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The Book Review: A double treat for boxing fans

by Harvey Frommer

Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge

One is a major bit of cultural history with its focus being the place of  Jack Dempsey on the American scene and the 1920s. The other is a new and dressed-up version of an older anthology on all things boxing. Together, they make for splendid reading and browsing.

"A Flame of Pure Fire - Jack Dempsey and the Roaring '20s" by Roger Kahn (Harcourt Brace,$28.00, 474pp.) is a major new work by the man who brought us all "The Boys of Summer."

The book begins with these words: "On a blustery April afternoon in 1960, with much of the country wondering what would happen when Ingemar Johansson, the last white man to hold the heavyweight championship, gave brooding Floyd Patterson the chance to win it back, I walked into Jack Dempsey's Restaurant on Broadway for some expert opinion."

Kahn then goes on to report that he met Dempsey who told him that an "older fellow" was going to write his book. His name was Ernest Hemingway. Kahn notes "Nothing worked out for Hemingway, or until now, for me."

It worked out for Kahn for he has produced a book with insights into the life, times and character of Dempsey. Kahn pulls no punches - he openly admires and respects Dempsey; he serves up blow-by-blow boxing action in graphic (some might be too graphic) detail. There is also what Kahn calls "unbridled romanticism" at work throughout this epic. But this works very well for the subject and the time.

We are treated to a landscape that Kahn evokes so colorfully of gangsters and prostitutes and of bigger-than-life sportswriters like Grantland Rice, Ring Lardner and Damon Runyan. Kahn gives them the full treatment and we are the wiser and more informed because of that and the book is better for it. In sum, "A Flame of Pure Fire" is an absorbing, very important book filled with period detail by one of America's top sports historians.

"The Book of Boxing" edited by W.C. Heinz and Nathan Ward (Total/Sports Illustrated, $24.95, 352pp.), is a hefty collection of some of the best and most unusual pieces of pugilistic writing. There is fiction by Ernest Hemingway "Fifty Grand," reporting by Bob Considine "The Second Louis-Schmeling Fight," fact by Dan Parker "I Went to See Tony Galento," fiction by Ring Lardner "Champion" and even poetry by Virgil From "The Aeneid."

And that is just a small sampling of the subject matter of this book that probes boxing's highs and lows, its moments of triumph and its darker moods. Sixteen pages of action photographs and all the splendid words make this book a keeper!

Bookends: "Smoke: The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball" by Mark Rucker and Peter C Bjarkman (Total Sports/Sports Illustrated, $29.95, 259) is an over-sized, beautifully laid out, carefully researched and nicely written opus on a world that was. It is a work of sports cultural history that belongs on the bookshelf of every serious fan.

The Book Review: A DoubleTreat for Boxing Fans

Remembering the 'Big Train'

by Harvey Frommer

A traveling salesman watched in awe as a big right-handed pitcher struck out batter after batter on an Idaho sandlot. The salesman, a loyal fan of the Washington Senators, contacted manager Joe Cantillon and raved.

Cantillon dispatched his injured catcher Cliff Blakenship to see the pitcher.

"Take along your bat, Cliff," said the Washington skipper. "And if you can get a loud foul off him, leave him where he is," joked Cantillon to his light-hitting backstop.

A few days later Cantillon received a telegram.

"You can't hit what you can't see. I've signed him and he is on his way," Blankenship wrote.

His name was Walter Perry Johnson and this Saturday (November 6) marks the 112th anniversary of his birth.

He joined the Washington Senators in 1907 and remained with the team known as "first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League" until 1927. Literally carrying the Washington team year after year, Johnson was selected 14 times to pitch the Senator season opener. Seven times he pitched Opening Day shutouts - a major league record. His nickname, "The Big Train," came from the fact that he seemed to always be moving his team down the track. Another reason for the nickname was his almost mechanical, precision harnessing durability and power on a 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame.

A non-smoker and nondrinker, Johnson's strongest expression was "Goodness gracious sakes alive." Batters had choicer words for the side-arming, whiplashing right-hander with the blinding speed. Although Johnson holds the record for the most hit batsmen in history (206), he was too nice of a man to ever dust off a batter on purpose.

"It was a disgrace the way I took advantage of him," Ty Cobb had said. "Knowing he would not throw at me, I crowded the plate outrageously and hit the outside pitch from him more often than I was entitled to."

Baseball records are made to be broken, and Johnson's career strikeout mark of 3,508 was shattered by Nolan Ryan. But the "Big Train's" record of 113 career shutouts should stand for a long time, especially the way complete game hurlers have become a vanishing breed these days. Johnson's career won-loss record was 416-279.

Once Johnson hurled a shutout on a Friday, another one on Saturday, and another one on Monday - three shutouts in four days. He probably would have had four shutouts in four days, but there was no game scheduled for the Sunday.

Twelve of Johnson's career shutouts were hurled in his high-water year of 1913, a season when he posted a gaudy 36-7 won-lost record and a glittering 1.09 earned run average. His 56 straight scoreless innings pitched that year was a record at the time.

The "Big Train" achieved some other remarkable career stats, including most 1-0 wins (38), most 1-0 losses (27), and most shutout losses (65). In 1909 alone he had the misfortune of losing 10 games when the opposing hurler pitched a shutout against his weak hitting Washington Senators team.

Many argue that Walter Johnson was the greatest pitcher who ever lived. It is an argument with a great deal of merit, especially when one considers who he pitched for and what he accomplished.

#  #  #

You can reach Harvey Frommer at:   

Email:  harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU 

About the Author:

Harvey Frommer is in his  38th year of writing books. A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to acclaim in 2011.  The prolific Frommer is at work on When It Was Just a Game, An Oral History on Super Bowel One. 

His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men's Heath, The Sporting News, among other publications.

FROMMER SPORTSNET (syndicated) reaches a readership in the millions and is housed on Internet search engines for extended periods of time.
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Dr. Frommer is the Official Book Reviewer of Travel-Watch. 
*Autographed copies of Frommer books are available .

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Harvey Frommer along with his wife, Myrna Katz  Frommer are the authors of five critically acclaimed oral/cultural histories, professors at Dartmouth  College, and travel writers who specialize in cultural history, food, wine, and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. 

This Article is Copyright 1995 - 2014 by Harvey Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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