The Ales Of An Athletic Supporter|
by Trent Frayne
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|Sports Of All Sorts
by George Kaufman
OLD PORTSWRITERS never die, they just keep on writing stories.
This fall, two of Canada`s best-known storytellers for the lock set have written books that are interesting on several Counts. Most significantly, they serve as a valuable narrative history of Canadian sports. More like crazy-quilt collections of stories than books in the conventional sense, these two volumes contain enough fascinating anecdotes and colourful characters to keep any sports fan busy through the A inter months.
These memoirs also open the door on the fabled world of old-style newspaper operations. There are stories and characters here to rival the ribald tales of Damon Runyon and Ben Hecht, proof -- if it were needed -- that Canadian newspapers nurtured their fair hare of hard-drinking, hard-living writers who displayed at least as much imagination as writing skill.
Both books also share similar time periods and many of the same characters, not to mention starting points in Manitoba (why do so many Canadian writers emerge from the frozen prairies?). But there are also some sharp and decisive contrasts.
Frayne is chatty, personable, witty. His easygoing, self-deprecating style makes reading The Tales of an Athletic Supporter like sharing beers and stories with the veteran columnist at a comfortable pub. Coleman, on the other hand, is surprisingly stiff and formal. He tells his many entertaining stories well, but fails to place either himself or us inside the stories the way Frayne manages so easily.
The middle part of Coleman`s Long Ride on a Hobby Horse provides a perfect example of the strengths and weaknesses of his approach. This section contains an interesting capsule history of Canadian professional football, a boon to CFL fans who want to know more about the game`s origins and gain a better appreciation of what makes it vitally different from the brand of gridiron warfare played South of the border. There`s an ample cast of vividly drawn characters, and many intriguing anecdotes; and Coleman captures the fierce nature of prairie football rivalry, which, even in today`s relatively mellow form, distinguishes it from that found elsewhere.
But, again, it is mostly related in a dry, rhird-person recitation more Suitable for a history text than a sports book. Theres just too little of Jim Coleman himself here. His style throughout is frustratingly flat and strangely impersonal. Friends drink themselves to death, commit suicide, or go on to fame and fortune ... it all seems the same to the author, who records it all with bloodless equivalency. We seldom know how Coleman feels about it -- things just happen.
Not so with Frayne, whose ingenuous openness makes us feel we`ve made a friend before many pages have been turned. He has a keen eye for detail, and a concise way of turning a phrase that neatly delivers the flavour of all the diverse sports events and personalities hes, come across. Sample his succinct observation of a game of Australian football:
The overall philosophy of Australian football was once best expressed by a coach in Melbourne. "Australian football is a game for men, played by beasts." After watching for a while, I concluded that the most important piece of equipment in Australian football is an ambulance.
Frayne does have an irritating habit of leaping dizzily from memory to memory, decade to decade, with little apparent concern for giving a meaningful arrangement to his stories. More than 100 pages into the book, for example, we Suddenly learn that he has a wife (June Callwood) and a twoyear-old daughter. This information is tacked onto a story about the 1947 World Series in New York. But that`s easily overlooked, given his joyous sharing of his eventful, well-observed life as a sports columnist. As he notes,
If you`re footloose, an advantage of writing about sports is that it lands You in a lot of places that would otherwise remain names in an atlas. For me, pursuing perspiring people led to Germany and Cuba, Australia and Russia, England and Scotland, among other faraway places.... Here is Jack Donohue on a beach outside Havana walking hand in hand with his lady basketball players, and there in Edinburgh I stared in awe at Ben Johnson`s muscles in the days before the shit hit the fan.
And he`s candid about the hard drinking and occasional lapses of professional ethics among his generation of newspaper writers -- a generation that has been enveloped in the fuzzy glow of romanticism with the passage of time:
In those days, sanity usually returned to young sportswriters around the age of 22 or 2 3. These days, not so many drink so foolishly, although there are still a few elderly juveniles around who impart thrilling tales when they return from road trips of how drunk they got in Seattle or Baltimore or wherever. The current sportswriters are superior to those of my youth.
Perhaps. But will they have Such stories to tell, or be able to tell them with the disarming simplicity and charm of a Trent Frayne?