The Only Game in Town: Sportswriting from The New Yorker

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9781400068029: The Only Game in Town: Sportswriting from The New Yorker
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For more than eighty years, The New Yorker has been home to some of the toughest, wisest, funniest, and most moving sportswriting around. Featuring brilliant reportage and analysis, profound profiles of pros, and tributes to the amateur in all of us, The Only Game in Town is a classic collection from a magazine with a deep bench.

Including such authors as Roger Angell and John Updike, both of them synonymous with New Yorker sportswriting, The Only Game in Town also features greats like John McPhee and Don DeLillo. Hall of Famer Ring Lardner is here, bemoaning the lowering of standards for baseball achievement—in 1930. A. J. Liebling inimitably portrays the 1955 Rocky Marciano–Archie Moore bout as “Ahab and Nemesis . . . man against history,” and John Cheever pens a story about a boy’s troubled relationship with his father and “The National Pastime.”

From Tiger Woods to bullfighter Sidney Franklin, from the Chinese Olympics to the U.S. Open, the greatest plays and players, past and present, are all covered in The Only Game in Town. At The New Yorker, it’s not whether you win or lose—it’s how you write about the game.

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About the Author:

David Remnick has been the editor of The New Yorker since 1998. A staff writer for the magazine from 1992 to 1998, he was previously The Washington Post's correspondent in the Soviet Union. The author of several books, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the George Polk Award for his 1994 book Lenin's Tomb. He lives in New York with his wife and children.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

PART ONE

FROM THE BLEACHERS

THE WEB OF THE GAME

ROGER ANGELL


An afternoon in mid-May, and we are waiting for the game to begin. We are in shadow, and the sunlit field before us is a thick, springy green —an old diamond, beautifully kept up. The grass continues beyond the low chain-link fence that encloses the outfield, extending itself on the right-field side into a rougher, featureless sward that terminates in a low line of distant trees, still showing a pale, early-summer green. We are almost in the country. Our seats are in the seventh row of the grandstand, on the home side of the diamond, about halfway between third base and home plate. The seats themselves are more comforting to spirit than to body, being a surviving variant example of the pure late-Doric Polo Grounds mode: the backs made of a continuous running row of wood slats, divided off by pairs of narrow cast-iron arms, within which are slatted let-down seats, grown arthritic with rust and countless layers of gray paint. The rows are stacked so closely upon each other (one discovers) that a happening on the field of sufficient interest to warrant a rise or half-rise to one’s feet is often made more memorable by a sharp crack to the kneecaps delivered by the backs of the seats just forward; in time, one finds that a dandruff of gray paint flakes from the same source has fallen on one’s lap and scorecard. None of this matters, for this view and these stands and this park—it is Yale Field, in New Haven—are renowned for their felicity. The grandstand is a low, penumbrous steel- post shed that holds the infield in a pleasant horseshoe-curved embrace. The back wall of the grandstand, behind the uppermost row of seats, is broken by an arcade of open arches, admitting a soft backlight that silhouettes the upper audience and also discloses an overhead bonework of struts and beams supporting the roof—the pigeonland of all the ballparks of our youth. The game we are waiting for—Yale vs. St. John’s University—is a considerable event, for it is part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s northeast regional tournament, the winner of which will qualify for a berth at the national collegiate championships in Omaha in June, the World Series of college baseball. Another pair of teams, Maine and Central Michigan—the Black Bears and the Chippewas—have just finished their game here, the first of a doubleheader. Maine won it, 10–2, but the ultimate winner will not be picked here for three more days, when the four teams will have completed a difficult double-elimination tournament. Good, hard competition, but the stands at Yale Field are half empty today. Call them half full, because everyone on hand—some twenty-five hundred fans—must know something about the quality of the teams here, or at least enough to qualify either as a partisan or as an expert, which would explain the hum of talk and expectation that runs through the grandstand even while the Yale team, in pinstriped home whites, is still taking infield practice.

I am seated in a little sector of senior New Haven men—Townies rather than Old Elis. One of them a couple of rows in front of me says, “They used to fill this place in the old days, before there was all the baseball on TV.”

His neighbor, a small man in a tweed cap, says, “The biggest crowd I ever saw in here—the biggest ever, I bet—was for a high school game. Shelton and Naugatuck, about twenty years ago.”

An old gent with a cane, seated just to my left, says, “They filled it up that day the Yankees came here, with Ruth and Gehrig and the rest of them. An exhibition game.”

A fan just beyond the old gentleman—a good-looking man in his sixties, with an open, friendly face, a large smile, and a thick stand of gray hair—leans toward my neighbor and says, “When was that game, Joe? 1930? 1932?”

“Oh, I can’t remember,” the old man says. “Somewhere in there. My youngest son was mascot for the Yankees that day, so I could figure it out, I suppose.” He is not much interested. His eyes are on the field. “Say, look at these fellows throw!” he says. “Did you see that outfielder peg in the ball?”

“That was the day Babe Ruth said this was about the best-looking ballpark he’d ever ever seen,” the man beyond says. “You remember that.”

“I can remember long before this park was built,” the old man says. “It was already the Yale ballfield when I got here, but they put in these stands later— Who is this shortstop? He’s a hefty-looking bird.”

“How many Yale games do you think you’ve seen, Joe?” the smiling man asks.

“Oh, I couldn’t begin to count them. But I haven’t seen a Yale team play in— I don’t know how long. Not for years. These fellows today, they play in the Cape Cod League in the summers. They let the freshmen play here now, too. They recruit them more, I suppose. They’re athletes —you can see that.”

The Yale team finishes its warmup ritual, and St. John’s—light gray uniforms with scarlet cap bills and scarlet socks—replaces it on the field.

“St. John’s has always had a good club,” the old man tells me. “Even back when my sons were playing ball, it was a good ball team. But not as good as this one. Oh, my! Did you see this catcher throw down to second? Did you see that! I bet you in all the years I was here I didn’t have twenty fellows who could throw.”

“Your sons played here?” I ask him. “For Yale?”

“My son Joe was captain in ’41,” he says. “He was a pitcher. He pitched against my son Steve here one day. Steve was pitching for Colgate, and my other son, Bob—my youngest—was on the same Colgate team. A good little left-handed first baseman.”

I am about to ask how that game turned out, but the old man has taken out a small gold pocket watch, with a hunting case, which he snaps open. Three-fourteen. “Can’t they get this started?” he says impatiently.

I say something admiring about the watch, and he hands it to me carefully. “I’ve had that watch for sixty-eight years,” he says. “I always carried it in my vest pocket, back when we wore vests.”

The little watch has a considerable heft to it: a weight of authority. I turn it over and find an inscription on the back. It is in script and a bit worn, but I can still make it out:

Presented to Joe Wood

by his friend A. E. Smith

in appreciation of his splendid

pitching which brought the

world’s championship

to Boston in 1912.

“Who was A. E. Smith, Mr. Wood?” I ask.

“He was a manufacturer.”

I know the rest. Joe Wood, the old gentleman on my left, was the baseball coach at Yale for twenty years—from 1923 to 1942. Before that, he was a sometime outfielder for the Cleveland Indians, who batted .366 in 1921. Before that, he was a celebrated right-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox—Smokey Joe Wood, who won thirty-four games for the Bosox in 1912, when he finished up with a record of 34-5, pitching ten shutouts and sixteen consecutive victories along the way. In the World Series that fall—one of the two or three finest ever played—he won three of the four games he pitched, including the famous finale: the game of Hooper’s catch and Snodgrass’s muff and Tris Speaker’s killing tenth-inning single. Next to Walter Johnson, Smokey Joe Wood was the most famous fastballer of his era. Still is, no doubt, in the minds of the few surviving fans who saw him at his best. He is ninety-one years old.

None of this, I should explain—neither my presence at the game nor my companions in the stands—was an accident. I had been a fervent admirer of Smokey Joe Wood ever since I read his account of his baseball beginnings and his subsequent career in Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times, a cherished, classic volume of oral history of the early days of the pastime. Mr. Wood was in his seventies when that book was published, in 1966, and I was startled and pleased a few weeks ago when I ran across an article by Joan Whaley, in Baseball Digest, which informed me that he was still hale and still talking baseball in stimulating fashion. He was living with a married daughter in New Haven, and my first impulse was to jump in my car and drive up to press a call. But something held me back; it did not seem quite right to present myself uninvited at his door, even as a pilgrim. Then Ron Darling and Frank Viola gave me my chance. Darling, who was a junior at Yale this past year, is the best pitcher ever to take the mound for the Blue. He is better than Johnny Broaca, who went on to pitch for the Yankees and the Indians for five seasons in the mid-1930s; he is better than Frank Quinn, who compiled a 1.57 career earned-run average at Yale in 1946, ’47, and ’48. (He is also a better all-around ballplayer than George Bush, who played first base and captained the Elis in 1948, and then somehow drifted off into politics instead of baseball.) Darling, a right-handed fastball thrower, won eleven games and lost two as a sophomore, with an earned-run average of 1.31, and this year he was 9-3 and 2.42, with eighty-nine strikeouts in his ninety-three innings of work—the finest college pitcher in the Northeast, according to major-league scouts, with the possible exception of Frank Viola, a junior left-handed curveball ace at St. John’s, who was undefeated this year, 9-0, and had a neat earned-run average of 1.00. St. John’s, a Catholic university in Queens, is almost a baseball powerhouse—not quite in the same class, perhaps, as such perennial nati...

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