With summer turning to fall and baseball grudgingly giving way to football, we are reminded of how, back in the day, each sport carried with it a unique, seasonal identity. That's only marginally true now. So, too, has the coverage of sports -- in books, columns and daily reporting -- changed with the times.
Howard Bryant, a sports columnist with the Boston Herald, has taken the extra base -- and then some -- with Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball (Viking, $24.95), combining sound sports analysis with the best of investigative journalism.
In an exhaustive assessment of the national pastime's steroid scandal, he convincingly implicates the commissioner of baseball, the corporation of Major League Baseball, players, union leaders, television networks, Congress, fans and members of his own profession in the increased use of steroids and "performance enhancing drugs" across the decade that followed the 1994 cancellation of the World Series.
Juicing the Game is rich in its personalities, whom Bryant presents in all their complexities. For a public that rarely gets more than sound bites from its sports figures, Bryant introduces a cast of characters who "strut and fret" before us. He offers particularly interesting portraits of the great, arrogant and enigmatic Barry Bonds, who, in 2005, "stood as the symbol of the tainted era, of its bitter contradictions and its great consequences," and the "maddeningly inconsistent" commissioner Bud Selig, who "had the moral authority" to stop the abuses "and . . . did not use it."
Not to be forgotten is the moving congressional testimony of the parents of two adolescents whose suicides were directly tied to their use of steroids. Such far-reaching implications of steroid use define the issue as baseball's greatest scandal since 1919, when eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspired to throw the World Series. If ever there was a "must read" sports book of its time, this is it. Because of the undeniable truths it tells, Bryant's book is essential reading. His argument depends less on statistics and figures than on his willingness to uncover what many people suspected and more than a few knew to be true.
In 1973, in a tennis match hyped as the "Battle of the Sexes," Billie Jean King soundly defeated an overconfident and undertrained Bobby Riggs. Held in Houston's Astrodome, the match was a "circus of the surreal" and a handy distraction from the trials of Watergate and the tribulations of the Vietnam War. The well-attended contest is the subject of A Necessary Spectacle (Crown, $24.95), by Selena Roberts. A spectacle it was. Necessary? That's questionable.
At the time, Riggs was a 55-year-old former Wimbledon champ, while King was one of the top female tennis players in the world. Riggs was also a loudmouth and born hustler who seemed to derive more pleasure from betting on himself than from actually competing, whereas King's entire focus was on establishing equity for the women's game. As Roberts establishes, King won on all counts. In retrospect, the match validated women's growing presence in sports.
Inexplicably, Roberts devotes much of the second half of the book to King's sexual orientation, a distraction from her revealing look into the evolution of women's tennis and the respect that King and some other female players fought for and won over time. Roberts notes that "too much has been taken for granted by some of the most successful women in sports," but her glimpses into King's psyche and personality do less to educate than a few hard lessons in history would have. King's momentum in her effort to rid her sport of gender bias was unstoppable by the time she faced off against Riggs, in a match that was more a fortunate coincidence than a necessity.
A Scribe Remembered
As an author, newspaper columnist and essayist, Ralph Wiley, who died in 2004 at the age of 52, shied away from nothing. Still in his twenties and as brash as his subject matter, he coined the term "Billy Ball" to describe Billy Martin's style of managing the Oakland A's in 1980. "If it were a fever, the A's would be an epidemic," he writes. "There's another name for it. Confidence." That noun also fairly describes Wiley's approach to writing, as evidenced by Classic Wiley: A Lifetime of Punchers, Players, Punks & Prophets (ESPN, $24.95), a posthumous collection of 22 columns and essays written over the course of nearly a quarter of a century.
Whether he was writing about minority ownership in sports ("Progress is not a pretty sight at first, although some of the vistas are breathtaking") or profiling former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, who "made white people see themselves more clearly in relation to their own assumptions of liberalism," Wiley unconditionally invested himself in his subjects. That these pieces retain all their original vitality is a measure of his success.
An African American, Wiley stood firmly behind his words, serving as a mentor to a number of younger black colleagues. To anyone unfamiliar with Wiley's work, this collection will be an invaluable introduction to a writer not merely worth reading but worth learning from. To those who revered the man and his work, Classic Wiley is a bittersweet reminder of all that he offered of himself in his time.
In 1979, at the Scope Coliseum in Norfolk, Va., I was part of a capacity crowd of more than 10,000 cheering the Old Dominion University Lady Monarchs against the Soviet national team in hard-nosed, five-on-five basketball. The Soviet women's string of successive victories seemed to date back to the days of Peter the Great. Yet the ODU women, led by the incomparable Nancy Lieberman, walked off the court at halftime with a slim but convincing lead. Even so, the night belonged to the Soviets. After Lieberman and the 6'5" Inge Nissen fouled out late in the second half, the visitors surged ahead, winning by 10, despite a heroic effort by 6'8" Anne Donovan.
That game was emblematic of the distance the women's game had come since the days of six-player, three-zone basketball and represents the essence of Pamela Grundy's and Susan Shackelford's richly rewarding and informative Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women's Basketball (The New Press, $26.95). From its beginnings at Smith College in 1892, to Babe Didrikson's multi-sports successes in the 1920s and '30s (she once scored 106 points in a game), to those powerful African American teams at Tuskegee University in the 1940s, to Title IX, the women's liberation movement, and today's WNBA stars like Chamique Holdsclaw and Diana Taurasi, the growth -- in popularity and level of competition -- of women's basketball has been a significant gauge not only of women's sports but also of women's advancement in general. Despite such progress, as Grundy and Shackelford make clear, players and coaches "must contend with a culture that still links female athleticism with lesbianism, prompting ongoing suspicion and disdain." This is a sad note on which to end, but one the sport will undoubtedly weather.
If you're from anywhere but Alabama, Paul "Bear" Bryant is merely one of the greatest football coaches of all time. For Alabamians, Bryant is the only coach, and for good reason. Allen Barra, himself an Alabamian and a gifted writer, doesn't go quite that far, but his comprehensive and endearing biography, The Last Coach: A Life of Paul Bear Bryant (Norton, $26.95), substantiates the legend -- yes, he did once wrestle a bear -- without sidestepping some less pleasant issues, including racial segregation.
Bryant, who broke into college football coaching with a band of WWII veterans he recruited for the University of Maryland, retired in 1982 as the winningest coach in college-football history. His winning percentage during the era of limited substitution was the fifth-best ever.
Having grown up in poverty near an Arkansas crossroads called Moro Bottom, Bryant remained ever conscious of his roots. That awareness helped shape his uncommon civility and won him instant respect among many of his recruits and their families. Bryant served as mentor to many great coaches including Charlie McClendon, Sylvester Croom, Howard Schnellenberger and Jerry Claiborne. He also coached and helped mold a passel of stellar quarterbacks, among them Babe Parilli, Joe Namath and Ken Stabler.
As Barra notes, "Bear Bryant represented the last generation of college coaches who came of age when college football was football to America." Equally important, he was devoted to education. Less than a month after his final game, Bryant died of a heart attack in 1983. He was born to coach and to lead. He excelled at both. The Last Coach reaffirms those special accomplishments. *
Larry Moffi's next book, "The Conscience of the Game," will be published in 2006.