What better time to talk about books than those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer (apologies to Nat King Cole), when nearly all of us have time to fortify ourselves with a couple of good reads that will last us for the next year.
I have two books to recommend: one a novel about baseball and the other a non-fiction tome about basketball. But wait, non-sports fans, don’t hit the return button. The novel about baseball isn’t really about America’s pastime, but about striving for excellence, and what to do, if you don’t achieve it; while the other is about the game they play on the streets of New York but also how the success of one team affected the Big Apple in the late sixties and early seventies – the turbulent years of Nixon and Vietnam and racial conflict.
The Art of Fielding is close to being a great book. Don’t take my word for it. The best-selling novelist, Jonathan Franzen, says on the cover of the paperback: “It’s left a little hole in my life the way a really good book will.” Franzen also used a baseball analogy – of course – in his recommendation: “Reading The Art of Fielding is like watching a hugely gifted shortstop: you keep waiting for the errors, but there are no errors. First novels this complete and consuming come along very, very seldom.”
The major character in Chad Harbach’s novel is Henry Skrimshander, a shortstop par excellence, who fields at the baseball equivalent of cricket’s mid-on, where a lot of ground balls are hit. A good shortstop gobbles them up, throws the batter out at first base, or starts a double play, stepping on second base or throwing to the second basemen who steps on the bag for one out, and then on to first base for the second out. It is a thing of beauty when done properly.
Henry, a student at Westish College, always does it properly, like his hero Aparicio Rodriguez, a fictional major league shortstop who played for the St Louis Cardinals for 18 seasons, and is the author of The Art of Fielding, a manual of the right way to play baseball and live life. For example, the fielding part is in numbered paragraph 26: The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond.
The living part is reflected in paragraph 212: It always saddens me to leave the field. Even fielding the final out to win the World Series, deep in the truest part of me, felt like death.
Like Franzen, I didn’t want to finish The Art of Fielding too quickly. It saddened me to leave it, and reading the last paragraph felt like the last out in the World Series. I wanted more.
I am a baseball fan, and there is a lot of the sport in the novel. I believe Harbach modelled Henry on a real-life baseball player, Luis Aparicio, a Hall of Fame shortstop for three clubs from 1956 to 1973. He was a great fielder for the Chicago White Sox, the Baltimore Orioles and the Boston Red Sox when I was growing up in Philadelphia.
But The Art of Fielding is about The Art of Life. Henry and Mike Schwartz, his mentor and teammate at Westish, a small fictional college in Wisconsin, perform extraordinary training tasks in a bid to achieve their ambitious goals. Henry, of course, wants to be the next Aparicio Rodriguez; Mike pours his heart and soul into helping his protégé be number one.
Along the way we meet well-drawn characters, like the college president Guert Affenlight, a sad intellectual trying to come to terms with his sexuality, and his daughter, Pella, who married too young and comes back to Westish to find a new life; instead finding herself falling in love with Mike Schwartz. In the mix, Owen Dunne, another college baseballer, whose star-crossed affair with an older man, ends in tragedy.
You will fall in love with them, warts and all. Henry is the best shortstop you’ll come across this year, but he’s far from perfect, and when he finally makes an error, it’s a doozy. I picked up the book to make some notes, and found myself reading it again. Beware, it’s habit-forming.
THE GARDEN WAS THE MECCA OF BASKETBALL
I had the same love affair with When the Garden was Eden, a portrait by New York Times sportswriter, Harvey Araton, of the New York Knicks, the professional basketball team that beguiled denizens of the Big Apple in the late sixties and early seventies, when America was going through the worst days of the Vietnam war and the presidency of Richard Nixon.
As regular readers of this blog (God bless you all) will know, I was teaching in Harlem at the time, and the streets were as dangerous as Vietnam and Cambodia where the Nixon administration’s bombs were proving to be a disaster. Also a disaster, the racial discord brought on by poor minorities being drafted into the military while young middle-class whites were finding ways to avoid the draft and the war. Teaching in disadvantaged areas like Harlem was one of them.
The one saving grace was the success of New York’s sporting teams. The Mets, long the laughing stock of the major leagues, beat the Baltimore Orioles on October 16, 1969 in the fifth and deciding game of the World Series in one of the biggest upsets in baseball history. Likewise in the National Football League, the Jets, led by Broadway Joe Namath, who guaranteed a Super Bowl victory over the favoured Baltimore Colts, and lived up to his promise on January 12, 1969. Sixteen months later, on May 8, 1970, the New York Knicks defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in the seventh game of the National Basketball Association finals to become NBA champions. What a trifecta.
Harvey Araton’s story is about the Knicks, who still play in the mecca of American basketball, Madison Square Garden, and their glory years in 1970 and 1973 when they won the NBA championship against all odds. He starts with the 40th anniversary of their first triumph when the surviving Knicks returned to the Garden in 2010 and celebrated their famous victory. Indeed, the Garden was Eden in those days, and a paradise for fans like me trying to forget the chaos created by Richard Nixon and his band of merry marauders. Such was the Nixonian chaos, they had to close the schools in New York for two days!
His prologue recalls that night in May, 1970 when Captain Willis Reed, the limping centre, scored the first two baskets and put away three giants of the sport, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West of the Los Angeles Lakers, with his courage and charisma. Also there, former US Senator and Democratic presidential candidate, Bill Bradley; Hall of Fame guard and now broadcaster, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Dick Barnett, Cazzie Russell and Mike Riordan, along with relatives of the deceased. Among those fallen heroes, former coach, Dick McGuire; the championship coach, Red Holzman; and the lynchpin of the 1970 champs, Dave DeBusschere. They were a beer team who played champagne basketball.
ONE OF THE BEAUTIFUL THINGS ABOUT SPORTS
Araton goes on to trace the roots of those who brought the Knicks to the mountaintop of professional basketball, when players only scored two points from long-range shots and didn’t feel the need to showboat every time they got close to the basket. It was a team sport, and the New York Knicks played as a team, personified in their coach Red Holzman. As Araton puts it: “Holzman believed that effective defense – much like great offense – was a collective act, five players coordinating as one.” (I’ve written about great teams who played as one in a previous blog about the Sydney Swans on September 30: http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-8g)
And in a society still wracked by racial prejudice, the Knicks, black and white, got along as one. There were very few instances of racial conflict. Richard Lapchick, son of Joe Lapchick, a legendary basketball coach at St John’s University and the Knicks, is a long-time human rights activist and promoter of racial equity in sports. He told Harvey Araton: “Symbolically, for me, that Knicks team definitely represented the attitudes I developed growing up. As someone who thinks about race almost every day of my life, I would say that a major allure of that team … was that it was so mixed, black and white, working so well together, and so beloved at a time and place when it was important for people to see that. I think that has been one of the beautiful things about sports: it has allowed African-Americans to be embraced for their qualities, contrary to the stereotypes many Americans believed in.”
One of the African-Americans on the 1970 Knicks was Dick Barnett, known to his teammates as a flaky rascal with a great jumpshot, always looking for a loan and an angle. But being on that team changed him, as he told Araton: “There were extensive communications with Bradley, with [Phil] Jackson and others, with this ongoing cultural transformation, probably the most tumultuous American decade since the civil war. For me, it was a process of self-discovery, as an adult who was having considerable thoughts about what it all meant, where this was all going, the transition that would have to take place when I left the game.”
During that transition, Barnett got a doctorate in urban and international affairs at Fordham University and launched a group called the Athletes for a Better Urban Society, to develop community-minded professional athletes. He quoted one of his poems to Araton, when he asked him if he felt overlooked as a basketball player:
After the cheering has ended
And the accolades being descending,
What now, my brother?
Tell me, what happens to the hangers-on?
Did they leave you for another?
What now, my brother?
When the media and fans turn to others,
For their dose of entertainment,
When no one notices what happens to you,
And life turns real,
What now, my brother?
If you like basketball, you’ll like this book. But you will also like it if you want to know what happened on those fateful days in May, 1970 when the Ohio National Guard shot dead four Kent State University students taking part in a peaceful anti-war protest; when construction workers charged another group of student protesters in New York’s Financial District, injuring 70 people; and when President Nixon defended his decision to send troops into Cambodia in a nationally televised press conference on the night the Knicks won the championship.
Knicks fans, including myself, never saw Nixon’s defence; we were too busy celebrating our victory. I watched the game on cable television in a crowded bar on Columbus Ave on the upper West Side. My friend, James McCausland, tried to buy every one of the estimated 400 fans in the pub a drink. Fortunately, I stopped him in time.
Harvey Araton writes: “It was a time in America when the generation gap may have never been wider but a Knicks game could bridge even the widest. It was Broadway’s rendition of what the country aspired to be but obviously, and painfully, was not.”
Which is why I recommend When the Garden was Eden and The Art of Fielding: two excellent books about sport where life and politics keep getting in the way.
The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach, HarperCollins, 512 pages.
When the Garden was Eden: Clyde, The Captain, Dollar Bill, and the Glory Days of the New York Knicks, Harvey Araton, HarperCollins, 353 pages.