Let’s start by dispensing with the inevitable joke. No, the new book “Jewish Jocks,” an anthology edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy, isn’t a skinny pamphlet.
Not that it has the girth of Churchill’s World War II memoirs. It’s just a nice, respectable book, full of (mostly) nice Jewish boys.
In it, Ira Berkow posits a fifth question to go along with the traditional four: Did American League pitchers deny Hank Greenberg the chance to beat Babe Ruth’s home-run record in 1938 by feeding him lousy pitches? The answer is that they didn’t. Greenberg himself describes this theory, held with devout conviction for a generation, as “pure baloney.”
This book may have the best opening sentence of the year, by Jane Leavy: “Sandy Koufax ruined me for other men.” And perhaps the best chapter titles, including “Hebrew Mind, Cossack Body,” about the footballer Sid Luckman, and “The Coach Who Never Paid Retail,” about basketball’s Red Auerbach.
Then there’s Dolph Schayes, probably the best Jewish professional basketball player ever. He was selected to the all-star team a dozen times; played 764 consecutive games, then a record; and was a power forward who, in Tracy’s phrase, “moved without the ball like a dog in heat.”
Along with basketball’s Nancy Lieberman and tennis’s Renee Richards, the editors had the wit to include characters like Jack Molinas, known as the “point shaver” but really an entrepreneur in the fraud and gambling trade. He called his company Fixers Inc. He served time in Attica.
And happily there is a member of my own tribe, which is to say an ink-stained wretch. He is the great Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich, about whom Noam Scheiber says, “The David Broders and Teddy Whites would have killed for such access.” Right about that.
“Muck City,” by Bryan Mealer, is the latest in a growing genre of sports books -- artful portraits of forgotten corners of America where unforgettable acts of sporting courage and achievement occur, often in one magical season. The enclave under consideration here, Belle Glade, is in the deepest Florida Everglades, and its high school, Glades Central, is turbocharged with gridiron talent (30 pro players since 1985, five in the first round of the NFL draft).
And the community? Belle Glade is a sugar town where life is not so sweet. Mealer calls it “a place of toil and hard lessons.” A third of all pregnancies belong to a teenager. In the migrant quarter many of the buildings have been condemned.
“In Belle Glade, where the risk of joblessness, prison or early death followed each boy like a toxic cloud,” Mealer writes, “high school football was more than religion, it was like salvation itself -- the raft by which to flee a ship that kept drifting back in time.” One of those on the raft was Santonio Holmes, Super Bowl MVP, now with the New York Jets.
Ultramarathon runner Ed Ayres is looking for a different kind of salvation -- for the soul, for the planet. The races he’s been running for more than half a century have inspired athletes worldwide and reshaped our ideas about endurance and sustainability.
That’s a tall order for a runner, even one who used to toil at the Worldwatch Institute. Ayres’s new book, “The Longest Race,” is partly a chronicle of his experience in the fabled JFK 50 Mile ultramarathon, but it’s also about so much more.
“We ran through the town as if in a dream,” he writes, and off we go.
There is as much thinking as running in these pages. Ayres riffs off his work on “ecological footprints” and before long he leads us to see that “a person who achieves a smaller footprint doesn’t just use less, but also gets more out of what he or she uses.”
That leads us to see that for “a long-distance runner, a smaller footprint meant not only not trashing the trail, the way an all-terrain vehicle would; it meant more ground covered per breath of air taken.” Remember that on your next jog.
Much of this he applies to the environment, which after all is about the long run. Indeed, with all his talk about “oxygen debt” and “research depletion” it soon becomes clear that this book isn’t just about an athletic race. It’s also about the human race.
“Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame” is published by Twelve (285 pages, $26.99). “Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football’s Forgotten Town” is published by Crown Archetype (322 pages, $25). “The Longest Race: A Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon and the Case for Human Endurance” is published by the Experiment (241 pages, $23.95).
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Greg Evans on TV and John Mariani on wine.