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Baseball Thu Aug 08 2013

Review: From Black Sox to Three-peats: A Century of Chicago's Best Sports-writing from the Tribune, Sun-Times, and Other Newspapers

SportsBook.jpg The Chicago sports landscape is a vast space, reaching as far as the Quad Cities to Nashville, with legions of fans who stick with their teams through thick and thin. And much like that landscape in the middle of February, it is often dark and cold for what seems like an eternity, with no hope in sight. But once every so often, a beam of light shines through, melting away the ice and once again restoring hope for athletics in the Second City.

With so much drama and so many teams in the country's third-largest market, it became necessary for news outlets to canvas the city's north, south and west sides with sports writers, just as they crammed the courts and morgues with beat writers as early as they dawn of the newspaper.

Not much has changed from the mid-1800s, outside of how we receive our news, and in Ron Rapoport's newest book, From Black Sox to Three-peats: A Century of Chicago's Best Sports-writing from the Tribune, Sun-Times, and Other Newspapers, he allows the reader to take a trip back in time when sports gambling ruled outcomes of games, Babe Ruth was sticking it to the Wrigley faithful and Michael Jordan holding us all in the palm of his hand.

Rapoport, a former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, makes reference to how Chicago basically invented sports writing as we know it today: "boisterous, at times rough," and, "lacking dignity, perhaps, but readable, entertaining and amusing." In fact, the book opens with a reference to Hugh Fullerton, a young baseball writer in the mid-1890s, who traveled to cover the Cubs in spring training with $400 in his pocket. Four ballplayers learned of his bankroll, robbed him of it in his hotel room, splitting the per diem five ways, and then invited the young scribe to go out and party the night away.

It's tales like this which cues the reader for a wild ride in early Chicago sports journalism -- a sort of "Wild West" and unpredictability that leaves us asking, "what next?" Fullerton is quoted as saying the Chicago papers in those days were unlike anything else printed in the country, including New York, whose writers covered the game as a way to show off their knowledge. The Chicago writers took a different, more colorful approach.

The book boasts an impressive collection of columns, starting with the pioneers of Chicago sports journalism with the likes of Fullerton's protégé Ring Lardner. The former "In the Wake of the News" columnist in the Chicago Tribune previews the 1919 World Series between the heavily-favored Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds as a sort of tongue-in-cheek look at what it would take for the Reds to actually win the best-of-nine series. As it turned out, life imitated art through the eyes of Lardner.

Other ground-breaking accounts are told from the likes of Frank A. Young in the Chicago Defender, from his 1942 column on the lack of Negroes in Major League Baseball; Arch Ward's look at the "Game of the Century" with baseball's very first All-Star game in 1933 at Comiskey Park (Ward is credited with inventing the mid-summer classic); to Dave Condon's piece on DePaul's legendary basketball coach Ray Meyer.

The book travels through time and picks up on articles from David Israel of the Chicago Tribune, and his telling of how Bill Wirtz let Bobby Hull, the "Golden Jet," slip away to Winnipeg over a pay raise. Or how Barry Rozner of the then Arlington Daily Herald (now just the Daily Herald), describes Ryne Sandberg's long journey to Cooperstown, which began in a tiny Montana garage converted into an apartment.

There are stories of the bigger Chicago sports luminaries, which read loud, such as the Chicago Sun-Times' Rick Telander, and his account of Da Coach and his post-Bears coaching career. ("I came. I saw. I did what I had to do. I'm gone.") To the tear-jerking tale by Tom Fitzpatrick of the Chicago Sun-Times and his accounts of Minnie Minoso's friendship with Bill Veeck and his own inability to walk away from the game of baseball after 14 seasons. ("[I told] Veeck, I'm just like you. I believe I die before I go on my knees to beg. I have pride.") Not to mention Diane Simpson's chilling tale in the Chicago Sun-Times of eating disorders with gymnasts like herself.

Those rare rays of sunshine also are covered, when a team would prevail over the odds and actually bring home a championship. As far back as 1908, we read I.E. Sanborn's recap from the Chicago Tribune of the Cubs' last World Championship. We breeze through an 88-year gap from when the White Sox won the 1917 World Series with James Crusinberry's coverage in the Chicago Tribune to Mike Downey's poetic tribute in 2005 in the same paper. We get to relive the trouncing of the New England Patriots by the Monsters of the Midway in Super Bowl XX by Don Pierson and David Haugh's witnessing of the Blackhawks winning it all in Philadelphia in 2010, breaking a 50-year drought of Lord Stanley's visit.

We get to relive the Bulls' six championships through the eyes of Terry Boers and Sam Smith, as well as Northwestern's magical run to the Rose Bowl in 1995 through Gene Wojciechowski.

Then, of course, there are the near-misses, which seem to outnumber the wins after reliving the stories. That said, a majority of these accounts involve those beloved Cubbies, their improbable cold streak and their questionable moves with trades throughout the decades. We are reminded of the 1969 collapse by Rick Talley; Leon Durham's gaffe in the NLCS in San Diego in 1984 by the great Bob Verdi; and the Brock for Broglio trade by Jerome Holtzman. It's as though the reader is traveling with the Ghost of Christmas Past, looking in on the sports tragedies that struck this fair city, yet there's nothing anyone can do but to continue reading after realizing it wasn't dream after all.

Along with the teams and players involved with each account, we also get a glimpse into the people of Chicago -- the fans -- who have endured every joy and pain that came with every Walter Payton and Steve Bartman. Mr. Rapoport himself has a tale from 1982 in which he colorfully describes the "Bleacher Bums" and the ladies on the roof. There are even a few columns from Mike Royko, a general columnist, not one in the sports pages, who writes of the first time he saw Jackie Robinson play baseball at Wrigley Field and the proud energy that surrounded him. And speaking of prejudices, Jeannie Morris of Chicago Today touches on women in sports and local athletic programs, which gave many a chance where others wouldn't.

This book not only is an aspiring sports journalist's dream, with its collection of heavy-hitting writers, but also a great collection for those who love Chicago sports and take in everything that is Chicago. It's a city of broad shoulders, and in this book, it's clearly also a city of broad pen strokes.

From Black Sox to Three-peats: A Century of Chicago's Best Sports-writing from the Tribune, Sun-Times, and Other Newspapers is published through University of Chicago Press and is expected to be released August 30, 2013. Pre-order is available through Amazon.com.

 
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