IT WOULD BE STRETCHING things to say that sport has produced much in the way of genuine literature, but the games we play have inspired an impressive number of first-rate books--more, I suspect, than most readers realize. In drawing up a list of personal favorites, I find that the problem is one of elimination rather than selection; keeping the list to 10 titles--an arbitrary decision of my own--means crossing off several that really ought to be there.
It hurts, for example, not to have room for Bill Veeck's Veeck as in Wreck, or Bernard Malamud's The Natural, or John McPhee's Levels of the Game, or A.J. Liebling's The Sweet Science, or James Whitehead's Joiner, or Pat Jordan's A False Spring. Make no mistake about it: these are fine books for which I have great affection. The same goes for a number of others, among them several that have gained large and enthusiastic followings: George Plimpton's Paper Lion, Jim Bouton's Ball Four, Jerry Kramer's Instant Replay. The full list of omissions is longer than the list of choices, and a most distinguished one in its own right.
Let me emphasize that my selection is an entirely personal one, reflecting nothing except my own tastes and crotchets. Among those are a preference for books that understand the social and cultural contexts in which sport exists but that do not make a fetish of the "meaning" or "poetry" of sport; a strong belief, based on the evidence, that the best American sportswriting is about baseball; a taste for graceful, witty prose that does not attempt to call attention to itself.
All of the books on the list are by American writers, though one of them has a British setting. There are none about basketball, boxing, golf, tennis or--saints preserve us!--jogging; that there is one about fishing reflects the abilities of its author rather than my own interest in the subject. Nine of the titles are available in paperback editions; the other was recently in print and should not be difficult to find. They are listed alphabetically, by title:
About Three Bricks Shy of a Load, by Roy Blount Jr. (Ballantine, $2.75). Blount, who was then working for Sports Illustrated, spent the 1973 football season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The next year that team began its long series of championships, but in 1973 it was "three bricks shy of a load, which is comparable to playing with less than a full deck." Blount's portrait of the team is raucous, affectionate, bawdy and hilarious, not to mention proof that losing is considerably more interesting than winning.
Babe, by Robert Creamer (Pocket Books, out of print). This account of the wild yet unexpectedly poignant life and career of Babe Ruth is by a wide margin the best biography of an American sports figure. Creamer brings to his task a discriminating eye, a lucid pen and a wry appreciation of the vulnerable humanity from which our greatest sports legend was created. He is candid but never sensational about Ruth's varied, insatiable appetites, and he is wholly knowledgeable about his skills as pitcher and hitter. The book's subtitle--"The Legend Comes to Life"--is absolutely accurate.
A Fan's Notes, by Frederick Exley (Pocket Books, $2.95). This memoir masquerading as a novel tells the story of a character named Frederick Exley, who lives out his Mittyesque dreams of glory by cheering for Frank Gifford, the peerless halfback of the New York Giants. It is a book about the deepest, and darkest, American yearnings for success, riches and recognition, and about the various ways in which those yearnings are dashed. If one is willing, as I am, to accept its claim to being a work of fiction, then surely it ranks among the most substantial American novels of the century.
The Glory of Their Times, by Lawrence S. Ritter (Macmillan, $7.95). Ritter, an economist with a passion for baseball, traveled about the country taping the reminiscences of 22 men who played major-league baseball in the dimly remembered years before World War I. The result is a book of almost magical qualities: sunny and humorous and, in the best sense of that much-abused word, nostalgic. None of the many volumes that subsequently imitated it belongs in the same ballpark. Incidentally, an LP record was made of selections from Ritter's tapes; if you ever are offered a chance to hear the record, seize it.
The Long Season, by Jim Brosnan (Tempo Books, $1.95). In the summer of 1960 Jim Brosnan was a journeyman relief pitcher in the employ of the St. Louis Cardinals who soon found himself traded to the Cincinnati Reds. He was also an aspiring writer who kept a journal of his year that, when it appeared as The Long Season, forever changed our view of the men who play professional sport; reports from the locker room are now commonplace, but none is as good as this one. Brosnan wrote his own story, and he wrote it well; his portraits of the season's two managers, Solly Hemus and Fred Hutchinson, are classics.
The Southpaw, by Mark Harris (included in Henry Wiggen's Books, Avon/Bard, $2.95). The most celebrated of Mark Harris' novels about Henry Wiggen, pitcher for the New York Mammoths, is Bang the Drum Slowly -- both because of its own considerable merits and because of the incandescent movie inspired by it. But to my taste The Southpaw, the first of the four, is even better. Here we struggle with young Wiggen through his arrival in the big leagues and his steady if somewhat rocky path to stardom. The one-volume edition of the first three Wiggen novels, published in 1977, is a necessity.
The Spawning Run, by William Humphrey (Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, $4.95). The distinguished novelist is also a trout fisherman. Here, in a very brief and very funny book -- it's really a magazine article between hard covers -- he tells of trouting in south England and Wales, and notes with quiet amusement the paralles between the mating habits of trout and thoes of the English gentry. Humphrey is also the author of another little book on trout fishing, My Moby Dick, which misses the lofty heights of this one by an inch or so.
The Summer Game, by Rodger Angell (Popular Library, $2.95; Penguin, $4.95). On reviewing Five Seasons, Angell's second collection of baseball pieces, I describe it as even better than this one, his first. I herewith retract that. Two of the pieces in The Summer Game -- "The Fowering and Subsequent Deflowering of New England" and "The Interior Stadium" -- are among the half-dozen finest articles ever written about baseball. These pieces, like the rest of The Summer Game, were composed before Angell had begun to sit in the press box and to talk with the players; they have the verve, the commitment, the emotion and the love of the true fan, and they are works of real art.
The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., by Robert Coover (New American Library, $4.95). The competition is strong, but this one takes first prize; the best of all baseball novels. It is the story of a lonley man who, within the dreary walls of his apartment, creates an imaginary baseball league that soon enough becomes an imaginary world. No other novelist has employed the manifold possibilities that baseball offers as imaginatively and sweepingly as Coover -- the game's statistics, its division into multiples of three, its legend, its unalterably American character.
You Know Me Al, by Ring Lardner (Scribners, $2.95). The first shall be last. This is where serious writing about American sport begins, in these letters from the "busher" Jack Keefe to his friend Al. Lardner connected baseball not merely to American venacular, as is generally known, but also to American social structure and manners. If Lardner must now be viewed as a minor figure in the development of American letters, this wonderful little book nonetheless reminds us that if his place is small, it is also secure.