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  • I Wore Babe Ruth’s Hat: Field Notes from a Life in Sports by David W. Zang
  • Steven A. Riess
Zang, David W. I Wore Babe Ruth’s Hat: Field Notes from a Life in Sports. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. Pp. ix +228. $95.00 hb; $18.00 pb.

David Zang, author of Fleet Walker’s Divided Heart and Sports Wars, has written a series of essays that recount his sporting past to demonstrate how “sports insinuated themselves into and imported meaning into the life of an ordinary athlete.” He decries how writers and sports leaders have been extremely defensive about their interest in sports, de-emphasizing sport as fun, while stressing the “greater” significance of sport’s social functions like building character, promoting community, and making money.

Zang, like most boys, was heavily into sports, collected baseball cards, listened to radio broadcasts of games, and read Claire Bee’s Chip Hilton series that promoted the cults of character building and victory. He competed in interscholastic wrestling (at the lightest [End Page 251] weight class), which provided social status. He loved to compete and was his high school’s lightest wrestler. Zang’s experiences taught him that athletes were exhilarated by competition and that sport was “mankind’s greatest institution . . . the only institution that has at its core the pursuit, measurement, and celebration of excellence for its own sake” (42).

Zang is very critical about his experience with hypocritical coaches and the commercialization of sport, ranging from the sale of souvenirs to the Olympic Games. He points out that all coaches stress morality yet teach their athletes how to cheat, or at least bend the rules. “I seem to stand nearly alone in my belief that cheating in sports is a greater offense to life than cheating outside the lines. Sports are voluntary. If you’re willing to cheat there, why wouldn’t you cheat in real life?” (129).

Zang writes about Olympism partly based on his experience as a delegate to the 1984 International Olympic Academy. He argues that the 1972 Munich Games set the Olympics in a bad direction, as athletics then became “increasingly specialized, technologized, commercialized and remote” (174). He admires Olympic medalists like wrestler Rick Sanders and half-miler Tom Wottle who competed because they loved sport, not for such extrinsic factors as money or fame.

Zang became heavily involved in running, not for exercise but competition. He ran marathons as a kinesiology graduate student and saw his identity heavily depended on athletic achievement. He subsequently became an age-group All-American decathlete.

In “American Brigadoon: Joe Paterno’s Happy Valley,” reprinted from Daniel Nathan’s Rooting for the Home Team: Sport, Community, and Identity (2013), Zang, writing as an insider who grew up near Penn State, which he attended as a graduate student, argues that Paterno built a hugely successful football program based on character building and traditional values. This had an enormous positive impact on Happy Valley, an idealized, physically inaccessible community romanticized by conservative, working-class central Pennsylvanians. Zang reassesses his pre-Sandusky analysis in a very brief epilogue: “The values associated with Penn State were just as unsustainable and illusory there as elsewhere” (157).

Zang writes in an amusing, conversational style and sees the (sporting) world from a different slant than most observers. This provocative book is a good read, accessible to both the general reader and sport studies classes. [End Page 252]

Steven A. Riess
Northeastern Illinois University (emeritus)


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