Collection Plays Up Sports, Good Writing

------------------------------- "The Best American Sports Writing of the Century" David Halberstam, editor Glenn Stout, series editor Houghton Mifflin, $30 cloth, $18 paperback -------------------------------

David Halberstam was one of the New Journalists, a group of writers in the '60s who brought novelistic techniques to the stolid business of magazine reportage. So it's not surprising that in "The Best American Sports Writing of the Century," edited by Halberstam, the New Journalists are well-represented: Tom Wolfe on the race-car driver Junior Johnson, Hunter S. Thompson on the down-home insanity of the Kentucky Derby, as well as Gay Talese's exquisite 1966 Esquire article on Joe DiMaggio.

(DiMaggio's) "face was lined in the right places," Talese wrote, "and his expression, once as sad and haunted as a matador's, was more in repose these days . . ." Talese revealed a carping, petty DiMaggio, but a sad and lonely man, too, "a kind of male Garbo." It doesn't take much to humanize our heroes. Setting them down at a breakfast table in a blue wool bathrobe is often enough.

Thankfully, Halberstam doesn't include any of his own articles. He's overrated as a writer - his recent prose has been monstrously repetitive - but as an editor, he's got great taste. Muhammad Ali gets his own section: six different articles, including Norman Mailer's brilliant essay on the first Ali-Frazier fight, "Ego."

Mailer's essay, in fact, was one of the first I searched for -

to see if Halberstam had chosen right. He didn't let me down. He included John Updike's farewell kiss to Ted Williams, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu." Williams became the subject of a lesser-known but equally sharp piece by Richard Ben Cramer, in which, in 1986, Williams seems to rule his small Florida Keys town like the biggest bully that ever stuck his face into the face of the world.

Is short shrift given to sportswriters from the first half of the century? Halberstam admits as much in his introduction, describing the earlier writing as "heavy and florid"; but he still picks some gems from Bob Considine (on the Louis-Schmeling fight), Red Smith (on Jim Thorpe, Babe Ruth, Dizzy Dean) and Heywood Broun (on the Dempsey-Carpentier fight).

The most oft-represented writer is W.C. Heinz, a predecessor and inspiration to the New Journalists, who wrote wonderful profiles of boxer Bummy Davis, Brooklyn Dodger casualty Pete Reiser, and Red Grange. Grange, the great football player, is one of the few stars who doesn't seem sad or despicable in retirement. His fame actually embarrassed him.

To his credit, too, Grange never seemed to make a dime off his name, although once he did use it as the trump card in a bar argument.

A loudmouth talks against another footballer, Bronco Nagurski, and Grange, a stranger in the tavern, objects. The loudmouth gets in his face. "What makes you think you know something about it? Who are you, anyway?" Grange hands him his business card and starts to leave. "When I got to the door," Grange tells Heinz, "I looked back at him. You should have seen his face."

For those who love sports, and care about good writing, this is your collection. Have a good summer.