Yankee Doodle Dandy: The Life and Times of Tod Sloan

John Dizikes, Author Yale University Press $35 (240p) ISBN 978-0-300-08334-7
Tod Sloan (1874-1933) was the Yankee Doodle in George M. Cohan's musicalDthe phenomenon who became the winningest jockey in the U.S., then crossed the Atlantic to conquer the turf in England. He was, as Dizikes makes clear, the first sports mega-celebrity: ""Where Tod Sloan led, Babe Ruth and Pel and Michael Jordan have followed."" Alas for Sloan, after he had amassed fame and fortune, his popularity faded quickly, and he died, as he was born, in obscure poverty. In tracing the arc of Sloan's career, Dizikes (who won the National Book Critics' Circle award for Opera in America) paints a vivid canvas of the Gay '90s and what Dizikes calls its ""flash culture,"" featuring Diamond Jim Brady, Lillian Russell and ""plungers"" (big gamblers) like Pittsburgh Phil Smith. Part of Sloan's successDand notorietyD as a jockey was his origination of the ""forward seat,"" with the jockey sitting up on the horse's withers and crouched forward over its neck, the position now standard for all jockeys but still crude and controversial in the 1890s. But did Sloan originate it, Dizikes asks, or only popularize it? Part of the fascinating social history that Dizikes reconstructs surrounding horse racing in that era concerns the lower-class origins of the forward seat. He also portrays the shady world of the sport of kings in the U.S. at the time, when cheating was rampantDraces were commonly fixed, and horses were doped (one actually dropped dead in the winner's circle); it was a suspicion of cheating that led to Sloan's downfall. Dizikes's well-written and engaging history deserves a wide readership and Yale is planning a national media campaign (based on Dizikes's NBCC-winning reputation), with special outreach to sports media, so word will get out widely to fans of horse racing, sports enthusiasts in general, and especially readers interested in the role of sports within the wider culture. 30 illus. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 09/11/2000
Release date: 09/01/2000
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