The Medium Is the Ball Game
TV’s extravagant sports coverage challenges writers and publishers to raise their game
By Michael Coffey
Oct 04, 2010

Last week, author Jane Leavy was at the New York Times visiting Richard Sandomir, the newspaper’s sports media critic. Sandomir offered to show her the kinescope of the famous 1960 World Series Game 7 between the New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates, which ended on a home run by Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski. The unique footage (NBC’s original tape was lost) was discovered last December in Bing Crosby’s wine cellar—and it would be the topic of Sandomir’s front-page story in the next day’s Times. “Do you want to see the Mantle play?” he asked Leavy.

She wasn’t sure. Leavy was in town tending to last-minute details connected to her much anticipated book about Mickey Mantle, The Last Boy, set for publication on October 12. The book, a hybrid of personal memoir and sports biography, features 20 doggedly reported events in the life of Mantle, the legendary Hall of Famer. One of those events occurred in the ninth inning of that Game 7—a cunning baserunning maneuver by Mantle that tied the game at 9–9, setting the stage for Mazeroski’s heroics.

Before the Crosby tape surfaced—as a part owner of the Pirates, the Hollywood star had been too nervous to watch the game and hired someone to film the live TV broadcast so he could watch it later—the Mantle play, and the entire game, existed only in memories and written accounts. There was no visual record.

“When Richard cued up the Mantle play,” says Leavy, “there was a moment of, ‘Oh, my god, I’m now going to be held accountable to history. What did I miss?’ ”

As it turns out, Leavy didn’t miss much—a nuance of Pirates first baseman Rocky Nelson’s indecisiveness, perhaps—visible in the film but absent from written accounts. Leavy’s own account added drama—”high noon for the Yankees”—and got things right that she had not actually seen: Nelson’s “frantic, perplexed tag”; Mantle’s “reflexively balletic maneuver.” But the fact that a famous ball game, the subject of lore and dozens of books, now comes with an authoritative video history raises the question: who owns the sports narrative and what is the role of sports writers and sports book publishers?

“That’s not a new idea,” Leavy tells PW over the phone—that television has changed sports reporting. “The newspapers used to be filled with game stories. Now, you basically assume the reader has seen the game you’re writing about.” But television today is nothing like it once was—16 hours of Sports Center daily; cable and direct TV packages wired throughout the country, indeed the world; and sponsoring leagues preserving all game tapes. Does eyewitness reportage, mixed with popular and anecdotal commentary, oral testimony, and statistics—the bread-and-butter of sportswriting for 100 years, mostly in newspapers—become irrelevant in the glare of television’s huge “game day” dominance and its ability to gather a nation (or nations) around it for the real storytelling? If so—or if partially so—what can publishers do? What can writers do?

Glenn Stout might be in a position to know. He’s been the series editor of the Houghton Mifflin anthology, Best American Sports Writing, for two decades; its 20th incarnation, guest edited by Peter Gammons, comes out this week. During the course of Stout’s general editorship, he has seen the sources for sports writing change—he points in particular to the demise of Sunday magazine supplements, where he used to find a lot of the chosen essays—but online writing has flourished. The online universe, says Stout via e-mail from Vermont, “now offers outlets to everyone, ranging from purely commercial platforms to the virtually noncommercial world of the blog. This is both a bad thing, because the best writing is generally done by professionals, and a good thing, because the best writing is not always done by professionals.” In fact, the closing selection in this year’s Best American Sports Writing is a raunchy portrait of Jose Canseco that showed up on—”a kind of vanity press, I guess,” shrugs the author, Pat Jordan, in the bio notes.

But Stout is unfazed by television’s expanding presence as America’s sports storyteller. “I don’t think either TV or radio can approach writing for its ability to get inside, around, and underneath a subject. A writer, through the use of words, can go places camera and microphones cannot. The best writing about any subject is always transcendent. I mean, we have film of Ted Williams’s last home run, and of Secretariat running, but I’d rather read John Updike or Bill Nack writing about the same subjects.” Leavy says: “Sports writing will do what it has always done: make sense of things.”

That all may be true. But just as sportswriters have adjusted their own dial in the roar of television’s powerful signal—which brings live action, replay, slow motion, multiple camera angles, closeups, and at times expert commentary—publishers, too, are beginning to alter their approach to what a book about sports can deliver. Among those last- minute details Leavy was tending to in New York were consultations with the Harper media team. Ana Maria Allessi, v-p and publisher of the division at Harper that handles e-books and enhanced e-books, confirmed that The Last Boy is being released in an electronic version, enhanced by—what else—visual images.

“I was made aware of some additional assets that Jane had used in her research,” says Allessi, employing a term that might have been foreign to Bennett Cerf, but is common among software managers. The principal “asset” Allessi was speaking of stemmed from Leavy’s consultation with Preston Peavy, who applied a “visual motion-analysis” to videos of Mantle’s swing in an attempt to explain the power he wielded from both sides of the plate. In the printed book, the swing analysis is rendered in a few black-and-white stick-figure drawings; in the enhanced e-book, readers will see “the kinetic Mick,” as Leavy terms it, in full motion.

Allessi stressed that the enhanced e-book will have the “entire interior of the book along with the additional assets,” which she called “a nice way to distinguish this book from apps, which are often abridgments.” Pricing, says Allessi, has not been set, and she could only say publication would be “during the postseason”—just in time to catch baseball fans at the height of their devotion: watching the World Series on TV. There is also a “nice long interview with Jane expanding on the themes of the book.”

Sports and the enhanced e-book seem like a natural pairing, but so far, there is little of it—none that we could find among the fall titles, other than from HarperMedia. When it comes to “who owns the sports narrative,” the literal answer—networks and leagues—might be the first hurdle. But with the publishing partnerships that ESPN is involved in, it’s probably only a matter of time.

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