Looking for a book to give that somebody might actually read? Easier said than done. Good sports books are hard to find, so we asked Larry Pruner to recommend a few of the oldies but goodies he kept on the shelves at Valley Books in Amherst, which he owned and operated for 34 years until three years ago.
The 66-year-old Pruner was born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx, where he rooted for Mickey Mantle in the House that Ruth Built and Willie Mays in the Polo Grounds until the team left for San Francisco in 1958. He graduated from Glassboro State and attended Andover Newton Theological School. “I realized I wasn’t really a believer, a key component to faith, so a year later I migrated west to the promised land in 1970 and never left.”
He said he opened his bookstore to avoid getting a real job. “That and because of the treasure-hunt aspect of finding used and old books. I never had a book that turned out to be worth thousands, but I had several 10-dollar books that were worth a few hundred. The treasure hunt was about finding cool, unusual and important books that had survived time and neglect.”
He kept his sports section stocked with books by exceptional sportswriters like Roger Kahn and Robert Creamer and divided his personal favorites into four subsets: baseball, basketball, horse racing and golf.
“Baseball, go no further than Baseball: A Literary Anthology,” Pruner said of the 721-page tome that was edited by Nicholas Dawidoff and published in 2002 by the Library of America. “It has the best short stories, journalism excerpts and poetry about our National Pastime.”
Dawidoff included two poems by Amherst’s Robert Francis, “Pitcher” and “The Base Stealer.” Both are short, elegant tributes to the nuances of the game. In the latter poem, published in 1948, Francis writes:
How he teeters, skittles, tingles, teases,
Taunts them, hovers like an ecstatic bird,
He’s only flirting, crowd him, crowd him,
Delicate, delicate, delicate, delicate – Now!
Dawidoff grew up in New Haven, attended Harvard and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., and at Princeton University in New Jersey. He’s authored several books, including a biography of catcher-turned-spy Moe Berg who Casey Stengel once called, “The strangest man ever to play baseball.”
His baseball anthology is a stunning tribute to the sport that helped him survive a rough childhood. He begins with Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s Casey at the Bat and continues with stories by Damon Runyon (Hail! Roger Merkle, Favorite of Toledo), Jimmy Cannon (Nice Work), Philip Roth (from his novel Portnoy’s Complaint) and Martin Espada (Rain Delay: Toledo Mud Hens, July 8, 1994).
Baseball readers will recognize names like Red Smith, Roger Angell, Jerome Holtzman, Jimmy Breslin, John Updike, Pat Jordan, James Thurber, Jim Brosnan, Jim Bouton, and even an excerpt by Tallulah Bankhead from her biography Tallulah.
Several titles are intriguing in their own right: The Terrible-Tempered Mr. Grove by Red Smith and Baiting the Umpire by George Jean Nathan.
As for other baseball books, “I have to mention Ball Four by Jim Bouton. It broke through the fake and false image of pro ball players and paved the way for honest sports writing and reporting.
“Mark Harris’s quartet of novels about Henry Higgins marks a high point in baseball’s fictional halls. Beginning with The Southpaw and followed by Bang the Drum Slowly, Ticket for a Seamstitch and It Looked Like Forever. He creates a magical, mythical world a reader doesn’t want to leave.
“Lastly,” adds Pruner, “There’s The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading & Bubble Gum Card Book. It’s filled with color reproductions of cards from the ’50s and ’60s and the authors (Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris) poke fun unmercifully at players of every team and ability.”
Good writing withstands the test of time, and in 1974, Atheneum Books published a golfing novel called Dead Solid Perfect. It was written by Dan Jenkins, who at the time was a staff writer at Sports Illustrated and prior to that was a member of the TCU varsity golf team. The book cover did much to describe Jenkins’ narrative by illustrating a golf ball inside a martini glass set on a fairway in front of a sand trap. “It’s probably the best novel written about golf and maybe the best all-around book about golf and the PGA tour,” said Pruner. “It’s a comic masterpiece with the right mix of irreverence and affection for the sport.
“Another book with a lot of laughs in which golf is central to the novel is Morte D’Urban by J.F. Powers. It won the 1963 National Book Award and is about a Catholic priest put in charge of his order’s run-down resort who turns to golf for redemption and salvation.”
Of Pruner’s three favorite basketball books, two are about the same man. In 1965 a 35-year-old Princeton grad named John McPhee wrote his first book, A Sense of Where You Are about Bill Bradley’s collegiate hoops career. Today a hardcover first edition of that book sells for $180 on Amazon.com, but readers can buy paperback copies for $10.
(McPhee’s second book profiled Frank L. Boyden. The Headmaster was likely inspired by the postgraduate year he spent at Deerfield Academy.)
Bradley played 11 seasons for the New York Knicks, was an NBA All-Star and is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. He wrote his own book about hoops called Life on the Run that contained many amusing and interesting anecdotes about life in the NBA. Later he became a three-term senator from New Jersey and in 2000 ran an unsuccessful campaign for the presidency.
“Both are unique non-fiction books,” said Pruner. “A good novel is Winning the City by Theodore Weesner. It’s set in Detroit in 1950 and is a touching young adult novel about a 15-year-old boy and his basketball dreams.”
“There are some fine, worthy books written about the Sport of Kings,” said Pruner, “and with apologies to Secretariat, Seabiscuit, Man o’ War and the other immortal steeds who have had ‘biographies’ written about them, one of my favorite books, period, is Laughing in the Hills by Bill Barich. It was published in 1980 and is both a memoir and portrait of racetrack life by a writer who had nothing to lose by hanging out at the track.”
Lastly, we have bowling. Or not. Pruner’s been going to the lanes since he was a teenager in New York and today competes in two leagues and averages 186 at the Shaker Bowl in East Longmeadow. Alas, he said, “The great American bowling novel hasn’t been written yet. The Big Lebowski is a worthy stand-in until that day comes.”
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.