Sports stories told in a minor key

  • Article by: TOM ZELMAN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 26, 2010 - 2:44 PM

Talese's literary sports reporting is solidly entertaining, but he is most drawn to the poignant stories of loss and failure.

"The Silent Season of a Hero"

What happens when the crowds stop cheering? In "The Silent Season of a Hero: The Sports Writing of Gay Talese" (Walker, 308 pages, $16), Talese takes this trite question and gives serious consideration to the arc of sports stardom. His profiles of sports figures -- published over a period of 45 years -- offer us vivid emotional close-ups. Here, right before us, are legendary sports figures: Joltin' Joe DiMaggio! The Brown Bomber! Ali! Talese's keen observation of details, his natural empathy and his privileged access make for essays that kept me solidly entertained.

Talese has been frequently credited with inaugurating "new journalism," bringing features of fictional storytelling to his reportage. Drawing from his literary models -- Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Irwin Shaw -- Talese writes in a minor key, depicting scenes of nostalgia and loss. Consider for instance, the first paragraph of his piece on the 1979 Yankee team: "Going nowhere in the American League, but going first-class, the Yankees last week boarded a chartered jet at La Guardia Airport and flew into the chilly Midwest to play with diminished passion a summer game as autumn approached." It's Fitzgerald's "Winter Dreams" as a Yankees road trip.

Talese is attracted to vulnerability, and many of his best pieces describe icons who are damaged or down. So we meet DiMaggio attending Mickey Mantle Day at Yankee Stadium, smoking cigarettes in the dugout and avoiding the glad-handing of Sen. Robert Kennedy, whom he detested. At the 1999 women's World Cup, the writer's interest is not with Mia Hamm or Brandi Chastain (of sports bra fame), the American stars. Rather, his attention is caught by Liu Ying, the Chinese player whose missed penalty shot cost China the gold. As he says in a letter to his editor, "I've always found losers' locker rooms ... [to be] learning experiences."

But it is boxers, when they are out of the ring, who really fascinate Talese. The final essay in the collection, "Ali in Havana," takes us to a "historic" 1996 meeting with Castro. Ali's plane is bringing a planeload of medical supplies to Cuban hospitals and clinics, and the Cuban leader is eager to meet him. Yet this is a dinner date with no food, everyone is tired and the conversation is strained. Parkinson's prevents Ali from saying much and there is a tension between Cuban heavyweight champion Teofilo Stevenson and Castro. Talese does a superb job of bringing this odd, uncomfortable meeting to life, of humanizing these larger-than-life figures.

This is an impressive collection and baby-boomer readers will especially appreciate it. It deserves a better editing job, though. The articles from Talese's days as a sports reporter on the Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger could easily be cut, as could the barely legible photocopy of one of the essay drafts. This said, Talese's later and longer pieces offer the reader the chance to see Joe Louis through the eyes of his affectionate ex-wives, to share Floyd Patterson's training quarters before and after he is KO'd by Sonny Liston, and to stand in the dugout during a major league beanball feud.

Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

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