During the summer of 1913 the Chicago Record-Herald, somewhat alarmed by the extravagant fancy of its baseball reporters, asked its readers if they would prefer a return to plain English. Such of them as were literate enough to send in their votes were almost unanimously against a change. As one of them said, “one is nearer the park when Schulte slams the pill than when he merely hits the ball”.
- HL Mencken, The American Language (1921)
England doesn’t really have a sportswriting tradition. Of course, that’s not to say that it doesn’t have a truly great tradition of writers writing about sport – but there really isn’t such a thing as an English sportswriter. Neville Cardus wrote on opera as well as cricket; Nick Hornby publishes marvellous books that aren’t about football as well as marvellous ones that are; Hugh McIlvanney would have been a great writer even if he’d never set foot in Rugby Park or the 20th May Stadium.
What, then, differentiates the sportswriter from the writer who writes on sport? Well, looking like this helps, but it isn’t strictly necessary. A sportswriter, for me, has to live and breathe the smoke, sweat and slang of his place of work – and, for me, that place of work is always the locker-room, the racetrack, the ballpark, or the boxing-ring, because, for me, the sportswriter is almost always an American.
Take Damon Runyon, for years the familiar spirit of the Polo Fields and Madison Square Gardens. Or Ring Lardner, whose baseball yarns for the Saturday Evening Post seem to reek of the bleachers and the bullpen even if you don’t know a swing from a bunt from a hole in the ground. Or the great Red Smith, whose approach to sportswriting was to “get to where the cabbage is cooking and smell the scents”.
The words are the thing: the words make the game, and in return the game makes the words.
Even when the sportswriter comes with a college degree or a Pulitzer prize attached, the focus seems still to be on the words that bubble up from the soul of the sport: see the relish with which George Plimpton recited the “splendid variety” of nicknames adopted by golf caddies (“Cut Shot, Violence, Texas Sam, the Wolfman, the Rabbit…”), or Norman Mailer’s willingness to play the role of amenuensis to Ali’s illiterate-but-gobby cornerman Bundini Brown in The Fight.
English writing on sport has traditionally adopted one of two distinct approaches. If it’s front-line, phoned-in-at-the-whistle reportage, you can expect a stultifying bodge-job of cliché and banality. If, on the other hand, it’s highbrow copy for the quality press, you’ll have to wait – till the next Sunday supplement or issue of Sports Illustrated, maybe, or till the William Hill shortlist shows you the way; it’s writing designed for leisurely digestion over the breakfast egg or chin-stroking rumination amid tactics chalkboards and old Subbuteo sets. Where are the English sportswriters who can spit out stories as punchy and pungent as tobacco-juice? – the guys (and dolls) who, in AJ Liebling’s phrase, can write better than anyone who can write faster, and faster than anyone who can write better?
Well, maybe they’re right here – online. Minute-by-minute reportage by the likes of Cricinfo, the BBC and, oh okay then, the Guardian has brought an immediacy to the written sports report that outstrips the rattling typewriters of even the most deadline-crazed old-school pressroom. And it’s here that we find hoicks and nurdles, flays and funks, slugfests and gamefaces – here, just like on the pitch or in the ring, spontaneity takes precedence over pontificating, and the language is as lively as the onfield action.
Half the time, I don’t give a damn whether a sportswriter knows his stuff or not; half the time, all that matters is that he talks the talk. The poet Carl Sandburg said that slang was “a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work”. True enough – but it’s also a language that more than earns its corn when it just pulls on a fedora, lights up a cigar and goes out to play.