Josh Magill explores the connection between childhood and the art of the sportswriter.
“I guess one of man’s weaknesses that keeps him from going on at times is his ability to remember,” said author Edgar Samar. “Perhaps, it’s a “memory complex” on my part. This complex submerged in my unconscious almost always manifests itself whenever an outside factor triggers it: children’s laughter that resembles those of my childhood friends, our graduation song suddenly being played on the radio, conversations leading to topics we used to talk about in high school whenever a teacher would come to class late—and things like that.”
We don’t often think much about the idea Samar mentions, but we all enjoy childhood memories from time to time. We probably return to our childhood more often than we know—it really becomes instinctual. Writers, none specifically, just the writer in general, are given the opportunity to check out a file from the childhood memory bank more often than those around him. Writers are generally intrinsic folks who love to be alone and ponder why things are and how they came to be. Memories of our childhood are found in most professions, but no area is more debatably touched upon than sports. We all have a memory of sports. True, it may be an unpleasant memory; nevertheless, it is a childhood memory of sports.
One of the most prestigious positions to use the memory of sport is the sportswriter. This hack gets to peruse the ballpark, arena, stadium, or any place sports are played, doing nothing of grand importance, except to share the sights and sound of sport with communities across the country. Think of the great sportswriters like John Updike, Shirley Povich, Jimmy Cannon, and the great Red Smith. Former New York Herald Tribune writer William Zinsser wrote, “American sport has always been interwoven with social history, and the best sportswriters are those who will make the connection” (Zinsser, 143).
That connection is memory. A sportswriter, or any writer, must invoke the memories of his reader so as to hold their attention, to create a link between the writer’s words and the reader’s knowledge and experience of life. The way to create that link between reader and writer is often done by painting a picture of the past to which most people can relate. Telling people of the past is sometimes a difficult thing to do when writing of sports because many readers may be too young to remember the heroics of ballplayers like Ted Williams, the rantings of boxers like Muhammad Ali, or even the semi-recent flights to the basket by Michael Jordan.
“We have a tendency to write about the past, to let time telescope on us,” said Jimmy Cannon. “We live through so many generations of ballplayers [athletes], they all get mixed up in our minds. We do not judge time at all. A sportswriter is entombed in a prolonged boyhood”(Holtzman, 275, italics added).
Zinsser tells of his learned lingo for sports, something he calls ‘sports English.’ “I learned early—as a child addict of the sports pages—that a hurler (or twirler) who faces left when he toes the slab is a southpaw or a portsider. Southpaws were always lanky, portsiders always chunky, though I had never heard ‘chunky’ applied to anything else except peanut butter (to distinguish it from ‘creamy’) and I have no idea what a chunky person would look like” (135).
Zinsser continues, explaining the words that he learned to use when writing about sports. “Do we ever ‘garner’ anything except a win? I could write of hoopsters and pucksters, grapplers and matmen, strapping oarsmen and gridiron standouts. I could rhapsodize about the old pigskin—far more passionately than any pig farmer—or describe the frenzied bleacherites caught up in the excitement of the autumn classic” (135).
What was your childhood neighborhood like? It could have been rich or poor, young or old, even white or black. Regardless, many of us remember the environments we grew up in based on the way we played sports and what sports we played.
“[O]f course, I played all sports. Everybody did,” said Red Smith. “We played football and baseball on our lawn and we tried to take a clothes pole and vault, the way all kids do. But I never had any proficiency in sports. I learned to swim and loved it. Pretty early in life I learned to enjoy fishing, which is still my dodge. If I’m a participant in any recreation, it’s fishing” (Holtzman, 250).
Vince Passaro tells us of author Don DeLillo’s youth: “[A] childhood of sports, family and games. He played ‘every conceivable form of baseball,’ basketball and football. ‘No one had a football around there,’ said [DeLillo]. ‘We used to wrap up a bunch of newspaper with tape and use that. That was our football.’”
And though Cannon said sportswriters are in a prolonged boyhood, you can often discover the generation a person belongs to by the athletes they remember and relate to. Major league baseball player Jason Giambi told Jeff Zillgitt of USATODAY.com that even while playing the childhood game of Wiffle Ball he “used to hit like Carney Lansford. I mimicked his stance and swing.” Giambi showed Zillgitt the unorthodox hand movements while holding an imaginary bat.
The point of all these little anecdotes is that sports are a part of human social interaction—they are a part of our lives. This is why we remember them so well. As mentioned earlier, not all childhood memories of sports are pleasant, some just plain horrible. Edgar Samar said that he remembered failing in sports, “. . . recognizing at last that deprived of proper training in my formative years, balls and nets might not really be for me.”
Samar remembers his first attempts at sports. “In high school when I gained confidence to play with friends, I tried shooting free throws in basketball and got them short, I went serving in volleyball and always got net balls, I even attempted playing soccer and was very unluckily slammed in the face by the soccer ball.”
Sports are not a basic piece of life, but they provide us a way to remember our childhood, our neighborhoods growing up, and even the support of our parents. A tremendous scorer in the fast-paced game of soccer, Cobi Jones remembers how his parents allowed him the environment to become a star.
“I can remember all the times my parents drove me around from tournament to tournament so I could play,” said Jones. “These are the memories that most dominate my childhood. My parents believed in me, which came with a simple but solid message: support, support and more support.”
Memories for a writer are the connection between their world and that of the reader. Many times childhood, or the similar memories of our childhoods, creates a bond that for a moment holds us together. Think about it.
A version of this post first appeared at The Magill Review.
Holtzman, Jerome, ed. No Cheering in the Press Box. New York, Chicago, San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974.