Last week, author Jane Leavy was at the New York Times visiting Richard Sandomir, the newspaper's sports media critic. Sandomir offered to show her the kinescope of the famous 1960 World Series Game 7 between the New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates, which ended on a home run by Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski. The unique footage (NBC's original tape was lost) was discovered last December in Bing Crosby's wine cellar—and it would be the topic of Sandomir's front-page story in the next day's Times. "Do you want to see the Mantle play?" he asked Leavy.
She wasn't sure. Leavy was in town tending to last-minute details connected to her much anticipated book about Mickey Mantle, The Last Boy, set for publication on October 12. The book, a hybrid of personal memoir and sports biography, features 20 doggedly reported events in the life of Mantle, the legendary Hall of Famer. One of those events occurred in the ninth inning of that Game 7—a cunning baserunning maneuver by Mantle that tied the game at 9–9, setting the stage for Mazeroski's heroics.
Before the Crosby tape surfaced—as a part owner of the Pirates, the Hollywood star had been too nervous to watch the game and hired someone to film the live TV broadcast so he could watch it later—the Mantle play, and the entire game, existed only in memories and written accounts. There was no visual record.
"When Richard cued up the Mantle play," says Leavy, "there was a moment of, ‘Oh, my god, I'm now going to be held accountable to history. What did I miss?' "
As it turns out, Leavy didn't miss much—a nuance of Pirates first baseman Rocky Nelson's indecisiveness, perhaps—visible in the film but absent from written accounts. Leavy's own account added drama—"high noon for the Yankees"—and got things right that she had not actually seen: Nelson's "frantic, perplexed tag"; Mantle's "reflexively balletic maneuver." But the fact that a famous ball game, the subject of lore and dozens of books, now comes with an authoritative video history raises the question: who owns the sports narrative and what is the role of sports writers and sports book publishers?
"That's not a new idea," Leavy tells PW over the phone—that television has changed sports reporting. "The newspapers used to be filled with game stories. Now, you basically assume the reader has seen the game you're writing about." But television today is nothing like it once was—16 hours of Sports Center daily; cable and direct TV packages wired throughout the country, indeed the world; and sponsoring leagues preserving all game tapes. Does eyewitness reportage, mixed with popular and anecdotal commentary, oral testimony, and statistics—the bread-and-butter of sportswriting for 100 years, mostly in newspapers—become irrelevant in the glare of television's huge "game day" dominance and its ability to gather a nation (or nations) around it for the real storytelling? If so—or if partially so—what can publishers do? What can writers do?
Glenn Stout might be in a position to know. He's been the series editor of the Houghton Mifflin anthology, Best American Sports Writing, for two decades; its 20th incarnation, guest edited by Peter Gammons, comes out this week. During the course of Stout's general editorship, he has seen the sources for sports writing change—he points in particular to the demise of Sunday magazine supplements, where he used to find a lot of the chosen essays—but online writing has flourished. The online universe, says Stout via e-mail from Vermont, "now offers outlets to everyone, ranging from purely commercial platforms to the virtually noncommercial world of the blog. This is both a bad thing, because the best writing is generally done by professionals, and a good thing, because the best writing is not always done by professionals." In fact, the closing selection in this year's Best American Sports Writing is a raunchy portrait of Jose Canseco that showed up on Deadspin.com—"a kind of vanity press, I guess," shrugs the author, Pat Jordan, in the bio notes.