Almanac Book Review: ‘The Best American Sports Writing 2020’





Jackie MacMullan (Ed.), The Best American Sports Writing 2020

Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston and New York, 2020, pp, xxviii + 334, $24.75, pb.




Sport is most interesting when it is not about sport, when it provides a means to peer into ourselves. This is especially true with the series The Best American Sports Writing, which has spent three decades trying to unravel what it is that is America. The series began in 1991 under the guidance of series editor Glenn Stout. He works with an editor choosing by the publisher in selecting the best writing over the previous year. This is the thirtieth and last edition of The Best. Apparently, sales have fallen, and the publisher has decided to pull the plug. How else can it be described but as a sad loss for all of us? Glenn Stout is not one to complain. He starts off his foreword by saying ‘Don’t Expect A Eulogy’ (upper case in original, p. xi) and spends his time thanking everyone who has helped him over the years. One of the great champions.



Jackie MacMullan, a long term journalist and a co-author of books on basketball is the editor for 2020. What she can choose is of course dependent on what interests various writers (mainly) in America during this snap shot of history (with articles on events in Mexico, Tibet and Belgium).



2020 left me feeling depressed and anxious, with all of the pieces written before Covid-19. Only a handful of contributions are about the positive, uplifting nature of sport. They are a four-pager on how baseball can be used as therapy for persons suffering Alzheimer’s and Dementia (other sports could also be employed, for example, here in Australia); a 57-year-old who secures a place as a fourth string catcher in a local baseball team which helps him find himself; and how promotion of Los Bravos Juarez to MX Ligue provides locals with relief from the death and devastation associated with warfare between and within drug gangs in Mexico – sport as an opiate against opiates for the masses.



There are also chapters which are enmeshed in sport per se, highlighting a particular event or oddball issue. There are three contributions on the application of respective sports’ rules – a third base coach being sued for calling a player to slide into third who badly injured his ankle which put an end to a potential sporting career (not guilty); using electronic equipment to steal baseball signs; and a protest in the Kentucky Derby. This chapter contains a major error which as an Australian – one who doesn’t even follow the horses except for the first Tuesday of November – suggests needs to be corrected. Tim Layden claims that Churchill Downs, Louisville where the Kentucky Derby is run is ‘the most famous racetrack in the world’ (p. 141). How can he be in ignorance of Flemington where the Melbourne Cup, the race that stops a nation (even me), is held? The first Kentucky Derby was held in 1875, fourteen years after the first Melbourne Cup in 1861. I rest my case.



An oddball chapter documents the physical demands placed on chess grandmasters during tournaments. Competitors suffer problems with weight loss, diet and their general health due to the intensity of competition and sitting for such long periods. Most players now employ training regimes similar to professional soccer players – fitness determines success. Other chapters examine problems associated with concussion, especially at the community level, and heatstroke. While this latter chapter focuses on surfing it is reported that, since 2000, at least 30 college football players have died from heatstroke (p. 279).



Death, and in some cases suicide, is a prominent feature in approximately one third of the chapters. The chapter on Mexico, drugs and soccer has a particular focus on murder and death. Chapters on more extreme sports such as halfpipe skiing and climbing Mount Everest emphasise the inherent dangers of these pursuits. The extent of deaths on Mount Everest is such that anyone who expresses an intent to do such should be put on suicide watch. Heatstroke is also associated with death. The most moving chapter in 2020 is that of the euthanasia of the Belgium wheelchair Paralympic sprinter Marieke Vervoort. Andrew Keh’s account of her struggle with disease, how she used wheelchair sprinting as respite and her eventual passing constitutes writing of the highest order.



Race and the stain of slavery permeates so much that is America and works its way into discussions of sport. There is a five-pager on the naming of Arthur Ashe Boulevard in Richmond, Virginia which juxtaposes America’s ‘sordid, sinful, and divisive past [with] an inclusive, hopeful vision for the future’ (p. 28). A chapter is also included on the serenity of Venus Williams and her importance in showing the way for African American women in tennis. Much of this chapter, unsurprisingly, focuses on her closeness with her sister Serena Williams and the role of her parents. This chapter tends to focus on the ‘inner’ world of Venus Williams and tennis. This can be contrasted with a chapter on Roger Federer and tennis’ ‘external’ world, of how so many derive ‘some great pleasure in getting to see a genius at work’ (p. 122).



Now we come to a series of chapters which highlight the dark or nasty side of America. A chapter by a basketball executive on $360,000 a year who embezzled his club and sponsors over $13 million is contrasted in another chapter with a potential champion bike rider who found meaning in bank robberies which he used to pay for his eventual addiction to drugs. There are also examinations of a former NFL player, who became hooked on opioids in dealing with pain derived from injuries sustained while playing, went into rehabilitation and apparently ‘cleaned’ himself up, went back on the stuff and was dealing drugs while being a drug counsellor; and a former Olympian and running coach who molested young boys over half a century and may avoid a jail sentence because of the statute of limitations. The Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, holds a series of rodeos each year where inmates spend their time being trampled upon or thrown into the air by bulls and rodeo animals which provides the bosses of Angola with a regular source of income to use as they please. There is no regulation of the funds by the state government.



Robert Kraft, the 78-year-old owner of the New England Patriots, was charged with soliciting prostitutes at a massage parlour in Palm Beach Florida. He was serviced by Chinese women who lured him back with a $15 discount on an early bird offer; it is not clear if he left a tip. Employing a team of high priced lawyers, he got off the charge. Prostitutes caught in the sting spent several months in jail because they couldn’t raise bail and were subsequently fined. In a chapter which combines The Great Gatsby with the wonders of neo-liberalism, May Jeong highlights the fascination European men have for Asian women, how low income women turn to prostitution for economic survival, the different worlds and prospects of the one percent and the persons who live in close proximity (on low incomes) servicing their needs, and how legislation designed by the Christian right to stamp out prostitution lets Johns and Roberts off scott free while punishing those who service them.



One of the more disturbing chapters is that of the pursuit cyclist, Olympic silver medalist, Kelly Catlin who committed suicide. From an early age she and her siblings were encouraged to be successful in everything they did. She was what might be described as an over-achiever. Her life was devoted to perfection and she did away with contact with others. She reached the top of the mountain and found that there was nothing there. When she got to college her scholastic and cycling ambitions clashed and she committed suicide at age 23. Kent Babb takes us through the events of her life and tries to make sense of her death. He reports young people in the United States – and, in particular young women and girls – are killing themselves at a rate the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention considers a national health crisis. Between 2007 and 2015…the suicide rated doubled among females aged fifteen to nineteen and reached a forty-year high. Major depressive episodes and suicide attempts have skyrocketed among women under thirty-five…as a society fixated on collecting and comparing achievements seemingly has conditioned a promising generation of young people to ignore emotional alarms – insomnia, anxiety, and depression – and work toward the next goal (pp. 259-260).



The Best American Sports Writing will be no more. It is another one of life’s pleasures with its annual assembly of penetrating insights into, sport, America and the human condition which will be denied to us. Hopefully, something will fill this void and Glenn Stout will find another forum to work his magic. Well done Glenn and to all of your editors and collaborators: all the best for the future.




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  1. Fine summary. Thanks Braham. Your opening sentence about how good sports writing explains life, society, finance and politics is exactly how I view most of my sports reading. I’ve owned earlier volumes of the book and found it an interesting source of great stories.
    There is so much good long form writing on the Internet if you know where to look – and who to pay for – that a printed compilation seems a bit redundant. (As we are finding with our own post Covid Almanac). Its a memento as much as a source. A token of our appreciation for the fine words and thoughts expressed over a year.
    Having the attention span of a gnat I’ve found the podcast the source of many of my sporting insights. Alone in the car or walking the dog in the park I find my favourite “writers” more easily digested as “talkers”.
    The book is disappearing. Hopefully thinkers, explainers and inspirers aren’t.

  2. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks for this piece, Braham. I do love good quality sports writing! Read something like My Life in Baseball, by Ty Cobb with Al Stump, for example, much better than the (apparently) warts-and-all biography, Cobb: A Biography, by Stump alone, written long after Cobb’s death in 1961- though this latter one does have its good points, too.

    And PB, I do hope the book isn’t totally disappearing – there is something wonderfully solid and comforting about a book – and, as many have said before me, the smell of the pages of a brand new book is something wonderful to behold!

  3. The book isn’t disappearing after all! Glenn Stout revealed recently that an equivalent title has been picked up by a new publisher:

    Excellent news for so many reasons.

  4. Yes, a new title forthcoming in the fall!

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