There used to be a character type in America I like to call the "gentleman jock." Champions on the athletic field and scholars off it, they were modern-day incarnations of the classical Greek mind-and-body model. Some of them even wrote books. By themselves.
Three in particular are welcome reminders of the uplifting qualities of sports while depicting the games as reflections of their imperfect larger cultures.
Jim Bouton's Ball Four was among the first books authored by a gentleman jock to break the code of the locker room. The scandalous revelations of players and coaches using amphetamines, dope, and alcohol made Bouton a pariah among his peers. It is also a compelling account of a man facing the pain of promise unfulfilled (What Happens to a Dream Deserted could be the subtitle). Bouton is a man in transition: an all-star by age 24, injuries have slowed his fastball and dropped him to baseball's dungeon as a relief pitcher with the awful Seattle Pilots. Bouton kept a diary while playing for Seattle and for Houston, and his sharp observations about players, fans, family, and the media draw probing parallels between the turmoil of a society coming apart at the seams and a man losing his grip on the ball.
Bill Bradley was the prototypical gentleman jock. Due to his pinpoint shooting on the basketball court, his Princeton address and his Rhodes scholarship, Bradley was venerated in profiles by the likes of John McPhee. (Full disclosure: "Dollar Bill" was an acquaintance of my parents. We worked on his political campaigns, and he even ate dinner at our house once when I was 15. I should have had him sign the casserole dish.) Like Bouton, Bradley wrote a diary over the course of a season near the end of his playing days that comprises Life on the Run, and he uses his time on the court, in locker rooms, hotel rooms, planes, and buses to craft moving portraits of the assorted characters in the cocoon of the team. Bradley turns an especially penetrating eye on himself — on the construction of his All-American image, the machine that made it, and the human desire to believe in it.
When Arthur Ashe wrote Days of Grace in 1993 (with Arnold Rampersad), he'd been retired from tennis for a decade. However, diagnosed with AIDS, he was in the midst of fighting his most punishing adversary in a life defined by overcoming fierce challenges. Ashe broke the color barrier in men's tennis, becoming the first African-American man to win the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, and the Australian Open, and captain the U.S. Davis Cup team. His talent on the page is equally commanding. I was awakened to his totemic power at conquering the best and worst American society has to offer. Like Bouton and Bradley, Ashe's love of sport lifted his body and character, but his will to beat the real foes in his story — racism and fatal illness — elevate the book to a higher playing field.
These books' legacies suggest this was an age in which giants strode the ball fields. The gentleman jock may be an artifact lost to history, like the bounce pass and wood tennis rackets, but I hope not. As Bradley wrote, "I felt about the court, the ball, and playing, the way people feel about friends."
Jon Reiner is the author of the book, The Man Who Couldn't Eat.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman.