Dispatches from the Sporting Life

Dispatches from the Sporting Life


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Dispatches from the Sporting Life by Mordecai Richler

Between such novels as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, St. Urbain's Horseman, and Barney's Version, Mordecai Richler pursued his obsession with sports -- and he wrote brilliantly about such sports as ice hockey, baseball, salmon fishing, bodybuilding, and wrestling. His essays and articles appeared in such prominent and diverse places as GQ, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, Inside Sports, Commentary, and The New York Review of Books. Richler spent time with Pete Rose, Wayne Gretzky, and Gordie Howe (when a reporter asked Gordie's then eighty-year-old father if he was still interested in sex, Howe's pere replied, "You'll have to ask somebody older than me.") He traveled with Guy LaFleur's Montreal Canadiens, and with the Trail Smoke-Eaters to Stockholm, for the world hockey championships. When a Swedish reporter confronted the Smoke-Eaters' coach and accused him of encouraging violence on the ice, the enraged coach replied, "But I condone it absolutely."

There are shrewdly perceptive pieces here about Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, and lady umpires, and a marvelous essay on Richler's unlimited enthusiasm for the all-inclusive Encyclopedia of Jews in Sports, which includes among its champions one Steve Allan Hertz, an infielder who played a total of five games in Houston in 1964 and had a batting average of .000. This then is a superb novelist writing unforgettably about his obsession with sports. The work sparkles with Richler's hallmark irony, wit, and shrewd perception. It is a book no sports -- or Richler -- fan will want to miss.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781592283002
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 05/01/2004
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Mordecai Richler wrote ten novels and numerous screenplays, essays, children’s books and several works of non-fiction. During his career, he was the recipient of dozens of literary awards, including two Governor General’s Awards, the Giller Prize and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada a few months before his death on July 3, 2001.

Read an Excerpt

Foreword by Noah Richler

In 1972, my father brought his family back to Canada after nearly twenty years in England. I learned in no time that his preferred place on Saturday nights from September to May was on the living room couch, watching Hockey Night in Canada.

We returned to Canada in the country's prime time, you might say. The Canadian dollar was on par with the American (a detail that matters, when it comes to international leagues), and though Pierre Trudeau and René Lévesque were sparring from their federal and provincial prime ministers' offices, the Péquistes had not yet driven a stake through Montreal's cosmopolitan heart. Montreal was a city on top of the world, rich with memories and history, but an avenir too. There was no question, in my father's mind, that it was the only city in Canada where he could possibly live: the most sophisticated -- which meant, for him, the best restaurants, the most critical and interesting politics and, at the Forum, the chance to watch the Montreal Canadiens -- the Habs -- playing before the most knowledgeable and demanding hockey crowd in North America.

Twelve years old, I received swift instruction in matters Canadian. My father's love of sports, I quickly saw, was entirely wrapped up in the urban landscape of his childhood: the cold-water flats of Montreal's Jewish ghetto, east of Park and north of Pine, bounded to one side by the well-to-do French Canadians of Outremont and on the other by the francophone working class of the Plateau. Baseball at Delorimier Downs and hockey at the Forum were what Montreal Jews and French Canadians had in common. During the summer, Pa showed me whatthe bleachers were at Jarry Park, and introduced me to baseball's ritual of the seventh-inning stretch. Then, that September, we watched an overweight Team Canada, fresh off the links, face off against Russia, an opponent the NHL's professionals famously failed to take seriously. It fast became the most extraordinary international hockey series Canada has ever played. The Cold War still on, the Red Army was what the West feared then, but in Canada we held them in awe for a different reason: soldiers who played crisp, mesmerizing, "amateur" hockey -- full-time. All Canadians of my generation can hum the grand Soviet anthem as a consequence. We feel a kinship there. We know where we were when Paul Henderson scored, saving face for Canada, and we remember the shock we felt when, after Team Canada scored the first goal of the series in Montreal, the Russians stormed back to win the game 7 - 3.

I was watching the game with my father that evening, all the family in the living room, Pa's enthrallment palpable. After that series ended, my father took me to the Forum to see the Canadiens, who beat Minnesota 3 - 0 in an early season NHL game. I was thrilled to be with him, of course, in the building that I knew meant so much to him, but we'd been spoiled by the match with the Soviets: the hockey was somnambulant by comparison.

The Canadiens, at the time, were on their way to becoming the winningest franchise in professional sports, no mean achievement. By the end of the decade, they'd have won more Stanley Cups than the Yankees had World Series, or Liverpool FC had carried football trophies back to Merseyside. They were unquestionably the best -- and they belonged to us. Quebeckers many of them, Canadians certainly. The Habs of the 1970s went on to establish themselves as the second most powerful dynasty in the team's history, losing perhaps eight to ten games a season -- a couple of them from sheer boredom. The first, setting the bar for my father, had won five Stanley Cups in a row from 1956 to 1960. That was the team Pa got to call Nos Glorieux. The Canadiens, for his generation and mine, were a thrilling, easy team to support.

My father the fan, however, was also something of a fatalist, inclined to moments of deep foreboding. The team down one or, just occasionally, two goals at the end of the first period, he'd pronounce on their sloppiness from his uncontested position on the couch: "We're in trouble now," he'd say -- before, more often than not, the Canadiens dug themselves out of it. It was, I suppose, the mark of the writer in him, someone who did not expect things to go swimmingly for long.

Come the late eighties, after yet more league expansion, after the owners' and the players' greed turned the game into a television spectacle, the play stopping every few minutes for another commercial break, my father lost interest in hockey. He stopped going to games because -- he would never have imagined it -- he was often bored at the rink. Pa frowned every time a new Canadiens team, its meagre talent stretched too thin, would dump the puck forward and race on in. This was not the game he grew up with, and by the nineties he'd given up on it entirely.

By then, a string of Péquiste victories had taken its toll, and the dollar was in freefall. Trudeau was no longer a figure in public life, and a huge number of anglophone Montrealers had left the province -- though not my father, stubbornly. The Canadiens had been relegated to a shameful box of an arena built by the Molsons, their indifferent last Canadian proprietors; the Expos had been languishing in the horrid Olympic Stadium for more than two decades, playing to the smallest attendances in the National League.

Too many Montreal institutions gone.

Pa's sports were not, as games are for so many fans these days, vessels for statistics or of contrived corporate competition -- a city's glory purchased by some conglomerate churning money at the gate. Nor was the game, as Pa writes, the place for "intellectual gibberish" -- a tableau for some eclectic, European, Umberto Eco-like reduction of philosophical life. It was, instead, a very real matter. It was about getting ahead, about making your way in the world -- as a Canadian. No, we can be more specific than that: as a Montrealer, of the non-WASP kind, during the time that city was original and great.

Pa was serious in his allegiances: hockey in winter, and baseball in summer. Snooker, year-round, was something he could relax to -- playing, or watching the sport on television, after his working day was done. Fishing, a pastime he undertook later in life, was, I suspect, a pursuit that had more to do with a feeling of having arrived -- as well as his love of the Canadian outdoors, an attribute of my father's writing that is often underestimated. It's there in Barney's Version, and in the a mari usque ad mare romp of Solomon Gursky Was Here -- and, of course, in Duddy Kravitz's dream of purchasing all the properties bordering a Laurentian lake. The love of sports had, most of all, to do with home. In all those years in London, cricket, soccer, rugby -- they just didn't figure. Hockey and baseball were part of the patrimony in ways those sports could never be. What the journalism offered, those forays into Gordie Howe's garage or to a bodybuilding convention, was the chance to get away from the typewriter and drop in on lives other than his own. One of the unusual complaints my father would sometimes make is that his literary success had come too soon. He'd not had to work in an office or hold down a factory job to get by, so he'd lost out on the material those experiences might have supplied him. The sports assignments helped satisfy that necessary, writer's curiosity.

Table of Contents

1.An Incompleat Angler's Journal1
2.Jews in Sports19
3.A Real Canadian Success Story43
4.With the Trail Smoke Eaters in Stockholm57
6.You Know Me, Ring85
7.Writers and Sports93
8.Gretzky in Eighty-five105
9.From Satchel, through Hank Greenberg, to El Divino Loco121
10.Eddie Quinn129
11.Cheap Skates141
13.Paper Lion157
15.Pete Rose187
16.Kiss the Ump!195
17.Soul on Ice203
18.From Gladu, through Kitman, to the Victoire Historique and After211
19.The Fall of the Montreal Canadiens241
20.Playing Ball on Hampstead Heath--An Excerpt from St. Urbain's Horseman275

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