The Book Review: A
double treat for boxing fans
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
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
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
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
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
The Book Review: A DoubleTreat
for Boxing Fans
Remembering the 'Big
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
"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:
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.
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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.
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