- Masters of the Game: Essays and Stories on Sport by Joseph Epstein
Joseph Epstein’s Masters of the Game is a meditation on fandom. Epstein comes by his subject honestly; he’s been a devoted fan for over sixty years. He is also what used to be called a man of letters. For a quarter century, Epstein edited the Phi Beta Kappa Society’s American Scholar Magazine. He is also a distinguished writer who has published over two-dozen books, including three collections of short stories. In 2003, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded him the National Humanities Medal.
Epstein is best known for his essays, especially his personal essays, which is exactly what he gives us in Masters of the Game. He tells us in the introduction that he grew up in Chicago in the late ’30s, ’40s, and early ’50s obsessed with sports, first as an athlete, then, as the limits of his talent became apparent, as a fan. He is a fan yet, though not quite so ardent as in his youth.
These essays were written over forty years, so there is some repetition, and a few subjects that were compelling decades ago seem less so today. Because these are personal essays, the choice of subject matter sometimes seems a little arbitrary, but that is the charm of the [End Page 230] volume. We have here essays on Joe DiMaggio, Michael Jordan, and the New York Times sports writer Red Smith, all excellent subjects, though, for each of them, one could name a dozen equally worthy. But there are strengths too in bringing together essays written over decades, most particularly Epstein’s willingness to go back and re-evaluate his own ideas. Above all, Epstein has a strong and consistent voice in these essays, and, though his tone is occasionally a little arch, he gives us a strong fan’s-eye-view of our games.
As a former literary critic, Epstein easily and knowledgeably includes references to Shakespeare and Dickens, Twain and John Updike. He writes beautifully: “Recently it has occurred to me that over the years I have heard more hours of talk from the announcer Al Michaels than from my own father, who was not a reticent man. I have been thoroughly Schenkeled, Mussbergered, Summeralled, Coselled, DeRogotissed, Garagiolaed, Costassed, and McCarvered” (4). Epstein’s journeys in fandom are so interesting because we so readily empathize with him; we too have known, vicariously, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
The question Epstein keeps returning to—particular sports, athletes, and championships aside—is why. Why was he such a sports fan, just like so many of his countrymen? Why invest so much time? Because, Epstein answers early on, sports are “the real thing.” Owner ruthlessness, player greed, fan gullibility—none of that can take away the sheer authenticity of the action, or, as Epstein puts it, “with a full count, two men on, his team down by one run in the last of the eighth, a batter (as well as a pitcher) is beyond the aid of public relations” (8). Sports give us authentic experience, excitement, drama, contests of wit and skill, intelligence and muscle with real stakes. Sports mirror many things about the modern world—statistics, technical proficiency, leagues organized bureaucratically, an emphasis on profitability, and so on—but finally sports are about fierce competition, physical excellence, the will to victory, and clear lines between winning and losing.
Yet, in the end, Epstein looks back at his decades of fandom with ambivalence. Maybe, he muses in the end, he should have spent the time learning to play the harpsichord. All of those things we once believed sport lavished on us—integrity, sportsmanship, character, fair play—are in short supply in modern stadia. Athletes are not just less interesting as human beings in the age of multimillion dollar contracts, but many of them are just plain creeps. Epstein cites George Orwell’s essay “The Sporting Spirit,” which argues that sports have nothing to do...