What Hits A Home Run In Sports Writing?

What defines good sports writing? Two men at the top of their craft join Here & Now’s Robin Young to answer that question.

Bill Littlefield is host of the NPR show Only a Game. He’s also a terrific writer. One of his stories was chosen for the 2013 edition of ”The Best American Sports Writing.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning author J.R. Moehringer is the guest editor of this year’s anthology. But 15 years ago, Moehringer’s and Littlefield’s roles were reversed.

When Littlefield was the guest editor in 1998, he picked one of Moehringer’s essays to be part of that year’s collection.

We take the opportunity to speak to both authors about what makes good sports writing.

Interview Highlights

Bill Littlefield says good sports writing is good writing, period

“I don’t think there’s anything different in terms of what makes sports writing great and what makes writing great,” Littlefield said. “What makes writing great is you listen and pay attention, and then you present people as they are, and you perhaps teach your reader, or bring your reader along on some kind of ride that tells them something about what it means to be here.”

Moehringer compares reading great sports writing to watching a great game

“It kept dawning on me over and over, that my reaction to a great piece of sports writing was not unlike my reaction to a great game,” Moehringer said. “There was something that just riveted your attention and suddenly all the things on your to-do list and the lateness of the hour, everything else that was on your mind moments ago, was gone.”


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And we want to spend a few minutes now talking about sports writing with two writers who are at the top of their craft. Bill Littlefield is host of NPR's ONLY A GAME. He's also a terrific writer. And one of his stories was chosen for the 2013 edition of "The Best American Sports Writing" by this year's editor, J.R. Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize winner, also author of "The Tender Bar," a memoir about growing up fatherless in Manhasset on Long Island. Great book.

But here is what is interesting. In 1998, Bill and J.R.'s roles were reversed. Bill was the editor of the 1998 sports writing anthology, and he picked one of J.R.'s sports stories. And it's not some sort of you scratch by back, I'll scratch yours. When the stories are judged, the names of the authors are redacted. So let's bring in both to talk about good sports writing. Bill Littlefield is here in the studio with us. Hi, Bill.


YOUNG: And J.R. Moehringer joins us from Oregon Public Broadcasting. J.R., welcome to you as well.

J.R. MOEHRINGER: Thank you, Robin. Good to be here.

LITTLEFIELD: Hey, J.R. How are you doing? This is Bill Littlefield.

MOEHRINGER: Hey, Bill. How are you?

LITTLEFIELD: Pretty good. Pretty good.

MOEHRINGER: I loved your piece.

LITTLEFIELD: Well, I've loved a lot of your work. So that's nice.


LITTLEFIELD: And thank you for choosing it.


LITTLEFIELD: You gave me a nice compliment. You said I had the funniest line in the book. And I - it wasn't even my line. It was a quote.


MOEHRINGER: Ah, well - but you were smart enough to include it, you know?

LITTLEFIELD: The only thing I can take credit for in that story is being smart enough to not say much and listen to Jimmy Cvetic.

YOUNG: Was that the line? J.R., what was the line? Bill, what was the line?

MOEHRINGER: It was the ring card girl, right, Bill?

LITTLEFIELD: It was the ring card girl. See, Jimmy is a former police officer who now trains boxers. And he was telling me about - a story about one of the ring girls, which is the girls who walk around with the sign that says what round is coming up next.

YOUNG: Yeah. You're not calling them girls. Yeah, they do.

LITTLEFIELD: No. He'd call them. And he said: Tell you a story about one time - he said, she was up on the ring, you know, up there, and she's walking around with the card. And this is about the fifth or sixth time, maybe, that I've used her as a ring girl. And she comes down, and I said: How did it go up there? She said: Good, Jimmy. I just got one question for you. And he said: What's that? And she said: These numbers on the cards, what are they for?


YOUNG: So, J.R., what was it? I mean, great line, funny line. What else did you hear in that story?

MOEHRINGER: Bill is being too modest. He sets up the line beautifully, and he sets up other lines in the piece, and he lets Jimmy talk and talk. And he knows when to step in, and he knows when to get out. And that's an art.

YOUNG: Well, what's funny is the story is called "The Gym at Third and Ross." It's about a guy who runs a boxing gym in Pittsburgh. Bill, when you were the editor and you picked J.R.'s story, his was also about boxing, "Resurrecting the Champ."

LITTLEFIELD: Sort of about boxing, but not really. It's about a guy who maybe used to be a boxer, although it's all very uncertain, and the beauty of that piece was the tension in it and the uncertainty in it. And when Glenn Stout, who's the series editor of "Best American Sports Writing," called me and said I'm sending you a package of stuff, he said: Please look very carefully at this piece by J.R. Moehringer because I think it's the best piece in the whole batch. And I agreed. It was fantastic.

YOUNG: Oh, there you go.

MOEHRINGER: Thank you, Bill.

YOUNG: But what makes sports writing in general great, especially for those who may not go to the sports pages and they're thinking: Literature on the sports pages? Bill, you're nodding. What makes it great?

LITTLEFIELD: I don't think there's anything different in terms of what makes sports writing great and what makes writing great. What makes writing great is you listen and you pay attention, and then you present people as they are, and you perhaps teach your reader or bring your reader along on some kind of ride that tells them something about what it's like to be here.

YOUNG: Homer.

MOEHRINGER: Yeah. Yeah. I mean writing is writing, and good writing is good writing. And it doesn't really matter whether it's about a boxer or an ex-boxer or a senator or a short order cook.

YOUNG: Yeah. And J.R., your thoughts on what makes good sports writing.

MOEHRINGER: Well, I thought a lot about it while I was reading, and for me, it kept dawning on me over and over that my reaction to a great piece of sports writing was not unlike my reaction to a great game. It got my heart racing. I got very excited. I knew right away there's some greatness, some thing, whether it be the language, the subject, the handling of the subject, the convergence of all those things, there was something that just riveted your attention. And suddenly all the things on your to-do list and the lateness of the hour, everything else that was on your mind moments ago is gone.

I would go back and forth between reading these pieces and watching sports. That's kind of what I do. And I did notice there was a similarity when a game got great and everything fell away. I had an experience that was not unlike, you know, when a piece just jumped out and grabbed me.

YOUNG: Well, and, J.R., tell us about your picks as guest editor for this year's. I'm looking right at the first story, Karen Russell, she of "Swamplandia!" fame. We love her writing. She wrote about that incredibly fantastical resort that she created in Florida for her award-winning book.

MOEHRINGER: You'll love her even more after you read this piece, which is my favorite piece in the book. It's about a bullfighter who is gored, horribly wounded by a bull. And it's about his effort to get back into the arena. And the way she handles it, the way she structures it, just her treatment of the bullfighter himself and then the fact that he is such an inspiring figure, it all comes together. When I read it, I was blown away. And Glenn Stout agreed.

YOUNG: Well, Bill, I know you've looked at the anthology. Was there a fresh voice that jumps out at you?

LITTLEFIELD: Jeff MacGregor's piece, "Waiting for Goodell," is wonderful. It's just this little tiny snippet where he takes "Waiting for Godot" and has Vladimir and Estragon waiting for NFL commissioner Goodell instead. And, of course, he doesn't come through.


LITTLEFIELD: I love that piece.

YOUNG: I tell you what, we have the 1998 anthology here in which Bill Littlefield picked you, J.R. Moehringer, as one of the entries, and you have the 2013 there in which you picked Bill. Let's start with Bill. And could you read a little bit of J.R.'s writing in 1998 that so captivated you?

LITTLEFIELD: I'm going to read from the beginning of this piece because this is the kind of thing that captures your attention right from the beginning and makes you know that you can't stop reading this piece.


LITTLEFIELD: This is "Resurrecting the Champ." I'm sitting in a hotel room in Columbus, Ohio, waiting for a call from a man who doesn't trust me, hoping he'll have answers about a man I don't trust, which may clear the name of a man no one gives a damn about. To distract myself from this uneasy vigil - and from the phone that never rings, and from the icy rain that never stops pelting the window - I light a cigar and open a 40-year-old newspaper.

Greatest puncher they ever seen, the paper says in praise of Bob Satterfield, a ferocious fighter of the 1940s and '50s. The man of hope - and the man who crushed hope like a cookie in his fist. Once again, I'm reminded of Satterfield's sorry luck, which dogged him throughout his life, as I'm dogging him now.

YOUNG: Dun dun dun!

LITTLEFIELD: I mean, you can't stop reading that. I want to leave the studio and read the rest of it now.


YOUNG: J.R., you've got Bill's there and have a second...


YOUNG: Bill, just set this up for us.

LITTLEFIELD: Well, this is close to the beginning of "The Gym At Third And Ross." And I was told by Jimmy, he said, you know, I'm coming to Pittsburg, I'm going to meet with him. He said when you get to the airport, give me a call. So I got to the airport and I gave him a call. And you can pick it up there, I guess, J.R., where it says Jimmy, Jimmy, I said.

MOEHRINGER: Yeah. Jimmy, I said, when he answered the phone, it's Bill Littlefield. Who, he said. Bill Littlefield, I said. I'm the guy from public radio. We talked a couple of weeks ago. I'm here for that Golden Gloves thing tonight. Oh, he said. Yeah, I had to cancel that. They were giving me a hard time about the lights in the room there in the hotel where it was supposed to be. The chandeliers that they were afraid it might get broken if somebody threw something. I don't know. So there's no fight tonight? There might be, he said. There's a lot of fights.


MOEHRINGER: And then Bill asks the great - but none that you're promoting, he says, which is so credulous. It's such a - there's a kind of a Mark Twain quality about Bill in this piece. And it is such a big decision you make when you're writing a piece like this, do I insert myself or not? And if so, how much and when? And Bill just has this knack in this piece of knowing when to be there and then just when to get out of Jimmy's way. I can't recommend this highly enough.

LITTLEFIELD: Well, thank you. That's very nice, very nice to hear.

YOUNG: That's Bill Littlefield, host of NPR's ONLY A GAME. His piece, "The Gym At Third and Ross," is one of the pieces that J.R. Moehringer, editor of the 2013 edition of "The Best American Sports Writing," chose for this year's anthology. Back in 1998, Bill chose a piece of J.R.'s, and they've been talking to us about what makes good sports writing. J.R., Bill, thanks so much.

MOEHRINGER: Thank you, Robin.

LITTLEFIELD: Thank you, Robin.

YOUNG: And from NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.