Monday, December 8, 2008

Talking the talk - Ringo37

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 clichĂ© 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.


Mouth of the Mersey said...

Yes - exactly! And beautifully put, if I may say so.

I'd just add Roger Angell's baseball stuff in the New Yorker and Anthony Lane (English!) in the same place when he writes on sport.

On Sunday I found this - It's all (yes all) the Sports Illustrated stuff ever printed!!

I've already printed some stuff about Ali and Bruce McClaren and this is blindingly good -

guitou said...

The one and only, Jim Murray-
This guy could write about any sport in the most entertaining fashion, he could make you laugh even if i was about you team losing a game-His column in the Los Angeles time was never replaced since he left us ten years ago-For many he was the best America's sportswriter ever-

mac millings said...

Terrific work - a piece about great writing, beautifully written.

Nothing more to add - not capable.

Thanks, Ringo!

ringo37 said...

Mouth: oh okay, you may say so. Thanks - and great links, too (I'm a bit hazy on New Yorker writers post-1920s...).

Mac: thanks a lot - I appreciate it.

mac millings said...

Actually, do have something to say. Still love the writing, but not sure I agree with the sentiment.

A direct comparison is made between English and American writers who weren't purely sportswriters, and you favour the Americans, but I'm not convinced that Mailer's words "bubble up from the soul of the sport" any more than, say, those of Cardus (or RC Robertson-Glasgow, or others). Mailer wrote a lot on boxing, which allowed him to use tough guy prose, but good sports writing doesn't have to get off on hanging out with hard men. Just because Cardus probably saw more pipe tobacco than the chewing kind doesn't mean his work lacked flavour.

Further, I struggle to think of any online US sportswriter, the force of whose writing compels me to return to his column week after week (Angell doesn't count for the purposes of this article, Mouth - much as I love the New Yorker, it's strictly writing of the "chin-stroking" variety).

Not that there are many compelling UK e-writers, either. The "flays", "funks" and "gamefaces", if I'm not mistaken, are Scott Murray-isms, and he's certainly the web-writer at The Guardian who has the most distinctive voice (apologies if, as a relative newcomer, I've missed the possibility that those phrases are someone else's, or common currency in British sportswriting). The writers there are decent on the whole, but he's the best (honourable mention to Rob Smyth, and I like Andy Bull's attitude).

Now it may well be true that British sportswriters don't usually have the access to the locker room that their American counterparts enjoy - however, I think the matey trust that seemed to exist between Mailer, Plimpton, and the sporting stars of their time will never be seen again. That locker room access these days merely gives modern journalists the chance to record the sound bites of media-trained sportsmen, or the conceits of the egotistical - the days of the sportswriter-celebrity are over.

ringo37 said...

Mac -

I suppose I could have said that, to me, the sportswriter is almost always American... and dead.

Maybe this is more of a nostalgia piece than I realised: a celebration of a Runyonesque archetype that is no more.

A disclaimer: I can't stand Mailer, and I wouldn't consider him a sportswriter of much merit - what I was trying to suggest was that, even where American sportswriting is generated from without its traditional territories, the language of the locker-room still matters (and, in this case, I meant that it was Bundini's words, not Mailer's, that bubbled up").

And the bit about online coverage was written as much in hope as in conviction (though the OBO fellers do always do themselves proud on the sport-spiel front).

Oh, and I'd like to add an honourable mention for Kevin Mitchell, whose reports on boxing are fast becoming a lone repository for the good old-fashioned "fight game" speak (his latest:

Mouth of the Mersey said...

I've never read Mailer nor Hemingway, but one of my ex-students wrote this which I posted here to a very good reception.

I know this sounds irredeemably naff, but Harry Potter 4's opening scenes are set at the Quidditch World Cup. They are very well written indeed.

bluedaddy said...

This is quite superb.

Was it a Big Blogger entry or are we graced with an original here? If it was a BB entry, I feel it is head and shoulders above anything else I have read (sorry everyone else) in terms of pace, style and links.

Mac has already made the point I would have made. I think these guys, American or otherwise, could write about anything and make the pages sing. Sport can be as sweet a subject as any other in the right hands, and the likes of McIllvaney and Runyon definitely had good right hands (or left maybe).

MotM said...

BD - Re BB. Agree.

mac millings said...

Because I'm that kind of person, I did a word count - 687. Looks like a BB piece to me. If so, there's no question that this should have been a finalist.

I can only suggest that they didn't want to be accused of putting it through because they were flattered by the penultimate paragraph. Whatever the reason, for what it's worth (hint: precisely nothing), while I may not have agreed with the piece entirely (not a bad thing), I'll say again - I think it's terrifically written.

Ebren said...

should have said this sooner - Ringo has sent through a few of his not-selected pieces, they should be appearing over the next week (I thought I'd space them out a little).

bluedaddy said...

It's a shame if the praise for Scott Murray et al kept this one out of the final, as that would be just one element of what could have been a terrific blog to follow this.

I bet Runyon would've been sensational on an MBM - I'm sure he would appreciate the immediacy.

offside said...

Top quality, Ringo. I smell a pro or semi-pro, non?

ringo37 said...

Blimey, thanks everyone...

Offside: not quite - you smell a wannabe who's taking advantage of a spell of redundancy to try and scramble his way into freelancing...

offside said...

Yeah, same difference. And good luck!

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