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I don't care much for sports, but I liked this book

Sports in America - James A. Michener

Chalk this up to trying to expand my horizons a little. I'm not remotely athletic. In fact I have zero interest in professional sports, and don't even know the rules to football...

but on some level, I've been wanting to read something about sports lately. Maybe it's because I wish I could relate better to some of the superfans in my family. 

 

I've wanted to read something, but I've been finicky about what the right book is for my purposes.  Since I've read several of James Michener's historical fiction novels (The Bridges at Toko Ri, Chesapeake, Alaska, Tales of the South Pacific, Hawaii, Return to Paradise), and found his style very readable, I decided to give this book a try.

 

Readers should be advised that it was written in 1976, so it may not be as current as you'd like, but it is a nice overview of the spectacle of public sports over the past 150 years. Baseball was the first sport to make it big in America as a unifying community sporting experience. There's a whole history of how the old leagues got formed, and how those playing fields in the old urban centers of the East Coast and the industrial Midwest got built. There's even some legal precedent to calling it the National Pasttime... Congress actually exempted the NBL from anti-trust laws, and a lot of interstate commerce regulations (because those teams travel from city to city, and state to state).

 

Basketball came along. Then football. Then hockey came from Canada. Soccer has tried a few times to make it big. It's been successful among kids playing for fun- the most popular sport in America, as far as that goes, but nothing on the horizon suggests professional soccer will ever eclipse professional football, basketball, or baseball in America.

 

Football almost got banned, because the original set of rules were getting so many players killed or maimed. Teddy Roosevelt was a fan, and didn't want to see it banned, but basically put the leagues on probation, and gave them notice they'd be banned if the rules weren't changed to reduce fatalities.

 

Harvard and Yale got college football started, but for a whole bunch of economic and social reasons which Michener explains quite well, the money and popularity and winning players and coaches shifted to colleges in semi-rural to rural areas, where communities were much more invested in the teams (Michigan State, Ohio State, Alabama, Oklahoma, Nebraska, etc), and football-related business became important to the local economies. 

 

Then professional football came along, and that was different. 

 

Then television made audiences grow by orders of magnitude, and injected a whole lot of money into the sport, which changed/corrupted/invigorated it.

 

Reading the chapter titles should give you an idea of what this book is about:

Sports and Health

Children and Sports

Women and Sports

The Athlete

The Media

Financing

Government Control

Competition and Violence

etc

 

What I like best about this book- what really suited me in particular, is that while Michener himself is obviously a huge sports fan, of everything (except hockey), he doesn't expect the reader to be. He never drones on with statistics or deep-insider jargon, and doesn't expect me to know the names of "famous" players, etc. A good part of the book is history lesson, with some economics thrown in- to include a very illuminating analysis of what factors determine a basketball superstar's salary vs. a football player's or a soccer player's.

 

Even better: Michener is incredibly balanced in his view of sports. He doesn't apologize for the excesses or corruption to be found in sports of all levels, and he doesn't try to exaggerate the value of these sports to society at large. In fact, he doesn't even think public school gym class should bother teaching sports like football and basketball, which students will at best only be able to play for 10-15 years after graduating. He favors a curriculum stressing lifetime health-enhancing activities like walking, swimming, tennis, cycling, and even yoga.  That's pretty open-minded for a guy born in 1907, and writing in 1976!

 

In addition to the above, there are a lot of human interest angles which I found engrossing. Michener tells at length how winning the 1954 Little League World Series turned out to be a traumatic event for most of the players. There's a whole bit about different types of sports gambling that go on, and how the government has variously tried to ban it, or get in on it.  He describes how the first modern Olympics got started in the 1880's, and how Howard Cossell got into sports announcing. 

 

It's really a kind of perfect book for the sports-curious dilettante.

 

FUN FACT: Did you know the 1970's Bad News Bears movies were part of a PR campaign to rehabilitate the reputation of Little League baseball? In the 1960's, the American Little League did its best to encourage other countries to form their own LL teams, in the hopes of creating a truly WORLD series. Japan and Taiwan started creaming American teams year after year, to the point of embarrassment. Certain officials high up in the LL organization became so sour about this, that they changed the rules in 1971 so that the LL "world" series would be a playoff of the top 4 American teams. Obviously, the foreign teams complained, and rightly asserted poor sportsmanship- and many American fans agreed. Little League changed the rules back, but lived under a PR shadow for a few years after that. The Bad News Bears was part of an effort to restore good feelings about Little League.