Assembling a batch of old newspaper columns and pressing them between cloth covers can be risky business. Oftentimes what seemed to be the sprightliest and timeliest of efforts when seen in newsprint is exposed as thin analysis with the longevity of a mayfly, best saved only by keepers of scrapbooks and parakeets.
However, as On Sports (Bonus Books, $15.95) proves, Frederick C. Klein is an uncommon sportswriter, whose work merits twice-told status. Proprietor of The Wall Street Journal's "toy department" since he began writing a regular column in 1977, Klein takes an original, frequently offbeat, approach to athletics, presenting his observations and opinions in literate prose unencumbered by sports clichès and jargon.
In the preface to this collection of 68 "essays and musings," Klein describes his stance, in its way as distinctive as Mel Ott's. "You can't cover a subject as varied as sports in a couple of thousand-word pieces a week, so On Sports mostly nibbles at its edges, looking for small pictures that might illuminate the big ones. I write as an outsider rather than an insider, a fan rather than an expert." Such nonconformity runs the risk of becoming dime-store sociology—weighty with references to sports-as-microcosm—or of being an enthusiast's endless expression of "gee whiz." Klein avoids both traps.
Many of the most successful pieces in On Sports begin by focusing on a seemingly insignificant occurrence or person. Klein, however, uses this material as a springboard to a larger statement about an event or individual. Writing about the 1985 World Series between the Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals, he finds meaning in the most pedestrian phenomenon, a foul ball.
October 26, 1987
"For my money," Klein observes, "the turning point in the baseball World Series came in the fourth inning of game five in St. Louis on Thursday night, when Frank White of the Kansas City Royals hit a foul ball into the stands behind third base and Avron Fogelman, the Royals' co-owner, caught it.
"You figure it out. More than 53,000 people were there, and maybe 20 foul balls reached the stands. The odds against any one person getting one were about 2,650-to-1. If that could happen, anything could."
With this foul-ball-as-omen opening, Klein recounts how the Royals came back from three losses in the first four games to take the Series. Given his approach and his audience—many already aware of the winners and losers—Klein steps back and renders the games people play with perspective and context.
Jaunty good humor pervades most of the columns in this collection. Basketball commentator Al McGuire "speaks in capital letters." Boris Becker "looks like Amy Carter from the neck up and a good college halfback the rest of the way." Las Vegas is "the polyester capital of the Free World," where fight fans wear "enough gold chain to stretch from Caesars Palace to Katmandu."
Klein is particularly amusing when he leaves the well-beaten path of spectator sports to describe "true-life adventures." He plays tennis with pro Kathy Jordan—"literally, no sweat for her"—enters his Chevy Citation in an ice-racing competition and ascends Colorado's Mount Massive to the accompaniment of his own "mooing calves." He also reports that he and a sidekick actually bested some contestants in the 19-mile Des Plaines River Canoe Marathon outside Chicago. Klein and his companion beat "some teen-age girls, two fellows who said they'd eaten Mexican food the night before, and two guys wearing caps that looked like bear heads."
He is most serious—and critical—in his columns about collegiate athletics. He takes a look at rules-bending, drug usage, gambling and the "lust for sports cash and glory" that drives many schools. He laments that the phrase student athlete has become an oxymoron at several institutions, with the pose of know-nothingness by athletic officials especially objectionable: "Coaches who can tell you what play an opponent is likely to run on third-and-four from his own 38 say they haven't the foggiest notion how many of their charges complete their educations."
Klein's affection for the exclamation point tends to grate—Elmore Leonard's rule that only one exclamation mark per 50,000 words should be allowed is sound advice for any writer—and he's not above recycling a joke or observation. Quibbles aside, On Sports is an engrossing personal chronicle about sporting life during the past decade.
Robert Schmuhl is an associate professor of American studies at Notre Dame.