Best Sports Writing of '95 Puts the Reader Ringside


Edited and with an introduction by Dan Jenkins; Glenn Stout, series editor

Houghton Mifflin,

265 pp.,


'The Best American Sports Writing 1995,'' the fifth in an annual series, honors some of the best sports writing in a contemporary, hot-off-the-press context.

Comprising 25 essays ranging from a short, pithy three-pager on this year's baseball strike to 50 pages of ambitious erudition on the history of American sports from the mid-1950s to the present, the series spotlights the best journalists writing for the pages of Sports Illustrated, Gentlemen's Quarterly, The Washington Post, and other periodicals.

Topics run the gamut, from golf in Sweden to the O.J. Simpson saga and from profiles of long-distance runner Herb Elliot to one of professional hockey's most controversial coach, Mike Keenan, who brought the New York Rangers their first Stanley Cup in more than 50 years in 1994.

The beauty of this volume is that it offers more than just the hollow pages of ''first down and 10'' scenarios; its essays often enlighten the reader about humanity. For example, editor Glenn Stout's forward profiles not a courageous athlete but a brave and ingenious writer, Doc Kountze, whose copy helped pry the lid off baseball's longstanding color barrier.

''Doc'' was one of the first black writers to cover baseball. His beat did not include Ted Williams or Joe Di Maggio, but instead featured the cast comprising ''The Negro League,'' including Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, and another fireballing pitcher named Will Jackman. Doc was the first black reporter granted access to Boston's Fenway Park and Braves Field. His prodigious coverage provides an invaluable dimension to the multi-faceted heritage of ''America's Favorite Pastime.''

It is appropriate that one of the lead-off pieces in the book is Dave Kindred's portrayal of Ted Williams ''A Hitter First, A Hitter Always.'' The writing is fast and reflexive, creating an almost photographic profile of the baseball great.

Meanwhile, just who is ''The Judge''? Read Steve Rushin's profile, and what unfolds like a garishly colored ball of yarn is the portrait of one of history's more innovative and extravagant men. Roy Hofheinz, alias The Judge, graduated from high school at 16. By the age of 24, he was a county judge in Texas. Not satisfied with a pedestrian legal career and the mayorship of Houston, which followed, he eschewed it all to become one of baseball's wealthiest and most eccentric owners.

A visit to Rome's Colosseum changed the way The Judge and many Americans watched baseball, for it was there that he studied the gracious, circular symmetry of the ancient ruin and wondered how high a roof would have to be built to accommodate baseballs. The Judge's visit spawned the pioneering notion of climate-controlled baseball played under a dome on artificial turf.

The Judge's ''dome of dreams'' was realized through the construction of Houston's Astrodome. He became so fond of the Astrodome that he actually took up residence there.

One of the more amusing and acerbic articles is Tony Kornheiser's ''National Pastime, Past My Bedtime.'' The article briefly critiques Ken Burns's television extravaganza ''Baseball.'' The writer laments the fact that it took nearly five episodes to break the century barrier, let alone the sport's color barrier. It also took too long to get to the late-innings phase of the production, when night games were a reality and color footage was used to make things a bit more contemporary.

Whether taken piece by piece, or read in its entirety, ''The Best American Sports Writing 1995,'' will give the reader plenty to talk about around the wood burner this winter.

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