The May 31 New York Review of Books has a review (subscription only) of a new biography of Gene Tunney, and reviewer David Margolick mentions the legend of Tunney giving a lecture on Shakespeare at Yale while he was heavyweight champion. According to the biography (Tunney: Boxing’s Brainiest Champ and His Upset of the Great Jack Dempsey by Jack Cavanaugh), Tunney in his lecture likened Ajax in Troilus and Cressida to heavyweight challenger Jack Sharkey. Tunney befriended George Bernard Shaw and later became boxing editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Margolick doesn’t have much use for Tunney’s literacy, though. He questions whether Tunney actually had anything of interest to say about the books he read. And he mentions Studs Terkel’s opinion of Tunney: “a phony intellectual.”
Literate jocks can’t win. Former New York Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton redefined the whole jock-memoir genre with his 1970 book Ball Four. (Here’s my essay on Bouton and Ball Four from The New York Times Book Review.) Even before Bouton, another pitcher, Jim Brosnan, published a readable insider memoir in 1962 called The Long Season. He wrote of reading Mark Twain on team flights while his teammates were playing poker. But like Tunney, Bouton and Brosnan were ostracized for their literacy. (When Bouton’s pitches were getting hit hard, the taunts would come from the opposing dugout: “Put that in your book, Shakespeare.”)
But why should athletes have to apologize for wanting to read and write? And why should the sports world be so anti-literate? Is it unmanly to read? To talk about reading? I wish there were an athlete like Tunney on the scene today. Even phony intellectualism would be a welcome relief from the unrelenting wave of clichés and mumbled egotism that characterizes most locker-room discourse. Most athletes’ memoirs are dismal, ghostwritten dreck. Even ex-jocks turned color analysts are mocked by their on-air colleagues if they dare to try to sound intelligent: Use a “big word” and be prepared to defend your regular-guy credentials.
I’d be grateful for any jock who wanted to read and talk about “Troilus and Cressida,” instead of ridiculing him in The New York Review of Books.