A Prisoner of His Time ?

11th December 2017

This blog contains historic quotations of an offensive nature, which are
pertinent to the subject under discussion].

It is a familiar (and unoriginal) theme within these occasional blogs and the books of sports spectating reminiscence that preceded them – An Ordinary Spectator and Still An Ordinary Spectator – that, in any given period, sport is a barometer of the broader society around it. This applies not only to the playing and watching of sport – with its rules, rewards, technologies and morals – but also to the reporting of it.

As further evidence to support this proposition, let me refer to Farewell to Sport by Paul Gallico (1897-1976), which was first published in 1938 and reprinted in paperback by First Nebraska in 2008. I purchased a copy in the excellent The Sport Gallery in the Distillery District of Toronto.

Gallico is well-known as the author of fiction, notably The Snow Goose and The Poseidon Adventure. However, he made his name as the sports editor of the New York Daily News for the 14 years from 1923. In 1937, he gave up this prominent – and highly paid – position to travel and to concentrate on his fiction. Farewell to Sport was a collection of essays written at this time which, as the title suggested, offered some reflections on the sports he was leaving behind.

Given the newspaper for which he was writing, it is not surprising that Gallico focused on sport in America, especially boxing, baseball and golf. The book contains one favourable reference to soccer – “one of the greatest of all spectator sports from the point of view of sustained action and wide-open play” – and nothing on rugby or cricket. Some of the essays straightforwardly capture the admiration – indeed, hero-worship – that the author had for three sportsmen in particular: the heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey, the baseball star Babe Ruth and, especially, the golfer Bobby Jones. In each case, this was partly an acknowledgement of their exceptional sporting prowess; equally, however, it was a reflection of their respective characters and the way in which fame and adulation did not change them.

Gallico was no mean sportsman himself – a rower at ColumbiaUniversity and, later, a fencer of some note – and he was one of the first sports journalists to engage directly with the stars on the field of play (a branch of journalism that spawned other well-known practitioners, notably George Plimpton). Most dramatically, he sparred with Jack Dempsey (for all of 97 seconds) until the inevitable stoppage: “I learned…that the fighter rarely, if ever, sees the punch that tumbles blackness over him like a mantle”. I liked his description of a Dempsey training camp at Saratoga Springs: “…the grand, exciting, bawdy atmosphere. There were sparring partners with bent noses and twisted ears…boxing writers, handsome state troopers in their gray and purple uniforms, doubtful blondes…and blondes about whom there was no doubt at all”. Gallico was at pains not to drift into sentimentally, however; he knew that prize-fighting was a tough sport and that an unhesitatingly vicious instinct was required for ultimate success. Dempsey was “a jungle animal [with] hatred in his eyes…He was utterly without mercy or pity”.

Gallico also saw himself as a crusader. He railed against what he saw as the hypocrisy of the administrators of what were supposed to be amateur sports – athletics, tennis and, especially college (American) football – whose major events attracted vast crowds and gate receipts. He was brave in naming the shady characters associated with many of the boxing promotions, notably in the post-Dempsey era of heavyweights. And he felt himself a helpless onlooker at the inferior status conferred on black boxers, as reflected in their treatment by hotels and restaurants, including the members of a Golden Gloves team from New York that he managed in Chicago.

In the final essay – “The Next Fifty Years” – Gallico attempted to look into his crystal ball to the sporting environment of 1987. He was correct to argue that the records of his time would be eradicated, though, in most cases, he significantly underestimated the speed of progress. He wondered if the then world record for the mile (4 minutes 6.7 seconds held by Glenn Cunningham) might be reduced to about 4 minutes 3 seconds. (As we know, Roger Bannister took it below 4 minutes as early as 1954). Likewise, he reckoned that the high-jump record might be raised to 7 feet and that the pole-vaulters might reach 15 feet. (In 1987, world records were set in these events by Patrik Sjoberg and Sergey Bubka at 7 feet 11¼ inches and 19 feet 9¼ inches, respectively).

In this connection, it is worth noting that Gallico had views about the regimes that he thought likely to be producing the record-breakers of the future. He predicted that the stranglehold that the US had on track and field athletics was likely to be broken by “the new generation of youngsters, regimented and trained from infancy in Germany and Italy and other Fascist states [in which there was] the athletic and military training of youngsters under ten years of age, teaching them the fundamentals of sports and drill”. His caveat to this forecast was chillingly prophetic: “The early sports training may make them a nation of athletes far surpassing anything that we have ever known before – or it may make them cannon-food”.

So far so good. However, even allowing for the Sports Illustrated and other accolades (see below), Paul Gallico’s sports writing has fallen out of favour with many present-day commentators due to the shadows of sexism and racism. The relevant examples jump off the page in Farewell to Sport.

Gallico undoubtedly admired the spirit and determination of the top-class sportswomen. But his overall attitude to the “muscle molls” was captured in a couple of sentences: “[T]hey are at best second-rate imitations of the gentlemen…A man has swum a hundred yards in fifty-two seconds. A girl takes one minute three seconds for the same distance, and so it goes. No matter how good they are, they can never be good enough, quite, to matter”.

Gallico’s descriptions of specific women’s sports were dominated by his assessments of the participants’ physical attributes. Hence, for example, the female track athletes were “flat-chested most of them, with close-cropped hair. Not much on looks either. Most of them had hard faces”. By contrast, “what lovely legs and bodies those figure skaters have”. Farewell to Sport contains many passages in this vein.

The examples of racism also cause unease for the modern reader. Whilst Gallico recognised that the formidable Joe Louis was a bone fide world heavyweight champion with his exquisite skill and thrilling efficiency – aided by his being “exceptionally well managed and handled by a hard and capable crowd of people of his own race: a lawyer, an ex-numbers man and an ex-convict” – he also made the curious assertion that Louis had been “carefully trained in the sly servility that the white man accepts as his due”.

In many ways the most bizarre example relates to the sport of basketball in New York, which “for the past years Jewish players on the college teams…have had…all to themselves. [T]he reason…that it appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background is that the games places a premium on an alert, scheming mind and flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smartaleckness”. We should remember that Farewell to Sport was published in 1938: the year of Kristallnacht in Germany.

Eighty years on from Farewell to Sport, it is difficult to rationalise the many unacceptable (to us) forms of words that Gallico used. However, arguably, they partly reflected the milieu in which he was operating: the alpha-male world of competitive sports reporting on the East Coast of the 1920s and 1930s. He was writing for a mass audience which, at that time, clearly did not have anything like the social sensitivities that we take for granted in the 21st Century. In this sense, he was a prisoner of his time. He knew his market and he reported back on terms that were familiar to it.

Farewell to Sport was allocated a place in the “Top 100 Sports Books of All Time” by Sports Illustrated magazine in 2002. Justifiably so in my view – for two reasons – notwithstanding that it is in places a distinctly uncomfortable read.

First, there was Gallico’s descriptive prowess, which – for modern readers – continues to provide an evocative picture of the good and the bad of the major American sports and their elite practitioners in the 1920s and 1930s. For example, on the positive side, his affection for baseball was clearly unbounded. A game could produce “half a dozen split-second races between a running man and a thrown ball, in which the hundredth part of a second is all the difference between success and failure, dozens of examples of skill triumphant, skill defeated, traps baited and snapped shut upon victims, human folly, and human cowardice, narrow escapes, heroes, villains, individual deeds that verge upon the miraculous…”

Similarly with individuals. The portrait Gallico painted of Babe Ruth consisted of a rich combination of fine details within the overall composite: “He was kneaded, rough-thumbed out of earth, a golem, a figurine that might have been made by a savage…with an unshapely body that features a tremendous, barrel-shaped torso that tapers down into too small legs and an amazingly fragile and delicate pair of ankles… His nose is flat and pushed in. Nobody did it for him; it grew that way”.

On the downside, Gallico’s assessment of the corruption of the heavyweight boxing scene that took Primo Carnera to the world championship title – “Pity the Poor Giant” – concluded dramatically: “He was just a big sucker whom the wise guys took and trimmed… All this took place in our country, Anno Domini 1930-1935”.

Second, Gallico himself was aware that he was writing in a particular time and that what he observed on the sports field reflected the wider society around it. He noted more than once that the huge crowds for sports events – notably boxing – that had occurred during the prosperity of the 1920s had not been maintained with the onset of the Great Depression. Indeed, at one point, he also doubts the validity of his own hugely-rewarded profession at a time when many American families were in desperate straits: “Many of us felt a little silly, still writing in the flamboyant post-war style of highly paid professional and amateur athletes at a time when most people were wondering where their next pay-check or meal was coming from”.

Gallico’s linkage of sport to society extended from the economic to the cultural. I was struck by a key paragraph describing the crowd’s reaction when the black American (Joe Louis) was knocked out by the white German (Max Schmeling) in Yankee Stadium, New York, in 1936. Notwithstanding that Louis was fighting on home soil, “…an even lustier and more joyous [yell] went up from the unpigmented spectators… The white brother is fickle and tires very quickly of seeing a Negro triumph too often”.

It is in this context that the damning flaws in Paul Gallico’s sportswriting should be considered by modern readers. Their very presence should be seen as part of the overall package – in other words, as complementary with the evocative (and acceptable) descriptive passages in not only contributing to our understanding of American sport in the inter-war period, but also providing a window on the broader social context in which that sport took place.

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