Three newly published sports books are worth considering as you pack your bags for the beach or campsite, the dog days of summer still ahead.
• Stan Musial: An American Life by George Vecsey (Ballantine/ESPN) He didn’t marry a Hollywood star or set a record still talked about 70 years later. He never hit .400 or flew fighter planes in two wars. No, Stan Musial merely played 22 seasons as an exceptional baseball player and human being. Having recently celebrated his 90th birthday and been honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Musial gets the treatment he deserves from Vecsey.
The book, when compared with your average sports biography, is beautifully bland. Musial’s playing career was all but devoid of controversy. He was admired in St. Louis, of course, but revered in every National League city the Cardinals would visit. (He was given his iconic nickname — “The Man” — by Dodger fans in Brooklyn.) He married Lillian Labash in 1940 and remains married to her today. He didn’t have a drinking problem and the only time the Cardinals considered trading him, Musial reacted with dignity, though his hurt feelings were as evident as his distinctive batting stance.
Several of Vecsey’s sources for the book warned the writer that there would be no dirt to uncover in a chronicle of his subject’s 90 years. But the author managed to find one story, one case where Stan the Man acted out of his “perfect knight” character. That chapter is three pages long. The other 334 are a proper tribute.
• Epic by Matthew Cronin (Wiley) Aside from boxing, no sport thrives on individual confrontation like tennis. Unlike boxers, though, tennis rivals can face each other five to ten times in a single year. With apologies to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, no pair of tennis stars captured worldwide attention in quite the same way Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe did in 1980 and 1981. With playing styles — and personalities — as different as their roots, the Swede and New Yorker found each other in the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in consecutive years. This was Ali-Frazier across a net, Affirmed-Alydar in sneakers. Four times in 15 months.
Cronin alternates chapters on his subjects’ background and rise to prominence with accounts of the 1980 championship matches (each player winning one). And he manages to place the rivalry in the context of world events that made sports a nice distraction (i.e. the Iran hostage crisis and the U.S. boycott of the Soviet Olympic Games). Contemporary players Jimmy Connors and Vitas Gerulaitis play big roles in the tale, the former as a foil to both Borg and McEnroe, the latter as the hard-living social maestro who brought fun to the lives of two men inherently withdrawn. (McEnroe’s oncourt outbursts are nothing if not ironic considering his shyness as a young player.)
Nadal has already won more Grand Slam events (10) than did McEnroe (7) and will catch Borg (11), perhaps as early as this year’s U.S. Open. So the debate over the “Greatest of All Time” will remain centered around the Spaniard and Federer. But for sheer heat, volume, and depth, no rivalry in the history of tennis can touch Borg-McEnroe. The fact that such a good book has been written 30 years after they last played is fitting testament.
• Tales from the Dallas Mavericks Locker Room by Jaime Aron (Sports Publishing) The Dallas Mavericks and I go way back. To June 1983, when the three-year-old franchise drafted my college hero, Tennessee’s Dale Ellis. Over the 28 years I’ve followed the team, the highs (a 67-win season) and lows (an 11-win season) have each run to extremes. Aron’s collection of stories and profiles covers it all, including the actual birth of the franchise during a time when the NBA had a fraction of the media coverage it enjoys today.
This book is not for bandwagon-riders. Among its 225 pages, exactly five are devoted to the team’s 2010-11 championship season. You’ll read as much about Mark Aguirre in this tome as you will Dirk Nowitzki. Much more on Rolando Blackman than Jason Kidd. But it makes for a fun read of a professional team’s rise, ugly fall, and rise again to the pinnacle of the basketball world. Athletes often mention “the journey” when reflecting on a first championship. As Tales exemplifies, journeys are often measured not by years, but by decades.