Editor’s Note: The Grantland Sports Book Hall of Fame periodically highlights great sports writing, from canonical works to forgotten classics. Bill Simmons, Chuck Klosterman, Jane Leavy and Michael Weinreb kick the series off today with short reflections on four of their favorites.
The Game, Ken Dryden, 1983
by Bill Simmons
I believe Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever, and I can prove it. I believe The Breaks of the Game is the greatest sports book ever, but I can’t prove it. Books can’t be measured that way — they hit everyone differently, so when we’re evaluating them, we can only say, “You can’t mention the greatest books (or albums, paintings, TV shows, movies or whatever) without mentioning that one.” That’s as far as you can go.
So how can you explain the fact that Ken Dryden’s The Game has been holding the “Greatest Hockey Book Ever Written” title for 28 years and counting? It’s an undisputed title. Nobody would ever argue for another hockey book. Shit, what would you even bring up? Other consensus candidates might be George Plimpton’s Open Net (George playing goalie for the Bruins), Russ Conway’s Game Misconduct (a comprehensive takedown of Alan Eagleson, one of the most corrupt sports figures ever), Ed Willes’ The Rebel League (a fairly entertaining history of the WHA)1, Roy MacGregor’s The Last Season (a novel) and Gare Joyce’s Future Greats and Heartbreaks (a year with NHL scouts). The distance between The Game and those next five choices can’t even be calculated — it would be like quantifying Michael Phelps’ place in swimming history if Mark Spitz never existed.
Dryden was one of the more unusual professional athletes who ever lived. The Canadiens called up the 6-foot-4 goalie late in the 1970-71 regular season, threw him between the pipes in Round 1 against the Big Bad Bruins — only the greatest offensive juggernaut ever assembled to that point — and Dryden improbably shut them down, becoming the first and only goalie to win a Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe before he won the Calder Cup Trophy (which he took the following season). He played only seven more seasons, winning five Vezinas and another five Stanley Cups. Halfway through his career, he missed an entire year to finish law school (and because Montreal’s contract offer had insulted him), drawing the ire of Montreal fans and making history because, I mean, how many times does the best athlete at his position take a year off in his prime to finish law school? He finished with the ninth-best goals-against average ever (2.23); once you adjust that for the eras, he’s first (2.02). He notched nearly as many career shutouts (46) as losses (57), retiring from hockey at just 31 years old … and over the next 30 years, he announced three Winter Olympics with Al Michaels (including the “Do You Believe In Miracles?” game), became president of the Maple Leafs, served seven years in the Canadian Parliament and, oh yeah, wrote one of the greatest sports books ever.
The Game covers Dryden’s last season (1978-79), when an aging Canadiens team held on for one last Cup.2 Dryden writes in the present tense, recounting the events of that season while describing everything you ever wanted to know about playing goalie, dissecting his teammates and how they blended together, pontificating about the role of violence in the NHL (and the league’s occasional hypocrisy policing it) and describing why hockey means so much to Canadians. The writing is so good, so detailed, so intense, so thoughtful … you can’t even believe it’s coming from a professional athlete, much less one of the finest at his particular position. Only Bill Bradley’s Life On The Run compares, but Dryden’s team (and conceit) was a little more interesting. He brings that particular Canadiens squad to life.
My favorite parts of the book: Dryden explaining Bobby Orr’s game-to-game impact in two pages better than anyone could in 500; his appreciation for playing in the Boston Garden, which Dryden describes as “too cramped and bruising for pretty plays, too gut-involving, it’s a game of players, no skills, and without such distractions, a game where you see people, unguarded and exposed, and come away thinking you know them”; the way he discusses his own mortality, how he carries with him “the fear of the one big injury that never comes” and constantly thinks, “I’ve lasted this long; please let me get out in one piece”; his appreciation for the dynamics of a hockey locker room, how important respect and humor are, how he’s always the last to get every joke and doesn’t quite fit in; his sincere appreciation for role players like Rejean Houle and Bob Gainey (as Dryden explains, “what’s good for Bob Gainey is good for the team; and vice-versa”); his profiles of Scotty Bowman, Larry Robinson and Guy Lafleur, which really could have run as their own essays; his conflicted feelings about rising salaries and the business of hockey, how underpaid stars feel obligated to fight for as much money as possible while knowing they’re grossly overpaid compared to normal people (a candid admission for its time); and what it feels like to sit in a locker room before a big game, your heart pounding, knowing there’s a chance you might screw things up for 22 other guys you love.
It’s an amazing book, and I didn’t even mention Pages 4 and 5 or 242 and 243, in which Dryden explains (in perfect detail) the emotional rigors of staying motivated after you’ve won enough times that you shouldn’t really be motivated anymore.
“Winning brings with it such an immense momentum,” Dryden writes. “Everything fits, everything works. Every new thing is made to fit and work. Everything just is. Reasons blur and disappear. It becomes a state of mind, an obligation, an expectation; in the end, an attitude. Excellence. It’s that rare chance to play with the best, to be the best. When you have it, you don’t want to give it up … but it’s a state of mind that can get tired. When you win as often as we do, you earn the right to lose. It’s losing to remember what winning feels like. But it’s a game of chicken. If you let it go too far, you might never get it back.”
The entire book is crammed with nuggets like that. I read it every few years because I write about sports for a living; I love the way it’s written, but also, the book makes me reconsider what I’m watching right now. What makes a player great? What makes a team come together or fall apart? Why can’t teams win one title and just keep winning? There’s a game within the game, and really, I think that’s why Dryden called his book The Game. When you measure the distance between The Game and every other hockey book … well, maybe this was the greatest sports book ever.
A Season on the Brink, John Feinstein, 1986
by Chuck Klosterman
There are countless ways to write about sports, but most nonbiographies found in that ghettoized section of your local Barnes & Noble tend to embrace one of two tracts: They either turn their subject into a metaphor for something vast and unrelated to the outcomes of relatively meaningless games (the strongest examples being Friday Night Lights and the more recent Scoreboard, Baby), or they attempt to expose how things “really” are behind dead-bolted locker room doors (Jim Bouton’s Ball Four being the genre’s progenitor and Jeff Pearlman’s Boys Will Be Boys serving as the most entertaining contemporary offering). The first category is more respected, because those books skew literary — since the writer uses sport only as a vehicle for larger ideas, the reader doesn’t need to know (or even care) who lost the 1919 World Series. Yet it’s the second class of manuscript that sports obsessives enjoy more, often for prurient reasons: They thrive on gossip, they don’t appeal to the casual fan, and they demystify nonfictional characters who previously seemed unreal. And no sports book has ever done this as successfully as John Feinstein’s A Season on the Brink.
There are stretches of A Season on the Brink that remain so vivid in my mind that I recall them without even trying, which might be less a validation of the work and more a product of what happens when you read the same book four times in one year (I once finished the last page and immediately started rereading the book from chapter 7, almost as if this were a normal way to consume anything). It now feels odd that I have such intimate knowledge about a team that went 21-8 and lost to Cleveland State in the first round of the NCAA tournament, but Feinstein’s details remain so rich and evocative and timeless: The fact that Bob Knight put tampons in power forward Daryl Thomas’ locker (and the fact that this somehow motivated Thomas to play harder) tells you everything you need to know about that relationship (and about the psychology of the two men involved).
These days, it seems like everyone knows a little too much about Knight, but that was not the case in 1987 — we knew he assaulted Puerto Rican cops and chucked folding chairs and forced his players to go to class, but we did not know how his (brilliant, diabolical, contradictory) mind actually worked. A Season on the Brink showed us. Early in the text, the NCAA suspends junior guard Steve Alford for one nonconference game after his photograph appears in a charity calendar (the charity raised money for handicapped girls who wanted to attend summer camp). It was a crazy, inappropriate penalty that Knight (and pretty much all of America) disagreed with, and the Hoosiers ended up losing the game Alford missed to Kentucky, 63-58. Yet this was how Knight showed his support at practice, three days later: “Alford, you really cost us that game on Saturday and I want you to know I really resent it. I can’t forget it. I’m just out of patience with you. … This is a habit with you. You don’t listen, whether it’s defense or playing hard or this. I don’t know about anyone else in here but I resent it and it pisses me off. Because of you we lost to a chickenshit operation. I won’t forget that.”
More than three weeks later, this was still totally true. “I want to tell you just how mad I was after that Kentucky game,” Knight inexplicably tells Alford after throwing him out of practice for disobeying his authority. And what had Alford done to deserve this expulsion? He had looked at Knight3 while being screamed at.
It should be noted that Alford was Knight’s most beloved player.
Typically, the problem with expository, insidery sports books is that no one knows how much the information can be believed, especially once detractors start dredging up inconsistencies and errors (Peter Golenbock’s similarly immersive Personal Fouls comes to mind). That’s not the case with A Season on the Brink — when Alford published his own book a few years later (1990’s Playing for Knight), he explicitly validated4 the whole enterprise. But Alford’s confirmation seemed unnecessary; somehow, you can tell this book is real simply by the unbiased specificity of the reporting. Though Feinstein is now regularly criticized for his outsized ego, he’s detached and objective within the depiction of this narrative (you sense he likes and respects Knight, but he does not paint him positively or recontextualize his failings). When Feinstein describes the menu for the Hoosiers pregame meal, he mentions how everybody on the team gets vanilla ice cream for dessert, except for Knight — he always gets butter pecan. I’m sure Feinstein was tempted to tell us what that type of minor hypocrisy means symbolically, but he does not. He just states that this is how it was, and that’s all we need to know.
Ball Four, Jim Bouton, 1970
by Jane Leavy
Writing Ball Four was an act of sedition. It made Jim Bouton a heretic and sports literature what it is today. Without Ball Four there is no Semi-Tough or North Dallas Forty. There’s no Bronx Zoo for Sparky Lyle to inhabit or Open for Andre Agassi to be. Without Ball Four there is no Deadspin or Grantland.
Ball Four is quite simply the most important sports book ever written. That’s why it was included in the New York City Public Library’s list of the greatest books of the century — along with Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, The Great Gatsby, and The Cat in the Hat. It has been translated into Japanese and, Bouton says, “locker room — if you count that as a language.” Which I do.
When Bouton’s insurrectionist diary of an aging knuckleballer was published in 1970, the United States was still bogged down in Vietnamese rice paddies and Mickey Mantle was two years removed from pinstriped active duty. When people thought of Mantle, they still thought of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, he told me. Bouton exposed Mantle and company as hard-drinking, greenie-popping, “beaver shooting” peeping toms who spoke a whole different language than the scrubbed-behind-the-ears ballplayer-speak that appeared in PR releases and daily game stories. He exposed general managers as cheap bastards, team docs devoted to their employers, and players who would do anything, or take anything to make them better — pitchers who’d trade five years of their lives for a 20-win season.
In a way, the publication of Ball Four in the overheated summer of 1970 was like Richard Nixon’s visit to China two years later. Nixon had the cold warrior bona fides to open trade with the Red Menace; Bouton had the insider cred to open our eyes to America’s clubhouses. The Bulldog, who threw righty but leans left, may not appreciate the analogy but he is one of the only ballplayers I know who recognizes a simile.
If I owe my literary career to Bouton — the license to tell the truth about Mantle in my biography of The Mick — Bouton owes Jim Brosnan big time. The publication of Brosnan’s account of The Long Season was as incendiary in 1960 as Ball Four was a decade later. But Brosnan wasn’t writing about the New York Yankees.
Bouton was 21 when The Long Season was published. It made a lasting impression. “Whenever he quoted a player I could imagine myself being in that dugout or bullpen,” Bouton told me. “I said if I ever write a book I’m going to listen to what people actually say and write it down. All my notes are quotes with dates. Without my quotes there is no Ball Four.”
That language — “quoting people the way they really talk,” as my mentor Red Smith put it — is what made Ball Four more than a collection of amusing and occasionally titillating anecdotes. The syntax made the substance irrefutable.
What’s interesting about rereading Ball Four 40 years later is how demure it is. By today’s standards it is positively Victorian. The infamous “beaver shooting” revelations — pages 40 -42 in my large print edition — constitute 10 paragraphs in a 406-page book. And, as Bouton says, “ninety percent of it is about the Seattle Pilots” and an old junkballer’s realization — in the very last line — “you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”
Bouton was too much in love with the game to realize the consequences of his actions until later — “if you say Mickey Mantle hit a home run with a hangover that’s what your book is about.”
The public evinced hand-wringing shock — as if it had never crossed anyone’s mind that the Bombers might be Bad Boys. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn demanded a retraction. Dick Young, the pontifical sports columnist for the New York Daily News, called him a “social leper.” Bouton became a non-person whose name Elston Howard’s wife would not utter 40 years later, referring to him as “a person who’s such a dog I hate to mention his name in the same breath as Mickey.”
When Mantle’s son, Billy, died in 1994 of a heart attack exacerbated by his long battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Bouton sent a condolence note and took the opportunity to say, “I hope you’re feeling OK about Ball Four.”
One day soon after, Bouton came home to find Mantle’s familiar twang on his answering machine. Mantle thanked him for his letter and assured him that he was not responsible for the Bulldog’s banishment from Old Timer’s Day. “To have him effectively forgive me, tell me, ‘It’s OK,’ — it’s just a wonderful thing for him to do,” Bouton told me. “On some level he didn’t want me to carry that.”
Three years after Mantle’s death in August 1995, after the death of Bouton’s daughter in a car accident, a father’s day story appeared in the New York Times under the headline: “For Bouton, Let Bygones Be Bygones.” It was written by his son Michael.
After 28 years of exile, Bouton was invited back to the Stadium and introduced on the field 10 days later at Old Timer’s Day. He still has the tape-recorded message. He has never let anyone hear it. He is saving it for his grandchildren.
Veeck — As In Wreck: The Autobiography of Bill Veeck, Bill Veeck with Ed Linn, 1962
by Michael Weinreb
Twenty-five years after his death, Bill Veeck is still the most radical thinker baseball has ever seen. This is evident from the very first page of his autobiography, Veeck — As In Wreck, which opens — as it should — with the scene of a 3-foot, 7-inch pinch hitter named Eddie Gaedel digging into home plate for the St. Louis Browns in 1951. Gaedel’s four-pitch walk (the lone at-bat of his career) was Veeck’s crowning achievement; it is one of those rare moments in baseball history when whimsy trumped traditionalism. It’s no coincidence that Veeck was responsible for nearly every other such moment, as well.
In his three decades as a team owner, Veeck championed postgame fireworks and interleague play and signed the second African-American player in baseball history; he introduced the practice of sewing names on the back of players’ jerseys so the fans knew who was who, and he once let the crowd manage a game from the grandstands through majority vote by placard; he showcased a flame-eating pelican, built an exploding scoreboard, planted the first ivy on the walls at Wrigley Field, launched the career of Max Patkin (the most famous clown in baseball history), and gave away every imaginable form of animal, vegetable, and mineral, usually in unhealthy quantities. He so adored incongruity that he had 10,000 cupcakes delivered to a woman’s home just to see what would happen. He loved little people so much that he employed them in every imaginable way, dressing them up like Martians and hiring a fleet of them (including Eddie Gaedel) as vendors.5 “One of my own unfulfilled ambitions is to start a game with an entire team of midgets,” Veeck writes, “and let them go a couple of times around the batting order, walking endlessly.”
I was fortunate enough to come across Veeck — As In Wreck in my mid-20s, at an age when I was covering major league baseball in Cleveland on a semi-regular basis, an oft-unpleasant vocation that involved tiptoeing past Albert Belle’s locker just to watch Manny Ramirez mumble and shrug. Veeck — As In Wreck is the greatest book ever written by the owner of a professional sports team, but it’s far more than that. It is by turns a love letter to baseball, a guide to avant-garde marketing practices, and an anti-authoritarian screed.6 Veeck was far too goofy for sports management, let alone for an uptight racket like baseball. He once tried to buy the Ringling Brothers circus, which would have made far more sense. Instead, he spent his career baiting Ford Frick and the New York Yankees, giving away live squabs and a 200-pound cake of ice, and championing populism in a sport that wanted nothing to do with it.
He hated wearing ties, and so he didn’t. He read five books a week, feared sleeping because he thought he might miss something exciting, drank beer profusely but seemed never to get plastered, and tapped his cigarette into an ashtray he fashioned out of his wooden leg (he lost the original as a Marine in World War II). He was perpetually broke. He sat in the front seat of taxicabs to interact with the driver, frequented neighborhood taverns to gauge the public mood, and toured the rural Midwest to speak at local Kiwanis clubs and implore their members to buy season tickets.
In 1944, Veeck attempted to purchase the Philadelphia Phillies and stock the entire team with Negro League players. With this, as with many of his most radical ideas, he was far ahead of his time.7 “… it seems that all my life I have been fighting against the status quo, against the tyranny of the fossilized majority rule,” he writes, and this is why the greatest character in baseball history is often overlooked by its power brokers: He did not belong to their church. He loved the game, but he did not buy into the Ray Kinsella mawkishness that weighs down its mythology. Nor did he adopt the imperious attitude that baseball enjoyed some “divine protection” from market forces. When Veeck wrote his book in 1962, he predicted that baseball would be surpassed as America’s pastime if it couldn’t adapt.
And so he didn’t side with the fundamentalists who regarded (and still regard) the intermingling of leagues before October with pious horror. He believed that the only responsibility of the powers-that-be was to put on the best show imaginable, and if that called for explosions and cupcakes and clowns and pelicans, then this peg-legged vulgarian would throw the best damn circus they’d ever seen.