To put worst things first, the physical presentation of this selection of pieces from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED does not seem to me to do the magazine justice—the reproduction of black and white photographs, for example, is poor. But there is good news. Like the admirable Fireside Books of football, baseball, tennis, etc., The Best of Sports Illustrated: I ( Little, Brown and Company, $12.50) proves again that superb writing can come of the games people play. Sportswriting has been an authentic art for quite a long while, going back in modern times to such stylists as William Hazlitt (on the death of a wizard fives player), or Izaak Walton, who knew about fishing, and proceeding to some marvelous reporting by, among others, Westbrook Pegler, A. J. Liebling, John Lardner, Red Smith, W. C. Heinz and Joe Palmer—whose horse racing stuff showed more than a touch of the poet. All the same, sportswriting used to be, for the most part, pure hackwork, and I feel that the fact that it eventually improved was due, certainly in part, to the influence of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. At its best the magazine has served as a model for something far superior even to first-rate sportswriting. This is first-rate writing about people who play sports, and, as has been observed, all good writing is about people.
In one way or another all the pieces in this anthology are about people. All sorts of people. People who strike one as driven by demons, like Frank Deford's female Jockey Robyn Smith, or who come across as thoroughly likable and forthright, as does his golden boy, Pete Dawkins. People as violent as William F. Reed's University of Minnesota basketball players and others as violent and fanatical as the killers in Jerry Kirshenbaum's and Kenny Moore's accounts of the tragedy at Munich. People as indestructible as Hazel Wightman, Author Melvin Maddocks' original little old lady in tennis shoes and others as sad and evocative as William Johnson's aging Olympians, or those obsessed by the inconsequential, as are the men in Ron Fimrite's piece on trivia. Finally there is Tex Maule's irresistibly readable article about his massive heart attack, an excerpt from his Running Scarred, to me the most disgracefully neglected book of 1972.
But it is not enough to let it go with the judgment that there is writing of an awfully high order in The Best of Sports Illustrated. There is also the sense of discovery in coming upon a Kenny Moore, the Olympic marathon runner who, as it turns out, writes like a dream. And there is the fact that, preposterously enough, some of these pieces were done under the pressure of imminent deadlines. Remarkable.