• University of Chicago Press

Ron Rapoport, a former Sun-Times sports columnist, has just published a book with a title that doesn’t know when to quit: From Black Sox to Three-Peats: A Century of Chicago’s Best Sportswriting, From the Tribune, Sun-Times, & Other Newspapers. Rapoport’s editor at the University of Chicago Press would have served the book well if he’d broken out his red pencil and reduced the title to A Century of Great Chicago Sportswriting. In addition to being too long, the title’s misleading: the stories Rapoport has chosen date from 1906 (the year the Cubs and Sox both won pennants, 13 years before the Black Sox) to 2011 (which was 13 years beyond the final championship of the Bulls’ second three-peat).

The best? Not necessarily. The writing’s consistently strong; but when read against the claim Rapoport makes for them, some stories here try a little too hard to be special, and a few don’t try hard enough. Rapoport wants his choices to double as a history of professional sports in Chicago, and he fills the occasional hole with some journeyman journalism.

That said, the book is full of pleasures. I want to go back to some passages I marked as I read A Century and share what I was thinking when I marked them.

In his introduction, Rapoport argues that early in the 20th century, Charles Dryden and Ring Lardner introduced a new kind of sportswriting to Chicago. It quickly spread: “Nor did it take long for New York and the rest of the country to catch up with the Chicago writers who were making sports and the men who played them seem like so much fun.” I wrote in the margin, “Who’s having fun today?” Bernie Lincicome (three of his pieces are in the book) used to write sports columns that treated his beat as a joke that he was in on, but the Tribune ran him off in 2000. And yet what is the preposterous A-Rod if not someone very, very silly?

  • Courtesy of the author
  • Ron Rapoport

Dryden and Lardner are both represented. Lardner’s timeless, but even though he once said of Dryden, “He makes me look like a novice” as a humorist, Dryden struck me as simply archaic. But that’s OK. Rapoport offers Dryden’s account of the fifth game of the 1918 World Series, the Red Sox beating the Cubs 1-0. “The Cubs were so keenly organized to prevent Babe Ruth from knocking any homers they forgot to score any runs for themselves,” Dryden tells us. And that’s the fascinating thing about his game story: when it was written Ruth was still a Red Sox and still a pitcher—he threw the shutout!—but already feared for his bat.

And what about this: “Baseball needed an opportunity to show it was not in a state of decadence.” That’s the Tribune‘s Arch Ward in a 1933 column sharing the arguments that persuaded the Major Leagues to introduce an all-star game. It’s not clear what decadence entailed in that long-gone era, but it’s nice to know the guardians of baseball’s honor have worried about it forever. Ward did write that the first all-star game answered “oft-repeated statements that major league baseball is a stenciled, unvarying procedure that shuns extraneous innovation.” Was that recalcitrance Ward’s idea of decadence? Maybe Ward’s all-star innovation allowed the Big Leagues to enjoy another several years of self-satisfied inaction before they integrated. And having taken that grand step, columns by Wendell Smith remind us, the teams let several more years go by before recognizing an obligation to room their black players in the same hotels as their white players in the south.

There was a way of writing in the early 70s that still had a lot of Hemingway in it, though it was probably Hemingway one or two literary influences removed. In 1971 Bob Greene wrote about a billiards tournament for the Sun-Times. It was held in a “fancy downtown hotel.” His focus was Luther Lassiter, a poolroom lifer drawn out of his dingy native habitat by the prize money.

“It was not until the first round of men’s competition had begun that Lassiter went downstairs,” Greene writes. “He took a look into the main room. A young guy named Pete Margo was winning his match. Margo was wearing two-toned shoes with raised heels, a dark blue shirt with a white tie, and a wide-lapeled windowpane-pattern jacket. Lassiter took one look and went over to the warm-up room.”

Is this an honest paragraph? Was Lassiter’s “one look” at Margo’s getup—or did he just want to see what stage the match was at, or maybe glance at the clock? It doesn’t matter to me. Greene’s in charge here. He has an effect to create, and he creates it, by inference and in next to no words. When I was young at the Sun-Times and Greene was even younger, he could be so good it was frightening. I’m reminded.

Here’s Sam Smith describing the Bulls’ first championship of their first three-peat:

Championship hats and T-shirts were distributed. June Jackson looked for husband, Phil; Donna Grant for husband Horace. Everyone screamed and hugged.

Champions! . . .

For a long time, Jordan sat along one of the long benches in the visitors’ locker room. In many ways, it was his party.

He hid his head in the arms of his wife for a long time after receiving the MVP trophy and cried.

And on the facing page of Rapoport’s book, Melissa Isaacson is visiting Michael Jordan in Birmingham, Alabama, three years later. Jordan is now a minor-league baseball player.

And then there are the days, he said, like the one recently when “I cried all day long.”

It was in another faceless hotel, on another minor-league road trip, on another rainy day good for nothing but watching cable movies, and that was exactly what Jordan was doing.

“It was a Wesley Snipes movie,” he said. “And at the end, his father died. The room was dark and I was lying on the bed and I guess it hit the right buttons because all of a sudden, I couldn’t stop crying. I talked to my wife. I called everyone I knew. And I still couldn’t stop crying. I never had a day in my life that I felt that sad.”

But life goes on. The heights and depths are left behind. And where have they gone, the wives who shared them?