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Review: 'From Black Sox to Three-Peats' edited by Ron Rapoport

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"The papers in Chicago in those days were unlike any printed anywhere else," wrote the great Hugh Fullerton in 1928 for the Saturday Evening Post. "They were written largely in the language that the wild growing young city understood." On the evidence presented in "From Black Sox to Three-Peats: A Century of Chicago's Best Sports Writing," neither the writing nor the city has changed all that much.


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Ron Rapoport, a former Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist who served as a commentator for NPR's Weekend Edition for two decades and is no slouch at the typewriter himself, has assembled 100 years of gems from the Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Times, the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago American, Chicago Today, the Daily Southtown and other newspapers either dimly remembered or sadly forgotten.

This is a flip-page feast for sports fans, "from (the Sun-Times' Joe) Goddard's just-the-quotes-ma'am approach ... to the graceful prose of (the Tribune's Bob) Verdi (to) the take-no-prisoners pugnacity of (ESPN's Jay) Mariotti" — and three dozen more just as good.

Here's the previously mentioned Fullerton on Oct. 4, 1906, the day after the Cubs clinched the National League pennant while the White Sox took the American League flag: "Last night Chicago was baseball mad. The entire town talked baseball. Crowds stood cheering on corners at the mention of the game, everywhere there was rejoicing." For Chicago fans 107 years later, it seems like a fantasy.

There's Ring Lardner, the greatest of all American sportswriters, indulging in inspired nonsense that made readers laugh aloud on the "L" every morning. Here he compares shortstops on opposing teams: "Risberg is a Swede, but on the other hand Kopf hits from both sides of the plate. … Kopf is the better looking but Risberg is the tallest and if they ever try to drive a high line drive over his head they will get fooled."

Rapoport includes The Chicago Daily Tribune's Charles Dryden — called "the father of modern sportswriting" by the legendary sports editor Stanley Woodward — who coined the terms "pinch hit," "ballyard" and "horsehide." He also christened the 1906 White Sox "the Hitless Wonders."

Jerome Holtzman, who starred for both the Tribune and Sun-Times and was known as the dean of American sportswriters, is in there, too. He invented baseball's save rule and was appointed major league baseball's official historian after he retired from newspapers.

Some cities can boast of more winners, but no town ever had more good people to write about than Chicago. What writers, what characters, what moments!

Bill Veeck, the most eccentric and creative owner any baseball team ever had, rips a $100 bill received from New York saloon owner Toots Shor and drops the pieces into Shor's drink. Ernie Banks tells the Tribune's David Condon, "I can't be certain I won't be traded some day." To which Condon replies, "Well, Phil Wrigley will be selling Dentyne at the corner cigar store before Banks is traded from the Cubs."

Lou Novikoff, "The Mad Russian," a decent hitter for the Cubs during the war years, thought the ivy on the Wrigley Field walls was poisonous. He once tried to steal third base with the bases loaded because "I got such a good jump on the pitcher." Steve Bartman, the fan who knocked the ball away from Moises Alou in game 6 of the National League championship series against the Marlins, makes an immortal statement: "I do not have a statement at this time. I have no comment. No comment. No comment. No comment. No comment." Nor, wrote the Tribune's John Kass, did he need one: "Bartman didn't tense up on the mound and hang curveballs for smacking. Mark Prior did."

More than any volume of sportswriting I've ever seen, "From Black Sox to Three-Peats" serves as a cutaway view of the evolution of sportswriting. Rapoport doesn't just herald the past but brings us into the present. As the game story disappeared — viewers in the TV and Internet age no longer depended on writers to tell them what had happened — the best writers "responded to the new reality by working more player profiles, opinions, attention-getting phrase making, and whatever rhetorical devices they could muster into their articles." Sportswriting "started coming to terms with the fact that its heroes are not always what they seem to be and that even those athletes who are altogether admirable have demons to confront."

Scottie Pippen, wrote the Tribune's Sam Smith in 2004, was the antithesis of Michael Jordan: "Pippen didn't smile much and often didn't say the right thing. That's why his return wasn't exactly hailed here, and when he couldn't perform, many were quick to reject him again. … But on the court, Pippen brought up the ball so Jordan could get his scoring place on the wing. Pippen defended big scorers so Jordan could roam the lanes and turn steals into breakaway layups."

Jeannie Morris started out writing for Chicago Today with the byline "Mrs. Johnny Morris." Morris, the former wife of the Chicago Bears receiver, went on to win 11 Emmys for CBS Sports in Chicago. She gave America some new sports heroes in February 1972: the girls and women of the U.S. Winter Olympics team whom she described as "(t)he lovely young women in Sapporo … crystals on the top of an iceberg." Perhaps Richard Nixon had her column in mind later that year when he signed Title IX.

And John Schulian, whose successful career in television obscured the fact that he is one of our best sportswriters, penned "K town," an eloquent tribute to heroes who never were: Skip Dillard and Bernard Randolph, the schoolyard legends of Kedvale and Keeler streets who respectively succumbed to cocaine and mental illness.

There's so much good writing in "From Black Sox to Three-Peats" that Rapoport can ask, "Had we lived in a golden age of sportswriting and not been paying attention?" If so, it was not just a golden age of sportswriting but of athletes and fans as well. As former middleweight champ Rocky Graziano told Schulian of a match in which he realized he'd been declared winner by technical knockout, "I like Chicago. They trut me good."

Chicago trut us all good, Rocky.

Allen Barra is a former sportswriter for the Chicago Reader. His latest book is "Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age."

"From Black Sox to Three-Peats"

Edited by Ron Rapoport, University of Chicago, 312 pages, $18

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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