Most old-time sports books suck. When an author tries to channel Mr. Peabody and turn the Way Back Machine to 40, 50, 60 years ago, in the process he takes a real live baseball season, strips it of controversy, ambiguity, and nuance, and encases it in amber. At best, it’s a 300-page paean to the good old days. At worst, it’s a quasi-historical trifle that’s less interesting than yesterday’s newspaper.
But every now and then, there’s a book that gives you hope for the whole genre. Richard Tofel’s A Legend in the Making is that kind of book. Tofel, a Wall Street Journal editor, takes the 1939 Yankees, arguably the greatest baseball team ever, and not only brings them to life, but brings them to light. Like the handful of truly excellent story-of-a-season books—Mike Sowell’s brilliant The Pitch That Killed comes to mind—Tofel begins by telling us what happened. He leavens the narrative arc with telling details, including Rashomon-like accounts of Joe DiMaggio’s legendary catch of a Hank Greenberg bomb. Evidently even the 24-year-old DiMaggio was a little awed by his effort; he trotted the ball back to the infield even though there was only one out. Tofel also avoids the trap of pretending that box scores were posted in a vacuum, deftly juxtaposing current events—Freud’s death, Einstein’s A-bomb letter to Roosevelt—with the baseball news of the day.
Then Tofel takes it a step further. He applies a reporter’s rigor to help us to separate the game’s often-untidy realities from the neat narrative of legend. He notes, for example, that baseball’s creation myth had already begun to unravel even as the Hall of Fame was about to open. “Not included among the 25 [inductees] was Abner Doubleday,” he writes. “This was neither an oversight nor an accident. . . . Abner Doubleday’s star was fading.” Tofel reminds us that Depression-era baseball players were, if not movie-star rich, still doctor-lawyer-banker rich. We discover that the ’39 Yankees’ attendance was Montreal Expos-low (well under a million for the season), but that the advent of daily radio broadcasts actually helped to boost attendance. Perhaps the book’s most formidable achievement is Tofel’s painstaking account of Lou Gehrig’s last days in a Yankee uniform. Yes, it was bittersweet, but there was also plenty of confusion (some thought ALS was contagious) and machination—Gehrig was all but forced out of the lineup by Joe McCarthy and was later given a choice between a farewell tour and the rest of his season’s salary. And after hearing Tofel deconstruct Gehrig’s supposed reconciliation with Babe Ruth—”If you look close,” recalls Bill Dickey, “Lou never put his arm around the Babe. Lou just never forgave him”—you’ll never look at that famous photo the same way again. —Allen St. John
It’s hard to know what to make of Ron Thomas’s They Cleared the Lane. On the one hand, the book is a meticulously researched study of the NBA’s early integration in the context of today’s overwhelmingly black-played game. At the same time, it’s a disturbingly uneven piece of writing, by turns fascinating and turgid, compelling and bland. In some sense, this has to do with Thomas’s limitations as an author; a long-time sportswriter for the San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, and other papers, he relies far too heavily on the conventions of daily journalism, writing in a style devoid of nuance, and constructing his book almost as a series of stand-alone features (“The Coming of the Superstars,” “Black Coaches Extend Integration Beyond the Sidelines”), rather than a cohesive narrative. Yet equally problematic is the fact that, even within the narrow confines of hoop culture, the NBA’s integration was more part of a continuum than a turning point—Harry “Bucky” Lew, the first African American to play pro basketball, was a member of the New England League’s Lowell, Massachusetts, team as early as 1902, and during the 1930s and 1940s black teams such as the New York Renaissance routinely won the World Professional Basketball Tournament, at the time the very pinnacle of the game.
If details like these undercut Thomas’s central thesis, however, they also shed light on what is, in essence, professional basketball’s hidden history. They Cleared the Lane serves its most important function by gathering the recollections of people like John McClendon, the last surviving protégé of basketball inventor James Naismith and a pioneering African American coach in his own right, who gave Thomas an extended interview before he died in October 1999.—David L. Ulin