Sports Beach Books

I’ve long been a fan of well-written sports literature.  Part of this interest comes from the day job (or, perhaps, the interest in sports lit lead to the day job. Chicken, egg, etc.) though I normally read sports lit for pleasure regardless of what is going on research-wise.  Of course, sometimes the sports lit does make it’s way into my research, and more often than not my pleasure reading will inspire research directions, but in general I just like a good sports book.  Although I will occasionally read more fluffy sports biographies and memoirs, I tend to drift towards those books with a broader social, culture, historical, and aesthetic direction. However, during the summer, I like a good sports “beach book” as well – something with a bit of heft but not so weighty as to feel like assigned reading for a graduate sport sociology or sports geography class.  Thus, while I believe CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary to be a masterpiece of literature – sport or otherwise – I think it might be too dense for a this list.  You don’t bring Moby Dick to the cabana, after all.

With that in mind, here are a few of my favourite sports “beach books.”  Each of these, I believe, are engrossing reads while also being a bit more critical or introspective.  Some are very well known, others are a little obscure.  In any event, I hope you find a couple of them as interesting and engaging to read as I did.

The Following Game by Jonathan Smith – Last August I wrote at length about The Following Game and, I must admit, it is a book to which I return often.  I won’t add much to what I wrote last summer, except to say that it is a beautiful, gentle, and very wise book.  Essential, even if you don’t like or know nothing about cricket.

Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy by Ed Hawkins and The Fix by Declan Hill – The integrity of sporting results, particularly the role the international gambling market plays in setting particular outcomes, is a important contemporary issue.  Although match fixing has been around as long as sport, instantaneous communications sports gambling and international phenomenon.  While Hawkins explores cricket betting, particularly in India, and Hill looks at match fixing in soccer, each offer fascinating insights into how easy it is to manipulate results.  And, well, both read a bit like spy novels too – which makes them even better.

Open by Andre Agassi - Famous for Agassi confessing that he hates tennis despite having been one of the world’s top players, it is also probably the best sports memoir I have ever read.  It is very well-written and absolutely engrossing from first page to last.

Slow Getting Up by Nate Jackson – This book is, in some ways, a contemporary version of Dave Meggyesy’s classic Out of their League, where Jackson describes – in unflinching details – the life of an everyday, average NFL player. You see the glory, but you also see the guts – and it ain’t pretty.

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby – Still holds up, even two-decades later.  This is more than a memoir of a life lived through Arsenal football, it is an anthropology of fandom.  And, it also features some of the most memorable lines in sports literature (“I fell in love with football as I was to later fall in love with women…” etc.)

Slouching Towards Fargo by Neal Karlen – A year in the life of the (very) minor league St. Paul Saints, Karlen’s book is far from a romantic view of America’s favourite pastime. A very unvarnished look at the desperation of minor league baseball.

Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems by Randall Maggs - If you’re beach books include poetry, and perhaps of the more intense variety, Maggs’ semi-fictional account of one of hockey’s greatest and most tragic figures is well worth a read.  There are many great hockey books, though this is probably the best of the lot.

Tropic of Hockey by Dave Bidini - Part travelogue, part search for the soul of hockey, Bidini looks for the commonalities that link those of us who play (or played) the game in different corners of the globe.  As someone who played competitively, but also later loved his weekly game of “shinny” with the boys, Bidini’s book shows that we all share a bond through the game regardless of our geography.

The Great Tamasha by James Astill – Cricket, and in particular the dramatic changes in the sport from where three-hour T20 matches complete with celebrities, cheerleaders, and exploding scoreboards now rule the roost, becomes a metaphor for the rapid changes in contemporary India. Page-turner that links sport with geo-politics.

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The Placeless Stadium

Last week, I attended the Leisure Studies Association conference at the University of the West of Scotland (it was a fantastic conference with a great group academics – next year’s conference is at Bournemouth University) and one of the comments I heard during a few presentations was that sports venues and stadiums are “placeless.”  That is to say that stadiums have become so standardized, particularly in terms of the quality of playing surfaces, of amenities, and so on, that they have become indistinguishable from one another.  This placelessness stems from the global transferability of sports and sporting codes, as well as the transnationalism of brands that undermine and, perhaps, replace the local at the stadium.  Ultimately, the placeless stadium looks to replicate both playing conditions and the spectator experience – you know what you’re going to get before you get there.

I would disagree…sort of.

I would agree that, for the most part, there is replicability in terms of the playing surfaces, in so far as there probably isn’t a massive gulf between really great playing surfaces and really poor playing surfaces.  There’s probably also standardization of amenities, such as for food and beverage offerings.  Even from a heritage perspective, replicating historic aesthetics have become commonplace (the retro baseball stadium phenomenon in the US, for example, has been termed “Camdenization” following the number of stadiums that began to emulate Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore).

However, there still seems to be a fair amount that defines place at a stadium.  Most stadiums have their own distinct history, traditions and aesthetics.  There may be commonalities, for sure, but how a stadium looks, what its famous moments are, who played there, and so forth seems to define each as different.  Even the most standardized stadium has its unforgettable games, moments, and players that help to create a sense of place.  Certainly, fan traditions create place, even in the most placeless stadiums.  I remember watching a game during the final season at Yankee Stadium.  Though it was the “House that Ruth Built,” various renovations had made it look, more or less, like a 1970s suburban concrete ballpark.  But, it was the stadium’s history, and the performance of the fans, that made it a beloved stadium and gave it a distinctive feel.  Aesthetically, it may have been placeless (there wasn’t even a quirky outfield, common with both historical ballparks and their retro equivalents) and, sure, it was Coca-Cola and Miller Lite and hotdogs at the concessions, but you could hardly call Yankee Stadium placeless.

Similarly, I began to think about the standardization of playing surfaces and that this too has diminished a sense of place.  Perhaps in certain sports, there is little differentiation between one stadium and another.  By and large, soccer is like this – and, when there is a differentiation, it is usually negative in that the pitch is dangerous or unplayable.  However, many sports have distinctive aspects to their fields of play that help to define them.  This was most recently seen at Trent Bridge for the England v. India test cricket match last week.  The wickets at Trent Bridge were known for favouring particular forms of bowling but, as it turned out, standardization of the wicket had made the surface “lifeless.”  In this, the groundskeeper admitted fault and would, in future, return the playing surface to a more “local” and distinctive condition. Heck, when I was playing hockey, each rink was different despite the standardized ice surface – particularly in terms of how the boards would “play.” As a goalie, I needed to know this – and, even use these to my advantage.

Ultimately, I understand the placeless argument to a point.  Certainly, there is a growing standardization in terms of playing conditions and spectator experience.  However, many stadiums are different and have distinct senses of place, in part through their heritage and history, but through other things – like how a playing surface “plays” – as well.

 

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Tour of Flanders

I am at the Leisure Studies Association (LSA) conference in Paisley (Glasgow), Scotland this week, and will be presenting a paper tomorrow called Pedaling through the Past: Sport heritage, tourism development, and the Tour of Flanders.”  The paper is co-authored with Tim Bottelberghe of Tourism East-Flanders, a former student of mine, and looks at sport heritage as a vehicle for tourism development, with the Tour of Flanders being the focus of our study.

Tim and I have a version of this paper coming out in Tourism Review International later this year, but our presentation at LSA includes updated information about some of the sport heritage initiatives that Tourism East-Flanders has incorporated – to varying degrees of success.

In any event, and as a preview, I thought I’d share our Powerpoint presentation from the conference for download via the link below. When our paper has been published, I’ll also offer a link and further discussion about why I believe that the Tour of Flanders is an interesting case for those interested in sport heritage and its relationship to tourism. Enjoy!

Tour of Flanders – LSA Presentation Final (7.4.14)

The Aesthetics of Sport Heritage Ruins

At some point in the heritage conservation movement (memory serves it was during the nineteenth century, but I could be wrong) there was a significant change in the thinking around heritage ruins. Rather than being viewed as incomplete buildings, ravaged by decay, they were recast as romantic, enchanting, and haunting – a bit of a gothic dream, if you will. Of course, when visiting ruins today, they are still largely cast as romantic.  One need only visit the ruins of an abbey, for example, to imagine that they are almost a set piece in a Jane Austin novel, with their manicured vegetation et al.

In any event, the meanings and aesthetics of ruins got me thinking about their application in sport heritage.  Photos of contemporary abandoned or ruined places have become ubiquitous.  One need not look that far for pictures of abandoned cinemas, libraries, and churches in places like Detroit.  Seemingly these photos are meant as a kind of warning, a bit of a memento mori. Perhaps they can be read as a warning against faith in capitalism and the free market, or of globalization, or even of how everything – even the most grand and ornate places – can be abandoned and forgotten. And, yet, there is still an aesthetic beauty to them.  They are a warning, for sure, but one feels drawn to them, and imagines what it might be like to walk through these places, to experience them, to live near them and create great art based on them.

Sport heritage, too, has its contemporary ruins and normally during the staging of mega events like the Olympics or World Cup, many photos of former venues – now abandoned and forgotten – become part of the social media landscape.  This collection of photos, in particular, made its rounds through Twitterverse most recently.  Indeed, there are warnings here too – about fallacy of sport event legacy (particularly when it comes to sports infrastructure), about the costs of staging a sporting event, and how sporting events are rarely ever panaceas in addressing larger socioeconomic issues – but, like those photos from Detroit, there’s also a beauty here.  Indeed, the photos from places like Athens and Beijing are warnings – particularly given how recently these Olympics were staged, and how quickly these venues were mothballed. But, the ones from Sarajevo are very sad, given the post-Olympics history of that country. In any event, I am wondering how these places ought to be read, and how they fit into the broader history of heritage decay? Seemingly they share some history with their ancient and gothic cousins, but are they different because they are recent (both in construction and abandonment)? Are there broader issues here, too – about environmentalism, human conflict, or disposability of culture?

 

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Perfect Leisure and Peter O’Toole

As academics, we tend to look at the summer with both anticipation and dread.  Of course, we love the time away from the classroom, the time to (ostensibly) think, read, and write – as well as find various diversions of the non-academic variety.  Indeed, it is those diversions that makes the summer also a minefield of regret.  In general, I tend to be productive during the summer, though I often find myself letting hours, and days, and (far too often) weeks slip by without a manuscript anywhere near completion.  Add the various service and committee duties that seem to colonize the summer, even for faculty like myself on nine-month contracts, and it is very easy to wake up one morning and realize that it’s mid-August and (at least here in the US) time to head back into the classroom for another round.

In any event, as part of the navel-gazing class, I got thinking about the academic summer, and letting things slip, and the idea of productivity, and an existential “what does it all mean” thing that, in the quieter moments, we have the luxury to consider. This, at least for me, means a fair amount of daydreaming and reading of books which often have little to directly do with the day job. And, being middle-aged and rather comfortable at that, my daydreaming and reading often leads me to long for something approaching perfect, uncomplicated leisure.

Recently, two pieces of writing provided a glimmer of what perfect leisure might look like and, of course, both involved cricket. I have a deeply romantic attachment to cricket that is in no way based in reality but, rather, reflects some strange, nostalgic vision of what summer in England ought to have been like (and, probably, summer in rural southern England at some unspecified point from the past century).  In any event, the first came piece of writing came from The Guardian last week . The article beautifully describes the joy of a serendipitous summer weekday, in this case the unadulterated happiness that comes from an unplanned outing, particularly when it means a break from other things that one “ought” to be doing (like work, school, and writing publishable, high quality international research…for example). Indeed, I wish I could have been at Lord’s last Monday, when the test went from leisurely to dull to exciting to magnificent in just a few hours.  Though, again, I think it was just about having a perfect summer day, without obligation, that didn’t require scheduling and planning and some forced version of “down time.”

The other came from the obituary section of the 2014 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. Normally I skim this section, reading only the obits of the infamous, the young, or the noteworthy.  However, this year I took a closer read and, thankfully, didn’t skip the obit of Peter O’Toole.  Of course, I knew that O’Toole had passed away in December and, being a great admirer of his work, I read many of the obituaries about him in the press.  However, I was intrigued that his obituary should appear in a list of cricketers.  I think I knew he might have played, and I imagined he may have been a fan, but it was still a surprise to see him listed.  What made me link him with something of time, and timelessness, and the academic summer, and leisure, and all of those things that I’ve been thinking about lately, is that cricket appeared to be an escape for him, from work, and perhaps from other aspects of his life.  In many ways, it reminded me also of this excellent essay, written by an American, about why test cricket is so appealing – it is so much different, so separate, and so beautifully anachronistic, to the rest of our contemporary lives.   O’Toole, one of the greatest actors of his – or, really, any – generation, and it appears that he was most comfortable, or perhaps found the most joy, in cricket:

Peter O’Toole grew up in Leeds, and recalled sitting in packed pre-war cinemas cheering newsreel footage of Len Hutton’s 364 in 1938; Hutton became his first cricket idol. He would seize any opportunity to introduce cricket to film sets, improvising games with Omar Sharif in the desert while filming Lawrence of Arabia, and teaching the basics to Katharine Hepburn during the making of The Lion in Winter. 

He was frank about his own limitations as a batsman and off-spinner: “I have a delivery which is really, really special. It does absolutely nothing.” But, when he had a son at the age of 50, he took coaching qualifications. “The only thing I’ve ever been interested in teaching anyone in life is cricket,” he said in his final interview.

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Anyway, enough daydreaming for now. I must get back to the academic summer, lest I face an August of regret.

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