Monday, October 10, 2005

Southern Festival of Books in the Sports Spotlight

The annual Southern Festival of Books is a regional gathering that takes place in downtown Nashville. This past weekend's affair was typically interesting, with plenty of authors and publishers hawking their wares, with serious literary lions like Clyde Edgerton and Bobbie Ann Mason signing autographs and delivering addresses to a book-savvy crowd.

I had the distinct pleasure of moderating an 11 a.m. program on Saturday, Oct. 8, "From the AAU to the NFL: Sports Storytelling," which featured three marvelous authors whose new books capture uniquely diverse stripes in the sports color spectrum. Best of all, these gentlemen knew how to tell good yarns, and they deftly incorporated them into their presentations.

First up was William Price Fox, a teacher of creative writing at the University of South Carolina, and also a veteran journalist and novelist who has taught at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, published fiction works such as Southern Fried, Ruby Red, Lunatic Wind and Wild Blue Yonder, and has contributed more than 100 stories and articles to magazines such as Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Esquire. Fox also spent some time in Hollywood, and authored the screenplay for Norman Lear’s 1971 cult feature film Cold Turkey.

Fox’s new volume, Satchel Paige’s America (Univ. of Alabama Pr., $16.95, ISBN: 0-8173-5189-2) is less about America and more about the man, who was probably the most gifted African American pitcher to never get to play major league baseball in his prime. When Paige finally left the old Negro Leagues and joined the Cleveland Indians at the ripe young age of 42, he could still pitch, but more than that, Satchel simply became a folk hero, by virtue of his colorful personality and his funloving approach to the game. Paige stories are endless, as are attributed aphorisms such as, “Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” Despite his brief major league stint, Paige got to pitch in a World Series, and in 1971, by virtue of his acknowledged pitching dominance in the Negro Leagues, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Amazingly, in 1965, at the presumed age of 59 or 60—no one was ever exactly sure when Satchel was born, but earliest estimates put it at 1905—he pitched three scoreless innings for the Kansas City Athletics.

Fox's book is a compilation of amazing conversations the author had with Paige back in the 1970s, as the two men hung out together in various Kansas City juke joints and bowling alleys and at Paige's home. Paige passed away in 1982, but his legend has lived on without abatement. Satchel Paige's America serves as a welcome reminder of the Paige legacy and the role the man played in making it clear what white America was generally denied in missing the opportunity to see the greatest Negro Leagues ballplayers in their heydays.

The program's second speaker, Clyde Bolton, spent 40 years as a beat sports reporter in his native Alabama, more than 30 of them with the Birmingham News. The multi-award-winning Bolton is reputed to be the most widely read Alabamian in history, and it's hard to argue the point. In all those years, Bolton covered Alabama and Auburn football, the Southeastern Conference, high school sports, minor league baseball, college basketball, and Nextel Cup car racing. Not surprisingly, he rubbed elbows with the most compelling sports personalities of the past four decades, including Michael Jordan, while he was playing minor league baseball with the Birmingham Barons; Muhammad Ali, with whom Bolton broke bread at a fraternity house on the Auburn University campus; football Hall-of-Famer Johnny Unitas; and irrepressible Alabama football coach Paul (“Bear”) Bryant.

The new book that brought Bolton to Nashville is Stop the Presses (So I Can Get Off) (Univ. of Alabama Pr., $25, ISBN: 0-8173-5252-X), which is a delightfully wide-ranging memoir of his life in sports journalism, filled with priceless anecdotes and no-holds-barred opinion. Bolton regaled the festival audience with amazing stories and interesting factoids that captured not only his long career but also provided a deep perspective on the changing technology and commercial concerns that have altered sports reportage, not to mention the games themselves. Bolton recalled a time when reporters used to use carrier pigeons to get late-breaking game info over to a newsroom, then proceeded to entertain his audience with the tale of a young reporter under deadline (Bolton) standing outside a bathroom stall to get answers to his questions from none other than Joe Willie Namath, former Alabama quarterback great, who was, uh, otherwise engaged.

It turns out that Bolton is also a novelist, whose works include, most recently, Turn Left on Green and Nancy Swimmer: A Story of the Cherokee Nation. Bolton took some time during his address to discuss the latter book, which offers a heartfelt view of the miseries incurred by Native Americans during the infamous Trail of Tears.

Bolton was inducted into the Alabama Sports Writers Hall of Fame in 2001. Meeting him and listening to his simple wisdom was a complete joy.

The program's final guest was the amazing Robert W. Ikard, a Nashville thoracic surgeon who has moonlighted as a sports journalist, a social historian, and a musicologist. Dr. Ikard is the author of a music history, Near You: Francis Craig, Dean of Southern Maestros and also a book called No More Social Lynching, which probes both the over- and underside of social and racial progress in his native Maury County, Tennessee.

Dr. Ikard’s new book, which again shows his knack for uncovering interesting historical subjects, is Just for Fun: The Story of AAU Women’s Basketball (Univ. of Arkansas Pr., $24.95, ISBN: 1-55728-783-X). At first glance, this volume
might put the reader in mind of the film A League of Their Own, director Penny Marshall’s excellent story about the women’s baseball league during World War II. Part of this book covers the same chronological era, and indeed the vivid archival photos contained within are simply that, offering a unique glimpse into the style and personalities of the young women who played basketball under the auspices of the now-defunct Amateur Athletic Union, which existed approximately 1930-1970.

Long before the more highly publicized and more lucrative rise of women’s college and professional basketball in America, there was the AAU, which always seemed like a forerunner of the NCAA to some of us, but in fact was quite different. Dr. Ikard’s book is the first to thoroughly explore the complex and heretofore unknown history of the Amateur Athletic Union’s women’s basketball program. In so doing, he focuses the light that needs to be shed on four decades of women’s basketball that is all but forgotten in this current age where women’s athletics gets serious attention from media and fans alike. Just for Fun also serves up long-overdue profiles of the women—most of them rural gals from the central and southern U.S.—who, in playing on AAU teams, truly created what used to be their own special playground, and helped to lay the foundation for women’s athletics in the modern age.

Dr. Ikard's surgically precise address to the SFB audience offered fascinating new sports perspectives and ably put the capper on a delightful and inspiring 90 minutes of book-chat.

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