There is an apocryphal story in which every morning an appalled law clerk watches Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren open his newspaper first to the sports section. When the kid asks Warren why he doesn't read the front page first, the chief replies, "I see enough of humanity's follies at work. I'd rather start the day with their triumphs."
So why do we watch sports? First and foremost, to see other human beings do the impossible.
Too Large for Rules
Consider Wilt Chamberlain, the protagonist of Gary M. Pomerantz's Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era (Crown, $24.95). On March 2, 1962, Chamberlain scored 100 points against the New York Knicks. Of course, that was in the heady days when NBA teams scored in triple figures all the time -- the final score of that game was 169-147 -- and defense was an afterthought. No one in pro basketball has scored more than 73 points since. (David Thompson did that in the final game of the 1978 season.) That's a shortfall of 27 percent.
Chamberlain was a uniquely dominating force, as Pomerantz makes eloquently clear. A rival, Dolph Schayes, once called him "the most perfect instrument ever made by God to play basketball," and, with the relatively minor exception of his usually wretched free-throw shooting, Chamberlain could do anything on a court. More important, nobody could stop him (except occasionally Bill Russell). The night he scored 100, he also had 25 rebounds. That season he averaged 50 points a game.
He did so at a time when African Americans -- famous athletes or not -- were still virtually imprisoned by segregation and the seemingly impregnable ceiling it imposed on their aspirations. One of the great strengths of Pomerantz's thoughtful book is that while he never flinches from the recollection of the racial slights (and much worse) that black men and women endured in America in the 1950s and '60s (and today), he also never tries to make Chamberlain more of a hero than he really was. As Pomerantz notes, while looking back on Chamberlain's defiance of racial barriers while he was at the University of Kansas, the big man wasn't a battering ram against Jim Crow, carrying the entire race on his back; he just was too large to be hemmed in by rules.
The Rule of Four
The contrast between Chamberlain and Bobby Jones couldn't be greater. Yet Jones accomplished a single-season record in 1930 that would resonate as powerfully in the sporting imagination as Chamberlain's scoring accomplishments 32 years later. That was the year in which Jones set out to win all four of golf's then-major tournaments (the British Amateur, British Open, U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur). It was a mad ambition, writes Curt Sampson in The Slam: Bobby Jones and the Price of Glory (Rodale, $24.95), but he fulfilled it. In his methodical recounting of Jones's annus mirabilis, Sampson shows that his motivation was to be able to quit the game, to escape the grueling pressures of being in the public eye at a pinnacle so lofty that no one could fault him. Which is exactly what he did.
It is hard to conceive of two more dissimilar men than these: Jones, compulsively modest, seemingly abstemious, a child of wealth and privilege and a dedicated amateur; and Chamberlain, larger than life in every sense, flamboyant, a connoisseur of women and real estate. But reading The Slam in tandem with Wilt, 1962 draws one's attention to an uneasy but unsurprising fact: Athletes who strive for the impossible are driven by demons that ordinary folks cannot comprehend.
Such feats exact a terrible price in solitude and compulsions -- Chamberlain's storied womanizing, Jones's underreported drinking and fraying health. Pomerantz and Sampson each offers exquisitely painful details of his subject's isolation and the toll it took over the course of his career.
The Wrong Hero?
Perhaps the ordinary Joe who is touched briefly by the hand of the goddess of victory is more fortunate. That certainly seems to have been the case with James J. Braddock, who briefly held the heavyweight boxing title in the mid-1930s, a time when being heavyweight champ really meant something. Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History (Houghton Mifflin, $24), Jeremy Schaap's recounting of Braddock's improbable rise to fame in a Depression-era America starved for up-from-the-bottom heroes, is at its best when recreating the milieu of the sport in that period. Braddock was a fair-to-middling light heavyweight who never lived up to his promise until the Depression forced him to the brink of destitution. Working on the docks of the New York-New Jersey waterfront rebuilt his body in ways that no trainer could have, and when he faced Max Baer for the title on June 13, 1935, he was a different fighter from the mediocrity who had blown a chance at the light-heavy championship six years before.
The problem with Cinderella Man -- also reflected in the lumpy, maudlin sentimentality of Ron Howard's recently released film version -- is that while Braddock's story may have resonated deeply during the Depression, Baer's story is the more dramatically compelling one today. A natural knockout artist who became a reluctant fighter after killing a man in the ring, Baer was the class clown writ large, a wise guy with an urge to entertain, unable to shake his past. Schaap's subtitle gives short shrift to Buster Douglas's 1990 defeat of Mike Tyson, but the echoes of the Braddock-Baer fight in that later, larger upset are unmistakable.
If an event doesn't produce a great individual feat or a startling upset, there is always the attraction of the fabled rivalry: Affirmed-Alydar, Palmer-Nicklaus, Ali-Frazier, Chamberlain-Russell. The best rivalries are between individuals; by their very nature, the great team rivalries, like the Yankees and the Red Sox, last for generations, and the changing cast of characters dissipates some of the melodrama.
The greatest of the face-to-face rivalries involved women's tennis, and, fittingly, Johnette Howard's The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova: Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship (Broadway, $24.95) is by far the most fully realized of the books under review here. This ongoing duel pitted the two best players of their generation against each other over a staggering 16-year period -- 80 matches, including 60 tournament finals. For sustained drama, nothing else in sports comes close. Howard is fortunate in her choice of subject; unlike those of Pomerantz, Sampson and Schaap, her protagonists are alive and well, and she has covered them for many years. Consequently, she brings a greater insight into the ebb and flow of the rivalry -- and the women's deep mutual respect and affection.
At the heart of their rivalry was both players' dedication to the game as a job, as hard work. That sort of dedication produces the outstanding results that make us turn to the sports pages.
Losing Sight of the Joy
That there is no shortcut to such results seems to be a clear message of The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball's Drug Problems (Ivan R. Dee, 24.95), by Will Carroll with William L. Carroll. Of course, the use of steroids has become a national obsession beyond the sports pages; since everything else in America is in such an advanced state of perfection, Congress uses its valuable time to investigate drug use in baseball, basketball and football. (The republic is saved.) Before they investigate further, they might want to talk to the Carrolls and the army of experts inside and outside the law from whose opinions this book is drawn. The Juice is a sloppy, messy book whose disparate chapters read more like contributions to a festschrift than parts of a unified work. Nor is it clear who the book's intended readers are. But this book offers a lot of hard facts and some necessary myth-busting. For all its many faults, The Juice is a useful volume, if only as a reminder that, as Will Carroll states bluntly in its conclusion, "The simple joy of the game escapes us from time to time." *
George Robinson writes on sports, film and Judaism. His book "Essential Torah," will be published next year.