As biographies of political and military figures can give the reader an insight to the age in which they lived, so can stories about and written by athletic heroes.
The 1860s might have been the heart of the Victorian Age, but pristine morality was not demanded of the decade's heroes. "The Great Prize Fight," Alan Lloyd gives us more of a Greek tragedy than a Victorian novel. Ilis combatants, the bare-knuckle fighters Tom Sayers of Great Britain and John C. Heenan of Troy, N.Y., are participants in saloon brawls, have illicit dalliances with lewd actresses, are cuckolded and die young.
They gain their place in history by taking part in what boxing historians agree was one of the bloodiest and lengthy fights. Although the fight reached no decision, it marked a turning point in boxing: the realization that it was not only the British who could fight.
Heenan, who had become America's boxing king by beating another man of Troy, John Morrissey (later a politician and a founder of Saratoga race track), was married (perhaps) to actress Adah Isaacs Menken, whose "Naked Lady" performance made her the Linda Lovelace of the age in proper circles. Sayers may have been recast from Chaucer: his wife Sarah not only took up with another man, but blackmailed the fighter into acknowledging her subsequent illegitimate children as his legal heirs.
Boxing was illegal in those days. Lloyd's story of the preparations necessary for the great fight, in the British hamlet of Farnborough on an April morning in 1860, is absorbing. The conspiracy of the head of one of England's railway lines is instrumental in making it the most heavily attended fight to that date.
The fight was ugly, one combatant trading use of an arm for the other's eyes, and went on for 42 rounds until the local law was able to muster enough force to break throught the great throng.
Lloyd's writing is magnificent: his detail scrupulous. He has recreated not only a dramatic meeting of the two greates fighters of their age, but a backside view of an England whose parliamentarians could decry the evil of prize fighting, yet make certain they were among the first to receive word of the fight's outcome. CYCLONE TAYLOR.By Eric Whitehead. (Doubleday & Company, Inc. 205 pp. $7.95)
Contrary to the lives of Sayers and Heenan, that of hockey player Fred (Cyclone) Taylor was chaste and long. Taylor, 93, resides in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Few modern hockey fans have heard of Cyclone Taylor, although he was perhaps the greatest star of a hockey period in which his peers included brothers Les and Frank Patrick, brothers Odie and Sprague Cleghorn, the original (not the Washington Capital) Newsy Lalonde and the greatest badman of all, Mean Joe Hall.
Taylor played hockey before the present National Hockey League was born. His career spanned the years 1905-1921. He played for teams in Houghton, Mich; Toronto; Ottawa; Renfrew, Ontario, and Vancouver. He was the Ricky Barry of his time, jumping leagues and sitting out whole seasons in contract squabbles.
Taylor was also good enough to command $5,250 for 12 games with the Renfrew Millionaires at a time hockey teams consisted of as many amateur players as those being paid for their skills.
Eric Whitehead, a Vancouver sports columnist, tells a fine story and through the tale of Cyclone Taylor we get much of the early history of professional hockey: from the silver mines of J. Ambrose O'Brien who escalated the salary structure of teams forever; to the innovative minds of the Patricks brothers, whose father's money allowed them to form the Pacific Coast Hockey League, and the death from influenza of the mean one, Hall during the 1919 Stanley Cup challenge.
There are many gaps in the written history of ice hockey. This book helps fill one of them. PITCHING IN A PINCH. By Christy Mathewson. (Stein and Day, 30 pp.)
"Pitching in a Pinch" is not a new book. It was written in 1912 by the great Hall of Fame pitcher, but had been out of print for years until sportswriters Vic Ziegel and Neil Offen came across a copy in the New York Public Library and arranged to have it reissued.
What a delight!
Unlike most of his peers, Christy Mathewson was college-educated and well-read. He also was a student of baseball.
Mathewson discusses strategies, managers (for the Giants, he played for John McGraw), umpires, other players and himself. We soon discover what a different age it was when Mathewson was playing. Writing about hitters, he talks about "the man who is always thinking and quessing and waiting, trying to get the pitcher in the hole. Evers, of the Cubs, is that sort. They tell me that 'Ty' Cobb of Detroit is the most highly developed of this type of hitter. I have never seen him play."
Incredible, Mathewson, the finest pitcher of his age, and Cobb, the finest hitter of any age, and Christy had never seen Cobb play, although they had been contemporaries for the previous seven seasons. In this day of interleague exhibitions. All-Star Games and television it almost boggles the mind.
Mathewson gives insight to the MerI-le incident, that cost the Giants a pennant. He also shows his sense of humor by relating what must be the funniest umpire story of all time, although likely apocryphal.
With its reissue, "Pitching in a Pinch" should live on as one of baseball's classic books.