by Jim Dent/Thomas Dunne Books, $24.95
There's little question that the Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s left Oklahoma with a soiled image. The rest of the country—Californians in particular—viewed Oklahoma's fleeing inhabitants, the so-called Okies, as barefoot primitives on the order of Steinbeck's beleaguered Joads in The Grapes of Wrath.
Several events conspired to alter that depiction. First, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the breakthrough Broadway musical that, starting in 1943, extolled the virtues of a state where "the corn is as high as an elephant's eye." Next, in '51, a muscular young Oklahoman named Mickey Mantle joined the New York Yankees and began hitting baseballs out of sight. Finally, Oklahoma's football team began obliterating the opposition, winning 47 games in a row over five seasons, from 1953 to '57.
The last of these restorative occurrences is the principal (but not the only) subject of Dent's book. The Sooners' streak didn't happen by accident. The deep pockets of filthy-rich oilmen, rules be damned, financed it. Dent gleefully captures these backroom shenanigans, while conveying the mounting excitement of the victory run. Along the way, he delivers compelling portraits of the tough and wild farmboy players who kept the wins coming. Dent, a Texan, knows the type, and he speaks the language.
The book's true protagonist, though, is Sooners coach Bud Wilkinson, a man who, on the surface at least, was a paragon of virtues. However, as Dent so entertainingly reveals, Wilkinson had another side to him. The churchgoing family man could booze with the hardiest of his oilman benefactors. Plus, he may have been the state's most prolific and proficient womanizer. It was not only his coaching acumen, then, that inspired awe among those privileged to glimpse the swinger inside the saint.
Wilkinson was certainly a winner. So is this book.
by L. Jon Wertheim/ Harper Collins, $25
"Please, we are not tennis players," says Anna Kournikova of the members of the women's tour. "We are stars."
That's the central issue in this book: An athlete should be judged on her ability, but a star may be judged on other criteria—on her personality, on her clothes, even on her sex appeal. The question facing nearly every woman on the tour is: Do you want to be a star like Kournikova, who bragged to a newspaper that "my breasts are really good because they don't sag"? Or would you be satisfied to be like Lindsay Davenport, who, according to Wertheim, "takes to putting on makeup the way cats take to baths?"
The triumph of feminism is that women can choose for themselves, but it's not that simple in tennis, because many female pros are young and screwed-up. Wertheim, an SI senior writer, offers an examination of this subject (while he also provides a festival of gossip). It's astonishing, for example, how many players have difficulty with their dads.