Bap. That’s how Damon Runyon, reporting on Game 1 of the 1923 World Series, Giants versus Yankees, for the New York American, records the sound of Casey Stengel connecting with a pitch from “Bullet Joe” Bush. Bat meets ball, the essential atomic encounter—and Runyon puts the sound of it, the briefest, most prodigious syllable, right in the center of his column. Everything leads to it, everything spins out of it. Bap! Writers, those nonjocks, know this moment too. Put the right word in the right place, make the connection, and there’s a perceptible sweetness of impact. Stadiums do not rise when it happens, earthly crowds do not roar, but at your desk or your wobbling perch in Starbucks you feel it: silent terraces of angels pumping their fists.
The surprise and delight of The Great American Sports Page, John Schulian’s selections from a century’s worth of newspaper columns about baseball, boxing, football, gymnastics, and (in one case) swimming the English Channel, is how often it happens—how often the writers connect, how often the prose approaches the condition of flat-out poetry. The brilliant hard-boiled lyricism of Sandy Grady, in 1964, as he watches a crowd of Phillies fans after a home loss: “They hit the sidewalk with tight mouths, like people who had seen a train hit a car.” Or Joe Palmer, in 1951, summoning a vision of the racehorse Man o’ War in motion: “Great chunks of sod sailed up behind the lash of his power.” Sailed up: The soft swell of the verb puts us into slow motion. And the lash of his power: the conceit that Man o’ War, no doubt well acquainted with the ministry of the crop, is scourging the earth itself with loops of horse-voltage. Bap, bap, and bap again.
Even the high bombast of Grantland Rice, who as Schulian notes “seemed to see every event he covered as the equivalent of the Trojan War,” has a ring of nobility to it, a straining for epic attainments. That stuff is largely gone now. No more the voice of the bard, doing his solo, sobbing and exalting: Sports commentary in 2019 is forensic, polyphonic, multiplatformed. Compare for example Rice’s quivering hyperbole—“There was never a ball game like this before, never a game with as many thrills and heart throbs strung together in the making of drama that came near tearing away the soul to leave it limp and sagging, drawn and twisted out of shape”—with the laser-edged nitty-gritty of a writer like Bill Barnwell, as he digs into Super Bowl LIII for ESPN.com:
Teams that load up on twists often struggle to keep contain or leave an obvious running lane open for the opposing quarterback, but the Patriots did an excellent job of getting pressure against the interior of the Rams’ line (particularly guard Austin Blythe) while simultaneously closing down Goff when he bootlegged out of the pocket.
This is a different kind of poetry, generated out of the hidden matrix of a game, the deep jargon. (It uses GIFs to make its points.) Will we still be digging it in 100 years?