Midweek books: A sports-related book on the banned list

Four parents are what I have altogether, not unlike a whole lot of other kids. But quite unlike a whole lot of other kids, there ain’t a hetero among ‘em. My dad’s divorced and remarried, and my mom’s divorced and remarried, so my mathematical account of my family suggests simply another confused teenager from a broken home. But my dads aren’t married to my moms. They’re married to each other. Same with my moms.

– from “A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune”

athleticshortsThat story is included Chris Crutcher’s “Athletic Shorts: Six Short Stories,” first published in 1989 and which is listed as No. 44 on the banned list from 1990-1999 by the American Library Association.

It’s the only sports-related book I could find among the hundreds that the ALA and other free speech and anti-censorship organizations are circulating during this, Banned Books Week.

In “Athletic Shorts,” Crutcher has teenage athlete protagonists ponder issues of racism, sexism, homophobia and other social issues that — especially when young readers are targeted — attract the censorious like moths to a light.

These topics and more, including divorce and AIDS, prompted a challenged in 1995 to pull the book from schools in Charleston County, S.C.

Four years later, in Anchorage, Alaska, the book also was pulled from elementary schools but retained at the middle school level.

According to the ALA summary of the case:

“A parent challenged the book of short stories because of the book’s lack of respect for parents and God, its treatment of homosexuality, and its bad language.”

The School Library Journal says the book is aimed for youths in grades 8-12, which always raises the question of age-level appropriateness.

As a young adult author, Crutcher deals with these questions on a regular basis, and for a number of his books. Since those initial challenges to “Athletic Shorts,” he’s had to defend it again, just in the last decade, as he recounts on a special page on his website devoted to censorship issues:

jan-weiss-read-a-banned-book

Hard to believe the challenge and banning of books is still an issue in the new millennium. But the facts cannot be denied. Consider this list of Chris Crutcher book challenges as typical of those book challenges in all but one way. MOST banned books are removed from shelves in silence. The public — and the book authors — never even know it’s happened.

In Anchorage, “Athletic Shorts” couldn’t be checked out of school library by a student without parental permission, and was no longer used as curriculum material. All because of the protests of one parent of an eighth grader. One.

In 2000, in Tuscaloosa, the home of the flagship University of Alabama, the book’s “Goin’ Fishing” story got “Athletic Shorts” removed by the Tuscaloosa County School Board.

Again, it was a single parent, appealing to the religious community, who was able to get the book banished from a public high school.

More objections to “Athletic Shorts” in midwestern states were turned aside in the last decade, as late as 2007.

College students compiling summaries of young adult literature point out that these “touchy” subjects are not as delicate for teenagers these days as some adults think.

Despite the controversy associated with Athletic Shorts, high school teachers should not hesitate to use this book in class. It is the job of high school teachers to prepare their students for life in the “real world,” and the “real world” is complicated. Hiding this fact from adolescents is doing them a disservice. By introducing high school students to Chris Crutcher’s characters, teachers can show young people that the world is a mosaic of different types of people: black; white; Asian; gay; straight; fat; thin, etc. None of these groups should be valued over another. Crutcher’s work can also show high school students that tragedy happens. It is not something that anyone can hide from; everyone who cares for anyone must face tragedy at some point. Tragedy is difficult and messy. It is not, however, a reason to fall apart completely, and it can teach us many important lessons like forgiveness and the value of friendship.

Crutcher, who has received an intellectual freedom award from the National Council of Teachers of English, explains below the need to remain vigilant against even isolated, but extreme protests that remain stubbornly persistent.

Sports History Files: A continuing hold on Mayo’s anguish

While American football fans were awakening to seemingly endless hours of NFL pregame shows Sunday morning, there were a few souls in their midst gathering mainly in Irish pubs to watch the finals of another football code on other shores.

And to see if a long-lamented club could end more than 60 years of agony.

In the All-Ireland Football Championship — the Gaelic code that to these American eyes blends a little bit of soccer with quite a bit of rugby — the betting favorites from Dublin took on the sentimental favorites from Mayo.

One of the few mainstream American media accounts came from Chuck Culpepper, Sports on Earth’s resident globetrekker, taking up the case for Mayo.

The western Irish club hasn’t won a final since 1951, and they wouldn’t on Sunday, falling to Dublin by a scoreline of 2-12 and 1-14 (Culpepper’s lead explains why the numbers are listed this way).

9781845962975He experienced for the first time what Mayo followers have felt for decades, and that was the subject of one of the most celebrated recent books about Irish sports.

Gaelic football writer Keith Duggan’s “House of Pain: Through the Rooms of Mayo Football,” was published in 2007, chronicling the club’s penchant for coming up short, and the effect that’s had on its legion of supporters.

While their wait hasn’t been as long as the 86-year World Series gap of the Boston Red Sox, the suffering has been just as profound.

The appearance in the finals on Sunday was the second in as many years and eighth overall (and seventh since 1989) for Mayo, making the longing harder to bear. And yet, as Duggan writes, this is a perfectly normal and human state of being:

So much time and genuflecting is afforded to the champions, to those who prevail and those who make victory seem like the easiest thing in the world. But for most teams and sportspeople, the opposite is true. Losing is the universal sporting experience. In Gaelic games, Mayo stands at a strange and lonely impasse, in that it seems destined to be the county that almost always nearly wins.

(This theme also was captured perfectly in another sport by my acquaintance, Kyle Whelliston, in his excellent “One Beautiful Season,” an ode to mid-major college basketball and his end-of-season reminder that for schools of that ilk, “it always ends in a loss.”)

A Mayo fan commended Duggan for getting “the whole Mayo thing” when “House of Pain” was published, uttering a sentiment that seemingly endures:

Over the years Keith has shown that he understands perfectly what it means to be a Mayo supporter and has written numerous memorable pieces about us. I recall with particular fondness the one where he compared us and our plight to that of the Native Americans and also his rallying call after the 2004 final (which the Irish Times reprinted after the 2006 walloping) where he warned fans from other counties that we didn’t need their sympathy and would be back beating many of them again soon. Amidst all the other wise-after-the-event pieces ripping us to shreds, Keith’s thoughtful take on our defeat was just what we needed.

Writing on The Classical on Friday, the Irish sports writer who goes by the name Fredorrarci thinks it could be worse for the Mayo legions: Mayo_crest

The Mayo curse might be founded on a string of near-misses, but at least the misses have been near; it shows frustrated optimism, but at least there’s optimism. This stands in contrast with my own county, which has gone almost as long without an All-Ireland—in fact, we’ve never really come close since. So deep is the consequent pessimism that if anyone bothered to devise such a fable here, it would just be weird. With scant thwarted thrills to pin it on, it would be a cynical misery of a yarn. If it took human form, it would march up to merrymakers in parks, laugh a hollow laugh, and say: “Dunno what you’re so happy about—you’re going to be dead some day. Dead, I tell you. Ha ha ha.”

So I envy Mayo their ghost stories, and I’ll kind of miss them if Mayo win. But it’s about more than just a curse: there is just something fundamentally beautiful about such a doozy of a futile streak.

On Saturday, Duggan penned a hopeful suggestion in The Irish Times that perhaps this would be the year Mayo fans could free themselves from the ghosts of the past:

They just want to win the bloody game of football. They are tired of the sepia image of gallant Mayo, handsome losers. Let them win a notoriously poor game by a single point!

Instead, that extra single point would go Dublin’s way, as Culpepper absorbed his new-found anguish in the final, exasperating moments Sunday:

My insides churned. My insides churned beyond belief for a game I’d never seen and a team I’d never supported, at this whole thrilling, grinding beast of a game that went by so fast. Added time. Four minutes. A point brought Mayo within two. A point brought Mayo within one, right at the brink. The goalkeeper kicked it away. Dublin began celebrating. It had cobbled together 18 points, Mayo 17. That’s 2-12, and 1-14.

And so it goes, the streak, but Mayo’s official club Twitter account remains undeterred this morning:

We will get there. #DreamBelieveAchieve #mayogaa

Sports History Files: Billie Jean King in the arena, Part 3

This week I’m devoting this blog to a three-part retrospective on Billie Jean King, who defeated Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes” on Sept. 20, 1973. I’m particularly interested in her enduring public persona and how she embodies an ideal that has eluded other women’s sports leaders. Here’s Part 1 from Monday and Part 2 from Wednesday.

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Before the modern-day feminist movement arrived in the 1970s, women weren’t strangers to the public arena, and quite a few were more than capable of scrapping it out with men for respect and public acclaim.

In the world of arts, letters and journalism, Mary McCarthy, Dorothy Parker and Dorothy Thompson were as well-known and accomplished as the notable male counterparts who shared their professional, and sometimes personal, company.

The figure of Babe Didrikson Zaharias loomed large in the world of sports, as she demonstrated her athletic prowess from the 1932 Olympics to golf as a founding member of the LPGA Tour, and won a U.S. Open after being diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually claim her life.

It’s true that these women, and many others like them, were not commonplace, and that opportunities for more of them to complete in that public arena did not abound. But in many ways I find their examples — especially the writers — more compelling to draw from than what contemporary feminism has given us.

9780981636801_custom-63dbc3860bfed1f9326f0c0e051c9c8a68671972-s6-c30There are exceptions, and Billie Jean King is one of them, for sports was a rather barren landscape for women until her arrival, and her match with Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes” 40 years ago today.

The timing for that night in Houston was monumental, coming a year after the passage of Title IX, which didn’t include any mention of sports, but that many activists knew would have an impact on college athletics.

And King embraced the public arena like the Babe in sports, and women of artistic and intellectual accomplishment in mid-century.

In his masterful book “The Joy of Sports,” Michael Novak starts off a chapter on women in sports referencing the King-Riggs match, and how she basked in the aftermath:

Billie Jean later shared a television talk show with John Unitas and Henry Aaron. She liked their company. They understood each other. ‘That was really great. We really got into it,’ she said afterward.

Is Billie Jean the wave of the future? Since I have two daughters, ages eight and three, in some regards I devoutly hope so. In others, I am not so sure.

Novak, a conservative Catholic theologian, wondered what the cultural implications of the women’s sports movement would be, and offered this warning:

One of the most simplistic mistakes of the modern era is belief in the easy manipulation of culture.

He didn’t have anything to worry about with King, but women’s sports leaders moved away from her example to fight an unfortunate culture war, as I wrote in my e-book last year, “Beyond Title IX.”

And while King, the founder of the Women’s Sports Foundation, remains a stalwart defender of Title IX and most of establishment women’s sports activism, she’s managed to stay above those culture wars. Even in a generally positive account of her impact, author Susan Wade fall into this trap, perpetuating the line that “sports are politics” and that “sports feminism questions an athletic system structured around keeping men and women separate, rather than encouraging them to play and compete together.”

But it’s King’s essential mainstream appeal, and her undiminished passion for tennis that, as she approaches the age of 70, keeps her squarely in the forefront of discussions about women and sports. The World Team Tennis mixed doubles circuit she created more than three decades ago embodies this. thebattleofthesexes

The many achievements of women in sports in more recent times, however, have come against the backdrop of a present-day framing of women, sports and feminism that has become brittle and intolerant of the dynamism and robust conversation of King’s era.

Establishment feminists, including those in sports, as I also wrote in my book, brook no dissent. While male sports figures — even those in women’s sports, like UConn basketball coach Geno Auriemma — engender constant flaming in the media, their female counterparts are routinely lionized. I wrote on Monday that a critic of the “American Masters” profile of King skimmed over the Barnett affair, and he wasn’t trying to be sensational about it. He thought it was a substantive element of her narrative that was glossed over, and that’s a fair point.

Women athletes today are hoisted on a pedestal of virtue and perfection, unless they take up with somebody deemed unacceptable. And even then, the male “thug” whom goalkeeper Hope Solo married gets the worst of the treatment.

We’ve regressed on the subject of sexual violence, with the Steubenville football controversy dredging up empty, familiar cries of a “rape culture” that impugns an entire town and closes down public discourse. The most privileged women in America apparently need the White House to clamp down on free speech so that they don’t have to hear things they don’t want to hear.

At times, it smacks of the 1970s.

While the times we live in now, especially for women in sports, are vastly better, in some ways we’re much poorer.

In the 1970s, as American society was confronted with racial tensions, women’s liberation and gay rights, the culture reflected that thirst to talk about, and understand, what was happening.

Now, we’re afraid to say — or even think — the wrong thing, for fear of a lawsuit, or of losing a job, or of being shamed by blogging vigilantes.

We endlessly Tweet about “edgy” TV shows like “The Sopranos,” and “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” But can you imagine a program like “All in the Family” being made today? Or “Maude?”

Those shows didn’t flinch from a hot topic, and neither did Billie Jean King at the height of her fame, even when the glare of the spotlight flashed on her private affairs in a very unflattering way.

I know I may sound a bit nostalgiac here . . .

Thank goodness we don’t need to reprise “The Battle of the Sexes” to prove women can compete with men on the biggest stage of the public arena, whether it’s sports, politics, business or elsewhere.

But that’s not all the feminist movement was galvanized to accomplish. Title IX was passed to help women direct the courses of their own individual lives by cracking down on sex discrimination in education, and it’s been a remarkable success.

Yet too much contemporary feminism is mired in the groupthink of chasing “male” power, privilege and status, as if that’s the only measure of a good, compelling life. It’s all about cracking the “glass ceiling” and taking on those dastardly, oppressive men.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of “The Feminine Mystique,” but what we have today is a long cry from what Betty Friedan was responding to. Elite women at Ivy League institutions and high government positions wail about how they can’t have it all, which rings hollow for middle- and working-class women. Here’s writer Rachel Stier,in a strong denunciation of present-day feminist books, which she scathingly labels Works on Women:

Here is a Wall Street warrior in the making, or a college co-ed. But where is the writer, artist, scholar of literature, private eye, or woman who has climbed the Himalayas? No one in these books seems to be doing anything that she loves, or has taken a risk for what she believes in. In fact, what you love and what you believe in are not even remotely relevant here.

A good chunk of sports feminism has fallen for this too, with continuing gripes about the dearth of female athletic directors, the business struggles of women’s professional sports (non-tennis) and the alleged “sexualization” of female athletes by the media.

racquetThese are women activists who, instead of engaging fully in the public arena, hide behind ideology and attempt to wall off any challenge to their views. They, too, are drained of joy, and it takes no great risk to emptily complain about the “patriarchy.”

I’d like to think that by recalling King’s activism we can also view it as a call to re-energize the passion for sports that she inspired so many of us. Because that’s what girls and women had to have before they had anything else — opportunities, Title IX, etc.

Forty years ago today, I was a 12-year-old babysitter totally unaware of how much I would be affected by that night in Houston. I bought a Wilson Billie Jean King Cup tennis racket that hangs above my writing desk today, a reminder how much that event, and that time in my life, has meant.

Whether the match was rigged or not didn’t matter then, and it doesn’t matter now.

For young women of my generation, the King legacy may never have another equal.

Sports History Files: Billie Jean King in the arena, Part 2

This week I’m devoting this blog to a three-part retrospective on Billie Jean King, who defeated Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes” on Sept. 20, 1973. I’m particularly interested in her enduring public persona and how she embodies an ideal that has eluded other women’s sports leaders. Here’s Part 1 from Monday; the final part will be posted on Friday.

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“Billie Jean liked seeing her face on the cover of Ms., but she loved seeing it on the cover of Sports Illustrated more.”

– Grace Lichtenstein, author, “A long way baby: Behind the scenes in women’s pro tennis”


At the peak of her fame in the 1970s, Billie Jean King relished the spotlight like no sportswoman since Babe Didrikson Zaharias nearly two decades before.

King was captivating not just for blending feminism with her efforts to develop women’s pro tennis, but for her candor and sound bites, just as the Babe had done in a remarkable multi-sport career.

For her profile in its esteemed “SportsCentury” series, ESPN dug out a quote that was vintage King, as she described what it felt like to hit the perfect tennis shot:

When she hit the perfect shot, she would become ecstatic. “My heart pounds, my eyes get damp, and my ears feel like they’re wiggling, but it’s also just totally peaceful,” King said. “It’s almost like having an orgasm — it’s exactly like that.”
http://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00016060.html

“My heart pounds, my eyes get damp, and my ears feel like they’re wiggling, but it’s also just totally peaceful. It’s almost like having an orgasm — it’s exactly like that.”

King was provocative, in word and deed, but as her playing career was drawing to a close, that spotlight glared unfavorably in her direction — with sexual relations as the culprit.

gamesetmatchJust as the Women’s Tennis Association she founded was starting to stand on its own, the viability of the tour — and of the fledgling women’s sports movement in the United States — was threatened by the travails of King’s personal life.

Men in powerful positions, or those riding the wave of fame, had been long accustomed to what King experienced when she called a press conference in 1981, not long after a spurned former lover went public with the news of an extramarital affair.

Marilyn Barnett’s allegations rocked not just the sports world, but a larger slice of American society coming to grips with the expanded role of women and the uncomfortable topic of homosexuality. The latter included King’s parents, who sat at her side, along with King’s husband Larry, as she explained deeply personal events.

It was an astonishing scene, just eight years after her triumph over Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes.” King lost most of her endorsement money virtually overnight, and sustaining corporate sponsorships and building a women’s sports business seemed in doubt.

As she notes in a new “American Masters” profile on PBS, King feared the Barnett revelations would undo much of what she and other women were doing in tennis, and as sports regulations for Title IX were gearing up. (The same year, Martina Navratilova was outed by novelist Rita Mae Brown, with whom she had been involved.)

The timing couldn’t have been worse, and this part of the King saga is the subject of a single chapter in Susan Wade’s 2011 book, “Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports.” King was typically matter-of-fact reflecting later:

“It may not be fair, but that’s the way it is. Anyone who’s in the limelight accepts it.”

In this book excerpt, Wade weaves the Barnett-King tale into the Riggs narrative, noting how Barnett’s conspicuous presence that night at the Astrodome flew just under the media radar, something unlikely to happen today.

What also wasn’t known publicly was that by the time she admitted her affair with Barnett, King had been involved with Ilana Kloss, who went from being doubles partner to life partner. It’s a relationship that continues today and that both women openly discussed in a 2006 HBO documentary, “Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer.” Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 5.35.00 PM

I write this not to dredge up some painful history, or to pile on to current media accounts delving into the same. King still speaks about the subject when asked, as she has become an elder stateswoman not just for women’s sports but also the gay rights movement.

What stumps me is that 40 years after Riggs, and with women athletes more fully celebrated in America, so few of them come close to being in a similar spotlight, much less appear to enjoy it. In the immediate years after King’s outing, women’s sports leaders had to fight old canards about homophobia that remain stubborn in sports despite greater social enlightenment today.

And critics of the media coverage of women’s sports continue to cry out that female athletes are invisible. While I think they’ve got a fair point, their complaints are tied to measuring minutes of air time and newspaper column inches that are unrealistic, given the contemporary demands of commercial media.

In my final post on Friday, I’ll continue with that assessment, which is not meant to be a criticism of anyone in particular. Culture and timing matter as much as any other factor.

King is a singular personality from the world of athletics who has been about so much more than sports — company she shares with Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and only a few others. Like them, she was the right person to come along to do what she did when she did.

In anticipation of the 40th anniversary of the Riggs match, she sat down with Michelle Beadle for “Access Hollywood” in an interview that’s typically refreshing and intriguing.

Sports History Files: Billie Jean King in the arena, Part 1

This week I’m devoting this blog to a three-part retrospective on Billie Jean King, who defeated Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes” on Sept. 20, 1973. I’m particularly interested in her enduring public persona and how she embodies an ideal that has eluded other women’s sports leaders. Other posts in this series will appear on Wednesday and Friday.

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My first heroines were women who simply got out into the world, and because I could read about them: Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale, war-time nurses and social reformers, and Juliette Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts.

They were the subjects of few biographies I recall being available at my local public library and aimed at girls my age in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

While these women accomplished many great things, their public spheres developed out of traditional “women’s work.” I never saw myself as a nurse, or a teacher, and never really took to scouting. Home economics was a more disastrous subject for me than math. As I developed an affinity for sports, I found no corresponding point of reference.

anecessaryspectacleAlthough I wasn’t necessarily searching for such a figure, she came along at a crucial period in my pre-teen life and for women in America.

I was baby-sitting one night in September 1973, watching what was dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes.” There was Billie Jean King entering the Astrodome on a throne, and Bobby Riggs proudly hoisting a pig while wearing a “Sugar Daddy” warm-up jacket. Then she beat him and shut up a bunch of men who blabbed that women didn’t belong in the arena of sports.

And Howard Cosell narrated the whole bloody thing.

I was 12, and euphoric, and soon after bought a Wilson Billie Jean King Cup racket and took tennis lessons.

Friday marks the 40th anniversary of that match, which was spectacle, social statement and so much more rolled up into one night in Houston. Was it “rigged?” Did her male counterpart throw the match to pay off a gambling debt?

That’s a decidedly different angle to one of many pieces written to coincide with the 40th anniversary — some respectful, some tiresome in their reminders how terribly sexist the 1970s were.

The milestone also prompted the first profile of an athlete on the PBS program “American Masters” that first aired last week. There have long been those who think the King mythology has not been sufficiently scrutinized, and that this documentary oversimplified a familiar narrative:

King’s childhood realization—if the intellectual complexity of looking around and wondering, “Where is everybody else?” can be believed—suggests a more nuanced and exploratory analysis of the evolution of her sport and how King evolved into an activist. This episode recounts events where King took a leadership role in establishing a pro tennis circuit for women, campaigning for equal prize money and establishing herself as a positive role model for the feminist movement, but it doesn’t get to the root of why King took on that position, what about her personality and life philosophy led her to those choices.

That’s a fair point, and Kevin McFarland, the critic here, does seem to blame the formula of “American Masters” as much as anything for what he feels is missing:

Far more intriguing is what King describes as the darkest period of her life: being forcibly outed as gay by her ex-lover at a time when homosexuality threatened to make anyone a pariah. King mentions her secretary and ex-lover Marilyn Barnett in passing at one point, acknowledging she was just coming to terms with her sexuality around the time of the Riggs match. And when the lawsuit comes up toward the end of the documentary, the most untapped period of King’s life gets but a few minutes of screen time. At a time in modern culture when King’s introspection on being forced out of the closet and coming to terms with her sexuality might do the most good, American Masters’ structure of introductory biography summarizes where it should hunker down and ruminate.

(The film could have done without interjections from Hillary Clinton and Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. These two women were selected to be representative for the rest of us in explaining King’s impact on society? Come on.)

In Wednesday’s post I will delve into that instance of a rare, unflattering focus being put on a woman — especially during those times — when the lawsuit against King was made public.

Sports History Files: Women and long-distance swimming

It didn’t take long for some eyebrows to be raised over Diana Nyad’s record swim from Cuba to Key West earlier this month. On Sunday, The New York Times took a deeper look, and I’ll leave it to the parties interviewed to shed some light on what probably will always be a murky tale.

Nyad vehemently denied she “cheated” in finally completing the 110-mile route without a protective anti-shark cage after several unsuccessful attempts. At the end of the story, long distance swimmer Bonnie Schwartz, who crossed the English Channel in 2005, issued this challenge:

“Nyad owes the swim world a look at her data and absolute transparency about how she was able to cross a waterway that has crippled other, younger swimmers. We’re her peers. She’s not above us.”

For most people inspired by the 64-year-old Nyad’s feat, none of that is likely to matter. I had dinner with fellow middle-age friends over the weekend, and the topic was dominated by discussion not only about Nyad’s endurance, but her determination.

thegreatswimWhat’s most intriguing to me — besides the persistent desire to do something this extreme and take four stabs at it since the age of 60 — is that this is another woman doing something notable in the realm of long-distance swimming.

It’s been 87 years since Gertrude Ederle completed her historic swim across the English Channel, at a time when female athletic activity was actively discouraged, especially anything involving any kind of distance. There were only five women’s swimming races in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics two years later, with the longest solo race being the 400-meter freestyle (an event Ederle won at the 1924 Games).

But in the open water, women have been seemingly compelled by mysterious force and have gained eternal fame for it.

Gavin Mortimer’s 2009 book, “The Great Swim,” was the story of four American women who attempted English Channel crossings in the summer of 1926. Ederle, then 19, was the first to make the 21-mile span from Cape Griz-Nez to Dover, breaking the men’s record in the process, and with the French newspaper Le Figaro heralding her as “the most glorious of nymphs.”

The ordeals experienced by Mille Gade, Lillian Cannon, and Clarabelle Barrette also captivated the public across Europe and North America. The four women were under contract to write about their preparations for various newspapers, and the press competed mightily to chronicle their swims. More than two million people lined the streets of New York to honor Ederle at a ticker-tape parade.

Mortimer concluded that what they did achieve started to very gradually change perceptions of women and sports, although it wasn’t reflected in the Olympic programme or the popular press (beyond the novelty stage) for many decades. swimming-antarctica

In a more modern time, American Lynne Cox also swam the English Channel, but like Nyad was driven to go far beyond that. In her 2005 memoir, “Swimming to Antarctica,” Cox writes about swimming the Cook Strait in New Zealand, the Strait of Magellan and the Cape of Good Hope, and her groundbreaking 1987 trek across the ice-cold Bering Sea from Alaska to the former Soviet Union:

I am pushing myself to the limit. But I’ve got to do this. This swim is not about me. It is about all of us.

It’s about doing something that’s going to make a positive difference in the world. For eleven years, I hoped when there was no reason to hope. I have believed when there was little to believe. For the last forty-two years we’ve been engaged in a Cold War with the Soviets. Somehow it has to be stopped. I believe that this swim will create a thaw in the Cold War. I cannot fail. If I die, doing this, the Soviets will regret giving me permission to make this swim. I can’t let that happen. Swim faster! Don’t focus on the cold or the pain. Don’t give any energy to it. Focus on the finish. Swim faster.

The geopolitics of the time aside, the rest of Cox’ story is a deeply personal one, reflecting a remarkable inner, and individual drive, much like what has possessed Nyad.

But nowhere in her recollections, or in the many interviews Nyad has given about why she does what she does, do they indicate they’re doing this to prove themselves as women. It’s a far different time than that of Ederle, who set out to show that a woman could swim the English Channel, and by doing so bested the marks of the five males who had crossed before her.

Swim:SherrThat drive stemmed from her individual passion for the water, which American journalist and women’s history author Lynn Sherr details in “Swim: Why We Love the Water,” recently out in paperback:

Swimming is my salvation. Ask me in the middle of winter, or at the end of a grueling day, or after a long stretch at the computer, where I’d most like to be, and the answer is always the same: in the water, gliding weightless, silencing a trail through whatever patch of blue I can find. . .

At one level, it’s purely sensual: the silky feeling of liquid on skin; the chance to float free, as close to flying as I’ll ever get; the opportunity to reach, if not for the stars, at least for the starfish. Swimming stretches my body beyond its earthly limits, helping to soothe every ache and caress every muscle. But it’s also an inward journey, a time of quiet contemplation, when, encased in an element at once hostile and familiar, I find myself at peace, able — and eager — to flex my mind, imagine new possibilities, to work things out without the startling interruptions of human voice or modern life. The silence is stunning.

Weekend arts and culture: A sports art competition

A new exhibit has opened in Florida featuring the finalists of the National Art Museum of Sport’s 3rd annual Commitment to Excellence in Art and Sport.

Last night a reception was held in Bradenton to kick off the exhibit, which continues at the ArtCenter Manatee’s Kellogg Center until Sept. 21.

competition_opening_FinalThe exhibit, co-sponsored by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball club, features the work of 30 sports artists vying for three prizes totalling $2,500 each.

The winners will be awarded in three categories: Painting/2D, Sculpture/3D and Photography. The Best in Show award is named after Germain G. Glidden, the NAMOS founder.

This is the first physical exhibit involving NAMOS since it was forced to leave its longtime quarters at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis last spring. The university built a new student residence hall on the site of a hotel and conference center that also housed the museum. The Indianapolis Business Journal reported at the time that the museum may have been looking to leave Indianapolis, but there have been no updates on the situation.

The NAMOS website includes links with summaries to some past exhibits, including one featuring Winslow Homer illustrations.

NAMOS, which was founded in 1959 by Glidden, a former squash champion and portrait artist, has had a distinguished history. Its first location opened at Madison Square Garden in 1968, moving on to New Haven, Conn., in 1979. Indianapolis became the museum’s new home after the 1987 Pan American Games. It has a collection of more than 1,000 works of art, and also has displayed the sports art of Thomas Eakins, George Bellows and Andy Warhol. NAMOS logo

NAMOS exhibits have taken place at more than 100 locations, many tied to sporting events, including several Olympiads, the 1964 World’s Fair, the Biennial Exhibit of Sport Art in Madrid and the 2012 Super Bowl in Indianapolis.

The museum has kept its Twitter account and Facebook page updated, and in recent weeks the latter has featured a number of pieces from the Bradenton exhibit. There are some gorgeous, compelling works in the competition. My favorite is “Leap of Faith,” a painting of swimmers by Ken Buck.

If you can’t get to Florida to see them in person, this is the next best way to admire some very good sports art.

The video below, narrated by Frank Deford, was produced when NAMOS was still located at IUPUI. It offers a glimpse of its collection and interviews some prominent sports artists about why — and how — they do what they do. Another great resource is the museum’s YouTube channel.

Midweek books: The essential Ring Lardner collection

Last week the Library of America released its long-awaited “Ring Lardner: Stories & Other Writings,” and I’m hopeful this may spur a revival about a writer who’s been dead for 80 years.

LardnerLOAThis volume — edited by Ian Frazier, writer, humorist and contributor to The New Yorker — comes in at a whopping 974 pages, and there’s enough Lardner here to suit anyone’s taste, his sportswriting and beyond.

The collection draws on some of Lardner’s best-known work: “You Know Me Al,” “The Real Dope,” “The Young Immigrunts,” “The Big Town,” plus many humor pieces, lyrics and playlets and letters.

Allen Barra, writing for The Daily Beast, calls this “the best Lardner collection ever assembled:”

Lardner went from journalism to short fiction without missing a beat, recreating the ballplayers, most of them Midwestern or southern farm boys, in their own distinct language. Baseball writers in Ring’s day traveled with the teams by train and learned their idioms over card games, dinner, and booze. He was the first sportswriter to make American athletes sound American and not as if they were being written about by a Victorian sporting journalist, and he never made the mistake of piling more literary language on his subjects than they could support.

Alex Belth has done more than anyone to honor the work of the likes of Lardner and present them to today’s readers, and last week he celebrated the new arrival with several posts on The Stacks. Lardner’s son John (a celebrated sports columnist in mid-century) penned this introduction of “You Know Me Al,” a collection of fictitious letters involving the iconic figure of Jack Keefe:

Gilbert Seldes, in discussing what he felt was the iconoclastic effect of Al, wrote that “baseball has never recovered” from what my father did to its heroes. I think it’s true that there was an element ofyouknowmeal shock in the author’s treatment of Keefe and one or two other non-historical characters. . . Baseball did not have to recover from You Know Me Al, because its hard assets had not been disturbed. The book did make an important change in a state of mind which Mr. Seldes, writing in the early 1920s, could recall vividly. Since then, there have been other changes in player attitudes and in fan habits with which the Keefe letters had nothing to do. It’s noteworthy that Al has survived change as easily as it has created it. Everything that is inherently sound in our national diversion, and everything that is characteristically silly, are fixed for all time in this story.

Also last week, anticipating the new book, The Atlantic’s Colin Fleming proclaimed “You Know Me Al” as the best baseball novel ever written (even though it’s not really a novel).

Clearly, Lardner has plenty of admirers and those closely scrutinizing his work in our midst.

For example, noted baseball historian John Thorn recently dug out a 1916 Lardner column in the Chicago Tribune he called an “obituary” of Christy Mathewson, published nine years before the pitcher’s actual death. Thorn called the piece “eerie,” but it reads as a sardonic take on a playing legend who joined the managerial ranks and was afflicted with the “golf bacillus:”

Mathewson is the seventh prominent baseballist to succumb to this disease in a space of twelve years.

It is the opinion of prominent physicians that “Matty,” as he was fondly known, hastened his own end by taking up golf, which undermines the intellect and, thereby, the general health. Those who were closest to him say that he has never been the same since he first sliced off the tee.

(Mathewson died in 1925 from tuberculosis caused by gas poisoning during World War I.)

In a review of the Library of America collection for The Wall Street Journal, Edward Kosner thinks Lardner’s best pieces were non-sports arcticles in The Saturday Evening Post:

LardnerBio

Lardner’s stories resurrect the America of nearly a century ago, when every dime was squeezed for all it was worth—about two bucks in today’s money. Young couples lived in rented flats furnished from shops around the corner. Married women stayed home raising the kids. Couples entertained themselves by going to the movies or invited others over to dance to the Victrola or play rummy or bridge. At snooty resorts on Long Island or in Florida—reached by endless, rattling train rides—bored people sat on long porches fanning themselves, filled the card rooms, took every American Plan meal in the dining room and danced to the house band.

Here’s another review from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Despite the accolades for Lardner and the Library of America collection, I do wonder whether interest in his work will spread beyond the diehards, and the legacy he left behind in his own family (In addition to John Lardner, who like his father died before the age of 50, his son Ring Lardner Jr. rose to fame as a screenwriter but was later blacklisted as a part of the Hollywood Ten.).

The character of Lardner Sr. was a prominent one in the 1988 film about the Chicago Black Sox, “Eight Men Out.” Director John Sayles was a dead ringer (no pun intended) for Lardner, whose disillusion over the throwing of the 1919 World Series pushed him away from baseball.

But I’m still flabbergasted by a piece I read last year claiming that ” ‘You Know Me Al’ . . . represents a slice of baseball history that’s too far in the past to serve as an introduction” to baseball and literature. I blogged a response, but I suspect what few in a current generation of young men (mostly) interested in the literary connections to the game aren’t any more inclined to go back more than a few decades.

It’s hard to fathom now, with a myopic sports media establishment fixated on most everything but the games, that there was a time when literary sportswriting enjoyed mainstream status.

Below are Groucho Marx and Truman Capote discussing Lardner on the Dick Cavett show. Aside from the bizarre exchange when Marx suggests Capote get married to help with a tax problem, this is a glimpse from a long-gone time when writers, and writing, were discussed on a popular TV program.

And no, I have no idea what the hell kind of cap Groucho was wearing either.

Labor Day Weekend Special: Late summer sports reads

Instead of my usual Monday Sports History File post, I’m offering up this collection of outstanding stories from the last week or so that dovetail with the sports book/history/culture theme of this blog. I really do appreciate the labor of these writers.

I’ll be back with another Midweek Books post on Wednesday, and it’s about a book I’ve been anticipating for a very long time.

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I Can’t Stop Reading This Book About Cricket and Colonialism, by Tim Marchman, Deadspin

beyond a boundaryAfter writing this post last fall about cricket and literature, I intended to dig more into books about a sport that’s unfamiliar to me.

I never quite got around to that, but Marchman’s ode to “Beyond a Boundary,” the cricket classic by C.L.R. James, might be all anyone needs short of reading the book to appreciate it.

“James was a cricketer and a working sportswriter, and it tells,” Marchman writes.

There are many who believe this to be among the best of all sports books, and not just cricket.

James’ book: “Beyond a Boundary”

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Alabama’s Nick Saban: The Scariest Man in College Football, by Warren St. John, GQ

Author St. John, a major Crimson Tide fan, follows around Saban during an off-season that’s no lull for perhaps the most relentless coach in America. sabanbook

A friend tells St. John that after Alabama won its third national title in four years in January, Saban was still growling:

“That damn game cost me a week of recruiting.”

That’s the first quote in the story, and it’s well worth your time, whether you’re a fan or not, to understand what drives someone like this.

Saban’s book: “How Good Do You Want to Be?”

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The Match Maker: Bobby Riggs, the Mafia and the Battle of the Sexes, by Don Van Natta Jr., ESPN

Tennis legend Bobby Riggs was a hustler, gambler and showman — on the court and off. The writer talks to an aging former Florida golf club repairman who claims to have overhead mob leaders orchestrating a fix in the 1973 match between Riggs and Billie Jean King.

courthustlerVan Natta talks to others who knew Riggs, both for his story and a video feature to accompany the story, which was highlighted last week on Outside the Lines. There are those who find the story of a fix plausible.

King is not among them. “He just ‘choked,’” she says now of Riggs, a former Wimbledon champion who died in 1995.

Riggs’ son Larry tells Van Natta his father said after the match that “this was the worst thing in the world that I’ve ever done.”

Riggs’ book: “Court Hustler.”

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The 1917 Fenway Park Gamblers Riot, by Jacob Pomrenke, The National Pastime Museum

Speaking of gamblers, this is an excerpt from a story with the same title that the author had published a year ago in McFarland’s “Base Ball: A Journey of the Early Game.” And it’s the third installment in Pomrenke’s ongoing series of gambling in baseball’s Deadball Era.

The game in question comes with the struggling home team putting up Babe Ruth to face the White Sox. In the fifth inning, with rain approaching and Chicago leading 1-0, several hundred leaped over the right field fence and onto the playing field . . . and just stood around. As Pomrenke writes: mcfarlandsbaseball

They were stalling for time. If the rain continued, the field would be deemed unplayable, and the game would have to be called. Any hometown bettors who had wagered on the Red Sox would not lose their money.

What comes after that is a turn of events that ought to get more attention, given how this foreshadowed the Black Sox scandal by two years.

By the way, Ruth’s mound opponent that day was Eddie Cicotte, one of the Black Sox.

Also by the way, Pomrenke — a venerable part of the Society of American Baseball Research — has a personal Twitter avatar with a vintage photo of Buck Weaver, another member of the Black Sox who proclaimed his innocence until his death but was never cleared by baseball.

The McFarland’s periodical: “Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game.”

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College Football’s Most Dominant Player? It’s ESPN, by James Andrew Miller, Steve Eder and Richard Sandomir, The New York Times

Last Sunday’s first installment in a three-part examination of the sports cable giant’s hold on America’s second-biggest sport sets a high bar for what’s to come over, and the Times trio delivers with exceptional insight.

This is one of the best in-depth looks at how the biggest sports media entity of all truly operates.

Part 2 of the ESPN college football series details the University of Louisville’s willingness to play at ESPN’s behest to become a powerhouse collegiate athletic program.

thoseguyshaveallthefunThe series wraps up with how ESPN plays hardball to protect its media empire, including starting ESPNU to get around antitrust concerns that it was hoarding unseen games to prevent competitors from showing them.

The publication of the series is especially timely, given how ESPN moved last week to end its collaboration with PBS for a forthcoming Frontline special on concussions in the NFL, whose Monday Night Football contract with ESPN represents the cable outlet’s biggest programming contract.

As ESPN president John Skipper told the Times:

I am the only one at ESPN who has to balance the conflict between journalism and programming.

The Nation’s Dave Zirin does great work getting ESPN journalists to talk, and some are more than infuriated by the Frontline fiasco.

Robert Lipsyte, ESPN’s new ombudsman and a former Times sports columnist, weighs in.

Like many sports fanatics, I have a love/hate relationship with ESPN, and it’s refreshing to learn more about how it really works without all the corporate, Disney-induced spin. And I write this knowing some of their best spinmeisters, whom I like and I know are just doing their jobs.

Miller’s book on ESPN, with Tom Shales: “Those Guys Have All the Fun.”

Weekend arts and culture: A sports museum’s revival

The recent odyssey of the Negro Leagues Museum is the subject of this terrific piece in The New York Times last weekend by Nate Taylor, who writes about president Bob Kendrick’s return to the Kansas City institution and its greater state of financial health.

Kendrick left the fold following the 2006 death of the legendary Buck O’Neill, whose shadow other museum officials really wanted to escape.

negroleaguesmuseumlogoBut in 2009, the museum lost $300,000, and last year Kendrick (who avidly Tweets his passion at @nlbmprez) came back after a 13-month hiatus and guided the non-profit organization to its healthiest profit in years.

When the Major League All-Star game came to Kansas City last July, the museum also received a boost in visitors and continues to be busy with other tie-ins.

Here’s a Kansas sportswriter’s impressions of a recent trip to the museum, and the hometown Royals last weekend paid homage to the Negro Leagues by donning Kansas City Monarchs jerseys for a home game against the Washington Nationals, who were gussied up as the Homestead Grays.

Kendrick has been endlessly resourceful and energetic since coming back, trying to spread the museum’s reach beyond its downtown Kansas City location. As one example, the museum made recommendations for pieces included in the recent “Baseball as Art: A Negro League Retrospective” exhibit during the American Legion World Series in Shelby, N.C.

In Little Rock, “Shades of Greatness: Art Inspired by Negro Leagues Baseball” is on exhibit until Dec. 9 at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center.

Kendrick also has been working with a group in Birmingham that wants to establish a Negro League Museum there. The Birmingham City Council has pledged $400,000 toward the $2 million museum project, which would adjoin the city’s new minor league baseball stadium. (In May I wrote about a new book chronicling an integrated Birmingham Barons team during the height of the Civil Rights movement.)

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I learned researching this post that there’s something called the Center for Negro League Baseball Research, founded by Dr. Layton Revel and based in Dallas. One of its primary missions is to collect as much primary research material it can. Since its founding in 1990, the center says it has located 500 former Negro Leagues players whose whereabouts were unknown.

The collection of photographs alone is worth a deep visit to its website, which also contains a link to its online research library, as well as other traditional museum collection pieces. There’s also a small permanant exhibit located at the Legends of the Game Museum at Ameriquest Field in Arlington, where the Texas Rangers play.

When he was still writing for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Wright Thompson (now of ESPN.compenned this full-length profile of Revel, a Negro Leagues veteran from its earliest times.

The Society for American Baseball Resarch also has a Negro Leagues Research Committee.

Read how a young Red Sox fan dug into the Negro Leagues past for his own tribute, and how a Negro Leagues historian joined his research subjects on a recent visit to the White House.

These are just a couple of examples that help explain why the Bob Kendricks and Layton Revels of the world do what they do, and with such utter joy and devotion.