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On sports

‘Pedestrianism,’ ‘In My Skin’ and ‘Dominican Baseball’

“Pedestrianism’’ chronicles a time when thousands of people packed arenas in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere to watch lots of men and the occasional woman walk round and round a track for days.

The idea of the competition was to see who could pile up the most miles in a given time. The standard six-day race would see the most accomplished pedestrians walk over 500 miles between catnaps and snacks gobbled in tents alongside the track.

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One of the stars of the extravaganza, Edward Payson Weston, wore a silk sash and sometimes played a cornet while he walked. He was a favorite for a time, until he lost to Dan O’Leary, at which point Weston was “ridiculed as a pompous failure.”

It may seem extraordinary to fans of football, baseball, and basketball that pedestrianism was the most popular sport of its time, but its time was the 1860s and ’70s, and pedestrianism’s predecessors included cockfighting and dogfighting, so competitive walking was probably a step in the right direction.

The characters Matthew Algeo introduces are compelling personalities, and he’s adept at giving readers a sense of a different time in this nation’s history, particularly in his discussion of Weston’s walk to Washington.

Weston bet a friend that Abraham Lincoln would lose the 1860 presidential election. The stakes? If Lincoln won, Weston would walk from Boston to D.C. in 10 days, arriving in time to hear Lincoln’s inaugural address.

As it happened, Weston showed up five hours after Lincoln had finished speaking, but the president was so impressed by the effort that he offered to pay Weston’s train fare home. Weston politely declined, asserting that he’d rather walk.

In one sense, Brittney Griner’s college basketball career was spectacularly successful. On the strength of her overpowering play, Baylor won the national championship in 2012. As far as her coach, Kim Mulkey, was concerned, the importance of recruiting Griner, who stands 6 feet 8, trumped Baylor’s rules and traditions.

Griner claims that when she chose Baylor, she was unaware of the school’s policy, detailed in the student handbook, against homosexuality. Maybe she was, but Mulkey certainly wasn’t.

Before enrolling, Griner told the coach she was gay. Mulkey shrugged it off and said that wouldn’t matter as long as she did what she’d been recruited to do: play great basketball. But it did matter.

“In My Skin’’ chronicles Griner’s struggles growing up in Houston and her rocketing basketball career. She details how she was taunted and bullied as a young person because of her size and her sexuality and explores what she views as perhaps the most important relationships in her life: with coach Mulkey, who she views as not homophobic but hypocritical, and her cop father, who rejected her because she was gay.

Her success on the court notwithstanding, Griner was depressed for long stretches of her time at Baylor, in part because Mulkey never accepted her star for who she was and is.

One year into her professional career in the WNBA, Griner’s take on the landscape she dominated during the winter and spring of 2012 is discouraging.

She finds “the world of women’s college basketball a homophobic and hypocritical place,” which explains why she felt so liberated by the opportunity to play in the pros. Not only could she publicly acknowledge that she is gay, she no longer had to cover her tattoos with the T-shirt Mulkey required Griner to wear under her uniform jersey — Mulkey thought the tats conflicted with the image of the program.

“In My Skin’’ is a frank account of one strong woman’s education, or at least the beginning of that process, since Griner is still just 23 years old.

Here’s a riddle to introduce the significance of “Dominican Baseball,’’ Alan Klein’s superb new book examining the relationship between Major League Baseball and the Dominican Republic, home to many of the game’s greatest players.

Klein traces the history of professional baseball’s presence on the island nation, the creation and growth of the system for developing players, and the role of player developers, known as “buscones.’’

Klein’s book demonstrates that Major League Baseball resembles any large corporation in terms of reliance on top-down management to cut costs and maximize profits at the expense of the workers — in this case, the players, their families, and the buscones.

The good news in “Dominican Baseball’' is that a number of the Dominicans operating at ground level have recently succeeded in resisting the “reforms” that stack the deck in favor of the big-league teams.

More information:

PEDESTRIANISM: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport

By Matthew Algeo

Chicago Review, 272 pp., illustrated, $24.95

IN MY SKIN: My Life On and Off the Basketball Court

By Brittney Griner

with Sue Hovey

IT, 224 pp., illustrated, $25.99

DOMINICAN BASEBALL: New Pride, Old Prejudice

By Alan Klein

Temple University, 200 pp., paperback, $24.95

From WBUR, Bill Littlefield hosts NPR’s weekly sports program, “Only A Game.’’ He can be reached at blittlef@bu.edu. In October, Zephyr Press will publish his next book, “Take Me Out.’’
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