Baseball season is coming to a close and football is now upon us. I’ve done columns about baseball books — the classics, like Malamud’s “The Natural,” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Wait Till Next Year,” “Summer of ’49” (David Halberstam), “Bang the Drum Slowly” (Mark Harris). There are lots to choose from, but football books? Not all that many, although …
Sixty or so years ago, my friend Peter showed up with a book he’d found in his father’s bookcase — a 1932 novel called “Rackety Rax” by Joel Sayre.“Knucks” McGloin, a New York City gangster, hears that the Rose Bowl game drew 100,000 people. Smelling money, he opens Canarsie College and puts together a team made up of boxers, wrestlers and run-of-the-mill thugs. They book games against local colleges. Opponents’ bodies are systematically carted off on stretchers. They win games — 146 to 0, 125 to 0 — and the money rolls in.
Then a Chicago gangster opens Lake Shore University and forms a team. Uh-oh! The book ends with the hilarious winner-take-all game between the two. Moments before the gun a final, desperation pass soars high in the air, arcing down the field, receiver wide open. Canarsie’s going to lose … then the thunderous boom of a shotgun and the assassinated ball flutters to earth. Rackety Rax, go Canarsie!
There have been some good football books — “Paper Lion” (George Plimpton), “North Dallas 40” (Peter Gent), “Friday Night LightsF” (Buzz Bissinger) — but most I discovered were either “how-tos” (how to pass, how to run, how to block, tackle, kick, catch, draft your fantasy team) … or ghostwritten biographies (“I want to thank my mother” books) … or teen dramas, wherein the mousy cheerleader or the 108-pound third-string quarterback saves the day.
I’m a Giants fan since the ’40s. The Polo Grounds, Tuffy Lehmans, Ward Cuff, Charlie Conerly, Roosevelt Brown, Y.A. Tittle, Sam Huff and on and on. The game itself is sensational, the literature passé. (No, not forward passe). But what else, then, does football have to offer?
The best cheers:
Be aggressive, B-E aggressive
B-E-A-G-G-R-E-S aggressive !
The Peloponnesian War
Who for? What for?
Who we gonna yell for?
(University of Chicago)
The best fight songs:
“Roar, Lion, roar and wake the echoes of the Hudson Valley!” (Columbia)
“On Wisconsin, on Wisconsin, fight right through that line!”
The best nicknames:
The Purple People Eaters, Monsters of the Midway, The Steel Curtain, Gang Green, The Iggles, Big Blue.
Its share of bizarre quotations:
Player, on his coach: “He treats us like men. He lets us wear earrings.”
An unnamed coach: “OK, line up alphabetically, by height.”
The great Joe Theismann: “Nobody in football should be called a genius. A genius is somebody like Norman Einstein.”
The best popular song:
“ … the boys from Notre Dame will never be the same / And what he did to Arkansas should happen to your mother-in-law / Remember the day he murdered them at Fordham / And not an eye was dry in I-o-way / Look out sister, here comes Mister / Touchdown USA.”
Rackety Rax, give ’em the axe — go, Giants!
Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected].