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Masters-Games-Essays-Stories-Sport/dp/1442236531">Masters of the Games: Essays and Stories on Sport
By Joseph Epstein
(Rowman & Littlefield, 309 pages, $24.95)

You could probably fit everyone who can discourse in an equally learned and entertaining way about both Marcel Proust and Jake LaMotta into Joseph Epstein’s living room with space left over. That’s because, as far as I’m aware, Epstein is the only writer doing this for our benefit today. Read Epstein’s 25th book, Masters of the Games, and my guess is you’ll agree.

Those who argue that Epstein is not the best essayist on active duty today — in both the literary and familiar forms — find themselves increasingly isolated. Epstein sifts the various precincts of Vanity Fair — aka life — with a combination of erudition, insight, wit, and whimsy that never fails to charm. (OK, some whose delusions or silliness he surgically dissects, or those with overstuffed reputations that Epstein “right-sizes,” might find his work less than appealing. He can throw the fastball near the chin when it’s called for.) His byline appears frequently in the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, Commentary, the New Criterion, and other intellectual and sports journals.

Most often, readers have encountered Epstein taking on some literary or cultural subject, no surprise for a guy who taught literature and writing for 30 years at Northwestern University. (Don’t be alarmed — Epstein doesn’t write like a professor.) In fact, his last collection before Masters was A Literary Education and Other Essays. (My appreciation of that one is found here.) Almost as often the subject is something personal or whimsical, with no intention other than to entertain.

Interspersed over the years in the remarkably broad spectrum of Epstein’s interests have been some very fine pieces on sports, which are collected here under a single cover for the first time. In previous collections readers could find insightful essays about Joe DiMaggio or Michael Jordon cheek by jowl with equally astute treatments of T.S. Eliot or Henry James. Epstein knows his Musial as well as he knows his Mencken. The work of this volume illustrates Epstein’s lifetime, and sometimes frustrating, fondness bordering on addiction with, to use the title to his first essay on the subject, “This Sporting Life.”The pieces also show how well Epstein understands the games he has devoted thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of hours to, over his lifetime.

Epstein can almost simultaneously give the most convincing reasons that sports are not childish things to be put aside as one matures, while wondering if he might have been better off not to have devoted so much time to an area of life that is as flawed as it is diverting. Sports may teach “a serious respect for craft,” but they are also disfigured by almost obscene, greed-driven economics and not a little cheating.

While sportsmanship, the original reason for knocking on about the character-building benefits of competitive sport, may be a bit thin on the ground these days in the college and pro games, the games themselves still come about as close as anything in contemporary life to real meritocracy. The free throw is either buried with the game on the line or it isn’t. The double play is either turned or it isn’t. The quarterback either finds the receiver or he doesn’t. Connections or a good PR department won’t help between the lines. Only skill under pressure is of any use. “Sport may be the toy department of life,” Epstein writes. “But one of its abiding compensations is that, at least on the field, it is the real thing.”

In addition to some musing on the place of sports in our lives, Masters includes profiles of Joe DiMaggio, Michael Jordan, Hank Greenberg, and Bob Love. This last being an appreciation of a skilled but less than a headline player who contributed to his team’s victories without the flash and dash that so many fans prefer over the mundane skill that leads to Ws. Epstein, who has lived most of his life in or near Chicago, gives us several pieces on the thrill of victory, and the more frequent agony of defeat, that goes along with pulling for Second City teams. His piece on Wrigley Field will make readers who’ve not had the pleasure add catching a game there to their “must do” list.

Epstein writes movingly of the central place sports held for boys of his pre-computer-games generation — also mine, Epstein and I both have said goodbye to 70 — and how it was a more low-key, less organized business then. And probably more enjoyable without coaches, paid umpires, and parents hanging over everyone as they do now. Sportswriters have dished up some of the worst stylized babble, but there have been some fine writers in the field. Epstein gives us a tribute to one of the best, Red Smith.

When it’s all done, Epstein has not entirely satisfied himself or us on why he spends so much time watching men (less often women) hitting, kicking, and throwing balls to each other and through hoops. Why so many hours spent, wasted some would say, on his office couch in the upright and locked position with yet another game on the tube. But he does make the craft case well, and makes an articulate rejection of the “sports are trivial” argument:

That a game may have no consequences outside itself — no effect on history, or one’s life, on anything really — does not make it trivial but only makes the enjoyment of it all the purer. Art for art’s sake does not apply only to actual art.

Wish I’d have thought of that. (I say this often when reading Epstein.)

Epstein complains a bit about the hold sports has on him, but we clearly are not meant to take this too seriously. “My life is measured less by nature’s seasons than it is by the sports seasons,” he laments in an essay entitled “Trivial Pursuits.” He goes on to add, “I don’t know if there is a twelve-step recovery program for withdrawal from sports spectatorship, but if there is, I should be interested in joining it.”

Pay no attention to this. Epstein gives a hint where he finally comes out on this question by the title to his final piece: “Still Hooked.” He clearly recognizes that watching, talking about, and otherwise involving the adult self in sports can be a kind of addiction, but certainly one of the more benevolent forms (so long as gambling on said sports isn’t involved).

For Epstein, for me, and for millions of others in America and elsewhere, one of the day’s more important questions is, and will be as long as we draw breath, “When does the game start?” Waiting for the game to start could be made more endurable, and more enjoyable, by reading Masters of the Games, a tribute to sports and its pleasures by one of our master writers.

 

Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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