Genre: Sports, Fitness, & Recreation
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld
Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court (2017)
I didn’t realize I was black until third grade.
Memoirs from sports figures rarely begin with memorable openings, but this first sentence from one of the sports world’s most interesting and articulate figures is a refreshing exception. It begins the book’s first chapter, titled “How I Discovered I was Black.“
Abdul-Jabaar continued: “Although I was born in the predominantly black community of Harlem in 1947, I was raised in a multiethnic housing project in the Inwood section of Manhattan. Our project consisted of seven buildings, each fourteen stories tall, with twelve apartments on each floor. That totaled 1,176 apartments. Basically, a small, crowded city.“
“Box Scores,“ in The Summer Game (1972)
Today the Times reported the arrival of the first pitchers and catchers at the spring training camps, and the morning was abruptly brightened, as if by the delivery of a seed catalogue.
Angell, often called “The poet laureate of sportswriters” (although he does not like the designation), continued: “The view from my city window still yields only frozen tundras of trash, but now spring is guaranteed and one of my favorite urban flowers, the baseball box score, will burgeon and flourish through the warm, languid, information-packed weeks and months just ahead.“
“Swingtime,“ in The New Yorker (Aug. 2, 1993)
Coming up out of the dugout before his next at-bat in a big game, Reggie Jackson was always accompanied by an invisible entourage: he was the heavyweight champion headed down the aisle for another title defense.
Angell continued: “The batter’s box was his prize ring, and once he’d dug in there—with those gauntleted arms, the squashed-down helmet, the shades and the shoulders—all hearts beat faster.“
Beartown: A Novel (2017)
Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead, and pulled the trigger.
This is the story of how we got there.
In a “Literary Lifestyle” blog post, Jules Buono wrote: “Beartown begins at the end and, with an opening line as ominous as this one, you just know there’s an epic tale to be unraveled.” The opening words form the entirety of the first chapter, and it’s impossible to imagine someone reading them and not immediately turning the page to learn more.
While the opening words suggest a crime novel, Beartown is regarded as a “sports novel,” often described as “the hockey version of Friday Night Lights.” In a New York Times review, however, book editor Gregory Cowles accurately titled his piece, “A Different Kind of Sports Novel.” Cowles also paid a high compliment to the author, writing, “As popular Swedish exports go, Backman is up there with Abba and Stieg Larsson.”
Roy Blount, Jr.
“Yea, Mr. Mays,” in Sports Illustrated (July 27, 1970)
In 1951 Marilyn Monroe was a starlet, Bobby Orr a baby, Hubert Humphrey a comer—and Willie Mays very nearly the same phenomenon he was last week.
Mays, in his 20th baseball season, was approaching a record reached by only sixteen previous players. Blount continued: “In harsh heat and foggy chill, and under the intense scrutiny such a situation demanded, he chased after his 3,000th hit—and seemed to blossom rather than wilt under the pressure.”
Ball Four (1970)
I’m 30 years old and I have these dreams.
Ball Four is one of the most influential “sports bios” ever written, and a true classic of sports literature. David Halberstam sensed the book’s greatness almost immediately after it was published, writing in a 1970 Harper’s magazine article: “He has written the best sports book in years, a book deep in the American vein, so deep it is by no means a sports book.”
In the second paragraph of the book, Bouton continued: “I dream my knuckleball is jumping around like a Ping-Pong ball in the wind and I pitch a two-hit shutout against my old team, the New York Yankees, single home the winning run in the ninth inning and, when the game is over, take a big bow on the mound in Yankee stadium with 60,000 people cheering wildly. After the game reporters crowd around my locker room asking me to explain how I did it. I don’t mind telling them.”
The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to 45472 (1974)
RUBIN, my Christian name, comes from the Book of Genesis, Chapter 29, verse 32 of the Holy Scriptures. Other than both of us being black, that’s about the only thing the Bible and I ever had in common.
This is a wonderful opening paragraph, and things only got better as Carter continued in the next three paragraphs:
“HURRICANE is the professional name that I acquired later on in life. It provides an accurate description of the destructive forces that rage within my soul.
“CARTER is the slave name that was given to my forefathers who worked in the cotton fields of Alabama and Georgia, and was passed on to me. The name is like any other—worthless—but it’s the one that appears on my birth certificate.
“The kindest thing that I can say about my childhood is that I survived it.”
Carter was an outstanding middleweight boxer who was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in 1967. These are the opening words of his autobiography, written while he was in prison, and published in 1974. The story inspired Bob Dylan to write the song “Hurricane” in 1975, and that song, in turn, helped mobilize a “Free Rubin” movement all around the country.
After serving eighteen years in prison, Carter’s sentence was overturned by a federal judge in 1985. Carter’s story was brought to the big screen in the 1999 film Hurricane, with Denzel Washington playing Carter. The opening words above are so exceptional that, in the film, Washington repeated them exactly as you see them here.
My Losing Season: A Memoir (2002)
I was born to be a point guard, but not a very good one.
The Last Traverse: Tragedy and Resilience in the Winter Whites (2020)
James Osborne is on the precipice, barely holding on to the frayed rope of advanced life support. The hospital’s technology and medications are working to protect him from falling into the abyss, but just how long the fragile anchor system can keep him aloft is uncertain.
GUEST COMMENTARY from David J. Hartson, Ph.D. a retired North Dakota psychologist who lived and practiced for many years in Littleton, New Hampshire. Dr. Hartson writes:
“These dramatic first lines capture a medical team’s tense struggle to save the life of James Osborne, an outdoorsman who hours earlier was rescued half-alive and more than half-frozen while on a winter hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. One of the world’s most beautiful places in the summer, it is one of the most treacherous in the winter, with routine low temperatures of -20 F, wind velocity of 75-95 mph, wind chill at -53 F, and visibility of zero. Gagne’s book is a moving tribute to the medical team’s efforts to save Osborne’s life, and to the First Responders who brought him out alive.”
The exceptionally high quality of Gagne’s writing continued in the remainder of the first paragraph: “As the life struggle rages on, he swings helplessly back and forth through a spectrum of amorphous dreams and disruptive stimuli. His primitive brain is on alert, working behind the scenes in support of the intervention it senses being undertaken by forces unknown. This is because his analytic brain, the cortex, did an emergency bailout over a day ago and hasn’t been heard from since.”
Gretzky: An Autobiography (1990; with Rick Reilly)
I have to admit, my childhood was a little different.
This is the full opening paragraph, and it quickly seems like a huge understatement as Gretzky continued: “I could skate at two. I was nationally known at six. I was signing autographs at ten. I had a national magazine article written about me at eleven and a thirty-minute national television show done on me at fifteen. I turned pro and kept going to high school!”
As Gretzky goes on like this for a few more moments, many readers might be thinking, “What a great beginning to a great life! No wonder they called him The Great Gretzky.” Others, however, might be thinking, “I hope this self-puffery doesn’t continue for the rest of the book.” And then Gretzky drops the hammer by writing in the next paragraph: “I just felt like I was the happiest kid in Canada. Until I was about twelve. That’s when I realized I was the unhappiest.”
How unexpected! And how cool to see such disarming honesty. How could a reader not continue reading?
Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001)
In 1938, near the end of a decade of monumental turmoil, the year’s number-one newsmaker was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini. It wasn’t Pope Pius XI, nor was it Lou Gehrig, Howard Hughes, or Clark Gable. The subject of the most newspaper column inches in 1938 wasn’t even a person. It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse named Seabiscuit.
I love great opening lines, true, and that love also occasionally extends to the things written about them. If I spent a month crafting my own thoughts about Hillenbrand’s remarkable opening paragraph, it wouldn’t hold a candle to an amazing assessment made by professor Richard Goodman of the University of New Orleans. In an October 2012 article in The Writer’s Chronicle (titled “In the Beginning: Creating Dynamic, Meaningful & Compelling Openings”), he offered a Masterclass in literary criticism in these three paragraphs:
“How do writers take advantage of the opening of their story and use it skillfully to accomplish what they need to do? We can begin with the simple act of dispensing of information. There’s no better example of how that’s done well than the Preface of Laura Hillenbrand’s nonfiction book Seabiscuit: An American Legend. Remember that when this book was published in 2001, very few people had ever heard of Seabiscuit, much less had known anything about the horse’s remarkable, unlikely drama. That seems incredible now, after the hugely successful book and the equally successful movie, but it’s true. Not only that, Hillenbrand knew very well that no book about a horse had ever done remotely well in the history of American literature. (I’m excluding books for children and young adults, because this book is not in that category.) She had her work cut out for her….
“What she does here, foremost, in this brief paragraph, is to get the reader to understand how big, culturally speaking, Seabiscuit was. First, we notice the famous—and infamous—company she puts Seabiscuit in: Roosevelt, Pope Pius XI, Clark Gable. Mussolini and Hitler. But it’s how she puts Seabiscuit in that company that makes this so convincing. The names are intricately balanced. If you were to diagram them, poetically speaking, it would be AAA—all the political figures—; B—the Pope—; and CCC—all the well-known cultural icons. Look closely, and you’ll see this paragraph is even more fully balanced. The year 1938 is at the start of the paragraph, and it’s also near the end. The word ‘newspaper’ is placed before the litany of names, as well as after. Hillenbrand further provides a sense of balance with the litany itself: ‘was not’; ‘wasn’t’; ‘nor was’; ‘wasn’t even’, setting up the dramatic ‘It was.’ Having been set to expect a person, we are, instead, given the name of a horse. That horse—the one who was more famous that Roosevelt, Clark Gable or the Pope—was named Seabiscuit.
“No good artist ever does anything without a reason. So you can be certain that every single thing in this paragraph was done deliberately. The effect is to get you to look at this horse in a way you’ve never looked at another horse and to believe this is going to be a story worth reading. Of course we know the denouement to this paragraph is going to be Seabiscuit. That’s the name on the cover of the book. So how can we still be surprised? We’re surprised by the facts that we didn’t know, and by how they’re presented to us. This writing is the result of patient crafting, but it’s also the result of research and of marshaling facts. These facts didn’t just fall from the sky, though; Hillenbrand rooted them out—obsessively, as she herself describes it. To find those facts she began, ‘prowling Internet search engines, memorabilia auctions, and obscure bookstores, writing letters and placing information wanted ads, and making hundreds of calls to strangers.’ She didn’t stop until she found what she was looking for. This, with her craft, produced a gem of an opening paragraph.”
Very well said, professor Goodman, very well said, indeed. Thank you for granting me permission to quote you.
Fever Pitch: A Fan’s Life (1992)
I fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.
Being an Englishman, the football Hornby is describing is what Americans call soccer.
W. P. Kinsella
Shoeless Joe (1982)
My father said he saw him years later playing in a tenth-rate commercial league in a textile town in Carolina, wearing shoes and an assumed name.
The narrator and protagonist is Ray Kinsella, an Iowa farmer who just happens to share the author’s surname. He goes on to quote his father as saying: “He’d put on fifty pounds and the spring was gone from his step in the outfield, but he could still hit. Oh, how that man could hit. No one has ever been able to hit like Shoeless Joe.“
In the novel, Kinsella hears a voice telling him to build a baseball diamond in the middle of a huge corn field. The field, he is told, will give Shoeless Joe Jackson, the central figure in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, a chance at redemption. The novel was acclaimed by critics from the outset and went on to win the 1982 Books in Canada First Novel Award.
After the novel was adapted into the 1989 film Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner, the saying “If you build it, he will come” went on to become a cultural meme The saying was recently ranked 39th on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Movie Quotes of all time.
Crooked Little Heart (1997)
Rosie and her friends were blooming like spring, budding, lithe, agile as cats. They wore tiny dresses and skirts so short that their frilly satin tennis bloomers showed.
The narrator continued about the 13-year-old girls: “Into their bloomers they tucked an extra tennis ball to extract when it was needed, as with sleight of hand, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, a quarter from behind an ear.”
Squeeze Play (1990)
Opening Day April 3
You see a lot of penises in my line of work: short ones, stubby ones, hard ones, soft ones. Circumcised and uncircumcised; laid-back and athletic.
There’s only one word to describe an opener like this: a classic “hook.“ The words come from A. B. Berkowitz, a female Washington Tribune sportswriter who’s been assigned to cover the Washington Senators, the worst team in major league baseball. In the novel’s first paragraph, Berkowitz continued:
“Professionally speaking, they have a lot in common, which is to say they are all attached to guys, most of whom are naked while I am not, thus forming the odd dynamic of our relationship. They are athletes who believe in the inalienable right to scratch their balls anytime they want. I am a sportswriter. My job is to tell you the score.”
An autobiographical novel inspired by Leavy’s own sportswriting career with the Washington Post, the novel was described by Allen Barra in an Entertainment Weekly review as “the funniest, raunchiest, and most compassionate baseball novel I’ve ever read.” Barra went on to add that the novel “is sure to offend some people who cried during Field of Dreams—and that’s good enough for me.”
“Modern Sports,“ in Metropolitan Life (1978)
When it comes to sports I am not particularly interested. Generally speaking, I look upon them as dangerous and tiring activities performed by people with whom I share nothing except the right to trial by jury.
Lebowitz continued: “It is not that I am totally indifferent to the joys of athletic effort—it is simply that my idea of what constitutes sport does not coincide with popularly held notions on the subject.”
The Ultimate Athlete (1974)
In every fat man, the saying goes, there is a thin man struggling to get out. If this is so, then every skinny man must at times find himself surrounded by the ghostly outlines of muscles and heft. And there must somehow exist an ideal physique for every one of us—man, woman, and child.
Leonard continued: “Every body that moves about on this planet, if you look at it that way, may well be inhabited by a strong and graceful athlete, capable of Olympian feats.“
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2003)
The first thing they always did was run you.
In this landmark sports book, Lewis began by introducing the idea of experts focusing on the wrong things. He continued: “When big league scouts road-tested a group of elite amateur prospects, foot speed was the first item they checked off their lists. The scouts actually carried around checklists. ‘Tools’ is what they called the talents they were checking for in a kid. There were five tools: the abilities to run, throw, field, hit, and hit with power. A guy who could run had ‘wheels’; a guy with a strong arm had a ‘hose.’ Scouts spoke the language of auto mechanics. You could be forgiven, if you listened to them, for thinking they were discussing sports cars and not young men.”
“A River Runs Through It,” in A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (1976)
In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.
A River Runs Through it and Other Stories was a debut work by Norman Maclean, a seventy-three-year-old retired University of Chicago English professor (it was also the first work of fiction published by the University of Chicago Press).
The title story is an autobiographical novella that has become one of America’s most revered works of fiction (in 1992, Robert Redford brought the story to the screen in an award-winning movie). In a 2017 Foreword to a new edition of the book, Redford said he first read “A River Runs Through It” in 1981, after the writer Tom McGuane recommended it as “the real thing.“ Admitting that he typically distrusts such enthusiastic recommendations, Redford wrote: “But when I read the first sentence...I thought I might be in for something.“
In “In the Beginning: Creating Dynamic, Meaningful & Compelling Openings,” an October 2012 article in The Writer’s Chronicle, University of New Orleans professor Richard Goodman wrote that MacLean’s first sentence was “one of the most charming, engaging, irresistible beginnings I know.“ About the opening sentence, he added: “If you can resist that, then you have enormous willpower or a pathological hatred of fishing. Even then, I would venture that your curiosity is piqued enough to make you read on. You probably have to know just why and how there was no distinction between religion and fly fishing. Maclean shows you in this affecting story of two brothers, sons of a Presbyterian minister, who taught the brothers how to fish, but who couldn’t prevent one from his tragic end.“
In the novel’s opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fisherman, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fisherman on the Sea of Galilee were fly fisherman and that John, the favorite was a dry-fly fisherman.”
Tori Murden McClure
A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean (2009)
In the end, I know I rowed across the Atlantic to find my heart, but in the beginning, I wasn’t aware that it was missing.
When a memoir—especially one centered around a personal or athletic achievement—begins with an opening line that rivals those of the great novelists, it’s yet another accomplishment, and I’m delighted to be honoring it here.
In 1999, McClure became the first woman in history to row across the Atlantic ocean, and the first person to do it solo. She had attempted the crossing a year earlier, but was thwarted by a hurricane. In Book Lust to Go (2010), American librarian Nancy Pearl wrote “I love the first line,” and offered the fascinating tidbit that Muhammad Ali was instrumental in getting McClure to make a second attempt. According to Pearl, Ali told her that she probably didn’t want to go down in history as the first woman who “almost rowed across the Atlantic.”
For her incredible feat, McClure received numerous awards, including the Ocean Rowing Society International’s Peter Bird Trophy for Tenacity and Perseverance, and the Victor Award, given annually by the National Academy of Sports Editors to outstanding athletes. The Atlantic crossing, as it turns out, was only one of McClure’s outstanding personal efforts. She is also the first woman to ski to the South Pole and the first woman to climb the Lewis Nunatak in the Thiel Mountains of Antarctica. As I write this in early 2022, she has graduated to new feats of daring, serving as president of Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.
“Me and My Bike and Why,” in An Outside Chance: Essays of Sport (1980)
Like many who buy a motorcycle, there had been for me the problem of getting over the rather harrowing insurance statistics as to just what it is that is likely to happen to you.
“Molly,” in An Outside Chance: Essays of Sport (1980)
I have been bird hunting since I was ten years old. I was not much good at it when I was ten, and many years of experience have not made me any better. Sometimes, when asked about the results of my shooting, I am ashamed. Sometimes so ashamed that I lie about it vividly and recklessly.
“Motocross,” in An Outside Chance: Essays of Sport (1980)
The fastest way to go from point to point on the face of the earth, assuming that you do not prepare the ground in front of you but take it rough and unimproved, is on a motorcycle.
McGuane continued: “The right bike in the right hands can travel full tilt in bumps, slides, and vaults over ground that would gunnysack Land Rovers and Power Wagons. In the hands of the cyclists who dominate motocross racing, the progress is made with a power and alacrity that makes your hair stand on end.”
“Wading the Hazards,” in An Outside Chance: Essays of Sport (1980)
Lately I’ve been having trouble with golf. Which of us has not?
McGuane continued: “Traced upon the minds of many of our countrymen are the perimeters of a golf course, a last frontier, a wonderful great lawn whose spacious nocturnal gloom always served the fantasies of young trespassers when nothing else in the republic did.”
“A World-Record Dinner,” in An Outside Chance: Essays of Sport (1980)
I concede that “mutton snapper” is hardly a prepossessing title. The sheep, from which the name derives, is not much of an animal. No civilized person deals with him except in chops and stews. To bleat is not to sing out in a commanding baritone; to be sheepish is scarcely to possess a virtue for which civilization rolls out its more impressive carpets.
The title of the essay is nothing to write home about, but the opening paragraph is exceptional, and the writing only gets better as McGuane moves into the second paragraph:
“And it is true that the fish, as you may have suspected, is not at all handsome, with its large and vacant-looking head, crazy red eye, and haphazard black spot just shy of its tail. Yet its brick-orange flanks and red tail are rather tropical and fine, and for a number of reasons it deserves consideration as major light-tackle game. When you have been incessantly outwitted by the mutton snapper, you cease to emphasize his vaguely doltish exterior.”
Out of Their League (1970)
You may not know it, but you’ve probably seen me on television a few times during the last seven years or so—that is if you’re one of the 25 million Americans who zeroes in on pro football for several hours every fall weekend. I wasn’t a glamour player, and the St. Louis Cardinals, where I played linebacker, wasn’t a glamour team; but I was out there, along with a thousand or so other guys, most of them as anonymous as me.
But you won’t see me out there again.
This is a wonderful beginning to one of the most interesting and influential sports memoirs ever written (in 2002, Sports Illustrated ranked it Number 63 on its list of The Top 100 Sports Books of All Time). Meggyesy was only 29 when the book was published, and at the top of his game, but he believed the sport he had loved his entire life was in desperate need of reform. Look magazine’s Leonard Schecter called it “the roughest sport book ever written.” And seventeen years after it was published, David Remnick wrote in a 1987 Sports Illustrated article that it had “changed the way we think about the most popular sport in the country.”
In his article, Remnick also memorably described the book: “A polemical book that made Jim Bouton’s Ball Four seem as tame as The Red Grange Story. Meggyesy wrote about alumni boosters contributing money under the table to college athletes, team doctors shooting up players with painkillers, coaches pushing athletes to play despite serious injuries, players cheating on their wives and organizing orgies, sadistic coaches treating players like dray horses, teams divided along racial lines.”
All the Way: My Life in Four Quarters (2019)
Something isn’t right. My chest is tight, and I’m just distracted, man, distracted. I’m drinking my daily eight-ounce Cheribundi at the kitchen table as an afternoon storm starts rolling in. Nothing out of the ordinary for August in south Florida, but I’m sure outta my element.
These opening words immediately raise the question: what is causing a man known for his brashness and confidence to feel distracted and out of his element? Turns out, it’s the challenge of sitting down to write his own autobiography. Yes, Namath had published a first memoir in 1969 (I Can’t Wait for Tomorrow…’Cause I Get Better Looking Every Day), but that book was essentially written by Dick Schaap, who posed a multitude of questions to the New York Jets’ quarterback, recorded his answers, and then reconstructed his words into a celebrity autobiography.
In All the Way, clearly written by himself this time, the seventy-something Namath continued his opening paragraph by writing: “I decide to pull up the definition of ‘memoir’ on my iPad: ‘A record of events written by a person having intimate knowledge of them and based on personal observation.’ Boy, that just isn’t me. I don’t have a lot of practice talking about myself unless I’m answering questions. Growing up with three older brothers, somebody else was always talking, louder than I ever could. It just feels negative, man. Negative.”
Craig Nettles and Peter Golenbock
Some kids dream of joining the circus, others of becoming a major league baseball player. I have been doubly blessed. As a member of the New York Yankees, I have gotten to do both.
The Greatest Gambling Story Every Told (2020)
A girl with long red hair, perhaps eight years old, was sitting high atop her father’s shoulders, watching the horses load into the gate for the 110th running of the Kentucky Derby. They were standing in the packed grandstand at the stretch near the starting gate; nearly a quarter mile separated them and the finish line. She was holding a sign that read, “Beat the Boys! Althea!”
The narrator continued: “She wanted to see a female horse win the prestigious race, something that a filly had accomplished only twice since 1875.”
Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams (1970)
They were saints and sinners, college professors and illiterates, serious men and clowns, teetotalers and Saturday night drunks. They were professional baseball players, some of them the equals of the greatest major-leaguers, with one other common tie: they were all Negroes.
I Never Had It Made: An Autobiography of Jackie Robinson (1995; with Alfred Duckett)
My grandfather was born into slavery, and although my mother and father, Mallie and Jerry Robinson, lived during an era when physical slavery had been abolished, they also lived in a newer, more sophisticated kind of slavery than the kind Mr. Lincoln struck down.
The Great American Novel (1973)
Call me Schmitty.
Roths satirical look at America’s national pastime—which begins with a tip of the hat to the opening line of Moby Dick—is one of his least-known works, but he once said that no other novel was more fun to write. Much of what made it fun, in all likelihood, was coming up with the names of the characters. The narrator is a sportswriter named Word Smith (he is the Schmitty of the opening line) and other characters include Spit Baal and his father Base Baal.
Dan Shaughnessy and Stan Grossfield
Fenway: A Biography in Words and Pictures (1999)
There’s no other way to explain the sentimental feelings many of us have for old, inanimate objects, like sweaters, cars, houses, and baseball parks.
With words by Shaughnessy and photographs by Grossfield—both longtime Boston Globe employees and devoted Red Sox fans—this book proves that great biographies aren’t restricted to human beings.
Shaughnessy continued: “I still have the maroon wool cardigan that my coach, John Fahey, gave me in 1969 (the year Tony C. staged his dramatic comeback) when I lettered in baseball as a sophomore at Groton High School. The sweater has a big “G” on the right side, and for more than two years I got to walk the corridors of GHS feeling cool. I haven’t worn that sweater since the early ’70’s, but I could never throw it away.”
Walter “Red” Smith
“Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff,” in New York Herald-Tribune (Oct. 4, 1951)
Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.
This is one of the most famous “ledes” in the history of sports journalism, opening Smith’s now-classic story about the New York Giants winning the National League pennant over the Brooklyn Dodgers in a legendary playoff series in 1951.
The game was decided in the bottom of the ninth inning when Bobby Thomson, the Giants’ 27-year-old third baseman, hit a three-run walk-off home run (baseball fans revere it as “The Shot Heard Round the World”). The winning home run also resulted in one of the most famous “calls” in the history of sports broadcasting, with Giants’ broadcaster Russ Hodges exclaiming “The Giants win the pennant!” four separate times.
“His Winning Season: The Story of Pat Conroy, the real ‘Great Santini’ and The Citadel Basketball Team’s Remarkable Run,” in ESPN.com (March 2009)
Pat Conroy’s dad hit him after games. He hit him with fists, and with open palms, hit him until blood ran from Pat’s nose or lip onto his basketball jersey. Don Conroy didn’t hit his son only after games. He hit him for smiling at the wrong time, talking at the wrong time, crying at the wrong time, for trying to defend his battered mother at the wrong time. On occasion, he hit him just for the hell of it.
These are the gripping opening words of Thompson’s article on the horrific domestic abuse suffered by writer Pat Conroy at the hands of his father, later to be immortalized as “The Great Santini” (for the opening words of the 1976 novel The Great Santini, go here). In the article, Thompson—a senior writer at ESPN—continued:
“Pat’s first childhood memory is of sitting in a high chair watching his mother try to kill his father with a kitchen knife and then his dad laughing while beating her to the floor. There was only one place during the long night of Pat’s childhood where his father’s fury couldn’t touch him. He felt safe on the basketball court.”
The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death (2014)
I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside.
When novelists write non-fiction works, they often bring a certain flair that is both refreshing and enjoyable—and we clearly see that in this brilliant opening line. In 2011, Whitehead was given what many writers would consider the assignment of a lifetime—a $10,000 stake from the sports website Grantland.com to play in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Even though Whitehead viewed himself as “one of the most unqualified players in the history of the big game,” he eagerly accepted. After all, he was a MacArthur Foundation “genius” recipient, and all he had to do was write about the experience.
The result was The Noble Hustle (2014), a hugely entertaining book that critics couldn’t stop raving about. In a review in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Rathe Miller said he was completely hooked by the first sentence. “He had me at ‘half dead’,” wrote Rathe, adding: “From the first sentence to the last, Colson Whitehead never stops being clever—and never stops kvetching.” He went on to add, “If Whitehead played poker as well as he writes, he would have made the final table.”
In his opening paragraph, Whitehead continued: “My particular combo of slack features, negligible affect, and soulless gaze has helped my game ever since I started playing twenty years ago, when I was ignorant of pot odds and M-theory and four-betting, and it gave me a boost as I collected my trove of lore, game by game, hand by hand. It has not helped me human relationships–wise over the years, but surely I’m not alone here. Anyone whose peculiar mix of genetic material and formative experiences has resulted in a near-expressionless mask can relate. Nature giveth, taketh, etc. You make the best of the hand you’re dealt.”
No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth (1979)
Suddenly, without any warning, at any place or time, with no apparent cause, it can happen.
The “it” of the opening sentence, Wilber goes on to explain, is a heightened state of awareness in which “the individual comes to feel, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the he or she is fundamentally one with the entire universe, with all worlds, high or low, sacred or profane.”
George F. Will
“The Cubs and Conservatism,” in The Washington Post (March 21, 1974); reprinted in Bunts: Pete Rose, Curt Flood, Camden Yards and Other Reflections on Baseball (1997)
A reader demands to know how I contracted the infectious conservatism for which he plans to horsewhip me. So if you have tears, prepare to shed them now as I reveal how my gloomy temperament received its conservative warp from early and prolonged exposure to the Chicago Cubs.
After a first sentence almost guaranteed to get a reader’s attention, Will suggested that the roots of his political conservativism could be traced to his early love of the perennially-losing Chicago Cubs. He then went on to offer a delightful two-paragraph comparison of liberals and conservatives:
“The differences between conservatives and liberals are as much a matter of temperament as ideas. Liberals are temperamentally inclined to see the world as a harmonious carnival of sweetness and light, where goodwill prevails, good intentions are rewarded, the race is to the swift, and a benevolent Nature arranges a favorable balance of pleasure over pain. Conservatives (and Cub fans) know better.
“Conservatives know the world is a dark and forbidding place where most new knowledge is false, most improvements are for the worse, the battle is not to the strong, nor riches to men of understanding, and an unscrupulous Providence consigns innocents to suffering. I learned this early.”
P. G. Wodehouse
The Heart of a Goof (1926)
It was a morning when all nature shouted “Fore!”
The narrator continued: “The breeze, as it blew gently up from the valley, seemed to bring a message of hope and cheer, whispering of chip-shots holed and brassies landing squarely on the meat. The fairway, as yet unscarred by the irons of a thousand dubs, smiled greenly up at the azure sky; and the sun, peeping above the trees, looked like a giant golf-ball perfectly lofted by the mashie of some unseen god and about to drop dead by the pin of the eighteenth.”
My Personal Best: Life Lessons from an All-American Journey (2004; with Steve Jamison)
I was raised on oatmeal.
When authors begin an autobiography with a line like this, we’re pretty sure they will soon be using it to make an important point—and by the time we get to the end of Wooden’s first paragraph we know exactly what that point is. He continued:
“My brothers—Maurice, Daniel, and Billy—and I had oatmeal for breakfast nearly every morning on our farm back in Denterton Indiana. I raised my own children on oatmeal. Some things don’t change; some lessons remain the same. Those my father taught many years ago may seem old-fashioned now, but like oatmeal they still work.“
Spring Training (1989)
This book was born, though I didn’t know it at the time, seven years ago in Winter Haven, Florida, at the spring training camp of the Boston Red Sox. I was sitting in the grandstand in a sea of codgers, codging the time away.
Zinsser continued: “The sun was warm, the grass was green, and the air was alive with the sounds of rebirth: bat meeting ball, ball meeting glove, players and coaches chattering across the diamond. They were sounds that hadn’t been heard in the land since the World Series ended in October.”