deep end and dog-paddle into some new waters. I’ve got blog posts scheduled Monday-Friday through the next three weeks, with regular posting resuming on Monday, Aug. 11.

And since I’m in that 500-700 sweet spot I will stop here, claim victory, and get on with the vacation already.

Baby boomers and their baseball books

On Wednesday I highlight noteworthy new sports books, with links to reviews, interviews and other information about the subject and/or author.

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As Grantland contributor Bryan Curtis’ recent sweeping survey of baseball bibliography shows, there’s a baseball book for just about everybody.

But like Abraham Lincoln was to the massive Civil War field of study, volumes and volumes of baseball books have been written to cater to the baby boom generation of readers, and fans.

Born in the 1950s and coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, baby boomers occupy the sweet spot for the baseball genre. As Curtis explains:

“When ideas fail, baseball books drift back to the same place where they’ve been anchored for two decades: the 1950s. Baseball books are instant replay for baby boomers. ‘There has to be a book every year about Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Ted Williams, or some combination thereof,’ said Robert Weintraub, author of The Victory Season, which was published last year. ‘I’m guilty of that myself.’

“The ’50s is farmland already tilled by literary HOFers like David Halberstam and Roger Kahn, by Jane Leavy and Richard Ben Cramer. Each go-round leaves fewer available plots. Leavy did Mantle in 2010. James S. Hirsch did Mays the same year. So it was inevitable that in 2013, Allen Barra would do them both, in the dual biography Mickey and Willie. If an author finds his mandate getting too small, he compensates by going big. Last year, Ben Bradlee Jr.’s biography of Ted Williams came in at a whopping 784 pages.

“There’s a funny thing about the boomers trudging to the shelves. The overfamiliarity of the old ballplayers isn’t a turnoff; it’s the sell. ‘What you want if you’re a reader is to pull back a curtain on a time you remember well,’ explained literary agent David Black.”

The most current offerings continue to reflect this range of chronology, from the so-called “Golden Age” of baseball that climaxed in the 1950s to the mid-1970s. The appeal of this time frame for boomers is obvious: The inheritance of memories from their fathers to their own fan experiences as young adults, right before baseball free agency shattered much of the nostalgia of their youth.

Madden_1954_CoverBill Madden, a sportswriter for the New York Daily News, taps into the former with “1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever.”

(Here’s an excerpt focused on racially-oriented sparring between Jackie Robinson and Dick Young, the incorrigible Daily News sportswriter.)

As the 1954 season dawned, Willie Mays and Larry Doby were becoming the first black superstars in baseball for purely baseball reasons, as opposed to the groundbreaking role played by Robinson. That year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that outlawed segregation in public schools. In the fall, Mays made the breathtaking catch in deep, deep center in the Polo Grounds during the World Series, as his Giants defeated Doby’s Cleveland Indians.

It was the first World Series, in fact, in which black players were in uniform for both teams.

Madden tries to show how baseball was ahead of the social curve as more integration fights loomed. In this Q and A with the Indiana Sports Journalism Center, Madden — who spoke to many of his surviving subjects, admittedly childhood heroes — said he also wanted to write the book because he was hoping to break new ground:

“Nobody’s ever written about this season, which was another impetus for me to push my agent to get somebody to buy this book, because it needed to be written, in my opinion.”

A review on seamheads.com makes a common complaint about books like this, and that Curtis alludes to — it lacked “a better sense of how life was in the 1950s by touching on more non-baseball events.” More reviews from MLB.com, and Pop Matters, which also concludes that Madden’s book “stands as a missed opportunity to tell a larger, more instructive story.”

Fast forward a couple of decades to the focal point of journalist Dan Epstein’s “Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Summer of ‘76.” Stars and Strikes

The author of the 2012 book “Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ‘70s,” Epstein continues the story as America celebrated its bicentennial. These were my high school days, and the stories here have brought back very powerful memories for me.

Against the backdrop of the button-down dynasty of the Cincinnati Reds’ Big Red Machine, the just-ended dynasty of the hairy, brawling Oakland A’s, and the towering figures of Thurman Munson, Mike Schmidt and Mark Fidrych, Epstein tries to evoke the spirit of the sport across the larger American society, especially pop culture.

Some of the reviews are mixed, but always include the large dollops of zaniness that Epstein heaps out, on page after anecdote-filled page. As Chris Vognar notes in The Dallas Morning News, Epstein expertly fleshes out the rollicking promotions of Bill Veeck, Charlie Finley, Ted Turner and other owners unafraid — or perhaps just totally shameless — about finding new ways to lure fans to the ballpark:

“My favorite: Headlock and Wedlock Day, for which Turner’s Atlanta Braves hosted a group wedding ceremony and a wrestling exhibition. What a bargain.”

(Has it really been 35 years since Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park? The cultural scourge of my youth blown all to hell. I was ecstatic. How time flies.)

The business of baseball was about to change big-time, with big salaries and contentious labor disputes marring the next two decades. Epstein, who’s in his late 40s, wants readers of his generation to remember that time fondly. The age of big money has brought with it more recent battles over performance-enhancing drugs, which also seems to be pitting baby boom writers against bloggers, especially over Hall of Fame induction.

In an interview with The Sporting News, Epstein is being more than nostalgiac talking about the wacky owners of the ’70s. He’s rueful that baseball may have shed the last vestiges of its soul:

“All of those men were, for better or worse, as much or more a part of their team’s identity as the players themselves, and I can’t think of any owner in today’s game who has anywhere near the same kind of charisma, or who has the same ability to grab headlines or turn the game on its head. Sadly, the economics and the increasing corporatization of major league baseball in the 21st century make it extremely unlikely that we’ll ever see those kind of maverick owners in the game again.”