On Sports

Some of the giants of the games

SAM MIRCOVICH/REUTERSYankees owner George Steinbrenner holds the 1998 World Series trophy after his team defeated the San Diego Padres. SAM MIRCOVICH/REUTERSYankees owner George Steinbrenner holds the 1998 World Series trophy after his team defeated the San Diego Padres. (Sam Mircovich/Reuters)
By Bill Littlefield
July 5, 2009
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During one 11-year period in his reign over the New York Yankees, George Steinbrenner fired his manager 12 times, setting what Peter Golenbock calls “a record for destructive, frivolous management.’’

Steinbrenner’s trespasses not directly related to Billy Martin et al set no records, because lots of businessmen lie to their employees, make illegal campaign contributions, stonewall the authorities, and hire private investigators to smear their enemies as a matter of course.

Despite or perhaps because of all this, Golenbock believes George Steinbrenner should be “a first ballot selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame.’’ Maybe Golenbock is right. Steinbrenner certainly was and is famous. What other owner of a Major League Baseball team was caricatured for years on “Seinfeld’’?

“George’’ is informative and entertaining, even if it does not finally answer the question of whether The Boss did more harm than good to the club he owned.

Like Steinbrenner, Red Auerbach could be a vulgar, obnoxious buffoon. But that’s not the side of Auerbach that Bill Russell (with Alan Steinberg) explores in “Red and Me.’’ Readers inclined to give Russell the benefit of the doubt will conclude that he cowrote this book in order to celebrate his friendship with Auerbach, a friendship that was long and extraordinarily productive in terms of NBA championships. The relationship between Russell and Auerbach was based on mutual admiration, the shared goal of winning basketball games, and, as Russell writes, Auerbach’s respect for Russell’s “individuality.’’ Less charitable readers will figure Russell is canny enough to know that any book he wrote about Auerbach would sell lots of copies, at least in New England, and that has been the case.

As Russell tells the story in “Red and Me,’’ his coach and general manager gained Russell’s trust, confidence, and friendship by recognizing the obvious: that Bill Russell was an extremely useful basketball player who should get special treatment, a man who would flourish if he were allowed to define the requirements of his position according to his own understanding of the game. As Russell himself says of his friend and favorite coach, “in all our years together, he never ordered me to do anything.’’ Auerbach ordered lots of other people to do things, but good for him that he was sufficiently wise to recognize Bill Russell as a special case, and, as it turned out, very good for Russell as well. And, of course, good for fans of the Celtics, especially between 1957 and 1969.

After both men retired, Russell and Auerbach remained friends, though Russell maintains that it was the sort of friendship that didn’t require actual contact. The friendship “was just there, working for us, so we didn’t have to think about it anymore.’’

Last year’s Wimbledon men’s final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal may or may not have been “the Greatest Match Ever Played,’’ but L. Jon Wertheim’s list of reasons in “Strokes of Genius’’ to celebrate it as such is intriguing. “This match had it all,’’ he writes, “skill, courage, sportsmanship, grace, discipline, gallantry, poise, intelligence, humility, injury, recovery, fibrillations of momentum, even acts of God.’’ He goes on to celebrate the absence of “cheerleaders, goofy mascots, booing, piped-in music or men firing free T-shirts into the crowd via air cannons.’’ The moral of the confrontation, according to Wertheim is “invest some dignity in a sporting event and everyone responds in kind.’’

Larry Tye’s “Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend’’ is among the rare biographies of an athlete that transcends sports. This is in part because Satchel Paige was a true original and a fellow so good at what he did that, like Babe Ruth, he altered not only the pay scale but the landscape for his teammates and his opponents. Paige was an energetic and creative self-promoter, but by his efforts he also promoted the game. He brought to Negro League games the large crowds they deserved.

Tye argues that Paige was baseball’s first authentic free agent, since the pitcher regarded contracts as flexible arrangements to be honored only until he could scare up a better opportunity. He certainly pitched in more games than anyone else, and probably won more, too. When he made his final appearance in the Major Leagues, he was 59. His earned run average then was 0.00.

But Tye gives us the man as well as the myth, Satchel Paige as simultaneously proud and wounded, triumphant but bitter about being cheated of what he might have achieved in a less racist world, at once very much part of baseball’s history and larger than the limitations of the game’s precious statistics.

Bill Littlefield hosts National Public Radio’s “Only a Game’’ His most recent book is also titled “Only a Game.’’

GEORGE: The Poor Little Rich Boy Who Built The Yankee Empire
By Peter Golenbock, Wiley. 384 pp, photographs, $26.95

RED AND ME: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend
By Bill Russell (with Alan Steinberg)
Harper, 208 pp., $24.99

STROKES OF GENIUS: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played
By L. Jon Wertheim
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 208 pp., $24

SATCHEL:The Life and Times of an American Legend
By Larry Tye
Random House, 416 pp., photographs $26

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